Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Let's Talk About Love by Carl Wilson

While I may never forgive Carl Wilson for getting that Titanic pan flute music stuck in my head for the better part of a week, it is his fantastic book on the French Canadian singer Celine Dion that has me doing the unthinkable: getting me to reconsider why it is that I dislike the pop star. Let’s Talk About Love is part of Continuum’s 33 1/3 series about various record albums (I read a dry one about Let It Be by Steve Matteo last month), but this book isn’t really about the Dion album or the singer at all. Instead, it uses her as a prism by which to investigate the nature of taste itself.

What motivates aesthetic judgment? Why does a woman who has sold tens of millions of record albums cause so many others to run screaming when they hear her voice? Wilson compares the ideas of Kant, who would have us believe that
taste involves a universal instinct for beauty-assessment, with those of Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist who maintains that taste is never disinterested, but instead a form of cultural capital. In other words, those who hate Celine Dion are not merely making an aesthetic choice; it is an ethical decision made in order to elevate oneself above her fans, who tend to be poor, middle-aged, white women from Middle America. While we use what we like to define who we are and who we are not, we do the same with what we dislike. And as much as this bothers me on a personal level, the (perhaps) subconscious elevation of myself above others, I find it to be almost inarguably true.

Though Wilson does undergo a sort of journey as the narrative progresses, seeing Dion in Vegas and comparing the messages in her songs to his own life as he endures a painful divorce, he never is won over, becoming a fan. But what he does come to believe by the book’s conclusion is that we should move toward a new sort of ‘democratic’ criticism, where we aren’t so much open to all sorts of new ideas, but rather where we refuse to indulge in t
hose cultural capital instincts that elevate us above another taste set, no matter what it is. While Wilson seems to limit himself to the medium of music, such principles remain applicable to just about anything that is judged on taste.

Pop criticism has always tried to articulate the genius behind the underappreciated or devalue
d. And while there are now canons in rock, rap, and country (not to mention other media like film and television), why should Celine Dion be beyond our capacity for praise. What Wilson accomplishes with Let’s Talk About Love did not make me like Dion’s music, but did help me understand what its appeal might be to others. By defining schmaltz as ‘an unprivate portrait of how private feeling is currently conceived,’ a label that is slapped on Dion’s music by all sorts of people including me, Wilson is able to turn the definition onto other genres of music. After all, he writes, ‘you could say that punk rock is anger’s schmaltz.’

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Extralinguistic Texts in Film/TV Narrative

To finish my minor in Literature last spring, I took a class in Film & Feminism, my first real exposure to critical approaches of the medium. And while found the class to be a bit underwhelming, I was able to familiarize myself with much of the seminal critical articles in film literature and make the connection that the critical approach to film and to television isn’t all that different. As a result, I have been rethinking my investigation of hyperlink cinema and George Landow’s axes of hypertextual development through this prism, and where I was previously stymied by examples of extralinguistic texts in film, a word of advice from my friend Steve Mollmann has sent me in the right direction.

Landow maintains that hypertexts contain extralinguistic texts, as claimed in his second axis for identification. Whether than take the approach of identifying linguistic elements that are nonnative to film, my focus here is on
narrative and there are many elements of narrative that take place apart from the narrative presented on the screen, especially in shows like Lost and Heroes and even in films like the George Lucas’s prequel trilogy. And while I cold run through Landow’s four axes pretty quickly with regards to a show like Lost, I want to pause here and look at how complex the narratives become because of their reliance on other forms of storytelling to inform their narrative.

Perhaps Heroes, which debuted in 2006, is a good place to start. The show, of course, relates the experiences of ordinary men and women discover they have superhuman powers. The story emulates the storytelling style of American comic books as well, an example of remediation, and while the premise is straightforward, the narrative world imagined by creator Tim Kring and the writing staff is a complex one. A viewer is able to watch the show as it comes on each week and receive a more or less complete experience. However, NBC selected this show to expand into the digital space, creating a television show whose primary narrative outlet is suppl
emented by web comics and other strategies that expand the universe of the show, providing back stories and additional character development outside the confines of the screen. I would argue that such a use of extra-narrative strategies is an example of the extralinguistic elements that Landow asserts are a central component of hypertexts, embodied here within the medium of film.

