paulhazel.com

April 17, 2009
by PH
1 Comment

Scott McCloud at TED

I love Scott McCloud: Understanding Comics is an absolutely awesome book. I came across this recently posted video of a talk he did at TED in February 2005. A fabulous presentation: Vannevar Bush, J.C.R. Licklider, Marshall McLuhan, visions of the future, truth, beauty, 4 basic principles for living your life, temporal maps, spatial relationships, durable mutations, and, yes, even comics. Smart, funny, and still ahead of the curve. What more can you ask for?

April 15, 2009
by PH
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Narrative In Japanese Film 2: Design As Narrative

Another section of Richie’s A Hundred Years Of Japanese Film to catch my eye is this description of Daisuke Ito’s 1927 film Diary of Chuji’s Travels:

Much of the film looks like a modern—specifically American—movie. Yet it often segues into a decidedly Japanese sensibility. The dialogue scenes are in medium close-up, there are two shots with a forty-five degree shift of viewpoint, and eyelines follow international standards. Yet, in the sequence in the saké brewery, we follow a downward pan from darkness to patches of sunlight, beams, ropes, and finally to the men manning the works. A written title appears in this initial darkness and continues all the way through the pan—in effect turning the screen into a calligraphy surface, a two-dimensional page.

The following sequence, in the saké brewery yard, is pure Japanese aesthetic bravura. The area is littered with enormous empty barrels, some on their sides, and so the scene is filled with circles. Shot after shot emphasizes ceaselessly the resulting circular compositions. A girl wanders in circles; children play circular games: the design has become the story. And during the remainder of the film, scenes return to the compositions of this sequence, reminding us of it. The heroine goes to sit in the circle of a big, empty vat; later, children form a dancing circle around the distraught samurai hero.

Such apparent design-as-narrative reminds one of traditional printmakers, particularly Hokusai, and brings to mind the printmaker’s insistence that visual schemes can take the place of plot. We can readily understand the role that traditional composition plays in Japanese cinema.

Comment
Wow: the design has become the story! I only wish there were more depth to this section. When Richie says it “brings to mind the printmaker’s insistence that visual schemes can take the place of plot” does he mean Hokusai in particular, or traditional printmakers in general? It’s just so tantalizing!

Something I’m going to have to research myself.

Reference
Richie, D. (2005) A Hundred Years Of Japanese Film. Tokyo, New York, London: Kodansha International (p.70)

April 5, 2009
by PH
2 Comments

Narrative In Japanese Film 1: Benshi

I’ve just finished reading Donald Richie’s excellent A Hundred Years Of Japanese Film. The book is arranged more-or-less chronologically, and begins with the very earliest of Japanese-produced movies in 1899. These, as with the imported films that at that time made up the bulk of the repertoire, were obviously all silent films. However, when they were screened they had sound added by a benshi, someone who Richie defines as a “film narrator, commentator, lecturer—a master of ceremonies whose appearance was an assumed part of early Japanese film showings.” This amazing practice continued well into the era of the talkies, and did not die out fully until the mid-1930s.

So why did the Japanese cinema audience need the benshi, and for so long? Excuse me if I quote at some length from the book:

The reasons for the long life of the benshi were various. Since Japan had only some forty years before been “opened up to the West” (a phrase invented in the West), ignorance of much of the outside world was common. The benshi filled in the gaps of knowledge Western viewers had acquired long before. They were “a reassuring native presence with a presumed acquaintance of the foreign object,” a necessity which might even now “explain the Japanese affection for teachers, tour guides, sommeliers, and other conduits for the acquisition of new experience.”

In addition to his educational role, the benshi was essential to the film-viewing experience. In part, this was because the early cinema of Japan was, as elsewhere, a cinema of short, unrelated clips—initially films form abroad: in the Lumière collection, one saw babies being fed, gardeners being squirted, and so on. A commentary connecting these clips not only made a short program longer but more coherent. Later, when longer programs became available, story links were created by the benshi. Still later came the illusion of a self-contained story-world. Until then, the benshi was all that these little glimpses had in common.

The benshi was also required to fill the time. This he accomplished in various ways. Besides talking, he sometimes lengthened the viewing time. Many films were quite short, and so a number were shown on a single bill. Sometimes, as was common in early showings in France and the United States, films were repeated. Since the audience had not yet developed what has been called a “linear response,” no one minded a second viewing as it gave one a chance to catch new things the second time round.

