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Archive for April 2009

vertov in the cheesestate

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How strange is it to see that again. Watched the show when I was a kid, hohum, but now decades later and well entangled in left modernist ostalgic aesthetics, it looks like the lead-in to a very sexy bit of Fordist Realism or something even better than that.

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April 30, 2009 at 9:38 pm

Posted in teevee

catastrophe, in syndication

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Funny thing. Not so long ago, it looked like the future when this sort of stuff was shown on TV. Now, just a few years later, it has the look of a made-for-tv period movie, set circa 2003.

The age of media-anticipated catastophe, of the mass-marketed dystopia, seems to have come and gone. Would be interesting to think ever so carefully about it, it’s relationship to where we are now. “Carefully” meaning without the backpocket mysticism of Jameson’s lesser advisees, mining the cover of Underworld for far more than it was worth.

Unfortunately, can’t do that tonight as I’ve gotta read a book for an overdue review, and it’ll really piss someone off if this looks like it took more than five or six minutes.

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April 26, 2009 at 9:05 pm

owen! video!

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I showed up too late to see this, for reasons mentioned two posts above….  Wish the person who posted this would put the rest online for us all to see!

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April 24, 2009 at 11:57 pm

Posted in modernism

nostalgie de la boue

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Notes for a future post or more:

From an article by Iain Sinclair on films set in the East End in today’s Guardian:

But these films are not just memory devices to fix a period, or an excuse for nostalgic revivals. They are an important element in forging a mythology of place. One of the significant local traditions is of the established outsider travelling east with missionary zeal, like a pioneer into the wilderness. Robert Hamer, most celebrated for Kind Hearts and Coronets, was certainly a film industry toff. (Less so than Anthony Asquith, son of a Liberal prime minister. More so than David Lean, who rose from the non-commissioned status of the cutting-room.) Hamer’s East End invasion of a place that was never quite there, for It Always Rains on Sunday, was a marker for much that followed.

Hamer garnished social realist material from a novel by Arthur La Bern (whose later work, Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square, became the vehicle for Hitchcock’s London return, Frenzy). The tone is relentlessly downbeat, morbid: without the incessant rain, necks would remain unwashed. Mean English streets are photographed by Douglas Slocombe with the melancholy lyricism of Marcel Carné or Renoir’s La Bête Humaine. Backlit smoke. A poetry you can smell: hot tar, bacon, cabbage, tobacco, wet dogs, armpits. Real places glorying in defiant entropy: rail yards, markets, mortuary pubs, tight backyards with Anderson shelters and rabbit hutches. Slocombe goes on, in terms of this London project, to work with Joseph Losey on The Servant: and thereby to connect with Dirk Bogarde (former bit-part delinquent) and Harold Pinter. Pinter attended the same school as Alexander Baron and Roland Camberton, those forgotten realists. Although his play The Caretaker was based on a glimpse into a Chiswick room, he returned, with director Clive Donner, to shoot the film version on his old turf: a house alongside the snow-covered Hackney Downs.

I’ve bolded the bit that I’m most interested in, and even more specifically, I’m really interested in the phrase defiant entropy.

It seems to me that there are a few options for how we play this defiant entropy, and not to give the game away (these are only notes), I’m not sure that any of them are truly convincing when thought into for more than a few minutes.

  1. The entropy is defiant because it marks a sort of decerteauvian resistance to municipal order, to instrumental rationalization, to gentrification. Street life vs. the redevelopment plan, the lived tactical vs. the cost-tested strategic. (But how do rail yards fit into this picture? And how do we know, for sure, the difference between defiance and abjection?)
  2. The entropy is defiant because it is ugly in a world that is supposed to be pretty. The world wants Costa Coffee and All Bar One, not mortuary pubs and markets. (But we certainly don’t think it’s really ugly, do we? Thus the article, thus our fascination and Sinclair’s… and the developers’…)
  3. The entropy is defiant because it is more real than other things. Blueglass flats being craned to life back behind Kings Cross are not real; urban squalor is real. (What slippery ground we are on when we play this game out, the game of the really real…)

