Thursday, June 30, 2011
Every so random often in the past week or three I’ve been thinking about object-oriented ontology in the age of animation: Is there a connection? Animated films have been with us since the early 1920s, and animation itself extends back into the 19th Century, with flip books, kinoscopes and such. In its cinematic guise animation has been aware of itself and its tech and has depicted that in many and various of its works. From this it follows that animation is aware of the apparent ontological difference between its materials, static images, and its effects, living beings (and others) on the screen and into the minds of viewers.
With that in mind, let’s take, as our text for this lesson, an old scrap of Tim Morton’s:
The take home idea: a text is sentient object. It's quite counter-intuitive at first. But it's elementary really. Since we can apply almost everything meaningful about a pencil's interactions with a table to a mind's interactions with its world, why not a text, that is, what a pencil writes, if you hold it the right way..
Now, consider the 1945 Warner Brother’s cartoon, Book Revue. It’s set in a bookshop at night and depicts bookish hijinks of various sorts. Here, for example, we have Shakespeare’s works:
As you can imagine, the wheels actually turn. A bit later in the cartoon they turn and turn and the whole mechanism bursts.
Here’s Dorothy Baker’s novel, Young Man with a Horn.
The trumpet player is Harry James and, of course, he really is playing the trumpet. I don’t know whether James himself did the trumpeting for this cartoon – I rather doubt it, as I didn’t see him credited, which he certainly would have demanded, but a few years later he did the off-screen playing for Kirk Douglas, who starred in the movie version of Baker’s novel, which I’ve discussed in this post.
Wednesday, June 29, 2011
What to make of the whole movie?
That’s a tough one, and I’m going to punt. I’ve thought a great deal about The Whole Thing, but to pull off a discussion I’d have to ramp up the intellectual intensity to eleven or so. And I don’t have the energy for that, not on a warm summer night edging toward July.
So I’m just going to jot down some things I’ve been thinking about, some stray thoughts that needing rounding up and herding. But the herding will have to wait. Nor now, they’re strays.
Some Pretty Strange Stuff
Here’s a framing thought from Coppola’s commentary:
. . . this isn’t really a war film after all. This is something else. this is a journey into some kind of surreal weirdness, a journey into issues related to morality in modern time when we have the reach through our technology to amplify all of these evil instincts or negative instincts because ultimately we lie about what we’re doing. which was a central theme to Heart of Darkness.
So, though it takes place during war time and set in a war zone, it’s not really a war film. It’s “something else.” And that something else involves some “pretty same stuff,” as Coppola tells us about what happens beyond the Do Lung Bridge sequence:
If they were going to go on they were going to get into some pretty pretty strange stuff. And I, Francis, was gonna’ get into some pretty strange stuff, and I knew it. I wasn’t sure what that stuff was, but by this point the style of the movie, as happens on a project, you start the movie day one, you start shooting, and then together you discover things that you find interesting and then you say ‘Oh yeah, let’s do more of that, let’s do more of that. You know after 30 days you’ve kinda’ evolved the style.
Tuesday, June 28, 2011
I continue to think about Heather Mac Donald’s outrage over Art in the Streets, the graffiti and street art show currently running the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. It’s clear that whether or not any of the work on view is REALLY ART is, at best, a secondary concern. She’s concerned about the fact that much graffiti and street art is vandalism and about the separate but related fact that, in mounting this show, a major cultural institution would thus seem to be endorsing crime.
The horror, the horror!
It’s the second issue I want to address in this brief post.
Let’s consider the podcast she made with Paul Beston, associate editor of City Journal. Here’s how Beston frames the discussion in his introduction: “... We’re gonna talk today about her feature essay in our Spring 2011 issue, Graffiti’s Radical Chic, which examines how defacement of private property has achieved avant-garde status in today’s art world.” And here’s Mac Donald’s opening remarks:
Well, Paul, it was worse than anything I expected, because I was prepared to find some acknowledgment of the morally complicated nature of doing a museum show on a crime. And there was absolutely nothing. It was as if the whole question of graffiti’s illegal status and the destruction of property didn’t exist. And I decided to test their attitude towards graffiti myself by a few times making to write my tag on their walls. And, of course, was stopped immediately by the guards.
I think she’s got a point. Glossing over the fact that she conflates graffiti and street art, the often illegal nature of the work is important to many of its practitioners. It certainly should be discussed in any comprehensive museum show, which this purports to be. As for her attempted tagging, well, it seems to me that there she simply bought into the theatre of it all and did a bit of grandstanding of her own; she knew very well she wouldn't be allowed to tag the musuem walls. OTOH, she could have earned some street cred if she'd gone through with it and gotten arrested.
