tom moody

Archive for May, 2017

cuckoo's nest crit from the internet (before the Combine takes it away)

drawing by Ken Kesey from a 2002 edition of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Re-reading Kesey's classic after many years inspired a rush of pleasure and then a rush to the Internet for some other perspectives.

Let's start with the "villain," Nurse Ratched, who gets under the skin of the "good guy," Randle Patrick McMurphy, and also the skin of the reader. If you experience the novel as a teen you've encountered the Big Nurse archetype in schools but you have no idea how much she (or he) will persist as a feature of American life, in the workplace, politics, and social realms. Because Kesey made the character female the book will be seen as un-PC today but the author reminds us he also had a female nurse in the story who wasn't a didactic power-freak. From a NYT article, published the year he died:

...Mr. Kesey noted that his novel included another, more positive female character, "along with the big castrator of a nurse and the two prostitutes." "She was an Asian nurse who worked in the hospital's electroshock room.

"She is just as tough and snappy as anything," he said. "It is good to have one positive woman there."

Nowadays when most people think of One Flew Over it's the film version, which Kesey had issues with:

Mr. Kesey said he never saw the 1975 film version of his book, directed by Milos Forman and with Jack Nicholson as the lead, R. P. McMurphy. "It has been the smartest thing I never did," Mr. Kesey said, "because Jack Nicholson is great but he is not McMurphy -- he is too short." He added that Mr. Nicholson also seemed too shrewd for the character.

Nicholson may have been shrewd, but director Milos Forman significantly dumbed down the material. Ironically he was hired as an outsider (Czech art film director) but made the ultimate Hollywood good-vs-evil schlockfest, and became a Hollywood power as a result. His incomprehension of Kesey's complex story stands out in a 1975 Village Voice interview:

I asked [Forman] about his decision, implemented in the screenplay of Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman, to treat the story objectively rather than through the eyes of the Indian, Kesey’s point-of-view character.

"I didn’t want that for my movie," he said. "I hate that voice-over, I hate that whole psychedelic ‘60s drug free-association thing, going with the camera through somebody’s head. That’s fine in the book, or on a stage, which is stylized. But in film the sky is real, the grass is real, the tree is real; the people had better be real too."

"You know, I’m glad I didn’t know the reputation of the book when I read it, so I didn’t have this artificial reverence for the ‘cult classic.’ And I think it’s much better that it was made now than in the ‘60s. After a certain time, all the distracting elements fall away, all the transitory psychedelic stuff. And we can follow what it is really about. My film is very simple."

You know, transitory psychedelic stuff such as the book's brilliant but unreliable narration, via Chief Broom, whom Forman relegated to a bit part. Perversely, Forman's take on the story is based on an uncritical acceptance of McMurphy vs Nurse as a clash of primal forces, which was a paranoid schizophrenic's view. Take the Chief out of the equation and you have a comic book story instead of a multi-layered, critical story. Even the CliffsNotes-type sites on the Net understand this better than Forman did. Bright Hub Education has a nuanced theory about the Chief:

Bromden’s suffocation of the catatonic McMurphy ends the novel, and is popularly understood as a mercy-killing of a man whose soul has been stripped away. Yet a much darker reading of the novel shows the patients discarding a symbol they no longer have use for. McMurphy was the epitome of rebellion and subversion against the systems of control set in place. The patients are content to ignore his flaws and stand behind him against the equally-abstracted Ratched. Yet when the battle is over, when those that could help themselves have done so, the defeated form of McMurphy is left behind. He destroys himself to redeem his friends, and they in turn destroy him because he was never seen as a person at all, but an outmoded symbol.

Literary criticism of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has attracted both its share of accolades and controversies for its depiction of a hospital ward as a place of domination and control, and a rambunctious patient who encourages acting out instead of conforming. What makes this story so critically interesting is that it is not simply a polemic against institutional forces. Rather, it is an ingenious portrayal of fantasy and how people [got] caught up in the grandiose and lost sight of humanity. We sympathize with Bromden, the fake deaf-mute for his understanding, but at the novel’s end, we are forced to question that he may truly be the most blind of all.

