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Tuesday, Dec 18, 2007

One article from the Sydney Morning Herald and one photograph from MediaStorm render at human scale the great, troubling environmental concerns of this year.

Maira Kalman. Principles of Uncertainty. New York Times

Maira Kalman. “Principles of Uncertainty”. New York Times


Time Flies ... Backwards ... Seriously


When The New York Times ceased its subscription service Times Select earlier this year Maira Kalman’s illustrated column, “The Principles of Uncertainty”, was one of the treasures that became freely available to all readers. What was less noticeable in the moment was that The New York Times archive had also been shorn free of its payment system and stories going back decades had been given permalinks. The New York Times became a time machine, showing us how events and people were perceived in their own time.


A review of Disney’s 2003 television adaptation of Kay Thompson’s smart, sly children’s book Eloise shows how we can be misled if we don’t grasp how something relates to its own time.


In 1955, the year ‘‘Eloise’’ came out, Lee Ann Meriwether was crowned Miss America, and the top-rated television show was ‘‘The $64,000 Question’’ on CBS. Eisenhower was president, Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy was tarnished but still in office. That year, the Brooklyn Dodgers finally beat the New York Yankees in the World Series, the Soviet Union coaxed seven East European nations into the Warsaw Pact and Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of a Montgomery, Ala., bus.


‘‘Eloise’’ was part of a different 1955. Hers was the year that Nabokov published ‘‘Lolita,’’ that ‘‘Marty’’ won the Oscar for Best Picture and Cole Porter’s musical ‘‘Silk Stockings’’ opened at the Imperial Theater in New York.


Thompson’s book was on best-seller lists along with Graham Greene’s ‘‘Quiet American’’ but its irreverence and frivolity echoed the songs of Tom Lehrer, whose first album came out in 1953; the funny-macabre illustrations of Edward Gorey; and even the cruel wit of Kingsley Amis’s ‘‘Lucky Jim.’‘


In 1989, as he was finishing the Civil War documentary that would establish a new style of building documentary films around vintage still images, Ken Burns reviewed a retrospective of the documentaries of the journalist Bill Moyers. “At one point in ‘‘Cowboys,’’ a documentary produced in 1976 (as part of ‘‘Bill Moyers’s Journal’‘) about the difficult but rewarding life of cowboys in northwestern Colorado, one of the subjects says, ‘‘All we can know is our own time,” “wrote Burns. “For Bill Moyers, one of the most celebrated and at times controversial producers of documentary films, it is a key phrase: ‘‘That is what compels me as a journalist, to know as much as I can of my own time.’’ ” 


In 1988 Moyers had a stupendous hit with his public television series The Power of Myth, built around conversations with Joseph Campbell, who’d devoted his life to finding connections between mythologies across cultures and through time. George Lucas was an admirer of Campbell’s and drew from his books for the spiritual dimension of the Star Wars movies. Five of the conversations were recorded at his Skywalker studios and another at the Museum of Natural History in New York not long before Campbell died in 1987. It was “the sleeper of sleepers” that “no-one wanted to show” wrote Burns, but audiences were galvanized. “Viewers saw a strange and wonderful sight: There, in prime time, was a mesmerizing look at the question of the soul’s survival.”


Reviewer John Corry wrote in May 1988: “Talk about old fashioned! ‘‘Moyers: Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth’’ is Stone Age television: six hours in which Bill Moyers and Mr. Campbell talk to each other and hardly ever get out of their chairs. Is this boring? Sometimes it is; most of the time it is not.” He concluded: “Mr. Moyers is doing something special.” John J. O’Connor wrote in The New York Times in May of 1988: “When pressed to define American television at its best, I find myself frequently mentioning the name of Bill Moyers. The point is, at bottom, a matter of the medium taking itself seriously rather than merely going for the obvious. Mr. Moyers takes himself and the rest of us very seriously.” 


In a 1995 New York Times interview with Jon Pareles Leonard Cohen explained the attraction of seriousness: “How do we produce work that touches the heart? We don’t want to live a frivolous life, we don’t want to live a superficial life. We want to be serious with each other, with our friends, with our work. That doesn’t necessarily mean gloomy or grim, but seriousness has a kind of voluptuous aspect to it. It is something that we are deeply hungry for, to take ourselves seriously and to be able to enjoy the nourishment of seriousness, that gravity, that weight.”


Joseph Campbell’s premise is that mythology is the weight that anchors us in our search for a meaningful existence. Ancient stories can guide us through the stages in own lives and the works of artists and spiritual figures who give these timeless messages a new context in our time in their own works link us to our societies. Mythology gives us a deep sense of the continuity of life and without that realization we’re buffetted around on the surface of the concerns of the day that we read in newspapers.


