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Sunday, Nov 11, 2007

“He was by nature bound to a style of excess. There were times when you would be fed-up with him, but if you could conceive of American culture of the past 50 years without Norman Mailer, you would find it a lot drearier.”



So says EL Doctorow or Norman Mailer, who died this past weekend in New York City. The best of the obits can be found in the Los Angeles Times. Elaine Woo dissects Mailer’s varied images, from wunderkind to genius, giant to buffoon.

The Guardian positions Mailer as “the pugilist who wrote the story of America”, the Village Voice credits its co-founder, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution digs up a host of literary types to praise Mailer up, down, and sideways. John Mark Eberhart at the Kansas City Star remembers Mailer from the perspective of a fan rather than a colleague or simple observer.

I took [Ancient Evenings] home. The suffering began. This book was a photonegative of [The Executioner’s] Song, dull instead of fascinating, leaden instead of lively. Certainly the writing was good. Mailer just didn’t convince me to care about the story. Through the years, that would be my experience with Mailer; to read him was to be alternately vexed and dazzled.

It’s impossible, though, to know just what to think of Mailer, egocentric Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author who head-butted Gore Vidal and stabbed a lover at a party, based on these all-too-nice retrospectives. Check out the real Mailer for yourself over at Wired for Books. Don Swaim’s hour-long 1991 interview is most revealing.


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Sunday, Nov 11, 2007

So Jesus was a seagull. Or in deference to all devout Christians out there, a bird can be a messianic figure once it has a Trial of Billy Jack-like spiritual reawakening. Guess all those sacrosanct sightings in bagels, Danishes, and pizza slices aren’t so silly after all. For anyone old enough to recall the whole Godspell/Superstar revivalism of the early ‘70s (as clear a mea culpa for the preceding ‘60s as any culture can create), Jonathan Livingston Seagull was a plain-speak Bible combined with The Unexpurgated Guide to Water Fowl. It was, to paraphrase Woody Allen, EST with Feathers. Today it would be dismissed as New Age heresy—or perhaps, a literal fine-feathered soup for the easily enlightened soul—but back when flares were fashionable and people were feeling powerless against a corrupt government machine, this was Deepak Chopra with wings.

Joseph Campbell would be proud of the mythos manufactured here. Constantly taking off on his own, Jonathan Livingston Seagull is one disgruntled bird. He wants to fly faster, travel farther, and ignore the outdated laws of The Flock’s dictatorial elders. He’s a rebel, and he’ll never ever be anything but undeniably good. Instead of picking at garbage for sustenance, he’d rather try out new dangerous wing patterns and partake of internal monologues. As a result, he soon finds himself outcast from his feathered family. On his own for the first time, he drinks in the initial freedom. He travels across an unnamed nation, experiencing the vastness of the far off horizons.

But as the realities of a life alone start to sink in, Jonathan stumbles. Soon, he finds himself in a surreal world where lives are measured in centuries, not years, and where reincarnation allows his kind to transcend their body and teleport through space. After learning more about his special spiritual powers, Jonathan returns to The Flock. He wants to spread the Word about the world outside their landfill living conditions. He even takes another non-conformist seagull under his wing. Tragedy tests both of their mantles. It’s all part of being one with the cosmos and discovering your inner self.

Author Richard Bach, writer of this unquestionable cultural phenomenon that drove many a stunned student directly to the water pipe, was lambasted for cookie-cutter literary sloppiness and a far-too-liberal interpretation of man’s secular status in the cosmic hierarchy - but that didn’t hurt his bank account any. Every matriculating freshman found this best-selling bird book smack dab in the middle of the required-reading list, while older generations, desperate for some post-sexual revolution respite, tucked into the novel’s altruistic excess like highballs at an open bar. As with most fads, it quickly faded, but just to put a cap on the craze, writer/director Hal Bartlett brought the fable to the big screen.

If you can tolerate the touchy-feely foundation of Bach’s backwards belief system, and then Zen hit maker Neil Diamond’s sonic take on same, Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a stunning artistic experience. It is, without a doubt, one of the more visually magnificent movies ever made. Oscar-nominated for its outstanding cinematography (by Disney True-Life Adventures photographer Jack Couffer) and editing (vast sweeping vistas courtesy of Jack P. Keller and James Galloway), it is a sumptuous optical wonder, a nature-based work of cinematic art. You can stuff your CGI – this is scope sans unnecessary visual tweaks. 

