Holding Out

Pabst Theater

Now that I’ve had a bit of time to let the impressions sink in, I thought I would put a few words down. A couple weeks back, we traveled to Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater to see Neko Case in concert. In retrospect, I’m happy the Chicago show at The Vic was sold out and gave us an excuse, at Jon’s suggestion, to make the trip. Despite the distance, the night was a good time: we had our pick of seats, the vintage theater architecture and decor were beautiful, and the band delivered a solid performance. Just a couple of dates into the tour and it showed a bit — I’m pretty sure the opener Martha Wainwright was in her cups (forgetting lines and what not) and the set list felt like it was still taking shape, including a cover of Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain”. Neko’s onstage persona was relaxed and goofy, sometimes to the point that it was antithetical to the gravity of her songs, which was OK but begged the question . . . why?

Interestingly, the supporting cast was as much the highlight as Neko herself: Kelly Hogan exhibited that Renaissance ideal, sprezzatura — effortlessly delivering her brilliant backing vocals and warmly reining in Neko when she got away from herself. Jon Rauhouse possessed a scary level of musicianship and artistry too. Watching him saw away at the pedal steel guitar with an organic, fluid mastery, you got a very real sense of the countless hours surely logged sweating out the notes. I walked away impressed and anxious to see where this all goes.

Chiming in on MacTel

After the initial wow factor of Apple’s announcement of Boot Camp and support for Windows on their new Intel-based hardware, I’m now a little less enamored with the idea. The two things that I haven’t missed about life with Windows XP is the less than stellar plug-and-play experience with peripherals and the inevitable sluggishness and disk churn caused by Windows caching and file system fragmentation. I went through two hard drives on my previous WinTel laptop and I’m convinced (evidence be damned) it’s in part due to the stress the OS puts on the hard drive. Now, I know with Boot Camp everything is neatly sandboxed and partitioned, but I can’t help thinking how will Windows behave with the physical hardware? Will drives die faster? And, back to plug-and-play, will I have to cross my fingers every time I plug in a USB thingamajig?

Some folks I’ve talked to think that when Windows users get their hands on a Mac, their introduction to Mac OS X will result in a ready-made Switch campaign. Maybe. Maybe not. But I wonder if rather than a rising tide lifting all boats to meet the excellence of OS X, we may instead see Mac hardware flake out just as badly as the Dells and HPs out there. I mean, let’s face it, we aren’t talking about the most rugged platform (my original Mac 128K will forever be known as the MacMelt, thanks to a burned out power supply).

The question boils down to: what kind of company does Apple want to be? Hardware? Software? Entertainment? Platform? Applications? Lifestyle? And how strategic or reactionary is the Boot Camp move? Is it a clever way to accelerate migration from G4/G5? A way to quiet the gamers? And what is the fate of Microsoft software for OS X like Office and Remote Desktop? Time will tell.

The Unfolding

Neko Case Red and Blue

The Surrealists of the 1920s created what they called “unfilmable” scenarios, marked by vivid and shocking juxtapositions (think the famous razor scene in Un Chien Andalou (1929)), murky longings taking on real-world manifestations, and a wash of subconscious imaginings — a phantasmagoria tugging at the edges of visual representation.

There is a movie unfolding in my head that reminds me of these unfilmable, if not unknowable, worlds. Ever since my first introduction to Neko Case (and Her Boyfriends), courtesy of Jon, I’ve had the not-so-secret wish to happen upon Chicago’s The Hideout one night and catch an impromptu performance. These things happen, I’ve been told, though now with the release of Fox Confessor Brings the Flood and the much-deserved swelling in popularity it has unleashed, my guess is those days are long-gone. In my version, David Lynch-inspired crimson red curtains frame the crooked stage, creased and bunched like crushed velvet. Plastic lawn lanterns dangle along the walls, throwing rippled, multi-colored light over the shadowed crowd. Oh, and an air conditioner reliably hums and drips in the far corner, a few strands of tinsel from last year’s Christmas tree fluttering from its bent vents. You get the picture.

And now, with Confessor, Ms. Case has pointed out the glaring absence of, and at the same time delivered, the crucial centerpiece: “Star Witness”. It’s the perfect song for this movie in my head, gently but willfully rolling on and on, spacious and lonely, as if breathing in the humid air of a (doomed) mid-August night. From the first hesitant bars, through the lazy, assured swish of the snare and Case’s at first sharp and twanged then lullaby-ready vocals, right down to the last, pseudo-haphazard strains of a distant piano, each song element feels loosely joined, like memories themselves. And that’s to say nothing of Case’s quintessential lyrics: ripe with roadside pathos, everyday details (“there’s glass in the thermos and blood on my jeans . . . ”) and, yes, ineffable mystery.

Cross-posted to Shake Your Fist on March 17, 2006

Best Films of 2005

Michael Haneke, Caché (Hidden), 2005

Michael Haneke, Caché (Hidden), 2005

At the Crossroads.