Bill Moyers: What happens when a society no longer embraces a powerful mythology?


Joseph Campbell: What we’ve got on our hands. If you want to find out what it means to have a society without any rituals, read The New York Times.


Bill Moyers: And you’d find?


Joseph Campbell: The news of the day, including destructive acts by young people who don’t know how to behave in a civilized society.


The Power of Myth.


 


As our media has moved online we’ve been distracted by fast moving images and dumbed-down analyses and the past has been erased or placed out of our reach as searches turn up broken links and we’re led to ghost sites trapped within superseded technological formats. The powerful stories and technological developments in the media in 2007 were serious and gave us ways to connect to the past and see the big picture, often symbolically. 


Tim Flannery and Margaret Fulton. Photo by Marco del Grande

Tim Flannery and Margaret Fulton. Photo by Marco del Grande


The Sydney Morning Herald


Back in May Australia’s drought had become so severe that the major cities were beginning to calculate how many months of drinking water was left and it was announced there would be little to no water available to farmers along the Murray-Darling Rivers for irrigation from July. Former Prime Minister John Howard was yet to opportunistically evolve from a climate change skeptic to a climate change “realist”.


Australians were bereft of government leadership on climate change issues but The Sydney Morning Herald did something remarkable. It used the occasion of the publication of a new cookbook by Margaret Fulton to address the concerns of Australians about the future of their food and water supplies by allowing public figures who are actively protective of the quality of Australia’s food and the environment to speak directly to the readers.


Margaret Fulton is now in her eighties and has taught generations of Australians a respect for fresh food and its preparation and the rituals of dining. She’d emerged from an era when housewives baked pretty cakes and opened cans of food they’d been persuaded to buy from television commercials. She’d been the food editor for a womens magazine and a presenter on television, shilling for kitchen wares. The Sydney Morning Herald asked who she’d like to have lunch with and she suggested Dr. Tim Flannery, an environmental scientist, zoologist, explorer. His book The Future Eaters is an ecological history of Australia, first published in 1990’s, and was an early alarm call about the onset of catastrophic environmental changes. They ate lunch at Justin North’s Sydney restaurant Becasse.


The story had a brilliant conceptual clarity and simplicity. It was mostly a transcript of an undirected conversation and is as engaging as Bill Moyers’s conversations with Joseph Campbell. It also worked equally well as a traditional newspaper story and in an unforced multi-media package with audio and photographs on the Sydney Morning Herald’s website.


Justin North talked about our shared environmental responsibilities:


“When I opened the first Becasse in Surry Hills it was all about trying to get good produce at a reasonable price. Where it came from didn’t really matter. But you wake up over time and I realised that I have a responsibility to do my part. I still want to be cooking in 10 years’ time and with really good produce. But if I go about things in a haphazard way and don’t care for the environment with my purchases, there will be produce that I won’t be able to get. As you mature as a chef these things become more important to your own philosophy and in a commercial sense as well. People are putting more demands on us: they do want organic and sustainable produce.”


In August in The Sydney Morning Herald Wendy Frew drew attention to a report that calculated the effect Australian consumers are having on their environment.


New data shows the electricity and water used to produce everything people buy - from food and clothing to CDs and electrical appliances - far outweighs any efforts to save water and power in the home, according to an extensive analysis by the Australian Conservation Foundation and the University of Sydney.


Wealthy families in suburbs such as Woollahra, North Sydney, Mosman and Ku-ring-gai, who can afford to install solar power and large water tanks, still have the biggest ecological footprint because of the goods and services they buy.


At lunch Tim Flannery mentioned Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which he was reviewing for The New York Review of Books. Pollan has a new book, In Defense of Food, about to be released. And in last Sunday’s New York Times wrote an essay on sustainability.


We’re asking a lot of our bees. We’re asking a lot of our pigs too. That seems to be a hallmark of industrial agriculture: to maximize production and keep food as cheap as possible, it pushes natural systems and organisms to their limit, asking them to function as efficiently as machines. When the inevitable problems crop up — when bees or pigs remind us they are not machines — the system can be ingenious in finding “solutions,” whether in the form of antibiotics to keep pigs healthy or foreign bees to help pollinate the almonds. But this year’s solutions have a way of becoming next year’s problems. That is to say, they aren’t “sustainable.”


From this perspective, the story of Colony Collapse Disorder and the story of drug-resistant staph are the same story. Both are parables about the precariousness of monocultures. Whenever we try to rearrange natural systems along the lines of a machine or a factory, whether by raising too many pigs in one place or too many almond trees, whatever we may gain in industrial efficiency, we sacrifice in biological resilience. The question is not whether systems this brittle will break down, but when and how, and whether when they do, we’ll be prepared to treat the whole idea of sustainability as something more than a nice word.


