Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Zeal Monster (Slight Return)

Hello again, world.
After a damnably long hiatus, it's good to be back. Thanks for stopping by.
I didn't wanna start off kvetching, but maybe a minute wouldn't hurt. Y'know, to state the painfully obvious, television advertising has never been about anything other than separating - with the utmost dispatch - the consumer from the contents of his or her wallet. We've entered a new golden age of teeth-grindingly vapid presentations, however. Gone are old standby terms like "fresh-roast," "ice-cold" and "piping hot," replaced by terms with even greater specificity.
Consider our major breweries, with their "fire-brewed" and "frost-brewed" offerings, whatever nebulous actual production practices these terms refer to, to say nothing of labels that indicate coldness (for the momentarily numbed, perhaps) fluted bottlenecks that facilitate optimum pouring, and the epitome of cynical horseshit hucksterism, "triple hops-brewed" Miller Lite, god deliver us... Alas, a sow's ear still doth not a silk purse make.
Whence the "applewood-smoked" fetish?? Why must it be necessary to specify the tree that purpotedly provides the wood for smoking? And who decided on apple wood...are there special properties in the wood? Is it that plentiful?
Anyone, apparently, can lay claim to "signature" items, and either artisan (or artisanal) provenance for their comestibles, the better to affect a cozy bistro vibe, one supposes. Accordingly, what better way to accesorize than with artisanal specialty items, from breads to cheeses to salsas? Small-batch whiskey trumps its common cousin...70% cacao chocolate consigns Hershey's to the also-rans. Proceeding along these lines we reach the most noxious modern term of all: "handcrafted," a descriptor applicable to almost any foodstuff. Pathetic. Unless something is prepared by fucking robots it is, by definition, hand-crafted. (The tortured nicety "hand-spun," when applied to the innocent milkshake, is only slightly less offensive).
Why the need to wave around the word "premium" when referring to the components of a particular item? Isn't it sort of implied that you'd begin with decent-quality ingredients in the first place? I love the McDonald's bright reference to "pure" (as opposed to adulterated, eh?) pork sausage. Burger joints can't, with a straight face, use the word "premium," so they depend on the fall-back term "100% beef." Fine and well, as a) the parts that aren't soybeans and filler are indeed beef, and b) there are a lot of parts that make up a cow. Wrong. Bad.
Best to head for the local diner or, better yet, make a grilled cheese on your own jargon-free stovetop.

Now let's talk about some real stuff, dammit.

Kurzweil Longa (Vita Brevis)
It was probably in Wired magazine that I first read about the Singularity - the tipping point at which technology will simply break free of all constraints (escalating, as it has been, exponentially) and achieve a sort of inevitable presence. Yes, there it will be...sentient existence, in whatever form(s), finally self-learning (at blinding speed) and here's the crux - self-aware. So will be ushered in a true new age of the final perfection of a humankind hindered by imperfect bodies, culture, world.
Ray Kurzweil is the mind behind this belief, indeed this philosophy, and most of what he says about technology is astute, informed and difficult to gainsay. I haven't yet read his book The Transcendent Man, but did recently catch the documentary, and am now pretty well up to speed on his model. He doesn't present the conventional older picture of our future, with its gleaming sheen and efficiency, but rather a future that is very possible, even probable, because we're watching it unfold with our every eyes.
Yet shouldn't there be some questions?
The worldview of the Singularity is relentlessly forward-thinking, optimistic, and having the sweet, square-shouldered assurance of the foregone conclusion. room, then, for the possibility of chicanery, abuse, manipulation, for human nature? Yes, there is what'll queer the deal. Speculation, grabby self-preservation, every stripe of malfeasance. Any schoolchild can point to the obviously fictional (albeit prescient) example of Terminator II, and from there it's a short hop to the straightforward elegance of the concept of hubris.

One major aspect of these new developments is synthetic life, which, however snazzy its marketing or tech inroads, just seems tedious: "look what we can do" writ large. Soldiers, assembly line workers, cops, dishwashers, whores - feh. Where do you house them all, these animated shells? It's an obvious corollary that as technology increases, humanity loses its wits, its resourcefulness, its strength. Ever-increasing developments in the world of automation and nanotechnology don't count as the activities of a vibrant, dynamic species.
Perhaps the example of the Terminator does fit best here - if such creations are hatched from the standpoint of an attainable perfection, how long will they tolerate their testy, problematic designers?

