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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Irony of Copyright Protection
In Copyright Protection That Serves to Destroy, Terry Teachout lays out some of the fundamental issues surrounding the preservation of art, in particular focusing on recorded sound:
Nowadays most people understand the historical significance of recorded sound, and libraries around the world are preserving as much of it as possible. But recording technology has evolved much faster than did printing technology—so fast, in fact, that librarians can't keep up with it. It's hard enough to preserve a wax cylinder originally cut in 1900, but how do you preserve an MP3 file? Might it fade over time? And will anybody still know how to play it a quarter-century from now? If you're old enough to remember floppy disks, you'll get the point at once: A record, unlike a book, is only as durable as our ability to play it back.
Digital preservation is already a big problem for current librarians, and not just because of the mammoth amounts of digital data being produced. Just from a simple technological perspective, there are many non-trivial challenges. Even if the storage medium/reading mechanisms remain compatible over the next century, there are nontrivial challenges with ensuring these devices will remain usable that far into the future. Take hard drives. A lot of film and audio (and, I suppose books these days too) are being archived on hard drives. But you can't just take a hard drive and stick it on a shelf somewhere and fire it up in 30 years. Nor should you keep it spinning for 30 years. It requires use, but not constant use. And even then you'll need to ensure redundancy because hard drives fail.

Just in writing that, you can see the problem. Hard drives clearly aren't the solution. Too many modes of failure there. We need something more permanent. Which means something completely new... and thus something that will make hard drives (and our ability to read them) obsolete.

And that's from a purely technological perspective. They're nontrivial, but I'm confident that technology will rise to the challenge. However, once you start getting into the absolutely bonkers realm of intellectual property law, things get stupid really fast. If technology will rise to the challenge, IP owners and lawmakers seem to be engaged in an ever-escalating race to the bottom of the barrel:
In Europe, sound recordings enter the public domain 50 years after their initial release. Once that happens, anyone can reissue them, which makes it easy for Europeans to purchase classic records of the past. In America, by contrast, sound recordings are "protected" by a prohibitive snarl of federal and state legislation whose effect was summed up in a report issued in 2010 by the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress: "The effective term of copyright protection for even the oldest U.S. recordings, dating from the late 19th century, will not end until the year 2067 at the earliest.… Thus, a published U.S. sound recording created in 1890 will not enter the public domain until 177 years after its creation, constituting a term of rights protection 82 years longer than that of all other forms of audio visual works made for hire."

Among countless other undesirable things, this means that American record companies that aren't interested in reissuing old records can stop anyone else from doing so, and can also stop libraries from making those same records readily accessible to scholars who want to use them for noncommercial purposes. Even worse, it means that American libraries cannot legally copy records made before 1972 to digital formats for the purpose of preservation...
Sheer insanity. The Library of Congress appears to be on the right side of the issue, suggesting common-sense recommendations for copyright reform... that will almost certainly never be enacted by IP owners or lawmakers. Still, their "National Recording Preservation Plan" seems like a pretty good idea. Again, it's a pity that almost none of their recommendations will be enacted, and while the need for Copyright reform is blindingly obvious to anyone with a brain, I don't see it happening anytime soon. It's a sad state of affairs when the only victories we can celebrate in this realm is grassroots opposition to absurd laws like SOPA/PIPA/ACTA.

I don't know the way forward. When you look at the economics of the movie industry, as recently laid out by Steven Soderberg in a speech that's been making the rounds of late (definitely worth a watch, if you've got a half hour), you start to see why media companies are so protective of their IP. As currently set up, your movie needs to make 120 million dollars, minimum, before you start to actually turn a profit (and that's just the marketing costs - you'd have to add on the budget to get a better idea). That, too, is absurd. I don't envy the position of media companies, but on the other hand, their response to such problems isn't to fix the problem but to stomp their feet petulantly, hold on to copyrighted works for far too long, and to antagonize their best customers.

That's the irony of protecting copyright. If you protect it too much, no one actually benefits from it, not even the copyright holders...
Posted by Mark on May 29, 2013 at 10:46 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Streaming Narrative
The NYT laments the sorry state of royalties paid out by music streaming services like Spotify.
A decade after Apple revolutionized the music world with its iTunes store, the music industry is undergoing another, even more radical, digital transformation as listeners begin to move from CDs and downloads to streaming services like Spotify, Pandora and YouTube.

As purveyors of legally licensed music, they have been largely welcomed by an industry still buffeted by piracy. But as the companies behind these digital services swell into multibillion-dollar enterprises, the relative trickle of money that has made its way to artists is causing anxiety at every level of the business.
So I really don't know enough to comment on whether or not the whole royalty situation for streaming will pan out (or not!) the way some think it will, but the interesting thing here is the narrative.

The NYT credits iTunes with revolutionizing the music world, and in some ways it did, but only by making the revolution legal. The real shift began with file sharing services like Napster. One of the old narratives that the music industry endorsed was that if you liked a song and wanted to own it, you had to also purchase the 10 or so other songs that surrounded it on an album. Napster was free, and while it's ability to enable widespread music theft was probably the cause of its popularity, it also changed that whole album purchasing paradigm. You like "For Whom the Bell Tolls", fine, download it and stick it to that annoying Lars guy. No need to go buy the whole album. Apple, to their credit, realized that the narrative had shifted, and when they implemented iTunes, they allowed customers to purchase only the songs they wanted.

Like I said, the free downloads were probably the main cause of Napster's popularity, but the success of iTunes shows that the whole a la carte idea was also a key component. A decade later, and the narrative is changing again.

The thing that struck me reading the article is that free music streaming services like Pandora and Spotify, while providing truly minimal royalties, also shine a light on another narrative about listening frequency. Namely, once you bought a record, the music industry could care less how often you listened to it. But streaming services aren't based on sales, they're based on "listens" - the number of times you streamed a specific song.

I'm probably the last person in the world who should be commenting on listening habits, as I suck at music. I love it, I'm just bad at keeping up with this stuff and constantly go back to the same well (What? I've got movies to watch, books to read, and beer to drink over here, leave me alone!) All of which is to say that I have to wonder how the metric of "listens" will impact the industry. I tend to listen to the same thing over and over again, and when I do that, I'll probably earn someone a few cents of royalties. But I have a large suspicion that a lot of people will give most music a single listen (especially given the low barrier of entry on streaming), maybe revisiting once or twice if they're really psyched about it.

Music is certainly relistened to more than movies are rewatched, and being more of a movie guy, that might throw off my calibration on this issue, but I really have to wonder about the relationship between sales and listens. Yeah, such and such album or song may have sold a million copies last week... but how long will that song be in heavy rotation in streaming? And when you literally have millions of songs on your fingertips, are you likely to cast your net far and wide, or return to the same music over and over again? Will this notion drive what kinds of music becomes available? More pop music with clear hooks, less experimental stuff? Will those experimental folks be able to survive on the long tail?

I don't have any answers here and I don't really know enough about the music industry to say how this will play out, but I'm thinking we'll see some interesting developments in the next few years. Incidentally, movie streaming doesn't seem to have caved to streaming in the same way. They don't charge streaming services like Netflix per watch, but for the general ability to stream a certain catalog. I'll be curious to see if we ever reach a Spotify-level streaming service for movies. As I've mentioned before, I don't think that's going to happen anytime soon... but again, the next few years will be interesting.
Posted by Mark on January 30, 2013 at 08:30 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Tasting Notes - Part 4
Another edition of Tasting Notes, a series of quick hits on a variety of topics that don't really warrant a full post. So here's what I've been watching/playing/reading/drinking lately:

Television
  • Game of Thrones - The season finale aired last week, and I have to say, I'm impressed. My usual approach to stuff like this is to let it run for a couple of seasons to make sure it's both good and that it's actually heading somewhere. At this point, the book series isn't even finished, but friends who've read it think it's great and they say the books get better, so I gave the series a shot - and I'm really glad I did. It's a fantastic series, much more along the lines of swords-and-sandals (a la Spartacus or Gladiator) than outright fantasy (a la Lord of the Rings). People talk about magic and dragons and whatnot, but most of that seems to be in the distant past (though there are hints of a return to that sort of thing throughout the series and especially in the last minutes of the season). Most of the season consists of dialogue, politics, Machiavellian scheming, and action. Oh, and sex. And incest. Yeah, it's a fun show. The last episode of the season doesn't do much to resolve the various plotlines, and hints at an even more epic scale. Interestingly, though, I don't find this sort of open-endedness that frustrating. Unlike a show like Lost, the open threads don't seem like red-herrings or even mysteries at all. It's just good, old fashioned storytelling. The worst thing about it is that I'm all caught up and will have to wait for the next season! Prediction: Geoffrey will die horribly, and I will love it. But not too quickly. He's such a fantastic, sniveling little bastard. I want to keep hating him for a while before someone takes him down.
  • Netflix Watch Instantly Pick of the Week: Doctor Who - Most of the semi-recently rebooted series is available on watch instantly, and I've only just begun to pick my way through the series again. I vaguely remember watching a few of Christopher Eccleston's Ninth Doctor episodes, but I never finished that first season. I'm not very far in right now - just saw the first appearance of the Daleks, which should be interesting.
Movies
  • 13 Assassins - Takashi Miike tends to be a hit-or-miss filmmaker for me. Fortunately for him, he is ridiculously prolific. His most recent effort is a pretty straightforward Samurai tale about a suicide mission to assassinate a cruel and ruthless evil lord. Seven Samurai, it is not, but it is still quite engaging and entertaining to watch. It starts a bit slow, but it finishes with an amazing 45 minute setpiece as our 13 heroes spring their trap on 200 enemies. Along the way, we get some insight into Japanese culture as the days of the Samurai and Shogunate faded, though I don't think I'd call this a rigorously accurate film or anything. Still, there's more going on here than just bloody action, of which there is a lot. An excellent film, among the top films I've seen so far this year.
  • HBO has a pretty great lineup right now. In the past couple weeks, I've revisited Inception, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and How to Train Your Dragon. All of these films have improved upon rewatching them, a subject I've always found interesting. Scott Pilgrim, in particular, has improved it's standing in my mind. I still think it's got some problems in the final act, but I also think it's a dreadfully underappreciated film.
  • Netflix Watch Instantly Pick of the Week: Transcendent Man - I mentioned this a couple weeks ago, but it's an interesting profile of Ray Kurtzweil, a futurist and singularity proponent. I don't really buy into his schtick, but he's an interesting guy and the documentary is worth a watch for that.
Video Games
  • I'm still playing Mass Effect 2, but I have not progressed all that far in the game. I've found this is common with RPGs lately - it takes a long time to get anything accomplished in an RPG, so I sometimes find it hard to get started. Still, I have liked what I've seen of this game so far. It's far from perfect, but it's got some interesting elements.
  • Since I had to hook up my Wii to get Netflix working during the great PSN outage of '11, I actually did start playing Goldeneye again. I even got a Wii classic controller, and that made the game approximately 10 times more fun (but I have to say, plugging the Wiimote into the classic controller to get it to work? That's just stupidly obtuse, though I guess it keeps the cost down). Since I could play it in short 30 minute chunks, I actually did manage to finish this one off in pretty short order. It's a pretty simple FPS game, which I always enjoy, but there's nothing particularly special about it, except for some muted nostalgia from the original.
Music
  • The Black Keys - Brothers - This is a pretty great album. Lots of crunchy blues guitars and catchy rhythms. I'm greatly enjoying it.
  • Deerhoof - Deerhoof vs. Evil - Another hipster rock album, but I rather like it, especially the song Secret Mobilization. Good stuff.
Books
  • I've been cranking my way through Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga novels, of which there are many (and I'm actually quite glad, as they're all great fun). I've covered the first few novels in SF Book Reviews, and will probably have finished enough other books to do a Bujold-only edition in the near future. I'm currently reading Ethan of Athos, which seems to me to be a kinda spinoff/standalone novel, but an interesting one nonetheless (and we get to catch up with a character from one of the other books).
  • I also started Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, but have found myself quickly bogging down (it doesn't help that I have, like, 10 Bujold novels sitting around, begging me to read them) almost from the start. It's not bad, per say, but there's something about the style and scope of the book that bothers me. There are some interesting ideas, and Diamond admits that his methods are, by necessity, not that rigorous, but it's still seems extremely speculative to me. I would normally be fine with that sorta approach, but I'm finding something about this grating and I haven't figured it out just yet...
  • If you count the aforementioned Guns, Germs, and Steel, I'm down to just 4 unread books from my last Book Queue, which is pretty good! And I've only really added the Bujold books and Fuzzy Nation since then. I'm actually at a point where I should start seeking out new stuff. Of course, it probably won't take long to fill the queue back up, but still. Progress!
The Finer Things...
  • I've managed to have some pretty exceptional beers of late. First up is Ola Dubh Special Reserve 40, an imperial porter aged in 40 year old Highland Park casks. It's an amazing beer, though also outrageously priced. Still, if you can get your hands on some and don't mind paying the premium, it's great.
  • Another exceptional beer, the legendary Pliny the Elder (currently ranked #3 on Beer Advocates Best Beers on Planet Earth list). It's a fantastic double IPA. Not sure if it's really #3 beer in the world fantastic, but fantastic nonetheless.
  • One more great beer, and a total surprise, was Sierra Nevada Boot Camp ExPortation. Basically, Sierra Nevada has this event every year where fans get to go to "Beer Camp" and collaborate on new beers with Sierra Nevada brewers and whatnot. My understanding is that the batches are extremely limited. Indeed, I never expected to see these, but apparently there were a few on tap at a local bar, sorta leftover from Philly Beer Week. The beer is basically a porter with Brettanomyces added and aged in Pinot Noir barrels. This is all beer-nerd-talk for a sour (in a good way) beer. I'm not normally big into the style or Brett, but I'll be damned if this isn't a fantastic beer. I loved it and unfortunately, I'll probably never see it again. If you see it, try it. At the very least, it will be an interesting experience!
And that's all for now.
Posted by Mark on June 26, 2011 at 06:22 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Recent Listening
I may have posted about this before, but I'm not a very astute music fan. Don't get me wrong, I love music, I just don't understand it the way I do with something like, say, movies or books. I gather I'm very unusual in most respects when it comes to music, especially when it comes to lyrics. In short, I rarely pay attention to them. My focus is generally on the music and the way the sound of the voice plays into that, which I know is a crazy way to listen to music, but it's what I generally find myself doing. When I really get into an album or a band or something and I spend a lot of time listening to their stuff, I will eventually get around to the lyrics. Sometimes I'm very pleased with the experience and it takes me to the next level. Other times, I find out that I've been listening to German anarchists (and I suppose there's a next level there too).

Part of the issue is that I really have no technical knowledge of music. Tune, chords, notes; I have a general idea of what these things are, but I'm not a musician. I treat music much more subjectively than I treat movies or books. I can recognize when I like the pretty sounds coming out of the speakers though, and that's good enough most of the time.

Anyway, I've lately come to realize that my music catalog is becoming outdated and rather stale. I'm getting sick of listening to the same stuff, so I thought it was time to branch out. Even when it comes to my preferred genres of music (i.e. Rock), I'm not a terribly knowledgeable listener. So in an attempt to broaden my musical horizons, I got a book called 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die by Tom Moon. So far, I've made my way through 38 of the albums listed, which is pretty slow going. At the current rate, it would take me a many years to listen to all of these at least once, but it's still been fun. Here are a few highlights (The book has a website, but not all the albums have the descriptions posted yet):
  • Sufjan Stevens - Illinoise: Moon writes a great into to this album, which has become one of my favorite recent albums:
    At first people thought Sufjan Stevens was joking. After garnering big acclaim for his second solo effort Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State (2003), the singer, songwriter, and nu-folk mystic from Michigan told interviewers he intended to create a series of albums of original songs, one for each state in the union. A grand and quixotic plan a social studies teacher could love, this project seemed likely to exhaust Stevens's considerable compositional resources—even as it earned him a place in the novelty-music hall of fame.

    Then came the even more inventive Illinoise, and suddenly Stevens's modest proposal didn't seem like such a joke.
    One thing I think I've come to appreciate is the instrumentation in these songs. There are some that are a tad slow and I haven't gotten around to really looking at the lyrics (which are seemingly important here), but there are a number of great songs here. Standout tracks include "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!" and (my favorite title for a song) "They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!" Alas, I don't think that Stevens will ever get to all the states, though he has apparently released a number of individual songs that could be associated with various states and is reportedly working on a New Jersey album (apparently some sort of ode to the New Jersey Turnpike, which is funny).
  • The Mars Volta - The Bedlam in Goliath: This music is a bit hard to describe, but it's very dense, which is something I enjoy in music. I like when it takes a few listenings before I can really parse a song's structure or make distinctions between various sounds and effects. It's also very fast paced and they sometimes get into a sorta rock groove (like, for instance, the end of "aberinkula"). The singer's voice initially got on my nerves a bit, but that eventually went away and I've been able to really enjoy the album. Standout songs include the two opening epics, "aberinkula" and "Metatron" as well as the third song "Ilyena" and the perplexing "Askepios". I suppose this is what progressive rock has morphed into... and it's something I want to listen to more of.
  • Johnny Adams - The Real Me: Johnny Adams Sings Doc Pomus: I've never really listened to a lot of the Blues, but I've always appreciated the sound and feel of the genre, even if I wasn't that familiar with it. These songs tend to be based on lyrics though, so it's something I probably need to listen to a lot more in order to fully get it, but luckily the music seems pretty great too.
  • The Abyssinian Baptist Gospel Choir - Shakin' the Rafters: You know that scene in The Blues Brothers when Jake and Elwood go to the church and get their mission from God? And then James Brown leads a Gospel Choir in song? This music reminded me of that. It doesn't quite have that same feel, but it is good stuff. Not something I see myself revisiting regularly, but I'm glad I was exposed to this, because it's not something I would pick up on my own.
  • Arcade Fire - Neon Bible: This album is a bit disappointing because I like the music so much, but when I finally got around to thinking about the lyrics, I was surprised at how depressing it was. Moon captures this well in his writeup: "in most rock anthems, the music strides solemnly while the lyrics supply the hope. Neon Bible turns that upside down: The lyrics are borderline despondent, and whatever sunshine there is resides in the cresting, bursting-with-possibility music." The music really is great, and at this point, I do want to check out their first album, Funeral, but I'm just not into the despondent lyrics. Standouts include "Intervention" and "No Cars Go".
  • King Sunny Ade - Best of the Classic Years: This is one of those discoveries that makes this process all worthwhile. Here's this Nigerian guitarist that I never would have heard of in a million years if it weren't for this book, and I love this music. I won't pretend to have any familiarity with African music, but this does strike me as a gateway drug to more from that vein. I've only listened to this once, but it's definitely something I want to listen to more.
  • The Beatles: For unclear reasons, I've never really been that into The Beatles. This is probably a crime for any rock music fan, but I'm doing my best to rectify that. There were 6 albums listed in the book, so those were the ones I started with. A Hard Day's Night, Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The White Album, and Abbey Road.

    I'm still getting to know all the albums, but a few things have crossed my mind. First is that their songs are so short... I've noticed this before, but it always surprises me. Most of their songs are like 2-3 minutes long. Maybe it's just the other types of music I listen to, but most of the time when I see a 2 minute song, I think it's a filler or transition song between two longer songs. This isn't a bad thing at all, especially when you've got musicians this talented, and I realize that songs generally used to be shorter and that there were physical limitations of records that made it hard to do epic 20 minute long songs and whatnot, but it still struck me as a bit odd.

    The other thing that struck me was just how distinct each album feels. I set up a playlist with all the albums and just started listening in the background one day whilst blogging or otherwise messing around, and every time the music transitioned from one album to another, I could definitely pick it out very easily. It's not so much that I had ever thought of The Beatles music as all sounding the same, but I wasn't expecting such distinction between albums. Overall, I've been very pleased with The Beatles and am still not sure why it's taken me so long to listen to them seriously.
  • Danger Mouse - The Grey Album: Notable in light of the aforementioned Beatles album as well as recent posting, this album "uses an a cappella version of rapper Jay-Z's The Black Album and couples it with instrumentals created from a multitude of unauthorized samples from" The White Album. Sadly, it can't be bought as EMI was apparently none-too-pleased with the album and sought to suppress it. But you can't stop the signal, and the album is still easily found on the internets. Interestingly, it's also been featured in a number of best-of lists, both from 2004 and for the decade. I've never been a fan of rap, but this is the type of album I could probably get into. Of course, it's mostly because Danger Mouse did an exceptional job remixing the Beatles tunes into something new and interesting. I still have no idea what Jay Z is talking about with his lyrics, but this album works really well.
As I write this post, I'm listening to Whipped Cream & Other Delights by Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, which is rather strange. I feel like I'm in the 60s. So yeah, nothing especially earth shattering in this post (which is probably demonstrative of my lack of musical knowledge more than anything else), but I'm enjoying myself. I did some skipping around the book, but have recently started going "in order" and am still plowing my way through the A's. There are probably a dozen other albums I could list here right now, and I'll try to revisit the subject from time to time on the blog. Anyway, happy listening.
Posted by Mark on March 28, 2010 at 05:35 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Remix Culture and Soviet Montage Theory
A video mashup of The Beastie Boys' popular and amusing Sabotage video with scenes from Battlestar Galactica has been making the rounds recently. It's well done, but a little on the disposable side of remix culture. The video lead Sunny Bunch to question "remix culture":
It’s quite good. But, ultimately, what’s the point?

