Begin doing what you want to do now. We are not living in eternity. We have only this moment, sparkling like a star in our hand—and melting like a snowflake…
Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626)
December 13, 2009
Begin doing what you want to do now. We are not living in eternity. We have only this moment, sparkling like a star in our hand—and melting like a snowflake…
Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626)
October 8, 2009
I love this: very clever, very funny, great use of the technology, and the guy’s got talent! Excellent video, too:
[Thanks to Matt Ottewill for sharing this with me.]
September 18, 2009
I’ve started writing-up my PhD thesis supposedly for submission in March 2011. For me, this means getting up at 5am and getting in a couple of hours study before I head off to the office: there’s no way I’ll be able to do anything meaningful after a day’s work. Anyway, my new regime seems to be working and, three weeks in, I’m still on schedule!
I’ve been working on Aristotle’s Poetics. This is the ur-text for all narrative studies and forms the basis of what we might call the ‘standard model’ of narrative. Part of my thesis, then, involves going back to the original text and asking basic questions like “what did Aristotle really say?” Here’s part of my first draft. It needs notes, the image is only a placeholder, but references are included:
Probably written between 335 – 323 BCE, Aristotle’s Poetics remains a “recurrently, indeed tenaciously, significant” piece of literary criticism (Halliwell 1992). This is all the more remarkable as it is little more than a set of notes, half of which—the section on comedy—is missing (Heath, in Aristotle 1996, xxxvii). Despite its brevity, the text itself presents all sorts of problems: there are several translations which vary considerably in the way that key terms are interpreted and in the way the text is organized; parts of the original text are missing or illegible; there is some internal inconsistency; ideas expressed in the Poetics are inconsistent with the same ideas in his other texts (Belfiore 1992, p.103); and Aristotle often offers examples to illustrate key points by referring to texts that no longer exist (e.g. the discussion of Lynceus at Poetics 11). In fact the brevity of the text often works against understanding: many key terms are not explained and the style is generally elliptical.
The Poetics is largely concerned with poetry, expressed through the three main forms existing at that time: tragedy, comedy, and epic poetry. The bulk of the text is taken up with tragedy, but there is a chapter on epic poetry and a short chapter comparing tragedy with epic. Although comedy is often mentioned in passing, it is thought that the extended analysis of this that Aristotle promises (Poetics 6) lies in another, missing, text (as noted above). Aristotle identifies six component parts to tragedy which are, in their order of importance: plot, character, reasoning, diction, lyric poetry (song), and spectacle (ibid). Here we will be mainly concerned with the component that relates to the structural analysis of narrative—and which in any case takes up the best part of the Poetics—plot.
Aristotle defines plot as “the imitation of the action (by ‘plot’ here I mean the organization of events)” (ibid). He then goes on to explain why it is the most important component of tragedy, which we could summarize by saying that character (and its dependents reasoning, diction, and song) are expressed through the action: without action there is no tragedy. Aristotle then goes on to define plot in some detail, identifying five key characteristics: completeness, magnitude, unity, determinate structure, and universality.
This is virtually everything Aristotle has to say about completeness:
We have laid down that tragedy is an imitation of a complete, i.e. whole action, possessing a certain magnitude. […] A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle and an end. A beginning is that which itself does not follow necessarily from anything else, but some second thing naturally exists or occurs after it. Conversely, an end is that which does itself naturally follow from something else, either necessarily or in general, but there is nothing else after it. A middle is that which itself comes after something else, and some other thing comes after it. (Poetics 7)
In other words, Aristotle is arguing for a tightly organized and self-contained structure where, putting it into more modern terms, we could say that the plot must be made up of a connected series of events that achieve closure.
Aristotle’s next section on magnitude encapsulates everything that is problematic about the Poetics, being seemingly straightforward, baffling, and highly suggestive all at the same time. He begins by talking about a living organism, which not only “possess parts in proper order, but its magnitude also should not be arbitrary” (ibid). Although he would not have expressed it in these terms, here we could suggest that Aristotle is recognizing that living organisms generally speaking do not evolve parts that have no function; there is a kind of minimalism at work here that will not expend energy on developing these useless parts.
