Saturday, November 19, 2011

The milk of sorrow

I had very little knowledge of Peru. I knew it’s a third world country, that sits in western South America on the world map. Neither do I knew anything about cinema in South America. “Milk of Sorrow”,a fairly short 95 minutes film that came out quite recently, attracted my attention; II picked this film to watch first, among the suggested film list.

The film starts with a slow and sad tune with quite horrifying lyrics, “... A bitch with rabies must have given birth to you, and that’s why you have eaten her breasts, now you can swallow me, now you can suck me, like you did to your mother...” The picture slow fade in from black to a dying old woman lying in her bed. Shocked by her singing, I slowly observed every wrinkle on her face and her gray, loosely-braided hair. Her eyes are closed; I would be afraid to stare into her eyes if they were open. Hearing her shrieking voice, I started to realize that this film was probably about war, suffer and maybe desperation.

As I was thinking about this, a beautiful girl came in from the left into the frame. She sings in response of her mother, with her long black hair tied back and thin silver necklace hanging down from her neck. It was breathtaking, with the contrast between the mother and the daughter, hearing them singing to each other. I was immediately captivated in the scene and couldn’t even breathe. Then the mother died. Time froze.

The next scene is rather serene and reveals the family daily life of Fausta(the main character)’s uncle. I kept on observing, into a completely different way of life than my own, and still quietly thinking about the singing in the first scene. The next thing I knew, Fausta’s uncle was sitting in the hospital and the doctor told him that there was a potato growing in Fausta’s vagina.

I couldn’t think any more. I stopped watching this film and turned to do something else. I knew it would take me a while to handle this. I had never seen a film like this, or heard a story like this. It was disturbing in almost a surreal way.

I did some background research before I started watching the film again. According to the research, Peru is still trying to come to terms with the trauma of a two-decade conflict -roughly from 1980 to 2000-between the state and the leftist guerrilla groups. The warfare is thought to have claimed nearly 70,000 lives, most of them Andean peasants. To me, the factual information is cold and if I hadn’t watched the film, it would not have as much of influence on me. I appreciate the role of the director, especially, in making a history visual and let the world know and care about it. To Claudia Llosa, realism may not be a literacy genre or fimic device, but rather, an element of national identity and consciousness.

I finally went back on the film after a few days. The story unfolds as Fausta’s uncle was marrying off her carefree daughter but was not willing to pay for a burial. Fausta then went off working for a rich, white pianist to earn money for her mother’s burial. From a filmmaker point of view, I appreciate the balance between Fausta’s melancholy, depressing storyline, and her cousin’s marriage storyline, which is rather comical.

There are also other deep contrasts and conflicts: for one example, Fausta’s uncle tried to explain to the doctor that Fausta’s mother transmitted a strange disease to Fausta through breast milk that caused her to be depressed and fainting, ignoring the fact that the doctor suggested that Fausta’s unhealthy state has nothing to do with breast milk. For another example, Fausa’s hauntingly beautiful lyrical singing triggered the interest of her wealthy, classical pianist boss, who in return, treated her dismissively and deliberately gave her a rude introduction to the world of elite musicianship at the opera house.

In terms of stying, from the research I knew that the director draws upon influences ranging from the high European modernism of Antonioni to the short filmography of Barbara Loden; I can see it made in the style of “Cinéma vérité”: the camera is invisible and the line of staging and obeservation is blurred.

Although I do think that this film, unlike any other film, It builds its visual language from the ground, with an unforgettable story. It is indeed challenging for me to engage with it on its own terms.

Notes on Film art

3 points from the Film Art book:

  1. “When we watch a film that tells a story or surveys, categories, or makes an argument, we usually pay little attention to the sheer pictorial qualities of the shots. Yet it’s possible to organize an entire film around colors, shapes, sizes, and movements in the images.” This is a very inspiring remark for me because I have never carefully thought about what differentiate an experimental film from conventional genres.
  2. Abstract films are often organized in a way that we might call “theme and variations”. Abstract films also usually depend on building up greater and greater differences from the introductory material. Experimental filmmakers often start by photographing real objects.

This analogy of “themes and variations” that was originally a music term. “Theme” ,an important tune of the music piece, correspond to the real objects photographed as a starting point in an abstract film. “Variation”, a repeated but majorly changed version of the “theme”, correspond to the cinematic and conceptual manipulation of the original/real objects.