And here's CliffsNotes itself, to tutor the hapless Forman on his perch atop the Hollywood food chain:

Perhaps the most telling difference between the film and the novel is the ending. The novel contains an episode missing from the film wherein Chief observes a dog sniffing gopher holes from the hospital window. The dog is distracted by a flock of geese forming a cross against a full moon. The dog chases the geese toward a road where it is implied the dog will confront an automobile with the inevitably tragic result that machine will triumph over nature. Coincidentally, this is the same course the Chief follows when he escapes from the hospital, giving the novel's resolution a degree of uncertainty as to whether the Chief will succeed in the outside world or succumb to a worse fate in a world increasingly overrun by dehumanizing mechanization. The film's conclusion, however, depicts Chief running from the hospital toward what the viewer assumes is happiness and liberty.

AV Club (which ultimately thinks the movie has "aged better") notes the Chief's contribution to the narrative:

The novel lays out its case with borderline religious fervor. In Bromden’s eyes, McMurphy is practically superhuman, a giant of a man with a great booming voice and seemingly inexhaustible lust for life, an avatar for all that is individual and righteous and masculine (yeah, we’ll get to that) in the world. His battle against Ratched for the soul of the ward plays out like an epic showdown between two brilliant, near-mythic opponents. Even the glimpses we get of McMurphy tired or acting in self-interest have a Christ-like feel to them, a certain garden of Gethsemane vibe. He struggles because whether he wants it or not, he’s responsible for all of them; and in the end, he has to sacrifice himself to free them.

Contrast that with the movie, where most of the running time has McMurphy acting like any reasonable person might if they were thrown into the nuthouse...

Chuck Palahniuk also weighs in that it's a three-way struggle, not a two-way struggle (with the Chief as angelic third party), and why this is important:

And of course we have rebels, loud and dashing, but they'll be silenced when they become too much of a threat. Arrested or lobotomized or wrongly accused of molesting children and thereby discredited. But always lost, killed, left bereft.

That's the pattern. That's always the pattern. But we're never stuck with just two choices.

With any luck, the rest of us will see what's happening and choose to find a third option. Instead of reinforcing a social system by rebelling or conforming, we'll become the Big Chief, and escape into some beautiful vision. A future that's not a reaction to or an extension of any mental ward where we find ourselves trapped at the present moment.

By losing the Chief, as Forman did, you also lose the Chief's paranoid-but-perceptive vision of The Combine, the larger system of social control for which the asylum is just a branch office. James Wolcott gave special attention to that in his 2011 evaluation of the novel:

It’s tempting to consign One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest to a souvenir piece from the dissident 60s, its protest energy, trippy prophecy, and twitchy paranoia bridging the marijuana grove between the Beats of yore and the hippies ready to sprout. [Argh, this Vanity Fair style of writing --tm] But when I reread it, it seemed more (curse the word) relevant than ever, the oppressive forces it mutinied against having only gotten more immersive and influential in our lives since McMurphy got zapped. Big Nurse has been supplanted by Big Pharma, the pilling of America fulfilling the novel’s vision of weaponized medication: “Miltowns! Thorazines! Libriums! Stelazines! … Tranquilize all of us completely out of existence.” And the Combine, the novel’s metaphor for the silent machinery of social indoctrination, manipulation, and management, stands as a rough draft for the Matrix, the vision of modern existence as a holographic fraud, a covert information grid operating on its own agenda.

Wolcott wrote this pre-Snowden -- the Combine's biomechanical tendrils have only grown more pervasive in the last half-decade. Kesey's favorite version of the play incorporated the Combine into the production, according to the NYT:

[The Gary Sinise version of the play] was not [Kesey's] favorite production, he added. That designation he reserved for a production he saw 15 years ago at a Sacramento high school, staged so that an elaborate display of grinding cogs and gears appeared in silhouette between scenes to illustrate the play's sinister ''Combine,'' a metaphor for society's grinding machinery.

...and it would be interesting to see a remake of the film with the Chief's "hallucinations" woven into the story.

- tom moody

May 22nd, 2017 at 10:18 am

Posted in books, films

kc reference

poseidon

poseidonwake

- tom moody

May 20th, 2017 at 1:08 pm

Posted in art as criticism

Ardour's Paul Davis speaks at Linux audio event

Paul Davis, a Linux luminary who developed the JACK streaming protocol and currently works on the Ardour DAW (digital audio workstation), speaks at a conference here (video embed -- start at 2:22:32).

Worth a watch, even if it's pessimistic overall about Linux audio. On the one hand he offers a necessary reality check to open source boosterism, but on the other, he needs to insulate himself from ordinary bonehead users on forums, they are clearly wearing him down. (He's even testier on the forums.)

