Impossible Contrast!

May 16, 2008

Though it is a truism, it is nonetheless true that the simplest expression’s in a language are often the most untranslatable. The German lassen sich doesn’t easily bend to your will, nor, for that matter, does anything in the French language. This is because French is the language of truth and English can not hope to contain it’s brilliant post-structuralist neologisms. But, I digress, and in the interest of general bonhomie, I will restrict myself to speaking about a language near and dear to all of us: Yiddish. The reason languages are often so hard to translate is because they’re entire systems of understanding, and while the words may be carried over from one language to another, the words do not mean the same things in the same system. Take for example: lehavdl. The word is derived from Hebrew and literally means “to separate.” The word is used every week in the prayer that ends Sabbath, “l’havdil ben qodesh v’khol,” meaning: to separate between sacred and profane. Two things that want nothing to do with each other or a “binary” if you’re so inclined. From this, the word gains an attributive meaning of, roughly, “these two things have nothing to do with each-other,” or, “don’t get me wrong! I’m really not equating these things!” So Weinreich’s dictionary gives the example sentence, “a mentsh un lehavdl a malpe”: ” a man and an ape.” (For a much better discussion of this word see this mendele discussion.) I’ve never really seen a good one word translation, but the best two word translation I’ve come across is “–impossible contrast!–”

So it is that today I want to make an impossible contrast of my own between Chad Pugh’s “Science Machine” and “There Will Be Blood.”

“Science Machine” has a very unique production history. Here’s how gizmodo puts it:

“Over several months, one artist put roughly 40 hours of Illustrator drawing work into a piece called “Science Machine.” And over that time, he had his computer screencap the project every five seconds.” So, we’re basically watching one person drawing in illustrator as he’s illustrating different parts of the project. There doesn’t appear to be much of a narrative at all. The video is simply random elements being drawn and added into the image one at a time. Nor is there much of an anti-narrative.

And yet the video coheres into a wonderful whole. Time passes and the image develops, taking on fantastic proportions. The world forms. It’s almost like the world Paul Thomas Anderson built before our eyes in “There Will Be Blood,” almost like the way Anderson had that machinery rise up out of the earth. The music is almost like Greenwood’s score. Pulsing. Slightly Haunting. Then again, it also sounds like the music from “Top Chef.” “Science Machine,” as much as it is a story about one person slaving away and becoming absorbed and mastered by a technology he wants to master, is very similar to “There Will Be Blood” and its tales of obsession.

Then again, this is an impossible contrast, and the two really have nothing to do with each other.

I had been planning on penning a piece about the new Presidents of the United States of America album before real-life interrupted. A friend of mine died tragically today. All deaths are tragedies, but this one was made all the worse for its randomness. An accident. A truck. He was one of the most welcoming people I’d ever met, and one of the smartest. Grad school is a place that encourages people to isolate themselves and to stay away from others. But that wasn’t my friend. We never talked about a lot of things even though we talked about a lot. I found out tonight that he used to write for The Forward but he never talked about it with me, nor did I ever talk to him about my various writings, no matter how insignificant they might have been, even though I always dreamed of inviting him to contribute to the Salad or to our as yet unprinted print companion, Fortnightly Salad. He was a man of diverse interests, and in tribute I’d like to mention two of them, two poets: Saul Tchernichovsky and They Might Be Giants.

Tchernichovsky was a man of the Hebrew renaissance. In my mind, Tchernichovsky, even more than Bialik, was the Hebrew renaissance. He translated the classics into Hebrew, be they from English (Longfellow) or from Greek (the Iliad). He made everything into Hebrew culture, and made world culture a part of the Hebrew rebirth. He even tried to turn the country around him into Hebrew culture, writing such “Canaanite poems” as “My Astarte.” My friend wrote his thesis about Tchernichovsky and his research cuts infinitely deeper than my curt introductory remarks. For me Tchernichovsky is a street more than a poet, an intersection with Bialik and Allenby, and a place of overpriced cafes. Somehow his words became history, became reality, an unbelievable feat.

For a different view on history, consider They Might Be Giant’s “Purple Toupee.” The song is a brilliant reworking of twentieth-century history, a comic inversion of the inversions in society. For me, the song is incapsulated by the brilliant line, “I shouted out, free the Expo 67!” One 60’s event so quickly turned into another. But for my friend the best line was, “Now I’m very big, I’m a big important man.” I never figured out why. Was it the double assertion? The posturing? Or just the great vocal inflections? I’ll never know, but I’ll always wonder.

