Archive for May, 2011
Oh gosh, this is good: a few Kenyon College students recall David Foster Wallace’s commencement address.
There’s one line in particular that rings out like a bell (emphasis mine):
Mike L.: The one emotion I remember is intensity: he was clear, driving, and inwardly focused. He also didn’t say anything dismissively. Whether it was his technique or his real feeling I have no idea, but he read the speech like he was passing on a message of importance. Sitting here, I picture a guy at a radio in a bunker intercepting a message, then reading it off to someone else, wasting no time and enunciating every syllable.
What a vivid metaphor for good writing, good art. You’re down in the bunker, leaning in close, listening hard, repeating what you hear.
Eli Pariser’s op-ed in the New York Times, “When the Internet Thinks It Knows You”:
Democracy depends on the citizen’s ability to engage with multiple viewpoints; the Internet limits such engagement when it offers up only information that reflects your already established point of view. While it’s sometimes convenient to see only what you want to see, it’s critical at other times that you see things that you don’t.
The Times had run an earlier story on Pariser’s The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You. It takes the easiest possible reading of this idea, applying it to media choices and political disagreement:
If you want to test your own views on personalization, you could try a party trick Mr. Pariser demonstrated earlier this year during a talk at the TED conference: ask some friends to simultaneously search Google for a controversial term like gun control or abortion. Then compare results…
With television, people can limit their exposure to dissenting opinions simply by flipping the channel, to, say, Fox from MSNBC. And, of course, viewers are aware they’re actively choosing shows. The concern with personalization algorithms is that many consumers don’t understand, or may not even be aware of, the filtering methodology.
Reading Pariser’s op-ed, though, I got the sense that he’s not nearly as concerned about narrowing of opinions on the web as he is about the narrowing of interests.
“[I]f algorithms are taking over the editing function and determining what we see,” he writes, “we need to make sure they weigh variables beyond a narrow ‘relevance.’ They need to show us Afghanistan and Libya as well as Apple and Kanye.”
If you spend much time on the Internet, you know that there’s clearly no shortage of disagreement. But it’s more likely that you spend most of your time and energy disagreeing with people who care deeply about the same things about which you already care deeply.
You’ll argue about whether LeBron James or Derrick Rose should have won the MVP, whether or not Mitt Romney has a shot in the Iowa caucuses, or why Apple decided to pre-release information about the WWDC keynote.
We dive deeply into a range of pre-defined topics, tied to our professions, hobbies, needs, and histories, and sharpen our swords with opponents who do the same.
And on the margins, maybe that’s okay. Mass culture throws a whole lot of stuff at its audience that I, like you, have no intrinsic interest in. The time, energy, and cognitive surplus we once devoted to those things we used to consume only because “they were on” are all much better put to use tackling subjects we actually care about.
But it does mean that we’re often unaware of what’s happening in the next room, where there is frequently plenty of useful stuff that we could port into our own special areas of interest. We need to make sure we’re taking advantage of the web’s built-in ability to move laterally.
More to the point: those of us who produce and share content that other people read — and at this point, that’s almost all of us — need to trust that our readers are lateral movers too, and encourage them to do so.
I’m reminded of this blog post from last year, predicting the death of the niche blog and the rise of the lens blog. The lens blog can tackle any subject, but always from the point of view of a subset of enthusiasms or perspectives that find clever ways to find the same in the different, and vice versa.
Hyper-specialization, like information overload, is an old, old problem. But exactly for that reason, we shouldn’t be surprised to see it pop up as a potential problem with our new tools and new media, too.
In short, if you’re really worried about search engines or social media overfiltering what you see, worry less about your reading being one-sided and more about it being one-dimensional.
The New York Times’ Lens blog is a gem, and it proves it again with this latest post, about photojournalist Bryan Denton’s experience in Libya. Okay, so, most of the post is written by C. J. Chivers, which is like cheating—Chivers is one of the ten best reporters in the world right now—but even so, the whole package is emblematic of what Lens has been able to do consistently: go deep, really deep, into the real craft of reporting.
