River of Shadows – Rebecca Solnit


I came to this book for two reasons
–one that I am interested in Eadweard Muybridge, as he is considered the grandfather of motion pictures (and a character in a story I am/was writing), two that I’ve read Rebecca Solnit’s writing on Tom Dispatch, where she usually writes hopeful essays of an ecological nature. So when I heard that she had written this book on Muybridge and the birth of the modern world, I needed to check it out. And damn, can this woman write! This is the kind of history book I love, one that takes in disparate elements and demonstrates how they all snap together. The previous history of Muybridge I have read was straight hagiography and focused on his motion studies and his time in Stanford and Philadelphia. But Solnit is more interested in the years that went into creating a man who would change history–stopping time, in essence; making people aware of themselves as an image–and the society that surrounded him. Solnit brings in the railroads, San Francisco history, the emancipation of women, the last stands of the Native Americans, the birthing of educational and artistic institutions, and much more. Here is a sample paragraph which demonstrates Solnit’s command of the language and of juggling several ideas:

Those great landscapists Russel, Hart, and Savage photographed the physical process of the building of the railroads, and when the line was open, Mybridge and Watkins both made extensive stereoscope series of the scenery along the route. Most accounts of the building of the railroad concentrate on just that: the heroic and unprecedented toils of the laborers and engineers that drew a line in wood and iron across the continent. But less visible webs were being spun. The transcontinental railroad was far vaster than any of the manufactorites of the East. It required unprecedented strata of bureaucracy, unprecedented degrees of managerial coordination, and it reached as far into the political and economic systems of the United States as it did into the landscape. The Central Pacific and the Union Pacific were the biggest corporations of their time and the first to have such extensive dealing with the federal, state, and local governments. The modern corporation’s complex synchronizations first appeared there, and so did the penetration into the world on such a scale. First the railroads, then the networks for distributing energy, food, and basic goods, drew people further and further into a system; and more and more of them became employees of such systems. The independence of the frontier and the subsistence farmer retreated further and further. This was the moment in which many Americans first began to feel like cogs in the machine.

And so here we are today. One of Solnit’s points is that the “Wild West” was the last gasp of a mythologized frontier that was about to become less wild and more regimented, just as authors were romanticizing the Native Americans while the Feds were busy killing the last “insurgents” off.
Muybridge comes across and driven, but private, only partly aware of the changes he is making to the world, and maybe not as honored in his time as he should be. The ultimate American success story, he retired to England where he was born, and died ten years later in 1904, the graveyard slab misspelling his name as Maybridge. Whoops.

Don’t Let Me Hear You Say Life’s Taking You Nowhere

Most excellent chronology of Bowie’s most productive period: 1974-1980. And here’s a great quote:

PM: You seem to be fascinated by cities like Berlin…
DB: Berlin, because of the friction. I’ve written songs in all the Western capitals, and I’ve always got to the stage where there isn’t any friction between a city and me. That became nostalgic, vaguely decadent, and I left for another city. At the moment I’m incapable of composing in Los Angeles, New York or in London or Paris. There’s something missing. Berlin has the strange ability to make you write only the important things – anything else you don’t mention, you remain silent, and write nothing … and in the end you produce Low.

Cutie Honey

Dir: Hideaki Anno
Eriko Sato started off her life as cute bikini model in Japan,
but has now jumped to film by grabbing the lead role in “Cutie Honey,” a purple and pink psychedelic blast of live-action anime based on the ’70s manga by Go Nagai. As her theme tune tells us, she has “perfect boobs”, kitten-like lips, a fine behind, and generally just lives up to her name. She’s also perched somewhere between human and post-human, being as she is a recreation of her scientist father’s dead daughter, a reanimation. This also makes her a perfect heroine as well as sex object: innocent but sexual, loving but unobtainable. The film rightfully indulges in its star’s good looks and body, giving us more cheesecake than a California factory. Compare this to the huffing and puffin over nuthin’ that was “Catwoman”–Cutie Honey’s post-feminism is more honest than the bait and switch of American attempts.
Even after the CG explosion of “Kung Fu Hustle”, this film’s low-rent effects are still bracing and inventive, though after a head-spinning opening sequence, the film settles down for character building and humor before building up to a series of climactic battles between members of the Panther Claw gang and the asexual immortal called Sister Jill. The film is slow in places like many Takashi Miike films. However, we wouldn’t want to cut out such moments as a drunken karaoke evening between the three leads, including Jun Murakami as a be-capped journalist with groovy flared hair, and the button-down (but very very hot) police officer Aki (Mikako Ichikawa). Or a very silly moment when Black Claw sings a song all about himself, backed up by violin-playing henchmen.
This was the third film I’ve seen at the festival, and I was glad to see the crowd ate it up. The festival staffers all loved it as well, introducing the screening with a group call out of Cutie’s power-up magic words: “Honey! FLASH!”

