Archive for May, 2008

Mixed media

Wednesday, May 21st, 2008

Today I saw Iron Man and then, right after that, Death Note. The former is a big-budget Hollywood film made from a superhero comic book. This is so common these days as to be a cliche – Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Iron Man. The list goes on and on. I’m half expecting to see a Hollywood superhero film about Renderman. Oh wait, that’s The Incredibles. OK, never mind.

Yes, Iron Man was very well done and even well acted (any film with Robert Downey Jr. and Jeff Bridges in lead roles is going to be well acted). But it followed certain extremely exacting rules for such films that limited its appeal. Foremost among these rules is that it must be thuddingly obvious to the audience who the bad guy is, long before anybody in the movie does.

In fact, there is a clause in the director’s contract that states that after the bad guy has shown up on screen, if even one second of film passes through the projector before the entire audience has figured out both who he is and the nature of his fiendish plan, then the film’s producers are entitled to take the director out back and shoot him dead with a single bullet to the head. In Hollywood this is called a “mercy killing”. Fortunately, no director of such a film has ever been so brave or foolhardy as to try to respect the audience’s intelligence, so the situation has never come up.

There is a quality about well made comics, a kind of delightful fragmentation of time that is rarely captured on the big screen – mainly involving the implicit storytelling that goes on between the panels, which both Will Eiisner and Scott McCloud have both discussed quite wonderfully. This is not at all the same as montage in filmmaking, because in a comic book (or graphic novel if you want your work to be reviewed in The New York Times) the reader sees multiple panels simultaneously, and so different kinds of rhythm and resonance are possible.

There is another medium that is just beginning to loom in cultural importance – the medium of computer games. In spite of its mostly impressive computer graphic effects, Iron Man has absolutely nothing to do with computer games. The movie tells the audience to sit back and relax, while the by-the-numbers plot goes through its thudding paces – occasionally pausing just long enough to smash the audience upon the head with a massive sledge hammer labeled “This is what is going to happen next.”

In contrast, the second film I saw today, although adopted from a series of comic books (Japanese Manga actually), is very much a child of the age of computer games. The source comic books – the Death Note series is wildly popular in Japan – are structured like an ongoing computer game. Ostensibly it is a supernatural thriller about a young man who kills people under the influence of an otherworldly demon, but its formal structure is something else entirely.

As the film begins, a series of rules is laid out, and then some characters proceed to test those rules, pushing the rules to their limit, while other characters try to work out the rules and respond strategically. The screenplay invites the audience in on this game, and gives it plenty of opporunities to try to figure out what’s going on, who is bluffing whom, and what might be coming next. Like a good game, the rules are clear, the challenges progress in difficulty, and the audience is drawn into an entire way of thinking and problem solving.

The thing that struck me is how Death Note trusts its audience, and never plays down to them. The mostly teenage audience members around me were completely into this; it was obvious they were all having a great time. Perhaps we are seing something new: nonlinear interactive media starting to change the nature of storytelling.

Figure and ground

Tuesday, May 20th, 2008

I was fascinated to see, in Bern’s long and very philosophical comment about Eros, that every example she gave framed life connections between people against the background of death. From Harold and Maude to Portrait of Jennie, and of course our dear wonderful Randy Pausch in real life, every example she gave (and they were very good examples!) suggested that the ways we become emotionally connected to each other, and create meaning in each other’s lives, is intimately tied up with the knowledge that death is waiting somewhere nearby.

I completely agree. I used to ask myself what kinds of creatures we humans would be, were we able to live forever. Eventually I realized that the question is practically meaningless, in the sense that any such creatures, even should they exist, would not be recognizably human. As much as we generally hate death, are horrified by it, and the way it takes away those we love the most (and eventually takes us as well), we actually define our lives by death’s shadow.

We constantly make use of this shadow, in a million little ways. The stages of our lives, from childhood to adolescence to the successive stages of adulthood, have very little meaning as steady states of being – they are literally defined by their flow from one to the other. Childhood discoveries, getting your first grown-up tooth, discovering what it feels like to fall in love, going to college and finding out what you are really good at, seeking out a life partner – just about anything you can think of in your life that has any emotional power or resonance – is defined by change and by our intuitive understanding of the impermanence of all experience.

