Thursday, February 17, 2011

Illicit Permitted, or Happy New Year Again

The marking of the lunar new year concludes today with the Lantern Festival, celebrating the brightness of the first full moon of the Year of the Rabbit. Chicago skies will be overcast tonight, so if you can't see the moon, a good second choice would be your favorite Chinese restaurant, right?
For some forbidden new year's aesthetic pleasure, check out the egoyomi - Japanese calendar prints - at the Art Institute through April 3. Why forbidden? See the AI page but the short answer is the 18th century shogunate permitted only a few publishers to print calendars. Educated elites illicitly commissioned their own woodblock prints to exchange with friends, requiring masters like Harunobu to furtively conceal the names of the months within the composition, for example, in the drapery folds of a courtesan's kimono.
Okay, you're thinking, this is the kind of infraction that's easily detected and prosecuted. Why did it go on? More generally, why do we so often allow things which we've specifically prohibited? The phenomenon extends well beyond parents of strong-willed toddlers. This week the New York Times recounts the withdrawal of a prohibitive NC-17 rating from the film "Blue Valentine" in favor of a more socially acceptable R, without any change in content. Daniel Pink, in the Wired magazine article Japan Ink, describes the flagrant copyright infringements tolerated by the manga publishing industry, where fans create and distribute their own derivative work. Maybe it was a little unfair and downright silly of the Tokugawa rulers to allow only a few publishers to control a monopoly on calendars, and perhaps they ultimately chose the wiser course by failing to enforce their own policy. The scholars and aesthetes who skirted the rules were playing a cultural game, not a political or financial one, so perhaps the stakes were perceived as sufficiently low. What can we learn and apply to other areas of our public and private lives? Is the first signal of an untenable policy its permitted subversion?

Monday, February 14, 2011


When you spend a lot of time thinking about how spaces and places work, it's fun to see how they're depicted in movies, too. Sometimes they're claustrophobic, the getting-out-of-which is the goal. Last night I saw a new film, "Loveless," (not the Willem Dafoe biker movie) where any space with people - a club, a party, a bedroom - compelled the main character to seek an exit. The Gene Siskel Film Center hosted the premiere of this second film from a Chicago-connected director, Ramin Serry. "Loveless" (presented on the eve of the feast of St. Valentine) is an indie film set in the Manhattan that pushes me to wonder, as your typical hard-working Midwesterner: Who are these people who work at jobs that draw a little of their time but none of their angst, leaving all of the latter for their personal lives? Professionals, we think, are a bit wrapped in what they do for a living; writer-director Serry emphasizes the hollowness of his characters, especially the protagonist, Andrew, an aspiring indie film director (write what you know) who works, for the time being, in a cubicle. In a movie composed mostly of closeups, the cubicle was a hollow at the center of the city landscape, just as a Long Island share house early in the film resonates emptiness (Andrew's sometime-girlfriend imagines it as the scene of countless failed date-rapes). 
Andrew (Andrew von Urtz) takes his girlfriend and his friends for granted and seeks escape in the next pick-up. Since Andrew isn't very likable, and he is truly the center of this film, I was looking for someone to like and settled on the character played by Scott Cohen: Ricky, the "off" brother of Ava, the woman Andrew impulsively follows out of a club and into a party in the claustrophobic apartment housing her extended family. Andrew wakes up in bed with Ava (Genevieve Hudson-Price) to see Ricky in a chair, bedside, wide-eyed asking "How was it?" The look, however, is without affect and is reprised when Ricky inexplicably shows up outside Andrew's office cubicle. Ricky paints, badly, and is hung up on the memory of his dead father. Ava is a little shallow, Ricky is mostly nutty, but somehow this ensemble plays an increasing role in Andrew's smallish life, to the point where we get to see the bunch of them attempting to shoot a scene (film within a film!) on a chilly streetcorner, enacting an incident from the life of Ricky and Ava's father. Fun. Later, when Andrew is left in charge of a small girl on an empty city playlot, we worry he is going to leave her there.  Director and lead actor took questions at the end from a full house, which revealed that the couple sitting next to me was the director's mother and father. I told them they should be proud, and they should.