Many critics, filmmakers, stars, and other industry types claim that 2005 was a watershed year in Hollywood film, a year that witnessed daring approaches to subject matter, breaks with long-held taboos, and renewed creativity in film form. Even the most casual observer can divine this running argument/mantra from recent award ceremony acceptance speeches (more than usual), on the pages of interviews and star profiles in the New York Times and other major publications, and over the idle chatter of talk show hosts and morning lifestyle TV programs. It is as if the mainstream American movie industry is turning a blind eye to reality and believes if they just keep repeating “There’s no place like home” they will find themselves comfortably back in Kansas — a place free of iPods and piracy, gaming consoles and first-person shoot-em-ups, and HBO and HD. Or better put, a place where these things are drowned out and overshadowed by the high-quality Hollywood-branded sounds and images one finds on screen at your local movie theater.

For years, the argument has always been technical — bigger, louder, three-dimensional, full color — a richer, more immersive sensory experience. Now, that richness is delivered in terms of content: the Art of Cinema in the Age of Experience. Tonight, we will likely see Brokeback Mountain, Good Night and Good Luck, March of the Penguins, Crash, The Constant Gardener, Capote, and Walk The Line variously rewarded; Hollywood will dutifully stay on message. And, while these films do contain promising bits, most especially strong acting, as complete works they were just so-so, my interest and delight ebbing not long after the first reel. Yes, even the penguins felt a bit re-hashed from earlier triumphs like Winged Migration (Perrin, 2001). Please don’t send hate mail!

I’m not saying these movies were bad, just that they weren’t that good, you know? In your heart of hearts, was it really that great of a year for American cinema? Even lions of independent film didn’t live up to previous heights: Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, and Linklater’s Bad News Bears remake were largely missed opportunities, great filmmakers on cruise control if not asleep at the wheel.

To clarify, I’m not making the mistake of claiming that all movies fell short, that the history of cinema has seen its last days (this time for real). No no, quite the contrary. I am sure that many hours of amazing work is out there, perhaps much of it from Asia and Europe. No doubt more rigorous moviegoers can attest to this but I can only comment on the few dozen that I did get a chance to see, and if I were to speak honestly, many of them were stinkers.

But not all. While Hollywood and the Culture Industry place value and reward accomplishment in all the wrong places, I found plenty to celebrate too.

Film continues to thrive, continues to adapt and absorb, and to provide seemingly limitless opportunities to inspire and move, delight and entertain, and, on those rarest of occasions, challenge and shock one’s sensibilities. In compiling these best of lists every year, I am at once applauding and acknowledging this elasticity as well as the specific accomplishments of individual artists, and from a reverse angle, marking my own fleeting yet lasting moments of insight at the intersection of the two.

Top 5 Movies of 2005 (theatrical screenings or otherwise):

Caché (Hidden) (Haneke)

The puzzler of the year — full of questions and few answers, an exercise in self-reflexivity, genre splicing and indeterminacy, a staging (I hesitate to say critique) of bourgeois values — in other words, the latest chapter in the continuing adventures of Michael Haneke, author of the equally profound and provocative Code Unknown and The Piano Teacher. With Caché, he juxtaposes two lives lived, that of a middle class talk show host, and an Algerian immigrant, two trajectories, one haunting and harassing the other, threatening to reveal its secrets, false assumptions, and self-induced and self-serving delusions. It’s also very much a “movie’s movie” in the sense that it articulates the act of constructing and decoding narrative cinema and it calls attention to the assumptions and strategies that we as an audience rely on and trust. That is not to say watching Caché is an overly analytical experience. Rather, its long takes, formal manipulations and cool detachment has quite the opposite effect, creating a palpable sense of dread, of tense discomfort and, with its celebrated closing shot, ultimately refusing to satiate.

The Squid and The Whale (Baumbach)

A well-made and well-acted tale of a dysfunctional Brooklyn family enduring the ugliness of divorce and the challenges of adolescence and pre-adolescence. Noah Baumbach’s thinly veiled memoir is mannered, wordy, and stiff but starkly honest and unapologetic at the same time. Thanks to SG for dragging me to see this one.

Batman Begins (Nolan)

I was pleasantly surprised by this latest installment in what had become a tired and bankrupt franchise. Christopher Nolan’s and Christian Bale’s caped crusader beats out all the hype, stylistic bravado, and titillation of Sin City (Miller, Rodriquez) hands down. The most entertaining Hollywood movie of the year.

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan Disc 1 (Scorcese)

Never a major Dylan fan like most of my friends, I think this was the key I needed to open the door, and it may have arrived at just the right time. No Direction Home provides an illuminating view of his early years and beginnings with classic Scorcese confidence. You can skip Disc 2.

Grizzly Man (Herzog)

I’m still undecided on this one. I found it both impossible to take seriously and all too serious. I couldn’t help but doubt the veracity of the images. It feels like a put on, too fantastic to be anything but a grand hoax, and yet it isn’t. The raw footage survives, the Herzog voice-over and selective editing provides critical distance, and we are served a unique portrait of one man’s choices, obsessions, and ultimate demise.

