Sunday, May 30, 2010

SIFF, Week One: City of Life and Death (China, 2009, 129 mins)

In the book The Rape of Nanking, the late Iris Chang lamented the fact that Hollywood had not made a single film about this event, one of the worst atrocities of World War II, even though it was prime material for a movie ala Schindler's List.  Hollywood has still not made a film on this subject, but Chinese director Chuan Lu has, even basing one of the characters in the film on the late writer.

City of Life and Death (titled Nanjing! Nanjing! in China) begins with the words, "Dedicated to the 300,000 victims of the Rape of Nanking."  It ends with laughter.  Postcards, acting as intertitles, begin the movie with news about the Japanese advance into China toward Nanking (or Nanjing, depending on whether or not you subscribe to the Cantonese or Mandarin versions of the name, respectively).  We then view the assault on the city through the eyes of Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), a Japanese soldier.  While looking for Chinese soldiers in the ruined city, the Japanese run into John Rabe (John Paisley) and his secretary, Mr. Tang (Wei Fan), who try to tell them that they are in the Safety Zone, where only refugees dwell.  Kadokawa is the only one who speaks any English, but his English is terrible, and the Japanese do not understand what Rabe is trying to tell them.

They enter a church with thousands of Chinese people inside.  Slowly, the Chinese people raise their hands.  Many of them are holding guns.  Kadokawa is sent for reinforcements.  While the Japanese soldiers are taking the Chinese men away, believing them to be soldiers (which they may or may not be), Kadokawa fires his gun.  The bullet pierces a confessional booth.  The door opens, and several bodies fall out.  All dead.  He tries to apologize, saying it was an accident.  The atrocities which occur later in the film, however, are no accident.

Some of these atrocities come right out of the book, The Rape of Nanking.  For example, all remaining Chinese soldiers are rounded up by the Japanese, including some holdouts that give them a good fight.  By the end of the first week, in the first truly disturbing images in the film, they are all executed.  Many are mowed down by machine guns.  Others are ordered to march to the sea, then fired upon at the water's edge.  Others are bayoneted.  Still others are buried alive, the Japanese soldiers stomping the dirt with their feet in order to pack it in tightly around the victims.  Miraculously, two survive (including a boy named Xiaodouzi, played by Bin Liu) and escape to the Safety Zone.

Around this point in the film, the side speakers starting kicking out at regular intervals.  While watching I Am Love the night before, one reel had failed to thread through the machine properly (right at the beginning of the long drive to Antonio's garden), and the lights had come on briefly until the problem was fixed.  Unfortunately, the problem was never fully fixed for this film, and while the sound never completely cut out, it did lessen the experience.  And this was after the lights had gone up right after the previews for several minutes, which meant that another possible problem had been detected before the movie even started.

Back to the film.  After the POWs are executed, Japanese soldiers enter the Safety Zone and start raping women.  When confronted by Rabe during the first rape scene, the officer in charge playfully slaps the two men with him, asking Rabe if either man was to blame.  He then pulls up his pants (which are below screen) and leaves.  Later on, two Japanese soldiers steal the Chinese flag from inside the compound and ride away on bicycles.  When the women follow them outside the gates, there are many more soldiers waiting for them.

"We tricked you!" they say, laughing.  The women cry out, knowing what their fate will be.

From that point on, the women are ordered to remove their nail polish, cut their hair short, and wear men's clothing.  Some refuse.  Their hair is cut, anyway.  One who does not lives to regret it.

More rapes occur.  Kadokawa falls in love with a comfort woman and wants to marry her (I believe the name she gives herself is Yumiko).  Like the girl with the red coat in Schindler's List, she becomes symbolic of the horrors that comfort women faced.  Notice her expression when Kadokawa brings her sweets as gifts.  How little nourishment must she get, how few pleasures in life much she receive, to be reduced to a happy child, merely by sucking on a piece of candy.

And then, because Mr. Tang is tricked into signing a document stating that there are armed Chinese soldiers hiding inside the Safety Zone (all the soldiers are wounded and being treated inside the hospital), Japanese soldiers are ordered to enter the Safety Zone, kill the soldiers in the hospital, and round up any men they believe to be Chinese soldiers.

Though we watch the atrocities from different viewpoints, it's interesting that we begin and end with Kadokawa's.  We also share the viewpoints of Mr. Tang, Mrs. Tang (Lan Quin), her sister Xiaomei Tang (Di Yao), Miss Jiang (Yuanyuan Gao), and Minnie Vautrin (Beverly Peckous).  In this way, the director forces us to focus on the atrocities from different viewpoints, rather than on the individual saviors and aggressors.

Even though this film doesn't show the worst of the atrocities, they're still enough to cause gasps from the audience.  One of the most effective methods that the director employs, besides deciding to shoot the film entirely in black and white, is his use of fade-outs, as if even the camera can't bear to watch the horrors that are being committed.  In addition, he uses handheld cameras and has the cameras follow people, rather than showing them from the front, giving the film the feel of a documentary.

