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kottke.org posts about Love letters

Sketch comedy as media archaeology

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 27, 2017

I consider the late 1980s and the 1990s the Golden Age of sketch and improvisational comedy. Cable helped, but even Saturday Night Live was good, particularly in the Phil Hartman years. Generation X comedians had digested the lessons of Peter Sellers and the Goons, Monty Python, The Richard Pryor Show, early SNL, SCTV, and more. HBO, Comedy Central, MTV, the BBC and CBC all needing inexpensive, entertaining programming that didn’t necessarily conform to older network standards meant there were a lot of shows looking for talent and willing to experiment.

For me, the Big Five from that era are A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Kids in the Hall, The State, The Chris Rock Show, and Mr. Show with Bob and David. Chappelle’s Show is a sixth one if we hold over to the ’00s. It’s a generational accident, but I was in the right place and right time for all of these shows at their apex. They’re the episodes I remember, and the ones I rewatch. People younger or older than me have a different list, and that’s just fine. I feel lucky that for fifteen years, I was able to make these shows mine.

One of the great things about these shows is that they were completely of their moment, but (with the exception of Chris Rock) they weren’t topical. It’s not like SNL or The Daily Show where you have to respond to whatever was happening that week, and as a viewer, you sort of have to know what was happening that week in order for it to make sense. Mr. Show might indirectly reference the OJ car chase, or Chappelle’s Show Kobe Bryant’s rape charges, but you can take the allusions or leave them. Most of them feel like they reference history rather than trivia.

You don’t need a time machine to try to imagine how you would have understood the comedy in 1994; the shows are their own time machine, bridging the present and the past.

This, at least, was true for a long time. What you notice, though, when you recommend these shows to a precocious 14 year old, is that some of the media conventions don’t really exist any more. Or, at any rate, they’ve shifted from dominant to residual phenomena. Mr. Show’s “Underground Tape Railroad” uncannily predicts viral social media, but the fact that these tapes were really bought and sold and pirated and passed around almost seems like something the writers of the show are making up. You don’t need to know about Tommy and Pamela, but you kind of need to know the kinds of things the media was satirizing.

Infomercials, televangelists, musical box sets, daytime (and nighttime) television talk shows — the bread and butter of 80s-90s parody just doesn’t have the same reach and relevance now as it did then. The same thing happened to Python and SCTV, which are now almost archeological in how they captured the dominant media genres and personalities of their time.

This is why, while I would not say that Kids in the Hall is better than Fry and Laurie or Mr. Show, I would argue it is aging better than any of the other shows in its generation. It’s less dependent on lampooning particular media forms or figures and better at loving, withering, character-driven weirdness, whether everyday or abstract. It’s simply less like television.

Instead, it leans on dramatic monologues.

Surreal office humor:

Domestic drama:

Bunuelian craziness:

Black and white newsreels:

Office humor, plus history:

And sketches that reference media genres that don’t actually exist, but should:

The one exception I’ll grant is the classic “Citizen Kane.” Everything about it screams dated. Old movies on broadcast television on just a few channels, advertised in newspapers. Some of the films mentioned are twice as old now as they were when the sketch was written. But I contend that this sketch remains perfect, and would work just as well (if not better) if Dave Foley’s character refused to consult his smartphone.

Not everything about Kids in the Hall still works. It offers an almost all-white version of Canada. The drag characters and humor are better than most of their predecessors’, but often still not good enough. Some of the gay jokes, even Buddy Cole’s, fall very flat. There are way too many ethnic stereotypes. Mark McKinney wears fucking blackface as a character called “the Blues Man.” This was totally fucked-up then and is fatal now.

But when the show is good, it is unbound from time. And especially in comedy, that is a very rare thing.

Borges on Homer, Milton, and Blindness

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 27, 2017

borges-library.jpg

My favorite Jorge Luis Borges short story, “El Hacedor (The Maker),” is about the Greek poet Homer going blind:

He had never dwelled on memory’s delights. Impressions slid over him, vivid but ephemeral. A potter’s vermilion; the heavens laden with stars that were also gods; the moon, from which a lion had fallen; the slick feel of marble beneath slow sensitive fingertips; the taste of wild boar meat, eagerly torn by his white teeth; a Phoenician word; the black shadow a lance casts on yellow sand; the nearness of the sea or of a woman; a heavy wine, its roughness cut by honey-these could fill his soul completely. He knew what terror was, but he also knew anger and rage, and once he had been the first to scale an enemy wall. Eager, curious, casual, with no other law than fulfillment and the immediate indifference that ensues, he walked the varied earth and saw, on one seashore or another, the cities of men and their palaces. In crowded marketplaces or at the foot of a mountain whose uncertain peak might be inhabited by satyrs, he had listened to complicated tales which he accepted, as he accepted reality, without asking whether they were true or false.

Gradually now the beautiful universe was slipping away from him. A stubborn mist erased the outline of his hand, the night was no longer peopled by stars, the earth beneath his feet was unsure. Everything was growing distant and blurred. When he knew he was going blind he cried out; stoic modesty had not yet been invented and Hector could flee with impunity. I will not see again, he felt, either the sky filled with mythical dread, or this face that the years will transform. Over this desperation of his flesh passed days and nights. But one morning he awoke; he looked, no longer alarmed, at the dim things that surrounded him; and inexplicably he sensed, as one recognizes a tune or a voice, that now it was over and he had faced it, with fear but also with joy, hope, and curiosity. Then he descended into his memory, which seemed to him endless, and up from that vertigo he succeeded in bringing forth a forgotten recollection that shone like a coin under the rain, perhaps because he had never looked at it, unless in a dream.

Borges also gradually went blind, as had many members of his family. “The world of the blind is not the night that people imagine,” he said in a 1977 lecture called “Blindness,” collected in his magnificent posthumous anthology Selected Nonfictions. “I should say that I am speaking for myself, and for my father and my grandmother, who both died blind—blind, laughing, and brave, as I also hope to die. They inherited many things—blindness, for example—but one does not inherit courage.”

This lecture is the source of a famous Borges quote: “I had always imagined Paradise as a kind of library.” It does not usually include the context: Borges had been appointed as director of Argentina’s national library almost exactly when he became so blind he could no longer read.

No one should read self-pity or reproach
into this statement of the majesty of God;
who with such splendid irony
granted me books and blindness at one touch.

In his lecture, Borges discusses his own blindness, as well as that of Homer, Joyce, his predecessor at the library Paul Groussac, and a number of other writers. One of its most striking passages concerns John Milton, about whom Borges writes relatively little elsewhere. Milton, we’re told, went blind voluntarily, writing pamphlets in poor lighting to support the execution of Charles I, which landed him in political trouble after the Restoration. Borges likewise resisted, and survived Peron’s rule in Argentina.

Borges is especially struck by Milton’s Samson Agonistes, which is also about a blind hero who strikes down a wicked king.

He wanted to create a Greek tragedy. The action takes place in a single day, Samson’s last. Milton thought on the similarity of destinies, since he, like Samson, had been a strong man who was ultimately defeated. He was blind. And he wrote those verses which, according to Landor, he punctuated badly, but which in fact had to be “Eyeless, in Gaza, at the mill, with the slaves” — as if the misfortunes were accumulating on Samson.

Milton has a sonnet in which he speaks of his blindness. There is a line one can tell was written by a blind man. When he has to describe the world, he says, “In this dark world and wide.” It is precisely the world of the blind when they are alone, walking with hands outstretched, searching for props. Here we have an example — much more important than mine — of a man who overcomes blindness and does his work: Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, Samson Agonistes, his best sonnets, part of A History of England, from the beginnings to the Norman Conquest. All of this was executed while he was blind; all of it had to be dictated to casual visitors.

Here we return to Borges’s “The Maker”:

Why did those memories come back to him, and why did they come without bitterness, as a mere foreshadowing of the present?

In grave amazement he understood. In this night too, in this night of his mortal eyes into this he was now descending, love and danger were again waiting. Ares and Aphrodite, for already he divined (already it encircled him) a murmur of glory and hexameters, a murmur of men defending a temple the gods will not save, and of black vessels searching the sea for a beloved isle, the murmur of the Odysseys and Iliads it was his destiny to sing and leave echoing concavely in the memory of man. These things we know, but not those that he felt when he descended into the last shade of all.

In praise of water

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 27, 2017

NASA quasar water vapor.jpg
NASA artist's conception of a quasar similar to similar to APM 08279+5255, where astronomers discovered huge amounts of water vapor. Image by NASA/ESA.

I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I’ve loved water for as long as I can remember. It was a crucial part of my life long before that. You could even say water is a huge part of everything I’ve been and will become.

Growing up in Michigan, fresh water is unusually plentiful. Even Detroit’s river is a strait between enormous lakes. Smaller ones abound. When I first visited Texas, I was told that the state had no natural lakes. It seemed impossible.

Twenty years ago, my first college research paper was for an international relations class. We had to find an international conflict and break it down with a little game theory and a smattering of other analytic perspectives we’d learned. (He really liked game theory.) I picked water rights in the Middle East. I think it was the first time I’d taken something that had always been presented as a mysterious, centuries-long, religious and tribalist conflict, and broken it down into a concrete fight over resources. No resource is more important or elemental than water.

Last year, I wrote a good-sized feature on the Flint Water Crisis and centuries of water pollution in Flint. I also wrote about a timeline put together by museum researchers in Flint. (Like I’ve everything I’ve written, the longer version of both stories is ten times as brilliant and a hundred times more insufferable.)