Here’s one part that really struck me. This…
Denton: We departed from Benghazi on April 13 [aboard a Greek ferry that had been pressed into evacuation service]. The trip lasted about 16 hours. There was evidence of artillery impacts on some of the structures in the port, so we knew that the area had come under fire. The entire trip between disembarking and arriving at our safe house was probably an hour. As with other stories in the past, it was one of the more stressful periods, primarily because you are new on the ground and haven’t yet picked up on how things work yet. I often equate conflict with music and dancing. It takes a little while to figure out the rhythm. But once you do, you can start to dance.
…followed by this:
Denton: [C. J. Chivers] has been great to work with on this story because, as a former Marine with many years of war reporting under his belt, he has a great deal of experience and perspective on how battlefields work and shift.
In Misurata, a great deal of planning and thought went into each story before we reported it; finding out what exactly was happening at the locations we were planning to report from, how we were planning on moving there and how much time we wanted to spend on the ground. Misurata is not a place where you want to hang around on the street and wait for stuff to happen.
Whenever we were outside of the compound we were staying in, we were wearing full body armor, including eye protection. We carried personal medical kits, including tourniquets, in case one of us was wounded while reporting. We’d check with each other periodically, and when it was decided that both of us had what we needed for the story, we’d pull back to our safe house, and get to work on filing the day’s story.
I like the demystification there. War reporting isn’t some magical, macho art form; it’s a sequence of decisions that you make very, very carefully. Yes: courage is a prerequisite. But like most reporting, this is a craft. It’s something that can be learned. It’s something that a person can practice and get better at—under the tutelage, say, of a master like Chivers.
I really highly recommend the entire post: it’s at once totally harrowing—horrifying, really—and surprisingly cool, collected, cautious. This is the world of the war reporter. This is the world of the craftsman.
[…] Although my parents had classical music on LP’s in the house, the childhood music I remember the most vividly is fragments from either live performances or, strangely, video games at my friends’ houses1.
For me, living in the country, playing a video game was sort of like music minus one: The actions of my hands informed, in a strange way, the things I heard. Collect a coin, and a delighted glockenspiel sounds. Move from navigating a level above ground to one below ground, and the eager French chromaticism of the score changes to a spare, beat-driven minimal texture. Hit a star, and suddenly the score does a metric modulation. All of these things come to bear in a later musical education; I’m positive I understand how augmented chords change an emotional texture because of Nintendo music.
Don’t miss the clip embedded at the bottom of the post, either: it’s only three minutes long, and exhilarating at precisely 1:50. Oh the glory of the horn.
1. I really think “memories of video games at your friend’s house” are, like, a thing. Very special; very distinct. Maybe such memories are no longer produced; maybe every kid has a video game system nowadays. (But probably not?) All I know is I can remember Ninja Gaiden on Chris Hayes’ NES (he lived down the street) with crystal clarity. Note that I never actually played the game; it was too difficult, and I couldn’t make it past the first screen. So I would just watch Chris play, utterly rapt.
I’m generally a sucker for The New X, where X can be Liberal Arts, Aesthetic, Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe, whatever—but this is actually quite good. More descriptively, it’s probably the sensor aesthetic, or maybe the digital backwash aesthetic. Either way, I think it really is something distinct, something you can sort of get your arms around—not just, you know, a bunch of cool-looking stuff. I’m subscribed.
This New York Times piece on Paddy Chayevsky’s archive is amazing. The NYT seems really way out ahead of the field in terms of presenting primary sources online; I mean, just look at this document viewer. It’s awesome.
Here’s a highlight: Chayevsky created an entire programming grid for UBS—the network in “Network”—with shows like “Lady Cop,” “Death Squad,” and the one-two punch of “Celebrity Canasta” and “Celebrity Mahjong.”
I so dearly wish this pilot existed:
In 1968, he started writing a pilot script for a comedic series he called “The Imposters” or “There’s No Business,” about subversives who infiltrate a television network and undermine it from within.