Aristotle then goes on to make two specific statements about the magnitude of a plot. Firstly, that it “should be such as can readily be held in memory” (ibid) and, secondly, that the ideal magnitude should be “in which a series of events occurring sequentially in accordance with probability or necessity gives rise to a change from good fortune to bad fortune, or from bad fortune to good fortune” (ibid). The first of these does not really bear scrutiny: although Aristotle presumably means that the plot must be graspable by the audience at a single sitting, clearly we have memory systems that allow us to maintain highly complex semiotic structures over extended time periods. The second of his definitions is more specific but introduces several new ideas that remain undefined. “In accordance with probability or necessity” is Aristotle’s formula for what many modern commentators might call causality, the recognition that the events in the plot are connected together in a meaningful way and not just a random series of actions placed one after another. Although this clearly relates back to Aristotle’s comments on wholeness and is supportive of that concept, he defines neither “probability” or “necessity” in either the Poetics or indeed any of his other works (Belfiore 1992, p.112).
Furthermore, in this short section Aristotle also introduces another new idea that is important to his conception of the tragic plot, namely that it “gives rise to a change from good fortune to bad fortune, or from bad fortune to good fortune.” This is not really explained until later in the Poetics, where Aristotle says that:
By complication I mean everything up to and including the section which immediately precedes the change to good fortune or bad fortune; by resolution I mean everything from the beginning of the change of fortune to the end. (Poetics 18)
This introduces terms that have become crucial to the development of the ‘standard model’ of narrative in general and the study of narrative structures in particular. It implies a bipartite plot structure with a “change” or turning point somewhere in the middle. If we relate the terms complication and resolution back onto the beginning-middle-end structure Aristotle has already laid out, we could say that the complication is the beginning and some undetermined amount of the middle, whilst the resolution is a similarly undetermined part of the middle through to the end; where the “change” occurs would vary from plot to plot but would demarcate the boundary line between the two:
Aristotle’s concept of the correct magnitude of a plot, then, offers a kind of minimalist philosophy, with the underlying assumption that it should include only what is necessary (or perhaps, only that which performs some specific function). This is the single idea that unifies his ideas about the organic nature of the plot, its graspability, and the minimum requisite action it should include.
Aristotle’s third key characteristic of plot is unity. On the surface, this doesn’t seem to offer us very much in the way of new ideas: surely if a plot is ‘whole’ it must be a unity? However, it does serve to tie together his idea of wholeness with his definition of plot as “a series of events” giving rise to a “change from good fortune to bad fortune, or from bad fortune to good fortune” as noted above. Central to this is Aristotle’s concept of a “single action” (Poetics 8). A plot where a character undergoes a change of fortune made be made up of a series of many events, but all of these events are related to, are necessary for, this change to be represented. In other words, the change of fortune is the “single action” and the events in the plot must all be probable or necessary to it; only in this way will it have unity. There is again this emphasis on the plot containing only those events or actions that are absolutely essential.
Aristotle’s entire comment on determinate structure from Poetics 8 is as follows:
Just as in other imitative arts the imitation is unified if it imitates a single object, so too the plot, as the imitation of an action, should imitate a single, unified action—and one that is also a whole. So the structure of the various sections of the events must be such that the transposition or removal of any one section dislocates and changes the whole. If the presence or absence of something has no discernible effect, it is not part of the whole.
The first sentence is merely a reiteration and summary of Aristotle’s concepts of unity and wholeness as discussed above. The second sentence, however, does contain something new: the idea of “transposition or removal” of sections gets to the very heart of plotting, and is one of the few instances in the Poetics where we can clearly see the difference between “story” and “plot” expressed directly. The story is the events in linear order, but the plot is those events “organized” in some artistic way. What Aristotle is saying is that if events from the story are transposed—moved in time relative to each other—or removed, and that these changes have no effect on the whole, then they are dispensible, not part of the ‘unity’. Yet again there is this emphasis on the minimal means of expression, reinforced by the final sentence in the section.