Anyways. Flint shows both the precarity of our water supply and how essential water is, for everything. We drink it, we bathe in it, we cook with it, we clean our clothes and dishes and almost everything. It flushes our toilets and often heats our homes. It’s essential to business and industry, for cleaning and fuel and disposing waste. It’s what grows our food, whether animal and vegetable. We can’t do anything without water. And like everything else we can’t live without, we take it for granted, finding new ways to abuse and squander it every day.

At the same time, water is terrifying. It is human and inhuman. It storms, it floods, it melts, it poisons and murders us. You don’t have to read Moby-Dick to get a sense of the sublime inhumanity of water, especially the ocean. But it does help.

Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.

And yet:

But though, to landsmen in general, the native inhabitants of the seas have ever been regarded with emotions unspeakably unsocial and repelling; though we know the sea to be an everlasting terra incognita, so that Columbus sailed over numberless unknown worlds to discover his one superficial western one; though, by vast odds, the most terrific of all mortal disasters have immemorially and indiscriminately befallen tens and hundreds of thousands of those who have gone upon the waters; though but a moment’s consideration will teach, that however baby man may brag of his science and skill, and however much, in a flattering future, that science and skill may augment; yet for ever and for ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest, stiffest frigate he can make; nevertheless, by the continual repetition of these very impressions, man has lost that sense of the full awfulness of the sea which aboriginally belongs to it.

The first boat we read of, floated on an ocean, that with Portuguese vengeance had whelmed a whole world without leaving so much as a widow. That same ocean rolls now; that same ocean destroyed the wrecked ships of last year. Yea, foolish mortals, Noah’s flood is not yet subsided; two thirds of the fair world it yet covers.

Water is us, and it is not us; it is a symbol of life, and it is nearly as hostile and foreign to landbound life as is outer space.

The BBC radio show “In Our Time” has a terrific episode about water, its chemical construction, and its simultaneous abundance and scarcity in the universe. I’d always thought there was something chauvinistic in scientists’ search for liquid water on other planets: sure, it’s essential to life as we know it on earth, but in all the infinite possibilities of the universe, couldn’t another molecule do the same job?

It turns out liquid water really is, at a chemical level, probably uniquely suited for generating and fostering life:

The periodic table restricts the elements available for life with carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen being the four commonest reactive elements in the Universe. Carbon would seem to be the most important as it can produce an enormous range of compounds (organic chemistry). Other elements such as sulfur and silicon cannot form the complexity of molecules necessary for life, Silicon, in particular, tends to form stable silicates. Life on Earth contains these plus many other commonly found elements. All these elements (except hydrogen) are created inside stars and, if common, will form simple compounds in space, with dust particles in space containing up to 35% organic carbon. For forming part of life, molecules need to be relatively easy both to form and to break down and to be relatively stable within a liquid environment.

A stable liquid medium is required, such as water, with other candidate liquids such as N2, H2S, NH3 and glassy silica being liquid only at low temperatures giving slow reaction rates, or at high temperatures that are destructive and too viscous. Also many of theses putative media freeze from the bottom up that would tend to prevent the establishment of life.

Basically (and please forgive me if I screw this up), it comes back to that hydrogen bonding we kinda-sorta learned about in first-year chemistry. The structure and polarity of liquid water, with two hydrogens on one side and one oxygen on the other, and the exact strength of those hydrogen bonds, makes it uniquely suited to store energy, dissolve compounds, and transmit both of these things from place to place. Salts, enzymes, minerals, oxygen: all of these get pumped through our bodies by way of water. It is very difficult to imagine or even mathematically model any other way to do the same range of jobs.

Phillipe Water Mafia.png

What could Earthlings do if everyone, everywhere had an infinite supply of water?

You start to carry water with you everywhere. Sometimes after getting home from work you drink from the kitchen faucet in great, hiccuping gulps. In no time at all you’ve moved from eight cups a day to a few gallons. Anyone else might have died of hyponatremia by now, but not you. You only grow stronger and more beautiful….

Every country in the world bans the drinking of any beverage other than water. All droughts cease; deserts erupt in a riot of frondescence. You twirl in delight, slowly at first, round and round, as the entire world joins you in drinking more water. Everyone is drinking more water now. A soft, cool rain begins to fall. “She’s the one,” you hear someone whisper before you ascend to a plane of existence where human vocalizations no longer mean anything to you. “The one who drinks a lot of water.”

Bill Callahan, the only sad man worth loving

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 27, 2017

I used to be darker
Then I got lighter
Then I got dark again
Something too big
To be seen
Was passing over and over me

— Bill Callahan, “Jim Cain”

Bill Callahan is my favorite living, active musical artist. It’s been three years since his last album, Have Fun With God; until then, he’d released an album of all-new material every year or other year since 1990, mostly under the name band Smog [or “(Smog)”].

Since 2007, he’s toured under his own name. Like other Drag City artists, he’s not on Spotify or most streaming services. (Update: Drag City made a deal with Apple Music this summer, although it’s still missing from most of the other players.) This means his legacy risks being eclipsed for a whole cohort of fans. I find this unacceptable.

At one time or another, Bill’s managed to channel almost every deep-voiced, literary-minded, hard-knocks storyteller in popular music. You can hear bits of Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Gil-Scott Heron, Tom Petty, and Johnny Cash; you hear resonances of contemporaries like David Berman, Will Oldham, Mark Everett, or Jim O’Rourke (who produced four of Bill’s albums).

But he’s stranger than any of them. You get autobiography, direct address, dialogue, and narrative, but also surreal tableaux, where the singer/author stands at a remove. His characters talk like Cormac McCarthy’s, but think like Albert Camus. Overtly or covertly, he’s been the model for every sad man in the new generation of indie rock. I like some of them; I don’t like some of them. But all of them offer so much less than he does.

His work has gone through a number of phases. “A Hit” was his home-recorded, low-fi manifesto:

It’s not gonna be a hit
So why even bother
With it

I’ll never be a rock n’ roll saint
I’ll never be a Bowie, I’ll never be an Eno
I’ll never be a Bowie, I’ll never be an Eno
I’ll only ever be a Gary Numan

In the 90s, he moved into the studio and became a more recognizable indie folk artist. The apex of this phase might be “I Break Horses,” a disarming, alarming anthem for men who can’t (or won’t) make a relationship work:

“To Be Of Use” could be written by the same character as “I Break Horses,” but it’s much more musically and lyrically abstract. He’s crossed over from a singer who has practical problems dealing with humans to one who has philosophical problems with humanity.

Most of my fantasies are of
Making someone else come.
Most of my fantasies are of
To be of use—
To be of some hard,
Simple
Undeniable use.

Oh — like a spindle.
Or oh — like a candle.
Oh — like a horseshoe.
Or oh — like a corkscrew.

1999’s Knock Knock, his last collaboration with producer Jim O’Rourke, was his fifteen minutes of fame. “Cold Blooded Old Times” was on the High Fidelity soundtrack: he loaned the movie album a level of indie cred (of course Rob would love Smog), and eighteen years ago, a movie or TV commercial appearance was enough to launch an indie band into the indie stratosphere — i.e., modest, ephemeral fame.

There are so many good songs on Knock Knock, in every indie rock style, but my sentimental favorite is another simple arpeggiated tune that sounds a lot like “To Be Of Use.” “Teenage Spaceship” breaks my heart every time I hear it.

Landing at night
I was beautiful with all my lights
Loomed so large on the horizon
So large, people thought my windows
Were stars

Bill, or Bill’s personae (it’s hard to nail him down), is always worried he’s been mistaken for something he’s not. It’s the most peculiar but totally recognizable kind of butch vulnerability. “You will never know exactly how far I have let you in.”

The hallmark of a good Bill Callahan song is its deceptive simplicity. Later, he’d add orchestration and sometimes work with fuller bands, but even then, there’s generally not a whole lot going on that’s extra.

“Dress Sexy At My Funeral” is the best Lou Reed song Lou never wrote, two chords and a bridge. The concept is jokey, but the execution is compelling:

2003’s Supper is Bill’s most beautiful album, and “Truth Serum” (with Sarabeth Tucek on vocals) may be its most beautiful song.

This is really the hinge in his career. He’d split up with Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, a few years before (see the cat struck by lightning on the cover of Knock Knock?). He would soon be dating Joanna Newsom, another brilliant young folk singer and songwriter. A River’s Too Much to Love is really his first solo album, but still under the Smog name; the alarmingly upbeat Woke on a Whaleheart the first Bill Callahan album proper. It seemed like good times were ahead. [Narrator: They were not.]

“Sycamore” is the song I played for my son when he was born.

Callahan and Newsom went through a messy breakup. They both wrote great songs about it. They both didn’t seem fully over it. She ended up with Andy Samberg, essentially Bill Callahan’s tonal opposite.

Bill married filmmaker Hanly Banks, who’d directed a documentary of his “Apocalypse” tour. And he wrote “Small Plane,” which is awfully close to perfect.

He still tours. He still writes. His fans still wait for his next work, wondering what it all means.

Amanda Meyncke is a television writer and director, and the biggest fan of Bill’s I know. I asked her to try to explain his appeal.

He’s my favorite musician of all time, followed closely by David Byrne and Bob Dylan — both performers who are startlingly easy to get to know, to research, to understand in time. Not so with Bill.

Bill is like so fucking infamously enigmatic. He makes a wonderful billboard to project your own theories onto as well as a safe home for your feelings to live, since it is unlikely any stories behind the music will ever emerge. Also you get the feeling he’d lie to your face about his own work, or somehow be amused at your insistence on infusing it with meaning beyond the obvious.

