Tall tales

This evening I was having dinner with my friend Sabrina, and she told me of the time some years ago when I was out of town and she stayed in my apartment, where she found and read my paperback copy of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. She said that the next day she happened to see some cute little figurines of giraffes in the window of a Greenwich Village shop, after which she had nightmares in which killer giraffes were terrorizing the city, devouring everyone in sight.

Which of course led me to thinking about the obvious title: Giraffic Park! The idea alone is enough to send chills down your spine, isn’t it? A remote island resort where cute critters have been genetically engineered to provide the ultimate in adorable entertainment: miniature giraffes, candy striped panda bears, singing koalas!

Until something goes horribly wrong…

I can already see Mr. Spielberg optioning the rights, if only for the pivotal scene of Tom Cruise being devoured by a menacing hoard of two foot tall mini-giraffes. I don’t know about you, but I would pay to see that.

I mean really, it’s wonderful how you can breathe new life in old ideas with only the smallest of changes. For example, I’ve long thought that the movie version of The Crow missed a great opportunity – they should have lost the letter “r” in the title. Imagine the cinematic possibilities: Our hero, who has come back from the dead to wreak vengeance on bad guys everywhere, is played by a really buff young dude wearing a skin-tight cow-pattern outfit. His mysterious yet dappled appearance strikes fear into the hearts of baddies everywhere.

And, of course, every time he is about to make his entrance a lone bovine materializes on a nearby rooftop, mysteriously outlined against the moonlit sky. The silence is broken by the sound of a single solitary moo, echoing through the dark city streets, a portent of swift and certain justice.

My idea is much better than the original, don’t you think? I mean, everybody expects a crow to show up on a nearby rooftop, mysteriously outlined against the moonlit sky. But a cow – now that would really be something.

You might think this is all ridiculous. But just keep in mind, my skeptical friend, that we live in a world where the United States Government issues patents for things like a Magnetic cow pattern.

So there.

TRON redux

Today at the Darklight festival in Dublin they screened TRON in its entirety, from a glorious print that came direct from the Walt Disney company. But then, later in the day, I saw another, rather different, showing of TRON.

A group of young artists here in Dublin have periodic screenings of films that have been “repurposed”. And today the repurposed film was TRON. My apologies in advance to those of you who have not seen TRON – what follows might not make much sense to you.

The basic thrust of the enterprise was to show only the part of the film that occurs when Flynn has been pulled inside the computer, and to replace the soundtrack with a live musical performance by an Irish instrumental group.

What I didn’t expect was how spectacularly successful this would be. To place this in context, when you watch TRON in its full version, you are acutely aware that you are watching a film from the early 1980’s – even if you don’t consciously register this knowledge. Myriad choices, from film stock to set design to hair style, cue you in to the era in which the film was made.

But if you focus only on the twenty odd minutes when Flynn is inside the computer, something completely different happens. The movie becomes a mystical journey, far more spiritual than the prosaically framed story of the original. Seeing the actors only in the carefully processed footage that visually matches them to the computer generated backgrounds, the subliminal effect is reminiscent of early German Expressionist films such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or F. Murnau’s Nosferatu.

Seen in this way, the mystical elements of the film – notably Flynn revealing himself to the programs as a user – become greatly heightened. And in the screening I saw, this impression was further enhanced by live musical accompaniment. The quartet of cello, bass and lead guitars and keyboard created a personal sound, with a sad Irish undercurrent of romantic fatalism. The net effect was to create an experience that had none of the high-tech gloss we associate with science fiction, but rather a kind of nostalgic reverie, as though we are seeing an old silent movie. I found the experience strangely moving.

Perhaps this is the right way to see science fiction: as a window into a time and a place long past. After all, doesn’t the very idea of perpetual progress, of a world that can be much different from our ours, create the seeds of tragedy? Like the work of Emanuel Vigeland, it reminds us that our particular time and place on this planet is transient, merely one chapter in a book that is still being written. There is a page in this book for our lives, for our moment in time. But once our page has been written, we must take our place along side previous generations, as an evocative but ever receding memory.

Crispin Glover

Yesterday in this blog I described my conversation with my new acquaintance Nathaniel about the interplay between the blueprint of a performance and the performance itself. Since then Nathaniel have discussed it more fully, and have realized that we are in complete agreement. One way to put it is that each of these two elements is essential, and that in fact they form a space of two dimensions.

You can choose to look along only one of these dimensions, and somehow fool yourself into thinking it contains all of the meaning, but in fact you’d be missing much of the richness of what you are observing – just as you would miss the richness of an intricate pattern etched on glass, were you to look at it edge-on.

For example, while the written Hamlet is a work of genius, it becomes truly transcendent only after skilled actors and directors have made their choices about pacing, blocking, speech rhythm, word emphasis, prosody and shifting mood. Shakespeare intended it to require such things, as does any great playwright.

