Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Mysterious Life and Work of Louis Kahn

The documentary film My Architect: A Son’s Journey (2003) tells the story of director Nathaniel Kahn’s quest to find the father he only vaguely knew. Nathaniel’s father Louis, a legendary architect on par with Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry, lived for his work and, possibly for this, very few truly knew him. He only created a handful of works: a few in the United States, a few in India. But Kahn’s few works are celebrated for their mystical use of geometric forms, concrete, brick, and natural light. One critic said that visiting a Kahn work “can change your life.” Bankrupt and lacking identification, Louis died of a heart attack in 1974, when Nathaniel was only 11. We soon find out that Nathaniel was Louis’s illegitimate son and that his father, in fact, had three families. One was his wife and daughter; the other two were secretive relationships about which most of Louis’s closest friends and colleagues were unaware.

In Nathaniel’s attempt to discover who his father was, few questions are answered and even more mysteries are unfurled. We only get the roughest sketch of the great, if contradictory, man. Having emigrated from Estonia as a young boy, Louis attended UPENN and worked all of his life to establish a lasting legacy. He was, like Howard Roark in The Fountainhead (I realize that he was based on Frank Lloyd Wright), totally uncompromising in his artistic vision, even if that meant losing many clients in the process. In the respectful, even awestruck, way in which Nathaniel photographs his father’s work: light streaming inside buildings, close-ups of the purposely unpolished concrete, perfectly symmetrical squares and crosses of a ceiling, artificial waterfalls cascading next to concrete rectangles, red sunset surrounding brick cylinders, and a young boy standing stationary and gazing at the permanent structure in the background (this is a motif Nathaniel utilizes); the point seems to be that Louis may have abandoned young Nathaniel, and no one may have known him aside from his work, but does this really matter if all of this is sacrificed for great art? That is, did Louis give humanity something greater than a father’s love?

It’s a beautiful and moving film and one that asks lots of interesting questions about art, form, the balance between work and family, art and society, love and faithfulness, social conventions, and costs of leaving a mark on the ever changing world.      
Here's a link to the My Architect website:
Here's the trailer:

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Early Charlie Chaplin: The Formative Years at Keystone

Chaplin At Keystone
Mack Sennett and Keystone Studios, one Hollywood’s earliest film production companies, hired Charles Chaplin in 1913. Before his short stint at Keystone, Chaplin was a little-known British vaudevillian. In only a year, Chaplin established his Tramp character, became a major film star who was widely recognized in the U.S. and abroad, and learned how to write and direct films. Chaplin at Keystone, a four-disc DVD set from Flicker Alley, collects 34 of 35 of Chaplin’s Keystone films (one is now lost). While none of these primarily short films reach the quality and sophistication of later silent masterworks (The Kid [1921], The Gold Rush [1925], City Lights [1931], and, Modern Times [1936]), it’s still fascinating to watch Chaplin as a developing actor, director, and comedian. Chaplin directed 17 of the 34 films and wrote the scenarios for 20. A few of them are admittedly slow, especially for a modern audience, but I found most thoroughly entertaining. My six-year-old son even watched most of them with me. He was a little confused sometimes, but he always laughed during the drunken brawls. (Who wouldn’t?) And there are plenty of drunken brawls to like.
Charlie and Fatty Arbuckle
Speaking of brawls, Keystone certainly did not shy away from repetitions. In nearly every film we see exceedingly drunken characters, men lusting after women other than their spouses, buffoonish policemen, or straight policemen who are easily duped. But only two of the films, Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914)—considered the first feature-length American comedy— and The Knockout, showcase Keystone’s trademark Keystone Kops. By 1914, Sennett began putting the Kops in background roles in order to highlight up and coming actors like Chaplin and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, whom we see in several of the Chaplin films.
Despite the lack of superlatives in these early Chaplin films, a few standout. The Tramp character makes his first appearance in Chaplin’s second film, Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914). The film’s basic situation is pretty simple; a film crew documents the auto races, but the Tramp persistently walks into the frame, looking at the camera and usually playing with his hat. The director talks to him and then pushes him out of the way, but he quickly returns. Here is Kid Auto Races from Youtube:

In addition to Tillie’s Punctured Romance, which is quite good and at times affecting, even if the story is predictable and clich├ęd (again, my 21st century bias comes creeping in), The Knockout, The New Janitor, His Trysting Places, Dough and Dynamite, and His Prehistoric Past are among my personal favorites. All of these are from 1914 and are written and directed by Chaplin (excluding Tillie’s and The Knockout).
Chaplin's The New Janitor:

In His Prehistoric Past, Charlie has a dream in which he lives in prehistoric times. A king has a harem of young and beautiful women and Charlie’s character, wearing bearskin and a bowler hat, seduces one of the women and tries to kill the king. With this, the last of Chaplin’s Keystone films, we clearly see the development from films made earlier in the year. His Prehistoric Past has a more sophisticated story, slightly more complex characters (though I wouldn’t take that too far—they are still basically stock characters), humor that is mostly in keeping with the story itself, and a more fluid pace.  
What’s a bit surprising in watching Chaplin’s earliest work is that the often tragically pathetic and utterly human Charlie that we know and love today started by playing some real rapscallions. In one called “Mabel at the Wheel,” for instance, Charlie plays the unsympathetic villain—something akin to Captain Terror on Speed Racer or Dick Dastardly from the Hanna and Barbara cartoons, who themselves were clearly inspired by silent movie villains. Charlie kidnaps and ties up a man, makes a few cars crash, and has two idiotic henchmen to assist him. Even when Chaplin plays the Tramp, it’s not the sympathetic character we are used to. He’s often drunk and sort of mean. In one scene two lovers are kissing and Charlie rolls his eyes and mockingly kisses a tree in parodic fashion.

