Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Seven Years in Tibet


Seven Years in Tibet. A German mountain-climbing expedition to mount Nanga Parbat in the Himalayas begins this true, epic tale of personal growth among the people of Tibet and their mountains. The expedition is doomed by the weather and the times. Driven to climb Nanga Parbat because it has become the "German" mountain, a nationalist effort. Everest, of course, wasnot yet conquered. Failing to climb to the summit because of the snowstorm and avalanche problems common in the Himalayas, the German expedition finds itself arrested and interned because of the outbreak of World War II. Finally escaping from the internment camp in Kashmir, Heinrich Harrer (Brad Pitt) makes his way to Lhasa where he eventually meets Tenzin Gyatso, the young Dalai Lama. While at first the film carries on with the fascination of the Dalai Lama for information about the West, the takeover of Tibet by the imperialistic Chinese communists takes over the film.

Through out the fseventibetilm the lifestyle and nature of Tibetan life is a constant element. From the seemingly naive clapping of hands to ward off the foreign devils, the more illuminating details of life are continually offered. Striking one from the start is the theocratic nature of this once religious state. The Dalai Lama is the center to political life. The meaning of gestures and the intrusion of western influence on a traditional place take us deeper. The poverty of Tibet is present, yet easily overlooked because of the general acceptance of life and the happiness people have with it. The poverty is obvious, yet not important in the least for most of the picture.

It is only when the Chinese imperialists invade in 1950 that the poverty becomes blatant. This is because it suddenly can be compared to a form of non-poverty. The pitifulness of traditional societies resisting the power of modernity becomes a comedy noir. The Chinese communists are armed with all the weapons of modern warfare. The Tibetans have primitive guns, a few cannons, and spears. Life falls out of adjustment, the poverty becomes painful.

The geographic aspects of Tibet are a focus for the film-makers. They even have regular on-screen maps to show us where we are and where we are going. The maps are the simple hand-drawn jottings of the explorer, but that is the history of mapping. All of our fine world and other maps have simple drawings and jotting somewhere back in their past.

The Himalayas are magnificent. In reality the film was shot in Argentina, so one really is seeing the beauty of the southern Andes. The substitution of environments is common in film production, factors of cost, remoteness, government regulation, and other elements of film-production location dominate over full reality. To the viewer the difference is of no value. To the geographer the film and this practice are like that unlabeled slide sitting on the shelf in front of the boxes of carefully trayed and labeled slides: it looks like mountains west of Denver, but without any label or other clear reference, it could be from the Rockies, Andes, or the lower Himalayas. If you could make out one more tiny detail, you would know, but you cannot. We would let it sit outside of the trays we use, but if Brad Pitt says it is the Himalayas, that is good enough for most that walk this planet.

In those mountains you get rugged rock faces, avalanches, and snow storms. The winds prevent your progress. The rocks hurt your feet. The views stagger the mind they are so vast in white and gray.

The cultural landscape is also impressively shown. The material poverty of Tibet in the 1940's is clear. The clothes and foods, the art work, and the religion are fully presented. What a learning experience.

The music assists the experience. The John Williams score makes use of both local instruments and the western themes that suggest oriental culture and the vastness of mountains. Yo-yo Ma provides cello solos along the way.

In a more postmodern political role, this film plays a part in the international campaign to return Tibet to the Tibetans. While generally low key over time, Tibetans have an organized movement to gain world support for the removal of the Chinese. At the same time the low key nature of this effort suggests the weakness generally shown by the West toward China. With one out of every five consumers being Chinese living in China, can the viciousness of Chinese imperialism be opposed by those who value money and sales over freedom and justice?

Updated from: Meartz, Paul D. 1997. Media Beat: Seven Years in Tibet. Dakota Alliance Summer (July) 1998: 6-7.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Parent Trap II


The Parent Trap. In this remake of the 1960's Hayley Mills classic, viewers get a mixture of the Napa Valley, London, and "Camp Walden" (presumably in Massachusetts). The original contrasted California with Boston; its camp could have been anywhere from Wisconsin to Maine. The new film offers a more international setting, but still compares a stereotypic stuffy place with semi-country.

Its Napa Valley is warm and sunny, with a sense of remoteness imposed by the small plane service to its airport. The landscape is one of vineyards, displayed though panoramic shots of the fields and hills. The vehicle of choice is an SUV, home is a ranch. Yet even a rural portion of the state is impacted by the California of hypocrites and golddiggers, usually associated with southern California. The future stepmom offers this role. Fraud in the fields.parenttrap1

London is "so far away that they haven't heard of Leonardo Decaprio." Classic shots of Big Ben, Harrods, and old buildings tell us where we are. The one I just had to love was a shot of the star and her mother crossing Abbey Road as pictured on the album cover for the Beatles. Even the Volkswagen bug is there. One travels by Rolls Royce. The accents are strong.

