Thursday, July 14, 2011
MAKE ART NOT WAR
Today the mailman uploaded another film from netflix to my mailbox, THE CATS OF MIRIKITANI. It's been in my netflix Q a year or two. From the description, it looked interesting, but there was nothing that pulled me to see it beyond putting it in the Q and one day it rose to the top. I confess tears ran down my face through much of it, tears of joy and of sorrow. Mirikitani is an eighty year old Japanese man at the beginning who lived homelessly on NYC streets and drew pictures using crayon, pencils, anything he had that applied colors. He sold his drawings occasionally to passersby, refusing money for his homeless condition, only receiving money in trade for his drawings. He liked to draw cats and WW2 Japanese internment camps in California desert where he spent 3.5 years in early twenties, and Hiroshima consumed by the American ball of fire.
Jimmy Mirikitani was born in Sacramento, California, and went to Japan with his parents when he was 3 to live in Hiroshima, which he said was a beautiful city. Somewhere along the way I learned Hiroshima was famous for the finest collection of Japanese gardens in the country. In his late teens he returned to Seattle. He was an American citizen. The war came and US government put Japanese people, 2/3 of them American citizens, in concentration camps, called internment camps, and released them at the end of the war with no homes to return to, because they were siezed by government, no jobs, no money, no nothing. One man was said to hang himself the day before release, because there was nowhere to go. This was Mirikitani's worst nightmare of his life. The camp was one of the themes in his drawings. The bomb at Hiroshima another of his themes.
The more powerful theme of the film was what came of Linda Hattendorf meeting him. She was evidently a student of film making, and recorded her visits with him by video, I suspect because she was making video of whatever came up, possibly thinking this guy who stayed one block from her apartment would be a good one to catch on film, just because he was such an odd little old man, head bent down all the time, hands with months of going unwashed encrusted on them. He was indrawn and brief with words. She took an interest in him as she became better acquainted with him. In the dust storm of 911 she took him in to her apartment to give him a place where he could draw all he wanted. He drew pictures all day every day. It was his only activity in the course of a day.
She saw something in him that made her want to see more. Their relationship grew steadily as they came to know each other better. He began telling her his life and I had a feeling it was along this time that she started seeing she might have a documentary film of the life of this anonymous man people walked by every day in NYC without seeing. It brought to mind my own discovery of the whole person who was Jr Maxwell of Whitehead, NC, sitting in his tractor repair shop watching cars and trucks go by. When he started telling me his life, I turned all ears. In the course of the five years of two and sometimes four hours a day listening to his life, I discovered a true human being with a fullness of life that made my life feel puny. No kidding. I felt along the lines of how Linda Hattendorf felt, who became Mirikitani's friend as I became Jr's friend, even the same kind of progression along the way. She appreciated Mirikitan's art form, drawing and painting, as I appreciated Jr's art form, bluegrass banjo, though Jr couldn't pick any more.. As she came to know him over time, she saw more and more until she found the unfathomable depth of a full human being. And that's what I found in Jr.
The film was made over a period of a couple years. She gradually got him involved with an old-people's center where they asked him to teach painting to the people there. She got him on Social Security so he could get a few hundred dollars a month. Eventually she found him an apartment, brand new, made for people like him with little or no money. Attention started coming his way in appreciation. Linda found an article in NYTimes about a Japanese-American poet in SanFrancisco with the same last name. Linda wrote her and it turned out her dad, Ted, was in the camp with Jimmy and they were cousins. Linda found his sister in Seattle he'd not seen nor heard of since they left the camp in the late 1940s. At the end of the film are several short films under bonus features. I suppose with grant money, or advance money for the projected film, Linda was able to take him to SanFrancisco to meet his cousin and her family, then to Seattle to meet his sister and her family.
The special features part ends with them going to Hiroshima for an annual memorial gathering August 6 over the death of the city and the people in it that day. By the time they get there, we know what it means to him, that it was a lightning bolt that hit him in the soul. All his mother's people were snuffed. By the time they were in Hiroshima, I noticed he walked with his head up. Through the running of the film I noticed his head rising from its bent over condition. Linda's project and her friendship gave him his life back. It caused me to review my time with Jr making it possible for him to die at home as he wanted for himself, even in his own bed. She would have done for Jr what I did and I would have done for Mirikitani what she did. I've an idea she feels their friendship, the opportunity to find the fullness in this old bent over Japanese man who lived on the street outside her door, is far more valuable than the film's success, the money she made, her artistic success, even anything else in her life. I felt happy for her, because I knew the joy that came to her life as a result of giving Jimmy Mirikitani what he needed to hold his head up again. I say of my time with Jr that it was the only important thing I've ever done. I believe Linda Hattendorf says the same of her time with Jimmy.