When we first meet the title character, he is soaring majestically through cotton soft clouds and over hyper-realistic seashore settings. It’s the Garden of Eden as clear California dreamin’. As slow motion waves crash against abandoned beaches, our hero hovers and dives, sun setting slowing to produce a perfect orange glow. It’s just incredible. Jonathan Livingston Seagull actually plans on using this image-based bravado for the vast majority of its storytelling—and we’re willing to buy it, up to a point. Indeed, the minute Mr. “Song Sung Blue” opens his pipes to pitch operatic, we start to shrink from the conceit. There is technically nothing wrong with Diamond’s score. It’s never pop songy, but it does get mighty saccharine and silly at times.

When the birds begin to speak, however, all bets are off. Since the book allowed the interaction between the avian characters to be semi-subjective in nature, it was an easier premise to buy. But when given the voice of a slightly irritating nebbish, Mr. Seagull becomes spoiled. There are several times throughout the course of this film when you wish a parent or down-covered pal would walk up to our hero and smack him upside the beak. If you’re going to anthropomorphize a creature, why make him so gosh-darned whiny and borderline insufferable?

You can almost hear actor James Franciscus balk during the voice-over. He can’t believe some of the lumbering lines he’s given. Luckily, everyone else is much less grating. Richard Crenna, Juliet Mills, Hal Holbrook, and Dorothy McGuire all do a bang-up job of making us believe these motionless entities are actually conversing (this is 1973, remember—a tad too soon for F/X moving mouths). While it may have been possible to make this film without all of Bach’s TM-laden psychobabble, it does help deliver the movie’s main point. Without it, we’d have 100 minutes of lovely landscapes and little else.

Thematically, Jonathan Livingston Seagull is stuck in supporting something best described as ‘nice guy non-conformity’. Our amiable albatross wants desperately to teach The Flock what he knows—about flying, about living, about avoiding eating your meals out of a massive rubbish heap. But according to our mighty author, people…sorry, gulls are the winged version of sheep—easily led and dumb as dirt. Jonathan must have a near-death epiphany, followed by a full-blown psychedelic freak-out, before he learns the power of one…bird. The sudden shift into New Testament territory begins when our hero delivers his sermon on the mount…of garbage. Then he resurrects a fellow gull who flew too close to a hazard, Icarus style, and cracked his plumed coconut. Sadly, there is no Passion like scourging. This was 1972 after all.

During the final fifteen minutes, we keep waiting for the cast of Disney’s Tropical Tiki Room Revue to step up and start singing “Could We Start Again Please.” It all gets very heavy handed and meta-metaphysical, trying to be every dogma to all mankind. Yet buried inside all the self-reflection and actualization is a kindly missive about being yourself and avoiding the corrosion of conventionality. So if you simply give the story its dated wacky packaging and enjoy the sights, you’ll get a great deal out of this preachy pictorial. Jonathan Livingston Seagull may argue for unrealistic altruism, individual sacrifice and the quest for freedom, but he remains—at least in film form—a pretty inconsistent pigeon to carry such a heavy handed communication.

For those of us fond of our formative years, reflecting with a new sense of personal perspective on everything and everyone that made those glorified days important, a few instrumental entities are bound to fail the significance test. Mood rings, space food sticks, and George McGovern do indeed become less momentous in the light of a three decade space time update. Jonathan Livingston Seagull is another such artifact. As a film, it has a visual power that’s destined to endure. As a philosophy, it gives the Reverend Moon and his group marrying followers a real run for their money.


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Saturday, Nov 10, 2007

That old question came up on a Brian Eno mailing list.  The exact thread was “Does Eno give a shit about his fans?” which should give you some idea about what the presumed answer was.  The argument was that Eno indulges in gallery exhibitions plus limited edition releases and the rare lecture in far-flung places that makes it hard for a fan keep up with him or enjoy his latest work and musings.  On the list, there were people who defended Eno for following his own muse wherever it took him and others who thought that his obliqueness was his way of pissing off fans.  So what’s the right balance for an artist to maintain in relationship to fans?

