Thursday, April 29, 2010

Betraying the past, distracted by the present: Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours

When I first started watching Olivier Assayas' 2008 Summer Hours (L'heure d'ete) on Criterion DVD, I figured it was another French family drama annoyingly intent upon rubbing southern France's cultural superiority in my face, and for awhile, as children frolicked and hunted for treasure in the countryside, a matronly servant Eloise baked some exquisite chicken dish, and the family toasted each other with champagne, the film didn't disappoint. But then, something strange happened. Summer Hours is actually all about inattention, modern-day distraction, and the loss of that family heritage of art, leisure, and alfresco dinners with relatives. Curiously, the less the three characters pay attention to the drastic changes in their inheritance, the more the viewer notices what's going on, and for all of the film's beauty and balance, the implications are ominous.

The film concerns three siblings in their forties: Frederic (Charles Burling), the eldest, a professor of economics, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), the rebel designer living in the United States, and Jeremie (Jeremie Renier), who works as an engineer for Puma shoes in China. Of the three, only Frederic lives in France, and their mother Helene (Edith Scob) tries to use the occasion of her 75th birthday party to impress upon Frederic the need to think of what to do with the family estate and the various valuable works of art scattered around it. But Frederic finds the discussion morbid and asks her to change the subject. He assures her that the estate will stay in the family and the collection will remain intact. For Helene's birthday present, the family pitches in to buy her some telephones that she finds frustratingly difficult to use. In a sense, the three principals seek to replace technology for art and face-to-face interaction, and it makes sense that Helene never learns how to use the devices.

Soon enough, the family leaves in a rush, the beginning of many scenes where characters hurriedly take off in botched goodbyes. Helene pauses and walks up the steps back to her home into the darkness of some trees. She next appears in dark blue lighting, sitting resigned and exhausted. Eloise asks her if she would like any dinner, and Helene says no. Eloise points out that the grandchildren forgot the cherries (cherry imagery, a possible reference to Chekov's The Cherry Orchard, bookends the film), and Helene replies: "Their parents were distracted, thinking about their trip back. A lot of things will be leaving with me--memories, stories, stories that interest no one anymore. There's the residue--the objects. I don't want it to weigh on them," and the scene fades out.

Then, immediately, Assayas cuts to Frederic reacting to Helene's death about six months later. He consults with the local town official about her grave site, and then, driving away, pulls over to cry by himself in the car. We then see Adrienne nearly cry (I enjoyed the way the ensemble emphasis kept Binoche from playing a star. In her brightly colored mod fleece jackets, she's a scattered rebel ditz). Soon enough, the three siblings determine, against Frederic's wishes, to sell the house, and many of the works of art get donated to the Musee d'Orsee to help save on the high estate tax. As far as Helene's inheritance is concerned, everything falls away like a slow motion avalanche, leaving a desk on display in a museum, and one of the vases (which was used to hold flowers back in the house) now sealed behind glass with a bunch of parallel pieces of glassware.

Someone might wonder--what's the big deal about some works of art? Assayas is careful to never show much bias toward the values of one generation or another, but the works of art directly reflect aspects of people's lives--the dinner table outside (in a drawing) or the view from a window. Art conveys a contemplative attentiveness to one's surroundings, the beauty of nature, whereas the threesome appear too busy, too quick to answer a call on their cell phone to notice things like that. When Frederic and his wife visit the Musee d'Orsee and behold the desk in a new context of alienated glory, they are bemused by the museum aesthetics, but now their inheritance have become part of a show that crowds hurry past en route to other amusements.

Though the Musee can restore a Degas plaster sculpture that Frederic broke as a child, the items have lost their usefulness to the family. The theme is strikingly like the one in Alice Walker's 1973 short story "Everyday Use," where a family of sharecroppers in Georgia consider their family inheritance in the form of quilts, benches, and a butter churn. But while Walker allows the family to have one young representative, Maggie, embody her heritage by knowing how to quilt on her own, Assayas doesn't include anyone like that in the film. Instead, he emphasizes how the younger teenage generation, which includes Frederic's daughter Sylvie (Alice de Lencquesaing), have little to no interest in their grandmother's way of life. As her brother points out when their dad points to some Corot paintings, "It's from another era." The kids get to throw a party on the estate right before it's sold, but they're more interested in soccer, marijuana, rap music, and the party scene than in any old building they happen to be inhabiting.

To be fair, Sylvie does mourn for her grandmother for a moment as she picks some cherries with her delinquent boyfriend, but they blithely run off into the woods soon after. I don't think anyone in the movie fully knows what they had originally, nor are they fully aware of what they've relinquished, but the viewer can see the systematic loss of a way of life as it falls prey to modern gadgets, globalization, standardized revolt, and Americanized speed, and that's what makes the film so powerful.

Monday, April 26, 2010

digital links

---Sven Birkerts analyzes the differences between the internet and the novel:

"The problem we face in a culture saturated with vivid competing stimuli is that the first part of the transaction will be foreclosed by an inability to focus—the first step requires at least that the language be able to reach the reader, that the word sounds and rhythms come alive in the auditory imagination. But where the attention span is keyed to a different level and other kinds of stimulus, it may be that the original connection can’t be made. Or if made, made weakly. Or will prove incapable of being sustained. Imagination must be quickened and then it must be sustained—it must survive interruption and deflection. Formerly, I think, the natural progression of the work, the ongoing development and complication of the situation, if achieved skillfully, would be enough. But more and more comes the complaint, even from practiced readers, that it is hard to maintain attentive focus. The works have presumably not changed. What has changed is either the conditions of reading or something in the cognitive reflexes of the reader. Or both.

All of us now occupy an information space blazing with signals. We have had to evolve coping strategies. Not merely the ability to heed simultaneous cues from different directions, cues of different kinds, but also—this is important—to engage those cues more obliquely. When there is too much information, we graze it lightly, applying focus only where it is most needed. We stare at a computer screen with its layered windows and orient ourselves with a necessarily fractured attention. It is not at all surprising that when we step away and try to apply ourselves to the unfragmented text of a book we have trouble. It is not so easy to suspend the adaptation."

---John Updike reports from the future:

"Students have trouble grasping the high value placed upon mobility even in the early decades of the Computer Revolution. `Why would anyone want to go anywhere else,' they ask me, `when the same information-gathering terminals were present at every geographical point?' The primitive catch-phrases that permeated not only the twentieth century but earlier eras on the North American continent--`starting over,' `heading west,' `leaving it all behind,' `fresh faces,' `new horizons'--ring hollowly for those who have from birth let the world come to them, in the form of computer-generated instruction, entertainment, and virtual experience. The need to `go out'--out to shop or to work or just to walk around the block--seems as arcane and absurd to them as, say, Victorian family prayers or bloody Aztec sacrifices."

---students addicted to social media:

"Susan D. Moeller, the Maryland journalism professor who conducted the study, said she was struck by how the short media blackout personally and emotionally affected students.

"What they spoke about in the strongest terms was how their lack of access to text messaging, phone calling, instant messaging, email and Facebook, meant that they couldn't connect with friends who lived close by, much less those far away," [she said].

