That one serious role

I’ve noticed a curious phenomenon around Hollywood actors. There is a certain category of actor that we are entertained by, but that we don’t even begin to take seriously.

Except for that one serious role.

In other words, there is one performance in one movie, somewhere in the course of the actor’s career, that establishes a level of ability that you’d never have imagined if you’d only seen their other performances. This exact pattern happens in so many cases that I think it can’t merely a coincidence. There must be something at work here.

For example, if you had seen every single Adam Sandler performance other than P.T. Anderson’s 2002 “Punch Drunk Love”, you would think of him mainly as “that guy doing variations on “The Wedding Singer”. Sometimes cute, sometimes obnoxious, always way too full of himself, but essentially playing riffs on the same character, to the same loyal audience of fans. But the character of Barry Egan that he plays in “Punch Drunk Love” is far deeper and surprising, vastly more disturbing and thought provoking, and completely different from the predictable and silly roles he usually plays.

In fact, if the first Adam Sandler performance you ever saw was in that film, you’d probably think you were seeing a major thespian talent, and you’d rush right out and rent his other films. In which case you’d likely be very, very disappointed.

The same thing is at work in the performance Cameron Diaz gives in “Being John Malkovich”. Her portrayal of Lotte Schwartz is so intense, so layered, so unnerving, that it might stay with you for years after you’ve seen the film. And it has nothing whatever in common with the lightweight sexy/comic roles that she is known for.

The list goes on. Kevin Costner in “A Perfect World”, playing an absolutely pitch-perfect psychopath. And of course Will Farrell, whose career essentially consists of the same endlessly recycled schtick in “Elf”, “Anchorman”, and the like — basically all riffs on the same joke. Yet in just one film, he gives a beautiful portrayal of a man experiencing a deeply affecting existential crisis — and holding his own on screen with Emma Thompson — as Harold Crick in the brilliant 2006 film “Stranger than Fiction”.

This is not a new phenomenon. The usually genial and low-key Spencer Tracy will scare the hell out of you with his terrifying portrayal of Mr. Hyde in Victor Fleming’s 1941 version of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. Both Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby leapt completely out of character (to wondrous effect) in the 1954 film “The Country Girl” (for which a shell-shocked Academy gave Kelly that year’s Best Actress award).

Sometimes an actor will get that one breakthrough serious role and then keep going with others. For Brad Pitt that role was Jeffrey Goines in “Twelve Monkeys”. For Bill Murray it was Phil in “Groundhog Day”. For Mark Wahlberg it was Eddie Addams in “Boogie Nights” (bringing us back around to P.T. Anderson).

But for the most part, the light comic actor, having surprised us once with unexpected dramatic gold, will slip back into their usual expected (and highly lucrative) persona, leaving us to wonder what might have been.

Human cheese

Today I took in the wonderful NYU ITP show, which provides an opportunity once every semester for students to show off all sorts of innovative projects on the interface between art and technology. Some pieces are feasts for your inner geek, while others are variously odd, kinetic, musical, dramatic or simply beautiful.

And then there are the thoughtful ones. Every semester a few students create something that makes you really think. One of those projects this time around was Human Cheese by Miriam Simun. Yes dear reader, the eponymous food product in question is made from the breast milk of human volunteers.

This is not the first time the topic of human cheese has been thought of, but it’s the first time I had encountered it. And it really made me think.

One reason I don’t eat cheese is that to raise cows for their milk generally involves getting rid of the (economically unnecessary) male cows. Male calves, in standard practice, are kept alive just long enough to be slaughtered and turned into meat. Which means that every time you eat cheese, somewhere veal is also being served.

But human cheese completely changes the equation. All of the milk is volunteered, on a basis of informed consent.

Yes, I know, on a purely cultural level, serving “human” food probably violates taboos left and right. Yet, ironically, this might very well be the only “animal product” that creates no ethical conflicts at all for vegans.

In any case, it’s certainly food for thought. ๐Ÿ™‚


This is a sad post. OK, maybe “sad” is not the right word. Perhaps elegiac.

Once upon a time, in 1941, Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer collaborated on a song called “Skylark”. It was a beautiful song — perhaps one of the most beautiful songs of all time And in a strange way, a way that I would guess its authors never intended, that song draws a line in the sand, a cultural divide between the America that was and the America that now is.

