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Friday, September 23, 2011

Famous Austrians VII: Lisette Model

San Francisco, Lisette Model, 1949
Born Elise Amelie Felicie Stern in Vienna in 1901, Lisette Model is one of the most iconic women photographers of the 20th century. She moved from Vienna to Nice as a young girl, and then to Paris to study music in 1926. She later switched her focus to painting and photography and moved to New York with her husband in 1938. To earn a living at first, she worked as a staff photographer for Harper's Bazaar. In the 1950s, she taught photography at the New School in New York. Among her pupils was a young Diane Arbus.
Coney Island, New York, 1941, Lisette Model

Her work is evocative of a need for questioning human motives, society, and in many cases the lives of those on the social fringe in the 1940's and 1950's when Model was at the height of her fecundity. Divorcees, the obese, old people were all considered viable, and worthy, photographic subjects - which can be seen taken to an even further extreme in Arbus' works. Her street scenes and night life photographs are also famous and enduring. The human form, in all its intricacies: beauty, reality of form and figure, necessity of limbs and movement, at once familiarity and strangeness.
Reflections, New York, 1939, Lisette Model

Model died in 1983, but her work lives on. A particularly good  permanent exhibit of her work is at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.  There are also pieces at the MoMA in New York and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Brown Babies: Deutschlands verlorene Kinder

Another interesting program on the ARTE channel (from the same source as the potty special), this one dealing with the so-called Mischungskinder, children who were the offspring of African American G.I.s stationed in Germany and German women after World War II. The program follows four different people who were placed in orphanages by their German mothers and adopted by black American families in the 1950s.

As part of the documentary, these people (three women and one man) in search of their biological heritage, and with that, their identities,travel back to Germany to discover these aspects of themselves. Two of the mothers have already died at the time of filming, but the two alive got to meet their daughters, and one, currently living in the United States with her more "acceptable" white husband, gave an on-camera interview.

The mothers, all women around my own grandmother's age, coming of age in Nazi Germany, were of course products of their time and culture. Yes, this was still the time in the South when a white man and a black man could not eat their sandwiches at the same lunch counter, had to drink from separate water fountains, use separate restrooms. African-Americans were treated not only as second-class citizens, but were terrorized in their own home towns and just had to bear it. In fact, Hitler once said off hand (probably off the record, too) that he got the idea of Jewish segregation from the American model of segregation. Separate but equal? Not exactly.

Europe, on the whole, got a good reputation for being more liberal and accepting of other cultures when American G.I.s were stationed there during World War I, and to this day it still has somewhat the same reputation. Famous examples are black American expats Josephine Baker and Richard Wright, who settled in Paris. And, according to the documentary, the African-American G.I.s stationed in France and Germany during and after the war were treated better than they had ever been at home. Mostly this had to do with their relative novelty, the fact that there weren't a lot of black people in Europe at the time, and what lady can resist a man in uniform?

Well, unfortunately, the G.I.s (and not just the black ones, all American G.I.s) were expected not to fraternize with the enemy - which Germany still was at the time - and certainly not to pick up German girlfriends. The women who ended up having affairs with black G.I.s (or relationships, or marriage proposals) and subsequently became pregnant, had a double burden: not only was the father gone (in many cases, the U.S. Army purposely relocated the men after finding out about illegitimate children), but her baby was a Mischungskind - a "mixed baby" that stuck out like a sore thumb and ruined the whole Aryan race concept. Many women kept their children and were stigmatized, or gave them up for adoption to lead "normal" lives with German husbands.

In the United States, pamphlets circulated trying to send these "brown babies" to black American families, where they would "fit in better." This was the fate of each of the four people followed. Sometimes they were treated well, sometimes they were treated poorly, but they always knew they were adopted - always knew they didn't belong. Henriette, one of the women who was lucky enough to find her mother alive, visits her frequently in Texas where the old woman lives. Speaking in a thick Bavarian accent, she tells the camera with tears in her eyes, "It was the hardest thing I ever had to do, and maybe the worst mistake of my life." Owing that, it still turned out well for them, thanks mostly to Henriette's interest in genealogy.

It's amazing to think that that was just two or three generations ago. Nowadays mixed-race couples are completely free to get married, have children, and live full and happy lives together, without the social pressures terrorizing them. Of course, there are still differences among individual families, but in most of the Western world, it's easier than it's ever been to love whomever you choose. It's come a bit late for all the "brown babies" but hopefully they can rest knowing not only a bit more about where they come from, but that their grandchildren or great-grandchildren will not be put up for adoption based on the color of their skin.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Stumm und Laut: Silent Film Festival in Vienna

Buster Keaton in a still from The General

Last weekend, I attended the Stumm und Laut silent film festival in Colombusplatz in Vienna.

