Monday, January 30, 2017

Year of the Cock

Saturday was the beginning of the Lunar New Year, though most people started celebrating on Friday. It was also the first time since moving to China that I was out of the country during the Chinese New Year. I went to Tel Aviv just before it started and will come back long after everyone has gone back to their jobs and daily routines. The holiday isn't officially over until the Lantern Festival on February 11, but most people only get 2 or 3 days off. Since it was over the weekend, a lot of people already had those days off anyway. If you have a cushy government or corporate job, maybe you get Monday and Tuesday off.

I have two roommates. One of them has one of those cushy office jobs. He usually gets around 6 days off. This year, it's the week after it all starts. That's always better if you want to travel.

My other roommate teaches English to spoiled rich children. That job has a lot of drawbacks, but one huge benefit is that spoiled rich children never go to school during major holidays. Her vacation started on New Year's Eve and ends long after the rest of us are back at work.

I'm working through the whole thing. I rarely have the New Year off, but this year I took some time to go to Tel Aviv. Chinese New Year doesn't mean much in Israel. Their next big holiday is Purim, in March. I'd love to see that, but unfortunately, it's not going to happen this year.

If you live in China and have a week off during the New Year, leaving the country is not a bad idea. Big cities are usually pretty crowded, but they get ridiculous during major holidays. Chinese New Year is the biggest of the lot. Lily & Kevin were going to go to Japan, but then they checked the weather. I still think that's funny. They're both from Canada, but shied away from Japan because it's winter. So they went to Bangkok instead. 30°C and 0% chance of rain looked better than a few degrees above freezing and daily showers.

That means our apartment will be empty until they get back. But if you're a thief, don't get any ideas. Our neighbor keeps an eye on things. She pays attention whether we want her to or not. Unless she's a thief. Then we're screwed.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Harmony on Spring Hill - Chapter 12 Excerpts

After dancing all night and sleeping for a few hours, Harmony had to go to the studio and dance all day. On the drive to the studio, she wondered if she would have enough energy to get the scene. If she was too tired in the first few takes, she would be useless by the afternoon. That would only make it undeniable to everyone how unprofessional she was to go out all night right before her big scene.

“Charlie Sheen showed up to every movie set high as a balloon,” Livia said.

Livia was trying to make her feel better, but knowing that overpaid movie stars can be irresponsible took nothing away from how unprofessional her actions were.

At the studio, her dressing room was an actual dressing room. Since they were using a dance studio rather than someone's house, Savta and Harmony had dressing rooms instead of bedrooms. Savta was already in hair and makeup before Harmony arrived. They met out on the floor after Harmony was properly decorated.

Daniyel was looking through a camera lens and talking to Elior when Harmony walked out. She was nervous, but pretending not to be. The walk out of the dressing room was possibly her best acting performance of the entire movie. She had already spent a few days in front of Daniyel's camera, but Maria is mostly incidental in those scenes. Today was her big chance to show Savta who she was. She was more nervous about the dancing than the acting, which surprised her. Dancing is what she had always done. Acting was little more than a hobby.

“That's why you were more nervous,” Livia told her. “If you screw up the acting, it's no big deal. You don't really consider yourself an actress. But if you screw up the dancing, that's what you do. That's your career.”

She thought she would be worried about the pirouettes, but she was more concerned about how little sleep she had the night before. She should have been worried about both.

When Daniyel and Elior were ready, they set up for the first shot. She knew what they were doing because she was at the rehearsal a week earlier. She already knew her positions and where the camera would be at all times. Savta knew what they were doing because she was a professional and always knew what she was doing.

Daniyel wanted to start with the dialogue and then go into the dancing. Harmony could not decide if that was a good idea or not. She liked the idea of resting a little before she had to be at her physical peak, but playing an emotional scene is not the best way to rest. On the other hand, if they shot the dancing first, she might have been too spent to shoot the dialogue afterward. Daniyel's feeling was that if the dancing took all day, he could let Savta go home as long as he already had all of her dialogue. He was more concerned with Savta than whatever Harmony did the night before. As any good director would be.