I wonder, however, just how serious she is about the complicity of museums in criminal activity. It seems clear that the antiquities collections of many museums are founded on art looted from other countries (see, e.g. Michael Gross’s history of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogues Gallery). To be sure, that art wasn’t created through acts of vandalism, but the way it ended up in museum collections is a rather shady process in which wealthy and powerful nations simply took what they wanted from poor and powerless ones. That, it seems to me, makes the museum more directly complicit in crime than does showing photographs of subway graffiti vandalism or showing perfectly legal works by artists who have also done illegal street pieces.
In this respect, then, MOCA is just doing what museums have always done, which is to benefit from criminal acts. As for Mac Donald’s moral dudgeon, I’ll take it more seriously when, for example, she condemns the British Museum for its continued possession of the Elgin Marbles. How about a little outrage over how looting other people's cultural heritage has long been bread and butter for the major museums of Europe and America.
There is an old philosophical tradition in which everything is assumed to have an essence that defines it. And there is a similar notion within the visual arts; when one depicts an object (or a scene) one does so to reveal its essence. As a practical matter, this translates into a limited set of standard viewpoints from which an object is depicted. In the case of human portraiture, full-front, profile, and 3/4 view are the standard, the “canonical” views of the human face.
And so it goes with flowers. Whatever kind of flower this is, this is a more or less standard portrait:
Except for the tip of one petal at the bottom, the full blossom is visible. One can also imagine views from directly above the blossom or a profile view. All are more or less canonical views. All strive to present an essence.
But this is not a canonical view of that kind of flower:
Two blossoms are in view, but neither is visible in full, and neither is at the center of the image. The center of the image is, well, just what IS at the center? The break point of a stem and, in the background, a leaf.
Monday, June 27, 2011
Helena Handbasket, in her persona as Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald, has taken Art in the Streets, an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, as the occasion for a spirited, fascinating, and only sporadically reasonable polemic against graffiti. Trying to straighten out this confused mess and responding to the occasional bits of reason would take more time than I’ve got at the moment. I’m afraid I’m going have to rest content with a drive-by.
Let’s start with a point that Ms. Mac Donald is likely to regard as pedantic. At the end of her opening paragraph she tells us that the term “street art” is a euphemism for graffiti. Not at all. It’s a different, though related, phenomenon. The term came into use a good two decades after graffiti got up and refers to a variety of art on the streets. But, as I’ve indicated here and there, the two movements have an uneasy relationship to one another (see, for example, this post). Thus when Mac Donald asserts that one term is a euphemism for the other she is, in effect, declaring that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about and she doesn’t care.
Well, now, I suppose that’s something of an over statement. She does know what she’s talking about: it’s art on public or private walls that’s put there without the permission of whoever owns the walls. Whether that art is graffiti or street art makes no difference to her, so she’s taken the time to tell us that by deliberately conflating the two terms. By the same token, we can presume that she’s not talking about art that’s done with permission – if not downright commission – that looks pretty much like the illegals.
And she does have a point,. That much graffiti and street art is vandalism is a legitimate issue. It’s also a complex issue, but she simply assumes that public space belongs to the people who own the walls visible from that space. That’s not at all clear. (See, for example, this recent post for the merest hint of the discussion Mac Donald doesn’t recognize.)
Saturday, June 25, 2011
A correspondent recently brought up the topic of emotional response to literature. It’s an important topic, one I’ve thought about from time to time, but I don’t have any particular insight into it. Still, I’ve put together a few thoughts.
First, an excerpt my review of William Flesch, Comeupance (Harvard UP 2007). Flesch introduces the notion of vicarious experience, which is the most interesting idea on emotion in literature that I’ve read since Susanne Langer’s more general idea of virtual experience. Then I consider a childhood practice by way of looking at a section from Tom Sawyer, where Tom deals with negative feelings by running away to become a pirate. Finally, I have abstracts about and links to two old posts at The Valve.
Vicarious Experience: William Flesch
Excerpted from Altrusim, Gossip, and the Vicarious Apprehension of Human Living, Twentieth-Century Literature 55.4, Winter 2009, 629-633.
* * * * *
[Flesch’s] point is that, when we experience fiction, we monitor the lives of fictional characters using the same bio-behavioral “equipment” we use in monitoring our fellows as we keep “score” of their “credits” and “debits” in the “group account.” The need to monitor our fellows gives us a vicarious interest in their actions, and that vicarious interest is emotionally charged.
Flesch develops this notion of vicarious experience through reference to David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals in particular, and Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The anger we feel upon witnessing transgression comes not through some identification with the victim or victims of the transgression, but belongs to the affective component of our social monitoring system. This anger is, in effect, a sentiment on behalf of the group, not on behalf of any particular individuals. The pleasure we feel in just punishment or just reward, Flesh argues, is similarly vicarious and on behalf of the group, not some particular individual or individuals.