  1. Many experimental films draw on a poetic series of transitions that create what we may term associational form. Associational formal systems suggests ideas and expressive qualities by grouping images that may not have any immediate logical connection.

So far, two terms are described in the chapter- “abstract” and “associational”. These two forms have a number of similarities and differences. Similarly, neither involve narration; both lack order in which the images are sequenced. An abstract film is usually organized around visual features, in the way of “theme and variations”, while associational films share some qualities with abstract film, it involves interpretation-they often have a general meaning behind them but the viewers can interpret it their own way.

The Cats of Mirikitani

I always wondered one thing: What does it take to make a truly powerful, touching and meaningful biographical documentary? After watching “The Cats of Mirikitani”, I think I have got some answers:

First, the filmmaker him/herself might not know what he/she is getting into at first. It always just start with curiosity, and an urge to dig deeper. Everyone has some curiosity within them but not everyone is willing to take a step further. I have noticed that, since I came to the US four years ago, I always get assignments called “Self-portrait”, in all kinds of class i took: Drawing, Sculpture, Film, Animation, Poetry, English, even music composition class. But I was not used to being so self-absorbed and as I grew up in China, I often got assignments called “My Mother”, “My teacher”, or “My classmate” for composition class. I also observed and wrote about people whom I didn’t know, like a street musician who plays flute carrying his one-year-old son, the mailman who still sent newspapers riding his bicycle in the storm, or a distant cousin of my who just paid a visit to my house. Everyone around me is fascinating, no matter what he/she does. Just like Jimmy; he is just one of those street artists in Soho, but if Linda had not discovered him, an excellent documentary would have existed. However, if Linda had picked someone else, I believe there would be an equally meaningful documentary.

Secondly, Linda is a very good listener and truly bonds with Jimmy. I disbelieve that the filmmaker could be ever be invisible in a documentary, even if it’s in the style of

“cinema verite”. If the filmmaker doesn’t make his/her presence important to his/her subject, the film would be not real and personal, therefore the subject might seem really detached from the camera/filmmaker, and audience as well. Linda’s initial curiosity of Jimmy evolved into taking him in her apartment and living with him; this level of commitment needs more than simple incentives of good materials for a documentary film. She truly cared about him, and he cared about her as well. (It cracked me up when he was worried about her going out at night as a single woman)

At this point, maybe the “documentary: almost turned into “home movie”.

Thirdly, I always thought that it’s easier to report/document something already exist, than to create/shoot/direct everything from a storyline/script. Now I think they take different efforts.

Mitch McCabe’s “Playing the part”, from my point of view, is a staged film shot in the style of documentary. It may be based on true stories, but it, in a sense, detached itself from the audience, when it seemed obvious that it was staged. I was taken out of it and kind of bothered when I slowly realize it might not be a real documentary, though the was really interesting.

Some notes from the reading:

1.Cinematographic qualities involve three factors: 1)the photographic aspect of the shot 2)the framing of the shot 3)the duration of the shot

2.A very fast film stock means more sensitive to differences in color, texture, shape etc, produces a more contrasty look.

3 by manipulating the film stock lighting factors and developing prodedures, filmmakers can achieve enormous variety in the look of the film image.

4.The range of tonalities in the image is most crucially affected by the exposure of the image during filming. The filmmaker usually controls exposure by regulating how much light pass through the camera lens.

5.The speed of the motion we see on the screen depends on the relation between the rate at which the film was shot and the rate of projection.

6.Control of perspective is based on the focal length of the lens: wide-angle, normal, and telephoto etc.

7. Composite filming can also be accomplished by matte work.

8. every shot has some measurable screen duration, but in the history of cinema, directors have varied considerably in their choice of short or lengthy shots.

9.very often, frame mobility breaks the longtake shot into significant smaller units .

10.focal length not only affect the shape and scale, but also affects the lens’ depth of field.

11. A lens with a depth of field of ten feet to infinity

12.If the movement is to look accurate on the screen, the rate of shooting should correspond to the rate of projection.

One Step Away: a film from life”

The documentary film “ One Step Away: a film from life”, updated my knowledge about the “hippies” movement in San Francisco during the 60s; it’s made from such a fresh and realistic viewpoint. It almost seems unbelievable because none of the subjects/characters in the film seems to be aware of the existence of a movie camera. I was especially carried away by two aspects of the film:

First, the camera, or the person who held the camera, entered the scene without previous knowledge about what’s going on in the scene and did not know anyone in the scene very well. This was later confirmed by Ed Pincus, but even without his explanation, I could tell the alienation and the confusion at the beginning, which sort of conflicts with the unawareness of the subjects/characters, since normally it’s almost impossible or a filmmaker to capture personal lives of strangers so naturally. Maybe as Pincus noted, people at that time were not as media-savvy and self-conscious as people nowadays are about appearing on Internet/youtube.

