Saturday, September 16, 2017

From "The Battle for Blade Runner" by Michael Schulman

From "The Battle for Blade Runner" by Michael Shulman:

"As for the future that Blade Runner envisioned, Ridley Scott’s bleak 2019 seems prescient in our age of environmental degradation, omnipresent machines, and general foreboding. What is Apple, after all, if not a tech behemoth on par with the Tyrell Corporation? It even has its own enigmatic robo-woman with eerie flashes of humanity. Not long ago, I asked her, 'Siri, do you dream of electric sheep?' 'Electric sheep,' she purred back. 'But only sometimes.'"

Noir Jukebox by Corey Creekmur

Noir Jukebox from Corey Creekmur on Vimeo (with thanks to Catherine Grant)

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

From a Vulture interview with John Cleese

From a Vulture interview with John Cleese:

What are you working on now?

I have a show I’m working on at the moment called Why There Is No Hope.

Sounds funny.
It is funny. Some people immediately see the title as funny and other people go what?! There is no hope that we’ll ever live in a rational, kind, intelligent society. To start, most of us are run by our unconscious and, unfortunately, most of us have no interest in getting in touch with our unconscious. So if the majority of people are run by something they don’t know anything about, how can we have a rational society?
. . .

There’s absolutely nothing that gives you any hope about the future of human society?
Nothing.

Nothing?
Nothing.

So why get up in the morning?
Just because you can’t create a sensible world doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the world you’re in. I think Bertrand Russell once said that the secret to happiness is to face the fact that the world is horrible. Once you realize that things are pretty hopeless, then you just have a laugh and you don’t waste time on things that you can’t change — and I don’t think you can change society. I’ve spent a lot of time in group therapy watching highly intelligent, well-intentioned people try to change and they couldn’t. If even they can’t change …

As someone who’s spent a lifetime working in and thanking about comedy, is there one joke you can point to as being the funniest thing that you ever said?
Interesting. It would probably have been something unscripted. Eric Idle and I were performing in Florida once, taking questions from the audience, and a woman stood up and asked me, apparently seriously, “Did the Queen kill Princess Diana?”

What’d you say?
Certainly not with her hands.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

From Franklin Foer's "How Silicon Valley is erasing your individuality"

From Franklin Foer's "How Silicon Valley is erasing your individuality," an essay adapted from his new book World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech.

"Facebook represents a dangerous deviation in media history. Once upon a time, elites proudly viewed themselves as gatekeepers. They could be sycophantic to power and snobbish, but they also felt duty-bound to elevate the standards of society and readers. Executives of Silicon Valley regard gatekeeping as the stodgy enemy of innovation — they see themselves as more neutral, scientific and responsive to the market than the elites they replaced — a perspective that obscures their own power and responsibilities. So instead of shaping public opinion, they exploit the public’s worst tendencies, its tribalism and paranoia.

During this century, we largely have treated Silicon Valley as a force beyond our control. A broad consensus held that lead-footed government could never keep pace with the dynamism of technology. By the time government acted against a tech monopoly, a kid in a garage would have already concocted some innovation to upend the market. Or, as Google’s Eric Schmidt, put it, “Competition is one click away.” A nostrum that suggested that the very structure of the Internet defied our historic concern for monopoly.

As individuals, we have similarly accepted the omnipresence of the big tech companies as a fait accompli. We’ve enjoyed their free products and next-day delivery with only a nagging sense that we may be surrendering something important. Such blitheness can no longer be sustained. Privacy won’t survive the present trajectory of technology — and with the sense of being perpetually watched, humans will behave more cautiously, less subversively. Our ideas about the competitive marketplace are at risk. With a decreasing prospect of toppling the giants, entrepreneurs won’t bother to risk starting new firms, a primary source of jobs and innovation. And the proliferation of falsehoods and conspiracies through social media, the dissipation of our common basis for fact, is creating conditions ripe for authoritarianism. Over time, the long merger of man and machine has worked out pretty well for man. But we’re drifting into a new era, when that merger threatens the individual. We’re drifting toward monopoly, conformism, their machines. Perhaps it’s time we steer our course."

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Iconography and the Yammering Haters: a Review of Taylor Swift's "Look What You Made Me Do" Video

As someone who remembers the flowering of the music video during the 1980s and the ascendance of figures like Madonna and Michael Jackson as they newly explored the form, I usually don't have much to say about the dull marketing calculations of recent music videos. A typical example would be Katy Perry's recent "Swish Swish," a forgettable video that alludes to Space Jam (1996) to little effect. Full of celebrity cameos, sight gags, and grotesquery, "Swish Swish" exemplifies the contemporary degrading cartoon Idiocracy attention-seeking visual internet squalor that does not linger in the mind.