How do we monitor our fellows? There is direct observation, a behavioral mode we share with other animals. But we can also exchange tales about them, we can gossip. Flesch thus argues that fiction is, in effect, gossip about imaginary people.
To my mind, the most important consequence of this position has to do with our emotional engagement in the lives of literary characters. As Flesch remarks in a footnote criticizing “orthodox” literary Darwinists: “they treat literary characters as motivated by the same things that motivate real humans, rather than as representations to whom real humans react. It’s our reactions that psychology can analyze, not the actions of literary characters” (p. 231). Flesch thus does away with the nasty problems inherent in the vague notion of “identification” that he regards as being grounded in a mistaken conception of imitation. Given that vicarious interest “is an irreducible and primary attitude that we take toward others” (p. 15) Flesh goes on to argue that identification, such as it is, must in fact depend on our vicarious experience of a character.
Friday, June 24, 2011
Lists can be simple things:
The days of the week: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday.
Ingredients in a recipe: 1 hen; 1 tb-sp salt; 1 oz. white fungus; 1 tb-sp sherry (optional).
Planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune,
Positive integers: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, . . .
Lists consist of items, and an ordering of those items. The ordering may or may not be significant. When I listed the days of the week, for example, I did so according a standard principle for that particular list: temporal order. I could have listed them alphabetically: Friday, Monday, Saturday, Sunday, Thursday, Tuesday, Wednesday. Strange, no? Yet that’s how you’d find them in a dictionary with, however, lots of other items between them.
That list, of course, is English-specific. I don’t know the name of the days in Chinese, but one can, of course, check the web and find out. And what I found out, among other things, is that before the West came knocking, the Chinese week had ten days.
Back to our lists. There’s no particular order to the ingredients list. At least I don’t think so. I listed the planets in order from the Sun out, another convention. Had I used the alphabetic convention, that list, too, would have been odd.
Q. What’s the Chinese equivalent of alphabetic listing?
* * * * *
And then there’s that list of the positive integers. That’s a most special list. How would you alphabetize it? You can’t, not in THAT form. That’s the list, it has no other canonical order, and, unlike those other lists, this one goes on and on and on and . . .
Of course one could convert the integers into number names and then alphabetize those. But which names? The cardinals: one, two, three, etc., or the ordinals: first, second, third, etc.? The alphabetizations will be different. But, alas, whichever way you go, you still have a problem. Think about it.
How can you properly alphabetize a list if you don’t have the whole list? Imagine if I’d alphabetized the days of the week but had been working from a corrupted list that omitted Thursday. I’d have this list: Friday, Monday, Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday. When Thursday finally showed up I couldn’t tack it on the end; I’d have to insert it there in the middle.
Well, that’s the problem we face when alphabetizing a list of the positive integers. There’s always going to be one more positive integer. Always. No sooner are we done with alphabetizing the current list when another integer shows up. Let’s start with just two integers, 1 and 2, and add the integers to the list one by one. We’ll alphabetize the cardinal names.
one, three, two
four, one, three, two
five, four, one, three, two
five, four, one, six, three, two
five, four, one, seven, six, three, two
eight, five, four, one, seven, six, three, two
eight, five, four, nine, one, seven, six, three, two
eight, five, four, nine, one, seven, six, ten, three, two
eleven . . . .
No, I’m afraid that alphabetizing that list is hopeless. And pointless as well.
All of a sudden, though, it’s looking like lists aren’t quite so simple. One might even, in the furthest stretches of one’s imagination, conceive of lists and a listing as being profound. It’s thus worth noting the one of the oldest existing programming languages, with hundreds of variants, was designed for LISt Processing: LISP. And LISP is the darling of the AI world.
Think of it, computing as list processing. And you thought computing and computers were about numbers.
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
As I remarked in the fifth post on Apocalypse Now, this scene marks the dramatic mid-point of the film, though it ends a bit after the temporal mid-point. Whatever Willard may have done in the past – he recalls having killed six people – and whatever the PBR crew may have done, in the context of this mission, they’ve been spectators up to this point. They saw the killing around them, but didn’t actively participate. Now things change. Coppola remarks: “From this moment on, when, really you see blood shed so directly both by the crew of the boat and by Willard in the case of the girl, once life is taken, the path is very very different.”
This scene wasn’t in the original script. It had been inspired by the My Lai incident. Walter Murch suggested to Coppola that they needed a scene like that, the senseless slaughter of civilians by trigger-happy soldiers. This scene fills that ‘slot’ in the thematic fabric.
