From the archives: Film

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Lipsett’s diarist

Friday, 2 September 2011 — 8:36am | Animation, Canadiana, Film

Over the past week I’ve been attending a number of sessions at the London International Animation Festival. The LIAF has been around since 2003, but this is its first year in the Barbican Centre, where it comes at the tail end of a summer celebrating the art of animation.

July at the Barbican saw a retrospective of Studio Ghibli’s films, which I was shocked to discover never made it to British shores until 2001. Being a kid who remembers precisely two films from his toddlerhood, one being the Cantonese dub of My Neighbour Totoro (the other was The Land Before Time), it continues to astonish me that the childhoods of my peers were Miyazaki-free until Spirited Away. Also running at the Barbican Art Gallery until 11 September is Watch Me Move: The Animation Show, a gallery exhibition spanning 150 years of global animation history that I’ll have to write about another time. My readers in Canada will be happy to note that the exhibition’s next destination is the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, where Watch Me Move will run from 8 October through Christmas Eve.

All digressions aside, I really must commend the LIAF’s outstanding curation. In the out-of-competition programmes alone I’ve found some classics I had hitherto missed like the Russian masterwork Hedgehog in the Fog, which grounded a session dedicated to cut-out animation past and present, and discovered some new and instant favourites. Two that stood out for me, both selections from last year’s SIGGRAPH conference: Mobile by Verena Fels, a crowd-pleasing shuffle of animals on wires reminiscent of Pixar’s For the Birds; and The Wonder Hospital by Shimbe (Beomsik Shim), a surreal descent into what I’d best describe as a funhouse of cosmetic surgery.

The piece that I want to draw attention to here, however, is Les journaux de Lipsett (Lipsett Diaries). It was presented as the fulcrum of a session dedicated to the oeuvres of its director, Theodore Ushev, and its subject, the 1960s Canadian filmmaker Arthur Lipsett. Ushev himself was in attendance as one of the LIAF’s featured guests this year and told the audience of the many coincidences behind his latest project. Here’s one: when Ushev moved from Bulgaria to Montreal, where he has been based since 1999, he stayed in the same building that housed Lipsett for most of his life—until the latter committed suicide in 1986, aged 49.

Continued »

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Dotting the eyes, crossing the tease

Wednesday, 9 March 2011 — 4:06am | Animation, Film, Insights, Literature, Michael Chabon

When I was very young, I heard a legend about a Chinese muralist who painted the most vivid and lifelike dragons but refused to fill in their eyes, lest the dragons come alive and fly away. I tried to track it down four or five years ago for a fragment I was writing at the time, but on that occasion I never found it. Today it occurred to me to make another attempt, and for reasons of n-grammatic potentia that shall remain mysterious, Google was far more helpful this time around.

As with any old story, mutations abound, but the preponderance of them involve the painter Zhang Seng-You (張僧繇) from the period of the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589 AD). Depending on who’s telling the story, Zhang Seng-You is asked to fill in the eyes by a bystander, the abbot who commissioned the monastery mural, or the Emperor himself (who, in this case, must have been Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty). The ending is always the same: the painter finishes the eyes and the dragons bolt away from the mural in a flash of lightning and thunder.

The wonderful thing about fables is the discordance of what they say—typically a blunt moral lesson, delivered as the payload of a cruise-missile punch line like a Feghoot minus the funny—versus what they do, which is leave innumerable gaps for diverse interpretations to take root and flourish. Stories are not reducible to definite lessons. Fiction is a space for debate, and a fable is an open meadow for all and sundry to frolic. (“I don’t believe in stories with morals,” says the man with the childish fantasy of teaching Lolita in schools.)

So what can we make of the tale of the painted dragons?

Continued »

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Suggested reading, immemorial edition

Thursday, 24 June 2010 — 3:30am | Animation, Assorted links, Computing, Film, Game music, Jazz, Journalism, Mathematics, Music, Pianism, Video games

I’ve been neglecting this space for over two months. Unfortunately for my capacity to keep up with the world in written words, they have been two very interesting months. Had I posted a bag of links on a weekly basis—and this is already the laziest of projects, the most modest of ambitions I have ever had for this journal—the entries for the latter half of April and the first half of May could have been expended entirely on the British general election (with an inset for Thailand’s redshirt revolt) and still failed to capture the play-by-play thrills on the ground.

