Adam Curtis and the Secret History of Everything

Tuesday, November 29th, 2016

Jonathan Lethem looks at Adam Curtis and the Secret History of Everything:

He’s a cult figure in England, but he has access. The BBC is the greatest broadcasting organization in the world. In ‘Bitter Lake,’ he had all the material. He’s standing in the right place, inside that archive.” Even among those skeptical of Curtis’s narratives, his masterly use of the BBC archive — his uncanny capacity to excavate sequences from the dark side of journalism’s moon and the expressive power he finds in their juxtaposition — produces awe. Curtis possesses a “dazzlingly acute eye,” wrote Andrew Anthony in The Observer, even as he accused him of “superimposing his own creative theory as journalistic fact.”

Curtis is justly proud of his adeptness in the archives: “It’s all stored in a giant warehouse on the outskirts of West London, deliberately kept anonymous. It’s the biggest film archive in the world. The cataloging is good, although it’s been done at different stages. But, because the BBC is an organization that has a vast global news output, I discovered that, throughout the 1980s, there were these giant two-inch videotapes, called COMP tapes, onto which satellites would just dump stuff overnight. And they’re not well cataloged. You can go to a news item and see; if there was a COMP tape for that day, you can order it up. Those two-inch tapes start to degrade, but they’ve been transferred, and they’re amazing.”

[...]

Curtis grew up in Platt, North Kent, just outside Greater London. His father was a cinematographer who worked with the British documentarian Humphrey Jennings, with the “Death Wish” director Michael Winner and on “The Buccaneers,” a pirate-themed television program starring Robert Shaw. Curtis’s family was left-wing. “According to family talk,” he said, his great-uncle was a committed Trotskyite. His socialist grandfather, meanwhile, “would stand as a member of Parliament for seats he would never, ever win — and he did it every election.”

Curtis earned a degree in the human sciences at Oxford, then briefly taught there. Unsatisfied with academia, he took a job at the BBC, eventually going to work in the early ’80s as a segment producer on “That’s Life!” a kind of cross between “60 Minutes” and “Candid Camera.” There, Curtis learned his craft. “One week I was sent up to Edinburgh to film a singing dog,” he said. “His owner said that when he played the bagpipes, the dog would sing Scottish songs. We set the camera up. The owner dressed up in a kilt and started to play the bagpipes. The dog refused to sing. It just sat there looking at me just saying nothing. It just sat there, with a really smug look on its face. This went on for about two hours.” Curtis phoned his producer. “She said: ‘Darling, that is wonderful. Don’t you see that the dog refusing to sing for a man dressed up in a kilt is actually very funny? Go back and keep filming. Film the dog doing nothing. But film the man as well.’”

“So I did. We ran a long close-up shot of the dog’s face with the sound of out-of-tune bagpipes. It was quite avant-garde, but the audience loved it, especially when you cut it against the face of the man puffing at the bagpipes who genuinely believed that the dog was about to sing.

“That time with a dog taught me the fundamental basics of journalism. That what really happens is the key thing; you mustn’t try and force the reality in front of you into a predictable story. What you should do is notice what is happening in front of your eyes, and what instinctively your reaction is. And my reaction was that I hated the dog as it looked at me silently. So I made a short film about that.”

Despite his Oxford education, a hint of a provincial resentment defines Curtis’s attitudes toward London’s cultural intelligentsia. Americans might model this as the “John Lennon syndrome” (as opposed to the sense of ease and entitlement exhibited by, say, Mick Jagger). “The snooty people disagree with me,” he said. “The posh literary lot. They don’t like me because they think I’m not elegant and literary and I don’t make enough references. And what I do is I play fast and loose — not with the facts, they’re not interested in that — but with my aesthetic responses. I put pop music, David Bowie, in the middle of an Afghan film. It’s all a bit vulgar.”

Read the whole thing, if you’ve enjoyed Curtis’s works.

The Bubble

Sunday, November 20th, 2016

It may be time to move to the Bubble:

Batgirl Gatchaman

Saturday, November 19th, 2016

Jordan Gibson’s Batgirl Gatchaman mash-up art is delightful — if you grew up on 1960s Batman and 1970s Battle of the Planets:

Batgirl Gatchaman 01

Batgirl Gatchaman 02

Batgirl Gatchaman 03

Batgirl Gatchaman 04

Batgirl Gatchaman 05

Batgirl Gatchaman 06

Set Phasers to “Vaporize”

Friday, November 11th, 2016

Star Trek‘s phasers have a top setting that will vaporize a human:

That’s not just overkill, that’s an insane level of overkill. It’s like using a TOW anti-tank missile to target an individual.

And this is one of the things that Star Trek got wrong. Not that it’s necessarily impossible for a weapon the size of a keychain to vaporize a human, but that the process of vaporizing the human wouldn’t utterly trash the surroundings. Face it: you’re converting, oh, 180 pounds of water to steam, and converting the calcium in the bones, the metal and plastic in his clothes, tools, weapons, etc. into plasma. And if the target is also holding a phaser, you’re converting that into vapor, which means that its battery (or whatever the power source is) is going to explode.

Phaser-vaporizing someone on board a spaceship is going to be a disaster, because by converting 180 pounds of water into steam, you’re increasing the volume by a factor of around 1,000. Imagine if the room the target was in suddenly found itself loaded with 1,000 more people. The pressure will blow the hull apart. While a blaster will simply poke a hole in the target, maybe burning their clothes.

Star Trek always made the result of someone getting vaporized pretty… well, sterile. Zap, bright light, gone. But it wouldn’t be like that. If you want to know what someone getting phasered at full power would look like, YouTube provides. Behold the phenomenon of the “Arc Flash,” where enough electrical energy can be dumped into a human to convert said human into a steam explosion. Obviously, this might be considered slightly grisly, so gather the kids around (occurs at 1:14; you can adjust settings to .25 speed to watch the guy go from “normal” to “Hey, he’s a glowing blob, just like in Star Trek” to “Where’d he go?” in three frames):

It’s kinda unclear just what the hell happened here, but it sure looks like the guy was converted into mostly a cloud and a bit of a spray. In any event, there’s no missing the fact that something really quite energetic happened to the guy. The captain of the Klingon scout vessel vaporizes one of his crew on the bridge, they’re going to be scrubbing it down for *days,* assuming that the steam and overpressure doesn’t kill everyone else on the bridge.

It turns out that the arc flash did not vaporize the worker:

(Hat tip to Nyrath.)

“Don’t Stop Me Now” Tina Turner Soul Style

Tuesday, November 1st, 2016

Covering Queen songs isn’t easy, because Freddie Mercury could sing, but Melinda Doolittle performs a beautiful Tina Turner Soul Style cover of “Don’t Stop Me Now” with Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox:

Audible Prime

Monday, October 31st, 2016

Amazon now offers a variety of Audible “channels” free to Prime members. In addition to “handcrafted playlists” — which seem to be NPR-style radio shows or podcasts — they have a number of classic audiobooks, including Dracula, which seemed timely.

Conservatarian Novelist Brad Thor

Saturday, October 29th, 2016

“Conservatarian” novelist Brad Thor talks to Nick Gillespie:

His books are also chock full of philosophizing and political and economic commentary from a “conservatarian” perspective. 2013′s Hidden Order, which revolved around attempts to assassinate nominees to head the Federal Reserve, quoted extensively from libertarian economics writer Henry Hazlitt and histories of the Fed. Thor notes that he was raised in a part-Objectivist home and exposed early and often to the works of Ayn Rand. That upbringing infuses his fiction with a love of ideas and his education at the University of Southern California with acclaimed novelist T.C. Boyle helps imbue his work with literary flourishes.

Thor’s latest book, Foreign Agent, engages the threat of extremist Islam and provocatively argues (amidst the action scenes and plot twists) that the truest form of the faith isn’t practiced by contemporary reformers but by fundamentalist Muslims and the terrorists in ISIS and Al Qaeda. A native of the Chicago area, Thor talked to Reason in his adopted hometown of Nashville.

The Incal

Friday, October 28th, 2016

As Mœbius, Jean Giraud was famous for illustrating a number of influential bandes dessinées, including Arzach and The Incal.

When I saw that the first volume of The Incal was included in Amazon’s Prime Reading program, I gave it a read, and it was just as weird as I’d heard. (Alejandro Jodorowsky is the writer.)

If you enjoyed The Fifth Element — which I did not — you know the look and the tone. Moebius and Jodorowsky sued Luc Besson for using The Incal as inspiration for The Fifth Element. (They lost.)

Incal Deepo Speaks

Incal Berg Attack

Early Peanuts

Thursday, October 27th, 2016

When they introduced their Prime Reading program recently, the folks at Amazon included The Complete Peanuts, Vol. 1: 1950-1952 in their collection of free reading, and I was more than a little curious after reading about how Snoopy killed Peanuts.

I’ll get to that in a moment, but the early strips are jarring in a few ways. First, of course, the art is different. I actually like the early art just fine. Second, the cast is different. Yes, Charlie Brown is the main character, but the other characters are Shermy, Patty, and Violet — none of whom I even remember from the strip’s heydey.

It’s not even clear that Snoopy is Charlie Brown’s dog — but it is clear that Snoopy is a dog.

Peanuts First Three Strips

He doesn’t stick purely to traditional dog stuff though. Even just a few pages into the collection he’s doing people stuff.

Peanuts Rootbeer For Sale

I think I can now say, “I only like old Peanuts — before they sold out.”

End-of-the-World Fiction

Friday, October 21st, 2016

Rebecca Onion “ate up” the canon of traditionally literary end-of-the-world science fiction — Alas, Babylon; The Sheep Look Up; Lucifer’s Hammer — and some newly published respectably literary postapocalyptic books — California, The Dog Stars, Station Eleven — and then found Audible recommending something subtly differentPatriots, by James Wesley, Rawles (the comma is intentional):

I didn’t understand that I was making a leap between genres when I purchased Patriots, which turned out to be a best-selling 2009 book of prepper fiction. Downloading it sent me down a new rabbit hole that I have yet to exit. Through prepper fiction, I find myself experiencing a subculture by way of its novels, finding some of its ideals repellent, while slowly — and unhappily — coming to agree with others.

One feature, I found, differentiates prepper fiction from mere apocalypse fiction: lists. Apocalyptic stories sacrifice some details of characters’ survival tactics on the altar of narrative. But in prepper tales, lists are inevitable. I have to quote this whole paragraph, about a survival group’s knife-buying tactics, to give you a sense of how Rawles, a notorious lister, does it:

For skinning knives, most of the members bought standard mass-produced Case and Buck knives, but a few opted for custom knives made by Andy Sarcinella, Trinity Knives, and Ruana. Most of them also bought a Leatherman tool and a CRKT folding knife. For fighting knives, most purchased standard factory produced knives made by Benchmade or Cold Steel. Kevin bought an expensive New Lile Gray Ghost with Micarta grip panels. Against Kevin’s advice, Dan Fong bought a double-edged Sykes-Fairbairn British commando knife. Kevin warned him that it was an inferior design. He preferred knives that could be used for both utility purposes and for combat. He observed that the Fairbairn’s grip was too small, and that the knife’s slowly tapering tip was too likely to break, particularly in utility use. Dan eventually wrapped the knife’s handle with green parachute cord to give it a more proper diameter. Because the Fairbairn did indeed have a brittle tip, Dan did most of his utility knife work with a CRKT folder with a tanto-type point.

The lists are a point of complaint for some reviewers online, but the authors of these books know that they’re writing something that’s a cross between a novel, a shopping list, a survival manual, and a field guide; this is a wholly experimental form, and the results can be awkward. After a while, though, I relaxed into it. Like a high school junior struggling through Moby-Dick’s whaling chapters, the new reader has to realize that prepper fiction’s blend of description and plot is meant to make the minute details of a supercomplex material phenomenon more visible. Those lists soothed me, since they spoke a language I — a cook, a sometime backpacker, and a committed cataloger of household goods — found easy to understand.

Here’s where things take a hard right turn:

Even as these books revel in the virtues of self-reliance, they graphically condemn the uselessness of other people who refuse to help themselves. Inevitably, after a catastrophic event, a prepared protagonist encounters people who just cannot believe that their water isn’t going to come back on or that the government isn’t going to come to bring them their refrigerated insulin.

These sheeple are unreasonable, fussy, picky, and stupid. Are there really people who still can’t understand that grocery stores don’t fill up by magic? In these books, they are legion.

[...]

In more than one of these books, the prepper encounters people who expect him to share the resources he’s planned ahead to store. The analogy with communism or socialism is often explicit.

The Usual You-Go-Girl Fare

Tuesday, October 18th, 2016

The creators of Zootopia explain the original concept and the big story shift that turned the film upside down:

Steve Sailer suggests that it “started out culturally rebellious but then got throttled by the test marketers and executives into the usual You-Go-Girl fare.”

Blade Runner’s Uplifting Ending

Monday, October 17th, 2016

Ridley Scott discusses his way of working — and drops a fun bit of trivia about Blade Runner at the end:

See What I Did There?

Saturday, October 15th, 2016

Alan Moore progresses from eccentric comic-book writer to insane novel writer with his latest work, Jerusalem:

Like Joyce’s “Ulysses,” “Jerusalem” largely hinges on the events of a single day (in this case May 26, 2006) and a particular place: the Boroughs, the depressed neighborhood in Northampton where Moore grew up. (The Jerusalem of the title is the metaphorical one William Blake imagined building “in England’s green and pleasant land.”) As with “Ulysses,” Moore shifts his narrative technique and point of view from chapter to chapter. And, as with “Ulysses,” no detail, however minute, is purely decorative; it’s all part of the mammoth Rube Goldberg machinery, including an actual mammoth (or, rather, its ghost) that sets the story’s denouement into motion.

The equivalent of Stephen Dedalus here — Moore’s stand-in — is a painter in her 50s named Alma Warren (her name is a clear play on the author’s), who comes from a long line of artists, lunatics and “deathmongers,” that being a Northampton tradition of midwife/morticians. The moment during which the characters and their actions converge is the eve of Alma’s opening reception for a series of paintings inspired by her brother’s recollections of a near-death experience from when he choked on a cough drop at the age of 3. But then there’s also a chapter concerning the then-unknown Charlie Chaplin’s experiences in Northampton in 1909, and one in which a Christian pilgrim brings a relic to “Hamtun” (as it was then called) in 810, and one about how Alma’s great-great-grandfather lost his mind in 1865 when the fresco he was repairing in St. Paul’s Cathedral started talking to him, and so forth.

That’s all to prime the reader for the central third of “Jerusalem,” which takes place above time itself, in “Mansoul” (as in John Bunyan’s allegory “The Holy War”), where “The Dead Dead Gang,” a crew of ghostly children led by a girl in a cape made of decomposing rabbits, are having adventures and investigating mysteries. (Their Northampton accents are augmented by “wiz” and “wizzle,” the afterlife’s conflation of “was,” “is” and “will be.”) One advantage of being dead, it turns out, is that you can perceive space-time from the outside, as when the gang encounters the Platonic form of a Northampton landmark:

“The Guildhall, the Gilhalda of Mansoul, was an immense and skyscraping confection of warm-colored stone, completely overgrown with statues, carven tableaux and heraldic crests. It was as if an architecture-bomb had gone off in slow motion, with countless historic forms exploding out of nothingness and into solid granite. Saints and Lionhearts and poets and dead queens looked down on them through the blind pebbles of their emery-smoothed eyes and up above it all, tall as a lighthouse, were the sculpted contours of the Master Builder, Mighty Mike, the local champion.” (That would be the Archangel Michael, who is engaged in an eternal metaphysical snooker tournament that determines the fates of the city’s residents.)

Read that passage out loud, and you can’t miss its galumphing iambic rhythm. Moore, in fact, keeps that meter running for the entire length of the novel, and that’s just where his acrobatic wordplay begins. One chapter takes the form of rhymed stanzas. Another is blank verse, run together into paragraphs but pausing for breath every 10 syllables. A third is a play whose central seam is a conversation between Thomas Becket and Samuel Beckett.

The novel’s most difficult and wittiest chapter is written in a convincing pastiche of Joyce’s portmanteau-mad language from “Finnegans Wake,” and concerns Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, who spent her final decades in a Northampton mental hospital. At one point, the malign spirit of the River Nene tries to persuade her to drown herself: “It is a ferry splashionable wayter go, I’m trold, for laydies of o blitterary inclinocean. But then fameills of that sport are oftun willd, vergin’ near wolf, quereas with you there’s fomething vichy gugling on.” (Note the allusion to Virginia Woolf, who did drown herself.) Lucia declines, and goes on to encounter Dusty Springfield (“Dust’ny Singfeeld”), with whom she has sex while Number 6 from “The Prisoner” looks on. Yes, this is relevant to the plot, more or less.

Books this forbiddingly steep need to be entertaining in multiple ways to make them worth the climb, and Moore keeps lobbing treats to urge his readers onward: luscious turns of phrase, unexpected callbacks and internal links, philosophical digressions, Dad jokes, fantastical inventions like the flower resembling a cluster of fairies — the “Puck’s Hat” or “Bedlam Jenny” — that is the only food the dead can eat. Those who have read Moore’s comics will recognize some of his favorite themes too. Snowy Vernall, who experiences his life as predestined, is in the same boat as Dr. Manhattan from “Watchmen”; there’s a strain of Ripperology left over from “From Hell”; the demon Asmodeus, who appeared in “Promethea,” plays a prominent role here in a different guise.

If cleverness were all that mattered, “Jerusalem” would be everything. Its pyrotechnics never let up, and Moore never stops calling attention to them. Again and again, he threatens to crash into the slough of See What I Did There?, then comes up with another idea so clever he pulls out of the dive. (When the book, in its homestretch, hasn’t yet demonstrated much of a connection to William Blake, Alma Warren effectively engages a detective to work one out, in the person of the real-world actor Robert Goodman jokingly pretending to be a private eye called “Studs.”) The only way to endure “Jerusalem” is to surrender to its excesses — its compulsion to outdo any challenger in its lushness of language, grandness of scope, sheer monomaniacal duration — and confess it really is as ingenious as it purports to be.

