Saturday, February 25, 2006

Depth of Field

I am putting this up as much as a bookmark for me to remember to write about my thoughts on what the digital technology is doing to our view of the world as anything. I found this thoughtful take on it from David Denby very interesting

From the New Yorker

“Bubble,” Issue of 2006-02-13 and 20
Posted 2006-02-06

Steven Soderbergh is one director who says out loud what other Hollywood directors may be saying under their breath—that the studio system of making movies is broken and should be rethought, that there has to be another business model for marketing culture than the one that has dominate big Hollywood for the past twenty years or so. Soderbergh’s apparent assumption is that the new technologies have, for the moment, outstrippe creativity but that the situation is remediable. He believes that exhibitors and distributors, in return for a greater percentage of the rewards, need t share more of the risk of production costs; and his own practice suggests that he thinks established directors, as well as young independen filmmakers, should be willing to work small. Soderbergh will continue to make big-budget movies, but he has also entered into an agreement wit Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban’s company, HDNet Films, to make six low-budget pictures in high-definition video and to release the film simultaneously in theatres, on cable TV, and on DVD. “Bubble,” which cost a million six hundred thousand dollars, is the first movie made unde this arrangement

“Bubble”—one might as well admit it immediately—is strange and off-putting, and hard-nosed types in the film business will no doubt dismiss it as a nothing. But, even if “Bubble” hasn’t brought down the Bastille, the movie is far from nothing. Based on a screenplay by Coleman Hough, “Bubble” is about work, jealousy, and murder in a depressed factory town—the kind of nowhere place in which the question “What are you doing?” is usually answered by something like “Not much. Just hanging out.” Misery gathers in the hollows of the demoralized talk. But the filmmakers’ story, which gains strength slowly, comes to a climax in an abrupt moment of violence, and, in the end, “Bubble” leaves one impressed by its crabby, unyielding vision of an America suffocating in banality. And that impression wouldn’t be nearly as substantial if it weren’t for a technological breakthrough that, in the future, and in a cheerier project, could prove to be momentous.

I saw “Bubble” in a theatre, and the first thing I noticed is how clear and sharply focussed the wide-screen image was. In this low-budget picture, Soderbergh used the same Sony digital cameras that George Lucas used when shooting the recent “Star Wars” films, and the registration of detail is astonishing. Digital imagery doesn’t breathe the way film imagery does: blocks of color feel a little congealed, the flesh tones almost too smooth. But it would be downright Ludditic to say that digital doesn’t possess special qualities of its own. The focus is not only sharp; it’s sharp deep into the shot, at distances of thirty feet or more from the camera, and under minimal light conditions. But there’s more at stake than technique. In the nineteen-fifties, the French film theorist and critic André Bazin wrote a series of influential articles on the history of film language in which the commonplace photographic measure of depth of field assumed an almost moral importance. In the Russian silent movies, and in the American cinema of the thirties, depth of field—the amount of the frame that was in sharp focus—was generally shallow, and filmmakers used lighting and editing to direct our attention to the most significant part of the action; the rest was blurry, mere background. As Bazin noted, however, such directors as Orson Welles, in “Citizen Kane,” and William Wyler, in “The Little Foxes,” both working with the cinematographer Gregg Toland, greatly expanded depth of field—expanded it so much that the audience was suddenly free to direct its gaze to the foreground or the middle distance. It could follow an actor as he moved through the set or not. Deep focus, Bazin said, liberated the spectator from the coercion of montage. What, then, would Bazin have made of Soderbergh’s use of high-definition digital, in which absolutely everything is in focus?

