A Workshop on Making Deviled Eggs

Batman Turns 75


Batman Beyond (2014)

How many characters can you name at the end of this video?


Also see Bruce Timm's Batman: Strange Days

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Pix Sell!


8-Bit Cinema (2013 - 2014)


I love watching little pixel-people scuttling about on the screen with single-minded purpose. They are the most uncomplicated people you will find: monosyllabic but demonstrative, like when they express anger, success, happiness or experience death. *thud*. game over. They are always busy, and in a hurry to get somewhere; and they feel the need to do things faster than we do in real life. You will never find a character idling away. I think there's a valuable lesson there (among other valuable lessons that I won’t get into today)!

Many years ago, I wrote down the walking speeds of many characters: the thief in Lode Runner, Donkey Kong, Mario... and compared them to that of the average human walking speed, keeping in mind different physical criteria (like size of characters, dimensions of their world, proportionate distances etc...)! My assessment may not have been mathematically accurate, but it was my way of celebrating the speed at which things happened in games! And overtime, all this interaction with video game characters in their two-dimensional worlds that allowed them to defy the laws of physics convinced me that they are definitely on a different time-space continuum and were messing up my circadian rhythm, if you will. You are forced to react to things hurled at you faster than you would otherwise, so you get into a zone by shutting off the world around you that’s moving slower, so that you can focus and channel your telekinetic abilities. And that also explains why games make you forget hunger, sleep and other biological needs. Even now, I find myself humming chiptunes when I am crunching numbers, doing mechanical work, or running to get to some place quick. They've proven to get the job done better.

Technically, all video games and movies we watch online are pixels moving on the screen (which is astounding when you think of it like that), but, the 8-bit style is more evidently so because of its straight-liney, hard-edgy, square-boxey aspects, and limited color palettes. Everything is pared down to the very basic, where a single dot is the difference between a man or a woman, anger or joy, and it still retains that evocative, and sometimes garish sensibility. The same goes for music, which is pared down to its basic frequencies. It reminds me of the type of rules-based traditional art I grew up learning in India. And it is also the same reason why I am drawn to LEGO!

Today, the 8-bit style has evolved beyond its humble gaming-days, when it was limited by a single-purpose. It is a goldmine of artistic possibilities for both the visual and music world! There is a profundity in the idea that what we see and what we hear both come from the exact same place! It changes how we think about art.

Cinefix’s 8-bit (and 16-bit) movies are fun because they compress popular movies (including some challenging ones) into two-minute videos (some adapted faithfully, like Hunger Games, and some reinterpreted very well, like Inception). And part of the experience is in guessing which games inspired each movie, and seeing the familiar games role-play our favorite movies. Fanboys will not be disappointed. And while you are at it, also check out some cool movie gifs by Pixelwood.

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Fifty Shades of Jane!

prideandprejudice

Pride and Prejudice (1813)



Yesterday was the 201st anniversary of the first publication of Pride and Prejudice. But, it was in fact written seventeen years before that, when Austen was still as young and spirited as Lizzy. She carried the book with her for almost half her life before it was finally published, only to depart from it and this world four years later. In those seventeen years, she had experienced a tumultuous life that was to change who she was and the course of women all over the world for all time.

When she first wrote the book, her father made an earnest attempt to get it published, but it was to wait almost two decades before Thomas Egerton agreed to publish it, albeit at Austen’s expense. Curiously, Egerton specialized in military and political works until then, and Austen was his first woman novelist. He was also her publisher for Sense and Sensibility the year before. Pride and Prejudice was so popular that it caught on with readers more quickly through word-of-mouth than printed advertisements, so that a second edition had to be printed within nine months of the first edition coming out.

At that time, Austen was only the second generation of novelists. Novels were a fairly new form of literature. They became popular in the mid-18th century when the middle class expanded and there was a demand for secular stories driven not by plot, but by individuals. But, most of them were written by men, and were adventures centered around larger-than-life male heroes, usually in imaginary worlds, with women playing insignificant roles in the stories. Even the novels centered around women were mostly written by men and portrayed them as being modest and meek, or as they were meant to be.

Austen is the first novelist in history to capture ordinary life in the Regency era. Her men and women are rooted in reality and come in every imaginable shade of character. Compared to her contemporaries, her characters are bold and the flirtations are akin to today's Fifty Shades of Grey, only more eloquent and reflective. I particularly savor the way she captures the constant negotiation of expectations and impressions between the commodities in the story, that is the “eligible” suitors in the marriage market. The conversations between them are crisp, witty and full of revealing gestures, but more importantly, intentional, and often driven through indirect discourses. Every conversation, every situation and every letter arrives with perfect timing, so that the plot always moves along in unexpected ways. We are forever reappraising characters and becoming aware of their lack of self-knowledge. Everyone’s foibles and the ironies of their life are so relatable, that you delight in them because it is your reality.

Her stories are primarily human and about the pursuit of truths through sharp satire. She once criticized her niece’s draft novel for portraying people in Dawlish gossiping about news from Lyme, which is forty miles away and would not be talked of there. That is the level of adherence to fact and societal accuracy that she aimed for, which makes her works important historic documents. Her truths are loaded and “universally acknowledged”, and lay all the societal pretensions bare and impossible to dispute!

What also sets her apart from novelists during her times is her lack of indulgence in prose about material things and the description of settings. Her characters are almost entirely preoccupied with calibrating delicate feelings and abstract nouns to take notice of their surroundings. They display a desire to understand what shapes people’s consciousness and their character and morality, and what dictates their choices.

And because abstract nouns have a universal appeal, she inspires every kind of intellectual dialogue imaginable. Her work speaks different things to different generations and cultures and academicians (and also to Orangutans). It has been superimposed by so many adaptations that the mind attempts to summon Darcy only to be distracted by Olivier or Firth or whoever else made a bold attempt at being devastatingly handsome (or devastatingly conceited)!

