Imagine THAT

I tend to think of Art abstractly, as an idealized magical process. New things are created where before there was nothing. It generally starts with an idea or intuition out of which grows the impetus to create. Usually that first idea or an intertwining between two ideas comes with a great spark of enthusiasm that represents some sort of ecstatic truth. People would ‘get it’ perfectly if they could only feel exactly THAT.

But at the end of the day, art is something we perceive. I play a linguistic joke on myself when I talk about art without relating it to something in the world that someone is looking at, listening to, contemplating, or experiencing in some fashion. Creating something real that can bring others to that same ecstatic truth is Art. Artists attempt to elicit an experience or a process in their audience. But creating a worldly artifact that can be used by someone to achieve THAT is a process of its own.

Different art forms work differently this way. Some forms of art translate well into our everyday reality. For instance, if I think of a great idea for a book all I have to do is write the book (put words on page), publish the book (print/digital), and I’m done. On the other hand, if I come up with a great idea for a movie, I’ve got a lot more work cut out for me.

Literature, music, painting, and maybe dance are some of the most direct translations of an ecstatic idea, or THAT. In these art forms there is less process or activity for the idea to be lost or degraded. Each activity an artist takes to realize their ecstatic vision of truth takes the artist further from the world of ideas and closer to something that can be perceived by an observer. Even writing can dull the creative spark. Putting an idea into words is a challenge. A greater challenge is finding the right words and putting them into the right structure to guide a reader to a specific intuition.

This is the reason many serious artists don’t like to speak about their work. The ecstatic vision of truth doesn’t come neatly packaged in a few words, an image, or a soundbite. Usually it’s something numinous and mysterious, and the act of creating is the artist’s attempt to make that idea into something intelligible.

When a filmmaker is asked “What is your film about?” they better not have a snappy answer ready. If David Lynch could tell us what Lost Highway is about in one sentence, he shouldn’t have made it. Also, if it was that simple, we shouldn’t have spent 2 hours 25 minutes ingesting it. Fortunately the film exists as a process and a complete whole apart from any explanation. It opens up worlds of intuition for each observer to explore.

With film there are many distinct stages of creation, so the idea can get very far from THAT, the original creative spark. This can be a good thing because each stage demands its own creative treatment and different artists contribute their vision and talent to the final product. At the same time this can be a terrible thing because the successive stages of creation can dilute the power of the original idea. By the time the script is written, the crew and cast hired, the film shot, edited, blended with sound that’s been recorded, foleyed and mixed, and finally presented, the director might look at the screen and think, “This has absolutely nothing to do with my original idea.” The movie Bad Timing by Nicholas Roeg began with a straightforward script and was shot in a straightforward manner. Fortunately in the editing process they discovered a strange take on the material and the film became a beautiful example of non-linear storytelling. The finished product was surely closer to the original creative spark than Roeg expected from his linear script.

Film may be the most challenging art form because it contains so many types of art. Cinematography, production design, costume and make-up, sound recording, acting and more contribute to the overall essence put forth by the script, and this all must be wrangled by a director (who may or may not have written the script, and may or may not get it). The director ultimately, often unfortunately, answers to the producer. The producer is a business man who may or may not have any artistic talent whatsoever.

But film can be one of the most rewarding art forms because it is so absorbing. Film uses our aesthetic eye (like painting), our aesthetic ear and sense of rhythm (like music), our thinking mind (like writing), and our intuition (our own feelings), concerted to give us a two-hour experience, a process which hopefully will enrich us.

Of course, masterpieces in any art form stay with us forever. Good art shows us a vision of life we couldn’t seen without it. And whether we ever make it to exactly THAT, the process of discovery is the important thing.

 

P.S. Follow me on Twitter @EricRSchiller for my micro-blog book report on each chapter of Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. It’s possibly the craziest book I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a lot of crazy books.

 

 

Schoolyard Mentality

Imagine your mental self as this geodesic jungle gym. Your mental scope is the circle this thing traces on the ground. The individual ideas, as discreet bits of information, are represented by the coloured vertices where bars cross. The bars represent your understanding, which is the functional relationship of one bit of knowledge to another. Knowledge without Understanding isn’t much. If you just put bits of information into a computer, it isn’t a living, thinking person; if there is a functional adaptability, where ideas can be used in conjunction to accomplish new ways of thinking, then learning can be accomplished, then you’ve got real intelligence.