In a sense, life is a fractal: This moment in time only has meaning by virtue of being nestled in a particular minute of an hour within a day, and so on, out to the month, year and lifetime. If a minute were taken “out of time”, it would become unmoored from that nested set of chinese boxes that individuals and cultures build from the raw material of time’s arrow.

Don’t get me wrong. I hate the fact that I’m going to die one day. But I am also acutely aware that this very brain with which I am thinking such thoughts would contain no system of values that I could recognize, would not be able to discern any light or meaningful joy, without that shadow behind it, framing and defining the edges of that joy.

For without that shadow to frame the light, how would we ever be able to understand just how precious, how infinitely precious, are the moments we have with those that we love?


Monday, May 19th, 2008

Today Ted Selker called me unexpectedly. He had been on his way to give the keynote speech at a conference in Barcelona but the security people at the airport wouldn’t let him leave the U.S. because his passport had been through the laundry one too many times. Apparently a ratty passport is now considered a threat to our freedoms and to our American way of life.

So I’m putting him up for the night tonight. We had great pasta at one of those amazing little hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurants that only New Yorkers know about, and then we spent hours happily talking about crazy computer interfaces.

Ted is the guy who is the most responsible for that little red pointer device on IBM computer keyboards (I’m using one right now – it’s what I used to draw that eye picture back in February).

Ted is one of those crazy inventors with all sorts of equipment and half finished devices in his basement shop, like the inventor Dick Van Dyke played in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I understand that people like this used to be everywhere back in the 1800’s. I We need more people like him in the world now. Not only do people like Ted make the world a better place with their innovations, but they make for really, really good dinner conversation!

I also think we need more inventors in the popular culture as role models for kids to emulate. We had MacGyver from 1985 until 1992, but that was a while ago. Who else has there been? Somebody help me out here…


Sunday, May 18th, 2008

Coincidentally, my friend Cynthia invited me today to see the Scorsese concert film Shine a Light. I say coincidentally because only yesterday I spoke of Placido Domingo – a man aged 67 in a performance that essentially conveys a romantic vision of a god. And only three days ago I talked about friendships between people of different ages, which prompted (to my great surprise) many comments touching on May/December sexual relationships – which I had not been thinking about.

Troy’s comments in particular seemed to wrestle with that question from both directions. On the one hand Harold and Maude is an ideal of the much older woman (played by Ruth Gordon) using a sexual connection to lead the young man (played by Bud Cort) away from his obsession with death. On the other hand, Troy also pointed out those unsettling relationships in which a man of seventy and a much younger woman have what appears (at least from the outside) to be a purely transactional relationship: He gives her luxury and she gives him the illusion of continuing life and vitality.

I say that this is all coincidental because Shine a Light takes a particular premise of The First Emperor much further. In Tan Dun’s opera we believe Placido Domingo’s Emperor to be a compelling and vital figure, but essentially a father figure – not a lover. That awesome voice is used to illuminate the soul of an attractive man, but decidedly an older man, concerned mainly with consolidating his legacy and power.

But in Shine a Light we are shown a different god. Where Placido Domingo was Zeus, Mick Jagger is Eros, god of love, lust and sexual potency. As Jagger is approaching 65, almost contemporary with Domingo, his figure of Eros becomes more interesting. When he was a beautiful young man in his twenties, it was an obvious choice. Everything about him exuded young sexual potency – from the come-hither eyes to the almost obscenely full lips, he was the ultimate sexualized boy-man, Peter Pan on testosterone, inviting young women out to play:

But now of course he looks completely different. His face is proudly craggy, an old man’s face. If anything he looks even more aged than his years. But the body is still that of a slender teenage boy, the eyes still flash with sexual mischief, and the energy is infinite. Cynthia and I compared notes after the film, and we realized that we had both been thinking the same thing: That when he was on stage singing and dancing, he was incredibly beautiful.

It’s not how he looks, it’s how he moves, the spirit that inhabits his body while he is up thre on the stage, as though one is seeing a Faun, a creature of pure pleasure and sexual delight. The concert was filmed at the Beacon Theatre in New York, and the filmmakers made sure that the front row of standing and swaying fans consisted mainly of beautiful young women, who all looked to be about eighteen.

