Monday, October 5, 2009

a postcard of campus

In April 1906, too eager to await arrival at Stanford University, L.M.H posts to an acquaintance an image of the traveler’s future: “I am a little ahead of myself as I will not see this for several weeks yet but never mind,” writes L.M.H. in Boston across the bottom of this postcard.

L.M.H., however, never arrived at the scene. Days after this card made post, the 1906 earthquake demolished the major monuments featured at the center of the image, the chapel and memorial arch. The caption is fitting at both personal and political scales: not only does the image portray a place the sender expected, but failed to find, the setting itself is one of a deeply occluded future. It is worth, then, a closer look at these two early nineteenth century mediums, the postcard and the campus, as they both offer an (emotional) practice that has become all but obsolete today.

The campus, as if in struggle against the increasing dispersion of everything, unites architecture and planning as a means of asserting a place defined, in ideals and materials, as a self-contained autonomy. The postcard, on the other hand, captures everything by making the most of its mass-produced redundancy, temporality, cheapness, and patchwork aesthetic; it dislodges everything from context, and alone offers its sender the small space in which a minor personal note or adventure may illuminate a whole scenery’s meaning. Nevertheless, these opposing styles of completion (autonomous singularity, or compulsive reproducibility) align in their committed expression of the not-yet: the postcard drops into the mailbox filled with the same anticipatory hope as the campus’s imagined future. “I am a little ahead of myself as I will not see this for several weeks but never mind,” scribbles L.M.H. beneath the oval green field preceding Leland’s Stanford university city which famously began with a clairvoyance of is own: “the children of California shall be my children” announced Leland shortly after the death of his only son. The campus and the postcard avow a glimpse into the distance, like an augur.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Photo Tag

A local(?) experiment in photogenicism. Take out your cell phone and snap a picture, your best picture of something that catches your eye. Anything at all. Send the image to phototag {at} Then see everyone else's pictures. Vote on your favorite image. The top three images will win a cash prize and have their image enlarged, framed, and displayed on campus: location TBA.

Take a photo, send it, vote, leave comments, make something collectively, come along, be a part, rise anew, stand and sing, take a form, come and see, resonate, be not afraid.

Deadline to SEND: Nov 1, 2008
Deadline to VOTE: Nov 4, 2008

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Personalized faith

People are harder to read than usual and you might accidentally rile someone up if you're not extra-careful. It's not like they're ready to pounce, but misunderstandings are just far too easy.

Im a Taurus and thats my day's horoscope. There is a grad student in the anthropology department that rumor has it based her decision of who to chair her dissertation solely on faculty members' astrological sign. Is the increasing significance of celestial life forces strictly an academic character trait? Or more generally speaking, is it the increasing resolve to finally accept a socially meaningless life that now functions to endow our "present" with either a religious fundamentalism or an absolute personalized contingency? Anything can happen today, its best to read my horoscope and find out what it will be.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008)

Complacency Insanity Loneliness more accurately pinpoints the trifecta Woody Allen offers us in his hat toss into the post 9/11 genre of the dysfunctional family/relationship. I have to admit that this is by far my favorite American genre to have surfaced since my beloved slasher film kicked the bucket in 1984 with the (still worthy) Silent Night, Deadly Night. Axe wielding Santa was, I guess, as far as we were all willing to go, unfortunately. For some reason or another, without a holiday to base a string of murders around, killing just wasn't entertaining anymore (but do see recent posts below for a more suggestive reason for this out-moded genre).

But back to the matter at hand. The dysfunctional relationship genre has perhaps its first appearance with Kramer vs. Kramer (1979). But the post 9/11 version of this theme is much more cynical than its post-Vietnam counterpart (Thanks to Kiersten for connecting war itself to the meditation that this anti-love genre wants us to undergo). For definitional purposes lets outline a few of this genre's most recent examples: The Squid and the Whale, Little Children, Margot at the Wedding, Broken Flowers, The Station Agent, House of Sand and Fog, Punch-Drunk Love, Lost in Translation, and last and definitely least, Wes Anderson's entire oeuvre (can all hipsters here face the fact that this guy has nothing more to say until he hits age 60, and this, only if, god help him, he somehow turns "political?")

The unhappy ending is a new trope in this genre and I kind of like it for that fact. But I guess I'm beginning to wonder if its a symptom of the fact that these filmmakers, despite how acutely personal their character studies have become, maintain a frustrating lack of imagination in their adherence to the humdrum definition of middle-class romance. Which is to say that these relationships are "dysfunctional" only to the extent that they are measured up to the 'true romance' of an earlier generation's definition of 'till death do us part.' If we were to abandon that as the goal, these stories wouldn't be seen as dysfunction, they would simply be stories of the grand escape from that definition of love, they would be understood as jail-break films. But the Shawshank Redemption is there to remind us that the process of such a difficult escape is just as intriguing as that day when, hopefully, all of us will get to eventually massage that sun-kissed sailboat with long restorative thrusts of gritty sandpaper. And maybe its just not watchable, but who among us will write or even imagine, nevermind risk searching for the actual thing itself in real life, the story of the relationship that isn't betrothed in complacency, insanity, or loneliness?

Vicky Christina Barcelona
offers us something midway through the film: a threesome becomes the most functional glimpse of a relationship Hollywood or even an indie film has shown us in years. Is this simply that good ole wishful thinking from a misogynist culture? Or am I too ambitious here to suggest that the film has momentarily begun to actually imagine love differently as something altogether unrecognized and unregistered by the state, that is to say, love as a collectivity?

Friday, August 29, 2008

Participating from a distance; or, Untraceable (2008)

Marketed as 'The Silence of the Lambs for the Internet Age,' Untraceable tells the story of a young adult angered over the way in which his father's suicide became a national laughing-stock on Youtube, decides to build a website that is intricately connected to people he has captured and now places into precarious positions: wired to a lethal dose of blood thinner, surrounded by heat lamps, in a glass box piped to sulphuric acid. They aren't necessarily dead yet. But I say precarious because our antagonist has rigged it so that the more people that log onto the website to witness the scenario, the sooner the victim meets his death. Spectatorship is no longer neutral observation, its active participation, a kind of weapon. The online public becomes an accomplice to a murder that otherwise never would have happened. Needless to say, the number of watchers surge into the millions faster and faster with each new exhibition.

Untraceable flopped at the box office and most critics hated it for either being too conventional or else not following those conventions of the thriller genre. Adam Tobias of the Watertown Daily Times points out,

Part of the problem with “Untraceable” is the identity of the killer behind the Web site is revealed way too early, thus taking most of the mystery out of the movie.


But what is confusing is that while Jennifer, Griffin and Eric are trying to stop people from being murdered one by one, the workers in the FBI office are glued to their computer screens watching the terror unfold. Which begs the question: If these are the people who are paid to protect us, then why are they helping out the killer by speeding up executions?

The film does back-off from the cynical position of bluntly accusing the watching public of being evil as at one point someone in the film suggests, 'its only human to be curious.' But it is clear the audience is meant to feel complicitous and ultimately guilty for the way the internet so easily allows us to make light of the most gruesome situations, the most degrading humiliations. And there is somewhat of a conservative edge to any such pronouncements which, in the next breath, often want to move towards censorship and restraint. Much like any city will want to incarcerate or 'relocate' its homeless population whenever the Olympics of even a democratic convention rolls into town. What remains untraceable is still all those millions around the world without an internet connection. Yet our movie has no trouble substituting its middle-class online spectators with that larger group known as 'humanity.' Once more the language of ethics (who is responsible?) stands in for that of economic inequality and considerations of personal freedom stand in for doubts about capitalist social organization itself.

We have, at least, finally gotten our answer to why the slasher genre--so lucrative in the 80s and 90s--is all but old-fashioned and exhaustive to today's audiences. The serial killer has become obsolete and luke-warm in a culture where "everyone" is equally, politically, legally responsible.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

La Commare Secca (1962)

Bertolucci's first film, La Commare Secca, gives us the Italian take on Kurosawa's Rashoman. Here, a prostitute has been murdered on the bank of the Tiber and we listen to police interrogate five men: a thief, a middle-aged pimp, a soldier on furlough, an unemployed vagrant, a young lover of gnocchi--all of whom were seen at the park where she solicits on the day of her murder. The film is five mini films on how time was passed for five lives in the rainy afternoon before which a woman was murdered for her purse.

The title of the film gets translated into English as "The Grim Reaper" but something has been lost here. Commare secca is a term you will only hear in Rome and is indeed the unique name this region gives to death, but it is important to note the literal translation of commare secca is 'dry housewife.' Quiet opposite of a prostitute, and this play on words is significant for everything the movie seemed to signal to its own unique historical moment.

In 1962, its quite clear the film wanted to say something--in as poetic a way as possible--about how a murder could occur in the same afternoon trajectory as say, a soldier fell asleep on a park bench, a boy was beaten for stealing, a man curses his outsmarting ex-girlfriend. Life is flimsy and short for most of those outside the camera's eye.

We know this story all too well by now and the film no longer holds its punch in terms of its intended political commentary. But what does stand out is not so much the point that life is a slow or quick death for those outside the middle class, but rather the fact that a filmmaker once set out to present this grim truth in such a lyrical manner. The dancing curtains of rain, the perpetually moving camera, the comb through the hair, the timing of that acoustic guitar, brings all these small stories forth into an enormous and fundamental surplus of life's ubiquitous dimming resonance.

Minger and I talk of branching EC out into a radio documentary podcast in which we interview various people in the bay area. What would the Silicon Valley version of a 'dry housewife' be? How does daily life here relate to daily death and, if it does, what role, if any, would 'style' serve to represent this relationship?

Because 'style' or 'innovation' is deeply active in Silicon Valley, not so much by its filmmakers and writers, but rather through the convictions of its managers. The defense of craft and freedom of creativity is voiced loudest by SV's corporations and new humanistic management theories which encourages high levels of autonomy and self-development as a crucial component of any lucrative firm. Then: we have to face the fact that humanism, as it has been invented and smuggled into American society largely by English and philosophy departments of the late nineteenth century, is most actively brandished today by the corporate world. The entrepreneur in Silicon Valley carries the torch the English department once did for the university. Humanism is alive and well, it has simply been channeled toward market innovation. Managers, it seems, have all remembered that one day they (their product) too will die, and therefore fun needs to be part of the production process so that they may live again. In which case it is not the Grim Reaper and our relation to death that measure the absurdity of these days, but our relationship to a now vanished, even among the subcultures, way of living. Most bluntly, how does one dare today to even begin to explicate the practical public value of labor that lacks a marketable product? 'La Commare Secca' of Silicon Valley is the rather hilarious, if it wasnt so pathetic, position of any professor of humanities.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Because we were made that way

Almost like the universe itself compelled me to respond to mordenti's post, I was listening today to a podcast (Speaking of Faith again) about the meaning of play. Here is Dr. Stuart Brown on the topic:

[P]lay is trivial. It's what you do when your responsibilities are taken care of, particularly as an adult. But if you were to follow, as I have at least scholastically and, if not, clinically, if you're to follow the trail of play in both animals and humans, the beginning point of play in the mother-infant or parent-infant bonding process is kind of the spontaneous eruption of joy and pleasure upon the process of being safely fed and, in the case of the human, when there is eye contact. And the social smile emerges and the infant and the mother begins to coo. That cooing, that's worldwide. And there is mutual joy. And the brain imaging that's associated with that shows an attunement between the mother's right cortex, a nondominant hemisphere of the brain, and the baby's.

And then if you build on that and say, 'OK, the child has experienced that and now they're growing up a little bit,' they get some of the same joyful experience from grabbing something, putting it in their mouths when they're infants, and then a little later, playing with toys, and then ultimately, parallel play with other children and on and on. I could go right on up through the whole life cycle, each of which has more and more intricate, more complex play if the individual is sort of allowed, through the environment, to take advantage of it.