Second, the way the film is edited is also different from common documentaries; it’s not linear and sometimes don’t make complete sense. It reminds me of that, when I shoot home video in my flip camera every now and then, and at the end of the year, I finally plug it into my TV and watch the whole sequence all together. While I do that, I do not necessary care about editing or refining because every shots makes sense when they are viewed together as a whole in the long run. It might cut from a scene of my mom cutting tomatoes in the kitchen to a scene of my brother playing basketball at his high school gym; the cut won’t make any sense at first to some one who doesn’t know my family, but after several scenes, he/she will start to draw conclusions about who the people in the scenes are. Watching Pincus’s film “Diaries”, gives me a similar experience, that instead having every scene contain a dramatic event, it captures the mundane activity of everyday life, with a rhythm that carries on the narrative. What’s different in this film though, from the first film, is that, the main subject, Pincus’s wife, was very self-conscious of her images in front of the camera, and was afraid of her problems exposed.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

in between days

The first time I watched the film three weeks before, I had a very different experience. I watched it alone by myself in my bed at a chilly rainy night, and before this film, I just watched Fight Club, which kept me immersing in the twisted illusions of life and death. I was still depressed and my brain was stirred up when I watched “In between Days”. Last Monday, however, while I watched it on the big screen with the class, I was able to view it with a fairly neutral mood.
One of the most memorable moments while watching the film was when the girl asked the boy to sleep over in his closet. To me the scene evoked my memory of a similar experience. When I was in middle school, my neighbor always made a lot of trouble that his parents would hit him, then he ran away from home and came to hide in my closet. I would let him sleep in there sometimes too. The affection I had towards him was something really subtle and confounding to me, and not sexual. While he slept in my closet, I felt nervous and anxious, but also really happy. In the film, there's little sexual tension in that scene, but the the mixed feelings both of then had was portrayed really realistically: the girl asked him to sleep in the closet but didn't resist when he came to sleep on the bed in the middle of the night, then she forced him again to hide when her mother got up. I can see her anxiety when he came to her bed and lied down next to her; she was relieved that he didn't do anything and looked at his profile lying next to her with affection.
I think the culture conflict is definitely reflected in this film, but not as a prominent part. Though I though it could have gone further in the context of the story. At the beginning of the film, Aimie's culture shock upon living in a western country(later known as Canada) is well presented through her English class , her lunch at school dining hall, her letter to her dad, and parties she went to. It gives me a clue that the story is going to be built on this foreign setting, and around challenges she will face and overcome. To my surprise, the story stayed on the same page, and focused entirely on the relationship between the two main characters; they are so isolated from the environment that it didn't even matter where they were.
Overall I feel really related to the two characters and their relationship.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Xiao Wu

In the film “gently down the stream”, I was most captured by the text scratched on film and I especially appreciate the fact that they are punctuated one word after another; it conveys a message in a way that is raw,honest, personal and emotional. Together with the reoccurring collaged images/actions, they push forward a strong presentation of the filmmakers’ personal perspective on female gender roles, sexuality and homosexuality. The film takes a very subtle approach on the correlation between text and image; to me, they don’t match literally at all. They can appear confusing or even conflicted at times but that’s the nature of a personal voice. When I write a diary, I often tend to write in a stream of consciousness way, while the visuals in my head could be quite repetitive images or actions without sound, that has nothing to do with what I am writing. The film indeed leaves lots of blank spaces for viewers to fill in between and it being silent also adds more to its unpredictability.

