HESO Magazine

Photography, Music, Film, Hitchhiking, Craft Beer – Cultural Pugilist

Author: Sean Lotman (Page 2 of 4)

Fujirock Festival – Rebel Without A Raincoat

Fujirock Festival – Rebel Without A Raincoat

I prepped for FujiRock 2013 as I do any journey lasting a few days: I woke up early and hustled. My preparations involved organizing for inclement weather, as the weekend forecast for Naeba and its environs was rain, soft rain, hard rain, thunder-and-lightning rain, and finally, some more rain. I would have to get used to being wet. So I took five minutes to youtube the famous deluge scene from Woodstock. The split screen of naked hippies mud-sliding and an avid drum circle prompted me to to watch Santana and his band of crackerjack musicians blowing our minds with “Soul Sacrifice.” Shouldn’t have done that. I have enough generational envy as is without being reminded of it the day before submitting my rhythm to some institutionally average contemporaries.

Fujirock Festival – Rebel Without A Raincoat

But let’s face it: judging by the festival lineup I’m not the only one boostering for the past. Headlining Friday, Saturday, Sunday nights respectively were Nine Inch Nails, Björk, and The Cure, who were all much more relevant a long time ago (including Björk despite recent mainstream success). Yo La Tengo, My Bloody Valentine, The Sea and the Cake, Karl Hyde (of Underworld), Jurassic 5, Suzanne Vega, Aimee Mann, and Cat Power were also around for those old enough to remember being among the first listeners on our block to cry, “Huzzah, what a sound!” I wager many of us with an emotional investment in the festival are on a nostalgia high, and can you blame us with contemporary meh like Vampire Weekend, Mumford & Sons, and The XX, to say nothing of some earplugs-are-a-plus unmentionables such as Skrillex and its numerous derivatives of doggerel?

A festival the length and breadth of FujiRock is like an aural smorgasbord on the scale of the Sunday Brunch at the Four Seasons Hotel. The food is various indeed, but so overpriced you can’t help feel a bit disappointed after gorging yourself silly on as many dishes you can fit down your gullet. That being the case, no two experiences are alike. With dozens of acts scattered on different stages along a wide swath of colonized nature, you have to make some hard choices (Sparks vs. My Bloody Valentine, for example), though for me at least, I felt fine enough choosing the Burlesque Bar, where friends congregated and mojitos were plentiful.

Have you ever tried to boogie down in hiking boots? It's not very cool, but neither is grooving in wet socks. Click To Tweet

Tame Impala at Fujirock 2013

Tame Impala at Fujirock 2013

The first highly anticipated act, My Bloody Valentine, was received by a consensus of disappointment. “Not loud enough,” was the most consistent charge; when you’re famous for a Wall of Sound, your band’s acoustics will be missing a key structural element playing in the Great Outdoors. As if the collective shrug touched a divine nerve, the skies erupted at the end of the set, punishing those who’d lingered to the end.

Luckily, the young band I was most excited to see, Tame Impala, was playing in the Red Marquee, a covered stage area best known for all-night parties of DJs and their beatmaking bupkis (it ain’t FujiHouse you lollipoppers, it’s FujiRock– get your own rainy day soggy-bottom festival, suckers). Tame Impala have all the makings of rock superstardom– their sound leaps from the psychedelic cliff of the Beatles’ Revolver album (most specifically “Tomorrow Never Knows”). They’ve all the prerequisite vibes of a gloriously hedonistic career: good looks, headbanging hair, a psychedelic light show, and an authentically dope rock and roll sound.

But I had the same problem with Tame Impala that I had with My Bloody Valentine– in all those sonic waves the vocals were impossible to make out, the lyrics lost. I also realized that as talented as these lads were, I didn’t know a single player’s name. This seems endemic in the iPod generation– names, song titles, lyrics, a gist of details has lost its relevance. Within mp3 culture, depersonalization has become the norm. Or are we regressing as listeners so that lyrics– the poetry of language– is too much of a bother? Shall we assign blame to the DJ and his technophilic agenda?

This I pondered a bit in the Burlesque Bar during Trent Reznor’s performance. I heard the thunder and lightning show made for a dramatic set, though I suppose one would have to find some justification for standing out in the pouring rain for NIN’s somewhat celebrated pompousness. I missed out, safely ensconced in the Burlesque Bar where this writer endeavored his after hours intoxication and tried to dance when the DJ put on Blue Monday. Have you ever tried to boogie down in hiking boots? It’s not very cool, but neither is grooving in wet socks.

For those camping at the festival, finding equilibrium is just as important as having your mind blown by some ace guitar licks. The human body being a sensitive machine, one finds himself balancing heat against cold, alertness against rest, solitude against the crowd, quiet against bombast. The weather is so capricious: during Yo La Tengo’s set it must have changed from rain to sun a half dozen times in 45 minutes. You keep your raincoat next to the sunscreen in your daybag for convenient access. It can be a battle maintaining enthusiasm with all that rain, mud, and crowd. Some rest, a quiet beer, and good conversation can rejuvenate the overly sated audiophile.

Preserving some tranquility for myself, I skipped most of Saturday’s daytime performances, save for Aimee Mann (who still radiates indie-cool as a fiftysomething and whose songs from the soundtrack to Magnolia, “Wise Up” and “Save Me,” remain the only redeeming qualities of that most abominable film). Saturday afternoon was deluged with shitty rain, only tapering off in the evening. I missed Karl Hyde’s set because of relocating my tent to more level ground.

I was just in time to catch the second half of Canadian singer-songwriter, Daniel Lanois, who was charming and smart, a throwback for whom lyrics matter. His was a trio and the set was stripped down and straight, feelings wrought from life into art, creating an aura of intimacy, like you shared a bottle of bourbon with the band. It was my first time hearing him, and a pleasure to fall under a performer’s spell.

It’s somewhat treacherous to travel from Daniel Lanois to Björk (bypassing Kendrick Lamar: (Me) “Dick, don’t kill my vibe”). Though I’ve always respected Björk as a performance artist, I’ve never loved her music. As Rob, my companion most of the festival, put it, though he might not listen to her records he couldn’t imagine falling in love with a girl who didn’t. Anyway, for all I could glean on the Green Stage Björk was just a blue-looking freak-figure prancing and singing with a chorus of theaterical pixie chicks. I couldn’t make out how weird the costumes were– instead of Björk and her frolicking elves on the video screens, we suffered a visual montage of uninspired animation. Definitely something was off, as if Björk had overestimated the pretensions of her audience. After just two songs from her new album I was ready to move on. I really don’t get Björk, which feels like being the guy at the Four Seasons buffet who can’t get a handle on the chef’s piece de resistance. The patrons are gaga over its delectable piquancy but all I want is the apple being ignored on a fruit platter in the far corner of the dining hall. That apple is Garth Hudson.

Fujirock Festival – Rebel Without A Raincoat

Fairies in the Wild

“Garth who?” was most people’s reactions when we told them whom we were seeing instead of Björk, to which query our most convenient answer was Bob Dylan’s organist way back. But of course for those who love late sixties folk, he was an integral member of the North American group, The Band. Dressed in black and a boater hat, his long white beard the kind familiar with nineteenth century daguerrotypes, Hudson was easily the oldest performer at FujiRock at 75 years old. You might not know his name, but you know the music he helped create, including such seminal singalongs as “The Weight” and “Up on Cripple Creek.” Sitting on a swivel chair amid a grand piano, electric organ, and keyboards, he remains a virtuoso instrumentalist. Along with a sax player/bassist with an uncanny pitch perfect grasp of the deceased Levon Helm’s and Rich Danko’s bittersweet wailing, Garth’s wife, Sister Maud, sings the old standbys. Wearing sunglasses and a cap, pushed onto the stage in a wheelchair, she beat time with a cane, and nobody could figure out why she had a MacBook Pro propped on her chair (for the lyrics? Live-tweeting? Pictures of loved ones?) This was folk in the folkiest sense of the word, a Kodak moment for benevolent globalization, an American surrounded by Japanese fans singing along to the band, “Take a load off fanny/ Take a load for free/ And put the weight/ Put the weight back on me.” Turns out R and I are not the only ones who prefer apples.

Sunday’s highlight came early for me with Yo La Tengo. They played mostly from their new album, Fade. Their performance was all too short and consummately beautiful. A scheduling SNAFU on the itinerary consequenced with us catching the tail end of the delightful New Orleans outfit, The Hot 8 Brass Band. Everyone was talking about the last chance to see Wilko Johnson, who was dying of cancer, but he seemed to put on a spirited performance of blues rock if you go for that sort of thing. Following some mid-afternoon recuperation, Toro y Moi put on a lively demonstration of chillwave, though to me at least, I found it wanting, regretting that I’d overlooked the set by “that Ethiopian guy” (Mulatu Astatke).

I am not an economist, an event planner, or a sadist, so perhaps I'm not the best expert on this, but it seems to me if a musical festival I organized had a bad reputation for rain, mud, and discomfort, I would consider either a… Click To Tweet

A Showy Climax during Björk's set at Fujirock 2013

A Showy Climax during Björk’s set at Fujirock 2013

Because Cat Power is wearying and Vampire Weekend a paradigm of contemporary banality, R and I rested in the tent, charging our batteries for The Cure. That was a good thing, because though they’ve been active for 35 years, you’d never guess they’re slowing down after a three-hour set. Robert Smith might be an older, heavier version of his younger incarnation, but the beautiful freak still has terrific vocal power and his energy never wavered. We were up near the stage, surrounded by Cure fanatics arguing over favorite albums and Robert Smith hairstyle epochs. Unfortunately, the crowd became most enthusiastic for the appallingly schmaltzy “Friday I’m In Love,” which was about the time I thought I needed to check out of whimsical nostalgia and check in with a burger. You know what they say about too much of a good thing.

At 6am, Monday morning, I was awoken by a bullhorn reminding me and fellow campers that we had to leave by 10am. Not wishing to be stuck in a bottleneck traffic crush in line for the free shuttlebus to Echigo-Yuzawa and the train home, I got up and moved. Packing your tent in the pouring rain on three hours sleep is a lousy way to end a weekend. I am not an economist, an event planner, or a sadist, so perhaps I’m not the best expert on this, but it seems to me if a musical festival I organized had a bad reputation for rain, mud, and discomfort, I would consider either a different venue or a weekend known for historically favorable meteorology. It certainly seems to me locating FujiRock between Japan’s two largest population centers– the Kanto and Kansai regions– would make attendance more convenient for thousands of fans. Also, booking the second biggest music festival– Summer Sonic– within two weeks of FujiRock fails to take account of concert fatigue. Would Japanese organizers not profit both festivals by having them bookend the summer, especially FujiRock if it were scheduled for Summer Solstice weekend in a famously dry locale? But this is Japan, and who knows what kind of backroom sweetheart deals have led to our awkward present circumstances? It’s politics, stupid. That change comes at a glacial pace in this country bodes that next year and the year after will be bogged down in mud too.

In the meantime the show must go on. Though I didn’t personally witness it I have a vision of a rock and roll hippie grooving in the crowd– he’s taken off his shoes and socks and his shirt is long gone. He’s dancing by himself to the music, younger than me, less jaded, more faded, impressionable, likable, a zen moment kind of guy with a fancy footloose, an elemental sort of man, super in a way, a starring role in his own daydream, a dude enthralled by the spirit, a sight to behold, a rebel without a raincoat.

Delhi On The Corner - Pop Zeitgeist by Sean Lotman

The Delhi on the Corner

I asked my soul: What is Delhi? She replied: The world is the body and Delhi its life.

–The poet Ghalib quoted in Khushwant Singh’s Delhi: a Novel

It was almost ten years ago but I don’t suppose I’ll ever forget the first time I arrived in Delhi. This was back in the day before they opened the modern, antiseptic terminal that handles international traffic. My flight had landed at three in the morning–I remember broken windows, shitty lighting and bad vibes. And being mobbed coming out of customs by desperate taxi drivers, winding up in a 3-wheeler tuktuk and the long drive into the city, indigents burning campfires on the roadside, farm animals wandering in the traffic lanes, and even in this witching hour, an incessant noise, the undisciplined application of vehicular horns. After checking into my hotel, I can recall my deep reluctance to leave the room, burning with regret over my decision to travel India for six weeks.

The Delhi on the Corner

In the last decade, I’ve flown into Delhi six times. Delhi is not the destination, of course; India is. For many of us, Delhi is more of a way station or a bazaar; it’s where the traveler stocks up on the necessities overlooked in his haste packing his bags. Most of us pick up our ongoing rail tickets on the day of arrival. No one loves Delhi but deep down, I think most of us like it. Because it’s where we say “Hello, India,” and when we’re done, “Farewell.”

Was Delhi really more desperate ten years ago or have I become so acclimatized that Delhi’s chaos is now a variety of normalcy, albeit an extreme version? Click To Tweet

Unfortunately for the city, if one googles “Delhi” the autofill names “Delhi gang rape” as its first search suggestion. This is not accidental. Delhi’s history goes back a thousand years to when it was known as Qila Rai Pithora. It has experienced many incarnations, eight cities, through the centuries: Siri, Tughluqabad, Jahanpanah, Firozabad, Purana Qila, and Shahjahanabad. Prior to New Delhi being built by the British Raj, Turks, Afghans, and Mongol hordes crisscrossing the continents in search of blood and booty laid waste to Delhi, starving its citizens, purging its enemies, torching its temples. The thing about the city today is that outside the wealthy suburbs and the business-leisure downtown district of Connaught Place, much of the Delhi’s crumbling architecture appears lately pillaged, though this ‘rustic’ aesthetic is more to do with neglect than the barbarians’ wake.

Most travelers enter India via Delhi and its airport and the transition is startling, even for the seasoned hand. Of course this is what you’re in for: different cultures play by different rules and you’re supposed to be learning about yourself in this (mis)adventure. When dealing with the insufferable crowds, traffic, shysters, bureaucracy, your character is tested. Moreover, you can’t help but think hey, for all the snafus at home, it’s not the disarray Delhi labors under. One is reminded that things in your real life aren’t so bad. At the same time, you try not to die here, as this is a city of djinns, and you really don’t want your own ghost marooned in such a sloppy megalopolis.

Delhi On The Corner - Pop Zeitgeist by Sean LotmanBut we should be little bit fair to Delhi. It has its sites. To name but a few: the Red Fort, Shah Jahan’s magnificent sandstone citadel; the Jama Masjid a beautiful seventeenth century mosque located in the medieval atmosphere of Old Delhi; the crooked, phallic 12th century Qutub Minar; not to mention the many museums (including one for toilets) and bazaars.

Having spent so much time in Delhi over the years, I don’t often go sightseeing. Instead I wander Paharganj, the main bazaar near New Delhi Train Station. It’s where I always stay when I’m in town and though it has its share of backpackers there are enough gray-haired hippies who remember the old days, trumping us young ones with their acid-laced anecdotes. In Paharganj, I have my restaurants, food stands, chai stalls, and rooftop lounge patios that I patronize. First meal whenever I’m in town is a rava onion masala dosa at Sonu Chat House, a no-frills joint where you share your tables with strangers and the food is cheap, good, and safe. If it’s dusk I like to go to the rooftop of the Hare Krishna restaurant. I don’t go for the fare (terrible except the ginger-honey-lemon tea) but the city looks beautiful in the gloaming light. Sometimes there are birds-of-prey hovering over the mess. The decay looks poetic and beautiful in magic hour light—I’d take a sunset over Delhi than Geneva anytime. There is a sense of relief as night falls. That those of us appreciating the coming darkness have survived. Because that’s what most of us do in Delhi, residents and visitors, we just try to make it through the day in one piece.

