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begone dull care

As a tribute to Oscar Peterson, here's a unique vizualisation of his legendary piano work: an abstract animation called 'Begone Dull Care' (1949) by experimental filmmaker Norman McLaren. Synchronized to three pieces by the Oscar Peterson Trio, the images were hand-drawn directly on the film stock (a technique known as 'direct film' or 'cameraless animation') to perfectly time every sound to its visual counterpart.

Begone Dull Care - Norman McLaren

Unfortunately, there's only a rather pixelated version online - watch it here.

For more background and images from the film, see this and this blog post.

selling plastic vs. music

In two Wired articles, David Byrne talks with Thom Yorke, Brian Eno and others about the shifting business model of music.

What is called the music business today (...) is not the business of producing music. At some point it became the business of selling CDs in plastic cases, and that business will soon be over. But that's not bad news for music, and it's certainly not bad news for musicians.

With the costs of production, manufacture and distribution all greatly reduced, the role of the monolythic record company for many musicians is coming to an end. Except for a few mega pop artists, who "will still need that mighty push and marketing effort for a new release that only traditional record companies can provide," even marketing is becoming more affordable as artists are able to reach their audience directly, online and on tour.

Thus Radiohead's recent experiment with 'In Rainbows' - selling the music online and allowing buyers to determine their own price - is just one of many new ways of selling music. To be sure, they already have their audience, which makes such an experiment a lot easier than it would be for a starting band. But, to use a big word, the paradigm shift is in rethinking the relationship of artist and audience.

What is music, what does music do for people? What do people get from it? What's it for? That's the thing that's being exchanged. Not all the other stuff. The other stuff is the shopping cart that holds some of it.

Here are the articles (text and audio):

See also: previous post on 'Good Copy Bad Copy' for some more radical examples of music distribution.

how fortunate the man with none

You saw sagacious Solomon
You know what came of him,
To him complexities seemed plain.
He cursed the hour that gave birth to him
And saw that everything was vain.
How great and wise was Solomon.
The world however did not wait
But soon observed what followed on.
It's wisdom that had brought him to this state.
How fortunate the man with none.

You saw courageous Caesar next
You know what he became.
They deified him in his life
Then had him murdered just the same.
And as they raised the fatal knife
How loud he cried: you too my son!
The world however did not wait
But soon observed what followed on.
It's courage that had brought him to that state.
How fortunate the man with none.

You heard of honest Socrates
The man who never lied:
They weren't so grateful as you'd think
Instead the rulers fixed to have him tried
And handed him the poisoned drink.
How honest was the people's noble son.
The world however did not wait
But soon observed what followed on.
It's honesty that brought him to that state.
How fortunate the man with none.

Here you can see respectable folk
Keeping to God's own laws.
So far he hasn't taken heed.
You who sit safe and warm indoors
Help to relieve our bitter need.
How virtuously we had begun.
The world however did not wait
But soon observed what followed on.
It's fear of god that brought us to that state.
How fortunate the man with none.

Dead Can Dance lyrics taken from Bertold Brecht's poem 'Die Ballade von den Prominenten' (1928).

fresh

Warning: some spoilers ahead.

'Fresh' (1994) is one of those films that is best seen at least twice. The first time to be taken by surprise, and the second time to fully appreciate the subtlety of this powerful and genre-defying film, the basis of which is a script of rare intelligence. Due to some serious mismarketing, it never reached the audience it deserves, and you may have to wade through the trashy action section at your local videostore in order to find it.

The directorial debut of Boaz Yakin, produced by Lawrence Bender (of 'Reservoir Dogs' fame), 'Fresh' was mostly labeled as yet another ghetto film when it came out in the wake of such successes as 'Boyz n the Hood' and 'Menace II Society'. But while the film takes place in Brooklyn with an almost all-black cast, it shares little of the loudmouth and violent cliches we've come to associate with the 'hood. Its majestic, dreamily poetic soundtrack by ex-Police-man Stewart Copeland - possibly his best since 'Rumble Fish' but unfortunately never released - also points to the different ambitions this film has. Perhaps 'urban drama' would be a better label, though that might imply too much sentimentality for a film that lacks precisely that.

Fresh

The main character, twelve year old Michael (Sean Nelson), aka Fresh, runs the streets for the local drug lords (Giancarlo Esposito, among others), as a side job before and after school. As one of them says: "Nobody will be looking for something so big on someone so small." Fresh lives with his aunt Francis and eleven other children in a cramped apartment. His sister Nichole (N'Bushe Wright), a couple of years older, is already falling prey to drugs, spending her days in a numb haze. Fresh secretly sees his father Sam (Samuel L. Jackson), an alcoholic speed chess player on Washington Square, who teaches him the art of chess, which from the beginning serves as a metaphor for life.