I’ve seen him perform perhaps 10 times, I’ve flown to other states for the singular purpose of seeing him. I’ve seen him multiple times on the same tour and he performs the exact, precise set list at every stop of the tour, never altering or adding. He doesn’t seem to like performing, doesn’t seem to like the limelight.

About ten years ago I posed as a promoter and wrote his record label to find out what it would cost to get a solo Bill show. Turns out it will cost $10,000, so I’ve been saving up ever since. I bet it’s close to $15,000 now.

One of my friends said he and Joanna Newsom were engaged in the slowest rap battle of all time, warring records being released every three years.

Mostly it’s just the most goddamn beautiful music and vocals I’ve heard. A vision of love that feels more like a New Yorker short fiction from decades ago. A two-step with isolation that is both self-imposed and rejected.

He married the woman who made a documentary about him and they had a kid a year or two ago. Bill as a dad, the family man. What a world.

The hidden heart of Howl’s Moving Castle

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 26, 2017

howl - falling star.jpg

1.

Hayao Miyazaki is our Ovid, a fluent, majestic storyteller with a gift for deep connections and sudden transformations. At the end of his career, he’s rightfully acquired a reputation as a curmudgeon, a traditionalist with a dim view of human nature and our technological prostheses. I worry that this obscures the other Miyazaki, the environmentalist pacifist, a perfectionist who nevertheless sought and found miracles in everyday life. In the 1990s and early 2000s, this was the only Miyazaki we knew. We saw him much more dimly then, but I do not know if we see him better now.

My favorite Miyazaki film is 2004’s Howl’s Moving Castle. I would not say it is his best, his most beautiful, or his most perfectly realized. Princess Mononoke is more epic, more careful in its throughlines and narrative choices. The Wind Rises is more personal, more human and moving. Spirited Away is a masterpiece of story, art, and character, every scene and frame indelible. Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind and My Neighbor Totoro will last forever in a way that Howl’s Moving Castle may not.

None of this matters: Howl’s Moving Castle is my Miyazaki film; you may choose your own.

howl - whole cast.jpg

2.

A number of Miyazaki’s films deal with fractured and unlikely families. It is probably fair to say the residents of Howl’s castle are the unlikeliest.

At the same time, despite their differences in appearance and circumstance, the characters are all so much like each other. It is as if each one stands in for different sides of all the others, like the brothers of The Brothers Karamazov.

Howl, Sophie, Calcifer, Markl, the Witch of the Waste, and Turnip-Head are all, in one way or another, shapeshifters. Some of them by choice, others by curse; the choices become curses, the curses choices. They are all orphans. Before we meet any of them, we learn that they have committed themselves to something that they did not fully understand, which they would undo if they could, but which they are powerless to speak about or tackle on their own. They are all fearless and cowardly, timid and reckless. They understand each other in ways outsiders never could.

In most Miyazaki movies, he resists turning the narrative into a love story. In Howl’s Moving Castle, he resists his own resistance. All of the characters are in love with each other. Instead, they have to learn how to accept love. There are lessons in this.

3.

Here I have to confess that I have never read the Diana Wynne Jones novel on which the movie is based, or any of the others in the World of Howl series.

I have a friend who is an enormous fan of Morrissey and The Smiths, who collects anything and everything associated with the singer, but has refused multiple opportunities to meet him in person. “My relationship with him now, exactly as it is, is perfect,” she says. “It could only change for the worse.” This is how I feel about reading Howl’s Moving Castle.

4.

The story’s plot is about as coherent as the castle itself. It’s a dozen stories bolted together, creaking and wheezing, pieces falling off, until it collapses altogether. Like other Miyazaki films, we’re thrown into a world we don’t understand, and gradually the universe’s rules are revealed.

But the rules somehow never really pay off. Sophie’s curse is never really broken, by Calcifer, the Witch of the Waste, or anyone else. It just unwinds itself. The climactic moment, where Sophie travels into the past to see the first meeting of Howl and Calcifer, offers no attempt at explanation. (Like Dante into the Inferno, Sophie just trudges into a hole in the ground, a mute dog as her silent Virgil.) All the plot lines end simultaneously not really due to any underlying logic but because the movie simply runs out of time.

None of this matters. Like Turnip-Head, I will throw myself in front of this film’s catastrophic collapse to protect its characters, not because I am strong, but because it is my turn.

5.

I asked my friend Margarita Noriega, a digital strategist, social media genius, and Miyazaki fan, to tell me what she finds compelling in Howl:

Howl’s castle, like many of Miyazaki’s objects-come-alive, is powered by a terrific, dazzling magic that contradicts itself. It has an opalite quality, akin to a clear opaqueness. To his enemies, the magic all around Howl is a sinisiter curse in need of purging by the righteous. To his friends, it can heal a broken heart or give flight to the grounded.

What kind of thing can make one person see evil and good? In Howl’s world, like ours, perspective is everything. The indescribable beauty of living and loving is a contradiction to the realities of aging, death, and war. It is magic because it is a power which defies a dark reality.

The most relatable thing about Howl, Sophie, and the other residents of the castle is how they experience emotions so big and so complex that they don’t fully understand them. They don’t understand each other’s motives. They don’t understand their own. But somehow they learn to trust and care for each other anyways. And that care — not power, knowledge, or any other transaction — manages to save them.

Howl flying bow.gif

In praise of Cookie Monster, the literary muppet

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 26, 2017

monsterpiecekcomp.jpg

In De pueris instituendis (On the education of children, 1529), the great Renaissance humanist, borrowing from the classical rhetoricians Horace and Quintillian, helped reintroduce an important idea:

I have now come to the stage of my argument where I shall briefly explain how love of study may be instilled in children - a subject which I have already touched upon in part. As I have said, through practice we acquire painlessly the ability to speak. The art of reading and writing comes next; this involves some tedium, which can be relieved, however, by an expert teacher who spices his instruction with pleasant inducements. One encounters children who toil and sweat endlessly before they can recognize and combine into words the letters of the alphabet and learn even the bare rudiments of grammar, yet who can readily grasp the higher forms of knowledge. As the ancients have demonstrated, there are artful means to overcome this slowness. Teachers of antiquity, for instance, would bake cookies of the sort that children like into the shape of letters, so that their pupils might, so to speak, hungrily eat their letters; for any student who could correctly indentify a letter would be rewarded with it.

In grad school, I worked with a British literary historian who expertly broke this down into a post-psychoanalytic framework. Biscuits, like speech and writing, form a circuit between the eyes, hand, and mouth. The regulation of desire clears the way for the discipline of discourse. Like Plato, we move from the immanent and particular to the abstract and universal, but this is always mediated by the body, whose conflicting drives trouble these ideal categories.

I responded: “It’s Cookie Monster.” Growing up in England, he’d never heard of him.

Cookie’s idiosyncratic pronouns and truncated consonant clusters are a ruse. He’s easily the most verbally adept, best-educated character on Sesame Street. He teaches children the alphabet and vocabulary, and of course doubles as Alistaire Cookie on Monsterpiece Theatre. The growly voice, googly eyes, and outsized yearnings mask the heart of a scholar.

I bet he used to be a graduate student. You can’t show any of us free food without us reacting like this.

cookies.gif

He even loves absurdist metafiction:

Cookie is all of us who always get underestimated, just because we refused to always change how we talk and how we act because we went to school. But we love those sweet leatherbound books, too.

NOTE: Cookie Monster was invited and was originally slated to collaborate on this post. He was excited; I was excited. Unfortunately, due to a scheduling conflict, he wasn’t able to appear. You have his and my regrets. (I swear on Mr. Snuffleupagus: All of this is 100 percent true.)

The experience of time in Dante’s Inferno

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 25, 2017

The Map of Hell by Sandro Botticelli.
"The Map of Hell," by Sandro Botticelli. Wikimedia Commons.

1.

It was either shortly before or just after November 8, 2016 that I began to wonder whether I had died and gone to Hell.

This reads as a joke, and I may have originally said it as a joke. But as the days and weeks went on, I started to reconstruct the events. I had nearly died in an accident in September 2009. The events between that date and November 2016, both good and bad ones, did not always seem to have the clear and distinct feeling of reality I’d experienced beforehand. Normally, most traditional conceptions of the afterlife suggest, the soul moves from a purgatorial or threshold state to a final reward. Was it possible that I had done this in the opposite direction, and crossed from Purgatory into Hell?

America’s history of white supremacy, gender chauvinism, and reactionary counterpolitics was clearly the most likely explanation. But an individual or collective journey through Hell was a hypothesis I couldn’t completely rule out. It was a decent enough joke, but I was no longer so sure I was kidding. So I began to read.

2.
If you really want to read about Hell, you’ve got to go back to Islam and Catholicism in the Middle Ages. That was a time, a place, and a set of overlapping cultures that truly knew how to thoroughly, carefully, and beautifully discuss intellectual topics without any positive knowledge about the subject whatsoever. They turned scraps of text and groping attempts at reason into fully imagined traditions. And all of these traditions come together in the person of Dante Aligheri.

Dante draws on everything. Classical literature, obviously: his guide through Hell and Purgatory is Virgil, author of the Aeneid, whose Aeneas likewise visited the land of the dead. The best theology and philosophy available to him, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or pagan, including knowledge of the Earth’s geography and history, and the movements of the celestial spheres. European vernacular poetry, from Italy and France to Scandinavia and the British Isles. And — while not everyone agrees — Dante seems to have borrowed heavily from Muslim narratives of the prophet Muhammed traveling from Hell to Heaven, probably via Italian and Sicilian scholars who were fluent in both traditions.

