October 26, 2009

Rear View: Patlabor - the Movie.

From grandmaster Osamu Tezuka's Tetsuwan Atomu ("Mighty Atom", or Astro Boy), and Mitsuteru Yokoyama's Tetsujin 28-gō ("Iron Man #28", or Gigantor) - both original manga animated for TV in 1963 - to Gō Nagai's Majingā Z ("Mazinger Z", or Tranzor Z), and Tezuka-apprentice Yoshiyuki Tomino's epic Gandamu (Gundam), robot manga and anime have left an indelible impression on contemporary Japanese culture.

These transforming, combining mechanical warriors, often deployed to save Earth from invading forces, are Japan's answer to America's superheroes. But perhaps because they are mechanistic, and (largely) culturally neutral, they've managed to stomp into the consciousness of audiences worldwide. By the mid-1980s, animated television series based on Japanese concepts, like Voltron, Robotech, Gobots, and - above all - Transformers, provided an astounding boon to robot toys, comics, and merchandise internationally.

Japanese comics are created for a readership that shares very specific attitudes and customs, often virtually unknown outside Japan. Animation, on the other hand, has managed with its broad appeal to open overseas doors otherwise closed to Japanese comics, and have in fact become Japan's supreme goodwill ambassadors. Even when only available in Japanese, anime are usually more accessible than manga, not requiring ability to read Japanese or learning the often unique conventions of printed Japanese comics.

Manga also tend to be produced by a single artist, making them more direct and personal than anime, which are often a collective effort produced by teams, aiming for the broadest possible audience. While Japanese film in general has lingered in artistic and financial doldrums, anime has prospered on the back of the home video boom - to a point at which the Japanese animation industry easily dwarfs that of the EU or the USA - receiving a massive boost from the increased availability of video hardware in Japan in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Original Video Animation films (OVA's) begun appearing in 1983, aimed at the home video market, partially as a response to rising film and TV production costs, but also to the segmentation of the audience, with rising demand for original video material and more specialised programming. OVA's quickly became the niche for animation not mainstream enough to warrant a substantial TV audience, or lacking the budget necessary to produce a theatrical release.

Patlabor first appeared as a seven-part OVA series in 1988, the year most Westerners became aware of anime thanks to Katsuhiro Ōtomo's Akira, and Hayao Miyazaki's masterpiece Tonari-no Totoro (My Neighbour Totoro). Though the concept for Patlabor was one that manga artist Masami Yūki had been working on since the early 1980s, having earned notoriety with a parody of Gandamu, and wanting to further the riaru robotto ("real robot") approach of Tomino's creation - as opposed to the more fanciful sūpā robotto ("super robot") varieties.

Originally conceived as a light comedy set in space, the concept was pitched to a studio in the mid-1980s. Upon rejection, Yūki brought it down to earth and injected more realism with the help of scriptwriter Kazunori Itō, and designers Akemi Takada and Yutaka Izubuchi. The revised concept was picked up by Bandai Visual on the condition there would be a manga tie-in to the OVA series (in Japan, anime frequently act as ads for manga). All that remained was to find a director, and Itō suggested Mamoru Oshii. Despite some initial skepticism whether he could pull off realistic science fiction - given his background in children's fantasy - Oshii joined the group of artists now known as Headgear.

Banding together as a collective, the Headgear quintet managed to retain full control of their creation rather than sign it over to a production company or an animation studio. Though some of the the members have collaborated on other projects, Patlabor was the only one Headgear worked on as a group, ultimately spawning three feature films, an additional sixteen-part OVA series, a TV series, a 22 volume manga, a series of novels, many model kits, CDs, and much, much merchandise.

Essentially an ensemble police procedural (think Hill Street Blues with giant robots), Patlabor is set in the latter half of 1999 (then, a decade into the future), in a Tōkyō where humanoid, multi-purpose machines - basically oversized powered exoskeletons - known as "labors" are employed in all aspects of industry and heavy construction, which in turn has led to the use of labors for unsavory purposes. Consequently, the police has branched out with a new, special section equipped with patrol labors - "patlabors" - to combat labor crime.