Honorable Mention: Nine Lives (Garcia)

Top 5 Repertory (seen for the first time in 2005):

The Saddest Music in the World (Maddin, 2004)
Les Bonnes Femmes (Chabrol, 1960)
Lost Highway (Lynch, 1997) (former “Best First Reel” winner)
Down By Law (Jarmusch, 1986)
The Cooler (Kramer, 2003)

Finally, in the spirit of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s F.W. Murnau award, the one movie I saw in 2005 that most impacted my appreciation and understanding of film history and confirmed my faith in cinema was Dziga Vertov’s Man with A Movie Camera (1929). A long-time gap for me, I’ve read enough about this film over the years that it felt as though I had seen it already. While dated at times in its politics and… how should I say this… enthusiasm for the potential of the medium to influence and inform society, the avant-garde inventiveness, tightly-constructed grammar, and sheer velocity of this one-of-a-kind film essay is unsurpassed.

The Next Google

If there is any doubt that 37signals, purveyors of fine application services such as Basecamp and Backpack, has jumped the shark, Information Week has sealed the deal with a recent fluff piece headline: “Is 37signals the new Google?”

Don’t get me wrong — I am a long-standing supporter of the 37signals crew since we first approached them to design a site back in 1999, and a true believer when it comes to their unwavering dedication to clarity in design, and “less is more” approach to business management. I also can’t help but be impressed with their evolution over the years, growing from a usability and user experience-oriented design shop to a blog-powered, seminar-driven marketing machine (in the best sense of the word). And, while I don’t “live” in their software as some of their biggest fans do, I would agree that they are among a handful of companies designing very good software today. I eagerly await their entry into the hosted CRM market. SalesForce could use a serious wake-up call.

But the next Google? Back to the headline.

Jason Fried, master of ceremonies at 37signals, shared news of the article with his Signal v Noise blog readers, generating a typically active discussion (41 comments as of this post).

Over at Del.icio.us, 76 people (and counting) also find it link-worthy. Tags include: 37signals, google, web2.0, and ideas.

Which got me thinking: what other companies have been suggested as the next big thing in the age of Google?

A Google search for the phrase “the next Google” produces 90,300 results (though Google cuts you off at 440 claiming the rest are similar). Among the top hits, you will find:

and . . .

It will be interesting to see where these companies, Google included, rank a year from now, 5 years from now and beyond. I wish Jason and the 37signals team the best.

Structured Blogging

Fall 2005 was a blur. So much so that I decided to take the blog portion of the site down. Too much going on. But now, with a new year ahead, and in response to several requests, I’ve brought the blog back online and couldn’t resist the opportunity to restructure content a bit.

As I’ve noted before, I use Movable Type to manage content. I’m a big fan and have convinced others to use it for more than just blogging. Even with WordPress growing in popularity, I find MT’s balance of structure and flexibility to be a good fit. For example, I use a single MT weblog to manage different types of content, from blog entries like this to the various static photo series to my photoblog. It’s probably not the most elegant way to go about things, but by customizing MT’s standard templates combined with a handful of plug-ins, the site dynamically responds to different media types and the structures they require, in both human and machine-readable formats (e.g, the feed for this blog).

So it was with considerable curiosity and excitement that I found the Structured Blogging site by way of Paul Kedrosky via Dick Hardt. I have to agree with Mr. Hardt — it just makes sense for this type of innovation, especially the ability to produce microcontent-specific feeds. By baking in much of the customization I’ve hand-rolled, MT will be that much more powerful out of the box.

Best wishes to everyone for 2006!


John Doe

The Knitters / “Burning House of Love

In Amy’s absence (happy birthday, Toots!) I’ve been given the reins for this week’s No Hits entry. Power Pop be damned! You’ll be hearin’ none of that, friends.

I think I might have hit the jackpot with this week’s heavy-rotation track, given all the chit-chat ‘round here lately. It’s got 80s “roots rock” pedigree, it’s a cover (of sorts), and it’s too good to ignore (though given recent airplay and TV appearances it may be at risk of immediate “No Hits” disqualification). I’ll take the heat.

First, let me take a step back, though — 20 years back. While Geldof, Bono, and the gang were saving Africa, bands like X and Jason and the Scorchers were reworking country music conventions and paving the way for the alt-country watershed of the 90s. In Music City, U.S.A., Jason and others — including Webb Wilder (still working, last I checked), local hopefuls like Raging Fire and In Pursuit, and L.A. import and cross-over breakthrough Dwight Yoakam — were concocting strong medicine to remedy new wave excess and the then-bankrupt and cliched country sound epitomized by the likes of Kenny Rogers.

Which brings us back to Burning. The original 1985 X composition might betray the era a bit with keyboards sparking at the edges, but the rich vocals and no nonsense guitars left an indelible and influential mark. The Knitters, comprised of X bandmates John Doe, Exene Cervenka, and D.J. Bonebrak joined by Dave Alvin and Jonny Ray Bartel, deliver a sparse, jangly update with the clickity-clack shudder of a dark train puffing across the high plains. It’s a much more haunting (and haunted) telling this time around, tinged by dread and bitter memory.

Get The Modern Sounds of The Knitters, their second release in 20 years. Their first, Poor Little Critter On The Road, is also a must-have.

