Archive for July, 2009

Deliberate Clarity: The Thermals and The Seventh Seal

Last night I watched the Ingmar Bergman film The Seventh Seal. It’s probably the first european art movie I had ever heard of, and it carries a ponderous reputation. I’m happy to report that this is not the case. The film practically zips along–its examination of faith and death is bracing, not headache-inducing. My teenage cousins, who happen to be staying with me this week, joined in watching and enjoyed themselves. It was funny, even.

Of course, the film does not have a fluffy subject. The Seventh Seal is the story of a medieval knight, back from the crusades, returning to his home amidst the Black Plague. As he plays a game of chess with Death, our knight struggles with the nature of faith.

Creator Ingmar Bergman makes the concerns of the film readily apparent. Instead of concealing his knight’s religious inquiries in other language, the knight just comes right out and says he wants proof of God’s existence. Instead of hinting that the knight desires to accomplish one good task before dying, he has the knight announce this aim. This straightforwardness reminds me a lot of the most recent album by The Thermals, Now We Can See, which tackles similar issues with a deliberate clarity.* Nearly every tune addresses death and dying, right out in the open, in a midtempo pace.

A lack of subtlety usually offends. When an artwork is unsubtle, it usually gets repetitive and doesn’t nourish the brain. So how does Bergman (or The Thermals) pull it off? In part, I think it’s because both are searching for clarity. The quest to understand has made them better communicators. They cast their artistic nets widely to improve their yield. But each also juxtaposes the search for meaning against more complex systems. If the knight seems like a point A to point B kind of guy, this is because he so strongly contrasts with the story’s ritualistically tangled (and member-hungry) Catholic church. If The Thermals feel so clean-cut, it’s in part because their peers in independent music have developed such highly orchestrated, obscurantist sound-poems.** But that’s not the sum of it. Both Bergman and The Thermals drive their clarity to the brink of enlightenment, but ultimately come up empty-handed. Unlike other unsubtle works, the ultimate meaning of death is never revealed. They haven’t got it figured out.

I’m still struggling with this concept of the Satisfying, Unsubtle Work. Do you have an example? Please write in.

*I wonder if they’re Bergman fans. The previous Thermals album concerned the distortions of religious zealoutry, which is certainly on Bergman’s mind.

** I like a lot of these obscurantist sound-poems, and even feel a bit ashamed for enjoying an album like Now We Can See, which seems so musically unadventurous and unprogressive in comparison. Then I get ashamed for being ashamed in the first place. Oh, it’s so complicated to be me!

The Annotated Asterios Polyp, Pt. 3

This brief chapter sketches out most (but not all) of the important biographical details about Asterios Polyp: he’s a paper architect, he has mainly been employed as a teacher, and he is the living half of identical twins. Just as importantly this chapter demonstrates how his worldview influences his perception, an issue addressed more directly at several later points. The layout, symbolism, and language choices actually tell us quite a bit more about Asterios than the narrative itself.

Pages 15-16: Two circular portraits of Asterios Polyp, the first in health, and the second in the rain. Blue dominates the first, and the second is shrouded in purple and yellow. The shape of the portrait suggests a coin. Asterios Polyp certainly has a coin-worthy profile. As Raymond Williams reminds us, the word character has roots in Greek(!) engraving practices:

Character came into English from fw caractère, F, character, L, from the Greek word for an engraving or impressing instrument: the rw is of sharpening, furrowing, engraving. This sense has persisted in the context of the letters of the alphabet or other graphic symbol; in the period C14-C16 it was widely used of any   impressed sign. The application to people developed, metaphorically, from this, with special reference to the    face: “by characters graven on thy brows” (Marlowe,  Tamburlaine, I, 1, ii); “a minde that suites with this thy    faire and outward character” (Twelfth Night, 1, ii).*

It might, then, be fair to say that by being represented on a coin, our protagonist gains a chiseled, immutable character. This is certainly not the case. Over the course of the novel Asterios Polyp changes his habits and his prejudices. But nonetheless Asterios views himself as a fixed constant. He believes in ironclad principles, maintains a steadfast presence, and sees pattern even in the face of catastrophe.

Not just anyone makes it onto a coin. Usually we see heads of state or other historic figures on coinage. Mazzucchelli (with help from Asterios himself) elevates Asterios to this lofty position. And we haven’t even addressed the expression “two sides of the same coin.” Most of all, though, Asterios is Janus here, as in the expressed “Janus-faced”.

Page 16: The “This” in “This is Asterios Polyp” reminds me of those Chris Ware, who is one of a fleet of other independent cartoonists exploring issues of nostalgia and memory.

