Search This Blog

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Book Watch: In the course of a 6000-mile trans-Eurasian horseback journey, a technological time warp changes lives

Central Mongolia is where Tim began his 6000-mile westward horseback journey across the steppe to the Danube. With both Russia to the north and the Chinese "autonomous" province of Xinjiang to the south closed to a foreigner in 2004, he continued into giant Kazakhstan, the second-largest of the former Soviet republics (after Russia). There he met Bakhetbek, a Kazakh born near the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi who had fled back to ancestral Kazakhstan because of anti-Kazakh violence (the murder of his brothers) tolerated, if not actually encouraged, by the Chinese regime. Bakhetbek's wife reveals to Tim that her husband learned only a year before that he still had a niece alive and living in Urumqi.

by Ken

Basically, I was drawn to Tim Cope's On the Trail of Genghis Khan -- the story of his 6000-mile horseback odyssey from Mongolia to the Danube, begun in the fall of 2004 when the Australian adventurer was several months shy of his 26th birthday -- because I thought it might plug a geographical gap in my mental geography, the vast Eurasian steppe sprawling more or less between Siberia to the north and the rest of central and southern Asia to the south.

Oh, I had no expectation of the book making me an expert on the subject, just giving me, well, something to occupy that space a little more specific than sheer blankness. In other words, the sort of thing that Ian Frazier's Travels in Siberia for the gaping expanse of taiga (that is taiga, right? of course giving way to tundra farther north -- I have a sort of general notion about the geographical entities steppe, taiga, and tundra, but they're not exactly crystal clear in my head) to the north). It gave me some places and people to fill in what had been not much more than a map blur with a sprinkling of familiar place names.

To be sure, I'm learning (and probably soon forgetting) a lot about the many ethnic groups -- starting with the Mongols to the east -- who over the millennia have practiced the nomadic way of living across the enormous expanse of the once-largely-borderless steppe. Tim himself was fascinated, or more likely obsessed, by the nomadic way of living, built around herding animals over these inhospitable lands, living a pack-up-and-go life based on horse transport. (It was, after all, in what is now northern Kazakhstan that men are thought to have first domesticated horses, somewhere between 3700 and 3100 BC.) But, not surprisingly, the journey -- and therefore the book -- engages Tim on a host of levels.

I came to this anecdote I have to share. It comes in the second leg of Tim's trip, in today's Kazakhstan. In Mongolia Tim had had the company of a girlfriend, Kathrin, but according to plan she then headed back to Germanys to take up a new job, leaving Tim to travel alone -- or, early on, in the company of a guide. At this point, he's traveling with Aset, a Kazakh villager, and a puppy belonging to Aset's young cerebral-palsy-afflicted son which Aset has insisted on bringing along. (When they part, Aset insisst that Tim take Tigon with him for companionship.) In terrible weather they have been given shelter by Bakhetbek, a 50-something Kazakh householder who promptly passes a test of Aset's (p. 129)
Aset pulled me aside. "Trust him and watch carefully -- a sign of a Kazakh host who respects his guests is that he will feed the guest's dog before his own."

True to Aset's words, Bakhetbek fed our ribs-on-legs dog a pot of lamb innards and stale bread, sinking his boots into his own dogs when they tried to join in.
The next day Tim wakes up to find that they're snowbound. "What I had assumed to be bright sunshine through the small window of our window was the glare of a snowdrift creeping up the windows." Which gives him a chance to get to know the family better. From pp. 131-32:
Bakhetbek had been born near Urumqi in China's Xinjiang province, and fled to Kazakhstan after his brothers were murdered in the 1960s. Later, his nephews, who remained behind, were also murdered. At his wife's gentle prod, Bakhetbek began telling his story himself, hesitantly, but was swiftly overcome with emotion.

"They killed us simply because we are Kazkahs," he said. "Back then, and even now, Chinese authorities don't protect Kazakhs. Actually, it was probably the police who did the murdering."

There was a bitter irony in Bakhetbek's return to Kazakhstan that he was well aware of. His own grandparents had originally fled to China among two hundred thousand others when the Russian imperial army violently quashed the 1916 Kazakh uprising. At the same time, though, Bakhetbek acknowledged that the tragedy of his family had been the experience of his ancestors through the ages -- whenever the Kazakhs found themselves under oppression or attack, they would historically flee to Chinese Turkmenistan, Sibera, and other parts of Central Asia, only to find themselves under another oppressive regime.

After telling his story, Bakhetbek looked spent, but there was a sparkle in his wife's eye. "Actually . . ." She looked over at her husband. "We still have one relative alive in China. She is Bakhetbek's niece, and she is studying in Urumqi. She wrote to us one year ago, but we have never met. She gave us a phone number, but we have never been able to call."

