Friday, October 31, 2008
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
I found out this evening that a few months ago Tom Ellard called quits on his awesome, pioneering, and long running electronic / industrial band Severed Heads. While Ellard continues to do video projects and other work under his own name, the demise of Severed Heads ends 28 years of audio experimentation ranging from weird sound collage to peculiar pop music. Like Andrew Eldritch's rejection of Sisters of Mercy's classification as a Goth band, Ellard never really did quite cotton to the Industrial genre he helped create. Yet, even with the jump to more dancey synthpop on "Bad Mood Guy," he never could quite ditch the rivethead fanbase. And even the more recent work still maintained that wonderful Severed Heads penchant for weirdness. If you've never heard Severed Heads, that's a shame. I feel sorry for you.
Though TE exhibits a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards much of his early work, having bought my first Severed Heads album when I was 13, I forever remain a huge fan. The classic releases "Come Visit The Big Bigot" and "Clifford Darling, Please Don't Live In The Past" are still among my favorite albums, and Severed Heads is a band whose work I always return to. My hope is that at some point in the future, like so many other bands, Severed Heads will have a reunion. Perhaps Tom Ellard will have a reunion with himself, or maybe he'll dig up some combination of Richard Fielding, Garry Bradbury, Paul Deering, Stephen Jones and/or Andrew Wright and have a proper reunion. Who knows, maybe they could tour as the opener for yet another reincarnation of Pink Floyd?
Labels: compressional waves
Monday, October 27, 2008
As much fun as it is to see great films, and hear interesting panel discussions, far and away the best part of Austin Film Festival was making new friends.
Sure, a few people were laying-on the used car salesman charm as they schmoozed the most important people they could identify in order to "help their careers," but I also met some genuinely nice people who were just interesting to talk to and fun to hang out with.
Ass-kissing the most famous person in the room is par for the course at many film industry events, but at AFF it was refreshingly restrained. As a result most people, even the well known ones, were approachable and willing to engage in actually interesting conversations. And, for the most part, even the neophytes understood that we were all just there to have a good time talking about screenwriting and filmmaking (and politics, philosophy, literature, art, science, sports, and whatever else came up).
Both growing up in one of the playgrounds of the world's rich and famous, East Hampton, NY, and nearly seven years at a hugely successful studio has me accustomed to not giving a damn about status. Such a history sometimes has the opposite effect on people, but in my case it led me to decide that there really are basically two kinds of people: people I can carry on an interesting discussion with and whose company I find pleasant, and those who don't meet that criteria. I don't particularly need to make "contacts" (to use the corporate doublespeak that essentially reduces a person to their profit potential), but it is fun to meet interesting people some of who may become genuine friends.
If sycophants, lunatics, the bitterly belligerent, and the desperate make you as uncomfortable as they do me, AFF is far and away one of the better events out there. Other than the occasional overly aggressive self promoter or bitter defeatist, most of the people at AFF were quite nice and pretty much all were at least well behaved (the at least four different people I observed asking Robert Townsend to read their script because it featured "a black guy" notwithstanding).
Sunday, October 26, 2008
In addition to Death In Love, I also suggest folks check out the opposite end of the spectrum: the comedies Role Models and Summerhood. David Wain's Role Models is wide release, starring Paul Rudd and Sean William Scott, and will be very easy for you to find at a multiplex near you. On the other hand Jacob Medjuck's summer camp flick Summerhood is, like Boaz Yakin's Death In Love, still on the festival circuit and may require some seeking-out. Please support the little guy and make the effort, for both Death In Love and Summerhood. Indie filmmaking depends on you, the audience.
Another AFF film I liked was Paul Schrader's Adam, Resurrected. For a while, I was completely engrossed by this story of a circus performer concentration camp survivor, and if it weren't for some peculiar (and, I'd say, somewhat unsuccessful) choices made by director Schrader in the last 15-20 minutes of the film, I'd recommend it unreservedly. As it is, it is a very interesting piece that's still really worth watching, and perhaps you won't be popped out of the film at the end like I was.
