Only Lovers Left Alive

The following review is one giant SPOILER.

There is a cryptic scene in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive where vampire lovers Adam and Eve notice a few small Amanita muscaria mushrooms growing in the back yard of Adam’s factory loft. They seem somewhat out of place and out of time; the fungi, they note, are out of season. Eve talks to them like they’re people. She and Adam share a knowing glance and leave them be. We don’t see them again.

Only Lovers Left Alive is a rock and roll movie that only Jarmusch could make. An atmosphere of cool apathy permeates this story about Adam (Tom Hiddleston), a depressed, nosferatic rock star genius living in the husk of Detroit city. He spends his days accumulating vintage instruments, avoiding impending fame like the plague, contemplating suicide, and drinking illicit blood bank donations with all the ceremony and satisfaction of a wealthy heroin addict.

His wife Eve (Tilda Swinton) lives in Tangier where her vampire friend Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) keeps her supplied with good blood. We wonder why Adam and Eve live on opposite sides of the world, and their unique situation dawns on us; being immortal, their concept of time might make years apart seem like a weekend separation.

Seeing Adam’s depression over Skype, Eve flies to Detroit to be with him. When she arrives there is some relief; the couple feed together, listening to records, catching up on each others’ age-old wisdom and isolation (Adam has remained off the grid with a Tesla-inspired generator he constructed piecemeal in his back yard).

Their relationship with humanity is strained. They refer to humans as “zombies,” implying unthinking consumers who lack the scope for real creativity. Eve is regarded with suspicion wherever she goes and the only human company Adam can stand is Ian, a fan of Adam’s music who tracks down vintage guitars and whatever else Adam needs no questions asked (i.e. a bullet made of the hardest wood available, with which Adam contemplates ending it all).

But their relationship with humanity seems to be necessary. Adam has been creating music for ages, but cannot own up to it. A life of fame would expose his immortality, so he’s been getting the work out via “zombies,” human conduits who take all the fame and the slack. We also learn that Christopher Marlowe was the creative force behind some of history’s great literature, including Shakespeare.

Enter Ava (Mia Wasikowska), Eve’s mischievous little sister who immediately gets on Adam’s nerves. They put her up, share their stash of blood, and even let her talk them into a night on the town. After a rock show, Adam, Eve, Ava and Ian travel back to the loft and you just know Ava wants to get into trouble. When Adam and Eve wake the next night, they find Ian’s corpse.

With his only human connection severed, Adam decides to leave his loft full of instruments to go to Tangier with Eve. They’re dangerously low on blood but counting on Marlowe to hook them up when they land. But they arrive to find him in a bad way; blood poisoning is common and a bad batch has made it past his safeguards. He’s had his last, leaving the Lovers to fend for themselves.

Withdrawal from feeding takes its toll, and the Lovers walk the streets, hoping they won’t have to hunt fresh prey. A compelling musical performance distracts Adam while Eve slinks into the night to find him a gift to buoy his spirits. She comes back with a lute, a completely atavistic instrument they both find beautiful and perfect.

Wasting away on the street, lute in hand, they happen upon two young lovers sharing an intimate moment. They watch the couple admiringly. And then, without any better options, they descend on them. In the closing moment of the film we see Adam and Eve approaching the young lovers, canines exposed.

The pace of the movie is somewhat languorous, and in the theater I felt the narrative was engaging but suffered from a lack of drive. There was, of course, no explosive climax. Each scene seemed to roll out from the last without much added momentum. When the credits rolled, my first thought was that this was a very cool movie with superb acting (Tilda Swinton is 100% compelling), but it’s probably not Jarmusch’s best.

About a day later, thinking about the themes that carry through the film, I started to glimpse a profundity behind the narrative, though even now it refuses to crystallize completely for me. The film wasn’t focused on dramatic thrill; Only Lovers Left Alive is a meditation on art and immortality.

In the world of the film, history’s great visionary artists have been the puppets of immortal vampires. These vampires (the serious ones, anyway) have no time for a society of zombies. But they remain attached to civilization so that they can giver their art an outlet in the world. The film’s vampires do what they can to enrich “zombie” society from afar.