It was dark by the time everyone assembled outside in winter coats and fur hats. I pointed the satellite phone aerial to the sky and experimented with a few prefixes until the call went through. A woman answered. After a brief initial silence, all of Bakhetbek's family members took turns talking, struggling to hold back tears but smiling.

The occasion called for a feast, and after the phone calls it was all hands on deck. Bakehtbek's brother, who due to his bald head was nicknamed "the Kazakh Gorbachev," raced to get a sheep. In an outbuilding the men gathered with cupped hands to say a prayer before its throat was cut. Had I been of the Muslim faith, I would have been asked to bless the sheep, since traditionally guests were required to ask permission from the animal's spirit to partake of its flesh.

Late into the night we sat around gorging on meat and being plied with vodka. A dombra, the traditional two-stringed mandolin of the Kazakhs, was passed around. When Bakhetbek played there was a fire in his eyes, and he sat with his back even straighter and prouder than usual. Strong fingers moved instinctively up and down the instrument's neck. In Kazakh they say a good player can make the dombra sing. I was sure I could hear the beating hooves of horses. It was as if a stoic, unfaltering rhythm prevailed through the harsh realities of life and the land. I looked across to Aset, who was welling up with pride. The last beat ended, and Bakhetbek looked at me. His eyes arched into crescents; from the tears spread into the many channels of his weathered face and disappeared.

Kazakhs believe that when a guest walks through the front door, luck flies in through the window. It is a good omen: the sheep will give birth to twin lambs in the spring. Looking back on this occasion, the magic of this belief was embodied by my meeting with Bakhetbek.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Movie/Museum Watch NYC: Coming up at the amazing Museum of the Moving Image -- "2001" in 70mm!

For 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick tapped both of the supreme Strausses. For the approach to the space station it's Johann II (the Waltz King) and his Blue Danube; it'll look (and sound) way better in 70mm at MoMI. Below we'll hear (the unrelated) Richard S.

by Ken

For months now I've been meaning to write an update to the piece I wrote last September about the Museum of the Moving Image, to catch up on the large number of terrific experiences I've had in the last half-year. No, the museum isn't convenient for me, since I live in Far Northern Manhattan and work in Far Downtown Manhattan. But I've been to a whole bunch of special-event screenings, including a number of pre-release screenings, often with terrific guests and panels. And they've been so consistently rewarding that I now give Chief Curator David Schwartz close to carte blanche when a new event is announced.

Oh, I couldn't be dragged to the thing about kung-fu films, but I gulped hard and plunked down my modest member's fee for Particle Fever, a riveting documentary directed by physicist-turned-moviemaker Mark Levinson dramatizing the work of some of the physicists connected to the supercollider in Geneva, during the period of the discovery of the Higgs boson, work that wound up overturning physicists' understanding of the universe, to be replaced by they-still-don't-know-what. It was presented in conjunction with the World Science Festival, being held then in NYC, and the panel that followed included some of the physicists we'd seen in the film! I can't claim to have really understood the physics involved, but the basic issues at stake were explained clearly enough that I got a powerful sense of the personal and scientific stakes of all those brilliant physicists.

Among other MoMI screening events I can think of:

• Alan Alda being honored for his work in comedy on TV's M*A*S*H, talking about those years, with appropriately selected episode clips, proving as smart and funny and charming and passionate as you might imagine.

No kidding, I left the MoMI evening with Alan Alda -- in conversation with Jeff Greenfield -- feeling like I was walking on air.

* Jason Bateman speaking with predictably charming incisiveness, candor and (again) passion -- he was, if you can imagine such a thing, even more charming than Alan Alda, which means astoundingly charming -- following a screening of his first film as a director, the wickedly hilarious Bad Words, a sleeper hit at the Toronto Film Festival; he explained, though, that he had been preparing himself this "first" his whole career, having earned his SAG card in his teens while working on the TV series The Hogan Family -- in the audience was Hogan Family cohort Steve Witting, who has remained a lifelong friend and plays a juicy role in Bad Words. (Jason explained that nearly all the adult roles in the film were cast with friends; it's nice to have such friends!)

• Griffin Dunne appearing with writer-director Justin Schwarz after the screening of their new film, The Discoverers, followed by a screening of his most famous starring vehicle, Martin Scorsese's 1985 After Hours (yes, a double feature!).

• an extraordinary evening, which I wrote about in May, in which Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who had subsequently outed himself as an undocumented alien, presented his powerful film Documented.

• another double feature, of wildly different films directed by Bobcat Goldthwait in his second career, so different from his screaming-comic first career, again a new one, Willow Creek, and an earlier one, World's Greatest Dad (with Robin Williams).