The main protagonists are the officers of the Special Vehicles Section 2, Division 2, an outfit stationed on a strip of reclaimed land in Tōkyō Bay with the reputation of being a dumping ground for freaks and misfits. There's the overeager young officer, the nervous salary-man, the trigger-happy jerk, the wizened engineer, his whizz-kid protégé, the spunky yet naïve girl, the quiet giant, and the femme fatale. Presided over by a captain whose Machiavellian streak is obscured by slack attitude (mainly manifested by a rather relaxed choice of footwear), for whom the career-oriented captain of the far more professional Division 1 is an object of unrequited love.

Although this (first) film's plot concerns the suicide of the developer of a new operating system for labors - which may in fact be part of a sinister plan to disrupt Tōkyō's largest re-development and land reclamation project by causing the thousands of labors it employs go berserk - it focuses more on the characters than actual crimes, and Division 2's two youngest members, Asuma Shinohara (the overeager one) and Noa Izumi (the spunky naïve one) in particular. Though the youngest patlabor officer, Noa is in fact the projects oldest character, its heroine ever since development began in the early 1980s, and a member of what was then a rather scant set of strong female manga and anime characters.

Unlike manga, which permeate mainstream Japanese society (in the early 1980s, Japan used more paper for comics than it did for toilet paper), anime isn't something the average Japanese adult spends time watching. Unlike overseas, where anime are an entrypoint for an audience which - more often than not - is adult, the domestic target audience tends to be quite young. Despite this, Headgear deliberately chose a more "mature" style for what essentially was an "adolescent" concept.

Manga artists have always felt a kinship with filmmakers. In fact, many manga artists create stories as if they were making films, often incorporating every camera technique ever invented - many of them dream of directing and of the early days of Japanese animation when practically anyone who could draw could switch careers. Here's where the choice of Mamoru Oshii as director really paid off: this feature allowed him to utilise his considerable skills and further his style of philosophical longueurs interspersed with rapid bursts of ferocious action.

Fairly successful in its tightrope attempt to provide enough information for audiences unfamiliar with the Patlabor OVA's while avoiding boring committed fans to tears, the film's overall mood is more solemn compared to the original series, its palette cooler, less bright. Likely due to director Oshii's inclinations, biblical references rain down throughout the story like frogs on Egypt, while the mechanical action is mainly confined to the finale (hardware aficionados will find much more labor-on-labor action in the Patlabor manga). However, Yutaka Izubuchi's mechanical designs are among the most original and realistic, logically extrapolating on exisitng heavy equipment, and worth glimpsing even briefly.

In between labor battles and extensive dialogue, Oshii takes the audience on a tour of vanishing Tōkyō vistas, eminently commenting on the relentless, seemingly unyielding march of progress - a theme he would return to with similar adroitness in several later features, like his 1995 international breakthrough suto In Za Sheru/Kōkaku Kidōtai (Ghost in the Shell). However, Oshii's restrained and subtle manner also allows for scenes brimming with technical information and acronyms, requiring that viewers remain active; previous knowledge of the OVA's isn't crucial provided viewers pay attention.

Oshii has said the his films wouldn't work without composer Kenji Kawai's music, even claiming that Kawai's music is "half the film". Here the fairly conventional, upbeat soundtrack is complemented by Kawai's more ambient, meditative pieces, making Patlabor an excellent introduction to the style for which he and Oshii would later become famous. Curiously, the cast of voice actors are practically all middle aged veterans, portraying characters who pretty much all are half their age.

Like Japanese poetry, Japanese comics tend to value the unstated, allowing pictures alone carry a story. Mamoru Oshii excels at this seemingly spare approach, occasionally indulging in caricature to reveal the "essence" of a prevalent mood or situation. Though likely a nod toward fans of the original OVA's more comedic slant, the sudden simplicity can be bewildering, with serious exchanges suddenly drawn in an overtly "cartoony" style, or characters depicted as abbreviated caricatures against a hyperrealistic backdrop.

But Japanese manga - and their distant cousin anime - tend to be unashamedly emotional and human, representing the one space where the Japanese are allowed to "drop their mask" and indulge in fantasy. Often created by artists with little formal training, they tend to be very unpretentious, with few aspirations toward artistic excellence and fame. Their main aim is to entertain.

It's always hazardous to set a film in the future, particularly the near future. Though when 1999 did roll round there was little - apart from certain stylistic aspects - that dated the first Patlabor feature. In fact, though the Internet and cell phones are conspicuously absent, the film's environmentalist theme seems quite prescient. Land reclamation in Tōkyō Bay may not have been quite as aggressive as the film depicts, but some 20% (or, roughly, 250 km2) has been reclaimed over the past century.

