Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Finale

I spend too much time inside my own head. Who doesn't? I would hate to think that probably not as many people as we hope. Instead, people have found ways to live somewhere else. Always another distraction. A way to escape those day to day trivial actions. A way to remove oneself from any sense of complete reality. I have spent too much time on this topic over the past few months. More specifically, on technology. On the way we are controlled by technology. The way technology interacts with our imagination. Once our imagination starts to slip, what becomes of our art? New and old?

Around 2002, I was taking a drama course at university. We read a play by Bertolt Brecht (The Good Person of Szechwan) and a play by Luigi Pirandello (Six Characters in Search of an Author). I would count these as my favorite plays. At the time of reading these plays, I liked to imagine myself as a playwright. What could I create? I liked to imagine a setting where an actor would bring a new person up on stage at every performance. The set would be a single table, two chairs, two people, one spotlight. For an hour and a half, the audience would watch two people interact. Strangers. The way they learn to understand one another. The way they begin to open up to one another. The play would be about ideas. About dialogue. About human connection. Then, a couple years later I heard about the film My Dinner With Andre. Seems someone had beat me to this idea.

Louis Malle's film if a focus on playwright/actor Wallace Shawn (The Princess Bride, Manhattan) and playwright Andre Gregory. Two men who were once very close, but have not spoken to one another in years. Much has changed. And, for whatever reason, they have been brought back into the lives of one another. For a dinner and a lot of dialogue. The film is about ideas. The film is a philosophers examination on art, fate, the future, love, and choice (to name just a few). This film isn't for everyone. As you do, in fact, watch two men talk for 114 minutes. But, this may be the most fascinating and surreal conversation ever filmed.

Both actors are playing themselves. Or, versions of themselves. This is mentioned, at one point, as an exercise Gregory took part in during a trip abroad. Actually, most of the conversation are about Gregory's trips. Gregory's constant running from himself to find himself. He doesn't see it this way. He believes the rest of the world is running. Or, running in place. Gregory believes we're becoming robots. Unable to feel. Unable to understand the feelings of others. And, in turn, this causes theatre to suffer. If you can't understand yourself, or someone else, what is the point in theatre? What can be gained? So Gregory and Shawn discuss the shallowness of contemporary art. This was filmed in 1981. And couldn't feel more timely.

Gregory talks about our futures as robots. Gregory talks about the prisons we build around ourselves. Gregory tells Shawn that he believes New York City has turned into a kind of concentration camp. But, instead of one group building the camps and another group filling the camps, Gregory believes the people of New York City are both guards and prisoners. This is pretty suggestive. Painful to think about. My mind flashed to the moving (and frightening) Alain Resnais' documentary Night and Fog. All those men and women piled in bunkers. The black and white image of decay. This is what Gregory believes is in store for us.

So, this leads me to the next film, We Live in Public. A documentary about technology and privacy. I would never have thought this film and My Dinner With Andre would so perfectly fall in place together. But, they do.

We Live in Public follows ten years in the life of "the greatest Internet pioneer you've never heard of," Josh Harris. He was one of those dot-com people of the late 90s who saw a lot of money come in very quickly. Then watched it all slip away just as fast. There was something a little different about Josh, though. Josh was/is crazy. He would claim he is "crazy like a fox." Refusing to admit the actual issues that cause him to behave the way he does. His detachment from everyone in his world. He sends a youtube video to his mother on her death bed. It is a cold video. But, this is how he was raised. Josh believes our lives rest on how we were raised- by sound/image on screens (radio, television, computers, smart phones).

I first connect this film with My Dinner With Andre based on an experiment Josh creates named "Quiet." Josh invites 100 people to move into an underground bunker. Their entire lives will be filmed. Every second- sex, showering, shitting, etc. They will all sleep in a long room with a bunch of tiny beds. (It is this image, of 100 New Yorkers looking out from their beds that has a 21st century holocaust feel). Josh gives them anything they want- alcohol, pot, heroin, food, guns, religion. Everything is free. They just have to give up their privacy. Their image and lives on the tapes becomes the property of Josh (this was years before Facebook took over control of every image, video, email you share on the social networking site).

After this experiment, Josh spends six months being filmed in his apartment. Living with his girlfriend. The cameras are online. They are filmed at every angle (cameras in the toilet, in the cat box, in the fridge, in the bed, etc). They have a chatroom for their site. People interact. Start to care for these two people. Start to live a life with, for, and around these two people. Who is in control at this point? Those being watched? Or, those watching? Near the experiments end, it appears those who watch are most in charge. So, what does that mean for all of those people who are outside our lives and are constantly looking in through twitter, facebook, myspace, flicker, etc?

People will argue they are in charge of themselves. I do not fully buy this answer. I know people who feed off these new forms of interaction. This new way to feel you are someone. Have something to say. Those who no longer just want 15 minutes of fame in their lifetime, they want 15 minutes of fame at least once a day (as Josh states in We Live in Public). These strangers we interact with online become people we think we know. And, in turn, we become people they think they know. So, who are we? Who we imagine ourselves to be? How different is that imagination from the reality? And how much are we giving up of ourselves to be noticed? How low are our self esteems that we need a constant response to every step we take?

