Cubism vs. Commercial Radio

Whenever I picture a hypothetical art snob pondering over some piece of art, invariably, the hypothetical art in question is cubist. This is because on the surface, cubism is absurd. How can you tell me that that is what you see when you look at a man playing guitar? Ridiculous. It’s easy not to ‘get it’, and it’s easy to label cubism as pretentious. More often than not when I look at a man’s face, it doesn’t elaborate itself into a landscape of orthogonal geometries.

This weekend I saw the Picasso exhibit at the AGO. There are only a couple visual artists I have ever spent real time with, and Picasso is not one of them. But after getting past the crowd I began to see the pieces at my own pace, and sure enough, I became that hypothetical art snob staring into a cubist face for twenty minutes. I was a stone skipping across water that finally plunged below the surface.

In traditional painting, artists show a three-dimensional image on a two-dimensional plane. The illusion of depth is a trick of the eye and the way our brains assemble our worlds; it’s hardwired in us, and artists exploit that fact. That third dimension draws the audience into the focus of the painting, revealing the perspective of the artist.

Cubism attempts to deconstruct the subject and reassemble it from a multitude of perspectives. It is an attempt to show us that more is going on than we think. The three dimensions of cubes offer up interesting possibilities. Disembodied pieces are not necessarily assembled in the same proportions or on the same plane as they should be. This creates new forms and a play of light and dark within what was formerly a solid planar surface. Cubism shows us the dimensions that are possible within. It reminds me of meditation. These dimensions run perpendicular to our ordinary orthogonal reality.

When we are entranced in great art or in meditation, or even performing a manual task intensely, it’s easy to lose track of time. It’s a tough thing to put one’s finger on; time doesn’t work the same in those trances as it does in our normal waking consciousness.

But sometimes we don’t want to lose ourselves in the minutes and seconds of the day. Sometimes we want time to go by faster. So we put on music, right? Background music adds continuity to our day, reinforcing that even though we’re still sitting in the office, time is marching forward. So there’s commercial radio, right?

Actually commercial radio is what it’s called when private corporations broadcast audio as far as their antennae will reach in order to make money. They do this by selling advertising time. That is where almost all of the money comes from. Once that priority is straightened out, they buffer the commercials with music. I hear commercial radio from time to time and a few facts strike me (like a hot bag of waste materials).

There really are an awful lot of commercials. This shouldn’t surprise me, but the amount of time dedicated to selling products and services is pretty astonishing. About twenty minutes of every hour is taken up by commercial breaks. Consider the amount of time the deejays prattle on about nothing, add the time spent on callers, contests, and other special segments, and you’re left with about a 1:1 ratio between commercials and music. Is that what I bargained for?

Of course the radio does have other functions. It tells us about the weather and traffic and gives us brief news updates, plus it plays music that helps us through our day. But pretend I don’t care about the deejays or the commercials and I actually just want music. Why am I giving an hour of my time for every half hour of music I listen to? It’s a bad bargain.

Radio stations are owned by private corporations who are in it to make money. These corporations aren’t trying to give the audience the most enjoyable day possible. That never even crosses their minds. This means from a business perspective, their goal is to get you from commercial to commercial with minimal cost. In the broadcasting world time literally is money, so you can be sure every nanosecond will be crammed full. This has led broadcasters to the belief that Silence = Evil. Illogical programmers assume a corollary: that Noise = Good.

One of the worst offenders here in Toronto is 102.1 The Edge. This popular station claims to play new rock, and obviously leans toward ‘edgier’ material. They play about 40 songs, and they play them several times a day. I assume this is because they save money paying royalties to fewer performers because there has to be some good reason for it. The deejays during the day are Josie Dye and someone who calls himself “Fearless” Fred. As far as I can tell, they have never done or said anything on air that has any social or intellectual value. But once again, they’re only there to get you to the commercials.

