Saturday, March 31, 2012

Duck Dodgers and Some Gags into the Unknown

Since last week’s post, What’s Up Between Cartoonist and Audience? I’ve been thinking about the fact that so many (most? almost all?) Golden Age cartoons are constructed with gags. We all know this, and yet, I must confess, that I for one don’t know what’s going on. What are these things, these gags? How do they work, why should we take such pleasure in a sequence of them? And why did they come to occupy such a large place in popular culture when they did?

I don’t know the answers to any of those questions, but I do know something about how to describe and analyze cartoons. I can at least take a look at some more cartoons and see how they work. As for those large questions, they’ll just have to wait.

Duck Dodgers Instructs His Pupil

Let’s take a look at Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century, a 1952 Chuck Jones cartoon featuring Daffy Duck as Duck Dodgers and Porky Pig as his space cadet sidekick. The earth is running out of Illudium Phosdex, the essential ingredient in shaving cream, and Duck Dodgers is sent to claim the only remaining source, on Planet X. And Planet X is in a zone that’s simply marked “unknown” on a huge space chart—notice that Daffy and his boss are standing on a podium high up in the room, which is itself on the 17,000th floor of the building. Daffy accepts the mission, of course.

Those who’ve been through middle school algebra are likely to pick up some resonance at this point, for the mysterious UNKNOWN in an equation is typically represented by a variable labeled “X”. X is the unknown, and that’s where the hapless Daffy is going with the help of Porky.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Bobby Rush kicked off the House Floor for Wearing a Hoodie

Seems there's a regulation against hoods on the floor. If that's the case I say, let's be fair. Throw 'em all out! Well, almost all.

Distant Reading in Lévi-Strauss and Moretti

This is a somewhat revised revision of a post I made at The Valve in November of 2009 under the title, Lévi-Strauss 2: Subject and Object. As the number indicates, it was the second in what would become four posts on my encounter with Lévi-Strauss's structuralism early in my career. The purpose of this revision is to recast that post as an argument that what Lévi-Strauss was doing, in particular in his study of myth in the four volumes of Mythologies, was a species of distant reading.

The term, distant reading, of course, is Franco Moretti's and, I presume, the rationale of invoking distance is to stand it in contrast to the (forms of) close reading so-beloved of the New Critics and many of their successors. What Moretti did in Graphs, Maps, Trees is indeed quite different from close reading of any species. In one chapter large numbers of texts become reduced to two items each, a publication date and a genre label. In another Moretti draws maps of where characters are located and how they move in geographical space. In a third he traces how certain stylistic features move from one text to another without giving any attention to nuances within any given text.

That is quite different from what Lévi-Strauss did with his myths, each of which he recounts in summary form, thus giving each one of them specific detailed representation within his text. He had quite a bit to say about each one of those myths, situating them within kinship structures and their associated behaviors, and commenting upon local geography, flora, and fauna. He was thus, in a sense, quite "close" to those myths. Yet . . .

Consider what Moretti says about distant reading. It is “a specific form of knowledge: fewer elements, hence a sharper sense of their overall interconnection. Shapes, relations, structures. Forms. Models.” Those terms, relations, structures, forms, models, certainly characterize Lévi-Strauss's concerns. His work was a sustained meditation on relations and models.

As for distance, it has its varieties too. Lévi-Strauss was not examining texts from his own culture; he was examining texts from other cultures, cultures to which he was an outsider, distanced if you will, though he did make the odd claim that his accounts of the myths were, as such, yet other retellings of them. He was not reflecting on those texts as a subject within the social world in which those texts circulated. As for Moretti, he did not read, in any ordinary sense, most of the texts that figured as data points in his Graphs chapter. And his readings of (fragments of) other texts were not interpretive within any recognized school; he was not taking them up as a subject and, as a subject, offering reflections to those living in view of those texts. In both cases, then, we have a distance from subjectivity, albeit a distance structured through different means.