While massive exoskeletons aren't yet employed in construction, heavy machinery has been known to be used for nefarious purposes - likely making police wish they did have patlabors at their disposal. Certianly, robotics research continues unabated, persistently improving and redefining robot capabilities, interfaces and roles in society. Unmanned vehicles fly over war zones, scour the ground for explosives, allow humans a broader virtual presence, while gaining more parity with them. This film ironically illustrates the folly of giant, humanoid machines, in a scene where a construction labour displays all the efficiency of a kid let loose among building blocks when engaged in the raising of a building.

Until the recent recession rendered it idle, Japan had the world's largest fleet of mechanized workers, with robots even being manufactured by robots in the facilities of Yaskawa Electric - Japans largest manufacturer of industrial robots (the closest existing parallel to Patlabor's Shinohara labor factory). In 2005, more than 370,000 robots worked in factories across Japan - roughly 40% of the world's total, averaging 32 robots per 1,000 human manufacturing employees. A 2007 Japanese government plan called for a million industrial robots to be installed by 2025; that won't likely happen now.

Yet, with nearly 25% of its citizens 65 or older, Japan is banking on robots to replenish its rapidly diminishing workforce and help nurse the elderly. The option to allow millions of workers in from overseas appears utterly unappealing to a society steeped in xenophobia (Japan has the lowest rate of foreign workers among the world's developed economies, at less than 2% of the workforce, compared to 15% in the USA, or 10% in Britain), even paying foreign workers to return from whence they came once recession has rendered them "redundant".

Japanese scientists and engineers, having grown up watching robot cartoons, are more than eager to create humanoid, robotic companions to care for the more than a million Japanese who will be over 100 years old by the middle of this century. Many of their projects tend to be far-fetched, concentrating on humanoid and other impractical designs, that likely can't be readily brought to market. Robots may be cheaper than human workers over the long term, but the upfront investment costs are much higher.

While the first Patlabor film may share a certain amount of technological skepticism with the majority of science fiction films - particularly in its prediction of the impact computer viruses and malicious code cold have - it's no reactionary dismissal of change. Rather, it merely advocates a reconsideration of the past's - and its artifacts - worth. It's brilliance lies not so much in its technical qualities, as it does with director Oshii's respect for the audience.

Oshii and his Headgear colleagues dare to tell a complex and ambitious story without explaining every last detail, trusting in the audience's own ability to work things out. This, ultimately, renders the fact that its anime inconsequential, for beneath the skillfully drawn veneer lies an ambitious, well-crafted crime story in a slightly futuristic setting. It just happens to be animated.

October 25, 2009

Joseph Wiseman, 1918-2009.

Canadian actor Joseph Wiseman has passed away. Best known for portraying James Bond's first nemesis, Dr. No, Wiseman had a long career in theater - having arrived on Broadway in the 1930s - in addition to his many film and television appearances. He was predeceased in February by his wife of 45 years, American dancer, choreographer and teacher Pearl Lang (1921-2009). Of his most famous role, Wiseman claimed he had no inkling of what he was letting himself in for, saying "I thought it might be just another Grade-B Charlie Chan mystery."

October 20, 2009

Hear Again: Solid State Survivor.

Thirty years ago, Kraftwerk had many imitators but few, true competitors. That is, until the Yellow Magic Orchestra's second album was released in September 1979. Musically as well as visually matching the German electronic pop pioneers output at the time, Solid State Survivor made the many similarities between the two bands explicit.

Both originated in cultures recovering from devastating defeat in the Second World War, and the ravages of reactionary authoritarianism, militarism, racism, and fascism prior to its outbreak. Both bands were founded by members of the first postwar generation, reared during the ensuing Cold War, coming of age during the cultural upheaval of the late 1960s.

Exposed to the (predominantly American) rock preferred by the occupational forces of their respective countries, members of both bands began their careers in rock bands. (Kraftwerk in fact begun as a progressive rock band.) However, both bands were also keen to emphasise their own particular cultural distinctiveness, striving to reconnect with what had been lost through aggression, war, and occupation rather than simply emulating a foreign stance.

