Musician Rufus Harley did the people of Scotland a great favor when he took up the bagpipes. Like the Loch Ness Monster and haggis, outside its country of origin, the national instrument has evolved into a hackneyed punchline.
What better, more unexpected ambassador for its expanded possibilities than a certified American jazz cat?
Harley had had professional training in the saxophone, oboe, trumpet and flute, but as a bagpiper he was self-taught. As the comments on the video above demonstrate, his unorthodox handling of the instrument continues to confound more traditional pipers. No matter. The sounds he coaxed out of that thing are unlike anything you’re likely to hear on the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond.
At the end of the segment, Harley joined his back up musicians onstage for a live, Latin-inflected cover of “Feeling Good.”
Note: Please scroll to the 6:52 mark where the conversation begins.
The name Miyazaki defines Japanese animation not just in its own country, but across the world. The name Kurosawa does the same for the rest of Japanese cinema. But given their differences of not just specific art form but of generation (Akira Kurosawa was born in 1910, Hayao Miyazaki in 1941), one might wonder whether the men themselves, were they to meet, would have much to talk about. Nippon TV put the idea to the test in 1993 by airing Miyazaki Meets Kurosawa, which sends the already renowned animator, whose sixth film Porco Rosso had come out the previous year, to the home of the long-reigning “Emperor” of Japanese film, whose thirtieth and final film Madadayo (a title translatable as Not Yet!) had come out the previous month. Their conversation starts at the 6:52 mark above.
After a bit of small talk, mostly about the magnificent view of Mount Fuji from Kurosawa’s front porch, the masters get down to shop talk. Kurosawa and Miyazaki discuss the difficulty of speaking about one’s own work, the sweet taste of sake at the end of a long shoot, the pain of sitting at a desk drawing day in and day out, what it took to build a sloping street for Madadayo or an entire castle for Ran (just to burn it down), how to visually and sonically evoke the various different eras of Japanese history, Miyazaki’s appreciation for Kurosawa’s storyboards, and Kurosawa’s appreciation for the cat bus in Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro — at which point the translated transcript at fan site nausicaa.net indicates that “Miyazaki seems to be at a loss for words.” (You can read the transcript at the bottom of the post.)
Though Japanese tradition, to say nothing of the customs of one dedicated artist speaking to another, dictates that Miyazaki display a certain deference to Kurosawa (an attitude certainly visible in the segments of the broadcast available on Youtube), the two have plenty of insight to offer one another. And however different their films, they all emerged from the same spirit of painstaking dedication. “If you let things slide thinking ‘well, this won’t be in view of the camera,'” Kurosawa warns, “then there’s no end to how lazy you can get. You either give it your all, or don’t even bother.”
Miyazaki, who has since risen to a Kurosawa-like prominence of his own, offers this closing reflection on his first meeting with the director of the likes of Rashomon, Seven Samurai, and Ikiru: “Whether a work is a masterpiece or… something more modest, I realized that they all originate at the same place — an environment where people are constantly thinking and rethinking their own ideas,” rather than waiting around for inspiration. Instead, they adopt the attitude of, “‘Regardless of what they think… or whether or not they like the way I do things, I’m gonna do what has to be done!’ That’s what’s important.”
A big hat tip goes to Adrian.
Transcript, translated by Yuto Shinagawa.
KUROSAWA – One of the settings for our movie — the “Oichini [ah one two]” drug salesman scene — if you recall, is a rectangular room. What we’d do is use three cameras, all on one side of the room to film everything from start to finish. . . after which we’d move the them to another side of the room, switch out the lenses, and film the scene over. We’d do this three times. . .from all four directions. So in the end, there’d be 36 cuts that we had to look through during editing. . .just for one scene.
MIYAZAKI – That’s what boggles my mind. How do you pick which cuts to use?
KUROSAWA – Pretty much on a first come first serve basis for me.
MIYAZAKI – Is that so?
KUROSAWA – You just skim through them really quick. . .”toss. . .keep. . .toss,” so that all you have to do in the end is just string together what’s left. That’s all there is to it.
MIYAZAKI – Well yes, but. . .[Laughs]
KUROSAWA – So we might have one segment that seems like it’s going to be a big hassle. . .perhaps take days to film. . .but ends up taking only half a day — from morning to 3 o’clock later that day. The same goes with editing — we’d be expecting a big mess, when in fact, we’d be finished by 3 o’clock the same day, only to have everyone go, “what?!”