Let me bring you back… There was a time when there was such a thing as “the great American songbook”. It was a magical time, when the soaring melodies of 19th century European music were married to the astonishing chromatic sophistication of early 20th century American jazz. There has not been anything like it, before or since.

In a way the song “Skylark” was the apotheosis of this marriage — a song in which it all came together. If you are the religious sort, you would probably believe that Carmichael and Mercer were assisted by the gods on this one. I’ve been listening to this song, enjoying its rapturous perfection, and I’ve come to an odd and uncomfortable conclusion: Modern singers are incapable of singing it.

I know that sounds strange. Aren’t singers today every bit as talented as the vocalists of seventy years ago? Well, yes, but in a different way. “Skylark” is a song with immense depth of melody and chromaticism — an example of an art that is now long dead. In the modern era of rock and roll — the era in which you and I were born — there is simply no equivalent. In our age there is no such thing as the intricate twisting melody married to a long and subtle sequence of chord changes. Our music is basic, simple, meat and potatoes. It requires the singer to add something to the mix, to provide seasoning.

But “Skylark” needs no seasoning. It is already complete, perfect. It asks only that a singer traverse its beautiful rises and falls faithfully. Consider, for example, the lovely performance by Dinah Shore. No adornment — just a reflection of the perfect creation of the songwriters.

Similarly, Maxine Sullivan gets it. She knows that the song is already perfect, requiring only a faithful jazz priestess to bring the word down from on high to us mortals.

Ella Fitzgerald gets it almost right. She mostly allows the song to do its magic, without trying to reinvent it, although one could argue that she is right on the border of imposing her will on the song.

But modern singers can’t seem to do this. For example, Aretha Franklin adds the modern-vocalist spin, pretty much ripping the song to pieces, and destroying its inherent beauty. There are lots of other examples of this to be found on YouTube. There just seems to be a disconnect. Singers trained on modern pop cannot faithfully render the classic American songbook — they feel the need to enhance, to bend the notes, to modulate the rhythm.

There was a time when songs could stand on their own, when they didn’t need randomly added seasoning to soar. Call me crazy, but I wish we could, every so often, find our way back to that place.

Oh skylark, I donโ€™t know If you can find these things, but my heart is riding on your wings. So if you see them anywhere, wonโ€™t you lead me there?


Is it possible to be objective?

I ask this because I’ve come to realize that the human mind works in such a fashion that every little bit of evidence that comes our way is instinctively turned to support what we already believe. In the face of this phenomenon, how can we even recognize objectivity, much less attain it?

For example, I and just about everyone I know recoil with a kind of visceral horror at the phenomenon of Sarah Palin. It’s not just her professed beliefs — it seems to cut deeper than that. The feeling, when I try to analyze it, is that we are peering into the depths of the abyss itself, as though glimpsing a vision from hell, or the antithesis of all that is true and decent and hopeful about America.

Our views disagreeing with her political statements can be stated in terms of objective argument. Yet they are not generally manifested as objective argument, but rather as a collective negative visceral reaction. Which means that those who disagree with her can become incapable of seeing her as anything other than a kind of real-life cartoon character, a cackling villain out of some bad B movie.

In some other parts of this country, people experience a parallel aversion to Barack Obama. In those places, the pervasive sense of distaste goes beyond rational argument. Incendiary words and phrases like “Socialist takeover” and “new Hitler” get thrown about. This sort of opinion is not swayed by any one particular thing Obama says or does, but rather informs everything he says or does, as though his detractors are looking at him through a set of fun-house glasses. By definition, everything he says becomes suspect.

I saw recently that Sarah Palin publicly asked Americans to provide increased support for the suffering people in Haiti. Now, there is nothing bad about such a suggestion. Palin is using her public visibility to bring attention to a worthy cause, and her words will probably move a significant number of people to open their hearts and pocketbooks, and perhaps to volunteer to help in other ways. Yet it took work for me to focus on what she was saying, rather than the fact that it was Sarah Palin who was saying it. I was so used to expecting only the worst from her, that I had difficulty accepting that I was actually hearing something that I agreed with.

I find myself wondering: Are we just experiencing a particular phase in our nation’s history, when political disagreement has metastasized into something destructive? Or are we all experiencing a symptom of something more fundamental — an inability to see and hear the things that people say objectively, on their own merits?