Both achieved that by harking to classical music, aided by academically educated members - in YMO's case, keyboardist Ryūichi Sakamoto held a masters degree in compostion, specialising in ethnic and electronic music. Far from groups of musically inclined childhood friends, they were musical manifestations of an idea, realised by seasoned musicians (the average age of both bands' members being 29 at the time).

Subverting clichéd stereotypes and toying with misconceptions, both were probably the first pop bands from their respective nations to gain international notoriety (if not popularity), and to impact and influence popular music worldwide during the last quarter of the 20th century. In 1980, YMO became the first Japanese band to appear on Soul Train (the only Japanese artists to appear on the show until Toshi Kubota in 2004), and maintained a loyal following among the hip and fly denizens of America's clubland.

The main difference between the two bands lay in the Germans' adherence to electronic purity, while YMO casually integrated conventional - even classical - instrumentation. From a technical point of view, the Japanese band achieved sonic superiority over their counterparts, creating a more dynamic soundscape, by managing to seamlessly combine acoustic drums, amplified bass and guitar with electronic instruments.

Though to Kraftwerk's credit, YMO wasn't an entirely homegrown project: while utilising practically the same American synthesisers (particularly the wonderfully unpredictable and unstable Sequential Circuits Prophet-5), the Japanese musicians undoubtedly benefited from the proximity of companies like Korg in their hometown Tōkyō, Roland in Ōsaka, and Yamaha in Hamamatsu, driving innovation in musical instrumentation.

The main instrument utilised on Solid State Survivor was the modular Moog 3C, operated by YMO's informal member Hideki Matsutake (a former apprentice of pioneering electronic music composer Isao Tomita), who went on to form the techno pop duo Logic System. Matsutake's considerable talent was augmented by the Roland MC-8 MicroComposer, the world's first digital, microprocessor-driven music sequencer, introduced in 1977.

Based on a 1971 TTL prototype designed by Canadian composer Ralph Dyck, the MC-8 was intended to complement Roland's own modular sythesisers, but provided - as YMO demonstrated - tight multitrack sequencing, bass and rhythm track programming for almost any source. Also, YMO was intentionally convened, rather than inevitably distilled (like Kraftwerk) from a group of guys jamming together over the course of several years and albums.

Having dabbled in psychedelic rock with Apryl Fool, and folk rock with Happy End, bassist Haruomi Hosono was looking for a way to combine his interest in exotica with electronic music in order to garner greater commercial success. Having already released an exotica album, Paraiso, in 1978 under the moniker Haruomi Hosono & The Yellow Magic Band (allegedly a reference on Captain Beefheart's Magic Band), he propositioned two of the musicians who had contributed to it, keyboardist Ryūichi Sakamoto and drummer Yukihiro Takahashi.

The three had been crossing paths for some time: Takahashi, former drummer of The Sadistic Mika Band (known as The Sadistics following the departure of vocalist Mika Fukui and guitarist Kazuhiko Katō), had employed both Hosono and Sakamoto for his 1977 solo debut Saravah!; Sakamoto had relied on Hosono, Takahashi, and future YMO programmer Matsutake to realise his 1978 debut Thousand Knives of.

Hosono's original idea had been to convene as a band and record a one-off album exorcising the American exoticism pioneered by composers like Martin Denny (whose Firecracker YMO recorded), which conjured forth starry skies on imaginary atolls in cloudless climes, staffed by servile and - naturally - nubile natives, hoping to expose exotica's condescending silliness in the process. But the international success of YMO's self-titled 1978 debut convinced the musicians involved that their combined effort was worth pursuing seriously.

Stuck with a name which, as Sakamoto later recalled, represented Hosono's idea of yellow as a perfect compromise between black and white - an average, neutral, middle ground type of magic - the band altered their formula. Instead of supercharging exotica with avant-garde grooves, YMO began earnestly infusing their music with traditional elements, the exoticism confined to hitherto unheard sounds.

Solid State Survivor opens with four mainly instrumental pieces, seemingly mixed to facilitate dancefloor beatmatching. First up is Sakamoto's disco stomper Technopolis, an ebullient paean not only to the transformation of Tōkyō, but the rest of Japan as well. An ancient, traditional society turning into a powerhouse of modernity: from portable consumer electronics (Sony had just launched the Walkman), practical and economical vehicles, to the New Music of which YMO were a vanguard, Japan was rushing toward a propitious future.