In fact, we can see from this section of the Poetics that we could reasonably collapse all of Aristotle’s ideas about wholeness, unity, and the minimal representation of a single action under the umbrella term ‘the determinate structure of a plot’.
Aristotle’s fifth key characteristic of plot is universality. This section of the Poetics is concerned with the type of overall effect “the poet” should be striving for, that is, qualitative or aesthetic outcomes. Whilst it includes what is probably the first exposition of the ‘fact versus fiction’ problem, there is little relevant to the issues under discussion here.
One final issue that Aristotle does deal with and that does have relevance for us is that of the defective plot. He highlights the episodic plot as being “the worst,” and by an episodic plot he means “one in which the sequence of events is neither necessary or probable.” In other words, an episodic plot is one with extraneous or superfluous events within it, and where there is little connection, coherence, or self-referentiality between the events (and here I am trying to avoid the word ‘causality’). Which in the terms of Aristotle’s argument is all very straightforward; however, later on in the Poetics he seems to use the word ‘episode’ in a completely different way:
The prologue is the whole part of a tragedy before the entry-song of the chorus; an episode is a whole part of a tragedy between whole choral songs; the finale is the whole part of a tragedy after which there is no choral song. (Poetics 12)
What makes this worse is that he also seems to be using one of his key terms for plot—”whole”—in a new way as well. However, what he is doing is making a distinction between what he calls the “formal elements” of the tragedy—plot, character, reasoning, diction, lyric poetry, and spectacle—and what he calls the “quantitative terms” (ibid). In modern terminology, this would be the same as making the distinction between the story (as plotted) and the narrative discourse: the plot may be whole, have unity, and be the minimal representation of a single action, but as instantiated in a single performance it may be presented episodically. And in fact, later on in the Poetics, Aristotle makes this distinction very clear:
One should handle the chorus as one of the actors; it should be part of the whole and should contribute to the performance—not as in Euripides, but as in Sophocles. In the other poets the songs have no more to do with the plot than they do with any other play… (Poetics 18)
In other words, the songs move the plot forward.
To summarize this section on Aristotelian plot:
Aristotle (trans. Heath, M.) (1996) Poetics. Penguin Classics
Belfiore, E. S. (1992) Tragic Pleasures: Aristotle On Plot And Emotion. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Halliwell, S. (1992) ‘Epilogue: The Poetics and its Interpreters’ in Rorty, A. O. (Ed) Essays On Aristotle’s Poetics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
August 15, 2009
Just a quick post by way of paying my respects to the sadly deceased Lester William Polsfuss:
I’m not going to insult your intelligence by trotting out all the usual known facts. (Get those here or here. See also my Brief History of Electronic Music.) Suffice to say that of the three things he’s best known for—his music, the invention of multitrack recording, and that guitar—it’s the first two of these that have always impressed me the most.
Clearly, the two were inextricably intertwined. From the early 1950s the originality of Les’s music largely depended upon his technical prowess: firstly overdubbing layer upon layer of sounds using acetate discs, then later the development of the 8-track ‘Sel-Sync’ tape machine in conjunction with Ampex.
I still find his records from this time completely thrilling: despite the often cheesy material, the overdubbed and speeded up guitars and thickly layered vocals have a futuristic “space-age” sound to them that is absolutely redolent of the Sputnik era.
Here’s a video I’ve had up on YouTube for a couple of years now that uses his (and his wife, Mary Ford’s) arguably best-known track How High The Moon as the soundtrack. What a fabulous and extravagant piece of music!
[Thanks to Julian for the BBC link.]
July 27, 2009
The sky turns deep blue, the world freezes, and a progress bar marches slowly across it from horizon to horizon. Ethereal runes written in aurorae six hundred metres high scrawl across the heavens, updating reality, and for a moment your skin crawls with superstitious dread. Someday we’re all going to get skin implants and access this directly. Someday everyone is going to live out their lives in places like this, vacant bodies tended by machines of loving grace while their minds go on before us into strange spaces where the meat cannot follow. You can see it coming, slamming towards you out of the future, like the empty white static that is all anyone has ever heard from beyond the stars: a Final Solution to the human condition, an answer to the Fermi paradox, lights on at home and all the windows tightly shuttered. Because it’s a thing of beauty, the ability to spin the cloth of reality, and you’re a sucker for it: isn’t story-telling what being human is all about?