Cross-posted to Shake Your Fist on August 15, 2005

Digital Self-Storage

In his recent Slate article, “Self-Storage Nation”, one-time Baffler regular, Tom Vanderbilt, describes America’s healthy appetite for space to store stuff.

As Vanderbilt hints, the recent growth in self-storage is evidence of a larger trend that stretches well beyond those ubiquitous sheds one finds scattered along the outskirts of town. Companies like Container Store, publications like Real Simple and books like David Allen’s Getting Things Done all seek to answer the growing demand to organize, simplify, and store the things that make up this modern life.

And it doesn’t just end with thing things. The same could be said online: Google’s Gmail offers 2GBs of free storage (easily hacked to store and serve files rather than email) and various services like Xdrive and sephoneSAFE offer the safe and convenient storage of one’s growing digital media files (e.g., .mp3, .flac, .jpg, .raw). Even the software I use for this website, Movable Type, can be thought of as a content management tool, a means to produce, organize and store stuff.

In most cases, this content is saved on hard drives in web hosting facilities that we will never see, never visit, never really give more than a passing thought. In fact, these places tend to resemble those impersonal sheds on the edge of town. Is it just a matter of time before Public Storage goes digital?

Metropolis Coffee Company

© 2011 Google

© 2011 Google

Metropolis Coffee Company is my new favorite coffehouse in Chicago. Anyone who has brought up the subject of coffee during the past year has had to listen to me go on (and on) about why Metropolis is the bee’s knees in my book.

A welcomed relief from the by now generic coffee culture cultivated and branded by Starbucks and others, Metropolis focuses on great coffee (they roast several great blends) and a relaxed eclectic scene that attracts everyone from local artists and musicians to far-flung yuppies and students alike. On any given day, you’ll overhear conversations about organic farming co-ops in the making, recent gallery openings, winning Scrabble strategies, or a hundred other everyday stories.

And now there is one more reason to make the trek up to 1029 Granville: Daniel Teafoe’s U2/3D. On exhibit through June 19, this collection of 3D photographic images gives you the rare pleasure to relive U2’s 2001 Elevation tour. What more could you ask for?

Best Films of 2004

Richard Linklater, Before Sunset, 2004

Richard Linklater, Before Sunset, 2004

This could be the end of everything
So why don’t we go
Somewhere only we know?

– Keane, 2004 (via SG)

Choices Made.

As has become my habit/tradition, with a scant few hours to go before the Oscar ceremony celebrating the best of Hollywood films of the past year, I too want to offer a few thoughts on my favorite moments watching movies in 2004.

It was a varied and hurried year for me. I can’t remember having many opportunities to reflect on the films I saw to the degree that I am accustomed or prefer. I suppose the most celebrated and controversial of the year’s offerings was Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, an effort that left me strangely sympathetic for the targeted George W. The project backfired on both a rhetorical and emotional level, with its “shame on you” moral indignation. Trusted friends don’t share my intolerance for Moore’s tactics, excusing them instead on higher grounds, and I’ve decided maybe I just don’t like to be preached to, regardless of the message.

Other movies I should have liked more included Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, American Splendor (2003) and Garden State, solid outings all, by skilled filmmakers with interesting things to say. Loosely defined, they could be said to describe a kind of longing or searching, to map the emotional tumult of loss and displacement and that peculiar condition of loserdom. Each offers a schematic of how to cope with the heartbreak and kicks in the teeth, and even how to get back on track.

Sideways also has been widely praised for its adult take on life, its frank view of when things haven’t worked out the way one expected them to, and the different ways one might play the cards you’re dealt. Similarly, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset might be summarized as a thesis on growing older, making choices and choices making you, missed opportunities, and the what if musings of thirty-somethings. It’s the more nuanced effort, in my opinion, matured like the wine appreciated in Sideways yet still ripe with possibility and surprise.

Top 5:

Before Sunset
Hotel Rwanda
Maria Full of Grace
Shrek 2 / The Incredibles (tie)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Honorable Mentions: Yo, Robot, caught with SG in Lima before heading back to the States and Troy, viewed on a bus to Puno. Both were pure entertainment in unexpected contexts and both were testaments to the fulfillment of cinema’s early “universal language” aspirations.

Other recommendations in no particular order (viewed for the first time in 2004): Touching the Void (2003), Key Largo (1948), All the Real Girls (2003), Kieslowski’s Blind Chance (1987), Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1950), Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2002), Linklater’s Tape (2001), To Be and To Have (2002), Spellbound (2002), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), and The Station Agent (2003).


I’m a micropatron. I am someone who has contributed hard cash to Jason Kottke’s recent foray into full-time blogging. I’ve never met Jason, never even exchanged a single email save my recent well wishes for success, but I’ve been a long-time reader (and not so infrequent poacher) of his site. Like many successful blogs, Jason’s voice is strong throughout — he’s subjective, daringly honest and tireless. He’s also perceptive and provides a well-manicured digest of ideas, memes, and the random what-have-yous circulating the web at any given moment.