“If it were possible for me to narrate this story, I’d begin here.” The “me” refers to Ignazio Polyp, Asterio’s dead brother. How can someone who never existed narrate a story? “Ignazio” isn’t sure either, which suggest to me that we can’t exactly call him the narrator. In one sense, this is the beginning of narration. The first chapter of the book unfolded nearly wordlessly: there wasn’t a single caption, and the only dialogue was previously recorded. Yet there is a master framer at work who visually narrates the story, and “Ignazio” indicates in this sentence that the story has already begun somewhere else, as in a few pages earlier.**

“Right now”—the year 2000.

Page 17: “teaching at a university in Ithaca” The university is probably Cornell, which has a longstanding and highly theoretical architecture program, but Ithaca is also a Greek island, famous in myth for being the home of Odysseus. It took Odysseus twenty years to get back; Asterios has been gone for seven.

“in fact, none of his designs had ever been built.” The tone here suggests that Asterios isn’t entirely happy being a paper architect; he’d like to bring his ideas into existence. However, this runs against his tendency to favor the perfect abstraction over messy reality.

Page 18: Asterios sits on a cubist throne overlooking basic shapes and Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns. Realism was the watchword of most Greek sculpture, and for many the royal road to realism was geometry. Cubism broke with traditional understandings of representation by trying to do the eye one better and show all sides simultaneously. This was a fundamental break between objectivity and human perception. Asterios wears a laurel wreath here—in Greece it’s associated with the winners of competitions and with the god Apollo. Apollo usually stands for order, truth, and reason; his brother Dionysus brings disorder.

This page also includes our first peek at Hana.

Page 19: Modernism with a Human Face is a pretty funny joke: the Joseph-Albers-like image on the front is far from human.

Hey, Apollonian vs. Dionysian tendencies! That paid off quickly. Maybe the most famous treatment of these tropes is Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, which takes a critical stance on later Greek theater and Socratic philosophy for overemphasizing Apollonian tendencies and ignoring Dionysian. This early salvo of Nietzsche’s favored a balance of the two; the later Nietzsche attempts to jettison Apollo altogether.

Asterios Polyp clearly favors the Apollonian—does this make him imbalanced?

Page 20: Note the skewed perspective of his room as a boy. Asterios is reading books about twins: The Prince and the Pauper, The Man in the Iron Mask. The chess set, the picture of Romulus and Remus, the illustration of TweedleDee and TweedleDum, and the double-helix bedsheets demonstrate his early obsession with his dead brother. Look out the window. There’s a plane in the air. We’ll see this plane a few more times in the book.

“an exasperated Ellis Island official had cut the family name in half, leaving only the first five letters”—what are the next five letters? Could it be something like Polypousos, or perhaps Polythemus, the Cyclops in the Odyssey?

A polyp is a sac and tentacles, basically. They reproduce asexually. Medical polyps are abnormal growths. These are not the most pleasant associations. Aglia Olio might be a reference to the dish aglio olio, spaghetti with clam sauce—let’s see if that pays off.

“caesarian section”—another Greco-roman reference, and the return of cutting/splitting as a theme.

Page 21: Ignazio could stand for Ignazio Danti, the mathematician, architect, and astronaut, although that linkage is not rock-solid.

“not again”—a rare thought balloon in the work. I would bet that “not again” refers to losing his complement or double. First he loses Ignazio, then he loses Hana, and now he’s lost the video copy of himself.

*See the entry on “Personality” in his Keywords

** Is Ignazio also possible reference to Ignatz mouse from Krazy Kat? Ignatz famously hurled bricks at Krazy Kat, which s/he took to be missives of love. Ignatz is obviously a poor communicator; is Ignazio?

Movie capsule reviews, 7/26

I’ve been watching movies!

A Night to Remember: My sister and I watched this film about the sinking of the Titanic as a black comedy. It worked! In near-real time, a series of mental lapses spelled the ship’s downfall. The chronicling of these domino-ing mistakes reminded me of The Wire. The script lays out the failure of the Modern World a little thickly, but the brisk second half and the still-impressive scenes of the tipped dining room made my viewing worthwhile.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno: I wasn’t expecting much from this, and I didn’t get much, but there are at least two noteworthy aspects of this film. The first is that the plot (let’s make a movie [in this case, a pornography] at my dead-end job) basically retells writer/director Kevin Smith’s own origin story. The second is that the soundtrack choices are superb. The Pixies’ “Hey” colors a scene of sexual jealousy, while Blondie’s “Dreaming” illustrates the imaginative pull of infatuation.