Michael Pollan. “Our Decrepit Food Factories.” December 16, 2007. The New York Times



Photo by Paul Fusco. Chernobyl Legacy

Photo by Paul Fusco. Chernobyl Legacy


MediaStorm


The moving image is the alpha-predator of the online world and it’s obscured the power of the still image. Advertisements shimmy and shake around the edges of our e-mail and zip across articles on newspaper websites. Blogs are increasingly studded with YouTube video segments. But MediaStorm has done a great deal to restore the symbolic power of photojournalism to distill and crystallise complex stories that range over a long time period, in the language of multi-media. It creates multi-media packages with big media organizations (the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times among them) but also curious, abstract pieces that stand alone on its own website as something like independent movies.


Twenty one years ago the world’s worst nuclear accident occurred at Chernobyl, in the Ukraine. Paul Fusco’s images of the children who have been disfigured and destroyed by their poisoned environment are a new kind of elegy, a mourning for the living dead, for children who will never be wholly alive. On the MediaStorm website are images from the book Chernobyl Legacy with a spoken commentary and backed by a solo cello musical track.


Wherever there is radiation, people live with it. They eat it in their food. They drink it in their water.


The kids at Novinki who are troubled, diagnosed, they are categorized… A, B, C, D.


Well D, hopeless, they are never going be real human beings. They will never obtain much. They all go to Novinki.


And, once they get there, if they survive and live they will be sent to the main asylum.


It was like a different race was being farmed because they look human but they were all troubled in very obvious ways.


In Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, which begins as a series of nuclear explosions destroys the environment, a father goes on a journey with his son, who was born a few days after the explosions. The child intuits compassion, joy, loyalty, and a system of ethics from his father’s acts of self-sacrifice. The father continually asks himself whether it was wrong and selfish to have brought a child into such a world. In spite of everything there is hope threaded through the book. The child sees another little boy somewhere on their travels.


I’m scared that he was lost.


I think he’s all right.


But who will find him if he’s lost? Who will find the little boy?


Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again.


Cormac McCarthy. The Road.


 


We may not be able to restore the ruined world to a paradise, McCarthy suggests, but we can repair our own souls. In spite of everything we are still able to love. Paul Fusco’s photograph of a father tenderly cradling a baby with a tumor that’s bigger than its whole head tells the story of McCarthy’s book in one image. In the big stories of our times what’s small and quiet becomes powerful and enduring: A photograph showing a father’s love for his disfigured child. ... Ceremonial silence while the names of dead soldiers scroll across a television screen at the end of a news bulletin. ... 



 


 


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Tuesday, Dec 18, 2007

Sad but true.  Thanks to anyone who heeded the call and contacted your member of Congress.  Maybe the courts will put a halt to this the way they did under former FCC scumbag Michael Powell.


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Tuesday, Dec 18, 2007

In BusinessWeek a few issues ago (I’m just starting to catch up on my reading), Peter Burrows was pushing subscription music services, trotting out some sensible arguments against being tied down to enjoying only the music you own—you can discover so much new stuff, sample music on whims, and listen to a lot of cheesy songs you wouldn’t necessary want on preserve on your hard drive. And you don’t have to worry about a hard drive crash erasing your collection, because you won’t have a collection: peace of mind through shedding belongings, which bring with them the anxiety of having to protect them. (This always makes me think of Spalding Grey explaining in Swimming to Cambodia how he conquered his fear of swimming in deep water by leaving his wallet in plain view on the beach. He was so worried about the wallet being stolen that he didn’t think about the danger of being too far from shore.)


It seems inevitable that eventually a wireless device will be introduced that gives you access to all of recorded music for a subscription fee. The technology seems to be in place; it just requires the right combination of design, promotion and cooperation among what’s left of the music industry. And this will seem like a great idea until people realize what a pain in the ass it is to select what they want to hear from the near infinite possibilities, and will long for the simplicity of radio stations one trusts to play good music. This, anyway, is what Sirius seems to be banking on, as their cocky commercials about their portable players implies.