With these things in mind, let us move closer to the method Lévi-Strauss employs in The Raw and the Cooked. But let us first look at the method through the eyes of others.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Manga Mania: Of Old Boots and Live Fish

What happens when you download a million pages of manga and start playing with them using some very sophisticated computer equipment?

Frankly, that’s not at all clear to me. But it sure would be fun to play around with the analytical toys created by the Software Studies Initiative at the University of California – San Diego. Here’s the main project page, with a brief description. The page also contains a link to an article, which I’ve downloaded but not read, and a slide presentation, which I have examined. The presentation's worth a look, and perhaps more than that depending on your interests, temperament, and conceptual style.

It has the feel of a fishing expedition, a fairly well-funded expedition with lots of nice gear and some pretty clever fisherman. The thing about fishing expeditions, though, is you don’t know what you’re going to get, an old rubber boot or a live fish. They seemed to have landed both, but can’t tell the difference.

Here’s one of their visualizations, of style space:

Diagramming Sentences: Deep Knowledge?

Kitty Burns Flory has an Op-Ed in today’s NYTimes about, of all things, diagramming sentences, which I learned to do in the sixth grade. I thought of it as a species of puzzle-solving and rather enjoyed it. I’d like to believe that the act of creating a visual representation of sentence structure was intellectually useful in some deep way, as though learning to go back and forth between visual and a propositional modes of thought created a useful matrix in which later thinking could take shape.

Mark Liberman’s noted the column in Language Log, saying:
The 1863 edition is available here from Google Books. I haven't previously read it, but a quick skim confirms my previous impression that grammar-school children of the 19th century learned more about linguistic analysis than most graduate students in English departments do today.
 While Mark is right about English graduate students, I'm not quite sure of the significance of that phenomenon. I know Mark is deeply skeptical about the effects of Theory on literary study I don't think that's the result of insufficient knowledge of linguistic analysis nor do I belief that more sophisticated linguistic analysis would remedy the situation. And least not directly. There might, however, be a residual effect from having to think about language as a fairly precise and orderly affair.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

What’s Up between Cartoonist and Audience?

This post is about two things: the frame, and various details. By frame I mean the overall ‘governing aegis’ of the cartoon, the compact, if you will, between cartoonist and audience. As for details, there’s lots of them.

The details that sent me down this particular conceptual path happen at about two minutes and 40 seconds into What’s Opera, Doc? when Elmer turns to the audience and says, “That was the wabbit.”

One detail is the fact that he looks right at the audience and addresses himself to us. This isn’t the first time this happens in this cartoon. It happened early on when the camera first zoomed in on Elmer and, after asking us to be “vewy quiet” and he told us that he was “hunting wabbits”—notice the plural. Between these two instances Bugs addresses the audience twice and the he does so once at the very end when he tells us that he’s not dead but, in effect, is pretending to be so in order to satisfy operatic conventions.

So, in the space of a six-minute cartoon we have five violations of the so-called “fourth wall,” the one between the fictional world and the live audience. Well, they may be violations of the fourth wall, but I’ve come to suspect that such violations are consistent with the conventions of a certain kind of cartoon, and whatever kind that is, it is not particularly, cerebral, meta, or avant-garde.

On the contrary, it is typical and quite common in many cartoon shorts of the Golden Age. That’s the frame I’m talking about, the compact with the audience. It stages the relationship between artist and audience in a way that’s quite different from most live action features and from feature-length animation. It’s not just that these cartoons are shorter, but that they’re constructed on different principles. They aren’t stories that just happen to be short. They’re something else.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Open Letter to Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich: Come Together, Right Now

The following letter is by my friend, Charlie Keil, and was first published at Truth and Traditions. The notion that political positions can be (neatly) arranged along a continuum from left to right started getting old a long time ago. It's all but useless. It's not, mind you, that I see nothing to choose between Obama and, say, Romney or Santorum. I do. But that's not a choice I'd like to face in November. Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich are certainly very different breeds of political cat. But they are both anti-war, and that alone counts for a lot and, by the way, distinguishes them from the others. I'll let Charlie take it from here.
* * * * *

Dear Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich,

I urge you to put your respective strengths together on a firm foundation built by back-to-basics Austrian and Buddhist economics. A casual reading of G. Bateson, E. F. Schumacher, John Ruskin, anyone who has thought long and hard about the profound evil embodied in “central banking,” war preparations and “Fed manipulations” everywhere, will give you the tools and bricks you need to build a Reform Party and/or an Americans Elect TEAM based on emergent truths and the oldest traditions.