Most of the music on The Edge shares a common ideology. As far as I can tell, it goes like this: “You are young and edgy and frustrated at the world. You grind your way through your work week so that you can get drunk on the weekend, which is awesome. Once you’re falling down drunk, puking and disgusting, a ‘true friend’ will carry your body home. That kind of ‘true friendship’ makes your downward spiral worthwhile. Either that or sex makes your shitty life worth while. You’re jaded, and are living in a nightmare that you can’t control.” I could go on. These themes repeat all day, from song to song, and from repeated song to repeated song. They broadcast fantastic commercials about drinking beer, then weird PSAs about drinking and driving. Then, there is a commercial for 1-800-X-COPPER, so that when you are in the drunk tank for DUI, you’ll have a true friend to get you out of a jam and carry your body home. And of course in the tiny spaces between commercials and music, they add all kinds of obnoxious sound-effect segues to make you believe exciting things are happening.

This mentality makes me angry. College and university radio stations are guided by passionate people who consider new music and exploration okay. For instance CIUT 89.5, the University of Toronto radio station, is full of diverse programming that, while it doesn’t always enlighten, at least makes an effort to expose listeners to new ideas. But of course I shouldn’t be angry. Commercial radio exists to sell products and services, so what do I expect?

With music compressed so flat it has no dynamic range, vacuous on-air personalities, and the self-loathing, self-pitying rhetoric put forth by so-called artists like Billy Talent (who I assumed is made up of fifteen year old kids attempting to cash in on the ten-to-thirteen age bracket), commercial music has a flattening out effect on subject. Listeners can be drained of the will for self-exploration as they accept this mentality as their own.

This week’s Battle Of Unrelated Things between cubism and commercial radio is a no-brainer. Cubism is fine. Commercial radio needs to be crushed and scraped away like the husk of some dry beetle carcass. Maybe in the future I’ll make the BOUTs a little more one-sided.

 

He had decided long ago that no Situation had any objective reality: it only existed in the minds of those who happened to be in on it at any specific moment. Since these several minds tended to form a sum total or complex more mongrel than homogeneous, the Situation must necessarily appear to a single observer much like a diagram in four dimensions to an eye conditioned to seeing its world in only three. Hence the success or failure of any achieved by the team confronting it.

– Thomas Pynchon, V.

 

I Don’t Dig Dogma

There is an old adage that great art comes from deep pain. I’m pretty sure this is bullshit. It sounds like a pretentious attempt to romanticize depression, as though depressed people are the only ones who truly feel and understand life. While I acknowledge such a thing as an artistic temperament, I have more respect for happy artists than suicidal ones. Despite my attempts to separate artists from their work, nothing taints an artist’s oeuvre for me like suicide.

There is another dubious adage that runs along these lines: “Creative inspiration comes when limitations are imposed.” While this is still mostly bullshit, I understand the thinking very clearly. Having been a part of two independent feature film productions, I understand that you never have the money, time, gear, and (sometimes) talent or technical know-how that you want, and this forces creative problem solving that can be inspirational.

In 1995 a group of Danish film directors decided to emphasize effective storytelling by limiting their productions to a stringent code of “film ethics”. They authored the Dogma 95 Manifesto in which they set rules to strip film-making of its ‘artificiality’. Here are the first three rules:

1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).
2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot).
3. The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. (The film must not take place where the camera is standing; shooting must take place where the film takes place).

The films do not allow murders; the director must not be credited; no special lighting may be used; and finally the director swears to no longer be an artist, but a conduit of truth. It’s an interesting ideal, but to my mind, it hurts film-making as a whole.

Films are one of the best, most recent products of technological innovation in the arts. The entire process depends on technology and always has. And technology evolves, as always, by intelligent design. This intelligent design is almost never useless; practicality is the ideal, and scientists should always strive to make our everyday artifacts more efficient and less taxing on us and our environment.