I’ve been going to India for ten years and in that time I’ve seen Delhi undergo some significant change. Much of it still looks like the aftermath of a catastrophe, but no question emerging middle-class wealth has led to some gentrification downtown. There are more cars and motorbikes on the road, more cameras and mobiles in people’s hands. A lot of the changes, including the new airport terminal, were done when Delhi hosted the Commonwealth Games a few years back. In my own Delhi world, they paved the road in the main bazaar and kicked the street merchants and mendicants out of Connaught. India is learning well from us in its process of Westernization: it’s not just transitioning to a hyper-consumerist society, but filtering the underclass out of its presentation of a competent, happy place. I could be wrong and many Indians are ascending socio-economic ladders, but in this country cynicism is a survivor’s tool. Or maybe it’s mostly the same as it ever was and it’s my memory playing tricks on me. Was Delhi really more desperate ten years ago or have I become so acclimatized that Delhi’s chaos is now a variety of normalcy, albeit an extreme version?

Delhi On The Corner - Pop Zeitgeist by Sean LotmanThis past month I came to India to visit Gujarat, specifically the Kutch region, in the dusty, desert frontier near southern Pakistan. For all my time spent in India it was a challenging experience and though I managed to stay active and accomplish what I’d set out to do I was debilitated by all sorts of physical complaints. Some threshold was breached halfway through the journey. In the midst of an agonizing health crisis I asked myself, “What am I still doing here in India?” I vowed that this was it, the last hurrah.

A week later, when I returned to Delhi on an overnight train from Ahmedabad, among the many unions striking that day were the taxi and tuktuk workers and I was stuck taking a cycle-rickshaw to Paharganj. The pockmarked road was a disgrace. “India!” I cursed. I’d planned some excursions into the city, but with the strike going I decided to remain in the New Delhi area until my flight left that night. I had my dosa at Sonu Chat House and read my novel in the park in Connaught Place. At dusk, I went to the roof of the Hare Krishna and had my tea and watched the sun fall beyond the serrated edge of my sight and I realized that my resolution of moving on would come to naught. Like a family member or a difficult friend you’ve known for years, I love India even if I don’t like it very much. Sooner or later, I’d stand on this same Delhi rooftop, feeling grateful to be alive, asking myself, “What am I still doing here in India?” My tea finished, I would once more begin the long process answering this incomprehensible question.

A Floating World in Bloom - HESO Interviews Tokyo-based photographer Michael Nguyen

A Floating World in Bloom – Interview with Michael Nguyen

I first met Michael Nguyen on a beautiful spring day in Tokyo, the flowers in bloom. We were in a Shibuya park on Meiji Dori, where an anti-nuke rally climaxed in a costumed hippie drum offensive, bursting in the dappled light. If I remember correctly, Mike had a can of beer and a cigarette (he likes his tobacco, lights it with a Zippo with a dazzling flair that would make a seamus smile). It didn’t take long to establish friendship: he was a Gaucho and so was I, alumni of University of California at Santa Barbara, meaning we’d both known Paradise as younger men and that this heady knowledge acquired as twenty-year-olds had affected our lifelong trajectories. I’ve only known Mike for about two years but judging by his photography, I can see he’s never discarded the pleasures introduced in Santa Barbara. It’s nice to see that he’s still trailing after beautiful manifestations, glad he sees fit to share his gleaning with the rest of us. Mike’s wonderfully eccentric street tableaux aside, he’s well-known among his peers for his bathing beauties—what has been called his “babe in the onsen” motif, but really that is simplifying and involves not a little envy. There is an element in fantasy in such an intimate, sensual image. After all, most of us photographers are not Lothario types, and an attractive woman will not be seduced by the size of our lens. Something more is at work, something mysterious, which I suppose is a secret, and a well-guarded one.

We at HESO then are proud to present a sample of Michael’s work—his women, and because it’s spring, his flowers, for what better way to illustrate the ephemeral beauty that breaks our hearts, then to complement these lithe, youthful figures with the ambassadors of spring, in which we are reminded we have yet another chance to set things right.

A Floating World in Bloom – Interview with Michael Nguyen

A Floating World in Bloom - HESO Interviews Tokyo-based photographer Michael NguyenHESO: Why photography? Why not painting? Or music? Or triathlons?

Michael Nguyen: If you have ever heard me at karaoke then you would know why not music. Photography and painting do not necessarily really differ in terms of how we experience time and space, but the creation phase is different. Painting starts out in the light and develops gradually, but remains visible the entire time. A photo captures a scene all at once and is then developed over time in a dark laboratory. Digital is changing all of that, but that’s another story. Photography for me is the best means of expressing and hanging on to those little fleeting splinters of life we experience each day.

HESO: How did you get into photography? I believe you majored in it at UC Santa Barbara. Do you think studying the subject at university has made you a better photographer?

MN: I was a graphic design major actually. I started taking photography classes in college and fell in love with the zen state of mind in the darkroom. I can’t say I really learned much in college, nothing I couldn’t have learned by going to galleries myself and looking at books and hanging out with other photographers.

HESO: Which cameras do you prefer? And why? Does shooting with film matter?

MN: Ah, the obligatory gear porn question. I suppose it depends on what I shoot. For street photography I have my Leica M6 with a 50mm Sumicron, which is good for much single-subject shots. For portraits and landscape I have my Rolleiflex Sl66 for the slower process and higher film resolution, basically a Hassy with bellows that allows me to play around with the focal plane. I haven’t seen anyone else using one. To keep the film vs digital debate succinct, I’m of the opinion that from a personal expression point-of-view, the process does matter and the process of shooting film slows things down and allows one to think with deeper clarity. It doesn’t help that I’m a sentimental motherfucker who clings to bygone things. The well-worn cliche here being if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. There was nothing wrong with film photography when digital came along. Which isn’t to say that digital is bad or anything per se–it makes commercial work more efficient and streamlined, but it hasn’t added anything to the art form.

HESO: Though we are featuring a series of flowers and feminine beauty, you’re a bit of a street photographer as well. What is it you’re looking for on the street?

MN: Other than the typical “I wanna capture the fleeting moments of life” schpiel, street photography is my way of sticking it to the man so to speak. Like poker, the house always wins. Every now and then the perfect hand comes and you happen to bet big and take down the house. Most of the time we take shitty snapshots of mundane objects, but when that perfect moment comes where you’re at the right place at the right time and had the right settings on your camera, and, well, that time is beautiful.

HESO: Do you enjoy shooting in Japan better than elsewhere? How is it different than shooting in the States?

MN: Difficult to answer really. It wasn’t until I got to Japan that I took it seriously. So I can’t say I’ve had a good attempt at really shooting in other places. I did recently go to Spain however and found the light there to feel harsh and low, quite challenging.

A Floating World in Bloom - HESO Interviews Tokyo-based photographer Michael NguyenHESO: What is the most difficult aspect of being a photographer today?

MN: Coming up with something groundbreaking and new since everything seems like its been done. Cliche is the enemy.

HESO: So much good photography in my experience is due the serendipitous moment. Share with us a story of accidental good fortune.

MN: In life anyway, accidental is the only kind of good fortune I get. As far as photography, I can’t go as far as to say I’ve had any true serendipitous moments. You always try to be in the place with the best possibility of seeing something interesting and be prepared as best as you can. Photography isn’t a terrible John Cusack movie.

HESO: Flowers, youth, the elegant form of the female nude… what else do you find beautiful in this world?

MN: That’s just about it! Haha. With the sensory overload in this day and age I’ve become so jaded and numb that anything that stimulates any kind of emotion, good or bad, is beautiful in this world. Being rather immature for my age however, beauty remains a superficial thing unfortunately…

HESO: Your photos presented herein are just lovely. Any chance they’ll become part and parcel of a more comprehensive project on beauty?

