Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Consuming the Corpse--with Relish

“Art is dead; Godard can’t change that,” the Situationists proclaimed in 1968. “Comrades, stop applauding, the spectacle is everywhere.” Jean-Luc Godard must have anticipated both of these sentiments when crafting Pierrot le Fou (1965). Quoting literary art at every turn, the titular Ferdinand-Pierrot insists that art remains very much alive. With Pierrot, Godard creates a marvelous mashup of genres—a spectacle worthy of applause. Indeed, it seems that Godard was bent on twisting the Situationists theses against them; Godard’s appetite for the whole body of western art proves insatiable.

Pierrot opens with a rather lengthy voice-over exposition on the painter Velasquez. What we mistake for a narrator’s voice turns out to be that of the protagonist, enjoying a bath and a cigarette and reading a passage of a biography to his young daughter. Aside from injecting humor into situation, Godard takes an early opportunity to make a serious point. That is, how can art be dead when part of its essential nature just is to be disseminated, received, and reinterpreted in a new context? In fact, Godard himself has already been enacting this three-fold process in the opening montage. The printed pronouncements of the biography come alive over images that interpret and inform them; Pierrot speaks the word “twilight” and Godard presents us with an image of sunny afternoon tennis game. Several shots later, he presents twilight over water, but now the voice informs us that “space reigns supreme.”

For a corpse, art is doing quite a lot of work here. Or perhaps it might serve us better to say that the sound and images are doing a lot of work to create a work of art. The juxtaposition of quotation with new images, of “twilight” with light, and of twilight with “space” suggests (1) an ongoing dialog with art of the past and (2) a continuing struggle to create something that interprets our experience in space and time. But what is art if not the latter? And how does a work dialogue with its predecessors if it is not one of them itself? One might answer that the critic or essayist partakes in both but does not create art. But the critic’s craft operates in the intellectual domain; the artist’s spans the sensory, emotional, and intellectual. Pierrot le Fou assaults the senses with fireworks, gunfire, and flashing neon, pricks the emotions with a love affair, a journey, and a betrayal, and invites the intellect to apprehend a barrage of images and plot points that can only be understood in context.

The context of Pierrot comprises not just the Situationist state of affairs and the state of cinema itself, but the whole of performance spectacle dating back to at least the 16th-century Commedia Dell’arte, from which Godard's protagonist receives his nickname. In that comic tradition, the trusting Pierrot pursues the love of Columbine; she betrays him for the affections of the agile Arlequin. In Pierrot le Fou, if fickle Marianne plays Colombine to Ferdinand’s Pierrot and to dancing Fred’s Arlequin, Ferdinand’s fate should come as no surprise. Yet Godard surprises us because he closely associates Pierrot with himself (via quotation), Marianne with the state of French culture (she wears the colors of the flag), and Fred with violence and war (suggesting the collapse of French imperialism). Pierrot's betrayal occurs at the last minute, leaving the audience with sensory exhaustion and a strong emotional charge, but still chewing on the meaning of every quote.

Indeed, the ability to inspire affect and introspection in its absence proves to be one of art’s most powerful qualities. Art lives in Godard’s film, and he clearly wishes to spread it around. That he co-opts his opposition’s terms—especially, spectacle—makes Godard’s artistic food for thought all the sweeter.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Webb 3.0

I saw Derek Webb at Austin's legendary Cactus Cafe tonight. You could call this the third incarnation of Webb--after Caedmon ensemble guy and solo acoustic folkster--and I gotta say, the new show is pretty rad.

I'd only heard a song and a clip or two from the new album, and what I'd heard shocked me. Derek went from folk-acoustic to synth-electronic. I worried that D Webb wouldn't be able to pull off the electronica live, but he, his drummer, and his everything-else guy put on a great concert. (They even had a little bit of a light show that added to the experience.)

In good Webb form, they played the new album in its entirety, including the "controversial" What Matters More. While I like that song's lyrical ballsiness, I thought it a musically a bit weak in context; everything else on "Stockholm Syndrome" is even better. I especially liked "Freddie Please". Most of the show tended toward drum-and-bass with Webb's signature vocals, which worked in spite of the fact that at times it proved a difficult to separate Derek's vocal style from his acoustic self.