Somewhere along the way, I penned a dissertation of sorts, but let’s not talk about that. Here is the crust of readings that has built up in the meantime. There are more, but the list below was becoming rather overgrown and at some point I had to stop.

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Suggested reading, spine-tingling edition

Monday, 19 April 2010 — 12:38pm | Assorted links, Film, Harry Potter, Journalism, Literature, Mathematics, Science

Last week here in the United Kingdom was Chiropractic Awareness Week, so let’s all be aware of the good news: the British Chiropractic Association has finally dropped the battering ram of its libel action against science writer Simon Singh, who had the nerve to call some of their purported treatments bogus. (I guess you could say the BCA backed out.) The lawsuit specifically targeted Mr Singh (as opposed to The Guardian, which published the contested article) in order to drain his resources with the abetment of Britain’s libel laws, and the case has become a cause célèbre exposing this country’s need for libel reform. Be sure to read Singh’s reaction to the news and Ben Goldacre’s column on the wider problem.

Elsewhere:

  • J.K. Rowling, writing in the capacity of a former single mother living on welfare, isn’t buying what David Cameron is selling. In a somewhat frivolous response, Toby Young leaps on the Tory nostalgia of the Harry Potter books, pointing to Hogwarts’ Etonian idyll while somehow neglecting to mention the conspicuously nuclear families; but anyone who paid attention to Rowling’s finer points (which doesn’t include Mr Young, I’m afraid) knows full well her politics aren’t what he thinks they are.

  • Film editor Todd Miro savages Hollywood colour grading for taking us into a nightmare world of orange and teal.

  • Roger Ebert articulates his controversial belief that video games can never be art—not for the first time, though it’s nice to finally see him elaborate on it in one place. I’m of the opinion that the entire semantic quagmire is easily evaded if we adopt an instrumental definition of art. Regardless of whether video games are even theoretically comparable to the great works of other media, our only way of getting at qualitative findings about creativity and beauty in game design is to borrow from the language of art, so we may as well consider them as such.

  • While on the subject of aesthetics: over at Gödel’s Lost Letter, R.J. Lipton’s fantastic computing science blog, are some germinal sketches of how one might study great mathematical proofs as great art.

  • The International Spy Museum briefs us on Josephine Baker, the actress-heroine of the French Resistance.

  • Paul Wells visits the Canadian forces in Kandahar and reports on the shift in the tone and strategy of their counterinsurgency efforts. This is one of the best pieces of journalism I’ve read on the present state of the war in Afghanistan and I can’t recommend it enough.

  • Strange Maps documents two wonderful specimens of literary cartography: back covers of mystery paperbacks, and a poster for a Shakespeare conference in France depicting a town that looks like the Bard.

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Suggested reading, jet-lagged edition

Monday, 29 March 2010 — 9:45pm | Assorted links, Film, Jazz, Literature, Music, Science, Video games

I haven’t read the Internet in almost two weeks, thanks to my various globetrotting commitments. But never fear—these selections from early March are here.

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Orson Welles’ Bikini bombshell

Thursday, 4 March 2010 — 10:54pm | Film, Science

While reading up on the Bikini atomic experiments for my post on Three Tales, I came upon a most interesting find: a contemporaneous broadcast about the tests by America’s greatest radio voice and one of my personal heroes, Orson Welles. It was the second episode of Welles’ short-lived 1946 series of political radio commentaries, and runs fifteen minutes in length. Listen.

Around this time last year I spent an inordinate portion of my time rediscovering the early radio work of Orson Welles, which I so fondly remembered from my childhood—The Shadow, Suspense, The Mercury Theatre on the Air and so on—so I had come across this series before. (“The Affidavit of Isaac Woodward”, Welles’ unforgettable diatribe about the vicious assault of a black American soldier who had returned from decorated service in the war, is required listening for anyone interested in the oratory of civil rights.) Somehow I’d missed the episode on the hydrogen bomb. No matter; I’ve listened to it now. And here’s something else I’ve learned: painted on the first H-bomb to see a practical test was the likeness of Rita Hayworth.