Those Amanita mushrooms are emblematic of our heroes. These are the visionary, psychedelic mushrooms of legend, offering ancient Siberian shamans a glimpse into the transcendent world beyond. To eat them is to see the world and the self in ecstatic ways. Out of place and out of season, and bearing promises of vision, the Lovers left the mushrooms be. The vampires themselves have artistic, visionary work to do, work that will show the “zombies” new ways to perceive the world and themselves. And like these mushrooms, they just want to be left alone.

It seems perfect coming from Jim Jarmusch. The drive to put art into the world and move on, to avoid getting caught up in fame, to disregard critics and commercial success, and to bring Vision into the world; these are virtues of real artists. The work will last forever, and by extension, the artist. Thinking about the immortal visionaries at the heart of Only Lovers Left Alive, I feel appropriately exhorted to “publish or perish.”

Digging Tunnels

Philosopher, writer, humorist, scholar and mystic Robert Anton Wilson used to say that we all see reality through our own “neurological reality tunnels.” What he meant was that we don’t see reality itself. All our perceptions are filtered through a very personal channel of assumptions, beliefs, and mental models. Compounding this problem is the fact that it’s so easy to mistake the model for the thing it represents. This, he claims, is the reason we misunderstand each other so profoundly.

Pay attention to the world and you’ll see people misunderstanding each other. Even when they understand each other, people have a hard time coming together to make decisions. Communicating with language (conversing or writing) seems like the most straightforward method of communication, but in many ways it’s an inferior mode of expression.

The medium of language is full of assumptions and abstractions that are easily confused. Language uses only one input—auditory for speech or visual for the written word—and it leaves many of our senses un-stimulated. Even when watching someone speak, the visual input may or may not be a part of the message.

This is why art will always win. Film, for example, uses light, colour, sound, music, action, and so forth and is a much more full-brained form of communication. If you disagree, try to describe a David Lynch film to someone and see if your words do the movie justice. Meanwhile, language is perfectly at home inside of film.

But sometimes a writer gets it so right, it’s like he or she comes and joins you in your own neurological reality tunnel. I had this experience recently while re-reading “Sonny’s Blues”, a short story by James Baldwin.

The main character, a Harlem schoolteacher, spends much of the story trying to understand his heroin-using, jazz-piano-playing brother. He simply cannot understand why anyone would throw his life away with heroin, and he just doesn’t “get” jazz. He and his brother are stuck, not quite connecting through their reality tunnels, until the story’s climax where he sees Sonny play.

“All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.”

For me this is a great encapsulation of what makes music (or any art form) magical. When art connects, it connects more deeply than language alone. It can open the audience to unmapped territories, force them out of their preconceived notions and comfort zones. This form of communication cannot be translated into language; it has to be experienced. That terrible act of creativity might reshape your own reality tunnel. Then, maybe, you get a sense of someone else’s reality and approach understanding.

The Art of Belief

How does a man like Orson Scott Card, who writes Ender Wiggin so honestly and tenderly in Ender’s Game, speak out so vociferously against homosexuality? It seems strange that a smart, contemporary artist could be so opposed to the freedom of people to love whoever they love. I tend to think of artists as open-minded and liberal, favoring freedom of expression (in all its forms), and I tend to think of bigots as ignorant. It’s disarming to think that those traits can coexist within one person.

It’s hard to accept, but some people we want to despise have admirable talents. On the other hand, many people we respect probably have horrible beliefs or habits we choose to ignore. And while people with one set of priorities and beliefs might respect and admire Joey Artist, another group of people with differing beliefs and priorities will almost surely despise him.

Beliefs are very strange this way; a person can be seemingly rational and open-minded but hold an isolated belief makes them completely irrational in certain scenarios. If a fully conscious person takes on an ignorant belief system, we have a hard time separating them from those beliefs. But when a person is indoctrinated early, that judgment gets a little stickier.

Is it strange that an anti-Semite like Wagner can compose some heart wrenching operas and a passionate actor like Marlon Brando or Klaus Kinski can turn out to be an asshole in real life? Well, we do live in a world where a college-educated man can make himself into a bomb to kill people because they interpret a book differently. Take out one or two bad traits from any of these people and our opinions change radically. Beliefs are contagious like viruses and we sometimes don’t know how susceptible a person is until it’s too late.

