3 posts categorized "Religion"

September 25, 2017

OCTOBER PROGRAMMING ON THE CRITERION CHANNEL ON FILMSTRUCK!

       
 
Includes a new edition of Meet the Filmmakers on Josh and Benny Safdie,
four films by Michael Haneke and Juraj Herz's The Cremator!
 
Sunday, October 1
On the Waterfront*: Criterion Collection Edition #647

Marlon Brando gives the performance of his career as the tough prizefighter-turned-longshoreman Terry Malloy in Elia Kazan's eight-time Oscar-winning masterpiece. A powerfully emotional tale of individual failure and social corruption, On the Waterfrontfollows Terry's deepening moral crisis as he must decide whether to remain loyal to a mob-connected union boss (Lee J. Cobb) and his right-hand man, Terry's brother (Rod Steiger), as the authorities close in on them. SUPPLEMENTAL FEATURES: an audio commentary by authors Richard Schickel and Jeff Young; a conversation between filmmaker Martin Scorsese and critic Kent Jones; Elia Kazan: Outsider (1982), an hour-long documentary; a documentary on the making of the film, featuring interviews with scholar Leo Braudy, critic David Thomson, and others; an interview with actor Eva Marie Saint; an interview with director Elia Kazan from 2001; and more.
*Premiering on the Channel this month.
 
Sunday, October 1
Harold and Maude*: Criterion Collection Edition #608

Countercultural icon Hal Ashby's idiosyncratic American fable tells the story of the emotional and romantic bond between a death-obsessed young man (Bud Cort) from a wealthy family and a devil-may-care, bohemian octogenarian (Ruth Gordon). Equal parts gallows humor and romantic innocence, Harold and Maude dissolves the line between darkness and light along with the ones that separate people by class, gender, and age, and it features indelible performances and a remarkable soundtrack by Cat Stevens. SUPPLEMENTAL FEATURES: an audio commentary by Hal Ashby biographer Nick Dawson and producer Charles B. Mulvehill; illustrated audio excerpts from seminars by Ashby and writer-producer Colin Higgins; and an interview with songwriter Yusuf/Cat Stevens.
*Premiering on the Channel this month.
 
Tuesday, October 3
Tuesday's Short and Feature: The Extraordinary Life of Rocky* andHarold and Maude

In these two comedies, glimmers of macabre humor emerge amid the specter of death: Belgian director Kevin Meul's award-winning 2010 short The Extraordinary Life of Rockyfollows the story of a young boy whose very presence seems to lead his loved ones to die in freak accidents, while Hal Ashby's 1971 Harold and Maude observes the unlikely romantic relationship between a suicidal twentysomething and an eccentric elderly widow.
*Premiering on the Channel this month.
 
Thursday, October 5
Meet the Filmmakers: Josh and Benny Safdie

The Channel-exclusive series Meet the Filmmakers invites exciting contemporary directors to turn the camera on filmmakers who intrigue them, capturing their creative process through genuine, personal encounters, not filmographies or biographies. This latest entry goes behind the scenes with Josh and Benny Safdie, brothers who have made their name with a number of singularly chaotic features set in their native New York. In addition to candid footage from the set of their new thriller Good Time, director Michael Chaiken offers an intimate immersion in the Safdies' world, where family life and filmmaking flow together inseparably. Alongside the fifty-five-minute documentary, the Criterion Channel will present a sampling of the duo's key films, including The Pleasure of Being Robbed* (2008), Daddy Longlegs*(2009), their basketball documentary Lenny Cooke*(2013), and four of their shorts*.
*Premiering on the Channel this month.
 
Friday, October 6
Friday Night Double Feature: The Arbor* and The Selfish Giant*

With Clio Barnard's new feature Dark River now making the festival rounds, catch up on two of the director's acclaimed films set in the industrial West Yorkshire city of Bradford. In her astonishing debut feature, The Arbor (2010), she turns documentary filmmaking on its head, investigating the brief, tragic life of playwright Andrea Dunbar through a cast of actors lip-synching to audio interviews with Dunbar's family members. In Barnard's first purely narrative work, the Oscar Wilde­-inspired The Selfish Giant (2013), two working-class teenagers become friends as they try to earn money by collecting scrap metal.
*Premiering on the Channel this month.
 
Tuesday, October 10
Tuesday's Short and Feature: Bridges-Go-Roundand The Connection

Different corners of New York City come alive in two works by iconoclastic filmmaker Shirley Clarke: in the playfully structured 1958 short Bridges-Go-Round, she evokes the sculptural beauty of the urban landscape through an assemblage of looped footage, while in her jazz-fueled 1961 feature debut, The Connection, she reimagines a Jack Gelber play about a group of heroin addicts anxiously awaiting their drug dealer in a seedy apartment.
*Premiering on the Channel this month.
 
Wednesday, October 11
Carnival of Souls: Criterion Collection Edition #63

A young woman (Candace Hilligoss) in a small Kansas town survives a drag race accident, then agrees to take a job as a church organist in Salt Lake City. En route, she is haunted by a bizarre apparition that compels her toward an abandoned lakeside pavilion. Made by industrial filmmakers on a small budget, this eerily effective B-movie classic was intended to have "the look of a Bergman and the feel of a Cocteau" - and with its strikingly used locations and spooky organ score, it has remained an influential cult classic decades later. SUPPLEMENTAL FEATURES: selected-scene audio commentary featuring director Herk Harvey and screenwriter John Clifford; an interview with comedian and writer Dana Gould; a video essay by film critic David Cairns; The Movie That Wouldn't Die!, a documentary on the 1989 reunion of the film's cast and crew; The Carnival Tour, a 2000 update on the film's locations; and more.
 