So why should these Danish filmmakers fear innovation? Understandably, technology brings about completely novel possibilities which are open to abuse of unseasoned artists. Anyone today can buy what they need to make an amateur movie at Best Buy and post their movie on YouTube, so technological development has been accompanied by a surge of lesser quality amateur works. But should this degrade the work of true artists, like Dogma 95 Manifesto scribe Lars von Trier?

Dogma 95, like any religious dogma, attempts to create a static set of values in perpetuity. But nothing is free from change. If values are not adaptable to the world and the people they serve, they become a hindrance. Belief systems ossify in time, leaving followers ill-equipped to deal with reality.

Speaking as a lover of movies and a long time fan of Lars von Trier, I believe artificiality is part of the art form. The whole kick of a movie is getting to observe a reality that is not our own. Locking an audience into a perfect observational trance was achieved masterfully in The Element of Crime, but much less so in The Idiots. Dogma 95 was an interesting experiment, but I’m relieved von Trier has returned to his roots, pushing the technology to create something previous impossible.

Lars von Trier has always worked on dark subject matter. Especially in recent years, with Antichrist and Melancholia, he has shown his mastery over the art form. But I don’t believe his public neuroses and obsession with darkness are necessary to his success as a filmmaker. Considering the trajectory of his recent films, I’m crossing my fingers that I don’t find out on Twitter some day that he decided to end it all.

On the other hand is David Lynch. Lynch’s subject matter often brings us underneath bright, shiny surfaces to reveal devastating chaos and darkness below. Themes of mental anguish, of unreality, and succumbing to dark forces run through his filmography from beginning. Meanwhile the man is bright, happy, and currently operating The David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education.

The two have often been compared for having a similar aesthetic and dealing with similar subject matter. And in recent years, each has given us one of the most horrifying films of all time, Antichrist, and Inland Empire (don’t watch Antichrist if you’re not willing to plumb the depths of human sadness and self-hate, and don’t watch Inland Empire if you are concerned with losing your mind). But the two men seem worlds apart. Even if I could truly separate the men from the work, I have always felt much more connected to Lynch’s films.

Great art does not require great pain. Great insight into pain is helpful in art and in life, of course. But being crippled by self-loathing and depression can only diminish your capacity as a person. I believe we all have the ability to live creatively. And I believe that ability is free of charge.

P.S. Thomas Pynchon deals with the technology question in his New York Times article “Is It O.K. To Be A Luddite?” Take a look.

A Short Case for Yoga

THE FALSE BINARY

We all have moments where we’re ‘in our heads’, oblivious to the world around us. And we all have moments where we’re fully so fully engaged in a physical task that we’re not consciously thinking. Our language has separate words for both mind and body, and so we perceive them as two distinct items. But they are connected by yet another remarkable structure: the central nervous system (CNS). As essential to a square as four sides, the body, mind, and action of the CNS are integrated parts of a whole, living being.

So what are they?

1) I am a mind. I perceive the world and think. I can think conceptually and abstractly, I can think about specific sense impressions, and I can imagine new things. I practice induction and deduction and can grasp universal concepts such as mathematics and Euclidean geometry, and I can apply these ideas to the physical world around me through the medium of my body.

2) I am a body. I have mass and physical extension in dimensions perceivable by my mind. I am a collection of organs and fluids. I am a skeleton. I can operate machinery, apply force to objects, and use my own physical geometry to accomplish an innumerable amount of physical tasks.

3) I am a central nervous system. The word spirit is put here often and that’s fine because it represents the breath of action between body and mind. At any rate, the CNS mediates between the mind and body in continuous feedback loops, sending out actions and taking in impressions. Electricity runs our brains and fires through synapses. This interaction is somewhat mysteriously represented as our consciousness.

The brain, which is the base of the central nervous system, is part of the body. Scientists look at the brain and see correlations between activities in the brain and activities in behavior and consciousness. In Western philosophy, this proves that the brain causes consciousness. But the fact that a neuron fires in my brain doesn’t explain the phenomena of consciousness. Why should, and more importantly, how does a neuron firing represent itself as the smell of coffee or the sight of another person?