"Texting and IM-ing my friends gives me a constant feeling of comfort," wrote one student. "When I did not have those two luxuries, I felt quite alone and secluded from my life. Although I go to a school with thousands of students, the fact that I was not able to communicate with anyone via technology was almost unbearable."

---a two-day experiment in text-free living

---the new mood of online openness:

"Mr. Brooks, a 38-year-old consultant for online dating Web sites, seems to be a perfect customer. He publishes his travel schedule on Dopplr. His DNA profile is available on23andMe. And on Blippy, he makes public everything he spends with his Chase Mastercard, along with his spending at Netflix, iTunes and Amazon.com.

“It’s very important to me to push out my character and hopefully my good reputation as far as possible, and that means being open,” he said, dismissing any privacy concerns by adding, “I simply have nothing to hide.”

This new world owes its origin to the rampant sharing of photos, résumés and personal news bites on services like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, which have acclimated people to broadcasting even the most mundane aspects of their lives.

To Silicon Valley’s deep thinkers, this is all part of one big trend: People are becoming more relaxed about privacy, having come to recognize that publicizing little pieces of information about themselves can result in serendipitous conversations — and little jolts of ego gratification."

---distracting ourselves to death--Frontline: Digital Nation

---"If real life were more like the internet"

---the amazing media habits of the young

---how social media has changed war coverage:

"The old, venerable media outlet, Reuters, which had two employees among the dead, could not get squat out of government officials the last three years, despite pressure and a Freedom of Information Act request. So much for the power of MSM. Thank you shadowy world of WikiLeaks -- unless you're one of those who thinks the organization is a national security threat.

I looked at the footage, and the blow-ups of the footage. There are people with cameras who were mistaken for guys with guns. There appear also to be guys with guns. There was a van -- an insurgent wagon to some, a makeshift ambulance to others -- and two kids inside who were wounded. I read the rules of engagement posted on a variety of web sites that used the video.

So was any of the killing justified? War is a dizzying, murky, hyper-adrenalized maze. In the field of battle, there are facts to be had and truths to be revealed. But even with the magic of digital revelations sling-shot across all bandwidths, the answer has to be: depends. Depends on some things even second-by-second video can't uncover.

Soldiers snickering while shooting journalists and kids looks bad, no question. My favorite quote of the week was from the refreshingly blunt General Stanley McChrystal about civilian deaths in Afghanistan: "We have shot an amazing number of people, but...none has ever proven to be a threat."

---cities as software (via Boing Boing)

---Craig considers Mark Harris' book about (in part) the making of Bonnie and Clyde

---Manohla Dargis profiles David Bordwell

---an interview with Greil Marcus

---Sheryl Sandberg and Facebook

---Naomi Wolf on happiness and feminism

---Chris Ware's subversive Fortune 500 cover

---Out of the Past

---summer movies looming ominously on the horizon

---lastly, "Stone on Stone"

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

links

--- Wikileaks and video games converge, the intricacies of virtual morality

---Mexico considers banning Twitter

---the seven wonders of Preston Sturges and a homage to Kubrick

---Nathaniel R. can't wait for Sofia Coppola's Somewhere

---the rise of the supercities

---the scourge of Farmville:

"While this may sound like a relatively banal game, over seventy-three million people play Farmville. Twenty-six million people play Farmville every day. More people play Farmville than World of Warcraft, and Farmville users outnumber those who own a Nintendo Wii. This popularity is not surprising per se; even in the current recession, video game revenues reached nearly twenty billion dollars in America last year. The video games industry is a vibrant one, and there is certainly room in it for more good games.

Farmville is not a good game. While Caillois tells us that games offer a break from responsibility and routine, Farmville is defined by responsibility and routine. Users advance through the game by harvesting crops at scheduled intervals; if you plant a field of pumpkins at noon, for example, you must return to harvest at eight o’clock that evening or risk losing the crop. Each pumpkin costs thirty coins and occupies one square of your farm, so if you own a fourteen by fourteen farm a field of pumpkins costs nearly six thousand coins to plant. Planting requires the user to click on each square three times: once to harvest the previous crop, once to re-plow the square of land, and once to plant the new seeds. This means that a fourteen by fourteen plot of land—which is relatively small for Farmville—takes almost six hundred mouse-clicks to farm, and obligates you to return in a few hours to do it again. This doesn’t sound like much fun, Mr. Caillois. Why would anyone do this?"

---thanks to Tama, more links about the increasingly sinister nature of Facebook

---one way to get attention for your band--unleash the deranged panda bears

---With Erik Davis, Lethem discusses Philip K. Dick and the weird technology of novels:

"ED: For proponents of the Singularity, we are on the verge of massive technological transformations that involve some version of artificial or machine intelligence. Dick had a very particular take on intelligent machines, like Joe Chip‘s conapt or suitcase psychiatrists. While these devices are clearly fantastic and absurd, they also express some real insight and concerns about the cultural consequences of machine intelligence. Does Dick‘s take seem relevant now, thirty years later? What would he say to our contemporary gadget fetishism and addiction to information machines?

My best guess about such matters is that each technological transformation, up to and perhaps including the Singularity, is going to work itself out vis-à-vis “the human” according to the deep principles of all media. Defined in its largest sense, as including things like cinema, theory, drugs, computing, moving type, music, etcetera, media is utterly consciousness-transforming in ways we can no longer competently examine, given how deeply they‘ve pervaded and altered the collective and individual consciousness that would be the only possible method for making that judgment. And yet -— we still feel so utterly human to ourselves, and the proof is in the anthropomorphic homeliness that pervades the ostensibly exalted “media” in return. We humanize them, shame them, colonize and debunk them with our persistent modes of sex and neurosis and community and commerce. We turn them into advertisements for ourselves, rather than opportunities for shedding ourselves. At least so far."

---James Dean and Ronald Reagan, together at last in a cheesy TV show

---Jaron Lanier and others brood over the pros and cons of web 2.0 tools:

"The basic problem is that web 2.0 tools are not supportive of democracy by design. They are tools designed to gather spy-agency-like data in a seductive way, first and foremost, but as a side effect they tend to provide software support for mob-like phenomena. There are some nice mob effects, but the intensity of the failures is more profound than the delights of the successes. A flash mob in San Francisco in which people suddenly hold a pose and disperse doesn't compensate for a flash mob in Philadelphia in which people are beaten up."

---the signifying depths of tampon ads and Godardian after-shave

---when it comes to selling mobile homes, Robert Lee just doesn't care

---the mysterious Jonah Hex

---Congratulations to political cartoonist Mark Fiore for winning a Pulitzer

---Thompson predicts Iron Man 2 will dominate the tentpoles. I'm mostly looking forward to Inception.

---the long history of the short film (with thanks to @kylesbarnett)

---Alice in Wonderland on the iPad

---Tyler Perry and the camp canon

---lastly, a nation distracted:

"Attention is “the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought,” wrote psychologist and philosopher William James in 1890. “It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction.”

James came tantalizingly close to understanding at least one aspect of this mysterious phenomenon whose inner workings eluded philosophers, artists, historians, and scientists for centuries. But today, we know much more about attention, and all that we are learning underscores its irrefutable importance in life.

