Wednesday, October 28, 2009

1989 (exclamation point)

I went to a talk about the fall of the Berlin Wall. On the panel was a soft-spoken Hungarian academic who had been in the thick of the action on the streets of Budapest. He had an uncanny gift for finding exactly the right word. He was one of the young reformers who suddenly found themselves creating new alliances and parties out of thin air as Grósz, the Hungarian premier, successfully read the political tea leaves and unhitched his country from the yoke of the Soviet Union. The academic's chosen path had eventually diverged from his former colleagues as they rose to political prominence. With characteristic precision, he gave us exactly as much detail about his reasons for doing so as was polite, and not an iota more.

I wanted to ask what he knew about the theater companies, if they had prospered or faltered in the post-communist world, stripped of their state subsidies and with few defenses against the juggernaut of Western popular entertainment that was to crash so indiscriminately through the shreds of the Iron Curtain soon afterward. When I finally managed to buttonhole him, holding a plastic cup of cheap wine and fighting the infernal noise (a post-panel cabaret - a post-panel cabaret??? - was belting out songs in a hard-edged concrete and glass space, most of the audience had fled, and those of us who remained had to shout to be heard) I stumbled. I filled my lungs and boomed a hopelessly fragmented version of my question in the general direction of his right ear, responded to his incomprehension with a last-gasp resort to platitudes, then, as a cabaret singer screamed out "Salami!!!" at the top of her voice, muttered my thanks and good wishes and bolted for the door.

In any case, I probably wouldn't have gotten the answer I was looking for. And what was that? When the Wall came down, I was nearing the end of my stay in a sleepy picture-book western Massachusetts town. The one thing that stands out in my memory is that Heiner Müller, author of the book Germania which I had special ordered from the local bookstore and promptly devoured, had been in New York to perform Heiner Goebbels' Man in the Elevator at The Kitchen, but had been so overwhelmed at the news that they had to cancel his appearance.

Q: And do you feel history is working for you?

A: Absolutely. [He laughs] This is my chance.

Q: History is making you...

A: Yes, the last German writer.

I could only speculate at what Müller and his compatriots must have been feeling. But my curiosity was strong enough to take me to Berlin in 1991, two years after the Wall fell and when disillusion had seriously begun to sink in. They were selling "We Want our Wall Back" T-shirts. The locals, bewildered and resentful, shot dark glances from sleep-deprived eyes underneath mangy shocks of bleached hair. It was as if their roots had been ripped out from under them. There were exhibitions about the history of Berlin everywhere. The city seemed to be in search of its soul.

I was told my German wasn't too bad, but after having my head bitten off for the umpteenth time by an impatient counter clerk I begged a colleague for an explanation. "We call them 'Schnauzers'," he said sympathetically. "Say something in German." After I did so, he observed with characteristic German precision, "Your accent is very strange. It's not American, closer to French... And your skin is quite dark." (We had just come back from a residency in Portugal, and I had a tan). "Maybe they think you are Turkish. If you make it clear that you are American, that could solve the problem."

I tried it out in a bank. Behind the counter was a well-coiffed middle aged woman - the very quintessence of Schnauzer. I took a deep breath, and muttered "Entschuldigung, sprechen Sie Englisch?" - "Excuse me, do you speak English?". "Nein," she shot back, but free of the edge I had been dreading. I then stumbled on in German, and she immediately brightened up. Was she relieved at my ability to converse in her native language, however awkwardly? Or was it just that I wasn't Turkish? I will never know, but you can bet I went through that routine every time from that point on. And retain a special sympathy for the Turkish community in Berlin to this day.

(I was also delighted to see Berlin graciously hand over the vast Breitscheidplatz to tens of thousands of ecstatic Turkish revellers following a famous victory over Croatia in the Euro 2008 soccer finals. And the Turkish team valiantly take the Germans to the wire in the following round, while predictions of riots were belied by the ensuing good humor and good sportsmanship as Germany scraped through with a narrow win)

Along with the experience of being a confused (and confusing) immigrant in 1991, the fall of the Berlin Wall brought me the swansong of a theatrical dream, a vision of how work and culture could be seamlessly intertwined in a hip 24-hour copyshop, visions of Trabis whose engines would suddenly give a huge tinny "pop!" and die there and then in the middle of the murky streets. And a nocturnal encounter by a flower shop under the U-Bahn overpass at Schlesisches Tor, which was to bring me back to the same spot nearly two decades later.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Siberia Story Part I

The final part of the Russian film Andrei Rublev is set in a post-Tatar invasion lull. A group of horsemen trot into a levelled village in search of a master bell-caster, to find a blonde teenager with a stutter the only one left alive. The boy persuades the horsemen that they need look no further, that he himself possesses the secret of casting a great bell. He’s lying, but it’s his only chance of survival. They believe him, and the boy proceeds to bluff his way through a series of mishaps, beatings, and minor triumphs under the watchful eye of a foreman who will put him to death as soon as look at him if he doesn't come up with the goods.