I was particularly intrigued by the power dynamic between Jagger and these young women. He barely notices them – he is, after all, Eros and Dionysus all rolled into one, and they are mere mortals – whereas they can’t take their eyes off him. They seem completely mesmerized. When he sings Some Girls they are all transported. I know this is all conjecture, but at this point in the concert I got the sense that these fans were thinking: “This, right here and now, is what I wish sex with my boy friend was like.”

One concluseion to reach is that “age” is a red herring in trying to get a handle on human relationships – it is used as a signifier to stand in for other things, and the fit is not very good. The real tension – as I obliquely alluded to in a post several weeks ago – is between Eros and Thanatos. These represent, as Freud described it, the struggle within every individual between the will to life and the will to death – the constant battle between the joy of being and the pull toward annihilation.

Troy’s two examples: Ruth Gordon’s Maude and the old man “buying” the young wife, are actually on opposite ends of this scale. Maude is the Eros that rescues Harold from Thanatos. Her own real battles with death, including her obliquely referenced time in a WWII Concentration Camp, have pushed her to develop skills for embracing life, to the point where she is a healer – eventually this eighty year old woman takes the teenage boy to bed, and the film makes it clear that her influence has saved him from a life of morbid denial of joy.

In contrast, the archetypical image of the old man “buying” the young woman as a wife or companion is quite the opposite. In terms of life (as opposed to mere material wealth, which does not confer life) such a man is Thanatos – taking, not giving. He is in fact a vampire of Eros, drawing on his young wife’s vitality, since he has none of his own.

Jagger is very much in the former camp. Like all humans who become figures of Eros, he is erotically self-sufficient. He does not need the Other to provide his sexual empowerment and fulfilment – he embodies fulfillment. I think that the peculiar and enduring power of the holy trinity of American pop idols – Elvis, Marilyn and James Dean – is precisely that they are all erotically self-sufficient. People are drawn to the illusion of infinite Eros that they represent.

This image is precisely what Jagger is creating onstage, and the young women in the audience know this. I don’t think it is relevant whether any of those fans would actually sleep with him (they might or might not – I wouldn’t know), because that is not the transaction going on here. What they are drawing from him is the power of the fantasy that he creates of infinite sexual enjoyment. Because he gives, rather than takes, they see him as Eros, not Thanatos, even though he looks old enough to be their grandfather.

I think it is important, when we look at the dynamic between people, to account for factors on the Eros/Thanatos dialectic that transcend such relatively shallow categories as age, ethnicity or gender. For example, Oona O’Neil fell madly in love with Charlie Chaplin (they remained happily married for thirty four years) even though he was thirty nine years older than she was, and I strongly suspect she saw him as a figure of Eros. The bottom line is that we are drawn to those from whom we draw life.

Oona and Charlie Chaplin

We cannot change when we were born, or where we come from, or many other things about ourselves. But we can – any of us – choose to emulate Maude, to find ways of embracing Eros rather than Thanatos, and to continue at any age to reach out toward life with joy and a sense of fun. Sounds like a plan to me.

First Emperor

Saturday, May 17th, 2008

Today my friend Peggy invited me to the Metropolitan Opera to see Tan Dun’s The First Emperor, with Placido Domingo in the lead. An opera at the Met is always an overwhelming experience, a heady mix of pleasures: A non-stop ride of pure sensuality that you feel down in your gut, conveyed through technique so controlled and precise it makes your head spin.

In some ways it’s almost the opposite of the Broadway Theatre. On Broadway they work hard to create the illusion that we’re all just folks, that maybe you could go out for a beer with that person up there on stage if you happened to meet them on the right day. On Broadway people applaud when the star first comes on stage, no matter what the play or the role, just as they’d applaud a celebrity walking onto the stage of The Tonight Show.

An Emperor learns the great price of power

At the opera, nobody applauded the star’s entrance. I mean, what kind of idiot would start clapping while Placido Domingo is singing? You really don’t want to be making any sounds when he is singing. You just want to be there while it lasts, in a state of quiet ecstasy. When we hear him sing the role of Qin Shi Huangdi, China’s first emperor (he of the Great Wall and the Terra Cotta army), we know we are not in the presence of a fellow mortal – we are in the presence of a god. The wonderful illusion of grand opera is that these beings we witness upon the stage are creatures of mythological proportion, visions from our deepest dreams made flesh.