Thursday, October 12
Ulrich Seidl's Paradise Trilogy* - Paradise: LoveParadise: Faith, and Paradise: Hope

Like Lars von Trier and Gaspar Noé, Austrian provocateur Ulrich Seidel has long polarized audiences with his boundary-pushing explorations of transgressive desire and abject humiliation. Ranging from the exploits of a middle-aged sex tourist in Kenya to the tribulations of a teenage girl at a weight-loss camp, the stories in this ambitious triptych offer disturbing insights on morality and shame on the margins of contemporary European society. Watch the complete trilogy on the Channel alongside a new interview with cinematographer Ed Lachman.
*Premiering on the Channel this month.
 
Friday, October 13
Friday Night Double Feature: Oslo, August 31st* and The Fire Within

Two European cityscapes serve as backdrops for dark nights of the soul in these adaptations of Pierre Drieu la Rochelle's 1931 novel Will o' the Wisp. In Joachim Trier's Oslo, August 31st (2011), a depressive writer on a furlough from drug rehab confronts his memories and temptations in the Norwegian capital; in Louis Malle's The Fire Within (1963), a recovering alcoholic, having resolved to commit suicide, wanders a forlorn Paris paying final visits to a scattering of old friends.
*Premiering on the Channel this month.
 
Monday, October 16
Life During Wartime*: Criterion Collection Edition #574

With his customary dry humor and queasy precision, independent filmmaker Todd Solondz explores contemporary American existence and the nature of forgiveness in this distorted mirror image of his 1998 dark comedy Happiness. That film's emotionally stunted characters are now groping for the possibility of change in a post-9/11 world and, in a daring twist, are embodied by a different ensemble cast, including Shirley Henderson, Allison Janney, Ally Sheedy, and Ciarán Hinds. SUPPLEMENTAL FEATURES: a documentary featuring interviews with the cast and on-set footage, an interview with cinematographer Ed Lachman, and more.
*Premiering on the Channel this month.
 
Tuesday, October 17
Tuesday's Short + Feature: Tord and Tord* and Persona

The psychology of self steps to the fore in these two existential Swedish films. Niki Lindroth von Bahr's clever animated fable Tord and Tord (2010) employs handsome stop motion and deadpan narration to tell the story of a fox who finds his individuality thrown into doubt by the arrival of a new rabbit neighbor with the same name. Ingmar Bergman's masterpiece Persona (1966) captures the porousness of identity through the turbulent relationship between a troubled actress (Liv Ullmann) and her nurse (Bibi Andersson) during their stay on a remote island.
*Premiering on the Channel this month.
 
Wednesday, October 18
Four Jean-Pierre Melville Editions

Marrying elements of classic genre filmmaking with his own individualistic flair and do-it-yourself attitude, the great French director Jean-Pierre Melville produced a body of work suffused with a quiet existential brooding. In anticipation of his centennial this month, we're presenting the packed editions of four of his masterpieces: Le samouraï (Criterion Collection Edition #306), an elegant mix of 1940s American gangster cinema, 1960s French pop culture, and Japanese lone-warrior mythology, featuring Alain Delon in a career-defining performance; Le cercle rouge (#218), a heist film about the criminal schemes of a master thief, a notorious escapee, and an alcoholic ex-cop; Le deuxième souffle (#448), which follows the parallel tracks of a French underworld criminal escaped from prison and the suave inspector relentlessly pursuing him; and Les enfants terribles(#398), a collaboration with Jean Cocteau that delves into the wholly unholy relationship between a brother and sister.
 
Thursday, October 19
Adventures in Moviegoing with Philip Kaufman

In the latest episode of the Channel-exclusive series Adventures in Moviegoing, writer-director Philip Kaufman (The Right StuffThe Unbearable Lightness of Being), one of the most accomplished and eclectic of all American filmmakers, reveals a cinephilic appetite as wide-ranging as his filmography. Among the formative experiences he recounts: his childhood love for the eye-popping colors in Disney's Bambi and Fantasia, the origin of his interest in world cinema at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts (also the birthplace of Criterion and Janus Films), and his later encounters with the works of American mavericks like Don Siegel, John Cassavetes, and Shirley Clarke. Alongside the interview, check out a selection from Kaufman's personal canon, including John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle, Pietro Germi's Divorce Italian Style, and his ultimate favorite, François Truffaut's Jules and Jim.
 
Friday, October 20
Friday Night Double Feature: Le samouraï and The Usual Suspects

Enigmatic outlaws take the spotlight in these crafty crime films, both of which feature iconic police-lineup scenes: a knockout sequence in Jean-Pierre Melville's taut minimalist thriller Le samouraï (1967) follows Alain Delon's contract killer as he attempts to elude identification; Bryan Singer's tricky The Usual Suspects (1995), a neonoir featuring an Oscar-winning performance for the ages by Kevin Spacey, revolves around a team of criminals who meet when they're all hauled into the same New York precinct.
 
Monday, October 23
Le Corbeau: Criterion Collection Edition #227

A mysterious writer of poison-pen letters, known only as Le Corbeau (the Raven), plagues a French provincial town, unwittingly exposing the collective suspicion and rancor seething beneath the community's calm surface. Made during the Nazi Occupation of France, Henri-Georges Clouzot's exploration of mass paranoia was attacked by the right-wing Vichy regime, the left-wing Resistance press, and the Catholic Church, and was banned after the Liberation. But in time the film reemerged as high-profile admirers like Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre championed its powerful subtext and worked to rehabilitate Clouzot's reputation after the war. SUPPLEMENTAL FEATURES: an interview with Bertrand Tavernier and excerpts from The Story of French Cinema by Those Who Made It: Grand Illusions 1939-1942, a 1975 documentary featuring Clouzot.
 