Yet one problem persists. It is vital that just the right consistency of molding clay be found, otherwise the bell will crack. Days, weeks are lost as an advance team search in vain for the cherished substance and legions of workers sit idle. We finally see the boy alone in a waterlogged field, kneading useless clods of dirt in his palms, hurling them down in disgust. The skies open and sheets of rain soak the boy and the earth. He kicks at the ground in frustration, loses his balance and slides down a sheer riverbank at breakneck speed. He judders to a halt atop a large deposit of alluvial clay, where his fingers grope instinctively for the soil beneath. It’s a miracle - he has found the very substance his life depended on. He yells out his discovery to the sky and flops onto his back in convulsions of ecstasy between the slime and the torrential rain.

Cut to a long shot of the boy lying on one of a series of clay deposits layered atop exposed groundsoil, like giant dandelion leaves.

I saw such deposits on the shore of Lake Baikal. And a blonde boy at their base. But more of that later.


It all started in a meeting at work, just before the summer break. For months, we had been slogging away, trying to beat back the ill effects of the worst recession in a generation, and, having steadied the boat somewhat (or at least shifted enough water to make out something that looked vaguely like a horizon), we could finally dare to be relaxed, even playful. I was spending my holiday in Russia, a trip years in the planning and now due to begin a few hours hence.

“I think that covers everything. But just in case, can we communicate by text?”

“Might be difficult,” I replied. “I’ll be riding a horse in Siberia.” I mimed a ludicrous version of stabbing at a cellphone keypad at full gallop. No-one laughed, but smiles began to appear. Their amazement at discovering I was going to Siberia eclipsed their amusement (which was there - I’m not THAT bad a mime). I looked across the table at the editor, a brilliant woman whose trust was not easily won. Her smile was gathering, growing from some deep place, like the swell of a wave.

“You’re going to Siberia?!”

I talked about my trip. I reeled off the famous statistics of Lake Baikal, which I was visiting for the first time, and talked of shamans and their shrines.

“Can you make an offering for the company?”

I said sure. The editor asked me not to leave until my charge had been delivered. For the offering, she settled on a book of photographs and two tiny tablets with reproductions of magazine covers. The book she gave to me immediately, but the tablets needed to be custom-made.

Half an hour later three junior employees - who would normally be beetling away at their distant computers, on tracks quite separate from mine - were rushing up to me with unprecedented urgency.

“I heard something about you going to Siberia?”

“When are you leaving?”

“Is it okay if I get you the images by four?”

“You’re going to Siberia?!”

I had been to Siberia twice before, and had forgotten how exotic it could seem. Certainly my experiences there have always been profound. But they also contained some element that was downright scary.

Every time I went to Siberia I experienced some discordant event, some existential fracture that left me feeling deeply conflicted, however awestruck I may have been about whatever else was going on around me. On my first trip - to join a colleague who was directing a play - it was a scandal into which I was unwittingly plunged on my last day. The night before, as my colleague’s farewell party was winding down, I had naïvely acquiesced to the request of a pretty young actress to spend the night at my apartment in a Soviet-style high rise, which was used for theatre guests such as I. She pleaded lack of space at home and domestic problems, and I had a couch in a separate room. It seemed downright churlish to refuse. Of course sex was implied, but I dismissed that out of hand - one nighters are just not written into my DNA.

The next day, she left early. When I finally arrived at the theatre, I was confronted immediately by Rita.

Rita was the sister of one of the theatre’s star actresses. My director colleague had arranged for me to stay with her and her daughter in a cosy apartment in Moscow, en route to Omsk. Rita had met me at the station.

“How will I know it is you?” she had said over the phone a week before I arrived, in halting but determined English. The call had begun awkwardly, and I had had to repeat myself several times.

“I will wear a blue hat.”

Sometimes a single early moment can cement a friendship - the hilarity that sprang from the notion of an American arriving at Byelorusskaya Station wearing a blue hat as if it were one of those “Hi, my name is...” tags was one of them. This shared sense of the absurdity of life also, paradoxically, gave rise at the same moment to Margarita’s self-appointed role as my Russian moral guide and protectress.