In Eastern religious philosophy, consciousness is primary, and dictates to the brain what action to take. But this argument has no empirical evidence to support it, unless you consider the Radical Empiricism of William James, a favorite of mine. Either way, there is nothing objectively measurable to confirm the hypothesis.

Modern Western thought doesn’t think the mind/body connection very mysterious these days. The central nervous system mediates between the mind and the body, so what? But how it operates is more magical than anything dreamt up in fantasy fiction. Think about it: I simply will the synapses to fire in my brain, tell them to send a signal through my nervous system, into my shoulder, arm, wrist and hand, to lift a glass of Laphroaig single malt scotch to my mouth. The scotch is smokey and beautiful. And I don’t even have to will my stomach to digest it or my liver to siphon out all that lovely alcohol. Now that is a spirit I can believe in. Ahhhh..Digression.

If you look around though, it’s obvious that not everyone has figured the whole mind/body thing out. This is because the issue is not as simple as naming it. When you see people carrying around a lot of extra weight, or slouching with bad posture, what is to blame? Does their mind will their body to slouch? Are they effectively slouching mentally? Or are they physically unable to walk tall? Or is their central nervous system not controlling things properly? Something isn’t right. In order to have our mind/body/spirit in best working order, we need some way to integrate them all into a unified whole, with all parts complimentary to each other.

If there was some way to plug into the mind and draw it down to invigorate the CNS to exalt the body to it’s optimal working order, then obviously we would be as healthy and effective as possible for our circumstances. Well it turns out that technology has been around for over five thousand years.

SOFT TECHNOLOGIES

When we think of the word ‘technology’ we often think of physical things. A phone and a car are examples of technology, but technology has other forms. At some point in ancient history, something like a man or woman realized it could use physical objects as tools. Soon everyone was doing it and it made things easier. The use of hand tools is arguably the first soft technology.

When they realized they were more effective in groups and they wanted a way to communicate with each other, language was laboured into existence. Now they could use their brains together like never before; they were on the fast track to technological advancement. Communicating with each other would only improve their effectiveness as a group and further accelerate their advance as a species.

At some point before 3000 B.C., a soft technology was developed to synergize the individual. It aimed to unify the mind and body into a whole, so they called it “unity”. Today we call it “yoga”.

YOGA

Here is the deal: there is no mystery about it. Yoga is a series of exercises that systematically integrate your mind and body while fine-tuning your central nervous system. Using breath, you train your mind to will energy and consciousness through your nervous system which you extend and stretch and hold in a series of postures. Breath is the physical vehicle whereby attention and energy is brought to every part of the body, all of which require regular use to maintain optimal health. And as they say on television: exercise is important.

But at the same time, the experience of actually doing yoga can be as mysterious and magical or rational and logical as you want it to be. The rational arguments for yoga make perfect sense. The mystical arguments for yoga…well, dissolve yourself into the process and see for yourself. Keep in mind that you’ll be using your body, mind, and spirit in new integrated ways to produce new, enhanced types of experience.

There are different kinds of yoga, from pure, still meditation, to vigorous physical activity, and obviously doing a range of these things is best. Some people find satisfaction in physical yogas, and do only those, but that is only half the battle. On the other hand some people are satisfied with raj yoga or meditation and don’t bother with the physical. Remember, the key is integration and unity, so the practice should become ongoing in different ways. After all, the mind and body are two parts of a whole. As I work down into the body and up into the mind, I become more attuned to each, and more aware of the connection between the two.

Maybe most importantly, yoga brings about self-awareness. You become more conscious of breathing well, and more conscious of energy flow. You start to pay attention to what you eating, and how much, and how you’re digesting everything. You raise your physical and mental capacities by integrating them and become more aware of cause and effect between them.

There are probably millions of pages on yoga out there, but like anything practical, the proof is in the experience. If being a more integrated and effective person is something worth working for, yoga just might be for you.

 

 

“Ted”: It Is What You Think It Is.

