Monday, July 28, 2014

In the Garden

Gardens are clearly places where the tension between wabisabi and modernism or the pursuit of perfection are most evident.  There may be a desire among gardeners to keep the garden pristine and hide the traces of decay in particular.

During a garden photography course I taught in the summer of 2013 an experience photographer replete with all of the equipment would would ask for asked me what the secrets were for getting a shot with all of the flowers at their peak.  It was evident from the flowers in question that it was unlikely that all the blossoms in the shot would bloom at the same time or have life cycles long enough to maintain their unblemished petals long enough for the other buds to open.  The options would have been to wait or keep shooting but it may have been his preference that I suggest photoshopping the images or coming up with some concoction that could be fed to the plants to synchronize their life cycle in some way.

The desire to have a garden show its best face or bring some perfection to our eyes to please an audience whether is a narrow vision and there likely isn't an appropriate feature on a Swiss Army Knife to achieve that goal.  There are gardeners who likely obsess over the details and their definition of "cleanliness" in the garden that drives them to pick, root and deadhead through their gardens constantly.  Such an attention to detail may engender a profound familiarity with the garden but it does so at the expense of taking the gardener out of the moment.

The obsession with controlling the garden and ensuring that it is in some ideal state actually takes the gardener out of the moment.  The requirement that the garden be in some state of order arbitrarily defined and chosen by the gardener is an attempt to impose some form of uniformity in the garden that disables the gardener's vision or acceptance of the patterns and cycles that are occurring in that defined space.  This impulse to control should not flourish is gardens.  It is bad enough that it happens on mono-crop industrial farms.  In the garden, the plants, gardener and whoever happens upon it ought to have the opportunity to find new microcosms with each visit and turn of the head and never trouble their minds or backs with the matter of disposing of fallen petals.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

IKEA: The Antithesis of Wabi-sabi

IKEA furniture downcycled to serve as yard furniture subjected 
to dubious indifference to the elements and missing parts.
One of the things that enchants in objects that possess elements of wabisabi is the evidence of their age and the graceful decay or erosion that occurs with use and the passing of time.  I think of the wear of the family knife that my parents have used for the entire 48 years of their marriage.  The blade has narrowed with the methodical, regular sharpenings that have occurred over time and I'm slightly jarred by the newer wooden handle that had been added to the blade and has impact of time and countless runs through the sink-load of dishes day after day.

The effort to evade the passage of time with the use of veneer or some fabricated material -- whether plastic, nylon, vinyl or any of their seemingly life-proof cousins of the chem lab -- to fend off the insistence of time ultimately ends up being a cloying product that does not encourage us to form any attachment to the objects that we bring into our lives.

Whether it is redefining our home space with do-it-yourself building materials that manage to forgive the most incompetent of handymen (guilty as charged), or filling our space with furniture that we never form a real attachment to and ages in a manner that decays and degrades rather than erodes and wears with a graceful response to time.

Much of the furniture that is in our homes comes from IKEA and many of us who buy and use it have a deeper attachment to the brand, the efficiency and the Euro-quirkiness of the product rather than the comfort that comes to use throughout a period of continued use.  With the passage of time the chipping away of the veneer to reveal the compressed wood product beneath does not enchant us with increased appreciation of those items over the passage of time.  Perhaps that disposability is ideal in a world that has been more suburban over the last generation or two and not so coincidentally more transient as well.  There is more than a characterization-forming joke to the IKEA sequence in the movie Fight Club.  The suggestion of The Narrator's ennui with keeping up the appearances of a middle class male is explicit but 15 years after the fact it has had little apparent impact on the IKEA brand.  The Narrator is still left deeply, ineffably dissatisfied by the home environment he has purchased for himself and there is a good chance that, despite the buzz of a new-purchase and the satisfaction of sating our long suppressed affection for Lego, we are as well.

At a time when we are growing more conscious of environment in both micro and macro concepts, surrounding ourselves with things that - at the very moment we purchase them - we know we will dispose of rather than hand down seems to lack an economy or utility that we would find at an antique shop or a garage sale.  Those older items have served there time and have survived the wear of use and bear the scars and dents as a badge of honour rather than the increments of time before being trundled off to the landfill.