“Ah!” Rita said icily as I appeared at the theatre the next morning, with more emotion than made sense to me then. “So how was the beautiful woman of Russia?” This was a reference to what had become my trademark toast, when, to a roomful of still sober and skeptical Russians I would list three or four amazing experiences I had had in their country, then declare that there was one experience next to which they paled in comparison, and, after a dramatic pause big enough to fit a fleet of Ladas, I would raise my glass “to all the beautiful women of Russia”, and the sombre faces would unfailingly crack into gales of laughter.

Having delivered this withering verbal slap, Rita promptly disappeared.

I soon discovered that the young actress had been boasting to anyone who would listen that I had slept with her. And, as it turned out, she was married. I felt like an animal in a trap. It was a theatre - rumors such as these traveled like wildfire. I could barely string together a Russian sentence, let alone defend what was left of my honor. It was my inexpressible word against hers, which had clearly been a very expressive one. Whatever happened, the extraordinary warmth and kindness I felt from the actors, whether we understood each other’s language or no, would be forever marred.

Thankfully, the damage was partly undone and some sliver of redemption achieved when Rita finally re-appeared and asked me, her eyes burning, “Did you make love to this woman?” and following my desperate denial, she looked at me searchingly for a long time before pronouncing, “I believe you.”

On my third trip, almost twenty years later, seeds of discontent were also being planted on my penultimate day. This one happened to involve a trip to Cape Khoboi, where I stood at the edge of the world and gazed down across an endless sea of impossibly blue water towards what I can only describe as heaven. Yet, perhaps at the very instant I fell under the spell of this miracle of nature, part of my life was being ripped from me by an unseen force.

Friday, September 4, 2009

A Holy Spring on Lake Baikal

Powers of the water, we come to live in harmony with you. We bless your shores, we bless your depths. Please bless us with your bounty. Please help us to live, so that we may live with you.
-Ancient Buryat Song, quoted from Siberian Dream by Irina Pantaeva

In the morning, the mountains are a particularly luminous blue. The sky reflects from the depths of the lake through the crystal clear water onto the mountains. Later in the day, you can make out the outlines of the mountains, which seem to be offering the lake back to the sky like curved, furrowed palms.

Looking northwards along the coast, the mountains are pale and ashen and deeply furrowed, like immense piles of finely ground white pepper. A short way up the forested mountains to the west is a holy spring which was established by a shaman longer ago than anyone can remember.

A long thin log was split in half, and the two pieces carved with a central niche down their entire lengths. They are positioned together at the water source, from which they emerge at a slight angle above the waterbed, carrying two distinct streams of water. One is only for men, and one only for women. We were told this, and that we should abide by this rule out of respect for the shaman, even though, says our guide, no-one remembers why it should be so.

The water contains traces of silver, and is celebrated for its healing properties. Some people come for two weeks just to drink the water.

To reach the holy spring, you walk along a rocky dirt road meandering up through meadows and pine forests in the low hills, until you reach a small clearing at the foot of the mountain. There is a simple open gateway built of thin pale logs through which the path leads up to a shrine under a tree. The tree is festooned with ribbons of many colors, mostly blue and white, tied there by pilgrims in homage to the shaman. Beneath the tree is a square stump, on which offerings are placed - coins, cigarettes, a deck of playing cards, a hairclip.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"Two years ago, I was living as a body without a soul. I was afraid to come here, but I came here anyway. They were very dangerous times. But I would rather die holding my musical instrument."
- Hazar Bassan, on being able to perform again in the courtyard of her music institute in Baghdad

I rarely watch a movie more than once. A repeat viewing seems pointless, an invitation for the "nervousness" that Gertrude Stein identified with bad theatre - the kind where you can predict with uneasy certainly exactly what is going to happen next.

But there are two big exceptions. One is the entire oeuvre of Andrej Tarkovsky (with the exception of Solaris; I finally hit the wall on that one). The other is Jason Bourne.

Jason Bourne is a man recovering from living without his soul.

I have watched the Bourne trilogy frontwards, backwards, sideways. And every time I find something new.

Last night it was the night driving scenes in The Bourne Identity.

In the first, Marie was driving, thinking, bathed in green light from the dashboard while Jason slept. The soundtrack was a slow electric swell, the sound of solemn contemplation in motion. She was beginning to understand the predicament of this man without an identity, how frightened and alone he must feel. In Mittel Europa. Floating through this land thick with history, covered for now in a thick layer of snow that obliterated memory. A land where one seems constantly in silent search for oneself.