And finally, you can count on Aaron Sorkin for the kicker:
Sorkin, however, spoke for “Network” fans who respond to it as a devastating media-industry critique—one whose author never saw television devolve into a vast wasteland of reality programming and political partisanship, but who after 35 years is still shouting just as loudly about the dangers of crass, pandering content.
“If you put it in your DVD player today you’ll feel like it was written last week,” Mr. Sorkin said. “The commoditization of the news and the devaluing of truth are just a part of our way of life now. You wish Chayefsky could come back to life long enough to write ‘The Internet.’ ”
Editors’ Note: Last week, Ross Andersen told me he had an essay on filmmaker Terrence Malick that was “perfect for Snarkmarket.” At first, I thought he wanted me to link to it, but I quickly realized he meant it would be perfect to guest-post here, like our earlier Netflix sci-fi catalog post by the Snarkmatrix’s Matt Penniman. I happily agreed. And now, I’ve got TWO Malick movies I’m motivated to see as soon as I can. – Tim Carmody
– Tim Carmody
This is a tough week for the Terrence Malick fan. On Friday, The Tree of Life is due to hit theaters stateside, having premiered and won the Palme d’Or at Cannes earlier this month. Already the web is crackling with reactions to the film, flustering those of us too prole to have hopped a Gulfstream to the international debut. After watching the trailer to the point of emotional exhaustion, it occurred to me that a look back at Malick’s oeuvre might be in order, if nothing else as a more productive pre-release time killer. I was especially keen to revisit The Thin Red Line, the finest war film in a generation and the one that made Malick’s legend with those of us too young to have seen Badlands on the big screen.
When we say that a work of art is ahead of its time, often we intend only to convey its excellence, but there is another meaning. In the last weeks of 1998, The Thin Red Line lit up the silver screens of an America that had settled into a lasting peace. These were heady days; the abrupt end of the Cold War had given rise to ideas like ‘the end of history’, the notion that war itself had been vanquished, and that the peaceful spread of democracy was imminent. And while there may have been no bending of swords into ploughshares, the Internet, a brainchild of the Pentagon, had begun to turn a mighty harvest. It was as though the fog of war had suddenly lifted, burnt away forever by the hot shining stars on the American flag.
Thus, moviegoers can be forgiven for skipping out on Malick’s opus, which arrived alongside reviews keen to warn of its three-hour running time. In the San Francisco Examiner, Edvins Beitiks called the film “a long exercise in pseudo-philosophy… visually stunning but empty at its core.” Charles Taylor, writing for Salon, quipped that it was a “mixture of distanced estheticism and woozy imponderables” made by “a tin-pot Kurtz”, the latter a reference to the director’s various eccentricities. The film grossed a mere thirty-six million dollars at the box office; less than a sixth of the total hauled in by Armageddon, an entertainment more in keeping with the national mood. Of course history didn’t let us alone for long. No thief in the night, it roared right back into the American consciousness with a singularly traumatic spectacle: the smoky, shrieking collapse of the World Trade Center. All at once the fog of war returned, thick like the ash hovering just above the streets of lower Manhattan. The decade that followed is not easily summarized, nor has it altogether concluded, but one thing is certain: the war film is newly resonant in its wake.
Whatever its cultural import, as an exercise in pure cinema, The Thin Red Line is a visionary work. Like its source material, a novel by James Jones, the film’s narrative is a sprawling anthill of small stories dug into and around a battle on the island of Guadalcanal. Over the years the Second World War has proved a fertile subject for America’s filmmakers, many of them dull propagandists. It’s a credit to Malick that his film owes none of its considerable gravitas to “greatest generation” nostalgia, or “good war” moralizing. Instead, despite rich period detail, its historical particulars fade into the periphery, so that the war here is an abstraction, a canvas. In the early going Malick wrings a sublime sequence from the troops’ slow march into the island’s interior. The camera creeps through the slithering, violent jungle, awash in a quiet strangeness like you find in the very best science fiction. It’s a miracle that these scenes can feel so fresh to an audience steeped in the mythology of Vietnam; this is not the first time we’ve followed The American Soldier into an alien rainforest. Still, the film’s lush palette is of a marked contrast with the sepia tones of Iraq or Afghanistan, a reminder that no matter how timeless the trappings, we are firmly in the realm of history.