Along with the adaptations, there are a whole sleuth of biographies attempting to construct a woman who seems almost mythical in her attainments. When Austen first wrote Pride and Prejudice, she was a teenager with little formal education, gaining knowledge solely from the books in her father’s library. And it is that tiny world that inspired novels of such depth and beauty, and insight into society and politics. One wonders how!

When I read Pride and Prejudice today, I imagine my grandmom as a young teenager, holding the very same book, and swooning over Darcy, or admiring a clever Elizabeth Bennet and marveling at the society in England back in the days! Along with the book, my grandmom also passed on hope and that love comes from pursuing the truth of one’s own character. I find Austen's persistence as a writer, through all the hardships particularly inspiring! I also take comfort in reading the bits of her unfinished novels in Juvenilia because nothing about what I do is every complete. I can’t tell if I love her more or her works, because they, and their journey are also a reflection of who she is. Jane Austen and her Pride and Prejudice came close to being in extremis, only to become immortal.

Last year, BBC recreated the Netherfield Ball for the 200th anniversary celebration of Pride and Prejudice, and shared a 90-minute Making-of documentary called Pride and Prejudice: Having a Ball! Also, there is an online exhibition called What Jane Saw, which attempted to reconstruct the art exhibit of Sir Joshua Reynolds paintings at the British Institution in Pall Mall that Austen talks about in Pride and Prejudice. Back then, the exhibition was the first commemorative museum show dedicated to a single artist, and something of a pop-culture phenomenon! Austen was something of a Rob Fleming of High Fidelity of her times, and kept up with all the who’s-whos and so-and-sos of her time and wove them into her stories. Many of the character descriptions in Pride and Prejudice were said to have been inspired by Sir Joshua Reynolds portraits. Finally, here is Pride and Prejudice cartoon by Jen Sorenson.


austen_googledoodle

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Emergent Creativity


Blade Runner: The Aquarelle Edition (2013)


Anders Ramsell animated 12597 remarkably tiny (1.5 x 3 cms) hand-painted aquarelle works of the Blade Runner to create this stunning adaptation. The artistry here is staggering when one considers the difficulty of working with water colors. The aquarelle method uses transparent splashes of paint to create layered artwork that blends realism with abstraction. Because of its fluidity, you have little to no room for error. Once you commit your brush to paper, you go for it like you are aiming for an apple on a man's head. Add to that, Ramsell even manages movement and transformation in his art through the evocative use of color, which is astounding. I wonder how many more paintings he made for this movie that he didn't include in it.

In a way, The Aquarelle Edition serves well as a metaphor for the number of times Blade Runner has been re-cut or readapted. Each version of Blade Runner has either attempted to fine tune the original or offer a fresh take. In a sense, they have all added a new coat of paint to existing furniture. The original movie itself is an adaptation of Philip K. Dick's book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Today, there are more copyrighted alternate cuts and illegal fan edits of the movie than one can count.

I love Blade Runner. But, beyond my own fixation with the movie, I find that it affirms my belief that the space for alternate cuts is limitless. Each cut of this movie is as meritorious and popular as the other, and does not dilute the spirit of and a fan’s love for the original. This Aquarelle Edition further validates this opinion.

It is in sync with the fan-fiction tradition that we’ve been following for centuries now. Adaptations are like modern folk tales or epic poetries that survived by way of approximate transference over many generations and mediums. When novels first came out in the eighteenth century, readers who were used to folk tradition, continued to feel entitled to own fictional characters and reimagine them in their own stories.

For instance, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe spawned many unauthorized sequels, satires, plays, adaptations, and even merchandise. Even back then, there was discussion on authorship and “original expression”, even though it didn't translate to a formal legal foundation around copyright. The discussion then must have been much like the discussion now on the hellish consequences of regular people owning 3D printers and making knockoffs of products. (I am dying to copy every damnedest designer jewelry or product there is that I have never needed or wanted, just for payback).

Even in the first half of the nineteenth century much of the culture was available for unreserved reuse. Moreover, even protected works (usually paintings, and rarely literature) were protected only against literal copying. It was only as businesses began to make deeper investments in cultural expression that copyright and fair-use were given attention.

The case that laid the foundation for fair-use was Folson v. Marsh in 1841, on whether a new biography of George Washington could use letters that had been collected and published by an earlier biographer. It turned out to be a dialogue between Republican ideology that celebrated uninhibited access to knowledge, and the profit-oriented media industry advocating copyright protection. The end result was the creation of more stringent pro-market laws that went on to shape our attitudes.

Some authors began to show a desire to own fictional characters as legal property, but they were also fickle-minded about ownership. For instance, when Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin became a cult classic, it spawned several profitable but unauthorized copycat novels and merchandise. But, she didn’t seem to mind being cheated of licensing fees, because she was earning record-breaking royalties for the original. However, she later sued a German translation of the book in the US. I suspect this is because the sales of the translated book ate into her profits. Germans were the biggest immigrant group in the country, and in fact made up a third of the country at that time. Even though she lost the case, I have a feeling she might have won it if she had chosen to sue the english copycat novels that she let pass instead.

Even in our times, companies that have seen many Fan-edits of their films, have only on some occasions (and quite inconsistently and inexplicably) sued appropriators for causing customer confusion or for expropriating or leveraging their success.

I am both a fair use and anti-piracy advocate. I like the space that encourages both new and inspired material, and celebrates creative talent. I see creativity as a social phenomenon as much as individual expression. This is relevant especially in our times where the internet is full of impromptu creative literary and artistic works done purely for the love of art.

It would be deplorable therefore, if this Aquarelle Edition of the Blade Runner was ever to be sued for copyright infringement. We would be doing a huge disfavor to our culture, and crippling artists who find creativity through inspiration from others’ works.

