Thursday, May 31, 2007


"Death is the road to awe." – The Fountain

If you don't know what causes microphones to feed back (that lacerating squeal), I can explain it in a few sentences: the mic captures sounds and turns them into an electric signal that it sends to an amplifier; the amplifier takes that signal, boosts it, and pushes it out speakers so everybody can hear it. The result of this subtle sorcery is a new sound that's louder than what went in. That is the essence of amplification. Unfortunately, if the microphone is in the wrong place, like in the path of the speakers, it catches that new, amplified sound and sends it right back through the cheese grater only to come out even louder than before, and then catches it, and then amplifies it... on and on, in an ever-loudening cycle. This loop is referred to as feedback and it happens fast, like a matter of seconds.

For years the concepts of feedback and reincarnation have been joined in my mind but I couldn't say why, until recently. I've been absorbing the book Living, Dreaming, Dying in which Rob Nairn, a devout Buddhist with an illuminating perspective, breaks down the impenetrable and fantastical Tibetan Book of the Dead into a common-sensical manual for dreaming as preparation for death. The core idea of Buddhism is the fleeting nature of the self, which Nairn compares to a mist over water. This is how I've always seen it only maybe a little darker and more destructive, like a tornado, whipped up out of nothing, making a powerful and chaotic case for its own existence. As this tornado of self careens along, crushing a path of rebirth, it's bound to meet with enough resistance that it can't go on any longer pretending to be something and, after losing force, unravels. The feedback in this, the loop of ever-increasing intensity, comes from the extra weight we give to things by allowing them to persist–the reoccurring themes of ignorance which we pull with us from life to life. All ideas about transcendence are variations on this idea; of one piece of continuity threading through separate cloths and gaining importance from repetition alone. U2 made a career out of it. They discovered that if you plunk the same note repeatedly and change the chords underneath it (three chords is usually enough), you have a musical metaphor for transcendence. And we all get goosebumps.

In The Fountain, Hugh Jackman plays three versions of the same soul. The first is Tomas, a 16th century conquistador in love with Queen Elizabeth, who is afraid she won't survive the Spanish Inquisition. She sends him on a mission to find the Tree of Life–hidden near a Mayan pyramid–and, with it, save the kingdom. His relentless loyalty to this quest, and stubborn refusal to accept any form of defeat, even eminent death, are his feedback, the themes he will carry with him for more than a thousand years of rebirth. Of these, we see Tommy, an oncologist trying to cure his wife's cancer through experimental research; and Tom, an astronaut hurtling alone through space in an invisible craft toward the golden nebula where he believes the soul of his dead wife can be reborn. The superficial differences between their times and circumstances create a relief against which we can see their fundamental sameness. It's not a story about eternal love as much as eternal persistence; a devotion to illusion so strong it distorts the truth and stunts acceptance.

There is another way the soul is like sound. There's never just one. The things we hear, like human voices or plucked guitar strings, begin as a single sound wave. But what reaches our ears is not pure and separate but a mixture of the original wave and a scattering of its reflections, called harmonics.

illustration "Pure Fractal Frame" by Cory Ench

The source sound is like a theme and the harmonics are its variations. We have the illusion of hearing one thing, but it's really many. In nature, sound is never alone.

The Fountain is a story of the harmonics of a man. His stories are just variations of the same plucked note refracted and warped into higher and lower pitches and scattered through time. As Tommy, the present-day doctor, he takes a fountain pen in a fit of sadness after losing his wedding ring and tattoos a band on his ring finger. By the time he is reborn as Tom the astronaut, the tattoos go all the way up his arm, like the life rings of a tree, marking all the incarnations, and their singular path of frustration, that stood between. The movie is full of this kind of visual rhyming. Every image mirrors another, reflecting in all directions through time.

In music, one of the results of feedback is distortion, which is a blurring of detail and a changing of the shape. I think there is a similar feedback effect that comes from the way we interact with culture; that is, our experience of it is so amplified it is indistinct and no longer dynamic. Think about the first time you listen to a piece of music that you will come to love. Your musical memory is like a fresh slab of vinyl without the grooves carved in. The etching happens later through repeated listens and at some point your memory of the music doubles, and even anticipates, the hearing process, to the point where you're projecting as much as you are taking in. You had a nice first experience. Then you wanted that experience again, but now you've put what that feeling was like into a drawer in your head and, when you come back to the music, you expect something from it; expect to know what drawer to find that feeling in. By doing this, when it does deliver it is now amplified by your anticipation of, and participation in, the act of listening. You get more of a good thing. But not really. When we come back to art this way, expecting to recreate a moment of feeling, we are likely to find it – because we are looking for it – but it's never really the same.