I also must applaud the cinematographer and everyone involved in designing the set.  The city looks like it came right out of WWII photos, with rubble, bodies, and more ominous signs of the crimes to come.  People tied to poles, dead.  Heads hanging from chains.  The framing, whether in long or medium shots, gives a sense of depth, and places the audience squarely in the ruined city.  This is a big screen movie if there ever was one.

I mentioned that the director wants us to focus on the atrocities, not the individuals, yet that is not entirely true.  We see heroic acts from many of the characters in the film.  A Chinese soldier covering the eyes of Xiaodouzi before the remaining POWs are about to be shot.  Mr. Tang letting a Chinese officer go with John Rabe as his personal secretary instead of himself, knowing that he will probably be killed for staying behind.  Miss Jiang pretending that two different men are her husband in order to save them from their deaths, even though she knows she will be killed if the deception is discovered.  And finally, the women who raise their hands in the church after hearing that the Japanese will provide food, water, and electricity to the rest of the Safety exchange for 100 comfort women.  While the film is dedicated to the victims, it should also be dedicated to these women, these women who sacrificed their bodies, their most prized possessions, so that others could live.

I have a few caveats with the film.  The ending was a little hard to follow (very different from the rest of the film), and no explanation was given as to why John Rabe did not go to Germany when he was ordered to go (and said he must go).  Also, I became confused, at times, as to whether I was watching Kadokawa or his more bloodthirsty commander.  But then came the credit sequence.  At the beginning of this sequence, black and white photos of the actors who played each role, along with their characters' birth and death dates, were shown on the screen.  When it got to the last person, what it said on the screen made me take a deep breath.  I thought I had survived the movie unscathed by its intensity.  I was wrong.  The deep breaths continued for another half-an-hour.

And that's why, on my ballot, I gave this movie a five out of five.

Click here for Grace Wang's excellent review of the film.

The Neptune Theatre, where I saw City of Life and Death (photo taken after the movie was over)

Saturday, May 29, 2010

One Year Ago...

One year ago today, I was living with my parents, in Connecticut, after having come back from Japan the year before.  I was basically unemployed, since my only income came from substitute teaching, and I didn't substitute teach that often.  I had use of the blue van my parents had bought to bring my sister to college her freshman year, fifteen years before, but had no car of my own.  No health insurance.  No idea of how to move forward.

That day, one year ago, I wrote my first blog post.

Amazing how many things can change in a year.

Now, I am living in a shared house in Seattle, employed at two jobs (though one is temporary, and I need more hours at the other), and am using public transportation.  I still don't have health insurance, but provided that I can amass more hours in the coming terms at my new job, I will be eligible for benefits after working three full terms there.

As for my blog?  My first follower was my brother.  In the first few weeks of my blog, I added three more followers.  Today, I have fifteen followers (two are hidden), plus countless others who follow me on Wordpress or who have bookmarked my blog.

I set up Google Analytics to track my followers on October 1, 2009, shortly after Ebert's "The Blogs of My Blogs" introduced me to a world of blogging outside my immediate friends, and introduced me to my first follower outside my friends and family: S M Rana (who appears as "Buzz" in my followers section, for some inexplicable reason).  My first follower outside of Ebert's blog came after I wrote a post on the movies Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.  Her name is Melee, and she recently celebrated a birthday :-)  As of right now, about half of my followers are people I have never met.

So, from October 1 through yesterday, I have had 2,026 visits and 4,162 pageviews, with an average of 2.05 pages viewed per visit.  People spend an average of 2 minutes 35 seconds on my website.  Also, over half of the visits have been from new followers.  The most visits I've had in one day?  28, which occurred on Friday, May 1, 2010.  The least has been 0, but minus an error in which I removed the tracker from my blog, that has only happened once since October 1.  This month, the lowest number of visits has been 7.

The most popular page is my homepage (including whatever my latest posts are), but for individual page visits, this page contains my most popular post.  Over 68% of my Internet traffic comes from referral sites, with only 12.34% coming to my site directly (which is a fancy way of saying that most of the people who read me are following me on their blogs or via their Google accounts).

The most interesting piece of information, however, is that I received hits from 69 different countries/territories.  The most (by far) come from America, at 1,220, with India coming in second, at 313.  Then Canada at 87, Japan at 42, the UK at 38, Uruguay(!) at 32, Australia at 30, the Philippines at 28, France at 25, and Egypt at 18 (which may, in fact, be the work of one man).  I could go on, but those are the top ten, and I think you get the idea.

When I first started writing this blog, my main purpose was to have a place to sell copies of my poetry book, even though it took me half a year to figure out how to add the "Buy Now" button in my sidebar.  And I can't even claim credit for that idea.  I mean, I did have the idea for selling through a website, but it was my brother who showed me how to set up my blog.  So, thanks dude! :-)

As I wrote, however, I found that I could use this space to write about things not covered in stories, poems, or novels, things like philosophical musings, opinion pieces, personal essays, criticism, movies, books, music.  This format allowed me to write short pieces that I had been mulling about for a while, and may give me an outlet to try out some short stories in the future.