Yet, in a society reckoning its past in millennia, the new needn't cancel the old out. As if to illustrate this continuous process of fusion, Hosono's Absolute Ego Dance blends electronic grooves with traditional Okinawan chanting - delivered by the prolific Japanese-American vocalist and hula dancer Sandra O'Neale. The first of many collaborations, YMO would later greatly contribute to her arguably most successful pop project, Sandii & the Sunsetz.

Then, there's Takahashi's Rydeen (either a mistransliteration of "raiden", meaning "lightning", or an intentional play on "riding"), its exuberant staccatos transforming mounted samurai from feudal relics to urban warriors riding a new wave of solid state gadgetry (presumably having traded horseback for Suzuki Rascals). Being their most renown recording, it's the closest thing to a YMO signature tune - so well established in the Japanese pop canon, Kirin used a specially re-recorded version of it to hawk lager as recently as 2007.

The first side closes with Sakamoto's Castalia, continuing the somewhat mythological slant ("Raiden" is occasionally the transliteration given Raijin, the deity of thunder and lightning in Japanese mythology). An impeccable example of Sakamoto's ability to compose poignant, wistful pieces without turning utterly soppy, it's a slightly moody foreshadowing of his forays into film, where his scores for Nagisa Ōshima's Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (in which Sakamoto appeared alongside Takeshi Kitano and David Bowie), and Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor in particular would reap praise and awards.

The second side opens with Sakamoto's Behind the Mask, YMO's commercially most successful recording, and a further example of how the Japanese band differed from Kraftwerk, despite both bands penchant for ostinati. While the Germans' sought minimal clarity for maximal expression, YMO created intricate layers and sophisticated arrangements - yet seemed unable equal the Germans' spit-clear vocoding.

Only the lyric sheet discloses what Sakamoto's attempting to communicate, his voice obscured by the device as if he indeed were hiding behind a technological mask. Considering that drummer Takahashi was the band's principal vocalist, and that his voice isn't similarly obscured on the album's other three vocal tracks, Sakamoto's ambiguous use of the vocoder may have been intentional.

Behind the Mask intrigued Quincy Jones enough to suggest Michael Jackson record a version of it, but it was session keyboardist Gregory Phillinganes who first released a version with additional lyrics (and uncredited backing vocal) by Jackson in 1984. Which led Eric Clapton - whom Phillinganes toured with - to record it for his 1986 August album. Clapton's version, produced by Phil Collins, became the reactionary blues man's sole British top 20 hit of the 1980s, reaching #15 in February 1987.

No strangers to reinterpretation, YMO next take on The Beatles' Day Tripper. Practically prescient in its spastic glitchyness, their version may simply be one source of inspiration for much of the 1990s alternative dance music and - by extension - much of the noughties mainstream pop music. It was allegedly inspired by Devo's deconstruction of The Rolling Stones (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction, though similarity of ideas doesn't immediately imply plagiarism. Particularly as The Beatles' impact on popular music wasn't felt any less keenly in Japan, and - in YMO's case - by Hosono and Takahashi in particular.

The ease with which YMO's version of Day Tripper could fit among contemporary club hits - a particularly unsettling fact for rock purists - highlight not only the musical quality of the original composition, but also the technical capability and skill of the Japanese band. YMO may have been mainly electronic, but the band's members were far from simple button pushers.

The album's theme is most explicitly established by the last two tracks, Hosono's Insomnia and Takahashi's closing title track. Evoking a world parallel to those of the then emerging literary genre later known as Cyberpunk, its protagonists teenage survivors of a new, "solid state": an exhausting round-the-clock world of transistors, integrated circuits, light-emitting diodes, and liquid crystals, vastly different from the mechanical, vacuum tube powered past.

The lyrics of Solid State Survivor were written by Briton Christopher Mosdell, a former microbiologist who'd worked as a script writer for NHK (Japan's national public broadcaster), reporter for Radio Europe, and as news reader for the BBC World Service. Yukihiro Takahashi had adapted some of Mosdell's poems for an album by Rajie he was producing (with help from Sakamoto), leading Mosdell to contribute lyrics to The Sadistics, YMO, and Sheena & The Rokkets - whose guitarist, Makoto Ayukawa, can be heard on Solid...'s title track and its idiosyncratic version of Day Tripper.