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Saturday, Nov 10, 2007

Because of their high profile in the entertainment business and a talent track record of near mythic proportions, it’s easy to forget what Pixar meant to the technological end of the artform. Granted, they are the leading light when it comes to pushing the creative boundaries of CGI, using invention and aesthetic depth to deliver definitive examples of the post-modern genre. From Toy Story to Ratatouille, Finding Nemo to the upcoming Wall-E, they’ve provided a platform for some of the most wonderful, most awe-inspiring cinematic spectacles since pen and ink hit paper. Yet it’s the tools with which such visions are realized that will remain the company’s strongest legacy, a selection of software and applications that allowed everyone else to explore this infinitely fanciful environment of expression.

More than the inherent charm of seeing the medium in its infancy, or the overwhelming value of tracing it’s growth into the juggernaut it is today, the 13 wondrous works offered as part of the Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 1 (new to DVD from Disney) are perhaps one of the most amusing and insightful history lessons ever offered. Utilizing the added capacity of the digital format, John Lasseter and his merry band of pranksters are on hand to guide us - via commentary and added content – how a purchase by Apple’s Steve Jobs in the early ‘80s transformed a small tech concern into one of the biggest cartoon conglomerates ever. Along the way, we see how each new mini-movie illustrated and expanded some significant corporate progress, and how a string of industry eyes only promo reels became the cutting edge of a whole new way of bringing manmade movement into the 21st Century.

It all began with The Adventures of André and Wally B (1984). Made under the auspices of Lucas Films, it was the then unformed Pixar’s first production. Wanting to showcase two different innovations in the burgeoning bitmap realm – a pointillism inspired program used to create realistic landscapes and the introduction of the tear drop shape for characters – the story of an alien robot and the bumblebee tormenting him was under five minutes of simplistic action. But it was the proverbial giant step in both form and function. Next up, shadow and physical reality were explored in Luxo Jr. (1986). Named after the desktop lamp on animator Lasseter’s drawing table, this complicated comedy involving a hyperactive fixture and its befuddled father became the recognizable face of the company. Even today, Pixar uses the loony light as its mascot and logo cue.

But it was the story of an unwanted unicycle that made Red’s Dream (1987) the first legitimate animated film for the company. Hoping to combine semi-realistic character modeling (a rather freakish clown) with a true emphasis on story and emotion, the amazingly effective piece became a rallying cry for taking the company into the realm of full length feature moviemaking. Of course, there were obstacles along the way, and Tiny Toy (1988) would be used to address many of them. Winning an Oscar for its clever combination of design (the company’s initial foray into dealing with anthropomorphized playthings) and detail (for its time, the rather monstrous baby was a technical marvel), it proved that the untried novices could definitely play with their most established peers.

Knick Knack (1989) and Geri’s Game (1997) would confirm said status. Both were narrative based, utilizing software advances and new programming paradigms to realize their goals, not visa versa. Similarly, both advanced the concept of the media’s seemingly inexhaustible creative elements. While the former film dealt with a group of souvenirs, and one particularly perplexed snowman, the latter was a single character tour de force that indicated the medium’s malleability as a traditional means of storytelling. Many of the problems solved and trials survived helped the company make the leap, resulting in the first real masterpiece of the fledgling medium, Toy Story (1995).

What followed then was a series of tie-in efforts, films made to accompany the next big screen release from the sudden producer of blockbuster popcorn fare. For the Birds (2000) followed the adventures of some snotty little fowl, while Mike’s New Car (2002) took character’s from the hit movie Monsters, Inc. (2001) and gave them a small showcase all their own. Jack-Jack Attack (2005) did the same with The Incredibles 2004), while Mater and the Ghost Light (2006) expanded on the Route 66 mythology that Lasseter used to make the 2006 masterwork Cars. The remaining efforts – Boundin’ (2003), One Man Band (2005), Lifted (2006) – were all commissioned to complement a theatrical title, offering audiences a chance to experience the ‘short film before the feature’ novelty, just like their grandparents did decades before.

Along the way, Pixar also produced four Luxo-based pieces for Sesame Street. Dealing with simple concepts like “Surprise”, “Up and Down”, “Light and Heavy”, and “Front and Back”, the kid-friendly facets argued for the company’s overall approach. And when viewed all at once on this amazing DVD, you get the real impression of craftsmanship being channeled and challenged in a way that few formats have been capable of balancing. It may have been a 50/50 split in technology and talent at the beginning, but over the years, the outside the box thinking used by the brains behind the scenes have meant that Pixar established the benchmarks used within a burgeoning artform, instead of trying to live up to them.