My “patronage” is not just about supporting this kind of writing. It’s also about supporting web writing as a professional endeavor outside of an advertising-based model, and rescuing blogging from mainstream media’s ill-informed dismissals of amateurism. In other words, it’s a vote of confidence.

I wonder what it’s like to be in Jason’s shoes right now — to witness an outpouring of support from readers who have been relatively anonymous or unknown until now. What an incredible leap of faith it must have been to trust us, and an equally incredible validation.

Is Google Connect That Far Away?

Google has done it again: Google Maps Beta combines improved map graphics with their trademark user interface simplicity. It is a great first stab at a mapping service, including driving directions. And at the same time, it goes so far that it also leaves one asking: “if they can do this, then what about this, or this?” Not feature-creep add-ons, but rather extending the functionality that is already there.

For example, I suspect one day soon users will be able to click on business phone number listings produced by “nearby” searches and connect the call over a VoIP/PSTN gateway. That last mile has been sorely lacking in information and directory assistance services (both via wireline 411 and on the web). Google is just the company to fix it.

Long Tails, Exploding TVs, and Experience Goods

There has been a recent surge in web commentary on the growing transformation of video distribution and consumption, in particular network TV. The technology pundits will tell you that video is following in the footsteps of text, photos, and music into the maw of the Internet, driven by today’s on demand economics and digital lifestyles. The common theme in most of these discussions is the toppling of incumbent media houses: the old school networks and studios who have invested heavily and reaped great rewards from their monopolies. The long tail faithful suggest that audiences are fragmentary (specialized) by nature and how they consume and re-contextualize cultural artifacts is likewise a fragmentary and niche-driven process. The idea of a cohesive, unified work of art, long challenged among cultural theorists, is now seeing a quite literal disintegration.

As technologies continue to converge, and as the bit torrents challenge the perceived sanctity of the living room, we no doubt will see a shift from broadcast to narrowcast cultural production and consumption. As a lover of “foreign” and “independent” cinema, this should be a welcomed change for me since the collapse of traditional distribution channels means almost limitless access to everything and anything, anywhere at any time. However, in the face of this one-click immediacy, how will the experience of culture change? I am particularly interested in terms of audiences.

In 1948, Americans went to the local theater to see the latest Warner Bros. comedy and perhaps the latest Italian neorealist import. In 1966, they watched these films on their televisions, ‘81 on HBO. In all cases someone else decided the when, and less so the where. This is still true today, with the latest Hollywood release following a carefully rehearsed trajectory from must-see opening weekend to the 2 for 1 DVD bargain bin at your local box retailer of choice. Hollywood isn’t just selling the images on screen, but also the experience of those images, within a crucial window of time. This is what gets top dollar. And this is what has the studios so upset about leaked/ripped pre-release copies. The cat is out of the bag, they fear. Why go to the cinema if you can have it in your pocket? I suggest one answer is the pleasure in the sharing of experience — be it water cooler recaps of your favorite TV drama or reality TV show viewed the previous night on Fox, or sitting in a darkened theater with 200 strangers.

How might the long tailers reconcile this pleasure of mass culture? Perhaps this isn’t their purview, preferring instead to praise the liberation of the catalog, pleased more in describing the inter-personal and social realignments shaped by recommendation and reputation engines outside the mainstream. Or maybe the point is simply that experience will still be shared, only in new, often impromptu and ephemeral settings. Perhaps. Until then, I think in the proposed slice-and-dice on demand world of video searching, downloading, and the like, shared cultural context is fundamentally negated. It is a void that will be filled one way or another.

Stories Make Sense

During our holiday travels to Nevada and Utah, we went to Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park. To say it was some of the most incredible landscape I’ve ever seen would be a major understatement. Bryce in particular was amazing to see, especially under a pristine snowfall. I’ve been fortunate to experience some great country in the past couple of years, Arizona’s Grand Canyon included. Like the Grand Canyon, Bryce is breathtakingly vast but it also invokes a sense of intimacy — as AG remarked, it is as if you can reach out and touch the rock while looking down from the rim. Each hoodoo, with its unique curves, cracks and colorations, seems to have a story to tell.

I guess this is what it comes down to — narrative breathes life into the abstract, stories make sense of things.

I’ve seen evidence of this over the past few days as people respond to the South Asia earthquake and tsunami disaster. Like the events of 9/11 here in the U.S., the scale of loss, the facelessness of the numbers is incomprehensible and can only begin to make sense once it is tapered to a human level. Our networks showed their utter lack of understanding of this fact during the first few days of the aftermath, when instead of useful information we were fed platitudes and headline-grabbing generalizations. It was insulting. The packaging and broadcasting of disaster, right down to the just-catchy-enough byline pulsing at your television’s edge, is so inappropriately calculated and manipulative that I had a hard time watching. Since the new year, with more people “on the ground,” the attention thankfully has turned more to how people are helping survivors, and of course the urgency to do even more. The stories of bravery, luck, misfortune and grief make the local global and back again, all the more so without a tyrannical dictator to blame or fanatical extremist to out-hate.