* * * * *
By this point in their trip, the crew of the boat were on edge and on one another’s nerves. In this tetchy state they come upon a sampan:
The Chief decides to pull along side the sampan and search it, which is standard procedure. Willard protests, arguing that his mission takes priority. The Chief over-rides him: “Until we reach your destination Captain, you just goin’ for the ride.”
Tuesday, June 21, 2011
More or less on Michael Sporn’s recommendation, I’ve just seen Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. While I’m collecting my thoughts on this trying, tedious, and rewarding film, I’ll let Michael’s thoughts stand-in for many of mine:
The film starts with a vision of god that moves beyond to a patriarchal dominated family in Waco, Texas. The suggestion of a death leads us back to god and the creation of the earth. From protozoa to dinosaur to the birth of a child, this filmmaker exudes absolute love for every organism he can show us on screen. Yet, right from the dinosaurs onward he creates an ominous tone in this male-dominated power hungry environment. You’re always expecting something terrible to happen in the hands of the children who push the film forward. This is a film that technically has a new way of presenting itself almost through an impressionistic vision. The whispered narration and dialogue mix and blend into one; the sun streamed backlit late-afternoon interiors create a whispered visual to match.
It was the phrase “from protozoa to dinosaur” that got me.
The film is that of a mystic. I know nothing of Malick, though it seems he was born in the Bible belt and studied philosophy, so I don’t know if he is really mystic, but then, what’s really in that question? I once told my draft board that I was a mystic. Really? Really. That’s what comes through in the film: “exudes absolute love for every organism he can show us on screen.”
The film’s explicit religiosity bugged me in the beginning. Am I going to have to say something about this in my review? Am I going to have to declare, for example, whether or not I’m a believer? And then it didn’t bug me, not for the last hour or so. I just forgot about it.
I’ll have more to say about the film later, but I just wanted to dig out some old notes, from 25 years ago, on Job.
Monday, June 20, 2011
Graffiti writers have long asserted their right to public space and, by implication, the rights of their respective communities. As this post from the New Economics Foundation makes clear, such assertions are every more important, and ever more threatened:
As news emerges that two London councils plan to charge children to play in public spaces, whilst another stridently attempts to drive out homeless people from some of London’s most visited places, has the time not come to assert our common right to the city?
The article goes on to point out that those particular cases:
... should not be dismissed as isolated cases; they are snapshots of a much larger issue. Or put differently pieces within a wider and more worrying jigsaw amounting to nothing less than the ideological, and if current trends are not arrested, material remaking of this city.
Cities the world over are re-making themselves in a ‘neoliberal’ way and thus commoditizing the city:
As a result many spaces that we could once call our own, where we could linger at our leisure and experience some of the joys of urban life, have been privatised and increasingly securitised. This in turn fragments our access to the city, limiting it to those who can pay for the privilege and those who conform to narrowly defined social norms.
This problem has been most acutely felt in the great cities of America: New York and Los Angeles being prime suspects. Here, as Sharon Zukin and Don Mitchell eloquently point out, the ability to access and enjoy once freely cherished spaces has come under the almost relentless pressure of market-driven forces, often in the guise of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) which, in a predictable desire to secure their businesses and loyal consumers (and inevitably surrounding spaces), have driven out transgressive deviants – read those less likely to ‘consume’ the city, and whose presence may deter paying customers; the homeless, ‘winos’, skateboarders, and the like.
[ A guest post by Charles Cameron – cross-posted from Zenpundit ]
This post began with a photo my friend William Benzon took of an abandoned passenger terminal in Liberty State Park:
Without the greenery, I don't think I'd feel this was "special" in quite the same way. I might see it as prison-like, akin to those magnificent Piranesi prints in his Carceri series:
... vast, haunted -- the anti-cathedral.
Yet the grasses and small trees are there in Benzon's photo, green and vibrant -- and in their presence, the prison becomes a cathedral... not unlike the great ruined abbeys of England, Tintern, Calder, Whitby, Walsingham, Fountains.
Here's Tintern Abbey by JMW Turner, for a sense of how ruins were viewed in his day:
Somehow, in the workings of the human mind and heart, nature's grasses can keep a ruined space sacred...
Sunday, June 19, 2011
In late 2009 I published several posts in The Valve* on Claude Lévi-Strauss, in particular, on his work on myth. It’s time to revisit that work.
I was cruising through Marginal Revolution the other day and came across a link to a nonsense generators: Arty Bollocks Generator. Let’s have a go at analyzing some arty bollocks and see what, if anything, that tells us about what Lévi-Strauss was up to with myth.
Here’s Arty Bollocks #1:
(AB1) My work explores the relationship between the body and recycling culture.
With influences as diverse as Wittgenstein and Andy Warhol, new tensions are crafted from both explicit and implicit meanings.