An aficionado of the silent era, in particular Buster Keaton, I was thrilled to discover such an opportunity in Vienna - and for free! Not only that, two different programs for Friday and Saturday, which meant that I had to go both nights. I did, and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

A note on Buster Keaton: I love Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, all those guys.  But Keaton, a child actor from Vaudeville days, is a particular inspiration to me. He once said, "Most men put their pants on one leg at a time, but I'm not most men. I put my pants on two legs at a time," by which he meant that he purposely bought over-sized trousers. One of his gags involved going to a thrift store or other clothing shop, and,  to avoid a certain person, such as in Cops where he tries to evade the police, he pulls a pair of very large pants off the rack and jumps into them. Disguised in his new duds, he walks away from the unsuspecting policeman.

This prompted me, when I was still a freshman at Lawrence, to go down to the local Goodwill store and buy a pair of my own over-sized trousers, affectionately called my "man-pants" because, of course, to get the right effect, I needed to buy men's pants. They were brown, rather ugly, and intended for a short and stout man (inseam 30", waist 38") and wouldn't stay on without a belt. But I bought them and wore them around campus, and practiced jumping into them when my roommate, opposed to any and all "odd" behavior, was out of the room. I still wear them quite often, since they're so comfortable, and no longer terribly odd-looking, what with the "menswear" fad going on now. I didn't pack them for Austria because I didn't really have room...though in missing them, I did wander around the sales racks of the men's department at Peek & Cloppenburg the other day (an Austrian department store, sort of like a high-end T.J. Maxx).

Getting back to the film festival: they played a Lumière film, L’arrivée d’un train en gare de la ciotat, one of the very first moving picutres; two Méliès films: Panorama pris d'un train en marche and Le tunnel sous la manche. These were all accompanied by an a capella singer - amazing to listen to her make train sounds! - and the last film was a feature, Buster Keaton's The General about a train engineer in the south during the Civil War who saves his beloved and town from an advancing Union army. Sometimes, in our modern times, The General is panned because the hero is a Confederate, and I don't know why that is, but I maintain it's still great movie. Very cute and typically Buster Keaton, with plenty of physical humor, but not slapstick. To call Keaton's on-screen acrobatics "slapstick" is to undermine the beauty and art of The Buster Keaton. 

Reference, if you will, some of Charlie Chaplin's work for slapstick. The Rink, for example (show on Saturday along with Méliès' Le Voyage dans la lune and Le raid Paris -Carlo en deux heures, and two Keatons: Cops and Nieghbors  with accompaniment by a Viennese techno-pop group) is one pie-throwing, tumble-down after another, with everyone in the scene bruised and battered but Chaplin. Keaton, on the other hand, like Harold Lloyd, took the pit falls and rat traps and pies in the face himself. Sure, Chaplin had the Little Tramp, and he became richer and more famous around the world than either Lloyd or Keaton, with a longer career that lasted through the silent era and into talkies. But Keaton and Lloyd had the integrity to do their own stunts, the first two fingers of  Lloyd's right hand infamously being blown off during filming of Safety Last (he wore a prosthetic from then on). The thing that did Keaton in, unfortunately, was alcoholism, which he attributed to his first wife leaving him and not allowing him to see his sons.

An interesting article on Keaton and Surrealism by Gordon C. Waite can be found here, if you desire to read up on the artistic nature of what might otherwise be simply called "comedy."

Sunday, September 11, 2011

On the 10th Anniversary of 9/11

I'm surprised to see so much in the news and on TV about the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks here in Austria. But then again, I'm not. The world does feel so globalized watching CNN via satellite, or listening to Angela Merkel express her thoughts on the comparison between 9/11 and the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

When 9/11 happened, I was in the 9th grade, sitting in French class. A neighboring teacher who had the period free knocked on our door and told the French teacher to turn on CNN, now. Something just happened in New York. I remember doing nothing but watch CNN the whole day in every class. People were glued to the screen. They wanted to know how something like this could happen to Americans on American soil. Who did this? What was the motive? Why were the World Trade Towers targeted? Or the Pentagon? When would someone explain this? When would it be better?

