Monthly Archives: August 2010

Welcome to Armageddon, USA: A Tour of America’s Most Toxic Town

[Image: Finlay Mackay]

“The apocalypse is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed. Urbanization has lured more people to bustling metropolises, but precious little thought has been given to what happens when these cities fail. Over time, the underlying systems and processes of civilization—from lead mining to offshore drilling to car commuting—slowly poison us. Power grids brown out, the climate heats up, and industrial accidents ravage ecosystems and cities alike. For all the famed cities with thousands of years of continuity—Paris, London, Cairo, Athens, Rome, Istanbul—most cities just stop. Picher isn’t simply another boomtown gone bust. It’s emblematic of what happens when a modern city dies: A few people stay behind, trying to hold on to what they can. They are the new homesteaders, trying to civilize a wasteland at the end of the world.”

Read the full article from Wired here.

The Twilight Zone—Season 1—“Time Enough at Last”

“…Henry Beamis, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers, a bookish little man whose passion is the printed page, but it was conspired against by a bank president and a wife and a world of time clockers and the unrelenting hands of a clock. But in just a moment Mr. Beamis will enter a world without bank presidents, or wives or clocks or anything else….”
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Mr. Beamis is not “an efficient member of [the] organization”. His superior reprimands him for being “a reader”, a quality unappealing in an employee. Beamis’ ritual of scanning through texts at work is a direct result of the autocratic rule of his wife who refuses to let him read, rejecting the custom as “sacrificing the art of conversation”.  Sterling crafts for us a situation where the society of a man rejects his hermetic habit of books. Albeit, this is not a Farhenteit-451 construction in which books are considered completely deplorable and to be done away with by force. While the libraries still stands and the texts are still available, it seems that the forces in Mr. Breamis’ world, the company he keeps, prevent him from his indulgence.

Mr. Beamis sneaks away while at work to read within a bank vault, inadvertently functioning for our protagonist as a bomb shelter. In this appears a perfect juncture to insert an apocalypse, a cataclysm by hydrogen bomb. It seems impossible for much of the television and movies produced during this time (late 1950’s) to not address world war fears and the development of nuclear armaments. This particular episode is really most interesting for it’s presentation of the post-apocalyptic moment, after the breaking of Beamis’ pocket watch, which cracked due to the bombing, into a new mode of time. The destroyed innards of the bank serve to symbolize the ceasing of a world created upon a very specific system of values, a collapse of civilization.  The destruction of  a structure created for the purpose of storing and dispensing forms of capital, is the initial indicator of the end of the world. A tape recorder reels out the speech dictated by the head banker to his secretary for the Thursday night banquet (“a constant remembrance that the bank, like a political office, is a public trust”) self-destructs as the sole survivor first moves with timid steps through the remains of a past-life vanished. The “battered monuments” of infrastructure, (a pay-phone, a neighborhood bar, a mailbox) help to confirm the mysterious extinction of Beamis’ former environment.

On a side note, one of the cinematography effects I appreciate about the scenes portrayed of a world-burned-out are the obvious markings of the shot taking place on a set, like the weird way the horizon looks and how the sky appears totally motionless. There is something exciting about the idea of imagining the world destroyed and then constructing such a vision, “a smashed landscape”, on a closed set in warehouse in southern California.

There is a moment when Beamis almost succumbs to his loneliness, finding a small handgun amongst the rubble. At the moment when he is about to exact his own demise, a beacon of hope presents itself—a fallen pillar of the public library. This is the most beautiful portrait of destruction, Beamis excitedly running up the debris-ridden stairs littered with novels by famous authors. These works appear to be his saving grace, his reason to live.

Of course, it seems rather obvious from the beginning that this bespectacled man with lenses thick like magnifying glass will suffer some strange fate related to his sight. Indeed, upon his greatest moment of joy, his exuberant embrace of time unconstrained, he leans over and his glasses fall from his face, smashing to pieces on the ground.