MN: Ideally yes. but again like I mentioned earlier its really hard not to do cliche and redundant things, so who knows. I’m torn between just getting out there or hold out till I have something mind blowing. waiting for that epiphany.

HESO: You are somewhat notorious among your friends for the ‘babe in the onsen’ motif, but a lot of the ribbing is just jealousy. They would love to imitate you if only they could! Any tips for guys on making their beautiful girlfriends comfortable enough to pose in such intimate circumstances?

MN: Lots of booze! Seriously though, women tend to be insecure creatures. Reassuring them of how sexy they are and showing your passion in having them as such an integral part of your vision is key. Everyone just wants to feel needed and loved.

See more of Michael’s work here.

Coming of Age - The Long Journey

Japan’s Coming of Age – Long Journey

In the summer of 1995, I was 19 years old, living on my own a few blocks from the sea in Isla Vista, a suburb of Santa Barbara, adjunct to the city’s university. Though I had summer school classes and a job, it was a good time for me. Romantically, I was unattached, my bout with teenaged acne had finally cleared up, my hair had grown hippie brave and so had my fashion style. I was riding my bike to Sands Beach on sunny days and listening to classic rock all the time— Neil Young, Bob Dylan, The Byrds. My closest friend that summer was a dude we called The Gripper, who was like a guru to me in what we called the art of jibbing (sic)— encountering beautiful girls and charming them into giving awkward young men a chance. That summer, on the 31st of August, I turned twenty years old. For the first time in my young adult life I knew exactly who I was and I was all right with that. To paraphrase, I was my own man now and have been ever since.

Of course, for Americans, the big birthday isn’t 20, but 21, when you’ve reached the legal drinking age (turning 18 gives you the right to smoke tobacco, vote in your political representatives and die for your country but that doesn’t have the same cachet as a six-pack for most of us). Personally twenty-one was a bit of an anticlimax— I’d had a fake ID for several years, and moreover had landed in Paris on the morning of my 21st birthday, where if you’re old enough to see over the counter, you’re old enough to order a drink.

There is a significant difference between a charming ass and an ass. Looking back, it was hard to parse what was and what wasn’t. Selective memory is an incredibly powerful survival mechanism. Click To Tweet

Japan’s Coming of Age – Long Journey

In Japan, all the aforementioned privileges of adulthood are granted at twenty. There is even a holiday for it, the second Monday of January, known as Seijin no Hi, literally ‘Coming of Age Day,’ in which everybody who’s just turned twenty over the previous year gets dressed up and attends a (reputedly) dull ceremony at the local assembly hall, where they are at once congratulated on their calendar years and reminded that they are now citizens with the responsibilities of adulthood to consider.

These admonishments mostly fall on deaf ears. The real action is just outside, where several hundred young men and women loiter, either waiting to go inside or coming out, or else just rallying noisily over a bottle of shochu, or, conspiratorially, huddling over a smoke. Most of the men wear suits—their boy-next-door hair is neatly trimmed and carefully combed. A significant minority wears the hakama, and it being January, the haori, a hip-length kimono jacket. But we aren’t speaking of the formal-wear you’d wear to your grandmother’s machiya for green tea— the haori du jour is flamboyantly colorful, some featuring fierce animals (the tiger being a popular motif). Many of these youthful specimens have notable piercings and gratuitous tattoos; on not a few is an aura of aerosol, testified by a blonde, spiky haircut advocated by some trendy, tasteless youth mag. These young men might be adults now but their Japanese falls somewhere between uncouth and impolite and their communal laughter is shriller than a company of hyenas. Whatever you might think about Japanese men being shy, circumspect, and abstract in their indirectness would be dispelled by such theatrical yelling and falling over one other.

There is not a single young woman not wearing the fabled kimono and the foreigner (me) wonders how beautiful life in Japan might be if it had never been overrun by The Gap, Levi’s, and blouses from Donna Karan. The girls’ kimono are sometimes conservative, occasionally tempestuous, starbursting with enigmatic patterns and chic colors, their collared furs turned up against the winter wind; the devil is always in the details and the bolder blossoms are blowing all of our collective minds with deliriously manicured nails, half-inch eyelash extensions, vivid cheeks blush, and that sparkle stuff that only girls can ever remember the name of. They wobble in zori sandals to and fro, shrieking at each other’s comeliness. Hyper-aware of their adorability, nearly every woman is being photographed dozens of times by dozens of smartphones. I don’t even have to ask when I hold my camera up between us.

There is some hot rodding, but this being Japan, there are teen idols and Mickey Mouse paraphernalia painted on the sides of the vehicles, compromising the sinisterness of degenerate youth. Gunning their engines at five miles an hour, honking and heehawing noisily, the drivers are desperate to seen but on this day, narcissism levels being what they are, the babes in their daydreams are busy with their poses, so that only some members of the gauntlet of traffic cops glare indignantly.

I mill around, occasionally chatting up the young ones with well wishes and my compliments. I am there to take pictures, along with a small gaggle of Japanese retirees with big digital cameras. They move in packs, often piggybacking my shots, overwhelming the more extravagant peacocks, who pose grudgingly for rapid-fire shutter release shooting with a beautiful artifice of a smile. It’s only 1pm but already the drinking games are getting out of hand. There’s broken glass on the sidewalk and wanna-be hot shots with cornrows and platinum yellow braids are pounding beer cans and shochu bottles as their friends whinny in peer-pressurized chorus. There are some bad hangovers developing— you can see it in their eyes— that look in a twenty-year-old’s face, incomprehensible and insensitive to a body and soul’s limits. A dude one sip of sake away from tumbling, takes that sip and staggers—the crowd giving him a wide berth as many of the kimonos are rentals and anyways it would be embarrassing explaining the puke chunks to the dry cleaners. Some of the more inebriated “adults” are beginning to get really careless and I need to remove myself from the hullabaloo for a bit of air and perspective.

In the quieter environs of nearby Heian-jingu, a large shrine complex painted in bright, orange colors, I struggle reluctantly with introspective questions: wasn’t it so metaphorically tragic that the ceremony of becoming an adult entailed binge drinking and narcissistic posturing? Was this what Japanese men and women had a lifetime to look forward to? Humans: we’d come a long way since slaying a lion was our initiation into adulthood. But the questions engendered by this raucous setting were of a personal nature as well. For one, had I been something of an asshole myself at twenty? Did I know and respect my limits and the space of others when I danced with the elixir of youth? It was true that I had unique cultural values but I had my share of wild nights, and once I’d really known what a heady experience it was to abdicate control and give in to purely id proclivities. But had I handled myself mostly gracefully? There is a significant difference between a charming ass and an ass. Looking back, it was hard to parse what was and what wasn’t. Selective memory is an incredibly powerful survival mechanism. ‘It’s okay,’ I thought, hearing in the distance the ejaculatory shrieking of another drinking game going awry. Someday in the shockingly fast-creeping future, these presently intoxicated twenty-year-olds will come to this very same ceremony with their own kids. They’ll survey the drunken tomfoolery, wondering if they too had drunk one too many, and reflecting that if they had, what a long way they’ve come in the meantime.

The Prophet Finds an Audience

The Prophet Finds an Audience

The Prophet Finds an AUdience

Searching For Sugarman – Sixto Rodriguez

As far as years in music go, 1970 was a good one: Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, and Iggy Pop & The Stooges’s Fun House were all released, as were swan song LPs for The Beatles, The Velvet Underground, and Simon & Garfunkel, while John Lennon and George Harrison launched their solo careers with Plastic Ono Band and All Things Must Pass, respectively. In March of that year, Sussex Records, a label out of Detroit and loosely associated with Motown, released an album called Cold Fact. The cover features a glassy sphere, where, within, sits an ethnic hippie, Indian-style, garbed in sunglasses, hat and a pink tanktop, a gem hanging from his neck, dressed for the part of psychedelic messenger, hailing from the peyote and cactus lands of desert dreams.

