Animated enthusiasm

This evening I went to see Ben Katchor’s The SlugBearers of Kayrol Island or The Friends of Dr. Rushower, a theatre piece in which live actors are completely integrated with animation projected onto huge movable flat panels that constitute the walls of the stage.


I’ve seen things before that try to do things like that, but what struck me about this production is that finally somebody got it right. From the opening image, in which the audience sees a huge hand drawn animation of a telephone, and then notices a real-life telephone. As the actress playing a main character walks onto the stage to pick up the real phone, we see a cartoon hand reach for the animated phone.

And suddenly, in one moment, we realize that the animated phone is actually about the young woman’s state of mind, her sense of anticipation at the mystery and possibility of a fateful phone call from a stranger.

In that one simple gesture at the start of the play, it is established to the audience that the animated walls will be showing a kind of internal reflection of the thoughts of the characters, and always in a subtle and somewhat indirect way.

This approach leads to a kind of new medium, where live action is subliminally underscored and commented upon by animation. There are similarities to the work that Bob Sabiston did for the Richard Linklater film Waking Life, but with some crucial differences.

One of those crucial differences is that this is a live performance. There is always the possiblity of some level of improvisation, of the unexpected performative moment, and so we get the best of both worlds – the abstraction and compression of animation, together with the immediacy and excitement of live acting.

Seeing things like this makes me very happy.

Reflecting on a clever idea

The other day I went with a friend to see a movie in a fairly large movie theatre. Just as my friend and I were getting up to leave we happened to see, mounted high up on the back wall, just below the projection booth, a big bright display that was streaming text messages in red LED lights. And all the text was backwards, reversed left to right. We could make out a message that was saying something like “Thank you for using the reflection message system” (I can’t remember the exact words).

After about ten seconds I suddenly realized what I was looking at, and why it was there, and that I was seeing something incredibly clever. I asked my friend if she could figure out what it was for. To my surprise she could not, so I told her. Shortly after that I met up with some other friends – really smart friends – and told them what we had seen, and asked them if they could figure out why it was there. And they couldn’t either.

So today I posed the same question to an entire room full of really smart computer science graduate students. To my amazement not one of them could figure out the purpose of the thing I was describing, no matter how long I gave them to work it out.

So I guess I must have been in some sort of unusual space in my head, that I was able to realize right away what I was seeing in that movie theatre. Or, far more likely, I just got lucky.

Can you figure it out?

Remembrance of things past

I spent today with my parents, and my father gave me a bound copy of his recently completed memoirs, which for the last few years our family has been happily watching him write, and sometimes pitching in to help him copy-edit. Dad spent a good chunk of his boyhood on the upstate New York farm of his Russian Jewish immigrant grandparents, and these memoirs form a kind of a window into that exotic time and place.


Rural New York back then was very different from the big city; many aspects of life that we associate with the 19th century were still firmly in place well into the mid-20th, and in his boyhood my father experienced much of that now lost world first-hand. You can read the finished work for yourself on-line. It’s called A Shtetl in America, and I think it’s a great read.

Here is just one excerpt – one of the stories his grandfather had told him from a time even before Dad was born. A lot of the stories are very serious, but somehow I like this one because, well, it isn’t:

My grandfather told me an interesting story about his neighbors Sam and Julia. Julia was an extrovert who loved to go to town and speak with the women there at a time before they owned a car. One day Sam and Julia had gone to town together. He wanted to go home in their horse and buggy, and she wanted to continue talking with a woman friend of hers. Finally Sam threatened that if she didn’t stop within five minutes, he would take his pants off right in the middle of town. She ignored him and continued to talk. At the end of five minutes he stood up in the buggy, unbuttoned his pants right there in the middle of town, and let his pants down. Everybody stopped to look and saw that when he pulled his pants down, he was wearing another pair of pants underneath.

By the way, in the picture – in case you were wondering – Dad’s the handsome young fellow on the left.

Three funerals and a wedding

Three days in a row now I have gone with a different friend to see something that turns out to have a dark and despairing view of individual fates and the relationships between people. On Thursday it was Pinter’s The Homecoming, last night was No Country for Old Men, and then this afternoon was a European puppet show Fabrik about a nice Jewish guy who ends up exterminated by the Nazis. At least the puppet show had singing and dancing.

So this evening I cleanse my palette. I am off now to see Definitely, Maybe, because sometimes you just have to get off your cultural high horse and take in a good romantic comedy.

Know what I mean?

The Heleniad – epilogue

There's a room in my soul where the old shattered dreams
Lie in pieces all over the floor
Where the stillness of time shades the windows, it seems
And a demon stands guard at the door

But sometimes a memory lights in my mind
And it shines in the soft attic air
And a strange kind of music plays sweetly and kind
That I let myself hear, if I dare

This flower of the mountain, this girl Andalusion,
This force I could not understand
Yes your touch Miss Helenius was, in conclusion
The caress of a Theremin hand

But like delicate fragrance of madeleines dipped
Into lime-flowers long gone away
Your succulent kiss so deliciously sipped
Beguiles me even today


Of course you can say it backwards… oh never mind.