The Terra Cotta army

The First Emperor is unusual in that Tan Dun attempts to combine two great traditions that have virtually nothing in common – the traditional Peking Opera and our own Western opera. Hs solution is to not so much combine them as to let them live side by side – characters singing in the Eastern tradition are not so much part of the action as they are a greek chorus that introduces it, pulling us back to a time more than 2200 years ago.

I found myself wondering whether Domingo could have sung in the Eastern mode, but he was never asked to. And that was clearly the right decision – his skill is a culmination of decades of training in a very specific discipline, and that skill would not have transferred over to a completely different discipline. One might as well expect Michael Jordan to play baseball!

Placido Domingo filling the opera house with glorious sound

Tan Dun does indeed combine the two musical traditions where it can be made to work – in the instrumental parts. He incorporates such exotic elements as Chinese singing drums into the orchestra, to great effect. In one lovely moment, while the musician Qi Yao, sitting onstage, plays the traditional zheng (a large traditional zither-like instrument), she is accompanied by the two harpists in the orchestra pit. Suddenly we notice the similarities between them – two very disparate musical traditions coinciding and merging into one. I also liked the way the members of the orchestra were called upon to chant and rhythmically shout. From where I sat looking down at them in a box seat, I could tell they were enjoying themselves immensely. That kind of thing doesn’t happen very often at the Met.

With all that, it was in essence like all grand opera – a tale of blood and revenge, great hatred and even greater love, and the workings of fate in all of its magnificent cruelty. And everything portrayed with opulant visuals slendidly realized and sweeping music beautifully sung. Yet it all came down to those voices, giving us a glimpse into the passions of gods. I ended up thinking about something a music critic once said: The two most essential elements of grand opera are sex and the dominant seventh chord.

Homo hubris

Friday, May 16th, 2008

He’s a very modern thinker with a very modern mind
And overall exemplary of much of humankind

In ordinary circumstance cantankerous of mood
Disinclined to listen, and quite inclined to brood

Self-appointed arbiter of all things a la mode
Intent on self-expression in adornment and abode

His lofty thoughts ascending into gossamer hot air
Believing that he radiates a certain savoir faire

He’s supremely overbearing, sublimely misdirected
Secure within his mind that he’s a leader (unelected)

“I assume you’ve read that article? I really liked the quote.
I hope you’ll understand the implications for the vote.

“They really should have listened when I said as much last year.
Oh you never heard me say that? Perhaps you weren’t here.”

There is no use even arguing, you might as well agree
He is one of nature’s creatures and it’s best to let him be

For there’s nothing to be done, there is nothing one can say
The species homo hubris, I’m afraid, is here to stay

A question for the ages

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

Is it possible for two people to be connected across the gulf of differing times of life? I have friends who are at various stages in their lives, different from my own. Some are younger, others older. Let us acknowledge right up front that people are concerned with different things at different stages of their lives. Yes, there is enormous individual variation, but a life has an arc, and in the various stages of life, from birth to coming of age to mating to death, we don’t generally have the life arc of Martians – any more than we have three eyes in our head – we have the life arc of humans.

Of course we can connect with someone whose age differs greatly from our own, up to a point. if the older person channels that part of their being that still remembers their younger self. But can we get beyond such trickery? Can there be a true meeting of souls that defies the conventions of age and chronological caste?

I would love to know other peoples’ opinions on this.

Scenes from the novel XI

Wednesday, May 14th, 2008

Clarissa enjoyed her walks. She considered herself to be a sociable creature, yet she was acutely aware that this amiable quality was, paradoxically, wholy contingent upon frequent access to opportunities to be unsociable. As she walked along, feeling the gentle breeze from the river upon her parasol, she mused to herself how delicate is the quality of tolerance amongst one’s fellows. There were many who regularly sought out her company, in fact craved it. Yet she was quite certain that, without her long walks, and the opportunities they afforded for quiet thoughts and inward reflection, she would quickly cease to project that pleasant persona which was assumed by those of her general acquaintance to accurately mirror her inner nature.

