To throw or not to throw a stone

August 26, 2006

Last night a friend asked me why I had never thrown a well-sized rock at anyone. Or at anything, for that matter. Didn’t have to be the police. Might just be a shop front, or across the fence to the American Embassy. Anything that would somehow physically manifest my political affiliation.

I didn’t have a ready answer then. And I don’t have one now. But I feel quite certain that I never will throw rocks at anyone or anything. It’s just not my line of argument. I’d feel foolish for sure donning a ski mask and prying loose paving stones. Like a freak in a circus doing whatever it takes to get the spectators cheering.

Instead I’ll just state a few things about myself. Firstly, I grew up in the upper middle classed suburbs north of Copenhagen. My parents weren’t exactly rich, but we sure didn’t lack anything. I remember trying to force my mother into exchanging my winter coat for a board game I’d seen down in the toy store. I simply sat down in front of the game claiming that I wouldn’t move until the deal was done. Fat chance, stupid kid. However, it was my first act of passive resistance, and my mother had to go through the embarrasment of dragging a screaming kid across the floor to get me out of the store.

Politics never were a topic of dinner table conversation in my family. I refused to read newspapers, and when the Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was shot all I did was complain that the early morning cartoon show had been cancelled. I purposely avoided watching the news, and any mention of war would sent me running into my room and the safety of building make-belief Lego townships. The world that existed outside of my own was all chaos and confusion, and I didn’t want anything to do with it.

This only changed when I was in my late teens. The outside world became a place of adventure and excitement. I began hitching around Europe, meeting strange people, and having even stranger conversations. My outlook on life was broadened and distorted at the same time. The bubble burst. I became part of the chaos and confusion that I had so far steered clear of. For the first time in my protected existence I didn’t quite know what to do with myself.

Still I didn’t have a political standpoint. Like most young idealists without any sense of reality I insisted upon a world of peace, love, and harmony. Perhaps that was why I chose to take the ferry across from Scotland to Northern Ireland. I wanted to visit the hot spots of the Earth, and show the people living there that alternatives were possible. Pretty damn naïve and arrogant, I have to admit.

What I did discover was that not only were people so tired of the conflict between Protestants and Catholics that it had almost died out, they also seemed more vibrant and full of life than most other people I had met. Was living in a country with violent demonstrations, car bombings, and street riots actually making them thrive? I think it was Orson Welles who said that 30 years of civil war in Italy produced such geniuses as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, while 400 years of peace in Switzerland produced the cuckoo clock.

Now, I still don’t believe in armed conflict, and I sure don’t wanna take part in it. I would rather somebody threw a rock at me than I threw a rock at them. Not because I don’t wanna protect me and mine, but because I wouldn’t know who to throw it at. Should I aim for the immediate enemy, or should I aim for someone higher up the hierarchy? The agitators? The crowd who believed them? The moneymen who backed the men in power? The news media that recorded everything to inform and enrage the public? Yes, the public, should I go for them too? And if so, might I not just start with myself, and knock out my own brains with the rock that I already hold in my hand?

If forced anyhow by circumstances out of my control I would probably just fling it in the general direction of the majority. To even out the scales, I guess. Too much power in one place never seems to work out. Except in art where I always find the individual performance more interesting than the communal. More interesting even than the guided. But that’s another discussion for another day.

To return to the original question I still don’t have a ready answer as to why I never throw rocks at kings’n’things. I can sure feel the urge at times, but in the end it just seems too pointless. I love pulling things apart – at least metaphorically I do – but I prefer to use the parts for building new stuff rather than for throwing away.

Anyway, it’s only in history and fiction that you can tell the good guys from the bad guys. And at this particular point in time and space it seems even the good guys have turned bad. In the words of German director Werner Herzog it’s ”every man for himself, and God against all.”