Leaving aside the questions of copyright and the rest: Seriously…what’s the point? Does this add anything to the culture? I won’t dispute that there’s some technical prowess in creating this mashup. But so what? What does it add to our understanding of the world, or our grasp of the problems that surround us? Anything? Nothing? Is it just “there” for us to have a chuckle with and move on? Is this the future of our entertainment?
These are good questions, and I'm not surprised that the BSG Sabotage video prompted them. The implication of Sonny's post is that he thinks it is an unoriginal waste of talent (he may be playing a bit of devil's advocate here, but I'm willing to play along because these are interesting questions and because it will give me a chance to pedantically lecture about film history later in this post!) In the comments, Julian Sanchez makes a good point (based on a video he produced earlier that was referenced by someone else in the comment thread), which will be something I'll expand on later in this post:
First, the argument I’m making in that video is precisely that exclusive focus on the originality of the contribution misses the value in the activity itself. The vast majority of individual and collective cultural creation practiced by ordinary people is minimally “original” and unlikely to yield any final product of wide appeal or enduring value. I’m thinking of, e.g., people singing karaoke, playing in a garage band, drawing, building models, making silly YouTube videos, improvising freestyle poetry, whatever. What I’m positing is that there’s an intrinsic value to having a culture where people don’t simply get together to consume professionally produced songs and movies, but also routinely participate in cultural creation. And the value of that kind of cultural practice doesn’t depend on the stuff they create being particularly awe-inspiring.
To which Sonny responds:
I’m actually entirely with you on the skill that it takes to produce a video like the Brooklyn hipsters did — I have no talent for lighting, camera movements, etc. I know how hard it is to edit together something like that, let alone shoot it in an aesthetically pleasing manner. That’s one of the reasons I find the final product so depressing, however: An impressive amount of skill and talent has gone into creating something that is not just unoriginal but, in a way, anti-original. These are people who are so devoid of originality that they define themselves not only by copying a video that they’ve seen before but by copying the very personalities of characters that they’ve seen before.
Another good point, but I think Sonny is missing something here. The talents of the BSG Sabotage editor or the Brooklyn hipsters are certainly admirable, but while we can speculate, we don't necessarily know their motivations. About 10 years ago, a friend and amateur filmmaker showed me a video one of his friends had produced. It took scenes from Star Wars and Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan and recut them so it looked like the Millennium Falcon was fighting the Enterprise. It would show Han Solo shooting, then cut to the Enterprise being hit. Shatner would exclaim "Fire!" and then it would cut to a blast hitting the Millennium Falcon. And so on. Another video from the same guy took the musical number George Lucas had added to Return of the Jedi in the Special Edition, laid Wu-Tang Clan in as the soundtrack, then re-edited the video elements so everything matched up.

These videos sound fun, but not particularly original or even special in this day and age. However, these videos were made ten to fifteen years ago. I was watching them on a VHS(!) and the person making the edits was using analog techniques and equipment. It turns out that these videos were how he honed his craft before he officially got a job as an editor in Hollywood. I'm sure there were tons of other videos, probably much less impressive, that he had created before the ones I'm referencing. Now, I'm not saying that the BSG Sabotage editor or the Brooklyn Hipsters are angling for professional filmmaking jobs, but it's quite possible that they are at least exploring their own possibilities. I would also bet that these people have been making videos like this (though probably much less sophisticated) since they were kids. The only big difference now is that technology has enabled them to make a slicker experience and, more importantly, to distribute it widely.

It's also worth noting that this sort of thing is not without historical precedent. Indeed, the history of editing and montage is filled with this sort of thing. In the 1910s and 1920s, Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov conducted a series of famous experiments that helped express the role of editing in films. In these experiments, he would show a man with an expressionless face, then cut to various other shots. In one example, he showed the expressionless face, then cut to a bowl of soup. When prompted, audiences would claim that they found that the man was hungry. Kuleshov then took the exact same footage of the expressionless face and cut to a pretty girl. This time, audiences reported that the man was in love. Another experiment alternated between the expressionless face and a coffin, a juxtaposition that lead audiences to believe that the man was stricken with grief. This phenomenon has become known as the Kuleshov Effect.

For the current discussion, one notable aspect of these experiments is that Kuleshov was working entirely from pre-existing material. And this sort of thing was not uncommon, either. At the time, there was a shortage of raw film stock in Russia. Filmmakers had to make due with what they had, and often spent their time re-cutting existing material, which lead to what's now called Soviet Montage Theory. When D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, which used advanced editing techniques (it featured a series of cross cut narratives which eventually converged in the last reel), opened in Russia in 1919, it quickly became very popular. The Russian film community saw this as a validation and popularization of their theories and also as an opportunity. Russian critics and filmmakers were impressed by the film's technical qualities, but dismissed the story as "bourgeois", claiming that it failed to resolve issues of class conflict, and so on. So, not having much raw film stock of their own, they took to playing with Griffith's film, re-editing certain sections of the film to make it more "agitational" and revolutionary.

The extent to which this happened is a bit unclear, and certainly public exhibitions were not as dramatically altered as I'm making it out to be. However, there are Soviet versions of the movie that contained small edits and a newly filmed prologue. This was done to "sharpen the class conflict" and "anti-exploitation" aspects of the film, while still attempting to respect the author's original intentions. This was part of a larger trend of adding Soviet propaganda to pre-existing works of art, and given the ideals of socialism, it makes sense. (The preceeding is a simplification of history, of course... see this chapter from Inside the Film Factory for a more detailed discussion of Intolerance and it's impact on Russian cinema.) In the Russian film world, things really began to take off with Sergei Eisenstein and films like Battleship Potemkin. Watch that film today, and you'll be struck by how modern-feeling the editing is, especially during the infamous Odessa Steps sequence (which you'll also recognize if you've ever seen Brian De Palma's "homage" in The Untouchables).

Now, I'm not really suggesting that the woman who produced BSG Sabotage is going to be the next Eisenstein, merely that the act of cutting together pre-existing footage is not necessarily a sad waste of talent. I've drastically simplified the history of Soviet Montage Theory above, but there are parallels between Soviet filmmakers then and YouTube videomakers today. Due to limited resources and knowledge, they began experimenting with pre-existing footage. They learned from the experience and went on to grander modifications of larger works of art (Griffith's Intolerance). This eventually culminated in original works of art, like those produced by Eisenstein.

Now, YouTube videomakers haven't quite made that expressive leap yet, but it's only been a few years. It's going to take time, and obviously editing and montage are already well established features of film, so innovation won't necessarily come from that direction. But that doesn't mean that nothing of value can emerge from this sort of thing, nor does messing around with videos on YouTube limit these young artists to film. While Roger Ebert's valid criticisms are vaid, more and more, I'm seeing interactivity as the unexplored territory of art. Video games like Heavy Rain are an interesting experience and hint at something along these lines, but they are still severely limited in many ways (in other words, Ebert is probably right when it comes to that game). It will take a lot of experimentation to get to a point where maybe Ebert would be wrong (if it's even possible at all). Learning about the visual medium of film by editing together videos of pre-existing material would be an essential step in the process. Improving the technology with which to do so is also an important step. And so on.

To return back to the BSG Sabotage video for a moment, I think that it's worth noting the origins of that video. The video is clearly having fun by juxtaposing different genres and mediums (it is by no means the best or even a great example of this sort of thing, but it's still there. For a better example of something built entirely from pre-existing works, see Shining.). Battlestar Galactica was a popular science fiction series, beloved by many, and this video comments on the series slightly by setting the whole thing to an unconventional music choice (though given the recent Star Trek reboot's use of the same song, I have to wonder what the deal is with SF and Sabotage). Ironically, even the "original" Beastie Boys video was nothing more than a pastiche of 70s cop television shows. While I'm no expert, the music on Ill Communication, in general, has a very 70s feel to it. I suppose you could say that association only exists because of the Sabotage video itself, but even other songs on that album have that feel - for one example, take Sabrosa. Indeed, the Beastie Boys are themselves known for this sort of appropriation of pre-existing work. Their album Paul's Boutique infamously contains literally hundreds of samples and remixes of popular music. I'm not sure how they got away with some of that stuff, but I suppose this happened before getting sued for sampling was common. Nowadays, in order to get away with something like Paul's Boutique, you'll need to have deep pockets, which sorta defeats the purpose of using a sample in the first place. After all, samples are used in the absence of resources, not just because of a lack of originality (though I guess that's part of it). In 2004 Nate Harrison put together this exceptional video explaining how a 6 second drum beat (known as the Amen Break) exploded into its own sub-culture:


There is certainly some repetition here, and maybe some lack of originality, but I don't find this sort of thing "sad". To be honest, I've never been a big fan of hip hop music, but I can't deny the impact it's had on our culture and all of our music. As I write this post, I'm listening to Danger Mouse's The Grey Album:
It uses an a cappella version of rapper Jay-Z's The Black Album and couples it with instrumentals created from a multitude of unauthorized samples from The Beatles' LP The Beatles (more commonly known as The White Album). The Grey Album gained notoriety due to the response by EMI in attempting to halt its distribution.
I'm not familiar with Jay-Z's album and I'm probably less familiar with The White Album than I should be, but I have to admit that this combination and the artistry with which the two seemingly incompatible works are combined into one cohesive whole is impressive. Despite the lack of an official release (that would have made Danger Mouse money), The Grey Album made many best of the year (and best of the decade) lists. I see some parallels between the 1980s and 1990s use of samples, remixes, and mashups, and what was happening in Russian film in the 1910s and 1920s. There is a pattern worth noticing here: New technology enables artists to play with existing art, then apply their learnings to something more original later. Again, I don't think that the BSG Sabotage video is particularly groundbreaking, but that doesn't mean that the entire remix culture is worthless. I'm willing to bet that remix culture will eventually contribute towards something much more original than BSG Sabotage...

Incidentally, the director of the original Beastie Boys Sabotage video? Spike Jonze, who would go on to direct movies like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., and Where the Wild Things Are. I think we'll see some parallels between the oft-maligned music video directors, who started to emerge in the film world in the 1990s, and YouTube videomakers. At some point in the near future, we're going to see film directors coming from the world of short-form internet videos. Will this be a good thing? I'm sure there are lots of people who hate the music video aesthetic in film, but it's hard to really be that upset that people like David Fincher and Spike Jonze are making movies these days. I doubt YouTubers will have a more popular style, and I don't think they'll be dominant or anything, but I think they will arrive. Or maybe YouTube videomakers will branch out into some other medium or create something entirely new (as I mentioned earlier, there's a lot of room for innovation in the interactive realm). In all honesty, I don't really know where remix culture is going, but maybe that's why I like it. I'm looking forward to seeing where it leads.
Posted by Mark on March 14, 2010 at 02:18 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

Saturday, December 20, 2008

12DC: Day 7 - Weird Holiday Music
The 12 days of Christmas continues with a couple of strange Holiday songs for your enjoyment. First up is an animated Bob & Doug McKenzie singing The 12 Days of Christmas:


Next is the Carol of the Bells as performed by guitarist Gary Hoey:


Ok, so not that weird so far, but here's a genuinely odd one from Jonathan Coulton (with Paul & Storm) called Chiron Beta Prime. Just his description of the song, before he even starts singing, is worth watching...


Well that's weird enough for me. Special thanks to Widgett, who is one-upping me by doing 13 days of Christmas. Anyway, he's responsible for the Bob & Doug McKenzie and Jonathan Coulton songs and has a few other demented holiday songs too...
Posted by Mark on December 20, 2008 at 09:35 AM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

Friday, October 26, 2007

Bride of Friday is List Day
It's been months since I've posted one of these, and even Roy isn't doing this anymore, but I figure, why not?

Random Ten
  • The Secret Machines - "Road Leads Where It's Led"
  • Yoko Kanno - "Too Good Too Bad"
  • Guster - "Red Oyster Cult"
  • Mike Oldfield - "Tubular Bells Part One"
  • UNKLE - "Bloodstain"
  • Weezer - "Hash Pipe"
  • The New Pornographers - "The Bleeding Heart Show"
  • Modest Mouse - "People as Places"
  • Steroid Maximus - "Aclectasis"
  • Jimi Hendrix - "Machine Gun"
5 Underappreciated or Unknown Horror Movies
  • Mute Witness: Perhaps not strictly a horror film, but it's a very tense thriller, which is close enough in my book.
  • Bay of Blood: A great openeing sequence, lots of inventive death sequences (most of which were lifted by American films, notably the Friday the 13th series), and an ending so absurd that I'm still not sure it actually happened.
  • Parents: I haven't seen this in years and it probably doesn't really count as horror, but I think I'm one of about 6 people who've ever seen this. It plays it's story straight, but it's almost kinda funny.
  • Bubba Ho-tep: I don't know if this counts as overrated, but Bruce Campbell as an aging Elvis (who had faked his death) fighting a mummy in a Texas old-folks home (alongside a black JFK). What more can you ask for?
  • Manos: The Hands of Fate: Heh, just kidding.
Posted by Mark on October 26, 2007 at 11:11 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Referential
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how context matters when consuming art. As sometimes happens when writing an entry, that one got away from me and I never got around to the point I originally started with (that entry was originally entitled "Referential" but I changed it when I realized that I wasn't going to write anything about references), which was how much of our entertainment these days references its predecessors. This takes many forms, some overt (homages, parody), some a little more subtle.

I originally started thinking about this while watching an episode of Family Guy. The show is infamous for its random cutaway gags - little vignettes that have no connection to the story, but which often make some obscure reference to pop culture. For some reason, I started thinking about what it would be like to watch an episode of Family Guy with someone from, let's say, the 17th century. Let's further speculate that this person isn't a blithering idiot, but perhaps a member of the Royal Society or something (i.e. a bright fellow).

This would naturally be something of a challenge. There are some technical explanations that would be necessary. For example, we'd have to explain electricty, cable networks, signal processing and how the television works (which at least involves discussions on light and color). The concept of an animated show, at least, would probably be easy to explain (but it would involve a discussion of how the human eye works, to a degree).

There's more to it, of course, but moving past all that, once we start watching the show, we're going to have to explain why we're laughing at pretty much all of the jokes. Again, most of the jokes are simply references and parodies of other pieces of pop culture. Watching an episode of Family Guy with Isaac Newton (to pick a prominent Royal Society member) would necessitate a pause just about every minute to explain what each reference was from and why Family Guy's take on it made me laugh. Then there's the fact that Family Guy rarely has any sort of redeemable lesson and often deliberately skews towards actively encouraging evil (something along the lines of "I think the important thing to remember is that it's ok to lie, so long as you don't get caught." I don't think that exact line is in an episode, but it could be.) This works fine for us, as we're so steeped in popular culture that we get the fact that Family Guy is just lampooning of the notion that we could learn important life lessions via a half-hour sitcom. But I'm sure Isaac Newton would be appalled.

For some reason, I find this fascinating, and try to imagine how I would explain various jokes. For instance, the episode I was watching featured a joke concerning "cool side of the pillow." They cut to a scene in bed where Peter flips over the pillow and sees Billy Dee Williams' face, which proceeds to give a speech about how cool this side of the pillow is, ending with "Works every time." This joke alone would require a whole digression into Star Wars and how most of the stars of that series struggled to overcome their typecasting and couldn't find a lot of good work, so people like Billy Dee Williams ended up doing commercials for a malt liquor named Colt 45, which had these really cheesy commercials where Billy Dee talked like that. And so on. It could probably take an hour before my guest would even come close to understanding the context of the joke (I'm not even touching the tip of the iceberg with this post).

And the irony of this whole thing is that jokes that are explained simply aren't funny. To be honest, I'm not even sure why I find these simple gags funny (that, of course, is the joy of humor - you don't usually have to understand it or think about it, you just laugh). Seriously, why is it funny when Family Guy blatantly references some classic movie or show? Again, I'm not sure, but that sort of humor has been steadily growing over the past 30 years or so.

Not all comedies are that blatant about their referential humor though (indeed, Family Guy itself doesn't solely rely upon such references). A recent example of a good referential film is Shaun of the Dead, which somewhow manages to be both a parody and an example of a good zombie movie. It pays homage to all the classic zombie films and it also makes fun of other genres (notably the romantic comedy), but in doing so, the filmmakers have also made a good zombie movie in itself. The filmmakers have recently released a new film called Hot Fuzz, which attempts the same trick for action movies and buddy comedies. It is, perhaps, not as successful as Shaun, but the sheer number of references in the film is astounding. There are the obvious and explicit ones like Point Break and Bad Boys II, but there are also tons of subtle homages that I'd wager most people wouldn't get. For instance, when Simon Pegg yells in the movie, he's doing a pitch perfect impersonation of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator. And when he chases after a criminal, he imitates the way Robert Patrick's T-1000 runs from Terminator 2.

References don't need to be part of a comedy either (though comedies seem to make the easiest examples). Hop on IMDB and go to just about any recent movie, and click on the "Movie Connections" link in the left navigation. For instance, did you know that the aformentioned T2 references The Wizard of Oz and The Killing, amongst dozens of other references? Most of the time, these references are really difficult to pick out, especially when you're viewing a foreign film or show that's pulling from a different cultural background. References don't have to be story or character based - they can be the way a scene is composed or the way the lighting is set (i.e. the Venetian blinds in Noir films).

Now, this doesn't just apply to art either. A lot of common knowledge in today's world is referential. Most formal writing includes references and bibliographies, for instance, and a non-fiction book will often assume basic familiarity with a subject. When I was in school, I was always annoyed at the amount of rote memorization they made us do. Why memorize it if I could just look it up? Shouldn't you be focusing on my critical thinking skills instead of making me memorize arbitrary lists of facts? Sometimes this complaining was probably warranted, but most of it wasn't. So much of what we do in today's world requires a well-rounded familiarity with a large number of subjects (including history, science, culture, amongst many other things). There simply isn't any substitute for actual knowledge. Though it was a pain at the time, I'm glad emphasis was put on memorization during my education. A while back, David Foster noted that schools are actually moving away from this, and makes several important distinctions. He takes an example of a song:
Jakob Dylan has a song that includes the following lines:

Cupid, don't draw back your bow
Sam Cooke didn't know what I know


Think of how much you need to know in order to understand these two simple lines:

1)You need to know that, in mythology, Cupid symbolizes love
2)And that Cupid's chosen instrument is the bow and arrow
3)Also that there was a singer/songwriter named Sam Cooke
4)And that he had a song called which included the lines "Cupid, draw back your bow."

... "Progressive" educators, loudly and in large numbers, insist that students should be taught "thinking skills" as opposed to memorization. But consider: If it's not possible to understand a couple of lines from a popular song without knowing by heart the references to which it alludes--without memorizing them--what chance is there for understanding medieval history, or modern physics, without having a ready grasp of the topics which these disciplines reference?

And also consider: in the Dylan case, it's not just what you need to know to appreciate the song. It's what Dylan needed to know to create it in the first place. Had he not already had the reference points--Cupid, the bow and arrow, the Sam Cooke song--in his head, there's no way he would have been able to create his own lines. The idea that he could have just "looked them up," which educators often suggest is the way to deal with factual knowledge, would be ludicrous in this context. And it would also be ludicrous in the context of creating new ideas about history or physics.
As Foster notes, this doesn't mean that "thinking skills" are unimportant, just that knowledge is important too. You need to have a quality data set in order to use those "thinking skills" effectively.

Human beings tend to leverage knowledge to create new knowledge. This has a lot of implications, one of which is intellectual property law. Giving limited copyright to intellectual property is important, because the data in that property eventually becomes available for all to built upon. It's ironic that educators are considering less of a focus on memorization, as this requirement of referential knowledge has been increasing for some time. Students need a base of knowledge to both understand and compose new works. References help you avoid reinventing the wheel everytime you need to create something, which leads to my next point.

