Eye of the Story

The Evergreen State College

Category: Week 8 Viewing

Close Viewing: The Nine Muses

“Is this the Region, this the soil, the clime,

Said then the lost archangel, this the seat

That we must change for Heaven, this mournful gloom

For that celestial light? Be it so, since he

Who now is sovran can dispose and bid

What shall be right: farthest from him is best

Whom reason hath equaled, force hath made supreme

Above his equals. Farewell happy fields

Where joy for ever dwells: Hail horrors, hail

Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell

Receive thy new possessor: One who brings

A mind not to be changed by place or time.

The mind is its own place, and in itself

Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.

What matter where, if I be still the same,

And what I should be, all but less then he

Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least

We shall be free;”-Paradise Lost

 

    Upon initial viewing, it’s hard to define John Akomfrah’s The Nine Muses. Reviewing the film for The New York Times, Paul Brunick begins by noting  it “is an unclassifiable collage of archival footage, canonical literature and severe winter landscapes. Conceptually ambitious and oblique in the extreme, it’s an experimental work that is difficult to unpack critically but impossible to engage without context” and then he immediately tries to help us “get it”.The juxtaposition of an “anonymous black figure”, wandering the Alaskan wilderness in a neon raincoat with found footage of mid-century Britain gets the message across eventually, even to this clueless white American. It’s the viewer’s responsibility to engage with the film until we understand what Akomfrah is trying to say. The parts that remain opaque might be things we’re not entitled to know.

    A man wanders alone in Alaska, surrounded by nothing but snow and cold. It doesn’t take much “context” to eventually understand that this is an allegory for the immigrant experience in Britain, presented in an incredibly sensory way. The found footage feels almost like a trick of memory or observation and the differences between the film quality, colors and era create a sense of detachment. It’s as though the wanderer has been present for these experiences,  but only as an outsider, observing without participation. They are not his, and yet they are. The bright colors of the raincoat against the stark white seem like an homage to the yellow suit Caryn mentioned before we watched the film as a class, something lively and part of the fashion landscape back in Africa, but strange and alien in drab post-War Britain. A further separation.

    To me, the most striking thing about the film was the use of what the New York Times calls “landmarks of Western literature”. The images are accompanied by the words of Homer, Milton, Shakespeare and even Nietzsche. The Western Canon is daunting and highly valued, and mainly comprised of dead white men. As the wanderer walks, we hear excerpts from what we are taught is Great Literature. I wonder if this is Akomfrah speaking to us about his own outside challenges as an artist. Surely it is daunting to set out and create work as a person of color, marked and with a pervasive sense of being an outsider. What is the point of creating new and daring work when we’ve already decided what’s “good”, when what you’re doing is so different. Especially when your upbringing spans two continents and you may not be sure where you “belong”.

    Even more telling, Akomfrah did not hire actors to read these works. Instead he used books on tape. An interesting and undoubtedly intentional choice, it further reinforces the idea of the artist and the outsider. When the credits roll it’s surprising to see some big names in western dramatic arts among them, present in this work only because they happened to read the widely available audiobook. It again adds to the feeling that the canon is set, we have decided what few (white, male) people are “good” or talented. What kinds of people get to contribute, get to echo in our ears, and that none of them have last names like “Akomfrah”.

    The use of John Milton’s Paradise Lost seems especially important, chosen even for the film’s trailer. In a way, it’s use subverts the established narrative who the “good artists” are and the parallels between the Paradise Lost and the immigrant experience are not hard to draw.

It’s not feasible to read and absorb all of the 480 page epic poem from the 1600s for a four page paper about something else. Luckily, there’s a strange corner of YouTube where hot dudes review books. Cliff Sargent, of Better Than Food Book Reviews explains that within the poem “The most humane character, with the best lines and monologues, is not God, is not Adam and Eve, is certainly not Michael the archangel. It’s Satan. The quintessential angel/slave turned King of the Damned…Like Odysseus, he plunges into chaos outside of Hell and goes and travels to the surface and the unfortunate thing about this is that God has this whole omnipresent ability so he can totally see Satan swooping on his wings into the Garden of Eden”.

It’s not hard to see the Satanic figure in Paradise Lost as British Colonialists. We spoke of African immigrants lured to Europe with misled expectations, that Britain was a “mother country”, a place that wouldn’t seem so alien or be so cold in weather and in reception. Maybe the grass was greener back home, warmer in many ways. I imagine leaving warmer, friendlier lands for England would feel a little like being lured from the Garden of Eden by a charming serpent, unaware it’s a colonialist in disguise. However, Satan, the charming, rebel outsider, almost presented by Milton as misunderstood, could also be representative of the immigrants themselves, while the colonialists, God like, watch their every move.

