Category: Culture

Culture

Film and Television Production: Living in an Alternative Reality

Actress Rachel Jones and I aboard the wardrobe truck on the set of a (horrible) horror film called “Dracula’s Widow”

Have you ever wondered why Hollywood ‘celebrities’ seem to be so out of touch with the reality that normal folks live? Well, it’s simple. They live in an alternate universe—one that’s both insular and pretty much self-regulating. That means that people in positions of power (lead actors, producers and directors) are given extreme latitude to be either their most talented and creative selves or egotistical maniacs intent on wreaking havoc on those who are vulnerable.

And make no mistake about it, there’s no shortage of bright-eyed victims who are drawn by the lure of fame and fortune and who are naively willing to do whatever it takes to reach stardom–what I perceive as being a dark and lonely place. Think of producer Harvey Weinstein and his lecherous behavior with seemingly half the female talent in the ‘business’. And by the way, it is very much a business. The Hollywood madness is arguably America’s biggest cultural export to the innocent masses around the world.

I remember being told by a friend who was teaching English in South Korea that the sitcom Friends was being used in language institutes all across that country as a classroom teaching tool. “Oh great,” I said. “Now Koreans will think that every waitress in Manhattan can afford to live in a spacious loft in Brooklyn with a drop-dead gorgeous view of the city’s skyline!” Hollywood has always prospered on fantasy, and that’s even more obvious when experienced from the inside.

I always wanted to work in ‘the arts’ (snicker, chuckle, guffaw) and so I was incredibly excited when I got a job on my first film production, Michael Cimino’s violent drama, Year of the Dragon, set in New York’s Chinatown and starring Micky Rourke. I’m not sure what I expected, but what I got was a baptism by fire.

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CultureVisual Arts

Rediscovering Legendary Artist Frida Kahlo

Frida With Flowers in Her Hair, c. 1940. By Photographer Bernard Sliberstein.

I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality.
– Frida Kahlo

It’s impossible to write about the life and work of Diego Rivera (as I did last week) without also discussing the life and work of his wife and companion Frida Kahlo who lived from 1907 to 1954. Though their work was very different in style—Rivera’s larger than life murals of Mexican history and Kahlo’s often quite discomforting gaze from her intimate self-portraits—their sense of dedication to commoners in general and Mexico’s indigenous people in particular was reflected in the art they created.

While Rivera was honored as a painter and master muralist of international renown during his lifetime, Kahlo was often simply seen as Diego’s wife–a woman who just happened to dabble in paints. By the time of her death, Kahlo had exhibited her paintings in her native Mexico City as well as in both New York and Paris. Her works were present in the private collections of some of the art world’s most prestigious patrons. Still, in her New York Times obituary, she was identified as, “Frida Kahlo, Artist, Diego Rivera’s Wife.”

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CultureVisual Arts

Diego Rivera: Master Muralist and Defender of Worker’s and Indigenous Rights

Avowed atheist, proud communist, tempestuous lover and principled artist—Diego Rivera was all of these and much, much more. The Mexican painter and muralist, who lived from 1886-1957, became one of Mexico’s most well-known painters during a career that bridged multiple styles and brought the artist international acclaim.

Along with his now equally famous 3rd wife, the painter Frida Kahlo, Rivera’s boisterous life and works of historical narrative have taken on legendary status. However, Rivera was far from being a mere celebrity. According to Lynn Zelevansky, American art historian and noted curator, “Rivera was one of the great innovators of 20th century art.”

Diego Rivera and his artist wife Frida Kahlo, c. 1931. This photograph was taken in New York while Rivera was organizing a retrospective exhibition of his works at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).

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CultureVisual Arts

Street Art in Manizales, Colombia

“Art is something that makes you breathe with a different kind of happiness.”

~ Anni Albers

Manizales is a city of approximately 500,000 people  located high in the mountains above Colombia’s Eje Cafetero (coffee-growing region) in the west central part of the country. It’s known mainly for its many universities and colleges, its position as the business center for Colombia’s economically important coffee exports and for its steep hills–

heavy breathing here–

Manizales’ rather short list of attractions and cultural offerings can’t compete with those found in the capital Bogotá or Colombia’s  second-city of Medellín. However, as I discovered on a recent visit, it does have a street art scene that–while smaller in scope–compares favorably with its bigger sisters in quality.

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CultureTravel

Monk Viengsay and the Secret Cave

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

For me, one of the highlights of traveling in Southeast Asia has always been chatting with the monks at the Buddhist temples found around almost every corner. Without exception, I’ve found them to be friendly and open, and just as curious about Western customs and my personal life as I was about theirs’.

Of all the SE Asian countries, Laos is my favorite travel destination. I first went there in late 2004 while I was teaching in China. This first introduction was so pleasant that it encouraged me to begin the search for a job in a region where the gentle, laid-back vibe contrasted sharply to the rushed pace of the large Chinese city where I was working.

At that time, Laos was a place seemingly frozen in an earlier era, where locals would readily offer help to a traveler without expecting anything in return. This same spirit of openness was embodied by the young monks at the many temples in the old capital of Luang Prabang, a place I’d read about and was keen to visit.

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Culture

The Effects of Buddhism on Southeast Asian Culture

A large black wicker Buddha at an outdoor pavilion in Myanmar, the only one of this type I’ve ever encountered. Photo: Henry Lewis

I don’t remember making a conscious decision to immerse myself in the study of Buddhism, but by 2005 when I arrived in Thailand to teach I already understood (at least on an intellectual level) many of its basic tenants. I’d read books by Tibet’s Dalai Lama, Vietnam’s Thich Nhat Hanh and a variety of other popular Asian Buddhist writers. I found their suggestions on how to achieve freedom from the human ‘monkey mind’ with the aim of eventually attaining a higher state of consciousness to be very appealing.

I’d also regularly attended a Buddhist sangha back in Seattle during the early 1990s where I’d developed a meditation practice and learned more about the rituals and practices which had been repackaged for Western consumption. What lay in front of me, however, was a series of lessons on the different interpretations and manifestations of Buddhism found from one country and culture in East Asia to another.

Thais making merit through symbolic offerings at Wat Po in Bangkok. Note, the cow sculpture which is more often seen in Hindu iconography. The syncretic nature of religion means that when a faith enters a new region, it usually blends with the folk belief system that was already in place before its arrival. Photo: Henry Lewis

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CultureEnvironment

Has Modernity Failed Us?

Surrounded by desert, the ancient Egyptians depended on their intimate knowledge of the Nile River’s ever changing flow for survival. The river’s natural flood cycles fertilized the land and made it suitable for growing crops. The Nile is shown here as it flows through present-day Luxor, the site of the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes. Photo Credit: Henry Lewis

I’m obsessed with history and archaeology. For me, there’s a fascinating mystique that surrounds the exploration of advanced ancient cultures from the early Egyptians and Sumerians to the later New World Mayas and Incas. One thing they all had in common was a deep respect for the natural world that sustained them.

Try to imagine the innate knowledge ancient humans once possessed; the kind of skills and oneness with nature that was required for groups to navigate their way from one continent to another during the last Ice Age. These early explorers depended more on their knowledge of and continuity with nature than on the primitive technologies that were available at that time. Where is such intuition today?

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Culture

Gaining Awareness

Separation II, 1896. Lithograph by Edvard Munch.

       

          In a world of artifice and sham         

Where money and power rule

The Kardashsian shadow

Superficial and empathy lacking

Mind control prospers

Orwell’s prophecy rendered.

The human spirit subjugated

Mass consumption won

Education insufficient

Religions unrelenting

Weapons stockpiled

Seeking self-destruction.

Humanity’s hope

Embrace imperfection

Aim for awareness

Gaze in the mirror

Where the only truth

Lies.

Tree of Life. Photo Credit: Banchop Rasi

peace~henry

CultureEnvironment

Making a Commitment to Sustainability

“Climate change probably represents the biggest threat to human health over the next 10 or 20 years.”

Ashish Jha, Director of the Harvard Global Health Institute.

The term ‘sustainability’ has been bandied around in academic circles and popular culture for decades, possibly to such an extent that it’s simply become another buzzword to be ignored. Google ‘sustainability’ and the Oxford Dictionary will offer the following:

Even the example sentences offered by the trusted source above reflect the contradictions inherent in the way we interpret sustainability and rationalize the consumer choices we make on a daily basis. On the one hand, we want ‘sustainable’ economic growth and all the material goodies it brings. On the other hand, we expect to breathe clean air, drink pure water and be able to build our houses safely on the edge of vast oceans.

Are these two scenarios mutually exclusive? Is it really possible to maintain current Western standards of living without endangering the health of our planet and the very existence of our species?

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CultureVisual Arts

Artemisia Gentileschi–Italian Painter and Heroine

Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1638-39. Artist: Artemisia Gentileschi.

The 17th century artist Artemisia Gentileschi was a woman who possessed a wealth of strength and intelligence that enabled her to overcome personal adversity and gender-based discrimination to become an acclaimed Italian Baroque painter. The power with which she imbued her female characters led to her rediscovery and a resurgence in her popularity in Western culture during the final decades of the 20th century.

I first discovered Artemisia’s brilliant work during the 1990s on a visit to a local Seattle bookstore. While leafing through the full-page color plates of some of her most arresting paintings, I was captivated by the psychological depth given to the female heroines she often painted as well as her mastery of techniques such as chiaroscuro (the play of light against darkness), adding a dramatic dimension which gives these figures both realism and a larger than life feel.

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