Friday, May 24, 2013
"It's amazing to me that no one much talks about ... the fact that whatever our founders and framers thought of as a literate, informed citizenry can no longer exist, at least not without a whole new modern degree of subcontracting and dependence packed into what we mean by 'informed.' Hence, by the way, the seduction of partisan dogma. You can drown in dogmatism now, too―radio, Internet, cable, commercial and scholarly print―but this kind of drowning is much like sweet release. Whether hard right or new left or whatever, the seduction and mentality are the same. You don't have to feel confused or inundated or ignorant. You don't even have to think, for you already Know, and whatever you choose to learn confirms what you know. This dogmatic lockstep is not the kind of inevitable dependence I'm talking about―or rather it's only the most extreme and frightened form of that dependence.
"Part of our emergency is that it's so tempting to do this sort of thing now, to retreat to narrow arrogance, pre-formed positions, rigid filters, the 'moral clarity' of the immature. The alternative is dealing with massive, high-entropy amounts of info and ambiguity and conflict and flux; it's continually discovering new areas of personal ignorance and delusion.
"It may possibly be that acuity and taste in choosing which Deciders one submits to is now the real measure of informed adulthood." ―DFW
Tuesday, April 23, 2013
While reading, one of the things I like to collect are definitions―alternate, non-literal, or poetic.
Sometimes an author's words are a few steps removed from what I've fashioned out of their provisions. Take the following excerpt from Walter Lippmann's Public Opinion:
"By making the invisible visible, he confronts the people who exercise material force with a new environment, sets ideas and feelings at work in them, throws them out of position, and so, in the profoundest way, affects the decision."
Lippmann's subject is the role of an ambassador, and his sentence inspired one of the definitions below. But as you'll see, the word I selected has little to do with his original intent.
Other definitions are only slightly altered, with most falling somewhere in between.
Credits can be found at the end.
"Why do we call all our generous ideas illusions, and the mean ones truths? Isn't it a sufficient condemnation of society to find one's self accepting such phraseology? ...I know how names can alter the colour of beliefs." ―Lawrence Selden in Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth (1905)
Art: a parenthesis within the real world
Artist: someone who makes the invisible visible; someone who confronts the people with a new environment, sets ideas and feelings at work in them, throws them out of position, and, in the profoundest ways, affects them
Chance: the name given to our ignorance of causes
Charisma: the power to persuade without the use of logic
Common sense: the foundation of the bourgeois statement of fact; truth when it stops on the arbitrary order of him who speaks it
Duty: a term used by the the bourgeois to mythify strength
Education: the freeing of the mind through the discipline of wonder
Love: to desire someone else's happiness over your own, no matter the cost to you
Maturity: a bitter disappointment for which no remedy exists
Nationality: that core of images and devotions without which man is unthinkable to himself
Order: the name the bourgeoisie gives to itself
Plastic: the excrement of oil
Rich: when one is able to meet the requirements of their imagination
War: the legal return to a state of savagery
Robert Hughes (The Shock of the New); Walter Lippmann (Public Opinion); Lamarck (via Philippe Soupault's Last Night of Paris); Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly (Dandyism); Barthes (Mythologies); Ibid.; Mortimer J. Adler (How to Read a Book); (?); Kurt Vonnegut (Cat's Cradle); Lippmann (Public Opinion); Barthes (Mythologies); Norman Mailer (video interview); Henry James (Portrait of a Lady); Paul Leautaud (via Dan Franck's Bohemian Paris)
Thursday, April 11, 2013
"Their ideas are perpetually conversant in lines and figures. If they would, for example, praise the beauty of a woman, or any other animal, they describe it by rhombs, circles, parallelograms, ellipses, and other geometrical terms, or by words of art drawn from music, needless here to repeat. [...] And although they are dexterous enough upon a piece of paper in the management of the rule, the pencil, and the divider, yet, in the common actions and behaviour of life, I have not seen a more clumsy, awkward, and unhandy people, nor so slow and perplexed in their conceptions upon all other subjects, except those of mathematics and music. They are very bad reasoners, and vehemently given to opposition, unless when they happen to be of the right opinion, which is seldom their case. Imagination, fancy, and invention they are wholly strangers to, nor have any words in their language by which those ideas can be expressed; the whole compass of their thoughts and mind being shut up within the two forementioned sciences."
—Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels
Wednesday, April 03, 2013
"In the beginning is the scream. We scream.
