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Posts Tagged ‘The New York Times’

David Bowie 1947-2016

Monday, January 11th, 2016

One the world’s most influential pop /music / film/ performance artists has died at the age of 69.

As Jon Pareles wrote in The New York Times, “David Bowie, the infinitely changeable, fiercely forward-looking songwriter who taught generations of musicians about the power of drama, images and personas, died on Sunday, two days after his 69th birthday. Mr. Bowie’s death was confirmed by his publicist, Steve Martin, on Monday morning.

He died after an 18-month battle with cancer, according to a statement on Mr. Bowie’s social-media accounts. ‘David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family,’ a post on his Facebook page read. His last album, Blackstar [produced by Bowie's long time associate Tony Visconti] a collaboration with a jazz quintet that was typically enigmatic and exploratory, was released on Friday — on his birthday . . . He had also collaborated on an Off Broadway musical, Lazarus, that was a surreal sequel to his definitive 1976 film role, The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Mr. Bowie wrote songs, above all, about being an outsider: an alien, a misfit, a sexual adventurer, a faraway astronaut. His music was always a mutable blend: rock, cabaret, jazz and what he called ‘plastic soul,’ but it was suffused with genuine soul. He also captured the drama and longing of everyday life, enough to give him No. 1 pop hits like Let’s Dance . . .

Mr. Bowie earned admiration and emulation across the musical spectrum — from rockers, balladeers, punks, hip-hop acts, creators of pop spectacles and even classical composers like Philip Glass, who based two symphonies on Mr. Bowie’s albums Low and Heroes. Mr. Bowie’s constantly morphing persona was a touchstone for performers like Madonna and Lady Gaga; his determination to stay contemporary introduced his fans to Philadelphia funk, Japanese fashion, German electronica and drum-and-bass dance music.”

David Bowie crossed nearly every boundary in popular culture and art, appearing in films, creating a multitude of characters such as Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke, and then abandoning them when they were no longer of interest. Bowie was also much underrated as a singer, and in this era of auto-tuning, it’s interesting to listen to this isolated vocal track for the song Under Pressure, in which Bowie belts out the lyrics to the song with both skill and passion.

Bowie also has a surprisingly long and effective film career, appearing in a wide variety of films, from Labyrinth, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Prestige (in which he played the equally visionary Nikola Tesla) the biopic Basquiat, as well as The Hunger, The Last Temptation of Christ, and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. In all these films, the persona he projected was very much like his stage presence; distant, but absolutely in the moment, whatever that moment might be.

Two years ago, the BBC produced an excellent documentary on one of Bowie’s most creative periods, Five Years, and as columnist Paul Morley observed in The Telegraph, Bowie “was the human equivalent of a Google search, a portal through which you could step into an amazing, very different wider world – if he mentioned in an interview, or referenced in his work, someone like Andy Warhol, Jean Cocteau, Antonin Artaud or Marcel Duchamp, I would immediately want to find out what he was talking about.

He flooded plain everyday reality with extraordinary, unexpected information, processing the details through a buoyant, mobile mind, and made intellectual discovery seem incredibly glamorous. He helped create in my own mind a need to discover ways of making sense of both the universe and the self by seeking out the different, the difficult and the daring.”

David Bowie – one of the art world’s major figures – now no longer with us.

Why Women Are Underrepresented in Hollywood

Thursday, December 31st, 2015

Director Lois Weber, a true cinema pioneer, directing in Hollywood in 1916.

Critic Manohla Dargis zeroes in on why women are so poorly represented in Hollywood today, even more so than in the past. Notes Dargis, “The movie industry is failing women. And until the industry starts making serious changes, nothing is going to change . . . American commercial cinema has long been dominated by men, but I don’t think there has ever been another time when women have been as underrepresented on screen as they are now.

The biggest problem isn’t genuinely independent cinema, where lower budgets mean more opportunities for women in front of and behind the camera. The problem is the six major studios that dominate the box office, the entertainment chatter and the popular imagination. Their refusal to hire more female directors is immoral, maybe illegal, and has helped create and sustain a representational ghetto for women.”

What will it take to break the logjam?

