Thursday, February 10, 2011

Mystery Street

There was a body;

so there must have been a crime.

Bones in the sand, bones in the dunes...
Sandpipers in the glass of a peeping tom,

and a ballerina’s bones there,

half buried in the cape.

Ornithology means looking at birds.
Like pornography,

it starts with small stuff and ends

with foot-bones in the face of a peeping tom...

a corpse in the dunes.

Sure there was a crime, but where

did it start and when will it end?

Where was the yellow Ford?
Where was the boatman’s Colt?

We wondered; we searched.
We probably got our man,

but we found no remedy at all.

Just another sunset on the dunes,

looking over the sea,

watching the sky

become empty of light.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Street Art : What it is, has been, could be

A critical evaluation and manifesto I want to write. The starting point would be the anonymous piece below. I read it in the Free Press Worst of Houston issue a few days ago and it stuck in my mind. Graffiti has a lot of untapped potential as an art form (and as a commercial enterprise, as anonymous notes). I guess there a few reasons why more graffitistes write than paint; it's easier, safer, and faster to do. The problem is that very few people could care less who's got more tags on the city. Probably the only people who do care are the taggers themselves. I guess that kind of insularity, not to say elitism, has always been present in street art. But Anonymous isn't kidding about the dollars out there, clogging the city gutters. There are piles of them just waiting to be swept off the street by an enterprising tagger willing to exploit Dick and Jane Suburbia's yen to possess an actual instance of authentic, contemporary culture.
Didn't you see Welcome to the Gift Shop?

Worst Graffiti: Writing

Quantity over quality is the culprit here and it’s about high time some of our local “graffiti” artists took themselves more seriously. The “writing” craze is not new by any means but, it seems lately every one is considering themselves to be valid graffiti artists based on the fact that they scribble the equivalent to a cave drawing on the side of dumpsters and business establishments around town. The sad part about all of this is the fact that most of these kids can actually create some of the most visually stunning artwork we’ve never seen. It reminds me of The Simpsons episode where Bart gets the label maker and puts his name on everything in the house, even Homer’s beer, thwarting Homer from not taking the last beer because “it’s Bart’s”. I believe that if these talented artists actually wanted to be considered for opportunities that would make them large sums of money, ushering most of them out of what could probably compared to squalor, they would focus their efforts more into the quality of their work rather than the quantity. I will probably never find myself looking for someone to commission for my next project on the wall in the bathroom at Rudz. If the artists actually began focusing their efforts into the massive colorful beautifications they are perfectly capable of, the city might actually start putting funds into the art community providing these very artists with paying gigs, doing THEIR VERY OWN thing, to objectively make the city a more interesting and inspiring place to live in. There are some amazing artists however that are already “on this tip”, and I would like to give them a shout out here for doing it right: Ack!, WEAH, DUAL, and Give Up (even though they write, it’s actually balanced with an equal amount of content heavy related artwork that is creating a unique identity for themselves as artists).


Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Candidate Winter Stew

I recently watched The Candidate on DVD. Robert Redford plays a young California man of vaguely liberal ideals who challenges a heavily favored incumbent in a race for the United States Senate. The Redford candidate’s good looks, frank opinions, and campaign savvy transform this underdog into a dark horse contender. Michael Ritchie directed this well paced, exciting film in 1972; and the scene of the “lost people” (i.e. hippies) on the beach notwithstanding, its tone of anxious optimism still feels relevant today. Like the candidate of the film’s title, this stew I’ve been making lately is wholesome, fresh, and appealing—a winning combination.

In a large soup pot, sauté about 2 cups each of chopped onions, carrots, and celery. If you want a spicy stew add a couple of chopped jalapeños. Use just enough oil to cover the bottom of the pot. When the onions start to brown add enough vegetable stock or water to cover the following: 2 or 3 chopped turnips, 6-8 small potatoes, a chopped calabasita, a cup or two of chopped winter squash or pumpkin, A bunch of chopped greens (e.g. kale, collards, or chard). Add salt, paprika, and black pepper to taste. Simmer until the potatoes have cooked through. Serve hot over shredded cabbage or with toasted bread. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A. O. Scott Breaking the New Year's Resolution in Style

Defy the Elite!