In the scene, Maria and Savta talk about how Maria's career is less important than Arus staying in Jerusalem with his family. Savta is a retired dancer, so she knows how important dancing is to Maria, but she wants to dismiss Maria's talent and abilities. Calling yourself a dancer does not make you a great dancer.

Savta points out that she was a great dancer. Her grand jeté was the farthest. Her brisé was the highest. Her arabesque was legendary. When she says that she could do seven pirouettes without warming up, Maria takes a few steps back and nimbly does eight in her street clothes.

Maria's flawless execution shows Savta that she is more action than talk. They have a brief conversation after the pirouettes and the audience sees that Savta has come around. In a later scene, Savta tells the rest of the family that Maria needs to be in the United States for her dancing career and that Arus needs to be with his wife. No one is happy about it, but Savta is the head of the family. Everyone will follow her lead.

Shooting the dialogue with Savta was fun for Harmony. They had already done a few scenes together and she loved spending whatever time with Savta she could. Her character is trying to convince Savta's character that she is worthy of her respect. In a sense, that was exactly what she was doing. Most of the emotion is on Savta's end. Savta had to show the audience how her character gradually changes her mind. That sounds easy enough, but to make it look convincing on screen, actors have to know where in the scene each shot fits. In many ways, acting on stage is simpler. You basically perform in a straight line. In a movie, each shot can be from a different time and place.

Watching how subtly Savta transitioned was an acting master class. Since they shot all the dialogue first, Savta had to go from no in one shot to yes in the next. The dancing that changed her mind would be edited in between.

They shot the dialogue exactly as they blocked it a few days earlier. The conversation starts with Savta and Maria standing face to face, almost as equals. There is a vigorous height difference, but Savta has enough presence that being shorter than everyone else never matters. In the next shot, Savta sits down and Maria stays standing. As Maria takes a more dominant position in the dialogue, she is also physically over Savta.

The following shot is after the pirouettes, but Daniyel wanted it to look the same as the earlier shots, so they filmed it without taking a break and repositioning the lights and sound equipment. That only made it easier for Harmony. The camera moves down to Savta, making Maria appear even taller. She is now towering over Savta, physically and figuratively. Even without any dialogue, it would be obvious how the characters change places in this scene. Daniyel planned the scene long before Savta was cast or he knew that Harmony existed. It is a pivotal moment in both the story and Savta's character development. He never doubted Savta's ability to make it work. Casting Harmony was always a risk.

They got each shot in relatively few takes. There were a few technical problems, and Harmony tore a line or two, but they were finished shooting all of the dialogue in only a few hours. Savta was finished for the day since she was not in the one dance shot. She apologized for not being able to stick around, but she had her big Shabbat dinner. Harmony was actually relieved that Savta would not be there. She wanted the fewest people possible to witness her mistakes.

Daniyel insisted that they not take a break. The sooner he got the shot, the sooner everyone else could go home for Shabbat. Harmony would get a short break while they set up the shot, but she had to use that time to warm up rather than rest. Maria goes into it without warming up, but Harmony had exercises to do.

She wanted to tell Daniyel that she needed to take a nap, but she did not want to tell Daniyel that she was out all night at a dance club. One of the reasons this scene was scheduled for today was so most of the cast and crew had their Shabbat. After the dialogue was finished, they kept a minimal crew for the dance shot. It was almost like shooting a sensitive sex scene. Daniyel only had who he needed on set. From the crew's point of view, this was the easiest part of the day. Everything was on Harmony. Since Shabbat meant nothing to her, Daniyel did not have to worry about how quickly she wanted to get home. Shooting this scene on this day made the most sense. No one predicted that she would get almost no sleep the night before.

When Daniyel and Elior were ready to go, Harmony was as ready as she was going to be. In the high waisted skirt and monks that she wore all morning, she got into position and copied Mikhail Baryshnikov as best she could.

White Nights, Baryshnikov goes rond de jambe into his preparation without tendu. He puts his closing arm directly behind him for momentum but keeps his shoulders square. He uses his closing arm to sling and corkscrew up. His arms graduate in during the first few turns and do not even go into position until his sixth pirouette. His working leg never goes into a proper passé, but he gets a very high half toe out of his supporting leg. To lift after the tenth turn, he extends his arms to soften his landing. It is a work of art.

