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the old man and the sea

Watching Aleksandr Petrov's stunningly beautiful animation of 'The Old Man and the Sea' online undoubtedly can't begin to compare with seeing it on an Imax screen, for which the film was originally created. Anyway, as chances are probably small your local Imax will show this kind of thing, by all means make do with watching the film here.

Adapted from Ernest Hemingway's classic novella, 'The Old Man and the Sea' recounts the epic struggle of an old Cuban fisherman to catch one more great fish, to prove himself once more against the overwhelming forces of nature. The book represents Hemingway's deceptively simple style at its most mythical. No post-war, world-weary Americans sipping their drinks in Spain or the Riviera, but a timeless story of man against nature - or rather, man in nature. A sense of humility and an almost religious awe of nature suffuse the story, in which the old man seems to be just one more creature living out his destiny.

The Old Man and the Sea - Aleksandr Petrov

Out on the sea in his little boat, waiting long hours for his fish to make a move, the old man remembers his youthful days when he was called the Champion. And he muses on his present quest:

Man is not much beside the great birds and beasts. Though they are not as intelligent as we who kill them, they are more noble, and more able. I would rather be that beast down there, in the darkness of the sea. The fish is my brother, but I must kill him.

Petrov's animation, which won the Oscar for best short animation in 1999, as well as a host of other prizes, succeeds brilliantly in visualizing the mythical, and often magical atmosphere of the story. Painstakingly animated using a rare technique of oil painting on glass, every frame of the film is a rich painting in itself, with equal attention devoted to foreground and background, action and scenery (a rare quality in modern animation!).

Would be awesome indeed to see this in its proper splendor sometime.

things

If you thought materialist escapism and spiritual dabbling were modern phenomena, check out this very amusing short story by D.H. Lawrence, called 'Things', written in 1928. The complete text is available here.

As a cruel satire of a newlywed couple of "true idealists", it reads like a precursor (or even a prequel) to Richard Yates' great novel 'Revolutionary Road' (see earlier review). Many familiar Lawrence themes are present, especially his disgust for artificiality and his relentless searching for true meaning, but the tone is harsher than any of his earlier work - there is hardly a sentence here that isn't ironic. (Apparently the story was based on a real couple, who surprisingly still maintained their friendship with Lawrence after the story was published.)

Valerie and Erasmus (of all names!), financially independent and with "a mutual love of beauty and an inclination towards "Indian thought"", set out from America to Europe for a bohemian life devoted to art, culture and, most of all, freedom. In Paris they live out their romantic vision, becoming proper Europeans, but not actually doing very much. And that's where the first doubt arises:

To be "free", to be "living a full and beautiful life", you must, alas! be attached to something. A "full and beautiful life" means a tight attachment to something - at least, it is so for all idealists - or else a certain boredom supervenes; there is a certain waving of loose ends upon the air, like the waving, yearning tendrils of the vine that spread and rotate, seeking something to clutch, something up which to climb towards the necessary sun. Finding nothing, the vine can only trail, half-fulfilled, upon the ground. Such is freedom - a clutching of the right pole. And human beings are all vines. But especially the idealist. He is a vine, and he needs to clutch and climb. And he despises the man who is a mere potato, or turnip, or lump of wood.

They move from Paris to Italy in search of purer beauty, and while the Great War breaks out, they start studying Buddhism and Theosophy and practising meditation. But with a war going on, in which they do some hospital work, it's hard to concentrate on meditation or to actually believe that pain and sorrow are mere illusions. Their dilemma, or half-hearted attempt, however you want to look at it, is still an apt characterization of Westerners trying to fathom Eastern philosophy:

Our idealists were far too Western to think of abandoning all the world to damnation while they saved their two selves. They were far too unselfish to sit tight under a bho-tree and reach Nirvana in a mere couple.

It was more than that, though. They simply hadn't enough Sitzfleisch to squat under a bho-tree and get to Nirvana by contemplating anything, least of all their own navel.

(Great German word, 'Sitzfleisch', like the Dutch 'zitvlees', for which there isn't really an English equivalent. Something like the opposite of fidgety or antsy.)

Disillusioned with "Indian thought", which they feel has let them down somehow, they find a new occupation in collecting beautiful antiques - European things. But even as their house fills up with old furniture, their whole attitude towards Europe begins to sour. If up to now much of the satire had been directed at Americans being overly impressed by Europe's antiquity, Lawrence now reverses the mirror and makes fun of Europe as well:

...a couple of New England idealists cannot live merely on the bygone glory of their furniture. At least, one couple could not. They got used to the marvellous Bologna cupboard, they got used to the wonderful Venetian book-case, and the books, and the Siena curtains and bronzes, and the lovely sofas and side-tables and chairs they had "picked up" in Paris. Oh, they had been picking things up since the first day they landed in Europe. And they were still at it. It is the last interest Europe can offer to an outsider: or to an insider either.