"There is a cultural elite, in America, which tries its utmost to manipulate the habits and tastes of consumers. It consists of the corporations who sell nearly everything with the possible exception of classical music and conceptual arts, and while its methods include some of the publicity-driven hype that finds its way into newspapers, magazines and other traditional media, its main tool is not criticism but marketing.

And an especially effective marketing ploy has always been the direct appeal, over the heads of supposed experts and fuddy-duds, to the consumer. Make-believe elites — which is to say independent voices in the public sphere, whatever the terms of their employment or the shape of their sensibilities— disrupt the perfect union of buyer and seller."

Why Cinnamon Oats?

As I write this out here on Border’s second level balcony a girl is talking to her dad on the phone. She sounds happy and excited. I’m not eavesdropping; she’s just not using her inside voice. Apparently, she’s lost a bunch of weight. Her pants don’t fit anymore. Her skin has totally cleared up. No more acne. Why?
“Since I’ve been on that new…sort of diet. You know, since I’m vegan now.”
So awesome.
“I have a friend that works at a vegan restaurant right next to my work; so I’ll eat, like, tofu and soy ham and a plate full of vegetables. It’s all so good.”
Wow. I can’t tell you how much I love to overhear that. I guess this whole vegan thing is blowing up. I’m feeling a sense of possibility, of hope, that maybe people are starting to recognize a few things. Things like maybe there’s a better way to feed ourselves than with the dead flesh of animals raised and slaughtered in the most sickening conditions. Like maybe what’s good for our bodies is also good for animals, for the planet. Well maybe so.
But there are still so many people here accustomed to eating all kinds of meat and not much else. There are still so many places that serve it; and so few that offer the healthy, delicious, vegan stuff I love and crave. But few is better than none. Few is already an improvement. The question we face is how to make a few into more than a few, into a lot. The question is, “What do we do now?”
One thing we can do is boost the vegan meme, keep the idea in currency. I felt great when I heard that girl talking to her Dad on the phone about all the wonderful things that have happened to her and how happy she is eating a fully vegetarian diet. I felt great because she felt great. I wanted to give her a high five or something. Her indiscreet family phone call was my inspirational bolt from the blue. I decided that Cinnamon Oats isn’t going to be just about movies. It’s going to be about movies and vegan food. (You’d think I’d have figured that out from the start: Cinnamon Oats/Cinema Notes. I guess it took me a minute to understand what it all meant. Now I got it.) So in addition to movie stuff there will be recipes and vegan stuff and maybe sometimes both of them together. Sound okay?
Well I’d read it.
And to that girl on the phone with her Dad, I hope you read it and like it and keep on loving that good vegan food.

The Fighter

A quintessentially American tale about getting your head straight in order to kick maximum ass. Has-been boxer Dicky Eklund is the pride of Lowell, MA—first to industrialize, first to blight, a microcosm of present day America. His kid brother Micky Ward, Mark Wahlberg playing in his wounded puppy dog mode, is an up-and-comer with an uncertain future. They train hard, take on some serious issues (crack addiction, emotional blackmail, the oedipal complex), and make it to the light welterweight championship of the World Boxing Union. It’s impressive that they get all the way there working solely with their hometown crew. Pride of Lowell indeed. The Fighter is an inspiring story, based on real events. Christian Bale’s performance as the clownish, glassy-eyed Eklund is remarkable and Melissa Leo is ferocious in her role as the boxers’ mother/promoter. Also with Amy Adams. Directed by David O. Russell. 2010.

Here are some links to videos related to The Fighter.

Eklund vs. Leonard

Ward vs. Neary

The HBO Documentary featuring Dick Eklund: High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell

Watch more free documentaries

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Interview w/ Saadi Soudavar, Co-producer of Frontier Blues

This weekend the Museum of Fine Arts opens its annual Iranian Film Festival. Maybe you’ve heard of the greatness of Iranian cinema? The best contemporary films from Iran combine deceptively simple narratives with a sophisticated poetic sensibility. It’s a case of imposed limitations spurring creativity. As with the great Eastern European directors of the cold war era, state censorship has forced Iranian filmmakers to create complex movies full of metaphor, allusion, and whispers of hidden meaning in order to speak sincerely about the world they know. This year Houstonians will be treated to eight new Iranian films, five at the MFAH and three at the Rice Cinema. Cinnamon Oats spoke with our old friend Saadi Soudavar about the film he co-produced, Frontier Blues, which will play at the MFAH Friday, January 21st at 9:00 pm and Sunday, January 23rd at 7:00 pm.
Cinnamon Oats: How were you involved in Frontier Blues? How did you become interested in the project?