The privilege of referencing pre-existing works (passive fair-use), or using source material to churn out new products (transformative fair-use) is exercised everyday in news programs, social networks and artworks. Fair-use is simple to apply and most of it is done legally, and oftentimes even when we think we are doing it illegally. There are no fair-use laws as such, and no one needs to authorize your decision. In fact, fair users don’t even have to worry about carrying over the legal encumbrances of the source material, and the nitty-grittys of their copyright and licensing arrangements, as long as they are using the material "fairly". And because fairness is a grey area, you exercise fair-use through self-belief, with some adherence to suggested guidelines, and keep your fingers crossed in the event of a challenge.

The truth is, the discussion around fair-use is as unreadable as a kiss scene in the Twilight Saga. It hasn’t matured one bit to accommodate our new culture. Artists, intellectual property owners and courts routinely take subjective and unpredictable views on what can be deemed fair use and what can’t. Verdicts change from artist to artist, work to work and judge to judge. There are as many fair use cases being ruled in favor of owners as there are being ruled in favor of appropriators, and the logic behind the judgment is as elusive as a unicorn.

Copyright exponents suffer from tunnel-vision with their unswerving adherence to the concept of originality. They are purblind to the wonders of reclaimed narratives and liberated creativity. But, originality is a fictitious concept in art, and now, it is mostly legal fiction. To come up with sensible copyright laws and fair-use guidelines one needs to understand art as being creative and transmissive, but not necessarily original.

In philosophy, Carl Jung says every man’s unconscious has a feminine part called anima (likewise, he calls a female’s male part animus) that transcends his physical psyche. It can be identified as the totality of the unconscious. The anima cannot be separated from the man’s physical form as an independent part! The man may not even be aware of his anima, but he sees it in the woman who he finds fascinating.

I see artistic works much in the same way. Art has many parts, but also an unconscious anima that is born out of the whole, but cannot be precisely delineated from it. It is the space where creativity and originality take shape. When inspired art unintentionally derives from original art, the former is like the man and the latter is like his anima. When inspired art intentionally derives from the original art, then the former is like the man, but the latter is like the woman, where they are attracted to each other because they find their own anima and animus in each other.

Jung says, if the man and woman merge into one identity, then he will adopt the character of her animus and she will adopt the character of his anima. What happens therefore is that it is not the man and woman who play with each other, but their anima and animus!

Any artwork is a puzzle of intimately interconnected parts that can only be understood by referencing the whole; but the whole cannot be pared down to its individual parts. Somewhere in the making of the whole, the parts create a soul. This soul is always original, even if it is created using borrowed material. When you see art in this manner, you see that its purpose is to pollinate future culture. Even when art is redolent of the past, it means for itself to be brand new; and it can only be assessed on how well it has lived up to that intention of being new. A period film, for instance, may intend to be truthful to the past, and in that way, may not be "original", but we still find in it its unique soul, and how it brings the past into the present!

Everyone makes work on the basis of, and in reference and relationship to existing work.  From a legal point of view, proving any creation as originating from nothing, except one’s own innermost being, would require dissecting all the creative processes and stripping the work down to the basics. In doing so, most works that we hold in high esteem, as being the product of some “auteur” would be invalidated; but more importantly, such a striptease would not only be impossible in many cases, but would also undermine the true spirit of creativity.

Moreover, copyright laws’ emphasis on individual authors and works is a distortion of reality. In the music and film world (and even in the book world, and most of the art world), the end product is the work of many people willingly working in tandem. The dissection of a piece to prove originality is both impossible and futile! This is also true for fan-edits. Most of them are done by the digerati within a collaborative network that draws liberally from many sources. The original is oftentimes untraceable.

It is regrettable therefore that there is a sharp divide between those fighting to retain control of their works and those who want to draw on them to create new products.

There is a lot of valuable deliberation on copyright and fair use in both legal and social media circles, but most of the delibration revolves around improving regulatory laws, and coming up with fair use guidelines. But, because we are generating a huge body of fair-use work, it would also be useful to create of a legally viable space, such as a fair-use agora or a Fairuse-Con (like Comic-Con) where "transformative" fair-use videos such as fan-edits, parodies, satires, and other inspired works can be celebrated and encouraged, at least for non-commercial pleasure.

There are more fair-use videos out there than actual copyrighted works, and most of them are susceptible to legal action. This cannot be good. Fair use videos need to breathe freely, because when they do, an Aquarelle Edition of Blade Runner is born! Because there is no such thing as too much Blade Runner!

My previous post on fair use: "anmoku no ryokai"
A NYTimes video: "Allergy to Originality"

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Binging on Bill

billwatterson

Watterson & Thompson's Exhibition (2014)


The painting above is Bill Watterson's tribute to Petey Otterloop from Richard Thompson's Cul de Sac. It is Watterson's first public art in more than 15 years, and was done for Thompson's Parkinson's fundraising project that over hundred cartoonists contributed to.

Watterson is a very selective endorser. He's also a media recluse. So when I read his foreword praising Thompson's Cul de Sac, I was eager to read it just to see what was so special about it that made him not want to contain himself.

"I thought the best newspaper comic strips were long gone, and I've never been happier to be wrong. Richard Thompson's Cul de Sac has it all--intelligence, gentle humor, a delightful way with words, and, most surprising of all, wonderful, wonderful drawings.

Cul de Sac's whimsical take on the world and playful sense of language somehow gets funnier the more times you read it. Four-year-old Alice and her Blisshaven Preschool classmates will ring true to any parent. Doing projects in a cloud of glue and glitter, the little kids manage to reinterpret an otherwise incomprehensible world via their meandering, nonstop chatter. But I think my favorite character is Alice's older brother, Petey. A haunted, controlling milquetoast, he's surely one of the most neurotic kids to appear in comics. These children and their struggles are presented affectionately, and one of the things I like best about Cul de Sac is its natural warmth. Cul de Sac avoids both mawkishness and cynicism and instead finds genuine charm in its loopy appreciation of small events. Very few strips can hit this subtle note."