Taylor Swift's "Look What You Made Me Do" video, however, strikes me as something else. As Anne Helen Petersen points out in her Buzzfeed essay "The Great White Celebrity Vacuum," Swift largely has not produced much new work during the last six months, and the "Look" song and video mark her return to the public eye with multiple iconographic images that point back to her previous incarnations and personae. In dramatic contrast to the relative sweetness of, say, "Shake It Off" (2014), "Look What You Made Me Do" comes across as a vindictive, fierce, and paranoid Swift interrogating her own media image with every millisecond of the video seemingly test-marketed for maximum meme-worthy impact, and I like the semiotic intensity of it all (without pretending to get the many, many references to incidents in her highly publicized and debated past). Swift has arrived at a cold and angry level of fame, but the video also asserts the power of her celebrity. After all why would someone cut the wing off of a jet marked "REPUTATION" with a chainsaw? In comparison to Perry's slippy hijinks, Swift's "Look" is hagiographic--all about power with her dominating every shot composition in a triangular tableau that reminds me of some of evil robot Maria scenes in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) which Madonna also used to good effect in her "Express Yourself" video.

After a humorously Gothic beginning with Swift's zombie alluding to Jackson's "Thriller" video, she digs up the grave of her reputation (a reply to Petersen's essay), then reappears in a bathtub full of jewels before assuming her throne with a bunch of snakes giving her tea. I've read of how all of this imagery alludes to various celebrity tiffs, put downs, when its isn't ripping off other videos, but I enjoyed imagining other reasons for snakes, a Cleopatra/Britney Spears reference, perhaps? Has Swift's fan base and internet buzz become the same kind of writhing vicious commentary, a perpetually petty yammering chorus of snark (such as one finds on Twitter, for instance) aspiring for influence on a staircase? In The Circle, one can find a good depiction of this chorus when Emma Watson's character Mae chooses to go fully "transparent" for her Mark Zuckerberg-esque mentor Bailey (Tom Hanks), allowing herself to experience the ultimate celebrity nightmare of being on a continual internationally-accessible video feed from when she wakes up in the morning until she goes to bed at night. When she does so, everyone who follows Mae constantly comments on everything she does with a creepy tweet-like relentlessness that shows how horrific contemporary media exposure can be. Not only is Mae drastically over-exposed, everyone else is reduced by the movie's Facebook-like social media to endless miniaturized bickering commentary, all of it fed by the need for attention coupled with the dictates of social media engineers ("oligarchic platform owners") profiting over human gullibility and cell phone addiction.

Then, the "Look What You Made Me Do" video cuts to a car accident with Swift suddenly looking a lot like Katy Perry as she's thrown onto the dashboard and steering wheel before paparazzi arrive to pruriently photograph her. I enjoy the way the shot evokes the twisted aesthetics of Jake Gyllenhaal's work in Nightcrawler (2014) and its emphasis on just how sick the public has gotten to be as it sates itself on images of car crashes, death warmed over for the evening news, all of it making J. G. Ballard's Crash (1973), and by extension the Cronenberg 1996 movie adaptation, a documentary prophecy rather than a novel.

It's also fun to see Swift serve up her power-play with Spotify as a robbery with other women in cat masks. In that moment in a video full of expensive sets rapidly deployed, Swift wields a baseball bat as she robs the streaming service, at one point holding up a stack of burning money. Does this shot intend to refer to the Heath Ledger's Joker and his nihilistic burning of money in The Dark Knight? Ultimately, Swift did win her feud with Apple Music when they, in Kaitlyn Tiffany's essay, "agreed to pay royalties to everyone during its free trial." So, does that count as a robbery with money to burn? At any rate, the shot does show off Swift's power to affect big business with her marketing decisions.

In the end, I still don't get why Swift's persona feels obliged to cut off the wing of a jet with a chainsaw, but the image has a gleeful destructiveness. So, yes, Swift's newest incarnation stands before a lit cross-like T as her earlier media selves squirm and fall down below, but one could also say that's an image of the celebrity celebrating a video that quickly breaks records across the world, no matter what others say or tweet or post, etc. Whatever her faults, with these kinds of images, Taylor Swift reminds the viewers where we stand or fall in the vicious hierarchy of celebrity.