Tuesday, October 24
Tuesday's Short + Feature: Doodlebug and Following

In the wake of Christopher Nolan's war film Dunkirk, one of the most widely celebrated and commercially successful films of the summer, this week's Short + Feature takes a look back at the filmmaker's no-less-inventive low-budget beginnings. In the space of just three minutes, Nolan's black-and-white short Doodlebug (1997), about a man hunting a bug in his apartment that may or may not be a figment of his imagination, develops into a compellingly Kafkaesque portrait of madness, while his first feature, the psychological mystery Following (1999), also shot on 16 mm, cunningly scrambles its chronology to tell the story of a writer drawn unexpectedly into a life of crime.
 
Thursday, October 26
Observations on Film Art No. 12: Brute Force - The Actor's Toolkit

What do film actors do when they act? Few aspects of moviemaking craft are more discussed and less understood. In this month's episode of our Channel-exclusive series Observations on Film Art, Professor David Bordwell takes a close look at Jules Dassin's Brute Force (1947) to show how a performance is built from gesture, body language, and speech. Dassin's prison-escape film noir relies on economical acting from performers like Burt Lancaster, Hume Cronyn, and Charles Bickford to create richly nuanced characterizations that resonate beyond the content of the script's hard-boiled dialogue. ACCOMPANIED BY: the Criterion edition of Brute Force.
 
Friday, October 27
Friday Night Double Feature: The Haunted Strangler and Fiend Without a Face

Terror comes from within in these chilling tales, produced by horror impresario Richard Gordon and originally released in 1958 as a double bill. A late-career showcase for monster-movie legend Boris Karloff, The Haunted Strangler follows a muckraking author (Karloff) as he attempts to uncover the real story behind a twenty-year-old series of killings, only to reveal a gruesome side of himself. And in Arthur Crabtree's sci-fi/horror hybrid Fiend Without a Face, a scientist's thoughts come to grisly life in the form of invisible monsters with an unquenchable thirst for human brains.
 
Saturday, October 28
Split Screen Season 8

Two decades after it premiered on IFC, the pioneering television series Split Screen has a streaming home on the Channel, with batches of episodes from the show's four-year run going up every month. In this priceless time capsule, host John Pierson takes viewers on an irreverent trip through filmmaking communities and movie-loving culture at the turn of the millennium. This season features a trip to South Korea to meet the animators behind The Simpsons, an investigation of Billy Graham's insanely prolific evangelical film production unit, and an appearance by Haruo Nakajima, a.k.a. the man in the Godzilla suit.
 
Monday, October 30
Hunger: Criterion Collection Edition #504

Oscar-winning British filmmaker and artist Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) turns one of history's most controversial acts of political defiance into a jarring, unforgettable cinematic experience. In Northern Ireland's Maze prison in 1981, twenty-seven-year-old Irish Republican Army member Bobby Sands went on a hunger strike to protest the British government's refusal to recognize him and his fellow IRA inmates as political prisoners. McQueen dramatizes prison existence and Sands's final days in a way that is purely experiential, even abstract, a succession of images full of both beauty and horror. Featuring an intense performance by Michael Fassbender, Hunger is an unflinching, transcendent depiction of what a human being is willing to endure to be heard. SUPPLEMENTAL FEATURES: interviews with McQueen and Fassbender, a short documentary on the making of the film, and more.
 
Tuesday, October 31
Tuesday's Short + Feature: Swallowed* and The Brood

While the kids are out trick-or-treating, sneak in two unnerving films that milk horror from the physical and emotional trials of motherhood. A young mom finds herself possessed by eerie trances and uncontrollable impulses in dancer-filmmaker Lily Baldwin's Swallowed, made as part of the dream-inspired omnibus Collective: Unconscious (2016). And David Cronenberg's The Brood (1979) sets a mother's rage loose on her daughter, taking the director's obsession with bodily and psychological carnage to bloodcurdling extremes.
*Premiering on the Channel this month.
 
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Complete list of films premiering on the Criterion Channel this month:

October 1
Harold and Maude, Hal Ashby, 1971
On the Waterfront, Elia Kazan, 1954
 
October 2
The Extraordinary Life of Rocky, Kevin Meul, 2010
 
October 5
Lenny Cooke, Josh and Benny Safdie, 2013
The Black Balloon, Josh and Benny Safdie, 2012
John's Gone, Josh and Benny Safdie, 2010
Daddy Longlegs, Josh and Benny Safdie, 2009
The Pleasure of Being Robbed, Josh Safdie, 2008
The Acquaintances of a Lonely John, Benny Safdie, 2008
We're Going to the Zoo, Josh Safdie, 2006
 
October 6
The Arbor, Clio Barnard, 2010
The Selfish Giant, Clio Barnard, 2013
The Junk Shop, Juraj Herz, 1965
The Cremator, Juraj Herz, 1968
Golden Demon, Koji Shima, 1954
La chambre, Chantal Akerman, 1972
A Taxing Woman's Return, Juzo Itami, 1988
 
October 12
Paradise: Love, Ulrich Seidl, 2012
Paradise: Faith, Ulrich Seidl, 2013
Paradise: Hope, Ulrich Seidl, 2013
 
