The exploitation of effects houses by Hollywood is only one of many signs of the system's ill health.
There's been considerable flap in the days since the Oscars about how folks from effects house Rhythm & Hues, which won awards for its work in this year's Oscars while at the same time filing for bankruptcy. You don't need to be a Hollywood Reporter reader to parse that as being outrageous.
"I demand two things from a composer: invention, and that he astonish me." What did Stockhausen mean by this?
Regular followers of this site will know that I am enamored of two quotes. The first is by John Cage (by way of Indeterminacy) when he realized his attempts to give freedom to the musicians in a performance of his design had, in many cases, only allowed them to be "foolish and unprofessional". On faced with this, he said:
My problems have become social rather than musical.
I demand two things from a composer: invention, and that he astonish me.
It took me two orders of magnitude more time to come to an understanding of the second quote than it did for me to do the same with the first one, but the insight mined from that expedition has been invaluable.
The first step away from earthly vanity is cosmic humility.
Our sciences (in which I am including history) don't ennoble us. They don't reflect well on humans, instead they confirm a kind of powerlessness, a deep moral weakness, and sense of futility.
At least that's the start. I'd argue that when we can get past our own vanity, as scientists, there comes something else--Wonder.
The sword of knowledge has two edges. One of them cuts you down, because it lays bare the staggering insignificance and irrelevance of human endeavor and ego. The other edge, though, also cleaves through everything else around you -- if it dissects you so ruthlessly, that is only because it is so good at dissecting the rest of the universe. You are, after all, as much of it as it is of you.
What can you do when someone you trust tells you about your work, "Sorry, it's terrible"?
Dwight Macdonald once again:
It is difficult for American reviewers to resist a long, ambitious novel; they are betrayed by the American admiration of size and scope, also by the American sense of good fellowship; they find it hard to say to the author, after all his work: "Sorry, but it's terrible."
Authors who are told their work stinks have a few stock reactions. They can ignore the advice -- hey, who reads their own criticism anyway?; they can call out the critic in public, as a few writers have been wont to do (although sometimes with results that reflect badly on the author's manners); or they can dig under the criticism and look for the most relevant kernel of truth in it.
Most people, given their distaste for criticism aimed at them by strangers, never bother with #3.
Should creative types even bother to monetize their work?
Yesterday's post about my very small Amazon royalty payment reminded me of this post by way of my friend Tim:
10. Have fun
The record industry was ruined by expense accounts and arrogance. Don’t even try to make money or think about quitting your day job.
Meet my first, and very tiny, Amazon Kindle royalty check.
Last night I received something I didn't think I would ever see: a royalty statement. Specifically, a payout notice from Amazon's Kindle store, for sales of my e-books from December and January. (Mostly Summerworld, from what I see.)
Total payout: $10 and some cents.
Granted, I haven't sold very many books yet. A big part of that is because, well, I'm one guy and it's a big world out there, and it's difficult -- maybe even deliberately so -- for a writer to distinguish himself in a world this crowded with any number of agencies all in competition for our attention.
In a conversation with a friend about remakes, said friend noted that there are three things you need to do with a remake: Retell the old story, and not only do it justice but pay proper homage to it. Update...
In a conversation with a friend about remakes, said friend noted that there are three things you need to do with a remake:
I agreed, but added that all three of those things run the risk of working at cross purposes with each other. The problem is not that we remake things, but that very little is brought to the table each time we do so -- that each successive revisitation brings diminishing returns, because it is created entirely in the shadow of the predecessor. Every now and then we have a remake that digs back under the surface of the source material -- True Grit, for instance -- and comes up with something new.
I have no inherent hatred of remakes -- if it wasn't new in Shakespeare's time, it sure as hell isn't in ours -- in part because I see them as merely a symptom of a larger cowardice. Hollywood's function is to buy talent and properties, and then monetize them in as risk-free a way as possible. Remakes are one of the best ways to offset risk: you have a known quantity, you can guarantee a high degree of pre-sales for it, and in some cases you can end up in the black before you even have the product out in theaters.
What's hilarious is that given the sheer amount of money thrown out the window over projects that either never come to light or end up as Everest-sized turkeys, Hollywood might as well say the hell with risk and just finance whatever looks cool. Most of what gets called "entertainment" these days isn't even all that "entertaining" anymore -- and how could it be, when it's a subliminal rehash of everything that's been flying around for the past thirty years?
A winner. A work so "modern" and bracing it's hard to believe it was penned in 1880.
I am a deceased writer not in the sense of one who has written and is now deceased, but in the sense of one who had died and is now writing.
Fiction is about what's impossible, but not what's implausible. It is impossible that a man would tell us his autobiography in the form of a novel after his own death. It is not implausible that he would use such a story to ruthlessly burst apart the hypocrisy of others, and himself as well. A dead man worries nothing about his reputation or his standing in the eyes of others -- except maybe posthumously, and even then why should he, in limbo, worry? -- and so who but someone like him would be best suited to showing up the living for the fools they are?