Anfal offscreen

August 21, 2006

It’s a twenty minutes walk from the Grand Theatre cinema in central Copenhagen to my girlfriend’s apartment in the hip Vesterbro area. Her apartment isn’t that hip, though. In fact it’s just a small room and a shared kitchen. I’m sitting by her red round table writing this. Staring out at the sun and rain that I left behind a few minutes ago. I don’t know why I’m smoking and drinking coffee. All I wanna do is write.

Offscreen is the third and latest movie by upcoming art director Christoffer Boe. As usual he’s more interested in the media itself than in what he actually does with it. And once again he uses a story of love lost and desperately regained as his central excuse. Only, the novelty has worn off, and his short-comings as a storyteller have become ever clearer. Leaving us with a nonsensical catastrophe of modern cinema.

Let me assure you that there is nothing flattering in my use of the term ”catastrophe”. Offscreen doesn’t have the same epic quality of failure that other titles did. Such as von Stroheim’s Greed that was butchered down from nine hours to one and a half hours, or Michael Cimino’s recently re-released Heaven’s Gate that almost ruined United Artists, and marked the end of an era where certain directors worked outside of the production company’s control.

As far as Offscreen goes I’m sure production costs have been just as cheap as the movie itself. Everything is filmed in everyday surroundings with a handheld digital camera, and apart from lead actor Nicolas Bro who has the misfortune of portraying himself – or at least his public self – the rest of the cast doesn’t get much screentime.

Basically it is a story of the fall and decline of a man whose wife chooses to leave him. And understandably so. In spite of Nicolas Bro’s attempt to add some real life quality to his performance, we’re painfully aware of his acting. His personality comes across as completely one-dimensional, as does his relationship with his wife, and the love story suffers from the banality of high school drama class performances. The gradual disintegration of the central character and the eventual downward slide into madness and murder even more so.

What troubles me is not that Offscreen is such a poorly conceived and realized movie. There are plenty more of its kind out there. But I find it troublesome that it represents the height of Danish experimental cinema today. A home video camera in the hands of a celebrity actor filming himself. Is this really what’s supposed to continue the rich heritage of internationally acclaimed filmmaker Lars von Trier? Is this the follow-up to such masterpieces as The Idiots and Dogville?

If we are to believe the critics, I’m afraid it is. They continue to praise the work of Christoffer Boe in its entirety even though its only claim to fame is the occasional – admitted! – sublime imagery and editing. Perhaps this is due to a lack of competition which then again is due to a lack of interest in innovative thinking and experimentation. A lack which runs like wildfire through a country hailing to cost benefit analyses and the traditions and virtues of half a century ago.

In the years following World War II most afflicted countries were hell-bent on peace. Including Denmark. And we were willing to pay the price. Literally by way of household consumer goods and status symbols. Metaphorically by way of a narrower outlook on the world outside of family, career, and country. The nuclear family, as it came to be termed. How ironic! And how sad that we’re once again opting for it. Even now when globalization is rampant, and the Earth so much smaller than the fields of a backwaters farm.

Walking the distance from the cinema to my girlfriend’s room, I chanced upon a gathering at the City Hall Square. Some hundred or so people were listening to a man declaiming from a small platform in a language I didn’t understand. A couple of handwritten signs in English informed me that it was a demonstration protesting the Anfal genocide in which Saddam Hussein allegedly ordered the killing of almost 200.000 Kurds in less than half a year.

A presumably Kurdish woman in her mid-twenties handed me a leaflet when I walked by. It encouraged the Danish government to put pressure on the Iraqi government to get them to acknowledge and apologize the genocide. It also told me that today is the first day of the trial against Saddam Hussein on this very topic.

Reviewing all of the above I guess I might have spent more words on the Anfal genocide, and less on Christoffer Boe’s puerile Offscreen. But somehow I believe the two things to be connected. And in some intricate chain of events which knows of no innocence, I wouldn’t be surprised to find the movie the cause of the tragedy. A fiction claimed to be reality interlinked with a reality claimed to be fiction.

Whatever the exact nature of the relationship between Offscreen and Anfal, I’m sure that the one needs the other more than they care to admit. Art needs reality to create life. Just as reality needs art to preserve life. Without each other they become meaningless. Like lost lovers clutching memories forever gone.


