Perambulating the Bounds

Monday, January 30, 2006

nym 310 Chestnut

A new group of Watkins students got into the one-night event act last Saturday with a show at 310 Chestnut. It unusually coherent and ambitious, with the pieces organized around explorations of language. Even the show title was intriguing, ____nym, with references to all of the switching implied by the “nym” suffix.

The best part were the sounds. Ken Nakamura’s Grain was a single grain of rice put on a spindle and rotating rapidly against a turntable stylus. The playback was a sweet rumble that varied within a narrow range. The piece had several levels of significance, like the presumed fragility of the setup, the centrality of a rice grain in the hands of a guy with a Japanese surname, and all the details of the construction, like the way the tone arm was lodged in the pedestal.

Parker ClenDening’s video with a title something like It’s OK to Get Mad showed someone dropping jars on a kitchen floor, edited to creation a steady stream of popping sounds that spelled out the title phrase in Morse code. Parker’s brother Will told me that the action in the video derived from something there mother would do when they got mad, give them a jar to break. My favorite part of this was the sound, which was juicy and contained the hollowness of the jars.

Other language elements in the show included Braille (Matt Christy), graphs of three versions of spoken phrase (Amethyst Stark), Christina Wing’s riffs on Barbara Kruger-like combinations of text overlaid on photos, and Chris Doubler’s video of women’s lips mutely mouthing words.

Allison Boyd did an installation that flashed images of dictionary entries and isolated words or parts of words on the wall of an alcove draped in white sheets. The words were usually blurry or moved too quickly to focus on, and the light cane in and out with a strobe effect. The effect was strongest if you sat in the schoolroom chair set down just inside the alcove. The movement of the light and the difficulty focusing quickly sucked you into this space.

The work on display Saturday night speaks well for the vitality of the Watkins program. Even with everything that went on last year, and with Barbara Yontz leaving this year, it looks like it is possible that there is still plenty of energy among the students.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Cast King show in Nashville Feb 3

Here’s notice from Chris Davis on a show coming up that looks great,
at the
Primitive Baptist Church (that’s at 4602 Indiana, which I
think is in
Sylvan Park). I haven't heard of this guy, but he sounds
like a direct line back to what lies underneath country music.

Feb. 3rd,
7 pm, $6.
Cast King (Sun Records recording artist with Country Drifters and
Miller Sisters; recently released debut album under his own name on
Locust Records;
Old Sand Mountain, ALA)
John Allingham
Dan Tyler
John Smiff XXV
There will be a potluck dinner beforehand starting at 6 pm. Attendees
are invited to bring a covered dish. Vegetarian dishes welcome.
Bio information on Cast King is available at 
A google search for Cast King should lead you to an Alabama
folklore Society web page with an excellent radio show featuring
some of the early 1950s sides King cut for Sun Records in his
group the Country Drifters and as a sideman with the Miller
Sisters. King also cut around 6 unreleased masters for Sun that
hopefully will see the light of day (past status as bonus tracks on
a multi-benjamin Bear Family box).
John Allingham is co-leader of The Cherry Blossoms and The
Brambles and the leader of Arizona Drains.
Dan Tyler bio information available at 
John Smiff XXV is the stage name of clothing designer and
visual artist Michael Enright.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Friendly people in Memphis

I was in Memphis Friday for Susan Maakestad’s opening at Rhodes College and met a few people. Here’s some of the folks, the ones with websites I could track down:

Elizabeth Alley

Hamlett Dobbins

Beth Edwards

Larry Edwards

Don Estes

And here’s Susan’s website

Saturday, January 21, 2006

So Guilty

This week 24 came back on the air, with 4 hours of grab you by the lapels and throw you onto the couch programming. It’s well done, and has a movie star and Actor as the lead, so it’s not technically a guilty pleasure. Except that it is, and guilty in a more literal way. It no less than draws you into complicity into human rights and international law violations. The current regimen of torture and extra-legal action is significantly abetted by the “24 Scenario.” You have in your custody a terrorist – mastermind or stooge – who holds the critical piece of information that will allow you to stop a dreadful attack in its tracks, but you must act within the next 15 minutes (timed either to fit in this hour’s episode or as a cliffhanger to next week). Should you torture the suspect? Of course, and Jack and his buds will show you how it’s done.

The problem with the 24 Scenario is that it is not clear it has ever arisen outside of TV and movies. In the real world, it seems like either you carefully construct intelligence and stop something before it gets too far (with unglamorous things like a border guard in Washington getting suspicious and doing a careful check of that car trunk), or it’s too late and you pick up the pieces and try to find the guilty. And from what I’ve read, torture doesn’t figure in carefully assembled, reliable intelligence. But we’ve never seen what that looks like – it’s secret after all. We do see 24, and on 24 we see this scenario, multiple times. The scenario has a similar ontological standing to anything we might have learned about but have not experienced first hand. By securing a place for this scenario in many consciousnesses, the TV show creates the conditions under which we can imagine and accept torture and see it as useful.