Sukhdev Sandhu, reviewing The Nine Muses for The Guardian, suggests that the film is telling us that “stories normally seen through the lens of postcolonialism could just as easily be seen in existential or mythic terms.” Indeed, Akomfrah has taken these literary giants and appropriated them for his own work. In his hands their meaning completely changes, presented with the detachment palpable throughout the film. Yet they also gain a new relevance. One line, from Samuel Beckett’s Three Novels echoed in my mind after viewing The Nine Muses: “The sea refused me, the sky didn’t see me. I wasn’t there”. Watching the lone figure wander an icy, empty, landscape, interspersed with images of “progress”, we can certainly understand why he feels like he wasn’t.

Close Viewing Cheryl Harai My America, Honk if you love Buddha

                 In the Family Gathering, Lise Yasui was looking for her family history. The film focused on her grandfather and his experience at the internment camps.  Her uncle does not want to talk about that time.  He seemed to have the attitude that; It’s in the past, so it doesn’t need to be talked about, leave it in the past. Yasui looked at how the internment and the reluctance to talk about it affected her life as she explored the memories and silences in her family history. With this film she breaks the silence as she looks for her place in the family history.  There is an underlying theme of –what defines an American and what does it takes to become an American after emigration.

In My America or Honk of You Love Buddha, Renee Tajima-Pena went out looking for Asian –America in the 1990’s. This film explores also has the underlying theme of – defining what an American is and again asks what it takes to belong here. She talks about the idea that anyone who is Asian is perceived as “foreign” or “an enemy”.  When she met Victor Wong in S.F. China town he said “What is an Asian American, I’m I an Asian or an American? Do we all look alike?”  He also talked about the Civil Rights Movement and described this time as one where, “I could become part of America.” Even though he was born and raised in San Francisco’s China Town. 

During the film there was a segment where someone was asking, “Why can’t I call them Japs?  Then the question was raised: Will we ever truly belong in America?  Then it is answered by the Filipina Burtanog sisters, well maybe: “After 200 years or so you start to feel like home.” That is after 8 generations.

Wong also said, “This face is Chinese-American, they couldn’t tell the difference… The war with Japan, with Korea, with Vietnam, was one huge war with Asia. Most Americans think of this face (even unconsciously) as their enemy.

Towards the end of the film, Pena says, “Traveling through America can take your breath away, and could break your heart.  Americans just don’t know who other Americans are.”

Victory Wong reminded me of my husband. With his silliness, chasing birds in the park and his seriousness about the racial inequalities he had encountered. My husband also sometimes has the attitude of “It’s in the past, leave it there.” He says that the past is often too painful to discuss, but then something happens to make him feel that he is not a true American. Or he hears something on the news that makes him think that it could happen all over again. Such as the talk about building internment camps for the Iraq people living in the United States.  Then he starts telling some of his stories and hopes that someone listens.

After viewing My America with me, he decided to tell a number of stories demonstrating just how hard it was to be considered a Jap, and not an American.  Here is one story.  To give you fair warning, this is not a humorous or light hearted story of being Japanese-American. It is a story that many of his generation would not tell, because it is in the past and too painful.

 

 

 

——-

One of my first memories was the day I first learned that I was a “Jap”. My brothers and I were out picking coffee on our farm. All of a sudden a squadron of planes flew overhead. We ran to the house yelling for mom to come see. As she came out of the house, the explosions started. More planes flew over and we were rushed inside to hide.  It seemed that it went on forever. Finally, just after it got quiet, dad walked in. He looked wrong to me, defeated somehow, as he said: “They did it, I can’t believe they did it. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor”.

                We were just kids and would soon learn what this attack would mean to us. The next day at school, the teachers divided us by race, taking all the Japanese kids and separating us from everyone else. The other kids were yelling: “traitor”, “Killer”, “spy”, and worse of all “Jap”.

This term came to define the rest of my early life, we “japs” needed to prove that we were American. It didn’t matter how many generations our families had been in the United States, if you looked like Japanese, you were not fully American.

                Dad soon went to war. Our aunts and cousins who lived in the states (mainland U.S.) lost everything and were sent to the camps. They were busy proving that they were American and this was the price.

August 15, the streets filled with people celebrating, newspapers announced “Japan Surrenders”. The war was over, and the celebrations began. We, the United States, had bombed Japan right out of the war. We had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Almost 150,000 people died that day.

At home, in private, it was a whole different story. We were quietly mourning. My mom’s sister and her parents lived in Hiroshima. Because of the war, we hadn’t heard from them for a couple of years. We didn’t dare write: that would be enough to send us to prison for being spies. We had to choose: American or Family; American or Japanese. We chose American; we just had to prove it. It was hard though, with the bomb on Hiroshima, it felt as if our family history had been wiped out along with most of the family.