Clarissa was acutely aware that her “inner nature” was far more turbulent and dark than was generally suspected. She smiled ruefully to contemplate what might transpire were some unfortunate soul, seeking the uninterrupted pleasure of her company, to be granted his wish. That inner fire within her bosom which others could but dimly perceive, which in fact unfailingly drew the attention of ordinary mortals as the flame draws the moth, and the true nature of which she rather artfully deflected from the eyes of man, nonetheless burned with a heat that was perhaps not best suited for providing warmth and comfort to others.

The calm of the river, the coolness of the midafternoon breeze, the soft firmness of the earthen ground beneath her feet, these were her balms, the silken threads from which she would oft return to refashion her disguise. Three elements of nature, the power of air, earth and water taken together, could conquer the fourth – for a time.

Of all the mortals she had known, it was a continual source of surprise and delight to Clarissa that there was one whose company she did not feel any need to ration. For it happens that from time to time fire will find itself in the company of steel. Upon those happy occasions the former will serve, not to destroy, but merely to temper and to strengthen the latter. For the flame, weary of the danger that it might immolate all in its path, these are happy occasions indeed. To dance and burn brightly, to be a thing of beauty rather than of pain and despair, what spirit would not be heartened by such moments?

She was lost in these thoughts, her eyes cast downward toward the earthen path before her, when she saw a second shadow upon the ground, joining that of her parasol. Somewhat startled, she looked up, and found herself staring into a familiar pair of steel gray eyes. At the sight of those eyes Clarissa broke into a broad grin. For the first time in days she felt a truly untroubled gladness.

“Howdy ma’am, sorry if I startled you,” he said, tipping his wide brimmed hat. “There’s a little matter that I’ve been meanin’ to talk over.” He gazed down for a long moment, as if searching for his thoughts within the shadows on the dappled path. Then he squared his shoulders, and looked back toward Clarissa with a shy smile. “Guess I just been tryin’ to work up the courage.”

My puppet friends

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

Today I got together with a group of people and we made puppets. People generally brought materials they had around the house. I happened to have a big bag of wiggly eyes that I had bought years ago, mostly because I had been hoping that one day somebody would ask me to help make puppets (really). I also brought various pieces of felt and assorted unmatched socks, which was no problem, because my socks are all cannibals (once they are in my dresser drawer it is clear that they eat only their own kind) so I have lots of unmatched one-offs. And I even brought a glue stick, a portable sewing kit, and a little package of Krazy glue.

Somebody else brought pipe cleaners, and yet another person brought Elmer’s glue, and so forth. Between us we were very well equipped.

Cleverly I had worn a sweatshirt today with a big pocket in the front, so I could stuff everything into that as I rode the subway to the event with dozens of craft items stuffed in my pocket pouch, feeling quite the marsupial.

I was also feeling very generous, handing out extra socks to other puppet-making friends in need. There is something wonderful about knowing that somebody will be bringing to life something that you used to wear on your feet. Well, maybe you had to be there.

Actually one woman there was afraid of socks – some kind of phobia, she explained – so she turned down my gracious offer for a sock upon which to build a puppet. Neither she nor we knew what to call this syndrome. We realized that there may not be an Ancient Greek word for “sock”, as the odds are quite strong that socks were not worn with togas (somebody please correct me if I’m wrong on this score).

Once we were all settled in, we proceeded to build, chatting away and generally having a marvelous time. The next time we get together we will be creating a film starring the puppets. We have not yet worked out the details of the script, but we already agree that a Creation Myth for our group is called for: The heartfelt saga of how a group of people got together to do things like make puppets that can star in movies about how a group of people got together to do things like make puppets…

So now we have all our lovely sock puppets all assembled (as well as one paper plate puppet, from the woman who suffers from sockaphobia). I am feeling quite pleased about the whole thing. I think I’ll go Krazy glue some wiggly eyes onto something.

Is it you or me?

Monday, May 12th, 2008

If I miss you, is that “you” you?
If you miss me, is that me too?
Who am I to you today,
And how is that me anyway?
If I were someone else instead
Would he be me inside your head?
I guess then he would be your me
This other person that I’d be.
And what if you were she, not you!
Is it to her I would be true?
    Well then, perhaps they would be we
    And we could just be you and me.