The second act tracks the slow, grinding assault of a hill in the center of Guadalcanal. A growling Nick Nolte dominates here as a careerist colonel, a lifer bent on bullying his men to their deaths if it means an extra star may adorn his shoulder. One unforgettable scene has Nolte stomping through a trench to reprimand an insubordinate, pausing only to ask a shirtless private the whereabouts of his “blouse”. As a ruddy ideal of martial machismo, Nolte makes Robert Duvall’s napalm huffing surfer in Apocalypse Now look effete by comparison.
When the attack begins, Malick sends the camera weaving low through the tall green grass, past orange explosions and streaming columns of helmeted GIs. Occasionally the combat scenes dissolve into flashbacks; moments from childhood, afternoons with a lover, each lit as though stilled in the amber of memory. These transitions should be more jarring, but instead through some movie magic we pass effortlessly from the adrenal warfare of the battlefield into the internal life of its combatants. As the campaign wears on, it exacts a gruesome toll; the brilliant green slope becomes, at once, a graveyard and an asylum. The second act closes with a delirious charge into enemy camp. The troops, rendered ecstatic by survival, amass like fire ants into a sprinting riot of cruelty. The saturnalia that ensues invites our horror, but also our empathy. We share in the troops’ release, and yet feel complicit in their excesses, much as we did while clicking through the lurid slideshows of Abu Ghraib.
Still, The Thin Red Line isn’t perfect. At times the script pays tribute to some unfortunate tropes, like when one soldier wonders aloud why the indigenous children never seem to fight. Or when Sean Penn (perhaps improvising) refuses a medal recommendation by muttering that “the whole thing’s about property.” These are the easy slogans of a lesser film, but thankfully they’re rare. The third act meanders a bit, but pleasurably, as though we’ve joined the troops for a boozy stretch of R&R. Along the way, Malick fills the margins with an extraordinary range of images: the swiveling eyes of an owl taking in the bloodshed; sea-soaked hermit crabs in the hands of a small boy; sunlight pouring slow like smoke through the spring canopy. Critics have dismissed these digressions as virtuosic preening, but in doing so they miss the larger point; that the wretchedness of war, itself of a piece with nature’s own fury, plays out in an illuminated context.
And indeed for all the attention he pays to trees and rivers, Malick’s ultimate subjects are flesh and blood. Our most ancient questions fill the mouths and minds of these soldiers, and yet we never stop seeing them in the totality of their condition. Yes, some are destroyed by sadism, and some shatter into hysterics when death hovers close, but others pour cool water on the heads of the wounded, and survive to float joyously in the shallow green surf. In this way the war is like a prism used by Malick to splinter the human character into its many brilliant and tragic forms.
In the film’s very first scene, an alligator sinks ominously into a murky stream while sunlight-hunting vines strangle a nearby tree trunk. A voice asks, “What’s this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself?” When the first humans appear, they are seraphic by comparison: children playing simple games with small stones, then swimming amidst a reef, silhouetted against the sea surface, like figures on stained glass. Critics like Charles Taylor have accused Malick of pursuing a false dualism in his work, of sending in a crude human archetype, boorish and unseemly, to “despoil the uncorrupted beauty of nature.” But Malick’s nature is not Milton’s; here it is the garden that is fallen. Oddly, in this, our most profound modern fable of war, humanity is a transfiguring force: the first of nature’s forms to buck its amino acid programming, to strain tragically at something beyond Hobbesian survival. In the end, The Thin Red Line is a work of humanism, not nature worship; a reminder that even if history and war should extinguish the first flickers of truth and beauty, they will linger on in human memory, as hints of a possible transcendence.
– Ross Andersen
PPS: Anything short of Criterion Blu-ray is blasphemous. — RA
On a recent long jaunt around the Aegean, I realized something important about the Kindle: it’s the ultimate travel gadget.