Attention is an organ system, akin to our respiratory or circulatory systems, according to cognitive neuroscientist Michael Posner. It is the brain’s conductor, leading the orchestration of our minds. Its various networks—orienting, alerting, and the executive—are key not only to higher thinking but also to morality and even happiness.

Yet increasingly, we are shaped by distraction. James described a vivid possessing of the mind, an ordering, and a withdrawal. We easily recognize that these states of mind are becoming less and less a given in our lives. The seduction of virtual universes, the allure of multitasking, our allegiance to a constant state of motion: These are markers of a land of distraction. This is why we are less and less able to see, hear, and comprehend what’s relevant and permanent, why so many of us feel that we can barely keep our heads above water, and why our days are marked by perpetual loose ends."

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The critical debate and the bratty pleasures of Kick-Ass

After enjoying the subversive treatment of comic book movie conventions in Kick-Ass, I've been struck by the ferocity of the critical denunciations against the movie, notably Roger Ebert's:

"The movie's premise is that ordinary people, including a high school kid, the 11-year-old and her father, try to become superheroes in order to punish evil men. The flaw in this premise is that the little girl does become a superhero. In one scene, she faces a hallway jammed with heavily armed gangsters and shoots, stabs and kicks them all to death, while flying through the air with such power, it's enough to make Jackie Chan take out an AARP membership.

This isn't comic violence. These men, and many others in the film, are really stone-cold dead. And the 11-year-old apparently experiences no emotions about this. Many children that age would be, I dunno, affected somehow, don't you think, after killing eight or 12 men who were trying to kill her?"

Writing for The New York Times, A. O. Scott takes a more balanced but similar view in "Brutal Truths About Violence":

“I Spit on Your Grave” deliberately placed itself on the far margin of acceptability, and like other disreputable movies that go on to attract a cult following, it has a certain transgressive, contrarian energy. You watch it — if you can stand to — with the feeling that you are participating in something forbidden, perhaps dangerous, which makes viewing it feel vaguely like defying authority.

But “Kick-Ass,” a thoroughly mainstream entertainment, carries no such thrill. Everybody can share in the bloodlust, and enjoy the kinetic choreography of flying bullets and spurting arteries. It’s all in good fun, it’s all kid’s stuff, it doesn’t mean anything. That’s the conventional wisdom, in any case, which silences ethical objections to, let’s say, the idea of showing a child’s battered face as being in some way audacious. We will, I suppose, each find our own limits and draw our own boundaries, but it may also be time to articulate those and say when enough is enough."

In reply, Jane Goldman, one of the screenwriters of the film, has this to say:

"I think certainly my attitude, which is one shared by the director Matthew Vaughn is that we really want to be true to the story [the comic written by Mark Millar]. Because that’s what spoke to us about it, not the fact that, well I never saw it as a deliberately provocative story, but I think Hit-Girl is an interesting character because she’s so young. And if you were suddenly to say ‘how can we make this family friendly and get a different rating’ it would have been a completely different story than the one we were interested in telling. It was always our agenda to tell a story for adults. Some of the feedback from studios when we initially took this around was ‘oh could she be 18 years old’ but that to me would have been distasteful because suddenly it’s a sexualized girls and guns kind of bollocks and that’s not a story we’re interested in telling. She’s meant to be a proper anti-hero and that’s what was cool, that she’s at an age pre-sexualization. And that’s why people find it threatening. It’s sadly the only way you can make a non-sexualized bad ass female antihero, she has to be prepubescent."

For NYT, Manohla Dargis has a more mixed reaction:

"Ms. Moretz certainly walks the walk and jumps the jump, loading a new gun in midrun like a baby Terminator. But as her deployment of a four-letter slur for women indicates, and as the cop-out last blowout only underscores, Hit-Girl isn’t a wee Wonder Woman. She’s not even a latter-day Lara Croft, who, however absurd, works on screen because of Ms. Jolie’s own outsize persona. A supergimmick, Hit-Girl by contrast is a heroine for these movie times: a vision of female might whittled down to pocketsize."

In The Huffington Post, Melissa Silverstein also had mixed thoughts:

"The question I've been asking myself since I saw the film: does Hit Girl move us forward or backwards? I don't really have a final answer. The pros are that she is actually the hero of the film. She saves everyone and kills all the bad guys. The last time I saw that was...well...never. The actress who plays Hit Girl, Chloe Grace Moretz, wanted to play an Angelina Jolie type action role. This is the type of part she told her agents to find according to a story in the NY Times: "You know, like an action hero, woman empowerment, awesome, take-charge leading role." It warms my heart that a young actress is interested in playing these kinds of parts; that she wants to, for lack of a better word, kick ass, is cool. Also, the fact that all these guys are destroyed by a girl never becomes an issue. There's no sexist bullshit about guys being killed by a girl. She comes and wreaks havoc and all these guys want to do is survive."

Writing for /Film, David Chen had this to say about Kick-Ass' brand of superhero violence:

"Based on what I’ve read about Millar’s intentions for the comic book, I think he was trying to comment on the ridiculousness of the superhero concept. The idea that normal, everyday people might don costumes and try to take on criminals is, on its face, fairly ludicrous. Those that actually do this may suffer from dementia, amorality, delusions, or all of the above. Millar simply takes that idea to its logical extreme. While the violence in the film is brutal, it’s so over-the-top that it’s clear Vaughn wants us not just to revel in the violence itself, but in the fact of its excess. If people actually became “superheroes” in real life and were exceedingly good at it, it wouldn’t be glamorous; it would be extremely messy, unrewarding, and probably very disturbing."

For Film School Rejects, writer/director of Kick-Ass Matthew Vaughn had this to say:

One of the main reasons I did Kick-Ass was I was just like, you know, the comic movies, the superhero films I’ve been watching, the superheroes are old! You know, Batman is from the ‘30s, and Superman ‘30s, and Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, they are from the ‘60s, watched them in the ‘80s. And I just thought, “Gosh. Where is our modern-day superhero film? Where is our sort of post-modern look at all the movies that we all love?” I just felt too many of these films were regurgitating the same idea, so they are just not relevant to modern life in any shape or form. So I wanted to make a movie that I think kids are going to relate to.

And we had unbelievably great reviews in England. And the harshest critic — I was terrified to read his reviews — said the thing that made me…I’ve never been so proud of a review because he described the movie as being the Clockwork Orange of this generation. And when I heard that, I was just like "Cool." That's exactly what I wanted.

I just felt like, “Where have the edgy, cool movies gone?” You know, what happened? I think the film industry has just grounded them out of the environment. One of the main reasons I did Kick-Ass was I was just like, you know, the comic District 9 was brilliant and one of the few films which I really, really enjoyed last year. And I said, "Look, I want to continue that vibe."

So, is Kick-Ass edgy or depraved, "cool" or sick, a film worthy of being grouped in with calculated outrage of A Clockwork Orange or one that will, as Ebert suggests, lead to "kids in the age range of this movie's home video audience . . . shooting one another every day in America"?