Ever since I was a child I have been fascinated by the ephemeral nature of meaning. What starts out as hope soon becomes corrupted into a cacophony of power, leaving only a sense of what could have been and the prospect of a new beginning.
As temporal phenomena become frozen through emergent and critical practice, the viewer is left with an insight into the edges of our world.
As these things go it seems reasonable enough. It’s rather vague, but then artist statements often seem like that.
Let’s give the bollocks generator another spin:
(AB2) My work explores the relationship between emerging sexualities and midlife subcultures.
With influences as diverse as Blake and Roy Lichtenstein, new combinations are created from both traditional and modern meanings.
Ever since I was a child I have been fascinated by the ephemeral nature of meaning. What starts out as vision soon becomes corrupted into a tragedy of greed, leaving only a sense of what could have been and the inevitability of a new reality.
As temporal impressions become transformed through emergent and personal practice, the viewer is left with an insight into the inaccuracies of our era.
AB2 seems rather like AB1, with changes here and there, none of which add up to greater clarity. Which is why these word toys work so well. The texts they generate don’t have to make sense. They just have to offer the pretense of sense.
Friday, June 17, 2011
David Bordwell’s just done a post on parallelism, which “occurs when characters, situations, actions, or other factors are likened to or contrasted with one another.” in narrative. To illustrate his argument he gives typically lucid analyses of two films, a recent one, Julie & Julia, and one from the 1940s, Enchantment. Each involves two relationships, separated by a generation, but which are narrated in parallel through alternating scenes.
But that’s only one form of parallelism, of which there are many – as Bordwell knows.
Apocalypse Now is a tissue of parallels. I want to look at three. Two obvious ones, and one less obvious.
Let’s start with an obvious one, the end, the double-killing: Willard killing Kurtz, the villagers sacrificing the caribao. The other obvious parallel stalks you through the film from the foreshadowings in the opening montage through those killings: the parallel between Willard and Kurtz. We’re given this one in the voiceover as Willard is choppered to his briefing:
I was going to the worst place in the world, and I didn’t even know it yet. Weeks away and hundreds of miles up a river that snaked through the war like a main circuit cable, plugged straight into Kurtz. It was no accident that I got to be the caretaker of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz’s memory, any more that being back in Saigon was an accident. There is no way to tell his story, without telling my own; and if his story is really a confession, then so is mine.
Pay attention to that first sentence, which implies that Willard’s voiceover comments are retrospective, from some time after the events took place. They are thus the result of some reflection.
Then there’s that word: “confession.” That cannot be an accident. I rather imagine the term had real resonance for Coppola. And its religious implication certainly resonates with the sacrificial ending.
Given that Willard and Kurtz are parallel characters, what’s the difference between them? Yeah, Kurtz went nuts, Willard not. That’s what the story says, but, in that world – in Willard’s words “The war was being run by a bunch of four-star clowns who were going to end up giving the whole circus away” – what’s the difference between sanity and not? And what’s it mean that the sane one kills the insane one, on orders from those four-star clowns? Or rather, in the logic of myth, how does it work in the mind?
Thursday, June 16, 2011
You may have read about the Underbelly Project, who knows, depending on just who YOU are, you may even have seen it. During 2009 and 2010 over a hundred artists were escorted into an abandoned subway station in New York City where they then proceeded to create a work – most, thought not all, made paintings. When they were done – they only had a night – they were escorted out. When all the work was done the curators closed up the ‘gallery’ and that was that.
Except for the big-splash articles in The New York Times and The Times of London. And then the urban explorers and the wannabes figured out where the gallery was, and started trooping in. Arrests were made. And this and that. It was all over the graffiti and street art blogospheres, including a few posts right here on New Savanna.
All that’s just by way of introduction, because this post isn’t yet another perambulation on tUP. I mention it because of the artists in it, some were graffiti writers and some were street artists. THAT was most interesting.
For most ‘civilians’ the two terms – graffiti, street art – are interchangeable. They mean ‘stuff on walls that isn’t supposed to be there and that pretends to be art but may or may not be, depending, but regardless, it surely IS vandalism’. The difference between the traditions is obvious enough, though the line between the two is, like many such lines, a fuzzy one. “Graffiti”, as the writers understand the term (and as I’m using it) is the name-based work that’s mostly done with spray paint and that originated in Philadelphia and New York City in the late 1960s, etc. Roughly speaking, street art is everything else put on public walls in the name of art; it is NOT name based and includes stencil work, posters, stickers, installations, yarn, and installations of various kinds.
