November 25, 2009


"Amped up, antic and crackling with chemical intensity, [Nicolas Cage's] performance moved movie critic Roger Ebert to observe: 'Cage is as good as anyone since Klaus Kinski at portraying a man whose head is exploding.'" — from a recent LA Times news item on "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans".

Well, yes. Like Kinski himself, Cage is another of those actors (or overactors) you watch in order to watch the actor — Nicolas Cage (or, rather, "Nicolas Cage") in this case — rather than the character they're playing. Or rather, in my case, don't watch — I find both Kinski and Cage generally unwatchable in all their showy look-at-me intensity and hamminess. They're performers, not actors; and the performance is so often about their performance itself. It's all about (say) watching James Dean playing James Dean playing yourself (were you an American of a certain age), for example, or Nicolas Cage playing yet another variant of Nicolas Cage playing another twitchy quirky mannered variant of "Nicolas Cage". Tilda Swinton does the same in a rather different context. I doubt I'll be watching this version of Bad Lieutenant any time soon.

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November 19, 2009


I recently stumbled across a Beethoven quote somewhere which has him saying his Sixth Symphony is "a matter more of feeling than of painting in sounds". The difference in what "painting" means now compared to then brought me up short: what else is something like a Rothko or a Bacon or a Diebenkorn than a "matter of feeling" or affect or, well, visual musicality? Well, it's a lot else, really, but it's still hard to think of "painting" as realistic depiction or something somewhat programmatic in the way it must have been to Beethoven.

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November 13, 2009

That Positivist Eschatology

Along with a handful of other people I spent an enjoyable few hours last weekend showing John Wilkins the Sights Of The City (and Berkeley). John's a real philosopher and historian of science, a field I really only dabbled in at university, and the various conversations over lunch or bagels or out in the streets ranged from mathematical models used in cladistics through species concepts and the storybook version(s) of science history taught to scientists, to what a positivist eschatology might look like (OK, that one was inspired by a previous comic non sequitur over a beer, but never mind), to Australian accents (his accent's noticeably more authentically Australian than mine; I think my accent's sui generis now, it doesn't belong to any country or region any more, which is a little unsettling). And he knew who the real Jimmy Little is, which was somewhat impressive for a philosopher (I was there as the Real Me, fortunately).

John's book Species: A History Of The Idea has just been published here by UC Press. One of John's arguments (at least as I understood it), which got aired on the weekend, is that the notion within biology that earlier scientists or philosophers — Linnaeus or Aristotle, for example — used essentialist conceptions of "species" is wrong, and that the notion that they did use such conceptions is itself a modern misconception, one that's been rather influential in modern biology and history and philosophy of science (HPS). A more nuanced look at what earlier scientists and philosophers actually meant when they used the term "species" suggests that few if any earlier such usages were essentialist.

That intrigues me, and might help explain a few things that have puzzled me about the history and sociology of modern biological; but I guess what I've always been most interested in with things like this (and what motivated me to do HPS at university) are the sociological and psychological reasons how and why such an idea might spread and take hold in intellectual circles (and anti-intellectual circles, for that matter) — and how such ideas die out or marginalised. History and sociology often only make sense to me when taken with a healthy dose of psychology (tempered with a great deal of skepticism); I can't help feeling this is one of those cases.

I've ordered his book; it turns up in the mail today or tomorrow; let's see how much of it I can misunderstand or misconstrue….

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November 09, 2009

Mahler and Glass

I finally get to see Hitchcock's Vertigo (in the restored version on DVD) … and now I can make sense of la Jetée and Sans Soleil (sorry, in-joke).

But I'm puzzled by the critical responses to this film (or what I know of them): this slightly-garish, overheated, implausibly-plotted, over-acted creaking sprawl of a film is surely quite a lot of fun, but to me it felt more like watching an extended soap than a top 100 movie. At least this is one film where San Francisco isn't a character so much as just a backdrop (to this long-time Bay Area resident it feels like a home movie; it's funny how little has changed in the City over the years, except how white everyone is in a film about a city that even then was all over the map color-wise, and how strangely easy it is for Jimmy Stewart to park his car in parts of the city historically choked with parked cars).

The real pleasure for me was the score, which sounded like a tonally-conservative Mahler crossed occasionally with sprinkles of Glass; a joy to hear loud. Otherwise, I found myself counting The Simpsons references and wondering about the possibilities of a subdued form of Camp.

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November 04, 2009


(Or, "What I Did On My Holidays In Bakersfield"…).

No, I don't expect anyone to get all the way through this one. And yes, it has a soundtrack, which needs to be heard loud with a good sound system.

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November 01, 2009

If You Say So

My eye catches some sort of roadside public service billboard looming over the outskirts of Bakersfield with the slogan "You are someone!" in huge letters next to the standard image of a generic schoolkid. I don't hang around to read the small print.

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