Samurai I–Musashi Miyamoto: my thoughts are of the “wait-and-see” variety with this one, as it’s the first of a trilogy and ends on a cliffhanger. Once again Toshiro Mifune electrifies as a wild fighter in feudal japan.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974): I love the myth of crumbling ’70s New York as narrated in musical histories, that “Drop Dead” headline, and movies like this. The grime and deep colors really pop; take a look at Walter Matthau’s yellow tie, for instance. The film, about a hostage crisis on a subway car, puts its burning questions right out in the open: how do the criminals think they’re going to get away with this? which of the hostages is secretly an undercover cop? The pacing is watertight–it’s another movie that takes place in near-real time. Walter Matthau is wonderfully understated as the harried subway cop who realizes what’s going on just a little later than we’d expect him to.

Metropolitan: I sold this movie to my sister as Hal Ashby does Gossip Girl. We follow the man character as he infiltrates a coterie of young rich Manhattanites. As in Ashby movies, the characters each have inner lives that we’re forced to ferret out for much of the movie. And it doesn’t hurt that central character Tom Townsend resembles a young Bud Cort. There’s something about seeing young people act like adults that puts me on edge (I think it’s jealousy). The dialogue can sting at times, because like all young people, the characters say a lot of stupid things smartly. If you like Ashby, Wes Anderson, or Noah Baumbach this is right up your alley.

Annotated Asterios Polyp, Pt. 2: The Towering Inferno

An administrative note: I’m gonna try to keep my parceling out of information even, so that I’m not saying everything to be said about, say, the use of color in the book all at once. But I will try to direct readers to stuff that will be important later, and I will get spoiler-ish at times.

So:

cosmoslet’s call this Page 1. Most of the chapters begin with a centered rectangular image on odd-numbered pages, but this might not become apparent until Chapter 3 or so, since the beginning of Ch. 2 is a circle containing Asterios’ visage. For now, though, we can just take this in as it is. Space. The cosmos. Or is it? It’s just blue dots on a purple background. Space will be important to Asterios, in many ways. First of all, this image begins a sequence in which the heavens destroy his apartment. Asterios will downplay the significance of this in a few chapters, but nature will make a stunning return toward the end of the novel. Secondly, he’s an architect, so “space” will be important to his work. Lastly, Asterios is ambivalent on the question of fate/destiny, for which the cosmos are a common metaphor. While he will dismiss astrology in a later chapter, he is susceptible to a number of superstitious beliefs, especially regarding his twin Ignazio. Asterios also retains a strong interest in greek culture, which would certainly include buying into the zodiac.

But in a first read-through, this page is the beginning of our descent to Asterios’s apartment.

Page 2: those rocky-looking shapes on page 1, which on first blush appeared to be space, now look like particles in the purple clouds. Panel 2 shows these clouds gathering over Manhattan. You can make out the World Trade Center (later we learn Asterios is fond of WTC because of its “twin towers”).

Page 3: a bolt of lightning splits the page in half. In greek mythology, Zeus, king of the gods, wields a thunderbolt. This will be important later on.

twintowers

Page 4: here’s where Asterios lives (it’s the left tower). Already we’ve got a lot of doubling going on. There’s tons to come. From panel 2, we can see that things have seriously gone wrong in Asterios’ life. a picture hangs unevenly in one corner, dishes are piled in the sink, and the rain coming in from open windows threatens his midcentury modernist furniture. You’ll notice that Asterios has kept the dresser and coffee table that Hana buys him in the 80s.

Page 5: more of the flotsam from Asterios’s shipwrecked life. A word balloon drifts into each of the three panels. They’re all wobbly, but the first and third are more circle-y than the second, which is almost rectangular. The speakers are Hana and Asterios, but we don’t know that yet; Asterios always speaks in rectangular word balloons. The third balloon’s language is legible: it reads, “mmm . . . oohh . . . that’s good . . .” This conversation is about food, but again we don’t know that yet. The way this last balloon slinks and curls its way around a door, forming a voluptuous B, it’s no wonder I thought it was something sexual. Then again, for Asterios, there probably is a connection between food and sex.

Lots of menacing bank notices pile up on the desk. If the apartment didn’t burn up, he’d be in trouble anyway. He’s got 47 messages waiting on his answering machines. There’s a mug with “Thirteen” on the label. Thirteen is the New York Public Television station (it’s also probably been about 13 years since Asterios saw Hana). 13 is also steeped in superstition: it’s often an unlucky or foreboding number. I could go on and on, but just take a look at the wikipedia page.

Page 6: This is the first time we see Asterios in the book proper, and the first panel gives us a rare frontal view. He’s unshaven and has bags under his eyes. Defying our expectations, he’s wearing a dress shirt and slacks (that is, he’s not having sex, and even if he were watching porn, he’s not masturbating). The glow from the tv creates a blue shadow that spreads around the room and out the window. In panels 1 and 2, Asterios is doubled by his shadow. Asterios absentmindedly plays with a lighter. We can also see that the videocassette boxes are labeled by date.