Of course, the thing about 24 is that most of the time the torture doesn’t really help. It can’t – if it did, things would get resolved and then what we do for the next 18 hours? Watch Jack and the CTU crew fill out paper work. What did Jack get from torturing Paul, Audrey’s husband, last season? Nothing, other than losing his girlfriend. For some reason when you’re dating a woman, she hates it if you subject her husband to excruciating pain, even if the guy’s a drip and she wants to be rid of him.

But I like 24. It works really well as TV. It is, like all TV shows, a procedural. I do not mean a procedural in the terms of investigative procedures, because I have a sneaking suspicion real spies don’t look and act like this and don’t work in offices that look like that. No, it’s a procedural about the mechanics of putting together a television show. First you set up your entertainment value proposition – we’re going to run one story over 24 episodes spread over several months of broadcast. Then you have to create mechanisms to deliver on it. So you have the clips at the beginning that give just enough for anyone to pick up on what follows. You throw in characters who exist solely to propel the plot by consistently making the wrong choice, which reshuffles the deck. Kim, Wayne, and now Derek this season. If Jack says stay put, they invariably run out and try unsuccessfully to fix things themselves. And you hold characters in reserve, like throwing Tony into a coma in the first few minutes, where he will be parked until it’s time for him to revive and jump back to action at a critical moment. And so on.

24 does this well, reliably stepping on the gas every time it looks like the machine might come to an idle. But I can’t help worry that if people in The Hague found out about the pleasure I’m getting from the show, they would be obligated to send a team of agents to surround the compound here in Tennessee, extract me and whisk me away to face justice.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

All you need is anxiety

On red eye flights, your connection to reality comes unmoored. The whole business gets started when everything is shutting down, the streets are dark, the airport is closing up. Once the flight gets going, maybe I sleep, but more often I go into a semi-conscious stasis. That’s where I found myself on the redeye I took last week. So I watched the TV without the sound, listened to my iPod instead.

After the movie they show segments from TV shows. There were three segments. One was Rachel Ray doing a travel piece where she went to Jackson Hole and showed how you can eat out for $40 a day, breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack all at cool places. Then there was a 20/20 segment with two reports, one on people whose kids eat so compulsively that they have to lock up food (there was a CSI episode on this syndrome this season so it must be a vital part of the culture), and parents who put their teenagers under surveillance, all of which seemed to be inspired by one guy’s book. Finally there was a bit by someone named Katie Brown who does home décor and cooking. She’s hyper like Rachel Ray, with the hand gestures and all, but not quite as cute.

These segments were consumed with anxiety, one after another. It’s obvious with the 20/20 stuff. The first bit, about the eating disorder, a biological problem where the person does not receive the signals that they are full and will eat so much to do damage to themselves, is no doubt extremely rare, but it gives every parent whose kid is overweight (or not) a reason to freak out even more. About something that basically won’t happen. Then you show families who have introduced the surveillance regimen into their households: video monitors, GPS tracking on the car. The footage made it seem like the kids were kind of going along with it. Of course I’m not listening to the soundtrack during any of this.

OK, the anxiety is easy to see there. Do my kids have a debilitating eating disease? Should I be using technology to keep a closer eye on them? But it’s there in the food and decorating too. Rachel Ray’s piece says you need to take the right kind of vacation, but make sure you eat at nice places but don’t get in over your head with the cost. Rachel will ease your concerns about how to take the right kind of vacation and not feel your poverty too much or feel like you don’t know what’s good. Moreover, the segment tells you these are things you should be worried about. Then it tells you a solution to the problem it has posited. There’s an easier solution to the “problem” of your vacation. Don’t accept the premise that it is a problem. But this is hard, because the creation of these false problematics is infused throughout the information environment in which you live. The obvious methods of entertainment, like an appealing host, pull you in and make the anxiety familiar and comforting.

Katie Brown also helps you solve problems you might not know you had. How to throw a charming dinner party. How often are you really doing that? In the atomized world we live in, you don’t entertain the boss like Blondie and Dagwood did very damned often. And she remodels this couple’s living room using very inexpensive materials (how can I have a fabulous house without much money to spend on it) and ends up with something more color coordinated but uglier and colder than the original room. With some really strange features like candle wall sconces made from copper tubes.

Sitting there in a transcontinental daze, I marveled at how unhealthy every bit of the video stream was. No comfort, no ease, no health. No pleasure, only the chance that you might avoid some humiliation by adopting things endorsed somewhere out there.

Monday, January 16, 2006

What Is Spanish Key Doing In This Movie?

I’ve been getting caught up on my 2004 movies. A bit of time warp, but it’s like the after-Christmas sale. If you wait until the movies go from the movie theatre to the video store and in there from new releases to the regular stock, they charge you less and let you keep them longer. So you can actually get around to watching the movie. It’s the same principle as waiting to buy music until you find the CD used. Cheaper, but definitely takes you out of currency.

One of my 2004 movies was Collateral. It’s a Michael Mann flick about a contract killer (Tom Cruise) and the cab driver (Jamie Foxx) he hijacks to carry him around town for a series of hits. It’s set in LA, and Mann gets some of Southern California’s visual qualities dead on, like the in-between spaces, under freeways or the more or less empty spaces along roads in industrial areas or warehouse districts. When he isn’t busy executing someone, the hitman rattles on like Dr. Phil, helping the driver be more self-assertive and face up to his relationship with his mother. I would say the film is a crypto-comedy, but I don’t think I can convince myself of that.

One scene has been bugging me since I saw it. One of the hits takes places in a swanky night club, with a jazz band on the stand. The band is a conventional combo, tenor, trumpet, and rhythm section. At least that’s what you see. When the band starts playing, what comes out is Miles Davis from Bitches Brew, the track Spanish Key. The music doesn’t go with that band, not the instruments visible, not the physical exertions of the musicians. Where are the electric pianos? Where is Bennie Maupin playing bass clarinet? And anyway, its a landmark performance from a landmark album. You know where it comes from. After the band gets done, the hitman, the cabdriver, and the trumpet player, who also owns the club, sit down for a conversation mostly taken up with the trumpet player telling a story about the time he sat in with Miles. You hear Miles in a kind of ventriloquism and then immediately the characters start talking about him, like they knew what the guys were playing on the soundtrack even though they were obviously making different kinds of noises themselves if they were making sound at all. Then Tom Cruise kills the guy, scene ends.

My initial reaction was this was just messy, like poorly synchronized overdubs. The guy doesn’t acknowledge that anyone who listens to jazz much would know that this band isn’t playing that music. But something related happens elsewhere in the film. Early on, Jamie Foxx is giving Jada Pinkett Smith a ride and when he fiddles with the volume on the radio she comments that he likes the classics too (the two characters of course share a deep connection). The sound track sounds like James Newton Howard’s score, not classics either of the symphonic or popular types, but the dialogue makes it clear they are talking about classical music even though that’s not what you hear.

So this starts to look like alienation internalized into the features of the film that acknowledges illusion on several possible levels by creating a discontinuity between the sound and the visuals. It reminds you of the illusion of natural experience in the intangible light and sound environment of the film. The illusion of continuity and coherence in the field of sensory experience. And the artificiality in the soundtrack tells you that you are looking at a story.

Like the some of the hitman’s bit with the driver, which are either comedic or ridiculous, I can’t decide whether I think Mann is trying to create a complicated phenomenological situation within the film (like Terrence Malick). Mann does seem to be someone who would have those aspirations, but that means I’d have to watch this film a bunch more to get the point and get beyond just having the suspicion there might be one.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Rau exhibit at State Museum ends next weekend

Everyone in the Nashville area, if you haven't been down to see the Rau Collection at the State Museum, it's closing next weekend adn you should really try to get down and see it. The collection has an El Greco, a Cezanne, and multiple Monets and Pissaros, but I think the greatest pleasures are in the paintings by people you haven't heard or don't usually give much thought to. The German section of the show had a couple of those for me: a Cranach version of a round-faced Judith holding Holofernes' head with two sweet attending maidens, and Judith seems to have a hat that doubles as a red halo - not sure what that means; or a painting by someone named Jakob Strub that scatters martyred legionnaires on the throny branches of trees. I was talking to Bob Durham about the show, and he was really into a couple of the older Italian portraits, one was an anonymous painting of an old woman, with text added to the painting describing who she was (a cook and a chambermaid). Some of what got Bob about these paintings was the technical means with which the flesh of the portrait is conjured up.

I'm told that attendance has really picked up the last few weeks, which is good to hear. The paintings ought to be seen, and the people at the State Museum deserve the satisfaction of getting a good response to their efforts to bring the show here.

The show's last day is this Sunday, Jan. 15.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Anthony Appiah's Idea of the Cosmopolitan

The link is for an excerpt from a book coming out later this month by Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosophy professor from Princeton (who left Harvard a couple of years in the dust-up between Larry Summers and the African/African-American Studies faculty). It looks like the book is good. While it seems to minimize the pain and loss from social, economic, cultural, and environmental disruption that occurs in the globalized world, there are things here I find immensely appealing. A decentered view of the world that sees influence between people that is mutual, not uni-directional–Now you look at Africa not because you want to fix it or save it, but because you can’t avoid its impact on you as well as yours on it. The embrace of heterogeneity as a moral stance. Fallibilism. The simple need to get used to one another. “I am human; nothing human is alien to me.” How you embrace cultural diversity as both desirable and inevitable but also resist cultural and social practices that themselves do not tolerate that diversity – once you let go of trying to maintain cultures in their purity, but assume that they are in a constant state intermingling, you have no reason to venerate what interferes with liberty.