The kindness of strangers

August 17, 2006

”Whoever you are, I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers,” Blanche DuBois says as she gives herself over to authority in the final scene of the Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire. I watched the 1951 screen adaptation with Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh yesterday. And my heart is still racing.

That famous little line I just quoted made me wonder when first I fully entrusted myself in the hands of strangers. I believe it was in my late teens when I was travelling through Turkey with a friend. We were hitching across the great Anatolian plains on a cold October day. The wind blew clouds of dust from the road to the fields, and the flat landscape was dotted with tiny villages and occasional mosques. Even the atmosphere had a certain colorless quality to it.

When the sun began to set we had been on the road for 10 or 12 hours. Traffic had been light to say the least, and most lifts had been hopelessly short. Something along the lines of sitting on the fenders of tractors going half a mile down the road to the next field. All in all, we hadn’t made more than twenty or thirty miles that day. Too far to turn back, too short to reach the Ihlara valley where we were headed.

That evening we dined with a Turkish family in a one-room house made of clay and straw. A mile or so outside the village an old truck had come to pick up the women after a hard day’s work in the potato fields. We held out our hands to indicate that we were lost, and they pointed us in the direction of the small houses. I remember walking down a narrow track with a big Anatolian shepherd dog watching our every move. Barking and showing off its impressive set of teeth to make sure we didn’t overstep the line to the field.

The village wasn’t even a village. It was just a hamlet, almost ridiculous on the vast plain. The people were poor potato farmers who didn’t know much else than the simple life they led. They had a couple of TVs, but they didn’t get out much. Besides the truck that transported the women to and from the fields, all they had was a less than reliable Trabant from the former DDR. Probably brought back by someone’s cousin or uncle who had gone to Germany to work. Later that night a couple of the men somehow managed to drive it all the way to the guesthouse at the entrance to the Ihlara valley.

Conversation was sparse. Fortunately we knew the names of a few Danish soccer players in Turkish clubs. We would mention them, and then our hosts would repeat the names with voices full of praise, over and over again. A detailed travel map of the Anatolian plains also proved a success. We would point out the route we had come, and they would read out the names of the towns and places we had passed. A joint venture, so to speak.

I was overwhelmed. Never before had it occured to me that you could just walk into a company of complete strangers, hold out your hand, and be treated with such hospitality. They took us in, they put us by their hearth, they gave us the best they had to offer, and then they even drove us through the dark, in their dying wreck of a car, to a destination we would never have been able to reach on our own.

Now, this may sound like the oft repeated romanticism of a first-time traveller. And I guess it is. But that doesn’t make it any less real. The experience was flesh and blood all the way through, and it changed something deep inside me. I learned to believe in the kindness of strangers, and I learned to believe that I would never ever be alone again no matter where I walked on this Earth.

I think everybody has had at least one such experience in their life. Some might have been let down, and some might not have understood. Some might even have forgotten. But the vast majority of men – even those who live Thoreauvian lives of quiet desperation – should be able extract one such experience from their memory, and know that they too once depended on the kindness of strangers.

Tomorrow I head for Copenhagen and a week off work. My plans reach no further than my girlfriend and a casual reunion with old high school friends. Apart from that I intend to just drift around town, or out of it, all as it happens. And should a stranger cross my path I’ll be sure to look her way, and shower some kindness on her. Even if she is a he. Blanche DuBois and the Anatolian plains taught me that.


The silent minority

August 14, 2006

Today is a slow day in Dotdecay. It’s gray and windy and rainy and all those other adjectives too. But it’s alright. I’ve got pink flowers in the window. Besides I’m a slow person myself. I read slowly, I think slowly, I speak slowly. In the morning I wake up slowly, real slowly, slowly as in sometimes not at all.