Epitaph of a Small Winner -- also known as The Posthumous Memoirs of Braz Cubas -- is one of those miracles of literature that seems to have barely any right to exist in the first place. Its pessimism and bitter irony seem decades, if not centuries, out of phase from the 1880 in which it was written -- more the child of a Luigi Pirandello or even a Louis-Ferdinand Céline (although without that author's repugnancy). Wipe away the topical details of life in late 19th century Brazil, and you have a story that not only hasn't dated but seems immune to irrelevancy.
Hey, Ma, I'm on the air!
I got interviewed for half an hour by Kurt Sasso of TGT Media, a comics / movies / gaming podcast. Subjects included Flight of the Vajra and my general approach to self-publishing.
Go check it out. My public-speaking skills are still a bit shaky -- I get rather babbly towards the end, when asked about future projects -- but I think I come across pretty nicely.
I'm hoping to appear on other podcasts in the future, both for TGT and elsewhere. If you know of a site that might be willing to host a fellow like me, drop a line.
EDIT: I've included an embedded copy below:
Let's not fence ourselves in.
In an earlier post I seized on the sentence: "The strongest objection to the more trivial popular entertainments is not that they prevent their readers from becoming highbrow, but that they make it harder for people with an intellectual bent to become wise in their own way."
This sums up most of my objections to masscult. The more of it we have, the more places in our culture that aren't masscult are crowded out and pushed off the market, and the net effect is a flattening-out of culture. Or, at the very least, a siloing, where great things are happening next door but you never end up hearing about them because the walls are so thick.
Why machine recommendations are by, and for, machines.
A piece about why book-recommendation services may always fall short:
Data is entirely a collection of externalities; it can collect and sort millions of user preferences and similarities, but it can never move beyond the what to the why. Data has no imagination. When it comes to book recommendations, attempts to sort or streamline or mathematize them necessarily dehumanize the process. The very nature of the endeavor, much like digesting Ulysses, requires an infinitely more complex machine: the human brain.
Daniel H. Wilson's io9 essay about having his books optioned but not filmed was a wasted opportunity.
Devin Faraci goes to town on Daniel H. Wilson's complaints about not getting his movies made into books despite being optioned:
I do get the idea that it's disappointing to not have your book become a movie. Setting aside the low quality of Wilson's work, any writer must be thrilled, in some way, to imagine a great Hollywood movie version of their story. It has to be a bummer to see that hope deflated again and again. As a human being I know what that feels like, because we've all had good things happen to us and then been disappointed that these good things weren't even better. It's the guy in business class moaning about how he's not in first class.
Why the current pop-culture Geek Movie Paradise orgy leaves me cold (again).
It's weird. By all standards, it's Geek Movie Paradise out there. There's a Robotech movie on the way (note that it's Robotech and not Macross, hint hint), new Star Wars and Star Trek installments in the hopper, more and better comic-book adaptations than have ever been filmed. So how come my sum total of emotional reaction to this cornucopia of culture going pop is "Wake me when it's over"?
My first impulse is to face the mirror and throw a j'accuse: I'm being a spoilsport, a party pooper who's pooped because it isn't his special little pop-cult goodies that are getting the treatment. Well, some of that I will freely plea-bargain to, but only because so much of what I know I'd love to see splashed all over a big screen is either unfilmable or uncommercial.
On loving the art in yourself, not yourself in the art -- and not letting your art do your living for you.
From Professor Ian Johnston's Lecture on The Tempest:
Dreams may be the stuff of life, they may energize us, delight us, educate us, and reconcile us to each other, but we cannot live life as a dream. We may carry what we learn in the world of illusion with us into life, and perhaps we may be able, through art, to learn about how to deal with the evil in the world, including our own. But art is not a substitute for life, and it cannot alter the fundamental conditions of the human community. The magic island is not Milan, and human beings belong in Milan with all its dangers, if they are to be fully human. Life must be lived historically, not aesthetically.
The debate between art as the stuff of life at its highest (living aesthetically) and art as the "detergent of life" (to hijack Jacques Barzun's phrase) is only raging all the more furiously these days.
Takashi Miike's remake of this austere '60s samurai classic is well-made and watchable, but why remake perfection?
Takashi Miike's remake of Masaki Kobayashi's Hara-kiri is one of those movies where nothing's really wrong, but that by itself isn't enough for the territory. It's a perfectly competent update for a movie that didn't need it, and maybe that's the problem. The original film was not flawed in any significant way, save maybe in the eyes of a modern audience for having the effrontery of not being in color. In fact, Hara-kiri was and remains a masterwork, a product of the samurai cinema of the Sixties that used the form to challenge authority, to question the mystique and pomp of the warrior class that had been used as emotional propaganda for generations.
Much of that confrontatory attitude has drained out of Japan's moviemaking. Almost all of the samurai productions of the last couple of decades have been redolent with sentimentalism. Even Miike himself--normally one of Japan's bad boys of moviemaking (a label he'd have gained for Ichi the Killer alone)--had veered into weepier territory with productions like Sabu. I liked Sabu a great deal, if only because it showed that Miike was not a one-note Nelson. The man could, and has, made movies in just about every genre imaginable, and learned to reign in his excesses when it mattered. If there was someone to make a confrontatory movie in today's climate, it was him. But this somehow isn't that film.