Manohla Dargis – “The Best Advice for Movie Lovers”

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

Thanks to Manohla Dargis of The New York Times for this mention.

The quote comes from an interview I gave to Peter Monaghan of Moving Image Archive News back in August on my new book Black and White Cinema: A Short History, in which I said that “if you go on Amazon and you see some great black-and-white film, and it’s going for $3, or any kind of foreign or obscure film, buy it, because it’s going out of print, and they’re not going to put them back into print. With VHS, everything came out, everything. And then they looked at what sold, and what didn’t sell didn’t make the jump to DVDs.

There were thousands of films, tens of thousands of films, that were on VHS and never made the jump to DVD. Important films. Now that we’re going to Blu-ray, lots of films aren’t making that jump. And then there’s electronic sell-through. If you download something, you’re not going to put it on your computer because it takes up too much space, so you’re going to have to put it up on ‘the cloud,’ and then you’re going to have to pay to store what you ostensibly own.”

And it’s true – if you see a valuable DVD listed for a low price, grab it. It isn’t coming back.

“The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film”

Sunday, September 27th, 2015

A frame blowup from Mikhail Kalatozov’s Salt for Svanetia (1930), now screening at the Jewish Museum.

Here’s a great review by Holland Cotter of The New York Times of a new show at the Jewish Museum in New York City.  As Cotter writes, in part: “Revolutions sell utopias; that’s their job. Art, if it behaves itself and sticks to the right script, can be an important part of the promotional package. This is the basic tale told by ‘The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film’ at the Jewish Museum, but with a question added: What happens to art and its makers when the script is drastically revised?

In the years following the 1917 revolution, Russia was a social and political experiment in progress, and a wild, risky one. It had a stake in emphasizing its brand-newness, its difference from the rest of the world. Its young government made every effort to promote the idea that it was creating a liberated, radical Now to set against a repressive, conservative Then.

In this heady atmosphere, avant-garde art, chance-taking by definition, was officially embraced as a natural complement to progressive politics. Photography and film, modern forms as yet untainted by history, were considered particularly suitable for molding life in the present. And both had inventive practitioners.

Already, by the mid-1920s, Sergei Eisenstein, a Red Army veteran, was memorializing the revolution in movies. Utopia-minded painters like El Lissitzky and Alexander Rodchenko were proposing alternative modes of seeing by bringing abstraction into photography . . .

Like photography, film in this period was ideologically constrained but conceptually advanced. The symphonic brilliance of Eisenstein’s 1925 Battleship Potemkin and his 1927 October, or Ten Days That Shook the World transcends the official approved narratives. Mikhail Kalatozov’s far less familiar Salt for Svanetia from 1930, a quasi-ethnographic film shot in the remote Caucasus, is enchantingly strange even with its tacked-on Soviets-come-to-the-rescue ending.

Remarkably, the show presents these films complete, along with nine other beauties in a small, comfortable viewing theater built into one of the Jewish Museum’s galleries. They are all screened back-to-back, four a day, with a few, including Grigory Kozintsev’s fascinatingly operatic 1926 adaptation of Gogol’s The Overcoat, repeated twice in the rotation.”

If you’re in Manhattan, check it out – some beautiful and little known work here.

Uncle John (2015)

Sunday, September 20th, 2015

Steven Piet, John Ashton and Erik Crary on the set of Uncle John.

As the film’s publicity materials succinctly note, “small town bully turned born again Christian, Dutch, has gone missing. Well-regarded member of the community, John, is not a suspect, but has everything to do with it. Dutch’s younger brother, Danny, has his own theory about the disappearance and it centers on John.

Meanwhile, John’s nephew, Ben, arrives in town with his new girlfriend Kate just as John finds himself confronted with threats from Danny.” And that’s just the beginning of one of the most beguiling and mesmeric films in recent memory, made by two young men in sixteen days on an absolutely minimal budget. But as David Lynch noted on his Twitter feed, “check out @UncleJohnMovie – it caught me up and held me for days!”