While I had problems with the Kick-Ass' adherence to the comic book movie cliches (the adolescent wish-fulfillment, generic bad guys, the loud costumes, torture scenes, the obvious preparation for the sequel, etc.), I liked the way the film plays with audience expectations. For instance, in the opening scene, a man in a winged superhero outfit jumps off of a skyscraper. As he tries to fly, a crowd down below applauds his "heroism" until he crashes into the hood of a car and dies. Then, the voiceover (Dave) says "That's not me. That's some Armenian guy with mental health problems." In this way the makers of Kick-Ass mock the knee-jerk desire to look upon a costumed crusader as a hero. And I wonder how much that bratty impulse to lampoon that veneration might in part be one reason for all of the critical scorn of the film.

By updating and messing with the concept of the superhero, Mark Millar and Matthew Vaughn have radicalized the genre. As Ben Child points out, how will all of the upcoming superhero films look, all of the Captain Americas, the Avengers, the Green Hornet, Iron Man 2, Silver Surfer, Ant Man, Venom etc., etc.? Will they now look dated in comparison? I get royally sick of Knock'm Sock'm manly super power-filled showdowns in films like Iron-Man and The Hulk, all of the roars of the "wild" in films like X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Wolfman that serve to further emphasize just how domesticated we've all become. The makers of Kick-Ass at least resist the conventions much as Hit Girl takes on an entire criminal organization singlehandedly, and in doing so has created something new. The critical debate attests to that.

Related link:

The art of Kick-Ass

Saturday, April 17, 2010

David Foster Wallace on identity, entertainment, and Tarantino: quotes from Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky

In 1996, Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky interviewed David Foster Wallace during the last leg of his book tour for Infinite Jest. They ended up talking for five days as they played chess, endured flight delays, attended readings, visited the Mall of America, watched TV in hotel rooms, ate at Denny's, and played with Wallace's two dogs. Lipsky never published the profile in Rolling Stone, but he did keep a taped record of their conversation, and he just published it as Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace (Broadway Books).

As a major Wallace fan, I've enjoyed the book for the snapshot it provides of his thinking. Some choice quotes:

"I mean, Tarantino is such a schmuck 90 percent of the time. But ten percent of the time, I've seen genius shining off the guy.

I don't know about you: My life and my self doesn't feel like anything like a unified developed character in a linear narrative to me. I may be mentally ill, maybe you're not. But my guess is, looking at things like MTV videos or new fashions in ads, with more and more flash cuts, or the use of computer metaphors which would only be useful metaphors if the ability to do triage and tree-diagrams resonated with people's own existence in life. That I think a lot of people feel--not overwhelmed by the amount of stuff they have to do. But overwhelmed by the number of choices they have, and by the number of discrete different things that come at them. And the number of small . . . that since they're part of numerous systems, the number of small insistent tugs on them, from a number of different systems and directions. Whether that's qualitatively different than the life was for let's say our parents or our grandparents, I'm not sure. But I sorta think so. At least in some--in terms of the way it feels on your nerve endings.

Entertainment's chief job is to make you so riveted by it that you can't tear your eyes away, so the advertisers can advertise. And the tension of the book [Infinite Jest] is try to make it at once extremely entertaining--and also sort of warped, and to sort of shake the reader awake about some of the things that are sinister in entertainment.

What writers have is a license and also the freedom to sit--to sit, clench their fists, and make themselves be excruciatingly aware of the stuff that we're mostly aware of only on a certain level. And that if the writer does his job right, what he basically does is remind the reader how smart the reader is. Is to wake the reader up to stuff the reader's been aware of all the time.

So I think it's got something to do with, that we're just---we're absolutely dying to give ourselves away to something. To run, to escape, somehow. . . . And so TV is like candy in that it's more pleasurable and easier than the real food. But it also doesn't have any of the nourishment of real food. . . . What has happened to us, that I'm now willing--and I do this too--that I'm willing to derive enormous amounts of my sense of community and awareness of other people, from television? But I'm not willing to undergo the stress and awkwardness and potential shit of dealing with real people.

And that as the Internet grows, and as our ability to be linked up, like--I mean, you and I coulda done this through e-mail, and I never woulda had to meet you, and that woulda been easier for me. Right? Like, at a certain point, we're gonna have to build some machinery, inside our guts, to help us deal with this. Because the technology's just gonna get better and better and better and better. And it's gonna get easier and easier, and more and more convenient, and more and more pleasurable, to be alone with images on a screen, given to us by people who do not love us but want our money. Which is all right. In low doses, right? But if that's the basic main staple of your diet, you're gonna die. In a meaningful way, you're gonna die.

. . . this idea that pleasure and comfort are the, are really the ultimate goal and meaning of life. I think we're starting to see a generation die . . . on the toxicity of that idea.

[James] Cameron would be making so much better movies if they gave him a seven-, eight-million-dollar budget on each one. And said, you know, "Do your best." Y'know? Don't indulge your love for really cool special effects. Make a story that like--that hangs together and treats the audience like grown-ups and means something.

DeLillo said, "That if serious reading disappears in this country, it will mean that whatever--it will mean that whatever we mean by the term identity has ceased to exist."

[on the willingness to show off as a writer]
"How will this enable me to show off in way x?" "How will this enable me to show off in way Y?" And it's something I see in, for example, Leyner. Who I think is very gifted. But he's somebody whose vibe I always get: The point of this is Mark Leyner is smart and funny. The point of this is Mark Leyner is smart and funny. And it's fine. And he earns every cent he gets.

Well for me, as an American male, the face I'd put on the terror is the dawning realization that nothing's enough, you know? That no pleasure is enough, that no achievement is enough. That there's a kind of queer dissatisfaction or emptiness at the core of the self that is unassuageable by outside stuff. And my guess is that that's been what's going on, ever since people were hitting each other over the head with clubs. . . . And that our particular challenge if that there's never been more and better stuff comin' from the outside, that seems temporarily to sort of fill the hole or drown out the hole.

It's more like, if you can think of times in your life that you've treated people with extraordinary decency and love, and pure uninterested concern, just because they were valuable as human beings. The ability to do that with ourselves. To treat ourselves the way we would treat a really good, precious friend. Or a tiny child of ours that we absolutely loved more than life itself. And I think it's probably possible to achieve that. I think that's part of the job we're here for is to learn how to do it. I know that sounds a little pious."

Related link:

Kottke.org on Wallace

Monday, April 12, 2010

punk links

---Tarantino versus the Coen brothers

---our overstimulated world: Kapitaal

---Malcolm McClaren: This much I know:

"I always said punk was an attitude. It was never about having a Mohican haircut or wearing a ripped T-shirt. It was all about destruction, and the creative potential within that. It turns out that the bankers may have been the biggest punks of all; they were making punk investments. Julie Burchill apparently once said, of her generation, that they were all McLaren's and Thatcher's children. That conjoining may have been more prescient than she realised. But I think this is a transformative moment. We're at the end of the culture of desires; we may be going back to a culture of necessity."