Apart from the foreword, the only other time I saw him in the news was also when he made the Petey Otterloop portrait!

"I thought it might be funny to paint Petey “seriously,” as if this were the actual boy Richard hired as a model for his character. At first I intended to do the picture in a dark, Rembrandt-like way to accentuate the “high art” of painting vs the “low art” of comics — the joke being that the comic strip is intelligent and the painting is idiotic — but the picture went through quite a few permutations as it developed.

I found it interesting how the comical distortions in a cartoony drawing become freakish and grotesque when they’re depicted more three-dimensionally. (You sometimes see this in computer rendering and animation.)

Anyway, by the end, I wasn’t sure whether the painting came out funny or creepy, but I hope it’s intriguing somehow. The result surprised me, so I enjoyed it."

So it is undeniable that Watterson is obsessed with Richard Thompson, and it is making him less reclusive.

Both artists will be featured in The Ohio State University's Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum’s new exhibition galleries from March 22 to July 6, 2014.

Mental Floss shared an except of a rare and exclusive interview with Bill Watterson on their website. The full interview will be published in the December issue of their magazine.

Also, next month, Dear Mr. Watterson, a documentary film about Bill Watterson will release in theaters, and video-on-demand. It is available for pre-order on their website.

While we are on the subject of binging on Bill Watterson, here are
His 2010 interview, (his first since 1989); and
His 1989 speech at The Ohio State University.

He offers a wealth of insight on everything from his work to comic art and comic business.
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anmoku no ryokai

warmbodies

Warm Bodies (2013)

Japanese manga publishers are okay with fans remixing, repurposing, deriving from or expanding on their works in the form of dojinshi (self-published works). This is not a legal agreement, but “anmoku no ryokai” (an unspoken agreement, a common business practice that has its roots in Japan's insular history). Thousands of fans illegally sell high-quality dojinshi in comic expos, and publishers ride on the exposure that these dojinshi generate for them, and it’s a win-win for everyone: Dojinshi increase sales of original works; expose potential talent; predict the direction of the manga market; and create new markets. Here’s a fantastic article on this in The Wired! An absolute must read! In fact, I recommend their whole issue dedicated to Manga)

Of course, this is not just a manga praxis. Fan fiction is taking over the media world even in the West, in spite of the all the tightening of legal protection! But when otaku (obsessive interest) empowers fans, nothing can stop Twilight from spawning Fifty Shades of Grey, or Harry Potter from spawning an unauthorised "guidebook" by their fans! The grey market is here and is heating things up fast!

Most blockbusters today release multiple versions of the same movie, aside from the theatrical release: There’s the director’s cut, producer’s cut, extended cut, International cut, “prepared for TV” cut, alternate endings, special editions, and so on. In fact, Blade Runner released multiple versions of each version of the movie, and I suspect they are not fully done with it! But as of today, final cut privilege is given only to bankable filmmakers, and those whose reputations are built on artistic merit! But, why not allow it for the rest?

And, why not allow a Fan’s cut for non-commercial pleasure, especially for films that are adaptations? The filmmakers who make adaptations should be able to relate to fans wanting to realize their version of their favorite book or movie on screen. I find having to rejigger a movie in my head highly inconvenient. I know I will enjoy a more hands-on approach. Someday, I hope filmmakers sell a copy of their post-production files that will let me do this.

There are a lot of movies that I think have great potential, but miss the bus because of the way the story is pieced together! Warm Bodies is one such movie. I want to be able to delete the voiceover, change the background score, cut unnecessary scenes, add deleted scenes, rearrange the plot and customize the movie to my taste; Not just because the movie isn't good as it is, but it is not what I want it to be for myself! I don’t see why this should not be salable. Youtube is full of talented buffs creating spoofs or re-interpreting their favorite movies.

This is not a new idea, even if it was never a legitimate business idea! In India, American movies are often illegally dubbed into regional languages, with “unsuitable” scenes edited out and the dialogues completely misstated with hysterical results. It’s a different matter that nine out of ten times, the audience for these movies are male adults, and those who are in it for the unsuitable content.

Even historically, stealing and re-editing film prints of one country that were not legally available in another was a regular affair. The Nazis, for instance, were notorious for stealing American film prints from Europeans during the Blitzkrieg raids, and re-editing them and changing the names in the credits.

Hollywood has lately been reacting against these unauthorized works, since they are in violation of the control that authors have on their product; and are seen as a destruction of artistic works. But, if a fan’s cut is authorized by the author, and can be made available in a way that keeps our esteem and the recognition for the authors intact, this idea might even pan out in their favor. The authors won't have to give up artistic control as much as retain it while also allowing fans to play with their works.

Many old ‘classics’ that have been adapted into movies with great success; without in anyway diminishing the importance of the original works; if anything, the adaptations have served to re-popularize the original works and prolong our reverence for them!

Films are meant to be enjoyed collectively, rather than individually; film worlds are inhabited rather than consumed. so why not inhabit it collectively? It’s time for a much more enlightened relationship between art creators and their fans, where the interaction is allowed to enhance the viewing experience!
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Long Live Pots, and Roger Ebert!

thepot

The Pot and How to Use it (2010)


Today saw the demise of a great intellect; a man with an insatiable appetite for experiencing life and informing ours, and he did so with sass and class.

While I often find myself thumbing through his film books, poring over his blogs and lists, and the articles he shared on twitter, the most recent book of his that I read was curiously about 'the mystery and romance of the rice cooker'. You might think cooking and Ebert are ill-matched, but it is the only cookbook I have read cover to cover in one sitting; and his rice cooker has gone with him to the Sundance Film Festival and has therefore been legitimized and hallowed by the film world.