There are other options, of course, and perhaps the three above are all one reason spread out and rephrased a bit, but let’s just leave it there for a second. In short, I worry a bit about the aesthetic fetishization of squalor. It has all the marks of a well-fed decadence, the likes of which we’ve seen before, we’ve seen recur at certain moments for a hundred years or more. I am wondering, in the end, whether we’re right about the defiance that we’ve attributed to urban entropy, squalor, and the like. Wouldn’t Sinclair’s sentence make as much sense if it read, say, Real places notable for their abject squalor. How, exactly, are they “glorying” – other than in Sinclair’s appropriative retransmission?

It’s a real question – and, of course, an old question – and I’d like to hear what you think. I love these things and places too, perhaps more than I should, and I just worry a bit about my love for them. Maybe, I think, everything should be bright glass boxes and intermodal transport links, maybe everyone should drink in a nice place and not a mortuary pub, if they want to anyway.

Sorry. Tired. Notes for Future Post, as I said….

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April 24, 2009 at 10:59 pm

Posted in aesthetics, london

number two

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Ah, well she’s here and everyone’s healthy. Some things went smoothly and others distinctly didn’t, which amounted to a stressful series of days (when did all this start? Monday…. And now it’s Friday night, and only now we’re all home…), the sort of days that take months off the end of your life, but now it’s done.

My now-less-limited experience of the NHS suggests that it kicks the living shit out of what you’re provisioned, even with good insurance, back home. Efficiency, rationing, and triage are one thing, but profit has no place in the realm of healing and birthing. (It’s not really me, and it might sound a bit dunno, but I’m actually thinking about launching a wee malpractice suit against a certain hospital in Brooklyn. Pretty angry, I am. It’s not nice to hear about the clear evidence of past medical miscues – miscues that are retrospectively obvious now –  from an NHS surgeon as your wife’s dripping pints of blood off of an operating table, a few hours after delivery… But the truth of the matter is, and all of you Americans have seen this, that there are so many disincentives for medical practitioners in the US to go looking for possible problems – paperwork, won’t get to go on the next Blue Cross sponsored golf weekend in Hilton Head, better money in one thing rather than another – that it’s a wonder anything is ever caught and fixed at all…)

Anyway, today, back from home with a car seat (which we didn’t end up using, the taxi driver was non-plussed by the idea of installing it) and riding the elevator up to the room, someone who was a grandmother saw what I was carrying and said, Ah, lucky. You’re taking yours home today. I’m not. Mine’s in the ICU. Mine’s three months early. But mine’s a fighter.

That’s the thing about cliched speech, speech that traffics in what they’d say if they were saying this not in real life but on television, bad television. But mine’s a fighter. I won’t say what the thing is, but I’m guessing you know. I had nothing to say back so I said, Good luck, good luck, I’m sure it’ll all be fine. And then she left the lift, a floor before mine. It was straight out of a handbook for writing the scene, she was straight out of central casting, and so was I. Wonder how it’ll end for her and hers.

I’ll be getting to the accrued comments over the next few days. Jinxing myself a bit, but Christ is it easier the second time around. Keep your fingers crossed for me. Sorry for a rough, self-centered post – had to do this one, on to other things soon, perhaps in minutes.

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April 24, 2009 at 10:21 pm

Posted in me

the slowness of birth

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Like every other “life event,” giving birth has an odder temporality than one is led to expect by ambient cultural models, fiction and movies, and the like. Some of my favorite moments in fiction take up this issue – Emma Bovary’s death, which seems to go on for ever and ever, the slow starvation of Michael K. in Coetzee’s novel.

We’re used to laughing at Emma’s question: Et Emma cherchait à savoir ce que l’on entendait au juste dans la vie par les mots de félicité, de passion, et d’ivresse, qui lui avaient paru si beaux dans les livres. But then again, what words and abstract concepts mean in life is exactly what good novels, like the novel in which she lives, show. And what they show, again and again, is that above all else these things mean a particular way that time passes, generally more slowly than one would expect.

