The link above is to a Cracked article that has clips from old horror movies from early in movie history. The title is theirs. However, I think the clips are interesting. They are visually striking and some of them are quite artistic. Plus, in looking at them you realize that there is this whole world of lost history out there, things that many people saw that you aren’t even aware of. It’s like looking through a portal into another time and place.
I’ve been thinking lately about how technology affects the quality of art being made. Now art is not monolithic. Just because digital recording became the norm doesn’t mean that analog gear isn’t still used. Just because photography was invented obviously doesn’t mean that there stopped being painters. But I am talking about trends in general.
I have mentioned numerous times that I have spent a lot of time listening to The Cure lately. I want to use two of their songs as an example. I am going to post YouTubes, but it would be much better if you could listen to higher quality recordings to really get the details. First I want you to listen to Play For Today from their album Seventeen Seconds, which at the time was a low budget recording (However you are listening, I would recommend headphones):
Now I want you to listen to a song called Sleep When I’m Dead from their album 4:13 Dream album. This is a song that was written much earlier in their career, in what many fans feel was the best period of their career. I purposely picked this song because it was written at an earlier period. Although there are probably reasons this didn’t make a record, I wanted to get the argument that Robert Smith isn’t as good of a song writer as he used to be out of the way. I’m not trying to talk about taste in writing or performance, merely the technology to capture each song. (I personally like all periods of The Cure, though I have slight preferences for some.) Anyway, here is the song:
Now it is impossible to know what creative decisions went into recording each song. However, what is going on in each song is part of a bigger trend in music, so that I don’t think you can just base the sound of each recording to the taste of the artist. I would also imagine that the budget was much bigger for Sleep When I’m Dead, given the fact that The Cure has gone on to be a band that can play stadiums.
On the earlier song there is much more clarity to the way it sounds. Each instrument is discernible no matter how loud or quiet they are in the mix. There is also much more depth of field. When things get it seems like they are farther away. In a lot of modern recordings when things get quieter, part of the instruments seem lost in a way that does not happen naturally in reality. The newer song has less clarity and less depth of field, despite probably having a bigger budget for recording. This is also despite the fact that technology has progressed. I’m not doing this to knock later period Cure. Too many times fans of any band develop sentimental attachments to artists that don’t allow them to view their newer work clearly. I personally prefer the older song out of the two, but I am happy to hear any new material by an artist that I like. Plus, there are newer songs by The Cure that I prefer to certain older ones. It just comes down to the material itself. However, I feel that the way the earlier material was recorded gives it a better chance of flight. It has more sonic ambience and atmosphere in just the recording itself.
Anyway, I’m using music, but this really could apply to many art forms. Although there are certain movies that look great when they are filmed digitally, there is something about the way film looks, which is a longer and more expensive process, that often wins out on average. It always, at the end of the day, comes down to the choices that each individual artist makes and how they use a medium that matters most.
Technology often makes things easier and less expensive. This is good because it allows more people to express themselves. The downside to technology is that sometimes less of what is made, as a percentage, reaches a certain level of quality. It is easier to record than ever before, which means more recordings are being made. This is a good thing. However, even average quality recordings of earlier time periods usually have a higher standard that average quality recordings today.
I’m not trying to make a point necessarily. There are people on both sides of the argument. Both have valid points. I only am trying to get you to think about how technology can affect art both good and bad. Technology in art, as it does in life, can often make things better and worse at the same time.
It ain’t a privilege to be on TV
and it ain’t a duty either. – Neil Young in Grandpa’s Interview
Whenever I think too deeply about what is going on in our culture I get the urge to slither into the shadows and never return. I often think about that Neil Young quote above. Earlier this week I was watching the absolutely brilliant movie Birdman. There is a scene in the movie where the character that Michael Keaton plays is accidentally caught running through downtown New York in his underwear. A video of it gets online and becomes popular. His daughter tells him that, “Believe it or not, this is power”, in a scene that is both funny and sadly condemning of our times. I am aware that modern fame is as much a dumb joke as anything.
Earlier today, thanks to my friend JR, I read the above New York Times article, a fascinating read, about how one person’s tweet, they made an off-color joke, lead to them being fired. The author, I think rightly, comes to the conclusion that everyone, from the person that put the tweet up, to those that are condemning her, are part of a modern trend where everyone is performing for audiences that they can’t see. A sample:
But perhaps she had now come to understand that her shaming wasn’t really about her at all. Social media is so perfectly designed to manipulate our desire for approval, and that is what led to her undoing. Her tormentors were instantly congratulated as they took Sacco down, bit by bit, and so they continued to do so. Their motivation was much the same as Sacco’s own — a bid for the attention of strangers — as she milled about Heathrow, hoping to amuse people she couldn’t see.
Yet here I am in a band, writing a blog. I can’t help but feel conflicted at times. Sometimes I feel like I’m wasting my fucking time. However, I know how much writing, art, and music have meant to me. I know that I might not be sane if not for it. Part of the reason I started this blog was to try and create a platform where I could hopefully lead some people to things that I am passionate about, that I believe have value, in the din of senselessness that so often is our culture. Books, albums, movies, and various forms of expression have been my armor in this world. I must keep going, because this stuff is in my blood. However, if I’m helping or hurting, only you can be the judge.
uncanny – strange or mysterious, especially in an unsettling way.
I have been revisiting Twin Peaks lately in preparation for the return of the series next year. It still amazes me, 24 years, on how well it holds up. I also can’t believe it was on mainstream network television. There are scenes of pure surrealism that often disturb due to their uncanny nature. As I’ve grown older there are very few times when I find myself the least troubled by things that try to shock or scare. However, there is some subconscious level that David Lynch taps into, especially in scenes in the red room, where I find myself still getting chills late at night. This is, despite the fact, that I have seen this show many times and have read and watched countless interviews about it.
Because the show was on network television there is nothing explicitly sexual or violent about the series, although explicit sex and violence are always lurking in this show just off camera. Lynch, without being able to show any nudity or extreme violence, is able to tap into some kind of primal dream state that unnerves in ways that so many other TV shows have never been able to. Lynch has a strange ability to put images and sound design together in a way that is the closest to the unsettling nature of dreams as I have ever seen. While surrealism can sometimes just appear to be random things thrown together, with Lynch there is always some perfect connection between the things he uses, even if it can’t be described in any intellectual way. While most dreams on TV are nothing like real dreams, but are simply pieces used to move the story along in a different fashion, Lynch gets that dreams reflect life without adhering to the same logic or structure.
Lynch is a practitioner of Transcendental Meditation. He talks about how he uses this for inspiration in the book Catching the Big Fish. While having next tried it myself, I can neither confirm or deny its merits. However, he does seem to be able to tap into the subconscious in ways that no other filmmaker can quite match. I’m looking forward to what Lynch does with this show once it returns, especially now that it will be on Showtime, which does not have the restrictions of network TV.
The truth is never simple and yet it is. The truth is we did kill him. By silence we consented… because we couldn’t go on. But by Ares, what did we have to look forward to but to be discarded in the end like Cleitus? After all this time, to give away our wealth to Asian sycophants we despised? Mixing the races? Harmony? Oh, he talked of these things. I never believe in his dream. None of us did. That’s the truth of his life. The dreamers exhaust us. They must die before they kill us with their blasted dreams.
– The character of Ptolemy in the movie Alexander
I was reflecting on Lincoln and other great men today, like Martin Luther King, and was wondering why so many of them seem to be the ones we kill. I remembered this quote from the movie Alexander, which is one of my favorite movies of all time. One of the themes at the end of the movie is that we kill the dreamers. In aiming for a better world, the dreamers ask that the rest of society give up some of the things they are accustomed to. Even if it is for the better of all, this is rarely met with enthusiasm in some circles. Why do we kill the dreamers? In the end, I do not know completely, but it is worth reflecting upon.
12 Years a Slave is a movie of incredible power. It not only speaks truth to power and depicts an important time in our history, but it does this while being extremely emotional and artistic at the same time. Rarely does a movie get all aspects of film making as right as this one does. This is not a film that gets by on good intentions. It is a tour de force for all involved.
The movie follows the story of Solomon Northup, a person who was a free black in the pre Civl War North. He is captured by fugitive slavers and taken down south under false pretenses. It certain ways it is almost like the Inferno section of The Divine Comedy as it charts the lead character’s descent into hell. We watch as Solomon goes further and further and further down the dark rabbit hole of American slavery.
I don’t believe a movie is important just because it tackles a serious subject matter. There are plenty of made for TV movies and lesser Hollywood films that take on controversial subjects with often forgettable results. Often these movies inform us, but many of them do not move us. In order for something to stay with a viewer it has to have a certain kind of poetic truth, more than the just the mere representation of facts.
The direction by Steve McQueen is the work of a true master. The same can be said by the cinematography of Sean Bobbit. The camera lingers in all of the right places, adding meaning and pulling ideas out of the story. There are landscape shots that add a surreal fever dream quality to certain scenes. There is a scene that focuses on the slaves singing. For a moment I was left thinking about the power of music to help one transcend suffering on this earth. And yet, scenes like this are done without hitting you over the head. The score is almost minimal. Much of the powerful emotions of the film are communicated by the powerful performances of the actors and by what the camera chooses to linger on. Often films will try to manipulate you with their score. I found myself moved almost to tears several times just by the images onscreen.
Every actor in this film brings their A game. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyoung’o, as Solomon Northup and the female slave Patsey, are able to convey complex emotions often with nothing more than the expressions on their face. Also, none of the white actors in the film allow their characters slip into caricature. Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson always make it feel, no matter how horrible their deeds as slaveowners are, that you are watching the actions of complicated human beings.
This movie is not only a deeply moving historical drama, but it is also as horrific as any horror movie, and even features certain scenes of jet black comedy. Yet it does all this while never letting you forget that as strange and as horrible as the scenes in the film are, that this is anything other than another day in our history. This is not the work of strange beasts who have no relation to our present, but the day to day lives of many of our American ancestors. It does not simply condemn the past, but also makes us aware that the deeds of these people are very much alive in our modern world. In fact there are times when Fassbender’s character sounds quite a lot like modern day racists. He simply had the legal permission to cary out his worst impulses.
Anyone that thinks this movie is depicting worst case scenarios simply hasn’t read enough history. I am reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. William H. Seward, a member of Lincoln’s cabinet, makes a trip down south and is completely disgusted by the day to day depravity of the South at that time. He sees a group of black children being led in shackles while being whipped. Children! And again at the time this was nothing unique, but just another day in America.
When I mentioned that there were scenes of dark comedy, I meant that the film features moments where the absurdity of human behavior comes to the forefront. Several times Fassbender’s Edwin Epps character commits horrible acts while being drunk, and then quickly justifies his acts by bringing up the Bible. Hannah Arendt once said that, “the horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny.” We recognize the truth in this behavior, in that even in our modern world many people justify their behavior through religion. Because this behavior is absurd, to anyone that has a brain, it becomes ridiculous, but it is no less true or horrific for being so.
This movie, which features so many scenes of horrific depravity, is also full of compassion. The dignity for which Solomon bears his suffering is inspiring. Brad Pitt also plays a character later on in the film that reminds the viewer that, even during times like these, the world is full of good people as well.
If this movie just relayed the message that slavery is bad it would be bringing nothing new to the table. However, by infusing this story with poetic truth, the filmmakers have made a film that allow us to reflect on our present. While watching the film I couldn’t help but think that not only was this a story of where we came from, but so much that is in the film is still with us, even if it is often just below the surface. I think if you not only want to understand our past, but also our present, this film is a must see.
As any of you that have been reading along know, the last two weeks I have been interested in the Civil War. Last night I watched Lincoln. It was the second time I have seen it and it is really an extraordinary film. Although there are a few scenes that seem a little too symbolic, and because of this aren’t believable as reality, overall it is really well done. Maybe its best attribute is it really makes one think about the nature of politics.
Anyway, I wanted to watch another movie on that time period tonight. I was doing an internet search and the truth is there are very few excellent movies that deal in that historical period. I find that very strange. Is that because we are afraid of really exploring a war in which half of the country was on the wrong side of justice? Is it just that it is too long ago and, unlike World War II and Vietnam, we are too far removed from it?
It is becoming clearer and clearer to me that in order to understand modern America, one must be able to have some understanding of what happened during that time period. Works of drama are more accessible than most history. Good dramatizations can also often bring out certain truths, even if they contains slight elements of fiction, in ways that documentaries or even history books cannot. They can connect people emotionally to something they might not otherwise understand or be interested in.