As Neil Genzlinger noted in a rave review in The New York Times, “the simmering mystery Uncle John is so subtle, so exquisitely paced and so determined not to go in any of the obvious directions that it’s hard to believe the film is Steven Piet’s first feature. Piet, who with Erik Crary also wrote the script, sketches some memorable characters while keeping his two-pronged story sparse, ominous and deliciously ambiguous.

John Ashton is just right as the inscrutable title character, an older fellow in a rural town where an unlikable man named Dutch has gone missing. Shortly before his disappearance, Dutch apparently found Jesus, and he had been visiting various townspeople, confessing to misdeeds and such. Dutch and John’s sister were an item long ago, but something murky happened to the sister, and perhaps now something murky has happened to Dutch.

While all of this is being slowly revealed, many miles away in Chicago a young man named Ben is becoming smitten with a new co-worker, Kate. Alex Moffat and Jenna Lyng are very watchable as this might-become-a-couple, but what do they have to do with the goings-on out in the country? Turns out Ben has a beloved uncle who raised him, a man by the name of John. And when the two young flirters head his way for an impromptu visit, all secrets will be revealed. Or will they? It’s tantalizing, sublimely creepy stuff that keeps you guessing even after the credits roll.”

Added Frank Scheck in The Hollywood Reporter, Uncle John’s “other virtue is reintroducing John Ashton to the screen in his first major role in decades. The character actor, memorable for his sardonic comic turns in Midnight Run and the Beverly Hills Cops movies, delivers an understated but career-defining performance as the title character.

Seen disposing of a body in the film’s opening moments, John is an unassuming widower who looks like he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Whether engaging in small town gossip with his buddies at the coffee shop or politely ignoring the flirtations of one of his carpentry clients, he maintains a low-key demeanor that is only betrayed by the quiet intensity of his gaze . . .

The film is an impressive dual calling card for its tyro director who keeps the tension at a simmering boil throughout both genres. And the late-career performance by the veteran Ashton (sans his usual mustache) is a revelation. The now 67-year-old actor has been steadily employed over the years, but he’s rarely had a role as good as this one and it’s a pleasure to watch him run away with it.”

You can also read an excellent interview with the director and screenwriter in Indiewire, in which Piet and Crary note that “throughout the process, we tried very hard to keep from becoming precious about the whole project. Not that its easy — trying to get a micro-budget film together is all-encompassing because it requires your non-stop attention and a willingness to ask for endless favors.

However, keeping that framed inside the fact that the rest of the world is also doing its own thing was incredibly helpful. Without proper money, way more no’s than yes’s came in. But, by keeping things reasonable and honest, the yes’s we got were for the right reasons.

In terms of production specifically, micro-budget on this one meant there would be no room for indulgence, ego or indecision because it was all going to be over in 16 days anyway. By doing what we could in extensive prep to set that up for success, and by trying to maintain a collaborative, healthy vibe on set because you are all there making a movie together, the whole experience was the most difficult but satisfying thing attempted to date. For us, the goal now will just be respecting those lessons and trying to grow from it all as the next project gets set up.”

There’s one other person who really deserves mention here – cinematographer Mike Bove. Bove’s clean, CinemaScope-ish visuals, shot with an Alexa digital camera, really bring the film to life, and take full advantage of natural light and the sparse settings of the film, which was shot on location in Wisconsin, and briefly, in Chicago.

It seems that Piet and Crary had three different levels of budgeting to work with – the dream budget, the “B” level budget, and the bare bones budget, and what happened in the end is that they mostly used the “C” schedule, shooting only what they needed. And that’s good – it’s perfect the way it is.

This is a dazzling debut film - check out the trailer here.

The 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle

Saturday, September 12th, 2015

The 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle is a minor but enchanting Eric Rohmer film . . .

. . . and it’s too bad there won’t be any more, as even the slightest of Rohmer’s film is a tonic in the oversaturated, hyper-edited CGI world of the present, harking back to a time when humanistic concerns, were more important than the latest mobile gadget. As Aaron Goldberg wrote of the film when it first appeared in the web journal Senses of Cinema, “while not highly regarded (by some) in the expansive Rohmer canon, The 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle stands as one of Rohmer’s most playful, if not hilarious features.