Indeed, everything that’s right – and wrong – about CGI today is encompassed in this baker’s dozen of definitive films. While Pixar could never be accused of pandering, watching the crazy critter musical extravaganza of Boundin’ belies what most misguided mimics believe defines the production company’s most successful facets. Similarly, the recycling of favored characters matches the constant sequelizing of the entire Shrek/Ice Aging of the genre. Of course, the lushness of the backdrops, the Autumnal feeling behind Geri’s chess match (it practically reeks of fallen leaves and far off campfires) is also indicative of Pixar’s presence. In fact, in an effort to best the big boys, some overdo the detail. A film like Fox’s Robots may seem like a perfect amalgamation of everything innately good inside the format until you see how far out of whack the minutia vs. amusement ratio really is.

Throughout the commentary tracks offered (only Jack-Jack Attack is missing said conversation, and Mike’s New Car has a couple of company kids – grade schoolers – mindlessly riffing away), the members of the Pixar staff, the old stalwarts and the acknowledged new guard, ascertain the sense of freedom and creative license given by the company and the decision to go digital. For them, CG was not all cold, sterile passionless processors (though the 25 minute behind the scenes documentary The Pixar Shorts: A Short History, will flabbergast you with how horribly old fashioned the first company supercomputers were) – it was a means to a much more magnificent ends. In light of the current overabundance of substandard 3D animation, it’s clear that many wannabes missed this part of the presentation. Now, thanks to The Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 1, everyone has access to the instructions. The ability to utilize them properly? Luckily, that remains a trade secret.

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Friday, Nov 9, 2007

The idea of affordable luxury is oxymoronic, the kind of market segment that sounds so stupid that even the WSJ feels obliged to put it in scare quotes, as in the headline for this article in today’s paper. The term refers to people who aspire to seem as though they are rich but can’t afford true luxury goods—the allegedly recession-proof companies who make goods for the ultra-wealthy, people who don’t become noticably poorer when, say, the currency they use drops 20 percent in value over the course of a year. Affordable luxury, to cite the examples in WSJ’s story, comprises such brands as Nordstrom, Coach and especially Polo Ralph Lauren, whose marketing reeks of the signifiers of the core affordable-luxury fantasy of spendthrift leisure—yachts, polo ponies, sports cars, country houses and all the rest. The affordable luxury segment delineates the line between middle and upper class, but it makes for a trap—its goods simulate but do not replicate real luxury goods, and thus mark its consumers as forever aspirational. Somewhat like (if I remember right) the green light at the end of The Great Gatsby, it’s a tantalizing beacon that is ever receding the more one chases for it.

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Okay, the comparison’s not perfect but once I looked up the reference, I couldn’t resist quoting it. And there is something tragically backward looking about chasing phantasms of the luxe life.

Anyway, I root for marketers in the affordable luxury niche to fail because they prey on the inadequacies of their target consumers, which implies that they are somewhat in bad faith. When they struggle, as they are now, it’s something of a trailing indicator, suggesting that suffering for consumers has already taken place and is being passed down the chain (and sure enough, mounting credit-card defaults seems to indicate that the people living beyond their means can’t keep it up much longer), so celebrating the travails of Nordstrom is like cheering for the discomfort of those insecure not-quite-wealthy people I’d in theory like to see protected from the affordable-luxury vultures. Not that affluent middle class people deserve special protection; it’s just irksome to see economic systems built on individual insecurity and misery—that dynamic trickles down to all the classes, enhancing misery at every frontier between socioeconomic classes.

But still, the fact that the wannabes have begun to stop spending their money at these retailers suggests an opportunity born of crisis (a la Naomi Klein, perhaps) in which the affordable luxury market disappears under a wave of change in consumer purchasing patterns. From the WSJ story:

Alison Santighian says she and her husband, managers for a federal contractor in Washington, are contemplating reducing spending after several years of buying gifts at Saks and Nordstrom. “We might take the money we would normally spend on each other, and put it in savings,” she says.

Why couldn’t this become a habit for such customers, who might then learn some alternative way to establish their presence in a community rather than through signifying status through shopping. Maybe they can banish that status anxiety once and for all. But then I guess that vision is my own green light.

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