As soon as I was old enough, 17, well almost 17, I enlisted in the Army. I supported the United States, I was American, and I was proving it. I got sent to Korea- to war. Then I was sent to Vietnam.  I was infantry, and the radio man.  The radio men were the most targeted men in the U.S. forces. I was lucky in Vietnam. I kept almost getting killed. Walking out of my tent and having a mortar hit it before I had gone more than a few steps. Walking with my best friend to mess and having him fall into my arms dead, hit by a sniper. There were unbelievable horrors to witness and survive.  I won’t tell you much more now, this isn’t the story I want to tell. We were there fighting a war, it didn’t matter why, except that many of us were there proving that we were American.

After my first tour, (I was there twice) I was sent back to the States. My wife and 3 kids met me at Fort Benning in Georgia.  I had R&R time and wanted to spend it getting to know them again. We decided that since we had never seen the South, we would go on a car tour and show the kids what a great country we lived in and what being American meant.

We piled into the car and started out to see our country. After a few hours everyone was hungry. “Denny’s” the kids shouted, it was one of their favorite places to eat in Hawaii. We stopped for lunch. The kids ran in and my wife and I followed as they piled into a booth.

I noticed that the other diners were staring at us. I was in my dress uniform, a requirement at the time; we were not allowed to wear civilian clothes in public. I thought proudly that maybe they were noticing my uniform, that I was an American soldier.

The waitress came to the table “We don’t serve people like you”. The kids got quiet. Tears started running down my wife’s face. “What do you mean”, I asked.  “We don’t serve colored people like you, baby killers, Japs! – Get Out!” 

I stood up, “Let’s go”. My daughter said quietly,” I have to go potty”. My wife took her hand and started walking towards the bathroom. She didn’t get far as a man stepped in front of her and shoved her towards the door. Everything went crazy, the boys ran to defend their mother, screaming, pushing, a punch or two and my family was shoved out the door.

We encountered similar situations over and over during our shortened trip. Grocery stores wouldn’t sell to us. Gas stations refused to pump our gas. I had to resort to vending machines filled with candy and chips to feed the kids. We weren’t even allowed to use the bathrooms.

We were on this trip to discover America, to show our children what a great country we lived in, to give them pride in their Americaness. What we showed them was what it is like to be an outsider, a “Jap”.

It was only a few years ago that the feeling of not being fully American began to change. Someone came up to me and said “Thank You for your Service”

I may not be able to show it, but you should know just how much this means to us old veterans, who have given our whole lives to our country, especially those of us who had to prove that we belong here, prove that we are American.

——- James S. Harai

 

Masculin Feminin – Close Viewing – Gary Patrick Harvey

Gary Patrick Harvey

Eye of the Story

Close Viewing

Feb, 19, 2016

 

A Meditation on reality as it is captured or simulated.

 

Where can you find the truth in a moving image?

 

In Masculin/Feminin, Godard tried from a filmmaker’s lens to capture the experience of French youth. However, according to the lead character Paul’s statement at the conclusion of the work, he recognized that one cannot achieve a wholly objective truth through interrogation but instead through behavioral observation.  Perhaps if the camera were hidden and there were no audience or interviewer, to coax a response, this might be possible.  

 

I found myself fixated on a very short moment in a scene featuring a woman known as Miss 19 or “A Consumer Product” in Godard’s intertitles. I will not hide from my fixation on finding truth within the films that I watch, perhaps a reflection on my preference to achieve truth in my own work.  

In any case, I suspect the moment I studied was captured by chance.  The moment lasts approximately 10 frames, assuming the film has been shot and played back at 24 frames per second.

As this woman, Miss 19, is being grilled on her feelings about contraception during the 6 minute long take she grows tense, reluctant. In a brief moment of honesty, perhaps seeking a safety net or an escape from Godard, she glances directly into the camera.  This seemingly insignificant ‘mistake’ is a definitive acknowledgment which cannot be hidden without losing the freshness of the shot.  In the whole of this film no such glance is seen in this way before or after.  A truth.  Yes there is the truth of the tension, the insecurity and reluctance seen in the body language.  But by looking ever so briefly into the camera she is breaking the fourth wall.  She is acknowledging to the viewer that, in fact, we are seeing people pretending before a camera that is pretending to show us reality, in a simulated real time.  We are seeing her honest desire for an escape from this line of questioning and from being on camera to answer it.