October 13
Oslo, August 31st, Joachim Trier, 2011
June Night, Per Lindberg, 1940
Blindfolded Eyes, Carlos Saura, 1978
History Is Made at Night, Frank Borzage, 1937
Gap-Toothed Women, Les Blank, 1987
The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists, Les Blank, 1995
Ciao Federico, Gideon Bachmann, 1970
The Seventh Continent, Michael Haneke, 1989
Benny's Video, Michael Haneke, 1992
71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, Michael Haneke, 1994
The Piano Teacher, Michael Haneke, 2001
 
October 16
Life During Wartime, Todd Solondz, 2009
 
October 17
Tord and Tord, Niki Lindroth von Bahr, 2010
 
October 20
Madonna of the Seven Moons, Arthur Crabtree, 1945
I Am Curious - Blue, Vilgot Sjöman, 1968
Café au lait, Mathieu Kassovitz, 1993
My Home Is Copacabana, Arne Sucksdorff, 1965
 
October 25
The Edge of the World, Michael Powell, 1937
 
October 27
L'enfance nue, Maurice Pialat, 1968
A Man There Was, Victor Sjöström, 1917
Until the End of the World, Wim Wenders, 1991
More, Barbet Schroeder, 1969
Intimate Relations, Philip Goodhew, 1996
 
October 31
Swallowed, Lily Baldwin, 2016
 
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ABOUT THE CRITERION CHANNEL
 
The Criterion Channel offers the largest streaming collection of Criterion films available, including classic and contemporary films from around the world, interviews and conversations with filmmakers and never-before-seen programming. The channel's weekly calendar features complete Criterion editions, thematic retrospectives, live events, short films, and select contemporary features, along with exclusive original programming that aims to enhance the Criterion experience for the brand's dedicated fans as well as expanding its reach to new audiences. Other recent additions to the programming include MEET THE FILMMAKER: ATHINA RACHEL TSANGARI and ADVENTURES IN MOVIEGOING WITH BILL HADER.

ABOUT FILMSTRUCK

FilmStruck is a new subscription on-demand service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films. Developed and managed by Turner Classic Movies (TCM) in collaboration with the Criterion Collection, FilmStruck will be the new exclusive streaming home for the critically acclaimed and award-winning Criterion Collection, including the Criterion Channel, a new premium service programmed and curated by the Criterion team.  FilmStruck is Turner's first domestic direct-to-consumer offering launched in November 2016.

ABOUT THE CRITERION COLLECTION

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October 06, 2016

THE DIRECTORS VIDEO ESSAY SERIES: BY COLE SMITHEY

STEVEN SPIELBERG: POPULIST

AKIRA KUROSAWA: PIONEER

TAKESHI KITANO: RENAISSANCE MAN

SOFIA COPPOLA: AUTEUR

 ROBERT ALTMAN: SATIRIST

 JIM JARMUSCH: OUTLIER

 SAM PECKINPAH: LIBERATOR

 KEN LOACH: SOCIAL REALIST

 JOE CARNAHAN: THE BEST-KEPT SECRET

 CATHERINE BREILLAT: TRANSGRESSOR

 WERNER HERZOG: MENSCH

DAVID FINCHER: MODERNIST

WILLIAM FRIEDKIN: THE MUSCLE

JOHN CASSAVETES: INDIE ICON

PAUL VERHOEVEN: REBEL

LARS VON TRIER: PROVOCATEUR

QUENTIN TARANTINO: MAVERICK

 ALFRED HITCHCOCK: MASTER OF SUSPENSE

 LUIS BUNUEL: FETISHIST


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March 06, 2016

THE KARAKORAM HIGHWAY:
 The World’s Most Dangerous Roadway
 by Ted Rall

Back in 1999 I went on a wild and wolly trip on the Karakoram Highway with my friend Ted Rall. Ted was doing a piece for POV Magazine, and needed a travel companion to the lands that Genghis Khan famously conquered. It was an amazing experience that I will never forget. Besides, we bought some awesome rugs while we were there. Anyway, here's Ted's telling of our trip through the Stans. 

A slightly longer version of this piece originally appeared in P.O.V. magazine in 1999:

THE KARAKORAM HIGHWAY:
 The World’s Most Dangerous Roadway
 by Ted Rall

KKH

On your standard map it’s a thousand miles of pavement connecting China to Pakistan. Of course, on that same map New York City is just a black circle with a big fat dot in the middle. The truth is, the Karakoram Highway is a nexus of madness in a place already chock full of every conceivable form of lunacy. Understanding that psychosis, however, requires experiencing it firsthand. In the course of traveling over those thousand miles, my pal Cole Smithey and I braved wild animals, a military coup and a full-fledged invasion by Taliban terrorists.

It was all par for the course for a road trip on the world’s most dangerous highway.

The first thing you need to understand about the KKH, as it’s called on the Pakistani side of the border, is that this expanse of asphalt may well be the most staggering engineering achievement since the Great Wall—1,400 kilometers of two-lane roadway clinging to the side of immense, crumbling mountains, running alongside racing white water rivers prone to flooding and constant erosion, soaring the whole time through elevations anywhere from 10,000 to 18,000 feet through areas so politically unstable that it’s impossible to find two maps depicting the same borders dated a year apart. Whereas Germany’s autobahn represents the ultimate triumph of man over nature, on the KKH it’s still up in the air as to which side will win in the end.