The explanation we got was a mediocre one, a small-minded retaliatory reaction. There were Saudi terrorists, who hated America and all it stood for, who hijacked these commercial airplanes and drove them, with innocent civilians aboard, into the Twin Towers. They did what only comes natural to Muslim Arabs - jihad and suicide missions to destroy the American Way. Thus, we as a nation needed to go after Al Qaeda, the organization, and Osama bin Laden, the man, responsible for these atrocities.

I, for one, called bullshit. I hate to get political on this blog, because that's not what it's for, and I don't mean to desecrate the memories of all the innocent victims of the attacks, but after gaining some perspective on things - by living abroad and allowing myself to see things from a non-American vantage, even if second-hand - I realized that nationalism and jingoism are the true evils. They are responsible for the terror attacks. They are responsible for the bombing of mosques, synagogues and churches in the West Bank. They are responsible evoking the term "Freedom Fries" when France did not support the USA's decision to invade Iraq.

Even when I was in 9th grade, when the War on Terror was declared and people were calling for "justice," I cringed. It saddened me to see violence and atrocious, reptilian behavior met with more violence and atrocious, reptilian behavior. For that's what war is. Just think about it: the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have been going on for 10 years and 8 years respectively and have cost a hundred times more casualties that the original attacks, and a thousand times more pain and suffering. The War in Afghanistan is the longest military conflict in American history, having surpassed the Vietnam War in 2010. Not to mention how much money it's costing taxpayers to fund the war - more than all the schools and teachers' salaries, more than all the hospitals and homeless shelters and Planned Parenthood centers and welfare aid paid out in every state of the Union combined.

And growing sentiment since 9/11 further fueled anger against Muslims and Arabs in the United States - and abroad -  subjecting them to racial profiling and other forms of discrimination. When I was working at the summer camp this year, (you may remember my post about this if you "follow" my blog), I was the Munich Airport manager. I had to escort, among other campers, four very nice boys from Bahrain to their plane as unaccompanied minors. When we when through security, each of the boys were body scanned and searched, and treated quite rudely. I especially noticed, as I was treated kindly in contrast, and there's no doubt in my mind it's because I'm white and "European-looking." If I had been wearing a burka, I'm sure I would have been treated differently, too. It made me so angry seeing these sweet little boys patted down just because of the way they looked and where they're from. One of the boys, Muhammed, said to me before we got to the security gate, "I bet we get patted down. We always do." Out of 60 kids, they were the only four who were.

Excuse me if I'm not being enough of a patriot on Patriot Day. I just can't bring myself to sing, "God Bless America" at the top of my lungs, when I know that hatred of a named enemy is what keeps people going in the good ol' US of A. In the 1950s, it was the Russians. Who will it be when oil in the Middle East runs out?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Magistratsabteilung by Any Other Name...Would Still Require Me to Take an Anger Management Course!

After visit #4 to the Magistratsabteilung and still no sign of my residency permit, I am beginning to worry. And also become angry. Yesterday was my latest "encounter".

First, I wake up bright and early to get there when the doors open at 8:30. I wait in a long line, get a number, go up to the 5th floor waiting room - it's almost become a routine - and sit and wait. This time they made me wait an hour and a half before even calling my number. I remember it being much quicker the first time...unless I'm just delusional.

Well, in the meantime between my 2nd visit where the woman told me I needed to go to Amstetten (because I was still registered as living there) and the 3rd visit where they told me they had sent my paperwork to Amtstetten (after I had already de-registered and re-registered in Vienna, which meant I had to wait until Amstetten sent back the paperwork to be able to do anything) I received a letter in the mail from the MA 35 telling me I needed to bring in my birth certificate with apostille - and German translation - and a housing contract stating where I'm living and who's renting to me, a week ago yesterday.

I immediately went to the translator on Monday to get the birth certificate translated, just like they asked in the letter. I got the translation back Thursday, and, having to fork over 150 euros for the damned thing, I was already on edge - strike #1 - considering (if I had a translation degree and/or certification) I could legally do the translation myself. And with out a #$*@ing degree, I can do it myself, but would a ministry accept it as verified?

Anyway, I got the translation back Thrusday. I already had a Mietvertrag (contract) and first thing Friday morning, I thought I would try my luck, to see if I could get by without an apostille, which I thought would be the least of my worries. Not so.

I get in, and the Mietvertrag is not valid, for some reason. I now need to prove that my host mom/landlady can "legally rent to me" which I think is completely ridiculous, and some bull the MA 35 is pulling because they don't like me, or something. I've never heard of anything like this. I emailed the Fulbright Commission, and they were not terribly helpful as of yet, but I am holding out hope. Such things have to be researched, I suppose.