The album's sleeve, featuring YMO's principal members, initially made some audiences believe the band was Chinese, with Hosono, Sakamoto, and Takahashi, dressed in red Zhongshan suits (designed by Takahashi), engaged in a game of mahjong with two mannequins - one sporting a red star adorned "Liberation" cap. Though, once again, YMO were dabbling in the kind of cultural deconstruction favoured by Kraftwerk, who on the sleeve of their album of the previous year, Die Mensch-Maschine, were gazing towards Eastern European Constructivism.

Though most Westerners associate it with Mao, the Zhongshan suit originated with the nationalist revolutionary Sun Yat-sen. A compromise between modern sensibilities and traditional identity, it was based on the gakuran - Japanese school-boys' uniforms - themselves based on Prussian naval uniforms. Mahjong, though invented in China, has likely not been played as vigorously anywhere in the world as it once was in Japan - particularly prior to its re-emergence in China in the early 1980s following the game's supression in the "people's republic" during the Cultural Revolution.

The photo of the gaily garbed "red commissars", enjoying a bit of decadent gambling (complete with Coke) was shot by a close friend of The Sadistic Mika Band, Masayoshi Sukita, whose 1971 photograph of a mannequin inspired David Bowie's famous Ziggy Stardust haircut. (Bowie worked with Sukita throughout the 1970s.) YMO's logotype, designed by Polish-American graphic artist Lou Beach (alias Andrzej Lubicz-Ledóchowski), was carried over from the American edition of their self-titled debut album, and the concept cobbled together by renown art director Heikichi Harata, again, contrasted Kraftwerk's staunch minimalism with YMO's layered, bentō box approach.

Solid State Survivor has sold in excess of a million copies, staying at the top of the Japanese album chart for 82 consecutive weeks (over a year and a half), crowned with a best album award at the 22nd Japan Composers' Association Record Awards in 1980. Its impact can still be discerned among the aging legions of YMO sedai (the "YMO generation"), still sporting "techno pop" haircuts, as well as in J-pop, film, and video game music (as early as 1982, a version of Rydeen appeared in Sega's arcade video game Super Locomotive), in particular with composers Kenji Eno and Hitoshi Sakimoto.

Despite being the only YMO album featuring specifically English titles, without direct Japanese equivalents, Solid... was originally only released in Japan and Britain. A pity as it remains their easiest album to approach for non-Japanese audiences, performed (almost) entirely in English, with no particular cultural obstacles to contend with. A classic Japanese pop album of the late 1970s, practically entirely original, it represents the point at which YMO ceased to a be a wry subversion of faux Orientalism and solidified their position as a pioneering contemporary pop band. That just happened to be based in Tōkyō.

October 11, 2009

You, the Living.

Since 1991's Härlig är jorden (World of Glory), Roy Andersson's films have been populated by ashen-faced citizens fighting to preserve their dignity in a spartan, Kafkaesque urban landscape. Their stylised expressions reminiscent of circus clowns, representing everyone of us, inspired as much by Fellini as by Japanese Noh performers. His films' loosely connected visual tableaux, utilising spartan, retrograde scenography, intentionally break with the predominant Anglo-Saxon film dramaturgy - yet still manage to relate a captivating story.

It's an aesthetic that revels in the abstract and grotesque in order to allow the most important things surface, reflecting on an era in which even those among us lucky enough to inhabit the so called "developed" world merely attempt to "get through" another day, simply "surviving". But while Andersson's 2000 feature Sånger från andra våningen (Songs From the Second Floor) dealt with a Mammon-worshipping society, its dark and frequently obscured history, and with individual as well as collective guilt, Du, levande (You, the Living) focuses on the longing and dreams of its inhabitants.

Andersson's quest for perfection is infamous - he notoriously demanded 118 retakes when shooting a ketchup commercial - yet he consistently avoids employing professional actors. Not because of some aversion to trained thespians, but because he believes the particular presence he seeks is more readily found among the over nine million others who populate Sweden. Also, the roles Andersson writes are frequently quite small, leading him to feel embarrassed about asking established actors to appear on screen for less than a minute with - at best - a couple lines of dialogue.