At the Truth & Traditions party website (cranks and planks without a platform or an actual political party) you will find arguments, positions, reports, a Declaration of Interdependence, some of what you will need to create a balanced platform and a beyond-bi-partisan Sunshine Cabinet whose members and many surrogates can campaign with you this summer and fall.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Elmer Loves Bugs Redux

In my previous post on What’s Opera, Doc? I’d hit upon the idea that when, nearing the end, Elmer called upon all the forces at his command to destroy Bugs he was motivated by Bugs’ deception.* He’d sung and danced his love to and with Brünnhilde and she turned out to be Bugs in drag. It’s that disappointment, that frustrated love, that drove him into a rage. And that’s different from, in addition to, the almost pro forma antagonism that drove him at the beginning of this cartoon and that drives him at the beginning of all his encounters with Bugs.

I’d liked that idea when I had it, which was in the process of writing that post, but afterward I had some misgivings. For I’d long felt that one good answer—perhaps the best answer—to the question “Why’d he do it?” is: Because the author made him do it. The author wanted to achieve a certain effect, and having the character do whatever, that’s the way to achieve that effect.

So, what’s the immediate effect of Elmer’s remorse? Surprise! That’s not what we were expecting.

And that, of course, is what goes on in the typical Bugs and Elmer cartoon. It’s a game in which the cartoonist keeps us guessing about how Bugs which trick Elmer and keeps surprising us with new gags. Just as Bugs’ (apparent) death was a new move, so is Elmer/Nordic warror’s (real) remorse.

With that in mind, let’s reconsider What’s Opera, Doc?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

I remember browsing through the encyclopedia when I was young. We had an Americana, to the Britannica, which just announced that it will cease print publication, and I would spend hours reading from one entry to another. The volumes were heavy and substantial and the set of them gave a visible and tactile sense of complete knowledge. That sense, of course, was an illusion, but it was there.

The Wikipedia affords a different experience. Of course, I come to the Wikipedia as a mature adult with a great deal of intellectual sophistication; how it would appear to a bright 11-year old, I don’t know. But there’s no way to get a sense of all-knowledge-complete from the Wikipedia; you can’t see it on the shelf, you can’t handle it volume by volume. It just trails off into the ether, in many many different directions.

There is, of course, the question of accuracy and authority. I know that comparisons have been done between Wikipedia entries and, I believe, Britannica entries. And Wikipedia has come out well in these comparisons. But that’s not all there is to IT.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

From today's New York Times:
In an acknowledgment of the realities of the digital age — and of competition from the Web site Wikipedia — Encyclopaedia Britannica will focus primarily on its online encyclopedias and educational curriculum for schools. The last print version is the 32-volume 2010 edition, which weighs 129 pounds and includes new entries on global warming and the Human Genome Project.

“It’s a rite of passage in this new era,” Jorge Cauz, the president of Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., a company based in Chicago, said in an interview. “Some people will feel sad about it and nostalgic about it. But we have a better tool now. The Web site is continuously updated, it’s much more expansive and it has multimedia.” ...

Sales of the Britannica peaked in 1990, when 120,000 sets were sold in the United States. But now print encyclopedias account for less than 1 percent of the Britannica’s revenue. About 85 percent of revenue comes from selling curriculum products in subjects like math, science and the English language; 15 percent comes from subscriptions to the Web site, the company said.

About half a million households pay a \$70 annual fee for the online subscription, which includes access to the full database of articles, videos, original documents and to the company’s mobile applications.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that What’s Opera, Doc? is one of the finest cartoons ever made. It satirizes opera, Wagner in particular; it parodies Disney’s Fantasia, and, for that matter, it parodies the routines of its stars, Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. The production was, by Warner Brother’s standards, lavish, and the layouts, by Maurice Noble, are inspired.