There were also some really fun short comedies that I wholeheartedly enjoyed: The Miracle Investigators, Below The Law, Easy Pickin$, Richard Cocksmith And The Above Ground Pool, and The Universe Connection. Any of these are worth checking out, though the first three may be funnier to more people than the quirkier humor of the last two. My own experiences trying to simulate a 50's look in Drake Tungsten give me a special fondness for The Miracle Investigators, which is brilliant straight-faced comedy that hits a period look (the 70's) with great success.
Oliver Stone's W was probably his best film since Natural Born Killers, but like NBK, I can't unreservedly recommend W. It is interesting, and both Josh Brolin and James Cromwell do a good job (as do Jeffrey Wright as Powell and Richard Dreyfuss as Cheney). However, the film isn't anything we haven't already heard, and the emotional hooks aren't deep enough. It's still worth a viewing either if you're a Stone fan or you're into biopics, but I'm not convinced it's as important a film as Stone was probably hoping for.
Saturday, October 25, 2008
Having recently returned from the Austin Film Festival, I'm not only quite tired (we're also in a crunch time at work), but also thinking about the interesting films and people I encountered there.
If it happens to show up at a festival, arthouse theater, or other venue near you, you should check out writer/director Boaz Yakin's Death In Love. An incredibly challenging film, Death In Love is far from the escapist entertainment so popular in Hollywood these days. The story "depicts the effects of a Jewish woman's love affair with the doctor in charge of human experiments in a Nazi concentration camp on the lives of her sons many years later." It is, at its core, a study of certain forms of evil, power dynamics in relationships, and despair. In the theatrical sense of the term, this film is a tragedy. The protagonist is not lovable. There are no hijinks, no shoot-outs, and no magical redemptions. You won't get a satisfying, typically American happy ending out of this film. But even if you wind up not liking the film like I do, its compelling intensity will grab hold of you and keep you thinking about it for days on end. Given a seemingly endless stream of saccharine cinema down at the multiplex, being confronted with difficult philosophical questions is alone reason enough to give this film a look.
I'm working on arranging a showing and Director's presentation here at work, but if you're not here, take whatever other opportunity you get to check it out.
Monday, October 13, 2008
Sunday, October 12, 2008
I'm generally not a huge fan of Google. My "Personal Webmind" design, and the Webmind search engine created by myself, Renato Mangini Dias, Greg Greenshpun, Meyer Rozengauz, Ben Goertzel and Cassio Pennachin, provided superior design and search results to Google search when we tried to sell them the company in 2001. (I am still suspicious of the similar offerings from Google that cropped up later, but perhaps I should attribute them to "great minds think alike" and be done with it.)
Among Google's other offerings, there have been other shortcomings as well. Orkut became worthless as it was overrun with spammers and trolls. Google Maps is pretty cool, but to me it still is an "almost there" reworking of a project by Michael Potmesil, formerly of Bell Labs, which had most of the current Google Maps functionality in 1997-98 when I was at the company (sans the funding to send trucks around taking street photos), plus lofted 3D cityscapes. YouTube is a hive of content thieves and moronic commentary that nearly drowns out what little of value to be found on it, and even this here Blogger is merely LiveJournal rehashed with more marketing money behind it.
But Google Book Search is the bees knees. In some ways it is nothing but Amazon's "search inside this book" without being tied to a store. However, Google Book Search provides better bibiliographical information, and features something which I think constitutes the first real attempt by Google to live up to their self-proclaimed "don't be evil" edict.
That attempt, which thus far looks like it might be successful, is subsidized scanning of public domain books found in libraries. Google has finally provided a service I find completely invaluable, and which is sufficiently better than the competitors to warrant the hype. The PDF scans of old books are even more interesting than Project Gutenberg texts in that they preserve the original formatting (which is very interesting to me, but if you don't care, many of the books are also available as plaintext).
I hope that there isn't fallout from this project in the form of libraries deciding to discard or destroy the books themselves based on the availability of digital versions. Digital storage is too short-lived to justify discarding real media like books, but the incredible convenience of not having to dig around in stacks or wait for interlibrary loans for old, rare books is a fantastic idea. If Google takes this project to the point where a truly substantial catalog of tens or hundreds of thousands of books in the public domain (based on expired copyrights, mostly) becomes available, I will have to grudgingly admit that Google has finally done something that might make me stop being disgusted with them.
