Desktop Documentary

It’s not everyday that an entirely new genre of media-making comes along, but this effort is pretty exciting:

Desktop documentary is an emerging form of filmmaking developed at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago by faculty artists such as Nick Briz, Jon Satrom and Jon Cates, and students such as myself [Kevin B. Lee], Yuan Zheng and Blair Bogin. This form of filmmaking treats the computer screen as both a camera lens and a canvas, tapping into its potential as an artistic medium. If the documentary genre is meant to capture life’s reality, then desktop recording acknowledges that computer screens and the internet are now a primary experience of our daily lives, as well as a primary repository of information. Desktop documentary seeks to both depict and question the ways we explore the world through the computer screen.

The whole 25-minute video is highly worth watching and sharing, and is far more substantive, intriguing and compelling than the $210 million dollar, 185-minute film production that is its subject.

More about the massive Chinese audience’s growing influence on global film production here.

One in Ten

This article in the Washington Post is mostly about white privilege in the art world, but contains a number of salient statistics and links, including the unsuprising figure that:

Art schools, as it happens, are also anything but a bridge to gainful employment in the art world: only one out of every 10 art school graduates goes on to earn his or her living as an artist.

And of course, that’s merely art-school grads, far from the sum total of people making art at any scope or scale.

Which leads me directly back to a post from about six months ago about The Business of Art, and why I think that it’s so deeply damaging to internalize the belief that every artist should be striving for the near-mythical status of Professional Artist.

Making art is not the sole provenance of that one-in-ten degree-holder who happens to be both extremely privileged and extremely gifted. Art is for everybody, and everybody who makes art is a real artist, however they earn a living.

Death on Screen

A young writer over at The Onion AV Club describes how the real death of a loved one has ruined most movie-death for him, at least temporarily:

For Abrams and his writers, death is little more than a screenwriter’s tool to evoke emotion, and that cavalier attitude toward one of the universal human experiences makes everything about his film feel hollow.

If the cinema-space is an Underworld, then everyone on screen is, in fact, undead – static pixels re-animated by the sorcery of “flicker fusion” or “persistence of vision.”

And for the undead, be they actors and their characters, or the writers, directors and producers who control them, playing at death is not a big deal. It takes a living human, with up-close experience of the wrenching truth of real loss and grief, to notice that the undead onscreen are, in fact, faking it, and not always in good faith.

The question that remains is, is an exploration of death onscreen, in good faith, possible? Would that be a journey that anyone would choose to take with filmmakers and actors? Could it lead to meaningful insight and healing, or will it always remain 2D to people with intimate experience of the real thing?

I have certainly seen devastating movies about death – Cries and Whispers by Bergman springs to mind, as does one of my all time favorites, The Deer Hunter by Michael Cimino. Neither film is fun and entertaining, but each was a profound experience for me, possibly life-changing.

And on the other side of the equation is the central lesson in Sullivan’s Travels, by Preston Sturges, wherein the main character, a film director, learns via an extended stint on a chain gang that, basically, there’s enough suffering in the world, and that the role of movies should be to bring some lightness and laughter into people’s lives.

All the way back to the Greeks (and surely beyond), those have been the basic, and sacred, modes of drama – comedy and tragedy. But attempting to mix the two into a smoothie of “entertainment” may be a relatively recent invention.

Age of Loneliness

Via the Guardian:

One of the tragic outcomes of loneliness is that people turn to their televisions for consolation: two-fifths of older people report that the one-eyed god is their principal company. This self-medication aggravates the disease. [...] Aspiration, which increases with income, ensures that the point of arrival, of sustained satisfaction, retreats before us. The researchers found that those who watch a lot of TV derive less satisfaction from a given level of income than those who watch only a little. TV speeds up the hedonic treadmill, forcing us to strive even harder to sustain the same level of satisfaction.

Must See TV

I’m taking a break from television. For a couple of reasons.

I just finished re-watching The Sopranos – all of it, six seasons worth, which works out to roughly 70 hours of television. It’s so good, really a great artistic achievement. And, also, a 70-hour investment.

I came late to the brilliance of our generation’s television – I watched a lot of tv as a kid, but then avoided it successfully throughout college and most of my 20s. I had Netflix during that time but I used it exclusively to watch movies.

But then, when I was about 27, I had my own apartment less than a block from a Hollywood Video (remember video stores?), and I decided to see what I was missing. The store was open until midnight, it had a pretty good tv selection, they were cheap, and I could walk over and get the next disc in a series whenever I wanted.

So that was when I first indulged in Arrested Development, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, and… The Sopranos. It was so easy to burn through a three-episode disc in an evening, so easy to make the decision, when the credits started to roll in an episode, to skip right to the next one.

The thing is, I would never say a word against the quality of this content, or the intentions of the people making these shows. They are artists making art. Complex characters and relationships, themes of life and death and loyalty and revenge, truly powerful stuff.

But I really started to think about what I’ve been writing lately, here on this blog – about the Underworld, about the Anti-Hero. I remember when video was first available on the internet, and the consensus was that short web-videos were the naturally appropriate form for the medium – people would watch for two or three minutes at most. In retrospect I think this was terribly naive or short-sighted, speaking for myself at least.

Instead, the truth of the matter seems to be that the proper duration for streaming video content online is… endless. Literally unending. The ideal web program is subdivided into parts, episodes or chapters, but it doesn’t end, ever. There’s enough hours of any given series that when you get to the end you can start over from the beginning, or impatiently wait a few months for the next “season” to appear. Or re-watch the old episodes in anticipation of the new episodes.

And the content is good enough, a lot of it, to make it feel like this is a really worthwhile pursuit – edifying, maybe not educational, but at least meaningful. Watching the Sopranos or the Wire is spending time with a work of art – what could be wrong with that?

As beautiful, arresting, seductive as it is, though, it’s still the Underworld, I think. I can love these characters, in all their complexity, but they can’t love me back. They’re dead pixels, even if the real actor is still out there somewhere, being brilliant in some new season or new series.

The quality of work, high or low, doesn’t change the fact that the experience is not a living experience. The life and the movement are illusions. In a way, it’s a sort of trance state, being engrossed in television – being enchanted. And I need a break from that sort of enchantment.

I know it’s a cliché, but I spent 70 hours in the world of the Sopranos this year, rather than in the flesh-and-blood world that I physically inhabit. I could have made a living friend instead – could’ve had a two-hour coffeebreak with a human twice a month for a year and a half, 35 conversations, which is probably more face-time than I’ve had with any human being besides my wife this year.

It’s hard to be in the world, whether socially or in solitude – it’s taxing, effort is required to respond to the input of living, unpredictable humans. Sometimes I want a break from my own brain, too – that’s a common justification for tv-watching – but maybe there’s a way to learn to be in this world, with my brain, that doesn’t feel like work, rather than escaping from it?

Interestingly, I feel that this doesn’t apply to movies, at least not at this stage. Perhaps I’ll get to the point where I don’t want to disappear into the underworld for two hours for them, either. But for now, what feels significant is the fact of a beginning and an end. Watching a film is, at least potentially, a cathartic and unique experience – you enter a world, meet new people, accompany them on some kind of journey (internal or external) and then, at the end, you say goodbye to them, they return to their underworld of pixels or (increasingly rarely) celluloid, and you return to your life. The agreement and the commitment are clear and stated up front: you, the viewer, is deciding to enter the world of this film for, say 100 minutes. At the end you get to evaluate, and decide whether your time was well-spent, whether the experience was worthwhile or not.

At the moment anyway, there feels like a sharp, qualitative difference, to me, between this agreement and the open-ended emotional investment in a television series.

And, I believe that to some degree this distinction explains the popularity of series television online, and the declining popularity of movies. Even stupid movies require more work and more investment than an ongoing television show. It’s work to get in, and work to get back out. Emotional ground is covered. Television also requires emotional investment, sure, but the lack of closure is key: the main value to me, the consumer, is the open-ended immersion. I can live in the show indefinitely, I don’t have to worry about it ending and pushing me back out into the world before I’m really ready. And perhaps I’ll never be ready.