Filmed quickly on 16mm while Rohmer was waiting to get decent sunset shots for his sublime Le Rayon vert (1986), The 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle features mainly non-professional actors who improvised most of the witty and frank dialogue . . .  Rohmer’s old-school (cinematic) ‘new wave’ chops are working in full effect here. From the shaky vérité camerawork, to long discussions about morality and art, his romantic heart is working in cruise control, delivering a film that ably stands it’s own ground.”

Added Caryn James in The New York Times, “as if making a joke about the famous talkiness of his films, Eric Rohmer’s latest work begins and ends with silence – or at least the idea of silence. In the first of the connected episodes in Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle, the voluble Reinette treasures silence so much she wakes her friend Mirabelle before dawn to hear ‘the blue hour,’ which is not an hour but a second, not a sound but a brief silence between darkness and light, when the night birds stop singing and the day birds have not yet begun.

Four Adventures is more conspicuously comic, more overtly ethical, more pointed in its action than most of his recent works . . . Part of Rohmer’s genius, of course, is that he keeps creating such lives – ordinary and rarefied at once, almost but not quite beyond our grasp. No one actually lives in the world of a Rohmer film, where the name of a specific television show or rock star never mars a character’s timeless dialogue, where his characters’ heightened sense of everyday life seems absolutely adventurous.

But the deep lure of his work is the suggestion that it is possible to be as articulate or as witty or even as extravagantly morose as a Rohmer character, to stumble across those undramatic moments of perfect grace on some beach or in some meadow.”

Indeed, while the film may appear to be slight, it is in fact a resonant and uplifting work; it just seems effortless, but then again, when you’re a genius, you can knock films out like this in your sleep. But the saddest part about The 4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle is that it isn’t available on DVD; there’s so much junk trolling about the web, but here’s a sublime and joyful film that really deserves a DVD release. But there is a VHS release, and since I still have a VHS player for such emergencies, I ordered one of the last copies available – used – on Amazon for about $10. You should do the same.

Every Eric Rohmer film is worth seeing, and this is one of his most playful, and joyful films.

Simon Denny – All You Need Is Data

Saturday, May 30th, 2015

Artist Simon Denny nails the darker side of the headlong rush to digital – the loss of humanity.

In his new show at MoMA PS1, which originally appeared in an earlier version Germany in 2012, artist Simon Denny critiques the culture of endless data, acquisition, and money as the ultimate value in an impressive installation entitled “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” based on the concept that “All You Need Is Data,” an obvious and ironic spin on the Beatles’ oft-repeated, if somewhat simplistic mantra, “All You Need Is Love.”

As the museum notes of the exhibition, “Denny’s work often refers to the psychology and abstract language of the new media economy, invoking ‘clouds’ of big data and the constant pressure to ‘update’ our lives. He typically finds the sources for his work within the materials, advertising, and packaging produced by technology and media companies, and often deploys graphic interfaces borrowed from commercial display to highlight connections between the utopian goals of the new media economy and those of historical modernism.”

Ken Johnson reviewed the show for The New York Times, observing that “in a recent column for The New York Times, the economist Paul Krugman argued that the benefits of the digital technology revolution of the past four decades have been greatly overestimated. The new technologies, he suggested, might be ‘more fun than fundamental.’ Worse, euphoric media chatter about how they’re changing the world for the better ‘acts as a distraction from more mundane issues,’ like putting people to work in usefully productive jobs.

In a similar vein, ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma,’ a hyperactive multimedia extravaganza by the Berlin-based artist Simon Denny at MoMA PS 1, takes down such irrational exuberance about technology and does it with sardonic verve. Along the way, it indirectly damns the high-end art market’s own inflationary mania. If Mr. Denny doesn’t get to the bottom of what’s causing the sociopathology infecting both industries, his show is certainly a rousing conversation starter . . .

To contemporary art followers, Mr. Denny’s strategies of satirical appropriation and parodic simulation might not appear particularly novel. Those who keep up with business journalism might find little of it especially newsworthy. Nevertheless, the combination of form and content makes for a persuasive protest against soulless capitalism.