But Dante is also innovative. I’ve always been interested in the history of time travel stories and the different mechanisms writers and artists use to try to understand how it might work. (In Back to the Future, the key technologies are cars, mechanical clocks, nuclear energy, videotape, and Polaroid photographs.) Last year, I started to wonder whether you could think of the Commedia as a time travel story. Dante didn’t have a plutonium-powered DeLorean or a Newtonian conception of spacetime. He had Hell, Heaven, Purgatory, and the stories we told about them. He used the materials at hand. And even H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine involves a journey underground.

3.

It’s generally agreed that Dante was inventing all-new theology when he populated the Inferno’s antechamber Limbo with virtuous non-Christians. Before the Commedia, Limbo was reserved for unbaptized infants and Jewish kings and prophets (whom Jesus rescues after the crucifixion). But how else was Dante supposed to meet Homer, Ovid, Aristotle, and all the poets, heroes, and scholars of the classical and Muslim worlds? How else could he meet again his friends and enemies, teachers and rivals, from before his banishment in Florence? How else could meet Beatrice, who transforms into the personification of Christian love and virtue? Dante built a machine.

In Dantean time travel, you can’t change the past or the future. It has all in some sense already happened. But you can greet the dead, gain wisdom from them, know their love, and maybe redeem your soul.

Limbo, like the other circles of Dante’s Hell, is not wholly separate from time, but unmoored from it. He describes it as a place of blindness:

in the dark (where only hearing told)
there were no tears, no weeping, only sighs
that caused a trembling in the eternal air -
sighs drawn from sorrowing, although no pain.1

The souls in the Inferno suffer, but they do not experience the passage of time. Somehow, though, they remember the past, both on Earth and in Hell. Virgil can tell Dante about Jesus’s rescue of Noah, Moses, David, Rachel, and the Jewish prophets. Others can tell Dante exactly how many years, months, and days ago they died. Some offer to prophecy Dante’s future. It’s as if Hell has History, but not Time.

In a famous scene in the tenth Canto, Dante asks his fellow Florentine Farinata degli Uberti to explain this contradiction:

‘Well (may your seed find sometime true repose!)
untie the knot for me,’ I now besought,
‘so tightly twined around my searching thoughts.
You see, it seems (to judge from what I hear)
far in advance what time will bring to pass,
but otherwise in terms of present things.’
‘We see like those who suffer from ill light.
We are,’ he said, ‘aware of distant things.
Thus far He shines in us, the Lord on high.
But when a thing draws near to us, our minds
go blank. So if no other brings us news,
then nothing of your human state is known to us.
You will from this be able to deduce
that all our knowledge will be wholly dead
when all the doors of future time are closed.’

This is the feeling I cannot seem to shake, before the election and after. Like the shades of the Inferno, we suffer; and like them, we are desperate for change, for respite, for news, and for something new. Yet everything new is a calamity. The present seems further away from us than the past and future. Every day is a week, every week a month, every month a year. Our memories and our dread have a sudden clarity. But the present… the present is somewhere else. Dante, too, is in his own country, but in exile. And so are we.

4.

Erich Auerbach, my favorite Dante scholar, explains the representation of time in Hell in this way in his great book Mimesis:The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.

Farinata’s and Cavalcante’s lives on earth are over; the vicissitudes of their destinies have ceased; their state is definitive and immutable except that it will be affected by one single change, their ultimate recovery of their physical bodies at the Resurrection on the Last Day. As we find them here, then, they are souls parted from their bodies. Dante does, however, give them a sort of phantom body, so that they can be seen and can communicate and suffer (cf., in this connection, Purg., 3). Their only link to life on earth is memory. In addition they have—as Dante explains in the very canto with which we are concerned—a measure of knowledge of past and future which goes beyond the earthly norm. Their vision is hyperopic: they clearly see earthly events of the somewhat distant past or future, and hence can foretell the future, but they are blind to the earthly present. (This explains Dante’s hesitation when Cavalcante asks him whether his son is still alive; Cavalcante’s ignorance surprises him, the more so because other souls had prophesied future events to him.) Their own earthly lives, then, they still possess completely, through their memories, although those lives are ended. And although they are in a situation which differs from any imaginable situation on earth not only in practical terms (they lie in flaming tombs) but also in principle by virtue of their temporal and spatial immutability, the impression they produce is not that they are dead — though that is what they are — but alive…

[Here Auerbach gives the quote in the screenshot above.]

The reality of the appearances of Farinata and Cavalcante is perceived in the situation in which they are placed and in their utterances. In their position as inhabitants of flaming tombs is expressed God’s judgment upon the entire category of sinners to which they belong, upon heretics and infidels. But in their utterances, their individual character is manifest in all its force. This is especially striking with Farinata and Cavalcante because they are sinners of the same category and hence find themselves in the same situation. Yet as individuals of different personalities, of different lots in their former lives, and of different inclinations, they are most sharply contrasted. Their eternal and changeless fate is the same; but only in the sense that they have to suffer the same punishment, only in an objective sense. For they accept their fate in very different ways. Farinata wholly disregards his situation; Cavalcante, in his blind prison, mourns for the beauty of light; and each, in gesture and word, completely reveals the nature proper to each, which can be and is none other than that which each possessed in his life upon earth. And still more: from the fact that earthly life has ceased so that it cannot change or grow, whereas the passions and inclinations which animated it still persist without ever being released in action, there results as it were a tremendous concentration. We behold an intensified image of the essence of their being, fixed for all eternity in gigantic dimensions, behold it in a purity and distinctness which could never for one moment have been possible during their lives upon earth.

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5.

Zito Madu is a writer at SB Nation, where he heroically mixes high literary references into smart, funny, passionate stories, mostly about soccer and basketball. He’s also a former pro soccer player and a devoted reader of Dante. I asked him what he finds most noteworthy in the Inferno.

I was reading a paper called “Dante’s definition of life” when I encountered this amazing little passage about the crime of seeing the human body as merely a material thing. It explains one of my favorite things about The Inferno, which is that all the condemned souls still have their spiritual capacities. They are not reduced in death, they still maintain their self even after the great terror. Even in their eternal punishment. There’s a death of the body, but not of the soul:

“As Christain Moevs notes, sin is self-identification with the body. Inflicting two deaths upon themselves, the death of the body and the so-called death of the soul (the condemnation to hell), they have taken a terrifying slide down the great chain of being, revealing the infernal nature of seeing that chain as continuity.

“Pier delle Vigne explains: ‘L’animo mio, per disdegnoso gutso, / credendo col morir fuggir disdegno, / ingiusto fece me contra me ingiusto .’ He has understood his existence as something material that can be away with. He has divided himself, “me contra me,” in turning his soul against his body. In doing so, he has radically misunderstood the nature of his being.”

This comes after an explanation of Dante’s “Trinitarian thought” on the human soul. That the soul is a product that’s a combination of nature, the parents, and of God. “The human soul possesses components that are both meditated and unmeditated…it is a point that reveals itself eventually to be a trinity.”

To think that the soul is immediate and refined in the body at conception then is to err by conflating them. “To conflate them is to commit to a materialistic understanding of life.” And the opposite, to think of the soul only as separate from nature, is to have a dualistic vision of life. Each failing to understand the “distinction between, and union between, body and the spirit, nature and God.”

I think this is such a wonderful thing and a great way to look at human existence. The view asserts that human beings have a natural godliness. So that, if someone were at their lowest, when they have nothing at all, when they’re a Job, they are still divine. A person is never nothing. Not even the worst of us. “Easy to know that diamonds are precious. Good to learn that rubies have depth. But more to see that pebbles are miraculous.”

6.

Generally, Dante is stricken with pity at the souls he encounters in the Inferno. It’s Virgil, the symbol of reason, who explains the justification for the sufferings they undergo. He borrows from established Christian theology the notion that the saved benefit from seeing sinners suffer justly.

I don’t believe in God, Paradise, Purgatory, or Hell, or prisons and most forms of punishment, except as figures for human experience. There are times, though, when the thought that traitors, the corrupt, thieves, hypocrites, warmongers, gluttons, and those incapable of keeping themselves from inflicting their lust on others have been weighed, measured, and found wanting — that their evil is elemental, ancient, but far from eternal — is some consolation for this half-real mockery of life.

03_dante_inferno_punishments.png
Circles and Punishments in the Inferno. Via Lapham’s Quarterly.

  1. All quotations of Dante in English are from Robin Kirkpatrick’s translation of the Inferno.

Four versions of “A House Is Not A Home”

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 25, 2017

The first, of course, is by Dionne Warwick. It’s a 1964 live version of the Bacharach and David arrangement she’d already made a hit. It’s the first track from her third album: she’d made all three in a year and a half.

Dionne’s performance is all about funneling emotion through control. It’s like shooting an explosive bullet through a rifled barrel, for maximum velocity, accuracy, and impact.

Almost all of Hal David’s lyrics are all about loss and unfulfilled dreams, but he/they always find an objective correlative that roots those feelings in specific places, scenes, and experiences. It’s a phenomenology of loss — and “A House Is Not A Home” is maybe the purest example of this.

Burt Bacharach is Burt Bacharach, a composer with a perfect combination of brains and swag. Everyone sounds like him, and nobody sounds close. (Also, Paul Griffin is maybe the best session piano player in the history of pop music. Someday, he deserves his own post.)