In Catholic school kids are taught that The Holy Trinity is made up of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. These three individual pieces of information form a triangle, or concept called The Holy Trinity, which can be represented by any one of the triangles making up the dome.

As kids grow into their mental life, ideally their dome grows and remains strong. Many schools do a great job of supplying kids with a lot of specific and practical knowledge. This is great because adults who speak well and are proficient in math are more effective members of society. But those links of understanding aren’t always fostered in school. For instance, coming out of grade eight I wouldn’t have been able to relate quantum physics to religion because I wasn’t aware that I could consciously form a link between disparate pieces of knowledge. Plus I didn’t know what quantum physics was.

As the mental sphere grows it’s important to maintain and enhance both our knowledge and our understanding so that learning proceeds on a solid foundation. So lessons are repeated to us. We are conditioned by repetition. We are also conditioned by shock; when a severe psychological event happens, emotional attachments can imprint themselves onto our subconscious memory. But the easy way to make someone remember is repetition. It’s repetition. It’s repetition. Watch Fox News for six hours if you want to see what I mean. Actually no, don’t. Don’t.

And through repetition our knowledge becomes ossified. We know things. And we know that we know these things. When Black Sabbath is playing, I know I like them, so I’m mentally prepared to enjoy them. But there are some times that I hear them that aren’t as sweet and engaging as other times. It’s easy to disregard those different experiences because a faulty logic has conditioned our thinking.

Binary logic, imagined as black and white, left and right, would say I like Black Sabbath and I don’t not like Black Sabbath. Therefore when Wheels of Confusion comes on, I listen and enjoy (you should too). But this is terribly reductive because it doesn’t consider the nuance and shades of enjoyment that I actually experience. Rather than being only true or only false, ideas can be sometimes true, or sometimes false, or sometimes true but meaningless or true but meaningful, or false and meaningless, or partially true and partially false, or true only in certain circumstances, etc., etc.. Binary thinking is what makes that geodesic jungle gym such a deathtrap.

I would argue that the most profound subject of study has been omitted from the curriculum of most schools. Children are taught mathematics, geography, history, biology and so forth, but they aren’t given lessons in Self Knowledge. Looking into oneself teaches about the realities that make up our individual worlds. Although it isn’t made up of discreet, rational bits of knowledge, the rewards of Self Knowledge in everyday life encompass all of experience. Fortunately this isn’t the case across the board. Props to The David Lynch Foundation.

Once during a deep inward look I saw my mental self as this geodesic jungle gym of doom and realized the form of it had been imposed upon me. It was completely inflexible! And the reason you don’t see those domes in schoolyards any more is because apparently kids can’t be trusted not to smash their bodies on it.

I realized that the word is not the thing. Words just stand for things; the word “Jim” isn’t the man “Jim”, nor is the phrase “turkey sandwich” an actual turkey sandwich. That grey area where a thing becomes information that is coded as a word is very mysterious, and it’s hard to say just how the process works. Sure, dictionaries define words, but they can’t show you every conceivable usage. You can’t find Raymond Chandler’s similes in any dictionary.

So if certain facts in my life didn’t jive with others, maybe I wasn’t thinking flexibly enough. By reading books from different eras, seeing movies from different cultures, and generally trying new things, we contemplate ideas from angles we never would have come to on our own. Neuroplasticity seems to be all the rage right now, and I understand why. It’s a challenge to think outside our comfort zones, but shedding beliefs is liberating. These days I view my mind like a basketball net.

It’s the same basic structure; points of information are still connected by understanding, but now I can fold and twist it around and make interesting new connections. And the individual pieces of information, the vertices, can be shifted around, turned on any axis, and generally reconsidered.

I tend not to get angry at other people’s points-of-view because I can change my perspective a bit to understand how they can think the way they do. I’m not saying I’m totally empathetic to people. Far from it. But being upset isn’t productive. I live a much more satisfying life when nasty interactions can come and go like a three-point swish leaving my mental composure intact.

