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Saturday, December 7, 2002

TV Alert
Friedrich -- It doesn't surprise me that complaining about television is such a beloved ritual -- so much TV really is crap. What does surprise me is how many people let themselves stop there. Are they unaware of how much that's worth watching can be found on cable? As in all things, you just have to go to a little trouble. Such as reading 2Blowhards, for instance, and eyeballing our weekly TV Alert. As far as this film buff is concerned, Turner Classic Movies alone justifies the cost of a cable subscription: miraculously good prints that are far better than what most movie rep houses come up with; no commercial interruptions; an extensive library. They even schedule the occasional silent movie. Is it to Ted Turner that we owe thanks for this? Then: thanks, Ted! Which leads to my Blowhard Pick of the TV Week: The Scarlet Letter (TCM; the midnight between Sunday and Monday). Silent movies were their own art form, somewhat distinct from what we're now used to thinking of as narrative audiovisual entertainment. Speaking super-generally, they were more akin to opera or narrative ballet than to talking pictures; if you think of them as a combination of movement, pantomime, and pictorial material that has been set to music, you'll start to get in the ballpark. If you've never quite found the silent-movie groove, this early adaptation of the Hawthorne novel might help you along. Lillian Gish, a frail, Victorian-tulip type, is surprisingly powerful as Hester; Lars Hanson partners her beautifully. The director, Victor Sjostrom (sometimes spelled Seastrom), was one of the greats of early film -- a precursor of such talents as Bergman, Bresson, and Tarkovsky; his work was spare and intense, yet sensual and mystical. Critics complain about the way the film alters the book's ending, and I know it should have bugged me. But, honestly, it didn't. A fabulous movie. Programs and documentaries Ian McKellan on Inside the Actors Studio (Bravo; Sunday at 8 pm ). Frankly gay, rail-thin, articulate and perverse, McKellan might make a witty and insightful guest. What do you mean, you haven't seen Gods and Monsters? That's the film in which McKellan gave a brilliant performance as the horror-movie director James Whale. Go rent it right now. The movie itself is a gem, fully the equal of a good small literary novel. (To my shame, I haven't read the novel the film is based on.) Rumrunners, Moonshiners and Bootleggers (History Channel, 9 pm Monday, and 2 am Tuesday morning). A 2-hour documentary about Prohibition. I haven't seen it, but I have been having good luck recently with History Channel documentaries, which tend to be crisp and efficient. The E! True Hollywood Story: Whitney Houston (E!, 8 pm Wednesday). This showbiz-documentary series flaunts a trashy, National-Enquirer style but often delivers solid goods. And, you know, ahem, this kind of style isn't all that inappropriate for showbiz subjects... Biography: Billy Barty (A&E, 8 pm Thursday). This episode promises to be an especially fascinating... posted by Michael at December 7, 2002 | perma-link | (1) comments

Friday, December 6, 2002

Writing Software
Friedrich -- Do you dislike Word as much as I do? I suppose it's an OK piece of software, and using it to write certainly beats longhand or a typewriter. But I'm offended by it. It's really a tool for making documents, optimized more for memos and reports than for helping you get your thoughts down. As a tool for writing, it's a lumbering beast determined to inflict on me its rather sinister desire to do favors. (Why do so many Microsoft products want to do me favors? I feel the way a restaurauteur does when the Mob offers to do him a favor.) My copy has to be actively stopped -- apparently at the end of a gun barrel -- from turning asterisks into bullets, for instance, and from underlining grammar and spelling it doesn't approve of. I don't care if there are ways of stopping this behavior, I don't want it starting in the first place. Feeling offended isn't a good mental state to be writing in. And, besides, writing and document-making are two different activities, darn it. I'd prefer to have a separate program for each. But the problem, as I see it, also boils down to something that isn't specific to Word. It's the nature of the word-processor itself. A word processor sure beats a typewriter -- but by all that much? Maybe it's just me, but once I got past the "I never have to retype again" exhilaration, I started wondering: Gee, aren't there better things computers can do to help with writing? The main job/task/challenge/fun of writing, it seems to me, is to take a vague and cloudy (ie., nonlinear) notion -- something that exists only in your mental space -- and translate it into linearly-arranged strings of concrete words on a real page. No one has ever asked me for this, but here's the way Michael Blowhard breaks down the act of writing, plus bonus tips. Four steps, as I see it: 1) Collecting data -- whether research, notes, thoughts, or ideas. It's best at this stage to keep things nonlinear. Avoid turning your hunches and notions into anything polished or grammatical. Just note it all down telegraphically. It's important to keep the writing project, however tiny, open-ended even as you begin to give it some definition. 2) Organizing the material sequentially. Imagine how you'd present your material to to a bright friend who's interested in what you have to say. Line your research, ideas and information up in the way your friend would find most helpful and entertaining. 3) Writing your way all the way through. Even now it's best to avoid being too linear. Write a passage at the end of the piece first. Write something from the middle. Do a little work on the second paragraph. Move around inside the piece, and when you get stuck, drop the problem and go to work elsewhere in the piece. The problem will probably solve itself. Painters often work this way -- a... posted by Michael at December 6, 2002 | perma-link | (11) comments