The arts are especially strange in this way because fearful or hateful or awful people can leave behind great and beautiful works of art. We might hate the person and everything they stand for, but the work remains. There is no anti-gay message in Ender’s Game, yet people organized boycotts of the film because of Card’s beliefs. If we could surgically remove his offensive beliefs, the movie probably wouldn’t change but the public reaction to it would.

I somehow find it easy to love artists that I hate. Uncompromising auteurs that don’t care about being nice people are compelling. Sometimes I share so little emotional ground with an artist like that I find him repulsive, yet I need to see his art. Being creative, he tries to give us a piece of himself, something he values so much he devotes his life to its expression. This may or may not have anything to do with the one particular belief or habit we find so terrible.

And it might give us a glimpse into that person’s internal conflicts and enable us to empathize. There is a reasonable argument to be made that it’s more important for us to regard art made by people with beliefs other than our own. What better way to try to understand those beliefs? It probably doesn’t work very often, to be fair, but you see my point.

A genius might become hateful if his subscribed beliefs tell him to be hateful. It’s hard to imagine that Orson Scott Card has analyzed his own bigotry in any rational, ethical light. More likely he was taken in by certain congenial beliefs within a larger framework, a belief structure, and then he allowed the rest of that belief structure to warp some of his views of reality. What makes someone susceptible to these distortions is the whole je ne sais quoi of human psychology.

Beliefs shouldn’t come sold as a package deal (as in religion); they should be purchased individually by experience and good evidence. Any ready-made belief system can tell us what to think for better or for worse. Without the belief system, we’re free to have no opinion. This is truly a good thing because it means that in theory we can look at new evidence impartially.

I want an artist to create for art’s sake. I don’t want a polemic disguised as art. If the artist creates a work of depth and originality, I will appreciate that work for what it is, regardless of who created it. On the other hand, I might buy a nice guy a beer, but I won’t lie about liking his crappy art. My opinions about a person don’t come as a package deal either. I may have several opinions about one person, each based on some kind of evidence. For example, Orson Scott Card is a great writer, but a terrible human rights advocate. Also, there is a chance he’s the second most talented “Orson” in history.

Godard Forever

If you’ve ever seen one of those student films where a brooding, turtlenecked doofus reads poetry to his little doll of a girlfriend, rolled your eyes at the black and white pomposity of it all, then yawned twice, hard, because it was so preposterously “artsy,” you probably were watching the influence of Jean Luc Godard watered down through the decades. Open intellectualism like his is rare these days in commercial art, but nobody sane would deny that Godard is a unique and innovative artist whose influence has rippled into the present.

Bald-faced intellectualism might be too tough to stomach these days; generally, Hollywood fears anything too deep because they don’t want to lose their audience. Most of the big blockbusters are aimed at children or adults who don’t want to think while they watch. Fair enough; mindless movies have their place, but a balanced diet of different type of movies is ideal. Unfortunately Hollywood sometimes seems too much like McDonald’s.

It makes perfect sense. If you’re going to put a hundred million dollars into a production, you don’t want people walking out confused and telling their friends it was “pretentious.” Spoon-feed the audience every step of the way, leave no doubt about who the bad guys are or which dashing hero they should root for, and they’ll have more cranial capacity to appreciate those expensive explosions.

But some people back in the sixties (and a few even before that) thought that film as an art form could appeal to a higher brow, people craving intellectual stimulation. In the opening moments of Alphaville, the supercomputer Alpha 60 tells us that sometimes reality is too complex to understand, and that legends, or art, allow fragments of that complexity to travel around the world and connect with human minds.

Alphaville

Alphaville is a classic, pulpy depiction of Logic and Order vs. Art and Love, set in a futuristic world that uses technological and scientific concepts and character archetypes almost thirty years old when Alphaville was made in 1965. What’s that about? Well, it’s worth thinking about. And while the dialogue between these two central counterforces might seem superficial today, the film is just fun to watch. Part of its appeal is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Godard is at his best when he balances philosophy with humour, and Alphaville is a prime example. Masculin Féminin is another. But even at his heaviest, his direction is riveting, the characters think and feel and have passion, and he does it all with inimitable style. Fifty years after his heyday, Godard’s movies still hold sway and I think I know why: someone has to make films to appeal to intellectuals. And no, Inception does not count.