I grew up in South India where rice is the predominant staple food, and it continues to be a major part of my diet even today; and when it is not, I am either dreaming about rice and salivating copiously or reading about it; only now, when I cook rice, it is sometimes infused with herbs and vegetables I didn't even know existed. My rice cooker also cooks other grains and pastas, including oatmeal, and my food is served with the kind of wisecracks and anecdotes that he collated in his lifetime. But, when I bought the book, I never intended to try Ebert's recipes as much as enjoy the book for his sake; the scrumptious recipes and health insights only came as a surprise bonus. I picked up Anna Thomas' Vegetarian Epicure, only because he called it "the most influential cookbook in the history of modern vegetarian cooking", and added Marie Sharp's Exotic Sauce and House of Tsang sauces to my condiment arsenal, only because he swore by them, and I do now.

The most intriguing thing about the book for me is the way in which he incorporated the readers' comments from one of his blogpost about rice cookers as a chapter somewhere in the middle of the book, and they flow seamlessly with the rest of the content, as if they were in response to the content in the earlier chapters of the book. This is the only meta-cookbook of this sort that I know; and is telling of Ebert's openness to experience, who after having lost the ability to eat due to cancer was only able to enjoy food vicariously or by way of nostalgia.

The rice cooker allows me to sit at a table and leaf through a book while it does all the cooking. Coincidentally, it is this luxury of leisure that cookers make possible that Ebert too enjoyed about it, and it is this type of relatability in small moments that he brought to his writing that made him appealing. While we both grew up in different worlds and eras, we seemed to have so much in common, and it didn't all boil down to rice, movies and living in our heads. Somewhere, our thoughts manifested our reality in some form or the other.

He wrote this cookbook after he stopped eating ("when it became an exercise more pure, freed of biological compulsion"), he tweeted after he stopped talking; I know he will live on after he has stopped breathing… for me, this is every time I watch a movie, or use the rice cooker, or do a thumbs up or down.

I had been meaning to read his autobiography for a while now. I'll pick it up today, although I know it won't be the same reading it after he has laid down his life as if I had read it before. The book is called Life Itself: A Memoir.

New York Times: Ebert Was a Critic Whose Sting Was Salved by Caring
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The feminist who illustrated through her life!



Wild Wasps & Nipple Fruit (2011)



The animated video above served as a backdrop for Karen Eve Johnson's play about Maria Sibylla Merian, a European naturalist explorer; and Jacoba, an African slave woman in Suriname who is deeply knowledgeable about the jungles of Suriname. I haven't seen the play, and I am not even sure if it is touring, but the trailer was enough to make me giddy, and imagine all of Merian's splendid botanical artwork in movement.

Today is Maria Sibylla Merian's 366th birthday. A few days ago, I wrote about how her art and scientific explorations changed how we see nature. Getty Museum has a beautiful write-up and slideshow (with commentary) about her work. I particularly like the slideshow because it reveals how a young teenager scooped out insects from the mud and observed where they lived and what they ate, and then rendered the whole choreography of the ecosystem for us to see in delightful and visually articulate paintings.

I mentioned in my earlier post that women at that time were banned from pursuing both art and science; science primarily because it required working with nude bodies and corpses. Moreover, working with insects and reptiles was associated with witchcraft; and Merian was born during the peak years of witch-hunt. But, what I also forgot to mention as far as art is concerned is that, this was also a time when women were categorically forbidden from working with oil paints in most of Europe; and were restricted to watercolors because it was a limiting medium, and was associated with amateur work. Materials were therefore gendered, and informed what each work of art meant from a sociological point of view. Employing it the way Merian did however requires a great deal of mastery and virtuosity, which was clearly a skill she honed over many years of training from a real master, her stepfather, Jacob Marrel, a still-life painter of the Dutch Golden Age, who encouraged her to pursue art.

Merian broke every rule in the book when she became an artist and a scientist, and travelled to places farther than most men did to study insects (e.g.: she learnt from tribal people in the jungles of Surniname, which you can imagine wasn't a place many were familiar with at that time); that too as a middle-aged divorced woman with two young daughters. In spite of having no access to formal scientific education, she brought into being the whole study of ecology that deals with the relationship of organisms with their physical surroundings, and transformed science (especially botany and zoology, and within it entymology, or the study of insects) into the structured and disciplined field that it is today. She elevated the quality of botanical illustrations with her exquisite and accurate three-dimensional artwork. What is also fascinating is that she literally changed the language of science, from Latin to vernacular. The result of this was that she wasn't taken seriously by the scientific community during her time, but unconsciously transformed the rules of scientific writing for later decades.

She inspired her own daughters to become artists, publishers and business women. Although, she was married, she later separated from her husband and lived with her mother and two daughters in Amsterdam, and the four women together set up a botanical art studio, and published several artworks, and art and science books. Unfortunately, many of the books that survive today are heavily-used or damaged copies. What is particularly interesting is that she also took interest in teaching silk embroiderers and cabinet makers how to limn flowers. She exquisitely combined fine art with natural philosophy, scientific knowledge, and commerce.

I have lost count of all her exploits; but what is clear is that she had rule-breaking down to a fine art.

I recommend Kim's Todd's Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis, about Merian's life, and her contribution to the metamorphosis of science, an age, and a society.

Here's another slideshow describing her artwork as part of the Royal Collection's Amazing Rare Things. The exhibition was collaborated with David Attenborough, and showcases artists who portrayed natural work with scientific interest from the 15th century onwards. There is also a beautiful coffee table book by the same name.

Here's a youtube video of a lot of her works set to Georg Friedrich Händel's music.




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Choosing a Different Right!

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Summer Wars (2009)

Wired has a three-part interview with William Gibson where he talks about a whole lot of things, from how sci-fi speculations about reality are almost always wrong (and how that's a good thing); to the pointless pleasure of learning how to fix antique watches; and the global spread of punk rock in the pre-internet era. Every time I read his interviews (here's another), he kindles my enthusiasm to pursue a hobby, and know a lot about one thing (anything), and at least something about everything. His conversations are always fascinating and can sustain in many living rooms.