[Shows clip from Maadadayo]
KUROSAWA – Battle scenes too. When the cavalry makes a charge or something. . .we film it three times with three different cameras, each time with different lenses. So in the end, we’ll have 9 cuts, and all you have to do is string together the good ones. It’s not that hard. Aside from that. . .when someone falls off a horse. . .gets shot and falls of a horse. . . we’ll do a special take afterwards for those types of scenes. And all you have to do is throw that clip in at the right moment, and that’s it. [Pause] And. . .if you run out of cuts, just flip the film over. . .
[Takes a while to get it; Big Laugh]
KUROSAWA – Yeah, just flip it over and now the guy is running from that side to this side. Hey, you’ll never notice the difference.
MIYAZAKI – [Laughing] Even if they’re carrying their swords on the wrong side? [Usually, the left so they can draw it with their right hand]
KUROSAWA – No you won’t notice. . .because. . .it’s only when the guy falls off the horse. It’s really absurd if you’re paying close attention. . .with the sword on the wrong side and all. You should notice it, but. . .well. . .[Pause] you just don’t.
MIYAZAKI – [Laughs]
KUROSAWA – You know how Mifune’s fight scenes are really intense. Well one time, we were editing one of those scenes and had to stop the reel because someone came in to ask a question. And that’s when I happened to look down at the film and notice that. . . he’s not visible on the film itself.
MIYAZAKI – Huh. . .
KUROSAWA – He’s nothing but a blur on each of those frames. . .and you can’t really see his face either. Only when you play back the film do you actually see Mifune in combat. That’s how fast he’s moving. That’s why those fight scenes are so intense. Also, when you spend a lot of time editing those scenes, you get the impression that it’s going to be very lengthy, but no. . .it’s really really short. I’d say the film itself is about 20 feet. . .no more than 20 feet. Even then, I feel as though I’ve seen plenty, and that’s because I’m so nervously focused onto the screen.
MIYAZAKI – [Say’s something about the audience’s perception, but I’m not sure what he meant]
KUROSAWA – Right, right.
[Shows clip from Tsubaki Sanjuro (1962)]
MIYAZAKI – Do you make these [storyboard] drawings after you finish writing the script?
KUROSAWA – Most of them, yes. . .but there are a few that I draw while I’m still writing the script. I’ll sometimes come across old sketches on the back of an envelope or something.
MIYAZAKI – [Looking at the drawings] Really good.
KUROSAWA – Huh?
MIYAZAKI – You’re really good
KUROSAWA – Huh?
MIYAZAKI – You are really good [Laughs]
KUROSAWA – Nawww, I really don’t think. . .
MIYAZAKI – You don’t think so? I. . .
KUROSAWA – Well the funny thing is. . . I was supposed to be an artist when I was young. My dream was Paris — to open my own art shop. Mr. Umehara would always walk up and compliment my drawings whenever I’d be painting outside. It was with his and Mr. Cardin’s support that I eventually got the chance to put some of my drawings on display at an art exhibition overseas. And to my surprise, I was later invited to give a talk at the Louvre Museum. “But sir, I’m not an artist!” was my response. So oddly enough. . .my dreams did come true.
MIYAZAKI – It sure did!
KUROSAWA – “Your style is really interesting,” is what Mr. Umehara used to always say, and we wondered why. Well, after much discussion, we figured out it’s because they [the paintings] aren’t intended to be very high quality paintings when I draw them. They’re just meant to give my staff a feeling for the scene, and nothing more, so they tend to be a little reckless in style. There might be some that are draw sensibly. It depends; I’ll draw with whatever I have on me at that moment.
MIYAZAKI – [Flipping through more drawings] From the sound of your stories, the live-action business sounds like a lot of fun.
KUROSAWA – Huh?
MIYAZAKI – Live-action sounds like a lot of fun. [Laughs]
KUROSAWA – It sure is. For example, if there’s going to be a film shoot the next day, I want to get out there as early as possible. Though, my assistants probably don’t like it when I come in early because they’d rather not have to deal with me. For them, a good day is one where I take my time coming into work. So a lot of the time, you’ll find me waiting impatiently at home.
MIYAZAKI – [Laughs]
KUROSAWA – Everyone has a lot of fun, really. I always tell my people, “no matter how grueling things may be at first, you’ll eventually start to enjoy it if you just keep at it. Once you reach that state, you’ll be putting in a lot of effort without evening knowing it.” And it’s true. I might say “ok, that’s good enough,” but their response will be “just a second. . .one more thing” They’re that immersed in their work. Conversely, if you let things slide thinking “well, this won’t be in view of the camera,” then there’s no end to how lazy you can get. You either give it your all, or don’t even bother.