Plus, nobody’s ever cracked a bone on mesh cloth. Although with enough tensile strength and velocity, who knows…anything is possible.

Blog Critics

This blog began as a way to build content and grow a following as a writer. Though I’m still mostly clueless about how to do that, I figured writing reviews is a good way to link my byline to a product people will search for. By reviewing arts that appeal to me, I can identify myself within the context of my tastes. But sifting through previous posts, I realized the reviews seem out of place here.

After a very short search I found BlogCritics.org, a massive site where bloggers publish short articles on politics, food, culture, arts, and other topics of interest. The styles of writing vary, but with such a glut of content there is something for everyone. Already they have published four of my reviews, one as I was write this post. I will continue to publish reviews there as well as the regular weekly installments here. You can find my own page on BlogCritics.org HERE.

Since this week’s post is less of an informal essay and more of an informal update, I’m re-posting the four reviews below (BlogCritics doesn’t mind). In the future I will likely post links to my BlogCritics reviews, or re-post them on a separate page here. Please feel free to comment about these decisions or the reviews themselves, as I always love to hear feedback and constructive criticism.

INTO THE ABYSS

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Into The Abyss on Blogcritics.

Into The AbyssWhen looking for documentaries with depth and sophistication, Werner Herzog is in a class of his own. Recently released on Blu-ray, Into The Abyss is a gripping look at the death penalty, a triple homicide, and the lives of those involved. Straightforward by Herzog standards, it clearly and directly investigates the relationships people have with their societal context, but also, as the title implies, with their own souls.

He believes states should not execute people. But far from the partisan crusades we’re used to from documentary diva Michael Moore and kind, Herzog penetrates different layers of his topic without coloring the opinions of his subjects or putting himself into the limelight. Instead he asks questions quietly from off-screen, letting his subjects paint the portrait.

Michael Perry and Jason Burkett were convicted of murdering a fifty-year old woman, her son, and his friend over a car. DNA evidence puts them at the scene but they both deny guilt. The interview takes place eight days before Michael Perry’s execution by lethal injection. His childlike smile is likely to stick in anyone’s head for a long time. Burkett, meanwhile, received the lesser sentence of life in prison. This lenience was allegedly the result of testimony from Burkett’s father, himself a life-long criminal and by his own admission, no father at all.

Fans of Herzog will recognize his method. Subjects always finish their thoughts. The camera often rolls after they finish speaking revealing facial ticks, insecurities, and emotional composure – the spontaneous truth of the human face. Though occasionally uncomfortable, these moments are windows to internal realities. Simply sitting still and paying attention, Herzog brings us closer to the whole truth than most filmmakers.

Interviews with friends and family on both sides enrich the economical, moral, religious, and personal context, showing the environments that produced these crimes. Interviews with a minister to execution victims and a former law officer who carried out executions expand the emotional territory even further. Because they don’t know the victims, their accounts are not flavored with the anguish of personal loss and show the natural empathy of human beings in the face of government approved life-taking.

The cinematography is familiar; the camera is generally at head level, often handheld except during interviews, and like many Herzog’s films, give us the most human perspective on the subject as possible. He romanticizes nothing, but shoots respectfully and skillfully. The musical score by Mark De Gli Antoni is gorgeous, and sweeps through the film like an elegy for those passed, and those about to pass.

Unfortunately for the enthusiast, this Blu-ray release has nothing in the way of special features. Because there are no sweeping crane shots or computer effects one might be tempted to skip the Blu-ray edition altogether. But the clarity of HD (1080p with a 1.77:1 aspect ratio) reveals nuances in the faces and eyes that won’t come across as clearly in standard definition. The soundtrack is solid, though this is only distincly noticeable during the rich score. I was pleased with the technical aspects of this release, even if the only other thing on the disc is a trailer. Fortunately, those looking for more can find Herzog’s On Death Row, a series of videos with death row inmates available on YouTube.