He did a solo acoustic set, too, taking requests as is his custom. My only real complaint is that he did the acoustic set in the middle of the show and it sapped the momentum that they had built with the more electronic stuff. Still, it was great. The PA died during the last song, but Derek finished strong, unplugged and unmiked--quite moving, actually. Oh, and the opening act, Marc Scibilia, did a fantastic job, too. All in all, a wonderful evening.

* * *Derek Webb plays Mokah Coffee Bar in Dallas on Sunday, October 25 at 7pm* * *
Support independent music and independent coffee!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


In the middle of giving a counter-intuitive answer to the Special Composition Question (when do xs compose a y? If and only if they compose an organism), Peter van Inwagen pauses to acknowledge his argument's affront to common sense:

"A good many philosophers...may want to accuse me of a philosophical ploy that Saul Kripke has described in these words: 'The philosopher advocates a view apparently in patent contradiction to common sense...Personally, I think such philosophical claims are almost invariably suspect....The real misconstrual comes when the claimant continues, "All the ordinary man really means is..." and gives a sophisticated analysis compatible with his own philosophy.'"

Inwagen then proceeds to (1) deny that there is any such body of belief as common sense and (2) answer Kripke's philosophy-of-language-informed charge by denying that he is proposing an analysis of language. Up to this point, Inwagen has been saying something analogous to this: "When the ordinary man says the sun has moved behind the elms, what he really means is that the earth has moved in such a way that our position relative to the elms and the sun has changed such that the elms now block the sun." But then he seems to switch gears and claim that the ordinary man really does mean the sun has moved behind the elms and that furthermore, "this sentence is sufficiently empty of metaphysical commitment."

Prima facie, Inwagen's move smells like a blatant contradiction. One philosopher that I know, however, suggests that it's possible that Inwagen is stepping outside the metaphysics room momentarily to address Kripke. Perhaps there's even more to it. Maybe Inwagen is pointing out that statements of this sort constitute "protocol" sentences which, in contrast to "system" sentences, are about primitive, immediate perceptions and not scientific fact. And since such protocol sentences are never really false, what's the problem? In short, PvI gives a linguistic rebuttal to a linguistic objection and continues doing metaphysics as if he's just swatted away a fly. Personally, I take his remark as a kind of F you to philosophy of language on the whole (and, as such, humorously endearing), but decide for yourself [here].

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Casting a Dream Net

Question for all of you: What themes or events recur often in your dreams? For about as long as I can remember, I've had dreams about weird things happening with elevators--doors not working properly, the car stopping between floors--usually ending in a cable/brake failure and a terrifying free fall. But lately it seems the dreamland lift engineers have figured out a way to put emergency brakes on those things, however, and I survived the two elevator-free-fall dreams I've had this month. Anyone else have recurring, evolving themes/events that have endured through the years? It's not the one-time weird dreams that are worth pondering; it's the ones that keep coming back that are intriguing.

Friday, July 03, 2009

C.S. Lewis is Alive and Well

In reading a mere twenty pages of Lewis's A Preface to Paradise Lost, I have discovered two rhetorical gems that are, today, as true and relevant as when he wrote them.

The first regards a recent debate in the literary world as to whether Shakespeare ought to be translated into Present Day English just as Beowulf and Chaucer have been. John McWhorter fired the first ghastly salvo, D.H. Lawrence fired eloquently back, and Alan Jacobs called in the air support. Both replies are well worth your time, but it appears that Lewis had seen it all before and planted this delightful time-bomb in his defense of the lost art of solemnity: "The desire for simplicity is a late and sophisticated one. We moderns may like dances which are hardly distinguishable from walking and poetry which sounds as if it might be uttered ex tempore. Our ancestors did not. They liked a dance which was a dance, and fine clothes which no one could mistake for working clothes, and feasts that no one could mistake for ordinary dinners, and poetry that unblushingly proclaimed itself to be poetry. What is the point of having a poet, inspired by the Muse, if he tells stories just as you or I would have told them?"

The second struck me because it explicates in a sentence what Charlie Kaufman demonstrates in his brilliant two-hour mind-scrump, Synecdoche, New York. "The attempt to be oneself," Lewis writes, "often brings out only the more conscious and superficial parts of a man's mind." Indeed, that one line comes close to summing up the thematic and artifactual whole of Kaufman's work; the thread of superficial self- and consciousness-feedback runs through all the films of his that I've seen. And yet I wonder whether Kaufman also understands what Lewis says immediately following: "working to produce a given kind of poem [or in the case of Synecdoche's Adele, a given kind of painting] which will present a given theme as justly, delightfully, and lucidly as possible, he is more likely to bring out all that was really in him, and much of which he himself had no suspicion."