---punk Wes Anderson

---Roger Ebert writes for Malcolm McClaren:

"Day after day, I pounded at the typewriter as Meyer and McLaren went out on business meetings at 20th Century-Fox and then returned, Meyer expecting many more pages, McLaren unconcerned, as if screenplay wrote themselves. In the evenings, Russ and I dined in restaurants serving large forms of meat, while we outlined the next day's material on yellow legal pads. This had also been our method on BVD. We rarely knew more than a day ahead what would happen next.

Finally I arrived at the end:

AN OVERHEAD SHOT

shows his prone body on the floor in the spotlight. The first and only person to move is Johnny Rotten. He walks slowly forward to the dead body. Looks down at it. Turns it over with the toe of his boot, so that the dead face gazes sightlessly skyward. Speaks so softly not everyone can hear.

JOHNNY ROTTEN
(down at the body)
Will success spoil Johnny Rotten?
(pause)
No. He will waste, spoil, smash, blow up and destroy success!

Another pause. The room is hushed. Johnny Rotten looks slowly up and directly into the camera.

JOHNNY ROTTEN
Did yer ever have the feeling yer being watched?

FADE TO BLACK

---punk on the big screen

---from Jonathan Franzen's 1992 novel Strong Motion:

"On the stairs Renee said, `The time to be a punk was fifteen years ago. It's just utterly embarrassing to try to be one now.'
`Anarchy is a very old idea,' he said,"

---Detroit disassembled

---Greg of Cinema Styles notes some problems with writing online as Harlan Ellison has some concerns about writers not getting paid

---John Lydon's butter ad

---"Wild Things": life in Kyrgyzstan

---Amerindie slumming:

"The history of American indie film happens to be dominated by lowlifes and inarticulates. This is what happens when the godfathers of independent film are John Cassavetes and Melvin van Peebles, both attracted to working-class sparks. Complaining about intelligent guys wasting their talents on "low-lifes" smacks of snobbery, but it also ignores the fact that American indie film is and always has been primarily oriented towards the marginalized, who aren't going to make movies about themselves, and certainly aren't about to be the stars of mainstream films."

---demystifying Jim Morrison

---Lydon's second butter ad

---Craig considers the life of Robert Altman:

"11. Despite what became his glowing reputation with actors, Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould so hated working with Altman they tried to get him fired. Says Gould: "I think that, in hindsight, Donald and I were two elitist, arrogant actors who really weren't getting Altman's genius."

12. Although there is a great deal of fawning by many from Altman's ensembles in Zuckoff's book (too much of it, in my opinion), the most interesting reflections come from the contrarians. For every ten or twelve actors rhapsodizing how Altman made them feel "safe," there's a Julie Christie who, recalling her reluctant walk-on in Nashville, says that "Robert by no means got his way by being sweet all the time. He could be manipulative." Keith Carradine, Robert Duvall and Shelley Duvall echo each other's sentiments that the first time you ever turned down a part for one of Altman's movies (as Carradine did the lead for Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Bob Duvall did Haven Hamilton in Nashville, and Shelly D. did the female lead in A Perfect Couple), there was a good chance you'd never be asked to work with him again."

---the profoundly "bone-headed" Kick-Ass, a review by Dan North

---punk capitalism

---the black list of corporate villains

---lastly, the genesis of the original punk, Curious George

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Marriage counseling and the therapeutic aesthetics of Date Night

Watching Date Night, surrounded by middle class married couples at the local cineplex, I found myself brooding about marital angst.

The film juxtaposes a "boring couple from New Jersey" with Manhattan hipsters, and for awhile, Phil (Steve Carrell) and Claire Foster (Tina Fey) get mistaken for a more exciting twosome who would know where a mafioso's secret flash drive is. With a plot device lifted from Hitchcock's North by Northwest, director Shawn Levy has the Fosters claim to be the "Tripplehorns" in order to get a table in a crowded fancy Manhattan eatery known as Claw, but then two shady looking characters take them outside and pull guns on them, demanding to know the location of the microfilm, I mean, flash drive.

From that point on, the Fosters have various After Hours-type marital action comedy adventures involving a stolen car, police chases, gunplay, a near-escape from a boat house, a shirtless Mark Wahlberg, a strip bar, and so on even as they take breaks at times to discuss the state of their marriage. Claire confesses that she's exhausted by working all day and taking care of the kids at night. Phil reproaches her for not letting him help her more at home. Claire admits that she would like to go off to a hotel room by herself, where no one can touch her, and enjoy a Diet Sprite. For a moment, the movie wakes up to the possibility of more emotional nuances (as if the leads had taken over the script momentarily from Josh Klausner, who wrote Shrek the Third), but then the movie returns to its well-trodden path.

By appearing in the uncredited role as mafioso Joey Miletto, Ray Liotta reminded me of Jeff Daniels' much more subversive dip into a dangerous lifestyle in 1986's Something Wild, but Date Night remains trapped in its eagerness to please all of the breeding couples of middle America, and by doing so, blands itself out. What is modern-day marriage? Date Night characterizes it as sexual frustration, boredom with everyday routine, overwork, servitude to children, feeble attempts at regaining romance, middle-aged drift, reductive role-playing for one's spouse, and most of all, perpetual semi-comatose fatigue. All of this may be quite accurate, but I can't see how embarking on an evening of tired gangster hijinx would help any.

Take for instance, the comparison with North by Northwest. While both films begin in much the same way with a case of mistaken identity (although Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is very single), Hitchcock carries Roger off to meet Philip Vandamm, a villain played with such smooth ironic smarts by James Mason, he makes the goons, corrupt government officials, and mafiosos of Date Night look like munchkins. Also, in the midst of his high speed cat and mouse game across the US, Roger gets to romance Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) on the 20th Century Limited train enroute to Chicago. The Fosters, in comparison, use their evening for mere rekindling. In comparison to North by Northwest's wit, scope, set piece scenes, wildly varied locations, and playful subversions of thriller tropes, Date Night views like relationship counseling, the cinematic equivalent to a Women's Day's article "7 Ways to Revive Your Marriage": "Praise your husband, even if you don't feel like it" or "Take a class together, play paintball or even speak pig Latin to each other for a day." Tina Fey even dresses up in lingerie and pole dances late in the movie to help fire up Phil's ardor, just as any self-respecting relationship counselor might recommend.

Even as Fey and Carrell bring some nuances to their roles, meditating on the way married couples can turn into little more than "excellent roommates," the made-for-TV conventionality of their night's misadventures resembles a pseudo-subversive Disney ride for adults. Harried people from the suburbs can have excitement too, the film says, just so long as it's safely and inoffensively packaged. The Fosters can play at being a pimp and a prostitute, break into people's apartments, steal cars, and so on just so they can realize how much their regular lives of overwork and sacrifice for their children can be cheerfully affirmed and returned to in the morning.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

links

---Carl Erik Rinsch's The Gift


---famous directors and their dubious music videos

---Pauly Shore finally replies to Cher's comment in Clueless: "Searching for a boy in high school is as useless as searching for meaning in a Pauly Shore movie."