Susan Sontag (1933 – 2004)

Peter Hujar, Susan Sontag, 1975

Peter Hujar, Susan Sontag, 1975

Susan Sontag’s essays, along with those of Roland Barthes, Siegfried Kracauer, and André Bazin, are a cornerstone of my critical understanding of photography. Her insights not only opened new and interesting questions but did so with a fresh perspective and infectious energy.

I’ve archived her NYT obituary here.

Monet in Vegas

John Singer Sargent, Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of a Wood, 1887

John Singer Sargent, Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of a Wood, 1887

Much to report from Sin City, but for now I want to recommend a Claude Monet exhibit in the most unexpected of places — the Bellagio Hotel and Casino. On loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (not without controversy), this collection of a couple dozen paintings gives a good look at the Impressionist’s growth as an artist. I’ve always found Monet a bit overrated (living in Chicago, there is almost always some flavor of Impressionist exhibit running to keep the Chicago Art Institute coffers full). With this collection though, I was struck by his attention to detail (from a distance, his brush strokes blend into almost photo-realistic shading, especially his rare urban scenes) and his penchant for the ephemeral.

The recorded tour points out the Impressionists’s roots in realist painting and everyday scenes, as opposed to the then vogue academy painting celebrating idealized mythological subjects. However, with Monet’s turn to landscape painting, and eventually to his home in Giverny, the artist increasingly shaped the world he painted, relying less on capturing the elusive light of this or that region of France and instead depicting a world created a priori.

Netflix Price Drop

For those still unsure about saying goodbye to DVD rental late fees forever and signing up to Netflix, a recent price drop to $17.99 might be all you need to pull the trigger. Here in Chicago, turnaround that once took 4-6 days three years ago (mailing to/from CA) today typically only takes 2 days. Not bad. If you think you might watch more than 4 DVDs a month, and can live without the pleasure of going to the local video store on a whim, Netflix is a good deal.

For the information junkie, the online rental experience also is rich with cross-referenced recommendations, movie ratings, reviews, trailers, and your personal rental queue and rental history.

And did I mention no late fees?

This price drop is no doubt in response to growing competition, but also falls on the heels of a recent joint development agreement with Tivo for digital content distribution. Netflix has learned early that they aren’t in the DVD business. Studios, broadcast networks, and telcos should be so smart about their own business models.

Wisdom of Crowds and the IEM

I’ve been reading James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, which argues that crowds — that is, diverse, decentralized, independent groups of individuals (in the right circumstances) — aren’t as dumb as you might think.

One example that New Yorker regular Surowiecki provides are the Iowa Electronic Markets (IEM), which are futures markets that deal in political and economic events. The project is designed to be a learning tool about real-world markets, but is also attracting considerable non-academic interest given this year’s presidential race.

Check out Kerry vs. Bush on IEM.

Millennium Park and The Bean

Bean with Falling Man, 2004

Bean with Falling Man, 2004

A visit to Chicago’s Millennium Park

I visited Millennium Park today with my aunt and uncle, who were passing through Chicago on their way to Green Bay. It was one of those interesting experiences one has, stepping slightly outside of yourself and your everyday to look in on the place where you live, the city that you call home. We drove down Lake Shore Drive, for the millionth time, but this time pointing out some of the sites — the Drake, Navy Pier, the stout buildings overlooking the beaches, which were humming with cyclists, volleyball games, and runners. As we drove in their rented sedan, a portable GPS device chimed with pleasure that we were “on the green path,” and dutifully following its cheerful yet lifeless instructions. As I went on about “my fair city,” my uncle quipped — “I’ve flown all around these buildings… even flown into a few.” He’s always had a knack to confuse me, to deliver a remark that I’m never quite sure how to take. Was he talking about a previous military career I didn’t know about? What did he mean… into? After a beat, I realized, and he added, that he was talking about simulated flight, from the convenience of his desktop in North Carolina. Of course.

So, electronic frontiers and the lakefront casually blended this afternoon, as we turned toward Wacker… 2 miles ahead, bearing right. It was 5:30pm. Parking in Grant Park Garage and emerging onto Michigan Ave., we caught sight of the Pritzker Pavilion and could have easily missed Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (“The Bean”) had we not been looking for it. It blends so easily into its reflection that, over the sparse treetops and other street-side visual obstacles, you are easily fooled into thinking it isn’t there at all. As we crossed Michigan, people hurried by, some smiling, often to whomever was on the other end of their wireless conversations. Opting to first see Gehry’s contribution to the pricey urban renewal effort, we climbed a few stairs ahead, and as we neared the “firecracker gone off in a tin can” (as a friend, MN, recently described it), we gradually heard the distinct strains of operatic voices and music. Was it recorded? Certainly there wasn’t a performance this early in the evening? Curiosity brought us to the edge of the pavilion and, as we leaned over, we saw the bright red chairs (so new!) and a few folks speckled throughout, joined by others lounging on the lawn behind and beneath the webbed metal and wire stretching from the stage below. On stage, a collection of musicians and vocalists were rehearsing their parts for a future performance. They were dressed casually, no evening attire, especially not in the humid August air. It was a classic Chicago scene — unassuming and beautiful at the same time.