I think part of the reason references are becoming more and more common these days is that it makes entertainment a little less passive. Watching TV or a movie is, of course, a passive activity, but if you make lots of references and homages, the viewer is required to think through those references. If the viewer has the appropriate knowledge, such a TV show or movie becomes a little more cognitively engaging. It makes you think, it calls to mind previous work, and it forces you to contextualize what you're watching based on what you know about other works. References are part of the complexity of modern Television and film, and Steven Johnson spends a significant amout of time talking about this subject in his book Everything Bad is Good for You (from page 85 of my edition):
Nearly every extended sequence in Seinfeld or The Simpsons, however, will contain a joke that makes sense only if the viewer fills in the proper supplementary information -- information that is deliberately withheld from the viewer. If you haven't seen the "Mulva" episode, or if the name "Art Vandelay" means nothing to you, then the subsequent references -- many of them arriving years after their original appearance -- will pass on by unappreciated.

At first glance, this looks like the soap opera tradition of plotlines extending past the frame of individual episodes, but in practice the device has a different effect. Knowing that George uses the alias Art Vandelay in awkward social situations doesn't help you understand the plot of the current episode; you don't draw on past narratives to understand the events in the present one. In the 180 Seinfeld episodes that aired, seven contain references to Art Vandelay: in George's actually referring to himself with that alias or invoking the name as part of some elaborate lie. He tells a potential employer at a publishing house that he likes to read the fiction of Art Vandelay, author of Venetian Blinds; in another, he tells an unemployment insurance caseworker that he's applied for a latex salesman job at Vandelay Industries. For storytelling purposes, the only thing that you need to know here is that George is lying in a formal interview; any fictitious author or latex manufacturer would suffice. But the joke arrives through the echo of all those earlier Vandelay references; it's funny because it's making a subtle nod to past events held offscreen. It's what we'd call in a real-world context an "in-joke" -- a joke that's funny only to people who get the reference.
I know some people who hate Family Guy and Seinfeld, but I realized a while ago that they don't hate those shows because of the contents of the shows or because they were offended (though some people certainly are), but rather becaues they simply don't get the references. They didn't grow up watching TV in the 80s and 90s, so many of the references are simply lost on them. Family Guy would be particularly vexing if you didn't have the pop culture knowledge of the writers of that show. These reference heavy shows are also a lot easier to watch and rewatch, over and over again. Why? Because each episode is not self-contained, you often find yourself noticing something new every time you watch. This also sometimes works in reverse. I remember the first time I saw Bill Shatner's campy rendition of Rocket Man, I suddenly understoood a bit on Family Guy which I thought was just a bit based on being random (but was really a reference).

Again, I seem to be focusing on comedy, but it's not necessarily limited to that genre. Eric S. Raymond has written a lot about how science fiction jargon has evolved into a sophisticated code that implicitely references various ideas, conventions and tropes of the genre:
In looking at an SF-jargon term like, say, "groundcar", or "warp drive" there is a spectrum of increasingly sophisticated possible decodings. The most naive is to see a meaningless, uninterpretable wordlike noise and stop there.

The next level up is to recognize that uttering the word "groundcar" or "warp drive" actually signifies something that's important for the story, but to lack the experience to know what that is. The motivated beginning reader of SF is in this position; he must, accordingly, consciously puzzle out the meaning of the term from the context provided by the individual work in which it appears.

The third level is to recognize that "ground car" and "warp drive" are signifiers shared, with a consistent and known meaning, by many works of SF -- but to treat them as isolated stereotypical signs, devoid of meaning save inasmuch as they permit the writer to ratchet forward the plot without requiring imaginative effort from the reader.

Viewed this way, these signs emphasize those respects in which the work in which they appear is merely derivative from previous works in the genre. Many critics (whether through laziness or malice) stop here. As a result they write off all SF, for all its pretensions to imaginative vigor, as a tired jumble of shopworn cliches.

The fourth level, typical of a moderately experienced SF reader, is to recognize that these signifiers function by permitting the writer to quickly establish shared imaginative territory with the reader, so that both parties can concentrate on what is unique about their communication without having to generate or process huge expository lumps. Thus these "stereotypes" actually operate in an anti-stereotypical way -- they permit both writer and reader to focus on novelty.

At this level the reader begins to develop quite analytical habits of reading; to become accustomed to searching the writer's terminology for what is implied (by reference to previous works using the same signifiers) and what kinds of exceptions and novelties convey information about the world and the likely plot twists.

It is at this level, for example, that the reader learns to rely on "groundcar" as a tip-off that the normal transport mode in the writer's world is by personal flyer. At this level, also, the reader begins to analytically compare the author's description of his world with other SFnal worlds featuring personal flyers, and to recognize that different kinds of flyers have very different implications for the rest of the world.

For example, the moderately experienced reader will know that worlds in which the personal fliers use wings or helicopter-like rotors are probably slightly less advanced in other technological ways than worlds in which they use ducted fans -- and way behind any world in which the flyers use antigravity! Once he sees "groundcar" he will be watching for these clues.

The very experienced SF reader, at the fifth level, can see entire worlds in a grain of jargon. When he sees "groundcar" he associates to not only technical questions about flyer propulsion but socio-symbolic ones but about why the culture still uses groundcars at all (and he has a reportoire of possible answers ready to check against the author's reporting). He is automatically aware of a huge range of consequences in areas as apparently far afield as (to name two at random) the architectural style of private buildings, and the ecological consequences of accelerated exploitation of wilderness areas not readily accessible by ground transport.
While comedy makes for convenient examples, I think this better illustrates the cognitive demands of referential art. References require you to be grounded in various subjects, and they'll often require you to think through the implications of those subjects in a new context. References allow writers to pack incredible amounts of information into even the smallest space. This, of course, requires the consumer to decode that information (using available knowledge and critical thinking skills), making the experience less passive and more engaging. Use references will continue to flourish and accellerate in both art and scholarship, and new forms will emerge. One could even argue that aggregation in various weblogs are simply exercises in referential work. Just look at this post, in which I reference several books and movies, in many cases assuming familiarity. Indeed, the whole structure of the internet is based on the concept of links -- essentialy a way to reference other documents. Perhaps this is part of the cause of the rising complexity and information density of modern entertainment. We can cope with it now, because we have such systems to help us out.
Posted by Mark on June 10, 2007 at 03:08 PM .: link :.


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Friday, March 09, 2007

Friday is Apparently List Day
After several years of blogging, I've finally figured out that Friday is list day. So here are a few lists:

Random Ten:
  • Guster - "Two Points For Honesty"
  • Amon Tobin - "Keepin' It Steel (The Anvil Track)"
  • Radiohead - "Optimistic"
  • Four Tet - "As Serious As Your Life"
  • The Bad Plus - "Keep the Bugs Off Your Glass and the Bears Off Your Ass"
  • Lynyrd Skynyrd - "Free Bird" (Yee ha!)
  • Yoko Kanno & Seatbelts - "Clutch"
  • Franz Ferdinand - "Michael"
  • Pink Floyd - "Money"
  • Nine Inch Nails - "Awitha Teetha" (Well, it's really just With Teeth, but I prefer Meathead's title because it more accurately reflects the way the song sounds. Incidentally, I didn't remember how Meathead spelled that, so I mistakenly googled for "awith teetha." Google, ever thoughtful, corrected my spelling. This is mildly amusing.)
The Two Greatest Reviews of NIN's With Teeth:
  • The Aformentioned Meathead Review: Overall score of [AWITHA_TEETHA]: 9,116 out of 9,652 stars
  • Tiny Mix Tapes Review: Concise but informative, and actually somewhat accurate. Sadly, Trentie Poo doesn't seem likely to reverse the trend with his new album, Year Zero (which comes out in just a few weeks, only two years after Awitha Teetha and 17 years ahead of my speculation), but we shall see, I guess. If you're interested, there's a thread in the Kaedrin Forum where we talk about the new songs that have been "leaked" (link to the songs in the thread) and the lame political overtones to the new album.
Three Documentaries I Watched Recently:
  • This Film Is Not Yet Rated: Or "Mocking the MPAA's rating process." And there's plenty to mock. It's a little gimmicky and sanctimonious, but it makes some good points and is pretty entertaining to watch (after all, most of the films that are covered are ones that get the dreaded NC-17, and that generally only happens because of sex scenes). Worth a watch if you're interested in the subject or you want to see a bunch of uncensored... uh... art...
  • Aliens of the Deep: Who wouldn't love to be James Cameron? The dude makes the biggest movie evar, then decides to take a break from filmmaking for a while and engage in expensive hobbies (and hang out with his brothers) like deep sea diving. He did this before in a movie called Ghosts of the Abyss, where he chronicles an expedition to the Titanic wreck (that film is only so-so, imho). This time around, he brings along a bunch of Nasa scientists who observe the preternaturally weird lifeforms that thrive deep in the ocean where no sunlight reaches and speculate on alien life forms. Take a look at this one:

    What the heck is this thing?

    Zoinks! That thing is amazing. The extended cut of the movie on the DVD is good and worth watching, but it can get a bit slow or meander a bit at times. Still, fascinating stuff.
  • Grizzly Man: Werner Herzog's portrait of grizzly bear activist Timothy Treadwell, who spent 13 years among the grizzlies before they inevitably killed him (and his girlfriend). This movie is creepy on many levels. Treadwell himself would be creepy enough even if we didn't know what eventually happened to him, but his death looms over the entire film. The worst part is that Treadwell is constantly proclaiming his love for the bears and nature in general, but you can clearly see (even early in the film, long before his death) how absolutely and completely the bears do not reciprocate in any way. Treadwell was clearly aware of the dangers (at least on an intellectual level), and often loudly trumpets them, but he thinks he is somehow exceptional. He thinks he's been accepted by the bear community because he loves them. It's almost like a greek tragedy or something. The grand majority of the footage was provided by Treadwell himself, who had compiled nearly 100 hours of footage on the last 5 of his trips to Alaskan bear country. Herzog sifted through all that footage and intercut it with the requisite interviews with family, friends, and experts. It's quite a good film, though a little disturbing and not all that pleasant. It was actually a little interesting to watch this after watching Aliens of the Deep, as the contrast between people who treat nature with a degree of awe and respect (i.e. people who don't invite death) and Treadwell, who clearly loves and cherishes nature, but tragically doesn't respect it...
I like this list day thing. Expect more in the future (not all of which will be book and music related, I promise).
Posted by Mark on March 09, 2007 at 12:02 AM .: Comments (2) | link :.