The graffiti writers tend to think of street artists as gutless arrivistes encroaching on their territory who are just using the street as a backdoor into the gallery scene – a charge lodged against tUP by graffiti bloggers all over (see also the Banksy vs. Robbo war). Street artists don’t seem to be quite so exercised over the difference.
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
Just what kind of two and a half hour movie does nothing in the first seven minutes?
Contrast the opening of Apocalypse Now with the opening of a typical James Bond flick, or one of the Indiana Jones adventures. Those openings are jam packed with action. The opening of Apocalypse Now is jam packed with nothing.
Images, music, thoughts. Plotwise, nothing. Otherwise...
In his commentary on the opening scene, Coppola says that it was important to establish Capt. Willard’s character before he embarks “on this great journey.” And, yes, though nothing happens in this scene to advance or even to initiate the plot, those first seven and a half minutes do take us into Willard’s soul.
Those opening minutes do more than just reveal Willard’s soul. They get your neural tissue warmed up for the movie to come. They prime it (Wikipedia entry). What’s that mean? Just keep that notion in mind as we walk through the scene. You'll find out.
The scene lasts for about seven minutes and 35 seconds and falls into three parts. In the first and third parts the sound track is dominated by The Doors performing The End. In the middle part we get Capt. Willard’s thoughts in voiceover. The patterns of imagery also differ among the parts.
1. Vietnam in the Mind
The film opens on a black screen. Throbbing comes up on the sound track. Jungle. Then a chopper moves across the screen. Music begins.
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
When I was an undergraduate I discovered that, more often than not, my best thoughts were afterthoughts. I’d work hard on a paper, get it where I wanted it, turn it in. Sometime in the next day or so I’d figure out what I should’ve said. By then, of course, it was too late.
Well, it’s happened again. I worked hard on a proposal for funding a book about graffiti. I reviewed my notes, a bunch of posts I’d published, wrote up the short narrative and the long narrative, the table of contents, and got it all submitted. A day early too.
Now, a week later, I figure out what I should have said in the proposal. It’s one of those Gestalt switch deals, you know, the duck/rabbit. I submitted the duck, and only now have I seen the rabbit. Or, if not the rabbit, the potential for a rabbit. [I'm still stewing on it.]
What I submitted was conceptualized was graffiti PLUS the culture in which it swims. What I should have submitted was the culture that’s been organizing itself THROUGH the graffiti. Big difference. What I submitted hangs everything off the graffiti, which is what every discussion of graffiti does. Hell, it’s what every discussion of art, even art-in-context, does. What matters is the culture that organizes itself around and through the art. What matters is the culture and social practice that organizes itself through the graffiti.
You see, when you hang everything off the graffiti itself the first question that hits you is: Is it freakin’ art? That’s an important question. But when you put it first, then everything else depends on the answer. If it IS art, then it’s important in one way. If it ISN’T, then it’s important in a different way, or not at all.
But, really, does the question matter? Is it the right one?
Monday, June 13, 2011
Apocalypse Now doesn’t work in the conventional story-telling way. It has little plot to speak of:
Willard gets orders to kill Kurtz; he travels up-river to Kurtz’s compound; he kills Kurtz. Things happen along the way.
That’s it. More or less. Sorta.
But don’t let that fool you into thinking the movie doesn’t have a tight structure. You don’t shoot one-and-half million feet of film, 280 hours worth, edit it down to 2 and a half hours — which is a really fierce cutting ratio — and come out with formless mush. Not if you’ve got half a brain and people with skilz.
Coppola had a full-brain head and people with mad skilz. The film has structure. Just not conventional structure.
So we’re going to have to do a bit of work to figure out what the structure is. And even then we’re only going to make a good guess, because these things are not well-understood. We don’t have the concepts or vocabulary needed to do the job.
Still, you have to start somewhere. And we’re going to start in the most pedestrian way possible, by listing the ‘chapters’ on the DVD and commenting on them. I’m not going for anything deep here. I just want to get a crude sense of how the film lays out over time, crude, but better than I can do by simply thinking it over.
Not counting the end credits, the film has been broken into 19 chapters – I’m talking about Apocalypse Now, not the Redux version, which is longer. I’ve listed them in order, using the names assigned to them, and then made a brief comment indicating what happens in the segment. I’ve also grouped them into five large-scale movements; I won’t call them acts, because that’s not what they are. I’ve done this mostly on an intuitive basis and on general principle, that there should be these larger-scale movements. That general principle may well be wrong. So I wouldn’t invest too much in these movements. But I find them convenient.
1. GETTING ORDERS
That’s it; Capt. Willard gets the order to assassinate Kurtz and meets the crew that’ll take him up-river to Kurtz’s compound in Cambodia. What kind of movie spends so much time in which very little happens? Not an action adventure flick.
