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Sunday, 31 July 2011

Don't It Always Seem to Go....

Technology, at its most basic, allows us to move through life with relative ease. For some people, it doesn't move out of cause and effect: you flick a lightswitch and you don't stub your toe. You turn on the radio, move the dial, and suddenly you're immeresed in anything from Chopin to Led Zeppelin. All at your fingertips, all within reach. But technology is so much more to us, whether we choose to accept it or not.

There is a reason why various stages of human eras are named after which technological advances shaped and defined them. The Agrarian Age produced tools and information that allowed humans to settle and begin forming larger groups of people, eventually cities, that demanded laws and an organized hierarchy. This is followed by the Industrial Age, spanning over 250 years and encompassing everything from the harnessing of electricity to the invention of the telephone, radio, and television, thusly shrinking the world to our living rooms. We now find ourselves in the Information Age, or as some have dubbed, the Digital Age, and we walk about with the world in our pocket.

There are several factors involved in living in such an upwardly mobile world. Firstly, information is available to us 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Constant updates for news aggregates like Pulse and Flipboard bombard us with the shape of our world, however we also have the ability to filter it down to only what we want to read about. Secondly, there is the social aspect of mobility, namely, what the hell is happening to us as the world shrinks? It seems as the world gets smaller, the space between us widens. Is this true? Thirdly, as new technology emerges from the folds, offering us supreme convenience, what happens to the old technology?

Massive amounts of information are now available to us instantly. How we choose to imbibe this information, to process and weigh in on it, is entirely up to each individual. But this is the way it always has been. From passenger pigeon to iPad, humans have been able to receive information and make of it what they will. True, we have new devices to receive said information, but it is still delivered via the same interfaces (voice, photos, and videos) as it was since the 30's (and for those of you who are puzzled as to how news was delivered via video during the 30s and before the advent of television, motion pictures often had newsreels that preceded them keeping the cinematic patrons up to speed on all the latest breaking news, plus wacky new dance crazes like the Charelston. I kid, I kid). Essentially, my point is that there are people who push against a more mobile environment armed with the argument that it is simply too much and that human beings aren't capable of separating reputable news sources to....well, the less reputable ones. This is selling humans pretty short! I believe we are savvy enough media consumers to distinguish good from bad, right from wrong, in all it's varied guises.

All is not rosy in the land of technological advances. The consumption of world events, something that humans have done for generations, is one thing. However, the interaction between people using only a digital interface is another kettle of fish altogether. Now I don't want to come off as a curmudgeon, some old man on a porch yelling Get off my lawn! at passing kids, but I just don't like social media. Sure, I can admit that there are benefits of it (hey, the prom king from high school has 8 kids and works at Taco Bell on the weekends hahaha) and it gives small businesses an opportunity to get their name out to massive amounts of people for free, drumming up interest with just a few clicks and shares, but the downfalls far outweigh said benefits. Social media sites are beginning to replace genuine human interaction. Becoming friends with someone simply doesn't carry the same weight anymore. Now we click a button, entering into a tacit agreement that each party will browse through photos, peruse various likes and dislikes, passing judgement on tastes in books and movies, and scoffing generally at any unflattering information they stumble upon. And all of this happens without a word exchanged. Yes, it closes gaps, reuniting friends who have lost touch for 30 years, but I just don't buy into it. It has grown into such a grotesque and ugly facsimile of human interaction that it actually disgusts me.