Today I didn’t wake up. I sleep-rose, sleep-dressed, sleep-ate, and then sleep-bussed to work. I felt like a Lilliput marooned in a world of giants. I was at the slow end of relativity. Whenever someone stroke a match at the office, I saw an entire tree go up in flames. No wonder I didn’t get much work done.

It is now 20:48 GMT +1 here in Denmark. It’s been almost an hour since I sat down to write this entry. Words don’t come easily today. I feel like the narrator in a novel by Samuel Beckett, constantly arguing with himself whether he should go on or not. I can’t go on, I must go on, I can’t go, I will go on.

I’m probably not gonna do much else today than write these words. Did you notice how often I write today in this entry? The italicized one was already the fifth. Wonder what this obsession with the present is all about? How good it feels to pose such a question. Utterly bereft of meaning or purpose. Utterly unanswerable. Utterly free.

It’s official now. I handed in my resignation at the office today. Six, and counting. Soon I’ll be jobless and pennyless once again. Surrounded by friends, and free to gibber. A real pain in the ass to all the fast and the furious running this country. But what can I do? I’m a slow person. I was born slow, I grew up slow. Not lazy, though. There’s a difference. Slow not lazy. Go Count Basie. Wouldn’t you believe it? Got him playing Pennies from Heaven just now. Pure background. Almost ambient.

So what’ll I do with my life? If you’ve been reading this blog since the monasterical days you should have some idea. If not, just wait and read. Did you know that I’m my own most avid reader? Always on the lookout for some little clue left behind by my subconscious. It really does that. Promise.

Oh, by the way, one thing of some importance. I watched the eleven 9/11 pieces the other day. Eleven films eleven minutes long by eleven different directors from eleven different countries. Usual stuff. All hopes and fears, and no solutions. Though I really liked Iranian director Makhmalbaf’s piece about exiled Afghan school kids in Iran trying to grasp the importance of two towers collapsing half a world away.

In the end their teacher forces them to stand besides a big chimney of sorts and observe one minute of silence. A little boy asks what to do if he got something to say. Then you just bite your lip, the teacher tells him. And bite it, he does. Just like I’m gonna bit mine now. Auch!


Qualities without men

August 7, 2006

I spent the weekend among a ”last of their kind” in Denmark. They live in a small self-established community on the outskirts of Copenhagen, just across the canal from the city centre. Theirs is an ungraceful yet fascinating blend of dilapidated cottages, abandoned trailers, and sudden multi-storeyed villas. More often than not, the facade fails to reveal anything about the people living behind it.

To tell you the truth, I’ve been staying with them for three summers in a row now. Not this one, though. This one I spend across the isles in Aarhus where I live and work, for the time being. I miss my Nokken as it’s called, this place within the place, this village within the city. I don’t miss it out of nostalgia or undue romanticism. I miss it as an alternative.

This weekend a local band where playing down by the canal. Somebody had put up a pavilion, open on all four sides, just to get the musicians a bit of shade. They played their usual mixture of old ballads and ragtime blues. The sound was alternating between a teenage prom back in the fifties, and a rural pub in the timelessness of alcohol and dimly lit rooms. Something along the lines of The Singing Detective, if you’ve seen that one.

My friends and I sat where the grass used to be, on the sands of a temporary beach, watching the river go by as the music was playing. On the opposite side, just a few hundred meters across the colorless ripples, an excavator was hauling big piles of rubble onto the back of a truck.

The sound was deafening, and somehow the whole situation reminded me of the climax of a story I was telling at a festival earlier this summer. The story about Tom the punk saxophonist who performed for an audience across a highway during rush hours. All sounds may not be music, but all music is sounds. Anyway, that’s how the argument goes.

Suddenly I felt trapped. Me enjoying myself over here on the Nokken side, and the industry and the factories employing themselves over there on the far side. We had nothing in common except the will to create something for ourselves. And only now, face to face and noisy as hell, were we fully aware of this, of our own intention, of our deviation, of each other.