This BBC documentary gives some of the history between Warwick, Bacharach, and David (check around 10:45):

And this terrific clip shows Warwick and Bacharach at work on “Loneliness Remembers What Happiness Forgets”:

The second version of “A House Without A Home” is by Luther Vandross, from his first proper album, Never Too Much. It’s more than twice as long as Dionne’s version. (From here on out, I’m going to call Dionne and Luther by their first names, because they are my best friends.)

Instead of opening with “House,” Luther closes with it, and by god, does he close. He closes it, sets it on fire, collects the insurance money, and spends it all on you.

My friend Zach Curd is a musician, singer, and composer (with a brand new album out!), and most importantly, a fellow Luther fan. He recently put Luther’s cover of “House” on a playlist of “perfect songs,” and agreed to share some thoughts about what makes this version so good.

The things I love about “A House Is Not a Home”:

This is the thing about Luther: casual fans remember the slowed-down crooning, but forget that he sets up that framework just to play against it. This leads to otherwise intelligent people saying crazy things in public like “Luther doesn’t slap.” It’s okay. Everyone gets a chance to be completely wrong.

The third version of “A House Is Not A Home” is my very favorite. It is Luther singing Dionne’s song to Dionne at the 1986 NAACP Image Awards. The orchestration’s a little fuller, splitting the difference between Dionne’s original and Luther’s studio version. And it is just a goddamn showcase for what one man can do with his voice. Just watch:

At this point, if you’re still with me, set aside an hour and watch this terrific documentary about Luther. It’s about his childhood, his early career, his first encounter with Dionne Warwick’s music [he patterned his entire style on hers], his appearances on Sesame Street, his struggles with weight, and what to me is frankly an admirable “I will never confirm, I will never deny, because I don’t owe you assholes EVERYTHING” attitude about publicly discussing his homosexuality.

I hate the closet and wish Luther could have been free to be who he was with all of us, but my god, did anyone make more out of his life in the closet than Luther Vandross?

The fourth version of “A House Is Not A Home” is from Luther’s 2003 concert at Radio City Music Hall. As Zach points out, it is somehow even slower than his studio version, a full ten minutes long. I don’t even know how you make a drummer play that slow without medication. When Luther says “I’m gonna take my time and sing this thing — can I do that?” he means it.

This song is outer space, and Luther’s voice is a gravitational wave. It’s radiating from colliding stars millions of miles away. It bends spacetime. We might be farther away from Dionne’s tightly channeled emotion and David’s carefully charted physical details. But nowhere else are we closer to the godhead.

Three Little Birds

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 25, 2017

It’s been years since we first heard it, and I have no idea if my little boy still loves it like he did then, but I can’t get enough of this acoustic version of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” from the kids’ album B Is For Bob:

This song and its video presentation drive home the importance of a literary frame for meaning. I never much liked the other versions of this song, in part because the frame was obscured. The cartoon and the flattening of the song’s structure help draw it out again.

Bob Marley and (forgive me) a bunch of college hippies singing “every little thing’s gonna be all right” as an anthem is insipid. But Bob Marley singing a song to children about three birds who tell him (apocryphally, fleetingly) that everything will be all right? That is inspired.

The undersung middle act of the first Star Wars

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 24, 2017

Speaking of digging up weird old stories from the pulps — I don’t know if we always appreciate how good the middle of 1977’s Star Wars is. “Middle” is a vague concept, so let’s nail it down to all the parts where Luke, Han, Obi-Wan, R2-D2 and C-Threepio are sneaking around on the Death Star.

The beginning and end of Star Wars are much more straightforward. You have a series of handoffs, from Leia to the droids to Luke. Luke then meets up with Obi-Wan, then Han Solo and Chewbacca, and sets off to find his destiny. That’s the Joseph Campbell part of the movie. The end, where Luke and the rebels attack the Death Star, is a straight-up war movie action sequence that pays off all the threads you’ve set up in the beginning.

The middle is much trickier. Lucas gets all the characters we’ve met so far into very deep trouble, and splits them up. Scenes float from one set of characters to the next before eventually converging back together again. Then he strings together a series of set pieces, largely ripped off from old serials. Han, Luke, and Chewie have to break into one room. Then they have to break into another. Then they have to break out. Meanwhile, Obi-Wan is quietly skulking around, and Threepio bluffing his way out of danger. And it’s all tied together by dialogue taken straight from 1930s-1940s screwball comedy.

Everything slows down, but because there’s a mood that anything can happen, it sustains its tension. The only recent movie I can think of that really does something similar is The Incredibles, as Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl sneak around Syndrome’s base. I think for most contemporary movies, they’d find it too slow or too hard to follow. But pound for pound, it’s the best part of the movie.

I asked my friend Gavin Craig, writer of one of my favorite Star Wars essays ever [PDF], to tell me what he loves about the first Star Wars.

The best thing about the original Star Wars film is that it’s still a bit weird. The aliens that populate the Mos Eisley cantina are still compelling and inexplicable. Darth Vader comports himself with the sense of honor of a samurai serving an evil master without question. Obi-Wan Kenobi is not an old soldier, but a hermit and a wizard, with a trickster’s secret knowledge and impish grin. And for every attempt to recapture its magic, no Star Wars film has yet framed a shot as beautiful as Luke Skywalker standing outside his home while Tatooine’s twin suns set, staring at a horizon that he thinks he’ll never reach.

There are the raw materials for a universe ready to explode into being, but everything is still fresh and raw, not yet sure of what it wants to become.

For all this, it’s the droids that stay with me. C-3PO and R2-D2 have appeared in every Star Wars film to date, and have even starred in their own Saturday morning animated series. Still, their point of view has never been treated as worthy of consideration as it was in their first adventure.

In interviews, Lucas has said that he considers the Star Wars films to be a story narrated long after the fact by R2-D2, and there are fan theories that posit Artoo as a secret rebel agent guiding the action of the war. But in 1977, Threepio and Artoo are… almost human. They fret and squabble. They run from and into danger. They perform acts of sacrifice and bravery, but at least one of them would be happier with a kind word and the comfort of a warm bath. One of them nearly dies, and while the heroes aren’t terribly concerned, the film understands that we are. We are shown that they are restored and reunited. While the heroes are rewarded with a fanfare and medals, the droids find a home, together, and that is the true happy ending.

Planetary and the 1990s pulp comics revival

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 24, 2017

Ghost Detective
by John Cassaday and Laura Depuy, from Planetary 3: "Dead Gunfighters"

I called “American Captain” the best anti-superhero comic about superheroes. I need to qualify that. “American Captain” cares about superheroes, but not about superhero stories; Planetary, on the other hand, by Warren Ellis, John Cassady, and Laura Martin, cares about superhero stories, but not about superheroes.

Planetary’s main character, Elijah Snow, has a pretty classic superpower: he freezes things. Or rather, subtracts their heat. He’s a century-old detective, collector, and preservationist, and at the beginning of the story, he’s lost his memory. He joins a team of superpowered mystery archeologists, who beginning in 1999, aim to excavate the hidden wonders of the 20th century. Every one of its 27 issues explores a new mystery, in a new artistic style, while also propelling us to Elijah’s unlocked memories, the characters’ unraveled backstories, and an ultimate confrontation.

Unsurprisingly, I love this book.

The first thing it does is reinvent its own precursors. It reaches past the Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Modern Ages of superheroes into the genre-rich world of the pulps. Snow turns out to be part of a cohort of century-old adventurers that include analogues of Tarzan, Fu Manchu, Doc Savage, and The Shadow. (Later we see versions of The Lone Ranger, Dracula, and Sherlock Holmes.) This group fights off an evil version of DC’s Justice League. Doppelgangers of DC and Marvel superheroes appear and reappear, but they’re either supervillains or easy victims of corporate and government power. Superheroes are not to be trusted. (One exception: an analogue of John Constantine who morphs into Ellis’s other great comic creation of the 1990s, Spider Jerusalem from Transmetropolitan.)

Planetary-003-Just-Us.jpg

Planetary was part of a 1990s reappraisal of the pulps that gave us Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Frank Miller’s Sin City, and more. In 1997, Moore wrote this about Hellboy, which is also true of Planetary avant la lettre:

The history of comic-book culture, much like the history of any culture, is something between a treadmill and a conveyer belt: we dutifully trudge along, and the belt carries us with it into one new territory after another. There are dazzlingly bright periods, pelting black squalls, and long stretches of grey, dreary fog, interspersed seemingly at random. The sole condition of our transport is that we cannot halt the belt, and we cannot get off. We move from Golden Age to Silver Age to Silicone Age, and nowhere do we have the opportunity to say, “We like it here. Let’s stop.” History isn’t like that. History is movement, and if you’re not riding with it then in all probability you’re beneath its wheels.

Lately, however, there seems to be some new scent in the air: a sense of new and different possibilities; new ways for us to interact with History. At this remote end of the twentieth century, while we’re further from our past than we have ever been before, there is another way of viewing things in which the past has never been so close. We know much more now of the path that lies behind us, and in greater detail, than we’ve ever previously known. Our new technology of information makes this knowledge instantly accessible to anybody who can figure-skate across a mouse pad. In a way, we understand more of the past and have a greater access to it than the folk who actually lived there.

In this new perspective, there would seem to be new opportunities for liberating both our culture and ourselves from Time’s relentless treadmill. We may not be able to jump off, but we’re no longer trapped so thoroughly in our own present movement, with the past a dead, unreachable expanse behind us. From our new and elevated point of view our History becomes a living landscape which our minds are still at liberty to visit, to draw sustenance and inspiration from. In a sense, we can now farm the vast accumulated harvest of the years or centuries behind. Across the cultural spectrum, we see individuals waking up to the potentials and advantages that this affords.