The dude is Sixto Rodriguez, a Mexican-American singing in a Dylanesque high baritone the language of the zeitgeist, with songs titled, “Hate Street Dialogue” and “This Is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst.” Consider the prophet-tinged lyrics of The Establishment Blues,” sung with the clipped cadence of Subterranean Homesick Blues:

“Gun sales are soaring, housewives find life boring
Divorce the only answer smoking causes cancer
This system’s gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune
And that’s a concrete cold fact.”

pre-Internet days, clues are a lot harder to manage and wildly speculative apocrypha grind the rumor mills. Click To Tweet

The Prophet Finds an Audience

Though it was peak season in the protest movement—the secret bombings of Cambodia had been leaked and the Kent State shootings occurred just after the album’s release— the album went nowhere. The sales for Cold Fact might have been disappointing, but because of his real-deal talent, a year later Rodriguez managed to produce a second album, Coming From Reality. On the cover, he’s sitting on the stoop of a run-down façade. The hair’s long but the hat and gemstone are gone, the hippie matured into a man. Rodriguez has dropped the Sixto; he’s just Rodriguez now. The music itself is less confrontational, mellower, more orchestral, more soulful. It sounds like a man who’s lost more battles than he’s won but he’s all right after all. As lovely, truthful and painfully human as anything produced at the time, like his preceding LP this second effort sold virtually nothing. You don’t get many chances in the music business. His presence then fades before it’s begun and, more or less, Rodriguez disappears without a trace.

But this is only Act I of the story. Let’s fast-forward all the way to the epilogue: a 2012 documentary called Searching for Sugar Man, which is the subject of this review. The film is the story of what happened to Rodriguez’s music after his ostensible failures. As it turns out, a copy of Cold Fact wound up in Cape Town in 1972. His brilliant haranguing of the social order resonates with young people disenchanted with their conservative government and its program of state-sponsored apartheid. In South Africa, Cold Fact is a phenomenon, the soundtrack for the youth movement, as ubiquitous in the living rooms of Johannesburg student activists as “Street Fighting Man” is for New York City Marxist strategists. As someone in the film bluntly puts it, Sixto is “bigger than Elvis.”

But what of Sixto? In the pre-Internet days, clues are a lot harder to manage and wildly speculative apocrypha grind the rumor mills. A consensus develops that Rodriguez committed suicide on stage after a bad show— the only difference of opinion is whether he self-immolated or blew his brains out.

In the 1990s, apartheid ends, Sixto’s music is released on compact disc, and a quest begins to solve the mystery of his death once and for all by two of his fans, Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman, an owner of a popular Cape Town records shop, and Craig Strydom, a musical journalist. They find him via one of his three daughters, shocked to learn that not only is he not dead but that he’s working blue collar jobs in construction and that, moreover, he has absolutely no idea of his fame.

...the empty sound of no hands clapping is quite a calamitous silence to confront once the creative spirit has been put on the line. Click To Tweet

The Prophet Finds an Audience

Sixto Rodriguez – Searching For Sugarman

If you feel I’ve shared too much, then you better avoid the trailer, which neatly summarizes the entire story in two minutes. Needless to say, a happy ending can be a very good thing. How we get there, from Sixto’s debut to his fame in South Africa to the quest to find him to the redemption of his legacy is worth your time not just because it is a well-told story— Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul devoted four years to its creation— but because Sixto is a fantastic musician who somehow missed his moment, who in spite of his genius poet soul, remains completely unpretentious, a genuinely warm, lovely man. Though whatever money he should have made in residuals never reached him, he’s not holding any grudges nor does he regret the seemingly unkind hand fate dealt him, grateful to the end for what he has, content to work with his hands and come home to the same building he’s been living in for forty years, a human embodiment of the serenity prayer. Instead of an aloof pop star’s limousine lifestyle, Sixto spent his life as a community organizer, helping out the less fortunate in the neighborhood and even running for city council (he lost). Rodriguez had never really failed because he hadn’t wagered his soul on his musical career, as he sings on “I’ll Slip Away”, recorded after the dismal reception of “Coming From Reality” and unreleased for many years:

“And you can keep your symbols of success
Then I’ll pursue my own happiness
And you can keep your clocks and routines
Then Ill go mend all my shattered dreams.”

There is many an artist that can relate to Sixto’s story. Whether he or she plays a guitar, paints subway cars, lays another novel in the sock drawer, maxes out the credit cards in order to make a movie only a few hundred people will ever view— the empty sound of no hands clapping is quite a calamitous silence to confront once the creative spirit has been put on the line. No one wants to be Van Gogh. We want to keep our ears and enjoy the appreciative applause that is our due. Just in case we live long enough to be recognized.

Even though it won the Special Jury Prize and Audience Award for best international documentary at Sundance, you’ll have some difficulty finding “Searching for Sugar Man” at your local theater. It’s strictly limited engagements in New York and Los Angeles, and even there, playing in just a handful of theaters. For everyone else, we’re left with Batman, Spiderman, and The Avengers, comic book idols that aren’t telling us a damn thing about how to live gracefully. You’ve got to look hard for real life heroes. You won’t find them soaring or swinging over the Manhattan skyline. But you might hear one singing about the truths of living. You only have to find the music and listen closely.

Heso Magazine Endorses Barack Obama - We Guess

Heso Magazine Endorses Barack Obama – We Guess…

Who's Listening in on the President's Conference Call? Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Who’s Listening in on the President’s Conference Call? Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Though we at Heso Magazine are practicing secular-agnostics, we are inclined to believe that Hurricane Sandy making landfall on the U.S. on the eve of the election is hardly coincidence. Not that this tempest is an Act of God, mind you, but a manifestation of a furious Gaia, the Earth goddess howling brimstone at a national farce now almost beyond contempt. Though they have competed for bragging rights on who would be better at exploiting natural resources, neither the incumbent, President Barack Obama, nor his challenger, Mitt Romney, have acknowledged the obvious, urgent crises engendered by global warming (typical for a GOP candidate, glaring for a Democratic one). The most important difference is that one of the candidates (Romney) believes that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is too expensive and should be discontinued, leaving bankrupt states to manage the inevitable environmental catastrophes on their own. That this is emblematic of so much other nonsense espoused by the GOP means that we at the magazine will in fact endorse Barack Obama for President, but with many caveats and some total absence of enthusiasm.

Romney, a flip-flopping hybridized Richie Rich-Gordon Gekko twit representing the worst aspects of modern corporate culture. Click To Tweet

Heso Magazine Endorses Barack Obama – We Guess…

It is hard to imagine an election less engaging for its activists’ bases. The conservatives don’t trust Romney, a flip-flopping hybridized Richie Rich-Gordon Gekko twit representing the worst aspects of modern corporate culture. They don’t like him for his Mormonism and his record as the Governor of Massachusetts, particularly, his health care reform. Besides pimping for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as well as Fortune 500 companies Mitt Romney represents almost no one, but the Republican base will probably vote for him anyway, in total opposition to their self-interest, simply because he’s a white male.

On the other side of the spectrum, progressives are equally disengaged from Obama, who has either ignored or backtracked on nearly every campaign pledge from 2008, including respecting habeas corpus, renegotiating NAFTA, rejecting sweeping claims of “inherent” presidential power, protecting whistle-blowers, expanding labor rights, and diversifying media to name but a few. The propaganda on talk radio and Fox News is as spurious as it comes; a “socialist” Obama is not. On some issues, such as gay rights, he has proven progressive. But unless you’re for same sex marriage or a member of the nation’s financial elite it’s unlikely you have more opportunity or freedom than you did four years ago.

