Paris Magnum – an exercise on creative critique

The Hotel de Ville (City Hall) in Paris has a ductile salon that is often used to host displays of various kinds. It is divided into a mezzanine and a larger, rectangular area on the lower level, with a very high ceiling and no obstacles, such as pillars. Briefly: it is spacious and exhibit-friendly.

In spite of this the exposition of the 150 shots dedicated to the city of Paris by Magnum photographers, currently hosted in the aforesaid salon, manages to fail, because of the poor organisation of the available space.

It takes some effort for a bungle
to come out of the finest works
thrown in a senseless picture jungle
regaining light, but losing perks.

The oldest and most famous pictures by the founders of the agency did not actually need to be brought back to light, of course, since even to the untrained tourist the name of Henri Cartier-Bresson and black and white shots of a younger Paris go naturally together. It is namely the contemporary photographers that in this exhibition suffer the most.

Chronology can be forgiven
as trivial but serviceable.
But viewers from war have been driven
to today: inexplicable.

The itinerary starts in the mezzanine with pictures by Capa, Cartier-Bresson and Seymour; when moving downstairs the viewer is naturally prone to proceeding through the first of the three aisles in which the works are presented, and it works well. In the middle of that aisle, though, many might overlook the panel, oddly placed at their backs, on which more, chronologically irrelevant pictures are projected (without the necessary captions).

The way that needs to be taken from there is unclear and the viewer can easily end up admiring Paris in the ‘80s before enjoying “Les années pop”; an inconvenience that could have been easily avoided:

It’s always best to start at the beginning,
and all you do is follow the Yellow Brick Road.
(The Wizard of Oz)

The awkward problem of the projectors presents itself again in the crammed, sacrificed space dedicated to the current contributors to Magnum, where the bystander is forced by the pressing crowd to skip more images cast in corners in which it is impossible to enjoy them.

In conclusion what is true
is the exhibit was rich
but to avoid the annoying glitch
for next time don’t overdo.

The Shining: the wasps, adaptation and the uncanny.

During a research seminar in UCC I had the chance of hearing a still unpublished work by Dr. Graham Allen on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which was centring its reading around the freudian concept of the uncanny and, most importantly, around an important element that was “lost in adaptation” from Stephen King’s original novel: the wasps’ nest.

In the Psychopathology of Everyday Life Freud identifies the elements that according to him generate the feeling of the uncanny, many of which can be found in Kubrick’s 1980 iconic picture. The most relevant to Dr. Allen’s discourse is the focus on the eyes, that Freud identifies as a sublimation of the castration complex and that is also central to The Shining (Freud 7). During the whole movie Danny’s frightened and frightening stares are a leitmotiv and the viewer often learns about the events in the Overlook Hotel through the child’s physical or psychical point of view. The act of protecting himself through the eyes, by covering them with his hands and cutting the line of sight, suggests strongly the power that this closure can give. Danny can close his eyes and be saved from the two little sisters, but he is unable to shut out the images coming from his inner eye, his Shining, just like wasps are not able to blink.

ShiningDanny2

Why wasps? These insects were actually a central element in Stephen King’s original novel, as Professor Allen pointed out, but they were left out of the movie for reasons yet unknown. However, during his talk the Professor claimed that it would still be useful to use the literary trope of the unempty wasps’ nest as a key to read the movie in terms of emptiness and fullness.

In the book, the nest is given to Danny by Jack after the latter has got rid of the wasps, so it is supposed to be empty. Nonetheless, the insects reappear during the night and attack the child, coming back from the dead as humans in the Overlook do. The nest represents thus an emptiness that is unduly filled and the same trope is represented in the movie by the disappearance of the interior monologue, only applicable to the novel, and the filling of this void through the aforementioned focus on sight.

As a matter of fact, instead of representing the multiple voices in the heads of the characters, Kubrick fills this void using the sense that is closer to the cinematic medium: a plurality of images for a plurality of voices. The focus on vision is brought further by the “eye” of the hotel, represented by the lurking camera, and by the way in which Jack dies, different in the two media: in Kubrick’s version Jack is frozen in the snow, with his eyes still open. Oddly enough, Kubrick then reverses again what in the book is a visual image to transform it in dialogue when deciding to represent Danny’s “imaginary friend” Tommy by having the child distorting his own voice, while in the book Tommy was actually a vision.