Working in Ohio, near the West Virginia border, Soderbergh cast local people—non-actors—in all the parts. Kyle (Dustin Ashley), a good-looking but nearly silent young man, works in a factory that makes spooky-looking baby dolls. Day after day, he pours flesh-toned liquids into molds, then pulls out hardened plastic limbs. At lunch hour, he sits in the canteen with his fellow-worker Martha (Debbie Doebereiner), a chubby fortyish redhead who is haplessly, mutely in love with him. Their uneventful friendship is interrupted by the arrival of Rose (Misty Wilkins), a slender and pretty girl but a user and a thief. At first, watching these non-actors is a little rough. A trained actor can perform in an affectless way that nevertheless holds our interest with small gestures and glances; a non-actor just goes flat, and in “Bubble,” in those lunchroom scenes, the conversation is so dreary you can almost hear the hum of the fluorescent lights. Yet Soderbergh’s use of the new technology makes this situation work. In many scenes, the characters stay planted in the middle distance surrounded by the things of their life—the chairs and tables in the canteen, the looming machinery, the cheap wood panelling at home that looks as if it had been laid on like wallpaper. When the material world has this kind of clarity and weight, the people trapped in it become more interesting and sympathetic: the mediocrity of their surroundings, we think, has taken their souls. No wonder they turn violent—violence is at least an act, a protest. This may be no more than a conceit—one happily opinionated character would break it up —but “Bubble,” as you’re watching it, makes a grim kind of sense. To use Bazin’s terms, deep focus gives us the freedom to observe the characters’ unfreedom. I can’t see any reason, however, that happier moods than Soderbergh’s can’t be wrung from high-definition digits. Soderbergh has begun the revolution, and it’s up to others to make the zeroes and ones sing like angels.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The I Maker

It is rare that I look forward to a magazine column but one that I enjoy very much is the Wisdom column by Sally Kempton in Yoga Journal.

The March column is called "Sophisticated Ego" and there is a line that made me laugh out loud today when I read it… “The ego, which loves any form of self-improvement, is especially eager to take on projects for getting rid of itself.”

“In Sanskrit, the word for ego is ahamkara, which means “the I maker.” Ego differentiates itself among the mass of sensations that come your way and tells you that a particular experience belongs to the energy bundle you call “me.”

She goes on to paraphrase her guru, Swami Muktananda by saying…

“A truly healthy ego, in his terms would be one that did its job of creating necessary boundaries and kept us functioning as individuals. But rather than seeing itself as bounded up in the personality, or identifying with its thoughts and opinions, this ego would know the real secret—that the “me” who calls itself Jane or Charlie is just the tip of the iceberg of something loving and free that is living as “me”.

I thought that last line remarkably poetic and was not at all surprised that later in the paragraph she mentions Walt Whitman.

In church today our responsive reading was a poem by Marge Piercy, two weeks ago it was a poem by Mary Oliver. I am always amazed at how we quote poets all the time and yet they are not valued in our culture unless they are “needed” to say something profound about things that matter to us…but that is a side track.

What I really wanted to talk about is the cool present from my sister I am sharing with my most marvelous great niece who is the only other person in my family that practices yoga. It is a book that comes with CD’s called The Language of Yoga Complete A to Y Guide to Asana names, Sanskrit Terms and Chants and it is by Nicolai Bachmkan. (Amazon Link to product info.) Even though it is geared towards the Astanga Yoga practictioner (which I am not) I still find it remarkably useful.

I read so much Buddhist and Yogic material and I know an amazing amount of words and phrases that I have no idea how to pronounce.

Another resource I use to help me learn how to pronounce Sanskrit words is the website for Yoga International which is the other yoga magazine I read when I have time.

Ah, time…something at a bit of a premium in my life these days she says wistfully…

Saturday, February 18, 2006

A Line of Poetry…

“A line of poetry written in a splash of blood…” says Yukio Mishima in the 1985 movie Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters by Paul Schrader which Andrew rented yesterday and watched a couple of times and then brought over here for me to watch.

If I wasn’t so tired right now I would probably have something more engaging to say other than I thought it good, interesting to look at and remarkably thoughtful. It even has some (minor) swordplay and one astonishingly beautiful sword.

I asked Andrew this morning what he liked best about the movie and much to my amazement and surprise he said the score by Philip Glass. Andrew normally has short unkind words to say about Glass’s work.

He was right about this one though, the score enhances the colorful sets and camera work and helps in the transitions between the black and white telling of Mishima’s younger life, the bold theatrical slips into parts of his novels and the connecting story of Mishima’s last day.

I found all the female characters troublesome and dark but Mishima’s world was pretty darn dark, My favorite scene was when he addressed the student protestors with his swagger, cigarettes and belief in tradition.

Such a complex and dramatic character beautifully realized with refreshing restraint. I’ll be thinking about this one for a good long while,

Saturday, February 11, 2006

100 Bonus Points

Julia Glass gets 100 bonus points by having a collection of poetry next to her bed and a reprint here of her Op-Ed in the New York Times today without the annoying commercials.