I spend my working life thinking ever more deeply into the following passage from Lukács Theory of the Novel:

The greatest discrepancy between idea and reality [in the novel of romantic disillusionment] is time: the process of time as duration. The most profound and most humiliating impotence of subjectivity consists not so much in its hopeless struggle against the lack of idea in social forms and their human representatives, as in the fact that it cannot resist the sluggish, yet constant process of time; that it must slip down, slowly yet inexorably, from the peaks it has laboriously scaled; that time – that ungraspable, invisibly moving substance – gradually robs subjectivity of all its possessions and imperceptibly forces alien contents into it. That is why only the novel, the literary form of the transcendent homelessness of the idea, includes real time – Bergson’s durée – among its constitutive principles.

I suppose what I should start saying when I say that I don’t believe in the event is that I do in fact believe in events, I just think that those events take time, sometimes astoundingly long periods of time. When I resist the im selben Augenblick temporality of certain strands of the analysis of the modern, this, at base, is what I’m talking about. I am not sure whether I learned to be this way from reading novels, or if I found in the novel a materialization of what I had always been thinking about, looking to think about.

And so here we are. The water (or as they say here, waters) broke last night, and we drove through the deserted streets of North London down to the hospital – a hospital that happens to be located exactly across the street from my place of work. The midwife checked – yes, the waters have broken. Everyone is healthy but no real contractions have started, and so we are sent home. We will return today if they start. Or, if not, we will return tomorrow morning to “be induced.” There was a little bed in the room, pictured above, waiting to catch what came.

This sort of thing happened the last time around too – “giving birth” spread into a two day process. But it still takes one by surprise, when it happens this way. I guess I’ll read the book that I am supposed to review today. If we’re not moving forward tonight, perhaps we’ll check into a hotel downtown, a hotel I pass every day on the way to the Underground, and wait through another night of slowly giving birth.

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April 20, 2009 at 10:45 am

Posted in novel, temporality

dysekphrasis, heavenly art of the bubble, i’d like your help

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There’s an audience participation opportunity to come at the end of this post, so don’t skip the end if you want to play along at home and win great prizes! But to start, here’s a fantastic moment from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, not long after Marlow has reached the Outer Station:

“I had no idea why he wanted to be sociable, but as we chatted in there it suddenly occurred to me the fellow was trying to get at something — in fact, pumping me. He alluded constantly to Europe, to the people I was supposed to know there — putting leading questions as to my acquaintances in the sepulchral city, and so on. His little eyes glittered like mica discs — with curiosity — though he tried to keep up a bit of superciliousness. At first I was astonished, but very soon I became awfully curious to see what he would find out from me. I couldn’t possibly imagine what I had in me to make it worth his while. It was very pretty to see how he baffled himself, for in truth my body was full only of chills, and my head had nothing in it but that wretched steamboat business. It was evident he took me for a perfectly shameless prevaricator. At last he got angry, and, to conceal a movement of furious annoyance, he yawned. I rose. Then I noticed a small sketch in oils, on a panel, representing a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch. The background was sombre — almost black. The movement of the woman was stately, and the effect of the torchlight on the face was sinister.

“It arrested me, and he stood by civilly, holding an empty half-pint champagne bottle (medical comforts) with the candle stuck in it. To my question he said Mr. Kurtz had painted this — in this very station more than a year ago — while waiting for means to go to his trading post. ‘Tell me, pray,’ said I, ‘who is this Mr. Kurtz?’

That painting! It’s the very definition of the grotesque, and mirror of the grotesqueness of the world of the novella, to condense two incompatable (but why should they be incompatable, justice and enlightenment, fairness and truth?) allegorical females into a single weird image. It’s moments like these where