In some ways, he shapes some of what I appreciate in popular and counter culture. Like him, I see science-fiction as being rooted in reality; and even when it is not, I like working out at what point it veers off from reality and takes an imaginary, somewhat realistic alternate path; and then I wonder what our lives might have been like if we had taken that path. Sometimes, we correctly speculate a future phenomenon (example 1, example 2), but may not be able to accurately predict the means we used to arrive at that phenomenon, because they don't always follow a linear path or happen by intention. It's like we choose a different right, from many possible rights! And then, even if some of the rights ultimately lead to the same end, the manner in which they do it becomes important and critical to determining the course of the future. It's like how Acetaminophen (paracetamol) and Ibuprofen both relieve pain, but they have two very different mechanisms of action, where in one sends a message to our hypothalamus and increases our threshold to pain, and the other inhibits the release of hormones (prostaglandins) that trigger pain, and encourages endorphins to flow freely and relieve pain. They therefore come with different side effects, which you want to keep in mind when you decide which one might suit your physical makeup. Likewise, the means to arriving at a phenomenon comes with its set of contingent properties, and they in turn trigger other actions, thereby unfolding many new paths that the future can possibly take off in.

Science fiction writers don't usually look to be accurate in their speculation, as much as imagine another reality, with a willingness to entertain the possibility of the impossible (eg: time travel, parallel universes, gene therapy, advanced AI, etc). However, nine times out of ten, my quest to figure out what is real, what will be real, what is speculative, and what is completely made up, ends up revealing how much more outlandish our reality is in comparison with some of the most outlandish science fiction there is! Few authors manage to break away from what has already been done and create new imaginary worlds. On the flip side, few outlandish things in reality seldom reveal themselves to us immediately, and when they do, they don't seem far out anymore. One such example in our real life is virtual reality, our more intangible counterpart-reality, which has allowed us to experience many realistic interactions and other benefits, and sometimes more realistic than in our physical world, but, it still ceases to be considered palpably real. It has a non-real, fictional component to it that is dependent on our imagination, and is therefore cheated of legitimacy. At the same time, it is so useful that we just can't wish it away.

I think of the virtual world's palpability as being analogous to Aerogel, or frozen smoke; the ultralight solid that is 96% air, and so light that if you hold it in your hand, you can barely see it or feel it. When you put a flower on top of the aerogel, the flower appears to have levitated; and if you suspend the aerogel over burner, with the flower on top of it, the flower won't go up in smoke and appears to defy nature! It supports 4000 times its weight, can withstand a direct blast from two pounds of dynamite;

There were online communities, and virtual worlds forty years before people began to reckon with Facebook and Second Life, and speculate how virtual worlds are affecting our lives. Even in the 1970s, people interacted with each other in fictitious worlds, each with their own subculture driven by both players' imaginations and evolving conventions that became solidified as more worlds evolved and more people became invested in them. But, before the mass of millions caught on to it and it was only limited to a mass of thousands, it became more popular in science fiction, so much that many believed it to be a speculation of the future. Even today, we think of virtual worlds as a present-day phenomenon that's still in its early stages, and are trying to understand how it might impact our life. And now this is reality because we don't know any other reality, and because it is a multiple-reality that we don't fully understand, we have extended our existentialist philosophies and world views to it.

In real life, there is a line between work and play that is clearly defined. Unless you are a sportsperson or an entertainer, and in fact, even if you are a sportsperson or an entertainer, a game is not the centre of your existence. However, in the virtual world the line between work and play is imaginary. Notwithstanding our biological needs, we can do almost everything in the virtual world that we can in the physical world, except here all real life implications happen under the pretext of a game, but can impact our lives just as they do in the physical world! We can run businesses that can make or break our economy, enroll in school, join a religious cult, socialize and play. The metaphorical game of life in the physical world is literally the game of life in the virtual world.

Summer Wars depicts how seamlessly integrated the virtual and real worlds have become. It is a visually explosive fictional drama based on reality. Every frame is like a spectacular painting, and it is only in that that it differs from reality; Such eye-candy is unfortunately in short supply in both our real and virtual worlds, but I can speculate that this caliber of aesthetic will soon take over at least our virtual world, for real.
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She Always Finds the Silver Lining

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Silver Linings Playbook (2012)


Jennifer Lawrence is a terrific actress. I buy into her character in every movie. I see her and I see everything through her, and every other character is worth considering if she thinks so. And the only time I don't see things through Jennifer Lawrence's point of view is when she is not in the scene.  

In every movie I have seen of hers, she stands out as an empathetic person who puts loved ones ahead of herself; she is courageous and goes after what she wants even in the face of death or humiliation; she is talented (both physically and mentally) in spite of her upbringing; she is clear-sighted, perceptive and helps us make sense of things even in circumstances bereft of reason. I often find myself empathising with people who seem slightly off only because she likes them or gets them! And everyone behaves differently around her than when they are alone or with other people, suddenly becoming all the more interesting-- take the scene in Silver Linings where she dances with Chris Tucker, or the scene where almost all the characters meet in Bradley Cooper's house after the big fight at the stadium, and there's a parlay between Bradley Cooper's dad and his friend. You see their quirks come to light in the most endearing way as soon as she barges into the scene! 

Her thriving spirit always prevails, and I come out of the movie ready to take on the world! But, the world always looks rather cruel.

In order to get the full grasp of her movie, you have to put it in perspective of all her other movies. It's like appreciating how the same glass changes forms as it goes through different phase transitions and comes face to face with various elements and changes in temperature. It's the type of quality that makes an actor an auteur.