Waiting in Saigon: The first seven and a half minutes is a montage in which Willard wakes up from a drunk. I’ll analyze this in a later post. In his commentary Coppola says this tells us about Willard’s character, which it does. Then MPs stick him in the shower to wake him up.
Intelligence Compound: We learn of Kurtz as Willard does, sitting around the lunch table with three sly and powerful men. They put roast beef and spicy shrimp on their lunch plates while listening to a recording in which Kurtz talks about snails walking along the edge of a straight razor. No one says anything explicit about killing Kurtz. Rather, Willard’s to “terminate the colonel’s command . . . with extreme prejudice.” Willard agrees the Kurtz is insane.
Willard Meets PBR Crew: Chief Phillips appears to be career military and runs a tight boat (PBR: Patrol Boat, River). The other three crewman are conscripts – “rock and rollers with one foot in their graves.” Chef is from New Orleans and is a chef. Lance is a surfer and acid head from Southern California. Clean is a kid from the South Bronx. Willard opens Kurtz’s dossier (“. . . . I couldn’t believe they wanted this man dead . . . “) while Clean boogies to the Stones and Lance water skies.
Friday, June 10, 2011
At this point I began to realize that this journey up the river was really a journey though time, and that I to the past. At first it was going a matter of years, and then tens of years, taking me to the kind of Indochina period and to the 50s when the French in Vietnam, and then after that it would be going into decades, and centuries and ultimately thousands of years into the prehistory of human beings. It felt that way.
– Francis Ford Coppola
That’s not a shot from a documentary, though I suppose it could be. The animal is real, not a CGI special effect, and the people are real Ifugao villagers, not actors. They’re really sacrificing that water buffalo. And afterward, Francis Ford Coppola says, the people were happy, “like Thanksgiving.” That’s how ritual works.
This particular ritual was filmed by Coppola’s crew as one face of the ending of Apocalypse Now. The other face, of course, is the death of Kurtz. He doesn’t just die, of course, Willard kills him, hacks him to death with a machete. Like a water buffalo.
The point – you can’t miss it – is that Kurtz’s death is sacrificial. Coppola says so in his commentary, and he signals it in the film itself in a shot that shows Frazer’s Golden Bough and Weston’s From Ritual to Romance. It doesn’t matter whether or not you recognize those books, much less whether or not you’ve read them. It doesn’t matter whether or not you’re saying to yourself We’re in the land of myth, symbols, and timeless universal pattern. Buffalo sacrifice = Kurtz sacrifice. It doesn’t matter because its there on the screen in the way the two actions are cut together, Willard hacking Kurtz, Ifugao hacking water buffalo, and its there on the soundtrack, which gives us a reprise of The End, the section, in fact, that was used over Willard’s martial arts dance and collapse in the opening montage.
What matters is that it’s in your gut, your heart, your soul. That’s what movies are about; that’s where they go.
Thursday, June 9, 2011
Having given notice of David Bordwell’s article on common sense film theory, I now want to take a look at one of his topics: inference. Inference is important because it’s how the mind gets from here to there. Here might be transducing the array of light impinging on the retinas or it might be sitting back and thinking about “S → NP + VP”. There might be Aunt Betty’s gotten her hair dyed or it might be Uncle Noam sure took linguistics on a wild goose chase. Whatever it is, inference is the mind’s bridge from here to there.
It’s not clear to me whether or not Bordwell and I disagree on inference, at least not at this level of detail. I offer my commentary by way of, well, commentary. These are thoughts prompted by Bordwell’s remarks. Nothing more, nothing less.
The Gibson Challenge
As Bordwell tells it, and I agree, the “New Look” psychologists “held that the stimuli hitting our sense organs were noisy, incomplete, and ambiguous; we needed higher-level faculties to sort them out.” We simply can’t make sense of the world with “bottom-up” strategies that simply assemble sense data into percepts of intelligible objects and actions. We need “top-down” strategies that drive the interpretation of sense data with prior knowledge of and expectations of the world.
Bordwell came to grips with these ideas in his 1985 Narration in the Fiction Film (NiFF). But, Bordwell goes on, there were problems – aren’t there always?
Theoretically, however, NiFF ran into problems in the role it assigned to inference. At the time of writing NiFF, I was aware of the writings of J. J. Gibson and his insistence that perception evolved in environments very different from the impoverished information that New Look theorists assumed triggered perception. In the three-dimensional world in which creatures like us live, the stimuli are not typically partial or degraded; they are in fact quite rich, even redundant. Moving through space, we register an optic flow that specifies the layout of surfaces quite precisely.
Ah, Gibson, fascinating thinker, important ideas.