Kung Fu Hustle

Dir: Stephen Chow
I just missed Kung Fu Hustle when I was in Taiwan last November
–it was set to open two weeks after I left, but what a pleasure to see that it was in the line-up at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. Apparently, S.B. marked the second American screening outside of Sundance (not counting those who have found a bootleg copy in Chinatown). Director, star, and comic genius Stephen Chow has been working on this since 2002, which is a long time compared to his productive height in the early ’90s, where they would knock off four Chow vehicles a year (and nearly all good).
“Kung Fu Hustle” makes Chow’s previous film “Shaolin Soccer” feel like a transitional piece. There was plenty of CG in that film, but now we see that Chow was working towards realizing a sort of human cartoon, where live action meets Tex Avery. Of course, The Mask also attempted this, but the boundaries between the Avery-like Mask character and the “real” world were set. The world of “Kung Fu Hustle” is completely different.
What fans of Chow might have a problem with is the lack of him for great chunks of the picture–his character appears off and on in the first half. He plays a useless street “tough” trying to get into the infamous Ax Gang, while the gang itself tries to put the heat on a innocent looking neigborhood/tenement which is secretly home to a group of kung fu masters. The centerpiece here is the landlord/landlady couple who run the tenement: the landlady (Yuen Qiu) has superspeed and the “Lion’s Roar” and the husband (once Chow regular Wah Yuen, who hasn’t been in one of his films since “Fists of Fury II”) who knows a very bendy style of kung fu. Apart from Wah and Chi Chung Lam (the fat guy from Shaolin Soccer), there’s very few familiar faces, and a great many are first time actors, a method Chow employed in his previous film.
Chow’s character makes a transition from being a wannabe gangster with blocked chi to a superhuman good-guy with chi a’plenty, and this comes later in the proceedings. The feeling is somewhat like when a stand-up comedian goes from his regular job to be an announcer for other, younger comedians under his mantle.
Is the film good, though? Oh yes, very much, with plenty of eye candy, deft camerawork (Chow knows how to shoot a fight scene), and effects that don’t drown out the rest of the film, making sure to keep the human element centered. Is the film one of his bests? No way, for there’s very little of him. But is this film unlike anything Chow has ever made, and is this film unlike anything most audiences have ever seen? Undoubtedly.

Achtung, Wireless Enthusiast!

A few years ago, I discovered the most wonderful mystery of the Numbers Stations, strange coded messages of a spy agency nature that could be found only at the top reaches of the shortwave radio dial. A year later they would become “cool” (in quotes) after Wilco used some on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I bought a CD-ROM about them, but at the time the holy grail of recordings was the four-disc CONET PROJECT, a loving anthology of the greatest “hits” of number stations: sine-wave jingles, children reading out numbers in German, static, static, static. You could find some copies on the web, but it was at an exhorbinant price. What a surprise then to find that Irdial Discs, who first released the CD, has made it available via mp3 along with the very extensive liner notes.
Choice stuff, folks!

Time Flies While You’re on the Web

Phil Gyford posts on his ten years being on the Internet. I get namedropped, which is always nice.

OK, to be honest it’s a couple of weeks until the anniversary of when I first ventured online, as it took that long to get my little Mac LC II talking to the Internet, such was the complexity of the unfamiliar fragments of software required. But, armed with the Internet Starter Kit, I finally made it and began exploring.
Which isn’t to claim I was some kind of pioneer; obviously the net was already well past adolescence and the media had probably stopped having to explain what “Internet” was at every mention. But even so, Ted was the only person in the world I knew who was online, so this did feel like an expensive solo mission into the unknown.

That was me, in Japan, having been connected to the ‘net since the late spring of ’94. I remember spending a long time getting my brain around the concept of email (why not write it out, I wondered) and then, later, trying to imagine what a graphical browser might look like when I started hearing about Netscape. Why would you want to see things? I asked. Answer: porn.
For a long time being on the ‘net meant going in using Apple’s ZTerm, and keeping the phone line occupied for hours. One of the earliest texts I have (saved somewhere, should go and find it) is a conversation between me and Dan Waldhoff, who was my Mac connection near where I lived in Japan. I’m asking him where the hell I can find simple household bleach. I think it was Dan who was responsible for getting me into the ‘net and showing what it could be used for. I also immediately joined the Japanese version of AMUG, and went to them for software and hardware problems. In a country where nobody seemed to own an Apple (biggest brand was NEC) this was essential.
My computer at the time? A Powerbook 145B.
Phil continues:

And now? The next ten years? I must admit to a feeling of exhaustion. There’s still plenty to get excited about of course. Even though the fields have long-since been paved over, this place is crammed with people doing wonderful, ingenious things and I’m lucky enough to count many as friends. But at the same time everything I do online these days feels like a chore. A decade ago a new email was a thrill; now it’s another item on the todo list. The Internet’s now just a job and a vast, rickety structure of never-ending commitments I’ve built up over ten years, and I’m not sure where to go from here.

Fortunately, I don’t feel so despondent. Every new development seems to reinvigorate me, even though the actual time I have to explore these things (Flickr, Blogger, RSS, etc.) is limited. I also too spend way too much time on the web, but not because it’s a chore. But that thrill of connecting to “cyberspace” and having words pop up from nowhere is definitely gone, and while I wouldn’t say it’s a chore, but the web has become that most familiar of things, a necessity.