In Du, levande, Bengt C. W. Carlsson is the sole exception, a professional actor in the company of amateurs, roaming exquisitely constructed sets depicting a Sweden permanently stuck in the mid-1980s - a single cellphone the sole contemporary addition. It's a prefab, flat-packed vision of Sweden, where IKEA's assortment only comes in drab, with each of the film's 57 scenes shot on a sound stage, every piece built from scratch. Explaining not only the protracted production time, but the C$6 million budget, and the involvement of eighteen different film production organisations as well.

For nearly three decades Roy Andersson's films have been created in his own "film factory" on Sibyllegatan (literally, "The Street of the Sybil") in Stockholm - at the very centre of Swedish liquidity - a self-contained world harking back to the days of pioneering director Georg af Klercker, who set up a similar facility in Andrsson's hometown Gothenburg in the late 1910s. Andersson's studio employed some 40 people over a three-year period, relying on their skills to construct sets and models rather than utilising computer generated imagery. The result is a film that doesn't take place anywhere in particular - that is, not anywhere that actually exists in Sweden.

There's a scene with what could pass for a Gothenburg streetcar enveloped in the mist that passes for rain on the west coast, but most of the action could take place practically everywhere in Sweden - such is the extent of that country's urban homogeneity. Even the actors accents do not hint at any region in particular. Andersson's Sweden is a surreal, lugubrious, phantasmagorical place. The music employed adds to the unsettling tone, inspired by the almost unbelievably naive European marching band fad that preceded the Second World War, with the Swedish 1936 hit En liten vit kanin (A Little White Rabbit) in particular demonstrating the ease with which serene waltzes can metamorphose into martial anthems.

The film lacks particular protagonists, but certain characters reappear throughout; the girl hopelessly in love with a rock musician, a middle-aged female alcoholic, members of a marching band. One man suffers nightmares of bombers sweeping in over the city, another about being sent to the electric chair for breaking a priceless set of china. Sixty-eight minutes in, the director lets a woman kneeling in a chapel deliver his assessment of our era: "Please Lord, forgive those who only think of themselves, forgive those who are greedy and petty, those who cheat and deceive, and grow wealthy by paying paltry wages," she mumbles.

"Forgive those who humiliate and defile, who bomb and devastate cities and villages, governments that withhold the truth from people, courts that hand out too harsh verdicts and condemn the innocent, newspapers and TV-channels that mislead, that delude, and lead attention away from that which is important". In another scene, a burnt-out psychiatrist explains that he presently simply prescribes his patients the strongest pills available. Because there's no point trying to make selfish people happy. "I'm not having such a great time either," he explains.

Though his manner is absurd and humourous, exposing society's lack of generosity and solidarity is what matters to director Andersson. Examining the neo-liberal belief that greed and egotism will make us happy, he strives to remind his audience that while creating a solidary society is difficult, at least once we entertained the idea that it was possible. Andersson dismisses the chimera that it can be achieved by an unregulated free market. Money, he points out, has no morals. Yet Du, levande is an optimistic film, never wavering in its conviction that compassion and empathy can be great forces of change.

Like a depressed Tati, Andersson presents his views not so much as a series of postcards than carefully arranged editorial cartoons. Empathetic towards his characters (and his audience), he's created a film about the art of being human; about being seen, being loved, and being humiliated. However, it does end on a particularly frightening note - vaguely echoing Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. As if to indelibly remind us, the living, that there is a life before death.

October 8, 2009

Irving Penn, 1917-2009.

A grandmaster of American photography has passed away. Renown for his fashion photography, Irving Penn begun his career in 1943 with Vogue magazine. He was also a master of still life and portraiture, and though exceptionally skilled with studio flash, preferred natural light for his portraits. In 1950 Penn married Lisa Fonssagrives (1911-1992), his muse and frequent subject of his photographs for Vogue.

Born in Udevalla, Sweden, Fonssagrives was dubbed "the first supermodel", though she tended to describe herself as "a good coat hanger" (while pursuing careers in ballet, photography, sculpting, and fashion design). Characterised by skillful use of light, careful composition, great attention to detail, and pioneering use of simple, stark backdrops, examples of Penn's work can be seen here.

October 2, 2009

Wetaskiwin water tower.

Like grain elevators - the true skyscrapers of the plains - water towers were long the signature landmarks of prairie communities. More than simple storage containers, they signaled the locations of human habitation, displayed the names and mottos of villages and towns, and provided a spectacular and practically irresistible venue for adolescent shenanigans. The need for water may have been the main motivation for their erection, but the desire to express pride in hometowns and relationships eventually altered their significance from that of mere utilitarian structures to symbols of home.

