art as art’s subject

“Tonight’s program takes us backstage to witness first hand the creation, start to finish, of a new play mounted on the American stage.

“Asteroid City does not exist. It is an imaginary drama created expressly for this broadcast. The characters are fictional, the text hypothetical, the events an apocryphal fabrication. But together they present an authentic account of the inner workings of a modern theatrical production.”

— the first words of the movie Asteroid City

A couple of articles I read recently in the New York Review of Books clarified some things about my reaction to the movie Asteroid City which I discussed recently.

Here’s a quote from “Bodies That Flow,” which is about Peter Paul Rubens, the Flemish painter:

“If it is possible to sum up, in one work, the way that Rubens respected the beauty of women, then this is it,” writes Jennifer Scott, the gallery’s director—one might add that it is equally a hymn to the beauty of oil paint. We can forever learn from Rubens about the latter. I am less sure whether he tells us how women and men should relate.

And this is from “Cartoon Rules,” which is about Ernie Bushmiller, who created the comic strip Nancy:

Nancy’s main characters included the titular mischievous girl, her aunt Fritzi, and her pal Sluggo; its perfectly generic fences and houses seemed to resemble the view outside Griffith’s window. The strip was Bushmiller’s decades-long exercise in joke construction, accomplished with a rigorous set of rules and an absurd imagination. As Griffith writes in Three Rocks, his graphic biography of Bushmiller, “Nancy doesn’t tell you what it’s like to be a child. Nancy tells you what it’s like to be a comic strip.”

The more I think about Asteroid City, and re-watch it, the more I think that it’s about movies themselves and how they work (and how they are similar to, and different from, theater). It’s a movie about a television program which is presenting a play, and the play is shown to us in the form of a movie. At one point, an actor steps “on stage” at the wrong time, and later another actor “leaves the stage” in the middle of his performance because he’s stuck on one action which his character takes which makes no sense to him. (That’s Jones Hall, who’s playing Augie Steenbeck, who deliberately burns his hand on the Quickie Griddle, for some reason. Jones Hall is played by Jason Schwartzman.)

Also, in one of my favorite bits, other than the laugh-out-loud moments I mentioned in my earlier post, a car drives at high speed through the tiny town of Asteroid City, being pursued by a police car and a motorcycle, and various guns are fired. The main characters watch this, and then, when the speeding vehicles are gone, resume whatever they were doing before. This happens three times, and it seems to be saying, “Yes, you could be watching a movie with gunfire and fast cars and violence, or you could be watching this.” And, in blatant (and, I’m sure, deliberate) violation of Chekhov’s Law, two civilian characters go armed throughout the story and neither of those guns is ever fired, or used or referred to in any way.

Asteroid City is a movie about how movies work. As I said before, characters look directly at the camera a lot, and sometimes address the audience, but it’s not really a “fourth wall break,” since there is no fourth wall. There is never a moment when we’re supposed to forget that “the characters are fictional, the text hypothetical, the events an apocryphal fabrication.”

Pirandello, or Beckett, or Stoppard would understand.

Why does Augie burn his hand on the Quickie Griddle? To paraphrase that kid in The Matrix, there is no Quickie Griddle.

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two movies

1)Denis Villeneuve: ‘Frankly, I Hate Dialogue. Dialogue Is For Theatre And Television’

“Frankly, I hate dialogue,” the filmmaker told The Times of London in a recent interview. “Dialogue is for theatre and television. I don’t remember movies because of a good line, I remember movies because of a strong image. I’m not interested in dialogue at all. Pure image and sound, that is the power of cinema, but it is something not obvious when you watch movies today.”

First off, no. If I bothered to have an all-time list of my Top Ten or Top Twenty movies, Robert Altman, Howard Hawks, and Orson Welles would be heavily represented, and they were all very focused on dialogue.

However, what caught my eye about this quote is that this is exactly how I feel about Villeneuve’s movie Blade Runner 2049. I have long wanted to watch a version with the visuals, the music, and the sound design, all of which are amazing, with the dialogue buried way down in the mix somewhere. Once you know the plot of the movie, the words aren’t important, and none of them are memorable, but the rest is a constant pleasure.

2) There are rumors that Paul Thomas Anderson is going to make a movie based on Thomas Pynchon’s novel Vineland.

There are a few reasons that I should not be excited by this news.

One: It may not be true. (Anderson is apparently directing a movie right now, but it’s not confirmed what movie.)

Two: He directed Inherent Vice, also based on a Pynchon novel. I enjoyed that movie, or at least parts of it, but it is not, I would say, actually good.