MIYAZAKI – [Laughs]
KUROSAWA – And sometimes, ridiculous things happen because of it. If you recall Hachi-gatsu no Rapusodi [Rhapsody in August, 1991], there’s a field across the house. Well, long before any filming takes place, the first thing we do is ask the local farmers to plant the appropriate crops in each of the fields. You know, “pumpkin fields here. . .” and so forth. All this so that by the time we come back, all the crops will be fully grown. You just can’t plant these things at the last moment and expect them to look natural. Well one time, I look down on what was supposed to be a pumpkin patch and “wait a minute, these are gourds!”
MIYAZAKI – [Laughs] Mixed up the seeds did they?
KUROSAWA – “I told you, the gourd goes here on this shelf in the kitchen. The field out there is supposed to be pumpkin!” But in the end, we figured that it would all get covered with leaves, and that you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference anyway. People got the idea to claim their own gourd by writing their name on it, so they could take one home afterwards, and make them into ornaments or whatever. They all grew up to be pretty big. So yeah, we had a big laugh over that – “what kind of fool plants gourds in a field?”
MIYAZAKI – When you’re recruiting your staff for a movie, do you just announce it and have people flock to you?
KUROSAWA – No. . . in my case, most of my staff members are people that I’ve worked with for a very long time. When I announce a new movie, it’s the usual gang that rushes in to help. Otherwise, I don’t think it would go so smoothly. “Man, have you lost a lot of hair.” That’s how long I’ve known some of the people. Like Takao Saito, our cameraman who I just refer to as Taka-bou (little Taka). . .he’s already sixty. It’s just that I’ve known him from when he was that little, and the name stuck through all these years.
MIYAZAKI – And the cameraman’s assistant. . .Taka-bou-san gets to pick?
KUROSAWA – Yes, he makes those decisions. So everyone works their way up the ranks. In that sense, people will gather around if I holler. You know, “we’re gonna start filming in however many hours so have everything ready to go by then.” I’m pretty meticulous when it comes to planning and preparation, so I tend to spend more time than most. If the filming doesn’t go smoothly, it’s usually because you didn’t spend enough time getting everything ready. You do your homework, and everything goes smoothly.
MIYAZAKI – In the old days when movie studios were in much better shape, we could afford to put up a fight against movie companies. That is, even if we went over-budget. . .even if we didn’t get along at all, we could still manage to squeeze the funding out of them to make movies.
KUROSAWA – That was exactly what happened when we were working on Seven Samurai. It was taking a whole lot longer than it was supposed to. So much so that we were expecting them to cut us off at any moment. In fact, we hadn’t filmed a single scene from the last battle because of it. And just as we expected, we had a few visitors come in from Toho: “We’d like to see what you have so far.” “But sir, we haven’t filmed the most important part of the movie.” “I don’t care; just show us what you have.” “Sir, it’s already February. If it starts snowing now, we’ll be in big trouble when it comes to filming the rest of the movie. Are you sure about this?” “Yes, let’s see it.” So we spent an entire week editing what we had of the film so far. And we showed it to them, up towards the end, where Kikuchiyo runs up the roof where the flag is. . .you know, “ta ta ta tee ta ta ta. . .[flutter] [flutter]” right? “[Points] There they come there they come!” and then. . .blank, goes the screen.
MIYAZAKI – [Laughing]
KUROSAWA – “[With a confused and impatient look] so what happens next. . .?” “We told you, we don’t have a single scene filmed for the rest of the movie.” So they all gathered around. . .mumbled something and then came back to us and said “Go ahead, film whatever you need. . .please.”
MIYAZAKI – [Laughs]
KUROSAWA – And that’s when it started snowing. We all yelled, “Told you so! That’s what you get!” and then proceeded to have big binge back at my place later that night.
MIYAZAKI – [Laughs]
KUROSAWA – As luck would have it, it snowed pretty heavily that night. We had to bring in the fire department and spend an entire week melting all that snow. Melting the snow over an area that used to be rice paddies to begin with. . . the muck was unbelievable. That might be part of the reason why those scenes were so dynamic.
MIYAZAKI – Indeed! [Laughs]
[Shows clip from Seven Samurai]
KUROSAWA – You know, I really liked that bus in Totoro.
MIYAZAKI – [Gleefully] Thank you.
[Miyazaki seems to be at a loss for words here]
KUROSAWA – Those are the kinds of things that people like me in this business can’t do, and that’s something I’m really envious about.
MIYAZAKI – The thing is, I grew up in the city. . . in a time right after the war. . .when my only perception of Japan was that it was an impoverished and pitifully hopeless country. [Laughs]. At least that’s what we were always told. It was only after I went overseas for the first time that I started appreciating Japan’s natural environment. That being the case, it’s funny that I keep wanting to make movies with a foreign [western/European] setting. I made Totoro because I felt the need to make a movie that takes place in Japan.
[Shows the Mei-bound Catbus scene from Tonari no Totoro (1988)]
MIYAZAKI – Lately, I’ve been wanting to make a Jidai-geki [period dramas]. Man is it hard! I don’t even know what to do!
KUROSAWA – What I think is really interesting about the Sengoku-era [1467-1567] is that. . .it’s perceived to be a time when, for example, one had to be loyal to his lord and obey similar moral and ethical codes. But in actuality, those only came into existence during the Tokugawa Shogunate [Edo-era; approximately 1603-1867] as an attempt to maintain some degree of order [and peace for the Tokugawa family]. The Sengoku-era, on the other hand, was quite the opposite — people had a lot of freedom then.
[The word KUROSAWA – uses next is ambiguous; “shujin” can either mean man of the house (husband) or landlord; below are two plausible translations based on these two different definitions]
KUROSAWA – (first translation): “This husband of mine. . .he’s no good.” If that’s what she thought, then she would’ve, you know. . . [walked out on him]. . .without so much as a second thought.
KUROSAWA – (second translation): “Our landlord. . .he’s no good.” If that’s what they thought, then they would’ve, you know. . .[revolted]. . .without so much as a second thought.
MIYAZAKI – [Laughs]
KUROSAWA – And that’s the kind of environment that spawned people like Hideyoshi [1536-1598]. They’re free-thinkers. “You must be loyal to your husband” — that wasn’t the case then. If he wasn’t worthy, then you could just abandon him. That’s what it was like. I think it would be really interesting if you could portray that.
MIYAZAKI – Hmm. . .
KUROSAWA – Shakespeare might be uniquely British, but actually. . .Japan did have people like Macbeth during that era. You’d be surprised how easily you could make a Japanese story that parallels something out of Shakespeare. Yeah, why don’t you do a Japanese Shakespearean Jidai-geki? There are a lot of good stories.
MIYAZAKI – [Pause, perplexed laugh]
KUROSAWA – Yeah?
MIYAZAKI – Well, let’s start with what they ate. . .what they wore.
KUROSAWA – We do have records of those. . .like menus
MIYAZAKI – What about the Muromachi-era [encompasses the Sengoku-era, also known as the Ashikaga-era; 1333-1573]
KUROSAWA – Muromachi is. . .a good period.
MIYAZAKI – It gets a little fuzzy in the Nanboku-cho [early years; 1336-1392]. That and the Taiheiki [collection of war tales]. . .everything becomes a big mess.
KUROSAWA – Yeah, it gets more difficult the further back you go. If it’s the Tale of the Heike [Part of the Taiheiki], then we have good records of those.
MIYAZAKI – The utter devastation of Kyoto towards the end of the Heian-era [794-1185], as depicted in the Houjouki [Tale of the Ten-Foot Square Hut] — earthquakes, great fires, dead bodies everywhere. . .rushing back from Fukuhara [modern day Kobe area] only to find your estate in complete ruins. . .
KUROSAWA – You mean Rashomon’s time period. That’s interesting too.
MIYAZAKI – Watching it as a kid, I remember it being a really scary movie! [Laughs]. For me, the movies that stay on my mind aren’t the uplifting ones, but rather the ones that depict the realities of survival.
KUROSAWA – Akutagawa-san has a lot of novels [aside from Rashomon] that depict that time period. Remember that the Rashomon written by him is completely different from Yabu no Naka [from which the movie was originally adapted] — remember the old lady upstairs who’s stealing the hair from the corpse?
MIYAZAKI – Right, right.
MIYAZAKI – It seems as if movies these days don’t deal with as wide of a time frame as they used to.
KUROSAWA – Yes, and that’s because. . .well first of all, even if you wanted to make a movie of that era, you’d have a lot of trouble finding a good filming location.
MIYAZAKI – That’s very true. Power lines everywhere! [Laughs].
KUROSAWA – Places like the Ikaruga no Miya Palace [7th century] were built in the middle of a cedar forest. Those trees were huge [Gestures] and that’s why they could manage to build such a wooden structure. Nowadays, there’s not a single one left! That’s how much things have changed.
MIYAZAKI – [Nodding] Yes. . .yes.
KUROSAWA – For Maadadayo (1993), we had access to many of the clothes from that era [1940s]. . .like suites. But if you and I try to wear them, they won’t fit at all; we’ve gotten bigger.
MIYAZAKI – Oh I see.
KUROSAWA – But if you look at the armor from the Battle of Okehazama , or something, they’re noticeably bigger. Clothes from the Sengoku-era are big.
MIYAZAKI – [Laughs] Are you saying that we got smaller during the Edo-era [1603-1867]?