Every blue moon a movie concept comes along with success built in. I can sniff out these rare movies because I immediately wish that I had come up with them first. The Invention of Lying (by Ricky Gervais) is a beautifully simple concept that allows for so many comedic opportunities that people want to see it, even if they’re not totally satisfied with the results (ahem). The other day I watched Seth MacFarlane’s Ted and something even more rare happened: I left the theater satisfied.

One reason for the success of Ted is that it’s faithful to its premise. We know by looking at the poster what kind of humour to expect, and we know just from the title that this is a coming-of-age story. We’re going to see a magically animated stuffed animal, so any realism brought to the story by the characters is an welcome surprise. We know things aren’t going to get too heavy when a talking bear is involved, and behold: no one is brutally murdered or told they’re pregnant and positive for AIDS. Did I mention this is an R-rated Seth MacFarlane movie? Yes, it is as crass as Family Guy.

But lewd behavior is somehow rendered inoffensive coming from a child’s toy. Watching Ted take giant bong hits first thing in the morning is naturally funny. And the relationship between Ted and John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is perfect because Wahlberg actually does seem like a kid living out a childhood wish. They are both immature and ridiculous, but they foil each other beautifully: Ted is the more world-weary, cynical one, and Bennett is still a child, almost looking up to Ted like a gruff uncle.

The blue humour does push the limits of decency, however. Sensitive-types will likely be annoyed with MacFarlane’s sexual and scatological obsessions. But the crass behavior is easy to overlook because the backbone of the story does have an honest heart. As a rule I shy away from vulgarity for vulgarity’s sake, but without a doubt my favorite funny moment of the film is a flashback in which Mila Kunis cleans hooker feces from her floor. The scene is also, as far as I can tell, one of the best acting performances of her career (and she was nominated for a Golden Globe!). And while the humour is immature, it is executed better in Ted than in many shock-comedies out there (like Zack and Miri Make a Porno, which was not funny and repugnant).

The central thematic dialogue is between the fun of youth and the responsibilities of the “real world”. Kunis’s character applies intensifying pressure on John to grow up and get a real job and this, of course, conflicts with his desire to get high and watch Flash Gordon with his magical buddy. And while John does mature in a vague way, and Ted gets a job and apartment of his own, I was glad to see the film’s morale didn’t take itself too seriously. In the end, it’s okay for everyone to have a little fun. After all, in a world where a wish can animate a teddy bear, why should anyone take work seriously?

Which leads me to the most potent item in Ted‘s arsenal: it hits the inner kid in us all. Teddy bears do not simply appeal to the young. In fact, being an R-rated comedy, Ted isn’t aimed at children. A teddy bear is a symbol for the wonder, imagination, and innocence of our past. I am an unsentimental guy who never even had a special teddy bear, but I did feel a pang for simpler times. When any primal or universal idea is made contemporary, and condensed into a single, simple symbol, the artist has done a good job. I consider John Lennon’s “Imagine” to be the greatest artistic achievement in modern history for this reason. And while I’m not going to pretend to compare the two, Ted is a respectable offering from Seth MacFarlane, and a solid first film from a guy who has been slugging it out on television since the mid-nineties.

I’m giving Ted a strong 7.5/10. This is better for a comedy than it sounds. My scale goes from 10 (The Big Lebowski, Bottlerocket) to 0 (Little Nicky).

 

 

Stephen King’s “The Stand” vs. Ricky Gervais’s Athiesm

I just read The Stand by Stephen King and it impressed me as a well-crafted contemporary novel. Having read almost no Stephen King I had almost no expectations. But hearing the popular opinion that it is his magnum opus, I thought it might shed some light on my own writing.

The Stand is well executed technically. The way he sets the story up is compelling – it starts in the middle of a super-flu epidemic and offers enough dramatic action to carry the introduction of a wide cast of characters. Like a Yahtzee throw, there’s a good chance I’ll want to stick with at least one of these characters. One hundred pages in the story-engines are revved and there’s a lot of machinery in motion. It’s written in a thoughtful voice that isn’t over-sophisticated. It’s easy to read.