Running a country as multi-faceted, complex and dangerous as the United States requires responsibility not only for present crises but also for the long-term future of the republic and its citizens. With Ayn Rand acolyte Paul Ryan as Romney’s running mate, the two Company Men will work to comprehensively dismantle Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamp and financial aid programs, and any other public “entitlement” that any way at all aids the dispossessed and downtrodden. They will do it in the name of austerity, the hypocrites, all the while, continuing massive defense spending and supporting tax cuts and tax shelters for corporations. As perilous as life is in America today, it would be more capricious, uncertain and altogether hopeless under a Romney administration. For the wealthy elites in the GOP, the Bush tax cuts and TARP are mere Prelude to the Class War they will engage once they have the capacity to direct the national conversation on the economy. Once the purge is on it will make us nearly wistful for the days of ‘compassionate conservatism.’

Heso Magazine Endorses Barack Obama - We Guess

Big Bird offers Romney something for him to hold onto in the cold, lonely unemployed nights ahead

Romney and everything he and the GOP stand for then must be dismissed outright as antithetical to our democratic traditions. Well, what do we have then? Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate was arrested when she tried to gain access to the Town Hall debate. Third Party candidates have almost no momentum this year (mostly due to media blackout and unfair playing rules.) That leaves voters with Obama, who arguably governed as Bush might have had he a third term, but who articulated the abridgements of civil liberties better than the Texan Bumpkin. Otherwise how could one explain how Democrats have gone from condemning waterboarding as torture to condoning executive-ordered drone assassinations? Keep in mind that a vote for Obama is essentially a vote for The Surveillance State of which our president has come to be one of its principle architects. It is important to note that Obama did not bother much with the ‘hope’ thing this time around. He might respect our intelligence, even if he doesn’t honor our privacy.


So what has he promised in this endlessly dull, insipid, uninspired, misanthropic election cycle? Well, so much as we can tell, he’s pledged that he wouldn’t be as bad as Romney and we at Heso agree. Thus, a vote then for Obama is a vote for competence. He probably won’t privatize Social Security and it’s unlikely with him as Commander-in-Chief, we’ll hear dispatches of G.I. Joe from the Gates of Tehran. We’ll get the status quo, which isn’t that great if you’re living day-to-day and paycheck-to-paycheck but it beats the heck out of the Made in the USA dystopian disaster the GOP might engineer should they have their childish hands on The War Machine’s joystick.

Because the GOP is out of touch with Americans (by virtue of its leadership and talking heads demonstrating unhinged sociopathic behavior) we at the magazine don’t much believe in the hype of a close election. The mainstream media has Ford Explorers, Big Macs and Verizon phone plans to sell so they need us turning in to the election cycle, which often feels like it’s 10% content, 90% poll tracking. The President will likely win this election, but that doesn’t mean we can look forward to good times. Though Obama had once been a community organizer and constitutional lawyer, he has really come into his own as a cold-blooded technocrat, legitimizing the worst of Bush’s abuses (illegal detention, runaway defense spending, obsequiousness to Wall Street). It seems that the Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United has benefited the President as much as the venture capitalist, the corporations having hedged their bets equally. Nearly a billion dollars has been raised and spent by each candidate.

We at Heso think what Winston Churchill said about democracy, that it “is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried,” is bunk. We can do better. The Scandinavian Model is proof of that. It might not be possible in such a large heterogeneous country with a militaristic background but we have already done better in the recent past, namely the fifty years of relative middle class parity between the elections of FDR and Ronald Reagan. While we take Churchill’s cynicism with a grain of salt, we take Martin Luther King Jr.’s words more seriously, especially, “The arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.” We might be wrong but we believe the GOP, with its characteristic racist nativism, hateful misogyny, religious fundamentalism and class war agenda, has no future in the increasingly tolerant, secularized, cultural plurality that is Tomorrow’s America. In spite of the evidence, we are optimists, even if once more, the lesser of two evils is still, well, somewhat evil. ‘Change’ is gonna come, but we don’t believe it will necessarily come from D.C. It’s gonna be us, grass roots, after the tempest, one community at a time. Even the worst storms are temporary. And in the afterglow amid tomorrow’s beautiful light, some rebuilding will begin.

Love in the Time of Eden and Aftermath

Love in the Time of Eden and Aftermath

The New World by Terrence Malick

The New World by Terrence Malick

While vacationing at my mother’s house in the Virginia countryside this summer I decided it might be appropriate to check out Terrence Malick’s The New World from the local library. Though I truly love Tree of Life and rather like his earlier films I nevertheless didn’t have high expectations. It’s almost a given that Hollywood will botch any historical event with schmaltz, sentimentality, inaccuracies, and whitewashing, especially if the area of history is something as momentous as the origins of America. The founding of Jamestown, the first permanent settlement on the American continent, is something the myth-makers monitoring our popular consciousness would like to let alone– after all, though it might have been the beginning of ascendance of one kind of people, it was also the genesis of apocalypse for another. This is not a narrative that lends itself easily to Hollywood and its aggrandizing temperament. But the encounter of two distinct civilizations is not just a story; it is poetry and that is what The New World feels like– dizzying and abstract, uncanny and rich. Yes, in the wrong hands, a 130-minute poem might be disastrous, but in Malick’s it feels so pure, lovely, and wonderful that the transcendence we hope for from great art lingers long after, moving me to say (albeit, quite belatedly) that The New World is the greatest film of the past decade.

One of the most provocative acts any critic endeavors to do is say a certain piece of artwork is the best of anything, because in all likelihood he is going to be called names — “philistine” or “snob”– depending on which camp the choice offends. Almost no one’s happy because human beings have an insane allegiance to personal favorites. Now I am not a fan of the Naughts in any of the major popular forms; literary, musical, and cinematic– it was a weak decade. Regarding Hollywood, it seemed for much of the era boy magicians, questing hobbits, and superhero blockheads dominated the screens, leaving mature audiences to fend for themselves. There were some good films but very few great ones so that in my occasional Top Ten listmaking with friends of similar predilections, I’d never bothered to consider the best films of the 2000s. I suppose a shortlist would include Y Tu Mama Tambien, Sexy Beast, L’enfant, The Royal Tenenbaums, Irreversible, Syriana, The Constant Gardener, and Children of Men. But until I saw The New World I never felt “best” was a necessary qualifier.

That The New World could be forsaken not only by the public but the critics as well reveals the extent to which we have lost the capacity to recognize a visionary work of art. Click To Tweet

Love in the Time of Eden and Aftermath

The story of John Smith and Pocahontas is a familiar one to most Americans (and that fact has little to do with the Disney film from the mid-nineties). Smith is part of a group of ragtag English colonists trying to start over in a so-called new world. Of course, it is not a new world, but an old one inhabited by Powhatan Indians. While it seems there is much potential for the men as they build their fort, cooperation with “the naturals” (as they are called by Captain Newport) would be essential for survival and Smith is sent to establish trade relations. He is very nearly put to death by the Powhatan chief, spared only when Pocahontas intervenes. While Smith lives with the naturals, he falls in love with the chief’s irresistibly charming daughter. His time with the Powhatan is idyllic but he is not of the indigenous tribe and must return to the fort, with its starving, raving colonists, desperate now for food and warmth with the onset of winter. John Smith is put in charge of the colony upon his return, complicating the Capulet-Montague dynamic already inherent in his love for Pocahontas.

Normally a loudmouth, arrogant actor, Colin Farrell’s John Smith is masculine but gentle– he might slay you in hand-to-hand combat but will feel very bad about your death afterwards. Farrell portrays Smith as a man utterly melancholic that this great love of his is doomed. And we the audience sympathize because the young actress, Q’orianka Kilcher, is so winning that it would be utterly foolish not to abandon the mortgage, insurance payments, traffic jams, cable TV, and the ephemeral junk that is modern life to live with her among trees, wildflowers, streams, and fields of gold. Kilcher inhabits Pocahontas with a sense of wonder that I have never quite seen in a performance. She physically manifests the trees, the sun, and the earth, but playfully and though childlike she also has the fall of the Powhatans on her conscience as it is she who instigates the tribe to gift the colonists with food in the dead of winter and who warns Smith of an imminent attack when the indigenous decide to expel the white man and his genealogical plague, that of materialistic avarice, racist exceptionalism, and ecological violence, habits antithetical to the communally organized tribe and its harmonious relationship to nature. The colonists are ready when the Powhatan attack and slaughter many with cannon and musket fire.