Getting back to Humanity 1.0: okay, say you've rendered yourself disease-proof in large part, and through gene mapping and excision, you've dodged a few genetic bullets...maybe even begun "reversing" your cellular frailties. What do you then do? You've been given this new bounty of precious time - literally, a new lease on life. How will you spend it? Reading, perhaps, knitting, or tending to pets or grandchildren or hobbies, or visiting cities now teeming with great throngs of your fellow hybrids.
So arises the most damning, most obvious critique of Kurzweil's shining tableau: the sheer, inescapable fact of death is what gives life its meaning and its potential, and the gift of age, and aging, is that realization. Maybe he is the harbinger of something new, with regard to his regimen of supplements and so forth, but I personally have no interest. I belong, it seems, to that older time, the one Kurzweil and various of his fellows say is mired in, chained to, an imperfect evolutionary schematic that's outdated and needlessly limiting. So be it. What are we to make of those who - actively or passively - fall in line with this arc of technological thrust? Who simply amble through their days, experiencing great periodic anticipation of this or that toy, this or that refinement? Will such people balk at the opportunity for the modifications, implants, exchanges, upgrades available as this all mushrooms, as it apparently must? The answer is yes, just as with the question of uploading one's self - one's consciousness, in essence - to the Cloud which is forming even as this sentence is being typed.
Toward the end of the documentary Kurzweil briefly ponders the nature of God, before noting that we've heretofore not had one, but that the Singularity would see to that.
And maybe to all that hubris business as well.

Ira Levin's This Perfect Day

The Cold War's escalations and brinksmanship combined to create a membrane of tension that lay under each passing day.
That tension was felt to great effect in the creative arena, including literature - itself enjoying a particularly brilliant florescence at the time. The nuclear threat found dire expression in Nevil Shute's On the Beach (1957), Walter M. Miller Jr.'s A Canticle for Liebowitz (1959) and Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler's brisk Fail-Safe (1962).
Yet more awful to many was the spectre of totalitarianism, and all the dread that the word carried. When Aldous Huxley penned Brave New World some 80 years ago, he was writing a tale that envisioned a great, sterile world of biological determinism as well as the obsessions and foibles of a group of people who, having no further requirement of toil and hardship, simply absorb themselves in various vacuous pleasures.
The story is one of sprawling pride and base foolishness, and spiced liberally with Huxley's thrilling wit. George Orwell took another direction with the hideously bleak 1984, and the comparison between Orwell and Huxley has been made thusly: Orwell foresaw control by means of a boot upon a face, Huxley by a surfeit of leisure.

Ira Levin sought a middle ground with This Perfect Day, his 1970 yarn about a world that's been brought under complete control and now - for all intents and purposes - is a smoothly operating organism. It's the story of Li RM35M4419, nicknamed "Chip" by his Papa Jan, a man whose life lies mainly in the Pre-U (Pre-Unification) past.
Chip's adolescence is beset with dreams, wondering, questions, really: his grandfather's nature really does course through him, perhaps. His life is governed by the scanners through which he passes numerous times a day, and the impulse to report anything out of the ordinary. He's hesitant to report the unorthodox drawings of his friend Karl, even as an acquaintance, Anna, reports him for a session of less-than-exuberant sex. Everywhere is the potential for irregularity...for "sickness," yet Chip uses a risky dodging of his meds to clean out his blood a bit, and therefore become truly awake, and truly dissatisfied.

Levin attended Horace Mann School (where he could've crossed paths with a young Kerouac, also attending), then it was on to NYU and testing the writing waters with a number of TV scripts. His 1953 novel A Kiss Before Dying was fairly well received, and followed somewhat later by 1967's smash Rosemary's Baby. After Day, he produced both The Stepford Wives (1972) and The Boys From Brazil (1976), which became the third straight of his novels to be adapted for film. (While Day has been shot twice before, a new version with Leonardo DiCaprio is scheduled for release in late 2011).
Levin's story shares several elements with Huxley's, and may be seen as an amplification of the satirist's vision. In Day, citizens have only their "nameber," much like the people of World have their status: Alpha, Beta, Gamma and so forth. In both stories the family has been largely taken out of the equation, in Huxley's totally. Both stories concern themselves with the air of mystery surrounding surrounding groups of people who've forsaken the available utopia, only to live in dirty, scattered enclaves as "primitives" and "savages." When Chip parlays a chance meeting with a group of other seekers into an escape toward an island populated with other undesirables, he resolves to return to his previous home and destroy Uni, the UniComputer that (people are led to believe, anyway) controls all aspects of life.
Yet what good can come from such a foolhardy move?