Saadi Soudavar: I met Babak Jalali, the writer and director of Frontier Blues, while he was studying at the London Film School with my friend and co-producer of the film, Ginevra Elkann. Babak's short film about a servant/master relationship Heydar, an Afghan in Teheran (which I highly recommend) was nominated for a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) award for best short in 2006. On the back of that, he got into the prestigious Cannes Cinefondation Residency Programme for first time directors. His work in the residency produced the script for Frontier Blues. When he had trouble securing the funding package and finding a production company to produce it, Ginevra and I decided to do it.

As I've learnt through this process - and also through my girlfriend Zeina Durra's process with her first film The Imperialists are Still Alive! which premiered at Sundance in 2010 - art house and indie films face enormous challenges to raise funding and even more challenges to get distribution.

Iranian indie films, as you can imagine, are even more challenging in that respect! In Europe, government subsidized funds take up a lot of the slack that private monies can't provide; and you have a great tradition of European art house film as a result. But films must have shooting or production in Europe to meet the criteria to get European funds.

Frontier Blues was to be shot in Iran, on the border of Turkmenistan, with local non-professionals; so we really had to raise the monies ourselves. Without any traditional film funding, we tapped art house enthusiasts and art patrons based in Europe. Luckily the budget was relatively cheap.

I was interested in the project because I liked Babak's style and vision. It reminded me a bit of the deadpan humour of Aki Kaurismäki and other European directors like Roy Andersson or Ulrich Seidl. And I liked his idea of applying that way of framing the scene and minimalist approach to Iran. It was a different take on Iran with a knowing wink at the cliches of the genre—the classic Iranian art house cinema tropes (little kid in a village loses his shoe, finds it) made for the foreign market. It was also a very personal film for Babak—and indeed myself—as we went back to Iran after a long time away in order to do this. Babak grew up in the Golestan province where this was shot. A lot of the feel, the characters, and stories are actually based on his memories of real characters and incidents in that region where he grew up.

I also liked the fact that this part of Iran, the Golestan province on the border of Turkmenistan, has rarely featured in Iranian film. Most Iranians don't visit this region and therefore have stereotypical presumptions about it. The local Turkmen are presumed to be nomadic, always on horseback, when in fact they live pretty much like everyone else now. It's similar to the trope of the American Wild West or foreigners' views of Texas. (“Do you ride a horse to school?”) Babak plays with these preconceptions in the form of the photographer from Teheran who goes to find the exotic in Golestan province. (Babak himself had gone there while at film school to do a documentary on the Turkmen. He found himself challenging his desire to find the stereotype rather than the reality.) The border of Turkmenistan with its forlorn, barren landscape; the ethnic mix of Persians, Turkmen, and Kazakhs; and the stories of melancholic longing Babak crafted were for me a powerful and poetic metaphor for the current condition of the Iranian people.

As someone born in Iran, it was also important for me to do my bit to help the Iranian arts, in particular the next generation of Iranian filmmakers.

CO: What was the production like? Were you filming under the aegis of the government or was it more of a guerrilla film making type situation?

SS: In Iran there is a local and vibrant film industry despite the enormous challenges and tribulations faced by filmmakers there. Productions may be funded privately or, less often, by the government. Some are shot officially, others unofficially. But the filmmaking community is a clique just like in the US or Europe, and in Iran it is quite hierarchical. So as a young, first-time director living in the UK and going back to Iran to film his first feature, Babak turned to us to help him produce the film.

We turned to a very respected local producer Homayoun Assadian to help us out: sort out our official permits and form the crew. (We were aiming to use local production teams, cast and crew.) We contacted Iranian cinematographers we liked. Sharyar Assadi, who shot Bahman Ghobadi's film Turtles can Fly amongst others, shot our film (beautifully I think).