As new technology came to replace them, these once immovable giants began to disappear. No longer useful to the communities they had served, the cost of maintaining them quite often outweighed the benefit of preserving them. Though standpipes (cylindrical water storage tanks) remain quite common, only 36 water towers remain in Alberta. Out of these, fewer than half are still in use. Among those, the Wetaskiwin water tower stands out as Canada's oldest functioning municipal water tower - having continually served its community for the past 100 years.

Originally painted black - like most of its contemporaries - its riveted steel legs support a 450,609 L (119,038 gal.) capacity steel tank - holding enough water to fill an average, 25 m public swimming pool. The original wooden sheath protecting the tank from cold winter winds has been replaced by a steel enclosure, topped by a blue, octagonal peak, while steel tie rods and turnbuckles ensure the 45.72 m (150 ft) tall structure (54.86 m including the antennas on top) doesn't topple.

The tower was erected during the 1906-1907 building boom, which saw Wetaskiwin grow from a tiny town to "the smallest city in the Empire". The Calgary division of the Dominion Bridge Co. was responsible for construction, while the Ontario Wind Engine and Pump Co. furnished the tower's equipment. Both companies were involved in erecting a large number of similar structures across Canada, constructing towers in neighbouring communities like Camrose and Lacombe - though apart from Wetasksiwin, only nearby New Norway has retained its Dominion-built tower (erected in 1947).

The Wetaskiwin water tower stood unconnected and unused for a year and a half following construction, as the town's water and sewage system didn't actually reach it until 1909. Today it primarily serves the western end of Wetaskiwin - now a city of 12,285 inhabitants - drawing water from Coal Lake. Formed on the Battle River roughly 13 km east of the town, the lake has served as Wetaskiwin's municipal water supply since 1968, and had its level regulated for this purpose by an earthen embankment and dam in 1972.

Threatened by demolition six years ago, the now refurbished water tower became a subject of great dispute in Wetaskiwin when initial renovation estimates were drawn up. Ranging from C$1.22 to 1.38 million, compared to the C$250,000 cost of tearing it down, the figures left many citizens feeling that the money could be put to better use. A problem architectural conservation faces everywhere, not just in small prairie communities; the public doesn't mind preserving its cultural heritage as long as it doesn't have to pay for it. Preserving aesthetically spartan, utilitarian, industrial structures - such as water towers - presents a particularly difficult challenge.

The costliest part of the renovation appeared to be the removal of the lead paint coating the tower, though once it was established that it was possible to largely seal rather than remove the original paintwork, by February 2004 the city was able to reduce the total cost to C$748,000. As it turned out, the singularity of the project required very specific scaffolding to envelop the structure, raising the total cost by July 2004 to C$988,710 - leading concerned citizens to vent across the pages of the Wetaskiwin Times Advertiser, generating well over 40 articles and countless letters on the subject of the water tower.

What began as concern over spiraling costs erupted into a full-blown scandal, once the complete tally of the delayed project was revealed. Though optimistically scheduled to be completed between August and October 2004, work on the the tower wasn't finished until October 2005. Following many delays and several gaffes, the restoration of the city landmark totaled C$1,918,362 - leaving even the city councillors responsible dismayed. Though the city had committed nearly C$739,000 to the project, the Wetaskiwin Memorial Fund had raised C$130,000 in private and corporate donations (from as far away as Arizona), while the provincial and federal governments contributed C$236,000, that still left (roughly) an C$814,000 hole to fill. Even with the rejuvenation completed, the debate over whether the water tower's new white garb represented money well spent continued - until the controversial renovation of Wetaskiwin's National Historic Site, the 1907 Court House, overtook it in 2006.

Unlike the Gleichen water tower, erected in 1911, the Wetaskiwin tower hasn't yet been added to the Canadian Register of Historic Places - probably because it remains a fully functioning component of municipal infrastructure. Its new exterior incorporating the official city colours - designed by local students in competition - will likely enable the tower to serve the community for at least another half-century. Dominating the city skyline, visible for ten kilometers, it also stands as a striking reminder of the vital role water towers played in the survival of many prairie communities.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin