Category Archives: Reading

back to school // back to reality

Summer is over, and it is time to go back to school. I graduated from Carleton last spring (an event, oddly enough, about which I continue to have recurring anxiety dreams), but while I am now something like a real adult with a Bachelor’s degree, I am back-to-school as well, in that I am working as the Educational Associate (also known, colloquially, as “5th Year”) for the Carleton’s Cinema and Media Studies department. This is a one-year position, and basically entails managing the filmmaking, audio, and media equipment, assisting the faculty in a variety of ways, and (hopefully) expanding a series of evening technology and cinema studies workshops, labs, and seminars that I am calling “CinemaTechs.” So at least for my first year of frightened post-collegiate existentialism, I am somehow lucky enough to have gainful employment in my field (and in the exact department where I became relatively qualified in my field!). That’s a lot to be excited about — and on top of that, there are some pretty awesome film-art-related opportunities coming into my life as a result of my role in the CAMS department (which I will write about in due course, as they arise).

Brief back-pedal to summer. In a (completely non-exhaustive) list, Summer 2012 for me as a perceiver and a creator consisted of: reading and listening to John Cage, discovering the joys of collaboration with a non-filmmaker artist (my sculptor friend Eliza), interpreting Debussy on film, revisiting phenomenology (David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous), shooting an indie feature called Lucidity, studying sound design//ProTools, finally watching Lar’s von Trier’s Melancholia and feeling no particular sadness in response to it, and developing a debilitating addiction to the song “Payphone” by Maroon 5. All that, and the privilege of slowing the pace of my often overcommitted and crazy lifestyle to explore Minneapolis with my wonderful girlfriend Gwen.

Reading David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous on the set of our indie film, Lucidity.

But to return to this idea that my job at Carleton is presenting me with some pretty sweet opportunities — one such is to continue to audit courses at the college, and I have jumped at the chance to take CAMS 286: Animation.

Thus far, Animation is taking me completely out of my depth, in a way that isn’t scary, but is rather enthralling and full of potential — we’ve begun the course with a return to the physicality of media, a thing that sometimes gets lost in the digital age of cinema. Our first exercise was to create a 5 second hand-made film on 16mm. I did mine on black leader, using pushpins to scratch Japanese kanji characters into the malleable, dust-producing, physical film itself, beginning what I hope will be a love and fruitful love affair with the medium. (Digitization forthcoming, I hope!) Our second exercise was a hand-drawn cel animation that linked together 48 transforming frames by each member of the class to create a minute’s worth of metamorphosing images, which (in my capacity as 5th Year) I compiled into a little video which you can check out on Vimeo!

As a filmmaker who fancies herself an ‘artist’, this return to the physical stuff of the world in my creation is suddenly and palpably addictive; and something about listening to Murakami Haruki’s A Wild Sheep Chase at 3am, drawing cel after cel of a squirrel transforming into Sir John Cage puts me in a delicious post-modern meditative state. There is a strange balance struck between a clearing of the mind and a productive fixation of the mind on certain ideas and feelings that such a repetitive, detailed activity allows.

Perhaps animation, or any more physical, slow-paced form of filmmaking (like handmade 16mm scratch films) is a perfect mode of production for an artist who also wants to be a theorist — a way to create physical real art and to think abstract complex//simple thoughts at the same time, through finding some synchronicity between these thinking and making processes.


As soon as Lady Gaga’s new single “Born This Way” came out last February, comparisons (and accusations of plagiarism) began to be made with respect to Madonna’s 1989 hit “Express Yourself.”  Along with discussions of controversy, the Internet was flooded with mash-ups of the two songs, generally attempting to prove their similarity — and admittedly there are some striking similarities between the two pieces (Gaga has gone on record saying that she is heavily influenced and inspired by Madonna).  But neither the accusations nor the mash-ups have extended beyond the singles themselves to their music videos, which leaves, for the sound studies scholar interested in such, an alluring lacuna.

As a final project for one of courses this term, Sound Studies, I delved into a lot of really fascinating music video theory, and ended up creating the piece “Express Yourself This Way” (above).   It plays with this opportunity for both visual and aural mash-up in order to interrogate, empirically, how sound and image in music-video map onto one another in a such a way that “the inherent qualities found in the sound and the moving images are interchangeable, so that the audio resounds the moving image, and the moving image visualises the audio”(18, Strand) — namely, to test ideas around the concept of aural visuality.