When she stands straight, the world looks off-kilter.
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Alice Escapes

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Alice's Bucket List (2011 - 2013)


A year and a half ago, I came upon a blog of a young girl suffering from terminal cancer. I had been following her since. She had an ambitious bucket list on her blog that included aspirations not just for herself but for 'everyone'; and was conquering it so steadily and indefatigably that I almost forgot that she had cancer except when she mentioned her treatment in passing. Even then, it was near impossible to see the suffering.

Middle of last year, she had completed all the doable-things on her bucket list (with the exception of the things she meant for us to do), but continued to be more active than ever.

On January 1st of this year, I had read her usual spirited post, and she seemed to have many things to look forward to. Today, I went back to find that she had a change of heart and chose to achieve them in the next world.

Here's a link to her charity: Alice's Escapes
(The picture of Alice above will take you to her tribute video on Vimeo)
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Vasectomy

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Zero Dark Thirty (2012)


"I use the Pensieve. One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one's mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one's leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form." - Dumbledore

Few movies make me feel uneasy. While I was watching Zero Dark Thirty, the torture and the raid had me in cold sweat; and when I came out of the theatre the narrative of Zero Dark Thirty left me in an ethical quagmire; each of these alone would have been enough to discomfit me, but what got me most is that I associated this movie with reality, and it didn't feel right.   

Kathryn Bigelow is good at appealing to our raw and visceral impulses. She has a way of making the fictional aspect of the film virtually transparent. It is as if the story always existed (as presented); her film testifies to its existence (as presented), and it is now available for us to see and understand (as presented).

Her fiction feigns the innocent arrogance of objective fact that is indifferent to our response. And in this way, she entices us to view the film; and because of the way it is presented, where in you are a third-person with access to unfolding 'real' events, you see your reactions and judgments as being either instinctive or filtered through your prejudices. In this way, the film exercises authority over reality, and becomes a reality in its own right, whose verity need not be questioned.

It becomes less important if Bigelow drew the vase or the space around the vase, because only a part of it need be filled for us to complete the whole. But, we can never unsee the whole, and see only the part, and therein lies the dilemma of reality based fiction, and fiction based reality. Whose truth or fiction is the vase, whose is the space around it, and who is to take credit for the whole?

“You may break, you may shatter the vase, if you will, but the scent of the roses will hang round it still.” - Thomas More
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Leaf out of the Alice Book!

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Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (2011)


It has been nearly 150 years since Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland was written, and hundreds of creatives have taken a stab at it and made it their own; the depth and beauty of each interpretation rivalling the other, and exalting the original. I find myself delighting in at least one adaptation of Alice a year.

The story is a very physical one that is both literal and fantastical, and therefore lends itself well to being communicated through any medium! But, no previous adaptation saw audiences line up at the box office at 3:30 AM to get rush tickets like Christopher Wheeldon's contemporary ballet when it first premiered in 2011! Even when we saw it last week at the Kennedy Center, two years since its premiere, and a year after our own Washington Ballet performed its interpretation of Alice in April 2012, it was sold out! The day also coincided with Lewis Carroll's 181st birthday!

I could feel his spirit in the dance and music, even though they were the two elements missing in the book; Likewise, the book had wordplay and logical puzzles locked into every page and the ballet had no words! And still, Wheeldon managed to replace the literary strengths of the book with physical and subversive humor, ballet wit, and an astounding visual and melodic vocabulary. It was enthralling to see all the scenes rising from the pages and translating into movement. The music, characterization, dance and decor, all had a cinematic and colorful feel that played on the physicality of the written word and catered to our non-literal perception of the world.

But, what I liked the most about the ballet is that it drew on the life of Lewis Carroll himself; especially his controversial connection with children. He played a pivotal character in the ballet, wherein he appeared as a family friend and photographer at the garden party hosted by the Liddell family; He entertained the young Liddell daughters (including Alice), and eventually transformed into the White Rabbit and lured Alice into the rabbit hole! This is much like in Carroll's real life, where he spent a lot of time with a real Liddell family, and is said to have originally narrated the story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to the young Liddells! He was also considered one of the best amateur photographers of his time, back when photography was still in its infancy. He particularly enjoyed photographing close family, friends and children… but eventually gave up the hobby when the art got easier with technological advancements, and it ceased to excite him in the same way.

He played a vital role in bringing up his eleven siblings, entertaining them with funny stories, puzzles, magic and puppetry, and you see all these elements in the ballet. The ballet was narrated in an episodic manner, where each story took place in a new exotic setting: some grotesque, some orchidaceous, and some eye-catchingly foreign-looking; all multi-dimensional and enhanced with hi-tech video projectors that magically flowed in and out of the same space! There were several whimsical characters in flamboyant costumes, displaying talent, drama and humor all at once. It was a visual wonder that exceeded my wildest imagination. It was as if every scene was an elaborate visual panegyric celebrating Carroll's love for magic!

To describe some of the scenes, there was a typical English garden party attended by an Indian maharaja in a palatial Victorian manor; Alice went down the rabbit hole and found herself in the curious hall with many locked doors that seemed to get bigger and smaller as she got tinier and taller; At one point, Alice was trapped inside a tiny tilted room that appeared out of no where; She swam in between waves in a pool of her own tears with several exotic animals; This was the same pool that she later sailed on in a paper boat with the White Rabbit (This scene was inspired by Lewis Carroll's love for folding paper and setting them off to sail in the water); She found herself outside the Duchess' pretty cottage that later revealed itself as a grotesque Sweeney Todd-esque pig butchery; She encountered a nutty tap-dancing Mad Hatter in his bizarre tea party, followed by an exotic middle eastern caterpillar in a shimmering mushroom; She joined the Queen of Hearts and the Duchess in the Victorian maze garden for a game of croquet (a game Lewis Carroll is known to love) using flamingoes and hedgehogs; and finally found herself in a courtroom made of a deck of cards (another game he is known to love) and implored the Queen to release the Knave!