Coincidentally I happened to attend a presentation this evening by Crispin Glover, the actor, here at the Darklight Festival in Dublin. In recent years he has been expanding out, making surreal films that he screens after giving dramatic readings of slide shows he has created by clipping disjointed excerpts and diagrams from how-to books written in 1908.

The dramatic reading struck me as being a perfect example of performance dominating blueprint. It reminded me of the play No Dice by Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper (inspired by the work of John Cage), which requires its actors to attempt to form psychologically coherent characters from dialog that is being randomly fed to them through headphones.

Similarly, Glover’s excerpted tidbits of old instruction manuals have no inherent meaning, but he reads them aloud dramatically with a tone of passionate intensity, conveying the extreme emotional engagement you might expect from a man who is, say, recounting a traumatic childhood. Glover brings an array of actorly tricks to the occasion, wringing urgency and pathos out of what is essentially a disconnected sequence of words and images.

Here then is pure process at work: The only thing illuminated, the only take-away, is Crispin Glover’s exploration of the art of acting – performance without blueprint. Ironically, copies of books made from the slide shows were available in the lobby for purchase after the show, with a book-signing by the author. But the books themselves are empty. Without the Crispin Glover’s impassioned presentation, they remain nothing but random clippings, a Dada-ist joke.

A debate in Dublin

On my first evening here in Dublin, over a pint of Guinness, I got into a very interesting debate with a man named Nathaniel. We were discussing whether you could, in a performance, always separate out and capture the part that was written, versus the part that was performed.

For example, when you go to see a performance of Hamlet, there is a part of what you are seeing that exists outside of any individual staging: The actual play that Shakespeare wrote, the folio of words on paper that you can hold in your hand. Of course the folio is not a performance, but it contains essential “code”, without which the performance would not be Hamlet.

The question was whether it was necessarily true that for all great works of performance there is a corresponding written code which can be separated out from the performance itself. Or could there, for example, be a great dance or music performance, in which all that is essential lies in the performance itself, in some irreduceable genius of that particular performer? Could this be true to the point where there would no longer even be an identifiable code – in written script or dance notation or musical notes on a page – that would capture any essential part of what you had just seen?

Of course we didn’t come up with a definitive answer to our question, but we had a great time debating the point. And that is surely a fine thing to be doing over a pint of Guinness on your first evening in Dublin.

The secret music of hands

Recently I have been studying the way people move their hands – especially when they talk, but even when they are just being idle. The way we touch things, the shapes and patterns our hands make when we are nervous or relaxed.

I started looking at hands because I am making interactive computer graphic puppets, and I want them to be able to gesture in natural and emotionally expressive ways. On a lower level it’s easy – I count 23 essential “moving parts”, if you think of your hand as a mechanical device: four each for fingers and thumb, two for wrist fwd/back and left/right, and one more for hand fold (bring heel of thumb and pinkie closer). Also, of course, all the movements your arms make to move your hands about in space.

But when you look at how we used that machine, it gets a little harder to say what is going on. People seem to make all kinds of little movements with their hands that reflect something that’s going on in their heads, but it is not clear what. Tiny fluttering motions with the fingers, grasping and ungrasping at nothing, small circles and darts through the air. And of course people are continually touching objects or parts of their own body. This kind of thing is going on all the time, as though the hand is talking to itself in a secret language.

Which may be exactly what’s going on. There is plenty of empirical evidence, studied by many scientists such as Mike Tomasello, Joanna Blake and Janette Wallis, that we humans share this tendency with other great apes, and also evidence which suggests – not only from direct observation, but also from the electrical activity in brains during talking and gesturing – that much of the human capacity for language itself evolved from structures in the brain originally utilized for gesture and manipulation of things with hands and fingers.

The more you really look at how hands move, the more you realize that their movement is quite rich and more beautiful – an entire landscape of expressiveness that parallels the one of words and faces to which we generally pay more attention.

I love that there is this entire parallel world of communication going on between people, beneath the level of our conscious awareness. Just as flickers of emotion can cross our face, unintentionally signaling to somebody else an emotion of joy or distress, so the hands are continually filling the space between us with subtle signals about what is really going on in our minds.

Just as we have these magnificently expressive faces, so we have hands, and I do believe that we get great pleasure from these hand movements, and develop emotional connections with each other through them, even though our culture (with the notable exception of deaf people and trained actors) generally pays little conscious attention to most of what is being said between wrist and fingertip.

Much of that communication seems to be to be not so much like speech as it is like music, as though each of us is continually humming a melody, a tune that plays in our heads and appears in the world as gesture. Below the level of our awareness, we are always listening to the tune each other plays, through a kind of music of hands.