As Carol Vernallis says, “music video editing is strongly responsive to music”(xi, Vernallis), and Andrew Goodwin, Strand, and Vernallis all agree (as do I) that unlike film, sound comes first in music video as the song precedes the the creation of the clip.  Each of them makes similar but slightly differently-nuanced arguments for how it occurs, but the general consensus is that the sound of the music (not necessarily lyrics) inspires the image, finding aural-visual corollaries in things like color, visual microrhythms (as termed so by Michel Chion), form/flow, and contour that bring the image and sound together a particular ‘joins’ — almost reminiscent of Walter Murch’s metaphor of the dance of the edited lines of a film.  Thus, according to Strand, “by using the song and the aural qualities inherent within its audio space as a starting point, visuals are created that correlate to the phenomenological qualities of the sound in such a way that the images become the sound, undulating and streaming around the viewers, pulsing and reverberating through them”(39, Strand).

Thus, one of the primary questions asked by the video I have crafted: if arguments about aural visuality and the expression of image through music from the starting point of sound, hold true, should the images of the songs resonate similarly if “Express Yourself” and “Born This Way” sound so much alike?  My methodology in exploring was therefore to match the audio of each song with video from the other’s music video (they were both, minus the expository ‘para-song’ section at the beginning of Gaga’s video) almost exactly five minutes.  Even at this stage it was a bit uncanny how well the new image/sound pairings seemed to ‘work’.  In music video, Carol Vernallis has identified “the fundamental unit [as] the musical section, rather the scene or the shot”(170, Vernallis), as it would be in film.   Thus, “treating the form of the song as the analytical ground for the video better reflects its semantic and formal structure”(171, Vernallis), so I proceeded to segment each of the new aduio/visual pairings into their segments (intros, verses, choruses, bridges), and then created a hybrid ‘standard song form’ which I used as a framework to reconstruct a total music video by alternating sections from each in order through the framework, which is textually highlighted at the beginning of each major cut in the piece.

As I mentioned, there is an uncanny workability to the overlaid image/sound pairings that suggests that there are indeed aural similarities, and that because the theories of aural visuality seem to hold true, this creates a similar intertextual reversibillity between music videos themselves, over and above the intratextual reversibility (in the Sobchack sense) of image and sound.

Although my experiment doesn’t yet address what can be determined culturally from this more formal, critical aural-visual interrogation of a widespread accusation of ‘plagiarism’, it does also allude to the question of whether there is perhaps an inherent synchronicity of cultural concern between the two artists and their intended meanings in the songs that supports their ultimate similarity, in both sound and music video.  I am certainly not passing judgment as to whether Gaga has paid an extended homage or has completely ripped off Madonna — both artists operate within highly post-modern practices and discourses, where traces abound and ‘true originality’ is impossible.  Borrowing, both deliberate and inadvertent, is bound to happen.  But while the songs seem clearly intended (on Gaga’s part) to have some similarities, the interchangeabillity — the similar aural translational qualities — of the two music-videos suggest that an inadvertent similarity has emerged in the flow of images, precisely because Strand, Vernallis, and Goodwin are right: sound is always the impetus for the music-video, and aural visuality (and cinesthetic montage) entails that images that “work” for one song will “work” for a song that has been almost objectively determined as sounding the same.

Works Referenced

Goodwin, Andrew.  Dancing in the Distraction Factory.  Taylor & Francis, 1993.
Lady Gaga.  Music video. “Born This Way.” dir. Nick Knight.  2011.
Madonna.  Music video.  “Express Yourself.” dir. David Fincher. 1989.
Strand, Joachim Wichman.  Thesis, MCA in Screen Arts.  The Cinesthetic
Montage of Music-video: hearing the image and seeing the sound
Submitted to the Department of Media and Information Faculty of Media,
Society and Culture, Curtin University of Technology July 2006.
Vernallis, Carol.  Experiencing Music Video.  New York: Columbia University
Press, 2004.
Vernallis, Carol.  “The Aesthetics of Music-video: an analysis of Madonna’s
‘Cherish’.” Popular Music (1998) Volume 17/2.  United Kingdon: Cambridge
University Press, 1998.  p. 153-85.