I have previous known about Jia Zhang Ke through his film called “Platform”. When I watched Xiaowu last Monday, I was constantly reminded of “Platform” perhaps because of they were shot in simliar locations( a small town in Shan’xi) and time period(around the culture revolution in the seventies). The lead character Xiao Wu, also has a similarity to the lead character portrayed in that film. He lives in a very realistic world but remains a very unrealistic person: He still believes in his bond with his old pal Xiao Yong, who later became very rich doing cigarette business, while Xiao Yong is ashamed of their past as thieves and don’t even want to invite Xiao Wu to his wedding. He fell in love with the girl at the Karaoke club, and trusted her but she left without saying goodbye for a better life, perhaps with another richer man. One of my favorite scene in the movie was when he asks his friend to weight the wedding gift money in the red pocket and tells the story about his promise to Xiao Yong. The back story is so well portrayed just through their conversation and Xiao Wu’s narration, and it also leaves me plenty of space to imagine the close bond bewteen Xiao Wu and Xiao Yong in the old times, as well as Xiao Wu’s deep attachment to his idea of brotherhood. I can’t help put this scene into a larger, historical, political context. Mainland China at that time is undergoing a very rapid change in both economy and pop culture. Even a small isolated town has started to accept new western business ideas , technology and public media: Xiao Yong’s success in cigarette business, pop songs played all over the streets on television and radio, Karaoke and dance clubs, use of pager/mobile devices. All these influences are changing people ‘s communist mind set while there’s still a deep ongoing reinforcement of communist ideologies, which is represented through the public propaganda radio announcements, Street advertisements, and portraits of Chairman Mao, that has been shown throughout the film.

Here are some of the notes from reading the book that I think is helpful for me as a filmmaker:

1.The filmmaker may control setting in many ways. One ways is to select and already existing locale in which to stage the action, alternatively may construct the setting. The overall design helps/shapes audiences’ understanding of the story action.

2.Much of the impact of an image comes from its manipulation of lighting. It’s more than just the illumination, but it creates the overall composition and it guides audiences’ attention. It articulates texture of objects.

3.In many respects, a film shot resembles a painting. It presents a flat array of colors and shapes. But it differs from painting by having movement.

I have always paid great attention to all aspects of mise-en-scene in films I watch. mostly because I want to work in the field of art direction. In the film “Xiao Wu”, everything is really well composed but also look really natural and real. For example, I especially like the scene of hundreds of people riding bicycles on the street, which is really typical in China; it brought me back to China where I grew up.

My favorite films from Mainland China include Red Lanterns, Not one less, Hero.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Secret Sunshine

I always thought putting a film work into the category of “Melodrama” is insulting. The word originally refers to the very dramatic orchestral music that accompany the actions in the theater. Film, I think, should not resemble theater, otherwise it loses the whole meaning. Theater is often about exaggeration and staged presentation, while film to my point of view is about “hiding” the acts and bring audiences into an believable observation position. Therefore if the film is considered too “melodramatic”, it has failed to realize the story by taking audiences out of it.

The film “Secret Sunshine”, to me, is very realistic in most aspects, except the part about shin-ae having an epiphany about “god” and became an enthusiast. This plot seemed quite abrupt to me, as if the the movie suddenly changes into a promotion for Korean Church. Maybe it was sponsored by the church? I was almost going to lose interest when the film goes on about how she become very actively enrolled in all kinds of church activities, but soon, surprisingly, I was instantly re-captivated by the plot: Shin-ae visited the jail and realized the “injustice of god”. This to me, was the most memorable and unexpected moment in the film. It not only successfully turns the story and actions around leading to a new direction, but also elevates the theme to a new level. The psychology behind Shin-ae’s reaction to the murderer and the chain of her later crazy actions is confounding to me in many ways: On the one hand, after the visit to the jail, she generated hatred towards god because of his “injustice” instead of suspecting god’s existence. She sinks into depression and doubt. On the other hand, she turns to seducing the doctor whose wife introduced her to the church healing group as a revenge. She also created mess at a church reception to suggest that all is a “lie”. She, in a way, developed two very different attitudes; she’s resigned to her own devastated situation and has given up changing her fate, but still does not accept the injustice of life and wants to challenge other people’s faith in God.

I am very sympathetic of the relationship between Shin-ae and Jong Chan. Chan is very bossy but he is not aware of it. He shows his affection for her by cutting in her life. For example, he faked the piano certificate for her without her consent; he follows her around and gives lots of instructions. He unconsciously manipulates her and didn’t think much about the consequences. When he defended Shin-ae in front of her mother-in-law, he did not realize that it will cause her mother-in-law and other relatives to suspect that Shin-ae has an affair with him. Shin-ae, from my point of view, never really liked him and just consider him as a maybe a brotherly figure. Even at her most desperate moment while her son got abducted, she gave up asking him for help; she doesn’t want to owe him.

Below are some of the notes I have taken while reading the book:

-Narrative is a fundamental way that humans make sense of the world.

-The film shapes particular expectations by summoning up curiosity , suspense and surprise.

-A narrative is a chain of events in cause-effect relationship occurring in time and space.

We draw an distinction between story and plot(or story and discourse).

-The plot explicitly presents certain story events, so these events are common to both domains. The story goes beyond the plot in suggesting some diegetic events that we never witness. The plot goes beyond the story world by presenting nondiegetic images and sounds that may affect our understanding of the action.

-In general, spectators tend to imagine what connect events by means of cause and effect.

-Casual motivation often involves the planting of information in advance of a scene.

I think both the films we watched in class are good representations of the differences between story and plot. For example, in “Secret Sunshine”, we observe events in the eye of Shin-ae how the plot advances, as oppose to the non-diegetic stories involving other characters such as Shin-ae’s son, or Jong Chan. We still understand what happens without knowing everyone’s actions and situations. Both films also did a good job of planting information in advance.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Rolling home with a bull

I was suspicious of whether I'd enjoy this movie when I first heard of it. I haven't familiarized myself with Korean films, though I have been watching Korean television dramas for the past 20 years and enjoyed them as one of my major ways of entertainment. I watched "in between days"( an independent film by So-young kim the day before Friday and I was quite touched how the girl treated her challenging circumstances as a new immigrant with much resilience and courage, but the pacing was a little bit too slow; it drains me in a deep hypnotizing emotion and I still can't pull myself out of the depression long after watching this film.
This film, "rolling home with a bull", is quite different; it lies in between commercial films and independent/experimental films. It has a clear narrative and structure. As the director commented, it embodies the road movie form(so as to show off some korean country side views) as well as a self-explorative adventure into the buddhism values.
I know a bit about buddhism but I am find some moments in the movies quite mysterious: the reconnection between hyun-soo and Paul, the dream sequences Paul had while he was on the road, the burnt-down temple, the wind chime cow bell, losing and finding the bull. Also the way they are tied together to a narrative is quite unexpected especially towards the ending.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The song of sparrows

I have never watched an Iranian film before. The only vague information I have previous got about Iran is that it's the largest country in the middle east,to the right of Iraq, both of which are well-known for their abundant oil resources and government dictatorship.
This film brings me into a whole different world: Karim and his family's living space in the vast mountains, his working place in an ostrich farm, their religion and language, the way women dressed there in long robes covering the whole body. At first, I'm observing, at a comfortable distance, into an Iranian way of life, as the film progresses, I'm slowly taken into the characters. Regardless of my completely different cultural background, I feel as if I could be one of Karim's family member. In no time I became deeply attached to him and was concerned with his destiny every minute. At one point I was hoping this story would last longer and wished I could go to Iran and see everything for real.
I researched the religion of Islam almost immediately after watching the film.
The basic values and needs that define the foundation for good individual and social life include: life, religion, intellect,family and wealth. To protect these basic values, there are five norms:Self-sacrifice, Frugality, Contentment, Individual Sacrifice for the the good of the nation and society, Forgiveness.
The original meanings of the Islamic religion is positive and inspiring for running the society. Although certain Islamic militant organizations such as al-Qaeda have committed acts of terrorism since 70s with tactics including suicide attacks, hijackings, kidnapping and so on.
The ideology that plays a role in this is the principle of Jihad(meaning struggle, or defensive or retaliatory warfare against actors that have allegedly harmed Muslims.) Here the "warfare against Islam" refers to the historical struggle between Christianity and Islam. The terrorist groups created a claim that they are under "attack" and that western society accepts immorality, usury and contracts itself in terms of "liberation of women".

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The First Emperor

The opera" The first emperor"'s plot evolves around one thing- "the national anthem" of Qin, the first united dynasty of China. In this post, I would like to focus solely on "Qinqiang", an ancient Chinese musical style, which is used in the opera along with western style liberatti.

Qinqiang, is the representative folk Chinese opera of the northwest Province of Shaanxi, China. The area was called "Qin" thousands of years ago. The word "Qinqiang" itself means "the tune of Qin". The genre uses an percussion object called" Bangzi", which resembles a woodblock as an accompanying instruments. Qinqiang stories tell about mostly, wars, resistance against invaders and suppression. They are often really straightforward, humorous, and sincere.