The neurotic escapism and spectators' world of masscult.
S. I. Hayakawa once wrote a little essay in which he compared and contrasted blues music with the "neurotic escapism" of Tin Pan Alley, as Dwight Macdonald put it in a review (entitled "A Corrupt Brightness") of the anthology in which the essay was included. Macdonald went on to cite one song that went: "I’d rather have a paper doll to call my own / Than a fickle-minded real live girl." "This is mass culture's theme song," he declared.
Macdonald went on, later in the same discussion, to cite from Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy:
The strongest objection to the more trivial popular entertainments is not that they prevent their readers from becoming highbrow, but that they make it harder for people with an intellectual bent to become wise in their own way .... Most mass-entertainments are in the end what D. H. Lawrence described as "anti-life." They are full of a corrupt brightness, of improper appeals and moral evasions .... These productions belong to a vicarious, spectators’ world; they offer nothing which can really grip the brain or heart. They assist a gradual drying-up of the more positive, the fuller, the more cooperative kinds of enjoyment, in which one gains much by giving much.
So much to mine from this.
Why J.G. Ballard didn't write just "SF" or "litfic", but stories for and about our age.
"No one in a novel by Virginia Woolf ever filled up the petrol tank of her car. ... No one in Hemingway’s postwar novels ever worried about the effects of prolonged exposure to the threat of nuclear war."
Said Ballard, who wrote "science fiction" the way Kurt Vonnegut did: only because other people insisted that was what he was doing. Ballard was most widely recognized outside of that category, in part because he'd done enough things to avoided being pigeonholed as "just" an SF author. Not that such things still don't happen, only that back then escaping the SF ghetto was all but impossible once people saw you had that as your mailing address, so to speak.
"Half the scores are the reviewers reviewing the game, and half are reviewing their expectations."
My friend Eric made a point the other day when talking about the very mixed reviews for a newly-released game franchise: "Half the scores are the reviewers reviewing the game, and half are reviewing their expectations."
This is something I've seen in reactions to things as diverse as The Who By Numbers and Prometheus. It's easy to express a strongly-held opinion about something -- name someone with a blog who doesn't do that -- but more difficult to look at the way your own strongly-held opinion has germinated and come to an understanding about that.
The greatest moment from one of prog-rock's most maverick acts.
If Magma had not existed, someone might well have invented them. Here was a band that sang in its own invented language (a pan-European polyglot they called "Kobaian"), that produced albums and songs about a future history of mankind in outer space, and whose sound was, in a marvelous quote from the Rolling Stone Record Guide (2nd. ed.), "combustible strains of Bartók, Stravinsky, Stockhausen, and Coltrane", a "dense avant-Wagnerian wall of oppressive percussion, dark jazz variations for guitar, violin, and keyboards, and hellish ... singing". Remember that episode of Star Trek when Worf started jamming to Klingon opera? They missed a bet by not simply dropping in Magma there.
But underneath and aside from the headscratching novelty value, the critical brickbats, and the tongue-in-cheek pop-culture cross-references, this is progressive rock at both its most challenging and satisfying. There are many times when Magma noodled about or got lost in the heady netherworlds of their concept-prog experience ("zeuhl", as the subgenre they spawned is now called), but there are just as many times when they made music I would be happy to list next to any of their aforementioned influences. Mekanïk Destruktïẁ Kommandöh is easily the best thing they've done so far, epic and accessible in about equal measure, and even memorably melodic where so much of this sort of music (Magma's music included) isn't.
Not great drama or great filmmaking, but it might well be darn good cinema.
When Dennis Miller got up on stage sometime circa the mid-Nineties and lampooned Al Gore by saying “The man’s favorite movie is TRON, for Christ’s sake,” and got massive laughs doing so, that more or less summed up the man-on-the-street view of both Al Gore and TRON. The former more or less redeemed his eggheadedness with An Inconvenient Truth, which single-handedly brought awareness of the impact of global warming into the public mind; the latter had a harder time rehabilitating itself. Fellow fans who had a positive opinion of the movie kept their mouths shut about it lest they be branded fans of Playskool Cyberpunk.
Eventually, the generation that had not only secretly grooved on the film but actually seen remarkable things in it (nifty premise, groundbreaking visual effects processes, first full-blown use of CGI in a movie, more adult and thoughtful than it seemed on first glance, etc.) was able to come out of the closet. By the time TRON showed up in Kingdom Hearts as a playable level, the stigma was fading fast; by the time a certain hush-hush short film played in Hall H at Comic-Con 2010 to massive audience reactions, the stigma was all but gone. A fan culture that had learned to live with the likes of Edward Cullen looked back over its shoulder and realized Kevin Flynn—The Dude, man!—and his binary buddies had been a lot cooler than they had wanted to believe.
This page contains an archive of posts for the month of February 2013.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind