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3.6.2001
Preservation and Plastic

Among the many reasons that innumerable films are completely lost in the mists of time, not least is the fact that before 1951, all film stock was composed of nitrocellulose, or "nitrate celluloid." While celluloid can survive for quite a long time under perfect conditions, it decomposes rapidly when exposed to moisture. Alas, this means that a great many objects from the early twentieth century are unlikely to survive far into the twenty-first. Celluloid was the first widely-used plastic, valued for its ease of molding and the readiness with which it could be impregnated with either intense or subtle color.

Readers of the New Yorker may recall Ricky Jay's article "The Story of Dice" in the December 11 issue. It was illustrated with striking photos of his vast collection in decay; the celluloid dice have in some places crumbled like amber sugarcubes, elsewhere leaving strange verdigris columns piled up beneath their intact, non-celluloid dots. Not only inclined to decompose, celluoid is extremely volatile, a quality that makes it rather alarming to contemplate as a once-popular material for jewlery, hair combs, billiard balls and dolls, as well as film stock that had an unfortunate tendency to catch on fire in the projector. As the early film industry considered its product to be generally disposable, it made little effort to preserve either negatives or prints from the dangers of water and fire. Indeed, many films literally went up in smoke in the name of creating bigger thrills in the next movie to come down the pike. As Frank Thompson describes it in his book Lost Films: Important Movies That Disappeared,

Because nitrate stock is highly flammable, some studios devised a novel way to get a little more use out of obsolete prints: often, if a film in production needed a large bonfire or other conflagration, the flames were fueled by volatile nitrate footage. Very probably prints--perhaps even negatives--of some of the films discussed in this book were lost this way....

Thompson's book chronicles the plot and production of 27 movies that have vanished (the plot treatments reminiscent, in their slightly uncanny disconnect from the physical product, of Gene Wolfe's "Parkroads: A Review" and of a certain nascent project closer to home), and the cineophilic interest in lost films goes well beyond that in cataloging and attempting to recover copies of these missing moving pictures.

Indeed, some films long thought lost have been restored from partial copies or discovered intact. The 1910 short comedy The Safe was found in a back corner of the UCLA film archives, and is desperately in need of restoration--preservationists are trying to raise the $2000 they estimate it will take to fund the effort. In 1996, a former projectionist popped up to provide the American Film Institute with a pristine copy of the oldest surviving American feature film, the 1912 silent Richard III, resulting in a great bustle of excitement and screenings. Some long-lost films are found in more out-of-the-way spots, as when a print of Carl Dreyer's 1928 masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc, was found in a Norwegian mental asylum. Furthermore, more long-lost masterpieces are coming to light all the time. As Thompson says, "Chances are, on seeing some of them, we might be tempted, like Mary Duncan [star of the Murnau film 4 Devils, who was less than pleased with the result of her labor] to throw the prints into the sea," but knowing the real treasures that have been lost and found, who can deny the lure of the hunt?


2.28.2001
Welcome to the House of Fun

No doubt you once thought that the delights of the funhouse could never be available to you as an individual. However, for only $399 (plus shipping and handling) you can buy your very own funhouse mirror, for display anywhere that might be enhanced by the addition of distorted reflections. (And what place would not?) For only a hundred dollars more, you may add a sound module or -- for a hundred and fifty dollars -- chasing strip lighting, but the true connoisseur will surely eschew these fripperies in favor of the pure, unadulterated distortion effect.

While the suppliers may suggest that funhouse mirrors have the primary purpose of "fascinating children the world over," you and I know better. We know that their effects are just a subset of mirror anamorphs, including the strange reflections that can be found in a cylindrical, conical, or any other sort of non-flat mirror. What's more, for at least five hundred years, artists have been constructing anamorphs in reverse -- making images that only appear undistorted when viewed in one of those deviant mirrors, or from some depraved and unnatural angle. These adventures in perspective are not "Just Fun Stuff!" as the mirror manufacturers would have it -- in fact, they have traditionally served as memento mori or subversive political commentary, as in the case of paintings made and displayed during the Interregnum that included distorted images of Charles I, providing a way for Royalists to covertly display his portrait while remaining reasonably safe from prosecution. Doubtless these profound qualities are what attracted heavyweight theorists like Jaques Lacan to wax psychoanalytic on the subject. French art historian Jurgis Baltrusaitis, however, is your man for a comprehensive and sensitive overview of anamorphic splendors through the ages; not only does he refrain from flights of psychological fancy, he includes a truly vast compendium of color plates showing anamorphic art of every type.

The tricks of anamorphism today provide the means of filming and screening wide-screen movies. By way of a concave sphero-cylindrical lens -- that's an "anamorphic lens" to you -- filmmakers can compress and decompress wide-screen images onto film with a different aspect ratio than the final image. Anamorphic lenses are also available for your 35mm SLR camera, so you can create your own anamorphic magic at home. As an added benefit, your intimate connection to the world of filmic anamorphosis will give you access to the word "de-anamorphoser." Use it wisely.


2.26.2001
He Used to Prophesy to Empty Benches

Why are there so many Gothic buildings on American college campuses? Blame it on Victorian critic John Ruskin, whose vast enthusiasm for Gothic architecture was rather more infectious than the social concerns that underlay it: the public took up his interest in pointy arches and gargoyles, but less so his preference for the artisan culture he saw behind the original Gothic. We may set aside, perhaps, consideration of the actual working conditions of a medieval stonemason to admire Ruskin's concerns about the soul of a people who have been alienated from the experience of craftsmanship. However incomplete the historical analysis involved, one can understand very well his distaste for degradation of manual labor, the impersonal smoothness of industrially produced goods, and the divide between design and creation. As he wrote in The Stones of Venice (v.2:6), "the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense....All professions hould be liberal, and there should be less pride felt in peculiarity of employment, and more in excellence of achievement."

The extent to which Ruskin's ideas -- which he shared with many of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, particularly William Morris -- made their way into the culture rests in no small part on his famously vivid and effective teaching style. A. E. Housman described one memorable lecture in a letter, quoted in the ever-useful Norton Anthology of English Literature (v. 2, 5th ed., 1328). In the Oxford lecture described therein, Ruskin demonstrated the effects of industry, smoke, and pollution on the English landscape:

...He had got a picture of Turner's, framed and glassed, representing Leicester and the Abbey in the distance at sunset, over a river.... Then he said, "You, if you like, may go to Leicester to see what it is like now. I never shall. But I can make a pretty good guess." Then he caught up a paintbrush.... "The color of the stream is supplied on one side by the indigo factory." Forthwith one side of the stream became indigo. "On the other side by the soap factory." Soap dashed in. "They mix in the middle--like curds," he said, working them together with a sort of malicious deliberation. "The field, over which you see the sun setting behind the abbey, is now occupied in a proper manner." Then there went a flame of scarlet across the picture, which developed itself into windows and roofs and brick, and rushed up into a chimney. "The atmosphere is supplied--thus!" A puff and cloud of smoke all over Turner's sky; and then the brush thrown down, and Ruskin confronting modern civilization amidst a tempest of applause, which he always elicits now...

Alas -- and I say this as a member of the lecturing industry -- for the decline of lectures that burn with such a holy fire.


2.21.2001
Chordata, Schmordata

Fortunate chordates, embrace your bilateral symmetry. Our collective ability to manipulate objects symmetrically and systematically was, after all, a critical move in our devolopment as a species. The Acheulean handaxe suggests the relatively high degree of behavioral sophistication in homo erectus on the basis of its standardization and bilateral symmetry. While the functional significance of the Achheulian tool industry is a matter of speculation only, the symmetry and regularity of its products are indisputible. Whatever its use as a tool, this little technological innovation of the lower Paleolithic marks a critical advance in our conceptual relationship to symmetry in general.

Now that we've had a million years or so of experience with these matters, they provide a ubiquitously useful conceptual source for all manner of more abstractly symmetrical phenomena, such as certain figures from classical rhetoric: Figures of hyperbaton, or transposition, seem symmetrical with respect to sentences using a "natural" word arrangement, so that "Why should their liberty than ours be more?" (from Comedy of Errors) seems a kind of mirror image of "Why should their liberty be more than ours?" There is an internal symmetry to zeugma, the figure in which a word, usually the main verb, governs multiple other parts of the sentence, as in "She caught the train and a husband"; another sort of internal symmetry seems to guide parallelism of clauses (as in the sentence "Garnets are pretty; pearls are lovely; rubies are splendid; but diamonds are a girl's best friend"). Meanwhile, all this is different from the simpler symmetry of basic repetition--and you'll notice that "I love you! I love you!" and "Harvard Yard in April: April in Harvard Yard" (the title of a poem by I. A. Richards) are not quite the same thing, though both seem quite symmetrical in their repetition. This, of course, doesn't even begin to touch on larger narrative symmetries, in which, say, one character's fortunes improve as another character's decline, or certain elements appear in both the opening and closing scenes of a novel. Amazingly enough, we can distinguish between these phenomena even as we simultaneously associate them all with physical symmetry. How clever!

Oh, yes, physical symmetry. The great mathematician Hermann Weyl's book on the subject, the sensibly-titled Symmetry (first printed in 1952, though it has seen countless reprintings and I think eight different editions) attends to symmetries both aesthetic and mathematical. Weyl describes not only bilateral symmetry, but also the geometry of translatory, rotational, ornamental, and crystallographic symmetries, eventually addressing the general abstract mathematics behind all the particular instances. Dry though that may sound, rest assured that Weyl's prose has a charm and intelligibility not generally associated with his subject matter. Take, for example, his explanation of the proposition that (ST)-1=T-1S-1:

With this rule, although perhaps not with its mathematical expression, you are all familiar. When you dress, it is not immaterial in which order you perform the operations; and when in dressing you start with the shirt and end up with the coat, then in undressing you observe the opposite order; first take off the coat and the shirt comes last.

At least it works that way in theory. First your pants, then your shoes.


2.15.2001
A Brief Endorsement

"Still," writes John Thorne,

the whole anti-fat movement astonishes me. We read things written about lard that treat it as the moral equivalent of crack. The upshot of all this hysteria is going to be a generation of teenagers who will be sneaking out to the back shed to smoke not dope but beef brisket. And grandpa is going to slip out after them.

Food writing is a very particular and homey art; many never realize how much art there is in it at all, but we enthusiasts know well what a rare and wonderful thing it can be. John Thorne and Matt Lewis do it far, far better than most. Their food letter, Simple Cooking, began in 1980, when John first began writing little pamphlets and broadsheets about his interest in the process of cooking. The writing is utterly unaffected, as is the subject matter--the experience of cooking simple foods at home and of learning to listen to the specifics of one's hunger--but it is most definitely not artless.

You can (and you should) subscribe to either the no-frills print edition or the full-color PDF of Simple Cooking for only $24 a year; alternately, begin by reading one of the books drawn largely from the letter's pages: Simple Cooking is the first, followed by Outlaw Cook, Serious Pig, and Pot on the Fire. Also see the related online offerings, which, though less beautifully presented than Simple Cooking itself, include such delights as an intermittently-updated Midnight Snack Diary, containing discussion of, among other things, both scallion pancakes and head cheese.


2.12.2001
Marvelous Mirrored Manuscripts!

In the swinging heyday of vaudeville, audiences could thrill to such spectacular acts as that of the multi-tasking marvel, Harry Kahne, who could write five different words at the same time, using both hands, both feet, and his mouth. Ricky Jay describes one of Kahne's performances in the first chapter of the classic Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women:

The audience was impressed but confused by the unbroken, unintelligible line of letterforms on the blackboard. Kahne slowly deciphered the jumble. He had alternated the letters of each word, but "Indianapolis" was written right-side up, "idiosyncrasies" upside down, and "Constantinople" in mirror writing, upside down and reversed. [On this occasion, Kahne had foregone two of his possible writings in order to accompany his calligraphic feat with a recitation of Rudyard Kipling's "Gunga Din."]

While Harry Kahne was certainly a particularly spectacular practitioner of the art, ambidextrous mirror-writing is not an entirely unheard-of trick outside the halls of vaudeville. Branwell Bronte, for example (brother of Anne, Charlotte, and Emily), reportedly entertained family friends by writing two different letters simultaneously, the left-hand epistle always produced in reverse. Certain proponents of the science of self-improvement recommend a vigorous and theatrical brand of ambidexterity for all seekers, promising vastly improved mental acuity as the fruits of duplicating the labors of Kahne. In fact, though Jay reports that Kahne's 1936 tract on the mental benefits of practicing ambidexterity, Kahnetic Mentalism, was never published, you, dear reader, can follow a revised and enhanced version of Harry Kahne's course of study. As one eager purveyor describes the treasures to be found within:

Harry Kahne the man with the Multiple Mind. He did amazing mental feasts! Control different areas of the brain at once. A series of exercises are given to given you Super Mental powers too. The only book of its kind...

For the bargain-hunters in the audience, I should note that the above-quoted source also offers--at only thirteen percent of the price of the Kahne course--an inexpensive Swedish compound that increases brain control.

The more retiring connoisseur may prefer to turn his or her attention to traditional Arabic calligraphy; the beautiful but uncommon style called muthanna involves working a text in some standard script into a symmetrical pattern with its mirror image. Early Greek inscriptions were written in lines reading left-to-right alternating with lines reading right-to-left; this style, named for its resemblance to the path of an ox-drawn plough, is called boustrophedon; the word has since come to refer to a similar back-and-forth motion of some moving-head printers or typesetting software. Boustrophedonical arrangements are also traditionally used in conjunction with certain ciphers, as an extra level of obfuscation. Mention of boustropheda can be found, if you like that sort of thing, in the Ithaca episode of Ulysses; or, if you prefer that sort of thing, in the annals of combinatorial mathematics.


2.8.2001
Buzz, buzz

The strange and compelling filmmaker Jean Cocteau once proclaimed, "You've never seen death? Look in the mirror every day and you will see it like bees working in a glass hive." An ominous image, indeed, and something to keep in mind particularly at those moments when one is privileged to see the reflection of one's own naked, unorganized, freshly-awakened morning face. The simile, however, has its own special interest; it is quite common to speak of a social group or hidden mechanism made visible as an insect colony constructed for the purpose of observation: the glass hive, the glass-sided ants' nest, and so on. We owe this image to the work of 19th-century naturalist Sir John Lubbock, the inventor of the "observation nest" and pioneer in the study of social entomology, producing texts such as the straightforwardly titled Ants, Bees, and Wasps. (Sir John, a banker and statesman as well as a naturalist, was also the inventor of the bank holiday.) The observation nest was a critical tool in Lubbock's methodological innovations, including the tracing of ants' paths for later coding and analysis and introducing obstacles into the nest, creating the first animal mazes. The glass hive, the variation made for apiary use, takes a starring role in Maurice Maeterlinck's famous 1901 work, The Life of the Bee:

The first impression of the novice before whom an observation-hive is opened will be one of some disappointment. He had been told that this little glass case contained an unparalleled activity, an infinite number of wise laws, and a startling amalgam of mystery, experience, genius, calculation, science, of various industries, of certitude and prescience, of intelligent habits and curious feelings and virtues. All that he sees is a confused mass of little reddish groups somewhat resembling roasted coffee-berries, or bunches of raisins piled against the glass. They look more dead than alive; their movements are slow, incoherent, and incomprehensible....It is with them as with all that is deeply real; they must be studied, and one must learn how to study them.