I honestly didn’t expect this. I just brought mine so I’d have something to read! But here’s the deal:
- The Kindle has a web browser. It’s simple and slow, but solid enough to check Gmail and mobile.twitter.com. In fact, it works beautifully with the mobile versions of most sites.
- It’s almost miraculously connected. The browser wouldn’t mean much if Whispernet—Amazon’s set of carriage agreements with cell networks around the world—didn’t work everywhere. It does, and it’s also free. I was using Edge and 3G Whispernet reliably in remote-ish provinces and on sleepy islands. In fact, my Kindle generally got a stronger signal than my iPhone.
- It’s light and durable. There’s a big difference between older Kindles (which I’m toting) and newer ones in this regard; I’m considering snagging one of the latest simply because they’re so much smaller, slimmer and lighter. But any Kindle is more portable than any iPad, and I also felt a lot more comfortable tossing the Kindle into a bag or dragging it across the beach. (I had my iPad on this trip, too, but barely used it.)
- The Kindle works in direct sunlight. Especially when you’re traveling, this is a big deal. Standing on a busy corner or sitting on the beach, the Kindle is always totally usable. And this provides another contrast to the iPad, which always sends me scurrying to the shadows. (It really is a resolutely indoors device, isn’t it?)
- The battery lasts forever. You know this already. My Kindle was on a once-a-week charging schedule, and that’s with lots of reading and regular internet checks.
- Your Kindle is your itinerary. Using the Kindle as a virtual folder for travel documents was perhaps the biggest aha; it was my traveling companion who figured this out first. We got into the habit of forwarding tickets and reservations straight to our kindle.com addresses, which all Kindle owners have. (Oddly, this is the one part of international service that’s not free, but the price is negligible: $0.99 per megabyte for documents delivered this way.) It feels so good to have all of your information right there, in a format that’s so legible—not just to you, but to others. Once, in Turkey, I simply passed my Kindle to a ticket agent to help her understand where we were trying to go.
- Travel guides on the Kindle work great. I was a little skeptical about this—I think of the Kindle as being bad at random-access material, and a travel guide is definitely one of those books you want to be able to flip through freely. But as it turns out, we got a ton of use out of a Lonely Planet Kindle edition—purchased mid-trip, natch—and by the end of the trip, I felt like a dope for having bothered with a physical guide (which weighed in at about five Kindles).
Honestly, even if you are not ever going to read an e-book, but want a device to help you stay connected and organized while traveling—especially if you’re going a bit off the beaten track—the investment in a Kindle (barely more than a hundred bucks at this point) can’t be beat.
From Robert Krulwich’s 2011 commencement speech at UC-Berkeley’s Journalism School:
Some people when they look for a job in journalism ask themselves, What do I like to do and Who can take me there? Who can get me to a war zone? To a ballpark? To Wall Street? To politicians, to movie stars? Who’s got the vehicle? And you send them your resume and you say, “I want a seat in your car.” … And you wait.
But there are some people, who don’t wait.
I don’t know exactly what going on inside them; but they have this… hunger. It’s almost like an ache.
Something inside you says I can’t wait to be asked I just have to jump in and do it.
So for this age, for your time, I want you to just think about this: Think about NOT waiting your turn.
Instead, think about getting together with friends that you admire, or envy. Think about entrepeneuring. Think about NOT waiting for a company to call you up. Think about not giving your heart to a bunch of adults you don’t know. Think about horizontal loyalty. Think about turning to people you already know, who are your friends, or friends of their friends and making something that makes sense to you together, that is as beautiful or as true as you can make it.
And when it comes to security, to protection, your friends may take better care of you than CBS took care of Charles Kuralt in the end. In every career, your job is to make and tell stories, of course. You will build a body of work, but you will also build a body of affection, with the people you’ve helped who’ve helped you back.
And maybe that’s your way into Troy.
This speech makes me want to run around the entire internet, giving a million high-fives.
(via @edyong209, who gets high-five #001)