KUROSAWA – [Nod] Our physique undoubtedly deteriorated during the 300 years under Tokugawa. At first, I didn’t think such a drastic change was reasonable, or even possible. But when you look at the clothes from the early Showa-era [pre WWII] and compare it to those of today. . .in just 40 years, look at how much we’ve changed. They just don’t fit!
MIYAZAKI – [Laughs]
KUROSAWA – So we had to find fabric that matched the original and tailor new ones based on that. It was a big hassle.
MIYAZAKI – When it comes to making a Jidai-geki, I just keep running in circles. . .and never actually come close to realizing that goal. People ask, “so what’s your next project?” to which I’ll respond, “Jidai-geki!” I’ve been saying that for the past 10 years! [Laughs]
KUROSAWA – In Seven Samurai, we were originally going to chronicle the everyday life of a particular samurai. And as you mentioned earlier. . .he’ll wake up in the morning, eat something for breakfast, perhaps go to the Edo Castle. . .but what exactly would he do there, and what would he do for lunch? We don’t know any of the details. There’s no way we can write a script like that.
MIYAZAKI – Right. . .right.
KUROSAWA – It’s actually easier to find earlier written records than it is to find those of the Edo-era. We did a lot of research, and that’s when we came across an account of a village hiring samurais to become the only village spared from rebel attacks. “Hey, let’s do this.” And that’s how it started. Of course, once we got to work on it, we just let our imagination run wild. Our producer asked, “what about the title?” and I said, “well, it’s about seven samurai. . .hey, that’s perfect!” “We’re going with this, no matter what!”
MIYAZAKI – That’s true! Movies that don’t have a fitting title are no good. [Laughs]
KUROSAWA – That’s very true. Although. . . we had a lot of trouble naming this one [Maadadayo].
MIYAZAKI – Oh really? [Laughs]
KUROSAWA – They were all too awkward sounding. Every day, I’d rack my brain over a title to the point where one day, I just blurted out “Maadadayo! [Not yet!]” My son said “hey, that works!” so we knew it was a keeper.
On most issues, I’m clear about where I stand and why, and I used to find it enlightening to debate informed people who felt strongly about opposing positions. Sometimes we would get each other to budge a little bit, or—at the very least—sharpen the articulation of our views. These days, I often find myself in echo chambers, preaching to choirs, and other clichés about epistemic closure. It’s a situation that alarms me, and yet I find even more alarming the levels of cynicism, invective, bad faith, threats, and misinformation that pervade so much partisan debate.
I know I’m not alone in this lament. What we’ve lost—among other humanist virtues—is what philosophers and rhetoricians call the “principle of charity,” generally defined as making the clearest, most intellectually honest interpretation we can of an opponent’s views and arguing against them on those merits. The principle of charity allows us to have civil disagreements with people whose ethics we may dislike, and it thereby furthers discussion rather than stifles it.
We may all have our own story about who is to blame for the breakdown of the discourse, but before we start yelling at each other all over again, we could perhaps take some time to learn from examples of political debate done well. One long-running example involves a figure whose views I’ve usually found abhorrent (and some of which he himself later called “reprehensible”), but whose ability to defend them in charitable sparring matches with people from every possible place on the spectrum (or horseshoe), I’ve found very compelling.
I write here of William F. Buckley, the well-heeled, Ivy League-educated (many have said elitist) founder of the National Review. Whatever personal strengths or flaws we wish to ascribe to Buckley, we should agree on a few facts: During his tenure as the host of Firing Line—an often oppositional interview program in which Buckley chatted up conservative fellow travelers and sparred with leftist intellectuals, artists, and activists—we see over and over again that he made an effort to actually read his opponents’ views firsthand; to clarify his understanding of them; and to base his disagreement on the the arguments rather than the real or imagined motivations of the messenger.
Buckley didn’t always engage in reasoned debate: he issued many ugly personal and racial attacks in print. He threatened to punch both Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky (jokingly, perhaps). But Firing Line wasn’t only about its host: its success depended also on the format, the audience, and the quality of the discussion and the guests. Take the few examples here. At the top of the post, Buckley discusses the Vietnam War with Chomsky. The latter may be incapable of raising his voice, but notice also Buckley’s cool exterior. While his genteel mannerisms rubbed many the wrong way, whether or not we like his demeanor, he consistently employs methods of clarification and argumentation rather than personal attack (stray threats of punching aside).
Nowhere in evidence is the current style of screaming over guests with whom the host disagrees. We find similar receptiveness in Buckley’s interview with Allen Ginsberg, and even with Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, whom Buckley obvious finds distasteful, and whose violent rhetoric and violent past may warrant the reaction in many people’s estimation. Nevertheless, even in this extreme case, we see how the discussion tracks along in such a way that viewers actually learn something about the views on offer. Some may be unable to countenance either participant’s ideas, and yet may come still away from the exchange examining the basis of their own position.
Buckley didn’t only debate politics. As in his interview with Ginsberg, many of his foils were literary figures, and many of them primarily discussed writing. Firing Line brought us great television like the discussions further up with Jorge Luis Borges, with Eudora Welty and Walker Percy above, and, below, with Norman Mailer. The show ran from 1966 to 1999 and owed much of its prestige to the two public television stations—from New Jersey and South Carolina, respectively—who hosted it and allowed for its rarified audience.
Though it may not have been widely viewed, Firing Line‘s influence resonated widely in its impact on other cultural figures and venues. Granted, we see Buckley’s biases on display. Make what you will of the fact that—although the period of the show’s airing saw at least two waves of feminism—Buckley rarely interviewed women unless they already agreed with him. On the whole, however, throughout the show’s 33-year run its host listened to, engaged honestly with, and attempted to understand other points of view.
Few of us today, in search of unconventional artistry, would imagine mid-20th-century CBS game shows as a promising resource. But looking back, it turns out that American television of that era — a time and place when more people were exposed to the very same media than any before or since — managed to bring a surprising number of genuine creators before its mainstream-of-the-mainstream audience. In 1960, for instance, experimental composer John Cage performed Water Walk, his piece for a bathtub, pitcher, and ice cubes, on I’ve Got a Secret.
Dating to 1893 or 1894 and unpublished during Satie’s lifetime, Vexations’ score contains a note from the composer: “Pour se jouer 840 fois de suite ce motif, il sera bon de se préparer au préalable, et dans le plus grand silence, par des immobilités sérieuses,” taken by the piece’s interpreters to mean that they should play it 840 times in a row.
Or at least that’s how Cage and collaborator Lewis Lloyd interpreted it when they staged its first public performance in 1963 at the Pocket Theatre in Manhattan. Its rotating roster of players, under the banner of the Pocket Theatre Piano Relay Team, included a 21-year-old Cale. One week later on I’ve Got a Secret, the young Welshman’s participation in this daring performance constituted the secret the players had to guess. Having determined that his achievement has something to do with music, one lady asks the critical question: “Does it have anything to do with endurance?”
Yes, replies Cale, although the episode’s other secret-bearer, Karl Schenzer of the Living Theater, may have performed the real act of endurance as the sole audience member who stayed to watch the whole eighteen hours and forty minutes. (He certainly got a deal: Cage, believing that “the more art you consume, the less it should cost,” gave each audience member a five-cent refund for every twenty minutes they stayed.) I’ve Got a Secret‘s home viewers then saw and heard Cale play Vexations, or at least 1/840th of it. They would hear from him again in his capacity as a founding member of the Velvet Underground — a band some of them would learn about a couple years later on the very same network’s Evening News with Walter Cronkite.
All over the world, so many kids growing up, students looking for a major, and even adults angling for a career change say they want to get into “design.” But what do they mean? The word encompasses a bewilderingly wide (and ever-expanding) range of disciplines, respected and experienced practitioners of eight of which the new Netflix documentary series Abstract takes as its subjects: architect Bjarke Ingels, illustrator Christoph Niemann, interior designer Ilse Crawford, stage designer Es Devlin, graphic designer Paula Scher, photographer Platon, automobile designer Ralph Gilles, and shoe designer Tinker Hatfield.
“I can guess what you’re thinking, because I have watched a lot of design documentaries,” writes Abstract creator (and WIRED editor-in-chief) Scott Dadich. “Restrained, polished, pretty — so many of them look like a moving version of a coffee table book. You’ve got softly lit interviews, esoteric conversations, and subtle tracking shots of wide landscapes beneath unobtrusive music. Most of it is clean, minimal, and boring as hell.”
Instead, he and his collaborators have matched each of the designers this series profiles with a different documentarian with their own distinct style: the directorial roster includes Morgan Neville (who made Best of Enemies, the recent documentary on Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley) and Brian Oakes (director of Jim: The James Foley Story).
Indiewire’s Liz Shannon Miller describes the series as documenting, among other things, the workspaces of these designers in a kind of detail “on the level of MTV’s Cribs.” Though “personal lives are kept relatively out of the picture, Abstract manages to get surprisingly intimate with the creators at its center.” You can get a taste of that from the clip just above of Ingels’ episode in which he explains what his team wanted to do with the game of “urban Tetris” that was building the VM Houses in Copenhagen. “It created a lot of noise,” he says of the housing project’s daring design, one that still catches the attention of passersby today.