Closing the loop

The other day I posted about gathering the tools to convert a frame-by-frame sequence of my computer graphic images to a Quicktime movie. This gives me a kind of doorway into making animated films, but it’s a door that goes only one way.

What if I want to make computer graphic films that incorporate the real world itself? What if I want to mix live-action film-making with computer graphics and stop-motion? In order to do all that, I need the door to open both ways.

Today I figured out what I need to do to close the loop — to start with a video that was shot with a camcorder, and pull it, frame by frame, into my own computer programs.

You might ask why I would bother to do this when there are perfectly good movie editing programs out there. The problem is that those movie editing programs will only let me do what they were written to let me do. If I want to try out one of my own crazy techniques for film making, whether that technique is a different way of blending live action with computer animation, or a way of skipping through time in an odd sort of way, I can’t program somebody’s movie editing program to let me do that.

But once I’ve got everything sitting in my own computer program, frame by frame, then I can pretty much do whatever I want.

It’s like having a shiny new toy. And pretty soon I hope to combine this shiny new toy with my other one — the 3D printer sitting next to my couch. Hopefully I’ll have a few fun things to show in the days to come!

Killer app

Today I was in a discussion in which people were talking about the future of apps for iPads and other smart tablets. The topic came up of how to customize apps for each individual user. “Imagine,” one person said, “a custom version of Google search for New Yorkers.”

Immediately my mind went to an important culturally defining moment in 1976, when New Yorkers were confronted by the image that perhaps resonated more strongly with their sense of self than any other single image. I am referring, of course, to the following iconic cover that March of the New Yorker magazine, created by the incomparable Saul Steinberg:


And that’s when it occurred to me, that all these years later, the killer iPad app for us New Yorkers would not be a custom version of Google search.

No, it would be a very special custom version of Google Maps. ๐Ÿ™‚

Virtual reality

It continually surprises me how easily we allow ourselves to slip into relationships with fictitious people. Give the average person a novel to read, or a TV series to follow, and they will find themselves drawn into the passion of lives that never existed.

This will happen even though they know for certain that the people in these books and on these screens do not exist. In many cases, those people cannot exist, at least in the reality we inhabit. You will never actually meet a Hobbit, or a Vampire (at least, I hope for your sake you won’t). Yet it takes very little to make you care about them, to share in their pain, their joy and sorrow, their triumphs and their tragedies.

I think the actual cause of this transference is the evolutionary history of language itself. Since humans evolved spoken language, large portions of our perception of the world around us has become channeled through linguistic perception. Yes, we can appreciate the inanimate world without the benefit of language, but the moment other people enter the equation, we instinctively reach for words and sentences to make sense of our emotional response to them.

And this means that even people who consist of nothing but words (such as the characters in a novel) will feel real to us, since so much of the cognitive apparatus we already use in assessing other people will be fully engaged. Intellectually, we know that the characters in a novel do not exist. But our emotions tell us otherwise.

Recently I wrote about the future of augmented reality — about how some time in the next few years technology will allow us to see the world not literally as it is, but rather as merely one aspect of the info-verse that will perpetually surround us and dwell among us, infusing even our most casual social encounters.

Yet in light of our species’ odd relationship with language, was I really talking about anything new — anything that is not in fact many thousands of years old? We have always lived within virtual reality, from the moment the first early humans began talking to each other in generative grammatical languages.

In fact, to be human is to be incapable of having a social relationship with another human completely outside of language. We perceive one another through a cloud of symbols, as translated by the virtual-reality screen of the unspoken verbal descriptions within our own minds.

In any way that matters on a social or interpersonal level, we already live our entire lives within virtual reality.

Primary colors

I was talking with a colleague from Taiwan today, who asked me whether I had ever been there. Yes, in fact, I recalled, I was in Taipei during their completely crazy 2006 election. For those of you who don’t follow Taiwanese politics, the incumbent Green party’s platform was a strong declaration of independence from mainland China, whereas the Blue party advocated finding a graceful way to just avoid the whole issue.

If you’ve ever looked at the two countries on a map, you would know that the outcome of any outright military conflict would be more or less reminiscent of the Marv Newland classic animation Bambi Meets Godzilla, with Taiwan playing the part of Bambi.

As you can imagine, the Green party was not favored to be reelected. However, the day before the election, both the president and the vice president were reported wounded in simultaneous assassination attempts. Tensions ran high on election day, and the vote ended up being split right down the middle. At the end of the day, the wounded Green party president and VP returned to office, riding (just barely) on an outpouring of emotional support.