May 25, 2009
Whilst in London last week I walked back from the South Bank to Victoria on two consecutive evenings. As I walked down Victoria Street the first night I was looking into the reception areas and foyers of the all-but-deserted office buildings, the shops, the restaurants, and it struck me how odd these places were at night.
Consequently, the next night I decided to do something about it and zig-zagged my way up the street, quickly shooting into the interiors. I say quickly, because the security guards did not look all that amused about being photographed, and there has been at least one incident in London of the Police demanding that images be deleted from cameras in the interests of “security.” I’m not just being paranoid: that night the whole place was crawling with Police because of political demos in Trafalgar Square.
Anyway, here are a few of these strange interiors:
All very shiny, all very bright, all very modern. Completely soulless. What on earth do these spaces say about us (apart from the fact we love wasting energy…)?
May 6, 2009
I am again going to quote at some length from Donald Richie’s A Hundred Years Of Japanese Film, with the subject this time being Yamanaka Sadao’s exquisite 1937 film Humanity and Paper Balloons:
In the second sequence of the film—a lane outside the tenement—we find that the camera is placed level with the human eye and that all shots are economically edited along a single axis. In this, Yamanaka was certainly influenced by Ozu. Though there are asides during the length of this sequence (one of them is to introduce Unno, the masterless-samurai hero of the film), in the main the camera placement of each scene during the progress along the alley varies not at all—the angle coincides with the axis.
This way of working is not often seen in American or European films of the period because these scenes could be said to “not match,” also because their sequence violates one of the assumptions of international cinema style, namely, that a film progresses by opposing shots. Shots which are compositionally similar are thought to confuse, though this Yamanaka sequence is proof that this is not necessarily so. The theory about opposing shots seems to be based on a Western assumption that narrative can proceed only through conflict and confrontation, compositionally as well as otherwise. The idea of a narrative proceeding through harmony and similarity, not often encountered in Western cinema, is seen again and again in Japanese movies.
In showing us the tenement alley, the director moves along its length, shot after shot. A precise rendering of the street is given, a believable accounting of its space, a logical introduction of the characters, and the setting up of half of the spatial metaphor. This is the closed and crowded alley itself, which, though invaded by officials from time to time, is really the safer part of the world.
When the outside world (the town outside the tenement district) is delineated, we are given no such spatial grounding. We do not know the location of the pawnbroker’s house in relation to our alley, nor the location of the bridge where one of the main characters will be killed. The temple gate, the fairground, all these “outside” locations are separate, distinct, cut off from each other. They lack the continuity of the tenement, which we were shown whole and complete. Consequently, it is the tenement which feels safe, like home, and it is the outside which is dangerous, or alien. “Spatially, Yamanaka—having set up this opposition of spaces, having fully reticulated one and left the other carefully and threateningly unreticulated—has created for himself a bipolar structure.”
Well, with all due respect to the eminent Mr. Richie, there are some aspects of this section that I’m a little unhappy with.
Firstly, the terminology in the first paragraph is wrong. The sentence “the camera placement of each scene during the progress along the alley” should surely read “the camera placement in each shot during the progress along the alley.” This mistake is repeated in the first sentence of the next paragraph as well, but thereafter corrects itself. A strange lapse (and something his editor should have picked up).
Secondly, I don’t actually agree with the conclusions Mr. Richie draws from his observations. Yes, Yamanaka does construct these opening scenes from a series of overlapping shots that, in terms of strict Hollywood continuity-style editing, would be considered ‘wrong’ because they break the 30º rule (which is presumably what Richie means when he says the shots don’t “match”). And, yes, the vast majority of narratives constructed using continuity-style editing are heavily reliant on shot/reverse shot structuring.
From these initial observations he then goes on to say that Yamanaka is doing all this to create a “spatial metaphor” where this seamless and “compositionally similar” directing represents the unified and integrated community within the alley, in opposition to the world outside which is represented by Yamanaka as a series of locations that are “separate, distinct, cut off from each other.”