And so they finally return to America, with all their European trophies, where suddenly money becomes an issue, and their things start to become a burden.

The chunk of Europe which they had bitten off went into a warehouse, at fifty dollars a month. And they sat in two small rooms and a kitchenette, and wondered why they'd done it.

In the end, after much resistance and another disappointing trip to Europe, Erasmus finally surrenders and accepts a job, so that they can settle down in a proper house and get their things out of storage and on display for all their American friends to marvel at. But for Erasmus it means a final disillusionment: his idealism is defeated by his things.

He was a changed man, quieter, much less irritable. A load was off him. He was inside the cage.

what can't be copied

Kevin Kelly recently wrote a thoughtful essay called 'Better Than Free' on the economics of a digital society. In what is essentially a modern inversion of Walter Benjamin's famous essay 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', Kelly wonders how to create value in a time when digital content - and increasingly other generic stuff as well - can be copied ad infinitum.

When copies are super abundant, they become worthless.
When copies are super abundant, stuff which can't be copied becomes scarce and valuable.

Kelly lists "eight categories of intangible value" that can't be copied, and when added to digital content makes them "better than free". Here's a short summary:

  • Immediacy (getting it now, instead of eventually; e.g. seeing a film on its opening night)
  • Personalization (tailored to your unique situation)
  • Interpretation (e.g. free software where you pay for the manual)
  • Authenticity (proof of it being the real thing; e.g. an artist's signature)
  • Accessibility (someone else hosting and cataloguing your content for you)
  • Embodiment (a physical copy, or a live rendition)
  • Patronage (fans like to pay their favorite artists; e.g. Radiohead's recent experiment)
  • Findability (making sure you find what you want in a universe of sprawling content; related to the long tail theory)

70 years ago, Benjamin lamented the loss of, especially, authenticity and embodiment in reproducable art, which "substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence." The term he used for this uniqueness was aura, the undefinable quality of physical presence that, for him, a theatre play has but a film lacks. In a sense, what Kelly has done with his eight properties is to give a working definition of aura. Only today we talk about 'content', whereas Benjamin still called it 'art'.

However, one aspect may be missing. Benjamin noted that all art, and thus its aura, is historically rooted in (religious) ritual. To stretch this a bit, people have always created their own rituals in enjoying art/content. But digital content just doesn't make for good rituals. It's too virtual, too utilitarian, too efficient. (Though one of the few online rituals that have emerged so far is 'wilfing', an ugly acronym for 'what was I looking for?', meaning bouts of aimless web surfing.)

Physical content does lend itself to rituals. This is probably why the record player still survives - it's just a great ritual. It's also why paperbacks will survive long after the ebook has been perfected - because it's an all-purpose ritual object, from finding it in a used bookstore to reading it anywhere from beach to bed, making pencil notes in the margins and rereading them slightly embarrassed a decade later. On top of that, they age along with you in a way digital content never will.

Rituals are not only about the 'use' of content, they also surround the getting of it. Whether it's books, music or films, rare items that are not immediately (#1) findable (#8) acquire more value when finally found. Why do fans hunt for bootlegs? Precisely because they are rare, and because the hunting for it is a ritual in itself. (This kind of hunting can of course be done online as well, but even if it doesn't end in more wilfing, the satisfaction of a find is just not the same.)

Whereas Kelly seems to long for all content digitally, effortlessly and instantly available, there is value, too, in the clumsy rituals surrounding physical possessions. Even if they're not unique in Benjamin's sense, they are to you. To say they have an aura perhaps sums it up best after all.

(Via Edge.)

chain factor

A clever and highly addictive game, 'Chain Factor' is a kind of Four in a Row / matching tiles hybrid. It's also the first innovation in the whole 'Bejeweled' genre I've seen in a long time.

Apparently the game is part of a larger ARG related to an American TV show called 'Numb3rs', but it's very playable as a casual game as well.

See also this article by Jesper Juul on the history of matching tile games, including a family tree.

do-it-yourself-sculpture

A belated post on the Jean Tinguely exhibition in the Kunsthal, which ended late January... While cool to see such an uncompromising, alternative vision on our material, over-industrious world, the exhibition turned out to be slightly underwhelming, perhaps because of overanticipation, but mostly because of too many voluminous works cramped in a space too small (and too crowded) to appreciate them properly.