In his catalog essay, Peter Eleey, PS 1’s chief curator and the show’s organizer, notes the obvious parallel of the tech industry’s drive to innovate to the contemporary art world’s hunger for the new and to today’s billionaire-inflated art market, with its proliferating fairs and private museums. It’s not an exact parallel: Old art may rise or fall in market value, but it usually doesn’t become worthless the way obsolete electronic devices do. But you get the idea.

In any case, there’s a deeper level of insight that Mr. Denny doesn’t quite crystallize, which has to do less with new technology than with money and how money disrupts and corrupts non-monetary values. As the title character of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, on discovering buried gold, put it, ‘Thus much of this will make black white, foul fair/Wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant.’

What happens in a society and culture where money becomes the measure of all things and technological innovation becomes just a way to make more money faster?”

More is less, and more wants more – I’d add another quote from Psalm 39.6 in the King James Bible, “Surely every man walketh in a vain shew: surely they are disquieted in vain: he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them.”

I’d say that this more than applies here – what’s the point of this endless acquisition, numbering of word patterns, the endless roll out of time wasting video games, the non-stop proliferation of useless apps and devices that separate us more and more from each other, plunging us into a wilderness of supposed “tech innovation?”

I’m with Simon Denny – I’ve seen the future, and it doesn’t work – for humans.

Victor Halperin’s Supernatural (1933)

Saturday, April 11th, 2015

Victor Halperin’s Supernatural is a forgotten horror classic – now on DVD.

After the amazing boxoffice and critical success of his film White Zombie (1932), independently produced for a mere $50,000, and starring Bela Lugosi hot off his success with Dracula, Adolph Zukor, the head of Paramount Pictures, decided that with some real resources at his command, director Victor Halperin could create an even greater boxoffice success, and offered him a chance to make a major studio production. The result was Supernatural, surely one of the most unusual and poetic films ever made in Hollywood during the Pre-Code era.

Roma Courtenay (Carole Lombard) is a rich young heiress whose brother John (Lyman Williams) has recently died in an unspecified accident. Inconsolable, she turns to phony psychic Paul Bavian (Alan Dinehart), who promises to contact her brother during a séance. Meanwhile, convicted murderess Ruth Rogen (Vivienne Osborne) has been found guilty in the strangling death of three men, something that Bavian had knowledge of, and betrayed her to the police. After Rogen’s death in the electric chair, her body is claimed by psychologist/scientist Dr. Carl Houston (H.B. Warner), whos attempt to stop Rogen’s malevolent spirit from passing on to someone else.

Roma, however, stumbles into Houston’s laboratory just as the doctor is attempting to exorcise Rogen’s spirit, which immediately takes possession of Roma’s body, forcing Roma to carry out Rogen’s plan of revenge against Bavian. In yet another subplot, Bavian’s landlady Madame Gourjan (Beryl Mercer) discovers Bavian’s plot to steal Roma’s money through a series of supposed “messages from the beyond” from her deceased brother.

In response, Bavian promptly murders her, and then throws her body on the elevated railway tracks to cover up evidence of the killing. I’ll stop with the plot summary at this point, if only because I don’t want to give any more away – suffice it to say that events continue in a downward spiral until a rather reasonably happy ending brings the film to a satisfatory conclusion.

At just 65 minutes, the film is more a mood piece than anything else, and Halperin used most of his technical crew from White Zombie to create the film, albeit on a much more generous budget. Randolph Scott, in an early role, plays Grant Wilson, Roma’s predictable love interest, but has little to do in the film, and it’s clear that Halperin is more interested in creating a sensuously sinister atmosphere than anything else, as in another Paramount entry from the same period, Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls.

With richly detailed camerawork by the gifted Arthur Martinelli, Supernatural proceeds as a fever dream devoid of logic but suffused with an odd sensibility of eternal waiting that was Halperin’s trademark; sadly, the film was not as successful as White Zombie, and has more or less fallen out of the public consciousness.

Writing in The New York Times upon the film’s initial release in 1933, critic Mordaunt Hall noted that “notwithstanding the incredibility of many of its main incidents, Supernatural, the present picture at the Paramount, succeeds in awakening no little interest in its spooky doings. It not only depicts the various tricks of a charlatan spiritualist but also undertakes through camera wizardry to show the spirit of a dead murderess entering the body of a wholesome girl and causing her to behave like a savage.