auteur du jour: peggy ahwesh

Born: 1954 in Pittsburgh.
Currently a resident of: Brooklyn. (represent!)
Favorite themes: sexuality, language, vision, female experience/subjectivity, the manipulation of genre conventions
Style: found footage, Pixelvision, alternative narrative, documentary, digital animation
Most famous film (arbitrary): The Color of Love (1994) for appropriating graphic material in the service of approaching the beauty and sensuality of the medium as inherently haptic.
Films by her that I have seen: From Romance to Ritual (1985), Martina’s Playhouse (1989), The Deadman (with Keith Sanborn, 1990), Nocturne (1998), She Puppet (2001), The Third Body (2007), Beirut Outtakes (2007), Bethlehem (2009)   //  [check out her full filmography here.]
My favorite: Nocturne (1998), for breathtaking reverse sound and motion, complicated explorations of female desire, and requisite dreams within dreams.

Ubuweb calls her a “true bricoleur…her tools include narrative and documentary styles, improvised performance and scripted dialogue, synch-sound film, found footage, digital animation, and crude Pixelvision video. Using this range of approaches, she has extended the project initiated by 1960s and ’70s American avant-garde film, and has augmented that tradition with an investigation of cultural identity and the role of the subject.”  Her work spans myriad experimental media, and has evolved into the digital age in ways that challenge new technology while still engaging with theory, language, and vision as bravely as ever.

Language and cinema have had a long and complicated relationship.  (Not unlike that of language and philosophy, language and queer/gender studies, language and… etc.)  Many film theorists have tried to speak of cinematic language, to conceive of film in linguistic metaphors (enter semiotics!), and many filmmakers have argued for cinema beyond language (Godard’s next film is going to be titled Adieu au Language, although admittedly this is a slightly different case), because it is a visual medium; it shouldn’t need words to express itself.

So what makes the work of Peggy Ahwesh so fascinating is her total embrace of language: she frequently uses voice-over of herself or collaborators reading aloud from texts, theory and fiction and poetry, or includes reading and quotation within the diegesis of her films.  Hers is a cinema of allusion, appropriation, of dialogue, but where the practice of “folding language into, or asking it to hover above, the image is predicated on an understanding of the shortcomings of language itself”(Senses of Cinema).

She began her career on Super-8, drawn to the artisanal and home-made feel of the medium as a means for exploring both language and looking.  One of her earliest films, From Romance to Ritual (1985), invokes and inverts the title of the 1920 book by Jessie L. Weston as it, like the book, draws connections between pagan history and ritual and mythology, though Ahwesh’s myths are not those of not King Arthur but the (modern) woman.  Such titular references are common throughout her body of work, including one drawn from classic Marquis de Sade, Philosophy in the Bedroom (1987), which I have as yet been frustrated in finding a means of seeing (if anyone has a copy lying about, drop me a line!).

Martina tells a story to the camera in Martina's Playhouse.

Her 1989 Martina’s Playhouse, which she purportedly titled thus as a counterpoint to Peewee’s Playhouse, focuses on the young daughter of an artist friend playing at gender roles, intercut with footage of filmmaker Jennifer Montgomery in Ahwesh’s apartment and close-ups of flowers.  It is notable, however, for the voice-over of first a child (Martina) reading haltingly from Lacanian theory about the constitution of the Self and the desire for the Other, which is then re-read later by an adult voice.  As part of my comps (comprehensive senior thesis) project, I’ve been thinking a great deal of late about how one can “film theory” — that is, enact critical and scholarly work through the very means of production that we in the CAMS world are critiquing and studying.  One idea for my own film that I have been considering is having my self to staged readings of excerpts from various theorists (Eco, Irigaray, Butler, etc…), so seeing this played out in this film was very intriguing to me personally.

It speaks to the power of language as one of many tools of the cinema, not necessarily as a metaphor for cinema itself, and to the power of repetition and whose voice we record or listen to.  It gives me hope for the possibility of theorizing through film, but in Martina’s Playhouse, there is a lack of heavy-handedness that allows the voices, words, and images to create the potential for engagement in the viewer rather than forcing any interpretation, characteristic of Ahwesh’s ambiguous and open-ended style, who says herself that “the reason I’ve never liked narrative is because traditionally narrative film has to have resolution.”

Ahwesh directly captured footage of herself playing Tomb Raider to make She Puppet.