All of Abstract‘s episodes come out today, but before you binge on them (and if you don’t have a Netflix membership, you can always sign up for their free one-month trial), you can read this Architectural Digest interview on it with Ingels and Neville. “This show is about people who are intensely curious and trying to understand, in a very practical way, how to make the world we live in a better place, whether it’s a more comfortable place or a more efficient place or a more egalitarian place,” says Neville. And what does that require? “Understanding that life is always evolving, the world is always evolving, and that means that yesterday’s answers might be the answers to a different question than what the question is today,” says Ingels. “So it always starts with asking questions and reframing the question” — and of course, as you’ll witness countless times throughout the length of the show, venturing an answer.
Abstract is a RadicalMedia production made in association with Tremolo Productions. It was executive produced by Morgan Neville, Scott Dadich (Editor in Chief of WIRED), and Dave O’Connor, Jon Kamen and Justin Wilkes.
“We live in a nightmare that David Foster Wallace had in 1994,” said a tweet that put me in stitches last summer, but I have a sense that we’ve only sunk deeper into that hyperverbal, media-obsessed, and deeply fearful novelist’s bad dreams since then. “The American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, and then describe, and then make credible much of the American reality,” Philip Roth argued 55 years ago. “The actuality is continually outdoing our talents.” Now, at the beginning of the 21st, that actuality outdoes not just what the comparatively traditional Roth could come up with, but even anything imaginable by Wallace’s heirs in the form-breaking, extremity-oriented realm of “postmodernism.”
But did Wallace consider himself postmodernist? Asked by Charlie Rose in a 1997 interview what “postmodernism means in literature,” he at first replied only that it means “after modernism.” But soon he got into the broader cultural critique for which he’s now remembered: “Postmodernism has, to a large extent, run its course,” despite having made the considerable innovation of presenting “the first text that was highly self-conscious, self-conscious of itself as text, self-conscious of the writer as persona, self-conscious about the effects that narrative had on readers and the fact that the readers probably knew that.” Decades later, Wallace saw that “a lot of the schticks of post-modernism — irony, cynicism, irreverence — are now part of whatever it is that’s enervating in the culture itself.”
“The Problem with Irony,” Will Schoder’s video essay above, draws on Wallace’s interview with Rose and much other televisual material besides. That focus may seem slightly quaint in the internet age, but Wallace, a self-confessed television addict who wrote a thousand-page novel about a videotape so entertaining that it kills, looked into the screen and saw a real and powerful threat. “Irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are distinctive of those features of contemporary U.S. culture (of which cutting-edge fiction is a part) that enjoy any significant relation to the television whose weird pretty hand has my generation by the throat,” he wrote in the 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram,” blaming those qualities for “a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture.”
Even as “a certain subgenre of pop-conscious postmodern fiction, written mostly by young Americans, has lately arisen and made a real attempt to transfigure a world of and for appearance, mass appeal, and television [ … ] televisual culture has somehow evolved to a point where it seems invulnerable to any such transfiguring assault.” But as that culture moved on from the likes of David Letterman (to Wallace’s mind, “the ironic eighties’ true Angel of Death”) and Seinfeld to those of Jon Stewart and Community, Scholder argues, its attitudes de-ironized somewhat: “The best shows of our age aren’t finding humor in the gaps that have developed between people. They find humor in the absurd and awkward attempts by people trying to bridge those gaps. They want to show us that humans can have real connections and sincerity for each other.”
And yet humanity’s passivity remains worrisome. “Today, the average weekly screen time for an American adult – brace yourself; this is not a typo – is 74 hours (and still going up),” writes Andrew Postman, son of media theorist and Amusing Ourselves to Deathauthor Neil Postman, in a Guardian piece just last week. “We watch when we want, not when anyone tells us, and usually alone, and often while doing several other things. The soundbite has been replaced by virality, meme, hot take, tweet.” Postman includes Wallace with his father in the group of observers who “warned of what was coming”: a time when few can be shocked by, among other current phenomena, “the rise of a reality TV star, a man given to loud, inflammatory statements, many of which are spectacularly untrue but virtually all of which make for what used to be called ‘good television.'” Stay tuned, if you must.
Look into the childhood of any highly innovative American artist of the past couple generations, and you’ll probably find at least a trace of Sesame Street. The long-running children’s public television series, though widely regarded as a sound source of entertainment and education for the country’s youngsters, has also done more than its part to expose its quite literally growing audience to the vast possibilities of creation. This has proven especially so in the realm of music, where the show’s performing guests have included Herbie Hancock, Nina Simone, and Grace Slick — to name just three of the ones we’ve previously featured here.