Blogging Bliss
Friedrich -- Do you carry a cafe conversation around in your head? I do. What I mean is that some part of my brain is home to an ongoing bull session.Voices gather to compare notes about all kinds of topics -- occasionally politics and econ, most of the time art and philosophy. (Many detours into sex, of course.) It's Les Deux Magots, open and busy 24/7 in some seedy Montparnasse quartier of my brain, and I'm the grizzled old owner hurrying about with wine and bread, sometimes taking part in the disputes, sometimes watching benevolently out over the excitement ... Where do these voices come from? Given how hard it is to rustle up good in-person art chat once you're out of college, most of them show up from what I've been reading. I go around thinking about what I've read -- in my mind, quarreling/arguing/discussing/comparing-notes with authors of books and articles. It's all very real to me -- smoke, coffee, lots of intellectual ooo-la-la. It's also all very absorbing, fun, and exciting. So much so that when I surface back into everyday life and start talking to The Wife about the discussions that have been buzzing in my mind, she looks at me (fondly, I hope) like I'm insane. I raise this because something interesting has happened to this imaginary scene of mine in the last few months. The people taking part have changed -- there's been some turnover in the clientele. Most used to be magazine writers, artists, critics, academics, newspaper people -- professionals. Lately, many of the voices taking part have belonged to bloggers, and fewer voices have come from the familiar old professional crowd (and most of them have been culled from Arts and Letters Daily, here, a kind of meta-proto-blog). The people I'm talking with in my head as I make my way through my daily rounds are as likely to be bloggers like Glenn Frazier, Alexandra Ceely, Aaron Haspel, Sasha Castel, Scott Chaffin, Peter Briffa, Jason Soon, Alice Bacchini, Chris Bertram, Lynn Sislo and many others as they are to be such pros as (god forbid) Paul Krugman and Susan Sontag. I'm much happier for the change. The conversation is more freewheeling and spirited. There are fresh faces, and lots of new points of view. For every asshole who can't seem to understand that he's addressing another human being, there's a dozen charmers who are funny, loose, wry and civil. Some human element has returned into my life that I hadn't realized was missing. The bloggers have more sides to them than the pros, their talk isn't tainted by careerism, and they by and large seem to share a respect for life as it's actually experienced. I like the makeup of my new clientele. They strike me as a bunch of rough-edged, three-dimensional people rather than a bunch of disembodied, streamlined egos. I wonder if my experience reflects the experience of other bloggers and blog-surfers. If so, I think there may be something important... posted by Michael at December 6, 2002 | perma-link | (4) comments

Free Reads -- Digital Movie Theaters
Friedrich -- P.J. Hufstutter reports in the L.A. Times that the Regal movie theater chain will be outfitting all its California theaters to project movies digitally. They're hoping to complete the job by the end of next year, though they won't be showing features digitally, at least not quite yet. Short films only. Still. People in the business have been waiting for theater chains to commit to digital projection. This is the biggest commercial step that has been taken in that direction yet, and it could be what finally gets the digital-projection ball rolling. I say "finally," even though I wish the industry would hold off for another year or two. Movie buff wants more pixels, please! But technology and money march on... Sample passage: "Whenever film goes away forever, we'll be ready," Marks said. Regal's system "is designed to allow us to unplug any piece of the hardware in the system and plug in new ones when digital cinema standards are established." Hufstutter's story can be read here. Link thanks to CalPundit, here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 6, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Thursday, December 5, 2002