So I’m not turning off all the screens, god forbid, but I’m going to see what it’s like to choose movies for awhile – messy, challenging, unpredictable, one-off movies, that begin and end. This is as cold-turkey of a shift as I can handle. I’ll let you know what I discover.

Big Data and Faith

Finally, secular progressives have something they can believe in. Because Gaia is just too new-agey and earth-mothery for most of us, meditating at the Zen center is actually hard work, Christianity is too darn patriarchal, the outer space adventures are over, and messing around with genetics is actually more terrifying than anything else.

Thank goodness for Big Data, coming along just in time to give us a new fantasy about a future in which we can actually, once and for all, figure out what the heck is going on.

I said it before here, and I’m sure I’m not the first to say it, but all of the socioeconomic hubbub about this brave new era of computing, where we can gather SO MUCH DATA about so many things, the consumer behaviors of the masses, biofeedback, etc., sounds more than a little bit religious to me.

Yes, indeed, our devices are small, and powerful. And indeed, we’re spending more and more of our time and energy interacting with them. We are giving them lots of data to work with, and the technology is such that those clicks can all be tracked and quantified, moved around and mapped in visually satisfying and sometimes insightful ways.

And indeed, there is insight to be gleaned from this raw data, when it is processed by powerful machines and talented humans, interpreted and reformulated, presented back to us in an elegantly color-coded map, chart, table or graph.

But the idea that this leads to some kind of ultimate ability to comprehensively understand… anything, is, to me, where the discussion leaps into the realm of faith.

People, humans, have always been able to figure out some things from looking at data, whether it comes from facebook algorithms or observation of the changing tides. Better data can indeed lead to more interesting, insightful, and/or far ranging ideas about how things work. But it seems clear to me that the ideas and the interpretation are still coming from people observing information, not from the information itself.

This is true in science, and it’s true to a great degree in religion as well, I think. The tools we have to make sense of our world have grown more powerful and precise, but they haven’t changed fundamentally, or even qualitatively at all, for that matter.

This essay at the New Inquiry, one of my favorite places on the internet, talks about the ideology of Big Data, and the fact that, just like every other form of knowledge, it relies a lot more on mere subjective humans than its true believers would like to think.

The New Inquiry essay introduced me to the idea of positivism, which is the effort, across disciplines, to gather enough information about the world to actually makes sense of it macroscopically. The idea, in my reading anyway, is that there’s a finite amount of information to gather, and that there will be some kind of tipping point where we finally have enough of it that things start to make real, no-foolin-around, inarguable rational sense, goddammit.

Because living in the world of uncertainty, contingency, subjectivity and mystery can be just too taxing for the modern mind… the idea that the more we learn, the more we realize we really don’t know, and that the vast majority of the unknowns will probably never be resolved, no matter how Big the Big Data gets, is so darn frustrating that we might as well just give up, ya know?

Then, God forbid, we’ll be stuck with the religious, and the superstitious, and the scientists, and the poets and the artists (oh dear), all humbly trying to make just a little bit of sense for one another, while admitting that we are all, in the end, at sea together in the vast unknowability of the universe.

I wonder what it would be like for us, collectively in the secular, progressive Western world, to accept the fact that we don’t have any real answers to questions like, “Why are we here?” or “What’s the point?”

…And moreover, to accept the fact that these answers aren’t coming during our short sojourn here on this beautiful, fragile planet… but the good news is that we get to be here anyway, for now, even though we don’t know much – and that ultimately that’s going to have to be enough, because we don’t really have a choice about it, beyond the possibility of successful self delusion.

GoPro and the Film Journal

Again from the New Yorker (I may have to renew my subscription), a wide-ranging discussion of the phenomenon of the wearable camera.

As, personally, a huge fan of the work of Jonas Mekas, one of the major film journal-makers of the American Avant-Garde Cinema, this raises some interesting questions about the documentation of life as art.

The article paints, at points, what to me feels like a markedly dystopian view of people filming everything they do, and doing things only for the sake of filming them. Life as performance for an online audience.

At one moment it forays into the territory I’ve referenced on this blog about the Internet and the Underworld:

By now, so much video is being produced that it’s hard to imagine a fate for it other than obsolescence. Where does all this video go? If it’s in the cloud, will it all come falling back to earth, in an apocalypse of pets, babies, head-cam porn, flight lessons, golf swings, and unicycle tricks?

…Is there a distinction to be drawn between an artist filming scenes from real life, and an extreme sports enthusiast with a camera strapped to his helmet?

This brings to mind a famous quote that I remember from my film school days by Jean Cocteau:

Film will only become art when its materials are as inexpensive as pencil and paper.

This was welcome news to all of us who were deeply excited about DV cameras and Adobe Premiere, I believe 2.0, around 1998 – we could make anything we wanted to make; the materials were finally becoming as cheap as pencil and paper. Almost.

Everyone has had the tools at hand to write a novel for hundreds of years (assuming the important prerequisite tool of literacy, of course). Many people do write novels, few are published, fewer are good, and even among the good ones, we all certainly don’t have to agree about what makes for compelling content.

I think it’s a good thing that everyone can get their hands on an HD camera today, even if they want to strap it to their body and record themselves cross-country skiing.

They may shoot hours of footage, transfer them to a hard drive, and never look at the files again. They may get obsessed with editing and spend the next ten years going through their footage frame-by-frame in their basement, losing contact with the outside world.

And, they may find something beautiful in their footage, whether GoPro, iPhone, or DSLR, that gives them new insight into the human condition from their own point of view, and inspires them to share that image, that moment, that sequence, with others, in order to try to connect on a deep level through the process of making and sharing art.

They may go through all of this, the moment, the capture, the insight, the inspiration, the attempt to share – and find that still, no-one is interested.

The process itself has the potential for sacredness – as a practice, an attempt to understand ourselves and the world. And just like any other practice, the value isn’t in the outcome, the product, per se – it’s in the doing, the repetition, the seeking, the thoughtful effort.

The most poignant scene in the New Yorker piece, to me, is where the author describes his daydreaming son wearing the camera unselfconsciously, and recording, without realizing it, a beautiful and meandering record of life through his eyes for an afternoon.

Some years later, the unselfconsciousness is gone, the kid has trained himself (still with a GoPro) to shoot and edit in the genre of the GoPro sports video.

That feels like a loss, but maybe it’s a necessary stage that everyone goes through in the process of learning an instrument for self-expression, or art-making, or whatever you want to call it – whether it’s a guitar, a camera, or a pencil and paper.

Some of us will remain content to play the song the way it’s “supposed” to sound, the way the Beatles did it, or write the way Hemingway did, to the best of our ability. And some small percentage of people will get to that point and then think, “okay, now, how do I make this mine?”

Alexander Payne

On why he keeps returning to Nebraska to make movies:

[Payne] told me, “Fellini used to say, ‘They’ve asked me to go to America many times to make films. But I don’t know how they drive there—I don’t even know how they hold their coffee.’ I kind of felt that way. Here in Nebraska, I feel comfortable with the details. So, as much as I’m trying to grasp something mysterious, the other side is that I know how things would be played.”

… via the New Yorker.

Notes on the Hinterland

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.

-Canto I, Dante’s Inferno

When you’re an explorer sailing into uncharted territory, the first thing you do is map the coastline.

The coastline is easy, and relatively safe. It has a clear contour, you can see it from the security of your boat, and you can always sail away if you discover danger.

Inland, though, is another story – you never know what you’ll discover beyond the treeline, in the dense and unfamiliar forest. It’s possible that humans have an instinctual sense of unease many thousands of years old that arises when we can’t see the horizon – vivid fears of unseen predators pouncing from the treetops and devouring us.

The term “Hinterland” describes the geographical status of the forest dark – “hinter” is German for behind or beyond, and it originally described the land set back from the sea or the river, which could only be explored on foot, at great risk to explorers and settlers alike.