He makes a good point about certain types of software only being viable in the commercial realm, as opposed to the open source model. His example is Elastique Audio, a proprietary timestretching algorithm. He admits that neither Linux nor anyone else offers anything as good. It excels, he argues, because the creators spent ten years "polishing and polishing" the code. You need a promise of return, and not just the love of your peers, to do something that numbing.

At one point he muses on the types of audio users who might be drawn to Linux environment. An impetus he missed is people fleeing Apple and Windows for political and aesthetic reasons. Getting away from computer companies that trick you, spy on you, and bleed you for additional services is a strong motivator.

- tom moody

May 20th, 2017 at 1:08 pm

better watch out

I made this DVD cover as a thought experiment (previous example). Whereas Hellman's film Cockfighter will never get the Criterion treatment for an absolute certainty, because of animal rights activists and general distaste for southern cracker entertainment, this 1989 entry in the yuletide nightmare franchise might actually... nah.

silent_night_deadly_night_3_hellman

It's a pretty good effort, rather droll and arch as it delivers the goods to the teenage date market. The protagonist is a cute blind girl with psychic powers; the bad guy is the serial killer from previous films (I think) who was revived from the dead by a well-meaning (!) scientist, played by Richard Beymer (later Benjamin Horne in Twin Peaks). More future Lynch actors show up: wifebeater Leo from Peaks and Laura Harring, twelve years before her breakout role in Mulholland Drive.

The serial killer wears a transparent plastic dome on his head that, as the movie progresses, shows clearer and clearer views of his exposed brain matter underneath the plastic. By the end, we even see reddish fluid sloshing around in there. Ick.

The film is never boring but moves slowly. Shots are carefully framed, especially closeups of the heroine, who looks like a Seventeen cover model and is smart, resourceful (at least when she's not walking up to the killer and touching his face), and surprisingly acid-tongued. An early scene with a shrink establishes that she's full of anger over the loss of her parents and that's why she keeps insulting everyone with rude one-liners throughout the movie.

Unless you are an IMDb commenter ("I feel that this is the absolute worst" etc), you can tell this movie was made by a slumming auteur. It's too smart, and the camera work and editing too assured, for the cheesy '80s series that launched with a topless Linnea Quigley running from an ax. In turns dreamlike and sarcastic, SNDN3:BWO is Two Lane Blacktop with decapitations.

- tom moody

May 20th, 2017 at 8:28 am

Posted in art as criticism, films

Moondog, "Voices of Spring," "Down is Up" lyrics

Moondog 2 (1971) was Columbia's follow-up to the better-known Moondog. The second installment features Louis Hardin and his daughter singing rounds, with simple percussion, keyboard, and woodwind accompaniment, and what sounds to me like quite a bit of overtracking and stereo-mixing.

Each little song (26 in all) is charming and minimal, reminiscent of the Carl Orff gassenhauer (street song) for children. I couldn't make out all the words but this blog transcribed them. I made some tweaks to a couple of my favorites:

Voices of Spring

voices of spring were in chorus
each voice was bringing a song
i couldn't sing in the chorus until i wrote a new song
i wrote my song and joined the throng

voices of spring were in chorus
each voice was singing a song
i couldn't sing in the chorus until i wrote my new song
i wrote my song and joined the throng

Down is Up

down is up, and so up is down
because the earth is round
there is no such a thing as up or down

- tom moody

May 19th, 2017 at 10:15 am

Posted in music - others

Dead Mountaineer's Hotel

...is a Soviet-era genre-bending novel by Boris & Arkady Strugatsky, one of their more memorable efforts. A ten-little-indians style mystery with an oddball assortment of characters snowed in at a mountain lodge. Just how oddball is gradually revealed to a by-the-book police inspector.

An Estonian film version, "Hukkunud Alpinisti" hotell, with script by the Strugatskys, showed up on YouTube. Made in the late '70s, yet it looks like an '80s film, with aggressively modern set design, an electronic score, and stylish costuming. Touches of Kubrick and Argento, as much as the budget allowed. The Strugatskys somewhat truncated their plot and characters but the story works, especially the surprisingly emotional ending.

Hukkunud_Alpinisti_hotell

- tom moody

May 19th, 2017 at 9:40 am

Posted in books, films

cutting and pressing records

Audio Geography Studios mini-documentary on lathe cutting records: [YouTube]

Audio Geography is a US-based business that offers small runs of lathe cut vinyl records to musicians. The owner acquired vintage cutting equipment used by radio stations in the '40s and '50s and employs it to cut grooved vinyl, without any further steps in the pressing process.