Three: Vineland may be my least favorite Pynchon novel (with the necessary caveat that I still haven’t read Against the Day).

Nevertheless, I am curious, and if the movie actually exists at some point (see point one above), I imagine I will go see it.

Update: Yeah, Vineland is my least favorite Pynchon novel. By a wide margin. I just checked Wikipedia to make sure I wasn’t forgetting a novel, and, no, I remembered them all.

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mixed movie feelings

I have mixed feelings about the Wes Anderson movies I’ve seen.

(This is not a question of “love/hate,” by the way. People use “love/hate” quite often for things which — as far as I can tell — never rise to the level of “love” or “hate.” This is just mixed feelings.)

Some people say all of Anderson’s movies are basically the same, and either you like them or you don’t. There are reasons this theory comes up, but it doesn’t apply to me.

I saw The Royal Tenenbaums years ago and I couldn’t stand it. Too many people who were all miserable for no apparent reason. I don’t remember if any of them changed in the course of the movie, but if they did it was, for me, too little and/or too late.

Quite a bit later, I have no idea why, I watched Moonrise Kingdom, and I immediately watched it every night for a week. I’ve talked about that before.

Then, when The Grand Budapest Hotel came out, I saw that. At first I found it to be so-so, but I’ve grown to like it much more over time. I believe I’ve been won over by how funny it is (it has a lot more laughs than either of the other two I’ve mentioned, or both combined).

I skipped The French Dispatch. It sounds like it was based on how much Anderson likes The New Yorker, and I grew up reading the magazine myself, but a movie? Really?

But now I’ve seen Asteroid City, and it’s a hoot.

First of all, there were two moments which made me laugh immoderately and repeatedly. I think the last time I laughed like that at a movie was American Hustle.

Asteroid City has a nested structure, a story within a story within a story, like The Grand Budapest Hotel. A moment when that structure breaks is one of the two laugh-out-loud moments I mentioned above.

Here, that means that you never forget you’re looking at the actors playing actors playing characters (one of whom is a famous actor). The whole thing is all really just the writer/director talking to us (which is further emphasized by how often the characters address the camera directly).

Will Augie end up seeing Midge again? The question is moot, since, as we are reminded on a regular basis, neither is a real person, even within the movie.

So, the fact that the characters are, in some cases, wounded can be examined while maintaining a certain distance. With Anderson’s movies (as opposed to Robert Altman’s movies, or Les Miserables, for example) that’s what works best for me.

Also, enjoyably, it’s a movie of a play where both the actors in the play and the playwright himself are confused about what the play actually means. YouTube has tried to get me to watch various videos about “The Real Meaning” of this movie, but I haven’t watched them, just like I ignore all the videos which want to “explain” Mulholland Drive to me.

Explanations aren’t always necessary. When I was younger, I had a beloved cat for over twenty years. I never once had the urge to dissect him.

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First: I was very sorry to read about the death of Joan Acocella.

As I’ve said before, I always enjoyed reading her writing, particularly about dance (although I have no real interest in dance).

And now, on to the regularly scheduled blog post.

I am not, so far, excited by, or even interested in, artificial intelligence (except in a very general way). By the way, I do not think that artificial intelligence will end the human race. If that happens, at least in my lifetime, it will be accomplished by human beings.

Would I use artificial intelligence to help me write my stories? To paraphrase Orson Welles, the stories might end up being better, but they wouldn’t be mine.

Also, even if my writing could be improved by artificial intelligence, where would be the fun in that?

If writing was my business, of course, that might make a difference, but obviously it isn’t. I do want my writing to be read by an audience of more than one — that’s why I make it publicly available for free — but I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t fun.

But there is another, and more decisive, reason I won’t use artificial intelligence to write stories. The question that really hangs me up is not the question of fun — important as that is — it’s the question of ownership.

If I went to ChatGPT, or whatever, and developed a prompt to get it to write a story in my style and with my characters, who would own that story? Maybe there’s some fine print somewhere which says that I would own it, but what if tomorrow that fine print was changed to say the opposite?

Not worth the risk.

[Later: For an interesting article on the current legal situation with ownership, go here: “Is A.I. the Death of I.P.?“]

Now, it has been a while since I’ve started a new story, but that’s up to me to do. I’ve written some scenes, but until now they haven’t started to fit together.