Camp Walden is probably in Vermont or Massachusetts, but it is unclear. Easily accessible by car and bus, nestled in the trees, it is still so remote that even the cell phones do not work.

The film/video has some great outdoor scenes that have helped make the movie a success. As a devotee of the original, I have to admit that the original film and the environments were better. The story is much the same, and the acting quality good. It is just that the film has to hit you over the head thinking you might not get the line or the place. The classiness of the original is sacrificed to make sure you "get it." As a youngster I understood the first one perfectly. I knew it was California, and I knew it was Boston. The new one assumes young (and older?) viewers cannot do this. I think they can. They may not be able to find California or London on a map, but they have heard about them.

In the end, it is a pleasant experience for most. I was turned off by the construction of the script, but most would not.

Updated from: Meartz, Paul D. 1997. Media Beat: The Parent Trap. Dakota Alliance 9 (4): April-May 1999: 7.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Peyton Place


Peyton Place is a chance to enjoy a widescreen view of Mapeytonplace1rk Robson and Jerry Wald's panorama of small town New England life and environs in 1941. Yet, for all its beauty, Peyton Place is the namesake of small town pettiness and vicious gossip.

Peyton Place is a small company town in the hill-mountains of New England. It opens with a sequence of typical rural New England scenes depicting the structures of the region thru the seasons. According to the Meeker Museum, the critical hilltop scene where Allison and Norman climb to her special secret hilltop to exchange their first kiss, was filmed at Mount Battle near Camden, Maine. The view is spectacular befitting a cinemascope production. But you do not need special places to establish that the towns of the region are romantic looking little postcards of themselves, most scenes of even people walking and shopping lend themselves to professional photographers and their cameras.

In the 1956 novel Metalious begins this regional vignette with her statement that "Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, passionate, but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases so that one can ever be sure whether she will come at all, nor for how long she will stay." From there on the relationship of human beings, their society, nature, and place is center stage. The sunlight, trees, and lakes, meld into position with the people, their lives, and the buildings of town.

Small Towns. The focus of the work is the closed society that small towns can become. Indeed, Peyton Place has become synonymous with small town gossip and hypocrisy. The underlying struggle of the plot is for the town to change so that its youth will stay. Those youth see the outside as freedom from the impending trap that the town can become for those who fail to immediately fit its rigid structures, and even for those who do fit. The sequel, Return to Peyton Place follows this theme to its fullest. Allison feels confined by the narrow-mindedness of those who dominate the town and condemn her friend Selena because of her low class position. The town is offers limited opportunities. New York is Allison's goal with its freedom and chances to become something.

Downtown. Just the downtown, by itself, is a postcard from the past. The stores are small, but filled with the basic goods people need. Prosperity is apparent in that her mother owns a small dress store, yet lives in a fine home with a cleaning woman to take care of keeping it that way. In that prosperity Constance, the mother, develops her web of lies to protect her flirtation with the outside and its wickedness. In the lie she maintains a solid position in town.

Poverty and Class. Selina Cross comes from the "wrong side of the tracks." A stereotypic description, but she literally does in this film. Following the opening credits Michael Rossi drives into town to take on the position of principal at the high school and to challenge to town to do better than it has at educating its children. He is stopped at the rail crossing in front of Selina's shack. He notices the squalor, and talks about it later. The Cross household faces its first crisi after he drives off across the tracks to the right side. The problems of the Cross household serve as an underlying background theme. Being from the wrong side of the tracks makes respectability and acceptance impossible. Industry. Harrington Mills dominates Peyton Place. It is the major employer, and both the overriding reason for people to be in Peyton Place and for those who want something better out of life to want to leave. To work at the mill is to be trapped. It is a textile mill, the basis of industrial development in New England. It is historic, but hardly a rewarding future.

Made in the 1950s as a "potboiler," Peyton Place is today one of those novels and films that seems a stereotype, but in reality is the source of the stereotype. The coming DVD should offer the full cinemascope image that movies sought in the 1950s to compete with television. The enhanced picture will only make the geographic qualities of the film loom larger on the mind. Peyton Place is a classic film in substance, and classic in its use of the environment.

Updated from: Meartz, Paul D. 2002. Geography in Media: Peyton Place. Dakota Alliance XIV (1): February 2004: 7.