 

Godards long take and this truth that jumps out from it recalls, to this viewer, Andy Warhol’s screen tests of the 1960’s; in particular, that of Ann Buchanan (1964.)  The subject, a mutual friend of Warhol and Allen Ginsberg, is the subject of one of these long takes; her mostly still face appearing before a fixed camera.  The demand upon the viewer in Warhol’s long takes is to simply watch and wait.  With no narrative or even technical movement of the camera, the film, 4 minutes in length, elicits a temporal, and literally indexical experience from the viewer as it seems.  The viewer is forced to set down all expectation of the filmic form as has been established through it’s evolution as a storytelling device and just observe; observe and project their own story upon Ann’s face.  To the viewer who has the patience of mind, one might be able to experience the world of Ann’s face, the world through Ann’s face; noticing the most subtle of twitches or swallows. For that viewer the grand crescendo is that of the welling of a tear that finally falls from her eyelid down her cheek. And perhaps you will find the same feeling arising in you.  To the viewer agitated by the lack of action on the screen, the piece is performed within the viewer’s mind, in the stirring elicited by the anticipation of something to happen; and perhaps consequently missing the action on screen entirely.  

 

Experimental pieces like this strip away the fundamental elements of the filmic form as a storytelling device and regardless of intent, expose the sensory illusion of film; the suspension of reality within a viewer.  While you may have judged the Ann Buchanan screen test as reality, what you in fact saw was falsified evidence.  Warhol shot his screen tests at a faster film speed then they were shown; shot at 24fps, played back at 16 fps.   What you felt was a projection via a suggestion, like Paul’s failed objective experiment in Masculin/Feminin,

 

Close Viewing: My America (… or Honk if you Love Buddha)

Close Viewing: My America (… or Honk if You Love Buddha)

Celestine Ames

 

My America (… or Honk if You Love Buddha) chronicles Renee Tajima-Peña’s journey through cities, highways and households in her search for the real Asian America. It’s a story of self-discovery told within the context of a cross-country road trip. The film explores themes of race, immigration, identity, interracial relationships, change, idealism, rebellion, and freedom.

Other than Tajima-Peña herself, the most central character in this film is Victor Wong, the strange old man who seems to have lived a very beautiful and inspired life. Victor Wong weaves the narrative together by appearing multiple times throughout the film. In Tajima-Peña’s words, “Finding Victor is like finding Buddha, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Kerouac all rolled up in one”. He’s strange and passionate, and he doesn’t live by anyone else’s standards. In the 1950s and 60s, Victor Wong was involved in the Beatnik scene of San Francisco. He was friends with Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Jack Kerouac, and he served as inspiration for the character of Arthur Ma in Kerouac’s 1962 novel, Big Sur. Here are a few of Kerouac’s descriptions of Victor Wong (Arthur Ma) in Big Sur:

“Arthur came from a large family but as a painter and a Bohemian his family disapproved of him now so he lived alone in a comfortable old hotel on North Beach”

“Little Arthur Ma who never goes anywhere without his drawing paper and his yellowjack felt tip pencils is already seated in my chair on the porch (wearing my hat now too) drawing one of his interminable pictures, he’ll do 25 a day and 25 the next day too — He’ll talk and go on drawing — He has felt tips of all colors, red, blue, yellow, green, black, he draws marvelous subconscious glurbs and can also do excellent objective scenes or anything he wants on to cartoons…”

“Arthur was friendlier, warmer in a way, curious and always asking questions, more active than George with his constant drawing”

“(and here again another great gigantic little Oriental friend for me, an eastcoaster who’s never known Chinese or Japanese kids, on the West coast it’s quite common but for an eastcoaster like me it’s amazing and what with all my earlier studies in Zen and Chan and Tao) — (And Arthur also being a gentle small soft-haired seemingly soft little Oriental goofnik)”

In My America, Victor Wong serves as a link between the Beat Generation and Tajima-Peña’s current journey. As the film progresses, it becomes apparent that Renee Tajima-Peña’s attitude towards life has been highly influenced by the Beat Generation. This is, after all, a road movie, surely influenced in part by Jack Kerouac’s adventurous, excited, idealistic language in novels like On the Road.

Victor also, in my mind, represents an Asian-American who has paved his own way in the new world, while still holding on to some of the wisdom and traditions from his Asian heritage. Victor is fiercely individualistic, rebellious and free-spirited. But still, he hasn’t completely shed his Asian influence. Towards the end of the film, he presents a red envelope to the parents of a newborn baby, and in doing so, he carries on an important tradition.

My America includes a good amount of commentary on rebellion, counterculture, and protest. About halfway through the film, Tajima-Peña travels to her hometown of Chicago, which brings up memories of her family and childhood. The viewer begins to see the disparity between generations of recently immigrated Asian families. In Tajima-Peña’s case, she and her siblings “were raised to just blend in”. Her parents were interested in conforming to American society, and she was interested in never turning into her “all-American parents”. She rebelled. “It was racism that defined my life. And I would never turn the other cheek as my parents had. I’d fight back”. Her siblings also rebelled, as well as a good portion of her generation. My America does a good job of capturing the sense of unity that often comes with protest and rebellion. For Asian-Americans, as well as any other minority, this sense of unity is incredibly important. As Victor Wong said, “It wasn’t until the Civil Rights movement came along that I felt like I could become part of America”. And in Tajima-Peña’s words, in reference to her own discovery of activism, “For the first time in my life, I knew I belonged in America. I felt comfortable in my own skin.”