---betraying J. D. Salinger

---the postmodern dialectics of Hot Tub Time Machine:

"In the cultural logic of Hot Tub Time Machine, memory and reality become one in the same. The postmodern pop cultural haze with which we remember decades conflates into the memory, the reality, itself – thus, the clichés of culture as lived through media lose any delineation from personal experience of the reality in which those media objects were originally manifested within. This media-imbued subjective acceptance of false reality is the central tenet of the postmodernist concept of simulacra and simulation, but we see the simulated experience of simulacra operate more literally in the film."

---J. Crew's gender divide

---masculinity in Disney films

---some of Edward Norton's favorite films


---playing chess with Kubrick:

"I wrote a Talk of the Town on my meeting with Kubrick, which he liked. I was thus emboldened to ask if I could write a full scale profile of him. He agreed but said that he was about to leave for London to begin production of what became 2001: A Space Odyssey. Still better, I thought: I could watch the making of the film. Our first meeting was at the Hotel Dorchester in London where he was temporarily living with his family. Kubrick brought out a chess set and beat me promptly. Then we played three more games and he beat me less promptly. But I won the fifth game!

Seizing the moment I told him that I had been hustling him and had deliberately lost the first four games. His response was that I was a patzer. All during the filming of 2001 we played chess whenever I was in London and every fifth game I did something unusual. Finally we reached the 25th game and it was agreed that this would decide the matter. Well into the game he made a move that I was sure was a loser. He even clutched his stomach to show how upset he was. But it was a trap and I was promptly clobbered. `You didn’t know I could act too,' he remarked."

---behind the scenes of Kick-Ass

---hanging out with David Foster Wallace:

"Wallace's death was tragic, but the actual tragedy has been further wrapped in a mantle of hysterical pop tragedy, that process by which virtually any self-destroying celebrity is transubstantiated into the avatar of each fan's personal misery. (Special bonus irony: Who would be perfect to write about this metamorphosis? David Foster Wallace!) He's also been reincarnated in the public's imagination as a dispenser of inspirational wisdom, largely thanks to the circulation of the commencement speech he made at Kenyon College in 2005 (published in gift book format as "This Is Water").

The latter role would probably have made Wallace himself cringe, but it's not a bad fit. He was always burrowing down to the moral roots of whatever he wrote about. The best passages in "Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself" show him doing just that with Lipsky, whether the subject is film (David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" was a turning point) or the likelihood that he'd behaved like a "prick" as experimentalist in the University of Arizona's realism-dominated creative writing program. To read what Wallace has to say about fiction's mission -- that its task is to surmount "loneliness," to illustrate the "toxicity" in the idea that "pleasure and comfort are ... really the ultimate goal and meaning of life" -- is as exhilarating as ever.

For the most part, Lipsky makes a worthy partner in these wide-ranging discussions, which took place in diners, pizza parlors, airport lounges and bookstores as well as during long drives across the icy Midwestern landscape around Bloomington, Ill., where Wallace lived at the time. They talk about books, movies, music and family."

---from Vanity Fair's excellent Classic Hollywood series: Sweet Smell of Success and Midnight Cowboy

---lastly, Petersen's thoughts on Hollywood's relationship to Twitter:

"As Thompson explains, more and more, stars, producers, and directors are taking to Twitter to break their own news, essentially obviating the need for trades altogether. Jon Favreau just Tweeted the (theretofore unannounced) news that Harrison Ford would be starring in his new picture; Tom Hanks posted a Twitpic of his casting session for his new film; Jerry Bruckheimer reports from screening of Prince of Persia at Wondercom. Jon Favreau posted a ton at the beginning of Iron Man 2, apparently got in trouble, but is now back at it, as evidenced by his Ford announcement.

To my mind, there are two forces precipitating this move. First, as described above, the lay men (e.g. the vast majority of those following the likes of Favreau, Bruckheimer, etc.) is hungry for ‘insider’ information. And, even more importantly, he/she will feel more ‘a part’ of a product with which they’ve been intimate for a long time. In this way, providing ‘inside’ information from pre-production is basically a way of hooking ticket buyers early: if they get in at the ground floor, they’re be more likely to show up to see the top put on the skyscraper. Second, Hollywood is, without a doubt, in financial crisis. No matter how many hundreds of millions of dollars made by the huge blockbusters, it still takes a tremendous amount of money to get a film made — and part of that ever-escalating budget is P.R. Thus, if you can publicize your film for NOTHING to an audience of millions of self-selected fans via Twitter…..why not? The same logic holds for the celebrity using Twitter to promote their general image: why keep a P.R. agent and stylist on retainer when you can publicize yourself with little more than an internet connection and a free Twitter account?

So it’s a smart business move. But it’s inciting all sorts of anxiety, in part because it, like the dissolution of the trades, threatens to fundamentally change the way that Hollywood does business. Because Hollywood, as an industry, is much more than simply the people who actually ‘make’ the movies — it’s also composed of vast armies of agents, assistants, managers, and P.R. agents. And if you take away those middlemen, replacing it with Twitter, a tremendous amount of people will be out of work. In some ways, I think the seismic effects of the internet (and digital technology more broadly) can only be compared to the demise of the studio system in terms of wide-spread ramifications in the way that Hollywood does business."

Monday, April 5, 2010

When Gods slum: 7 notes on Clash of the Titans

1) Once upon a time, back in 1993, Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes became movie stars in the Best Picture Oscar award-winning Schindler's List. Now they slum as clashing Gods in this year's remake of the 1981 Clash of the Titans much like two would-be Marlon Brandos duking it out on Krypton in Superman (1978). (IMDB claims that Neeson took on the role because "his sons are big fans of Greek mythology." I haven't heard Fiennes' excuse.) As Zeus, Neeson sports a very shiny suit of CGI armor as Fiennes refines his Lord Voldemort glower as Hades with long black greasy hair and a beard. Hades has been annoyed with Zeus ever since he tricked him into becoming leader of the underworld, so now Hades wants to release the Kraken on to some uppity humans down in Argos as part of his bid for more cosmic power.

2) Meanwhile, Zeus has a demigod son, a fisherman named Perseus (Sam Worthington) who could save humanity, but first he must visit some creepy witches and Medusa down in the underworld. Perseus gets the help of some soldiers, a magic sword, a flying horse, and Io (Gemma Arterton), who is fetching in an ancient-Greek-demigod-guardian-angel sort of way. Hades gives Perseus 10 days before the the unusually tendrilly and toothy underwater mega-turtle Kraken bubbles out of the sea to devour everyone. Will Perseus succeed? How many scorpions, goblins, and other assorted computer-generated mythological nasties must he fight off first?

3) Samples of the dialog: "You are specks of dust underneath our fingernails!"
---Hades hissing at the court of Argos

"If there's a god in you, be sure to bring it.'
---Draco (Mads Mikkelsen), one of the soldiers, after giving Perseus a fighting lesson

"The gods need US! They need our prayers! What do WE need the gods for?"
---famous last words of the Argos royalty

"I know we're all afraid, but my father told me some day, someone was going to have to take a stand. Some day, some one was going to have to say enough. This could be that day. Trust your senses, and don't look that bitch in the eye!"
---Perseus inspiring his fellow troops before confronting the Medusa

4) I understand why most critics have been panning this movie, but I found it bemusingly cheesy for CGI blockbuster fodder. I saw it in 2 dimensions at 11 am as part of my Sunday morning Easter service in a surprisingly crowded theater. Whereas the general predictability of Perseus' strivings got old after an hour or so (I found myself suddenly very sleepy when the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th monster scorpions appeared), Clash of the Titans has enough bizarre details to make it diverting viewing once.