Whereas many long books can meander during the second act, Book 2 of The Stand is a great piece of writing. When the immediate viral threat to our heroes dies down, we’re quickly thrust into a survival situation offering food for thought for all tastes. The questions of civilization rise up from ancient history and we think fundamentally about society, politics, law, love, comfort and all the rest we take for granted living in a stable situation.

But here’s where The Stand let me down. [Spoiler alert! If you haven't read The Stand, which came out in the seventies, and you're just about to read it now and will be pissed if I spoil something, skip down to "I'm no Objectivist".] The forces of antagonism through the book reach climax much earlier than our heroes are ready to deal with them. By the time our heroes get to Las Vegas, Flagg’s powers are already on the decline. And although Flagg still has enough evil magic to overpower our guys, the climax is deflated and unsatisfying because as readers we already have a sense that Flagg’s time is drawing to a close. With all the intricate set up in the first 66.6% of the book, I wanted more of a bloodbath at the end, firstly, and a more concrete resolution to the arc of each character. Instead what we get is a sterile explosion, viewed from afar, that kills heroes and villains alike.

I am also unsatisfied with the good/evil dichotomy presented throughout the book. Aristotle’s two-valued logic is faulty and naive. Nothing in life is absolutely good or absolutely evil except perhaps in our own imaginations. Understandably King wants us to feel we’re on the side of the “good”. But do “good” characters go out in search of violent confrontation as these heroes do? Their idea of a preemptive strike against Flagg reminds me of the illegal American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Not a fan.

But the major criticism I have with The Stand is that for all their politicking, civilizing, and good intentions to re-boot, the intrinsic problems of humanity creep back in and our heroes win the day by submission to Divine Providence. And in the end, it will all happen again. All well and good in a religious, “it’s all meant to be,” kind of way, but as a writer and a human, I want my characters to take a more proactive position and I want some kind of change from beginning to end. I believe the phrase is “God helps those who help themselves.” The way to an exciting climax is not to let characters just give up and submit to whatever is coming.

Novels must offer some glimpse into the mind of the artist. But if Stephen King’s message is that in order to win we should lie down and accept what’s coming, I disagree with the thesis of the novel. Then again, if Stephen King didn’t have a theme or point in mind, was in fact telling a meaningless story, then the book is as culturally significant as a Sudoku puzzle. I doubt this is the case.

I’m no Objectivist, but I agree with Ayn Rand that the will to make one’s own destiny is a good ideal, and to eschew mediocrity and complacency is helpful to society. Most of our great geniuses from Buddha to Einstein saw a gap in the world and filled it with their own brand of intellect; they went against convention to rise above.

Objectivism, and the outspoken atheism of people like Ricky Gervais, rub me the wrong way. It rubs me just as wrong as outspoken missionaries trying to spread their version of religion among “heathens”. If atheists tell me not to believe in God, they are not motivating me to think for myself, they are motivating me to think like they do. Outspoken atheism is simply the negative form of religious fanaticism (fascism).

But Atheism does have this positive effect: the message that we shouldn’t wait for heaven after we die, that we shouldn’t wait for God to come down after death to redeem our lives, motivates us to make the most of our waking hours and work hard. Hard work is something I can definitely get behind, and I know hard work is something Ricky Gervais can get behind. Hell, Stephen King writes 2000 words a day so I know he can get behind it too. We should all work hard to shape the lives we want. Obviously. My ideal novel won’t get written by anyone but me.

There is also this facet of the argument: I’d take laughter over horror most days. For that reason I’m declaring Ricky Gervais the winner of this battle-between-two-completely-unrelated-things. Besides, you can likely watch BBC’s The Office in less time than it will take you to read The Stand.

Thanks for reading this piece of tangential writing and I hope you appreciated that despite it’s strange structure, it had a point. Now get back to work.