It has a living value, because it's not thoroughly analyzable in its forms, which admit of the utmost variation both structurally and tonally, in spite of all the rules that are laid down. Most importantly, the individuality is respected. It seems to me that, though the Tan Dun as the composer, know the rules governing the combinations of neumes, the organic basis of each theme, the relations of movements between themes, the order, number and relative importance of themes and meters and the larger and smaller divisions of the music, in actually composition, he is guided much more by a subconscious knowing ledge of all these principles.
The place of rules in their effect upon Tan's melodic composition, may be compared with that of the rules of harmony and counterpoint in western music. In each case it is necessary to relegate the rules to the subconscious in actual composition.

Some critics stated that "there's not a single memorable song"; the songs seemed random, almost unharmonized to them. I disagree. I think Tan really understands the freedom of Qinqiang music(or ancient Chinese music in general). The presence of harmonic unrest and repose lies in many of his compositions in this opera, with a large number of both primary and secondary neumes maybe substituted one for the other, while the flow of the melody, even where not strictly following the the neume forms, contains a contour of rising, falling and level lines that agree with the original idea of the combination of movement units. It is also evident that his limitless choice of tones and "positions" of movements in applying a tonal superstructure to neumes, and use of all types of scales.

The songs in the opera reflect Chinese ideas in art principles: "Perfect music first shapes itself accordig to a human standard; then it follow the lines of the divine, then it proceeds in harmony with the five virtues; then it passes into spontaneity." (translated from "Zhuangzi", a Chinese Classic literature Manuscript".

From the time of the great philosopher Confucius(551-479 BC, 300 hundred years before Qin Dynasty ), music took a new extension and was considered one of the Six Fundamental Factors in Education(respect, music, sportsmanship, charioteering, literature and mathematics). This place of honor for Music had a great influence in China for many centuries. Confucius, who lived at a period of warring states, felt that it was only through music that one could find peace and unity. This was the"supreme harmony" he had in his mind. There should be harmony at home, harmony between families, and harmony between the emperor and the people.

Music was also indissolubly bound up with the morality of the people. In the Western world, music was also an essential part of Greek education. Solon held that music would give the Athenian youth moral sturdiness and an ordered mind. When a country is troubled, , the music of it is disturbed and tormented. When a country is decadent, its music is sad and anxious. Plato actually gave the same opinion as Confucius that music affected considerably the constitution of the State.

Well, I wonder if the Chinese music nowadays reflect the state and position of China, as described in Confucius' theories.I suppose the present and future of Chinese music lies entirely in the hands of Chinese. In this age when time and space are no longer obstacles to a freer communication of ideas and intermingling of cultures, and when everything is being revalued, the best points of one culture should be appreciated and absorbed by another. Among Chinese musicians today, there are conservatives and liberals. There are those who want to retain ancient Chinese in its purest form, considering Western music a menace, and there are those who consider that Western music is the only thing, because they are dissatisfied with a music that has not developed beyond the stage of pure melody into beauties and complexities of harmony and counterpoint. And of course, there are those, like Tan, who aim at choosing the middle path of maintaining the best and incorporating the new, which I think, is a point of view that will supersede the others.

Chinese music, as known, tend to be composed purely of melody, rhythm and form,without any harmony or counterpoint. The nearest approach to counterpoint is the blending together of two versions of the same melody resembling, in a way "Florid descant" of western music, a form used mainly between the 12th and 16th centuries, which was later gradually displaced by counterpoint as the development of music advanced. For this reason,, Western music with its superior development along harmonic, contrapuntal and orchestral lines, with definite sciences in these directions, is exerting a marked influence in chinese music scene. Take myself for example, I learned to play piano and jazz drums since I was a child, and it wasn't until I went to college that I picked up "Guqin"(a chinese zither like musical instrument.)It was because nearly all the schools in china teach only western music. Another reason is perhaps that the
existence of any art or conscious system of musical composition among the Chinese has either been denied or wholly unrecognized during modern political and literary movements in China, such as the"culture revolution".

I am hoping that, one day, there may be a national Chinese school of music, in the sense that school means a distinctive syle of expression. It will exclude all those who, over-weighted with a Western musical education, are almost completely unable to express themselves in any but a purely western idiom and style. Those who have little, or no practical acquaintance with Chinese instruments miss some of the most characteristic expressions of style in Chinese music and are hasty and unwise in advocating a wholesale adoption of western musical instruments in spite of several points of superiority in the latter. I believe, as Vaughan Williams once said," Any school of National Music must be fashioned on the basis of the raw material of its own national song."