This urban reverie didn’t prepare me for The Bean though — a sublime object that is best approached from the west, looking east, with Michigan Avenue’s cornices and smudged windows lined dutifully behind, in stark contrast to Kapoor’s luminous droplet of pure metal. Both personal, like a prized stone taken from a favorite place, and majestic in its sheer scale and simplicity, The Bean née Cloud Gate speaks to the horizon between public and private, between the miniature and gigantic that Susan Stewart explores in On Longing (no doubt my old U of C professors are thrilled with this city’s latest icon). As I walked beneath its welcoming navel, instinctually looking for my reflection amid the many faces and shapes, I spied others as they pointed their cameras at this curious thing — some with loved ones in the foreground, others within inches of the metal, peering so close. A nearby Latina, impatient with her male companion, broke from her pose and chided him with a smile — “Enough with your artistic shots”!

As I write this, a storm teems outside my windows, bringing welcomed relief from the heat. The neighborhood is eerily quiet except for the whir of my window fan and the applause rising from the macadam. The fan sprays me with tiny shards of rain as I peer out onto the street looking for the life that I felt just a few hours ago. It has gone dark.

On Photography and Memory

Exit Glacier, 2000

Exit Glacier, 2000

Toward a conceptual framework for the Kinogram project.

It is the rare essay on photography — at least in the general sense of photography — that doesn’t touch on, at some turn or another, the unique relationship photography has with memory. Invariably, when one takes a step back and begins to clutch this image or that from the daily stream, perhaps stumbling across some stashed snapshots from years past, a memory is triggered, clear as a bell. So vivid is the recollection, in fact, that the photo can easily shrink to become a sort of footnote, a pointer seizing just one instant in the rush, from which one’s narrative blooms. Those that have shared the represented experience — perhaps they are sitting there beside you, grinning in the sterile wash of the strobe — also share in this reminiscing. And history reigns for a moment. That’s not to say there’s anything at all accurate or exhaustive about the nod back, but it does possess a stubborn pleasure and purpose. That is certain.

There is nothing particularly remarkable about the image above. A glacier — unmoving yet not, witness to and storehouse of millennia — strikes an all too recorded pose. Moments before perhaps someone stood between the photographer and his soon-to-be-subject, then background. Indifferent ice, as it still must be today, almost 4 years later. If you too have made the short trek past the signs indicating Exit Glacier’s relatively brisk retreat (each wooden post driven into the ground marks where the glacier reached at periodic years so that your walk up is also a walk through time), perhaps the image reminds you of your own Kenai adventure. Or, if you’ve never seen a glacier, perhaps it offers a more abstract delight, the sooty meringues reminding you of a frothy pint of beer or sea foam slapping at the shoreline. Maybe you see (remember) both, or neither.

For me, it is an anchor. Through the lens, a chain pulled taut, snagged on the craggy ocean floor of lived experience. The typically produced photograph, the third sign, points to its referent in a most emphatic way, as if conceding that its very existence depended on it. Despite the dozens of rational reasons why one shouldn’t trust a photograph to do anything but mislead, misrepresent, or mis-take the world, our first comments are often: “Where was this taken?”, “Who is that standing there? Cousin Billy? He looks so young!”, “What is that bit in the corner?” I share this digitally scanned image here as both a specimen of my work and as a personal memento of time spent in Alaska on holiday. Nothing very remarkable about that — cameras are among a traveler’s essential accessories — except to say that my reading of the photograph, my pleasure in its nondescript sky and pinched shoulders of ice, cannot escape memory. In fact, it is the anticipation of remembering that likely raised my right index finger to the shutter release in the first place.

Kinogram, a follow-up project to Photomoment that has been in the works for the past four years, off and on, is happening soon. Among other things, the project attempts to reverse (or at least disrupt) the circuitry between memory and photography discussed above. Kinogram sketches the possibility to both reshape memory and shape experience (on the cusp of memory). I promise I’ll have more information soon.

Best Films of 2003

Sophia Coppola, Lost in Translation, 2003

Sophia Coppola, Lost in Translation, 2003

Quiet Life.

Angels in America (Mike Nichols, 2003)

The best movie of 2003 wasn’t a movie, by some standards. It was closer to a television “event”, a two-part drama directed by Mike Nichols and staring Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson among many others. Adapted from Tony Kushner’s play, and Broadway event in its own right, Angels in America successfully conveyed much of the grandeur, visual and non-visual poetry, and emotional impact of the original theatrical production. In fact, it is this theatricality that gave it a seductive freedom of form and no doubt attracted the high caliber acting troupe. Something to sink one’s teeth into! In all, it was a fine package, with all the trappings of success: the high-brow patina of HBO programming, strong source material, and amazing talent. Pacino, rarely a personal favorite, stepped up for a great performance depicting Roy Cohn, and Jeffrey Wright was riveting in his reprise of the role of Belize.

Lost in Translation (Sophia Coppola, 2003)

By contrast, the critical darling of the year, Lost in Translation was refreshing in its simplicity. Though derivative at times, Sophia Coppola’s latest effort emerged with a distinct auteur sensibility firmly intact. Even if we didn’t necessarily connect with the characters on screen, we sensed the quiet life of the writer and filmmaker behind the lens. Though having never been to Tokyo, I must add that the juxtaposition of East and West seemed to slouch too often toward stereotype and convenient narrative device. I wanted more tolerance but I’m not sure why . . . except for all the convenient, stereotypical reasons.

Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich, 2003), Winged Migration (Jacques Cluzaud et al., 2001/2002) (tie)

In less heady realms, animals reigned this year. Winged Migration, Finding Nemo, Whale Rider, and Seabiscuit all focused on creatures great and small in one way or another, and all contained some of my favorite filmed moments of the year. With Seabiscuit, I admit it was hard to swallow the sepia-toned documentary sleights of hand, but in the end, its grace, energy, and dignity was noteworthy.

Les Triplettes de Belleville (Sylvain Chomet, 2003)

Breaking with tradition, I’ve also decided to include Les Triplettes de Belleville, which I didn’t see until early this year. As with 2002’s Spirited Away, I’m duly impressed by the state of today’s animation. It’s hard to categorize Triplettes. A surreal cartoon? An inventive dream sequence? A musical celebration of the life of machines? All or none of the above, it was a joy to watch and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Demonlover (Olivier Assayas, 2002)

But wait. Before you start thinking I’ve gone completely sentimental, quaking at the flap flop of gull wings and pulling for life’s underdogs, my final “Top 5” entrant is far from heart-warming. A cautionary narrative of exploitation, corporate greed, and the cultural and physical mutations spun by hyper-stimulation and virtual reality, Demonlover refuses to be forgotten easily. Having seen Assayas’s earlier meditation on violence and the collision of East and West, Irma Vep, I tend to place Demonlover on the other side of the looking glass he hints at at that film’s end.

Assayas is channeling much of contemporary culture here — mixing Lynch-inspired horror and Godardian anarchy with his own fetishistic take on adult manga animation and S&M tropes. The effect is difficult to bear and immediately begs the oft-asked question: how best to critique sexual exploitation and violence? And in depicting such violations without a corresponding moral indignation is the artist that much guiltier of committing the very crimes he seeks to condemn? Many have dismissed Demonlover on these grounds, claiming it to be nothing more than sensationalist trash, an irresponsible exercise in self-indulgence. For my part, I didn’t sense any joy in these images, no pleasure. A claim I can’t make so readily for a movie such as Tarantino’s Kill Bill, which covers some similar ground and could be thought of as a kindred spirit on the surface. My recommendation for Demonlover is qualified though. Prepare to be sickened, confused, and insulted. Imagine for a moment that film can still assault one’s senses and challenge one’s sensibilities rather than fulfill fantasies in spite of itself.

Notes on Cactus Flower

Cactus Flower, 2003

Cactus Flower, 2003

I can’t remember ever seeing a cactus flower until I moved to California. Having grown up in the East, where the climate just wasn’t hospitable to such things, cacti and other succulent plants were valued more for their stubborn refusal to die — despite a boy’s difficulty in remembering to water regularly — than for the kind of exotic beauty found in the West.

Enduring my 10th winter in Chicago, I needed some color and a reminder of warmer days.

Elvis is Everywhere

Elvis is Everywhere, 2003

Elvis is Everywhere, 2003

When I look out into your eyes out there, When I look out into your faces,
You know what I see?
I see a little bit of Elvis. In each and every one of you out there.
Let me tell you. Wellllllll….
Elvis is everywhere,
Elvis is everything,
Elvis is everybody,
Elvis is still the King.

- Lyrics by Mojo Nixon from “Elvis Is Everywhere” (1987)

Dubbed one of the wackiest races in the country by Runner’s World magazine, Chicago’s Elvis is Alive 5K was certainly all that and more. Congrats to SG for her strong finish and to Rekha for her “PR”! All hail the King.

David Revisited

David Revisited, 1987

David Revisited, 1987

The images of Michelangelo’s David above are among the first exposures I ever made. It was the Summer of 1987 and I was just learning how to use a camera. My cousin John had sold me his Pentax K-1000 kit, including a 50mm lens, and I was shooting Tri-X 400 film. You couldn’t get more basic. Later that summer I had the chance to make prints from these negatives onto high-contrast Kodalith film and litho paper. With some toning, the image to the right above was the result.

Years later, I took a course in posterization at the San Francisco Photography Center. The instructor had devised a complicated and labor intensive system of photographing a negative at multiple exposures with different colored filters. The image on the left above is just one of many variations we created by the end of the class. Of course, today one can produce litho-like or posterized images quite easily with a few clicks and adjustments in Adobe Photoshop. Still, both experiences opened up for me the many possibilities of photography, and allowed for experimentation with what were admittedly a tourist’s run-of-the-mill shots.

Coffee Spoons

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot (1915)


You will take on whatever task comes your way and show great depth and stamina. This is your turning point, your time to show your worth and make things happen. You will be a powerhouse — unstoppable and willing to do whatever it takes to reach your set goal.

from horoscope.com (April 28, 2003)