OFM Vinyl mini-documentary on transforming a lathe cut acetate into a nickel master and pressing the vinyl: [YouTube]

OFM Vinyl, a small record-pressing company based in France, appears to be out of business. The 2012 video shows James S. Taylor (ex-Swayzak, recording here under the name Lugano Fell), working on an ambient composition using a turntable, mixer, and (presumably) looper. The live output of his sound process is recorded directly to an acetate disc (called a "lacquer" in the video) using a lathe cutter. The rest of the video shows the labor- and equipment-intensive process of turning the lacquer into a nickel-plated master and pressing a vinyl record from the master.

- tom moody

May 18th, 2017 at 10:24 am

Posted in music - others

The Last Emperor factoids

Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Byrne appeared in person at the Quad Cinema Saturday to discuss their music for Bertolucci's The Last Emperor (1987), which the Quad screened before the talk. Both charmed the audience; Sakamoto, in particular, told many funny stories about his career and the filming.

Below are some facts I learned from the screening and reading around the internet:

1. Sakamoto noted that Byrne wrote the non-Western sounding themes for the score and Sakamoto wrote the Western-sounding themes. This seemed counterintuitive, but sure enough, the Main Title is Byrne (similar to the world music he was doing in the Bush of Ghosts era) and the heart-tugging string and brass tunes in the middle and end are Sakamoto. Both had assistance from professional scoremeister Hans Zimmer.

2. Sakamoto acted in the film, because his screen presence in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence had impressed Bertolucci. He doesn't consider himself an actor and wasn't too happy about playing a "fanatic fascist" in back-to-back films. He was contacted later about doing the score. Both Byrne and Sakamoto were hired as composers on short notice. Sakamoto was given a week to write his "cues" (themes), he asked for two weeks, and presented 64 cues at the end of that time (about half of which were used).

3. Bertolucci thought Sakamoto smiled too much in personal conversation and at the beginning of the filming, began speaking curtly to him to toughen him up for his role as a fanatic fascist. When Sakamoto met John Lone, who played the emperor Puyi, Lone said "you are my enemy" and also treated him callously. Oy, these method people.

4. The film has held up over the decades, and continues to garner critical praise despite some sniping about Eurocentric tourism, orientalism, and so forth. The Chinese government of the '80s imposed very few limitations on the script and production. They asked that one scene be removed where a camel drops a mound of dung on the young Puyi, saying it was not fitting treatment for an emperor. This explains a couple of shots of camels in the film that seem to be given more significance than they merited (e.g., a reaction shot of the emperor's face).

5. Victor Wong, an American actor of Chinese descent, plays a mentor to Puyi, but he doesn't do much mentoring. According to the Wikipedians, Wong got in arguments with the director over historical accuracies, and Bertolucci cut many of his scenes. The Wikipedians imply some cause-and-effect there but I couldn't find any support for it. The movie may have just been too long.

6. Bertolucci wanted Sakamoto's character to commit seppuku (harikiri) after the Japanese defeat in the film. Sakamoto refused to do it, so Bertolucci had to settle for an after-the-fact self-inflicted gunshot scene.

- tom moody

May 16th, 2017 at 11:30 am

Posted in films

my am*zon reviews in html

A minor ingrate on the former dump.fm ridiculed the sidebar link here, "my amazon reviews, '98-'03" -- it was supposed to be a joke, oh well. These reviews were written in the innocent days before Jeff Bezos emerged as a totalitarian Sauron turning the American workplace into a high-tech surveillance hell.
The reviews were an experiment in attempting "pro" culturecrit in an unpaid environment and ceased when one of them had wording altered by a staffer.
Rather than continuing to link to the black evil that is am*zon, I've saved the reviews as an HTML file.

- tom moody

May 13th, 2017 at 9:50 am

trump in a pantsuit

Hillary Clinton excuses her election debacle with artificial macho swagger in this clip at 0:28 [YouTube]

HILLARY CLINTON: It wasn’t a perfect campaign. There is no such thing, but I was on the way to winning until a combination of Jim Comey’s letter on October 28th and Russian WikiLeaks raised doubts in the minds of people who were inclined to vote for me but got scared off.

She still wants to be President, apparently. (Shudder.)

- tom moody

May 13th, 2017 at 7:57 am

Posted in general