Surrounding ourselves with things that bring comfort for something other than our butts when we settle down in front of the TV is but one way to improve our surroundings and as I have said before is to actually own things that we use and become attached to over time rather than merely accumulating things that have little utility or may not earn much affection if they serve any utility.  It is valuable and enriching to fill our lives and surroundings with things that warrant our affection even though that may be considered inanimate.  Think of the unadorned amalgam of straight lines that is a Billy bookcase, replete with the sawdust composite board that you tried to hammer in to provide a back for the shelves. That "board" is forever threatening to bow out of its slots or slip past the penny nail you gingerly tapped into it, right?  Compare that to a heavier, older bookcase that came from an antique shop or an estate sale or even a few planks and a stack of bricks you use to cobble together your own and in that you will find a difference akin to your favorite dog-earred novel and the cardboard replicas that line the shelves that invite you further down the aisles in your local IKEA.

When filling your surroundings and making a space to call your own put aside the ornate engineering and product-testing and seek out something that you like and can attach yourself to over time.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Handcrafted Movie

Given the manner in which Hollywood movies are made, and packaged as product, it would be a stretch to state that there are elements of wabisabi in their creation.  The effort to get a large group of participants, all under the command of a producer or director to fulfill their requirements in the completion of a vision that is compromised to the intent of the producer and, in the case of the most popular movies we encounter, the bottom line.

The extent of this compliance with the profit motive and the consequent production of a product that all too often does not bear the vision or personal imprint of an auteur is something that was best illustrated during a screen-writing course I participated in in 2000.  During one part of the program, the instructor introduced what he called the Brainstorm Machine, which basically was a process where you take the elements of a story you like and switch elements in the story.  Instead of a man, have a female lead character, change the setting from the old west to outer space, change the threat from an earthquake to a forest fire and so on and so forth.  Elements may be different, but the spine of the story and its structure are intact and the imitation prevents unique voices from being heard or perhaps even used.  I know that the intent for the Brainstorm Machine was just that, to brainstorm.  The content coming out of Hollywood, with coincidental meteor-borne apocalypse movies coming at the same time and the Hangover movies spawning the all-female copy of Bridesmaids, it is easy to believe the Brainstorm Machine has been well-used.

"Independent" filmmakers broke away from the conventions of Hollywood norms throughout the 1990s but gradually the evolution that this filmmakers brought to the screen was slowed as their talents gradually got funnelled into the mainstream and the risks grew fewer.  Think of Steven Soderbergh career from Sex, Lies and Videotape to Ocean's Twelve or Thirteen.

Boyhood, already meeting the biggest rave reviews of the year, seems to be the antithesis to the Hollywood imitation not only in terms of theme and content, but the way it was made as well.  Richard Linklater, director and writer of the Before trilogy with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy over the last twenty years, has made Boyhood over the course of 12 years to chart the growth of his lead actor as much as his main character.

Rarely, if ever, has a filmmaker either begin given this autonomy to complete a coming of age story over the course of real time.  Linklater has turned his lens on his subjects and carefully refine his story in an intuitive and nuanced manner that few filmmakers have had the opportunity to do when they are more tightly bound to script and schedule.  Linklater and his cast have invested a significant part of their lives and enriched the story and perhaps altered their own lives with an truly enriched collaborative process on the set because of their long-term commitment to the project as well.  The collaboration and commitment enhanced their collective sense of moment that they have shared and created together throughout the course of the 12 years they worked on the film.  All told, it results in an intuitive and organic approach to the film.  The story-telling that is enriched by a lingering consciousness about the passage of time they are spending together.  Throughout the process, there had to be a sensitivity on everyone's part to the changes and opportunities that were being presented to the cast and crew as they grew.  Truly this has been a film that has been crafted and polished rather than manufactured as so many other tend to be.

In all likelihood, this was a movie that made with an appreciation for the story, the time it was made, and a prevailing sensitivity to the moment unfolding before and behind the camera as this cast and crew work together and develop a working relationship amongst all the participants that would rarely develop on sets that aren't worked on at such a leisurely pace.  In the process, Linklater and his colleagues have made a film that has had the opportunity to resonate with viewers in ways few films ever do.

In his commitment to mindfully record these fictional lives, Linklater has made a film that seems deeply enriched by its patience to revel in the passage of time.