Wordfail

Most of my favorite works of art deal with psychological, internal, and (if I may) spiritual problems. I might be in the minority on that, but it’s hard to tell. Most pop cinema and music seem to actively avoid these issues in any serious or thoughtful way, but my view may be skewed by massive PR budgets, while many profound works count on niche marketing and word of mouth.

Two nights ago I was working through an internal process during my meditation, essentially allowing my sensory inputs to drain out and empty, and it occurred to me (not for the first time) that many of these internal obstacles literally defy rational language. The scientific method is a beautiful tool for explaining and enhancing our understanding of our world, but when it comes to internal experiences, scientific language fails to capture the experience in any way I can relate to.

I can talk about the cessation of dialectical thinking, stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system or increasing respiration for lowering systolic blood pressure, but these descriptions are cold and say nothing about the end-user experience, despite their medical accuracy.

To speak about “turning the light around” captures more of the mysterious essence of the experience, even though this phrase provably does not describe what’s going on in my body. All language is in a sense arbitrary. If we can find language that more closely captures the experience, we should use it.

Scientists have been encroaching on this field for a while now, and with good reason. Some organizations like The David Lynch Foundation try to analyze meditation from a scientific perspective so they may explain it to rational people. This is totally laudable and seemingly essential these days. But I was always more affected by artistic interpretations of internal experiences, art forms that somehow poetically capture the ineffable nature of what’s happening, what it feels like to have internal revelations.

This is where I find uncompromising value in art. Art is the best conveyor of human experience, and exposure to it seems essential to me if we want to mature as human beings.

All communication is symbolic. The word “kite” is not the physical object called a kite. If the best we can do to symbolize an actual kite is to come up with a verbal grunt with sharp sounds on each end—a sound that is intrinsically meaningless—then we are at least slightly lame as a species. The word itself seems complete gibberish to someone without experience of an actual kite. But to watch a film of some kite-flying enthusiasts, or read about a child’s wonder as the wind pulls the kite down a sunny beach, is to learn on more than merely verbal levels.

This is where I cut a lot of slack for religious literature. There are a lot of religious books which, if taken literally, are absurd and stupid. But those books tend to elicit analogical and mystical interpretations that resonate with people in deep ways. Reading The Bhagavad Gita, I never once expected that the events depicted in it really happened. But I was moved by it, and I continue to find it beautiful.

This might be why I value “saying something” over simply making art for money. I am glad to fork over my hard-earned cash for a meaningful experience, and usually annoyed when I walk away from a movie or book thinking, “so what?”

I have written on this previously, if anyone is interested.

Dreamscape Press

I have only a brief update this week. A novel, a feature film script, and a handful of short stories have consumed most of my recent writing efforts. I’m encouraged since I learned that Dreamscape Press® will be featuring two of my short stories.

Dreamscape Press is a new publisher entering the speculative fiction market with a number of anthologies. I contributed two very different stories to 100 Worlds, and Nuclear Town USA. The former contains 100-word stories from 100 authors, the latter is apocalyptic science fiction.

My friend Michael Stasko, who made Iodine and co-wrote Things To Do and The Birder, will also be featured in 100 Worlds.

I’ll be sure to post here when these anthologies become available.

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Goblin wsg Secret Chiefs 3

Friday I went to The Opera House to see Italian soundtrack legends Goblin with their special guests Secret Chiefs 3. SC3 opened the night and blew everybody away with their matchless blend of Middle Eastern music, prog-rock, surf, and Spaghetti Western score steeped long and hard in a narcotic brew of esoteric philosophy and magick.

TreySecret Chiefs 3 do not put on your typical concert. The material can be challenging for listeners. Bizarre time signatures, Middle Eastern scales, and enough dynamic range to scare you means that you’re in for a real experience as an active listener. Musicians out there couldn’t ask for a more prodigious group.

SC3Watch this video from their visit in May when they played Ananada Shankars “Renunciation”.