The KKH twists and turns through the Pamir, Kunlun, Karakoram, Hindu Kush and Himalayan mountain ranges; it’s a geological collision zone between tectonic plates that makes this junction between Asia and the subcontinent the world’s most seismically active place, period. Immense earthquakes that would flatten American cities in seconds are routine; fortunately, there’s nothing much here except animals, a lot of cool history and the highway itself. The mountains are constantly falling apart, and down on, the KKH; rock slides close down the road all the time.

At many points the highway, built from 1966 to 1986 as the result of a diplomatic resolution of a border dispute between Pakistan and China, runs alongside rivers that range from dry washes in late summer to vast, wide torrents during the spring. The rivers eat under the pavement, creating lethal sinkholes. They often close the narrow roadway until they’re repaired—and that can take weeks or even months.

KKH2

An extension of the Tibetan plateau, nowhere on earth is it so high for so long. This fact makes June blizzards commonplace and forces the closure of the road from October through April or May. Even in the middle of summer it can be closed for weeks or longer. Altitude sickness starts killing people at 9,000 feet above sea level; you’re rarely ever that low on the KKH. In short, the Karakoram Highway is a doomed, psychotic project that may no longer exist as a viable transportation link by the time you read this. But if it does, and you can survive the landslides, terrorists and snow leopards, the Karakoram Highway offers a cat’s-eye view to some of the world’s most dazzling eye candy.

Kashgar

Getting There

The KKH begins at the Silk Road trading town of Kashgar in western China and ends up in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. Because we went in September, we traveled south (from Kashgar to Islamabad) in order to minimize the effects of the already incipient Himalayan winter; in May you’d want to go the other way. You’ll need visas for China and Pakistan, obviously, but these may be hard to get because the KKH passes through the heart of Kashmir Province, where a war that began in 1947 over a Hindu chieftain’s decision to attach his Muslim region to India seems destined to continue forever.

Getting to Kashgar by air requires so many changes of plane through shitty airstrips that it’s virtually impossible; the most direct overland route from an international airport is the two-days-plus journey from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (that means a third visa). But there’s a catch—in Central Asia, there’s always a catch—the border crossing between Kyrgyzstan and China, through the Torugart Pass, is permanently closed to foreigners. That means you, Americano.

The good thing about Central Asia, on the other hand, is that as it has for millennia along this ancient road between the Western and Eastern worlds, cash opens sealed frontiers. Conversely, the budget-traveler approach is extremely risky; we met a trio of Dutch tourists who took the bus to the border, were released by Kyrgyz customs cops but had failed to arrange for transportation to pick them up on the Chinese side of the old Soviet triumphal arch that’s still there, riddled with bullet holes. The Chinese won’t let you in unless someone meets you and going back to Kyrgyzstan isn’t allowed. The woman and two men we met were in bad shape; they’d been trapped in windswept no-man’s land between minefields at the roof of the world for 29 days with no hope in sight. Severely sunburned, without tents or sleeping bags and totally out of food, they’d been reduced to eating grass and whatever leftovers passing Kyrgyz troops deigned to give them. Without official papers we couldn’t take them with us. For all I know, they could still be up there.

It took three days and cost about $600 for the two of us to get to Kashgar from Bishkek; we hired a pair of Ukrainian guides who knew which guards to bribe and how to bypass the worst police checkpoints on back roads.

Kashgar’s history is remote and romantic, but only the first remains—it’s a shithole. This legendary trading city still draws hundreds of thousands of people from Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and western China every Sunday to sell everything from camels to silk cushions to Soviet-made missile detonators in the Muslim Uyghur neighborhood downtown, but the Chinese government has decimated the city’s glorious past with vile concrete apartment blocks and factories that produce a putrid dusty haze that would clog the lungs of the most hardened Angeleno. Moreover, Muslim militants backed by the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan have passed the last few years bombing public buildings and assassinating Chinese officials. This has lead to the city being subjected to a sort of martial law lite.

Try as we did to enjoy Kashgar, Cole was still suffering from altitude sickness encountered at the Torugart Pass. I spent most of the time doubled over with stomach cramps and a brand of diarrhea that’s impossible to explain to the uninitiated. Fortunately the food was so putrid—they wash bowls with filthy cold water and zero soap—that I didn’t mind skipping the local laghman noodles.

It Begins

We caught the faux-lux “International” bus bound for Sost, Pakistan, the next day, so named because it departs from the former British embassy compound shut down during the 1949 Communist revolution. Trouble began within minutes: A Pakistani smuggler with an astonishing resemblance to Ted Danson ordered me to move my 6’2” frame to the back of the bus so that he and his brother could enjoy my front-seat view. “But I need to stretch my—” I began to reason.

“Hey asshole! What part of ‘no’ do you not understand?” Cole barked from the other side of the aisle at the guy. Danson backed off, but that outburst set the tone for our journey. Here we were on a bus full of pissed-off Pakistanis and Afghans, some of them visibly armed, heading straight into the Kashmir war zone.

Like a hot chick who talks dirty but never puts out, the KKH (the Chinese call it the China-Pakistan Highway, or just the G314) teases drivers with perfectly-maintained pavement—complete with painted markers every tenth of a kilometer—the first few hours out of Kashgar. Then the road enters the immense Ghez Darya River canyon. That’s where road maintenance ends for good, and the KKH really begins.