February 11, 2006
Op-Ed Contributor
Truer Than Fact

Marblehead, Mass.

MY 5-year-old son loves the Olivia stories. Our favorite is "Olivia Saves the Circus," in which Ian Falconer's beguilingly cheeky heroine tells her class about what she did on her vacation. She relates how she went to the circus and, because all the performers were sidelined with ear infections, conducted the entire show herself: as lion tamer, tightrope walker, tattooed lady, and so forth. "And now I am famous," she concludes. The teacher does not look pleased and asks if the story is true. "Pretty true," says Olivia. "All true?" demands the teacher. Olivia stands firm: "Pretty all true." And though Mr. Falconer cleverly switches scenes at this crucial moment, we know she gets away with it.

Everyone roots for Olivia because she is a child, not a grown man with millions of adoring fans, millions of dollars, a movie deal and the patronage of a television deity. (Okay, Smoking Gun, so she's a talking piglet, the alter ego of a grown man who's got most of those perks. Details, details.) More important, Olivia is a character in a book. She was invented to captivate preschoolers, people encouraged to mingle fact with fiction.

There, I've said it. Fiction. Definition 1: a profoundly human urge that fuels and nurtures the growing minds of children, whereby they can project themselves both deep into their private fantasies and out into the bizarre world of the grown-up lives around them. Definition 2: A form of entertainment that permits perfectly sane adults to shed the burdens of ordinary life as they immerse themselves in a drama intended, at its best, to cast light on life's most urgent questions; a drama concocted by someone you don't know from Adam who nonetheless may bestow on you a gift of consolation, catharsis or broadening of conscience, sometimes while making you laugh yourself silly. Definition 3: a literary genre that appears to be shriveling in popularity, threatening further the already-dwindling profits of book publishers.

In the month-long fray over James Frey, one question has gone largely unexamined: Why do readers suddenly seem to prefer the so-called truth to fiction? It's a foregone conclusion that memoirs now sell better than novels, that magazines are giving short stories the shaft. Has fiction become a dirty word?

On my bedside table sit four fine contemporary books: a poetry collection, a nonfiction narrative about the fall of the World Trade Center towers and two novels. One novel you might call historic, in that a major character is Alfred Kinsey, a made-up real guy; the other is the story of a mother whose grown daughter has gone on a political hunger strike. Both are riveting, the first as a psychological immersion in a particular culture (ours) at a particular turning point, the second as an emotional and ethical immersion in one mother's dark night of the soul. Would the mother's story be more "real," more "redemptive," had she and her suffering been drawn from "life"? No. When I give myself over to a good novel, I surrender to the truths fashioned from one writer's heart, mind and soul. I do not waste a nanosecond wondering whether what I'm reading "really happened." I know that it might happen; in tandem with the author, I contemplate the consequences of the question "What if?"

Fiction writers work tremendously hard to make things that are patently untrue seem as true as possible. "Let me tell you a story that isn't true," beckons the fiction writer, "and I will show you some of the truest things you'll ever know." A good novel is an out-of-self experience. It lifts you off the ground so that you have the sensation of flying. It says, Look at the world around you; learn from the people in these pages, neither quite me nor quite you, how life is lived in so many different ways. A memoir says, Look at me; learn from me how one life has been lived. That solipsistic focus has its place; it, too, can move and inspire, but only fiction can give us faith that we all have the imaginative capability to understand any number of stories not our own, especially the stories of people who never would or could write a memoir.

Recently I read a novel narrated by a middle-aged man trying to solve the mystery of his own death. His posthumous recollections are rife with sorrow — murder, addiction, adultery, loss of a child — and offer no promise of heaven. Almost impossibly, yet therefore powerfully, this novel is incandescent with honesty and hope. A fine memoir is to a fine novel as a well-wrought blanket is to a fancifully embroidered patchwork quilt. The memoir, a logical creation, dissects and dignifies reality. Fiction, wholly extravagant, magnifies it and gives it moral shape. Fiction has no practical purpose. Fiction, after all, is art.