It’s one of those books where, like Ezra Pound imagined, an immersion in the old unlocks the artists’ imagination in understanding the present and future. Everything with a potential to blend the old and new is taken seriously. Aboriginal folk songs become secret keys to alternate dimensions. Jules Verne stories butt up against modern Hong Kong action movies. Monsters, magic, mushrooms all turn out to be coded pathways to better understand time and space.

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It’s also a beautiful book. John Cassaday and Laura Martin, who later teamed up for Astonishing X-Men, Star Wars, and more, give every new landscape and character their own allusive twist. And all the allusions are less specific quotations than they are vectors to a general region of the cultural unconsciousness. You recognize a nod to Jim Steranko without knowing it’s Steranko. You can grasp the archetype without knowing the particular. It’s rewarding on a deep read without rejecting a naive one in the slightest.

I asked Abraham Riesman1, a writer and editor at Vulture, to say something smart about Planetary.

The closest comparison piece for Planetary in my young life would probably be, oddly enough, The Simpsons. I engaged with both before I had read or watched most of the texts that they were building upon, yet that somehow didn’t stop them from being utterly gripping stories on their own. The key difference is that Planetary, rather than simply producing satires of existing genres and works, served to point you in the direction of those genres and works. When you read of Doc Brass, you wanted to learn more about Doc Savage. When you visited Science City Zero, you wanted to take a subsequent trip to the video store (we still had such things when the series launched) and pick up DVDs depicting the colossal women and insectoid men of the 1950s. That’s no easy trick to pull off. And through it all, Ellis, Cassaday, and Martin made sure that you were meeting real people on these archaeological journeys. Consider, for example, Planetary/Batman: Night On Earth, one of the greatest Batman stories ever told. Sure, there are expert gags about the Adam West and Frank Miller eras, but the crux of the story comes when one of the dimensionally displaced Batmen tells a scared renegade metahuman that the goal of power is to make the less powerful feel taken care of. A story like that didn’t need such tender humanity, but the fact that it did is what will make sure it — like so much of Planetary — will remain accessible to anyone who’s ready to learn about what made the 20th century weird.

The century conceit lets Planetary loosen itself from the conceits of superhero comics. And because of how Planetary managed its mythology/anthology balance, it turns out to work best in single issues and as an entire whole. Unlike almost all the other comics produced at the turn of the century, it doesn’t break down neatly into arcs and trade paperbacks. In this way it keeps faith with the past and the future.

It’s a book from top to bottom that’s stubbornly resistant to the present, while also feeling perfectly contemporary. It’s weird and opaque, and you can’t shake the feeling that the writers and artists’ conception of it changed from year to year and month to month, but it keeps pulling you along. I might recommend other books first, I might think of other characters and stories more quickly, but there’s no comic I can think of that I love more than I do Planetary.

  1. For about five years now, Abe has been my dad.

Card catalogs and the secret history of modernity

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 24, 2017

Life 1944 File Room.jpeg
A large room of fingerprint files at FBI Headquarters, 1944. By George Skadding for LIFE Magazine.

Card catalogs feel very old but are shockingly new. Merchants stored letters and slips of paper on wire or thread in the Renaissance. (Our word “file” comes from filum, or wire.) But a whole technology, based on scientific principles, for storing, retrieving, and circulating an infinitely extensible batch of documents? That is some modern-ass shit. And it helped create the world we all live in.

I could recite the history of the idea and of the furniture, French bibliographic codes, Melvil Dewey, the standardization of index cards, how vertical filing propagated from railroads into offices and from there into the university. It’s on Wikipedia. Instead, let’s talk about the card catalog as a concept.

Before loose-leaf cataloging, books would be cataloged in other books. (Most other documents were never cataloged at all.) This meant they’d be recorded chronologically, sometimes alphabetically, or according to some other scheme, with ad hoc additions and substitutions sprouting off like epicycles on Ptolemaic circles. It was a big damn deal to even find a book.

Manuscripts on parchment — the universe of The Name of the Rose — you could almost keep up with that pace. Printed books on rag paper? It gets a lot harder. And steam-powered fast-press books on wood-pulp paper? Even setting aside newspapers, pamphlets, telegraphed letters and memoranda? You can’t keep track of any of that without a system.

Card catalogs imagine an endlessly growing collection of books and other documents. It imagines institutions capable of standardizing the treatment of those documents. And it imagines a democratic public, scholars, students, and amateurs with both the urge and the ability to seek out such materials. The card catalog is everything that is the best of the 19th and 20th centuries. And they look beautiful, and smell fantastic.

In Control Through Communication, her study of 19th century information management, JoAnne Yates identifies five breakthrough technologies. There’s the telephone and telegraph, which handle external communication. For internal communication, the big three are the typewriter, carbon paper (and other duplication technologies), and filing systems, especially the vertical file and card catalog.

The others made information producible, reproducible, and transmittable, but the file systems made information intelligible. If the telegraph was “the Victorian Internet,” the file cabinet and standardized filing were the Victorian operating system. For over a century, it was Windows.

Like all media revolutions, this one changed how we thought. Our ideas about knowledge, the universe, human achievements, all had to be revised. In the ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound puts his finger on it:

Contemporary book-keeping uses a ‘loose-leaf’ system to keep the active part of a business separate from its archives. That doesn’t mean that accounts of new customers are kept apart from accounts of old customers, but that the business still in being is not loaded up with accounts of business that no longer functions.

You can’t cut off books written in 1934 from those written in 1920 or 1932 or 1832, at least you can’t derive much advantage from a merely chronological category, though chronological relation may be important. If not that post hoc means propter hoc, at any rate the composition of books written in 1830 can’t be due to those written in 1933, though the value of old work is constantly affected
by the value of the new.

Literature and human culture are no longer bound to time. Or rather, they are no longer bound to the linear sequence of time. The past — multiple pasts! — and the present can coexist, shaping and transforming each other. The text — no longer the book — becomes a cinema where narrative and montage are only a few of the wider set of possible techniques.

For William James, concepts become flexible and variable, suited to the task of the moment, not our inherited intellectual architecture. For Saussure, signs become slips of paper, shuffled and reshuffled, their meaning always relative to the other terms not given. For Darwin, species is a category in process; for Mendel and later scientists, genetic material is a code that is recombined and deciphered. None of this is an accident. Our physical and psychological experience of the media made us ready for these ideas.

The vertical file and card catalog also very quickly became the chosen technology of surveillance by state and industrial agents. But in this way too, it paved the way to what we are now. And if a technology can’t be abused by the Stasi, was it really ever that powerful in the first place?

Sarah Werner, a Shakespeare scholar and independent librarian, once took me on a tour of the beautiful card catalogs at the Folger Shakespeare Library. This is what she had to say about them:

What makes card catalogs more magical than machine readable catalogs is that they carry in them the passage of time. Books acquired early in a library’s history might have handwritten cards, while later purchases could have typewritten cards; printed cards might be annotated and updated by hand; and there might even be cards for books that have not yet been cataloged. The best card catalogs are time machines built on the most accessible and inexpensive of technologies—and that’s even before you get to the books.

Like tables, like books, like newspapers and magazines, and like everything else, most libraries are giving their card catalogs away to make more room. If your library still has one, take a moment to ride that time machine. You won’t be sorry you did.

Boris Diaw, the most interesting man on Earth

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 24, 2017

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The NBA right now is surprisingly flush with “unicorns”: long, thin athletes like Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, and Kristaps Porzingis, seven-foot-tall guys who can handle the ball and shoot from range like the best guards from twenty years ago. The impossible build-your-own players from old video games are suddenly real and dunking on your head. Everyone is enamored of them.

I love them too. But before the unicorns, there were the mules. (Mulicorns?) Short, often chubby swiss-army-knife frontcourt/backcourt players who were nearly as versatile as the unicorns, but won through a combination of toughness, savvy, surprising athleticism, and unsurprisingly big butts. The mulicorns didn’t shoot as well from range (everyone shoots better now), they didn’t look as superhuman, but they were just as fun to watch. Okay. Almost as fun to watch. They got the job done. And as an amateur undersized, thoroughly chubby, surprisingly versatile power forward myself, they’ve always been my favorite guys to watch play.

Charles Barkley was a mulicorn. Ricky Pierce, Fat Lever, Adrian Dantley, Wes Unseld, Larry Johnson, Super John Williams. Magic Johnson was just a few inches too tall to be a mulicorn, but he’d be a mulicorn today. The best true mulicorn in the league right now is Draymond Green, whose bizarre blend of physical traits, creative skills, photographic memory, and I-will-tear-your-house-down-to-win attitude might prove as tough to clone as a hundred Giannises.

But the all-time mulicorn, and one of my favorite players ever, is the recently not-retired, just-playing-in-France, could-sign-with-a-competitive-NBA-team-at-any-time, Boris Diaw. Behold his majesty:

I asked my brother Sean, a math teacher and football and basketball coach who may be an even bigger Boris fan than I am and never, ever writes things on the internet, to tell me why he loves Boris so much.

Boris Diaw is like the bass player who always makes the song sound better. Or your buddy who the group just works better when he is there. He is the ultimate glue guy.

He also reminds me of that dude at the gym who you pick up on your team and you would win the court all day, and you couldn’t really keep track of who scored all of the points. But everyone would defend a little better, run a little harder and throw that extra pass.