But no writer can write in a vacuum.  I mean, we can, and I would, but it's no fun if I can't share these musings with other people.  So, thank you all for reading, and for sharing your writing talent with me.  Not only have I read some truly wonderful posts from people--which has, in turn, helped my writing become better--I have also met some wonderful people through my blog, who I haven't had the pleasure of actually meeting yet.  It's funny how, when there's no one around to talk to, I come here, to my blog, to Twitter, to hang out with some of the most interesting, creative, and fun-loving people that I know.  And trust me, just by being on the web, you encourage my literary dreams to no end.

Thank you.

My First SIFF movie: I Am Love (Io Sono l'Amore) (Italy, 2009, 120 mins)

As often happens in Seattle, it was raining as I got on the bus to go see my first SIFF film, the Tilda Swinton vehicle I Am Love (she also served as an executive producer on the film).

I planned to get there at 6:30, since the movie started at 7.  Then I saw the crowd from my bus, and thought I should have gotten there earlier.  The entranceway was packed with people, and two lines (two) led out of the doors, one following the northern part of the building (the pass holders), the other hugging the south wall and ending near where the building ended (ticket holders).  I got in the ticket holders line, even though I had yet to pick up my tickets.  Luckily, I thought to ask the gentleman in front of me before it got too late (you're only guaranteed a seat until ten minutes before the film starts, and I asked a little before 6:45), and he knew exactly where I needed to go--inside the doors (which is also where tickets could be purchased, though at the box office, not the table set up for will call tickets).  I also picked up my ticket for Winter's Bone there.

The rain cleared right after I got my will call tickets.  As I returned to the line, I saw it begin to move, since it was 6:45, which is when tickets holders are allowed inside (pass holders get to go in a half hour before the show begins).  I joined the tail-end.

Because I went alone, I found a really good seat on the floor, two seats in, on the left side of the theatre.  The rest of the theatre was filled with people, including the balcony, which was just about full.  I thought about taking photos, but 1.) I didn't know if the flash would attract unwanted attention, 2.) I didn't know if I was allowed (before the movie, why wouldn't it be?), and 3.) I would be in here again for the Edward Norton tribute, so I could take pictures then.

Anyway, someone involved with the festival introduced the movie, and then....the previews began.  Well okay, only one, and it was Winter's Bone, so I couldn't complain (unless you also count the promotional SIFF intro, too).

The movie opens with a snow-capped Milano (I'm going with the Italian spelling on this one.  No Italian word should end with a consonant).  The audience finds out, bit by bit, that today is Edoardo, Sr.'s birthday and that Edoardo, Jr. lost a race to a cook.  In addition, Edo (Antonio Biscalia), as Edoardo, Jr. is called, has brought a girl, named Eva (Diane Fleri), to his grandfather's birthday party.

The first person we see, however, is the maid, Ida (Maria Paiato), followed by Emma (Tilda Swinton), a Russian woman who married Edoardo, Sr.'s son Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), thereby marrying into the Recchi family, and the family business (textiles).

During the dinner party, we discover that Edoardo, Sr. (Gabriele Ferzetti) is dying, and that he's a bit of a bastard.  He expects a painting from his granddaughter (and Edo's sister), Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher, who looks like she could be Tilda Swinton's daughter).  When she gives him a photograph, he says, "What is this?" and then tries to cover for his disappointment, fooling no one.  He also kids Edoardo about losing the race and thereby breaking the family tradition (Edo actually tied with the baker, but believed the other man deserved it more), but there is more than a hint of disappointment in his joke.

The main purpose of this very long opening scene is to accomplish three things: to show the dynamic of the Recchi family, to note the passing of ownership of the family business from grandfather to his son and his son's son, and to signal the first appearance of Antonio, the man who beat Edo in the race.  He comes by with a cake in lieu of an apology (he thought Edo should have won).  While giving the cake to Edo, he briefly meets Emma.  There is a flash in her eyes, and the rest of us can guess what is going to happen next.

But first, a few months pass.

Edo and Tancredi are now running the family business.  Edoardo, Sr. has died.  Elisabetta has gone off to college in London.  Antonio and Edo have become very good friends, and Edo promises to help his friend realize his dreams of launching his own restaurant, even though he would have to buy the property from his (Antonio's) father, who is not as idealistic as his son is.  The same can be said of Tancredi and Edo.

Edo has decided to ask Eva to marry him.  In celebration, the Recchi women (Emma, and Edoardo, Sr.'s widow, Allegra) take Eva out to eat, at the restaurant that Antonio works in.  It's never a good sign when the audience laughs at a scene meant to be taken seriously, but when light reflects off of Swinton's face as she looks at the prawns that Antonio has made for her, and then proceeds to chew them very slowly (never mind the fact that they already look incredibly phallic), there's no way we in the audience could take it seriously.  So again, we know what's going to happen, but are made to wait.

Before this scene occurs, however, Emma has discovered, through a forgotten CD that Edo left in clothing that she is picking up from the dry cleaners, that Betta (as Elisabetta is referred to) has "been with a woman."  When Emma picks her up later at the train station, she finds that Betta has cut her hair short, like a boy.  Under the pretense of going to see some art Betta has exhibited in Nice, she secretly thinks of going to see Antonio at his garden, which is along the way, in Sanremo.  And wouldn't you know it, she runs into him on the street there!