The story, which owes its origin to one written by Garnett Weston, is worked out shrewdly and the scenes are for the most part pictured in a fashion suited to the eerie happenings. At the outset one is reminded that Confucius issued a warning to treat all supernatural beings with respect, but to keep aloof from them. Mohammed and the New Testament also are quoted and to put the spectator in a receptive mood there are wind and rain and dirgelike music.

Allan Dinehart plays the crooked spiritualist, Paul Bavian, who is to be congratulated on the thoroughness of his methods to extort money from a wealthy girl named Roma Courtney. Bavian had been on intimate terms with Ruth Rogen, who, after killing three of her lovers, expiates her crimes in the electric chair. It is the theory of a Dr. Houston that the spirits of dead evildoers continue to commit crimes through other flesh and blood mediums. He has more than a mere suspicion that Ruth Rogen’s spirit will be running amuck and that susceptible women had better keep out of its way.

It is not disclosing any great secret to say that Bavian has an easy way of getting rid of those who thwart him. A little poison in a ring, a handshake and they die. This sinister faker writes to Roma telling her that he has heard from the spirit of her brother, who recently died, and that he (Bavian) was requested to summon her. This missive subsequently leads to Roma and others visiting Bavian’s apartment, where the crook pretends to go into a trance and in an artful manner impresses the girl.”

The film received similarly respectful notices from most other critics, but ultimately, Supernatural was too subtle to entice the public to see it in droves; and Lombard was apparently unhappy with her role as a possessed killer, feeling much more at home in comedy – and she was right; the film remains an interesting one-off in her screen career, which ended with her tragic death in 1942 while on a War Bond tour. Nevertheless, Supernatural remains a peculiar, but deeply felt project, and one of the most innovative and neglected films of Hollywood in the early 1930s.

An odd film in every respect, Supernatural deserves your attention; it’s a film that resonates in one’s memory.

Leon Wieseltier on Turner Classic Movies

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

Leon Wieseltier recently published an appreciation of TCM in The New York Times; I couldn’t agree more.

As Wieseltier wrote, in part, “when disappointment has brought you low, or sadness has colonized you, or fear has conquered your imagination, you experience a contraction of your horizon. Your sense of possibility is damaged and even abolished. Pain is a monopolist. The most urgent thing, therefore, is to restore a more various understanding of what life holds, of its true abundance, so that the bleakness in which you find yourself is not all you know.

The way to break the grip of sorrow and dread is to introduce another claimant on consciousness, to crowd it out with other stimulations from the world. Sadness can never be retired completely, because there is always a basis in reality for it. But you can impede its progress by diversifying your mind.

Nothing performs this charitable expansion of awareness more immediately for me than TCM. Movies are quick corrections for the fact that we exist in only one place at only one time. (Of course there are circumstances in which being only in one place only at one time is a definition of bliss.) I switch on TCM and find swift transit beyond the confines of my position. Alongside my reality there appears another reality — the world out there and not in here. One objective of melancholy is to block the evidence of a more variegated existence, but a film quickly removes the blockage. It sneaks past the feelings that act as walls [. . .]

When I watch the older movies on TCM, I am struck by the beauty of gray, which makes up the bulk of black and white. How can the absence of color be so gorgeous? Black and white is so tonally unified, so tone-poetic. Shadows seem more natural, like structural elements of the composition. The dated look of the films is itself an image of time, like the varnish on old paintings that becomes inextricable from their visual resonance. There is also a special pleasure in having had someone else choose the film.

Netflix, with its plenitude of options, asks for a decision, for an accounting of tastes; but TCM unburdens you of choice and asks for only curiosity and an appetite for surprise. The freedom to choose is like the freedom to speak: There is never too much of it, but there is sometimes too much of its consequences. Education proceeds by means of other people’s choices. Otherwise it is just customization, or electronically facilitated narcissism. Let Mr. Osborne decide!”

You can read his entire essay in The New York Times by clicking here, or on the image above.

New Essay – Humanities in the Digital Era

Friday, February 13th, 2015

I have a new essay on “humanities in the digital era” in the web journal Film International – here’s a link.