He had the Sabonis thing where he passed really really well for a big guy. He also fit into my theory that every guy I liked could have played on the old Celtics team or the Bad Boys Pistons. Super smart; plays the game the “right way”; plays defense and moves the ball. A role player who understands their position on the team but can be the guy at least for moments. Tend to be really skilled and tough big guys. Guys who play the way that you hope you would play if you were 6’8”.

His teams were always better when he got there and worse when he left. He got traded for Joe Johnson, and somehow the Suns got better. That is a reoccurring story with him. His teams were always better when he got there and worse when he left. That one time he went to the Bobcats and then they were good. It was like him and Stephen Jackson and they made the playoffs.

When he went to the Spurs, it was a whole other level. Who has Tim Duncan and gets more fun to watch when they sub? He and Manu made everyone on the team play basketball. It was what people who like soccer describe, but I never really understood.

He is like the real life most interesting guy in the world.

There are amazing Boris Diaw stories. This Jonathan Abrams profile for Grantland sets a high standard. But this anecdote from David Griffin might be my favorite.

“Boris walks into the gym one day wearing flip-flops and holding his customary cappuccino, which was a staple for him every morning,” Griffin recalled. “It was during pre-draft workouts, so he sees the Vertec [machine] and asks what it is.

“We tell him it measures your vertical leap by determining how many of the bars you can touch. He asks what’s the highest anyone has ever gone, and we tell him Amare’ [Stoudemire] cleared the entire rack.

“Boris puts down the cappuccino, takes off his flip-flops and clears the entire rack on the first try. Then he calmly puts his flip-flops back on, picks up his cappuccino and walks away, saying, ‘That was not difficult.’”

I hope he comes back.

The sad humanity of American Captain, the best anti-superhero comic about superheroes

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 23, 2017

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"Old Country," by Robyn Kenealy. Image via Tumblr.

My favorite webcomic doesn’t exist on the web anymore, except by way of the Wayback Machine. Robyn Kenealy created something beautiful and delicate with “Steve Rogers’s American Captain,” an indie-style diary comic written and drawn by the Marvel movie version of Captain America.

My own belief is that love works a little like a network. Your point of contact opens up a whole universe of experiences and emotions old and new. It begins with points of commonality, known and shared data. At that point it can either exhaust the known nodes or build into something deeper, more branching, more interconnected. Fictional worlds play off of our ability to imagine and project those deeper connections. In the end, those connections give us something that we didn’t have before: new ideas, new experiences, new connections, even new people. Love is both the cause and the symptom of the enlargement of our world.

“American Captain” is a great example of this. It starts with common ground. Paradoxically, that common ground is the fantastic world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, especially the first wave of films: Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and The Avengers. We know those events and characters. At least we think we do.

“American Captain” gives us Steve Rogers (and to a lesser extent his peers) struggling with downtime, professional frustration, 21st century confusion, and post-traumatic stress. We look through the keyhole of the summer blockbuster and find the muted lifeworld of a sickly kid, now a grown man who can bench-press a car, but can’t figure out online banking. He’s the character who is both most and least like the reader, out of place in every room he enters.

Steve is racked with guilt: not over losing Bucky, like he always is in the comics, but for not being able to protect his mother from his alcoholic father. For leaving the comm on so Sharon Carter could hear his plane crash. For forgetting to return The Hobbit to the NYPL before he was frozen in the ice. He’s thrilled to discover there’s a new Hobbit movie, but panics at the flame and explosions in the theater. He argues, sometimes passive-aggressively and sometimes aggressively, with everyone, including Nick Fury and Bruce Banner. He is marching, in kindness and honor, to his own destruction.

What I find most relatable in “American Captain“‘s Steve is a trait you don’t see much in the movies, especially before Winter Soldier and Civil War: his anger. Bruce Banner has nothing on Steve; neither does Harvey Pekar. Steve is angry at everyone. He has great moments of joy, and he’s quite funny, but for the most part, he’s inwardly seething. His main nemesis is Tony Stark, who delights in trolling him. (The dialogue Kenealy writes for Tony is spot-on, entirely consistent with the Robert Downey Jr. character yet somehow simultaneously older, sadder, and more juvenile.)

Steve strikes up a friendship with Pepper Potts — likewise finally acting her age — and when he finds out Tony has been drunk-texting Pepper, he confronts him. With Pepper, Steve makes it clear that he’s willing to fight Tony, suit and all, if the behavior doesn’t stop. Pepper, who’s seen Steve in the middle of an angry post-traumatic panic attack, is rightfully terrified.

Pepper reminds Steve that the fact that he can beat up a man wearing a tank always stands between them. She relates to Steve the way the other heroes relate to the Hulk. He has unpredictable, unbridled power that forces her to constantly adjust for his presence. Even though she likes him. Even though he’s a good guy. No one that powerful can ever be good enough to not be dangerous.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot in the wake of #MeToo, but well before that. To promise a woman that you would throw her abuser from a window — which I have said, and thought and promised to mutual friends many more times than I have said directly — is not a comforting idea for most people. It’s a reminder that they exist in a world whose contours are shaped by male power, anger, and physical strength, where even friends and allies can be dangerously unpredictable. Sonny Corleone is not a role model, for so very many reasons.

Steve Rogers is a better one, but far from perfect. But I think that’s part of why he works.

S.I. Rosenbaum is a writer, editor, comics artist, and Bollywood fan from Boston, now based in New York, who works dozens of places making stories and sentences better behind the scenes. (She should really have been snatched-up by a magazine or website in the city full-time by now; get it together, people.) Anyways, S.I. and I are both big fans of American Captain, and we got to geek out about it together recently. Here’s some of what she had to say.

The thing that was genius about it (to me) was the conceit that Steve Rogers was drawing it. In classic superhero comics, the art functions as a sort of omniscient third-person impersonal narrator. The art isn’t supposed to have a point of view. We get internal monologues — do we ever — but the art is looking from outside, most of the time. But because of “American Captain“‘s conceit as a webcomic DRAWN by Captain America, the art as WELL as the words became first-person. Early on in the strip, Steve “draws” himself as skinny and it’s not just that the webcomic artist has a style; Steve still sees himself as a little guy.

This made me realize: in the world of “American Captain,” superhero comics don’t exist. Neither do superhero movies or television shows. There are paintings, commercial and conceptual art, and comics like American Splendor, Dykes to Watch Out For, and Maus. Steve doesn’t have a template for understanding who he is as a superhero. He has one for understanding himself as Steve Rogers. I love superhero comics, TV, and movies, but a world without them is probably in some ways a better one.

Robots in disguise

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 23, 2017

Some faves are problematic; others are merely embarrassing. 1986’s Transformers: The Movie may be both, but leans towards the latter.

You have to fit into a very narrow generational window to love this movie. It was really for late Gen X/early millennial cuspers, with a little bit of a hangover into millennials proper because of home video. But for the most part, if you’re a little bit older or younger, you’re either completely baffled by this cartoon or mildly surprised that it isn’t total crap.

I saw this film in the theater with my two brothers, one older and one younger. My mom and older sister saw Ferris Bueller’s Day Off down the hall. None of us had any idea what we were in for. I would contend that of the two films, Transformers should have PG-13. Mild scatological humor is no match for beloved toys cursing and slaughtering each other.

As kids who loved the TV cartoon, we were literally invested in these characters. To the extent that a child can have net worth, a huge percentage of it was tied up in these toys, and the characters they represented. Here they are getting killed off right and left — ominous smoke pouring forth from their mouths, my god — and all Megatron can say is “that was almost too easy.”

The best analogy I can think of is this: suppose you’ve read the first three or four Harry Potter books. Those are all that’s available. You hear that there’s going to be a Harry Potter movie. But instead of a film version of the books you love, the movie busts right into the story from books 5, 6, and 7. You jump forward in time to a creeping totalitarian state, beloved characters are getting killed off right and left by Voldemort and his Death Eaters, and BAM! A half hour into the movie, Dumbledore is disarmed and blasted out of the tower.

You’re six years old, and you watch your Dumbledore die with Reese’s Pieces in your hand. Only instead of a wizard you read about in a book, he’s a robot that turns into a truck, and you have to go over your friend Davey’s house to play with him because he’s too expensive.

Then instead of a big funeral, you blast into outer space for another hour of heavy-metal soundtrack movie. More deaths. More metamorphoses. Planet-devouring robots. Cars who say “shit” and “god damn it.” “Dare To Be Stupid.”

On top of that, unlike Dumbledore’s underwhelming death in the film version of The Half-Blood Prince, the scene where Optimus Prime is killed is totally amazing.

I mean, that is almost Luke vs. Vader and the Emperor in Jedi good.

The problem with Transformers: The Movie (besides all of the problems with the movie and all the movies and TV shows that came after it) is really the toys. The whole show is designed to sell the toys. All the character deaths, the new generation introduced in the movie, and the magnificent decision to send the Autobots and Decepticons into exile in uncharted space, are all decisions made to create a market for more goddamned toys.

The toys, our physical proximity to them, the ability to shape and change them, and the ways we use them to play out narratives, are the mechanism for our affection. But they’re also intentionally disposable. It’s as far from respectable art in the traditional sense as it gets.

MovieBob’s Bob Chipman has a terrific video about this problem, specifically as it relates to Transformers: The Movie.

TL:DR — the decision to kill off most of the established characters actually forces the movie to make some compelling artistic choices. It’s a war movie where the generals and top lieutenants are killed off immediately, forcing a raw younger generation to make their own choices and mistakes. This in turn resonates with aging kids who’ve parents die and split up, who have either already faced or will soon face their own traumas.