It’s fair to say that this is a morose story. Without doubt, it would be unlikely for Beamis’ fate to not become somehow twisted, for everyone else’s apocalypse to become his own utopia. Still, we are never led to view Beamis as a morally corrupt man deserving a harsh sentence. Instead, we witness a man saved from death twice only to suffer a grueling sentence, to be stripped of his vision and, ultimately, his will to live by Sterling’s exploitation of a frailty.

This episode contains the classic sort of irony characteristic of Rod Sterling and The Twilight Zone, the appearance of a situation that reveals itself as not possibly being what it seems. The viewer can understand at an early point that the plot will somehow manifest a shifted version of reality by the end, the last moments destined to make sense of the scenes prior and generate an end with a resemblance of shrouded explanation. What is commendable about The Twilight Zone is it’s unwillingness to edify, the series reluctance to provide unprecedented glimmers of optimism or explicit morals. The whole premise of Sterling’s creation is to depict an altered dimension more-often-than-not with a rationale not based in our own immediate realities. So nice about this approach to storytelling is the expressive freedom present in creating a world where things are inexplicable and left with an aura of the unknown. This allows for the tales to present ideas not constricted by the rules of reason, or as Sterling would say, in The Twilight Zone.

Watching TV at the gym / Five Neuroscientists rafting in Utah

There are a lot of ideas to be extrapolated out of an examination of how technology places itself in lives. The New York Times has an ongoing series under the nomenclature “Your Brain On Computers”. As the title suggest, the articles are investigations into the cognitive effects of technology on it’s users, examining modes of behavior and thought processing in relation to devices (or the lack thereof) present in the participants everyday lives.

The two articles I found of interest both mention a recently conducted study by the University of Michigan concluding that people are better able to process and learn new information after a walk in the woods rather than one in a city. That is to say, too much physical/visual information hinders the abilities of the brain.

The first article references the infiltration of technology into the social sphere, using the gym as a symbol for a recreational complex rife with distractions. The author makes an interesting mention of creativity and how too much information can actually hinder our capacity to think clearly.  The second article follows an outdoor excursion of five practicing neuroscientists in the wilds of Utah, cut-off from their usually constant stream of technologically aided stimulus and their preferred tools for information delivery. A level of irony exists, to be sure, that even when these men are stripped of their mobile devices, they still manage to spend a good deal of time discussing them in their absence:

[Image: Jim Wilson/The New York Times]

.“Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime”

The technology makes the tiniest windows of time entertaining, and potentially productive. But scientists point to an unanticipated side effect: when people keep their brains busy with digital input, they are forfeiting downtime that could allow them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new ideas.

.“Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain”
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It was a primitive trip with a sophisticated goal: to understand how heavy use of digital devices and other technology changes how we think and behave, and how a retreat into nature might reverse those effects.
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Alfred Hitchcock’s “North By Northwest” (1959)

More stylish than it’s suspenseful, “North By Northwest” seems to fill the “action movie” niche in Alfred Hitchcock’s repertoire of filmmaking.  Not unlike his earlier “39 Steps”, this espionage-laden foray follows the trials of the subtly charming, contemporaneously handsome bachelor, wrongfully accused and on-the-run. With a plot that accommodates the anxieties of nuclear war, the nearly-always cunning Cary Grant is a big city advertising man mistaken for a high-profile, top-secret spy, inadvertently becoming  involved in a mess of international bureaucratic affairs.  With the obligatory Hitchcock blonde thrown in for dramatic shifts in storyline, the viewer follows one of America’s most wanted through his own search for the spy he’s been mistaken for and some degree of explanation to his most-recent state of affairs.

When describing “Northwest” as an action movie, light on suspense, the intent is not to include any negative connotations with that assessment. Rather, the statement can be clarified by describing this movie as the filmmaker’s pretext for explosions and epic standoffs on the face of Mount Rushmore [A grueling battle between American and Soviet forces on one of the most iconic displays of United States patriotism—surely this scene is rife for political parsing] the end product being unprecedented cinematographic feats.