Everything lost can be found again, except for time wasted.

While 'Fresh' contains little violence - and what violence there is is suggested rather than shown graphically - the story does pivot on a few brutal moments. The first of these, an agonizing scene which will trigger further events, is when Fresh witnesses the random shooting of the girl he has a crush on at a neighborhood basketball court. Even if the actual shooting occurs offscreen, it jolts us into seeing just how violent the world is in which Fresh grows up. For all the kids fleeing the scene - the court is deserted in seconds - this is normal, way too normal.

This shocking event causes Fresh to rethink his own situation and devise a desperate plan to get out of it. But Nelson portrays Fresh silently, with a poker face, a streetwise kid who has learned never to betray any emotions. After the death of his friend he sets up a chessboard in his room, and starts a game against himself. His next move is to take all his savings - money earned with drug running, stashed away beside a rusty railway track outside of town - and use it to set an elaborate trap for the two rivalling drug lords he works for. The intricacies of the plan he proceeds to orchestrate need not be revealed here. Suffice it to say they mirror, step by step, the strategies of a chess game, with Fresh putting into action the lessons he has learned from his father.

You're hoardin'. You're playin' each piece like losin' it hurts. This ain't checkers. You want my king. You got to come get my king. All these other pieces are just a means to do it. (...) Your queen is just a pawn with a lot of fancy moves. Nothing more.

Throughout this high-stake game, Fresh keeps his poker face, revealing his motives purely on a need-to-know basis - and that includes us viewers. While at first we may presume his plan to be directed at revenge, it becomes clear he is after more: he wants nothing less than a new life for himself and his sister, far away from their crime and drug-ridden environment. "I don't wanna live in no more projects," he says. In retrospect, it was for this that his queen, as well as several other "pieces", had to be sacrificed.

By the time Fresh's plan succeeds and he has won his own game, we have almost forgotten that this is not a professional chess player, nor a tough old gangster, but a twelve year-old child. This realization is kept for the final scene, when it is all over and Fresh sits down for another chess game with his father, who has no idea of the real-life chess his son has been playing. In what must be one of the most heart-wrenching closing scenes ever, Fresh lets out all his pent-up emotions - for the first time in the entire film - and starts crying.

After this intense and layered gem, what a pity Yakin has never come close to this level of perfection anymore.

Viewing tip: watch this film with English subtitles. The DVD's sound quality is not ideal, and the ghetto slang is difficult enough to follow as it is.

supercities

19.20.21. is a research website on "19 cities in the world with 20 million people in the 21st century." With most of the world's population now living in cities, these great urban hubs are key to understanding and shaping global social, political and ecological developments. Or as the site's mission claims, "the rise of the supercities is the defining megatrend of the 21st century."

One example is that most of these supercities border on the oceans of the world, and are thus threatened early on by rising sea levels caused by climate change. The Dutch Randstad, though not nearly large enough to make it to the 19.20.21 list, falls into this category as well.

Very effectively designed in Flash, the site boasts an ambitious five-year plan with research findings in five different media - but unfortunately lacks any information on who's behind the project.

Note to self: reread Lewis Mumford's 'The City in History' (published in 1961 but still a standard work on the development of urban civilization).

the story of stuff

'The Story of Stuff' neatly explains how our entire economy increasingly boils down to one thing: consuming more stuff. From resource extraction to production, distribution and marketing, it all depends on consumption - buying stuff and discarding it to buy new stuff, through planned and perceived obsolescence - no matter how incredibly unsustainable this whole chain really is.

The Story of Stuff

Though the film focuses on the US, where consumers have by far the largest footprint on earth, the principle certainly holds true in Europe as well (if only because it's the same corporations operating globally).

Watch it online or download the entire film. (Via Jens.)

The alternative to this "linear system in crisis" is to make the system circular. This is where 'Cradle to Cradle' comes in, the manifesto of architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart. They propose closed production loops - ecosystems for the technosphere - with zero waste, as all materials are either biodegradable or reusable for 'upcycling'.

More on 'Cradle to Cradle' as soon as I've read the book. For now, see these two Backlight documentaries: 'Afval is Voedsel' ('Waste Equals Food') and its recent follow-up on Cradle to Cradle initiatives in the Netherlands.

the good soldier švejk

'The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War' is the full title of Jaroslav Hašek's satirical masterpiece, left incomplete by his premature death in 1923. A precursor to 'Catch-22', the novel builds on a long tradition of the picaresque, but also points the way to a more savage kind of 20th century satire.