In metaphorical and psychological terms, the idea of land “beyond what is known” is rich with possibility for describing mysterious inner states of the heart and soul, which are often also shadowy and risky, awe-inspiring and fearful.

It seems especially significant to me that this is inland that we’re talking about – not an island beyond the horizon, but something relatively near in distance, but obscured from view by the thick living canopy of forest.

In terms of American history, once the East Coast was thoroughly settled, some attention was certainly paid to cultivating the middle of the country, but the collective imagination, I think, headed quickly for the vistas of the open West, and ultimately the Pacific Coast.

The ease of migration and relocation in the 20th Century led the majority of the population to leave the middle regions of the country for both coasts, and I think we’ve been stuck there, psychologically, since at least the Cold War.

What’s not to like about the Coasts? It’s awfully pretty out there, both East and West – the climate is mild, and you get to look out across all that sparkling blue, and listen to the waves crash on the rocks and the beach…

It also seems safe, on some level – even if you don’t have a boat, it feels easier to orient oneself when you know in which direction the water lies. Socioeconomic orientation is easier, too – the rich, in the nice neighborhoods, have the best access to beautiful views, beaches, and sea breezes. When in doubt, go towards the water.

In LA, even people who don’t see the ocean for months at a time seem somehow invested in being near it. LA is LA because of the Pacific, otherwise it’d be Orange County, or Phoenix.

There’s nothing wrong with the coasts, per se – as a geography, a place to want to inhabit, to feel at home. But the Coast is not the whole story, the whole of human experience: to stay on the Coast and ignore the Hinterland is both limited and limiting, and on some level I’m sure, perilous – because whatever is up there, watching you from the forest dark, will eventually come and find you in the night, on the beach, when your fires have gone out and everyone is fast asleep under the stars.

Coasts are for traders, for the rootless, for the exchange of culture, ideas and products. All of this is valuable. But meanwhile, important things are happening in the Hinterland, upon which the Coasts depend – and I feel that culturally we’ve forgotten this for at least a generation. Far too long.

It’s a truism and a cliche that most of the art and the culture in the US is produced coastally – New York and LA, certainly, and to a lesser extent, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston. For visual media, the appeal is obvious – so many pretty surfaces and bright colors.

Up to a point, surfaces offer plenty to explore – textures, colors, delicate nuances of how light interacts with contour and motion. Even surface psychology can provide drama, conflict, emotional catharsis, resolution, even the subtleties of human relationship, to a certain degree.

But you can only sail up and down the coast, or find creative new angles from which to photograph it, for so long, before things start to get repetitive, before the uncharted becomes fully, exhaustively charted. And then you’re just telling the same story again in a slightly different way. And then I begin to wonder, as an audience member: what more can be known about human existence on earth? What further depth and insight is possible?

Some years ago it occurred to me that Steven Spielberg has shared everything he knows about life in the world – no new insight will come from him, at least nothing that interests me. Likewise Scorcese, Woody Allen, even Quentin Tarantino, J.J. Abrams. It’s not that these people haven’t contributed something valuable and meaningful – it’s that they’ve said what they have to say, and they seem, for the moment anyway, unwilling to go deeper, to venture further into the forests “savage, rough and stern” of their own souls, to take new risks, plumb new depths, and share what they discover there.

In short, they’re stuck on the Coasts.

As tempting as it is for a native Minnesotan to go out there seeking fortune, seeking trade with merchants of culture, I really believe that there are no new answers to be found out there. The Coasts at this point represent fully, thoroughly charted territory.

The real frontier is here in the Hinterland, the land beyond and within, into the forest dark of the soul.

Exploring the Hinterland is not glamorous. It’s slow progress with a machete, hacking through the underbrush. It’s thick with bugs and muck, and creatures in the trees, eyes watching you in the dark. It would be easier, safer, more pleasant to stay on the coast. The sole reason to go inland is simple: the desire to know what’s in there.

~ remedial media ~