To highlight a few scenes from the movie, I gathered some imagery I thought worth sharing:

Without spending too much time gushing over the opening graphics, I wanted to point out the first sequence for it’s aesthetic quality. A screen of green appears first, quickly followed by the development of a grid that serves as the initial backdrop for the title credits. This image eventually dissolves into the façade of a urban business building of matching line, the shiny windows reflecting the activity of the street.

Attractive for its play on pattern and architecture, this small detail in the movie is a pleasure, though I can not actually ascribe any significance to it other than its flashiness (which is okay).

Secondly, The scene outside of the U.N. Headquarters in New York is totally stunning!

Easily the strongest composition in the whole movie, the aerial view of Cary Grant fleeing from avengers after a conspicuous knife in the back of a delegate looks more like a futurism painting with slight movements on what appears as the street-level. Using the architectural grid to enhance perspective, this shot provides a view of the man as microcosm, a rare chance (along with the Indiana scene) to examine the main character from afar and relative to his surroundings, placing him and his problems not it a confined space or set but in a context much larger, an expansive scene beyond the frame of the picture.

The final scene I wanted to bring forth is the one in which Grant is placed an hour-and-a-half outside of Chicago, apparently in rural Indiana [though actually California], and met with moments of escalating tension. Beautiful for it’s bareness and it’s stark contrast to the movie that takes place mostly in cities and on a train [Hitchcock seemed practically obsessed with the locomotive], it’s a pleasure to see Grant clad in his business attire, looking as if he were on the edge of civilization. In the open landscape, a man waiting for the bus across the road from Grant becomes profound. A remark by the stranger about the crop-duster in the distance proves to be foreshadowing for the death-defying chase about to ensue.

Seeing Cary Grant run away from a low-flying plane, shooting at him and dusting him with pesticides, is an exciting movie moment. When he stands in front of a large truck with oil barrels in tow, the crash that proceeds is literally explosive, truly the stuff any good action film must necessarily be made of.

After taking some screen captures of the scene, I suppose I revealed to myself some of the magic, or miniaturization for that matter, of movie making.

Regardless, this is still a standout scene in a movie of exacting execution by a brilliant director.

The Inexorable Mongol Emperor of the 13th Century—Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan was responsible for some astute  aphorisms. The legacy he strived to leave upon his death was the Yassa, a set of laws for the peoples of his empire to abide by.

Here are selections underlined while reading Genghis Khan: Emperor of All Men by Harold Lamb:

“Word breaking,” he said in after years, “is hideous in a ruler.”

 

…when men increase and crowd one another they build walls. And they divide themselves into different classes of human beings.

 

Human life had no value in the eyes of the Mongols, who desired only to depopulate fertile lands to provide grazing for their herds.

 

When food failed, they opened a vein in a horse, drank a small quantity of blood and closed the vein.

 

At one place some people saved themselves by lying down among the knots of bodies of those already slain. The Mongols heard of this, and an order was issued to cut the heads from the inhabitants in the future.

 

    Without any in-depth knowledge of Genghis Khan other than the universal recognition of his historical impact and legendary brutality, the portrait painted in this brief account of Genghis Khan’s upbringing and assent to emperorship was exciting in the same way as some of the science-fiction stories I have so happily devoured. As I have just recently read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and am currently engulfed in the first novel of Frank Herbert’s Dune series, a background of Genghis Khan fit right in with my most recently explored literary themes of war and royalty. A specific common element generated through the comparison of these texts is the theme of the young heir with a solemn inheritance of immense responsibility.

    What separates the novels of Cards and Herbert from the depiction of the once-great emperor of eastern civilization is an obvious disparity in time—the two science-fiction stories being set far into the future while the story of Genghis Khan took place nearly eight hundred years ago. The fabled warlord could easily be used as a fantastic model for an interplanetary epic, replacing his sword for a lasgun, his horse for a ‘thopter.