The music gave the ballet its textural bulk and worked with the other visual elements to both enhance the humor and drive the narrative forward. It was always in the foreground, communicating the emotions and dialogues for the actors, and creating atmospheric underscores. Every character that Alice met, was on his own musical journey with a different musical instrument associated with him, that she then painted over with the aural colour of her own mood! It was wonderful to see how the same musical elements of a character transformed as they got filtered through another character's emotions! Or how the composer used a violin for the Queen of Hearts, a celesta for the White Rabbit, a oboe d’amore for the middle eastern caterpillar and so on, and layered each in a way that they worked together in perfect melodic and rhythmic harmony. And my favourite part was when the music and dance came together more rhythmically in the Mad Hatter's frenzy-filled tap dance, and the caterpillar's undulating moves!

There were some dance elements that were both hilarious and unbelievably athletic. For instance, the Queen of Hearts paid tribute to the Rose Adagio in the Sleeping Beauty ballet, which is a difficult sequence in which she had to keep steady on one foot for over a minute, while pirouetting and performing various moves. In Sleeping Beauty, the ballerina is aided by four princes who take turns as she takes off from each of them and proceeds to dance with the next. But, since the cavalry is fearful of dancing with the Queen, should they accidentally make the wrong move and have their heads cut off, the resulting dance was particularly comical, and portrayed the queen as being graceful, fierce, and uncoordinated all at once!

Sometimes, even though the live orchestra was visibly prominent, in between the stage and the audience, I got so involved in the drama that I forget that there were real people playing the music that these dancers were performing to!

As much as Alice in Wonderland has transformed over the years, the creative leaps in Performing Arts too have been getting curiouser and curiouser throughout this time! There was as much choreography off stage as there was on stage, and you could tell that from how swiftly the sets appeared and disappeared, and actors changed costumes in no time and looked dramatically different every time they entered the stage. 

The divide between the stage and the audience was sometimes momentarily bridged, when the audience was in Wonderland, and the flower dancers danced among us, and confetti rained from above, while Alice was in the curious hall with the many locked doors, trying to get to where we were! She was first too tiny and then too tall, and tried very hard to squeeze through a peewee door and set foot in our Wonderland, but to no avail! 

Then, there were hi-tech video projectors, large and small, that created perspective as Alice spiralled down the rabbit-hole and had many out-of-the-way things happen to her.

When technology was not used, there were invisible men puppeteering a giant-sized Cheshire cat whose limbs disengaged from the body and floated about freely all over the stage and around Alice. He was my most favorite character in the ballet!

When you have $2 million dollars, oodles of talent, and a whimsical Lewis Carroll story at your disposal, there is no limit to what Alice can dream up; Unlike the book, where she played an observer, here she was the architect of her journey, so she could stay in Wonderland for as long as she wanted, but, unfortunately for me, she did ultimately wake up, and there ended my dream.

Here are some articles on Lewis Carroll, a man of many personalities, and the real Alice:

Lewis Carroll: An Unconventional Character
Lewis Carroll's magic
Years Beyond The Rabbit Hole, 'Alice' Looks Back
Review of "The Mystery of Lewis Carroll"
The Lewis Carroll Society of North America





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(Mary Blair is the artist who did the concept art for Disney's Alice in Wonderland!)



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Fact / Fiction = Fraction

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Django Unchained (2012)


Tarantino's violence is of a particular personality that I happen to like. It's an aesthetic ultra-violence requiring a willing suspension of disbelief so that art and motif can coalesce with chimerical coherence. It is at once real and sensational, and unreal and provocative, and evokes many opposite and extreme emotions simultaneously. I find myself reacting instinctually to the action, and intelligently to the dialogues. It convinces me that the only place for all moral outrage is on cinema, where violence can be converted into beauty!

One way to judge a film would be to imagine it being played in two different scenarios, and see if the filmmakers intention comes in the way of our perception of the film.

In one scenario, Tarantino makes Django Unchained just to cater to his whim. He hires a large crew, orchestrates a carefully crafted blaxploitation spaghetti western film full of stunning cinematography, eclectic music, cathartic action scenes, and frequent laughs! When the film is made, he keeps it to himself, for his late-night viewing and doesn't show it to anyone (this assumes of course, that he has the wherewithal to afford this indulgence). In another scenario, he makes the same film available to the audience.

In the case of the former, his motive being the creation of art and self-gratification, there is less incentive to make a point about slavery, as much as set his story in those slavery times by happenstance or by reason of his fancy! It is purely a creative endeavor by a man who has a thought, a fantasy and grandiose talents, and is wanting to scratch an itch without feeling the need to share or impress!

In the case of the latter, he is more generous. He gratifies himself while also allowing us to indulge in his fantasy and create our own; he gives us our first iconic black hero (a lovelorn slave turned bounty hunter) in a spaghetti western. A black western hero is an unwonted induction made more stark by the fact that it is a western set in a deep southern plantation backdrop; and he uses this setting to make known the holocaust of black slavery from his distinctive, fictional point of view! If these are Tarantino's motives (as he claims they are), then the violence is just a plot device to dragoon us into a frame of mind needed to move the actual story along!

The historic inaccuracies, such as that the Klu Klux Klan was formed at least a decade after the period in which the film was set, or that there is no evidence of real Mandingo fighting, maybe irrelevant as factual history, but are necessary to the story! They are artistic liberties that serve as plot devices to make a point about the slave experience, which in reality was as brutal as the lies that Tarantino fabricated! And that is where he has a whip-hand over historians, in that he is allowed to be blatantly manipulative, and use grandiose falsehoods as tools to weave mysterious threads of truth and tell some form of the real story! But he also intentionally forces us to reflect on the times by sincerely recreating the physical ambience of those plantations! The result is a fine balance of the different tones and stories at play. This is true also for his other purposefully inaccurate, and fittingly misspelled film, Inglourious Basterds!
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