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

In the Heights

The musical “In the Heights” is characteristically classical in structure, adhering to traditional unities of time, place and action, while maintaining a fast, almost non-stop pace. The story bursts with naturalistic reality and the musical and dance performances offers views a direct and powerful encounter with the play writer's thinking in a Nuyorican’s world view. It’s a stark universe peopled with characters who represent “types”: family, freedom, proud, doubt.

After the theater lights dim, without an immediate overture, the onstage actions started, showing Graffiti Pete spray-painting on to the awning of a bodega owned by Usnavi, as a foreshadowing. Then the first song “In the Heights” kick-starts the plot and communicates the spirit of the score and the staging, and together with dances, shows Usnavi opening his bodega and talking to the major characters and neighbors. This song sets the tone for the whole show and starts the “storytelling” process by attracting audience’s attention right away.

As the play progresses, the characters reveals their problems, motivations and inner desires one by one: Nina struggles at college, so are Nina’s parents at their business. Usnavi likes Vanessa. Vanessa wants to escape to a studio in the West village. Each confession was a song. The story unfolds primarily in three lines simultaneously: the first line revolves around the relationships between Nina, her parents and Benny. Despite the biased conflicts, they always have hope for the ones they loved. The second line reveals the subtle love tension between Usnavi and Vanessa; neither one would admit his/her affection towards the other. The third line focuses on Abuela Claudia, and her emotion towards winning the $96,000 lottery.

The climax is reached in the end of Act I when the “blackout” happens and fireworks explodes in the sky. In the darkness, everyone starts to reflect and truly express him/herself. Noticeably, at the moment of great dramatic intensity came the dance performances, accompanied by breathtaking lighting effects. The falling actions began when Abuela dies. In grief of her, everyone finds his/her own destination. Usnavi pursues his dream of going back to Dominican Republican to start a new business, Nina decides to go back to Stanford with her whole family’s support and Vanessa finds her way to her dream apartment with the help from Usnavi and the salon owner Daniela. Though, worries still exist: the new couples, Nina and Benny, Usnavi and Vanessa, now face having long distance relationships. In the end, a powerful closing song “Finale” wraps up the show’s plot, unveiling Usnavi’s final realization, upon his seeing the graffiti mural of Abuela, that deep in his heart, his roots are in this barrio.

Latino immigrants’ struggles for identity in New York City are expressed throughout the play, addressing cultural and social conflicts and assimilations. Usnavi and Nina as second-generation immigrants, grow up in an all-Latino barrio in New York City in a mixed American-Hispanic culture. Yet they, along with Nina’s parents and Abuela, the first-generation immigrants, are still in the process of adapting to a new way of life. They are struggling to find their identities and adjust themselves to new forms of cultures and social interactions; Nina tries hard to fit in Stanford, while Usnavi wants to go back to Dominican Republic to escape from the difficulties.

Culture is the sum of the ways of believing, thinking, feeling and behaving, which make up a person’s life. “To be a man” is an important consideration for many male individual, but what constitutes “being a man” in one society is different from what constitutes it in another. For instance, in the culture of Puerto Rico, being a man means having a keen sense of one’s inner worth as an individual, exercising authority firmly over wife and children in a home; respect proper respect from people younger than oneself; manifesting fidelity to deep family loyalties and a preference of family over others. That is exactly how Kevin, Nina’s dictatorial father is portrayed. He sold the business without telling other family members, as a firm exercise of authority, for which it would be praised in former environment, now is just a ridicule.

If culture consists of patterns of interaction, society is the actual interaction; it is the people acting according to commonly accepted values, norms, objectives and meanings. The United States is(ideally), an open class society with equal opportunity for everyone to advance to that position to which his ability and effort entitle him. The central value of the culture is the value of the individual and this culture set out to release the individual from all bonds of class, family, or race which would hinder him from developing him/herself fully and reaching the level which he deserved, that is, the phenomenon of advancement through education, business success and so on. In a Puerto Rican society, however, this is not the case: people are born into their class and has no expectation of changing. This contrast is brought up when Kevin sings that his father used to slap him for not wanting to be a farmer. Therefore, it explains when Kevin enters an open class society with upward mobility, he becomes aware that he and his family have the chance of being accepted by others as an equal in earning a better living and supporting Nina’s education.

After all, this musical “In the Heights” has a traditional and effective dramatic structure. Its address of social and cultural issues was an inseparable part of its plot and character portrayal. What is more important, it gives all audiences an opportunity of self-reflect.