Isabella Rossellini will always be linked with David Lynch because of Blue Velvet but her new surrealist project ought to cement that connection. Contra the disavowals of ibiteyoureyes, Velvet is Lynch’s not-quite-masterpiece. Mixing sheer terror, creepiness, and humour, Lynch refashioned American children’s adventure stories into an exploration of the psyche, sexual fetish, and pure evil. Indeed, the way Lynch reenvisions the Hardy Boys recalls Hemingway’s branding of W.H. Hudson’s The Purple Land as a “sinister book” in The Sun Also Rises; the “innocent” adventure is rare at best, and one can never predict how it will be interpreted. Although there are many harrowing sequences in the movie, one of its most chilling and daring segments features a naked but wounded Isabella Rossellini waiting on Kyle Machlachlan’s porch. Like much of the movie, the scene exists on the boundaries between action and voyeurism, and attraction and repulsion. The scene is beautifully incomprehensible to all involved, largely as a result of Rossellini’s powerful performance. Her body is hardly the only thing laid bare for all to see.

Recently, Rossellini decided to channel Lynch’s Rabbits by creating a series of short movies, Green Porno, that feature her dressed in insect costumes investigating that eternal question, “how do insects do it?


The shorts played at Sundance and the Berlin International Film Festival and will soon come to TV’s sundance channel. Here’s a link to an interview with Rossellini.

Without having seen the shorts, it’s safe to say that the most interesting thing about their production (other than the fact that Isabella Rossellini decided to reenact insect sex!) is the fact that they were intended for the so-called “third screen”: pcs, mobile phones, ipod touches, etc. I wonder if this is the first time a serious “art film” has ever been designed for these platforms. If it succeeds, will there be any implications for the broader art world, and the ever expanding genre of video art? What about pieces like Cory Arcangel’s hacked nintendo games? Could these projects be readily transported to mobile devices? There’s also an interesting linguistic aspect to Green Porno: the name itself was chosen for the medium. Here’s how Rossellini explained it:

“What do people mostly go online for, but to look at porn?” explains Canadian filmmaker Jody Shapiro, Rossellini’s co-director. “So we put ‘Porno’ in, and when people Google it, maybe we’ll get lucky and Green Porno will come up. We might as well take advantage of the delivery system.”


Paris, Je t’aime is an odd assortment of excellent short films, enjoyable short films, terrible short films, and a wonderful exemplar of both the vocative case and solastalgia. There isn’t much margin for error in a short film, and segments in Paris, Je t’aime are examples of the myriad things that can go wrong: poor execution of a good idea (Vampires in Paris, which fails to capture the innate sensuality and eroticism of both), good execution of terrible ideas (the one with the beauty supply salesman and the Asian beauty salon, that no matter how well filmed can’t escape its ludicrous plot), and overreliance on symbolism (the Willem Dafoe cowboy picture). Others suffer because they better resemble short prose forms, which do not require narrative, than short stories. These segments, while interesting in their own right and often beautifully conceived, seem incomplete. Though I’m not a student of the genre, I would be surprised if segments like the first, wherein a man meets a woman and they go for a ride in his car, would succeed in short film competitions. These films do not stand on their own as much as they contribute to the overall aesthetics of disjuncture and elegiac romanticism.

The best of the pieces are those by Gus Van Sant, the Coen Brothers, Tom Tykwer, and Alexander Payne. In each of the films, the director has distilled the essence of their filmmaking technique into 2-10 minutes. The languid cinematography in the Van Sant segment recalls his earlier films (especially Elephant) and touches upon many of his recurring themes (homoeroticism); the Coen Brothers’ segment is rife with black humour and sudden, random violence started by miscommunication and incomprehension, plus the appearance of Steve Buscemi; and Tykwer’s short film, like his breakout Run, Lola, Run is an exhilarating look at the ways modern filmmaking techniques (quick cuts, superfast montage, repetition) can serve story.

Payne’s film about a postal worker who visits Paris is the movie’s highlight. Like Election and About Schmidt, the movie explores the equally mundane, depressing, yet somehow fulfilling life of a solitary midwesterner. As in Schmidt, Payne realizes the full potential of voiceover as a mode of developing character. Our postal worker’s (excellent) rough French reveals her innermost thoughts, sometimes belying the images, sometimes working synergistically to come to a greater conclusion. At the same time, the piece shows Payne’s tremendous post-Schmidt growth. There’s no-longer any need to resort to the cheap laugh of absurd situations. Payne is now fully capable of realizing characters so rich that he can allow them to speak to him, he can let them be themselves, and the rest will take care of itself. His segment is the essence of his filmmaking, and the movie his career has been building up to. It’s no wonder Paris, je t’aime ends after Payne’s segment; after all, where can you go after you’ve realized the short film genre?