Labels: dweeb 2.0
Thursday, October 9, 2008
As the world falls apart around us, or so the newspapers and television pundits claim, perhaps there is some upside to the downturn. My hope is that it will be better art, music and writing.
The 1980s (the late Cold War Era, the Reagan years) brought with them a treasure trove of angry punk rock (which started to rear its wonderfully ugly head in the mid 1970s, during the post-Viet Nam Ford and then Carter years), and literary and cinematic dissections of the "me generation" and the ever-present Cold War. During the Clinton Years, however, anti-establishment culture got co-opted and eliminated by mainstream media. Some of it survived, but its prominence has been nothing like it was in the 70s and 80s.
Maybe now that we're on the brink of economic cataclysm, we'll see not only a less poppy reinvention of punk rock and other 1970s-80s counterculture, but also a return of 1930s era artistic trends as well. The 30s of the Great Depression also brought with them a lot of great culture including: films like Duck Soup, literature by folks such as John Steinbeck, and in the art world, late Surrealism.
Great struggles often lead to great art. While I'm not exactly thrilled about the struggle part, perhaps at least we can enjoy the side benefit of some great art.
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
According to the Guardian, Nobel Prize comittee chair Horace Engdahl has out-of-hand dismissed any chances of Americans winning the Literature prize. He was quoted as saying: "The US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature ...That ignorance is restraining."
Poor Mr. Engdahl. His own ignorance is keeping him from a treasure trove of great American literature. And if he's dodging any books that may seem excessively American, he may very well be missing out on the best our country has to offer.
A respondent called Sarka, commenting on this Guardian follow-up commentary, points out: "Universal or provincial? It's a silly argument. The American novels I love best are thoroughly American in themes and treatments, if in very different ways. The same goes for any other nation - don't tell me that the appeal of Dostoyevsky's novels is not partly their extreme unabashed Russianness..."
I think this nicely references the core paradox of storytelling: it is from the specifics rooted in a particular place, culture, time, and character that universality emerges. Carefully observed, passionately related details create a sense of realism, even in the most fantastical of stories, which makes the narrative come alive.
What makes a story seem universal is richness of specific detail. Details, not necessarily overwrought Victorian explication, but relevant observations of people, places and problems, grab the audience, and their empathic and mirror systems kick-in and allow them to relate to the narrative at a very core level. While one may never have been a soldier freezing on the Russian Steppe, or an immigrant laborer drunk in a seedy bar in Brooklyn, it is the relating of particulars about such people and places that allow us to feel as if their specific stories relate to universal themes.
American novels are best when they are American.
The Guardian mentions some obvious examples: Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike and Cormac McCarthy. But there are a number of other great American authors who are being overlooked, or who will achieve greatness one day and then be overlooked. Let me name a few so you can add them to your reading list: Thomas Pynchon, Chuck Palahniuk, Don DeLillo, Michael Chabon, Frank Turner Hollon, Craig Clevenger, Dave Eggers, Douglas Coupland, and David Foster Wallace (who sadly will now never get a chance at a Nobel).
Of course, genre fiction never gets considered, but Dennis Lehane is a great crime writer, and there are numerous American science fiction authors of high quality, such as William Gibson and Harlan Ellison. If none of Philip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem, Isaac Asimov, or Arthur C. Clarke were given Nobel Prizes in Literature, probably no science fiction writer ever will be.
Kurt Vonnegut, who was not really a genre writer, but his genius was called into question by some who decided he was (and that that was necessarily bad), was also overlooked. So were Joseph Conrad, and "the poet laureate of skid row," Charles Bukowski.
Of course, there are many more great American writers. Please feel free to post comments with your recommendations. Outside the U.S., the Guardian quotes David Remnick as citing Proust, Joyce and Nabokov as overlooked, to which I'd add Murakami and Bulgakov (his greatest work being published posthumously may have been part of it, but other writers have received Nobels for their lesser works).
Either Mr. Engdahl is reading some particularly bad American writing, or he is simply unwilling to accept the fact that Americans, like any other people, can tell compelling and universal stories embedded in the context of their own unique experiences. Regardless of the source of his ire, I am skeptical of someone who can cast aside all literature from a nation of three hundred million people with nary a shrug. How is it that someone tasked with judging literature can be so ignorant of such a crucial element of storytelling: that personal, temporal, spatial and cultural particulars are precisely what cause a well-told story to come alive and resonate as universal?
