Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Introduction: Fantasia and Me

You can download a PDF of my Fantasia commentary here. For all my posts on the Pastoral episode, go here.
I grew up watching Fantasia episodes on Disney’s TV program and I saw it in theatrical release in 1969. It fascinated me as a child but as a young adult, eh, it’s not all that. Then I picked up a DVD in August 2003 in connection with a now-abandoned book project: WHAM! I was stunned.

I saw the film itself, yes, but though it I also saw the cumulated techniques of 3000 years of art history, Western and Eastern, and a large swath of the cosmos and of life on Earth. So I wrote a longish email about it, and more generally about cartoons and animation, to my colleague, Tim Perper. Tim had become interested in manga and anime so I figured he’d have some observations even if Disney and Fantasia didn’t particularly interest him.

I was right, Tim had things to say. He also got me interested in manga and anime, which have been a major part of my intellectual life since then. It’s been mostly the Japanese stuff, but I’ve also looked into some classic America cartoons, Winsor McCay, Warner Brothers, Walter Lantz, and classic Disney, Fantasia above all.

In August of 2006 a made a post at The Valve in which I argued that Fantasia was one of the great works of the 20th century. Back then the claim struck me as rather outrageous. Now that I’ve gotten used to it, it still seems true, sorta’, but also beside the point—to which I’ll return in a moment.

When I made that post I didn’t intend to devote posts to each episodes. As a result of an email exchange with Michael Barrier I wrote a piece on Dance of the Hours in 2007 and that, I figured, was that. It wasn’t until the Spring of 2010 that I decided I might work my way through the entire film, starting with The Nutcracker Suite and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. I’ve now written about every episode, including the intermission. I’ve also written a concluding piece in which I examine episode order, arguing that the episodes on an increasing range of mental faculties until, say, Dance of the Hours, at which point the episodes begin asking: Just what does it mean to be human?

As for Fantasia being one of the great works of the the 20th century, you can read my argument on that, and the rest of my commentaries as well. But I do wonder what the greatness game is about. In January of 2010 Frederick Turner argued that Hayao Miyazaki is the world’s best living filmmaker, a judgment I’m not prepared to contradict. Miyazaki, of course, is working in the same medium that Disney did, animation, though his work is quite different.

But the greatness game is not simply or even primarily a game played by individual critics offering up judgments. It’s an institutional game. While Disney had his successes and his fame, including honorary degrees, and certainly his fortune, we have no institution that endorses the greatness of his animation, nor, as far as I can tell, is Miyazaki’s greatness endorsed by any institution—John Lassiter’s enthusiasm not withstanding. The institutions that underwrite greatness are not interested in animation and I’m afraid that neither my enthusiasm, nor Fred Turner’s, is going to change that.

The question, it seems to me, is this: Is Disney’s finest work, and Miyazaki’s, along with much other work—is this work destined to sink into the past without leaving a trace or, on the contrary, will it turn out to be the foundations of new institutions in new worlds that are, at best, only now hinted at? Only time will tell.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Sunshots 2.0

I’d been taking sunshots before I’d seen any of Terrence Malick’s films, but seeing The Tree of Life heightened my interest in such shots. Recently been shooting the sun through dense thickets of denuded twigs and branches, giving the shots a rather different feel. Here’s an example:

IMGP5750rd

The bluish tinge is an artifact of the photography process, though I’m not quite sure what “artifact” means in this case. The implication is that it isn’t really there, that you wouldn’t have seen it on site. But on site you don’t really look at such things long enough to register much of anything; the sun’s too bright. What I saw through the viewfinder—I think—was mostly light.

Here’s a rather different example:

IMGP5747rd

I really like how the sun appears as a hole burned through film. I’m not sure, however, that I like the fact that the photo has no in-focus area. I didn’t intend that, but it’s not an accident either. It’s something that happens.

Episode Order in Fantasia: Revealing the Human Mind

I began my exploration of Fantasia with an essay arguing that it was a masterpiece of 20th century art. That argument was about the range of material depicted within the relatively narrow compass of two hours. Disney, in effect, said: This is human life in the universe.

I now want to return to the whole film, but with a different question in mind. I want to look at the episode order. This is an issue that doesn’t arise in a film that tells a story, or, at least, at arises in a different way. The incidents in the story have an inherent order that must be respected, though foreshadowing and flashbacks are possible.

Fantasia isn’t like that. It tells no story. There is no order linking the separate episodes. In theory Disney could have determined the order by tossing a coin. But one can’t imagine him doing that. I assume that he and his team thought about the order and chose this particular order because it was somehow ‘the best.’

What guided their choice?

I don’t know. I’ve not seen the Disney archives so I’ve not examined any relevant records. But I’m willing to hazard a guess based on an analysis of the episodes themselves.

Concert Order

This problem is hardly novel. It’s been faced hundreds of thousands of times by musicians putting on a concert or organizing a set list for club performance. One principle, for example, is that you want to open strong. If you don’t get your audience’s attention at the very beginning of the performance, you may never get it.

By that principle alone, the episode order in Fantasia is a mystery. To be sure, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor opens very dramatically. Those opening cascades DO grab your attention. But that’s about it, at least for Disney’s middlebrow audience, people for whom “the classics” were unfamiliar and perhaps even forbidding territory. The toccata grabs you, but the subsequent fugue lacks the tunefulness that was central to popular music of the time—hip hop was WAY in the future. Further, the abstract visuals were just STRANGE. No funny animals, no people, no cars, no flowers, no nothing. Just violin bows and squiggles.