Tu sais qui je suis?

Je ne sais pas qui je suis.

The second was in a taxi, as they drove down the boulevards of Paris. The previous night, they had made love. But the amnesiac Jason had come across incontrovertible evidence that he had been an assassin. Marie gazed out her window in shocked silence, and Jason glanced over, realizing there was nothing he could do to bridge the gulf that now lay between them.

Jason Bourne

John Michael Kane

Gilberto do Piento

Paul Kay

Foma Kiniaev

Where is the soul?

(and mirrors everywhere)

In another scene in a car, Jason is going to the train station to drop off his bag in an anonymous locker, telling Marie to wait in the red mini. She has just witnessed a suicide and a murder following a bone crunching fight at Bourne's apartment, and found her face on a wanted poster to boot. She looks at the car keys Jason left in the ignition, and flips through the $20,000 he had given her. She could leave now and start a new life.

In the train station, Jason surveys his surroundings with a laser eye, as he always does. The departure board is flipping over new destinations.









Each a new possibility, a new place laden with history that could be his camouflage. He is holding a bag stuffed with more money than you or I will ever earn in a lifetime, and a handful of passports. He could leave now and start a new life.

But Jason goes back to the car, Marie decides to stay with him, and the stakes rise once again.

That existential space in those cars. What is it? Ripe with contemplation, brimming with tenderness, tinged with new possibilities. Mittel Europa.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Fear and Synchronicity in Las Vegas

Last night I saw a performance in a studio in Brooklyn by a group which has a focused and energetic conceptual daring that I like. Having tackled pre- and post-Katrina New Orleans, the chosen turf for their new show was Las Vegas, cast as the ultimate expression of the rootlessness of American capitalism. In the post-performance discussion, one of the actors explained by telling a story of two architects walking past that fake copy of the sphinx. One scoffed, "This is all such a joke." The other replied, "Finally you're starting to get it."

One of the actresses made a particularly strong impression. Her performance had a natural yet off-kilter quality which grounded the drama while giving her the freedom to spin seamlessly through the flash-cut leaps of the stage action - ingenue bartender to frenetic abstract dancer to synchronized crowd ranter to victim of fantasy murder by bowling ball to passenger in a car plowing into a horse on a desert highway (oh all right maybe that last one was asking too much, but she positively flew through the first four).

Not only that, but when the rest of the cast sat down to make enthusiastic way for a trite and condescending attempt by a real life Wall Street banker to peddle the virtues of American capitalism, she crept off unsmiling - out of character, but still in view - to the darkest corner she could find. While the crowd seemed elated by the banker's cavalier antics, I was quietly appalled. There, curled up alone in a dark corner, as far from her beaming colleagues as she could be, my actress seemed to share my silent suffering. Who is this guy, and what is he doing in our theatre? How is he going to try and manipulate us for his own profit this time? Why doesn't anyone else see the horror? Our souls squirmed in unison.

Onstage, I found one of her scenes particularly affecting. The ingenue bartender gets caught in a stalled elevator with a prostitute going up to play mommy to some rich john. Status is suddenly reversed as the whore frets over being late, and the bartender opens her heart and tells her glowingly that everything is as it should be, that the two of them had been brought together for a reason. As if the universe had stopped the wheel of time in that dark elevator so that they might truly discover their shared humanity, and face their destiny together.

The scene ended with a dot dot dot, which is perhaps the only way it could end. If the theme was capitalism, this encounter could easily have been played as a collision of two American ways of life spawned by capitalism - the glittering high class prostitute who will sell her body at a premium, and the young evangelist who, buoyed by the pampered lifestyle and economic stability of her suburban subculture, goes to the city to bear witness and save souls. But while the actress playing the prostitute seemed content with this line of pursuit, my actress refused to leave things at that. Her bartender wasn't a born again Christian, or a new age Buddhist, or a girl whose imagination had been set on fire by a long-awaited brush with a newfound sister in the thick of the oldest profession. She was all and none of these. At any moment, she seemed to be telling us, you can embrace a reality beyond the understanding of the little people who tell us that money is what makes the world go round. If you really pay attention, you can find kinship with the humblest of souls. Perhaps only with the humblest of souls.

Thank you, my actress.