I've been thinking about the way I first saw The Fountain and how that context, or lack of it, prepared me to appreciate it in a whole new way. Like a lot of people my age, I've become some kind of half-assed expert on consuming culture. Because of my love of movies, I've developed a hyper-awareness of the industry that makes them. The internet and the DVD extra pushed this along. I don't just go to the movies, I check their composite scores on Metacritic first. I might look up the cast on IMDB. And I don't just know the names of movie stars, I know the people playing the small parts too. I know directors; producers; soundtrack composers. Even the occasional cinematographer. Yet somehow The Fountain slipped through my filter. It might be because I wasn't hot for writer/director Darren Aronofsky's previous two films Requiem for a Dream and Pi and so wasn't anticipating his next move the way I might one of my favorite directors like Richard Linklater or Noah Baumbach. But a little looking (on wikipedia, the secret weapon of a culture whore) reveals that it probably had more to do with the lack of promotion by the studio because The Fountain was a problem project which is lucky to have been released at all. Originally supposed to star Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, filming began in Australia in 2002 only to be scrapped halfway through preproduction when Pitt pulled out to do something else. Aronofsky revived the project, reconceptualizing it with a modified special effects approach at half the budget and new leading actors (Jackman and Rachel Weisz). While the finished film is clearly phenomenal, it's easy to see why the studio would have trouble marketing something so esoteric since the essence of movie promotion is the promise of something you've seen before (feedback).

So I went in blind, purely on the recommendation of a friend who thought I would like this new sci-fi film with a gritty, CGI-free aesthetic that reminded him of the first Star Wars films. The theater was completely empty, which turned out to be an ideal setting for a meditation on death. My friend had told me I would probably like the movie. He didn't tell me I would be rendered mute, or that I was about to see the first film that I would ever consider necessary. When I left, I drove around in my car for a while, not wanting to break the spell by going home. I thought about it intensely for days. I still think about it.

Why did I react so strongly? Going back and watching the DVD only made me appreciate it more, but in a totally different way–as much for its compression of content as its visceral spiritualism. And it also helps that The Fountain is pure eye candy and its beauty doesn't diminish with return. But while I'm positive that The Fountain will develop a cult following because of the power of its metaphysical themes and breathtaking art direction, I think the intensity of my response was based on something more fundamental: I saw this film outside of The System. The System is something I actually help create. It's the combination of marketing and media that I've customized to my tastes over time. It's the sites I use, the magazines I read, etc. I have similar systems for music; books; television. But seeing The Fountain was different. It was a system-free experience. And not only did I come to it culturally virginal, in a way it was made outside of the system. Or rather, it was made in spite of the system. One of those stubborn, career-injuring labor of loves that are only permitted to be by the sheer momentum of the creator's past successes. And it's easy to see why it faltered under Hollywood's nurturing. There is no marketing template for sci-fi buddhist meditations that lure audiences with brand-name actors and then confuse the shit out of them.

In a review of the film that is about to come out, I describe The Fountain as a demanding masterpiece of such singularity and compressed articulation it transcends the whims of popular culture and rises to the level of spiritual edification. And wrote that it will likely be to film what Siddhartha was to literature – the definitive western poetry for eastern mysticism. Once I began to think of The Fountain as a work of art without precedent, I started trying to come up with other examples that went even further, of art outside of culture. If The Fountain is a work with its own genre, it is still within the broader context of film and besides, it's based on ideas drawn from the religious systems of eastern mysticism, another context. But is anybody making art in a cultural vacuum? That is, outside of the confines of an industry? This brings up the question of what art is. My personal definition is: truth in expression. Does that kind of expression, in a cultural form, exist outside of industry? And by industry, I mean the gross growth of mass production, magazines, web sites, criticism and scholarship that eventually forms like an exoskeleton over all great forms of expression and choke the life out.

My generation has experienced the thrill of new forms plenty of times. I'm sure most people can remember the weirdness and urgency of the first time they saw reality television. It's since solidified into one of the most unexperimental formats of television around, with music and editing techniques that seem to come out of a rule book but, once, it was new. With the internet, we've seen several new opportunities for self-expression. A website used to be a functional thing until it became a great medium for declarations of style. Social networking sites like MySpace can be used expressively. I have a few friends (e.g., Trevor or John) whose pages look art-directed without being overcooked (proving once and for all that they are cooler than I will ever be).