This morning I became curious to discover the ancient roots of Valentine’s Day. A Google search led to the following historical precedent (it’s on the internet, so we know it has to be true):

In ancient Rome, February 15 was Lupercalia, the festival of Lupercus (or Faunus), the god of fertility. As part of the purification ritual, the priests of Lupercus would sacrifice goats and a dog to the god, and after drinking wine, they would run through the streets of Rome striking anyone they met with pieces of the goat skin. Young women would come forth voluntarily for the occasion, believing that being touched by the goat skin would render them fertile.

Not at all pleasant for the goats and dogs, but so much more interesting than sending a Hallmark Card.

Speaking of V.D., an intriguing question came up in a conversation with a friend today. Suppose you are unattached on Valentine’s Day, and so you are planning to pamper yourself, to treat yourself to a film. One film only, old or new. Which film would you pick? I had asserted in my conversation with my friend that it probably wouldn’t be The Pawnbroker, but that doesn’t really narrow things down very much.

My cup of tea

And once I had recognized
the taste of the crumb of madeleine
soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers
which my aunt used to give me
(although I did not yet know and must long postpone
the discovery of why this memory made me so happy)
immediately the old grey house
upon the street, where her room was,
rose up like the scenery of a theatre
to attach itself to the little pavilion,
opening on to the garden,
which had been built out behind it for my parents
(the isolated panel which until that moment
had been all that I could see);
and with the house the town,
from morning to night and in all weathers,
the Square where I was sent before luncheon,
the streets along which I used to run errands,
the country roads we took when it was fine.
And just as the Japanese amuse themselves
by filling a porcelain bowl with water
and steeping in it little crumbs of paper
which until then are without character or form,
the moment they become wet,
stretch themselves and bend,
take on colour and distinctive shape,
become flowers or houses or people,
permanent and recognisable,
so in that moment all the flowers in our garden
and in M. Swann's park,
and the water-lilies on the Vivonne
and the good folk of the village
and their little dwellings
and the parish church
and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings,
taking their proper shapes and growing solid,
sprang into being,
town and gardens alike,
from my cup of tea.

– Marcel Proust (translated by C. K. Scott-Moncrieff)

Concernant le Heleniad

Well, now that Sally has run my work through an automatic translator, I suppose I must provide an proper translation, if only to defend the honor of my muse. But if you want to get the poetry of this, you’ll need to go back to my entry of February 8 and read the original in French.

"I shall speak in French
It is the language of truth
To say to you what I know"
Thus the demon said

"It is the time for you to hear
It is the moment for you to understand
Your dreams which I wish to take"
Then the demon laughed

The girl was pensive
"Seventeen years" she repeated
"That is many years
And life is brief"

The boy said "My love
I speak to you from my heart
You know that I adore you
Has it all been a dream?"

In a day a life can change
All is rearranged
A dream is disturbed
And love is dissolved

The night was somber
The world was in shadow
What is in a number?
Sadly, perhaps everything.

Just around the corner

When I was really little there was a book for kids that I loved called Just around the corner. The basic idea was simple. On every page they would say something like “just around the corner you might spy….” and then when you turned the page, they would describe some wonderful impossible thing, like “a man so tall his head was in the sky”. Does anybody else remember this book?

I think that this concept has stayed with me throughout the years, this idea that the thing you haven’t seen yet, the event that might happen tomorrow, is still completely full of possibility. The phone rings and you pick it up, and suddenly you are off on an adventure. Or you go to a party and you meet somebody, and meeting that person changes your life.

It seems to me that this is as good a philosophy as any when dealing with the immense uncertainty of the future. I was having dinner recently with my European friend Carine who is visiting New York. And the reason she is visiting New York is that last month she got hit by a bus. Literally. Hit by a bus. And miraculously, she survived, with just a few bruises.

Before that she had been explaining to her friends who were converging to New York for a mutual friend’s birthday celebration from places like Montreal, Dallas and Morocco that she couldn’t possibly take time off from work and drop everything to join in the fun. But after she was hit by the bus – and lived – she realized that life is only as full of possibility as what you are willing to let in. And so she took a week off from work and came to New York.

So I guess that’s my point. Absolutely any exciting thing can be just around the corner. But somehow this wisdom, which little kids understand completely, gets lost on us as we grow up. And then we forget that in order to see what’s around the corner we actually need to turn the corner and look. But we don’t, and so we miss all the cool stuff.

Unless of course we get lucky and get hit by a bus.