For those who aren’t indifferent or open-minded enough to give over control over what music they hear to professional—to people who must play DJ for themselves (and probably their friends) ownership of music is essential for several reasons. First, making the purchase is a decision-making moment that in itself gives pleasure—it’s a moment in which one gets to make some piece of knowledge one has operational. The decision also invests one emotionally in the thing purchased, increasing the possibility for enjoying it. This is one of the sad realities of consumer societies, that putting money where your mouth is is way to fix your attention on something and be optimistically disposed toward its being about to please you. When you download a bunch of music off a borrowed hard drive, your investment in the music is zilch, and the effort to sort through it all is herculean—all those little decisions about whether you like this or that song as you weed through has less pleasure attached to it because nothing ultimately is at stake in the choice. In such a situation, when I’m trying to assimilate a large quantity of music, I find myself thrown back on my taste alone, and that taste is nebulous, contingent. When I buy music, I find I have more reason to try enjoying it at different times, trying to find the mood or occasion that suits it.


And the big collection is necessary if you want to impress people with mix CDs. You give yourself a much larger vocabulary to speak with when you have more songs to choose from and consequently more juxtapositions to play with. It’s nice to have a lot of music when you want to give it as a gift to someone else. I don’t know that any recipient of a mix CD has nearly as much invested in it as its creator, but some of the emotion that gets poured into making mixes must survive into the final product. And that residual emotional is a direct result of someone working hard to make the most out of their music collection. (The friend I visited in Seattle recently had a new friend who made him a bunch of compilations, and reading through the track lists, I almost felt like I was getting to know her without actually meeting her. But I didn’t ask to listen to them—accustoming to making the compilations myself, I get peevish having to hear other people’s; sad, really, the joy that I think compilations can give is something that I myself am generally shut off to.)


Collecting is a means for filtering, as is making the compilations, and both of these activities are about bringing knowledge to bear, making decisions with consequences. The subscription service removes the consequences, almost makes the idea of having selective musical taste superfluous. Not there is anything wrong with that; musical taste’s centrality to identity seems a peculiar quirk. Nonetheless, taste in commercial music comes down to what music you are willing to pay for specifically. If you are paying to have it all, you effectively have no taste.


 


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Monday, Dec 17, 2007


It stands as one of the big debates among critics. It surpasses annual best of lists and arguments over overrated/underrated directors/writers/actors. For purists, the answer is obvious. Film is meant to be an isolated and individual experience, especially for someone given the charge of examining it for consideration and comment. On the other hand, the post-modern movie scribe believes that as populist entertainment, a film should only be considered as part of a group dynamic. Only with an audience can a comedy’s humor be judged correctly. Only with a crowd can a fright fest’s shivers be accurately gauged.


Of course, as we’ve come to discover over the last two pieces in this prolonged Fourth Estate examination, viewers and reviewers don’t mix. Even worse, many publications and their editorial staff are not looking for the mob mentality - at least, they didn’t used to. To say that an audience’s reaction SHOULD be important to a critic is like suggesting that they can’t do their job without it. And yet they are asked to all the time. Naturally, if you visualize your aesthetic purpose as playing reporter, delivering plot and how the reader might react to it, the forced guffaws and freely shed tears are your basic bread and butter. But if your job is more in line with classic criticism - viewing each movie as it applies to the overall artform - some complimentary ticket holder’s take means very little.


Let’s face it - your typical critic is not out to pander. Pauline Kael didn’t establish her legacy by listening to the amplified ‘ohs’ and ‘ahs’ of a packed Cineplex. Roger Ebert didn’t win his Pulitzer by gauging the number of shrieks a Poltergeist play date received. A reviewer takes the job because they love the medium, and their approach to same and how they view it is intensely private…until made public. While it’s nice to hear an audience sigh in appreciation of a motion picture job well done, it’s never mandatory. Even worse, some suggest that hearing crowds crow over an obviously hackneyed effort actually amplifies their contempt. It can be confusing at best.


Perhaps, by example, the problems in both approaches can be better highlighted. Let’s take a crass, horribly unfunny comedy like Rush Hour 3. Screened for the press in a preview audience-only offering, fans of both Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker lined up hours before hand to support their favorite onscreen action duo. So when they finally find a seat, complain about the critic’s row, and settle down for some cost-free entertainment, they’re ready to react. All throughout the lame, nonsensical 90 minutes of movie, the crowd cheered. They literally rolled in the aisles as obvious jokes limped by, and they rallied like less than sober sports fans when the finale unfolded. Praise poured out of the mouths of all but the critics. They were too stunned to speak.


Then there’s Sweeny Todd. The Sondheim musical, brought to wondrous life by director Tim Burton, was a terrific tour de force, the kind of operatic experience that allows a viewer to escape and explore. Though the songs can be difficult and the amount of blood overpowering, the film is a literal work of art - and yet, in the half-full preview screening it played in, the crowd was subdued to the point of possible boredom. There was a smattering of applause as the credits rolled, and the comments given to the studio representatives suggested an alarming level of discontent. Of course, most of the critics found it masterful.