Granted, Godard’s intellectualism isn’t subtle, it isn’t buried within the narrative or eluded to, but slaps you in the face like it’s challenging you to a duel. But certainly conversations about politics or philosophy or love actually do happen in the real world. Why shouldn’t those conversations happen in a movie? Pretension is underrated.

This month the TIFF Bell Lightbox hosts Godard Forever: Part One, a retrospective of his work featuring some of his best features and short films. The theater itself delivers on every level, but seeing classic auteurs like Godard there feels like a special treat. If you are in Toronto in February, think it over.

Journals, Art, Journeys

When I was young my oldest brother Jeff showed me what an amusing pastime it was to keep a journal. I’ve found this essential. Without keeping a record of the day’s events, we forget most of the coincidences, oddities, and revelations of our lives. Even when we remember the facts of our experience, it’s impossible to recapture the exact feel of events. Most of my life I’ve kept some kind of book on the go, whether it’s just funny lines or ideas or scenes from movies I’d like to see.

It seems important because of this main fact: memories are not real. When you think about an event in your past, (spoiler alert) your brain does not magically go into the past. Our brains attempt to reconstruct our reactions to that experience, but our brains are different now, so the reconstruction is imperfect. Plus, memories can be bent and changed.

Regular journal entries give us a window into our state of mind at the time. This is crucial if you want to understand your life as a journey or narrative, or if you want some sort of proof that you’re getting closer to your goals or developing intellectually.

The same can be said, on the macroscopic scale, of art and science in culture. Art expresses the zeitgeist while science improves our understanding of each moment. We could never have had The Wire without ancient Greek literature, and we could never have invented smartphones without first understanding how radio waves work. This only works when people write it down.

Occasionally an artist makes a conscious effort to draw our attention to cultural development by retelling ancient, fundamentally human stories with current language and culture. The best example is Ulysses by James Joyce. The story is not about a guy named Ulysses in ancient Ithaca, but a man named Leopold Bloom in 20th century Dublin. The title and structure of the novel showcase thousands of years of human values in flux.

“This race and this country and this life produced me…I shall express myself as I am” – James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

It can be great to read old, embarrassing journal entries because it means you’ve grown. Without writing it down we have no proof. And without a record it’s sometimes impossible to understand how we could have believed the crazy notions we’ve outgrown. This blog is likely full of ideas I’ve outgrown. I’m fine with that. Years from now I’ll be glad I was observant, honest in my assessments, and most importantly, that I wrote it down.

 

P.S. There will be no blog post next week because I will be busy eating food. Happy Holidays everyone.

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.

Signposts

It doesn’t take a lot of effort to find new music to listen to. Same goes for movies and books. There are websites that offer options like, “If you liked A, you’ll probably like B,” or “People who purchased C also purchased D,” and that can be helpful, but usually the recommendations are very safe, almost tentative, and the results are mediocre. A lot of the time the recommended artist or piece of media doesn’t live up to the connection.

I’m much more likely to trust a recommendation from an artist. The artists that I like (most artists, really) usually draw inspirations from other artists. So when an artist mentions a name or references a specific album or book, I try to pay attention. When there is a drought in good new music, for example, it’s easy to comb through artists I already like to find references, usually to older artists. People who create something that fits your tastes will usually have good taste themselves.

Led Zeppelin’s third album, arguably their best, ends with a song called “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper”. For some reason it took me years to actually look up Roy Harper. It’s not a very popular name outside of its own niche. Roy Harper is a genius of his own variety and influenced his friend Jimmy Page. Harper’s innovative recording techniques, lyrics and intriguing decisions on albums like Lifemask or Stormcock are mind-blowing. Once I tracked it down, I took my hat off to Jimmy Page for “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper”.