"When we write or when we read, it is easy to forget that the beginning is not the word, but the scream. Faced with the mutilation of human lives by capitalism, a scream of sadness, a scream of horror, a scream of anger, a scream of refusal: NO.
"The starting point of theoretical reflection is opposition, negativity, struggle. It is from rage that thought is born, not from the pose of reason, not from the reasoned-sitting-back-and-reflecting-on-the-mysteries-of-existence that is the conventional image of 'the thinker'.
"We start from negation, from dissonance. The dissonance can take many shapes. An inarticulate mumble of discontent, tears of frustration, a scream of rage, a confident roar. An unease, a confusion, a longing, a critical vibration...
"Our anger is directed not just against particular happenings but is against a more general wrongness, a feeling that the world is askew, that the world is in some way untrue. When we experience something particularly horrific, we hold up our hands in horror and say 'that cannot be! it cannot be true!' We know that it is true, but feel that it is the truth of an untrue world...
"That is our starting point: rejection of a world that we feel to be wrong, negation of a world we feel to be negative. This is what we must cling to...
"Our anger is constantly fired by experience, but any attempt to express that anger is met by a wall of absorbent cotton wool. We are met with so many arguments that seem quite reasonable. There are so many ways of bouncing our scream back against us, of looking at us and asking why we scream. Is it because of our age, our social background, or just some psychological maladjustment that we are so negative? Are we hungry, did we sleep badly or is it just pre-menstrual tension? Do we not understand the complexity of the world, the practical difficulties of implementing radical change? Do we not know that it is unscientific to scream?" —John Holloway (Change the World Without Taking Power, 2002)
|Guernica (Picasso, 1937)|
"If the moral fire of anger were not capable of being identified with all forms of Fire, visible or invisible, it would not be worth the trouble of living and for that matter we would never have been able to live, for after all, of what else are we made?
"Between the anger of a furious mind and the devastating force of all fires, there is in reality no distance. But there is something to be found. I have found this something and this is what permits me always to speak with complete assurance." —Antonin Artaud (Letters, 1937)
"To think deeply in our culture is to grow angry and to anger others; and if you cannot tolerate this anger, you are wasting the time you spend thinking deeply. One of the rewards of deep thought is the hot glow of anger at discovering a wrong, but if anger is taboo, thought will starve to death." —Jules Henry (Culture Against Man, 1963)
Thursday, March 21, 2013
* * *
Film: Let the Right One In (Alfredson, 2008)
Scene: In what had up until then been a somber horror-drama, a gang of CGI cats with cartoonish, hissing faces swarm a woman before jumping on her, biting and scratching until she finally falls (or throws herself) down a flight of stairs. During this scene the cats move in the unrealistic, slightly off manner indicative of CGI.
That scene nearly ruined the film for me, upsetting its well crafted, delicate balance.
Ever since then, whenever I see an out of place, silly or poor visual effect (VFX)—especially CGI—I call it a Black Cat Moment.
In order for something to qualify as a Black Cat Moment it has to be in a film that is otherwise serious or ambitious. Thus there can be no Black Cat Moment in any film called The Black Cat (1934, 1941, 1981, 1991, 1995, or 2007), or in, say, Evil Dead, Dead Alive, or pretty much any other film with the word "Dead" in the title. The more self-serious the work, the greater the danger of a Black Cat clawing its way in and setting it all to ruin.
Somehow the men in monkey suits in Kubrick's 2001 manage to just hold up well enough to avoid such a distinction, though that's certainly due in large part to the much less realistic monkey suits used in Planet of the Apes (1968), which no doubt greatly lowered our collective expectations and filled the human race with self-loathing for at least a few decades if not several hundred centuries. Had the monkey-men in 2001 been just a touch less well done—either in behavior or costume—then surely they would have been Black Cats instead of black apes. In a less ambitious film like Planet of the Apes, the apes may be much less believable in either respect and yet still retain their status as black apes (even though some of them happen to be brown, blonde, or orangutan).