When I teach, I explain to my students that best I can guess what we mean when we say the “Kafkaeseque” or “the uncanny in Kafka”  (after of course going through “heimlich” and “unheimlich” and the rest of the Freud stuff) is that is not just the weird thing, the thing out of place, but the weird thing inserted into a context that takes it as normal, everyday, that ignores it. It becomes compulsory, in a deep and strange sense: something’s out of place, everyone acts as if it isn’t, and then, as in a nightmare, you feel yourself pulled along by both by not wanting to make a scene and the fact that there’s time to stop and really think about all of this. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness works in much the same way. The compulsion of the unremarked grotesque is all over the place in the Outer Station section – you see things that are illogical, absurd, stupid, or that make you sick… But still: “I went to work the next day, turning, so to speak, my back on that station. In that way only it seemed to me I could keep my hold on the redeeming facts of life.” Or with this picture, this painting that doesn’t make any fucking sense, but which is left hanging there, a year after Kurtz painted it, a year after Kurtz, whom everyone in the station absolutely hates, left, never to return.

So, as far as ekphrastic moments go in modernist novels, I rate this one quite highly, as you can see. And I’d like to have something similar in something that I’m working on at the moment. Here’s what I’m looking for: I’d like to describe not one but two paintings (or photographs – or images that you can’t tell whether they are photographs or paintings) hanging on the wall of let’s say for simplicity’s sake a hotel room or nicely furnished apartment from the era of the bubble – the era in which we’re still lingering, at least in terms of hotel design. (Thinks can’t turn 1983 Bucharest fast enough for me, in terms of hotel aesthetics… But that’s another story…) I’d like them to be something like the one that Marlow sees at the Outer Station, though not nearly so obviously fucked up. I.e. if they are emblems of some sort of socio-individual brain damage, I’d like it to be the ambient brain-damage of the world in which we’ve lived or live. And their subject matter should be relatively upbeat, as the world in which they hang doesn’t have lots of time or really need for social critique, bad-conscience-bourgie-art, and the like.

I don’t care whether they form a clear diptych, an subtle diptych, or bear no clear relationship the one to the other. I’d love to hear a lot of them – first thought tries, or considered responses – as I might actually feature quite a few of these things in the thing that I’m doing.

If I’m not being clear, ask me questions. This is a little hard to describe. Not sure whether I should do this, as it primes the pump, but I’ll paste some notes that I’ve written and that I’m not at all satisfied with, so feel free to ignore the models.

On the left side is a photograph (it looks like a photograph, though it may well be a painting, there’s a certain subtle smudge and line to it that hints that it was made by human hands rather than a lens) that features four naked adolescents, late adolescents perhaps eighteen or nineteen years old hugging each other in a circle. Two males and two females, two whites and two blacks, and all four are fit and beautiful. Additionally, the genital area of each one is clearly visible. The models had to turn in a slightly awkward way in order for this to be so, which renders this image, which otherwise would seem to be more fine art than pornography, more erotically provocative than it might have been.

Its counterpart on the right side takes up an entirely different subject matter, yet somehow subtly seems to correspond with its partner across the wall. It is an aerial view of a section of some city – perhaps this one, you’re not familiar with it enough to say yet. Within the boundaries of the picture are perhaps thirty houses, of modern design and painted in bright colors, each one exactly identical to the next. Uncannily identical, same lift of the eaves, same blue shutters, same windowboxes planted with the same flowers. There are approximately ten or twelve human beings visible in the picture, and they are the only mark of distinction in what is otherwise a grid pattern of sameness. A man toward the bottom waters the flowers in his front garden, several are walking up or down the streets, and barely visible, half-cut off by the limits of the image, two naked people, a male and a female, lie on top of each other, naked, on the grass in the backyard of the house that fills the bottom left corner. The crop of the thing renders it unclear what they are doing – no faces are visible, all you see are two torsos, with the breasts and hair to indicate that they are the genders that they are.

Please, please, do me one – or twenty – better. IT always says she’ll send you something for your trouble at this point. If you provide something really helpful I’ll send you hmm, how about an autographed picture of a smiling American narcissist abroad? (You should see the ebay resale market for that shit!) What could be better than that? Or I’ll name a happy person after you in this thing that I’m doing. Or I’ll say the rosary for you, backward, and in esperanto or any other artificial language.

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April 18, 2009 at 8:57 pm

Posted in conrad, kafka, uncanny