River Madness

High-altitude roads often follow riverbeds because they offer the straightest path through mountains; thus the KKH runs alongside massive flows of snowmelt. Rock slides occur frequently; our bus repeatedly had to drive around huge boulders that had fallen thousands of feet down the side of the Pamir range within the previous few days. On the left side of the bus, the road vanished wherever the Ghez made a turn—in a monumental testimony to short-sighted stupidity, the Chinese side of the KKH has no levies to hold back the water. Washouts are indicated by rocks lined up at a 45-degree angle by road workers; rocks are the one thing that aren’t in short supply along the KKH. In a scene out of the classic movie “Wages of Fear,” the bus was forced to go off-road, rocking at wild angles over three-foot rocks at a fraction of a mile per hour, sections of shattered asphalt cracking and falling off into the torrent below. It’s just the water, the mountain and you, and you’re in the middle the whole way.

Judging from their green faces, even grizzled locals seemed not to take these side trips very well. But I was suffering particularly badly, having undergone a hernia operation a month before. You just haven’t lived until you become fully aware of your large intestines, I always say.
 Passing a vehicle coming from the opposite direction involves a perverse game of Central Asian chicken; both drivers seize the middle of the road and floor the gas. It doesn’t matter if you were both all the way to the right to begin with—you move left as soon as you see the other bastard. At the last possible second before collision (and, according to locals, sometimes afterwards) the smaller vehicle of the two scoots over; it’s not rare for one tire to slip momentarily off the road over nothingness. At blind curves, it’s customary to speed up while honking ominously at whatever might be coming around the other side. Despite its low volume of traffic—it’s not unusual to go hours without seeing anything else—cars and trucks tumble off the KKH every few days.

I didn’t ask about the buses.

Aside from sheer rock faces and incredibly bleak vistas, the mountains are home to some of the world’s most endangered species, including the long-horned ibex, Marco Polo sheep and snow leopards. Man and nature collide in spectacular ways here, as demonstrated by the snow leopard that leapt from its perch on top of a passing Volga sedan a few weeks before our arrival. The animal died on impact, the car was totaled, and there was no word on the driver. But while car and beast routinely mix it up on rural roads throughout the Third World, nothing beats the KKH for sheer volume of animal traffic. You pass herds of goats or sheep every few hundred meters; I lost count of how many suicidal yaks and bulls jumped out in front of us. There are lots of Bactrian camels (they’re of the double-humped variety) too, but they’re smart enough to edge off the roadway when a double-tractor-trailer piled thirty-feet high with God-knows-what passes them at 70.

The Ugly Americans Reach Out

About five hours out of Kashgar, at least 200 miles from the nearest village, we rounded a turn to find a line of trucks at a dead stop. The driver of the one in front of us was fast asleep on a red blanket on the ground. I took this as a bad sign.

We got out and walked ahead; it turned out that someone had abandoned a fully-loaded fuel tanker in the middle of the road on an incline up ahead. As guys have since time immemorial, we carefully examined the situation and pondered how to resolve it.

More accurately, a hundred guys yelled at each other in Mandarin, Uyghur, Urdu and Tajik, which are languages that don’t sound anything alike. Inexplicably, the Chinese men saw the rocks in front of the tires as the main problem—never mind that the thing was parked uphill. The Uyghurs appeared to agreed with Cole’s plan, which was to remove the rocks from behind the tires, thus allowing the truck to go over the edge of the cliff into the Ghez Darya. And the Pakistanis turned to Allah, praying at wildly-divergent angles towards Mecca.

After several hours during which the Chinese occupied themselves by moving the same huge rocks back and forth, but with great enthusiasm, a truck appeared from the opposite direction. The driver backed up and parked just far enough away from the gas truck to make it impossible to hook up a single cable. Then the guys began arguing about how to tie the cable. All in all, the arguing process took four hours. Cole and I shouted and pointed to our watches, which was, I realize now, futile: In Central Asia, nobody’s time is valuable, much less yours.

“This is China!” one guy in a business suit yelled at us while lugging a dusty hundred-pound boulder to the side of the road, evidently to imply that we ugly Americans would do well to mind our own national business. The Chinese guys gave out an exaggerated guffaw. The Uyghurs, who chafe under Chinese military occupation, grumbled ominously, but I couldn’t tell if they were siding with us or merely expressing a general disgust with the situation. Tired, humiliated, and certain that these nimrods were going to blow the KKH into nearby Tajikistan, Cole and I returned to the bus. Somehow the gas truck got moved. This would have made for a better story had it exploded, but life often fails to deliver on desired drama.

Anyway, our sadly low-powered bus rumbled on, dodging goats, boulders, holes and gaudy Pakistani trucks in a furious attempt to make up time. Just before nightfall the Ghez valley opened up into a lush, green plain containing the idyllic ethnic Kyrgyz enclave of Karakul. Karakul features a few hundred people, thousands of yaks and cattle and a few stone houses. Cole passed the two hours we waited there—Chinese army troops were filling in a spot where twenty feet of road had been sucked into the sandy ground—passing out dozens of those free postcards they have in American restaurants downstairs by the restroom to local kids. They featured the cover of the previous month’s Playboy.

Five hours late, exhausted and covered with soot, we slouched into our freezing cold seats as an exquisite blackness enveloped the bus. Suddenly, to the right of the bus over a row of snow-capped mountains, a huge, dazzling light lit up everything. For about a minute a bright yellow ball streaked across the sky perhaps a mile away, a trail of light behind it. Then the meteor was gone, smashed into the countryside in an explosion of fire. OK, so you could see that in Wisconsin, but you could also live your entire life without ever seeing a meteor hit the ground—and I saw mine in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region from my seat on the KKH.

The Rooster Crows For Thee

Everyone has a rooster with his name on it. It’s only a matter of time before you and that rooster come together, and when you do, it’s never a beautiful thing.