End of This Day's Posts

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Travelling Link Dump
I'll be on vacation this week, so Kaedrin compatriots Samael and DyRE will be posting in my stead, though they may not be able to post tomorrow. In any case, here are some links to chew on while I'm gone.
  • Bruce Schneier Facts: In the style of the infamous Chuck Norris Facts, some enterprising folks have come up with facts for security expert Bruce Schneier. "Bruce Schneier only smiles when he finds an unbreakable cryptosystem. Of course, Bruce Schneier never smiles." and "There is an otherwise featureless big black computer in Ft. Meade that has a single dial with three settings: Off, Standby, and Schneier." Heh, Cryptonerd humor.
  • Khaaan! [via the Ministry]
  • Neal Stephenson Q&A (.ram Real Video): I hate Real Player too, but it's worth it to see the man in action. It's from a few years ago, but it's great stuff.
  • I Smell a Mash-Up: James Grimmelmann notes the irony of Weird Al Yankovic's new song entitled Don’t Download This Song (available for free download, naturally) that parodies the RIAA's anti-downloading efforts.
  • How to read: Nick Hornby tells us to read what we like:
    It's set in stone, apparently: books must be hard work, otherwise they're a waste of time. And so we grind our way through serious, and sometimes seriously dull, novels, or enormous biographies of political figures, and every time we do so, books come to seem a little more like a duty, and Pop Idol starts to look a little more attractive. Please, please, put it down.

    And please, please stop patronising those who are reading a book - The Da Vinci Code, maybe - because they are enjoying it.

    For a start, none of us knows what kind of an effort this represents for the individual reader. It could be his or her first full-length adult novel; it might be the book that finally reveals the purpose and joy of reading to someone who has hitherto been mystified by the attraction that books exert on others. And anyway, reading for enjoyment is what we should all be doing.

    ...The regrettable thing about the culture war we still seem to be fighting is that it divides books into two camps, the trashy and the worthwhile. No one who is paid to talk about books for a living seems to be able to convey the message that this isn't how it works, that 'good' books can provide every bit as much pleasure as 'trashy' ones.
That's all from now. I hope everyone has a great week. I now leave you in the capable hands of the guest bloggers, Sam & DyRE....
Posted by Mark on August 26, 2006 at 11:09 AM .: Comments (0) | link :.


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Sunday, June 18, 2006

Novelty
David Wong's article on the coming video game crash seems to have inspired Steven Den Beste, who agrees with Wong that there will be a gaming crash and also thinks that the same problems affect other forms of entertainment. The crux of the problem appears to be novelty. Part of the problem appears to be evolutionary as well. As humans, we are conditioned for certain things, and it seems that two of our insticts are conflicting.

The first instinct is the human tendency to rely on induction. Correlation does not imply causation, but most of the time, we act like it does. We develop a complex set of heuristics and guidelines that we have extrapolated from past experiences. We do so because circumstances require us to make all sorts of decisions without posessing the knowledge or understanding necessary to provide a correct answer. Induction allows us to to operate in situations which we do not uderstand. Psychologist B. F. Skinner famously explored and exploited this trait in his experiments. Den Beste notes this in his post:
What you do is to reward the animal (usually by giving it a small amount of food) for progressively behaving in ways which is closer to what you want. The reason Skinner studied it was because he (correctly) thought he was empirically studying the way that higher thought in animals worked. Basically, they're wired to believe that "correlation often implies causation". Which is true, by the way. So when an animal does something and gets a reward it likes (e.g. food) it will try it again, and maybe try it a little bit differently just to see if that might increase the chance or quantity of the reward.
So we're hard wired to create these heuristics. This has many implications, from Cargo Cults to Superstition and Security Beliefs.

The second instinct is the human drive to seek novelty, also noted by Den Beste:
The problem is that humans are wired to seek novelty. I think it's a result of our dietary needs. Lions can eat zebra meat exclusively their entire lives without trouble; zebras can eat grass exclusively their entire lives. They don't need novelty, but we do. Primates require a quite varied diet in order to stay healthy, and if we eat the same thing meal after meal we'll get sick. Individuals who became restless and bored with such a diet, and who sought out other things to eat, were more likely to survive. And when you found something new, you were probably deficient in something that it provided nutritionally, so it made sense to like it for a while -- until boredom set in, and you again sought out something new.
The drive for diversity affects more than just our diet. Genetic diversity has been shown to impart broader immunity to disease. Children from diverse parentage tend to develop a blend of each parent's defenses (this has other implications, particularly for the tendency for human beings to work together in groups). The biological benefits of diversity are not limited to humans either. Hybrid strains of many crops have been developed over the years because by selectively mixing the best crops to replant the next year, farmers were promoting the best qualities in the species. The simple act of crossing different strains resulted in higher yields and stronger plants.

The problem here is that evolution has made the biological need for diversity and novelty dependent on our inductive reasoning instincts. As such, what we find is that those we rely upon for new entertainment, like Hollywood or the video game industry, are constantly trying to find a simple formula for a big hit.
It's hard to come up with something completely new. It's scary to even make the attempt. If you get it wrong you can flush amazingly large amounts of money down the drain. It's a long-shot gamble. Every once in a while something new comes along, when someone takes that risk, and the audience gets interested...
Indeed, the majority of big films made today appear to be remakes, sequels or adaptations. One interesting thing I've noticed is that something new and exciting often fails at the box office. Such films usually gain a following on video or television though. Sometimes this is difficult to believe. For instance, The Shawshank Redemption is a very popular film. In fact, it occupies the #2 spot (just behind The Godfather) on IMDB's top rated films. And yet, the film only made $28 million dollars (ranked 52 in 1994) in theaters. To be sure, that's not a modest chunk of change, but given the universal love for this film, you'd expect that number to be much higher. I think part of the reason this movie failed at the box office was that marketers are just as susceptible to these novelty problems as everyone else. I mean, how do you market a period prison drama that has an awkward title an no big stars? It doesn't sound like a movie that would be popular, even though everyone seems to love it.

Which brings up another point. Not only is it difficult to create novelty, it can also be difficult to find novelty. This is the crux of the problem: we require novelty, but we're programmed to seek out new things via correllation. There is no place to go for perfect recommendations and novelty for the sake of novelty isn't necessarily enjoyable. I can seek out some bizarre musical style and listen to it, but the simple fact that it is novel does not guarantee that it will be enjoyable. I can't rely upon how a film is marketed because that is often misleading or, at least, not really representative of the movie (or whatever). Once we do find something we like, our instinct is often to exhaust that author or director or artist's catalog. Usually, by the end of that process, the artist's work begins to seem a little stale, for obvious reasons.

Seeking out something that is both novel and enjoyable is more difficult than it sounds. It can even be a little scary. Many times, things we think will be new actually turn out to be retreads. Other times, something may actually be novel, but unenjoyable. This leads to another phenomenon that Den Beste mentions: the "Unwatched pile." Den Beste is talking about Anime, and at this point, he's begun to accumulate a bunch of anime DVDs which he's bought but never watched. I've had similar things happen with books and movies. In fact, I have several books on my shelf, just waiting to be read, but for some of them, I'm not sure I'm willing to put in the time and effort to read them. Why? Because, for whatever reason, I've begun to experience some set of diminishing returns when it comes to certain types of books. These are similar to other books I've read, and thus I probably won't enjoy these as much (even if they are good books).

The problem is that we know something novel is out there, it's just a matter of finding it. At this point, I've gotten sick of most of the mass consumption entertainment, and have moved on to more niche forms of entertainment. This is really a signal versus noise, traversal of the long tail problem. An analysis problem. What's more, with globalization and the internet, the world is getting smaller... access to new forms of entertainment are popping up (for example, here in the US, anime was around 20 years ago, but it was nowhere near as common as it is today). This is essentially a subset of a larger information aggregation and analysis problem that we're facing. We're adrift in a sea of information, and must find better ways to navigate.
Posted by Mark on June 18, 2006 at 03:55 PM .: Comments (6) | link :.