So, here I sit, typing out these thoughts. For what purpose? Who do I think I am to be read by strangers? To share these ideas with whomever comes across this page? Who have I been to be doing this for the past 14 months? This blog started out as a way for me to keep track of the books I was reading (a 2010 New Years resolution to read two books a month), the movies I watched, and the music I heard. Also, the blog was meant as a way for me to meditate on these experiences I was having with other forms of art. As a writer, I thought the blog would allow me to grow in my own writing. In the way I watch and dissect the day to day. Was any of that successful? I don't know. Hard to say. If anything, this blog got me to this point. To this long winded idea I have been forming for a few months.

I got off Facebook a handful of months ago. I only use Twitter to post quotes from films, music, books. And, for the occasional sentence that pops into my head for a short story. But, why don't I write these things down on the page? How can I, as a writer, pretend punching these things into a phone or a computer... sending them out into this technological theatre of the web... How can I pretend it holds purpose?

This goes so much further. Becomes so many more ideas. Does technology destroy art? Destroy imagination? Destroy our self esteems even further? How many people do you know are constantly checking their phone to see if they had any response via text, email, facebook, twitter, etc? We need to be noticed. But, it doesn't make us feel better. We just want more. This desire for more... how far down does it take us? Where has it placed us?There was a time I was excited for a new album release, because I would go to the record store the day of its release. Now, I download it before it hits the stores. We watch movies we download. Instead of sitting in a theatre and experiencing something as a group. Amazon.com and library websites are telling you what book you should read next. We're no longer seeking out the information we want.

So I know it is time to step away from all of this that drives me crazy. Not because a film tells me it will ruin art, or because a documentary shows me it will ruin relationships, or because a book tells me it will ruin our ability to think. I have to step away because I have known all of this for a long time. I have to step away because no matter who is listening, it will never be enough. Not until we've been heard correctly. It all just allows us to remain hidden inside our cages. Hidden inside the prisons we are guards and prisoners of.

The King of Limbs, Radiohead (2011)

I have been trying to word my thoughts on this album for a little over a week. My first thought after hearing the album: beautiful ghost stories in a lovely haunted house. The songs all have this clanging sound. I am so often reminded of the ghost from A Christmas Carol. The chains rattling through the hallways. So, maybe it was the music that made me feel this way. What about the lyrics? Well, I don't know that the lyrics play a part in this haunting. But, Yorke's vocals certainly do. There is this deathly wail and moan in his throat. One half imagines him in the middle of seance and we wait patiently for the voice of the dead to fully form itself. We wait for a clear revelation. It never comes on The King of Limbs.

This may be Radiohead's saddest sounding album. While at the same time managing to be their most humorous. On the opening track, 'Bloom,' Yorke sings quite clearly: "open your mouth wide." And, honestly, this is about the last time Yorke heeds his own advice. Most of The King of Limbs is sung in a quiet grumble. A ghostly wail. A disgruntled grunt. Not to say this is a bad thing. I think Yorke's decision to sing this way really adds an element to the album. In the way Bjork has always used her voice as instrument. Or, in the way PJ Harvey used her voice as instrument on the album White Chalk. Listen to the album middle track, 'Feral,' for proof that Yorke is experimenting with voice as instrument. The song is mostly instrumental other than the sound of his voice occasionally flapping through like the wings of a giant butterfly.

Two songs later, on my favorite track from the album 'Little by Little,' York sings "I'm such a tease and you're such a flirt." Yorke is right. He is a tease. All of Radiohead is a tease. They release albums out of nowhere. Sometimes they ask you to pick the price. Next they have a very specific pricing system. Radiohead loves to tease its fans. And, we fans love to flirt back. Rave reviews. Impatiently waiting for a download. Drinking up the kool-aid. It a great line that really sums up the entire band-fan relationship.

I am not the biggest fan of Radiohead. When I had the chance to see them in concert a few years ago, I decided to pass because I knew I would feel out of place. I have followed their career since the release of OK Computer. I have enjoyed most of their albums. But, I have never found myself bowing down as part of the cult of Radiohead. In fact, my favorite Radiohead album is Hail to the Thief. Most "real" fans find this album to be the least interesting of all Radiohead releases.

It is safe to say The King of Limbs is closest to the previous album In Rainbows. It is a fairly chill affair. Rarely rising above a desire to pick yourself up from the couch to shift to the songs. This is even quieter than In Rainbows. And such a very short album. Some fans have gone so far as to suggest The King of Limbs is only part one of a two part release. I am not sure the album needs a sequel. If anything, it is the sequel to In Rainbows.

Radiohead was smart to release 'Lotus Flower' as the albums first single. The song has the most energy of all the tracks. While at the same time showcasing the vocal range Yorke uses throughout the album. And highlights the musical atmosphere of the other tracks. (The music video is quite a treat. And proves Yorke is the male Tilda Swinton).

There isn't a bad song on the album. Every track works perfectly with the previous and following song. Most of these songs stand alone very well, too. It isn't the most beautiful album, but it surely a very well structured soundscape by a group of great music architects.