I have seen these guys three times in the last year and a half. Each time has been more impressive than the last. When they left the stage I wondered how anyone could follow them. I particularly wondered how Goblin would sound. Sometimes a band comes back after a 40-year hiatus and their sound isn’t fresh, feels put-on, and they play new material that is vastly inferior.

goblin-2013But Goblin’s appeal was never about tight performances and musicianship, necessarily. As the soundtrack music for some of the most stylish horror films ever made, it was always about the style, about the emotional climate they created and their distinct mood. When they came on stage they brought the goods.

Goblin

They rocked. Their songs have such distinct character that they could have hardly messed it up. I don’t believe they were ever a touring band, so maybe their act hasn’t been on the shelf so long it’s stale. The attitude in the room was perfect, the performances were impressive and their set list was great.

The show made me pretty eager to dip back into some Argento horror films. Suspiria makes for a good Halloween tradition.

The Pareidolia Files

Pareidolia is the psychological tendency we have of finding patterns in randomness or imposing a self-generated meaning to chaotic perceptions. The more complex the signals we receive, the more opportunity we have to bend our interpretations to our own plan. This usually happens unconsciously, but not always.

Millennia ago people looked at stars in the night sky and saw dragons and archers and scales and the pattern in which they appeared might determine a bad day. Later, people would release a flock of birds, and depending on which way they flew, someone might get decapitated. Even today most of us can see a face in the moon. The slippery part is that once some interpretation is communicated, it can confound future perceptions. If I tell you that Apollo is going to ride his fiery chariot across the sky tomorrow morning, you’re more likely to see what I’ve described than if I just let you watch the sunrise without any primer…not literally, of course, but you know what I mean.

Room 237 PosterI was recently entertained by Room 237, a “critical documentary” about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. In the movie, over footage of The Shining and other films, we hear a variety of interpretations about what The Shining really means. Some of these interpretations provoke some thought. Many sound ridiculous. Room 237 is a great look at the phenomenon of pareidolia.

Some of the “evidence” used by these theories are completely hilarious. Continuity errors become clues about The Holocaust; a can of baking soda confirms that The Shining is really about the genocide of American Indians; a child who hasn’t seen the movie draws a picture and quotes one of the lines and the mother seemingly decides her child actually has the ability to “shine” (though presumably she’s been watching the movie dozens or hundreds of times in the next room while the kid is playing, driving it into his subconscious).

It’s good to recognize pareidolia when it happens. Many people develop elaborate gambling systems to beat essentially random outcomes (in roulette, for example). These people waste their time as well as their money. It’s possible to consciously combine some types of qualitative data in unique ways and come up with astonishing, novel ways to think about things. But in truly random data, pareidolia can only mislead us.

There is a related term called Apophenia. It’s tough to find a big difference in the definitions of Apophenia and pareidolia. Both involve finding patterns in chaos. When we look at the etymology of the words, things get interesting, albeit fuzzy.

Pareidolia comes from the Greek word para, meaning “above,” “beyond,” or “beside of,” and eidolon, which means “representation” or “figure.” So you can understand that pareidolia is seeing something beyond what is actually there.

Apophenia, however, is a little different. The Greek prefix apo means “away from”, as in apology, where you distance yourself from previous words (apo = “away from” logo = “words”). But the second part of Apophenia, the phenia, is not so clear. Wikipedia claims it was mistranslated from phrenia, as in schizophrenia, but it is also very close to phany, as in epiphany. Mistake?

How would we know? Either etymological route tells us Apophenia is an experience that is far from that which is shown. On one hand we might find a hidden meaning that is pure confusion. On the other hand, we might find a deeper truth than what is apparent. Well allow me to exercise Apophenia on the chaos of this etymological mess. Apophenia means recognizing patters that others don’t, for better or for worse.

So, after all that, you’re wondering if Room 237 is worth watching. Well, it depends what you want to get out of it, and of course, how you interpret it.