At its best, fiction cultivates fantasy and compassion; at its worst, memoir provokes schadenfreude and prurience. The ugly truth, I fear, is that many people are drawn to sensational memoirs for the same reason they watch "The Apprentice": they like to witness actual suffering, before-your-very-eyes humiliation. Notice how the first wave of rage in the Frey fracas was directed at those who uncovered the fabrications. Doubleday issued a Silly Putty definition of memoir, Larry King took the "He's only mortal" call-in from Mount Olympus, and readers insisted that the book had changed their lives "anyway." Yet these defenses quickly crumbled once Oprah Winfrey staged a public flaying. Mr. Frey didn't really go through hell? Well, she would show him hell. It wasn't James Frey's redemption that viewers cared about most; it was his shame. First the book, then the show: a double helping for mortification junkies everywhere.

I live a few miles from Salem, Mass., where visitors to the trumped-up "witch museums" shudder at images from a sinister era when stocks and gallows were a source of amusement. But how much more civilized are we? Much of contemporary entertainment slakes a thirst for the pain and abasement of others. Fiction doesn't cut it anymore because no one really and truly suffers. In fact, this is crucial to what fiction does. Through it, you experience empathy in its purest form because what you cannot experience is blame. Blame requires at least one beating heart.

Have we grown impatient with flights of fancy and with the sort of rumination that takes us deeper into ourselves? Psychotherapy takes too long; even yoga's getting stale. We're so thoroughly "plugged in" that it feels unnatural to be carried away on the private, illusory adventure of a novel. Americans want their diversions short, loud and filled with telegenic hardships. Perhaps there is a growing consensus, however sad, that the wayward realm of make-believe belongs only to our children, along with talking pigs who run the circus.

I will persist, however, in the outmoded business of literary fabrication. When readers tell me they've been moved or simply entertained by something I wrote, I will continue to declare with pleasure that I made it all up — and yet, paradoxically, that it's all true.

Well, pretty all true.

Julia Glass, author of the forthcoming novel "The Whole World Over," won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2002.

Monday, February 06, 2006


Today the sun was out all day! The scales are receding, my fins and gills becoming less prominent and my current favorite wall was bathed in light.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Perfect Irritability

At the gym today I was happy to be tooling along on an elliptical trainer when a gray haired woman about my age and size came by chatting up a number of folks. She was fully clothed including a nice new looking leather jacket. She knew the woman on the machine next to me, also about my age and size wearing too short shorts with an unattractive roll of flab pushed up by the elasticity of her clothing. She was working hard, driven by the furies, it seemed.

Unlike pretty much everyone around me I was not in an iPod daze or listening to audio on the array of LCD TVs above our heads. I was staring at the cover of the Fall 2005 issue of Buddhadharma and trying to remain in the present moment.

They started talking. The gray haired woman spoke loudly so she could be heard over the machines and the hip-hop sound track the gym plays midday on the weekends. I could hear clearly every word they were saying.

The conversation, some lightweight gossip about mutual friends and some basic networking was starting to drive me loopy. I was getting grumpy, mad, annoyed and then they started talking about how crude Americans are and then began to complain about how bad our table manners have become. (These were both American women, inspired by a comment of a European friend.)

I was thinking, rude, you want to talk about rude, your conversation is rude!!!, while trying to make eye contact with Ms. Gray Hair. She was having none of it even though I was looking at them both with a not exactly open and friendly stare.

I was also thinking that I shouldn’t be thinking these things. I should either be listening to music of my choice like everyone else or thinking how nice it is that these friends get to see each other and share their opinions and then my eyes drifted to a phrase in the magazine I had restlessly opened in front of me. In an article in the Forum section on the Lojong Mind Training Practices I spied… “On the ultimate level, it is all simply a matter of being present with the perfection that is already there.

I realized that I didn’t have to stop being irritable. The irritability was perfect. It was what was. What a relief!

I also like the photos in the article, which are regular signs that have been doctored to show a few mind training slogans.

Some resources mentioned in the forum are The Tonglen and Mind Training Site, which has lots of cool stuff including a place where one can have a daily proverb sent to a mobile device by text messaging…

… “Excuse me, that is my slogan calling.”

Unfettered Mind, which has beautiful images and mind training maps for those who like to go with the flow (as in flow charts and the more scholarly The Berzin Archives, which has an abundance of good information to take one’s mind off any perfectly annoying people you might run across today.