Film Still from The New World Terrence Malick

Film Still from The New World Terrence Malick

A treacherous Pocahontas (to be fair, all lovers are foolish) is disowned by her people and comes to live in Jamestown, now reinforced with more men and supplies and successfully tilling the land. John Smith, looking ever more mournful, takes an assignment from the king to lead an expedition to discover a northwest passage. He leaves Pocahontas without an explanation and has another colonist lie about his death en route so that, emotionally, she can move on. By now, her sensual summer tribe fashions have been replaced by stiff bodices and cumbersome petticoat and the forests where she’d roamed free are “there” but not “here.” The loss of John Smith forever is the vanishing of her last happiness. An alien in her own land, now she is truly alone.

Nevertheless, the first colonist to successfully grow tobacco in Virginia, John Rolfe (Christian Bale in an understated, patient performance), is smitten—it takes him some time to court her but he does and she begets him a son. Things could have gone happily ever after, were it not for Pocahontas learning the truth of John Smith and King James of England requesting their company at Buckingham Palace, angling the love triangle just so. It is natural, of course, that the woman who bridges one world to the next should be loved so dramatically by two great men.

My description of the plot may sound melodramatic but the execution is anything but. Like Stanley Kubrick, Malick is skilled at making us feel like participants, as if we are in the forest or the battlefield, loving and losing. The director is sensitive that we should feel this story as much as receive it—thus the sensuality, innocence and brutality alternately swoons and bludgeons. That it is extraordinarily researched and meticulous to detail (especially in regards to indigenous village life and language) makes it all the more intense. But more than a historical anecdote, this is a love story and Malick portrays the extraordinary tenderness between John Smith and Pocahontas nonverbally rather than with obvious declaratives prevalent in so much storytelling cliché. Most of the exposition is revealed not between characters but with voiceover: beautiful, poetic expressionism whispered over scenes of tribal life, elemental weather, bucolic freedom, accompanied by Richard Wagner’s ravishing “Prelude to Das Rheingold.” While falling for the Chief’s favorite daughter in the forest, John Smith susurrates, “Love. Shall we deny it when it visits us? Shall we not take what we are given? There is only this. All else is unreal.” To which, Pocahontas, with nature as their stage and sound (rushing rivers, crepitating leaves, warbling birdlife, singing insects), murmurs, “Father. Where do you live? In the sky…the clouds… the sea…? Show me your face. Give me a sign. A god he seems to me. What else is life but being near you? Do they suspect? All to be given to you. And to me. I will be faithful to you. True. Two than one. One. One. I am. I am.”

Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick

It’s hard to qualify the effect of these scenes with mere words—The New World is one of those rare films that demonstrates the cinema as perhaps the world’s most important art, so potent is the emotional, sensual effect, more dimensional than what’s possible in literature and music. I cannot watch this film without feeling tremendously affected by the messy, hopeless experiment that is mankind– our excess, our potential, our bad and our good. Though never outright polemical, Malick suggests we lost as a species with the triumph of one civilization at the expense of another—and it’s not just the egalitarian society of Native Americans but their peaceful alliance with nature as well. Malick’s portrayal of the Virginia countryside on the eve of its appropriation by Europeans is as inspiring for environmentalists as any film ever made.

But I can also feel that Malick has loved and lost. Why else would he devote several years of his life to this now mythical time in our history? The story feels like a metaphor for the joys and tragedies endured by Malick himself. You can’t tell a story this beautifully without some truth in experience. His loss, whatever it might have been, is contextualized in a work of art, winning our sympathies and affections without loosening the secrets that inspired him in the first place. His catharsis is ours too.

Released on Christmas Day, 2005, The New World barely recouped its $30 million production costs and received few enthusiastic reviews. It was snubbed by the Academy, receiving only one Oscar nomination (for Emmanuel Lubezki’s breathtaking camerawork—he lost). The Best Picture that year was Crash, a silly, almost meaningless melodrama trivializing Los Angeles race relations. That The New World could be forsaken not only by the public but the critics as well reveals the extent to which we have lost the capacity to recognize a visionary work of art. It’s not Malick’s fault nor is it that of the ghosts of John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Powhatan Indians who bequeathed us our land and our tragedy. It’s our problem. After all, collective loss is something we’ve been perpetuating for four centuries now. That’s how we roll.

Placebo with Zakuro © Ontoshiki

Interview with Tokyo Photographer Ontoshiki

In the old days, when a man was building his credibility as an artist, he did so rather anonymously. There might be a break here or there in this or that magazine or fashion catalogue but it would be difficult for this person to build a public name outside the small circle of his metropolitan environs. There was no forum for strangers to witness the flourishing of an individual’s sensibility. The support network could be minimal, the journey, lonely.

I’ve never met the man who goes by the mysterious name of Ontoshiki but that doesn’t mean I don’t know him. I first discovered him a little more than a year ago on flickr. I can’t remember exactly what shot it was but I think it might have been from his Tohoku series, which Ontoshiki visited shortly after the devastating March 11th quake. Amidst the destruction are solitary shots of people. What are they doing here? Looking through the ruins? Contemplating how life could ever be the same again? I learned quickly his Tohoku work is in no way emblematic of his oeuvre— Ontoshiki is not a photojournalist— but is consistent with his strong feelings regarding mood and emotion.

I am of the camp that the photos we take are like the results of a Rorschach test, giving ourselves away, what we feel about love, humanity, even political and spiritual viewpoints. You can tell from a man’s photographs whether you’d like the man himself. After all, it’s not just the way he sees the world— every photograph is an appreciation of a certain moment that is then publicized to express selfhood. A photo then is not just saying, “Look at this!” but is whispering in your ear, “This is me…”

That said I know I’d like Ontoshiki the man. Beyond technical commonalities (like me he seems to shoot mostly in color with film cameras) it’s his unmistakable interest in beauty and humanism that makes him simpatico. Yes, he photographs beautiful women but he is careful to allow them their sense of mystery. When I peruse his many photos of women I’m not just looking at their finery and appreciating their feminine charms; I’m also sensing their autonomy (as opposed to being mere sex objects). All too often fashion photography feels reductive (it is after all selling something) but Ontoshiki allows his subjects their vulnerability. Moodiness has precedence over glamour. This emphasis is something you rarely find in photos of beautiful women.

I suppose it works here because Ontoshiki is coming at photography with his dual interest in self-expression and aesthetic appreciation. Some people want to make perfectly abstract photos of buildings. Others find their eye in war zones. And then some just adore beautiful women. In his own words, Ontoshiki writes that sensuality “in photography is tantamount to having an intimate dance with a woman; timing, technique, intricate body movements…shooting someone for an extended period gives me a feeling of palpable intimacy.” It’s not a job then, it’s a life.

A Lust Restrained © Ontoshiki

A Lust Restrained © Ontoshiki

HESO: When did you first pick up a camera?

Ontoshiki: I’ve been shooting since I was a teen. I was born in Malaysia but my ancestor’s roots are from China. When I was 9 years old, my family immigrated to Australia so I was raised and educated there. 

In 2005, I made a big decision to quit a decent job (in the Australian government) and I eventually arrived in Tokyo. With a constant stream of culture, interesting faces and beautiful scenes happening right in front of my eyes, I felt like I needed something with a little more control in order to document these fascinating visuals. A year later, after being inspired by film photographers I came across, I ventured into film photography and immediately fell in love with the Pentacon 6 and a cheap plastic Holga. I eventually opted for the 6×6 format Hasselblad and the 35mm format Minolta. 