All of that’s obvious. What’s not so obvious is that the film plays on the nature of reality in a way that’s reminiscent of Dance of the Hours from Disney's Fantasia. As I’ve argued in Animal Passion? Hyacinth Hippo and Ben Ali Gator, that episode depicts the inability of animal dancers to stay in role with the result that, when Ben Ali Gator courts Hyacinth Hippo we don’t know whether they’re acting roles or whether their passion is, well, real. Something like that is going on in What’s Opera, Doc? Elmer Fudd is in role as, well, Siegfried I guess, from beginning to end, but Bugs is not.
Note: I’m not going to comment on the design. But you should pay attention to it. Note the colors, the camera angles, and the use of lines. It’s really exquisite.
Kill the Wabbit

Let’s start at the beginning. As the title card and credits roll we hear an orchestra warming up. We thus know that, yep, as the title says, this is going to be opera. The opening music is wild and stormy and we see a stormy sky, and then a large hulking shadow appears projected against a cliff. More sky and lightening, and then we see that the large shadow is projected by a rather small fellow:

It this point a simple, and rather old, point has been made: things aren’t always what they seem to be. The camera zooms in and it’s Elmer Fudd, in heroic costume as a Nordic warrior, informing us that he’s “hunting wabbits.”

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

A new journal, Singularum, has an interview with philosopher Alphonse Lingis, who translates Merleau-Ponty, writes, travels, and takes photos.
I had long resisted buying a camera, thinking that there was something false about collecting images of things seen and people encountered and who have passed on, trying to retain the past. I thought that what was real was what from a trip left one changed. I started taking pictures when a friend who was taking me to the airport gave me a camera on the way.

I soon realized that the camera had changed my perception. The light: it was no longer just cleared space in which things took form; it had direction, it led the gaze, its shafts excavated situations isolated in the dark, sometimes it spread in a scintillating, dazzling, blazing medium without boundaries. Shadows took on substance; they stretched, flowed, condensed things in themselves. It occurred to me that I saw them that way when I was a child. Things looked different: the contours of shadows and of things that overlapped other things pushed out the contours that contained things in themselves. Flat surfaces showed corrugations, grain, stubble and texture, and sheets of gleam. And the continuity of the landscape drifting by would be abruptly broken by momentary events—the spiraling neck of a heron probing the space, the poised pause of an antelope, the legs of a child in an arabesque she will never be able to do once grown up, the grin of a passerby at something inward. The landscape is abruptly splintered, a segment isolates, magnetizes and pulls the glance into it.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Support Michael Sporn's Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Several years ago I spent a delightful evening at New York City's Museum of Modern Art viewing retrospective of Michael Sporn's films. Everyday I check his blog, which is a treasure trove for those interested in animation. Now I'm asking you to support his Kickstarter project, which involves a biography of Edgar Allen Poe that he's been working on for several years.

Here's how Sporn describes the film:
The Animatic, above, is a rough representation of animation in progress. It helps us tell the story. We hope to turn the many segments started into completed animation to be able to thrust the feature film, POE, into complete production. The Kickstarter money will do that for us and help satisfy the needs of the possible distributors and financiers who are already interested.

What’s the story?

Edgar Allan Poe was a brilliant writer who lived a very short and eccentric life. He died at the age of 40 and in that time created literary genres including the detective mystery, the sci fi epic, the horror story, and many of the most beautiful love poems imaginable. Within this life there is a very dynamic story to be told.

The film opens with baby Edgar dragged from theater to theater by his ever-squabbling actor parents. They travel to cities up and down the East Coast performing, as their marriage falls apart. Edgar's father disappears, and his mother dies of consumption. The three year old watches the last theater his mother performs in burn to the ground. He's left an orphan, and the film begins.