In recalling the films he had seen around 1898, as a child of about ten, novelist Tanizaki Jun’ichiro said: “The ends of the reel would be joined together so that the same scene could be projected over and over. I can still remember, endlessly repeated, high waves rolling in on a shore somewhere, breaking and then receding, and a lone dog playing there, now pursuing, now being pursued by the retreating and advancing waters.”

[…]

The technique of repetition has a proper Japanese name, tasuke (continuous loop), and its use remains common on Japanese television and in the movie theaters, where advertising clips are repeated several times. The aim now is not to make a short program longer, but the argument holds that anything short may be twice savoured. After all, repetition seemingly for its own sake is so accepted an element in Japanese dramaturgy that its cinematic equivalent seems quite natural. Perhaps those Western viewers, even during a Mizoguchi Kenji or Ozu Yasujiro film, sigh and hope the director will soon get on with it are responding to this Japanese tradition of repetition.

The benshi mostly filled in the time with lengthy explanations, a time-consuming rhetoric, and drawn-out, often moralizing conclusions. It was the benshi who created the narrative for the audience to follow, and even today, when the narrator’s performance has been reduced to a more or less scholarly reconstruction, a plethora of explanations, repetitions of information, and voice-overs remains in Japanese commercial film. This was what the uninformed audience required and consequently wanted. “What to filmgoers in the West might seem an overdetermined, annoying repetition was for Japanese audiences constitutive of meaning.”

From the Western perspective, it could be said that the benshi delayed the cinematic development of narrative in Japan. However, this line of thought is valid only if one believes that the development of narrative was a “natural” development of the film and that there were no other alternatives. Actually, as Japanese film indicates, there were.

In the West, cinema was evolving into a self-sufficient narrative. It seemed the most practical way to entertain increasingly sophisticated audiences. A series of short clips gave way to lengthier, more coherent stories. The audience’s involvement in more detailed stories increased attendance. It was thus possible to find in the narrative film the most suitable cinematic form if the industry required films to be quickly and cheaply made.

In Japan, however, the perception of narrative was different. It was the benshi and not any self-contained cinematic narrative which made sense to the audience. He not only explained what was being shown on the screen but also was there “to reinforce, interpret, counterpoint, and in any case to intercede.”

The role of the benshi was a very traditional one. From the earliest times, Japanese drama had required an informing voice. The chorus in noh drama, the joruri chanter in bunraku puppet drama, the gidayu narrator in kabuki—all premodern Japanese drama is a pictorial expansion of verbal storytelling. Joseph Anderson has indeed defined the Japanese drama as a presentation “in which actors do not autonomously enact events for spectators; dialogue spoken by actors is not the primary speech modality; and basic plot structure is not based on conflict, crisis, climax, resolution, and dramatic unity.”

Rather than being presented as an occurrence, drama is presented as a recounted occurrence. Although many national dramas have entertained like assumptions, the Japanese theater (and its descendants, movies and television) has remained remarkably faithful to the authoritative voice. As one early critic expressed it, the film itself was like the bunraku puppet and the benshi was the gidayu reciter.

[…]

The influence of the benshi continues even today. Joseph Anderson remembers listening to a modern Japanese soap opera from another room in the house and discovering that “voice-over narration not only recaps previous episodes but every so often talks about things that are happening right now on the tube. I don’t have to look at this television drama. I hear it.”

Comment
I find this passage pregnant with ideas. For my own benefit as much as yours, here are a few brief notes:

  1. This all suggests that Japan remains a primarily oral society. Most likely this is due to the notoriously difficult-to-master writing system that they use.
  2. In the text above, who said the audience had not developed a “linear response.” What do they—the person who said it originally and Richie himself—mean by it?
  3. This idea of showing film (or video) in continuous loops is intriguing. Given the modern technologies we have, it’s surprising that more has not been made of looping (as it has, for example, in audio). There are places where it is in common use: pop concerts and pop videos spring to mind; advertising on the web, or on LCD displays in public spaces; and Buñuel has used it (that scene in Exterminating Angel where the guests arrive twice). Presumably looping is so rarely used outside of these contexts because most films and TV shows are plot-driven. But as Brian Eno has said: “Repetition is a form of change.”
  4. If Japanese dramatic forms are not based on what we would recognize as an Aristotelian narrative form (conflict, crisis, climax, resolution, and dramatic unity), then what are they based on?