Tajima-Peña made sure to include a diverse group of Asian-Americans in her film, drawing from different generations, locations, backgrounds, and worldviews. This was an important step to take, because it allows the viewer to see that, even within the Asian-American community, there are countless perspectives regarding the topics brought up in the film, and that all of them are worth considering. Some of the Asian-Americans that she interviewed actually considered themselves to be white, while others proudly identified with their race. Some were traditional and conformist, some were fierce rebels and revolutionaries.

Renee Tajima-Peña has accomplished something huge in making this film. My America gives the viewer a sense of what it’s like to live an Asian-American life. She presents America in an uncompromisingly honest way, providing not only her own perspective but the perspectives of many different people across the country. She unflinchingly tells the beautiful, tragic truth of America. In one of the film’s most powerful moments, Tajima-Peña says, “Traveling through America can take your breathe away, but it can break your heart at the same time”.  

Godard Close Viewing

Lucas Weisman

There is so much to write about regarding Godard’s work: his craft, his politics, and his persona all warrant discussion. I could have written about his use of the jump cut, his die-hard leftist politics, or his career-long descent into the abstract (or, depending on who you talk to, the pretentious). However, there is one aspect of Godard’s work that my mind continues to jump cut back to, and that is his use of the subjective shot: a shot where the subject’s eyes engage the camera and the audience is no longer free to be a passive observer or a “fly on the wall”.

Godard’s use of this kind of shot can be traced back to his belief that documentary and fiction films are the same at some level. In an interview, Godard was once quoted saying:

…there are two kinds of cinema, there is Flaherty and there is Eisenstein. That is to say that there is documentary realism and there is theatre, but ultimately, at the highest level they are one and the same. What I mean is that through documentary realism one arrives at the structure of theatre, and through theatrical imagination and fiction one arrives at the reality of life. (4)

Godard mentions the silent filmmakers Sergei Eisenstein and Robert Flaherty. Eisenstein is famous for films such as Battleship Potemkin, in which he combined carefully crafted shots and montages for dramatic effect, while Flaherty is famous for having made what is frequently considered to be the first documentary: Nanook of the North.

Godard’s early work can be characterized by a desire to prove this point, experimenting with techniques which attempt to bring these two styles of filmmaking together. The beginnings of these experiments trace all the back to Breathless, his first film. The film opens with Michel, the main character, talking directly to the camera. At the time, this was groundbreaking. In fact, it was revolutionary when these kinds of shots first appeared in documentaries. The Cinema Varité movement was just starting to experiment with documentary films where subjects acknowledge the existence of the camera. In hindsight it is hard to imagine how radical it must have been to see this sort of thing in a fictional narrative film. Apparently, at one point Godard wanted to collaborate with D.A. Pennebaker, the director of the documentary films Primary, and Don’t Look Back. However, at the time, Pennebaker could not see how his work was related to what Godard was doing.

While I find Godard’s early work to be compelling, I would still be reluctant to say that his use of documentary techniques, such as the subjective shot, make his films any more “True”. While the interrogations in Masculin Feminin may be entertaining and even emotional at times, I don’t get the sense that Godard has really unearthed any deep truths. Instead, I see superficial answers to superficial questions. Men want to appear sophisticated, while women try to be hip and fashionable. The argument could be made that almost everyone in Masculin Feminin is concerned with their appearance: Paul with Madeleine, Robert with Catherine, Catherine with Paul, and Godard with his audience. Do documentaries present the Truth, or merely a fallacy disguised as the Truth? After all, the first documentary, Nanook of the North was staged. While Godard may have played an indispensable role in the changing form of film, it is arguable whether his changes made cinema any more True. It is certain however, that Godard comes from a lineage of filmmakers who have authored the lexicon of contemporary cinema. He, along with Classical Hollywood, the Russian Formalists, the Italian Neo-Realists, Direct Cinema, Cinema Varité,  and the rest of the French New Wave have created an archive of feeling which continues to leave audiences asking the question “what is real”?

Winter’s Bone — Logan Fenner

Winter’s Bone is a pleasing combination of beautifully unusual language and a cast of characters who are not at all stereotyped and feel very realistic to me. The missing-persons plot is just a vehicle to convey a sense of the place and the people who live there. The scene I want to talk about specifically, though, begins on page 115.