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Thursday, June 15, 2006

10,000 Days
It's been a while since I've gotten really into an album, but Tool's new 10,000 Days seems to have broken that trend. I've been listening to it almost nonstop for about a month now, and I'm still picking it apart. As I mentioned the other day, I have some odd musical tastes:
...I usually only listen to the music (as opposed to paying attention to the lyrics). When the music is interesting enough to me, I'll eventually get around to the lyrics. Sometimes, I'm pleased, other times I find out I'm listening to German anarchists. Oh well, you win some, you lose some.
As such, I think I generally approach music in a different way than most people. One other thing to note is that when it comes to music, I have next to no technical knowledge. Tune, chords, notes, I have a general idea of what these things are, but I'm no musician. I treat music much more subjectively than I treat movies or books; I just know what I like to hear, and that's about it. So here are my thoughts for each song on this album:
  1. Vicarious: An excellent song, perhaps my favorite on the album. It provides an interesting transition from Lateralus (Tool's last album) to this album. It seems to share some of the musical themes of Lateralus, though only in a subtle way. I generally find myself attracted to songs that have an interesting structure. Longer songs tend to fit this bill - there's more time to fill and most good songs don't just keep repeating the same thing over and over again for too long, so there needs to be some interesting transitions, etc... Vicarious does a pretty good job at this for being a medium length (7:08) song. Maynard's singing approaches a whisper at some points in this song, but while that initially struck me as odd, I find that working pretty well at this point. One thing I like is when music actually builds towards the ending, and this song certainly does so, especially in the last chorus.
  2. Jambi: This song continues the transition from Vicarious to the rest of the album. A little more repetitive than the other songs, especially with respect to the guitar work, but it has its moments. It's another medium length song, though its structure isn't as interesting as Vicarious'. Still, it's a decent enough song.
  3. Wings for Marie (pt 1): The best of the slower, moodier songs on the album. At this point in the album, the sound has shifted enough that it no longer feels like I'm listening to a continuation of Lateralus. One of the things Tool does a lot is insert these little interludes between songs. They're nice the first time you listen to the album, but after a while, they're just tracks that you skip. At a little over six minutes long, this song hardly qualifies as an interlude, and it's got enough substance to hold my attention, but I have a feeling it will be overshadowed by the next song (sort of how Parabol is overshadowed by Parabola on Lateralus).
  4. 10,000 Days (Wings pt 2): One of the longest songs on the album (11:15), I haven't yet gotten to the point where I fully appreciate this song's structure. However, I enjoy the way it starts and gradually gets more and more involved (the thunderstorm that underlies the song is well done and evocative). On any album that I love, I find that I'll start out loving and listening to a bunch of songs, usually skipping past various others on the album in favor of the ones I like most. But then I sorta rediscover the songs I used to skip over. I think this will be one of my rediscoveries in a few months...
  5. The Pot: Perhaps the most commercially viable song on this album, it's also pretty darn good. It's the shortest of the non-moody songs on the album (6:34), with a pretty interesting structure and a few good moments. As Kaedrin reader DyRE notes, this song has a certain playfulness about it which kinda breaks the mood of the preceding songs rather abruptly, but I still think it works just fine. Maynard's voice isn't as distorted or washed out here as it is in several of the other songs, and it really gives the song a different feel.
  6. Lipan Conjuring: One of the aforementioned intermission type songs, there's not much to say about this one.
  7. Lost Keys (Blame Hoffman): - Another slow, moody piece. It features a dialogue between a nurse and a doctor talking about a patient. I'm not sure if this is sampled from a movie or anything, but it appears that my refusal to acknowledge lyrics includes stuff l ike this. Perhaps a future rediscovery, but I think this one will eventually fall off the playlist in favor of the faster songs...
  8. Rosetta Stoned: Only a few seconds shorter than 10,000 Days, this is one of the longest songs on the album (11:13). I either haven't had enough time to digest the structure of this song, or its pacing is a bit off. A really good long song is difficult, so I guess some misfires are to be expected. Don't get me wrong, I've gotten to like this song more as I've listened to it more, so I think it just means I'm still working through the structure. There are a certainly a few shining minutes in this song that are really, truly awesome. One is about two thirds of the way in, when things slow down a bit and the percussion switches gears. The song sort of jams on that for a little while, then starts building to a crescendo where the music kicks in a little and Maynard starts singing his lines. It's an awesome moment, and it goes on for about a minute which is great (usually songs that reach such a point peter out really quickly). Yeah, so even if it seems a bit off in the beginning, that part around 8 minutes in really makes up for it (and then some).

    Also, there's a part in this song that really sounds a lot like Third Eye. And I think there's another part in the song that sounds a bit like the Grudge (I think it's on this song, but it also sort of sounds like this elsewhere on 10,000 days). I'll obviously have to listen more, but I can here various pieces of their previous work here. I don't want to give the impression that this song is basically a carbon copy of their previous work though. It's very distinct, but it's interesting to hear familiar notes from time to time.
  9. Intension: Another moody segue piece. Haven't listened to this much, so it might make an interesting rediscovery. Somewhat reminiscent of the song Disposition, from Lateralus.
  10. Right in Two: Another great song that starts a little slow and builds until they're really going at it. Great stuff here. Once again, I think I noticed some themes from previous Tool albums peeing out in this song, though again, this isn't a bad thing. One thing I need to mention, but haven't yet is that the drummer for Tool, Danny Carey, is absolutely incredible (in this song, but also in all of the others). He has a very intricate style, often incorporating other percussive techniques (like tabla) and seamlessly lapsing into a sort of controlled chaos that's almost uncanny. It's also nice to hear a drummer that doesn't appear to be influenced at all by hip-hop (i.e. no Amen Breaks to be found here).
  11. Viginti Tres: - Yet another moody piece that I probably won't listen to very much.
From a structural standpoint, it's a very dense album, and I can tell that I'm still going to be picking it apart a few months from now. It's also quite a strange album. Almost all of the songs are extremely long, with some having a very convoluted arrangement. This might make the album less accessible to some. DyRE tells me that the lyrics are more personal and that the album has a generally non-uplifting tone, which is something that will probably turn me off once I get around to looking at the lyrics (I'm in no hurry to do so at this point, especially knowing that). Overall, I'm quite happy with the album, though I don't know if I'd place it above their best album, ´┐Żnima. I think it says something that I wasn't disappointed even though it's been 5 years since their last album though.
Posted by Mark on June 15, 2006 at 08:10 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.


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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Playlist Meme
Julenka posts the first 50 songs in her current playlist. When it comes to music, I seem to be on a completely different wavelength than most people. Part of this has to do with the fact that I usually only listen to the music (as opposed to paying attention to the lyrics). When the music is interesting enough to me, I'll eventually get around to the lyrics. Sometimes, I'm pleased, other times I find out I'm listening to German anarchists. Oh well, you win some, you lose some. Anyway, that might be worth keeping in mind as you read this list of 30 songs which I got by putting my iPod on shuffle. Also, it seems that the practice of simply ripping a lot of CDs and putting them on the iPod have given me a quite a few songs that I would probably skip if they came up, so I'll make some notes for each song too...
  1. The Great Below - Nine Inch Nails: Good stuff, a little different from what most might associate with NIN.
  2. What Planet Is this - Yokko Kanno and the Seatbelts: Great Cowboy Bebop soundtrack jazzy stuff.
  3. Pristina (remix) - Faith No More: This is a rarity, I think. A low-key remix of a low-key song on a low-key album of a low-key band (well, I'm not sure they were low-key, but that just makes for a better description). I doubt anyone reading this has even heard it (if you have, you better leave a comment!)
  4. Powder - Yokko Kanno and the Seatbelts: Short and more soundtracky (and thus less interesting to listen to by itself), this is from one of my favorite moments in the Cowboy Bebop movie.
  5. Er, this is a chapter from an audio book (Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point). A good book, but I'm pretty sure the audio version I have is abridged.
  6. Nice Dream - Radiohead: Decent stuff.
  7. Four Sticks - Led Zepplin: Eh, not my favorite, but not bad either.
  8. Welcome to the Machine - Pink Floyd: Same as above.
  9. In My Tree - Pearl Jam: From what may be my favorite Pearl Jam album, No Code.
  10. Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood - Santa Esmeralda: This is a really great (and long!) song from the Kill Bill Soundtrack.
  11. Love is a Fist - Mr. Bungle - Eh, I'd probably skip it (I have to be in a certain mood to listen to early Mr. Bungle)
  12. Closer - Nine Inch Nails: Infamous, but I like the music.
  13. Ultra - KMFDM: So-so. It's a toss-up as to whether or not I'd listen if this came up.
  14. Backyard - Guster: A good song, but it ends sort of abrubptly. Which is odd, because it fades out.
  15. Gotta knock a little harder - Yokko Kanno and the Seatbelts: Hmm, this list isn't so random, is it?
  16. Vanity Fair - Mr. Bungle: From California, my favorite Mr. Bungle album.
  17. Ommadawn Part Two - Mike Oldfield: Great, epic stuff (though I prefer to listen to the whole album at once, as opposed to jumping in at part two).
  18. Ziggy Stardust - David Bowie: Good stuff.
  19. Alberto Balsalm - Aphex Twin: More good stuff.
  20. Lion Thief - The Beta Band: This band always reminds me of that scene in High Fidelity where John Cusack proclaims that he'll now sell 5 copies of a Beta Band album.
  21. Heartbreaker - Led Zeppelin: Good stuff.
  22. March of the Pigs - Nine Inch Nails: One of the first NIN songs to catch my eye.
  23. Rose - A Perfect Circle: A so-so song. I'd probably skip it.
  24. Echoes - Pink Floyd: One of those 26 minute long Epics. Sometimes I love that sort of song.
  25. Pushit - Tool: Great song, one of my favorite Tool songs.
  26. Wings For Marie (Pt 1) - Tool: One of the better slow, moody songs off their new album, but still slow and probably something I'd skip...
  27. Trust - KMFDM: One of the things I love about KMFDM is when they have female vocalists provide the chorus (or sing more of the song). It puts them on a different level.
  28. Silence is the Question - The Bad Plus: Piano based jazz. Decent stuff, but this song is a little slow. I'd probably skip.
  29. Darts of Pleasure - Franz Ferdinand: That's the band, not the archduke.
  30. Alma-Ville - Vince Guaraldi: How can you not like Vince Guaraldi? I mean, come one, he did the soundtrack to the Charlie Brown Christmas!
That's all. Perhaps a little more about music later in the week. Feel free to post your own list in the comments...
Posted by Mark on June 13, 2006 at 09:20 PM .: Comments (3) | link :.


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Sunday, June 11, 2006

Link Dump
Time is short this week, so just a few links I found interesting...
  • Make Me Watch TV: Collaborative torture. This guy lets people choose what he watches on TV. Naturally, voters tend to make him watch the worst of the worst (though it seems that sometimes people are nice and let him watch an episode of Lost or Doctor Who). After each viewing, he blogs about what he's seen. One interesting thing here is that, if you want, you can "sponsor" a time slot: If you pay him $5 (per half hour), he'll let you override the popular vote and force him to watch the program of your choice. Democracy in action.
  • Life After the Video Game Crash: In light of recent bloggery, this article in which David Wong recaps the history of video games (including the beloved Atari 2600) also predicts the coming of another Video Game Crash. Basically, it argues that the next generation gaming consoles offer very little in the way of true innovation and Wong is betting that people will stay away in droves. Regardless of what you may think, it's worth reading because Wong is funny:
    And yet, even with the enormous number of games (Metroid delayed my discovering girls for a for a good 18 months), the gaming experience itself still couldn't keep our interest for more than a few years. Attention waned again, but this time new, fancier systems arrived just in time, offering a new and novel experience thanks to prettier graphics and character animation. And yet those systems (the Sega Genesis and later the SNES), as great as they were, eventually were retired to closets and attics and the sandy carpets of the Pakistani black market. It was a bitter, dark cloud of Japanese expletives that wafted from the meeting rooms at Nintendo and Sega when they realized their industry effectively lived under a curse.
  • The World's Most Important 6 Second Drum Beat: Nate Harrison's fascinating 2004 video explores the history of the "Amen Break," a six second drum beat from a b-side of a 1969 single that's been used extensively in early hiphop and sample-based music. From there, it spawned subcultures like drum-and-bass and jungle music. Aside from the strange fact that this is a video (there doesn't appear to actually be a reason for this - most of the video is simply a video of a record playing or a guy sitting in a room, for instance), this is compelling stuff. It covers the history of the break, but also some issues about ownership, copyright, and what constitutes art and creativity...
Apologies for the lameness of this entry. I've been travelling this weekend, and I'm exhausted. I've got several of these weekends coming up, so I'm going to try and set up some guest bloggers to post in my stead. I think the next one will be in two weeks or so. Anyway, I'll try to post again later this week...
Posted by Mark on June 11, 2006 at 09:05 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


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Sunday, November 06, 2005

Lileks Podcast
Last Friday's Bleat featured James Lileks' first (that I know of) podcast. Since I've now got an iPod, I figured I might as well download it and see what all the fuss is about. It's strange to hear the voice of someone you've previously only read. In this case, Lileks' voice is much deeper than the voice I have in my head when I read his stuff.