Is there any more powerful drug than nostalgia? Unfortunately, nostalgia is different things to different people, meaning I'm stuck with The Goonies, ALF, Hypercolor t-shirts, and MS-DOS. Sigh. But nostalgia for technology, or what technology may eventually replace, is a particularly potent drug. People are understandably reluctant to give up books and albums in favor of digital media. I get it. I really do, especially the books. I have bookshelves full to the brim. There is a story to every single book I own (ok, not all are interesting, but still) and I covet the books I own, even though I have pared down my collection over the last couple of years. Yes, books are comforting to hold and curl up with in front of a roaring fire with a cup of hot cocoa, thumbing through the yellowing pages, breathing in that used bookstore smell and getting lost in the story. And spinning vinyl, those cracks and pops on all your vintage Django Reinhardt and Otis Redding records. Yeah, sounds great. But time for the truth. When's the last time you lit a roaring fire, made hot chocolate, curled up and read a beautiful leather bound copy of Anna Karenina you picked up at City Lights? Not too recently? Yeah, don't worry. Me neither. I read at the beach. I read in bed. I read on the couch. I only wish I had a kindle when I read books like 2666 (which I also got a papercut on), The Kindly Ones, and Against The Day. All 1000 plus pages. All pains in the ass to haul on the bus, lug in a backpack, or hold above your head as you read in bed. And don't get me started on vinyl nuts who refuse to acknowledge that music exists on any other format (it's also interesting to note that no one ever waxes nostalgic for 8 tracks or cassette tapes). I love having my music with me wherever I go, accessible wherever and whenever I want. Sure, there's no physical presence anymore, but to me that means less waste of CD packaging and materials and less space taken up in my house. Win-win, right? According to some, lord no. These formats are being fetishized beyond all rationality, and therefore people will defend them to death without paying any mind to the other side of the argument. To some I'm a slave to convenience, willing to sacrifice quality and craftsmanship to make life easier. To me, I'm just doing what makes sense. There are new technologies that are supplementing (but not yet replacing, and may never) older ones and I'm taking advantage of them to make my life easier.

"Most people...still cling to what I call the rearview-mirror view of their world. By this I mean to say that because of the invisibility of any environment during the period of its innovation, man is only consciously aware of the environment that has preceded it; in other words, an environment becomes fully visible only when it has been superseded by a new environment; thus we are always one step behind in our view of the world."

-- Marshall McLuhan

Such a wonderful summation of forward momentum undetected by those who are within it. Those who can see ahead of the curve, can recognize a dying technology and start innovating for people before those people even know what they need, they are true visionaries.

I began writing this entry with great focus. It was to be a succinct and quite short, a diatribe against holding back the future. You cant stop what's coming, to quote Cormac McCarthy. But soon I found I was guilty of the very thing I was railing against. I push against social media, arguably the one phenomenon that has the capability to truly change the world, from pure disgust, unwilling to accept it even though it may be useful to me (but probably not). I realize that there are no real black and whites within these changing times. We are all hurtling headlong into the future whether we like it or not. All I ask is that the next time you see someone reading on a kindle, or watching a movie on their iPad, don't scoff. Don't default to superiority due to the fact that you see them as a slave to technology. I don't believe bookstores will be extinct, nor record stores. Video stores, maybe. They deserve to fade out of the landscape once and for all. Libraries will be around well past my expiration date I'm sure. But there will be new, exciting ways to consume media alongside the old ways. But screw you, I'm still not joining Facebook.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Cover to Cover

When one is trying to think of a topic to write about, one should look to their passions. Well, reading is something I have enjoyed since time immemorial, so I could write about a book, I thought to myself. Well, what book? I have read hundreds of novels I could write a review for, or outline why I liked them, or didn't like them, or downright hated them (I'm looking at you No Great Mischief). Intro, plot outline, criticisms, witticisms (on a good day), characters, memorable events, wrap-up, and I'm done.


I'm not knocking book reviews, but it's just not really my m.o. right now I suppose. But, paradoxically, I still wanted to write about books. I'm in a bind. I normally internalize these epic struggles of self, twisting my conscience like so much salt water taffy. Fingers trembling over the keyboard, I have an epiphany. Talk to somebody! And who happened to be there but my lovely wife, who, once hearing about my crisis of creativity, made a suggestion, and a damn good one at that.

"Why don't you write about book covers. You love them, you always talk about them, and you're judgmental as hell about books with terrible ones".

Stroking my nonexistent beard, I muttered to myself about that being a great idea and already thinking about ways to option it for myself. Yes, the fusion of art and literature that can spark a conversation about a book before anyone even...

"If you do write about book covers, promise you credit me though. God knows you wouldn't if I don't tell you to".

Fine. True. Good point. Sweetheart, this is all you...

Ever walked into Munro's, or Bolen, or Chapters, and wandered aimlessly through the store, stopping to admire the rows upon rows, shelves upon shelves of those delightful books, but not really have any particular one in mind you'd like to read?