I don’t have any formal education but I will be going to Paris, France to study at SPEOS school of photography to eventually to work on meaningful long-term documentary projects which focus on community and inherent social issues.

HESO: You get up in the morning, look out the window, what do you see?

Ontoshiki: I’m not a morning person so maybe I see the world a little differently, moving in time-lapse. I feel like I’m a goldfish swimming around in a fishbowl watching the world go by. Going back in history, the last 50 years has changed more significantly than the last 1000 years. This phenomenon is known as “the quickening” and I believe this is a sign that the world is on the verge of major social, economic, political and spiritual change. We are living in an upside-down world full of misinformation. I used to be nihilistic and live in a world of existential ennui, but photography has given me meaning. When I quit my job many years ago and moved to Japan, I wasn’t sure what I was doing: perhaps it was to escape the my life back then. Picking up photography has given me a tool to explore my inner and outer Universes for truth, connect the dots of life and to understand the synchronicities that has led me to this point.

Secret Kyoto © Ontoshiki

Secret Kyoto © Ontoshiki

HESO: You have a very distinct portfolio, full of color and ranging across a variety of subject matter, from classic traditional to edgy counterculture. There is a sense of discipline and order underlying many of your images, yet, strictly speaking, they are not all in focus. What is your main objective in photographing something?

Ontoshiki: Quite the contrary, I really think my portfolio lacks order or discipline. If there were elements of any, perhaps the discipline and order may have come from the educational system in Malaysia. In Australia, the education system was free-flowing, interactive and students were allowed their own voice.

In terms of what I shoot, as with any rookie photographer or painter, I started out shooting scenes from daily life, flowers, stills, people but nothing out of the ordinary. To draw an analogy, it was akin to being born but without your vocal chords developed. You are but a newborn watching and observing, listening and learning but once you are ready, you gradually develop a voice. Now that I am ready, I want to communicate to people the way I see the world and the sights and sounds that have influenced and inspired me.

Lately, I’m sometimes paid to shoot things I/m not particularly interested in. but I do it in order to financially support my other photographic endeavors. Photography is not a “cheap thrill” but I’ll try not to sell myself out and focus on the subjects that interest me.

HESO: Do you prefer analog to digital photography or vice versa? Or is it not important? Explain.

Ontoshiki: For personal work, portraiture, street and documentary, I definitely prefer shooting film especially in black and white — the tones and highlights are incomparable to a straight digital black and white conversion which is often flat, lacks contrast and depth. I shoot digital for assignments and editorials due to cost, speed and convenience.

Feline Fatale © Ontoshiki

Feline Fatale © Ontoshiki

HESO: You possess a knack for extracting color out of a scene. Yet you also have a very large, and quite masterful collection of black and white photographs. What do you feel is the main difference between the two and how do you approach shooting color as opposed to shooting black and white?

Ontoshiki: I love the masters of paintings: van Gogh, Monet, Degas; film: Wong Kar Wai, Ridley Scott, Tim Burton; contemporary photographers: Eugenio Recuenco, Damon Loble, Michelangelo di Battista, Elizaveta Porodina. Their colors are punchy, mood strong, voyeuristic, mysterious, yet the look is still dreamy and organic. If I can get anywhere close to a combination of their styles, I will be on the right track.

If I honestly critique myself, I am not afraid to admit that my digital work “sucks”. I am an amateur with artificial lighting and photoshop post-processing. On the other hand, I feel that my black and white film work is closer to where I want to be. I remember the story of the Master sushi chef who’s been making the same sushi for over 25 years and when asked if he were happy with his sushi, he promptly replied “My sushi is still not good.” On that timeline, I am only in my 3rd to 4th year since I was reborn photographically.

HESO: You have many photos of far-off people in some kind of cityscape. Do you prefer to shoot landscapes or vistas or people? A combination of both? Are these scenes candid or contrived? Do you use models or random strangers? If the latter, do you ask permission?

Ontoshiki: Initially, when I started photographing the streets and people, I would shoot them in the distance. Over the years, I learnt how to get closer and fill the frame and I think that is very much also a reflection of how I am a little less afraid of making the commitment to get closer to someone on a personal level. I suppose you could say that photography has granted me a sort of quasi-intimate relationship with the people I shoot.

Do I ask permission? I do a bit of both, obviously with my street photos they are all random strangers sometimes I stop to ask but most times I shoot them going about their daily business. I recently try to venture into places and go to events where I can likely meet interesting personalities but sometimes I am lucky enough to meet people and subjects serendipitously. In fact, one of the most interesting shoots Ive had done in my life I unexpectedly met at a bar in Shibuya. He is a prominent franchise owner in the U.S. who was in Japan to franchise his business but he was also here to learn the art of “kinbaku” which is the art of rope tying bondage. We got to talking, agreed on a price and I ended up doing a photoshoot for him at the studio of infamous “shibari” rope master, Steve Osada. On another day, I did a photoshoot of him, his girlfriend and two other guys having a four-some. Needless to say, that was the weirdest shooting experiences I’ve ever been involved with and Im not sure if Id do it again to be honest 😉 …oh, just for the record, I didn’t participate.

HESO: Hah! Who are your favorite photographers? Any images in particular stick out to you?

Ontoshiki: I’d like to pay homage to the masters: Helmut Newton, Nobuyoshi Araki, Eugene Smith, James Nachtwey, Daido Moriyama.

A few years ago around the time I started on my photography journey my good friend Mika who’s a professional photographer took me to an exhibition at a small gallery in Ginza to see the work of fetish photographer “Yasuji Watanabe”. It’s hard to explain but at the time, I was rather stoic about the experience. I know looking back, that deep down inside the images really grabbed me, yet I didn’t know how to react or what I wanted to do with it because I was still in my photographic womb. I realize now a seed was planted within me and a few years on, I am taking my first steps on the path to photographing themes of beauty, sensualism, fetishism and erotica. I would say that I have found the voice resonating deep within me which lay dormant at the time.

If You Stole My Sunset © Ontoshiki

If You Stole My Sunset © Ontoshiki

HESO: What do you do when you are not working?

Ontoshiki: I’ve been occupied with…spirituality, yoga, street photography, mixed martial arts, urban exploration, blogging, working on my website and venturing to places in order to meet new people for my photography projects.

HESO: How has the tragedy of 3/11 affected you? Those around you? Friends and family? What do you feel you have done to help? What needs to be done?

Ontoshiki: What have I done to help? Not enough. I was lucky enough to join the crew of JTI Foundation and Fukushima Future on their projects in Tohoku and Fukushima. I really wish I had more time, money and resources but what I did documenting the tragedy was for very selfish reasons. However, through this experience I was able to communicate my voice and viewers who came across my photos could feel hope and compassion among all the devastation. I would definitely like to go up there again if I have a chance to see the positive progress and to document happier moments.

As tragic as it was, it really helped me to understand myself better as a person. I am a selfish and complicated person by nature yet I feel theres a compassionate humanitarian part of me which is dying to be released from its shackles. I know one day I will find that altruistic part of me and pull him out of that deep, dark abyss.

My family and friends, much like everyone else were obviously concerned about what was happening in Japan. Watching the situation unfold on TV where “bad news is good news” is never easy on the families of people affected. At the same time, I don’t thing it was a stretch to say that Fukushima was minutes from the worst nuclear disaster in history.

HESO: Ontoshiki, if you want to mention anything else about yourself, your work or a charitable cause you work with—anything—please do so here.

Ontoshiki: Firstly, I’d like to thank the team at HESO, you Manny, Sean and to everyone who follows my work. Find me on my Facebook page and drop me a message.

This interview is part of HESO Magazine’s ongoing Summer Interview Series, where we interview photographers, musicians and artists about their work and what they think about the world of 2012. We may ask them similar questions, but the answers have been anything but the same old canned responses. Check out the entire series here.

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