Monday, March 28, 2011

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Lights

The flicker of a moving image has long and diffuse history.  Occasionally it has been put to use as an aesthetic effect or even a weapon - as the deliberately exaggerated by-product of early cinema's non-standardized frame rates. A feature of the historical deployment of the flicker effect has been its implicit reliance on the editing of frames - different colors, white/black, 24fps.  As a result, because of the 3:2 pulldown, it's difficult for video versions to approximate the precise effects of Arnulf Rainer or The Flicker or N:O:T:H:I:N:G.  Less specific to the material of celluloid, however, may be the aesthetic suggestion of the blurring of lines between image and formlessness, or between image and pure light / pure dark.  Colors or light bleed into an image, aestheticize it despite "identification" or "story" by pulling it outside those realms and denaturing it.

Some of the rare images in Paul Sharits' flicker work depict violent or sexual acts.  Sharits' films, and techniques, were not meant purely for their powers of provocation, however.  He indicated on numerous occasions his desire to use cinema to enhance consciousness. 

"In his flicker films, Sharits disrupts this process. He replaces the consecutive phases of action with solidly colored or black or white frames . The effect is literally dazzling . The viewer sees often violent bursts of light whose color and intensity are functions of the speed at which the colored frames and the complementary colors of spontaneously induced afterimages change. The oscillating colors not only foreground the pulsing light beam, they also reflexively remind the viewer of the physical limits of the frame and of the surface on which films are projected." (Stuart Leibman)

For Leibman's description of effects to make sense, of course, so much depends on this "viewer" glazed with modernist theory before the white screen.  But perhaps we can talk about the impulse to produce such effects.  What directs audiovisual creators to devise and deploy the flicker effect?  In one respect it might be a push towards a total, consuming aesthetic vision.  For Sharits, a mandala to "end war"; for today's pop artists, the mock-sublimity of an expression too big to fail (or too big for execution, craft, to even matter).

"Want you to see everything," sings Rihanna in "All of the Lights," the Kanye West track released a few months back.  Enlisting the vocals of a whole slew of pop singers (Elton John, Alicia Keys, La Roux, etc., etc.), the track is a bit monstrous in size, slightly indeterminate in direction.  This isn't simply a wall of sound, it's a wall of celebrity persona.  The video, by Hype Williams, uses numerous bright flicker effects that destabilize the images (if they ever were stable) from any purely "functional" role, like telling a story, or creating a mood through mise-en-scene alone. The images flirt with pure color, they appear to filter into and out of one another, they heighten the sense of color within some of the shots.  So many flashing lights - actually that phrase is, of course, the title of another Kanye West song.  Probably someone better versed in Kanye Studies than me could say how deep this trope runs ...

... I think this is particularly fascinating for a guy like Kanye West - the tropes of education that run throughout his work, "can't tell me nothing," even the way Taylor Swift called him "an innocent."  West: yet to be informed, yet to be instructed, yet to be enlightened.  Weighed down by the necessity of enlightenment, West associates these themes in his lyrics - pain or trauma, with education and illumination. "Cop lights / flash lights / spot lights / strobe lights / street lights."

"In 1945 a Western force greater than electricity descended on the Japanese arkheion.  The atomic assaults on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States unleashed the heat and light of atoms, which threatened not only the Japanese archive but the "mansion called literature," the literary archive.  It threatened to destroy the trace, to destroy even the shadows." Akira Mizuta Lippit, Atomic Light (Shadow Optics), p. 25 (for Adrian)

(Still from Radiohead's video for "House of Cards," made without cameras.)

Previously on ... in 2009 ... (Light 1) (Light 2) (Light 3) (Light 4) (Light 5)

Image of the Day

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


A problem in thinking about taste hierarchies is the impulse for the reformed elitist to wish to embrace the low, popular, mass, vulgar, etc., and yet - in the process of vocal exculpation - recuperate these objects for the high.  Specifically, the low objects are (re)integrated into a kind of high grammar.  One of the privileged instances of this is the heroic mythos of the Cahiers du cinéma critics, who "realized" that Hitchcock and Hawks could be spoken of like Racine or Shakespeare. 

They realized it.  Apologies for the very poor Derrida imitation, but let me suggest that my deliberate use of this word (to realize) is meant to convey something of the double meaning that is buried in this mythology of taste.  The evident meaning of this "realization" is a recognition and subsequent acknowledgment.  But what it actually entails is the making real of a value judgment.  The Cahiers critics put these ideas into circulation.

The recuperation of the popular artist for high tradition (Shakespeare is the ultimate example) is, itself, an "always already" excavated gambit for anyone who wishes to defend the legitimacy of a particular, relatively contemporary piece of popular culture.  "Dude, you don't think Two and a Half Men has a particular type of genius?  You dismiss it just because tons of people watch it?  Well look, Shakespeare was popular, too."  Substitute Harry Potter or any number of objects for Two and a Half Men.  The logic at work here is that, time and again, prevalent elitist tastes have been shown to have "wrongly" dismissed or at least unfairly pigeonholed popular works of their era.  We see it over and over again.  Shakespeare, Hitchcock, Guiding Light.  "It's an objective pattern, don't blame me if I'm a little further ahead of the curve than you are.  It's history ... but as logical and predictable as a science experiment!"

I don't propose that a rigid, reductive high-middle-low scale is any better than this operation.  For my part, do bring on Bourdieu, and while you're at it bring on White Chicks.  (Coherence and reason are great things when discussing particularities.  But I neither require nor desire my own tastes to be subordinated to the laws of coherence or logic.)  But I do think this rhetoric of realization has survived too long as a truism, a crutch, a replacement for thought, and a lazy & unearned badge worn to denote anti-elitism.  And it's always convenient to pose as an anti-elitist in terms of cultural tastes when you exist in the heart of capitalism.  The signification of tastes is indeed a political question, but perhaps more politically pressing is when that question comes to eclipse any & all others as the only political question.

To the End of TV

In the dismally undercooked film Legion (Scott Charles Stewart, 2010), the coming apocalypse is in one instance signified by an emergency broadcast signal on an old TV.  "This is not a test," it reads.  It's got to be a test, concludes one character.  No - but if the emergency was real, wouldn't there be instructions for us? asks another.  Perhaps.  The film indicates at one point that, in parts elsewhere, crypto-government forces are reaching critical mass to fight the god-zombies.

In this film, God can shut off TV transmission, send a storm of billions of flies, but cannot send a bomb into a roadside gas station.  (The roadside gas station out in the desert: from Detour, Ace in the Hole, Red Dawn, the first two Terminator movies, the Tremors franchise, etc.)  If you've read Meaghan Morris' "Banality in Cultural Studies" (here) you may recall her anecdote of a television newsflash in Sydney about how "something has happened" in Darwin - or to Darwin.  But, initially, the startling thing was that no information had come from Darwin.  The city, which it turned out was hit by a cyclone, had stopped communication, and this was the certain marker of disaster.  "This was not catastrophe on TV - like the Challenger sequence - but a catastrophe of and for TV."

The television set is a portal to the electro-ether that soothes a nation.  TV transmission operates like antennae of the social imaginary.  When it - it, not any particular TV set - malfunctions, one may conclude that the shit has hit the fan.

Friday, March 18, 2011


... for extremely light posting lately.  I've been a busy fellow.  Expect a few posts to crop up before the month is over, though.