I met my cock at 4:30 in the morning after barely four hours of fitful sleep in a dismal dump of a hotel in the backwater hamlet of Tashkurgan, the last town before the border. The rooster kept up the audio entertainment of the program until 5:30, when patriotic Communist songs and news updates, announced by a woman with an amazingly grating voice, began blasting from loudspeakers outside.

The bus picked us up first thing in the morning, and drove us to the Chinese customs office, where every single book, bottle of aspirin and banana on the bus was carefully inspected while every gun and fat wad of cash was duly ignored. This took three hours, during which our driver got nice and loaded out of a brown paper bag. Then we set off across an empty scrub of desert along the bed of the then-dry Tashkurgan River—the bus overheated twice—and climbed slowly up into the Pamir mountains, well into the snow line—and finally, majestically, inevitably—we arrived at the magnificent, wind-blasted Khunjerab Pass. By this point our driver was thoroughly shitfaced, a fact which with I had no problem. I don’t think I could have navigated that bus up those mountains without a little help either.

At 16,000 feet, breathing becomes an exhilarating, triumphant act. The pass marks a change from crumbling Pamirs to stony Karakoram mountains, as well as to far superior road maintenance. The Pakistani side of the KKH features better levies and walls to keep rocks and water at bay, but the flip side of better engineering is greater risk: Here the highway runs anywhere from 500 to 1,000 feet above the river. Glaciers turn the mountains wet, releasing them occasionally in the form of mudslides. Downed power lines criss-cross the road; the bus just drove right over sparking high-tension wires. (I lifted my feet off the floor.) Missing guardrails and telephone poles—and small Muslim death memorials topped with a crescent moon—offer mute testimony to those who came before but never left. Nonetheless, crossing the border into Pakistani-held Kashmir was far more frightening for something else that was missing: no one was guarding the border.

The Khunjerab Security Force outpost, supposedly controlled by the Pakistani army as the main passport control checkpoint, was unmanned. We continued about sixty miles down the road before we encountered a small shack where the bus’ passengers were asked to sign a register book full of phony signatures like “Joe Blow, the Lover Man.” The sleepy guard didn’t even bother to look at our passports; we’d find out why all semblance of authority was missing soon enough. 
The bus dropped us off at Sost, from which we caught a taxi to the stunning Kashmiri village of Passu. Surrounded by three magnificent glaciers, rope suspension bridges crossing the legendary Hunza River and clouds so close you can actually touch them, our stay at the Passu Inn was a case study in low-tech life. Electricity comes and goes every few minutes; phones actually use a crank! (The phone number for our hotel was 7.) We spent the next morning trekking and negotiated with a surly local jeep driver to take us to Gilgit for $30. We were glad to get out of town; no matter how spectacular terrain is, once you’ve seen it you’re done.

The Passu-to-Gilgit bus ride takes eight hours, but if you use the same jeep driver as we did, you can do it in three. Convinced that he was being underpaid—although our hotel owner said $20 was more like it, he kept saying that some Japanese dude had paid $100 a week before—he drove wildly back and forth like a madman, intentionally skimming the edge of the abyss even when there wasn’t any other traffic. To add to the sense of menace, local children and young men threw stones at us whenever we passed through a village. Cole read some film book (he’s a movie critic); I attempted to look bored while I checked out Rakaposhi Peak (26,000 feet) and the Hunza Valley’s terraced agriculture and stone-lined irrigation canals. Looking for the lost kingdom of Shangri-la? The myth places it squarely in the Hunza Valley.

From the perspective of scenery that you simply can’t see anywhere else, this section is the highlight of the KKH. Europeans with months of vacation to spare spend weeks on side trips to villages off the highway in this region. We drove through a canyon that makes the Grand Canyon look like landfill and limped across roped suspension bridges where half the boards were missing (Cole to me: “So this is it, Ted. It’s been nice knowing you”) across a massive, primordial flow of whitewater as impressive as the Mississippi and the Nile combined. Every few hundred feet signs advise: “Relax—Landslide Area Ends,” but that’s hard to do considering that no one has bothered to post where they begin. Because the Hunza is lined with farming communities, animals become a more frequent driving problem—and because the Pakistanis don’t sterilize their cattle the bulls are both huge and fierce.

The Taliban Attacks

Located at the southern bank of the Gilgit River, Gilgit is the spiritual and political center of disputed Kashmir province and a key stop on the KKH. Violence has been a part of life here since Pakistan and India were partitioned in 1947, and the signs of the cheapness of life are everywhere—starving children and maimed old men line the sidewalks. More than 10,000 people have been shot, bombed and lynched there during the ‘90s alone, which is more than live there now. A stone’s throw from the Line of Control between Pakistani- and Indian-held Kashmir, that rumbling in the distance is just as likely to be mortar fire as thunder.

Gilgit

Gilgit is “The Wild Bunch” meets the bar scene in “Star Wars” set in Kabul. Like Kashgar, it’s a dusty town where Pakistani, Afghan, Tajik, Kyrgyz and Chinese traders can get you anything for a price. There’s no electricity, phone or sewage system; even getting a postcard out requires greasing the proper palms. I liked it fine. Where else can you get your old Doc Martens resoled for a buck, munching a roti while watching wild dogs chew each other’s limbs off in the middle of rush-hour donkey-cart traffic? Still, our objective was the end of the KKH. After a few days of relaxation, we boarded a Northern Areas Transport Corporation (NATCO) bus for the 16-hour trip to the capital city of Islamabad.