In it, Ree goes to a great deal of effort to get her mother out of the house. She helps her up a steep path, through a small copse of pine trees, and eventually to an outcropping at the top of the hill where they watch the sunset together.

The purpose of this outing, as evidenced by the second and final bit of dialogue, is for Ree to try to get through to her mother about their situation. “Please help me,” she says, and I pray for an instant that her mother will respond.

When this scene begins, it feels like a filler episode. Just a few hundred words of fluff to give the reader a break from the action of hunting down people who knew Jessup and interrogating them or getting beat up by them. This scene is supposed to break up the monotony. And it does break up the monotony very well, I was certainly glad for a break and a change of scenery.

But the deeper I got into the scene, the more I realized that it wasn’t just fluff. This is a brief exposition of how very alone Ree is, and how strong. Her father is gone, her mother is barely more than another mouth to feed, and she has to raise her brothers and find her father with all the pressure of potentially losing their house behind her. I had not realized quite the gravity of the situation until this point.

There are bits and pieces of this kind of exposition throughout.

A notable example of this is her trip to see April. She bums a ride on a school bus (an act that would never work in my county, yet another instance that highlights the difference between her upbringing and my rural childhood made positively suburban by contrast), then hitches aboard a delivery truck, and finally walks a distance that feels like several miles to get to her destination with no idea how she’s going to get back.

After spending the night in a goddamn cave I mean come on, she hikes the whole way home and starts dinner like her expedition was nothing. Everyone who tells her to keep her nose out of her dad’s business in this book has underestimated her greatly.

This is a female character who could never be called “whiny.” This is a female character who stands up for herself and her family and even the forest behind her house. Characters like Ree, especially written by male authors, are painfully rare.

Close Viewing of My America

Alana Cooper-Prince

2/24/16

Eye of the Story

 

Close Viewing of My America… or Honk if You Love Buddha

The film My America… or Honk if You Love Buddha is a film that combines humor with very serious subject matter as a way to explore what it means to be Asian-American. In my close viewing, I will be focusing on a few minutes from the segment about Bill and Yuri Kochiyama.

The scenes that show Yuri Kochiyama taking pictures with the camera she keeps around her neck are a good example of something that the film does so well, which is to inject humor into very somber subject matter. By blending humor and seriousness, the film its story in a way that makes it easy for the audience to relate to. Many of us, in our own lives, have that one family member who always wants to get a picture to capture the moment, and they won’t allow you to move on until they get the perfect shot. Our first introduction to Yuri is with her standing in front of the camera, with her own camera ready, and then we hear the click that means that she’s taken the picture, and then she says, “Wait a minute, I want to get another one.”

The scene in which Bill and Yuri are talking to Tajima-Pena about their first meeting is also a good example of this. They are conversing back and forth about when exactly they met, and it’s a very sweet, short glimpse into how they interact with each other, lovingly bickering about certain details. We find out that they met in the Jerome, Arkansas camp, where Bill went with his army company for the weekend and in which Yuri was being interned. The entire setting of their meeting is very dark; after all, it’s a camp where Yuri was literally kept prisoner for several years. But that’s not what they dwell on. Instead of focusing on what could otherwise make for a very depressing story, they talk about how they met, fell in love, argue good-naturedly about the specific date that they first met.

After we first find out about Yuri being interned at the camp, the film cuts to the voice of a man speaking cheerfully over images and videos of people setting up a camp in the middle of nowhere. The voice says: “Here in the land of Buffalo Bill, the government is erecting model camp towns, towns in which they’ll (meaning Japanese Americans) live unmolested, not as prisoners, but free to work, and paid by the United States government. Bathtubs, yes, all the comforts of home. The Japanese in America are finding Uncle Sam a loyal master despite the War.” The images that are playing underneath the voice show people happily setting up and constructing a camp, then proudly surveying the finished product. This is obviously propaganda, shown during the War to prove the government’s point that the camps were a great place to be.

Tajima-Pena shows this is in an ironically humorous way. The audience, hopefully somewhat  knowledgable about U.S. history, has already heard the Arkansas camp be called a concentration camp where Yuri was kept prisoner, and they know that this was not some sort of haven where Japanese Americans could go if they so chose. Tajima-Pena’s choice to inject humor in this way very effectively contrasts with the very next scene, and the rest of the film, to show just how troublesome conversations about the internment camps were, and still are. In this scene is Bill and Yuri visit Jerome, Arkansas, expecting to see the camp where Yuri had been interned. Instead, what they find is an empty field, and Yuri is dismayed and angry when she realizes that the camp is gone. She exclaims “Wait a minute-what’s that empty space? Is that the camp?” She finds out from the man who comes by in his truck, John Ernest Owington, that he buried the camp, and he’s very unconcerned about her obvious dismay about this. Their conversation continues with him saying “Y’all wasn’t prisoners of war”, to which she responds, “Well, we kind of were”, and he denies this, saying, “You were interned for your own protection”. Yuri replies that the Japanese Americans who were in the camp thought of themselves as prisoners. (We find out later on in the film that one of Tajima-Pena’s teachers actually claimed that there were never concentration camps for Japanese Americans during the War, that something like that wasn’t possible in the U.S., thereby denying the experiences of an entire group of people, and invalidating the painful memories and experiences of the past.)