As the first season progressed, the web comics often provided additional background information on the main characters from the show, but about halfway through a new character, named Hana Gitelman was introduced. Although appearing briefly onscreen in two episodes, the character primarily exists within the supplemental material. Thus we see that the creators are in fact using the web comics in order to enhance the world their characters inhabit, and make the connection between events in the web comics and effects in the television show. In comic 68, ‘The Man with Too Much Brains,’ teenager Matt Neuenberg is introduced with the ability to remember incredible amounts of information. He ‘downloads’ the Company’s database in order to prevent it from being accessed by Gitelman, who has the power to control transmissions, showing that a plot hole in the series can be filled in the supplemental material. In yet another example, comic 115, ‘Truths,’ relates the thoughts of Arthur Petrelli in the moments before his death, something difficult to do with effectiveness within the medium of television, and impossible within the epis
ode because it would have derailed the overall narrative, yet possible in this additional medium and providing a richness to the character and scene that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

Heroes also has been expanded in a novel, Saving Charlie, detailing what happened when Hiro traveled
back in time by six months in an effort to save her from being killed by Sylar, only to lose her to some sort of cancer in the episode ‘Six Months Ago.’ Again, the supplementary material is able to tell stories that aren’t practical to tell on television, due to narrative momentum and cost concerns.

While I could go on and on, I believe that I have effectively demonstrated the use of extralinguistic texts affecting film narrative, which would again indicate that film is indeed remediating the digital into itself. In fact, television shows like Heroes perhaps are a better example of hyperlink cinema, at least analyzed through the perspective of George Landow, but there are examples in film as well. Most obviously, there is the prequel trilogy of Star Wars in which characters had huge histories in cartoons and such that are completely unapparent in the film. I still have no idea who General Grievous was, or what the hell he was supposed to be.

Should I branch towards television in examining hyperlink cinema? 24 is the most often mentioned show in the genre, but it seems like I may want to ground my paper in film since I put ‘hyperlink cinema’ in the title. I would imagine that I will blend the two, but what do you think, about this or anything else? Feedback is greatly appreciated.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

George Landow & Hypertext Evaluation

I’ve spent the past two years working on novels that contain visual media, arguing that they can be considered hypertexts existing in print rather than electronic form, and thus can be analyzed using tools developed for hypertext. In fact, I maintain that the definition of hypertextuality must be expanded to include such works, for analyzing them with the traditional literary techniques can leave the new possibilities for literary creation unseen. In making this argument, I relied heavily on the work of George P. Landow, specifically the four axes he developed for determining whether a text could be considered hypertextual in nature or not.

In examining hyperlink cinema, the supposed new genre of movies influenced by the Internet that contain a playfulness with time and interwoven storylines, I think it is important to use some of the same techniques in order to determine if one can actually see the remediation of the digital within these films, and to
attempt to determine if their existence is confined to a certain genre or a precursor for a coming revolution in film and film studies.

The first axis of hypertext that Landow identifies is the most vexing in terms of evaluating hyperlink cinema: does the text involve reader choice, intervention, and empowerment? By its very nature, a film possesses none of these traits. Films exist on large reels, meant to be fed one after another at a constant pace while the viewer merely watches; it is a passive experience in many ways. And while one might say that as films are created and produced digitally more and more often, we might begin to see efforts that allow for an audience to affect the narrative as it progresses, the films that have been categorized as hyperlink cinema retain the traditional approach of passive viewership. Yet even as we realize that the medium of film limits the hypertextual nature of a narrative, we begin to see how the hypertext has influenced these films despite the medium’s restrictive nature.

Landow’s second axis maintains that hypertexts include extralinguistic texts. While in the novels I mentioned before extralinguistic texts can refer to the visual media included (among other things), the way one goes about defining extralinguistic texts in a film is a bit trickier. In fact, while I know what devices I have categorized as extralinguistic in films, I am a bit of a loss as to understand why they exist outside the language of film. More research is in order.

I didn’t post this for a couple of days because I wanted it to be a fully formed thought, but then I realized that such missteps are the heart of research, and if I intend to research and write this paper through a sequence of blog posts, such missteps should be visible. And, this is the sort of time that the community here could suggest possible ways to interpret the extralinguistic in film. Thoughts?

Meanwhile, I am going to do some more research into new media and revisit this in the coming days.

Friday, January 1, 2010

2009 Reading Statistics

I wasn't going to post this until tomorrow or the next day, but since I can't sleep due to anxiety over graduate school applications, I compiled all the data as the sun came up. Each month I post a list of the books I completed over the previous one, so there is no need to recap that here. Yet this does give me the opportunity to reflect upon how I spent my reading time, and perhaps how I could better spend it in the future.

