From the archives: Film

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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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Suggested reading, sophomoric edition

Monday, 25 January 2010 — 4:30pm | Animation, Assorted links, Computing, Film, Literature, Science

Here’s your grab bag for the week:

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Cognizing the film about film

Friday, 15 January 2010 — 10:35am | Film, Literary theory, Literature, Science

There is a lot of rubbish being written about Avatar, and I freely admit to letting my own contribution stew in my draft box while I correct its pungent odour with the appropriate spice. But for the time being, I want to draw attention to one particular response to the film. Jonah Lehrer writes about the neuroscientific basis for cinematic immersion, and concludes:

What these experiments reveal is the essential mental process of movie-watching. (Other research has also emphasized the ability of stories to blur the difference between fiction and reality.) This doesn’t mean that every movie needs to be an action packed spectacle, just as Greenberg was wrong to suggest that every painting should imitate Pollock. But I think it helps reveal why Avatar is such a success. At its core, movies are about dissolution: we forget about ourselves and become one with the giant projected characters on the screen. In other words, they become our temporary avatars, so that we’re inseparable from their story. (This is one of the reasons why the Avatar plot is so effective: it’s really a metaphor for the act of movie-watching.)

When I think of films that act as “a metaphor for the act of movie-watching”, the director that instantly comes to mind is Alfred Hitchcock. And it so happens that the Hitchcock film most commonly read in this way also has a protagonist laid up in a wheelchair.

Psychoanalytic criticism has long thrived as a route into Hitchcock’s oeuvre, not least because he was familiar with psychoanalysis and popularized it in his 1945 film Spellbound, but also because his characters were marked with disorders, obsessions, and pathological instabilities of personal identity. You can see it in his choice of literary adaptations, chiefly Rebecca, where the second Mrs de Winter (Joan Fontaine) is consumed by the lingering household presence of the first; and in later films like Vertigo, where Madeleine (Kim Novak) “becomes” her suicidal great-grandmother through gazing at a painting in the museum (or so it would seem). It is Rear Window, however, that openly sets up its hero, L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) as a passive voyeur behind a fourth wall that encloses an exterior apartment complex, where he sees fragments of his own life and relationship reflected back at him.

None of these interpretations are terribly hard to arrive at by yourself, but if you really want to get fancy, step back one level further and look for films where people watch Hitchcock. (We’re all familiar with the typical shot of a character sitting in a cinema, backlit by the beams of the projector, but pay attention to their faces and how they react to the film embedded en abyme.) The most recent example off the top of my head is Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, where Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) gazes at Joan Fontaine in Suspicion as if looking into a mirror.

Of more interest from a sci-fi perspective—which will hopefully lead us back to Avatar—is how Terry Gilliam cues the final act of Twelve Monkeys with a scene from Vertigo, right when Madeleine Stowe takes after Kim Novak in turning her character blonde. A decade and a half after its release, Twelve Monkeys holds up today as one of the finest original pieces of sci-fi cinema (with all respect to its inspiration, La jetée), and it seems oddly prescient today in the face of James Cameron’s more conventional showpiece about a guy dumped into a tank to infiltrate and warn a society in which he is ultimately subsumed.

How, then, does Avatar differ from all these films? If the dissolution of identity is so key to its appeal, as Lehrer suggests, then why is it such an anomalous mainstream success?

The easy answer is that the kind of cortical stimulation Lehrer talks about comes equally from the overwhelming visuals of Cameron’s film, especially if you experience it in 3D. But that dodges the very questions of story and theme that Lehrer wants to raise. The thematic answer, as I see it, is that Avatar plays it safe: completely unlike the films of Hitchcock, Lee, and Gilliam, it never dares to convey the madness of a dissolved identity or bother its audience to consider the schizophrenia of immersing itself in film. On Pandora, a world where USB ponytails plug into any living thing, bodily escape is free of risk. The film doesn’t spit us out and force us to look at ourselves; it does the opposite instead, encouraging us to enjoy what Lehrer calls “a pretty nice cognitive vacation.”

Continued »

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