However, the shooting and editing styles do not change throughout the film. When Yamanaka has to shoot a similar type of scene in the “outside” world—and where the action is confined to a long narrow space such as an alley—he employs exactly the same type of shot structure and editing style as he does in the tenement. In other words, Yamanaka is not composing these scenes this way in order to express a “spatial metaphor,” it is simply a function of the types of spaces he is shooting in. For example, here is a sequence of stills from the opening tenement sequence that Richie describes:
Compare this now to a scene later in the film that is in Richie’s “outside world” but shot in a very similar type of space:
As you can see, a very similar overall style. There doesn’t seem to be any particular “spatial metaphor” at work here that would allow us to identify the two sequences as existing in different symbolic or psychological realms: we’re just shooting in alleys!
Isn’t there also a contradiction in Richie’s piece? First he says that the “idea of a narrative proceeding through harmony and similarity … is seen again and again in Japanese movies” but then later asserts that the creation of these two spaces—the safe tenement vs. the alien outside—creates “a bipolar structure.” Surely all narrative proceeds through conflict of some kind.
Oddly enough, I do agree with the basic opposition that Richie has observed, namely that Yamanaka plays off this cosy and communal tenement against the disjointed and harsh outside world, but I don’t believe this is expressed in the shooting and editing styles. For me, it is the emptiness and formality of the outside world that distinguishes it from the noisy and vibrant tenement.
But that, as they say, is another story.
Richie, D. (2005) A Hundred Years Of Japanese Film. Tokyo, New York, London: Kodansha International (p.76)
April 29, 2009
April 25, 2009
This should give my students something to think about:
So. What does it all mean? Well, for those currently studying in Higher Education it means things like these:
End of lecture.
[Thanks to the G-Man for the video link.]
April 20, 2009
The death of J.G. Ballard cannot pass without note. As a young man his books were incredibly influential on me, with their intensely symbolic Max Ernst-like landscapes, pathologically driven anti-heroes, and their willful coupling of rabid sexuality and technological fetishism.
But the enigmatic presence of the terrace city, with its crumbling galleries and internal courts encrusted by the giant thistles and wire moss, seemed a huge man-made artefact which militated against the super-real naturalism of the delta. However, the terrace city, like the delta, was moving backwards in time, the baroque tracery of the serpent deities along the friezes dissolving and being replaced by the intertwined tendrils of the moss-plants, the pseudo-organic forms made by man in the image of nature reverting to their original.
For example, I particularly remember reading Concrete Island and being dumbfounded by both the simplicity of the idea and the way Ballard was able to develop something so chilling, so plausible, from the mundanity of the initial premise. Even now I still occasionally think of Maitland as I negotiate motorway intersections:
Far from wanting this girl to help him escape from the island, he was using her for motives he had never before accepted, his need to be freed of the past, from his childhood, his wife and friends, with all their affections and demands, and to rove forever within the empty city of his mind.
The Drowned World, The Drought, Crash, The Atrocity Exhibition, High Rise, Concrete Island, Super Cannes—to name but a few of my own personal favourites—all powerful novels that spoke in an utterly unique and unflinching contemporary voice:
Helen knelt across me, elbows pressed into the seat on either side of my head. I lay back, feeling the hot, scented vinyl. My hands pushed her skirt around her waist so that I could see the curve of her hips. I moved her slowly against me, pressing the shaft of my penis against her clitoris. Elements of her body, her square kneecaps below my elbows, her right breast jacked out of its brassiere cup, the small ulcer that marked the lower arc of her nipple, were framed against the cabin of the car. As I pressed the head of my penis against the neck of her uterus, in which I could feel a dead machine, her cap, I looked at the cabin around me. This small space was crowded with angular control surfaces and rounded sections of human bodies interacting in unfamiliar junctions, like the first act of homosexual intercourse inside an Apollo capsule.
Leaving the last words to Mr. Ballard himself:
We wait here, at the threshold of time and space, celebrating the identity and kinship of the particles within our bodies with those of the sun and stars, of our brief private times with the vast periods of the galaxies, with the total unifying time of the cosmos…