The first thing we noticed as we assumed our customary spots at the front of the vehicle (we booked early) was the uniformed NATCO soldier riding shotgun—literally. He carried a shotgun right on his lap, occasionally pointing it right at me while chatting distractedly with the driver. He sat at the very front in a special seat, intentionally visible from the road. Then we checked out our fellow passengers. I hadn’t seen such a motley collection of smugglers and scoundrels since, well, the bus from Kashgar. Just outside Chilas I saw the first of several official signs stenciled on the rocky face of the mountain: “Ambush Point: 600 meters.” I asked the soldier about this.

“There are many, many bandits,” he explained apologetically. “Sometimes it’s not enough for them just to steal everything. Sometimes they kill everyone on the bus.”

“That’s a problem,” I said blandly.

“Yes, it is,” he agreed. “Then no one wants to take the bus anymore.”

The Gilgit next becomes the Indus River, home to one of the planet’s great ancient civilizations, and the views alternate wildly between lush green valleys and bleak chalky rocks tumbling off canyon after canyon into oblivion. It’s astonishing, but after a while sensory overload sets in; it’s the kind of experience best digested after the fact.

In any event, the bus blew through one switchback after another until, just as darkness began to fall, things started getting weird. Hundreds of turbaned men carrying rocket launchers, automatic rifles and grenades walked along the side of the Karakoram Highway, dragging ammo behind them on the ground. I recognized their outfits from TV news footage.

“Holy shit,” I realized aloud to Cole. “It’s the mujahadeen.”

A week before we’d left for Kyrgyzstan the Taliban had declared Kashmir an “American-free zone.” They reserved for themselves the right to shoot any holder of a U.S. passport on sight, including diplomats. No one had taken the declaration seriously, especially since the KKH was at least a hundred miles from the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan. We found out that night that, in the interim, what had formerly been Pakistani-held Kashmir had become half occupied by Taliban militants. Now I understood why the Pakistan-China border had been unguarded; the Pakistanis had allowed themselves to be “invaded” so that the Afghans could fight their war with India on their behalf without provoking a nuclear confrontation. The Taliban, however, were far less interested in taking on the Indians over territory so barren that fighting has to be suspended every winter than its real goal: turning Pakistan into another Islamic fundamentalist state. They’d earned a rep as the Khmer Rouge of the ‘90s for stoning adulterers to death and denying medical care to women. Now, working in conjunction with a Pakistani general in Islamabad (his coup d’etat went down a few weeks later) they were in position to enforce their previous threats.

The bus crossed the border of the North-West Frontier Province and pressed on into the hamlet of Dasu, the northern section of which had obviously been the scene of fighting hours earlier. Fires crackled in brand-new ruins. Broken glass, from God knows what, was everywhere. An orange glow lit up the windows to the left side of the bus; something big had exploded there. Unattended horses wandered aimlessly through the streets, some bleeding from shrapnel wounds. A woman walked crazily in a semicircle—shock? The body of a man, in the generic brown frocks Pakistani Muslims wear, leaned against a storefront. There wasn’t any blood. Burned-out cars lined the KKH as it passed through what had been the bazaar district. On the outskirts of town, three Taliban soldiers flagged us down by making circles on the road with a flashlight.

In the Third World, military checkpoints are a frequent nuisance, sort of the way bridge tolls are to us. With a full-fledged war going on, two holders of American passports that the Pakistani authorities hadn’t bothered to stamp weren’t going to last long under Taliban occupation; checkpoints were bound to spring up everywhere. The bus stopped and the front door opened. The soldiers gave the driver a big grin. My fellow passengers, who’d been glaring at Cole and I for hundreds of miles, looked entirely too pleased about this development for my tastes. The NATCO soldier got up, looked at Cole and I, and walked to the door. Would we be taken off the bus and shot by the side of the road? It was entirely possible; certainly no one on this vehicle would miss us. I seriously doubted that anyone would ever be punished, or that there’d ever be an investigation. I considered that as bad as dying is, dying far away from home surrounded by people who hate your guts is infinitely worse. I thought about the European Community passport in my backpack (I’m a dual French-U.S. citizen); that red booklet would get me off the hook but, unlike me, Cole didn’t have a backup nationality. I thought about the best arguments I could employ to try to save my life. Finally, I was angry at myself for not preparing properly—we could easily have bought guns in Gilgit, but it hadn’t occured to us.

Then the soldier did something for which I will always be grateful. Wearing a bored expression on his face, he nonchalantly pointed his gun straight at the lead mujahadeen and said something to the driver in Urdu. The bus moved forward, and that was it.

The stretch of the KKH between Dasu and Pattan is notoriously violent even in “peacetime”—a number of Western travelers have been beaten up, robbed and raped there. But the military situation was relatively static; mujahadeen trudged along, too dog-tired to care about anything beyond their next footstep. Civilian vehicles, including small cars and trucks, shared the road with hundreds of refugees going south into Pakistan proper and Afghan soldiers walking towards the Line of Control. Finally, at four in the morning, the road made a sharp southern turn, and the KKH became dark and empty. A farmer’s mule darted out into the street; we hit the sucker doing about 50. Our driver never slowed down.

We had three more hours ahead of us, but I figured that it was OK to try to catch some sleep. I was weak, hungry and still processing my brush with death. The last section of KKH is notable for nothing in particular, which means that the road leaves the mountains, becomes straight and flat and the chances of getting killed by another vehicle or a terrorist or a beast of burden are relatively minimal. If it hadn’t been for the Pakistani film music blaring from the speakers directly above our heads, it might even have been peaceful.

Fortunately, Cole had wire cutters.

Cole Framed

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