But even Zeppelin fans I know claim they’ve never heard of Roy Harper. I find this strange, and it makes me wonder why it took me so long to look him up. If artists are doing something innovative and new and they go out of their way to point out an influence or inspiration, it only makes sense to pay attention. But often the references go unnoticed.

The flip-side to this is that artists often name-drop because they feel it will increase their cache. Generally, I find that if the referenced artist is a household name, you don’t need to go on the hunt. This form of name-dropping acts similarly to the “If you liked A, you’ll probably like B,” recommendations. When the band Franz Ferdinand calls their song “Ulysses”, I don’t expect their fans will run out and read Homer or James Joyce, but the reference is there as fodder for critics and nerds. That’s fine too, but it’s not as exciting as discovering some obscure gem brought to light in a conscientious way.

When the reference is little-known, my natural inclination is to investigate. When Six Organs of Admittance named an album For Octavio Paz, it got me wondering about Octavio Paz. What was it in the poetry of Paz that inspired the songs of Six Organs? It’s worth finding out.

This all happens on a conscious level. But often references aren’t as obvious as these examples. A lot of artists like to drop references more subtly, and by that I mean wordlessly. These types of references won’t put you on the lookout, but they can be much more rewarding when they are stumbled upon, like hearing John Coltrane in “Eight Miles High” by The Byrds. A lot of the time I’ll catch a connection long after the reference and it will give me a rush of enthusiasm.

Imagery in David Lynch’s films, for instance, calls up the dark mystery of the paintings of Francis Bacon. When I see certain Bacon paintings I am totally thrilled, and I can trace the aesthetic connection back to something I’m familiar with (Lynch’s films). Now I have the entire oeuvre of Francis Bacon to look into, and that’s exciting.

For years now I’ve been a sucker for spiritual literature and philosophy. There’s something about witnessing a mind groping for truth that’s exciting to me, and to an extent I think we’re all on some sort of path toward understanding our existence. So when an artist chooses to leave signposts in this direction, I am drawn in. There are spiritual guides in my life. They are usually artists, and they’ve been ushering me along a path to self-knowledge.

The albums of Bardo Pond are my favorite example. Philadelphia’s ultimate psychedelic rock group know what they are doing. Take this recent vinyl reissue of Ticket Crystals.

Bardo Pond - "Ticket Crystals"

I see this picture and it makes an impression on me. So when I stumble upon the picture in Aleister Crowley’s Book Of Lies, a little masterpiece of Kabbalistic and philosophical puzzles, I know I’m on the right path.

The Book of Lies

Their albums are full of these symbols, and whether through coincidence or conscious decision, I’ve discovered a wealth of books, movies and music to get me further down the path, or at least let me know that I’m looking in the right direction. Even if I’m not drawn in by the referenced work, at least I’m looking at something new.

It’s as though certain artists exist to act as a psychopomp. The psychopomp’s role in mythology is to guide dead souls into the afterlife. In this real world version, artists use the symbols they have at their disposal to guide people out of the mundane world into new levels of understanding. It might sound high-flown, but I’ve been on the path for a while now and it hasn’t let me down.

Disregarded in the darkness, the fact of enlightenment remained. The roaring of the engines diminished, the squeaking rhetoric lapsed into an inarticulate murmur, and as the intruding noises died away, out came the frogs again, out came the uninterruptable insects, out came the mynah birds.
     “Karuna. Karuna.” And a semitone lower, “Attention.”
- Aldous Huxley, Island

Transvaluate the Negative

19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was highly controversial due to his outspoken disdain for Christianity, which he felt glorified the meek over the strong, death (and the lie of an afterlife) over life itself, and self-restraint over natural, ineluctable human impulses. He also believed traditional Christian morality was a type of propaganda meant to imprison the masses inside a false idea of “good”, stifling the vitality and will of individuals to ensure a complacent, easily dominated and controllable herd. He probably would have gotten along with Ayn Rand if he didn’t also disdain women.