Harmony copied Baryshnikov's arm movements on the first take and fell out of the third pirouette. No one was expecting that. She pushed off too hard and could not control it. In trying to turn as much as she could, she forgot that quality was infinitely more important than quantity.

For the second take, she got into a solid position, but her head spots were entirely too forceful and she had to stop at the sixth turn. Daniyel could not tell how much she ruined it, but he knew that she did not do enough pirouettes. He was not examining her every move. He was simply counting each turn.

She asked for a short break to warm up some more and Daniyel reluctantly agreed. He wanted to finish as quickly as possible, but he was not a dancer and knew that he was going to have to defer to her experience in this case. He was a smart enough director to know that pushing her to finish faster would only make everything take longer.

While warming up, she mostly worked on her calves and arches. She had already run through the barre positions when they were setting up the lights. Purely as practice, she did a few casual pirouettes. Daniyel was watching her and counted each turn.

“That is perfect,” he practically shouted.

It was far from perfect, but she had apparently hit enough turns to make Daniyel happy.

“Do that in front of the camera,” he continued.

In attempting to copy Baryshnikov, she missed the point. Daniyel merely wanted her to do as many pirouettes as she could without it looking like proper ballet. He did not care where her arms and legs were in relation to what Baryshnikov had done. That was solely a reference point.

For the next take, she got into position and used a combination of Baryshnikov's technique and what felt natural to her. When she landed, there was dead silence in the studio. She was frozen while waiting for Daniyel. Maria was not supposed to do anything after the pirouettes. The next shot was dialogue that they had already filmed.

Elior had to remind Daniyel that the camera was still rolling. After Daniyel cut the shot, he walked over to Harmony.

“Do you know how many spins you made?” he asked her.

She did not. She was not counting. She simply did what felt right in that moment. She was concentrating more on the landing than anything else.

“You made fifteen spins,” he continued, smiling from ear to ear. “It was amazing. Better than Baryshnikov.”

Harmony would be the first to admit that she was not better than Baryshnikov by any stretch of the imagination. Baryshnikov at 68 was a better dancer than Harmony at 25, and possibly a better dancer than she will ever be. Daniyel, not a dancer, was going by quantity. He was sufficiently impressed.

But doing fifteen pirouettes led to a problem with continuity. In the earlier dialogue, Savta had already said that she could do seven. Maria was supposed to do eight to show that she was just as good now as Savta was in her prime. Fifteen is far more than seven. Daniyel liked the higher number, but he did not want Maria to be overwhelmingly stronger than Savta.

There were two solutions. Savta could come back for a reshoot and say fourteen instead of seven. But that would have to be another day. This was Shabbat and Daniyel was not about to call Savta at home and interrupt her holiday. The other solution was shooting another take where Harmony only did eight pirouettes.

Daniyel wanted to keep the fifteen, but they did another take just to be safe. Since Harmony was not as worried about emulating Baryshnikov as she had been earlier, she hit eight turns in one take and they got the shot that no one really wanted. Daniyel told her that he preferred to reshoot the dialogue, but he had no idea when that was going to happen. The schedule was pretty tight as it was and there was almost no room for any reshoots. Savta was busy and Harmony could not stay in the country indefinitely. The eight pirouettes were a backup, but Daniyel admitted that he might have to use that shot.

“Why not dub it in later,” she suggested. “You don't have to reshoot anything. Savta just records the word fourteen over her seven.”

Daniyel looked at her like she was an American taking a shortcut.

“We cannot do that,” he stated.

“Why not?” she asked. “Is there a close up on her lips when she says seven?”

“It is a long shot with the both of you,” Daniyel answered.

“Then who's going to notice?” she asked. “Both words are two syllables. Only lip readers and people really watching her mouth are going to see it. No one else will ever notice.”

