Friday, October 30, 2009

It's been more than two weeks since i've landed in Berlin, and today was the first day in which i did not go to my office at the Center. Two weeks usually means that it's time to get some fresh supplies (such items as paper towels, toothpaste, etc.); i used up the little traveling tube of toothpaste, i used up the small traveling bars of soap, so i took the time to do the laundry (which takes two hours here; in Europe, the wash cycles and the drying cycles are done to conserve energy, so everything is longer because it's all stretched out), do some shopping, and then i headed to the Kino Arsenal to see the restored print of Jack Smith's "Normal Love".

I had been warned by a number of friends that the restoration was quite good, but somehow the experience of the movie was a little skewed. Flat. Now that i've seen it, i know what they mean. When Jack Smith showed "Normal Love" in the 1970s, he never simply ran the film. First of all, there was always an inexorably long wait. The audience would be sitting there as Jack fiddled around, looking through records, deciding what reels to show, etc. This process could take as much as three hours! Then, once the movie started, there would be interruptions: Jack would stop the projector, or he would change projectors, or he would take a scissor and decide to snip something out of the film while it was in the projector! Anything could happen....

Yet when the images did come on, they were frequently so mesmerically lush and strange that they approached the sublime.

And that was because of rather than in spite of the torpor and insanity that Jack submitted his audience to: it made the beautiful more piercing and emotional, because of the element of danger, of threat.

Now, that element has been removed, and what we're left with is a succession of lush and enriched and stunning color images. And the editing is astute, and there is the semblance of narrative.

All well and good, except that good isn't enough. In a way, it's a betrayal of Jack's aesthetic.

Well, exhaustion is setting in, so i'll have to see if i'm forgotten or remembered.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Another day at the International Research Center, today there was a morning talk by Gay McAuley, a scholar who has written on Aboriginal traditions as well as other aspects of Australian performance culture. Provoked a lively discussion.

Quite interesting. Will be going tonight to the keynote address by Marvin Carlson for the conference "Politics of Space: Theatre and Topology". Will have to meet up with the other fellows; evidently it's rather far from the University, the Institute for Cultural Inquiry. One thing: Berlin (right now) is a mecca in terms of art funding. What that means in terms of art is anyone's guess.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

It took a week, but finally had the WiFi link installed in my place here in Berlin; for the most part, have been using the computer supplied by the International Research Center for my office. Well, finally feel human. Strange how things like that can really affect you: we've become so accustomed to our electronic universe!

But it's a busy week here, and with more to come.

In the New York Times, there was an article by Stephen Farber about the BAM series 1962; this prompted Joe Baltake to make a list of notable releases of 1962 in the US. There are so many vagaries: Antonioni's "L'Eclisse" came almost as soon as it was released in Europe, but "Il Grido" finally made it here after half a decade. And so on. To check out Joe's list, go to and see what else wound up in the US in 1962.

Anyway, that's it for now. Have to get ready for a busy day tomorrow at the International Research Center.

Friday, October 16, 2009

It's now Friday, October 16, and i'm now in Berlin to start my ten-month residency as a Fellow at the International Research Center: "Interweaving Performance Cultures" of the Freie Universitat Berlin. It's already been rather hectic. And there's still more to do.

I've never been out of New York City for more than three months at a time. So this is really quite a change. I've also never really been on my own for an extended period of time. Never, in fact.

So in a way i'm at sea.

But first things first. I left as the New York Film Festival was ending. A very strange festival, this year. I think the selection committee was constrained by what was actually out there. Not much that was startling.

The opening night film was Alain Resnais's "Les Herbes Folles"; the film was quite polished and smooth. While watching it, i was lulled by the absolute command that Resnais has. And when i walked out of the movie, i felt slightly disoriented, but then i flashed onto the major disorientations i had coming out of "Hiroshima Mon Amour", "Last Year at Mariendbad", "Muriel", even "La Guerre est finie". Walking out of those movies for the first time, i didn't quite feel the same; it was like i had to look at the world with new eyes. "Les Herbes Folles" didn't have that same uncanny ability to totally redirect one's perceptions.

Still, it was a film of great charm and accomplishment. Though to like late Resnais (certainly since "Melo"), you've got to like Sabine Azema.

Didn't sleep much last night, and starting to fade. A few things to check out, and then i'll probably go back to the apartment where i'm staying and take a nap.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

In the Wall Street Journal of Thursday, October 8, 2009, there was an article by James M. Berquist on the relocated and redesigned Museum of Chinese in America (ex-Chinatown History Project, ex-Chinatown History Museum, ex-Museum of the Chinese in the Americas); the article was titled "From Chinatown to Everytown"; what was fascinating about the article was that the author tried to detail some of the subtleties of the Chinese-American experience that the museum now acknowledges. This dovetails with what my father was trying to do with the Ellis Island Project and with the early Chinatown History Museum. From the article: "From the early days in the gold fields of California, their circumstances created an unusually insular and defensive ethnic community. Chinese came as sojourners and were expected to return to their homeland. Those who stayed were denied citizenship under the naturalization laws of the time. Their presence raised the ire of white working-class elements, and the result was the first American law to specifically exclude a racial or ethnic group, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The act excluded working-class Chinese, while allowing merchants, teachers and tourists to enter." Well, the reason this statement is important is that "working-class Chinese" were excluded, but other Chinese had an easier time of it, with the ability to bring in their wives, etc. People who were "merchants, teachers and tourists", and that's where you find my great-grandparents.