Two brothers

The other day I mentioned Vigeland Park, which is filled with the magnificent sculptures of Gustav Vigeland, and is quite rightly one of the most celebrated works of public art in the world.

The park gives us back a vision of ourselves as noble, larger than life. To walk among its 212 sculptures is to see intimate details within the connections between people – the bond between father and son, husband and wife, two old friends, each moment magnified and honored, celebrating what is best in the human spirit. Not surprisingly, the park is highly visited and is hugely popular among tourists.

But there are many ways to measure the impact of a work of art. The work of Gustav Vigeland is powerful, yet it doesn’t challenge us on a deep level. On the other hand, seeing the work of Gustav’s lesser known brother Emanuel might shake you to the very core of your being.

Quite off the beaten track, outside of the center of Oslo, is a windowless building. It is open only on Sundays, and then only for a few hours. You enter this building in silence through a low doorway, and emerge into a dimly lit space. Gradually your eyes become accustomed to the dark.

You start to see that every surface of the vaulting walls and ceiling is covered by paintings of human figures. But these figures are engaged not in the friendly intimacy of conversation, but rather in all that is powerful and mythic in the human experience – birth, sex, death, all of those aspects of existence that Western religions try to euphemize and defang, here exposed and magnified in all their wildly savage glory.

On one section of wall you see women giving birth, their heads flung back in ecstacy, or holding their newborns aloft in triumph while standing on the gathered bones of previous generations long dead. From another wall emerges the naked bodies of men and women gloriously intertwined in riotous orgies of passionate sex. Further down the wall from these roiling images of life and flesh, half-hidden in the darkness, your eyes eventually find the skeletal figures of the dead, those who long ago had their moment of passion, and must now return to dust.

This work is no affirmation of the individual, but is rather a fierce primal cry of the collected human rush be be born, to procreate, to die and make way for successive waves of onrushing humanity. It is as though you have entered the fevered brain of William Blake, only it has been expanded out all around you, so that you find yourself completely enveloped.

And because this takes place in a darkened room, you do not see these visions all at once. Parts of the wild and magnificent tableau emerge piecemeal, entire sections of a vast and primal story taking shape only after you have been in the dimly lit space for a long time.

The acoustics of the room are such that you need to be absolutely quiet. Any sound, even a scrape or a cough, is magnified many times, ricocheting and reverberating around the room with deafening loudness. And so visitors walk about the space in silent wonder, casting each other looks of astonished revelation as their mind registers some new piece of the vast puzzle.

Emanuel Vigeland’s ashes lie in an urn above the entrance. His greatest work became also his mausoleum, and this is somehow fitting. He does not get many visitors – on a particularly busy day there may be eight or so people at most, wandering silently, at any one time. I was told by the friends who brought me there that at times you might find yourself completely alone in the space.

It is strange how two brothers can be so alike and yet so utterly different. The work of Gustav Vigeland is by far the more widely known – it is public to the point of being iconic. In contract, the work of Emanuel is a dark and secret masterpiece, a brazen outsider challenge to our conventional pieties, hidden away almost to the point of invisibility.

Both are unquestionably works of genius, but only one will rip at your soul, take you out of your daily existence, force you to think about difficult questions that lie beneath the surface of your life. And that is the work that will stay with you.


It is fun learning about Oslo in the company of vegans. My friends who live here are also learning at the same time; they are relatively new here in Norway, and for them this is also a time of exploration. I guess this is true of any cultural minority in a new place, be they Jews in Oahu, Muslims in Sao Paulo or Chinese in Ottawa. You gradually learn about shops and restaurants, where to find ingredients, you run into people at these places and slowly become connected to a local network of like-minded souls.

My Oslo friends generally cook at home. Earlier this week they made one of the best pizzas I have ever tasted in my life – and I say this as someone who spent quite a few years as a pizza-worshipping omnivore. But this evening, in the spirit of exploration, they followed the advice of HappyCow.net and we tried out a Lebanese restaurant they had never been to. When my friends asked the nice young waiter whether the kitchen could make something vegan, he said that it was not a problem at all, and that he would come back and show us what they had.

After a while we started to notice that he hadn’t brought any menus, and we thought our waiter had forgotten about us. But we realized that he had meant what he had said quite literally – when the dishes started coming out: Dozens of small bowls, each with something different – breaded olives and vegetables and potatoes and varieties of beans and delicate little fried felafel cakes, an enormous variety of tasty treats arrayed across our table. The sheer variation in tastes and aromas and textures was a complete delight. It took us a while, but we quite happily ate it all.

That was when, in a moment of inspiration, I referred to my friends as “Norvegans”. They seemed quite pleased with the word – or they may just share my taste in bad puns. The evening was a success all around: My friends in Oslo now have a new restaurant to frequent, I have a memory of a great meal, and this blog post gets to have a really, really cool title.