Page 7: Lightning again separates the page, separating the color plane into deep purlpe and white. Asterios himself seems halved by the flash. The rational perspective also departs for a more expressionistic arrangement of the walls.

Page 8: Introduction of the color yellow: here is serves as a warning (the “eet eet eet” of the fire alarm) and danger itself (the fire). We get an angled frame of Asterios looking out the window, and what he sees.

hop

Page 9: This delightful panel illustrates some classically cartoony lines of movement: the double hop, the jumping beads of sweat, and the double-lined arch of the back. It helps humanize a character we might have erroneously labeled a pervert. As the fire alarm continues to sound in the background, Asterios rushes around to salvage a few items whose value we’ll learn about much later.

Page 10: How does Asterios make it out first? This reminds me at first of that Seinfeld episode in which George Costanza knocks over children and old ladies to escape a fire, but that’s not what’s really going on. Instead, he’s first because he’s alone.

Page 13: The fire takes a slightly different route than we did through the apartment, destroying everything. Instead of heading into the bedroom, it turns off into another room, where we see more labeled videotapes, walls of them. Whoever this guy is, he’s obsessed with something.

The Annotated Asterios Polyp, Pt. 1: Cover and creator background

For the past week I’ve been wrestling with Asterios Polyp, the new graphic novel by acclaimed artist David Mazzucchelli. This book is about as deep as you want it to go, but never loses its brisk pace or overwhelms the reader with complicated imagery. This book deserves more than a mere review, which is why I’ve decided to annotate it chapter-by-chapter.

Asterios Polyp is an architect and lecturerwho loses his home to a fire in the year 2000. He attempts to start anew by fleeing the city and working as an auto mechanic. The rest of the book  alternates between chapters set in 2000 and chapters that provide background to the character, explaining both his philosophy and his failed marriage. As we learn more about Asterios, stray details and seeming non-sequiturs become imbued with significance.

Continue reading ‘The Annotated Asterios Polyp, Pt. 1: Cover and creator background’

The Photographer

The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders

story and photos – Didier Lefèvre    writing and art – Emmanuel Guibert   layout and colors – Frédéric Lemencier

Alexis Siegel – English Translator              all images © 2009 by First Second

"Me? But I've Never Shot at Anything."

The Photographer plays around with the hoary trope that shooting guns and shooting cameras are roughly equivalent. But Guibert, Lefèvre, and Lemencier do not resurrect the trope for nothing; they frame the camera’s complicity as part of a larger narrative about Western responsibility toward the rest of the world.

Continue reading ‘The Photographer’

A few words on the media

I just want to take a moment or two to flesh out my understanding of the duties of  news media to its public. All this sounds pretty puritan, but I guess that’s who I am.

In a democracy people are asked to make decisions that affect not just themselves, but their entire country. In the U.S., which intervenes in the world through both aid and militarism, those decisions also affect much of the world as well. That’s an awful lot of responsibility, and an awful lot of information to sort through. For instance, another national health care debate is looming, and the various proposed plans are complicated and subtle. But people make do with the pittance of information they have, and do form opinions about health care.

It’s no surprise that people shirk this responsibility all the time. There’s not much we can do about that. Human beings need to divide their time in healthy ways. But news media can better assist people who are trying to exercise this responsibility, by working as the disinterested* specialists who can provide good schematic views of the major issues, as well as holding open debates about just what those issues are.

My crude model for what is newsworthy follows Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. News describing basic living conditions should be most important, followed by what we usually think of as lighter news: sports and entertainment. Healthy human beings do need art in their lives, but humans need to be healthy first.**

This is why I let Michael Jackson coverage drive me crazy.*** His art may provide solace to some, but the extended news rollout is out of proportion to the decisions people need to make in life. People hungry for more information on his death have plenty of options, so general and political news should look elsewhere and highlight more important matters.

*disinterested is not the same thing as perfectly objective. It describes an attitude, not a position. Engaged adults are aware that biases may exist in coverage, and are able so sort through them, and make use of multiple sources, to piece together their own accounts of events.

** so why do I usually write about art instead of capital P Politics? I lack the tools to be a successful newsman, but I can be a cultural critic. Plus, as anyone who spent time with me in grad school knows, I’m a committed generalist–my project is to see how well-informed a nonspecialist can be.

***plus, it’s easy to forget in these poptimist, end-of-monoculture days, but to a certain generation of independent and alternative musicians (who played formidible roles in my upbringing) Michael Jackson was The Enemy. That’s probably a whole other post.


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