While emptying the movie from the recurring wasps, Kubrick refilled it with scenes that have become iconic, but have nothing to do with the novel: the ghosts of the two Grady sisters, the pedalling in the tricycle and the continuously reviewed scene of the bloodstream coming out of the lift. According to Dr. Allen, Kubrick’s adaptation is ultimately justified by the awareness of the difference in the media used to tell the same story, but with the will of obtaining the same, uncanny effect.

If I may add something further to that, another way in which Kubrick fills the void left by the unsettling element of the wasps is the use of music. The violins are played in a way that is purposely uncomfortable and sometimes even painful, as stinging bees. What the power of imagination cannot do in a movie, that shows everything ready-made for the viewer, is done by the rising of tension given by the unbearable innunendos.

To those who wish to watch the movie, but are, as I am, sensitive to horror stories, I always suggest to watch it turning the sound off and reading subtitles. The result is comparable to watching only half of the masterpiece, but it also gives the possibility of weighing the actual visual effects described above. Unfortunately for the weak of stomach, the movie still remains frightening. However, it is still better to mute the music than to cover our eyes with our hands, which would be exactly what Kubrick wants us to do. He knows that the childish gesture leaves us no escape from the fright, because we cannot simply cut our hearing out, just as wasps cannot simply close their eyes.

On Grammar Nazism

grammar-nazi-wikipedia-1854844


In theory the Internet could be the lucid version of Wonderland: a place of virtually limitless knowledge, where anyone with a connection can become a successful autodidact. The reality of it, as we all know, is unfortunately harsher and in some cases even damaging: the case of “Grammar Nazism” is an appropriate example.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a Grammar Nazi is somebody who actively criticizes grammatical mistakes and inappropriate use of language. The same English term describes attentive speakers and readers in different languages and it is perceived in opposing ways depending on who is using it. Grammar Nazis themselves can decide to walk under this banner proudly, but there is a strand of users who utilise the term as an insult.

This doesn’t sound like a real problem, but the consequence is a further downgrading of the perceived importance of grammar, language use and fine writing.
In the English-speaking world the problem starts in school, as grammar has disappeared from the teaching programs and even young adults who are interested in the appropriate use of their language are unable to explain why they use it in a certain (correct) way.
At the same time, the web is filling up with failed attempts to build coherent sentences, or even to simply pluralise correctly.

In her 2003 best-selling Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, Lynne Truss painted a very sad picture of the reality she lived in, surrounded by fellow English native speakers unable to double check the correctness of the sign for their business before displaying it. Since that time, the irritation against Grammar Nazis have turned the interest for good language use into something boring, annoying and unnecessary. To correct somebody’s mistakes is regarded as a nuisance and the perpetrator can be covered in insults, or harangued with voluntarily misspelt words.

At the same time, though, those uninterested in grammar need to use their language for more or less practical purposes, of course, butchering it cruelly.  Quoting Truss:

Isn’t this sad? People who have been taught nothing about their language are (…) spending all their leisure hours attempting to string sentences together for the edification of others. (17)

Over time such an attitude could have important consequences, as the risk is to gradually deaden the rich differences between words and punctuation marks through misuse and finally have the resulting flattened language standardised. As a matter of fact grammar is not strictly normative, as most laymen would think, but it has a vital descriptive branch, responsible for the observation of mutations in use. When a distinctive element dies in the use, it eventually dies in the norm as well.

Everyone can make mistakes, of course, we cannot always be alert and awake. But to write “your” meaning “you are”, or to pluralise with an unnecessary apostrophe before the S, should not be a habit for anyone older than 7.

So there is nothing wrong with being a Grammar Nazi. It’s not being Nazi at all, actually: it simply means to care about an art in decay. A more appropriate association than Nazism? I suggest the WWF.

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time

~Kickstarter link~


In 1982 a young Bob Weide started a project around the life of his hero Kurt Vonnegut. Weide was 22 at the time, and afraid of meeting his favourite author, but he was determined to start a documentary about him.