I see that I have written many more notes here, but if I continue with the synopsis, we'll never get to the review.  So let's hurry up the movie a bit, shall we?  Emma and Antonio go to his garden and kiss.  Later, they consummate the relationship in one of the most unromantic sex scenes ever (Antonio takes off Emma's clothing and his own as if it were a business affair, which may be closer to reality, but then later scenes with images of berries and flowers and fruit interspersed with fucking go the opposite direction).  Meanwhile, Edo doesn't like how his grandfather's company is being run.  Eventually, through a soup that Antonio makes for a business meeting at the Recchi's house--a soup that Edo loved as a child, a soup that his mother made when she felt nostalgic for Russia, a soup that was served at the celebration at the beginning of this film, a soup that she has now taught Antonio how to make--along with other clues that he has picked up along the way (a book found here, some hair found at Antonio's that belongs to Emma), Edo realizes the truth.  This leads to a confrontation, with tragic results for the family.

Though the movie is called I Am Love, I found it strange that I felt the most emotionally powerful scenes didn't have to do with love at all, but with the melodrama that unfolds near the climax of this film.  The only real passion is in the tragedy, not in the love-making.  Thank God it comes at all, or this film would be as emotionally empty as most modern art.  In fact, a lot of that empty feeling comes from the musical score by John Adams.  Except for the end of the film, where we finally get some emotion in the music as well as in the characters, the musical soundtrack transforms turn of the (21st) century Italy into the machinery of the Industrial Revolution.  The "following" music--when Emma is following Antonio through the streets of Sanremo--is comical, and indeed invoked some laughs from the audience.

Another problem with the film can be laid at the feet of the director, Luca Guadagnino, and whoever edited this film.  Some scenes are held too long for no apparent reason.  For example, when Antonio drives Emma to his garden, we get to see most of their journey there--but each shot is only five seconds or so long.  Okay, the road becomes windier and more rural as we climb.  I get it.  You could have reduced multiple quick takes to two shots.

Guadagnino also tries to be too artsy at times, which is when this movie devolves into pretentious, artistic crap.  Having Betta talk directly to the camera about her love affair as her mother reads her note in the CD case, using the aforementioned cuts between the act of sex and images of fruit, flowers, and insects (which, I may add, have been overused as metaphors for intercourse), and showing the beauty of Italy in long shots that loosen the threads of the flow of the narrative may be pretty, but they don't move the story along, nor are they the best ways of conveying what those scenes are about.  The only truly artistic use of the camera that works is when Edo is tasting the soup and then, through a series of quick cuts to the clues he has found earlier in the movie, pieces together the situation between his mother and Antonio.

The silver lining is the acting, which is uniformly excellent, especially from Biscalia as Edo and Swinton as Emma.  Tilda Swinton.  Is there anything this woman can't do?  In this movie, she speaks Italian and Russian, and acts with her face and eyes in ways that would make other actors and actresses envious.  She is especially good at conveying indecision or conflicting emotions through her expressions, as well as the realization of certain truths that she thought buried forever.  This role allows her to play a variety of emotions, from reserved to giddy, from happy to sad, from trapped to free.  One of my favorite scenes is when she goes to her room after Antonio has kissed her.  She acts like a giddy schoolgirl, her hand over her mouth, her eyes laughing, as if she's surprised that such joy exists in the world, surprised that such joy can be felt by a human being.

So what is this movie about?  Due to the pretentiousness of too many scenes, and an editor who should have been more merciless in cutting this film, I am not sure, but if I were to guess, I would say that it's about love (and not just because it's in the title).  In the movie, we see the relationship between parents and children, husbands and wives, between family members, lovers, men and women, women and women, and servants and masters, the last one seen most clearly in the relationship between Ida and Emma.  Some of these relationships contain love.  Some do not.  Seen in this light, Emma's decision at the end of the film makes sense.  What doesn't make sense is why this story wasn't made into a better film.

Note: Each SIFF film in competition for the Golden Space Needle Award is ranked by each audience member on a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being atrocious, 5 being excellent.  There were no half numbers, so while I would give this movie 2.5 out of 5 (Swinton's performance earns the film a .5), I gave it a 2 out of 5 on the ballot.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

SIFF Opening Night Gala, Part Two (Text)

Now that you've seen some pictures from the May 20th Opening Night Gala, it's time for the rest of the story (as Paul Harvey would say).

It all started with a transfer.  I had just grabbed an issue of The Stranger, Seattle's free alternative newspaper, which had a full SIFF guide inside, along with synopses of each movie and (if seen) a ranking of a star if it was good, or MUST SEE if it was...a must see.  Unfortunately, I grabbed a paper as the bus pulled up, which meant that I didn't have time to find my transfer (and then was worried because, though I had gotten the transfer with a free ride pass, good for any time, my transfer did not say that I could use it for peak travel times, which would translate to an extra 25 cents).  So I sat down and found my transfer soon after the bus pulled away from the curb, showed it to him, and said, "Do I need--"

He nodded at the transfer, and I put it back in my pocket.