In this vein, her recent work She Puppet (2001), which consists of screen-captures of Ahwesh-as-Lara-Croft in Tomb Raider with a soundtrack drawing quotations from a number of literary sources,  has been called “the most succinct and powerful essay on the position of women in the field of cinematic vision since Laura Mulvey’s ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’.”(Senses of Cinema)  In She Puppet, the words and their accented readers complicate the otherwise straightforward imagery, creating a sort of serious-playful, poetic-theoretical discourse that does more for the rewriting of women’s place in cinema than Mulvey did with her seminal 1975 essay.

One other film by Ahwesh that I also have yet to see but would love to find a copy of is 73 Suspect Words (2000).  Her artist statement at Electronic Arts Intermix describes it as “a deceptively simple and ultimately chilling meditation on the power of text…based on a spell-check of the Unabomber’s manifesto, the work evokes the violence underlying the key words presented.”(EAI)

She is also known for her frequently graphic portrayals of sex and violence, but her female subjects seem to maintain subjectivity, or even when they don’t, it is really a case of the film lacking a subject altogether, suggesting that perhaps the subjectivity lies not within the diegesis but in the viewer and film themselves, as the mutually engaged viewing subjects that Vivian Sobchack posits in her “Phenomenology and Film Experience.”

As much of her older work (she’s been active since before 1983) is on Super-8 and other analog formats, some of it can be hard to get ahold of, but several of her films are archived online at UBUweb.  Ahwesh is currently a professor at Bard College, and is currently continuing to make more provocative and awesome experimental work as the 21st century complicates the meaning of cinematic experimentation.

auteur du jour: coming to a blog near you

Now that the most intense finals period and the most intense term at Carleton College in the history of the author has been survived, here at The Semioptician, we the editorial staff are happy to announce that break is over!  Or at least, the break from blogging. 🙂

And what better to inaugurate our triumphant return than the introduction of a new and exciting ongoing series, intended to educate and inspire both the author and her readers?

Yes, “Auteur Du Jour” has finally arrived.

A few words on the genesis of this (hopefully ongoing!) project: basically, when I am freed from the shackles of academia by such things as Thanksgiving Break (and believe, I gave thanks like never before), I tend to waste no time in becoming self-incarcerated — that is, filling in the holes in my education as a budding filmmaker, film theorist, feminist, and philosopher.  As I mentioned last month, there are a staggering number of films that I haven’t seen that I believe that I ‘ought to’ as a Cinema and Media Studies major, so the last several days have been a picture of happiness and personal growth centered on me curled up with my favorite laptop and my subscription to Netflix.  And what I realized is that the way I go about structuring my viewing becomes almost by default centered on filmmakers — I’m in the midst of a massive Woody Allen kick, a did a day of Godard, I could spend a week watching Jarmusch over and over and feel totally fulfilled.  I also realized that this is an even more applicable (almost necessary) approach to ‘educating’ oneself about the avant-garde and experimental cinema, where the independent and artisanal tendencies of the medium enforce an auteur theory unto themselves.  And between the mainstream and the avant-garde, there are plenty of filmmakers (Andrew Sarris can come over here and debate their status as auteurs with me if he feels like it) whose work I want to acquaint myself with in a more comprehensive way.

Thus, like every good little academic, I’m going to write about it, and share each new authorial exploration here — hopefully those of you who are interested in film will find out about some filmmakers you didn’t know, or find out things you didn’t know about the filmmakers you thought you knew, and those of you who aren’t interested in film will be interested enough in my learning process to hang on, because in that case you’re probably a close friend or my mother.  (But I know you’re interested in film, too, Mom.)  It will likely be a bit sloppy, as is the nature of the auto-didact’s endeavors, but it should be the fun kind of sloppy.

So tomorrow, I will prove Roland Barthes wrong and revive the author with my first installment, an introduction to the fascinating, raunchy, deliciously linguistic and theoretical work of Peggy Ahwesh!

Stay tuned, kiddos.

participant observation

Another video piece by me!  This one was made for an observational assignment for my nonfiction class; we were charged with the task of ‘observing a place or process’, and my observation was of both the rehearsal process and unique rehearsal space of my a cappella group, the Carleton Knightingales.  I am including my artist statement as an explanation of the theory behind the practice, but I would watch the video first, and then read on.  (Although if you choose to read my statement first, no one will know…it’s really up to the extent to which you will allow me as an artist to control your experience of meaning…)

a watch of gales in a chapel

artist statement

Although we were given the directive to capture a place or a process, I feel that my observations in a watch of gales ended up falling somewhere in the liminal space between the two – at once an observation of the process of a Knightingales a cappella rehearsal, and an observation of the rehearsal space itself in Dacie Moses house.

Unlike my previous video, I started out with much more of a theoretical concept for this piece, rather than simply beginning to experiment with the camera and discover in those very experimental forays the actual content of the piece.  I knew I wanted to document in a fairly subjective way, because the subject of my observation is too close to my self to even consider being objective about, and I wanted to communicate my sense of my cappella group.  I had also just read a lot of Balasz (preceded by Eisenstein), as well as history of the early abstract films by Fischinger, Eggeling, and company at the time when I was outlining my concepts, so I thinking quite a lot about abstraction, the close-up, the physiognomy, the idea of using music as an organizing principle for the moving image, and ‘harmonics’ of ‘lines’ in editing.  While I don’t think that the piece is a completely direct reflection of this theory and history, I have (like many artists, I think) taken the elements of it that appeal to me in a poetic and philosophical way and tried to let them take a practical form.

Wanting to abstract the rehearsal as a means of capturing my subjective experience of it, I began with the definition of abstraction from one of my readings, “the separation of qualities, aspects, or generalizations from particular instances” and decided to literally separate the audio from the video by deliberate making it non-sync, and even recording it on different days.  I then further separated the audio into five different “lines” based on conversational content, an idea that draws very loosely from Eisenstein’s later theories of harmonic, musical editing.  These five lines I have titled the “self-reflexive,” “business discussion,” “actual rehearsing/learning,” “gossip,” and “general chatter/laughter” tracks, which I layer over one another in an attempt to mimic the form of a cappella, but in the form of spoken harmonies.  The goal was an interweaving of chaos and occasional moments of clear statements.

The visual abstraction relies on the Balasz-derived ‘poetic potential of the close-up’ and synecdochic qualities of focusing on hands, feet, only parts of faces, cellphones, watches, and bracelets.  I filmed hand-held, attempting to make everything from my point-of-view, and preserved this subjectivity by simply editing the image based on what appealed to me aesthetically, creating a sort of loving subject gaze that hopefully captures my strong feel for the harmonic (and dissonant) social community of my group and my close attention (in literal, abstracting close ups) to the unique features of the members.

The fact that most of the audio is not what one might expect to hear in a piece on an a cappella rehearsal is very key to how I wish to represent the group – as one where the social harmonies are as important as the vocal ones, but where ironically we often end up spending more time talking than singing, although the video does finally emerge from the chatter and poetic close-ups into actual singing and two intercut self-reflexive, visually ‘quiet’ shots that want to point at the deep personal significance and actual beauty (and productivity in rehearsal!) that exists in this rather whirlwind environment.  My goal was to insert myself into the piece, to give way to the desire to actually hear singing, to create a sense of the collective echoing into the individual.

To speak, then, a little, to the title, which has some sort of arcane significance that I find kind of clever and worth noting, as it may be another aspect (like the conceptual constraints on the audio) that escapes the ‘uninitiated’ viewer.  The title, a watch of gales in a chapel, has several puns and allusions at work – my group is called The Knightingales, so we call ourselves the ‘gales’ for short; the birds nightingales come in groups called a ‘watch’ (like the equivalent of a ‘murder’ of ravens) but the piece itself was, as an observation, very much about watching; the etymological root of ‘a cappella’ comes from ‘in a chapel’, but the space where we rehearse and the ritual and music that is associated with it takes on a sacred meaning for me personally, and also functions rather like a communal confessional, a religious practice and place of sorts, in the totally secular living room of a cookie house where eleven girls meet and gossip and sing three nights a week.

quote for the night

For reality holds within itself no hidden kernel of self-understanding, of theory, of truth, like a stone inside a fruit.  We have to manufacture those.
— Comolli & Narboni, “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism”

I’m up late, reveling in my Film Theory reading for tomorrow’s class: ideology day.  Having recovered from the cogency of Peter Wollen’s argument in favor of Godard’s counter-cinema, those Seven Cardinal Virtues dismantling Hollywood-Mosfilm’s Seven Deadly, I was drawn back to the suddenness of this quote from my first reading by the Cahiers du Cinema re-manifesto of sorts that Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Narboni penned in 1959.

Given my current courses, I am constantly thinking about the nature of nonfiction, and here the two theorists speak directly to my own conceptions of the ‘genre’ (if we can call it such, which I am still on the fence about — this would necessitate turning to Richard Altman’s semantic/syntactic approach to film genre, which is beyond the scope of my midnight musings).  I have been making and watching a lot of cinema verite and direct cinema and documentary, all of which are essentially stabs at truthiness — but these theories of ideology seem spot on.  I know that I am manufacturing ‘truth,’ and consuming manufactured ‘truth’ in these nonfiction forms.  To find this empirical realization uttered so powerfully in the midst of my reading on the ideology of predominately narrative film — a moment to be added to Sandor Krasna’s list of things that “quicken the heart.”

long time no see

Hello, my faithful readings public.  I’m ashamed to have gone almost an entire month (!) without exercising my rights to free speech here on this pedantic and personal platform.  It’s been a crazy month, even on the visual culture front, but I have come out the other side only a little worse for the wear.  Here’s what’s been going on:

  • I was hired as an employee of the CAMS Production Office here at Carleton, which means that I am getting to get paid to get more acquainted with the technologies of my media (and also tear my hair out when the equipment checkout system is failing us…)
  • I got to hang out with Focus Features CEO James Schamus quite a bit two weekends ago, including having the immense honor of introducing him as the Convocation speaker on the Friday of 5th weekend and seeing the very first American showing of the new movie Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
  • I wrapped shooting on my dear friend Sam D’s short film The Incredible Owlbear, for which I was serving as chief audio technician and sound recordist, which is a glorified way of saying ‘kid who holds the boom’ (albeit looking badass…)
  • I beasted a midterm in Film Theory, a midterm in Film History I, and a 10-page research paper on Marlene Dietrich in Vogue magazine during the 30s, all within 48 hours.  (And then I slept.)
  • I realized what I’ve been missing out on by not watching German Expressionism — finally seeing Fritz Lang’s M was revelatory.
  • I also made a couple of videos for Nonfiction, one which was a group oral history (fantastic) and one which was an ‘observation of a place or process’ (a watch of gales in a chapel — video still uploading, link to be added shortly).
  • I learned how to jump-start a car.  With jumper cables.  This is a useful skill.

I'm the second from the left. I think it's fairly obvious.

The biggest thing, though, is realizing how awesome it is to be really digging into what I love, which is film and media production and consumption and analysis and synthesis.  All day er’ryday, as they say.

When my life calmed down for half a second yesterday evening when I got done with class, I decided to just watch something that I’ve been meaning to for quite some time, which ended up being the Maysles brothers’ The Beales of Grey Gardens.  It is the new 2006 Criterion edition of the classic 70s documentary about Jacqueline Kennedy’s interesting East Hampton relatives, re-edited entirely from footage that was shot at the time but not used in the first edit.  I was both fascinated and made uncomfortable by the film, and given that I have not actually seen the original cut of Grey Gardens, I know what my next free-time viewing experience will be — you can expect some musings on the two pieces in contrast to and concert with each other in (hopefully!) the near future.

observation the second

The second in a series of writings on the observational sessions I am conducting for CAMS 270: Nonfiction.

I wanted to observe light last night.

Walking towards the Weitz, I saw the isolated domes of the stained glass windows of the church across the street, lit from within.  It was a sweet little surprise, to see these geometric patches of bright color seeming to hang in space, in the supposed-darkness.  I went to stand before one of them, in order to contemplate color, but as soon as a came to pause before it in the middle of the street, the light from within was extinguished.  The colors quickly changed into darker grey interpretations of themselves, and the all that was left was the skeleton of iron between the panes, and a retinal afterburn of something.

I was surprised that though I had been looking at these colors moments before, I could suddenly remember nothing of where any given ‘color’ had been in the whole brilliantly lit array — had this triangle bit been orange?  Was there even much blue in the whole pattern?  I wondered then, had I been looking at the colors themselves, or the window as a whole?  I thought I had been taking in the window, drinking it in with my vision as I approached, but perhaps I had not been fully.  If we ‘see’ a thing, and then it changes unexpectedly before our eyes, how do we continue to see it?  We think it is the same thing, in some external sense, a window that I could run forward and tap on, or stoop to take a rock and shatter that glass, but it is not the same in my eyes.  Nor in my brain, for that matter, as I struggled to reconcile my just-forming perception of the colored window with the ensuing darkness.