But now, I think something is starting to come together. The turning point for me is usually a title. As I’ve talked about before, if you write a story in the conventional way, you can write it first and then title it later. When you write and publish serially, you need the title before you start posting, and now I think I may have a title…

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hamlet, and the hateful eight

One paragraph in this article in The New Yorker popped out at me:

Before the show opened, Hüller read an essay that portrayed “Hamlet” as a critique of the conventions of Renaissance revenge tragedy—and of the society from which those conventions emerged. “Shakespeare wrote the play at the edge of these times when blood revenge was still a thing,” she told me recently. “Shakespeare’s showing it one more time, but in the most absurd way—because everybody’s dead at the end. The play is saying, ‘This can’t be the way.’ ”

It’s rather embarrassing that I never thought of this (or perhaps I did, way back when I studied Hamlet in school*). I’ve read and seen some of the classic “revenge” plays (The Duchess of Malfi is the one which sticks in my mind, although ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore may also qualify).

Rounding around to my actual point (and I do have one 🙂 ), this is something I haven’t seen commented on about Quentin Tarantino’s film The Hateful Eight.

[SPOILERS (obviously)]

As with Hamlet, The Hateful Eight takes the form of a revenge plot to its natural conclusion: Everybody dies. As has been pointed out, the eight characters break down into an obvious series of icons of the United States at that time (and in general): White/Black, North/South, Mexico, England, Cowboys (and no Indians, which is interesting). A bunch of men and one woman, but (to take the charitable view) this does make sense for a movie about male violence. And these various characters mostly seem to know each other, or at least know of each other, to a degree which would be unusual if they were intended to be real and/or random.

(The question of male violence also makes me think about Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood — how even the violence of Charles Manson’s female acolytes is fundamentally his violence. To quote from Kill Bill, “I could see the faces of the cunts that did this to me and the dicks responsible.”)

I’m not entirely endorsing Tarantino’s approach, by the way. I think his enthusiasm for wild violence — and his skill at it — does get the better of him sometimes, but I think he does have his deeper purposes and points to make.

But I think that this is the point of The Hateful Eight: to step back and look at the revenge framework, which Tarantino has used, less critically, in other films. As with Hamlet in the quote above, I think his point is “This can’t be the way.”

* I studied the play in both high school and college, and in high school we got so caught up with it — dissecting it week after week after week — that we ended up having to blast through Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in just a few days (the semester was supposed to be fifty-fifty between the two).

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batch vs. loop

There was an article in the September 2023 issue of Wired Magazine, called “I’m a Batch Guy in a Loop World,” by Paul Ford. When I read it I wanted to write about it and link to it, but it wasn’t on the Wired website.

I figured that maybe there was a delay between some articles being in the print issue and being posted on the website. So, I waited for a while, but, as I write this, the article is still not there.

So, I’m going to talk about it anyway.

The main point of the article is that people used to interact with computers mostly in “batch” form. For example, you’d come up with an idea for a computer program, you’d code it in a language like FORTRAN (which I sort of learned way back when), creating a stack of punch cards, which you then passed to somebody who could run the program by feeding your punch cards into the computer, sometimes sooner and sometimes later.

Some time after that, you’d get your stack of cards back, along with a printout showing a series of error messages which could lead you in the direction of figuring out why your program wasn’t working. (I’m generalizing out of my own school days, obviously.) (In theory, of course, it was possible that the printout might show that your program had actually worked — but I wouldn’t know that from my own experience.)

A lot of modern interactions with computers are not “batch” at all, but “loop.” You do something in real time, and the computer reacts right away. You click on a link, you go to the place that link points to. You change a color in a graphic, you can print it out or post it on the Web right away. You post something on social media, you can get a response or a Like in seconds.

Like Paul Ford, who wrote the Wired article, I’m kind of a batch guy. Blogs are a “batch” experience. You come up with an idea, write the post, edit and polish it (I hope), and then post it. You can even set it to post later, at a time you choose. I knew a blogger once who had trouble sleeping one night and wrote several blog posts — I think at least four or five — setting each one to post on a different day over the following few weeks.

Novels are an extreme “batch” project, like movies and symphonies and plays. It took James Joyce seven or eight years to write Ulysses.

I do some “loop” stuff. Sometimes I comment on YouTube videos, and sometimes I get a quick response or a Like or whatever. I’ve even had a few of my comments quoted in later videos. All of that is fun, but it’s very ephemeral. As I said before, I’ve had this blog for 24 years and I’ve made over a thousand posts. I’ve written two novels and a bunch of short stories and novellas. When Inherent Vice came out, I studied it for six months, writing about it in depth, here and on the Pynchon wiki. Those are things I take some pride in.

If I’d ever written a FORTRAN program which had actually worked, I’d take some pride in that also.

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