Daniyel briefly consulted Elior and they were in agreement. Such a thing would be inauthentic and an insult to their audience, most of whom speak Hebrew and would never notice replacing the word “politics” with “Pete Rose should be in the Hall of Fame”. But Harmony could respect their decision. Their audience might never notice such clumsy dubbing, but they would always know. They were from a realist school of filmmaking. Fixing it in post was not their mantra.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Christmas in China

Christmas in China is nothing new to me. I've been here a while. I think I'd be more amazed by an American Christmas at this point. What's completely new to me is how they do things in South Africa. As a former British colony, they do a lot of things the British way, including Boxing Day.

I can recognize most of their traditions. But just like Australia, Christmas is during the summer. That would be the hardest adjustment for me. Hong Kong Christmas is nothing like Christmas, but at least it's in winter. It's not a real winter, but it's slightly less humid than the rest of the year. Christmas in summer would feel strange to me.

And yes, I know that some of my country's states were also British colonies a very long time ago, but we don't follow British traditions nearly as much as places like Australia and South Africa. I never ate Yorkshire pudding until I moved to Hong Kong, and my people would never pay taxes to support a royal family. If we had to do that, there would be a revolution. In fact, there was.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Christmas 2016

On Christmas morning, I woke up, shook off the sugar plums dancing in my head and went for a run. At work, people were jollier than usual. Most of my colleagues did not grow up with Christmas the way I did, but there are enough Australians and Canadians to spread a festive atmosphere. We always have decorations up, but it never feels like Christmas. Especially since it only snows here about once every 200 years. That doesn't bother the Australians so much, but the Canadians know what I mean.

In China, Christmas is a day of shopping. The locals don't realize that the proper tradition is to shop between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, and examine wrapped gifts whose secrets you tried to shake into revealing themselves. Christmas morning is for anticipation, while Christmas afternoon is reserved for disappointment in the realization that the people around you don't know you well enough to get all the best toys for which Jesus died.

I don't generally like to work on Christmas day. It's a more important holiday to me than to most of the people at work. I think the foreigners should always get the day off, just as we mostly volunteer to work during the important Chinese holidays. One of the biggest issues during the Chinese New Year is that people are supposed to go home to see their families. In China, that could mean traveling thousands of miles. You need at least three or four days off. The more I work during the New Year, the more someone can see people they might only see once a year. All I ask in return is Christmas and Thanksgiving. I'm pretty flexible about Columbus Day.

I spent a good chunk of Christmas night on the phone. There's nothing exceptional about that when you're an expat. We all have people in some other part of the world. Christmas might be one of the busiest international calling days. What made this Christmas different was that I spent most of the night talking to a man I just met.

Mthandeni went home for Christmas. He'll be back soon, but so far, we've talked on the phone every day. I think it's too soon to call us a couple. We haven't done most of the things couples do together. But we sure seem to have a lot to talk about. When I get off work, it's the middle of the afternoon for him. When he goes to sleep, I'm waking up. The time difference between China and South Africa really works out.

Monday, January 2, 2017

New Year's Eve 2016

A lot of people are glad to be rid of 2016. It was a strange year politically and a pretty terrible time for celebrity deaths. Plus, we had zika, bird flu and more terrorist attacks than the world needs. I read somewhere that 2016 was the most violent year for Europe. That's ridiculous. They had a couple of world wars that were pretty deadly, not to mention a million other wars since the beginning of time. If you live outside of Syria and Iraq, chances are, your life is far safer, richer and healthier than your grandparents'.

It was a pretty good year for me. My career went places I never expected. I took a few trips to Israel and my first trip to Canada in the longest time. That was for my best friend's father's funeral, unfortunately, but it's always nice to spend some time up in the Great White North. I'm pretty sure I wrote a book in 2016. There must be excerpts of it somewhere.

I started dating for the first time since I was a teenager. It's too early to say how well that's going, but it's definitely different. This isn't the way we did things in high school.

2016 was yet another year in which Paul McCartney refused to acknowledge the existence of China, but I saw Elton John's Wonderful Crazy Night. That was a pretty good outdoor show. Ironically, he let the sun go down on him. It wasn't very crazy, but it was a wonderful night.