I first became away of Gibson as something of a rogue psychologist going against the grain of whatever was the mainstream back then – just when that ‘then’ was, that’s a bit vague. Yet, in some ways, he was a deeply conservative ally of, ugh, of all things, the behaviorists. The behaviorists would have nothing to do with mental processes, and neither would Gibson. If you couldn’t observe it, it wasn’t real. Can’t see mental processes.
And Yet Again
Over at Crooked Timber they've been hassling yet another Martha Nussbaum defense of the humanities. Though I know of her defense work, I've not read any of it, so I don't really know whether the hassling is just.
But I'm going to believe it is. 'Cause I'm tired of these defenses of the humanities. They're so lame and predictable. In fact, I'm wondering whether or not it's the humanities that're IN FACT being defended.
Maybe the defense of the humanities has been USURPED INTO defending olden times. So, the defender doesn't really like any of this new-fangled stuff, including the internet and all, but they don't want to go after that directly. Instead, they defend the humanities.
And then . . .
One notion you find in defenses of the humanities is that we need to see the world whole. I agree. We need DO to see the world whole. Now more than ever. The arts do this in a way. So can the discursive humanities.
But we don't need the old discourses. We need new discourses. 21st century discourses. Beyond postmodern discourse, etc. And it seems to me that the defense of the humanities genre is pretty much owned by people who want to stave off the creation of new whole-cosmos discourses.
That ain't right.
Wednesday, June 8, 2011
One of the things that hits you smack in the middle of the noggin about Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier (2006) is that Coppola didn’t know WTF he was into when he set out to make this film. Yeah, he had a cast, more or less, a budget, mostly his own money, and a John Milius script. But all that was more or less in jeopardy as soon as Coppola & Co. set up camp in the Philippines to shoot the thing.
As Coppola tells it in his director’s commentary, they shot the Col. Kilgore Valkyrie Chopper Assault scene early in the process. That was in the Milius script: the cowboy colonel, the surfing, and the Wagner. All there. They ran 100,000 feet of film through the cameras to get it, sweated blood over the napalm shots, couldn’t depend on the choppers to be on set when they were needed, and just generally found themselves in hell without the hand basket.
But what footage!
It was during that process that Coppola realized the script’s final scene – a battle extravaganza – wouldn’t cut it. That was out. And if that was out, what was in?
That question plagued Coppola, presumably, until the sucker was more or less edited into watchable shape. How to end the film? Coppola says he “must have written 500 endings.” 500? That’s a good number, more or less synonymous with "lots and lots".
He also says, over and over – it’s a motif of his commentary – that he’s a director who likes to be “available” (his word) to whatever happens in the process. And was he ever available.
Example: the opening, with the lush jungle trees at the beach and The Doors on the soundtrack. An accident. Coppola was rummaging though out-takes from the napalm scene and saw some footage he liked. Hmmm, this is pretty, maybe we put it at the beginning, with The End, yeah, that’s it, start the film with a song about the end of it all, and we got an opening. And so it was done, with the help of a brilliant montage by Walter Murch.
David Bordwell recently published an omnibus article under the title, Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory? He wrote it, so the frame story goes, in lieu of making a presentation at the current meeting of the Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image. He wasn’t able to make the meeting, so he wrote, and posted, this essay instead.
And a good thing, I say. Sure, Bordwell missed the face-to-face interaction with his colleagues from far and wide. But, in karmic compensation, the rest of get this essay, which begins thus:
Start with this question, which I think is one of the most fascinating we can ask: What enables us to understand films?
Bordwell then sets out, not to answer the question, not directly, but to review how his sense of the question, and its answers, has changed over the years, starting with film semiology in the 1960s and 70s, with its emphasis on codes, to “New Look” perceptual and cognitive psychology starting in the mid-80s, to today’s “newer” psychologies, cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, and neuropsychology.
That’s a lot of territory and Bordwell doesn’t pretend to cover it all. This rather, is a history of his encounter with those movements. Frankly, it has something of the aura of a deck-clearing about it: Let’s review this stuff, clear it out, and get ready for some real work. What do you have up your sleeve, Bordwell?
I recommend the whole essay. If you don’t know Bordwell’s work, or if you don’t know this material, this is a good way in. If you’ve been over the territory, many times, then it’s a useful vehicle for conducting your own overview, using Bordwell’s review and elaboration as prompts for your own.
And when you’re done with that essay, have a look at his current blog post, Chinese boxes, Russian dolls, and Hollywood movies, in which he speaks to one of my hobby horses, ring forms (though he doesn’t use that term). He presents two films, Passage to Marseille and The Locket, as being stories4, with stories3, within stories2, within stories1. The innermost story (story4) contain the key the unlocks the mystery of the rest, something Mary Douglas pointed out in Thinking in Circles (2007).