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

String Theory: Shoe-String Edition

Pardon me while I go all Andy Rooney for a minute here.

What the hell is wrong with shoe companies these days? Every pair of shoes I've owned since like 2002 has had the same problem: the damn laces won't stay tied. Before '02, all I ever had to do was tie a simple bow and my kicks stayed tight all day long. But the last, like, seven pairs of shoes I've bought inevitably untie themselves--sometimes in as little as twenty steps.

Really, Skechers? Seriously, Puma? Et tu, Asolo? Shoe-lace technology has had what, 3000 years of research & development, and you still find a way to screw it up? Did the secret recipe for laces that stay tied get classified after 9/11?

I wouldn't make a big stink out of it except that the obvious solution--double-knotting--is a big pain in the ass. Pain in the ass to tie when a man's running late in the morning, pain in the ass to untie when a guy just wants relief from sweaty sneaks. Even when I double-knot, my stinking laces undo themselves half the time anyway. And the less-obvious solution--velcro--is really expensive (85 bucks for canvas Vans!) or really ugly (you're not helping anyone, Wal-Mart).

I can't remember the last pair of shoes I bought that stayed tied...until now. I picked up a couple pairs of Chuck Taylors last month, and those puppies haven't untied on me once. So the moral of the story is this, apparently: in the age of iPhones and Large Hadron Colliders and the mapping of the human genome, the only shoes that stay tied are ones that were designed 92 years ago. Sometimes, the simplest designs prove the most excellent and enduring.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Carbon Motors E7

The new standard in law-enforcement awesomeness:

Part KITT, part Airwolf, the E7 has 75+ features that you won't find on a retrofitted Crown Vic, including
-18" wheels
-300hp clean-diesel engine
-6-speed automatic transmission
-50/50 front-rear weight distribution
-75mph rear impact crash capability
-Body-integrated ram bars
-Heads-up display
-Video/audio surveillance of rear passenger area
-Integrated "laptop" computer
-Forward-looking infrared system (FLIR)
-Suicide rear doors for easier perp entry/exit
-Hoseable rear passenger compartment
-Integrated flashers/spots/takedown lights
-Remote start
-Nightvision-compliant interior illumination
-Radiation and biochemical weapon detectors

Dude, I want one!

Thursday, February 26, 2009


Or, EA Ruins Everything.

I should be writing a paper on Copernicus right now, so I'll try to keep this short. Electronic Arts, the biggest, mediocrest video game publisher in the world, is making a video game out of Dante's Inferno.

You would think it could be done without fundamentally screwing up the story. But you would be wrong if you think EA could do it. Among the horrific violence they are working on Dante's masterpiece: Lucifer he actually rules Hell; furthermore, he is free to roam around the cosmos; and most ridiculously of all, he kidnaps Beatrice's soul as she dies. Dante, "a man who knows no fear", pursues Satan into Hell to rescue his beloved. Need I go on? Oh, and (spoiler alert!) as the game progresses through Hell, it "gets more hellish."

Look, I know a close adaptation would amount to little more than pressing X to snap a twig off a Suicide tree now and then, but come on, this is more than I can take.

Witness the horror for yourself here.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Can a Self-Aware Moriarty Hologram be far Behind?

The one thing I thought that the Star Trek: TNG holodeck stories never adequately accounted for was how people could walk around in there without bumping into the walls. They weren't just walking in place, after all, but running through dark alleys and up stairs and whathaveyou. Well, apparently the Japanese have been puzzling over the problem, too, and have come up with a prototype solution. Behold: the CirculaFloor.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Justin McElroy on 50 Cent's Video Game

"50 Cent: Blood on the Sand blends terrific gameplay with really bad ... well, practically everything else to create a final product that I love -- not like, love. I suspect you'll love it too ... just in that dark, secret way we love the things that are almost certainly making us stupider."

So...the way we love all video games?

Hard to think of any video game I've played that didn't make me stupider--except maybe for Clyde's Adventure.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Homer on Middle Knowledge

The Simpsons conduct an experiment in counterfactual conditionals.

Conclusion: "If you could live in the sauce, don't you think I'd live in the sauce?" Yep, that pretty much captures it. But what if it turns out that the messed up world as we know it is the sauce?

(Full episode here)