It's a short podcast, but the main topic is "a demonstration of the thesis that every era gets the Batman music it deserves." Pretty good, and it's about what you'd expect from Lileks. I only have one minor quibble - how can you talk about Batman music matching the time period and not actually go into detail on Prince's horrific (yet appropriate for the 80s) Batdance? (Prince's role in the 1989 soundtrack is mentioned, but no clips are played.) Oh, and 1 other minor complaint is that the podcast isn't listed in iTunes, so I can't set it to automatically update. Get with the program James! Anyway, this weeks was quite good, and I look forward to future installments...

Speaking of podcasts, does anyone have any recommendations? The only other podcast that I've gotten into is the CHUD Show (which is interesting, but probably only to movie nerds who can appreciate really bad jokes like myself).
Posted by Mark on November 06, 2005 at 07:26 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.


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Sunday, October 30, 2005

Save it with the music
In general, the process of making a movie is a difficult one, but some genres are more difficult than others. Horror (and science fiction), in particular, require certain leaps of faith that are more difficult to accomplish than other, more conventional, genres. This places more importance on all aspects of the film. For a good horror movie, everything needs to be there, including the writing (important for any movie, but horror films usually require a little more imagination), cinematography (very important in horror), and the music, amongst other aspects.

I'm going to focus on the music because while music is important in all films, it is even moreso in horror. Films depend on music to help set the mood, and good composers are often able to do so without calling too much attention to themselves. Perhaps it's just me, but music is often able to evoke an understated emotional response, one that sometimes isn't recognizable until after the film has ended. As such, the auditory aspects of a film are often overlooked in favor of the other, more overt, features of the film. Yet any good horror film will rely almost as much on the sound as the visuals to provide the scares.
"Music in horror films is probably more powerful than in any other genre, so it's good for a composer to do them because he can be very influential on the action."
That quote is from composer Simon Boswell (found via this excellent article on sound and horror films), notable for his work on many horror films (including several by the infamous Italian director Dario Argento), and I think he's right. Some great examples of how composers really shape the action can be heard in Jaws (courtesy of John Williams) and John Carpenter's Halloween. John Williams' ominous searching cue steadily builds on itself, brilliantly setting the tone for the viewer. Perhaps even more evokative is John Carpenter's score for his seminal slasher flick, Halloween. He describes the process of writing the music for Halloween:
I shot Halloween in the spring of 1978. It was my third feature and my first out-and-out horror film. I had three weeks of pre-production planning, twenty days of principle photography, and then Tommy Lee Wallace spent the rest of the spring and summer cutting the picture, assisted by Charles Bornstein and myself. I screened the final cut minus sound effects and music, for a young executive from 20th Century-Fox (I was interviewing for another possible directing job). She wasn’t scared at all. I then became determined to "save it with the music."
And she was right. Just try watching halloween with the sound off and you'll see what I mean. Most of the tension fades away, and while there are certainly some creepy visuals, it's the music that truly cements the scares in the film. The simplistic three-note piano melody that Carpenter composed for the main theme (mp3) is truly haunting. It stays with you, and plays in your head whenever the lights go out.
The scoring sessions took two weeks because that’s all the budget would allow. Halloween was dubbed in late July and I finally saw the picture with an audience in the fall. My plan to "save it with the music" seemed to work. About six months later I ran into the same young executive who had been with 20th Century-Fox (she was now with MGM). Now she too loved the movie and all I had done was add music. But she really was quite justified in her initial reaction.
There are some techniques which are more obvious than others, but if they're done well, there's nothing wrong with that. The aformentioned Jaws theme is an excellent example of a long musical build-up that also builds tension in the audience, who becomes convinced that something is going to happen. In Jaws, it does, but many composers have subverted that convention by using the musical build-up as misdirection (i.e. instead of a giant monster, it turns out that the ominous sounds were just caused by the family cat).

Another obvious technique is what Roger Ebert describes as the "boo" moment (or what Carpenter calls the "stingers"), where a sudden sharp noise startles the audience, which is also often used to emphasise a visual surprise. This is sometimes referred to as a "cheap" technique, but I think it's fine if it's used sparingly.

However, even in films that have striking themes and stingers, the music ultimately serves as a medium for subliminal suggestion, setting the mood and subtlety evoking an emotional response. In a horror film, this is of paramount importance, and that's why most great horror films have notable soundtracks. John Carpenter had resolved to "save it with the music," but I don't think there was anything unique about that experience. I think most horror films need to have that musical base to truly be effective.

Update: This post has been featured in the Carnival of Music! Check it out for lots more music goodness.
Posted by Mark on October 30, 2005 at 02:53 PM .: Comments (3) | link :.


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Thursday, November 01, 2001

The Belated Blues
Hellhound by Mitch Myers (real audio): An interesting NPR piece I heard on the way home yesterday. It is based on the story of legendary blues artist Robert Johnson, who, legend has it, sold his soul to the devil to obtain his amazing guitar skills. As if to strengthen this Faustian explaination, Johnson explored in his music the battle of good against evil and recorded songs like "Hell Hound on My Trail" and "Me and the Devil Blues." There is some contention as to where Robert is buried, too. Two graves in different cemetaries in Greenwood, Mississippi both bear his name, and there is a popular roadside spot nearby where some believe he was interred. Myers' story is an interesting one, concerning ghastly secret track on Robert Johnson's boxed set. In his short life, Johnson recorded only 41 tracks, many of which are alternate takes of the same song, but his sound has had an large impact on blues and rock music ever since.
Posted by Mark on November 01, 2001 at 09:16 AM .: link :.


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Thursday, September 06, 2001

Third Eye Open
There has been a press release regarding a string quartet tribute to Tool which sounds rather interesting. "This concept, inspired by the complex compositions and unique sound of Tool, delivers dramatic interpretations of the best of the band. This album takes the band's rhythmic guitars, assault-rifle drums, wide-ranging, multiple-octave vocals and turns them into aggressive string playing, deep and percussive cello, and vigorous yet delicate vocalizations on violin." I have long been a fan of the Finnish Apocalyptica, who played some of Metallica's greatest hits with their cellos (then later went on to arrange their own cello-driven heavy metal with their latest album, Cult), so I'm sure I'll enjoy this tribute to Tool...
Posted by Mark on September 06, 2001 at 01:01 PM .: link :.


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Tuesday, August 14, 2001

NIN Naming Conventions
While rifling through one of my old backup cds, I found the following image which describes the rather humorous way in which Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch Nails fame) names his numerous hard drives, filenames, and programs:

NIN naming conventions
Posted by Mark on August 14, 2001 at 11:56 PM .: link :.


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Tuesday, May 15, 2001

Lateralus
Today marks the release of Tool's long awaited new album, Lateralus. DyRE was lucky enough to catch KROQ playing the album in its entirety, two days before its release. He recorded his thoughts during the playing. Apparently, it rocks ("fuck yeah!"). DyRE also posted a weblog entry with an awfully cool interview with Maynard and Danny Carey (I was especially pleased to see Mike Patton as a "related artist" at the bottom of said interview). All of this craziness has inspired me to embark on a perilous quest for the new album during mine lunch break. I can only hope that my co-workers understand when I start trashing my cube because the album rocks so much...
Posted by Mark on May 15, 2001 at 08:36 AM .: link :.


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Monday, March 19, 2001

Where the Hell is the DVD?
Chapter One in the touching story of the rumored Nine Inch Nails DVD, by Meathead. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Meathead's work, I highly recommend you check it out, even if you aren't a big fan of NIN (for instance, chapter one contains a menacing Sting as well as the horrors of the evil Verizon empire). Rarely have I ever seen someone who is able to consistantly rant about a single topic with such quality for so damn long. Bravo, Meathead. Bravo.

Now that I'll actually have some computing power, I'm beginning to look forward to things like this.
Posted by Mark on March 19, 2001 at 08:31 AM .: link :.


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Thursday, January 18, 2001

I Care Because You Do
Richard D. James, the genius/lunatic behind Aphex twin, acts almost as wierd as his music sounds. The man lives in an Bank and he owns a working Tank that he drives around town. A real tank, it even fires (but he uses this function sparingly as he only has 4 rounds of ammo left). When asked what other purchases he plans to make, he says he'd like a submarine. "I don't know anything about submarines. I just know I'd like to have one. It would be wicked for parties, and stuff like that." As if his music wasn't unique enough, he goes on to explain that the acoustic possibilites for recording on a submarine are incredible. Wierd guy, cool ambient/technoish music. [via Metascene (i think)]
Posted by Mark on January 18, 2001 at 09:36 AM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

Tuesday, November 21, 2000

Perspectives Falling Apart
Those of you who think my short review of Things Falling Apart sucks will be glad to know that I agree and that I am linking to a funnier review of the cd. So there. For those of you NIN fans who are not familiar with The Meathead Perspective, I do suggest you check it out. Its a riot.

An exerpt from Meatheads review of The Great Collapse: "This track is a bit repetitive, and fairly simplistic, and a bit repetitive, but after listening to it a few times, it grew on me, kinda like a mild case of hives. "
Posted by Mark on November 21, 2000 at 11:28 PM .: link :.


Things Falling Apart
The new Nine Inch Nails EP Things Falling Apart was officially released today. I got my hands on a copy a few days ago, and its pretty cool, as remix albums go (despite the fact that there are 3 remixes of my least favourite Fragile song, Starf*ckers, Inc). As usual, the remixes are not as dense or robust as the originals, but there's a few decent mixes on this CD. Slipping Away, a remix of Into the Void, is probably my favourite of the new mixes. Also included is the remake of Metal and a remix of 10 Miles High (a Fragile B-side). Cool schtuff.
Posted by Mark on November 21, 2000 at 12:19 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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