It is important to note we shot the film in December 2008 and 2009 before the contested election of June 2010 and subsequent crackdown. We shot it officially with a permit from the Islamic Ministry of Culture and Guidance as we wanted to move freely, do things by the book, and not get anyone working with us in trouble—especially in Golestan province where we used non-professional actors. Our film wasn't political or and didn’t feature problematic topics for the Government like the underground music scene in Ghobadi's Nobody Knows About Persian Cats. It was a simple tale and we had nothing to fear from the censor. (Though I think some of our scenes might not have made it past the censor if he'd bothered to look carefully: the fondling of a mannequin breast, for instance, or the inclusion of a communist folk song which had been vilified in the past but was all but forgotten when we shot in 2008. Now it has become re-politicized as an opposition song of the 2010 election.)

The crews who work in the Iranian film industry are very professional and talented; it was a great experience. In particular it was interesting to use mostly non-professional actors in the Golestan province near Turkmenistan. They were fishermen, fishmongers, bakers, etc. Some of the actors' real lives were amazing and worthy of a film in themselves. Alam, for example, was an illegal fisherman on the Caspian Sea. He would disappear at times to fish for sturgeon. At times he had to evade police boats that were shooting at him. It was cool to check out Turkmen culture and while in the area I was also honored to meet Louise Firouz shortly before she died. Louise was a legendary American horsewoman, born in Virginia, who had lived in Iran since the 1950s. Despite harassment from the authorities after the Iranian revolution of 1979, she continued to breed Turkmen horses as well as Caspians (a breed she rediscovered in the nearby hills).

CO: How has Frontier Blues been received in Iran? Elsewhere?

SS: The film opened at the Locarno Film Festival in competition in 2009. It had a great reception there and on the festival circuit where we showed, notably in Stockholm, at New Directors/New Films in NYC, and in San Francisco where we won the FIPRESCHI critics award. We had a small release in cinemas in the UK, Switzerland, and Austria where we had a good turnout. We're still hoping for distribution in the US and France.

The film unfortunately has not been screened in Iran. Iranian art house cinema of this nature is rarely seen widely in Iran, if at all. It is ironic that Iranian auteur cinema is more appreciated abroad than at home.

CO: What did you hope to accomplish with this film? Do you feel like you succeeded?

SS: I personally hoped to learn more about film production as I've never been involved with one before. And to support a screenwriter and film director I believed in, allowing him the opportunity to express his vision which I think the team was successful in doing. I think Babak is very talented. This is his first film and hopefully he will be successful in furthering his career. I also wanted to do my bit to help Iranian art and to promote Iran's culture and artistic expression globally so as to provide a vision of Iran in tune with the reality of everyday life rather than the politicized headlines one sees in the media. Iranian artists, though often working in great danger, have received quite a lot of international recognition from galleries in Dubai, Paris, London, and NYC. It is important also to help the next generation of Iranian cinema, a task which is difficult given international sanctions, lack of funds, and the politicized nature of anything to do with Iran.

CO: What are the actors, crew, screenwriter/director doing now?

SS: Babak Jalali, the screenwriter and director, is looking at making a film in Armenia or the UK. The crew in Iran are busy no doubt on other Iranian films, and the cast are back to their lives in Golestan, which, as I mentioned, are worthy of their own wild frontier cinema. I think it's kind of crazy that folks in Houston will be seeing the locals we cast on the big screen—in a way, a cinematic fulfillment of the characters in the film's longing to break out of their routine.

CO: How does the future of Iranian cinema look from your vantage point?

SS: Encouraging and discouraging at the same time.

Films are still getting made, many officially, that you marvel were allowed by the Iranian government to be made. See The Hunter by Rafi Pitts which was shot in Teheran, seemingly officially, after the election crackdown to appreciate the ingenuity of Iranian film makers. On the other hand the authorities are jailing respected directors like Jafar Panahi. The latter is a great, great tragedy and needs urgent international attention.

I'm encouraged by the fact that places like Houston have had an Iranian cinema festival for eighteen years and that Iranian cinema is well known throughout the world. I'm also encouraged by the great wave of creativity that the young people of Iran have the potential to ride; but I'm saddened by the institutional, financial, and political constraints which it make it very difficult for Iranian filmmakers, especially the younger generation, to express themselves and find their audience. I hope that changes for the better.