The movie’s message — terrible things will happen, not everyone will make it intact, but you can find a way to go on — becomes a resource kids draw on as they grow up. Again, very similar to Harry Potter: just for us folks who were a little too old to catch the book before our childhoods ended.

Robin Sloan is a novelist, blogger, and media inventor. He’s also like three weeks younger than I am and grew up about three miles away. Unsurprisingly, he and I had very similar reactions to Transformers: The Movie.

I mean maybe it’s cliched to say this, or impossible with any credibility, but I’m pretty sure that movie was the most emotional experience of my life inside a movie theater? I can’t remember the whole experience with total clarity, but I do remember which friend I saw it with; I also remember my initial confusion — it didn’t announce its time-shift, so any young fan of the TV cartoon was initially like, “Wait… what?” — and, of course, THE DEATH OF OPTIMUS PRIME. What do you even say? Biblical, Shakespearean, and totally sci-fi, all at once. Megaton-scale. I wonder if the people who made the movie even understood what they were doing, what impact it would have.

Looking at it as an adult today. I think the movie is astonishing. Even for all its flaws, all the rough edges in its animation, sound, script, it just does *so much more than it had to*, particularly for a movie of that kind, of that time. The scale of it… I mean have there even BEEN any other movies with planet-sized robots? Has anyone else even DARED?

Maybe that’s what makes a movie — or any piece of media? — seem special: the sense that it isn’t merely “made to spec” but rather the special product of a confluence of people who cared, for one reason or another — and with a big dollop of weird luck thrown in, always — who made something sui generis. If Transformers: The Movie belongs in any category, it’s that one: Fully Its Own Thing.

Finally: the voice acting, including Orson freaking Welles, is outstanding.

If I Were/Was Your Girlfriend

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 23, 2017

It’s tempting to treat Prince’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend” as a genderscrambled version of Gladys Knight & The Pips’ “If I Were Your Woman” or Janet Jackson’s “If.” It’s really not. All three songs are great, but thematically and grammatically, “If I Was Your Girlfriend” is way more complicated than the others, and more intricate than almost any other song Prince wrote.

Prince is not just saying you’d be better off with him; he is not just saying that he wants to get in your pants. He’s not not saying those things, but Prince has written dozens if not hundreds of songs with that as his theme, and none of those songs are “If I Was Your Girlfriend.”

Prince is up to something. Even the usual interpretive trick for Prince’s songs — imagine that he is singing them to and about himself — doesn’t get you very far here.

Let’s start with that “Was.” We use the simple past “was” instead of the subjunctive mood “were” all the time, mostly because the subjunctive in English almost only shows up for a few irregular verbs like “were.” But there’s a songwriting tradition here; Prince knows it; every word is carefully chosen; we should take that “Was” seriously.

If I was your girlfriend, would U remember

To tell me all the things U forgot when I was your man?

The song is built on a series of conditional clauses, all of which are firmly set in the past. Was, would, could, sometime. Over and over again. Even when the singer lapses into something that seems like a present or present continuous tense, we get a counterpoint placing it in the past conditional again.

Sugar
Sugar, do you know what I’m saying 2 U this evening?
(If I was your girlfriend)
Maybe U think I’m being a little self-centered
But I, I said I want to be all of the things U are to me
(if I was your girlfriend)
Surely, surely you can see

That “this evening” is deixis — it’s pointing to say, “I am speaking these words HERE and NOW.” And it gets completely wiped away by the conditional past “If I was your girlfriend” and the conditional future “I want to be” and “surely you can see.”

This is an amazing song about intimacy, fantasy, the limits of gender roles, the limits of gender flexibility, a man’s full catalog of shortcomings and possibilities. This is also a breakup song, about heartbreak and desperation. It’s a song about a man putting the pieces of the past together and hoping they can add up to something more than they were.

Breakup songs are not exactly plentiful in the Prince catalog, although the ones he wrote were amazing. He wrote “Nothing Compares 2 U” for The Family because it didn’t fit the brand of progressive party pop he’d established for Prince and the Revolution. Sinead O’Connor covered it in 1989, after Prince had shifted his image with Sign O’ The Times, and everyone marveled (again) at his songwriting.

“If I Was Your Girlfriend” gets smuggled in as a Prince song at the right place and time. (Principle: every song on “Sign O’ The Times” is doing something other than what it seems to be doing.) The song is sexy because Prince is sexy. But the singer is losing the thread between past, present, and future. All those nesting dolls are collapsing. Even the marvelous, sensual come-on at the end, a desperate throw of the dice that pulls the song into the full future tense for the first time, gets framed as a dream:

And would you, would you let me kiss you there
You know, down there where it counts
I’ll do it so good, I swear I’ll drink every ounce
And then I’ll hold you tight and hold you long
And together we’ll stare into silence

And we’ll try to imagine what it looks like
Yeah, we’ll try to imagine what, what silence looks like
Yeah, we’ll, we’ll try to imagine what silence looks like
Yeah, we’ll try

The song seemed to evolve for Prince himself. In early live shows and the song’s official video above, Prince is the sexy seducer. Of course he talks his ex into bed. He’s Prince — the one and only — and his fans came to see a Prince show.

Later, he can’t do the splits any more. He’s sitting at the piano. The BPM is slowed down to about 80 percent. His eyes are closed. It’s a Joni Mitchell ballad.

Anil Dash, CEO of Fog Creek software, blogging pioneer, and Prince superfan, told me about these late performances of “If I Was Your Girlfriend”:

In his final shows, Prince would do the song in medley with Bob Marley’s “Waiting In Vain”, a song he only started playing very late in life, that seemed to have a lot of meaning for him.

[“Wait(ing) In Vain is one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard, even in Bob Marley’s bouncey version. Prince’s cover on solo piano is devastating.]

In his last set of concerts, he’d pause the song to bring up a still of Streisand and Redford in “The Way We Were”, after the part where he says “if somebody hurt u, even if that somebody was me.”

[This was at Prince’s second-to-last show, in Atlanta.]

It was one of the most honest and unexpected and sincere and heartbreaking things I think I ever heard him do. I was listening to audio of that in an airport in Tokyo a few months before he passed, and it brought me to tears, and it was one of the first things I returned to after I heard about his death. Was just as purely empathetic as I’d ever heard a straight man be in pop culture, and taught me a lot.

For me, losing Lou Reed was like losing a great teacher; losing Bowie was losing a hero; losing Phife was losing a best friend. But losing Prince, for many of us, was like losing the love of your life.

Love letters and time machines

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 23, 2017

Hi everyone: Tim Carmody here, filling in for Jason this week. I don’t know exactly what he’s doing, but I’ve seen the photos and it looks freaking awesome. Much-deserved.

Every time I guest host The Best Blog in the World, I try to make it part of a bigger project. The last time I was here, Kottke readers helped us build a time capsule for the World Wide Web. This week, I have a similar theme, inspired by Jason’s recent post about his guest appearance on Halt and Catch Fire.

What strikes me about this essay is how much love pours off the page. Note: Jason is somehow even more midwestern than me. (I’m an ethnic Catholic from Detroit; I yell and cry and tell people too much and only feel terrible about all of it later.) He does not wear his emotions on his sleeve. So when he loosens up like this, it’s a big deal:

When I was a kid, there was nothing I was more interested in than computers. My dad bought one of the first available IBM PC-compatibles on the market. I’ve read and watched a ton about the PC revolution. I used online services like Prodigy. And the web, well, I’ve gotten to experience that up close and personal. One of the reasons I love Halt and Catch Fire so much is that it so lovingly and accurately depicts this world that I’ve been keenly interested in for the past 35 years of my life. Someone made a TV show about my thing and it was great, a successor to Mad Men great. Getting to be a microscopically tiny part of that? Hell yeah, it was worth it.

You can see how much he loves the show, how much he loves what the show was about, and how much he loved getting to be a part of it.

And I love that energy. For all the fisking and venting and social grooming and general chatter, I think that core feeling of “I love this! Why don’t you find something you love this much too?” is what propelled blogging from the beginning. It’s an enthusiast art, and it’s a folk art, from a country known for turning its enthusiast folk art into global industries.

So, this week, what I would like to do with you is to open up a little and talk about the things I love. It’s going to be a series of open love letters about art, literature, music, movies, nature, sports, technology — all that Liberal Arts 2.0 geek shit we all fill up on at Kottke. And if you’re worried that it’s just going to be a big dumb ultrapositive lovefest, don’t: the things I love are all strange and sad, and some of them are lost forever, so I’ve got you covered on that emotional side too.

Even Jason’s story about Halt and Catch Fire has that tinge of melancholy that makes it that much sweeter: the show is over, the world it describes is gone, the experience is a memory. Edgar Allen Poe was right: there’s nothing more beautiful than something we love that is forever gone. And Proust was right: we need a time machine, whether chemical or mechanical, to recapture that feeling again. The song of the Sirens is beautiful because it is doomed.

This week is also going to be about love: the weird processes by which we come to have so much affection for immanent and transcendent things in the universe. It’s not the same way we come to love people, but it’s not not the same way either. And it’s going to be in no small part about time; time lost, time present, and time yet to come.

One last thing: I couldn’t do this by myself. Or I didn’t want to, which amounts to the same thing. So throughout the week, there will be expert guest contributors offering their thoughts on the subjects we’re covering. It’s an amazing group: you’ll recognize a bunch of them, and I’m thrilled to smuggle all of them into Kottke.org with me, because they really shine.

Okay? Okay. Let’s get started.