I found the Artists Entrance at Benaroya Hall relatively easily, and checked in at the desk on the second floor.  I then took my camera out of my bag and put it in my jacket pocket, not sure whether or not I'd be outside.  After that, I joined the rest of the volunteers in the green room.  I was supposed to find somebody once I arrived, but I forgot her name, and figured somebody would soon direct me where to go.  I also ended up talking to a guy who had done SIFF many times before.  His name was Alan.  As fate would have it, he had lived in Japan when he was eight years old, but hadn't been back.  Guess everyone has been to Japan.

Then a woman came into the room, calling out people who had the 4 to 6 pm shift, venue volunteers, and several other things I missed.  But, since everyone got up at that point and followed her, so did I (even though my shift was supposed to be 4:30 to 6:30).

Our first task was putting inserts in the SIFF program guides.  We either grabbed a box of programs or shared one with someone, putting the insert-full programs off to the side where, at uneven intervals, someone would pick them up off the floor.  We continued chatting as we did this, finishing in about fifteen minutes.  As we headed toward the lobby, one of the volunteers heard a rumor that Paul Dano (who was starring in the movie playing that night) would be there and almost started freaking out.

"Why didn't I bring my camera?" she lamented.

Then, we had downtime, allowing me to take a couple photos of the lobby (the other one is in this post, top of the page:

During the lull, Alan said how disorganized SIFF was when it came to assigning tasks to its volunteers (I imagine he's talking about the special events, only, as I volunteered on Sunday night and it was very organized).  He said they outdo themselves every year.

Anyway, our next task was to man the doors for reserved seating.  All reserved seat tickets would have an L or R (for left or right side) on it, as well as the seating area (orchestra, first tier, second tier) and a letter (for the row) and number( for the seat).  Also, they would be green tickets.  Since I took the first tier, here's a picture of what the first tier's reserved sections looked like:

We were given reserved seating signs to stick to the doors, but alas, no tape.  So while one volunteer went to look for tape, some of us got creative in where to stuff these signs (no, not THAT creative).  I got tape, but Alan missed the tape guy.  I decided to station myself at the door to sections J and M, since there was a somewhat possessive woman sitting in the N and P sections.  Once it was time to man the doors, Alan grabbed sections Q and R.

(That's my door in this shot.)

But, we had some downtime before the masses would arrive. While we waited, Alan and I sat down and watched part of the movie that would be playing that night, The Extra Man.  Sometimes the soundtrack was played in sync with the movie; at other times, the movie played silently.  And then, dramatic music was cued (not for the movie, but for the opening of the gala) as one of the main characters (played by Paul Dano) opened a letter.  I've never seen such a dramatic letter-opening scene, which gives you an idea of how music can play with our emotions.  I also saw a scene in which Dano's character steals a little black dress from Katie Holmes's character, and then proceeds to have one of his female friends make him up to be a woman, only to have Kevin Kline's character walk in on this scene.  There's also a nice pigeon scattering scene, which should be in Roger's movie glossary, if it isn't already:

scattered pigeon scene
pigeons are shown walking around on the ground only so that they can scatter in a later shot

As much as I could tell from watching bits and pieces of the middle of this film, sometimes with sound, sometimes without, sometimes with completely inappropriate sound (like the "dramatic" letter-opening scene), it looked quirky and charming, but not great.

Volunteers watching the movie before the gala began.

At 5:40, we were given our five minute warning (doors would open at 5:45), which I used to use the bathroom, though what I really needed (and what wasn't there) was a water fountain.  On the way to the bathroom, I passed a window through which I could see the Red Carpet, which I mentioned in my previous post.  Talking to Alan again, he said there was a rumor that some VIPs would be at the screening (though I later found out about the "Red Carpet Experience" that one could pay for).  Here's another picture of that area:

I mentioned before that I decided to man the door leading to sections J and M (and had to put the reserved sign on the inside of the door, once one of the green jacket people opened all of the doors at around the five-minute warning mark). Now, if you were to zoom in on the reserved map above, you'd notice that J and M are not in the reserved seating area.  When I asked the house manager about whether or not they were reserved (to his credit, he came by before the doors opened to make sure we all knew what was going on), he mentioned something about yellow tickets for Row J.  So I thought that there were other tickets that reserved seats for people, in addition to the green ones.  Therefore, when another usher sent people down to section J with white (regular) tickets, I politely told them to go back up to the front, where they were politely turned around and sent back to me.  So I went to find the house manager.  Apparently, what he forgot to mention was that white and yellow tickets are the same.  So I went back to the couple to apologize, looked at the map again, decided that my section wasn't reserved, took my sign off the door, and moved down to the last reserved section, S and T.  At least, we all thought that it was the last reserved section.  According to the map, it was.  According to two tickets given to me five minutes after the gala was supposed to start, it wasn't, as those tickets were for section U.  And there were people sitting in their seats who were (rightfully) pissed off about having to move.

So again, I went to find the house manager, but I found the woman who ushered the main doors (a green jacket person) first.  She said, at that point, that all seats were open.  I went back down to tell the other two ushers the news ("When were they going to tell us that?" Alan asked), and then told the couple with the reserved seats.  Luckily for them, me, and the people who had moved to really shitty seats almost parallel with the screen, there were two empty seats in either section S or T, which the couple with the tickets moved to (after thanking me for finding out what was going on), which allowed the other people to move back to their much better seats, and left everyone feeling happy (and me feeling relieved).