Welles had this to say about the glamorous actress who was then his wife:

Not long ago I watched quite another sort of young lady paint her lips with something called, over the counter, the Atom Lipstick—the case of the cosmetic being fashioned according to the popular conceptions of the original war-engine. I’m sure you all need to be told that Miss Hayworth is not one to use such a thing or to hold it as anything less than a very hideous conceit.

Her face is not on the atom bomb, then, by her own choosing, but by election of the flyers who will drop the bomb and work clearly for business according to their tastes. As regards selection I find their taste beyond reproach, but the bomb-dropping itself had better be worthy of the accompanying photograph.

Is this, Faustus claimed of Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships, and burnt the topless towers of Ilium? Well, I want a better toast, a better boast, for Rebecca. I want my daughter to be able to tell her daughter that Grandmother’s picture was on the last atom bomb ever to explode.

As we all know, the world didn’t heed his words, and the shadow of nuclear annihilation is now an ordinary background to our lives. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?

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Tales of the Minimalist Freighter

Wednesday, 3 March 2010 — 10:40pm | Classical, Film, Music, Science

Last month I attended a performance of Steve Reich and Beryl Korot’s “documentary digital video opera” Three Tales at the ADC Theatre, the first production in Britain since the UK premiere in 2002. I’m still not sure what to make of it.

On the surface it looks straightforward enough. The 65-minute composition for voice, acoustic instruments, and video divides neatly into three segments on subjects from the public face of twentieth-century technology—the Hindenburg disaster, the atomic bomb test in the Bikini Atoll, and the cloning of Dolly the sheep. We hear the familiar Reich technique of displacing and superimposing copies of repeated motifs slightly out of phase, which catches the ear well enough in recordings but in live performance has the air of a magic trick. As in Reich’s seminal string quartet Different Trains, many of the melodic ideas are derived from the pitches and articulation of human speech—but not, in Three Tales, the rhythms; here, the speech recordings are subtended to click into the frame of a regular pulse. The video speed, too, is synchronized to musical time and not “mimetic” time or real-time, if you get my meaning.

We see some captivating archival images in the first two movements, chiefly the ones that draw attention to the logistics of large-scale technology, like the construction of the Hindenburg (set to variations on the Nibelung motif from Wagner’s Ring) or the dislocation of indigenous people and livestock in preparation for the Bikini tests (with thunderous sforzandi from Genesis to spice things up). What I can’t quite fit into the picture is the Dolly movement, a contrapuntal collage of video interviews with prominent scientists like Richard Dawkins, Marvin Minsky, and Rodney Brooks. Korot tells us the work, as it was conceived, is more accurately called “Two Tales and a Talk”. Here’s how Reich described it:

Each of the three acts not only looks and sounds like it’s historical period, each is formally organized quite differently to comment on that period. [...] [Dolly] is non-stop with certain kinds of material recurring in no clearly discernible pattern. Musically one might say Dolly was a kind of free rondo. The forms of each act reflect the historical period they describe.

But what does the piece say about technology? It sets up a debate instead of taking a firm position, adopting the ambivalence that is often so necessary for art to say anything at all. Commentators have remarked on the obvious irony of critiquing technology in a technologically enabled medium, but I think it would be facile to stop there: as in most of his earlier works, Reich’s crucial gesture is to forsake electronic synthesizers and recreate the effects of audio manipulation in acoustic human performance. It is an incursion of man on the domain of machine, not the other way round.

Yet the Dolly movement remains an uneasy fit. Consider a crude reading of the work:

  1. Hindenburg—Look at the majestic way people talked about big science! That didn’t turn out very well.
  2. Bikini—Look at the majestic way people talked about big science! That didn’t turn out very well.
  3. Dolly—Look at the majestic way people talked about big science! I wonder if it will turn out well?

I believe what we have here is a case of arson, murder, and jaywalking. Dolly now feels like a quaint late-nineties relic as revolutionary as Deep Blue—that is to say, not at all, in the grand scheme of humanity’s future. Cloning isn’t dragging us to the Singularity anytime soon, and conjuring images of Ray Kurzweil musing about robots replacing us all is a bit of a logical stretch.

Perhaps, as someone too irreligious to get his pants in a twist about the classic Promethean fears of man indulging in acts of creation proper to God, the message of Three Tales is lost on me. Or maybe the point is that the message is lost on everyone else.

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