The fact is that this episode was so very strange that it was dropped from a 1942 theatrical re-release, though it was restored for subsequent releases. How could Disney and his team made such a mistake?

Perhaps they’d become so absorbed in the film that they couldn’t see the problem. But perhaps they had something else in mind, perhaps not consciously and explicitly, but tacitly, intuitively.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Be It Ever so Humble, There’s no Place Like Elysium

A PDF of a complete set of posts on Disney's Pastoral Symphony may be downloaded here.
I grew up watching episodes of Fantasia on TV, and saw a theatrical version in 1969, which didn’t impress me that much. It wasn’t THAT psychedelic. Then, for over three decades, nothing. I suppose I thought about the movie every so often, and perhaps recalled an episode or two, but I didn’t see it at all.

When, a few years ago, I picked to DVD, I was stunned by it, the variety of animation styles, the variety of subjects. It fascinated me. I liked some episodes more than others. The Nutcracker Suite and Rite of Spring were immediate favorites. The Pastoral Symphony was my least favorite; I was almost embarrassed to watch it.

How come, then, that I’ve written more about it than any of the other episodes?

For one thing, by the time I got around to it, I’d learned a lot about describing and analyzing cartoons, not only from the work I’d done on the other episodes, but from work I’ve done on other cartoons as well: Miyazaki, Walter Lantz, Warner Brothers, other Disney (Dumbo), and some others here and there. I was better at my craft; I knew what to look for, and how.

Then there is the episode itself. It’s one of the longest in the film—only Rite of Spring is longer—and one of the most complex. In particular, it portrays a wider range of human social life than any of the other episodes, dealing, as it does, with child-rearing, courtship, celebration, and security (from the storm). Simply describing what Disney’s depicted and how he’s organized it, that takes time.

Now that I’ve been through it all I have a better sense of my embarrassment, which centered on Bacchus, though not entirely so (those centaurs are rather clunky, and that cherub’s bottom, what’s up with that?). Bacchus is given a complex job, perhaps more than he could handle. In the voice-over commentary to the version packaged with Fantasia 2000, historian Brian Sibley notes that the lead animator for Bacchus, Ward Kimball, came to think that he’d laid it on rather too thickly. Perhaps it did, but he had a tough job. As I read Bacchus, not only must he be a randy old man,, but he’s also a puddle-splashing infant. And somehow he must be both of those and be believable in the context of this movie.

Well, men are randy, old, and infants, but generally not within the compass of 10 or 15 minutes. It’s one thing to be each of those in its own context, isolated from the other, but to be them all, all at once, that just rather rubs one’s nose it the absurdity, the ridiculousity, if I may, of being human. Maybe Kimball didn’t go overboard at all. Maybe he was just doing his job, and doing it well, indeed.

Perhaps embarrassment was the necessary point. Whatever. In any event, I’ve made my peace with Disney’s Pastoral Symphony. I no longer find it embarrassing. Instead, I’m filled with wonder at what Disney attempted, and what he actually managed to accomplish.

In Plato's Cave

IMGP5755rd

IMGP5759rd

IMGP5767rd

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Fall Colors Peekaboo Here Come the Sun

IMGP5285rd


IMGP5160rd

What’s in a Name? “Pepper Spray”

The police use of so-called pepper spray is much in the news and on the web these days, especially as a result of its use at University of California at Davis. According to The New York Times “Megyn Kelly on Fox News dismissed pepper spray as ‘a food product, essentially.” That same story also reports:
To the American Civil Liberties Union, its use as a crowd-control device, particularly when those crowds are nonthreatening, is an excessive and unconstitutional use of force and violates the right to peaceably assemble.
A food product? Excessive and unconstitutional? One and the same product.

I understand the name’s derivation, that the active ingredient—technically, oleoresin capsicum—is the chemical that causes the 'bite' in peppers. The use of THAT name, of course, automatically associates the spray with food. Not only is food innocuous, it's necessary for life. So the name tells us that this agent is, at most, an exaggeration or amplification of something that's good for us: "Eat your spinach, it's good for you." We don't think that such an agent could put someone in the hospital or induce possibly permanent nerve damage.

How would these stories play out if the spray was known as 'liquid pain' or 'torture spray'? How would the officers using the agent think of themselves and their actions if they thought of the agent as torture spray rather than as a food derivative?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Summer and Fall

IMGP3290rd

IMGP5474rd

Pastoral 6: All Together Now: Nietzsche, Lorenz, Jakobson

Toward a Compositionist Aesthetics in which Nothing is Hidden, All is Revealed

In the past several decades the standard modes of literary and film criticism have sought to find hidden meanings. The work was thus conceived as a device to smuggling various meanings though lines of conscious defense. When the critic had found those hidden meanings, his or her work was done.

Under such a critical regime the psychological patterns I’ve found in earlier posts—sexual in the first and third, oral in the fourth—are such hidden meanings. In that regime everything else I’ve looked—the treatment of sound and color, ring form, cuteness—all that’s just deceptive camouflage. Now that the critic—that’s me, but you as well—has penetrated it, it can be discarded in favor of the REAL meaning, that ‘hidden’ sexual stuff.

The major problem with such readings is that they, in effect, discard the artistry, treating the text or film as an odd species of argument that makes its point almost completely by indirection. Well, if that’s what’s REALLY going on, then why not make the argument directly and dispense with all the artistic window dressing?

It’s not a very convincing style of criticism, though it’s been the norm for half a century. I was trained in such criticism, among other things, and have come to believe we need something more. Just what isn’t entirely clear. But what I’ve been doing with the Pastoral episode—indeed, with all of Fantasia—is to explore other ways of looking at, in this case, film. In this regime, the one I’m making up, that psychological material is still there, but I don’t regard it as particularly hidden nor do I think that pointing it out is the ultimate goal of criticism.