So, which reaction is valid, and which one is not. From a professional perspective, Todd is the clear winner. It has a 90% positive rating vs. Rush Hour 3‘s 20%. Yet box office is usually the final word, and in the case of the tired tre-quel, Chan and Tucker are destined to come out ahead. So what is the audience reaction actually predicting? If not artistry, than mere appreciation? And is that really a critic’s job - to determine what’s saleable vs. what’s skillful? Under a traditional career definition, that goes against everything a journalist represents.


But what about the private screening? Does the lack of an audience matter there? It’s clear that, in the case of movies like No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, the added involvement of a crowd would not matter. In fact, their presence could have cancelled out the magical spell being weaved by the able bodied auteurs behind the lens. On the other hand, the odd family film fragmentation of something like The Water Horse, or the quirky indie issues at the heart of Wristcutters: A Love Story might have actually benefited from an audience’s input. Not every movie announces its intentions in obvious ways. If a viewer can offer up some insight, igniting a reaction in a critic’s head, then it’s a clear case of win/win.


This almost never happens, however. Instead, inappropriate laughter and unnecessary communal commentary are the norm. At a screening of Elizabeth: The Golden Age, a man was so amazed by the fate of Mary, Queen of Scots, that he reacted to her dramatic execution by shouting “DAAAAMN! They cut her head off!” In another case, while a character in Feast of Love (and otherwise awful film) was dying, snickers could be heard from various members of the movie going multitude. The misplaced giggle is probably the most blatant audience offense. Just because you’re not frightened by a scary movie doesn’t mean some other member of the attending throng isn’t. Your disrespectful defense mechanism is not really appreciated.


Still, it’s hard to argue with this core concept of the theatrical experience. All three Apatow efforts this year - Knocked Up, Superbad, and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story played so well with an audience that it’s hard to imagine experiencing each without them. Similarly, I Am Legend needed its fan-base support, if only to help keep viewers awake during the dull third act build up. The audible gasps during The Kingdom and The Bourne Ultimatum did argue for both film’s action acumen, and genre workouts like Rob Zombie’s Halloween and The Mist played much better with an exponential level of fear.


It really doesn’t answer or even address the question, however - and drama remains the twisted trump card. Serious films play on so many differing levels and emotions that they can quickly bifurcate a crowd. Reactions to something like Rendition were all over the map, while American Gangster fell across clear actor/demographic lines. Michael Clayton and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford didn’t play like end of the year candidates in their private morning screenings, but when shown with a crowd, both received realistic, indirect boosts.


Just like judging movies for a living, prognostication by popularity is a horribly incomplete science. Evan Almighty flopped, yet the audience who attended the preview lapped up every uneven minute. Bee Movie made viewers buzz, yet it looks to be one of the least successful CGI efforts ever. On the other hand, Stardust and Sunshine had strong critical approval and yet turnstiles remained relatively still. It’s been said that if one could predict - within an acceptable frequency - what will work and what will fail, they’d be the richest man or woman in Tinsel Town. It’s just not that easy.


And audiences aren’t the answer. While the clash over private vs. public will probably end up remaining a matter of personal preference, the conversation will continue. As stated in other installments of these ‘confessions’, there is an automatic bias from the professional community against being herded and harassed. Major markets probably never even consider the issue while smaller regions wrestle with it week in and week out. Obviously, the studios think that some films play better with more people present. Others are for media minds only. Perhaps it’s not a matter of right and wrong after all. It may not even be an issue at all. But in light of the way criticism is marginalized nowadays, one thing is obvious - all reaction is taken with a huge grain of cinematic salt, both inside and outside celluloid. 


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Monday, Dec 17, 2007

Pan’s Labryinth (2-Disc Platinum Series) [$34.98]

DVD versions of Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro’s award-winning films are no doubt already part of many a fan’s collection. But to really win that special someone’s gratitude this holiday season, buy them these particular editions. The in-depth “making of” and “interviews” extras with the directors, actors, writers and technicians convey stories of patience, endurance, perseverance, intellect and imagination. Indeed, these admirable qualities of the human spirit emerge just as undeniably strong in the telling of the extras as they do in these beautiful films. Heart-swelling factors aside, it’s also just really cool to learn how Babel spanned those huge geographic and linguistic chasms to so captivatingly interweave such complex yet basic human stories. It’s a pleasure to learn not only about the degree of mental muscle that went into the epic storytelling of Pan’s Labryinth, but also the fantastical special effects, not least the physical endurance required of the man beneath the latex, who made that haunting, paradoxical fawn a permanent presence in our dreams.


 


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