But Sesame Street, known in its heyday for a steadfast refusal to talk down to its viewers, no matter how small,has also demonstrated a reach far outside rock, pop, and soul. In 1979 it aired “Geometry of Circles,” a series of four animations with music by minimalist, “repetitive structure”-oriented composer Philip Glass, who turns 80 years old today. Producer Cathryn Aison, according to the Muppet Wiki, commissioned Glass to score her visual work, whose storyboards had already gotten the go-ahead from Children’s Television Workshop.
The music she received from Glass to accompany this show of shape, line, and color “underscores the animation in a style that closely resembles the ‘Dance’ numbers and the North Star vignettes written during the same time period as his Einstein on the Beach opera.”
“Glass has written scores to The Truman Show and Notes on a Scandal and his style is much imitated,” writes Telegraph “opera novice” Sameer Rahim by way of background on the composer’s wide range of other work in a review of his five-hour formalist collaboration with experimental theater director Robert Wilson. “Anyone, like me, born in 1981 has absorbed his musical grammar without realising.” Though a few years too young to have caught “Geometry of Circles” in its first run (and having grown up in the wrong country in any case), the willingness of creators like Glass to work in all kinds of settings, and the willingness of venues like Sesame Street to have them, planted the seeds for countless careers, both today’s and tomorrow’s, in art, in mathematics, and no doubt even in experimental opera.
There’s lots of sturm und drang here in America–enough that we didn’t get to pay our respects to Mary Tyler Moore, an icon of 1960s and 1970s television.
Above, we give you our favorite tribute. Joan Jett performing a sweet rocking cover of “Love is All Around,” the original theme song from The Mary Tyler MooreShow. If you came of age during the 70s, you’ll surely know the song.
Jett’s performance was recorded on The Late Show With David Letterman back in 1996.
Yesterday, the news broke that the Trump administration will apparently be slashing federal spending, to the tune of $10.5 trillion over 10 years. According to The Hill, the “departments of Commerce and Energy would see major reductions in funding.” And “the Corporation for Public Broadcasting [aka PBS] would be privatized, while the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities would be eliminated entirely.”
Attempts to cut funding for the arts is nothing new. Above, we take you back to 1969, when Richard Nixon planned to reduce PBS’ funding from $20 million to $10 million. That is, until Fred Rogers, the gentle creator of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, spent six short minutes before Senator John Pastore, the chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications, and made his pitch for publicly-funded educational television. In those 360 seconds, Rogers gets the gruff senator to do a complete 180 – to end up saying “It looks like you just earned the 20 million dollars.”
It’s unlikely that Mr. Rogers could get the same traction today. Quite the contrary, his sweetness and sincerity would likely be mocked quite mercilessly, a sign of how coarse our society has become these days.
If you’re like me, every little bit of information doled out for the upcoming third season of Twin Peaks is like a series of clues found along a dark path through the Ghostwood National Forest. We’ve seen brief views of some major characters. We’ve heard Angelo Badalamenti confirm he’s back to score the series. We picked up and speed read the Mark Frost-written Secret History. We know that it will be 18 hours of pure David Lynch and Mark Frost, and that whatever it may do, it won’t go all wonky and not-so-good like the terrible trough in the middle of Season Two. And now we have a date for the premiere: May 21.
So it’s not time to brew coffee, or put a cherry pie in the oven, just yet. Instead, it’s time to bone up on the series itself and ask ourselves, is Twin Peaks a failed series that needs to be rectified? Or if Lynch and Frost had never agreed to revisit their iconic work, would we still have a cohesive work?
Video essayist Joel Bocko says yes, and has made what is probably the definitive and most thorough analysis of the series out there on the web.
I first stumbled across Journey Through Twin Peaks one night, and thinking that it was only one short video essay I started watching. My mistake: episode one was only the first in a 28-chapter series that totaled over four hours, arranged in four parts. And, yes, I sat and watched the whole damn thing.
Bocko is good, real good. This is not uncritical fan worship. This is a man, like many of us, who fell in love with the transcendent heights of the show and suffered through its miserable lows, but, through that misery, figured out what made the show such a game-changer.
One important thing Bocko does is give Mark Frost his due. Usually hidden behind the art and the mythos of Lynch, Frost brought much to the show, from the detective procedural framework to themes of the occult and Theosophy. Bocko shows how Lynch came out of the Twin Peaks experience with a completely different and much more complex idea of character. Before Peaks, Lynch’s work saw good and evil existing not just on opposite sides of the spectrum, but as different characters. (Think of Blue Velvet.) In the films he makes afterwards, doppelgangers, fugue states, and self-negation, along with the spiritual confusion that come with it, are central to Lynch’s work.
But that’s just one of the many insights waiting for you in this rewarding analytical work, which also takes in Fire Walk With Me and Mulholland Dr. through to Inland Empire. Suffice it to say, it’s full of spoilers, so proceed with caution.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.