Oh, and territorial woman turned out to be pretty nice.  Maybe she had just been surprised when we had opened the door and interrupted her viewing of the film ahead of time.

Anyway, the gala started soon after that, with multiple honored guests speaking (blah, blah, blah), including the mayor.  Lots of thunderous applause for the sponsors (yay money?).  I thought I grabbed a program with a list of the speakers in it (those inserts that we had stuffed inside), but I can't find it, so it either fell out, or I misplaced it.  That's been happening a lot recently (misplacing items).

Since no one told us what to do once the gala began, at around 7:30 the female usher who had been working with us went to go find a seat, while Alan headed off to the lobby to see if there was anything else we should be doing. After a pause, I headed out to the lobby, too, asking the green jacket if she had seen where he went.  She hadn't, so I decided to head back to the green room, stopping briefly at a TV set up to broadcast the gala.  One of the film's directors was speaking.  Then the movie began, and I continued on my way.

Amazingly, I remembered how to get back to the green room.  As I suspected, Alan was there, but I noticed the food first.  He had told me, at the beginning of the night, that the volunteers had been fed last year, but he wasn't sure if we were going to be fed again this year.  Well, we were, with warm burritos, chips, and soda (I grabbed the last one).

When I signed out and got my vouchers, the woman said I had been scheduled for 4:30 to 6:30.  I had nursed a nagging feeling all night that I was not volunteering in the correct place (especially since I had signed up for production, and ushers would have signed up under "venue volunteers"), but this confirmed it.  But, wherever I had been needed, I hadn't been missed, they did need me as an usher (for that last door), and I got two vouchers instead of one, PLUS I got to eat for free, AND I gave SIFF more of my time than I would have had I actually volunteered in the correct place (checking when I got home, I found out that I should have been a line manager, which meant that I would have made sure that everyone was in the correct line outside).

It's rare when I make a mistake and it turns out in my favor, so I'm not complaining.

And so began my first film festival.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Cultural Divide

Riding back home Friday night from a BBQ for students and teachers at the school where I teach, looking at the student sleeping soundly beside me, I wondered: Can we ever know what they go through?  Far away from home, with few people who speak their language, with nothing written in their native tongue.  What must they deal with every day?  The loneliness, the sadness, the language barriers, the cultural barriers, and things and situations that we can never understand, that we will never experience, because we are not Korean or Japanese or Chinese or Indonesian or Indian or Pakistani or Russian or Saudi Arabian.

One of my housemates is Korean, and he told me one day that we (American teachers) can have no idea what these students go through, subjected to U.S. Immigration Laws, subjected to the rising and falling value of their home currency versus the dollar, subjected to a new world that they may only know from movies, or television, or books; a world that is unlike those movies, or TV shows, or books.

And can they ever know what we go through?  I found out yesterday that I am only teaching one class this term. One 1-hour class for four weeks.  And, soon after I found out about this, I got an email, saying that enumeration for the census will be finishing up soon.  For some of us, it will end this week.  For others, it may end next week.  Normally I wouldn't complain.  I will have more free time to see movies and volunteer at SIFF.  But, with only one class to teach, I don't need more free time.  I need more money.

So perhaps, on this, we can understand each other.  Maybe not completely, but enough to empathize.

And to care.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

SIFF Opening Night Gala, Part One (Photos)

SIFF officially started tonight with an opening night gala at Benaroya Hall in Downtown Seattle.  Here's a photo of us volunteers during a lull in the action.

The movie playing tonight was The Extra Man, starring Kevin Kline, Paul Dano, Katie Holmes, and John C. Reilly.  The directors are Shari Springer and Robert Pulcini (who did American Splendor).

This photo is of the "red carpet."  So people who wanted to have flashbulbs going off in their eyes could pay $200 for this experience, rather than $50 for the film and gala only, or $100 for the film and gala, preferred entry into the screening, and an open bar.  Or, like me, they could volunteer, and then see the film after their shift ended.  I, however, opted for free food.

Speaking of which, I was supposed to volunteer from 4:30 to 6:30, but ended up volunteering from 4 to 8, which means that I got an extra voucher.  It also means that I don't have to pay to see I Am Love (with Tilda Swinton, so even if the movie sucks, there's still her performance to look forward to).  In fact, I may not have to pay for any of the movies I'm planning on seeing, based on my volunteer schedule.  Go me!

Here's what the inside of Benaroya Hall looked like about a half hour before showtime.  Notice all of the empty seats.  Trust me, they filled up pretty fast the closer we got to showtime.

But not as fast as the first tier (which is where I was stationed).  With about ten minutes to go, most of the seats were full, and though there were reserved tickets for most of those seats, once the green jackets (as I call the "official ushers," due to their uniform) gave us the okay to let anyone in, at about the time that the gala was about to start (but didn't), there were soon no seats to be had.

I should also mention that everyone was dressed up.  Women wore high heels and beautiful dresses, while guys wore suits, sometimes with ties, sometimes without (this is Seattle, after all).