There were many on the Blue side who said that it was a set-up job — that the assassination attempts had been faked, engineered by the Green party to gain votes. The day after the election, as I walked the streets of Taipei, police were holding back thousands upon thousands of protesters. It was like being in “The Year of Living Dangerously”, only without Linda Hunt and what’s-his-name.

That night I attended a formal dinner, where one could argue that I’d enjoyed one or two drinks too many. I was sitting to the right of a pleasant fellow from the Taiwanese government, when suddenly I had an inspiration. I told him, rather giddily, that Taiwan was playing out the full spectrum of politics, according to my academic field, computer graphics.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Well,” I explained happily, “you’ve got a Green party and a Blue party, right?”

“Yes,” he nodded, still not getting where I was going.

“Don’t you see?” I went on, “It’s perfect. Right over there, just north of the Taiwan Strait, you’ve got the Red party. So between you, you can make any color you want!”

The man just stared at me for a long moment, then ever so politely excused himself from the conversation, and began talking to the person on his left.

Perhaps I am not cut out for a career in diplomacy.

Better butterfly

The first time I posted the butterfly-to-fractal movie, it was as an animated GIF. That was because the program I wrote just created individual Jpeg images, and I didn’t have any conversion software handy other than Gimp, which lets you convert a sequence of Jpeg images to animated GIFs.

Then a friend offered to compose music for the animation, at which point animated GIFs just wouldn’t cut it. To set an animation to music, you need something in a legitimate format like Quicktime, which lets you scrub forward and back over the animation, so you can do proper timing.

After a little looking around, I found the wonderful free program VirtualDub, which lets you convert a sequence of Jpeg images to an AVI movie, and another wonderful free program Oxelon Media Converter, which lets you convert an AVI movie in to a Quicktime MOV file.

So thanks to the kind generosity of the open software movement, I am able to present you with the butterfly film as a legitimate movie, both in a slow one minute version, and a fast thirty second version.

I can’t decide which version I like better. The fast/short one is peppier, but the slow/long one is more mysterioso, and gives you more time to look at the individual visions along the butterfly’s journey.

Does anyone care to weigh in?

Printing a snowflake

Continuing from yesterday…

My first experiment was to 3D-print a Koch snowflake. The Koch snowflake is a lovely fractal, which is made by following this very simple recipe:

  1. Start with a triangle.
  2. Glue a 1/3 scale version of the original shape onto the middle of each edge.
  3. Repeat step (2) with the new smaller edges, until you either get bored or die of exhaustion.

You can see the first few steps of the progression here:


As you can see, it rather quickly turns into something that looks like a snowflake. I wrote a computer program to craft one of these babies in a format that would print onto my little home PP3DP printer. The result looked like this:

Actually, not everything in the decoration you see in that photo comes from the Koch snowflake itself. The PP3DP printer, like many 3D printers, builds things by adding them in layers, from bottom to top. To make sure things don’t collapse, it starts with a loose backing, which you can later peel off. You can get a better sense of this by looking at the printer in the act of printing a snowflake (that’s my couch in the background):


I decided to keep the backing on, because I like the way it visually framed the fractal, and also because it gave me an easy place to attach a string, for hanging each snowflake onto the tree.

To give the decoration more of that nice wispiness that helps make snowflakes so lovely, I decided to replace each of the triangles with a Sierpinski triangle. Like the Koch snowflake, the Sierpinski triangle can also be made by following a very simple recipe:

  1. Start with a triangle.
  2. Replace all triangles with three 1/2 scale triangles, each tucked into one of the bigger triangle’s vertices.
  3. Repeat step (2) with the new smaller triangles, until you either get bored or die of exhaustion.

You can see the first few steps of the progression here:


When I replaced each triangle of the Koch snowflake with a Sierpinski triangle, this is the first version that came out of the 3D printer:


At this point I realized that there was a bug in my program, which was causing many parts of the fractal to be left out (although I think it still looks cool). I fixed the bug before heading to the party, but alas, in my excitement I forgot to take another photo before I left.

I can assure you there is now a lovely Sierpinski-Koch snowflake dangling from the festive tree in my friends’ house. But if you want to see it in person, you might just need to get yourself invited to their party next year. ๐Ÿ™‚