That psychological material is just stuff, raw material, out of which the artist, or artists in this case, construct a work of art. Those other things, color, sound, form, cuteness, they too are stuff. The purpose of this post is to begin thinking about how all this stuff works together to create a work of cinematic art. As for what that work means, I don’t know and I don’t care. Not here and now. What matters is how it works.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Nature Walk

IMGP5593rd

One takes a nature walk, I assume, to experience the natural world. It is not clear to me, however, just how deeply one’s experience of nature depends on a sharp division between nature and society, or nature and culture. To the extent that the nature walk depends on such a distinction it is, of course, problematic. For the walker is always, by definition, inextricably bound up in society and culture, no matter how long the walk nor how remote that place.

IMGP5567rd

My nature walks do not take place in remote locations. I doubt that I’ve even been to a truly remote location, not when flying over the Grand Canyon in a small plane, not when walking in a deep wooded glen at summer camp near Altoona, Pa., nor when walking with a woman in a field near Laramie, Wyoming. For all of these places were within easy distance of roads, villages, and towns.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Another Latour Locus

By Latour locus I mean a place that isn't necessarily only that place, that is, a place that also implies, connects with, other places. But  I also mean photographs photographs that link disparate places together, near and far. This photograph is a Latour locus only only in the first sense:

IMGP5454rd

There are no distant buildings or mountains on view. What you see is more or less there, except, of course, for the clouds and contrails in the sky.

This is a Latour locus by virtue of the implications of what you see in the photo, which depicts the Liberty State Park stop on the Hudson Light Rail commuter line running along the Hudson River in northern New Jersey. The phone booth in the middle allows you to talk with someone anywhere in the world, though I suspect it is used mostly for local calls. Someone who's doing business in Singapore is not likely to make a business call from this phone, though they might well be traveling to or from the office through this rail line.

But what I had in mind is the map to the right, which is a map both of the rail system and of the bus lines. Actually, it's two maps. Along the left edge of the map you see a highly stylized map depicting only the stops on the rail line and eliminating all geographical details except relative order. In the map proper, the body of water along the right is New York Harbor and the Hudson River. The Passaic River is on the left, leading into Newark Bay.

I don't know where the electrical power that runs the rail system and the lights at the station comes from.

Intuition and the Real 2: On the March

I’ve got another case to add to those in my earlier post on intuition and the sense of reality. This case arose in a long, and often interesting, discussion of the recent evictions of Occupy Wall Street encampments. The discussion has been taking place at Crooked Timber and has involved, among other things, a fairly extensive conversation between one Adrian Kelleher, about whom I know nothing, and Rich Puchalsky, whom I know from The Valve and CT.

Kelleher has been making long, detailed comments saying, more or less, “you’re doing it wrong, you can’t possibly succeed.” Puchalsky, who’s been working with the Occupy group in his neighborhood somewhere in in not-Boston Massachusetts, has been saying, “you don’t at all understand the Occupy movement.” In particular, Kelleher made two long comments, 333 and, particularly 334, which is about how OWS is swimming against “the tide of history.” Puchalsky responds in 341.

Here’s my reply to Puchalsky:
Puchalsky: It’s possible for someone to have quite conventional political views and yet act quite differently within a social situation that is different.

BB: Bingo!

Puchalsky: When that failure happens, people in OWS will have friends that they can trust, people who they’ve worked with at a very elemental level.

BB: Bingo! Bingo!

BB: Let me invoke Marley's Theorem, named after my old buddy Jason Marley: "If you want to know what it's like to drive a car, you've got to sit in the driver's set and drive the car." Sitting in the passenger's seat watching the driver won't do it, nor will sitting in the back seat, and certainly not sitting at home in your den imagining what driving a car is like. You've got to be IN the car, making decisions about traffic, the road, and pedestrians. It's that elemental.

Kiddie Lit

Back in the middle of 2006 I’d blogged about Kiddie Lit. I’m republishing that post because it’s directly relevant to my recent series on Disney’s Fantasia and, in particular, to the issues of cuteness and family presented by the Pastoral episode. I note also that I’ve been looking through Nocholas Sammond, Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930-1960 (2005).

* * * * *

Two or three years ago I read Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children's Literature in America by Beverly Lyon Clark (2003). I had just gotten interested in manga and anime and figured that, as many titles are produced for children, that scholarship on children’s literature would be useful. I was attracted to Clark’s book because it addressed the institutionalization of children’s literature, which I figured would help me think about the institutional landscape in which manga and anime must make their way in America, along with homegrown comics, and graphic novels, and cartoons.

Clark argues, and demonstrates, that our (that is, America’s) fairly firm distinction between adult literature and children's literature did not exist in 19th century America (probably not in the UK either). Writers would write for both children and adults, the reviewers would review (what we now think of as) children's books as well as (what we now think of as) adult books. And magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly assumed their audience included children as well as adults.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Lady and the Swamp

IMGP4443rd

Pastoral 5: Ring Form Construction

At the time when I’d finished my previous post about Disney’s Pastoral, on oral imagery, I figured that my next post would be my last. I was wrong. This, my next post, is not that one. This is something that had been brewing during the orality post and that I figured I could toss off as one section in the final post. But, as I thought about that last post, everything got larger and larger, but especially this topic.

So this has become a separate post. The topic is one I’ve already addressed, but in connection with a post in which I discussed both The Nutcracker Suite and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, that of ring form. I’ve now come to suspect that the Pastoral episode has a ring form as well.