What redeems the relentless spectacle, though, is that it’s in the service of a passionate argument. Behind all the formalism and eccentric virtuosity, there’s personal history from a writer who has rarely put himself into his own fiction before: the family legends and tragedies that Moore has blown up to mythical size to preserve them from the void, and the streets and buildings, lost and soon to be lost, whose every cracked stone is holy to him. Northampton, Moore suggests, is the center of all meaning, because so is every other place.

The Mr. Rogers Of Painting

Sunday, October 9th, 2016

The Mr. Rogers Of Painting popularized “wet on wet” oil painting:

The only public record of any tumult in Ross’ life is in his relationship with the man who taught him to paint, William Alexander. Alexander, who had his own PBS show, The Magic Of Oil Painting, claimed to be the originator of wet-on-wet oil painting, the technique Ross used on Joy Of Painting.

Classical oil painting is a time-consuming process of building up slow-drying glazes to produce a luminescent effect. If a layer is insufficiently dry, colors blend and become muddy. The wet-on-wet technique speeds this process up considerably by controlling the mixing of colors on the canvas so highlights and shadows are created with a quick series of gestures. Once mastered, it becomes easy to whip out a competent, representational image in a very short amount of time.

Bob Ross Painting

Alexander never got over what he felt was Ross’ theft. Without speaking to whether Ross unfairly took credit, it’s fair to say that it’s not the method of paint application that caused Ross to surpass his former mentor in popularity. Watching Alexander highlights just how much Ross’ personality benefits his show. Not simply with his widely quoted peacenik platitudes (as endearing as those are) but also in the rhythm he folds into his tutorials. Ross maintains a smooth, unbroken cadence as he shifts between instructions on brush placement or color mixture to a completely unrelated observation about the epileptic squirrel he’s rehabilitating. Each comment punctuated by the rhythmic pat of the brush or scraping of the palette knife against the canvas becomes almost musical.

Ross’ teacher didn’t have nearly the same on-camera ease. He spoke distractedly in a thick German accent and contemplated how artists suffering from a surplus of imagination led to acts like Van Gogh slicing off his own ear. A host who muses on self-mutilation in a brusque Teutonic inflection just won’t find the same level of enthusiasm among public television viewers as the softcore hippiedom of Bob Ross.

Marc Andreessen’s Library

Saturday, October 8th, 2016

The lobby at Andreessen Horowitz is also Marc Andreessen’s library, and it’s full of books about Hollywood:

In 1908, the country’s nine largest filmmakers formed the Movie Picture Patents Company, insisting that no one else could make movies because they controlled the patents on the original movie camera, co-created by Thomas Edison at his lab in New Jersey. The patents belonged to Edison, and he backed the Patents Company. So a new wave of filmmakers moved to the West Coast, where the courts were less friendly to Edison. Hollywood became a place to make movies in part because it was so sunny — you could film outdoors more often and with fewer lights — but also because it was so far away from New Jersey.

Who the Devil Made It — an oral history of Hollywood collected by the director and film historian Peter Bogdanovich — begins in the days of the Patents Company. Allan Dwan, who started making movies in the 1910s, tells Bogdanovich that as independent filmmakers moved west, the Patents Company hired strongmen to enforce its patents. Dwan remembers snipers climbing trees overlooking movie sets and taking shots at the cameras they deemed illegal. He would film as far as he could from the railroad stops, so he and his crew were harder to find.

The story of early Hollywood is very much the story of Silicon Valley, full of innovators fleeing the old rules in search of the new. It only makes sense that the lobby of Andreessen Horowitz is stocked with books on early Hollywood, including Who The Devil Made It. Bogdanovich and Dwan tell a story not unlike the one told in What the Dormouse Said, where a group of freethinkers rise up in the 1960s and create the personal computer, pushing against entrenched giants like IBM.

Andreessen Horowitz Bookshelf

As The New Yorker explains, Andreessen and Horowitz are pals with [Michael] Ovitz, the guy behind CAA, one of Hollywood’s biggest talent agencies. When they started their firm, they went to Ovitz for advice.

“Call everyone a partner, offer services the others don’t, and help people who aren’t your clients,” he said. “Disrupt to differentiate by becoming a dream-execution machine.” They did all that. And, in contrast to typical Silicon Valley VCs, they hired a whole team of publicists who guided Andreessen Horowitz stories into Fortune and Forbes. They hung some Rauschenbergs around the office — just like CAA. And when people pitched them, they drank from glassware rather than plastic. The books complement the Rauschenbergs and the glassware. They, too, lend authority.