"An Evening with Bobcat Goldthwait" in early June, featuring two of his films and a conversation with Bobcat himself, was just one of the many riveting and delightful evenings I've spent over the last year at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria.

• another far-more-absorbing-than-expected documentary, Life Itself, which director Steve James was making in cooperation with Roger Ebert (based on his memoir of that name) and his wife (now widow, of course), Chaz, at the time of Roger's death, followed by another great panel, which naturally included the remarkable Chaz Ebert.

• a pre-release screening -- just a screening, with no added frills, but free for members -- of Darren Aronofsky's highly entertaining and stimulating epic Noah, shown in conjunction with, naturally, regular museum screenings of all of Aronofsky's earlier films!

• and, of course, the memorable evening -- memorable despite torrential rains that didn't dampen audience spirits -- when creator-mastermind David Chase was on hand for screenings of the first and last episodes of The Sopranos.

Jason in Bad Words
(I should note, by the way, that when the discussions are opened to audience questions, MoMI audiences ask the best questions I've ever encountered, questions that are often quite perceptive in their own right but more important trigger all sorts of information and revelations. For example, the night Jason Bateman talked about Bad Words, a questioner asked if he had always planned to play the not terribly sympathetic lead character, and it turned out that he originally assumed he wouldn't, and didn't reconsider until he'd sent the script to three "very well-known actors, all better than me," who told him to go fuck himself. However, once he made the decision to play the role himself, he found it a considerable saving of time from not having to direct his lead actor -- time he desperately needed for all the other things he was dealing with as a first-time director.)

Clearly curator Schwartz has an extraordinary eye for -- and ability to snag -- films that are not only of unusual interest in their own right but lend themselves to "events" those I've mentioned. At the Sopranos event I learned that he had in fact been the curator who arranged MoMI's 2001 screening of the complete first two seasons of The Sopranos, on the big screen, with eight episodes a weekend -- free to members. You better believe I became a member, and had my first exposure to the show (I didn't have HBO then), and therefore knew from the outset how terrific it looked on a big screen.

And I've focused on "events," touching on in the case of the Aronofsky series on the museum's vast series of "regular" screenings (free to members, who can pre-reserve tickets by phone). Or the museum's extensive permanent and rotating collections and exhibitions (which I did touch on in my report last September).

Since I've been mostly attending those "event" screenings, which I have to get to straight from work, I haven't had much recent opportunity to explore the museum's current offerings, so I'm hoping to arrive early enough tomorrow to do so before I settle in for the first of a series of six screenings this weekend and next of a 70mm print of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's legendary 2001: A Space Odyssey.


"Sunrise" from Richard Strauss's Thus Spake Zarathustra. Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, cond. RCA, recorded Mar. 8, 1954

Which is, er, that this weekend and next MoMI is offering six screenings of 2001 in 70mm. You'll note below that regular members can get one ticket free. Since I booked mine as soon as I received the e-announcement, as I've come to do with most MoMI events (I still kick myself for missing out on the December screening of American Hustle at which director David O. Russell appeared for a discussion), I have no idea what the ticket situation is like. But I don't want anyone to say I didn't tell you about it.
2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm
Part of See It Big! Science Fiction (Part Two)

Saturday, July 5, 3:00 p.m.
Saturday, July 5, 6:30 p.m.
Sunday, July 6, 3:00 p.m.
Sunday, July 6, 6:30 p.m.
Saturday, July 12, 3:30 p.m.
Sunday, July 13, 3:00 p.m.

Don't miss your chance to see this classic in glorious 70mm! As brilliantly engineered as the space program itself, Kubrick’s mysterious and profound epic—“the ultimate trip”—is about nothing less than the beauty and banality of civilization, blending cool satire, an elaborate vision of the future, and passages of avant-garde cinematic inventiveness.

Tickets: $12 ($9 seniors/students, free for Museum members). Ticket includes access to the Museum's galleries and other screenings on the same day. Order online or call 718 777 6800 to reserve tickets. For more information on membership and to join online, visit our membership page.

Brainstorm in 70mm
Part of See It Big! Science Fiction (Part Two)

Saturday, July 12, 7:00 p.m.
Sunday, July 13, 3:00 p.m.

Douglas Trumbull’s 1983 thriller about a device that can record thoughts and dreams features stunning visual effects to portray telepathic experiences, cutting between widescreen and standard size. It also features the last performance by Natalie Wood, who died during the making of the film. Brainstorm has not been shown in 70mm in New York for more than 20 years.

Free with Museum admission on a first-come, first-served basis. Museum members may reserve tickets in advance by calling 718 777 6800. For more information on membership and to join online, visit our membership page.