I turned away soon after; I wonder why.  We are drawn like moths to light, and are startled and saddened when it leaves us.  But I could still see the window; awake, we are never quite without light, even when we close our eyes, and when we dream our minds create an inner light of memory to play across our eyelids.  So there was something there to see, still — and perhaps to find beauty or form in these darker places is just as important, if not as easy, just so or more so rewarding.  Perhaps I should return tonight, and find the light in stained glass gone dark.

little manic pixie dream girls go to the movies

It’s Sigfried Kracauer week in Film Theory!  That means reading, among many other things, his classic essay “The Little Shop Girls Go to the Movies”.  So far I’m finding that I love his style — it’s hard not to get carried along by the rather impassioned polemic that is played out in powerful prose.  And for the most part, I think I agree with some or many of his arguments (let me get back to you on that once I’ve had several class discussions on this past weekend’s reading) — but I am troubled by the gendering of “Little Shop Girls”, particular in its equation of the female spectator with a disparaged and low-brow mode of artistic and cultural reception.  Kracauer may be a mighty polemicist, but he’s no feminist.

“In the endless sequence of films, a limited number of typical themes recur again and again”(Kracauer, 294).   “Little Shop Girls” is organized around Kracauer’s scathing attacks on these stereotyped film forms he sees as glutting the Weimar cinema, presenting with admirable rhetorical strategies a series of eight typical modes, “textbook cases…subjected to moral casuistry” (Kracauer, 294).  One of these examples was particularly fascinating to me, in that it essentially outlines a historical-Germanic version of (500) Days of Summer — that is, Kracauer has written a 1920s description of the infamous Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype, in critiquing what he has christened “The Golden Heart”.  It’s not too long, so I’m taking the liberty of including it in full:

“A young Berlin wholesaler, an industrious manager of a first-rate company, visits a business friend of his father’s in Vienna; the paternal friend’s firm is going to pieces because of the disorder in Austria.  The quest would leave, if it were not for the business friend’s daughter, a sweet Viennese gal who makes it clear to him that there are other things besides management: the waves of the Danube and the wine gardens specializing in new vintages.  With delight the young man from Berlin discovers his dormant feelings.  He cleans up the company, which will soon be turning a profit again, and gets the gal for home use.—Even without close-ups, this course of events would be believable.  Whether in the city of waltz dreams or on the beautiful beaches of the Neckar—someplace, but not here in the present, the rich are falling in love and discovering in the process that they have hearts.  It is not true that they are heartless: films refute what life would make one believe.  Outside business—which admittedly would not be the right place for heart—their hearts are always in the wrong place.  They are brimming with feeling in situations where it is of little consequence and are often unable to do as they like, only because they waste their feelings so uneconomically in private affairs that their supply is continually running out.  One needs to have experienced the tenderness and gentleness the young man from Berlin expresses to the Viennese girl under the Stephansturm in order to understand once and for all that his brutal behavior on the telephone does not indicate a lack of sentiment.  The camera reveals this.  What he really loves is operettas, and what he really longs for is an idyllic retreat in which, undisturbed, he can open his poor heart, which he has had to close off in all other situations.  If there were no Viennese woman in the to keep his heart from interfering in economic matters, it could in a pinch, be well accommodated by the record player.  Through films, one can prove on a case-by-case basis that with rising prosperity the number of emotional nature preserves is constantly growing.  The little shopgirls learn to understand that their brilliant boss is made of gold on the inside as well; they await the day when they can revive a young Berliner with their silly little hearts.”

While this obviously differs a bit in the details, the overall scheme he lays out kept my mind’s eye fixated on a Joseph Gordon-Levitt in lederhosen, who instead of The Smiths “loves operettas” and “really longs for…an idyllic retreat” to the 1920s German equivalent of Ikea.  Kracauer’s every invocation of “the little shopgirls” began to look like a long string of aspiring Zooey Deschanels and Kirsten Dunsts and Natalie Portmans.