Into The Abyss is a rock solid documentary that doesn’t shy away from it’s heavy subject matter, nor does it obsess. Master filmmaker Werner Herzog once again goes beyond the mundane facts to the internal truths of his topic. Special features or not, fans of honest filmmaking should be pleased with this release.

 

CAN: THE LOST TAPES

Article first published as Music Review: Can – The Lost Tapes on Blogcritics.

Can: The Lost TapesAsk the average person who the band Can is and you will likely get a confused face in return. But this essential krautrock group has influenced so many of our favorite contemporary artists, it’s hard to avoid their influence. From Radiohead to Q-Tip, Can continues to inspire innovators in music.

Completists and aficionados buzzed at the announcement of The Lost Tapes. But there is always trepidation when material is released so far after a band’s dissolution. Would that spark of sonic exploration be fresh, or are they releasing the dregs of their material as an afterthought or cash grab?

Filed down from about 50 hours of material, this three-CD box set is solid from start to finish. From the outset, Can explores the space of their studio with disciplined liberation. Layered tape hiss, amp hum, and found percussion break into rocking jazz fusion in the opening track “Millionenspiel“, and the pace is set. Over three hours of genre-defying experimentation captures the essence of the band beautifully.

Longtime fans of Can will feel right at home with this collection. Compiled over several years for a multitude of purposes, every track is classic Can. Moving from raucous psychedelia (“Graublau”), to gorgeous melody (“Obscura Primavera“), to freeform soundscapes (“Blind Mirror Surf”), to live renditions of favorites Spoon and “One More Saturday Night” , this box set offers all the essential elements that define Can as a band.

New listeners should set their expectations aside. There are no musical formulas or clichés at work here, and few precedents. Can’s modus operandi is to push creative freedom without regard to specific forms or styles. Some of the songs are careful orchestrations, some are insane live jams, and some tracks are multi-faceted meditations on a particular space. But one thing that is consistent throughout The Lost Tapes, and all of Can’s oeuvre, is the spirit of exploration.

Fans of Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa, Sonic Youth, The Velvet Underground or Portishead will recognize the beauty of Can’s strangeness. Themselves influenced by classical, free-jazz and anything avant-garde, Can blended styles into a new aesthetic while ushering in the age of electronic music. The Talking Heads, The Cars, The Orb, Brian Eno, Stereolab, and Tortoise all cite Can as influences. But far from feeling like a pastiche, The Lost Tapes has a continuity that can only be described by the simple, liberty-affirming declaration “Can”.

Forty years after the material was recorded, Can’s historical footprint continues to grow. “Drunk and Hot Girls” by Kanye West featuring Mos Def is a surprising (some might say inappropriate) sample of “Sing Swan Song” from Can’s Ege Bamyasi. Q-Tip’s “Manwomanboogie” is a funky sample of “Aspectacle” from a 1979 Can recording found on the compilation Cannibalism 2.

The quality and fidelity of The Lost Tapes is top notch. Meticulously preserved and beautifully digitized, these tapes are as clean and defect-free as Can’s album material. This is quite a feat considering the raw magnetic stock was forgotten about for decades. I only wish this box set was released on LP where the dynamic range and true inner space of the recordings could have been coaxed out of the vinyl medium.

Well priced, nicely packaged, and featuring liner notes from band leader Irmin Schmidt, The Lost Tapes three CD box set is a beautiful look into the creative process of a band whose primary focus was the creative process.

 

BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA

Article first published as Blu-Ray: Bram Stoker’s Dracula on Blogcritics.

The Movie

Francis Ford Coppola’s iteration of the Hollywood classic Dracula is arguably the last old-school studio effects pictures ever made. Released in 2007, this Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray is a much-needed upgrade from the previous, bare-bones DVD release.

The story of Dracula appeared right alongside the birth of cinema, and Coppola took this coincidence as an opportunity to elegize old Hollywood. Shot on studio soundstages, Bram Stoker’s Dracula drenches the audience in an otherworldly nightmare where rats scurry across ceilings and Dracula’s malevolent presence is never far away. The epistolary nature of the novel is kept incredibly intact by the use of journal entries and letters, but also through the use of old cameras, telegraphy, and other post-Industrial Revolution technology.