One work, however, struck home in its sheer simplicity, condensing Tinguely's sprawling mechanical ideas in one small canvas. 'Do-it-yourself-sculpture' (1961), five white lines on a black background, is exceptional in being one of Tinguely's most stylized works. Compare this to his sprawling machines made of raw, industrial junk, and it looks like pure abstract art - an early Malevich or a black-and-white Mondriaan - except for the fact that the white lines move, propelled by a small motor behind the canvas. When moving it's like a clock of some parallel world, an advanced parody of our own.

Jean Tinguely - Do-it-yourself-sculpture

At the same time, a typical Tinguely touch was to make his work into a do-it-yourself sculpture. It was shipped as an assembly kit, to be constructed by the buyer using a manual. Of all his attempts to involve the public in his art, this one seemed to me the most effective, and the most basic: assembling the artwork yourself before hanging it on the wall. What else would you want?

iffr: das herz ist ein dunkler wald

A highlight at the Rotterdam Film Festival, 'Das Herz ist ein dunkler Wald' ('The Heart is a dark Forest'), directed by Nicolette Krebitz, is a modern German retelling of 'Medea' that destroys the comfortable suburbian life of its protagonist with a surgical precision and some very sarcastic humor.

While the story is classic - a tale of a woman's revenge after her husband's betrayal - 'Das Herz' is anything but predictable. Krebitz uses the age-old story as a mold and fills it with increasingly surreal events, while interposing a number of 'Dogville'-type scenes between husband and wife on a bare theatre stage to fill in the background of their ruined relationship.

Das Herz ist ein dunkler Wald - 1

When Marie (Nina Hoss), a mother of two, accidentally finds out that her husband Thomas (Devid Striesow) leads a double life as a husband with another wife and other children, her world comes tumbling down. The scene where Marie steps into the house of this other family is like entering a parallel universe: the family scene she encounters - daddy at the table with his children - is identical to the one at her own home. Worse than 'mere' adultery, Marie's discovery puts her whole existence on loose screws (pardon the Dutch expression).

Das Herz ist ein dunkler Wald - 2

On her way back home, Marie collapses, and from there on, verging on the edge of insanity, she grows determined to confront her husband with his betrayal. Her growing anger is reflected in the film's great soundtrack, which sets out with breezy acoustic tunes by Berlin band The Whitest Boy Alive but changes into pounding electronic beats when Mary visits a costume party at a castle in the woods where Thomas is performing with his band. Here, in the middle of the forest, in a bizarre party atmosphere that reminds of 'Eyes Wide Shut', a lengthy confrontation unfolds. But while Marie finds temporary consolation with another man, such petty revenge is insufficient to cool her rage.

Das Herz ist ein dunkler Wald - 3

In the end, Marie is simply unable to accept that her whole former life, including her children, was based on deception. And like Medea 2500 years ago, only one course of action is left open to her. Her final desperate act lends the film a harsh, ink-black conclusion that may not be entirely necessary - for most people, the point will be quite clear by that time. On the other hand, there is a kind of uncompromising pride to Marie's character that makes her decision inevitable, even dignified in a very oldfashioned way.

In the post-screening Q&A on Saturday, at a packed Luxor, Krebitz commented on the symbol of the forest that is so deeply ingrained in the German spirit. "You have to find your way through the forest to reach a conclusion," she said. Leaving that conclusion out would be robbing Medea of her essence.

iffr: modell 5

Already over a decade old, Granular Synthesis' 1996 installation 'Modell 5' still makes for an incredibly intense audiovisual experience. It was shown at V2 during this year's Exploding Cinema section of the Film Festival Rotterdam, themed Free Radicals.

Modell 5

Consisting of four large screens, each showing the face of Japanese performance artist Akemi Takeya, the piece is a 40 minutes long digital manipulation of facial expressions and movements synchronized with heavy beats and raging sound effects. The result is devilishly visceral, deconstructing the most familiar of images - the human face - into a relentless rythm of alien shapes. As the IFFR program described it, 'Modell 5' "evokes a feeling of schizophrenia, as if the body is being torn apart and merged with the electronic space."

The only other work I can think of that achieves a similar intensity is Chris Cunningham's music video for Aphex Twin's 'Come to Daddy'. Imagine watching that for 40 minutes on a screen so large you can't escape from it. Pure perceptional overload.