As I argue, “We live in the age of the visible invisible; everything is supposedly available to us online, but in fact, only a small fraction of the knowledge and culture of even the most recent past is available on the web. The digitization of our culture is now an accomplished fact; physical media is disappearing, books are being harvested from library shelves and thrown into the anonymity of high density storage, digital facsimiles of these documents are often illegible or hidden behind pay walls. It’s a world of never-ending passwords, permissions, and a whole new group of “gatekeepers,” which the digital revolution was supposed to do away with, in which everyone got a place at the table. In fact, it has created a far more intrusive and much less intuitive group of cultural taste makers in place of the 20th century regime of editors, writers, critics and the like; technology specialists, who, really don’t understand the humanities at all, and are, in fact alarmed by the amorphousness of humanist work – after all, you know, it’s just so unquantifiable.

As Wieseltier notes, in part, in the January 7th issue of the NYT Sunday Book Review, ‘aside from issues of life and death, there is no more urgent task for American intellectuals and writers than to think critically about the salience, even the tyranny, of technology in individual and collective life. All revolutions exaggerate, and the digital revolution is no different. We are still in the middle of the great transformation, but it is not too early to begin to expose the exaggerations, and to sort out the continuities from the discontinuities. The burden of proof falls on the revolutionaries, and their success in the marketplace is not sufficient proof. Presumptions of obsolescence, which are often nothing more than the marketing techniques of corporate behemoths, need to be scrupulously examined. By now we are familiar enough with the magnitude of the changes in all the spheres of our existence to move beyond the futuristic rhapsodies that characterize much of the literature on the subject. We can no longer roll over and celebrate and shop. Every phone in every pocket contains a “picture of ourselves,” and we must ascertain what that picture is and whether we should wish to resist it. Here is a humanist proposition for the age of Google: The processing of information is not the highest aim to which the human spirit can aspire, and neither is competitiveness in a global economy. The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers.’

Needless to say, Wieseltier’s essay has touched a real nerve among both humanists and the digerati - you can read some responses here - some agreeing with him, and some not, but for me, it seems that more often than not, he hits the mark straight on. As one reader, Carl Witonksy, wrote in response, ‘Leon Wieseltier’s essay should be required reading and discussion by all college students, regardless of major. Technology is penetrating every aspect of their lives, and they should come to grips with its pluses and minuses,’ while Cynthia M. Pile, co-chair of the Columbia University Seminar in the Renaissance, added that ‘for the humanities, the library is the laboratory, and books and documents are the petri dishes containing the ideas and records of events under study. We use the Internet, to be sure, and are grateful for it. But its rapid and careless ascent has meant that we cannot rely on it for confirmation of reality or of fact.’

Pile goes on to note that ‘we require direct observation of material (stone, wood, ink, paper and parchment) documents, manuscripts and printed books, which we then subject to critical, historical analysis. We also require that these materials be spread out in front of us to analyze and compare with one another, like the scientific specimens they are. In great research libraries (which used to be the hearts of great universities), these were formerly available on site, so that an idea could be confirmed or contradicted on the spot. Instead, today librarians are taught that a delay of several days while a book is fetched from a warehouse dozens, or even hundreds, of miles away — to the detriment of the book — is irrelevant to our work. This is false. Our work is impeded by these assumptions, based on technological dreams, not on reality.’

I’ve seen the impact of this in many fields of the arts, which are now faced with a crisis unlike anything since the Middle Ages – the cultural work of the past is being relegated to archives, museums, and warehouses, and despite claims to the contrary, is not available in any meaningful way to the general public or students. Great swaths of material have been left unscanned and unindexed, and with the demise of paper copies becomes essentially unobtainable. Browsing through library stacks is not only a pleasurable experience; it is also an essential part of the discovery process and intellectual investigation. You come in, presumably, looking for one book, but now you find another. And another. And another. They’re all together in one section on the shelves. You’re not calling for a specific text, which would give you only one side of any given question – you have immediate access to them all, and can pick and choose from a wide variety of different perspectives. Now, it seems that only the eternal present is with us.