5) For instance, in comparison to so many recent movies where God (if he exists) is either indifferent or hostile, the Gods in Clash of the Titans take a surprising interest in lowly human affairs. Zeus likes humans because their prayers "feed" his immortality (whatever that means), and even Hades cares enough to punish humans when they knock down a statue of Zeus. I also liked seeing the Gods standing stiffly in a circle on the cloudy illustrated diorama floor of Mount Olympus. Zeus tells all of the other Gods to go away before he can secretly say to Hades "Release the Kraken!"

6) Some other odd details: Did you know that the Medusa wears a black bra? That her lair combines cliffs, bent columns, lava, smoke, and atmospheric giggling? (The rest of the movie tends to overdose on generic rocky landscapes.) Did you know that Perseus' best fighting maneuver involves a flying leap as he twirls in the air? Did you hear that scorpions can wear bridles? Does it seem appropriate for Io and Perseus to indulge in some PG-13 demigod hankypanky in the hull of Charon's ship ferrying them to the underworld?

7) Lastly, princess of Argos Andromeda (Alexa Davalos), as she awaits the Kraken, gets tied to a sacrificial device exactly like one Naomi Watts dangles from in the 2005 King Kong. Humorously, Perseus has no particular interest in saving Andromeda since he's been flirting with Io for much of the movie, but he assumes his responsibility to deal with the released Kraken gamely enough. Someone has to do it.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Easter links

---"It’s about time for new heroes! With contract-based service in Ukrainian armed forces!"

---the joys of urban camouflage

---from David Shields' Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (a quote that appears to have originated with William Gibson):

"The opposite of broadcast: the distribution economics of the internet favor infinite niches, not one-size-fits-all. The web’s peer-to-peer architecture: a symmetrical traffic load, with as many senders as receivers and data transmissions spread out over geography and time. A new regime of digital technology has now disrupted all business models based on mass-produced copies, including the livelihoods of artists. The contours of the electronic economy are still emerging, but while they do, the wealth derived from the old business model is being spent to try to protect that old model. Laws based on the mass-produced copy are being taken to the extreme, while desperate measures to outlaw new technologies in the marketplace “for our protection” are introduced in misguided righteousness. This is to be expected: entire industries (newspapers, magazines, book publishers, movie studios, record labels) are threatened with demise, and not all will make it. The new model is based on the intangible assets of digital bits: copies are no longer cheap but free and flow freely everywhere. As computers retrieve images from the web or displays from a server, they make temporary, internal copies of those works. Every action you invoke on your computer requires a copy of something to be made. Many methods have been employed to try to stop the indiscriminate spread of copies, including copy-protection schemes, hardware-crippling devices, education programs, and statutes, but all have proved ineffectual. The remedies are rejected by consumers and ignored by pirates. Copies have been dethroned; the economic model built on them is collapsing. In a regime of superabundant free copies, copies are no longer the basis of wealth. Now relationships, links, connection and sharing are. Value has shifted away from a copy toward the many ways to recall, annotate, personalize, edit, authenticate, display, mark, transfer, and engage a work. Art is a conversation, not a patent office. The citation of sources belongs to the realms of journalism and scholarship, not art. Reality can’t be copyrighted."

---Dana Stevens appreciates Fantastic Mr. Fox as David Thomson wonders why Olivia Williams is in "some danger of going unnoticed"

---authoritarian regimes and the internet:

"The horizontal nature of the internet, whereby ordinary users can easily generate and disseminate content, empowers citizens in ways that traditional media cannot. It makes the flow of information far more difficult to control. At the same time, however, controls on digital media are more intrusive and directly affect much larger numbers of people than restrictions on traditional media. Internet censorship, for example, infringes on the rights of a great many citizens as content producers, not only as consumers, and online surveillance allows authorities to monitor personal communications as well as to track what citizens read. Through surveillance on the internet, state security services can infiltrate online networks, monitor discussions about planned civic actions, and identify members of opposition groups. Facebook, the most widely used social networking service, allows users to create private groups but does not offer secure login. State security services could hack the Facebook page of a known activist and in the process identify that activist’s entire network of friends and contacts.

Control over the internet has grown far more sophisticated in recent years. It is not simply a matter of preventing citizens in repressive environments, such as China, from reading the websites of Amnesty International or the New York Times. It is increasingly focused on impeding the spread of domestically generated content that authoritarian regimes find objectionable, such as news about government incompetence or online discussions about abuses of power, and obstructing the organization of political opposition. Internet censorship and surveillance are used first and foremost by authoritarian regimes to silence their domestic critics and to prevent the emergence of political alternatives."

---Splice looks like an updated Alien as I Am Love supplies the one guilty pleasure amidst grim social realism

---FREEwilliamsburg assesses the April releases

---a dictionary of accepted film ideas:

"criticism: Either dying or useless.

deep focus: Invented by Renoir.

early films: Always a director's best.

Eastwood: Crypto-Leftist.

Eisenstein: Invented almost everything.

editing: The more obviously grounded in existing theories, the better.

experimental film: New and fresh even when recycling 80-year-old ideas.

film stock: Proof of seriousness. Looks better than HD.

French cinema: A genre.

Griffith: "While no straightforward, consistent political stance is in evidence in the Griffith oeuvre, there is a theme that runs through his major works. That theme is Family."

handheld: How we see the world.

horror: See "comedy."

innovation: Important in old films, to be ignored in new ones.

Japanese cinema: Contemplative, because of Buddhism or Shinto or whatever their religion is called."

---defending the chick flick from manic pixie dream girls with their girl-band-movie cliches

---Bellamy and Howard brood on the two Christs in time for Easter

---a Billy Wilder webliography

---Mexican narco cinema

---lastly, T.S. of Screen Savour considers Buster Keaton's Steamboat Bill, Jr.:

"The film takes a turn and improves above its ordinary beginnings after Bill Sr. is arrested after attacking King in anger, and shortly after he’s put in jail, the cyclone arrives. Keaton wanted to end the film with a flood, but due to tragic floods in the United States shortly before and the prohibitive costs, Keaton substituted in the cyclone. It is the superior choice for numerous reasons, primarily because it reinforces what Roger Ebert calls “a universal stillness that comes of things functioning well, of having achieved occult harmony.” Keaton and his crew destroy an entire town. There are strong winds that prevent walking, creating a strange but metaphoric conflation of stillness and movement. There are flying boxes, collapsing walls, and swinging fence doors. He becomes caught in a bed that’s blows around the town. He latches onto a tree that is uprooted by the wind and blown into the river while he hangs onto the trunk. It is nature having its way with the short man who does everything he can to avoid being swept away."

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The future will be inane: quotes and links concerning We Live in Public

“One day we’re gonna wake up and realize we’re all servants.”