Both sides of the dystopian coin - the forceful and indulgent - are being borne out increasingly as we hand over more and more of ourselves and our comings and goings to others. Accordingly, those who were edified by Huxley and Orwell would be well-served by reading This Perfect Day.
And as we all confront the looming prospect of some collective, minutely plotted fate or other, let us hope we can guide such a world by some small measure of our nobler impulses, even if not the way it finally pans out.

Indies in Iran

To the extent that Iran has a film industry, it's done so against appalling odds.
Where those creating a film elsewhere must come up with the financing, then navigate numerous obstacles to produce a film, an environment such as Iran's makes it a far more daunting prospect. It was in such a climate - of sudden power outages, potential arrests, seizures of equipment, indifferent or hostile onlookers and a maze of bureaucracy and permissions - that director Bahman Ghobadi persevered and created No One Knows About Persian Cats.
It's a movie that blurs the line between narrative story and documentary, in that it concerns the struggle of several young musicians who in real life are seeking to make it in the music world. As the film progresses we meet several of these hopefuls, some of whom have in fact already made the break and are pursuing their dreams away from the stifling confines of home.
Hamed Behdad is Nader, a hustler who meets Ashkan, a young musician who can't get a visa and can't seem to find compatible bandmates, either. Ashkan's young female friend, Negar (Ash Kooshanejad and Negar Shaghaghi are a duo called Take It Easy Hospital) is working on a demo with him, and the two figure that maybe with Nader's help and contacts they can put something together. Nader explains that they're just two of a huge number of indie performers who can't get visas, can't perform, or are banned outright. Yet he believes in the two, and takes it upon himself to promote their talents.
As the three travel from dairy barn to rooftop to construction site to open field in search of band members, we're given a rich taste of some of Tehran's leading young talents, such as hip-hop artist Soroush Lashkay (who performs as Hichkas, which translates as "nobody") and his producer Mahdyar Aghajani, who've faced censure despite performing with traditionally Iranian instruments. The Yellow Dogs Band did get out, and worked in New York City and Austin, but for every successful expatriate performer we meet, such as Hamed Sayed Javadi (a marquee star in Iran who's dodged many of his peers' obstacles) or soulful songstress Rana Farhan, there are several more awaiting a break, such as metal band Afshin.

From Ash and Negar's fledgling demo to the musical expression of the other acts, one is struck by the organic growth of this music, coming as it is from young people with little resources and exposure to western pop that's patchy at best. It's a special, unique sound that they make, and reflective of youth culture anywhere, really - the desire to get together, shut out the nagging everyday world and make music.
The film was shot over 17 sessions, most without official permission, and employed cameras mounted on cars, bikes and even wheelbarrows. Director of photography Turaj Aslani credits Ghobadi for his importation of equipment, most of it new to Iran's industry, and which was paid for from Ghobadi's own pocket.
The director's tireless enthusiasm inspired the cast and crew, who saw Tehran through new eyes - and he was pleased, noting "Something was made from nothing, and it made me very happy." Film editor Haydeh Safi-Yari created amazing video montages that underlie two of the musical performance sequences, and the viewer is swept though a dazzling look at a vibrant, bustling Tehran. Upbeat sound engineer Nezamedin Kiaei says nothing less than "When you watch this film, you see Iran," and he's joined in his enthusiasm by Aslani's assessment of Ghobadi: "Belief is flowing in his films," observes the DP, adding "...none of the secenes in the film were shot without love."