Looking for a Structural Center in a Temporal Work

The idea is that this episode has a section that is structurally central and that the other sections are somehow arranged around that. Why would I think that? Well, for one thing, the episode has five sections, which means that one of them is, numerically at least, central. That’s the Bacchanal. What would it mean for that to be structurally central?

Imagine for a moment that, instead of a film, we were examining a painting on five panels, perhaps an altar piece. Let us imagine that this central panel was larger than the others and that it depicts, say, Christ on the cross, or the Madonna and Child, well-known objects of veneration in Christian art. The other four panels have figures in them as well, and those figures are all looking toward the central image. All of that indicates that the middle panel is also compositionally and iconographically central. This is not, of course, a required feature of paintings spread over five panels. I have no trouble imagining a set of Chinese or Japanese painted screens with five panels where none of the panels is compositionally more important than the others. That’s a very different kind of composition. In that case the fact the one of the five panels is numerically in the middle is structurally irrelevant. That’s not what interests me.

What’s worse, what interests me is a work of temporal art, a film. In the case of a painting one can see all five panels at a glance and one can easily run one’s eyes over the panels in whatever pattern is interesting and convenient. One can grasp and examine the entire composition. That’s not possible with a film, which unfolds in time. One can see and hear only what’s unfolding at the moment, though one can recall previous sights and sounds and anticipate future ones. This pretty much means that, if there is some section that is structurally central, one is not likely to register it as such at the time for the simple reason that one doesn’t know what’s coming up and so has no way of assessing centrality.

Ring form works unconsciously. One discovers it only through deliberate analysis.

Two Very Different Photos

IMGP4276rd

One grainy,

IMGP4841rd

One not.

That, of course, is not the only difference between them. But it IS one worth thinking about. Especially because no film is involved.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Intuition and the Feeling of Real

This is not about either ontology or epistemology. I don’t think. It’s about one’s intuitions, one’s sense of things.

Example 1: graffiti site

An example: the graffiti site. I’ve blogged quite a bit about graffiti and, in particular, about the graffiti site. The notion of a graffiti site is ‘real’ to me mostly because I’ve documented (that is, photographed and made notes about) a handful of sites over several years. Many of the photographs are available on the web, as are my comments. But, to use an old old metaphor, what’s in those documents is only the 10% of the iceberg that floats above the surface of the water. Most of what makes those sites real to me is beneath the water, in all those hours of experience that I have not and even cannot transform into sharable documents.

For some purposes those public documents, taken in conjunction with other such documents, whether on the web or in many of the books and articles about graffiti, are sufficient. But not necessarily for all purposes. When I argue that the site itself is the proper object for study and analysis and, in particular, when I argue that the site is an agent, NOW I’m drawing on my intuition, on the submerged 90% of the iceberg.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Big-Time Athletics and the Funding of Higher Ed

Some informal reflections on the dynamics of money and college athletics. No details here, just a general sketch.

I don't really know when college and university sports became big business, but I'd think the impetus was TV money. TV exposure, in turn, propelled traditional college sports rivalries into the national spotlight as entertainment for all. Thus a significant segment of college athletics became part of the entertainment business and operated outside or at least beside the normal institutional dynamics of colleges and universities.

I did my graduate work at SUNY Buffalo in the mid-1970s. When SUNY took over the University of Buffalo (UB) in the late 1960s it did so with the intention of turning it into "the Berkeley of the East." The English Department was, for whatever reason, one of the first to be targeted for significant upgrading, which it had achieved by the time I got there. That's why I went, following a newly established 'pipeline' between Johns Hopkins (my undergraduate school) and UB.

However, things were also heading into decline when I arrived at SUNYB in Fall of 1973. The student riots a couple of years earlier had panicked the local worthies and they put the brakes on SUNYB's rise to academic greatness. Still, it took awhile for the English Deaprtment to loose its luster.

Anyhow, either at the very end of my years there or, more likely, some time later, SUNYB started discussing whether or not it should beef up its football program, which had been nothing special. In fact, it may have been on a multi-year losing streak, I forget the details. The logic of that discussion was simple:
  • a good football team generates school spirit
  • school spirit generates alumni loyalty
  • and loyal alumni shower their beloved alma mater with $$$$
But UB didn't hire a Joe Paterno. I don't really know how that plan went, though, of course, I am aware to the funding nonsense that's recently been going on in the SUNY system as a whole.

ZAP!

IMGP5257rd

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Scandal at Penn State: Does not compute

I don't have much to say about the mess at Penn State, perhaps because I don't understand it. But I'm not sure what understanding would get me. But I'd like to offer a simple observation andd a dumb and simple-minded comment.

One. Though Sandusky is the one accused of child molestation, we're not discussing him. We're discussing Paterno. It's as though we know Sandusky's story but . . . Whether or not we think we know Paterno's story, he's the man with the bigger than life reputation. So he's the one who gets discussed.

Two. The Paterno discussion would be much easier if we put him through a Magnetronic Being Splitter that would turn him into four different persons: 1) Paterno the winningest coach in college football, 2) Paterno the benefactor of good things at Penn State, 3) Paterno the figure-head of PSU, and 4) Paterno the guardian of children.

If we could do that, then we could execute #4, burn #3 in effigy, give #2 a plaque in the lobby of the PSU library, and erect a statue to #1. Alas, the Magnetronic Being Splitter hasn't been debugged yet, so we can't do that. We're stuck with having 1, 2, 3, and 4 in one indivisible person; and we don't really have a way of making sense of such people.