This year I completed 240 books, plays, and graphic novels, surpassing my previous high last year of 230. Since statistics are fun for everyone, or at least me, here is how it all breaks down:
  • 35 novels (14.6%)
  • 17 short story collections (7.1%)
  • 42 works of nonfiction (17.5%)
  • 144 graphic novels (60%)
  • 2 plays (0.8%)
With an overwhelming majority of my reading coming from graphic novels, the overall total here appears greatly inflated. And while I enjoyed making my way through series like Alan Moore's Swamp Thing and Brian Michael Bendis & Michael Avon Oeming's Powers series, I wasted a lot of time reading things like Ultimate X-Men & Spiderman. I doubt that will be happening again in 2010.

The biggest reason for the shift in these demographics is due to the economy, at least indirectly. I was out of work for a period at the end of 2008, and as a result things got a bit tight. In order to save money, I switched from buying books frequently to utilizing my public library on a weekly basis, if not more. Fortunately, I live in a large enough town to have a better than average library system. The huge numbers of graphic novels are directly due to my ability not only to easily read pretty much any comic I wanted on a whim, it also took what would have cost maybe $1000, even at a used book store, and made it free.

I'm also very surprised that the number of novels I read fell by almost 50% from last year, something I am at a loss to explain. Both nonfiction and short story collections remained relatively even, but I suppose the ebb in my interest in fiction, which I touched on early this evening, has been more protracted than I had originally believed.

For 2010, I predict that these numbers will go down for a number of reasons. The first, I have exhausted much of the library's supply of graphic novels, at least ones that I am interested in, and there isn't much on the horizon that I really want to read. But more importantly, as I apply to another graduate program, I plan on being incredibly busy (and happy) come the fall semester, assuming someone lets me in and greases the financial wheels. As a result, I'll have less time to read, at least casually, but I think I am finding real satisfaction with my academic work, so it is a trade I will happily make.

I used to come up with a list of my top five books of the year, but this year I think I'll pass. However, here are some authors I read this year that I hope you will check out: Dan Chaon, Aleksandar Hemon, Joshua Cooper Ramo, Stieg Larsson, Tom Bissell, & Maile Meloy.

Reading List: December 2009

I've lost pretty much all interest in reading fiction. No, scratch that, I am still interested in a few things, but in practice I seem to be bored and unable to read more than a dozen pages at a stretch. This is quite uncommon for me, but I suppose its cyclical and eventually I'll get bored with foreign policy and economics and go back to it. Likely, the lack of interest is due to being out of school, with its constant grind of academic reading, and being used to internalizing information like that as opposed to casual fun reading. The habit is hard to break.

This month's pick is The Age of the Unthinkable by Joshua Cooper Ramo, which highlights the flaws in modern thinking about politics and the economy, trying to shift the paradigm of actors from believing they can act as architects in a system they can control (which doesn't work, obviously) to understanding that such things are more of an ecosystem, with all sorts of actors responding differently to events and to each other, creating an environment that can at best be managed. It's not so much that Ramo offers up any solutions, but rather this change in thinking will allow us to succeed where we are failing horribly now.

SuperFreakonomics was good, though lacked the cohesion of the first book. And the main criticism, that the chapter on the environment, should be faulted more for straying from interesting microeconomics than for lax science. The new Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy book was pretty bad as well. But Kazu Kibuishi's Flight anthologies were entertaining and demonstrate what some of the best new comic artists can produce, though the stories were a bit light on the unorthodox construction that I enjoy so much.

Anyway, last month I finished eight books and four graphic novels, and this is what they were:
  • And Another Thing... by Eoin Colfer
  • The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History by John Ortved
  • Three Nights in August by Buzz Bissinger
  • The Great Movies II by Roger Ebert
  • The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman
  • What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell
  • The Age of the Unthinkable by Joshua Cooper Ramo
  • Green Lantern Corps: Ring Quest by Peter J. Tomasi & Patrick Gleason
  • SuperFreakonomics by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner
  • Flight, Volumes 1 & 2 edited by Kazu Kibuishi
  • Let it Be by Steve Matteo
Right now I am reading David Plouffe's account of the Obama presidential campaign and Vali Nasr's book on the rising Islamic middle class. Maybe I'll squeeze a novel in before too long.

Questions, comments, random unrelated notes that entertain, etc.