The house down the block

I live down the block from the King. Quite literally. If I walk out of my hotel, turn right, and walk a little more than one block, I arrive at the elegant and spacious home of King Harald V of Norway and his lovely bride Queen Sonja. I say “spacious” because their house has 117 rooms – definitely a step up from my apartment back in Manhattan.

You can walk around the palace grounds anytime you want, or hang out all day and feed the ducks in the duck pond out back. The palace itself is a grand and lovely nineteenth century residence, the kind that makes you think of swirling waltzes and young ladies in elegant gowns asking dashing officers over for tea.

My friends who live here tell me that you can from time to time see the King and his family coming and going, or just waving cheerfully from the balcony to their adoring subjects.

The King has no real power here. Officially he appoints the government, but the only government he’s allowed to appoint is the one supported by Parliament. He appoints the head of Parliament, but the only person he’s only allowed to choose is the leader of the majority party. It seems that the King’s function is basically to stand out on the balcony every day and command the Sun to rise. But people seem to really like him, maybe for that very reason.

Harald has had an interesting life. He narrowly escaped from the Nazis as a child. As a young man he insisted on marrying his sweetheart Sonja, telling his dad that if he couldn’t have her, he’d remain single all his life. This would have ended the monarchy, which stretches back about 900 years in an unbroken line of succession to Harald’s great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great granddad Egilmar I.

Sonja, by the way, is the only queen in history who has ever been to Antarctica, which continues our theme from yesterday of polar exploring Norwegians.

It seems to me that we have it exactly backwards in the United States. Our head of state is a boorish chief executive in a business suit with entirely too much power, whose own people are so annoyed with him that he needs to be guarded from them at all times. When was the last time anybody let you just stroll around the grounds of the White House and feed the ducks?

Give me a head of state who never wages war, wears a dashing uniform with a bright red sash and epaulets, throws grand teas with his arctic exploring childhood sweetheart by his side, and each morning, with all the pomp and majesty of his august office, commands the Sun to rise.

Almost the same

Today I rented bikes and traveled around Oslo with my friends, seeing great museums. I say “bikes” instead of “bike” because they have a wonderful system here: You walk up to a rack of interchangable bicycles, swipe a pre-paid card, and a particular bicycle is unlocked. They have these racks around the city, and you can return your bike to any one of them. At each stop along our tour, I would return the bike I had, and then afterward grab another one to go to the next place.

All the bikes were almost the same – but not quite. You quickly notice subtle differences in the gear shift, how well the brakes work, how inflated the tires are. It’s as though, as the day goes on, your bike is continuously morphing beneath you in subtle ways.

This turned out to be a theme for the day. We visited the Kon-Tiki Museum, dedicated to the series of heroic voyages across the oceans by the great Norwegian scientist Thor Heyerdahl, who has always been a personal hero of mine. By traversing vast distances in the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans in boats constructed from materials and methods available to the ancient Egyptians, Heyerdahl had shown that “primitive” peoples were quite capable of sailing across the oceans – and therefore spreading culture between continents.

The entire museum is built around a magnificent exhibit of Heyerdahl’s famous ocean-crossing raft the Kon-Tiki. Except that the Kon-Tiki had been dashed against rocks and broken up into pieces at the end of its historic 1947 voyage. So what we were seeing was the Kon-Tiki but not the Kon-Tiki. Kind of a quasi-Kon-Tiki.

The same thing happened in the next museum we visited – the Fram Museum. The museum building itself was literally built around the great ship the Fram that Amundsen had used to first reach the South Pole. Except that when you go there you learn that there was more than one Fram. A succession of explorers had traveled to far arctic and antarctic regions in the Fram from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries, and each time the crew, the route, and the Fram itself were different. So what were seeing in that museum was just a particular version, one of a series.


Imagine if everything worked this way. You come home after a hard day at the office, and you have almost the same furniture, but not quite. That chair had a slightly different cushion, the floor tiles are rotated the other way, the coffee maker had the little knob on the other side. These bicycles and museums had some of that quality. It’s as if the Universe is slightly shifting all the time. There is a thing you can identify, with a name, but it’s not necessarily the same thing.

Imagine if every time you came home from work you had a slightly different family, a different husband or wife. Not radically different, just little things. Slightly different height, different way of thinking. Likes chocolate or doesn’t, snores differently, has that funny little scar on the other shoulder. Today likes your friend who talks too loud, instead of that other one with the red hair.

In other words, they generally manage to provide you with nearly the same model every day, the same kids or husband or wife. But sometimes they get it wrong, because this or that feature was out of stock for the week. So you get the nearest substitute available, hopefully a close match.

Would you notice?