So this whole "immigrant" story of working on the railroads, or working in laundries or restaurants: i have NO idea what the hell people are talking about, because that wasn't the experience of my family AT ALL! Not my father's family, and not even my mother's family. We weren't working class. I'm sorry. We never were.

When we were looking through the materials that my father had left for the Chinstown History Museum, there was a page from some sort of directory, which showed his grandfather (my gandmother's father) and his uncle (my grandmother's older brother). My great-grandfather had gone to the newly opened New York University, where he got what was the equivalent of an MBA; his son (my great-uncle Fong) had gone to Columbia University (which i hadn't known, but that was my alma mater also). My grandmother's younger brother, Duck, had gone to MIT. My great-aunt Ying had gone out to California, and she went to college out there (i think it was UCLA). My grandmother did not go to college: what happened was that there was the flu epidemic, and my grandmother had gotten sick, and they had to take her out of school, and she was sick for a while, and her parents made her stay home for about a year. (This was something that my grandmother and my father told me.) And her parents were very protective, because they were afraid that she was very sickly. (Of course, my grandmother wasn't just a hearty survivor, she outlived almost everybody, she was 90 when she died.)

But (and this was my father's point) even so, the family faced a great deal of prejudice. Neither of his uncles ever really could find a job: there's the famous story of Uncle Duckie (who graduated third in his class at MIT) being offered a job with the Ford motor company, but when he showed up, they realized that (gasp) he wasn't a white person (his name was "D.K. Tom"), and suddenly the job was filled. That always happened to him, until he wound up getting a job through his father, and worked for a liquor distribution company starting in the late 1930s. And Uncle Fong went to China, to become an executive in a bank in Shanghai.

In my father's account, he writes that his parents' marriage was more or less arranged. Which was true. My grandmother was already 23, and she'd already refused several people. But i had actually asked my grandmother why she decided to accept my grandfather, and she said, "Because he said he wanted to get out of Chinatown." Which he did: for the first ten years of their marriage, my grandfather tried several business ventures where they relocated. But there were many reversals, including several business deals where my grandfather was cheated by his partners (who were white) and they eventually had to come back to Chinatown, where they settled on the fifth floor of 65 Mott Street (with my grandmother's parents living on the second floor of that building). My grandmother had wanted, because she had been so sheltered, a chance to get out of the "unusually insular and defensive ethnic community" of Chinatown. And my grandfather tried to give it to her. But all sorts of circumstances brought them back to Chinatown.

But that decade accounts for the differences in the experiences of my father (who was born in the middle of all those various business ventures) and his younger brother (who was born just before the family finally settled in Chinatown for good).

And i'm reminded of all this, not just because of articles about the Museum of Chinese in America, but because of the death of my uncle, and seeing my cousins this week at the funeral service.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

It's been more than a month. A lot has happened. The New York Film Festival has been having its press screenings; the opening night was very different, in that there was no afterparty at Tavern on the Green. It's been hectic, and i've only been able to see about half the films.

Yesterday, i had to attend the funeral service for my uncle Edmund; he was my father's younger brother. Over the summer, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Perhaps it is strange to say, but the wake and the service and the dinner after were all incredibly... warm and familial. Growing up, my uncle and his family lived out on Long Island, and so it wasn't that easy to see them.

When we were growing up, we were surrounded by my mother's family, not just because she had such a large family (in all: there were 15 children), but because they lived near us.

Last week, the New York Times had an article about the Museum of the Chinese in the Americas, which has just opened in its new quarters on Lafayette Street. The article was about the Hom family, one of the families profiled in the museum. (Thomas Hom is our family dentist.) And that reminded me that my father had wanted to collect material on the Chin and Tom families (Tom was my grandmother's family) for the Chinatown History Museum (which evolved into the Museum of the Chinese in the Americas). My father and his friend Robert (whose nickname was Smokey) had volunteered to help collect data on New York City's Chinatown for the Ellis Island project. What my father wanted was to document that society of Chinatown in that period from the early 1930s to 1965, before the immigration laws changed and there began the flood of Chinese immigrants from other parts of China. Previously, the majority of the Chinese in the United States came from Canton. And the Cantonese in the various Chinatowns (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, New York City) lived in very restricted areas (when i was growing up, Chinatown proper consisted of about six blocks, centered on Mott Street from Canal Street to the Bowery, with Mulberry, Pell and Doyer Streets within the Canal-Bowery limits also included; we lived on Baxter Street, which is one block over from Mulberry, but it was enough so that we weren't officially in Chinatown). It wasn't as if Chinatown in that period grew so rapidly: it couldn't, so there was an enclosed quality about Chinatown. And that was what my father wanted to document.

Ever since my mother had her mini-stroke in August, i've spent a lot of time with my family, and it has provoked a lot of memories and emotions. And sometimes there were amusing realizations. Yesterday, for example, i realized that my sister and i knew our great-grandmother (my paternal grandmother's mother) but my cousins and my younger brother didn't, because my great-grandmother died when we were about four, so either they were just born or weren't born yet. There are photos of my sister and me with our great-grandmother; i remember that they lived on the second floor of 65 Mott Street (my grandparents lived on the fifth floor).

My father's family is fairly transparent, in the sense that we certainly knew my grandmother, but my mother's family is rather mysterious. Not because we didn't know our aunts and uncles (we certainly did) and our cousins, but because our grandfather was a nonexistent character in our lives. We never seemed to have met him, even though he died after we were born. But there are no photos of him with us. And he's not at my parents' wedding. In fact, we were under the impression that he must have died before our parents' wedding. But that doesn't seem to be the case.

I'll have to give some of my impressions of the New York Film Festival at another time.