No? I envy you, my prepared and decisive friend! For you make lists, do the legwork, comb through the Sunday Book Review, and march right into your bookstore with a determined look on your face, make your purchase, and march straight back home again. Good for you.

Me? I wander. No plan, no legwork, no lists. Sure, I know the authors I like, and sometimes I linger at their little spot on the shelf, all those McCarthys, those Pynchons, lined up and ready for relative discovery. But other times I crave new. I want the thrill of discovery and the eventual championing a newly found author my friends have never heard of, ideally at a dinner party where they all toast my good taste and brave book selection, envisioning me as a literary Percy Harrison Fawcett, braving my way through the tropical jungle that is the fiction section.

Ahem, but I digress.

So what drives me want to read something? Being the superficial guy I am, well, the cover. We've all heard that stale adage, Don't judge a book by it's cover. I admit, there's some weight to it when you apply it to people, but not really books. Yeah yeah, I'm a snob and an aesthete. Sue me. But I love love love attractive, well thought out and designed book covers. And if I am wandering lonely as a cloud through Chapters, an attractive cover will spark my interest and warrant further investigation. After reading the synopsis or the first paragraph, I may just put the book back, but that's not the point. The cover lured me in, setting the book apart from it's brethren and piquing my interest. Yes, I realize that terrible books often have interesting covers, and vice versa. There are exceptions to every rule but I want to outline which covers I truly love. Which ones spark the imagination, please the eye, and whet the appetite. Personal preferences all, for there is no objectivity in art, so may feel free to argue until you are blue in the face. I welcome it in fact.

It should be noted that these books are all in my collection. Sure, I could write about the thousands of other books with covers I admire, but I wanted to stick close to home.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (2008)

A great, eye-popping cover full of energy, and is turns out, the cover is wholly representative of the book. The anarchistic interplay between the colours, punctuated by the lonely figure (who is it? Could it be the titular Oscar?) in the bottom right hand corner gazing up at something that is most definitely bigger than he is, just lured me in.

 Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2004)

6 pictures of clouds. The book is called Cloud Atlas. Okay, some semblance of cohesion there. But the pictures of the clouds are all different points of view, different takes. A romantic photograph, a high contrast black and white, a meteorological graph. It turns out the cover summarizes the book neatly in a wonderful, abstract, and artistic way.

 The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass (1959)

A childlike drawing, simple, powerful, yet profoundly disturbing, of a young boy with a drum. Why is his mouth like that? Is he screaming? What's with the drum? It must be important since the novel is called The Tin Drum, surely. This is one of my absolute favorite covers (and favorite books, too). It's ability to provoke remains unequalled in my opinion.

  Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem (2009)

An abstract cover, for sure, but one that instantly grabbed my eye. A roaring tiger, seemingly rendered on newsprint, with a halved, inverted New York City skyline as teeth? I'm in. Well worth it, too, as it turned out. A great read about the nature of truth and identity. And yes it takes place in NYC. And there is a tiger in it. Sort of....

 Amusing Ourselves to Death  by Neil Postman

This book has a timeless cover that is married perfectly with it's subject. A television harshly illuminates a stereotypical family, only each family member is missing their head. The pastels serve as an interesting juxtaposition to the menacing, ink-black shadow cast behind them. Yes, TV is a menace, and this is the perfect visual representation of that idea.

These are but a mere five book covers I have selected from my collection. Five covers that somehow grabbed my attention, hinting details without revealing too much, and served as an entry point to a great story. Great book covers can be great art, too. They can please the eye and tease the mind in equal measure. When a book is represented by a lazy, sloppy, or uninspired cover it can be such a turn off to the point where I decide the book isn't worth my time in the least. A rash judgement? Maybe.

But would you wear your pajamas to a job interview?

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Words to Live By #2

"If I were not an atheist, I would believe in a God who would choose to save people on the basis of the totality of their lives and not the pattern of their words. I think he would prefer an honest and righteous atheist to a TV preacher whose every word is God, God, God and whose every deed is foul, foul, foul."
— Isaac Asimov

Friday, 8 July 2011

"It's a Strange World Out There..."