I already consider the arts and sciences to be something far greater than game shows to be "won" by the cultural uebermenschen, but with people like Mr. Engdahl serving as judges, such competitions seem even more dubious to me. His sort of attitude may work well for Simon Cowell, but I'd expect more from an organization with such pretensions to relevance.
Friday, October 3, 2008
If you get a chance to see "Låt Den Rätte Komma In" ("Let The Right One In") in a theater, do it. If not, at least see it on DVD (when it comes out) before going to see, if you must, the upcoming 2010 remake by Matt Reeves. (He of Cloverfield, a film I couldn't get more than ten minutes into without getting severe motion sickness and turning it off. How that guy is going to remake a film that uses stillness so beautifully is a real mystery to me).
Very Scandinavian in its usage of stillness, and cold, desolate places, to establish both tone and theme, "Låt Den Rätte Komma In" is simultaneously charming and violent. In the vein of some of the best of contemporary Japanese cinema, it takes a naturally transgressive subject and turns it into a twisted love story. That is a trope which I'm a total sucker for, and this film does it wonderfully. Don't go if you happen to not be a fan of transgressive cinema (though it is nowhere even vaguely close to the extremes some current Japanese films reach), or if you require films to be fast-paced.
However, if you enjoy contemplative films with a twisted story, this is a must see. It has two more dates in San Francisco: tomorrow and Oct 10, 2008. Check your own city for listings if you're not in the Bay Area, and jump at the chance to see this film if you get one.
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
I once had a girlfriend ask me if I loved my computer more than her.
Though the answer was "no," at the time the question didn't seem quite as ridiculous as it now does. Once upon a time, when video games weren't outgrossing movie tickets, major news media weren't quoting Internet memes, and computers weren't ubiquitous, I loved computers. I loved video games. I loved programming. I loved modding hardware and building systems. Even word processing seemed new and amazing.
Today, a friend posted something to a discussion on the Simon's Rock alumni mail alias in which he casually mentioned "loving" his laptop. I realized that I found the statement surprisingly absurd. More than lamenting about the diluted meaning of the word "love," I lament that I no longer love computers.
When the hobby was more obscure, and being a computer nerd was uncommon, I enjoyed both the underground social aspect of computing and the fact that it was a lot more DIY. In the 1980s, pretty much every computer owner I knew wrote programs and could maintain their system. Creating your own software and comparing notes was just part of the hobby. As that creative aspect was replaced by just more consumerism, computing became decreasingly interesting to me. Becoming mainstream didn't help. Now that computers are everywhere, the novelty is gone. Standardization and market forces (including some "aggressive" business practices on the part of some companies) has eliminated all the interesting, creative and unusual hardware developments that used to occur. Computers are no longer a new frontier, and have become boring.
Though I still enjoy writing programs, I do agree with Donald Knuth's recent argument in Communications of the ACM that programming as it is currently taught and practices has become soulless and uncreative. That most programming jobs involve maintaining other people's code, stitching together mystery code through opaque "business logic" interfaces, and copying the functionality of popular, successful software is a shame. Once upon a time, there was a lot more room for experimentation and innovation even in professional, commercial software development. Now it's mostly maintenance, refinement, updating, and replication.
Sure, there are still interesting research and career opportunities in computing, but financial support for them is dwindling as "safe" bets are now the norm in the industry. Once, the whole computing community was innovative. Now, the innovators stand out. Naturally, this happens to every industry as it matures, and it was to be expected. Personally, I didn't think it would happen so quickly, and to such an extent. In one sense, it means that we've done our jobs well and covered a lot of ground, but there could be a lot more interesting R&D and hobbyist computing going on if the industry hadn't so fully embraced the commodity model of business.
I still like computers. We've had many good times together, and I still want to be friends. I hope computers sill want to be friends, too. But I just feel like we've both changed, grown apart, and I'm just not in love with computers anymore. Computers, you're still young and have a lot going for you. I'm sure you'll find someone else.
Labels: computers suck