I wrote an essay that touched on some of these issues a few years ago for The College Hill Review about working in New York in the 1960s as part of the community of experimental filmmakers, aptly entitled ‘On The Value of “Worthless” Endeavor,‘ in which I noted – again, in part – that ‘the only art today is making money, it seems; in fact, today, there are plaques all over New York identifying where this artist, or that artist, used to have a studio; today, all the locations are now office buildings or bank . . . it seems that no one has time or money for artistic work, when, in fact, such work would redeem us as a society, as it did in the 1930s when Franklin Roosevelt put artists to work, and then sold that work, to get that segment of the economy moving again. Now, the social conservativism that pervades the nation today belatedly recognizes the power of “outlaw” art, and no longer wishes to support it, as it might well prove — in the long run — dangerous.

Money can create, but it can also destroy. Out of economic privation, and the desperate need to create, the artists [of the 1960s] created works of lasting resonance and beauty with almost no resources at their disposal, other than the good will and assistance of their colleagues; a band of artistic outlaws. These artists broke the mold of stylistic representation . . . and offered something new, brutal, and unvarnished, which confronted audiences with a new kind of beauty, the beauty of the outsider, gesturing towards that which holds real worth in any society that prizes artistic endeavor. It’s only the work that comes from the margins that has any real, lasting value; institutional art, created for a price, or on commission, documents only the powerful and influential, but doesn’t point in a new direction. It’s the work that operates off the grid, without hype or self-promotion, under the most extreme conditions, that has the greatest lasting value, precisely because it was made under such difficult circumstances.’

In his brilliant film Alphaville, Jean-Luc Godard depicted a futuristic dystopia - in 1965! – in which an entire civilization is run by a giant computer, Alpha 60, which directs and supervises the activities of all its inhabitants; a computer that is absolutely incapable of understanding nuance, emotion, or the chance operations of something like, for instance, Surrealism or poetry. As the supervisor of the computer and all its operations, one Professor Von Braun (played by Howard Vernon; the symbolism is obvious) is pitted against the humanist Secret Agent Lemmy Caution (the always excellent Eddie Constantine), who has been sent from the ‘Outerlands’ to destroy the computer and restore humanity to Alphaville. As Von Braun warns Lemmy, ‘men of your type will soon become extinct. You’ll become something worse than dead. You’ll become a legend.’ And as if to confirm this, Alpha 60 instructs his subjects that ‘no one has ever lived in the past. No one will ever live in the future. The present is the form of all life.’

But, of course, it isn’t, and while the end of Alphaville strikes a positive note – technology reined in by Lemmy’s timely intervention, I can’t be so sure that this time, in real life, that there will be a happy ending. When a society no longer has bookstores, or record stores, or theaters because – supposedly – everything is online and streaming – when corporations make decisions, guided by the bottom line alone, as to what materials are disseminated and which remain in oblivion – and when mass culture alone – the popularity index – determines what works are allowed to find any audience, we’re in trouble. If you don’t know something is there, then you can’t search for it. Works buried in an avalanche of digital materials – and please remember that I am someone who contributes to this, and publishes now almost exclusively in the digital world – lose their currency and importance, just as libraries continue to discard books that later wind up on Amazon for one cent, in hardcover editions, where those of us who care about such work snap it up – until it’s gone forever.

What will the future hold for those of us in the humanities? It’s a really serious question – perhaps the most important question facing us as scholars right now. Alpha 60 rightly recognized Lemmy Caution as a threat, and had him brought in for questioning, telling Lemmy that ‘I shall calculate so that failure is impossible,’ to which Lemmy replied ‘I shall fight so that failure is possible.’ The work of technology is valuable and useful, and without it, we would be stuck entirely in the world of physical media, which would mark an unwelcome return to the past. But in the headlong rush to digital technology, we shouldn’t sacrifice the sloppiness, the uncertainty, the messiness that comes from the humanities in all their uncertain glory, representing widely divergent points of view, with the aid of ready access to the works of the past, which, after all, inform and help to create the present, as well as what is to come. As Lemmy Caution tells Alpha 60, ‘the past represents its future. It advances in a straight line, yet it ends by coming full circle.’”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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