Even this troubling exchange is lightened, again by Yuri and her desire to document her life through taking pictures. Even though she has just found out that the place where she had been a prisoner for several years was buried, she keeps talking to John Ernest. When she finds out that he spent some time visiting with the Japanese Americans in the camp (although, to be clear, this is according to him, the same man who thought that it was for their own good and that it had been their choice to be in the camps), she is surprised, and wants to get a picture of him. She then proceeds to try to get a good shot of him, and when she can’t because he’s in the truck, she says “Put your head out more, cause I can’t see you,” and she actually gets him to open the door and face out of the side of the truck, towards the camera. It’s a moment that the viewer can easily relate to– most of us, or someone we know, like to document important moments in our lives, try to get that perfect shot, even if it’s impractical and exasperating for everybody else. Yet it’s also a moment that is based on a very painful past, something that remains in the back of the viewer’s mind, even as the interaction brings a smile while watching.

What My America does so well is to combine humor and history and very serious subjects in a way that allows the viewer to be absorbed in the film, and to empathize with the characters, without making the subject matter and the mood so heavy that a feeling of gloom permeates the entire film. Instead, what we see is an exploration of what it means to be Asian-American, in different ways and through the stories of many different people.

Tokyo Story Close Viewing

As if we haven’t talked about it enough, I’d like like to take us back to week 3 for Yasujiro Ozu’s film Tokyo Story. I have been a fan of his for awhile now and have studied his films in the past. His direction style has greatly influenced me thus far, along with countless other filmmakers. This particular style being conscious of classic Japanese Aesthetic concepts and utilizing them in his cinematography. I had talked a bit about these when we had got into our critique groups early this quarter. Though it may not be immediately apparent to the majority of his non-Japanese audience, many can see that there is obviously some cerebral and cultural depth behind his films.

The concepts of zen and yugen are featured throughout Ozu’s film. Yugen meaning dark obscure, mysterious and beautiful; an example of this being the scene with the older couple at the coast. Obviously the cinematography is dark, utilizing light and shadows, however the fact that they are on the coast and there is no ocean sounds is pretty strange. That shot of the couple against the sea is framed in a beautiful manner. Aside from it being aesthetically pleasing, i can’t really say why i liked it so much. Zen, though a broad concept, I found present in the theme of the film. Part of zen is being aware of the continuous changes in our consciousness. The grandparents are quite retrospective in their small talk with each other noting the way their family has grown up. It is also discussed throughout about how the children and parents relationships drift apart over time and the shifting dynamics of them. We see the most dramatic representation of this in one of the final scenes when Noriko who appears level headed and acts as though she has not changed and is happy, breaks down in tears and confesses, and maybe realizes, her terrible loneliness. It is in this scene she articulates acceptance of life’s disappointments as well.

Another couple concepts found in the film are wabi-sabi and mono no aware. These in a way go hand in hand; while wabi-sabi is the beauty in the imperfect and impermanent, mono no aware is awareness and gentle sadness toward the transience of things. Though wabi-sabi could be applied to some of Ozu’s shot set up and set direction, a narrative example of when wabi-sabi came into play was when Noriko spent time with the grandparents in her small apartment. Here the grandmother speaks of how it’s a treat to sleep in her dead son’s bed. Seeing some sort of elegance in the grim matter. Mono no aware is a theme present for the entire film. One of the more obvious is the grandparents feelings about their son’s death. Though they are saddened by it, they wish for Noriko to remarry to be happy, as this was traditionally uncommon at the time. They recognize his passing affects the rest of her life and want her to move on as she is still young. Another time it comes up is when the grandmother is talking to the youngest grandson on the hill about how he will grow up and what he will achieve and who he will become, though she will not be around to see it happen. All the while keeping a smiling face.

My final concept ma is space and emptiness; it comes from the word mu which actually means nothingness. While this can be exemplified in Noriko’s feeling of sadness and the literal empty space left by her husband and his mother’s passing, it can also be found in many other aspects of the movie. The dialogue of the film, the positioning of the actors in the frame, the sound and music score or lack of, and shot composition all consider ma. Ozu used this concept of nothingness in all his films in some way or another. When Ozu passed away in 1963 he actually had the single word mu placed on his grave. If you go far enough back the chinese root of the word actually means “the gate to enlightenment”, I think this is a quite fitting relation.