This movie is not perfect. Coppola, already considered past his prime, seems to have romanticized the production itself instead of working with the actors to create a realistic Old London. Excluding Gary Oldman, the acting is the worst element of this film; Keanu Reeves gives a nearly unwatchable performance, Winona Ryder is stiff, and Sir Anthony Hopkins is at times downright ridiculous. Fortunately, Gary Oldman brings his signature chameleon-like mastery to every aspect of the iconic title role, from a furry bat-monster to the elegant, young Prince Vlad.

Though everyone knows the story of Dracula, this rendition goes far beyond previous versions of the movie. As the tagline “Love Never Dies” hints, we are not simply watching a horror movie, but a dark love story that ends in tragedy. James V. Hart’s script teases out Dracula’s damnation, bringing us to the realization that Dracula can never unite with his soulmate because society sees him as a monster. His suffering goes on lifetime after lifetime. When Dracula is finally defeated, our hearts are broken for him because his generations of agony go unfulfilled and history will remember him as a monster.

The opulent sets and costumes through every frame of this movie are highlighted nicely by the new 1080p HD transfer (1.85:1 aspect ratio). The video isn’t as crisp as other films coming out around 1993, but I suspect the entire finished film was softened slightly in order to smooth out transitions between normal footage, double and triple exposures, and a plethora of special effects shots (all of which are spectacular in-camera effects with the exception of a few optical effects). Overall, the film looks great.

In addition to winning Oscars for make-up and costume, Bram Stoker’s Dracula won for Best Sound Effects Editing, and rightfully so. The audio mix is nicely balanced and used to punctuate the story by providing feeling. You won’t be blown away by the unexpected swells of bass that have come to pass for great sound mixes. But the sound will effectively enchant you into this dark, weird world.

Special Features

This Blu-ray release has been given beautiful artwork that shows off the nuanced vision of the film. The picture on the cover might be one of the best movie posters in history. And while I am disappointed there is no full-colour booklet of images inside, the menus and interactive design are gorgeous.

It comes with over 30 minutes of deleted scenes, some in a degraded, unfinished quality. Many of these scenes were unquestionably nixed for the better, or condensed into other scenes, so don’t expect to find anything mind-blowing here.

Coppola’s audio commentary is enthusiastic and enjoyable, even if he does repeat himself and talk too much.

A making-of documentary and segment on the costumes are interesting, but are not as exciting as the documentary on the visual effects which gives a glimpse into how much unseen magic went into the production. Studios simply do not shoot films like this any more, and this extra gives insight on how the technologies of illusion have evolved over the years.

In Sum

Bram Stoker’s Dracula on Blu-ray is the closest thing to a definitive edition on the market. Previously unseen special features, well-considered packaging, and a nice transfer will leave fans of the film happy and help those not so inclined to appreciate a more contemporary, experimental approach to a classic horror story.

I give the movie and the Blu-ray release 8.5/10. While I’m usually a stickler for marks as high as these, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is one of my favorite love stories, and the most satisfying guilty pleasure in my media library, and this Blu-ray edition is the best one yet.

 


THE RICKY GERVAIS SHOW

Article first published as TV Review: The Ricky Gervais Show on HBO on Blogcritics.

HBO has just aired the final episode of The Ricky Gervais Show season 3. Sadly, if we’re to believe Gervais’s Twitter feed, one of the funniest shows on television is at its end.

Based on the immensely popular podcast, first impressions of The Ricky Gervais Show were tempered by Gervais’s seemingly mean-spirited humor as host of the Golden Globes. And he pulls no punches on his obsession with co-star Karl Pilkington. During the show, Gervais and Stephen Merchant pry into Karl’s mind to explore his worldview, often calling him an idiot and pointing bad logic.

But Karl is more than just a punching bag for them; he is a close friend of Gervais and Merchant. They appreciate Karl’s simpler point of view (even if it is confused most times). The dynamic between Ricky’s cynicism, Stephen’s quiet mediation, and Karl’s wide-eyed wonder reflects a beautiful, triangulated expression of each of us. We all have these facets to our personality; our hearts agree with some of Karl’s musings, even when our brains reject them.