Set during World War I, 'The Good Soldier Švejk' details the enthusiastic but ill-fated attempts of its eponymous Czech hero to play his part in the great events of his time. After the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the happy-go-lucky vagabond Švejk enlists in the Austro-Hungarian army, and he spends the rest of the novel on his way to the front. In one big detour, Švejk goes from being locked up in an insane asylum to being the personal assistant of an alcoholic army priest, all the while entertaining people with an endless stream of stories and anecdotes.

'...They ran around me like dogs and yapped at me, but I did nothing. I kept mum, saluted, left hand on the seam of my trousers. When they had been raging like this for about half an hour, the colonel rushed at me and roared: "Are you a half-wit or aren't you?" - "Humbly report, sir, I'm a half-wit." - "Very well then. Twenty-one days strict confinement for imbecility, two days a week fasting, a month confined to barracks, forty-eight hours in handcuffs, immediate arrest, don't let him eat, truss him, show him that the monarchy doesn't need half-wits..."'
The Good Soldier Švejk

One of the things that makes Švejk such an interesting character is that it's hard to decide whether he is simply a fool who doesn't know any better, or he deliberately frustrates every single one of his superiors, making a mess of whatever they order him to do. This question is never really answered, but one thing is clear: the result of Švejk's stupidity and/or strategy is that he never reaches the front. And even though the story breaks off abruptly, I doubt if Hašek would have ever let Švejk see any actual combat.

In classic picaresque fashion, Švejk and his comic adventures are set up as a vehicle for societal criticism, contrasting an over-eager anti-hero with the absurdities of his war-torn surroundings. As Švejk journeys towards the front with (and often without) his regiment, we get a sense of the whole of Europe in bloody turmoil while Švejk happily wanders through it all. The story is mostly concerned with Švejk's adventures, but at certain points the narrator interjects his own views, with a viciousness that hits home precisely because of the contrast with the otherwise lighthearted tone.

They were now going back to the front to get new wounds, mutilations and pains and to earn the reward of a simple wooden cross over their graves. Years after on the mournful plains of East Galicia a faded Austrian soldier's cap with a rusty Imperial badge would flutter over it in wind and rain. From time to time a miserable old carrion crow would perch on it, recalling fat feasts of bygone days when there used to be spread for him an unending table of human corpses and horse carcasses, when just under the cap on which he perched there lay the daintiest morsels of all - human eyes.

The reference to the cross is not accidental. Throughout the story, Hašek's rants focus mainly on the army and the church - those all-powerful institutions which lose sight of simple human values (having a beer, telling a story) in an inhuman apparatus of bureaucracy and incompetence, in which Švejk, for all his antics, is but a tiny cogwheel. Thus Hašek is interested not so much in warfare itself as in the ideological system that creates it, the inscrutable process that inputs people and outputs cannon fodder.

Here all logic mostly disappeared and the § triumphed. The § strangled, went mad, fumed, laughed, threatened, murdered and gave no quarter. The magistrates were jugglers with the law, high priests of its letter, devourers of the accused, tigers of the Austrian jungle, who measured their spring on the accused by the number of clauses.

From this quote (when Švejk appears before a criminal court) the similarities with Joseph Heller's 'Catch-22' become apparent, and there are many others. Take the regiment historian who has decided it's much easier to write the history of the war before they reach the front, including detailed descriptions of the heroic deaths of his own companions. Or the mix-up with a new army cipher, the key to which is an obscure novel called 'The Sins of our Fathers' - only the novel turns out to be in two parts, and some officers have been issued with the wrong volume, making their telegrams into incomprehensible nonsense.

Inspired by 'Švejk' and its hilarious confusion, Heller transposed it to World War II. He, too, mocked the institutions of war and the absurdities it leads to. However, the essential difference between these two novels is in the attitude of their protagonists. Švejk appears blissfully unaffected by the war, while Yossarian all but loses his sanity from being immersed for too long in the army's mindboggling irrationality - symbolized in the very concept of Catch-22.

Looking back at 'Švejk', it seems Hašek found the classic picaresque satire, so popular during the previous centuries, too mild for the horrors of 20th century war. While still using its devices, Hašek introduced a much more bleak type of humour, as testified by its vicious rants, thoroughly immoral characters and absurd logic. All of which Heller would take to a level where it was impossible for his protagonist to remain unaffected. After Hašek, there would never again be a wartime hero as carefree as 'The Good Soldier Švejk'.

The famous illustrations from 'Švejk' are by Josef Lada.

See also the illuminating essay 'On Hašek's The Good Soldier Švejk'.