The Paterno problem does not compute. It's the sort of thing that, nonetheless, human beings somehow muddle through, but that causes super smart computers hell-bent on world destruction to explode.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Swamp Grass

IMGP5218rdBW

IMGP5218rd

Pastoral 4: Orality and Mastery

Pastoral 1 fawn playing pipes

While I emphasized sexual imagery, both explicit and implicit, in my first post on Disney’s Pastoral, the episode also has a good deal of oral imagery. That’s what I want to discuss in this post.

Oral imagery shows up well before any sexual imagery. It’s there at the beginning, albeit in a very special form, that of an on-screen character playing a musical line from Beethoven’s score. As I indicated before, this is the only episode in the whole film where that happens, and it happens several times throughout the episode. Further, the instrument is always a wind instrument, never a stringed instrument, though Beethoven’s symphony abounds in strings.

In the first case we see a faun playing pan pipes. He’s joined by other fauns, all piping and dancing away, and they’re joined by unicorns. Then one faun and one unicorn get to playing around. The faun climbs a pedestal and alternately plays a riff on the pipes and strikes poses, as though he were a statue, while unicorn attempts to make sense of it this harmless trickery. At the end of this back and forth the unicorn licks the faun on the face:


Pastoral oral1 lick the faun


Think of it as an oral link between a faun and a unicorn. We’ll see other such links.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Pastoral 3: Come Dance with Me

Let’s take a close look at the dance sequence in the Disney’s realization of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. As I indicated it ends with Bacchus kissing his donkey. I want to see how they got there.

The sequence starts with Bacchus in the middle of an opening in the forest, drinking away as the centaurs and centaurettes dance figures around him. He soon joins in, dancing with one centaurette after another (3rd, 4th, and 5th frame following, the centaurette in the 6th seems to be the same as the one in the 3rd).


Pastoral dance1

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Pastoral 2: Color and Sound

It seems that I’m not done with Disney’s Pastoral. I want to think about Disney’s palette in the Pastoral in this post and I’m planning another post on the dance sequence.

It’s not simply that the colors are often garishly saturated. They’re often unnatural as well, and the forms are highly stylized, as we see in the next five frame-grabs. The first two come quite early in the film, shortly after the establishing shot of Mount Olympus at dawn. The next two are near the end of the first segment while the last comes early in the courtship segment.

Pastoral color1

Pastoral color2

Friday, November 11, 2011

Those Objects'll Get You Every time

Domestic Tranquility, NOT: Disney’s Pastoral

Pastoral 29 mountain (beginning)

I’ve saved the most troublesome for last, Disney’s setting of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. It was soundly criticized upon initial release, mostly, or especially, for Disney’s use and reworking of Beethoven. THAT doesn’t bother me at all. That kind of artistic license is pretty much the price of admission for Fantasia. No, what bothers me is the cuteness, but secondarily the palette. Both are obvious enough, but it’s the cuteness I want to grapple with.

For THAT is one of the central criticisms of the Disney aesthetic, it’s too cute. This is certainly not the only episode in Fantasia where cuteness rears its ugly head. Yet it’s not bothersome in the dancing mushrooms, and it’s easily set aside in the goldfish and the baby dinosaurs. But it’s front and center in the Pastoral.

Moreover, the Pastoral is in the heart of Disney’s imaginative world, for it’s about family life. The first segment shows us a family of winged horses—inspired by Pegasus—mother, father, and children. One of the children takes its first flight before our wonderstruck eyes. Then see the little ones at play and the whole family parading majestically across the sky. That’s the heart of Disney country. And its followed by courtship, a rousing party, a storm that drives adults to protect children and males to protect females, and then the storm breaks, out comes the sun. Everyone’s happy. The sun sets. Bedtime.

Why all the treacle, in the character designs, in the actions, and in the palate?

Let’s work our way through it.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

OOO: Issues, Questions, Befuddlement, Stuff

The universe consists of objects. What else?

Well objects have qualities, so they must be different from objects. How so? For example, we can say that red is a quality of a beach ball, a flame, or blood. But is there a ‘redness’ object? If not, just WHY not?

Objects can enter into relations with other objects, which may or may not yield new objects. So relations too are different from objects.

Can events, actions, and processes be objects? What of a race, for example? Perhaps the race where Usain Bolt first shattered the world record in the 100 meter dash. An object? Why or why not?

The hammer is an object, as is a nail and a plank of wood. But the act of hammering the nail into the plank, is that an object? If not an object, what is it? A set of relations? An action? Is an action a different kind of thing, alongside objects, properties, relations . . .

And sets, we know sets aren’t objects, as set membership can be arbitrary.

More Birches

IMGP5246rdBRITE

IMGP5133rd

IMGP5229rd

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Underbelly Project, Big Art or What?

It’s only been a year since The Underbelly Project sprang from the pages of the The New York Times and the Times of London. From a certain point of view what’s interesting is that it embraced both graffiti and street art. That’s but secondary to the question of whether or not tUP is a PR stunt intended to set-up a nice cash payout or whether it is, for lack of a better word, real. [My posts on tUP are here.]

As someone who feels the mystery of dark places, hidden away, even illegal, I think it was conceived and executed in the grandest style of the The Real. Until the day of the Big Reveal. Then all hell broke loose and tUP ceased to be the property of PAC and Workhorse, the founders and curators, and the many artists who participated.

Just who put what down there in the hole and why, that’s become secondary to what gets made of it in our minds. That is, what gets made of the knowledge that it’s there and of whatever tangible evidence we have of it, photos, videos, and the like. Well, it seems that we’re in for an exhibition at Art Basel in Miami, a special edition book, and a serf’s edition of the same book to be released in February.