One final thought. Could not this format of short film or video clips linked by a live narrator/performer be consciously revived as a modern form? With the technologies we have at our disposal this could produce some very powerful effects.

Reference
Richie, D. (2005) A Hundred Years Of Japanese Film. Tokyo, New York, London: Kodansha International (pp.19-22)

April 3, 2009
by PH
2 Comments

National Botanic Garden

A couple of weeks ago went on one of our regular family visits to the lovely (and noticeably improving) National Botanic Garden of Wales. Here are a few of the pictures I took. Making no claim to be a great photographer—a point-and-click merchant at heart—I’m really only interested in composition and colour. Or maybe texture. Whatever:

Hothouse Lily

Hothouse Lily

Green Fireworks

Green Fireworks

Black Lightning

Black Lightning

Zen Drainpipe

Zen Drainpipe

Tip

Tip

The Great Glasshouse

The Great Glasshouse

Red Flower

Red Flower

Slime Wall 1

Slime Wall 1

Pink & Orange Flower

Pink & Orange Flower

Slime Wall 2

Slime Wall 2

Flowers & Path

Flowers & Path

The Great Glasshouse (Detail)

The Great Glasshouse (Detail)

March 31, 2009
by PH
1 Comment

A Brief History of Electronic Music

Raymond Scott

Raymond Scott

1992 found me studying Music Information Technology at City University under Jim Grant and Simon Emmerson. As part of my dissertation I wrote a long piece on the history of electronic music. It sat around on the old paulhazel.com for a while, but I recently revised it and updated it for my own students, and, for those who are interested in such things, I’m including it here.

I think it remains useful. It is only a brief history but it covers a lot of ground, technological, artistic and political. It finishes around the time synthesizers entered the mass-market and just before MIDI, but it goes right back to the medium’s real beginning. Contrary to what most people think, “music technology” didn’t begin in the late 1960s with Bob Moog: as far back as 1906 Thaddeus Cahill had a working polyphonic additive synthesizer that transmitted pure electronic music over a telephone network. Talk about being ahead of your time…

The Telharmonium

The Telharmonium

A Brief History of Electronic Music (372kB .pdf)

March 23, 2009
by PH
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Quote of the Month

One late evening, about 10pm London time, I was sitting on the crew bus with the rest of my crew. We had just arrived home from the States on an unusual schedule: normally the flights from there come in overnight and arrive in the morning.

Anyway, it was a nasty night with drizzle and occasional heavy rain. The bus had to stop at a control point before crossing an active taxiway. As usual at that time of night the taxiways were busy, and on this particular evening we sat in the stopped bus beneath the wingtip of a 747-200!

We sat there with the airport lights shining at us through the rain, the bus wipers swishing, the traffic lights illuminating the interior, and this enormous aeroplane just next to us with its large engines humming at idle. I looked up at the cockpit but was unable to see anyone because of the dimmed lights I knew they’d be running. I thought: there are just three men sitting there listening and alert who would be flying this lovely aeroplane all night to Africa.

It was one of the most impressive visions I’ve had of the 747 and what it was like to operate it, despite all the training, walking through it and around it, and knowing in detail how it works. I just wish I could have a picture, somehow with the sound, to show you and to keep myself. Obviously I will always remember it, but the thrumming and gentle rocking of this monster almost at rest, itching to go into the night when it was given full power—oh boy! I’m glad I don’t have to do it now.

Just a memory, from me to you. Keep well please.
Dad.

Edwin Hazel 1933-2009

November 9, 2008
by PH
0 comments

Quote of the Month

The defining element of the desktop GUI is the icon, which, although it often has a name, is above all a picture that performs or receives an action. These actions give the icon its meaning. As elements in a true picture writing, icons do note merely remind the user of documents and programs, but function as documents and programs. Reorganizing files and activating programs is writing, just as putting alphabetic characters in a row is writing. Rather like the religious relics after which they are named, computer icons are energy units that focus the operative power of the machine into visible and manipulable symbols. Computer icons also remind us of the cultural functions of Hebrew letters in the Cabala or of alchemical and other signs invoked by such Renaissance magi as Giordano Bruno. Magic letters and signs were often objects of meditation, as they were in the logical diagrams of the medieval Raymond Llul, and they were also believed to have operational powers. As functioning representations in computer writing, electronic icons realize what magic signs in the past could only suggest.