Continuing Ed -- Architecture Critique
Friedrich -- A game. Guess the political orientation of the British architecture critic who wrote the following: We all like old towns and villages with the continuous street facade and its comfortable sense of enclosure. It was not the perversity of architects that made it impossible in new residential areas to have the same quality, but the fact that the environment in Britain is over-regulated by every kind of authority ... As for the opinions of residents: the most-loved and the least-lovely housing I have ever visited in a New Town were at Runcorn. The least-loved was designed by a world-famous architect, Jim Stirling, the most-loved was by the anonymous architectural staff of the Runcorn Development Corporation. Hmmm. OK, what's your guess? A libertarian? A Prince-of-Wales conservative? Wrong. It's a passage from Talking to Architects, a fab book of lectures on towns and buildings by the British anarchist Colin Ward. I'll repeat that: he's an anarchist. Ward, several of whose books I've read, is a brainy guy with a humane and rumpled soul. And isn't it interesting how his observations about conventional architectural processes come so close to those of such people as Jane Jacobs and Leon Krier? Maybe they're all onto something. The book can be bought here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 5, 2002 | perma-link | (2) comments

Art Critics -- What Are They Like?
Friedrich -- The National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University just released the results of a study they did of art critics. My favorite fact: of the 169 writers they looked at, only 3 claim to be politically conservative. The report goes on: In fact, art critics were more likely to vote for the Green Party in the 2000 presidential election than to vote Republican. Progressive political dispositions underlie art critics' positions on several issues in the visual arts today, including government arts funding and freedom of speech. Time to call in the Diversity Police? Asked whether they agree with the statement "Postmodernist theory has a strong influence on the art being made today," 84% of the critics said they somewhat or strongly agree. Asked whether they agree with the statement "Multiculturalism has a strong influence in today's art world," 96% said they somewhat or strongly agree. 61% of the critics agree that "the federal government should make the support of individual artists a policy priority," and 75% "strongly disagree" with the placing of any constraints on publicly funded art. The writers picked favorites from a limited list of living artists. Their top ten faves from this list are, in this order: Jasper Johns Robert Rauschenberg Claes Oldenburg Maya Lin Louise Bourgeois Chuck Close Ed Ruscha Gerhard Richter Cindy Sherman Frank Stella Their least favorite living artists, also drawn from a prepared list: LeRoy Neiman Thomas Kinkade Julian Schnabel Jeff Koons Dale Chihuly Yoko Ono David Salle William Wegman Damien Hirst Tracey Emin The report can be looked at more closely here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 5, 2002 | perma-link | (1) comments

Wednesday, December 4, 2002

Flash New Urbanism
Friedrich -- National Geographic online has created a Flash animation that provides an introduction to some of the principles of the New Urbanism. It's not that good, honestly, unless you're either about 14 years old and expected to turn in a short paper on the subject, or you're a fretful soccer mom. But I appreciated the effort and enjoy Flash animations generally, so what the heck. It's watchable here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 4, 2002 | perma-link | (5) comments

Funky Chickens
Friedrich -- Music has been found have a fast and dramatic impact on the moods of very young chickens, reports Larry O'Hanlon for Discovery News online (readable here). Sample passage: In the study, briefly isolated chicks — who quickly cry out in distress — were exposed to music. Their distress calls dropped and they showed other physical signs that the music had quelled their anxiety, apparently making them feel better. They seemed most soothed by a range of pop music, and calmed less by Mozart's Kronungconzert, said Panksepp. But there's no saying for certain, because chicks can't explain how they feel, he cautioned. Gotta admire that scientific caution. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 4, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

The New Advertising
Friedrich I love paying the occasional little bit of attention to advertising. So what if it's all about selling goods: there's lots of eye and brain food there to enjoy, as well as sometimes to be dazzled by. Self-protectively, let me say that I'm sure there are writers and thinkers out there who look at and analyze ads far better than I do. And I'm just as certain that I'm years behind on noticing what I'm noticing. Ad people, and the people who write and think about them, are nothing if not quick and clever. Still and all, I can't resist. Exhibit 1: Old vs. New. A fairly traditional ad for Newport cigarettes, and a new-style ad for ... well, for what, exactly? Rope? Wrapping material? The Newport ad has a little designed-on-the-computer jazziness to it: the abruptness in the way the elements are juxtaposed, the way the photo falls so quickly into a space of its own, the brightness and flatness of the green, the way the cigarette boxes really pop, and then the copy really-really pops on top of that. But it's a pretty traditional ad, basically: product, people enjoying it, ad copy, product name. All of it arranged in swooping diagonals that converge on the product itself. The other ad (for Gaultier sunglasses, as it turns out) is another thing entirely -- and entirely, it seems to me, of our new Quark 'n' Photoshop age. For one thing, what's being sold? Maybe the post-MTV generation gets these things instantly, but it took this geezer a couple of seconds even to figure out that what he was looking at was an ad. The Gaultier label being sewn into the fabric is a clever and effective way of achieving so-recessive-it-calls-attention-to-itself-ness. The ad also displays what I've come to think of as a "scanner aesthetic" -- the way what's on the page seems to be pressing up against a lens, or a sheet of glass. And that's it for the ad: a bunch of things brought together in a seemingly casual way on top of a scanner, with an i.d. carelessly dropped into the background of the mix. It's both a cool gesture and pure evidence of coolness, like a head of hair that's rumpled just so. Exhibit 2: Coolness sponsorship. For a geezer, both these ads rely partly on the "huh?" or "what the hell?" factor. What are they advertising? The left-hand ad is for Perrier; as for the right-hand ad, beats me. A clothing line? What I notice about both of them, and what moves me to place them side by side, is a conceptual similarity. Both are 99% made up of a very cool photo. A great big one, in both cases -- and, by traditional standards, a rather odd one too. Not only is the question "what's being advertised?" an issue; the question "what the hell's this a picture of exactly? and why are we being shown it?" is being asked, at least by my arthritic... posted by Michael at December 4, 2002 | perma-link | (4) comments

Free Reads -- Salmon on Bond
Friedrich -- One of the deftest and funniest (in a low-key way) things I've ever read on the Bond movies is Felix Salmon's posting on Die Another Day, readable here. Sample passage: Brosnan, for his part, is at this point a master of the Less Is More school of acting. When he finds a Chinese secret agent in his hotel room, he merely hints at what he would do if he could be bothered to act: he knows that what we're doing is remembering Connery do the same thing, so he more or less fades into the background and lets our nostalgia take over. Anthony Lane, look out. Felix is also remarkably good on the new Mike Leigh film, but since I dislike most of Leigh's movies, plan never to watch another one, and wish the whole Mike Leigh thing would just go away, I'm going to be sulky and not provide a link. Take that, Mike Leigh. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 4, 2002 | perma-link | (1) comments

Economics and Art Appreciation Redux
Michael— In your posting, “Economics and Art Appreciation,” you ask if my study of economics has had an impact on my appreciation of art. The impact, I would say, has been more on my view of intellectual “fashions.” When I was a junior at our Lousy Ivy College, I took an introductory economics class from a rather famous professor. In the middle of one of his lectures, the professor—a dedicated Keynesian, as were virtually all the academic economists of the mid-1970s—mentioned Milton Friedman’s book: “A Monetary History of the United States” (co-authored with Anna J. Schwartz). The prof pointed out that Friedman’s data suggested that the unusual severity of the Great Depression was linked to the tremendous contraction of the money supply from 1929 to 1933. I sat there thinking: Uh, wait a minute, isn’t the money supply the responsibility of the Federal Reserve? Meanwhile, the prof went on to note that when economic factor data was plugged into Friedman’s monetarist equations, they provided estimates of GNP that were more accurate than those of the then-most-sophisticated Keynesian model—the one the Fed itself used. I must say I sat up straight at that. You mean, I thought hesitantly, that the government—specifically, the Federal Reserve system—screwed up big time back in the Thirties? And even now they aren’t using the best econometric model? And Friedman’s book was published over a decade ago, in 1963? Hey, wait a minute, I’m counting on these guys to keep the economy on an even keel! Well, let’s just say that as the decade of the 1970s continued, I wasn’t provided a whole lot of reassurance that the powers-that-be had the whole economic situation under perfect control. To be fair, a stint of working on an advertising account for one of the Big Three automakers just as quickly deflated any notions that I had of great—and infallible—minds guiding the fortunes of Big Business. But the advantage of starting my adult life in the 1970s was that I got “wised up” regarding the likelihood of authority figures making my life a paradise—i.e., don’t count on it. However, as I went on to start my own business and began hiring employees in the 1980s, I noticed that most people I knew were still quite content with the notion of authority figures—whether in either the public or private sectors—making decisions for them. And while they might grumble about the President’s economic performance, they all, to a person, worshipped the Federal Reserve and its chairman. Every so often I would ask them about the role of the Federal Reserve in the Great Depression, just to tweak them about their “Fed” idolatry. I never got anything but blank looks. Nobody—and they were all intelligent, college educated people—had ever heard of the “Great Contraction” of the money supply in the Depression, or even the failure of the Federal Reserve to act as a lender of last resort to the 5,000 banks that collapsed in the first few years of that lovely era. It... posted by Friedrich at December 4, 2002 | perma-link | (2) comments

Tuesday, December 3, 2002

Free Viewings -- Elka Krajewska
Friedrich -- A couple of years ago, when I first heard that it had become possible to make movies on a home computer, I was stunned and excited. Imagine! Then I learned what was meant by "movies" -- tiny, short things with awful visual qualities. My excitement waned. Movies? Those aren't movies. It's possible today to make much better-looking computer-video than it was a few years ago. But I've changed too. These days, I'm thinking: Why shouldn't a movie be a short, tiny thingee? Or, even if it's better to reserve the word "movie" for long-form celluloid narratives, what's wrong with making and enjoying tiny, short computer-video thingees? The form (if I can use the word form here) suits home computers, the current size of hard drives, the current speed of the Internet, as well as the contemporary (ie., chopped-up) schedule. And, given how expensive narrative movies have become, the tiny computer-video thingee might be a sensible medium for people interested in personal expression to take advantage of. Hey, these things could be audiovisual poetry for the computer age! Thank heavens for my theory that a few people seem to be approaching the medium in that spirit. Here's one whose work I enjoy: Elka Krajewska, who evidently mixes together photos, scanned images, and footage from a webcam. She seems to be a born miniaturist. Most of her thingees are less than a minute long, and most of them run in frames that are considerably smaller than a 3x5 card. But I find them to be rich little aesthetic experiences -- miniature landscapes of the mind. What are those rocks that you crack open, and then inside you find that they're full of crystals? Well, that's what Krajewska's little thingees are like. You can watch them here. Very interested to learn how you react to her work. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 3, 2002 | perma-link | (3) comments

1000 Words -- John La Farge
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- Many thanks for the informative (and beautifully laid-out) excursions into art history. Like you, I've come to understand what a straitjacket the usual academic art-history view of art is -- the one that teaches us that it all leads to the Impressionists, the Cubists, through Abstract Expressionism and to the postmodernism of the present day. It's certainly one take on the history of art, and it can be a helpful one. As the only view of art history, though, it can be maddeningly confining. John La Farge, for instance. How bizarre that many art fans don't know who John La Farge was. You've told me that you don't; the Wife tells me she doesn't. Yet he was one of the stars of one of the biggest, brawniest eras in all of American art. (The images in this posting are mostly pop-ups, so be sure to click on them.) Self-portrait; Studio nude The era was the one generally known as the American Renaissance -- the period from the Civil War to the First World War. Robber baron money; the Newport mansions of Richard Morris Hunt; the churches and houses of Stanford White; the sculpture of Augustus Saint-Gaudens; the time when American artists first learned about Impressionism and Japanese art. It was during these years that America first got interested in its own history, and its artists and architects deliberately set out to create an American public art -- many of our triumphal arches, war memorials, and public sculptures were created during this period. The Beaux-Arts buildings -- the city halls, mansions and courthouses -- that still make so many city neighborhoods so city-like were built during this period. It's one of the most dynamic, exciting, and productive eras in the history of American art, yet one that many arts fans don't know much about. Why? I suspect it's because we've learned to see this work as pompous, sentimental, and imperialistic. (And who taught us to see it that way? Conventional academic art history.) Yet much of the work is still treasured; imagine our cities without these buildings, monuments, churches, and sculptures. It's fascinating to learn that architects and artists -- muralists, painters, mosaicists, sculptors -- collaborated frequently during this era, often on huge projects, and did so in a spirit of enthusiasm and cooperation. I can't, in fact, think of another era when America's art and architecture worlds were so healthy. John La Farge (1835-1910) was one of the era's giants. Of French descent, he grew up in New York City, studied in Paris, trained in the law, then decided to become an artist; he married, moved to Newport, and had nine kids. During his career, he worked on many scales, and in a wide range of media. Many of his buddies were the era's other greats: he collaborated with Saint-Gaudens and Stanford White, traveled to Japan with Henry Adams, visited Tahiti, was buddies with Henry and William James, and was known as a terrific... posted by Michael at December 3, 2002 | perma-link | (4) comments

TV Alert
Friedrich -- Forgive my tardiness in delivering this guide to some of this week's worthwhile TV viewing. I'm still groggy from Thanksgiving. Tuesday at 2:45 pm, Cinemax: Moulin Rouge. The end of civilization as we know it -- Nicole Kidman and Ewan MacGregor in a Paris-set, postcamp musical so hyperactive it’s like an animated picture. Why watch? Because movies are likely to be evolving in this direction, and it doesn’t hurt to get ready for the horrors to come. Tuesday at 8 pm, E!: The E! True Hollywood Story: Pia Zadora. The tiny blonde Polish-American singer-actress with the tycoon hubby became a national joke back in the late '70s. This documentary surprises in two ways: by winning sympathy for Pia, and by revealing her to be a thoughtful, talented woman. Tuesday at 11 pm, also Wednesday at 6 am, IFC: Metroland. I don’t remember much about this English movie, taken from a Graham Swift novel -- except that it’s one of the rare chances Americans have had to watch an elegantly idiosyncratic French charmer, Elsa Zylberstein. Wednesday at 2 pm, IFC: Night of the Living Dead. Crummy black and white zombie horror movie, the source of many of the last few decades’ most common horror tropes. Wednesday evening, TCM: a bunch of Orson Welles movies. At 8 pm: Touch of Evil. At 10 pm: The Stranger. At midnight: Citizen Kane. At 2:15 am (Thursday morning): The Magnificent Ambersons. At 4 a.m. (Thursday morning): The Trial. All of them worth seeing, of course. My tip? Don’t miss Ambersons, from a good Booth Tarkington novel: the rare Welles film that has something like real emotion in it. Thursday at 8 am at 2:45 pm, IFC: Solaris. The Soviet version of Stanislaw Lem’s sci-fi novel, not the new Steven Soderburgh/George Clooney version. Andrei Tarkovsky, who directed, was a modern master -- but of the slow-moving, intensely-spiritual kind. Imagine “2001” as directed by Ingmar Bergman... Thursday at 3:15, Cinemax: 2 Days in the Valley. Offbeat, violent, comic noir starring the enjoyably self-pleased James Spader, cherished by buffs as the movie that introduced -- and how! -- the lanky blonde bad-girl Charlize Theron. Thursday at 8 pm, TCM: Forever Ealing, a documentary about the British film studio, known for its eccentric comedies. Followed at 9 pm by one of the best of them, Kind Hearts and Coronets, perhaps the wittiest black comedy ever made. Friday at 7 pm, TCM: The Men Who Made the Movies -- Sam Fuller. A cigar-chomping, bang-it-out, low-budget tabloid specialist, Fuller is a hero to many hipsters and critics. I’ve never enjoyed his movies much, but I’ll watch this documentary because Fuller himself was a great character. Saturday morning at 3:50 am, Cinemax: Mandingo. Masters, slaves, and hanky-panky on a Southern plantation. Coarse, vulgar, florid, exploitative -- and if that isn’t enough, featuring a strong attraction between Ken Norton (taking a break from his boxing career) and ‘70s sex icon Susan (“Straw Dogs”) George. Saturday at noon, TCM: The Naked Spur.... posted by Michael at December 3, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Monday, December 2, 2002