From my point of view, what matters most, and it’s almost the only thing that matters, is whether or not the importance of the site itself somehow survives this assault by Big Art. It’s the site itself that spawned the project, as though those abandoned tunnels called Workhorse and PAC into the ground so they’d conceive and execute the project. And it’s the site itself that’s effectively beyond reach.

Parable of the Reeds 2 (No Figuring Needed)

IMGP5200rdBW

IMGP5199rdBW

IMGP5198rdBW

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Underbelly Rising

The Underbelly Project is coming up for air, and, I suppose, a spot of cash and glory too. I just got an email from the project (you can sign-up on the web, here). Here’s the scoop:
After taking time to reflect on The Underbelly Project, we felt it was important to share what it was like in the abandoned subway station. To show the work being created, to show the life that was happening on the dust lined tracks. To do this we will be holding an exhibition during Art Basel Miami. For this exhibition, time lapse videos will be shown of each artist creating their work, a video walkthrough of the station will show the entire station right after the work was completed, and photo documentation will help illuminate how the artists created their work . Unique artifacts from the abandoned station will give viewers insight into the process. It is our hope that this show will help convey what it was like in our dark corner of the world for that brief time.

In addition to the documentation of the project, we thought it was important to showcase new works created by artists from The Underbelly, outside of the physical limitations of the tunnel. To showcase work that was created in favorable conditions without the fear of being arrested or discovered. For this a sampling of the painters, sculptures and installation artists from the tunnel were chosen to represent the variety of talents that left their mark in this abandoned subway station.
That opening phrase—“after taking time to reflect . . .”—is, of course, bullshit. Which may well be OK depending on all sorts of things, including what actually happens at the installation at Art Basel in Miami this year.

Here’s more:

The Varieties of Descriptive Experience

Or, literary hermeneutics as blind butchery

First, I note that I’ve blogged a number of posts dealing with description, either as a main or a subsidiary topic. In particular, there’s this post where. among other things, I note that a grammar is a description of language, specifically, that the Chomsky revolution in linguistics was about a certain way of describing a grammar. And there’s this post where I talk of abstract pictures (as descriptions), using the Watson/Crick double-helix model of DNA as my prime example. And then there’s this post, about the distribution of paragraph lengths in Heart of Darkness, again, description.

Those are very different kinds of description. Back in my days teaching technical writing I had students describe a mechanism in one assignment and a process in a different one. There we have two more kinds of description. In one case you’re describing something that’s static and in the other you’re describing something that unfolds in time.

Here’s a descriptive passage that’s of still a different kind. Technically, I suppose, it’s a description of an object. But the description is fundamentally expressive in nature, the concluding sentences from Mark Twain’s “Speech on the Weather”:
Mind, in this speech I have been trying merely to do honor to the New England weather--no language could do it justice. But, after all, there is at least one or two things about that weather (or, if you please, effects produced, by it) which we residents would not like to part with. If we hadn't our bewitching autumn foliage, we should still have to credit the weather with one feature which compensates for all its bullying vagaries—the ice-storm:

when a leafless tree is clothed with ice from the bottom to the top—ice that is as bright and clear as crystal; when every bough and twig is strung with ice-beads, frozen dewdrops, and the whole tree sparkles cold and white, like the Shah of Persia's diamond plume. Then the wind waves the branches and the sun comes out and turns all those myriads of beads and drops to prisms that glow and burn and flash with all manner of colored fires, which change and change again with inconceivable rapidity from blue to red, from red to green, and green to gold—the tree becomes a spraying fountain, a very explosion of dazzling jewels; and it stands there the acme, the climax, the supremest possibility in art or nature, of bewildering, intoxicating, intolerable magnificence.

One cannot make the words too strong.
I suppose we could go on and on cataloging various kinds of description. And perhaps someone has done so.

Parable of the Reeds (You Figure it Out)

I’m quite fascinated by reeds. And these reeds are tall, five, six, seven feet and more. I like to take closely bunched shots.

Here, notice that leaf just to the left of center:

IMGP5184rd

There it is again, a bit further away:

IMGP5183rd

But not really. I’m standing in the same place. Just changed focus.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Some Birch Trees for My Sister


IMGP5250rd

IMGP5241rd

And a grape vine.

Three Objects, All Real

Or, There’s an Aesthetic in this Photo

IMGP5270rd

By three objects I mean, of course, the two trees and the lens flare. One could, I suppose, quibble with my counting. Maybe it’s three trees, counting the shorter one at the lower left corner. And perhaps the one tree should be counted as a tree enwrapped by a vine, upping the object count still further. Nor is the lens flare a single object, and maybe we should also count the sun itself as it does appear to cut the rightmost edge. But all that’s secondary.

What matters is counting the lens flare as real right along side the trees. That is, I’m discounting the obvious fact that lens flare is an artifact of the photographic process. I didn’t see it with my eyes before, during, and after I took the photo. I didn’t even guess that it might show up when I took the shot. I just took the shot and there it is. Which is fine by me.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s real. And, it REALLY is. Moreover, it’s compositionally useful. If it weren’t there I might well have cropped the right side of the photo a bit. Or not, as I don’t mind asymmetry. It’s hard to tell about these things.

Fact is, though, the lens flare did show up. And its presence does make for three STRONG objects in the photo. that, in turn, counts as a visual realization of my attitude about these things.

that is

art

reality

no sweat

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Some Recent Graffiti

IMGP5091rd

IMGP5074rd

Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

The OWS movement recognizes that America is divided into a ruling class and a class of servants.

Yes, America DOES have a ruling class. It’s not a hereditary ruling class, like the old European aristocracies. It’s permeable. One can enter it from below, and one can be thrust out of it too.