On top of that (the woman telling me the contract was invalid was strike #2), they did not accept my non-apostilled original birth certificate with State of Wisconsin seal and watermark proving authenticity. Which means I have to send the birth certificate back to Wisconsin to get it authenticated, wait for the Secretary of State to send it back, and then go back to the MA 35, on top of having to get some sort of legal authorization on behalf of host mom Johanna.

Not only that, they DIDN'T NEED A TRANSLATION! Upon hearing this (strike #3), and the woman telling me this was all my problem, not hers, I blew up. She told me to stop yelling at her, and I apologized, but I didn't mean it. I would have sworn at her and called her a spineless cretin and a big fat bitch to boot, except that I have to go back at some point and actually get my Aufenthaltstitel and seeing as she may or may not have the power to grant me one at all (better to err on the side of "may"), I held my tongue, stormed out of the office, and once out of the building and on the street, I started crying. Balling my eyes out. I was so frustrated! And the woman had no right to be rude to me.

That's what upset me the most. I know this is my problem, and that they sent the letter stating I need an apostille.  But I didn't have one last year when I went to the Austrian consulate in Chicago. They sent my stuff onto Amstetten anyway. And I didn't think it would hurt anything to try, even if I got rejected and had to go back. I knew I couldn't get anything done with apostille while the birth certificate was at the translator's.

I guess that's life in the big city. Don't expect kindness, or even politeness. In Vienna vs. Amstetten, Amstetten wins in the bureaucracy department. They were actually nice to me at the Bezirkshauptmannschaft in Amstetten!

I might have tried a bribe next time, but my pockets, unfortunately, are too shallow to allow it.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

A book I found in the apartment that looked interesting, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, is a touching, stream-of-consciousness gem that, I think I can say, moved me.

I read it in English (grace à the copy available) though it was originally written and published in French. The story revolves around a concierge named Renée in a ritzy Parisian apartment building who has had to hide her intelligence and love of art and culture all her life, and a 12-year-old girl  named Paloma living in the apartment building, daughter of a university professor and a French parliamentarian, who has the same problem.

I liked the book from its cover, which originally made me want to read it. Also, Johanna collects hedgehogs, and I wondered if this had been given to her based on the title.

It turns out, Renée is compared to a hedgehog by Paloma: tough and prickly on the outside but soft and uassuming on the inside. For some reason that makes them elegant. Not the word I would choose, but whatever. Eventually Renée and Paloma develop a friendship, and become confidants for each other's inner lives, until tragedy strikes. 

The format of the novel is a bifurcated narration, half Renée, half Paloma, and centers a lot on interior monologue and journal entries. Literary and high-brow cultural references abound, as well as some pop culture stuff, mostly pertaining to France. The book is very French - that is, catering to a French audience and written by a French person. It has the same sort of set-up, mistakes, poignant details and allusions as a Truffaut film, with tone and style elements borrowed, it seems, from a Marguerite Duras play, or a Philippe Claudel novel.

The extreme intelligence of both main characters is at first a bit hard to believe, as we only have their opinions to go on, and irksome later on, when they seem so absorbed in absorbing culture, literature, the beauty of the world, etc., that they become static - unmoving, uninterested, and yes, even selfish - vessels of such intelligence. If there really were two geniuses residing at 7, rue de Grenelle, Paris, shouldn't they be doing something more proactive and constructive than whining about how they're so smart that no one will understand them, and the world is so bleak that it's best not to get involved - or just end it all? 

That's not to say Barbery didn't pull off the characters. The book did have remarkably funny parts, and was great fun to read.  Considering myself an intellectual, and tickled especially when I come across obscure references to things I like (Mozart, Kant, Tolstoy, etc.), I loved the characters and the idea behind what Barbery was trying to accomplish. But upon finishing The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I found the idea underdeveloped as a whole. It lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Waldviertel Pur

I really need to start bringing my camera with me on my walks around Vienna.

This is sort of a rehashing of an earlier post where I said the same thing, but, it still holds true.

On the 31st of August, I wandered around on my usual route and, walking through the Burggarten, stumbled upon all of these tents in the nearby Heldenplatz. Well, upon taking a closer look, I realized it was Waldviertel Pur, which is basically a big fat tourism promotion for the Austrian Waldviertel, which is close enough to Vienna that it makes sense they would try to lure city folk with the joys of "country living" such as wooden carvings, handmade baskets, a hundred different types of cured meat, and a thousand different types of cheeses.