"Lions and tigers used to be kings of the jungle and then one day they wound up in zoos. I suspect we're on the same track."
---Josh Harris

“Your reality is already half video hallucination. If you’re not careful, it will become total hallucination. You’ll have to learn to live in a very strange new world.” – Brian O’Blivion in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983)

"Remember Jenny Ringley? She was the pioneer of Webcams. From April 1996 until 2003, she lived her life online, getting, it was said, tens of millions of hits a week. She never discussed why she shut down Jennycam. Today, she says she doesn't even have a MySpace page. And Josh Harris says Sidamo, Ethiopia, is the best place on Earth to live: "People know each other here."
---from Roger Ebert's review of We Live in Public

"The more you get to know each other, the more alone you become."

"The freeness is turning people into beasts."
---participants in Quiet: We Live in Public

"Last month, we introduced you to (or reminded you about) Josh Harris, once-upon-a-time internet entrepreneur and star of the award-winning documentary We Live in Public. Around the turn of the millennium, Harris was known for coordinating some pretty bizarre social experiments, like getting 100 people to live in a bunker under 24-hour camera surveillance. He then turned the camera on himself and his girlfriend, broadcasting their lives over the Web--which eventually led to his nervous breakdown. We Live in Public captures it all, illustrating Harris's rise and fall in a fascinating cautionary tale about our use of the internet.
---Stephanie Schomer, writing for Fast Company

"The most mind-blowing project he masterminded was “Quiet”: an underground bunker in downtown Manhattan filled with hundreds of cameras and bunk bed pods. He invited about a hundred New Yorkers to live there in December 1999. Everything was free: food, alcohol, drugs, a firing range (!), shelter. The only catch was that residents of Quiet were filmed at all times — in their pods, in the shower, in the bathroom, etc. etc. And that film would belong to Harris.

The film presents this as a revolutionary idea, and fails to acknowledge the existence of MTV’s Real World, broadcast in 1992 and predating this experiment by seven years. Quiet was different though in its sheer numbers — 100 or so people rather than the handful on MTV’s series — and because of the constant broadcasting of the camera feeds. There was a TV in every bunk bed pod and throughout the bunker so residents could watch each other, while being watched.

As depicted in the film, and as one might expect, chaos ensued."

---Kashmir Hill writing for True/Slant Network Activity

"The centrepiece of this is the Big Brother-with-guns-and-psychological-torture installation that drew Timoner into a close working relationship with Harris in 1999. For thirty days a group of 100 extroverts drove each other insane, incarcerated in an extensively surveilled warehouse, constructed to seem like a cross between a cult bunker and concentration camp. This is taken as a 'physical metaphor' for our present menagerie culture of online blogging, profiles, social networking and the inexhaustible desire to publically broadcast our lives.

As a story basically chronicling the downfall of Harris as the "smartest guy in town", there are shades of Alex Gibney's Enron documentary; also perhaps of Capturing the Friedmans in terms of the obsessive self-documentation of its subject (Harris filmed a sizeable chunk of the 5000 hours worth of footage used to create the film). But, like Timoner's much lauded DiG!, this is far less multi-faceted and more the tale of the apparently brilliant but ultimately marginalised outsider. When he installs motion tracking cameras in his house to star (along with his girlfriend) in his own reality soap-opera, we realise that the real metric to his downfall isn't economic or criminal but in the dwindling numbers of voyeurs subscribing to his online feed. "That combination", he remarks with tragi-comic timing, "is not designed for mental stability and happiness."

As someone previously unintroduced to Josh Harris, a layer of the film's intrigue stemmed from the question of whether - as the 'cautionary tale' for our times - it might also be an exercise in aligning the past with the present: a retrospective act in consolidating his myth. Was Quiet: We Live In Public (the title of the bunker installation) a coded message waiting for history to catch up with it - or a stunt quite in key with the then burgeoning development of the reality television format? Was Harris's early song and video 'Launder My Head' a Cassandra-like reveal of "the future of media and the collective consciousness", or a goofy animation of dancing computer monitors? Regardless, whether Timoner articulates a bona fide 'vision' or not, We Live In Public is certainly an eye-opener."
---Dean Sobers' review in The Quietus

"While Harris' intentions were clearly skewed towards provocation I'd prefer to linger more on the idealistic undertones, or the possibility of extending people so far beyond their limits that they began to blend into each other. Familiarity, while in some cases bred contempt, also contributed to a breakdown of selfhood as everyone adjusted to the idea that their lives were not sacred or theirs to keep, they were for everyone to see.

Relinquishing privacy meant the weight of your identity was shared by those around you, you were on equal footing with the other inhabitants - you were shared between and among them, divvied up into sound bites and images strewn across a vast network of monitors."

"Mr. Harris invited Ondi Timoner, the director and writer of We Live in Public, to shoot the experiment, which explains the wealth of images in this movie. Some of the more disturbing ones invoke the bullying techniques of discredited self-help groups like EST. The bunker itself suggests a wired version of a model prison designed by the 18th-century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham that he called the Panopticon, which allows a guardian to watch inmates who, because of the structure’s design, can never see that they’re being observed. This constant surveillance would become an instrument of control because the prisoners, not knowing if they were being watched, would, out of uncertainty, behave as if they were. Not surprisingly, Bentham’s design has become a favorite metaphor for life in the surveillance age."
---Manohla Dargis

"I tend not to have particularly intimate relationships," Harris admits. Although people consider him a genius and an visionary pioneer of the internet, others consider him delusional and self-absorbed. In fact, in a documentary that included many disturbing images, one of the ones that bothered me the most was Harris' alterna-identity, "Luvvy", a strangely creepy clown avatar that he used to transform into for interviews and business deals. It was a weird regression to a child-like state, and it drove home just how socially alienated Harris was...and just how socially alienated we all may become? I desperately hope not."
---Daniel Getahun


"After the cops shut the project down, Harris soon embarked on another endeavor: he fit a loft with 32 webcams that would broadcast he and his girlfriend's day-to-day life. After changing the way she and Harris interacted — we behave differently for an audience than we do in private — the venture ended in a breakup, as well as depression, paranoia, and bitterness.

Obviously, the point is that this is how our own YouTube Twitter MySpace obsession ends — with a mean and implosive bang. Harris was testing the extremes of these technologies before most people were even using them at all — looking at what the end of Web 2.0 would look like while the rest of us were clicking through HTML fansites on 28.8K modems. He foresaw how the Internet would encourage our worst self-promotive fantasies. In tweaking Warhol's dictum that everyone wants 15 minutes of fame in their lifetimes, Harris declares that "people want 15 minutes of fame every day" — a way to transform the meaningless and mundane into cause for celebrity. (It's like "getting on to Carson" for sheer gall, without the talent that was once requisite to do so; as such, Harris presaged not only social media and interactive websites but also Jackass and Paris Hilton.) Timoner (DiG!) may make the connection too blatant at times, and she certainly overscores the film — most eye-rollingly when she uses "Virtual Insanity" as the end credits theme — but, with plenty of footage shot over a decade, she also offers a prophetic glimpse into the madness to which our Facebook profiles are likely to lead us. That's something we could just read about. But it's much more convincing actually to see it."
---Henry Stewart writing for The L Magazine