Of course the existence of this ruling class contradicts official doctrine, which says that American is ruled by the people and for the people. Members of this ruling class, therefore, will deny its existence. Certainly, the politician members MUST deny it.

Just what these rulers say among themselves, at the Bohemian Grove, in board meetings of for-profit corporations (e.g. General Motors, Goldman Sachs) and not-for-profit (e.g. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Ford Foundation), in private clubs of various kinds, that’s a different matter. On that, I suspect, some are frank about being among The Rulers while others persist they are still of the people.

Nor do non-member Americans recognize the existence of this ruling class. Well, some of us do, some of us don’t. It’d be interesting to see whether recognition of the ruling class is stringing among non-voters than among voters. After all, if you do see that there’s a ruling class, what’s the point of voting? You vote doesn’t matter. At the same time, one might vote out of identification with and affirmation of that very same ruling class. After all, maybe you too will be tapped to enter into the sacred halls of the ruling class.

All of which is to say that, while a ruling class exists, though not a classical ruling class, class consciousness is weak, on both sides of the divide.

Outing the Class Divide

And THAT’s the biggest service that is being performed by Occupy Wall Street: identifying the class divide in America. The 1%, that’s the ruling class. The rest, no matter how many things otherwise divide us, we are the 99%.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Say What?

i have moments of such awareness / but then i forget them. it's like spiritual amnesia. i wish i could hold on to them / why? why what?

Objects, Intuitions, the Imaginary, and Language

I’m heading toward language, imaginary objects, and the cognition of ontology. But I’m not ready to go there, not yet. There’s some preliminary hemming and hawing I want to do, so bracketing, as it were.

What’s with Withdrawal?

I’m thinking intuitions and how they inform our understanding of this, that, and the other—one of my current hobby horses. In one of the sessions at the recent Object-Oriented Ontology meetings in NYC someone asked Graham Harman, more or less: “What’s this about objects withdrawing? How can they do that? Who’s doing the withdrawing?” Those aren’t the exact words, but I believe they’re a reasonable rendition of the (vague) sense of the question.

Harmon, of course, was stumped. He’d been asked to explicate perhaps the originating metaphor behind his philosophy. Harmon knows very well that there’s no agent in the, e.g. hammer, that’s somehow how pulling it back from someone who sees it, grasps it, or hears its impact. That’s not it at all. But . . . What could he say? There’s nothing behind the metaphor beyond the sense that, no matter what one does to or with a physical hammer, there’s always more. Always.

It’s like someone who’s learning chess. They say to the teacher: “Tell me why bishops move diagonally and castles move rectilinearly or I won’t play.” The only answer to the question is: “Convention.” If that’s not good enough, then asking the question amounts to a refusal to play the game. So it is with: “What’s this withdrawal stuff?” If you want to play the game, if only out of curiosity, then you MUST accept the language at face value and see where it leads you.

Which is what I’ve been doing for these past several months. Now I want to ‘push back’, as the current idiom has it. Just a little.

While I’m willing to accept the foundational language of ‘withdrawal’ and so forth at face value, I’m not quite sure what the implications are.

Objects and Objects

Let me explain. The rock bottom intuition on which Harman builds his metaphysics is the distinction between real and sensual objects. He begins the first chapter of The Quadruple Object by observing (p. 7): “On my desk are pens, eyeglasses, and an expired American passport. Each of these has numerous qualities and can be turned to reveal different surfaces and uses. Furthermore, each object is a unified thing despite its multitude of features.” And he goes on from there to mention Egypt, an ideal sphere, and a unicorn, among a dozen or so others. They too are objects, but I’m not entirely sure how to take intuitions developed through thinking about, say, a hammer (Harman devotes two chapters to Heidegger’s tool analysis) or an apple, which seems to be my own default example, and apply those intuitions to those other often very different kinds of objects.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Jamming the Soundtrack: Fantasia’s Intermission

Fantasia was conceived as a concert; indeed, its working title was The Concert Feature. Concerts of classical music had, and still do have, intermissions. It follows then that The Concert Feature had to have one as well.

But Disney conceived of his intermission as more than just a break in the program where people could stretch their legs, go to the restroom, or chat with companions. He also provided a film segment that played the role of intermission. This comes between the fourth and fifth musical selections on the DVD. When Fantasia was first shown in theatres it came, I presume, after the actual break, which would have been at the same point in the program.

People are sitting in their seats, the curtain opens, and the film rolls. What the audience sees is pretty much what they saw at the beginning: an empty stage with a podium, music stands, and risers. Gradually, as at the beginning, musicians enter and take their places. There’s a bit of tuning up, and then things become quite different.

Before Deems Taylor appears, and certainly before Stokowski mounts the podium, a bass player sets a riff, plucking the strings rather than bowing them:

Fant Inter 1, bass

He’s quickly joined by a clarinetist and a violinist:

Fant Inter 2 clarinet fiddle

Pretty soon most of the orchestra’s merrily riffing away, playing a little swing music, the popular music of the day.