In order for something to be a Black Cat Moment it has to be just that—a moment. The apes in Planet of the Apes are also not Black Cats because they're in a film where black apes as Black Cats are the norm. However, in 2001 the black apes are applicable for Black Cat Moment status since they only appear in the first ten or so minutes of the film. The original black ape, King Kong, is not a Black Cat Moment because Kong is what the film consists of (therefore, not a moment), to say nothing of the fact that he dazzled at the time. (Unless one is an expert in Black Cat Momentology, it is not advisable to apply Black Cat-status retroactively; like most humans, Black Cats are not conducive to time-travel.)
|(Note that this time-traveling cat is orange, not black)|
|Inside / À l'intérieur (2007)|
The most famous and egregious Black Cat Moment of recent times has to be the dinosaur sequence in Tree of Life. Not only were the dinosaurs visually poor (read: not particularly realistic) as well as ugly in a way that only CGI can manage, they were also "programmed" to act as though they were conscious of being characters in a Malick film. I don't mean that they had the weight of Malick's themes foisted upon them (though they did), but that they—or at least one of them—wandered through the environment (a forest), looking around as if it were contemplating the wonder of the natural world.
|Tree of Life (2011)|
Aside from bad computer effects (and they can be "bad" for various reasons apart from verisimilitude), one of the hallmarks of a Black Cat Moment relates to how unnecessary the moment is, how something similar could have been achieved in a much simpler, subtler, or more realistic way if only a touch more imagination had been employed. (Like CGI, Black Cat Moments almost always represent a lack of inspiration, short-cuts around creativity. They're easy answers to what are very often non-problems.)
Take the following scene from John Boorman's 1967 film Point Blank. A character—aided by a shove or punch from a brawling Lee Marvin—stumbles naked off the top of a skyscraper and falls to his death in a way that defies the laws of physics in both motion and speed.
Why did the filmmakers even think it necessary to show the plummet from this angle? Why not show him seconds later smashing into a car from street level, or maybe wait a few moments before peering over the edge so that his body could be far enough away to be believably replaced with a well crafted dummy? Or why not show Marvin peering over in a close-up wherein the audience can read on his face the fall that he's witnessing, then follow this with some distant sounds on the street—a crash, screams. Or perhaps some combination of the above? I'll forgive bad VFX, especially in older films. But not when the effects were never needed in the first place.
Similarly, there's a scene in the television show Breaking Bad where one of the characters (I'll keep this as spoiler free as possible) walks calmly out of a room that's recently been the scene of an explosion, yet he appears to have made it out unscathed. But when the camera cuts to another angle we see that he's actually in pretty bad shape—half his face has been rendered meaty and missing—whereupon he falls to the ground, dead. This was as unnecessary as it was stupid, and for a moment I thought I was watching a Terminator film. A Black Cat Moment through and through.
Contrast this with a much earlier episode of Breaking Bad wherein Walter White uses fulminated mercury in a manner that even MacGyver would have considered ostentatious and, well, that doesn't count as a BCM because everything in the scene looks fine and is "well done." (Black Cat Moments are not based on plot points or content; that's the realm of jumping sharks.)
|Note: MacGyver doesn't consider it ostentatious to carry a missile around from time to time|
Another example of a Black Cat Moment is the part in Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day where one of the characters catches fire and it's all too obvious that the fire isn't actually there in the scene. It spreads too quickly, it's made up of too many layers, and it looks just plain bad.
If for whatever reason a fire suit or something similar couldn't be used, why show the person burning at all? Certainly there were numerous other ways to convey what was happening without resorting to something second-rate.
Moments aside, it's important to note that Black Cats themselves have nothing to do with budget.
The Black Cat is most purely made flesh with CGI, a technology best criticized by Jeff Goldblum's character Dr. Ian Malcolm in Steven Spielberg's CGI spectacle Jurasic Park:
"Your [filmmakers] were so preoccupied with whether or not they could [create CGI dinosaurs], they didn't stop to think if they should."
Monday, January 28, 2013
Monday, December 24, 2012
"The telegraph resounds at every post. It is a harp with one string—The first strain from the American lyre." —Henry David Thoreau, Journal (February 14, 1854)
"And the lines of telegraph poles— / Lyres of iron song—will adorn / Your magnificent shoulder blades!" —Arthur Rimbaud, "What is Said to the Poet Concerning Flowers" (1871)
Thoreau wrote those words in his journal the year Rimbaud was born. He was nearly thirty-seven at the time, the age at which Rimbaud died.
Images: Thoreau in '54; Rimbaud in '71
(I wonder if likening telegraph wires to a lyre was cliche by the time Rimbaud got around to using it... "What is Said to the Poet Concerning Flowers" was, after all, a parody.)