But not all of his characters are mean. And whether Chaplin is mean or kind or desperate or unassuming, he is a joy to watch. Even as a novice, we can see Chaplin’s bright future ahead.
You can watch all of the films mentioned above on Youtube, but the quality is not going to be as good as the restored Flicker Alley collection, which is unfortunately not available on Netflix. I got it from the King Country Library.
Here's a link to Dave Kehr's review from The New York Times:
Here's a link to Flicker Alley's website:

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Kafka Is So Kafkaesque

Kafka Museum and Prague Castle
When we visited Prague a few weeks ago, I took my students to the Kafka Museum. Located on the banks of the river Vlatava and next to the historic Charles Bridge, the museum houses some interesting artifacts of Kafka, whom many (myself included) consider one of the 20th-century’s greatest authors. Anything but a traditional exhibition, the museum’s organization, exhibits, and design are quite creative and reflect a modern, Kafkaesque style. Opened to the public in 2005, the Kafka Museum includes hovering three-dimensional exhibits, sets of file cabinets that house drafts and letters, holes in walls available to peep through, and two video installations projected on large walls and running on a loop. The videos are both surreal in style with strange cuts and wavy, dreamlike images and montages; one video is projected in a small mirrored room which has the effect of making the images of Prague and Kafka both more expansive and also strangely inclusive since you see yourself while you are watching.

Kafka had a conflicting relationship with Prague, where he was born and spent most of his life. He called it a “dear little mother with claws,” and the museum emphasizes the claws and horrors of the city and his writing. In fact, if I have a criticism, it’s that the museum leaves out the humor of Kafka’s writing and emphasizes only the darkness. To be honest, I thought it presented him as a bit of a psychopath, and maybe that’s how some see him, but I don’t. He was clearly troubled, but he wasn’t a budding serial killer either. It’s true that there are stories you can point to, like “In the Penal Colony”—where a foreign visitor inspects a ghastly torture device—that demonstrate the horrific and humorless, but I think these are the exceptions to Kafka’s oeuvre.

Dying of tuberculosis in 1924 at age 41, Kafka only published a few short pieces before his death, including The Metamorphosis, which famously begins: “One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in his bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.” Gregar spends the rest of the story tortured over how he is going to get to work and then feeling great shame over leaving his family in seeming financial ruin. When he finally dies, his family is relieved of the burden and embarrassment their son has created for them, and they go for a drive “in the warm sun.” His family can move into a different apartment now. And their daughter has “blossomed recently, in spite of all the troubles which had made her cheeks pale, into a beautiful and voluptuous young woman.” She’ll now be ready for marriage. The story ends with this sentence: “And it was something of a confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions when at the end of their journey their daughter stood up first and stretched her young body.” The metamorphosis is complete.

The Metamorphosis is just one of several stories that reflect Kafka’s tortured but also darkly humorous outlook on life. Life for Kafka was absurd, surreal, and ridden with guilt. It was also strange and mysterious. Nowhere do we see the enigmatic aspects of life more clearly than in his unfinished novels The Trial and The Castle. Kafka asked his literary executor Max Brod to destroy all of his work when he died, but Brod ignored Kafka’s dying wish and published nearly everything he had given Brod. Even though both The Trial and The Castle are incomplete (The Castle actually ends mid-sentence!), they are still masterpieces and have great depth and complexity. I’ve taught and had some success with The Trial, but I think The Castle (at least Mark Harmon’s new [1998] translation) is even more accessible for students.

The Trial tells the story of a man named Joseph K. who gets arrested one “fine day” for no apparent reason. He spends the rest of the novel attempting to navigate the labyrinthine legal system, an arbitrary, confusing, convoluted, and unjust structure. Like The Trial, The Castle’s world is also an impossible labyrinth. In this novel, a man simply named K. (for Kafka?) has been hired as a surveyor by a village with a large, dominate castle, which is ruled by its obfuscating and impenetrable bureaucracy. Once K. arrives in town, he is given two idiotic buffoons as assistants, but no one can confirm that he was in fact hired, let alone tell him what he is supposed to survey. It’s impossible for him to even look at Klamm, the village chief, and he certainly can’t meet with him. There are characters who think they have connections and either boast of these in front of K. or advise him, but we never know whether even they are just fooling themselves. Perhaps no one really knows how the system works.

Max Brod believed that all of Kafka’s works were about finding God and salvation. But works like The Trial and The Castle have also been interpreted in other ways. Possibly they represent our futile attempt to find order in a meaningless and absurd world. Maybe they are a commentary on modern bureaucracy and the idea that as humanity has progressed, we have created systems that are impossible to navigate or understand (though this has always seemed to me the most simplistic reading). Maybe they can be likened to Plato’s cave allegory, but in Kafka’s allegory the Truth or the outside world simply does not exist—or at least his characters never find it.

We can’t help but ask ourselves: what if Kafka had finished these novels? Would the meaning be more clear? Well, reading “A Hunger Artist” and other published works proves that even published Kafka is difficult to decipher. There are no easy answers in Kafka’s world. In fact, if Kafka had been able to revise them, I doubt the revisions would very much impact the ideas in the novels. They would probably be primarily structural and syntactical alterations. But who knows?

Reading Kafka, whether published or unpublished, finished or not, is like playing a trivia contest where you never know the answers. It’s a world of endless possibilities—where meaning may be tentative but it is always evocative. And that’s the real joy.