Disney’s now waltzed into one the standard tropes of films and cartoons from the 30s into the 50s, the tension between classical and popular music. Any number of cartoons and live action films were built on this conflict. Fantasia, of course, is grounded in it, if only obliquely. The music, except for this little bit, is classical. But the film medium itself is popular; the notion of film as high art was a bit in the future.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Looking Out

IMGP4905rd

Emotion Recollected in Tranquility

I originally published this in The Valve in May of 2009. Keith Oatley elaborated at OnFiction, citing relevant empirical studies.
* * * * *
I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquility gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.
—William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads

In his 1997 best-seller, How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker suggested that, however important art may be to humans, it is not part of our specifically biological nature:
We enjoy strawberry cheesecake, but not because we evolved a taste for it. We evolved circuits that gave us trickles of enjoyment from the sweet taste of ripe fruit, the creamy mouth feel of fats and oils from nuts and meat, and the coolness of fresh water. Cheesecake packs a sensual wallop unlike anything in the natural world because it is a brew of megadoses of agreeable stimuli which we concocted for the purpose of pressing our pleasure buttons. Pornography is another pleasure technology. In this chapter I will suggest that the arts are a third. (p. 525)
This triggered a backlash of arguments asserting that, no, the arts are not mere mental cheesecake, they are an essential component of human nature, our biological nature.

I was somewhat bemused by the whole fracas. While I have a long standing interest in the neural basis of the arts, I find thinking about biological adaptation to be frustratingly difficult, something I’d prefer to ignore. My editor for Beethoven’s Anvil, William Frucht, however, thought otherwise. And so I dutifully joined the parade of those who shilled for the biological bona fides of art and argued that music was indeed biologically adaptive. Specifically, music reduced anxiety in the group and thereby made it more fit to encounter real challenges and dangers. More recently, and inspired by Pinker's own The Stuff of Thought, I argued that story-telling allows us to share perceptions, feelings, and values that we cannot talk about.

I now have another proposal to offer, one based in a line of thinking I began entertaining in the mid-1970s when I learned about state-dependent memory. I first learned about state dependence when I read a review of the literature on altered states of consciousness in which Roland Fischer reported an experiment originally performed by D. Goodwin (“The Cartography of Inner Space” in Hallucinations, Siegel and West, eds. 1975, p. 199). Subjects were first made drunk and then asked to memorize nonsense syllables. When their recall was tested while sober they performed poorly. Their recall dramatically improved, however, if they once again became drunk. More recently, Daniel L. Schacter has written of mood-congruent memory retrieval: “Experiments have shown that sad moods make it easier to remember negative experiences, like failure and rejection, whereas happy moods make it easier to remember pleasant experiences, like success and acceptance” (Searching for Memory, 1996, p. 211). Recall of experience is best when the one’s brain is in the same state it was in when one had that experience. That is what is meant by state dependence.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Object-Oriented Ontology on New Savanna

As I’ve mentioned in yesterday’s post on bathtub philosophizing, I’ve done some clean-up at New Savanna. I’ve had some OOO labels for some time:
I’ve now added some more:
Strictly speaking, of course, ontological cognition isn’t about OOO at all. But it’s a big part of the reason why OOO interests me, so I include it here. Just click on any of the labels, either at the bottom of a post or from the list running down the right, and you get all the posts that are so labeled.

David Brooks, Fooled by Inequality

He’s at it again, being reasonable out of one side of his mouth while makin’ it up out of the other. I’m talking about David Brooks, Mr. Reasonable, the Mr. Blizzard of plausible risibility. His current column, The Wrong Inequality, is a masterpiece of rhetorical legerdemain and misdirection.

It’s about two inequalities, call them Inequality One and Inequality Two. That’s not what he calls them, but his labels are part of the misdirection, so we’ll skip them for the moment. Inequality One is the 1% vs. the 99%. Inequality Two is the college educated vs. those without college.

After laying them out Brooks helpfully observes: “These two forms of inequality exist in modern America. They are related but different. Over the past few months, attention has shifted almost exclusively to” Inequality One. And, yes, he’s right on all three counts. America has both, they’re related, and attention is now on One, rather than Two.

The point of Brook’s advertorial is that, while Inequality One is bad (his loss leader), Inequality Two is Much Much Worse. For it affects many more people, a big percentage of the 99%, though he doesn’t quite put it that way. Here’s his oh so reasonable conclusion: “If your ultimate goal is to reduce inequality, then you should be furious at the doctors, bankers and C.E.O.’s. If your goal is to expand opportunity, then you have a much bigger and different agenda.”

Notice, first of all, that that conclusion is apples vs. oranges. We’re angry at the beneficiaries of Inequality One (apples), but we’re supposed to expand opportunity in response to Inequality Two (oranges). Umm, err, Mr. David Brooks, Sir, if we’re angry at the One Percenters, what are we to do about it? He doesn’t say or suggest. All he does is divert out attention to the need for more opportunities for, well, the bottom 50%. Well, yes, they need opportunity, and debt forgiveness, health care, and jobs would be nice too.

Again, Reflections on Color and Light

Or, Reality is a Construction and that’s OK

Let’s wade right in. Here’s a digital photo more or less as it comes out of the camera:

IMGP3572raw

That’s NOT what I saw, it’s what the camera ‘saw’, more or less. The camera shoots in so-called ‘raw’ mode, which contains more information than any monitor can display or than an printer can print. So some information has to be tossed out in the process of converting it to any one of a number of viewable formats. I chose jpg, and that’s ALL I did in creating that image. Photoshop ‘chose’ what information to toss.

Now, that image is VERY MUCH UNLIKE what I actually saw. The sky wasn’t that dark. It wasn’t dark at all. It was fairly bright, though not so bright as a high-noon sky on a bright day. I assume THAT’s what happens when you point the camera directly into a bright light source and the electronics has to cope with the dramatic difference between light directly from the source and light at the periphery. It damps down all over, but the source, that is, the sun, is so very bright that it’s still bright in the image while everything else is dark.

For the next two images I exercised some control over the raw-to-jpg conversion and, most of all, I did some manipulation in Photoshop:

IMGP3572rd