Reality's Caul: The Soundscapes of Gordon Charlton

Whatever the original intentions of young Russian physicist Lev Sergeivich Termen (known to the West as Leon Theremin), the creation thst came to bear his name has not only provided fairly straightforward musical and movie accompaniment, but found further life as an intriguing tool in the hands of several increasingly innovative artists. 
British enthusiast Gordon Charlton adopted the theremin as a flexible, dynamic means of expression. In combination with found/public domain film footage, Charlton creates unsettling short films with the hazy glow and bracing convictions of our deepest dreams. They're available on Beat Frequency, his YouTube channel at  and one is first and foremost struck by the variety of his offerings.
He's run culture and its curious flotsam through a sieve and emerged with "Butterflies of Vertigo," featuring a young '60s maiden in a conflicted series of jarring transpositions - now gleeful, young and vibrant, now despondent. Wryly named "Articulator" repurposes some boudoir footage, while "Boundary Logic" is built over a "weather" motif with plenty of mystery and bedlam. In "Endless Caverns" we follow b-movie characters in a whirl of pursuit, menace and zany chaos.
Much here is gripping, such as "Hadal Zone," populated as it is with a series of subjects mined from vintage cinema, the unifying themes being hats and headgear, and evoking nothing so much as the archetypal, otherworldy imagery of Kenneth Anger. The ominous, insistent "Void Ship" uses footage of  buildings constructed for nuclear blast sites, and the re-purposed film combines terrible isolation with unthinkable destruction to nightmarish result. Again and again the pitch crescendoes, drawing the viewer to gaze afresh upon these ghosts from the American desert... 
Charlton summons a dream state with "Gently Drowning," in which a woman appears, suspended, against a gauzy green field containing a disquieting medical procedural animation. In "Chikhai Bardo" a feathery "angel" hovers (as does the subject of "Drowning") over a grisly ambulance scene: the impression is one of underlying mortality, of dreams under the waking life. The strangely primeval "Night Shift" follows workers who may or may not be clearing the site of a bomb blast, and again we're given a small shred of questioning, crepuscular narrative.
Charlton doesn't ignore the element of whimsy, and serves up "The Dance of the Flower Pot Men," featuring two capering marionettes, and the theme is continued with "In the Potting Shed," a textural, vividly abstract pastiche. The fun continues with "Bouncing Blumfeld," a sprightly piece laid over an offbeat '20s cartoon. Finally, some of the work is an exercise in spectacle, as with "Iron Sun," a lysergic journey that limns what could be a frantic, pulsing inner-mind wigout as easily as a cosmic creation myth. It's an 8'30" odyssey, complete with a pulsing Kundalini flame followed by an incredibly morphing prismatic coda. In contrast is "Kraken," a brief impressionist piece.
Departures include "Urban Ugly/The New Consonance," which uses the photographs of Mark Highton Ridley in a stark examination of decline and decay, while "Moths are Made of Dust" delivers an eerie series of self-portraits created with highly manipulated photographic techniques.
All in all, it's a daunting body of work, revealing for all its ambiguity and notably fresh.

In addition to the films, Charlton has posted several other interesting bits on his YouTube page. There's a clip of him at the Southbank Centre's Ether Festival in 2010, and a selection wherein he manipulates yet another device - a compact, powerful audio router called the "Cacophonator." For a Halloween-themed segment called "Playing With Knives," he employs a lobster knife, carving knife and delay pedal to augment the theremin's emissions.
His activities have only increased in the past few years, as he's begun a label called White Label Music to distribute his work. He produced The Beat Frequency Method, a booklet for those intrigued by his work and seeking further tips, and he discusses his creative process, inspirations and so forth at
Other projects include numerous collaborations, benefits, etc., as well as participation in the collective called Theremin World (with contributions to yet another blog, called Theremin-UK News).

There, then, is the aural/visual world he's created - a showcase for the very special, very personal talents of a singular creative voice.

A Bright, Bold Venture

I must say that I've never come across a magazine quite like Monocle.
It's as though its creators didn't really pause when considering the genre/audience question - "Where can this be pigeonholed?" - and simply decided to make a magazine that addresses life in our world, right here, right now. This left the possibilities wide open, and enable Tyler Brule, a Canadian journalist and entrepreneur, to offer a vastly edifying reading experience that takes in politics, culture, travel, the arts, food, and so much more.
The UK-based magazine has four foreign desks, and appears 10 times per year. Brule, along with editor Andrew Tuck and creative director Richard Spencer Powell, pride themselves on publishing content that's 100% in-house generated, with no external appropriation - a fact that's impressive, given the range of material on offer in any given issue. 