Digital Dreams
Michael— You’ve touched on the topic of digital photography, both still and movie version, commenting on the perceptual differences between pixels and film. I noticed a story in the L.A. Times (which you can read here) dealing with what appears to be another step along this path: Now, [Robert] Zemeckis is threatening to go further still [than in his films “Roger Rabbit” or “Forrest Gump”], changing the very core of the moviemaking process in a little-known project called “The Polar Express.” The plan this time is to create a live-action movie without filming any true “live” action. All of the scenes in “The Polar Express” will be shot with digital cameras in front of a blank screen, with sets to be filled in later by computers. The actors will be covered in motion-capture sensors so that each move of an arm, each flicker of an eyelid and each wrinkle of a lip will be stored on a computer and used as guide for the digital animators who will create the actual movie footage…Unlike digitally animated movies such as “Final Fantasy” and “Shrek,” which relied heavily on motion-capture technology to create fictitious characters, the team behind “Polar Express” is striving to create images that actually look like the well-known actors who will “star” in the film. I presume that the effort to animate real actors (who could far more easily and cheaply step in front of a movie camera) is the result of a desire to integrate recognizable actors into the graphic style of “Polar Express” author and illustrator, Chris Van Allsburg. C. Van Allsburg, Jumanji (details) I have no idea how successful this effort will be—the story mentions that some of the high tech tools needed to pull this off are still under development with filming less than three months away—but I’ve decided to take a wait and see attitude here. This requires some self-control on my part. My first reaction was a rather dyspeptic voice in my head: All this digital special effects stuff is just a way for studios to keep raising the ante as their business position is being undercut by the spread of cheap digital technology. The competitive advantage Hollywood studios bring to making movies is financial—they can afford a $200 million budget, unlike most folks—and they want to keep cineplex audiences used to complex effects like this in order to wall out the more sparsely financed competition. But my second thought was a memory of how intrigued I was by the backgrounds in “Snow White” which, unlike most other animated films I’ve seen, were done in a watercolor style that emphasized their artificiality, their incorporeality, their—for want of a better word—watercoloriness. Think what that film might have been like (as a visual experience, anyway) if the same technique could have been applied to the figures as well. And then I remembered a conversation I’d had talking about aircraft simulators, of all things, with a colleague who was also an art buff. He’d started riffing on... posted by Friedrich at December 2, 2002 | perma-link | (2) comments

Rewriting (Art) History
Michael As you know, I’m a bit critical of the standard-issue histories of Modern Art that we were force-fed back in the 1970s. Just to see if they were still peddling the same old stories, I picked up, essentially at random, “Modern Art 1851-1929” by Richard R. Brettell, which is part of the Oxford History of Art series. I must say, I was pleasantly impressed: the art historical community, if accurately represented by Dr. Brettell (a professor at the University of Texas), has managed to overthrow a few idols since I checked in last. The first, and most immediately shocking change I noted was the shift away from a rigidly Franco-centric view of Modern Art. While there are still plenty of the French (and German and Spanish) artists you would expect to find in the book, just thumbing through the illustrations lets you see work by artists from Britain, Poland, Sweden, Romania, Russia, Czechoslovakia, Finland and Canada. I mean, when’s the last time you saw a brief history of modern art that even mentioned Canada? And he admits that his account is probably still too oriented toward Western Europe: The recent opening-up of Russia and central Europe has coincided with a massive attempt to redescribe modernism in western Europe, the Americas, and Australia. This has resulted in a data-glut of proportions for which all of us are unprepared. Few historians of modern art, trained in the West during the last generation, even know the names of the major figures in eastern European or Latin American modernism, in either the nineteenth or the twentieth century. And the national histories of art kept so faithfully by historians and museum curators in Russia and eastern Europe have not been linked to the truly international and cosmopolitan art history to which they belong. The second change was the shift away from the parade of “-isms” (ah, you know: “Realism begat Impressionism which begat Post-Impressionism which begat Synthetism which begat the Nabis…etc., etc.”) We must still be in a transitional period regarding the parade of “-isms” because Prof. Brettell was forced to traverse them at a quick march at the start of the book; you gotta congratulate him, though, he actually does a reasonable job on 18 separate “-isms” in a mere 31 pages. Unmediated Cezanne vs. Image/Modernist Picabia However, he then moves on to his preferred two-part classification: artists who dreamed up their own images—in many cases before the motif—which he calls “unmediated modernism,” and artists who primarily juggled existing images, which he calls “image/modernism.” (No, I have no idea why he uses the slash between image and modernism.) This may seem like a matter of “you say tomato, I say tomahto” but he uses these categories rather slyly to dethrone the myth that art was on a straight runway from Impressionism to Cubism, and then achieved liftoff into the Empyrean regions of Abstraction. According to the good professor, analytic Cubism is an “unmediated modernist” phenomenon… …in looking at analytic Cubist paintings and in... posted by Friedrich at December 2, 2002 | perma-link | (1) comments