Saturday, March 28, 2009


So, I went along to see a production by a friend of mine in a place they use to call the petri dish of downtown theater. It was an audience participation thing, "staged" as a seminar, and the theme was political theater. Each audience member had been given a gift bag - the kind handed out after gala evenings at the theatre - sardonically filled with a photocopy of a theater scene, a ball that lit up when bounced, and a toy hand grenade.

Halfway through the second half, the discussion was getting heated as the friend I had brought embarked on a lengthy explanation of why she thought the entire premise of the production was flawed (albeit by way of friendly suggestion). One of the actresses was taking it personally, and my friend was trying to reassure her that it wasn't about her acting, but the approach. I lost my cool, and urged the actress to let my friend finish her point. Suddenly I felt a whoosh of air on my cheek and something smacked into the wall directly behind me. A cast member had thrown a toy grenade at our heads, with too much velocity for it to be considered playful. I thought I heard a few ripples of nervous laughter, and felt the atmosphere crackle with just that bit more electricity. For the rest of the performance, I struggled to pay attention - my nerves were jangling too much from the scent of violence.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Crisis? What Crisis?

I live in New York. For some, that should mean I am in the financial crisis of my life, I am consumed with fury at Wall Street and its game-theory peddling spawn (see Jon Stewart's latest assault on the media), and am driving myself to characteristically neurotic distraction with visions of skyscrapers being pounded by surf once that ginormous slab of melting Antarctic ice shelf finally slides into the ocean. Not that I would know (frankly, nobody's asked). But there is this awareness that almost every person on the planet has his or her cherished ideas about this city, and the mere fact of my being here makes me subject to them.

So I thought I would set the record straight.

I am not in a financial crisis. I am actually earning a decent living, in line with the hard-won, if fitful, financial stability of my own private twenty-first century. Not that this is anything to write home about (not least because I don't really have a home to write to). It's extremely relative. I've basically gone from sqeaking by on next to nothing to having a bit of a cushion. This is not the place to write about cushions, nor what kind of strange detritus they could possibly be stuffed with, so I will happily and rapidly move on.

I am not consumed with anger at AIG bonus-takers and their ilk (although I do feel this familiar sense of resentment that our government has been mishandling vast swathes of taxpayer money AGAIN). Rather, I'm relieved that the greedy blinders seem to be finally getting their comeuppance. They might manage to spirit their millions off to the Caymens or other vapid so-called "havens" I will never be visiting in this lifetime, but they will be doing so as broken souls.

I was checking out an unfamilar Irish bar in Tribeca, which unlike the cosier one I already knew was filled with Wall Street types. In a dark corner, an older man was goading the young buck of a trio of dart-playing Streeters into an argument, spitting profanities in his direction with calculated venom. A blonde barmaid pounced on the offender and issued a well-practiced first warning. The older man pretended to be persuaded, but as soon as the barmaid's back was turned disgorged another bundle of overheated verbiage. He was immediately ordered to leave, which he did, but not before inviting his rival to join him outside. As he took his coat and brushed past the trio, the young buck provocatively (and childishly, and stupidly) stood his ground rather than move away, and received the inevitable elbow to the chest.

Barring a few gasps from astonished bystanders, that was the end of it, and the older man disappeared into the night. An anguished soul who strapped his identity so tightly to his money that when the moolah vanished and the straps ceased to hold, his soul was left flailing painfully in the void. Condemned to disgorge his violent sense of unease on a succession of unsuspecting victims until he had finally had his fill of humble pie - or perhaps careened off an existential cliff onto a deeper level of living hell. Or was it rather a case of like seeking like - the wounded old lion howling at the cub who heartlessly seizes the chance to test his budding strength against this ailing king of the pride, whom he would soon be usurping? And they both knew it.

I will only add that at a recent idle moment in the office, my designated totem animal was a sea otter.

Finally, I am not haunted by visions of New York as swamped metropolis. I have, however, read an amazingly vivid account of a catastrophe to come in 2012, which chimed in with a sense of unease I have been lugging around with me for some time now. This particular account included assurances that good would somehow prevail. My sense of powerlessness has accordingly been replaced with a calm - if illogical - certainty that there are greater, better forces afoot than I could possibly hope to rival, or resist, or both. And yet there's renewed hope that if I can learn to bend like a reed in the proverbial wind, I could generate some kind of resonant swish that might just echo through and enliven my small blind patch of the universe. It's been strangely re-assuring to allow myself to believe that these quasi-subconscious rumblings that have been making me queasy all these years may just have some raison d'être, some kind of mysterious hold on reality.