There was also a band (don't know if they come from the Waldviertel) and brochures on hiking and other outdoor activities. But the piece de resistance was all of the food you could sample, or buy to take home. I've realized that most of these "event" situations are more or less about eating food and drinking alcohol. Plenty of delicacies to choose from: Wine, beer, and Sturm.

Yes, they have officially started selling Sturm for the season! Sturm, for those unfamiliar with the Austrian wine-making process, is wine in its very first fermentation of the year. It's a lot like grape cider, with the possibility of as much alcohol content as the wine it will become, but tastes just like juice, so you don't feel like you're drinking wine. Thus the name, "storm," which refers most undoubtedly to the hangover you get the next a hurricane in your head. However, since it is only produced for a few short weeks, typically September through October each year, it is a rarity and an indulgence.

The drink, known as "must" in English, appears in other wine-making cultures. But, I ask you, where else but in Vienna would you find sturm sold in such disparate places as: 1) a traditional Kaffeehaus, 2) a ritzy restaurant in the Museums Quartier, 3) a street festival, and 4) an Aldi (Austrian = Hofer)? If you have an idea, let me know.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Film Fantasy

Some interesting news has come my way: a film might be shot in my apartment! Well, I use "my" loosely...the apartment I'm renting. I'm not quite sure the filming dates, or the type of film (drama, I assume) or even if the crew will decide to film here (though it's looking pretty good), but the cinematographer, director and director's assistant have come to look at the apartment several times, which is a good indication.

The film director is Barbara Albert. I didn't recognize her when I met her (she is purportedly quite famous in Austria) but after doing a Google search, I discovered that I have actually seen one of her films: Free Radicals, one of my many "art house" picks from the APL during my college days...I liked it, I think. The thing is, I had a bit of trouble following the various schizoid plots. Which is the point of the film, I guess, that life make no sense, it's just a bunch of meaningless events strung together by the fact of experiencing them. Which is not necessarily a philosophy I agree with, but at least I found the film interesting. I assume Ms. Albert's latest project is in a similar vein. She likes doing disconnected vignettes, so presumably the apartment will be the setting for one of those.

The cinematographer promised that if they do choose the apartment, filming will be brief, I wouldn't have to do anything, and filming would occur sometime in November. If this comes to fruition, we'll see how many of those promises hold true.

In any case, I find it quite exciting, having considered a brief film career (after finishing a screenplay with the one and only CB) -- and who knows? I might end up writing for Hollywood one of these days. At least I can cross my fingers...or daydream as the case may be. Writers should always look into possibilities, even if they are little logical or plausible.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Secret of Storytelling

Alfred E. Neuman of MAD Magazine

I guess I might as well be honest. I've been working on some non-blog writing recently, which may or may not become a novel...and this has led me, I guess, to abandon the blogosphere. I mean, to neglect my blog a bit. Not that any of my undying fans have noticed or anything. But still. I've been having a bit of writer's block, if that wasn't obvious from the post about how hot it is. Total cop-out, obviously. I shouldn't even be explaining it, it's so lame. And yet...this is what we stoop to when we have nothing of interest to say.

Well, I don't know. I guess I'm having a hard time focusing, or finding interesting things about my life to share. Or being able to put them in perspective, at least. One thing I've found semi-inspirational is walking through Vienna. I like taking walks in the evening, around 6:00, so it's a bit cooler, and the sun sets while I'm out. Since the Northern Hemisphere is creeping toward fall, it's been getting dark out earlier, between 7:45 and 8:00. I've also been taking photos of weird things I find in Vienna, mostly shop window displays, or graffiti, but sometimes monuments or people.

I went on a walk a few days ago and regret not bringing my camera (which is why it't on me at all times now). I was walking through the Hofburg when I saw this strange-looking couple. She was in a 1940's dress that grazed her ankles and lace-up heels, with a matching hairdo, and he was in a checked shirt, suspenders and a straw hat, more like from the 1920's. I was coming out of the area where the Lipizzaner horses are kept, and as I walked out, I saw them waiting to cross the road. I couldn't help it: I stared at them, trying to figure out what they were. Extreme hipsters? Reform Amish on vacation? To me they stood out as much as those guys dressed in cutaways and powdered wigs to sell Mozart tickets near all the touristy monuments. I'm pretty sure they were just tourists, and I'll never see them again, but next time I go out, I'll be sure to snap a photo of the Mozart wannabes. Anyone who's been to Vienna before has probably been accosted by these guys and knows just what I'm talking about.

You know the old adage: a picture says a thousand words. Maybe that will help me master the art of storytelling. At least it will give you something better to look at.