I began to think of the early 20th century Austrian writer Robert Musil. Earlier that day I had re-read the first few chapters of his very long and very uncompromising The Man without Qualities. In it he writes – among an almost alarming number of other things – about Western culture undermining itself in its attempt to do away with the usual trappings of culture, such as traditions and taboo. Freedom becomes unstructured at best, repressive at most.

In the now internationally acclaimed business of creativity (TM) – the golden calf of my own generation with which I somewhat reluctantly dance along – restrictions and limitations are the new big thing. Everybody seems to know that you cannot be truly creative without them. The less space you have to move around in, the more focused and acute your movements are gonna be. It’s almost a new law of physics, and it might even hold true.

What I really don’t get then, is how we – personally and culturally – strive for the exact opposite in our daily lives. We seek to remove all restrictions and overcome all limitations. Even though they help us to focus our lives, and to thrive in a freedom that we wouldn’t know how to handle without them. Might this also be the reason that all of our Western creativity seems to come to nothing these days? The more, and the more outgoing and unruly, the less the impact.

I live in a world of diffused energy. Sometimes I can almost feel it creeping out from beneath my skull. Nokken is one of the few hide-outs where things are still contained within themselves. It certainly isn’t a very restrictive place, still it worships at the altar of simplicity. For such is the way of men without qualities in a society of qualities without men.


Beirut

August 3, 2006

Today’s entry is gonna resemble the bombed cities of Israel and Lebanon.

I grabbed the title from a chapter in the autobiography of Danish poet, filmmaker, and sports commentator Jørgen Leth. His book came out last autumn, and raised a fiery debate about his morality because of certain confessions he makes in it. A self-proclaimed intellectual lynch mob, clearly caught up in their own inhibitions and regrets of life, angrily accused him of drug trafficking and sexual molestation of a 17-year old Haitian girl.

Truth was at its most relative in those days. Honesty lost an important battle, and the Danish channel two their much-celebrated Tour de France commentator. Jørgen Leth holds a both intellectual and poetic approach to the world of sports which can’t help but rub off on the viewers. Though few can appreciate his 15 minutes close-up of a hand and bat returning table tennis balls, most will be swayed by his epic descriptions of cyclists as modern day heroes crossing mythological landscapes, paying heed only to the achievement itself.

Reading about Jørgen Leth visiting drug lords, and having his body wrapped in a plate armor of hashish before crossing the Lebanese border, made me wanna go right away. Drug trafficking is not my business – I have been taught to think of myself as too important to rot up in some foreign jail – but any atmosphere of sun, dust, and shady deals is. Denmark is a grid. All straight lines and right angles.

Did you know the Danes were just voted the happiest people in the world? I don’t know by whom, or following what criteria, and I don’t care either. It’s too silly by far. But think about it. The happiest people in the world. Probably some of the richest, the most self-indulgent, and the least sincere as well. I wonder who the unhappiest people were. I’d like to go visit them. I’m sure we’d have a whole lot to teach each other.

I’m looking after my landlady’s dog these days. She’s away at a jazz/painting/meditation course on a small Danish island for the next couple of weeks. Her dog is a Springer Spaniel, and one of the least independent creatures I’ve ever met. Every step I take around the apartment, she’s right there at the heel. Often I feel like scolding her, but it’s so hard given that she only disobeys when she forgets herself. Conscious sinning is not part of her repertoire.

Walking her around the block on a leash is humiliating. It’s humiliating for her, and it’s humiliating for me. I feel like a tyrant, and an oppressor. It’s much better when I take her to the fields, and let her run free. There I see the instincts of the wild dog buried deep within her domesticated brain. What beauty and strength when she thunders across the hillocks, barking at the sky, and throwing sticks high in the air! Only then, only when I don’t control her, is she truly my dog.

I heard Israeli special forces raided a hospital 120 kilometers inside Lebanon. I heard Hizbollah shot more than 200 rockets at civilian targets. I believe Beirut is partly in ruins, and I wonder if Hotel Normandie where Jørgen Leth stayed some thirty or forty years ago still stands.