Poe's life was destroyed not by drugs or alcohol, as is often stated, but by absolute poverty, and this is the crux of our film. Many of the women in his life died of consumption and illness as he was too poor to be able to care for them properly.He, himself, died in a poorhouse hospital.

Our film will show various biographical key points in his life and will use selections from his great fiction to depict this dramatic story.
The film is now completely scripted and story-boarded and 20 minutes of an animatic have been completed. Four Poe stories will be set in counterpoint to the biography: The Premature Burial, Murder in the Rue Morgue, The Black Cat, and Ms. in a Bottle.

Now's you chance to step into film history by supporting this project.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Philosophy: Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind (Really?)

Writing in, of all places, The New York Times, Colin McGinn, a distinguished philosopher—for only distinguished philosophers get to appear in “the paper of record”—has called for a rebranding of the discipline of philosophy. No, “rebranding” isn’t his word, though it was astutely used by one of the commenters. McGinn just called for a name change. “Ontics” is his suggested alternative.

McGinn notes that the name is misleading to non-philosophers, who “immediately assume you are in the business of offering sage advice, usually in the form of unargued aphorisms and proverbs.” And when you try to explain, well, they just don’t get it. Whatever this discipline is, “lover of wisdom”—the etymological meaning of the name—is too generic.

Well, sure, yeah, it is. But then, is what McGinn does, or what most academic researchers do, is that wisdom in any meaningful sense? Thomas Kuhn famously argued that what most scientists do is rather like puzzle-solving, and he did not mean the term at all pejoratively. The point of the term was to suggest that most scientists—and McGinn thinks of philosophy as science, in a broad sense of the term—work within fairly well-specified conceptual boundaries.

Which they do. And so it is with most academics. That’s just the nature of the enterprise.

There is tremendous respect for the mythology of “going boldly where no man has gone before,” but little on-the-ground tolerance for that activity in the flesh. I rather suspect that McGinn wouldn’t recognize one of the bold ones if she bit him in the ass. Whatever it is that McGinn does, is there any reason whatever to suspect that he gives a fig about wisdom?

Friday, March 2, 2012

Nazi Regulations Concerning Funk 'n Freedom

J.J. Gould has a short piece in The Atlantic that lists Nazi regulations for dance orchestras on Czeckslovakia:

1. Pieces in foxtrot rhythm (so-called swing) are not to exceed 20% of the repertoires of light orchestras and dance bands;
2. in this so-called jazz type repertoire, preference is to be given to compositions in a major key and to lyrics expressing joy in life rather than Jewishly gloomy lyrics;
3. As to tempo, preference is also to be given to brisk compositions over slow ones so-called blues); however, the pace must not exceed a certain degree of allegro, commensurate with the Aryan sense of discipline and moderation. On no account will Negroid excesses in tempo (so-called hot jazz) or in solo performances (so-called breaks) be tolerated;
4. so-called jazz compositions may contain at most 10% syncopation; the remainder must consist of a natural legato movement devoid of the hysterical rhythmic reverses characteristic of the barbarian races and conductive to dark instincts alien to the German people (so-called riffs);
5. strictly prohibited is the use of instruments alien to the German spirit (so-called cowbells, flexatone, brushes, etc.) as well as all mutes which turn the noble sound of wind and brass instruments into a Jewish-Freemasonic yowl (so-called wa-wa, hat, etc.);
6. also prohibited are so-called drum breaks longer than half a bar in four-quarter beat (except in stylized military marches);
7. the double bass must be played solely with the bow in so-called jazz compositions;
8. plucking of the strings is prohibited, since it is damaging to the instrument and detrimental to Aryan musicality; if a so-called pizzicato effect is absolutely desirable for the character of the composition, strict care must be taken lest the string be allowed to patter on the sordine, which is henceforth forbidden;
9. musicians are likewise forbidden to make vocal improvisations (so-called scat);
10. all light orchestras and dance bands are advised to restrict the use of saxophones of all keys and to substitute for them the violin-cello, the viola or possibly a suitable folk instrument.
H/t Graham Harman.