In a blog last year, I described the manager of a local Baja Fresh (a Tex-Mex franchise restaurant whose burritos soothe my soul) as one of my favorite artists. I was probably reaching with that one, but what I was trying to say was that his kindness and professionalism were revelatory. They were something he created on a daily basis that I learned from and enjoyed. I also described a local guitar tech, Mike Koontz, as a great artist. Mike exudes a force field of benevolence. And though he does work with his hands and you could describe his extremely gifted craftsmanship as being artisanal, it was the calm and kindness he brings to his interactions with customers that I was referring to as great art. While I still believe that decency and goodness are forms of creativity and are the primacy of art, is there anything else outside of culture that is closer to what we traditionally think of as being art forms? Like an event or new media?

Well, there is Jim Denevan, a "45-year-old nomadic chef, sand artist, and founder of the culinary road show known as Outstanding in the Field," who was the subject of a feature in GQ Magazine's June edition. I'm quoting from Howie Kahn's piece:

Every summer, Denevan fires up his bus and travels the country, staging elaborate dinners on farms, in parks, and on beaches, from Alaska to New York City. His goal is to free us from the cult of celebrity chefs and the limits of the restaurant experience. Wearing red flip-flops, jeans, no shirt, and a blue baseball hat with SKATEBOARDING IS NOT A CRIME embroidered across the front, Denevan stops in a spot he has seemingly claimed from afar. "This is perfect," he says, and starts converting this stretch of dirt and grass into the setting for a carefully executed food-driven experience–his singular take on dinner.

Over the next half hour, Denevan hoists flattops, two at at time, over his head. Soon, several tables linked end to end parallel beds of emerging vegetation: Swiss chard, Bull's Blood beets, purple-crowned alliums. He removes chairs from a trailer and carries ten at a time, unfolds them, pops them into place. Volunteers drop tablecloths like parachutes and lay down silver- and stemware, paying close attention to the symmetry of their settings.

Initially, Denevan's Oustanding in the Field operation cooked for the paying public on California farms to showcase local farmers and their food. He put on three dinners in the summer of 1999, two in 2000, took the year off in 2001, came back with seven meals in 2002, and eight in 2003, when Denevan, the longtime chef at a popular Northern California restaurant called Gabriella Cafe, left the kitchen for good. In 2004, convinced of his company's reach, Denevan bought a streamlined 1953 bus for $7,000, hired a staff, and began touring North America. His troupe hosted weekly dinners throughout the summer and fall, and most of the time Denevan handed over the cooking duties to chefs of local renown (the thought being, local chefs would know better how to handle the local ingredients). "We had this idea from the beginning," says Denevan, "that the farmer should be the star, that the chef should be of secondary importance. It needed to be done. The chef was rising in stature as a culturally significant figure, and the farmer wasn't talked about. Maybe that happened because people didn't see farming as a creative pursuit. But I would argue that it is. Have you ever heard a farmer discuss his crops? Why he chooses to grow acidic peaches instead of white ones? Why one year he chooses to plant a special green Romans like to eat with anchovies? All these choices are stories created by passion, and story is the substance of food."

I was excited by the Denevan story because, beyond Outstanding in the Field being such a great idea, it seems like a genuinely new form–an original, communal event–a concept for expression pulled seemingly out of thin air. But this isn't the first example of playing with new forms for Denevan. Before he created Outstanding in the Field, he was also known for his sand art, and the story behind how he began drawing on beaches is just as interesting. He was a model in the mid '80s, living in Milan and working for a prominent talent agency:

While his peers snorted lines, he cultivated an appreciation for olive oils and herbs, focaccia, pizzas topped with raw egg. "I was involved in a pretty superficial pursuit," he says, "but I found meaning on my plate." In 1986 he would return to California and take a job in Capitola as a cook at a good Italian restaurant with an obsessively authentic menu. In less than a year, Denevan, the autodidact, would be promoted to chef.