Jay David Bolter

October 6, 2008
by PH
0 comments

Korg DS-10

Here’s something: a venerable analogue monosynth re-imagined for the 21st Century and the Nintendo DS, no less.

2 twin-ocillator synths and a 4-part drum machine pre-loaded with samples create by the DS-10 itself. A 6-track sequencer. Built-in FX and real-time sound control via the touch screen. Wireless communication allowing you to sync multiple units together and swap data. From this:

To this:

Fun. Amazing. Mind-blowing. And yet so musically limited (to put it mildly). A Toy.

September 22, 2008
by PH
0 comments

Point Of View

Champagne Reaction
The way it turned out, I found myself sitting one Thursday lunchtime at Manor House waiting for the southbound train. On the far wall of the tube was one of those big hoardings, this particular one advertising Mercier Champagne.

Apart from a narrow bottle-green strip down the right with the Mercier label in it this advert is a massive single black and white image of a ‘typical’ Parisian street cafe. In the foreground three small round tables rise up in a gentle diagonal from left to right. Young and seemingly affluent couples are seated behind the first and third tables.

On the left, the man is seen from a rear three-quarters view, a smiling Audrey Hepburn lookalike leaning into him, eyes gazing up adoringly, her hand slipping up inside his tweed jacket. Their table is spotlessly clean and noticeably Champagne-free. Across from them sits a beautiful Mediterranean woman, arms folded, legs crossed. Her partner is perched on the extreme right-hand edge, chin in hand, elbow on table, completely excluded by her body posture. Both appear to be looking enviously over at the first couple. On the table in front of them is what looks like a half-finished bottle of white wine. No glasses are in evidence.

In the space bookended by the two couples half-blurred background figures can be seen amongst the geometric pattern of tables and chairs. Across the top are the words ‘Mercier pour la memoir’, as if written in a woman’s handwriting. For those without basic French this is a pun on ‘Thanks for the memory’. Audrey: you’re a scream.

At first glance, the poster appears to be nothing more than another glossy-mag styled resynthesis of a mythical 1960’s Paris, full of chic images worn smooth and translucent with use. It tells us the couple in front have already eaten their meal and drunk their bottle of Mercier in its entirety. They are sated with good food, tipsy, and in love. He has paid by credit card. They will go home and make passionate love. They, or couples very like them, inhabit countless advertising scenarios. They drive nice cars and live in houses where the sun always shines in the kitchen. They always tell us the same thing: if you buy this product, as we have, you too will be happy. You can be like us. All we can know for sure about them is that they’re actors.

But what of the couple on the right? She is unhappy because her boyfriend doesn’t love her. We know this because he didn’t buy her Mercier Champagne. Instead he ordered this cheapo white wine which is so bad they can’t even finish it. Asshole! He is unhappy not because she is unhappy but because he has been publicly humiliated, out-thought, outspent. He’s a loser and he knows it. Such is the familiar language of advertising.

So why bother mentioning it at all? Well, closer inspection of the poster leads one to suspect things are not as they first seem. Crucially, the unhappy couple are definitely not looking at the happy couple at all, but at something happening behind them, out of the frame of the photograph. This immediately brings the meaning of the whole image into question. Are this couple actors, or mere unwitting dupes? Are they just two people accidentally caught up in an outdoor photo shoot? What are they looking at? Why haven’t they finished their wine? Why aren’t there any glasses? What are their real feelings for each other? Eventually: was this image designed, or was it largely accidental?

In the sheer absence of so much information—especially the product itself—the ‘Mercier pour la memoir’ becomes a throbbing neon sign. Your eyes flicker between text and image, image and text, the banality of the pun counterpointing the sudden incoherence of the photograph. Your eyes are dragged again and again across the gulf between the tables, between bottle and non-bottle, between distance and intimacy. Vainly you try to contain the energy created by the exploding image and within seconds what happens is that you invent a story, you wrap it up in a plotline. Not consciously: your brain just does it. Where meaning does not exist, the human mind will create it.