But Nietzsche felt he could wake people from their religious trance to the true power of their intellect and will. Among his philosophic legacies is the “transvaluation of values”, which he espoused through his professional life, particularly in his book The Antichrist. The goal of the “transvaluation of values” is to abolish dogma and stagnant thinking in favour of evaluating ideas with fresh, modern thinking. The idea is that people shouldn’t act a certain way simply because they’ve always acted that way. People should question accepted ideologies to ensure they remain relevant. Though Nietzsche has obvious flaws as a man, I find his writing inspiring, extremely intelligent, and I think the “transvaluation of values” is a potent concept that becomes more important as time goes by.

Though the idea of the “transvaluation of values” is attributed to Nietzsche, it has periodically sprung up through history, many times altering the world. After Rome conquered Greece and renamed their gods, Julius Caesar reconsidered the god-concept and decided he was a god. He did this while moving nations with his will, shaping civilization forever. Jesus Christ transvaluated the values of Judaism, triggering the worldwide Christianity (or versions of Christianity) we know today. The Prophet Mohammed later offered a slightly different version.

And we see this in art throughout history. Whether it’s the surrealism of Salvador Dali or the cubism of Pablo Picasso, the mythologized documentaries of Werner Herzog or the depth psychology of Carl Jung, sea change in culture is caused by a breakthrough in thinking, and the breaking down of previous forms. Because Everything is subject to change, the transvaluation of values allows for constant feedback, for adapting to the flow of things physical and psychical.

I previously said that George R. R. Martin’s success with A Game of Thrones is primarily commercial and not an artistic breakthrough. In reevaluating my opinion I asked myself why his work is so commercially successful. I believe it’s because he has transvaluated the form of the traditional epic hero quest. Using the form of the epic fantasy novel, he has posited a new value that might reflect a more current vision of ourselves. Many would say his work offers a more pessimistic vision of society.

[The following contains spoilers for A Game of Thrones. Be warned. Spoilers in red.] The main character of the first book is Ned Stark, father of the Stark family, Lord in the North, and a shining example of integrity. He has so much integrity that the audience forgives him for killing his daughter’s pet dire wolf, an innocent animal, because he acts out of duty. Most popular writers would avoid having their main protagonist and focus of empathy murder an animal – people sometimes are more willing to accept the murder of another human than an innocent animal. But this hero breaks the taboo. So what?

I’ll tell you so what. This action is a signpost, foreshadowing the author’s own willingness to do the unthinkable in an epic fantasy: at the climax of the novel, the innocent Ned Stark is beheaded in front of his daughter. Killing off the main character and primary protagonist in the first book of a lengthy series shows us George R. R. Martin’s opinion of the epic fantasy, in contrast to Tolkien. The epic fantasy is stunted when tethered to one character. The idea of an epic is that it should span a vast world over a vast amount of time. Killing the main character tells us in no uncertain terms that A Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire is much more than the story of one man, more than the story of one family. It is a story of whole world, and each book broadens the readers’ horizons, deepening their connection to the work as a whole.

These days our culture seems to be attracted to pessimistic world views. There are many examples of this kind of transvaluation – consider that every new superhero franchise tries to offer a grittier, darker version of essentially childish fantasies. This could be a simple reflection of the pessimistic worldviews held by society, but it could also be a reflection of people’s resilience. Despite the lunacy of the world, we carry on. Life is compromise and people are willing to take the good with the bad.

A potent method of spreading a meme is to transvaulate an old symbol. It’s best if the symbol is simple and well defined. Satanists turned the crucifix upside down. Nazi’s appropriated the swastika which was originally a Hindu symbol. Nixon used Churchill’s “V” for Victory. And more recently, The Watchmen by Alan Moore takes the ubiquitous yellow happy face and adds a drop of blood to it. What this means is clear in the opening chapter of the book as the “hero” Rorschach stands above a city telling us that one day the people will ask to be saved, and he will tell them “no”.

Whatever our opinion of society’s current state of values, “transvaluation of values” ensures that over time these values will change just like the world around us. And periodic reassessments give us opportunities to create our own set of values that will make us happier and let us grow. Even as Nietzsche said “God is dead,” he delivered the concept of the self-made Superman. Whatever your opinions on Nietzsche, the idea of liberating the latent faculties of every individual is one of the most positive messages in history.

 

 

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.

 

 

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.