Watching the State of the Union tonight last night, I realized just how arbitrary our units of measurement are. Why should the President address the country every year? Why should he do so with such pageantry? Now, when this last year is so insignificant, with this president appearing so bereft of ambition, is their any good reason that he should be given such a forum for his increasingly diminuted ideas? Especially when he has the right to interrupt all regularly scheduled programming whenever he sees fit. Wouldn’t it make more sense if he only addressed America immediately after an election? (Please, no one suggest the constitution as an answer.)

We spend a lot of time talking about this year‘s Best Picture, but one year is just as arbitrary a time-span when evaluating movies as it is with evaluating presidencies. Nothing points out this arbitrariness like foreign movies. With different release dates in different countries, it’s not uncommon to see some foreign movies nominated in different years. The most recent test case for this is The Lives of Others, which was nominated at the Bavarian Film Awards in 2005, the German Film Awards for 2006, last year’s Academy Awards, and this year’s BAFTAs (more on this great movie in a minute). In the art world, the best works are frequently displayed at a Biennale, (or Biennial if you refuse to inflect your English with loan words. Mon Dieu!) and other exhibitions are self contained and last only for short periods of time. The reason I bring this up is our bizarre appellation of some movies as “Art Movies.” While this mostly refers to their stylistics (often disparagingly), it begs the question, do these movies have a qualitative connection to art?

It goes without saying that, as a mass produced object, movies lack the uniqueness of art. As Geoffrey Hartman wrote in his autobiography modern movies also lack the eventness of art:

For all my adolescent years…the movies remained a special treat, a near-festive occasion like somone’s birthday…Now, every day, every hour, I can surf several channels as well as visit the big screen. The result is indifference to what used to be a magical occasion, a typical blunting toward the often frenetic realism of the medium, so that little of an early eagerness is left.

It is no great claim to say that movies exist on that boundary between “high” art and popular “low” culture. Or, that their very existence probably proves that there are no such categories.

I ask the question because The Diving Bell and the Butterfly insists. The movie’s cinematography and bravado editing demand that we consider the film as art. It consistently plays with questions of color, perception, and placement and the artist-director Julian Schnabel described the film by saying,

“It seems to me the issues that come up in this film are issues I’ve been thinking about my whole life — death, claustrophobia, the limits that are put on people, what seeing is, what unconsciousness is, observing observation,” he says. “How do you escape the ordinariness of your life and what does it mean to make art?” (source) Read the rest of this entry »

I’ve been thinking a lot about titles 071209_there_will_be_blood.jpgrecently, and part of me couldn’t help but wonder what might happen if Paul Thomas Anderson traded titles with Joel and Ethan Coen. Would “No Country for Old Men” capture the scope of Anderson’s vision? Joel and Ethan Coen’s “There Will Be Blood” would have more than met every viewers expectations of carnage, but I’m not sure if “No Country for Old Men” would have fit PTA’s movie (none of its old men have any country, but that that’s another story). There’s something both prophetic and alarming about the statement “There Will Be Blood.” The phrase is both a prediction and a demand. There will be blood. One way or another, there will be blood. This hesitancy is a quality that would have been lost in the Coen brother’s film, with its instant payout of violence, but perfectly elucidates Anderson’s genius. The movie is a slow build resisting all expectations, resisting all allegiances, yet mesmerizing in its beauty.

Midway through the movie, with the bodies not flying everywhere , I began to think about what the title might mean. Anderson has said that he changed the title from Oil! because there wasn’t enough of the novel in the movie for it to be a proper adaptation. The title was picked for the movie, for the story unfolding on screen, and not any other. There are no lost referents. One of the movie’s unquestioned themes is family, particularly male relationships. In the Times, Manohla Dargis emphasized the masculinity of this world, remarking that “Like most of the finest American directors working now, Mr. Anderson makes little on-screen time for women.” (This is true.) Dargis also seizes on the title, praising the movie for its historical sweep, “its raging fires, geysers of oil and inevitable blood. (Rarely has a film’s title seemed so ominous.)” Yet in her praise, she seems to miss the larger implication of the title. Blood certainly refers to violence, but also to family, to belonging. “There Will Be Blood” is the story not just of an oilman and the birth of the modern west, but a story about the need for family, for the need for everything family promises. Read the rest of this entry »