Restaurant work kept him happy until the mid-'90s, when his mother, a doctor of mathematics, fell ill with Alzheimer's. The disease crashed her brain and erased all the numbers. As her problem solving capacity diminished, her second-youngest son–Denevan–poured himself into a new pursuit: sand art. he left the restaurant, took to the beach, and found himself consumed by shapes. "My mom was losing her mind, and I was pretty much losing mine, too," says Denevan, who also knows of deep cerebral discord from growing up with three mentally ill brothers. "I had always been interested in creative activity, but watching my mother–who was very gifted–deteriorate really pushed me over the edge. I experienced so much stress that I couldn't endure the intensity of the kitchen, so I pretty much drew in the sand for a year." He worked at low tide with sticks and rakes, drawing for hours, making entire beaches with impermanent but perfect images: conjoined triangles, interlocking spirals, three-dimensional rectangles. They looked like hourglasses, abstracted clock hands, and coffins–until the tide rolled in and erased them. "People always ask how it feels to have them wash away," he says. "But who would want it to not wash away?"

I love the impermanence of Denevan's forms. The fact that they can't be reproduced and, by their very nature, resist culturalization.

It's impossible to separate Denevan the artist from Denevan the chef. His dinners, like his sand art, have evolved into grand, temporal compositions. They appear in a specific place for a short period of time. They happen and they vanish. "I like the idea of coming to a farm where there's no table," he says. "It's a patch of land that just happens not to have plants in it at the time. It could be zucchini in three weeks. Or a few weeks before, it could have been something else. But at the moment, there's room to put a table there. The whole field is a constantly changing composition. It's not just the table that's transitory."

The two typically dissimilar things–visual art and feeding people–began, for Denevan, to conceptually mirror each other eight years ago. By then he was into his seventh year at Gabriella Cafe, but having taken time off to draw in the sand, he realized that restaurant life no longer suited him. The gig started to feel stale, punishing in its monotony. "The real creativity there was when I first started," he says. "Gabriella was packed every night for years, but creativity waned once the customers became consistent and dependent. People expected all the same things. They considered them vital."

Denevan had little interest in repeating himself, so he created Outstanding in the Field. "I felt like I was escaping," he says, "crossing a boundary, discovering the world." From the onset, he established lofty goals. "I wanted to do something culturally significant, something needed. I figured if we presented the model in a thoughtful way, people would copy it without thinking where it came from. They'd think: This is what people do. They go to the farm. They learn about it and have an interesting, meaningful, and delicious experience. Eventually, they won't know who Jim Denevan is and what Outstanding in the Field is, and they won't need to." HIs method, however, was entirely down-to-earth: He connected eaters with food producers. He served dinner at its source. He brought taables to places you only dreamed there were tables: an Alaskan farm, an urban garden in Manhattan, the belly of an illegally excavated California sea cave. Denevan even enlisted John Sundstrom of Seattle's Lark restaurant to push a barbecue through a marsh at dawn in preparation for an evening of spot prawns and roasted pork on the very same isthmus where Denevan would himself return a year later to draw 320 perfect circles in the sand.

Though Denevan imagines his work as being a new form that can be copied and absorbed into culture, he doesn't envision the work being attached to a particular person, least of all himself. The very transience of this is more likely to make copying Denevan an antidote to culture than anything else. It would be resistant to the feedback effect smearing our appreciation of culture in the first place; the same effect that caused Denevan's customers at the restaurant to come back wanting the same meals he had already made, not new creations.

I was at a show at the Detroit Art Space before it closed (r.i.p.) and had arrived in the middle of one of the opening acts, Prurient. I walked in to find that some guy (Dominick Furnow) had assembled a wall of speakers about eight feet tall on the floor in front of the stage. He was shirtless and had a microphone plugged into the stack, which, naturally, started to feed back. In the most enraged performance I have ever seen, he stumbled around in front of the speakers as if drunk on the noise and alternated between screaming into the mic and pointing it back at the stack until the feedback squeal was unbearable for the rest of us. It was completely antagonistic and you could see him get worked up into a confrontational state to the point where, when one of the workers at the space bumped him trying to pass by, Furnow took a blind swing. He did this for about ten minutes and it was such a violent and exhausting thing to see that I actually had the sense I was going to get hurt by watching it. He did in ten minutes what it takes three good hardcore bands to do in an entire night–a projection of anger compressed like performance concentrate. The utility of it, the sheer immediacy of it, made actual songs seem drawn out and redundant in comparison. At the time I didn't know what more to think; I only knew how I felt. I tried telling the promoter how blown away I was but he seemed unfazed and mentioned that he had seen Furnow perform before. He wasn't being critical. For him, the fact that he had absorbed the experience once and already contextualized it had tamed the beast of experience. He knew what drawer to find that feeling, while I'm standing there like, what the fuck did I just see!