David Lynch's film Blue Velvet arrived like an atom bomb in 1986, dividing critics and audiences, most of whom had no idea how to react to the disconcerting blend of humor, nostalgia, and sadomasochism (hailed as a masterpiece by The Village Voice, derided by Roger Ebert, who felt embarrassed for the actors appearing in it). It seems no less incendiary when viewed today. In this third and final (?) post of The Pleasures of the Damned series, I will examine the examination, so to speak, of the horrifying underbelly of Americana at it's most wholesome.

A thin blue velvet curtain, undulating menacingly, introduces us to the film. And what are curtains for but to be pulled back? At once, we are welcomed into the small town of Lumberton. Lynch revels in archetypes in this introduction: beautiful red roses, white picket fences, friendly morning radio banter. It feels safe to be in Lumberton, that is, until we zoom in on a man watering his lawn who suddenly couples over, seemingly suffering from a stroke. The camera elegantly moves past the man, hose still in hand, into the grass. The music grows intense. We are gazing into the soil, face to face with grotesque beetles chomping and chewing, their animalistic sounds overtaking the soundtrack. An unsettling glimpse at what truly lies beneath the manicured lawns of Lumberton, and America as a whole.

The man who suffered the stroke is the father of Jeffrey Beaumont, the hero...of sorts, of Blue Velvet. He is the viewer's surrogate, the tabula rasa onto which we project our own horror, discomfort, and shock. Jeffrey returns from college to be with his family after his father's hospitalization. After his first hospital visit, Jeffrey walks through a back field near his house, discovering a severed, ant-infested (hello, Dali) human ear. This discovery is an entry point into the suburban nightmare that follows.

Succinctly, since plot machinations are better left to the viewer and not the reader, the ear leads Jeffrey to the police, which lead him to the police inspector's daughter, who leads him to nightclub singer Dorothy Valens, who finally leads him to Frank Booth, the true agent of chaos in this tale.

Frank, as played by the late, great Dennis Hopper, stands as the antithesis to safe, small town values. He inhales amyl nitrate while ritualistically raping Dorothy, her blue velvet robe stuffed in his mouth. He is wild, unpredictable, violent; everything Jeffrey is not. It seems incomprehensible that this man can exist alongside the white picket fences of Lumberton. But he does. This juxtaposition of evil surviving alongside innocence and purity, of monsters operating just under the noses of people going about their daily lives, allows Lynch to tap into our innate fear of the unknown, of boogeymen in a darkened closet. Nothing is safe.

At one point, the police inspector's daughter, Sandy, tells Jeffrey about a dream she had:

I had a dream. In fact, it was on the night I met you. In the dream, there was our world, and the world was dark because there weren't any robins and the robins represented love. And for the longest time, there was this darkness. And all of a sudden, thousands of robins were set free and they flew down and brought this blinding light of love. And it seemed that love would make any difference, and it did. So, I guess it means that there is trouble until the robins come.

Innocence meets experience
During the bizarre climax, complete with another severed ear and a gunshot wound to the head that isn't quite fatal, good does eventually triumph over evil, but at what cost? Jeffrey and Sandy have borne witness to true, unspeakable evil, right in their backyard. Innocence and experience have intertwined, visually summarized by the final scene of the film: a robin has returned, perching just outside Sandy's window. In it's mouth a beetle it is grotesquely consuming.

Is Lynch criticizing the innocence and shelter of modern suburbia, it's distancing effect from truth it has on it's inhabitants? Or is he saying we should be happy this thin veil, this curtain separates us from people like Frank Booth? Jeffrey, our intrepid boy-detective, gains valuable life experience by following the advice of Andy Warhol, of "peeling slowly and seeing" what lies beneath. Lynch never directs the viewer to an easily digestible conclusion, leaving each to bring his or her own experience, prejudice, and judgement upon each of the characters.

This willful act of exploring the dark, sad, and pitiful state of human nature is common to the three artists I have highlighted in these entires. Bukowski, Weegee, and Lynch are not carnival barkers inviting us to revel in misery and despair. They ask us not to gawk at the misfortunes of others, but to see ourselves reflected in their art. Our shortcomings. Our hopes. Our fears. In the end, everything that makes us who we are, warts and all.