More to come later!  Don't worry, I took notes, and I'll be commenting on every movie I see here. :-)

Monday, May 17, 2010

Baby Steps

On Twitter today, I wrote, "Feels a bit like a toddler learning how to walk on this thing," referring to me.  That got me to thinking: how do toddlers learn how to walk?  First, they try to stand.  Often, they fall down.  Sometimes, after a failed attempt, they'll cry and have to be comforted.  But then they try again.  They refuse to be defeated.  Maybe the next time, they'll take a step before they fall down.  And then, two steps.  They know they can do it, because they see the adults around them doing it.  And yet, how much patience they must have.  How many times must they fall down.  And then I thought: what if they didn't get up and try to walk again after falling down?

Then they would never learn.  They would never walk.

Learning how to walk is a microcosm for the successes and failures that come after.  You'll often fail in life.  You'll often fall down.  But as long as you keep putting one foot in front of the other, as long as someone comforts you as you lie on the floor, slowly, eventually, you will succeed.  The only way to fail, is to stop trying.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


Why, Greg, why?

I wouldn't be surprised if you were to look out of your windows right now and see the four horsemen of the apocalypse riding across your lawn.  After all, the end of the world must be nigh.

I have joined Twitter.

With SIFF coming up, and my having no opportunity to write long posts while watching movies AND volunteering AND enumerating AND teaching, I thought this might be the best way to get news out about what I've seen and what I'm about to see.  Because, as everyone knows, the problem is that I haven't found enough ways in which to waste my time.

So, if you're on Twitter and wish to say "hi," realize that I have a desktop computer.  Not a Blackberry.  Not an iPhone.  Not even a laptop.  A friggin' desktop computer.  That means that I will not be on Twitter 24/7.  Hopefully.  As stated, I will be on now and again, sharing info about the festival, my reactions to movies, etc.  Then, once the dust has settled (or when I get some free time, HAHA!), I will post an update about what I have seen.  Chances are, though, that they will remain in draft form for three weeks.  So, if I suddenly stop posting on this blog for three weeks, you will know why.  The good news is, you can still follow me on Twitter.  The bad news is, you have to sign up for Twitter, unless I can figure out how to add a scroll bar to my blog, in which case, you will have to sign up for Twitter to read anything I've posted as far back as an hour ago.

But I'll see what I can do.

Oh, and my Twitter name is litdreamer, because some jerk other person is using literarydreamer. ;-)

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Seattle International Film Festival

373 Films.  Three weeks and three days.  Seven main venues.  Shorts.  Features.  Documentaries.  And Edward Norton.

The 36th Annual Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) starts a week from last night and ends on June 13th.  I will be there, volunteering.  I will be there, watching.  I will be there, at my first film festival, soaking everything in.

The more I look at the movie guide, the more movies I want to see.  Much depends on how long my census job lasts, since its hours interfere with times I can volunteer and times I can watch movies.  Even so, I am planning on watching a lot of movies.  Movies like City of Life and Death, I Am Love, Winter's Bone, Leaves of Grass (followed by a Q&A session), Ondine, and Last Train Home.  In addition, I may catch The 25th Hour, part of SIFF's tribute to Edward Norton, and Animation for Adults, a collection of short animated films.

And then there are silent films with live orchestral accompaniment, a focus on New Spanish Cinema, galas, parties, a New Directors Showcase, the works of three emerging masters (Mohamed Al-Daradji from Iraq, Ana Kokkinos from Australia, and Valery Todorovsky from Russia), films for families, and alternate cinema (RoboGeisha is worth a look for the title alone).

Now, since I am simultaneously teaching, enumerating, volunteering, and SIFF-attending, my blogs will probably follow the format of the Far-Flung Correspondents who blogged about Ebertfest: they will cram several movies into each post, and they will be late. ;-)

My solution?  To be revealed in an upcoming post.  Until then, click here for the entire SIFF lineup, and try not to salivate too much. ;-)

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Book Review: The Classic Tradition of Haiku: An Anthology (Dover Thrift Editions)

I have just finished a wonderful book for those wishing to buy an inexpensive collection of haiku from the masters of the form, or looking for a good starting point for reading haiku.

The Classic Tradition of Haiku: An Anthology does five things very well.  For one, it includes the original poems (in romaji, which means that they're written using the English alphabet, rather than in kanji or hiragana).  Sound is crucial in poetry, and no more so than in haiku, so this is a big plus.  For another, it includes one or more translations of the poem into English, including the initials of the translator or translators (a list is provided in the "Acknowledgment to Translators" chapter near the beginning of the book).  Third, the foreword gives a brief, but good, synopsis of the history behind haiku and the essence of haiku.  Fourth,  footnotes throughout the book provide excellent comments on individual poems and poets, including highlighting the contrasts to be found in each poem, describing the inspiration behind a poem or series of poems, pointing out some biographical details on some of the more significant haiku poets, and singling out the four "greats" of the genre: Bashō, Buson, Issa, and Shiki, the last of whom is the father of modern haiku.  And finally, it contains a diverse array of haiku and haikai poets, while making sure to include the most significant poems and poets.