My America Or Honk If You Love Buddha: Journeys of Self. (Zoe Brook.)

Eye Of The Story
Sam Schrager
Close Viewing
Zoe Wright
2/22/16
My America Or Honk If You Love Buddha:
Journeys of Self

There are a lot of stories about people finding themselves, coming of age, or searching out answers to questions of their ancestry, history, or parentage. There’s a lot of uncertainty in people, especially young people I suppose, about who they are and what their place in the world might be.
Many of these stories involve some kind of journey, a lot of awareness, and no small amount of introspection. And it seems these stories, no matter what form their journey takes, rely in some part on the world and people around that journeying person.
Of course these things may seem too obvious to point out. We all have read coming of age stories, we have all had our own, and maybe some of us are still on one of those numerous self finding journeys. But as I think about My America I felt like it was an important reminder.
When you’re searching for a place in the world, for the kind of person you want to be in the world, you are exploring the way your relate to that world around you. I’ve listened to conversations and videos on the subject of identity, and I’ve myself defended the need for people to recognize labels, because labels and pieces of identity contribute to how you interact with the world. A label that speaks to your race, gender, culture, or fandom doesn’t reduce you to simply being that one or two word phrase, it signifies a way in which you relate to the world that may be the same, slightly different, or vastly different than those around you.
It may sound like I’m rambling, but I assure you, I do have a point.
To deny a label that a person has adopted for themselves is to say that I don’t think you count in that way or that the ways your experiences is different are meaningless.
Over your life, the way you think of yourself changes. You’re a kid and a girl or a son or a sibling. Then suddenly somehow you’re not a kid anymore. You’ve had life experience, even though it might not seem like much, and you’ve learned a lot about the way you’re supposed to interact with the world based on those experiences, but you probably don’t know how you need to interact with the world. I know I’m just beginning to find my way.
Finding the way you relate to the world takes a lot of effort and exploration. You have to find what you like, what you don’t like, what things you want to be part of yourself. Sometimes it involves finding out about your family’s past, or traveling across the country visiting important places. Maybe you need to meet a lot of different people to understand who you are yourself. Sometimes in these stories of journeys of self a stranger says something seemingly insignificant that changes the entire perspective of the trip.
In My America, she is searching for, or trying to find out if it exists, an Asian America. Or what it means to live a truly Asian American experience. She talks to a lot of different people as she travels across the country in her van.
She visits important places and talks about her own history.
She incorporates local music styles into the movie – the story of her journey.
She looks at the way traditions are carried out in different places, and how they’re mixed with modern ideals and difficulties.
She is on a journey of self, one that she documented. To tell the story because maybe it would mean something to someone else, maybe it would contribute to someone else’s journey.
Of course those reasons may not have been present, or intentional, but as I write this that’s what I imagine them to have been.

At some point in the middle or end of the movie, I believe, there’s a line that says something like this: “I was searching for Asian America, and I found America. I found my America.”
This idea, this line, this moment, is what stuck with me most from the movie. I think it spoke volumes.
Her experience was different. It was unique, individual. Because that’s what human experiences are. But also, in some way, it was part of something greater. It was part of an America that was, at least for that moment, not just Asian, not just not Asian, but hers.
That America could be something personal, and mean something different to every person is a really fascinating idea to me. Because that’s what it’s supposed to be. It’s supposed to be a place where anyone can fit in and be a part of the experience. It’s not what happens a lot of the time, so many people are pushed down and away and told they’re not Americans, that they don’t belong and they’re not welcome, or that they’re only welcome if they change all aspects of themselves first. But if more people learn that America can have a lot of different aspects at the same time, if more people can find that America that’s theirs, I think it would be a much more beautiful place to be than it is before that happens.
When you interact with the world, you change it. When you make art, you make a part of the world your own. When you go on a journey of self, you’re lucky if you find a part of the world that you can make your own.
This filmmaker found a world that she could be part of, and through the story she told with her art, she made that world her own.
And while those people she interviewed had their own worlds, they influenced the world she found and chose, and they became part of it along with her.
There is definitely a lot more to this movie than the aspect I’ve covered here, but you don’t need me to show you all the little details of the world this movie shows. You wanted the details that I saw in the film, or the interpretation that my experiences in life allows me to make. And at this moment in time, I wanted to explore how a filmmaker mixes a story about a journey of discovery with her own life’s story, and how you can interact with the world through art and through that explorative discovery make it your own.
To me, the way this film brings up these ideas in my mind, whether they were intended by the artist or not, is really cool. And I look forward to things it brings up in other’s minds.

© 2022 Eye of the Story
The Evergreen State College
Olympia, Washington

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