    It is an entertaining thought to regard the fictitious imaginings played out in fantasy novels to be more-or-less derivative of historical events. I would the hold the genre of science-fiction to be particularly adept at enacting an interpretation of and an expansive rumination upon the collected writings of historians; writings which, ironically enough, more often than not take place in a future time.  In fact, Card describes Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, a major inspiration for his own Ender series, as “an extrapolation of the ideas in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, applied to a galaxy–wide empire in some far future time.” It is natural to imagine a thorough understanding and appreciation of history and the science fiction novel, particularly the epic, existing together in a harmonious, interesting way.

    On an unrelated note, it is said the Genghis Khan, who died at the age of sixty-five, was buried in his homeland under a great tree which was said to be guarded by members of the Mongol military, burning incense unceasingly, “until the surrounding forest grew so thick that the tall tree was lost among its fellows and all trace of the grave vanished.”

    There’s also a myth that during his burial, forty white horses and forty beautiful women were taken to his grave and slain. Crazy…

    You can read the full text of Harold Lamb’s book here.


    The Cramps live at Napa State Mental Hospital

    Still pretty amazing…

    Aldous Huxley’s “A Brave New World” (1932)

    Realizing I probably should have read this book back in high school, I was a bit amazed both at how pleasurable reading Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” was and that I hadn’t read it sooner. I think I had something built up in my mind, the false idea that this book would be more challenging and dry than it was. In reality, I found Huxley’s most prized piece of writing to have some genuine humor throughout it. The absurdity of situations are elevated to comedy. For example, police spraying soma gas (a universally popular and near mandatory narcotic distributed by the government meant to provide feelings of bliss and absent-mindedness) at a crowd on the verge of aggressively rioting and altering the mass into a sobbing horde of groping bodies drugged out of their dissent.

    Alas, there is also violence present within the novel that is raw and not intermingled with the light-hearted. An earnestness underlines the entire work and reminds the reader that what they are in fact engaged in reading is a tragedy, putting the problems of peace under scrutiny.

    This is a theme I find interesting, an alternative among the abundance of post-apocalyptic scenarios drawn out in countless science-fiction tales where the world is burned out or neglected to the point of being uninhabitable. In this version of the future, the apocalypse as a cataclysmic event is stunted by the control of a governing body that works to maintain peace and order, to preserve and progress human society to a point of thoughtlessness, in effect ruling out the possibility of war altogether.

    The point made with “Brave New World” is there can no great tragedies or art in the absence of social instability. In a societal structure shaped through conditioning, culture is necessarily mass-produced and insubordination beyond the realm of the imagination. Religious over-tones aside, Huxley at times coming across as a tinge conservative in beliefs and possibly a racist, “Brave New World” certainly deserves the title of “required reading” among any literate person interested in ideas of social structure or visions of the future.

    I found Kurt Vonnegut through a high-school English class after reading “Harrison Bergeron”, an author undoubedtly influenced by Huxley. Perhaps this particular novel would have soared over my head in my teenage years. Some would even go so far as to say that books like “Brave New World” and “1984” are so dated that they don’t elicit the same level of shock as they used to amongst young readers, the fantasy described in the novels already being a reality. Be that as it may, well-formed ideas of the future, even if written over a half-dozen decades ago, still elicit some excitement from me and seem worthy of sharing.

    Also, I’ve been meaning to find the cartoon comparing and contrasting Huxley and Orwell. I had seen it awhile ago and it sort of fell out of my mind until I started reading “Brave New World” and found it on chimac.net. Read the cartoon “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Stuart McMillen here.

    Tsunehisa Kimura

    Gunnery Pagodas / Manhattan Niagara / The University of War

    A great post from BLDG BLOG I found via the gaybombnazicastle blog. Just putting it up as I figure it’s worth sharing and I’d like to remember it later.

    I wish I could find more of Tsunehisa Kimura work. A quick google search didn’t yield terribly much but I did find this interesting piece with some insight into the artist who claims Metropolis and the first-hand experience of witnessing the firebombing of Osaka in 1945 influenced his work.