I, for one, consider it a gift.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Words to Live By #1

"So everything lets us down, including curiosity and honesty and what we love best. Yes, said the voice, but cheer up, it's fun in the end."
— Roberto Bolaño (2666)

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Now the easiest kind of job to cover was a murder...

...because the stiff will be laying on the ground, he couldn't get up and walk away or get temperamental, and he would be good for at least two hours.

 -- Arthur Fellig, a.k.a Weegee, transcribed from the Candid Recordings audio of Famous Photographers Tell How, 1958.

Weegee: Man with a still camera
Arthur Fellig had a knack. He wasn't just a photographer and he didn't just snap pictures. Arthur Fellig had a preternatural sense of what people wanted and the ability to deliver it in spades. He was a chronicler of the downtrodden, a recorder of misery, and he boasted these skills without shame or humility. Some even referred to him as the P.T Barnum of photography. And every self-aggrandizing showboat needs an angle...

Fellig quickly earned the nom de guerre Weegee, referring to the fact that he was always the first on the scene, almost as if he was summoning some divine force via a ouija board. The truth is less supernatural but no less interesting: Weegee had a police scanner next to his bed, a makeshift darkroom in the trunk of his car, and a typewriter he kept with him to write captions. He hung out in nightclubs, keeping his finger on the pulse of downtown New York. Oftentimes he beat local authorities to the scene. As Weegee's photographs became more widespread, now being published in the likes of Time and Vogue, Weegee began referring to himself as "Weegee the Famous" and "The Greatest Photographer in the World".

So was Weegee deserving of the titles and fame his photographs brought?

Very much so.

Weegee captured New York City like no one before or since. Lonely tenement blocks, dark alleys, and drunken denizens took on a mythical status, steeped in noir conventions almost to the point of romanticizing them. No easy feat. In fact, Weegee's first published book of photos, The Naked City, became The inspiration to one of the best film noirs ever made, also called The Naked City, directed by Jules Dassin. The film was shot on the gritty streets of  1940's New York City, a novel convention in a time where most movies were filmed on sound stages using sets. Weegee even has a Hitchcock-like cameo in the film. (I urge anyone unfamiliar with this film, or the genre of noir, to start exploring posthaste. You're really missing out on some of the most fascinating, groundbreaking films of the last century).

But the eerie prescience, the unprecedented preparedness, and the shameless self-hype would be nothing without the photographs. The typewriter was to Bukowski what the camera shutter was to Weegee. He recorded misery, debauchery, and crime with a poet's soul. Take for example, one of Weegee's most famous photographs: Balcony Seats to a Murder.

Balcony Seats to a Murder (1939)
Photo credit: International Center of Photography via Getty Images
A café owner had been shot, his lifeless body slumped in the doorway. Weegee, of course, was on the scene, as well as another photographer. This photographer took what's known as a "10 foot shot" framing the body in the doorway. Snap. Done. Maybe third page with an eye-catching byline in bold letters. Weegee didn't see it like this. A great drama was unfolding. You just had to step back and see it. From 100 feet away, Weegee captured all five floors of the tenement building, where people were gawking at the murder, heads hanging out windows and people gathering on fire escapes. Kids were even reading the funny papers. By expanding his point of view, Weegee allows his photo to comment on our innate voyeurism, lending gravitas to an already powerful scene.

Weegee often raised the ire of editors for capturing scenes of human emotion during a catastrophic event like a fire, to which firemen will refer to as a "roast" if people perished inside (which is what is happening the very moment the photo below was taken). Eschewing sensationalism ("Look. [Burning buildings] all look alike), Weegee photographed the people affected by the fire instead. He captures the hopelessness and loss associated with the fire.

Tenement Fire, Brooklyn (1942)
"I cried when I took this photo"
Photo credit: Amber Online

Weegee photographged an era we know nothing about today. He made the nights of NewYork City pulp art, capturing occurrences of misery and tragedy and infusing them with his singular vision. He perfected his method, securing himself as one of the best newspaper photographers in the business. It is comforting, in this age of cameraphones and ubiquitous social media, to reflect on Weegee, his tenacity and spirit, and think thats how it was done.

Weegee's advice to young photographers? Have sharp elbows.