If you long to follow Maeterlinck's advice, you can of course build your own metaphor for Jean Cocteau's busy little death, or have a dilettantish look at the continually updated images of an observation hive made available by Draper's Aviary. More avante-garde sorts can hope to see a performance of Miya Masaoka's "Bee Project #1," a composition for violin, percussion, bowed koto and live bees, in which, the technical notes for the composition tell us:

A live bee hive of 3,000 bees in a glass exhibit case is on stage and the audio output of the bees is mixed live, responding to the instructions on the score and to the performative nuances of the players. In addition to the large mass of bee sound, smaller number of bees, yellow jackets and bumble bees are isolated in tubes, so that through live audio mixing, individual bees can "solo".

I believe I can say with perfect confidence that this is a use of his invention that Lubbock never foresaw.


2.6.2001
A Crowded Theater

Every American ever to sit through Civics class knows that the First Amendment's license does not extend to falsely shouting "Fire" in a crowded theater. In fact, that immortal nugget of legal wisdom comes from Oliver Wendell Holmes' opinion in the case which established the "clear and present danger" standard for limiting free speech under the Espionage Act; the "falsely" in Holmes' parallel sets up something of a false analogy, as the outlawed pamphlets at the center of the case were in no way rejected for the fraudulence of their statements, only for their inflammatory nature. Whatever the intellectual honesty of the example, however, America's collective imagination has been tuned ever after to take as their notional case, when fires and theaters are mentioned in conjunction, a non-fire, a false or fraudulent fire, rather than a real one.

The Secret Parts of Fortune, a recent collection of Ron Rosenbaum's narrative nonfiction, investigative journalism, and essays, contains classics of his work such as "The Secrets of the Little Blue Box" and "The Last Secrets of Skull and Bones," but nestled among these is a piece of near-juvenalia about a genuine fire in a genuine theater. (I characterize it in this way because of Rosenbaum's afterword, in which he bemoans the lack of writing experience that, he feels, hindered his ability to properly convey the mood of the event. He, I suppose, would know best, though I myself found it perfectly evocative.) "Of a Fire at the Billy Rose" tells of a performance of A Midsummer Night Dream disrupted quite fortuitously by a conflagration backstage:

"Call Philostrate," says Theseus on stage.

"Fire," says a man in the audience.

The word is spoken tentatively--it is less a cry than a rather startled observation. In fact before his voice rises very high, the last phoneme of "Fire"is muffled in a kind of shocked silence, almost sucked back in with the sudden breath everyone has taken--as if recognizing how indecent it was to cry "Fire" in a crowded theater even if the theater is on fire.

After some confusion, during which some patrons rush for the doors and are called back by the thespians, as black smoke rolls in from the wings and panic rises and eventually receeds, John Kane, the actor playing Puck, announces that the backstage sprinklers are on top of the situation. "A great cheer arises for the plucky sprinkler system, for all of them back there so hard at work at it, and for Puck." In the wake of the fire, the play enjoys a marvelous resurgence, the new context providing many speeches with a splendid and renewed, ah, puckishness, which Rosenbaum kindly presents for our post-facto appreciation.

Real theater fires, of course, are not quite the exotic and unheard-of historical phenomenon our famous legal quotation may lead us to imagine, nor are they all so whimsically delightful as the Midsummer Night Contextualizer. The 1903 Chicago Iroquois Theater Fire was an epic disaster, demonstrating that the Iroquois' claim to be "fireproof" was accurate in the very way that the Titanic was "unsinkable." Six hundred people died in only fifteen minutes, as the orchestra played on. The latter point is just the sort of detail disaster-reviewers love, but, typically, the record does not indicate how long the orchestra continued their accompaniment. The 1876 Brooklyn Theater Fire is the subject of the poignant folk song of the same name, the chorus of which would surely bring a tear to the driest eye:

Hark, do you hear the cry, "Fire"?
How dismal the bells they do sound.
The Brooklyn Theater is burning,
It's fast burning down to the ground.

So remember, children, always check for the exits the moment you enter the theater, and for heaven's sake, keep your eye on the fire curtain.






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