My only caveat is that I would have liked to have seen the poems written in their original language as well as in romaji (and vertically, since that is traditionally how Japanese is written), with furigana written above the kanji, though writing the poems in romaji does makes it accessible to a wider range of people.  Still, I always like to do my own translating when I'm somewhat familiar with a foreign language, and the absence of kanji makes it difficult for me to remember the meanings of words that I have forgotten.  Also, it would lend itself to subtleties of meaning that, while possibly covered by multiple translations, can only be truly appreciated in the original language.

Still, this is a very small caveat, and even seasoned lovers of haiku should check out this book, as it may expose them to a wider cross-section of haiku poets than they knew existed.

A New Beginning!

It's been a little over a week since my last post, though, if you've noticed, I have been popping up in the comments sections of other blogs--often multiple times--over the last two weeks, time probably better spent working on my novel, but I do have a few days coming up when I will be able to work on that exclusively, provided that my housemates (okay, I'm thinking of one in particular) doesn't invite a bunch of his friends over and make all sorts of noise.  To be fair, he's not that loud.  Unfortunately, he's still the loudest person in the house.

But I digress.  The main thing that has been keeping me from posting, besides my frequent visits to other bloggers' blogs, concerns what happened after I quit my bakery/barista job two weeks ago.  I should point out that I am not making up the contents of this post.  You'll see why I make a point of mentioning this once you've read what I've written below.

The Monday after I quit my job (as I noted in this post), I started U.S. Census training.  Yup, I am one of the "forty-million strong" who applied for and were hired to be enumerators (a fancy way of saying that we count people who didn't send back their census forms).  Knowing that this job was coming up softened the blow of quitting a permanent position, no matter how shitty the pay, but I knew that I needed to find another job within the four to six weeks in which I would be enumerating.

As it turned out, the job found me.

One of my housemates had told me about an ESL school a short bus ride away from where I live.  I had gone there in February to see if they needed anybody, but they didn't.  Still, I had met with the director and had emailed him my resume, after discussing what kind of qualifications I would bring to the job (three years teaching English in Japan).  I had later seen an ad for a combined ESL teacher/ administrative position, and while I wasn't crazy about the administrative part, I sent in my resume a second time, back on March 4th.

Now, the final week of April, as I head into my training session on Wednesday the 28th, I notice that I missed a phone call.  I check my voicemail.

It's the director of the school.  There's an opening.

I don't have training on Thursday, which is convenient for two reasons.  1.) I can schedule an interview for the opening, and 2.) the downtown census office needs to retake my fingerprints.  So, on the same day, I get fingerprinted and interviewed.

The interview goes pretty well, but it's not the greatest interview I've ever done.  The director of the school tells me he'll try and let me know by Friday.  I thank him and send out a thank you email, figuring there's not enough time to send out a card.  He emails me back and asks for contact information for a reference that I gave him in letter form, though I told him during the interview (but maybe he was focused on the paper I was giving him) that her contact information is no longer good (unless the director wants to call the company in Japan).  I give him several options in trying to contact her or the company.

Friday ends with no further word.

Saturday and Sunday end in similar fashion.  Since the school is closed on the weekend, I'm bracing myself for news on Monday, though I keep checking my phone, checking my email account.  When I hear nothing on Monday, I think that maybe I screwed up with the references.  But I know the director is checking on them, so that's a good thing, right?  Maybe I came in second.  But he did contact me, out of hundreds of applications that they get when there's an opening, so there's hope, right?

I get a call Tuesday morning.

I got the job.

As of right now, I am only teaching one class that lasts roughly two hours (two fifty-minute sessions, separated by a ten-minute break).  The term ends on May 21st.  On May 24th, I am scheduled to test some of the students.  Based on their scores, they will be placed into classes, and teachers will be called and told their schedules, which will not fluctuate for the entire four-week term (so if, say, an entire class quits, the teacher still gets paid for that class).

So, from May 25th on, things will start getting very busy, as I am required to work at least twenty-hours for the census each week, plus four to six classes for the ESL position.  And did I mention that SIFF starts on May 20th, for which I will be volunteering?

The census could last anywhere from four to six weeks.  Right now, it's looking like it'll take six weeks, which will bring me to the middle of June (SIFF ends on June 13th, which will be six weeks and a day from when I started enumerating--they don't count training as part of the six weeks, though I did get paid for it).  So, for the three weeks that SIFF is running, I will have very little free time, unless the census takes less than six weeks to complete.  Luckily, for my ESL job, one Monday a term, the students go on a field trip, so I will get a day off (even if I have to enumerate at night) this upcoming Monday, as well as the day after SIFF (and hopefully, my enumerating) ends.  Unless I want to go on the field trip, that is.  But I think I'll take my breaks when I can.

Little free time also means not much time to post blog entries, read blog posts, work on my novel, or read.  As I said, I will have free time up until May 25th, when the first day of classes for the new term starts, but then, for the next three weeks, I will be super busy.  I still should have some free time later at night for a quick post here and there, and I should have mornings free on weekends, so I won't completely disappear from view.  But if you don't hear from me for a while, you'll know why.

I do find it interesting, though, that all of these good things started happening after I quit my job.  Guess it was a good decision, after all. :-)