Looking back, I don't know if this was the Furnow's intention but he could have been making a statement about the distorted effects of cultural feedback. About how too much culture robs us of culture in the end. If he was, the fact that he skipped the stage, the expected location for musical performance, was a great place to start. That his entire show consisted of wrestling with feedback, and nothing else, said the rest.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

You know who you look like?

Mr. Johnson

In my adventures in the local public school system as a substitute teacher, I am asked a certain question on a daily basis. Actually, it's an hourly basis because I get a new mob of students every period. And the first thing those little turds do is point and laugh and say, "You know who you look like?" At first it was kind of offputting, but I've learned to roll with it and say, "Yes. I know exactly who I look like," and then rattle off the complete list.

It's a short list which, depending on my haircut, may deviate a bit, but for the most part it's always the same. The old faithful is Ben Stiller.

I've been hearing this for years and I think it has a lot to do with my mannerisms. That and the slightly-more-evolved-and-well-groomed-cave-man thing we both share (it's all in the eye sockets and brow.). I've also got a lof of Sein in me.

Horse face, droopy eyes, an affinity for tight jeans and white sneakers. But nobody seems to have noticed since college, and I doubt these kids have even heard of Jerry Seinfeld. So Ben Stiller it is. There is a universal constant at work here: all black people think I look like Ben Stiller. Sometimes I like to turn the tables on them just to keep them on their toes.

Student: You know who you look like!

Me: Why no, who?

Student: That guy! On Meet the Fockers! Yeah, you look just like him! Ha! [Points in my face]

Me: So all us white people look the same to you, huh?

Student: Um...[Wanders off.]

Lately, though, there have been rapid, surprising additions to my look-alike oeuvre. For years I could cut them off with, "Yes, actually. I do know who I look like. His name is Ben Stiller. Now sit down and do your worksheets." But a few months ago, coinciding with the popularity of the TV show "Heroes," the comparison to some guy named Peter Petrelli (played by Milo Ventimiglia) started to happen a lot. I think this was also because I started parting my hair.

Also as a result of the hair part, Toby Maguire.

I always kind of viewed the Toby Maguire comparison as half-assed because I clearly look nothing like him. He's pasty and has no jaw. We just both have brown, parted hair, and if hair cuts alone define resemblance then Ben Wallace and Ronald McDonald look alike (or something equally stupid). So when one of the duller students throws this down, I look at him with scorn and go back to doing my sudoku.

For some reason, last week the 40 Year Old Virgin mentions started happening everywhere, simultaneously. Which is weird because we're talking about multiple schools in multiple districts, all within the same few-day period. It's as if a bulletin went out on the smart-ass wire. It just started one day and then was everywhere. I didn't change even change my haircut. I was a little baffled. Maybe it's because I started wearing short sleeves and polos with the warm weather, which reveal a little chest hair at the neck. And that is kind of a 40 Year Old Virgin look I would have to agree. (For the record, I lost my virginity in my late 20s.)

I don't really mind the comparison to Steve Carell. He's a decent looking guy, and damn funny. But you try walking through throngs of strangers on a daily basis being referred to in a collective whisper as a middle-aged man who can't meet women. It has a dampening effect on the ego.

Also, I've been getting "The guy from Maroon 5," once in a while, just to keep things interesting. I had to look this one up:

I'm assuming they mean the guy on the left with the clenched jaw muscles and neanderthal forhead. I have no idea, but a student who uses this will receive my thanks and appreciation for their originality and I will not "accidentally" throw their homework in the trash.

Well, one of these days, I'm going to blow all of their minds with a pop quiz and the promise of a free ipod to whoever gets it right. It's going to say:

Who does Mr. Johnson look like:

A. Peter Petrelli

B. Spiderman

C. The 40 Year Old Virgin

D. That guy from Meet the Fockers

I'm going to give them a few minutes and then collect their answers. Then, when they're all quiet and full of anticipation I'm going to scare them by shouting, "Surprise, motherfuckers! The answer is E! None of the above!" And that's when I'm going to whip out a picture of this guy:

"That's right! I look like Adam Goldberg. Now get it right!"

He's not the greatest looking guy, not even out of the Dan Clone Club, but even I can see I look just like him.