The April, 2001 edition ("The Great Global Re-Think Issue: From Nation to Shop to Home") is a typically solid effort, so let's have a look.
We begin a series of articles called Rethink with an excellent piece on Baghdad, a place that's still got a lot of work to do, but with citizens that seem to be of a mind. They're rebuilding not just their city and environs but also their rich social culture. Highlights include sharp upticks in retail availability, the arts and even the creation of Basra Sports City, a $500M facility that will host the 2013 Gulf Cup football tournament. We move on to England with a fanciful look at an imagined deposition of the Monarchy - what would happen to "Brand Britain?"
Sri Lanka, still licking its wounds from a recent civil war, seems poised, with significant Chinese investment and involvement, to raise itself a little higher in the region's profiles, and we meet Nuhu Ribadu, a Nigerian presidential hopeful who's fighting an uphill battle against that country's corruption. From cultural clashes in Turkey to the opening of the first Kalashnikov factory outside Russia (in Maracy, Venezuela), we proceed through the openings of stock exchanges in Cambodia (!), Laos and Syria, then to a look at Benjamin Netanyahu's fleet of aircraft, helicopters and armored Audis...
Next, within Rethink (Business) are the propietors of the Harvard Book Shop, a boutique shop that offers POD titles from a pool of over 4,000 public-domain works online. Companies from Italy to Brazil to Sweden address new challenges such as growth, green technologies, and a series of capsule discussions about media outlets, banks, cinemas etc. offers workable ideas about real-world problems.
A third Rethink section introduces East Village Radio, a New York streaming station, as well as a bricks-and-mortar outfit from Ann Arbor called Ghostly International that combines music with striking graphics for a new take on the "record label" model. We read of new trends in sustainable housing, and even woodcraft in Bosnia, before proceeding to a Prospectus segment (real estate listings, but with examinations of the areas in which the properties are found).
Finally, the Inventory portion looks at new twists for objects for everyday living, from flatware to teapots. And after all that, where others leave off, these guys have only begun. This issue included a mini-magazine entitled "Sydney: A Monocle City Survey," a mini graphic novel depicting the adventures of Alessandro Tokuji Takedas (who moved back from NYC to Tokyo to begin a bespoke shirtmaking company), a glossy Monocle Shops catalogue, a poster-sized, foldout 2-sided Lexus ad, done as a snappy illustration, and yet another mini-magazine, a guide to Spain shrinkwrapped with the main title!
The success of the print version of the magazine led to other outlets, such as The Monocle Weekly, a radio program/podcast recorded in various far-flung cities, a number of shops, collaborations offering higher-end goods and various other endeavors.
The pub doesn't just discuss finer-quality goods and services, it walks the walk by using the finest paper stock, from smooth, thick matte finishes to semi-lustre glossy to a wonderful pebbled finish (for the cover of the Spain guide). The end result is a marriage of substantial, indepth and engaging reading, housed within a physical package that's worth holding onto.

Bravo, Monocle. There's nothing like you in the world.

The Noble Simplicity of Turner Classic Movies
Sometimes in television, quality isn't forgotten. Against trends, against its competition, some programming chiefs choose substance, and so it is with Turner Classic Movies. 
The network debuted on April 14th, 1994 with the goal of presenting older films yet also providing context and understanding about the times in which they were created. And unlike Turner's first cable foray, TNT, there was no colorization. That lesson had been learned.
In the late '90s TCM and AMC were plying the same waters, but AMC thereafter opened their format to films that it deemed higher-quality, no matter the year, and now Turner Classic stands as the standard in thoughtful, informative presentation (due in no small part to its affable host, Robert Osborne). A series of arrangements left Turner with great holdings in the MGM and Warner Brothers libraries, holdings that he continues to add to.
Restorations of endangered silent works, hand-picked "Vault" box sets and interesting concepts such as the "Essentials Jr." presentations have added to the network's fortunes and prestige, and helped to garner it a Peabody award in 2008.

The naked face of commerce cannot be separated from much of this material: there was, after all, a fairly rigid studio system in place for much of those early Hollywood years, and protocols were followed. Additionally, the goal was to present an evening's entertainment, not make some grand artisitc statement. Nevertheless, most of these films hold up well, and all of them share that slightly burnished quality of belonging to a different place and time, a vanished Hollywood, a realm of dreams and vigor.

In the end, it seems as if Donald Trump has surpassed Ted Turner in the Highly Visible Mogul stakes, but TCM will stand possibly as Turner's most lasting legacy, and won't that be, finally, of the greater value?

Well, that was a blast. See you next time.Until then,
Dont hate the black, don't hate the white, but if you get bit, just hate the bite.

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