The cartoon treatment of the podcast brings out the innocence Gervais finds so fascinating in Karl. The characters are lovably-designed, and the animated flights into Karl’s imagination are a laugh-induced ab workout every episode. Despite the name-calling, we get a definite sense from the show that Ricky Gervais has a profound respect for his friend Karl that goes deeper than off-the-cuff insults. We get the sense that Gervais really does believe that life in Karl’s mind must be more fun.

The fun these friends share is never sentimentalized or drawn out. Ricky, Karl, and Stephen are who they are, and they don’t script anything. Though they set the stage with discussion topics, the humor is allowed to come out naturally and spontaneously, often with unexpected digressions and asides. It never seems forced, but like a living-room discussion you might have with your friends.

The conversational hilarity and storybook imagery fit into a nostalgic socket in our brains. The Ricky Gervais Show feels like an old friend we can talk to again and again without getting bored. Now that the show has run it’s course, let’s hope a complete box set is released with a ton of special features. Until then, we’ll have to be content with An Idiot Abroad, Derek, Life’s Too Short and Ricky Gervais…Obviously.

Unsatisfying Mysteries

When I was young I used to enjoy the show Unsolved Mysteries, which I just realized is a redundant title. There was something alluring about watching adults like Robert Stack investigate strange situations and come up with no answer. Robert Stack spoke with authority, so if he couldn’t figure it out, there must be something magical at work.

The other night I came across a similar show. I can’t remember the name of it. I’m glad my brain knew to forget. In this show an authoritative narrator told us about mysterious science experiments, and the worst actors ever helped to dramatize these unsolved mysteries.

The show reenacted a man attempting to measure the weight of a soul by measuring patients as they died. He placed the unfortunate “consumptive” patients on a scale and had to wait out their final moments, which, judging from the look on the actor’s face, took a really long time. But behold, the body did lose some of its mass. Whether this account is accurate or not is probably not worth worrying about.

This became the “21 grams” legend that inspired a movie I haven’t seen. That this landmark of scientific inquiry faded into obscurity isn’t surprising; it’s built on a slush pile of ambiguous principles. The operational assumption that every “thing” in the universe has mass is wrong; light exists but has no measurable mass. This blog exists but has no mass. Not yet…

But my favorite piece of illogic is the assumption that if a dying body loses weight, the soul must have escaped. It’s interesting that this “scientist” thinks the soul is something you can hold in your hand, like an overripe eggplant. At no point does he attempt to define the soul. When you break it down, the implication made by his experiment is this: “The soul is something that has weight and leaves upon death.” Defined mathematically: Weight Loss = Soul Leaving. It’s nonsense.

These types of shows, while disguised as a rational investigation, never give rational answers. Every case covered in this episode ended with a question, i.e. “Did Dr. Whatsisname prove the existence of the soul?”

No. No he obviously didn’t.

After sleeping on it, I realized something very obvious. These shows aren’t aimed at the rational crowd. They are aimed for people looking for a mystery. And here is where I’m torn, because I have a hunch there is psychological worth in cultivating mystery and awe in the unknown. Big questions are important, like what am I? Where did we come from? Where did they find these actors? Why did nobody watch the edited footage? Why did nobody edit the actors out?

Fortunately there are people in the world who take the mysteries of the human condition seriously. Werner Herzog’s Into The Abyss is a recent documentary exploring murder and the death penalty. As usual, Herzog asks questions that matter because they lead us into the deep realities of his subjects. The mystery in question is how and why a person or a state commits murder.

I definitely didn’t laugh as much watching Into The Abyss as I did watching that other show. So they both have their pros and cons, I suppose. Maybe watching Unsolved Mysteries back then actually did foster my reverence for mystery. In meditation I explore mysteries of my own that are far deeper and more personal than could ever be caught on tape, so perhaps I took what I needed and outgrew Unsolved Mysteries. Thanks Mr. Stack.

These days I’m more enriched by people like Herzog who ask questions out of a deep respect for life and to leave us thinking about mysteries. Unsolved Mysteries and similar shows all end with the conclusion that “We may never know the answer,” and that seems to me like it actually discourages thinking rather than inciting it.