After looking at this poster you may not have the same story as mine, but you will certainly have a story of some sort.

Rashomon
Brian Eno’s Ambient 4/ On Land has on it a track called ‘The Lost Day’. It always used to evoke within me a deep and particular emotional response, like watching a film. I could see everything in widescreen, crisp, and in deep focus. I could sense the wind, feel the desolation, hear the soundtrack. I was there.

About a year later I read a Brian Eno interview in which he spoke at some length about ‘The Lost Day’. He told us what each sound represented, the weather, everything. It would seem the track is an almost literal painting in sound of a real place at a particular time, a recreation of an event, an experience.

This forbidden knowledge has catastrophically ruined the track for me. Sure, I still get a film running behind my eyes when I listen to it. Unfortunately it now views like a TV set randomly hopping between two channels, one showing a BBC1 documentary about a sleepy English coastal village on a grey winters day, the other scenes from an early Japanese Samurai movie. It’s rubbish.

In the same way that a photograph is double-exposed, Brian Eno’s landscape has been superimposed upon my own. You can’t be in two places at once.

Ways Of Seeing
Quantum Physics is still a mystery to most people, an area of knowledge akin to Voodoo or Theosophy. Like if an atom was the size of the Earth, the nucleus would be the size of a basketball. The electrons orbiting the nucleus would be a flock of geese skimming across a lake. Inside the nucleus, wave/particle probability functions with names like wooden idols whizz about in Space-Time. Somewhere: we’re never quite sure. But it works nonetheless, faultlessly, repeatedly. If it didn’t the modern world as we know it simply wouldn’t exist. The central problem of Quantum Physics is this: it’s been here nearly 100 years and we still can’t assimilate it. We can’t imagine it, we can’t picture it.

It wasn’t until 1980 that the first photographic image of an atom was published. The nature of the quantum wave/particle thingies inside the nucleus are deduced by smashing atoms together and tracking the trajectories of the bits, the shrapnel. They are too small to measure properly or to see, and perhaps they always will be. Einstein coined the famous image of the Universe as a watch. In 1938 he wrote:

In our endeavour to understand reality we are somewhat like a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch. He sees the face and the moving hands, even hears its ticking, but he has no way of opening the case. If he is ingenious he may form some picture of a mechanism which could be responsible for all the things he observes, but he may never be quite sure his picture is the only one which could explain his observations. He will never be able to compare his picture with the real mechanism and he cannot even imagine the possibility of the meaning of such a comparison.

This has changed Western science in a very profound way. For the first time the role of the observer entered into the equation. For the first time what happened depended in part upon who was looking, what they were looking at, and with what. In a very real sense, it said we make reality up as we go along, we create it. The myth that the scientist was disinterested, detached, some noble and objective pioneer in search of absolute truth, was finally shown to be false. Worse than that: it just wasn’t possible. How could you not have a point of view?

This aspect of Quantum Physics is not difficult to grasp on a common-sense level. For example, if you and I stand next to each other and look simultaneously at that Mondrian painting over there we’ll still see different pictures. Our physique, our age, our sex, our education and experience, whether we’ve got a headache or not, all of these will dictate how we see it. Until we come along the painting isn’t doing anything: it isn’t complete until someone looks, someone participates. Each of us will complete the painting in our own way. All of our lives are like this. We live in our own worlds, making them up as we go along: improvising.

Now. All you have to worry about is whether you’re going to be Charlie Parker or Clarence Clemmons…

September 7, 2008
by PH
0 comments

Quote of the Month

The words are all on a transparent film. The experiences to which they refer are taking place seamlessly behind the film overlay. The words are like digital samples of a continuous analog experience. If you focus on the word-film, the experience becomes a blur, the way that focusing on an insect on your car windshield prevents you from seeing the road in the distance clearly. Preverbal experience of primitive people takes place entirely behind the overlay or rather without it. Early verbal cultures see the word and the thing which it names in somewhat equal focus, connected by an invisible membrane. Later verbal cultures come to see only the verbal overlay, with a vague blur of experience behind. As Homo Sapiens lives ever more in the realm of symbols the membrane connecting thing and symbol atrophies. Discourse becomes a same-symbol with-different-underlying-meanings/same-meaning-with-different-underlying-symbols quicksand.

Jon Hassell