Breaking Bad, Raising The Stakes On TV

Everybody and their brother will blog about Breaking Bad this week, so I don’t need to chime in on that…so…what else are we going to talk about? Please. Some say we’re in a new Golden Age of television. Some say Breaking Bad is one of the best series of all time. Both ring true to my ear. There will be some spoilers here, in red.

So what made Breaking Bad so great? Was it the Nietzschean “will to power”, expressed in an honest way for the first time on television? Was it the lethally hip admixture of high chemistry and street drugs? Was it the character of Walter White? Jesse? Was it the magnetic acting? I could argue all these points, and strongly, but I think the setting in which all these facets found their gleam is the vision and execution of creator Vince Gilligan.

And execute he did. One of the strongest elements of Breaking Bad is its narrative economy. The storytelling is very straightforward, 96% pure, and doesn’t waste a lot of our time with non-essentials. Walt’s journey reaches very clear milestones regularly throughout the show, and the clarity of his journey make the simplistic narrative a deeply affecting one.

Walt’s journey, the central story, demonstrates perfectly this fundamental of storytelling: in a narrative, the stakes must rise toward a climax. Breaking Bad might be one of the best examples of how to raise the stakes. The magic of the show is that while the stakes went up continually and intensely, the story never felt like it was reaching beyond itself. Each new plateau of was handled realistically (at least in the psychology of the characters), and only until it was time to raise the stakes again. I have never seen a show escalate its dramatic action so consistently and effectively before now.

So many people died in the show. But think about Walt’s involvement with these deaths and the moral implications of each: in season one he kills someone in self-defense. Then he kills someone when there is no other safe option, when letting the person go would endanger his family (and think about how much he struggled with this conflict). Eventually we see him stand by and watch a girl die. He could have saved her life, but he lets her die because she has become inconvenient to him. Through coincidence, his negligence causes the death of an entire passenger plane full of people.

But still Walt remained reticent to take a life. We saw him bowl over a couple hood rats with his Aztec in order to save Jesse’s life (in one of the most intense television episodes I’ve ever seen). And on and on, Walt slowly lowers his criteria to the point where he orders the slaughter of a dozen prisoners in order to sever ties and stay clean.

The fact that his moral barriers were struck down so methodically makes me jealous of Vince Gilligan and all the people who got to work on Breaking Bad. What an impressive feat to sustain over 5 seasons without letting up or losing steam.

The storytelling of Breaking Bad might not be quite as nuanced as other dramas like Mad Men or The Wire, but its simplicity makes it more effective in many ways. Some of the “higher-brow” shows require slower action, more time for reflection and character development. But Breaking Bad kicks into high gear early on and doesn’t let up. And while it’s efficiently telling its story, highbrow concepts (such as the Nietzschean “will to power,” grey-scale ethics, etc.) present themselves as a digestif to the intense action.

And unlike many of those other shows, Breaking Bad sought to tell a finite story about one person with a beginning, middle, and end. The series closer Sunday night was a great piece of drama and the developments in it made perfect sense, whereas many other shows leave me without a strong sense of closure.

If the last episode didn’t seem quite as mind-blowing as you had hoped, consider the beautiful realm of possibilities created by the writers during the lead up to the finale. In the heat of the previous season, we could have cast our minds forward to any number of fantastic climaxes. It’s only because those potentialities were reduced to an actuality that the final episode might have left people a bit lukewarm. That, and the somewhat telegraphed convenience with which Walt’s final plan came together (to borrow a phrase from The A-Team).

The show ended as I hoped it would, without abandoning Walt completely to an immoral demise, but redeeming him just enough (through Jesse) so that people wouldn’t hunt down and kill Vince Gilligan. Way to watch your back Vince. He originally intended to kill Jesse.

For those 10.3 million of us who watched the finale together, Breaking Bad truly gave us one of those “shared moments” of TV legend. I’m naturally disappointed there is no more to look forward to, but I prefer a firm ending to a diluted story. Breaking Bad was somehow succinct in its 60+ hours, and I look forward to watching it again.