Free Reads -- Bachini on Modernist Architecture
Friedrich -- Alice Bachini, whose blog is A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside, here, has a gaily-mocking tone that often gives me the giggles, and a searching and open mind that often gets my sorry noggin thinking. The other day she had some fun with a BBC documentary about modernist architecture. Here, she's semi-pretending to speak in the voice of the show's narrator: This tower-block, in (a now-posh part of) London, for example. Whateverhisnamewas imagined housewives hanging their washing on the (rat-infested, graffiti-covered) stairwells, and chatting over cups of sugar about the weather! It was a future of friendliness, niceness, big views of the sky, and above all, Clean Lines. This entirely-artificially-constructed-town in the middle of nowhere, Scotland, was imagined in the shape of a kind of giant, futuristic spider, by its architect Mr Doodah. Cleverly, and with a view to entire forced reconstruction of society, right down to the tiniest details of people's lives, according to his own unique magical inspiration, he did things that were new, unheard of, and completely and utterly silly. Does anything more ever need to be said about modernist architecture? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 2, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Economics and Art Appreciation
Friedrich -- This is a culture blog (generally, anyway), so it might seem strange for me to write about economics, and God knows I’m barely competent to talk on the subject at all. But a few years ago something funny happened: I got econ. It suddenly made sense: hey, it’s a way of seeing the world! But the really funny thing is that getting econ has enhanced my enjoyment and appreciation of the arts. To back up for a second: finally learning how to see and interpret behavior in the light of such forces as “limited resources” and “incentives” has been a tremendous help. (Worth, it occurs to me, many years of therapy.) The world seemed to open up; it seems much less mystifying these days than it once did. So that’s what people are up to! So that’s why so much behavior takes on the forms it does! This is all very basic, I’m sure, and I’m happy to be laughed at for my former naivete. But back in college I tried econ and never got it, despite OK grades in Econ 101 and 102. I wonder why. Because of the JFK-era Keynesianism that was still in vogue in the mid-’70s at our Lousy Ivy College? It seemed to make no sense. Or was it simply because I don’t have a math brain, and the damn textbooks were full of equations and charts? Not a challenge for engineering-brain you, but anything resembling a math symbol puts English-major me straight to sleep. What enabled me to get econ in recent years was finding a handful of resources that present the subject in plain English. No math, no charts -- just crystal-clear explanations and examples. (Plain, clear English: one of my favorite things.) Even better, especially at the outset, was discovering works that explained not econ itself so much as the history of economic thought. Quick explanations and examples; personalities; a sense of the field growing and evolving over time .... How did getting economics help me enjoy the arts even more than I generally tend to? It’s had a variety of effects. It’s helped me put the arts in context. Living an arts life can be like getting lost in a dream -- this is what Schnabel’s movie “Basquiat” is so good at suggesting. That kind of dreamlife has its erotic upside, but it can also feel like going insane. What getting econ did for me was set the dreamlife in perspective. The arts are many things, of course, but one of them is “a worldly activity like any other” -- and getting econ has helped me see that side of them for what it is. Artsies, of course, have a notoriously strong aversion to thinking sensibly about economics. I find when I talk to arts people that the subject of econ is so misunderstood it’s almost comic. Isn't it all about predicting stock prices? And look how bad they are at that! And what’s this awful “self-interest” that’s always... posted by Michael at December 2, 2002 | perma-link | (9) comments