It is interesting enough in itself to note this evidence of the early genesis of the MPDG trope, but what intrigues me more is the way it is critiqued.  These days, Anita Sarkeesian and others in the feminist and/or media blogosphere tend to take the trope to task (along with its perpetuating screenwriters/directors/et al.) for it’s limiting and fairly unrealistic portrayals of women, to the point of arguable misogyny.  Kracauer’s position is obviously not in line with this post-third-wave-of-Feminism understanding: his contempt for a female audience that is just as two-dimensional and frivolous as the 1920s-equivalent MPDGs on screen in clear.  His contention with the archetypes, while based in a similar understanding of their un-reality, is more largely focused on the economic and class disparities that he sees, distinctions which he highlights at the expense of the equally present gender inequalities and unfair portrayals of “little shopgirls” and the type of women they are looking to on the silver screen.

Like I said, Kracauer isn’t exactly a feminist.  But at least he can get riled up about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and her Wimpster, which makes for good reading.

observation the first

As part of my Nonfiction course, we are currently doing several exercises in observation, miniature studies in perceiving the world that will, hopefully, help us observe and render the world as we perceive it, through the medium of film.  Taking our cues from the untutored vision and searches for “the tree with lights in it” of Stan Brakhage and Annie Dillard, we are supposed to look and listen and hopefully have transcendental experiences.  This is the first in a series of writings on these observational sessions.

“Find something that is hidden and observe it.”

I am entering the girl’s bathroom on the third floor of Burton residence hall.  I am brushing my teeth with the toothpaste on my finger, washing my face with foam from the soap dispenser, drying my face with rough recycled paper towels.  I am the only one in the bathroom, alone with the sounds I am making and some room tone, most likely the ventilation.  I look in the mirror to assess the level of exhaustion revealed by the strain under my eyes, quiet with myself, and to my left I discover a sound that is persistent, but distinct, not of the over-riding ventilative hum of the linoleumed space, but its own strain of sound waves.  At first it is a bit annoying, because it is quiet, but just so as to pick at my attention even as my other senses (or rather, my eyes) are focusing on the mirror.  But I look for the source, an exact point, bring my ear close to this spot on the partition and feel the relative volume swell as the distance between me and this hidden sound is traversed with the shifting of my shoulders.  At first, I think of it as a buzz.  It intrigues me.  I stand on my tip toes to bring my ear flush with the source.  I feel a tiny push of particles against the top of my earlobe, the movement of space around this border between the sound and its perceiver, the air moving with perhaps the sound itself, or at least some rush of air that is perhaps the reason for the sound, a pent up microcosm of swirling gaseous potential within this wall that is spitting itself out through the tiniest of punctures in the partition.  It is no longer a buzz; I give it the word ‘hiss’.

I come back two days later, and stand in the bathroom, leaving the lights off deliberately in order to sense the sound of this hissing wall spot as if I am just a pair of ears.  Standing in the center of the room, it is faint, among the other steady noises of the space, among the external bangs and creaks and footfalls and uttered words that pass through the walls from the hall beyond.  I go directly to it, listen with my right ear pressed against the wall, turn my head to let the left ear have a turn.  The hiss passes through my sensory perception as if subject to a Doppler effect, but one created simply by the slow turning of my own sense of perception in relation to this hissing sound, the constancy of which is growing to be a comfort.  There is a story of a Russian cosmonaut who goes into space, alone, and there in the cockpit of his spacecraft, begins to hear a steady clicking noise.  It is driving him insane, he tears up the dashboard in search of the origin, hoping to alleviate his growing madness, but he can find no source.  Knowing he will be alone with the sound for weeks before his return to the Earth, he is convinced he will go crazy; he will surely die.  But then, instead of succumbing to the agony of the sound, he decides to fall in love with it.  It becomes the most beautiful sound he has ever heard — it becomes music.

I make this decision from the start.  After some minutes with my hiss, I begin to understand that it was not one sound but many; it has a layered quality where different lines take on tonal qualities, one soft high pitched sailing along above a rhythmic central hum, with fluctuating strains of midtones and a bass buzz below.  It is a chord, the dynamics of which were subtle and shifting with the slight tilting and turning of my skull beside the cold linoleum wall.  I fall, bit by bit, in love with this sound.  I do not care that I am uncertain what it is, although a physics major who discovered me in releve with my ear against the wall suggested that it might be electricity or the like.  It may be electricity to a scientist, but it is also music hidden in the walls and in the daily workings of our lives.