Very luckily not only for him, but for everybody, Vonnegut was keen on the idea, and the letter in which he accepted Weide’s proposal was the very first kickstart for this film. The two of them met in various occasions and Weide was not disappointed: the wit and humour of the writer were also those of the man.

There are now over 20 years of filming that still need to be disclosed to the world. Over time, Weide and Vonnegut had become friends, the writer had poured his memories onto the director’s film and had contributed to the material with some original clips from his childhood, too. But the documentary had ceased to be an objective representation of an author from the point of view of a director. It had become a movie about a friend.

Lack of time, lack of money, indecision on where to go exactly with the documentary, all of this blocked Weide from finishing up his work, until Vonnegut’s death in 2007. After that day, what stopped him was mourning.

Today, though, in cooperation with Don Argott, he is finally about to deliver to us all the precious material that he has collected through those unbelievably true encounters he had with Vonnegut. He just needs a bit of help.

Following this link ( http://kck.st/1A8IJtb ) you will be able to join the Kickstarter campaign for this documentary. For those who do not know how Kickstarter works, it is very simple: when you see a project worthy of your money and love, you can pledge the amount that you are willing to donate. There are possibilities for every wallet, because any cent can be precious. On the project page there is a description of the reward that is earned by offering certain amounts of money. For instance, in Vonnegut’s case, by pledging 30$ you will receive a digital copy of the full movie (that’s very reasonable, isn’t it?). But more importantly, the money is not withdrawn from your card unless the project actually starts, so you don’t risk losing out on your investment.

So if you watch the video and you think, as I do, that this project is worthy of your money and love, please donate and join the karass! http://kck.st/1A8IJtb

preparing a conference/ career choices/ the devil you don’t know

Last Friday I took part in the annual Textualities conference organized by the School of English of UCC. As I was preparing for it, I thought of putting my feelings towards this experience into a blog post, that I actually did not complete, as it was getting more and more personal and less professional. Its content, though, gives me the possibility of comparing the before and the after, in both feelings and resolutions.

More or less one week ago I was writing:

The nervous feeling that is slowly but surely overcoming me as the date approaches makes me question more than just the topic of my talk. If I manage to pursue my career objectives in the academic world, it won’t be the last time I have to perform in front of a judicial audience and probably (hopefully)  I will have to face harder challenges than this one.
At the same time, though, I am aware of my limits and how they can influence badly the results that I will have in this environment.
I do not like to be at the centre of attention, but I can easily go past this obstacle. The real issue is being confident.

I am extremely satisfied with my performance, but I still think that what I wrote is true and that it might be a problem for my career: those who reach success (whatever one chooses it to mean) are those who truly believe in their ideas, while the only certainty that I really have is that I would not want to be certain about anything, because that could make me miss some of the clues.

My doubts were in some way confirmed during the after-event, while I was talking with one of my peers about the conference itself: he told me I apologise too much for my ideas, and he was right.

So after the exciting and productive day I was left with the question: am I confident, or strong enough for academia?
Do not hold your breath, because I do not have the answer yet.

Still, I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed both presenting and (even more) listening to the projects of other speakers, as well as discussing everyone’s ideas. I have had the chance to understand how and why I was being effective and I think I could reproduce the experiment. I normally speak extremely fast, even when I’m just chatting over a coffee, but I have learnt to slow down and make myself clearer. Maybe.

So probably I am not strong, or confident, nor will I ever learn how to be those two things, but I have proven to myself that, when facing the devil I don’t know, I can leverage my number one strength, passion, and be effective.

Let’s see where the road goes from here.

The Syuzhet Package, or maths applied to imagination

Today I would like to recommend this blog post by Matthew L. Jockers, Associate Professor at the University of Nebraska, in which he adapts a research paper to his web audience. The study with which he is currently involved is a computer analysis of plot structures, that takes into account hint-words from the different passages of each novel in order to understand when and how the mood of the story and the fate of its characters rise or fall on the y axis that goes from happiness to disgrace. The aim (which has apparently been attained) is to extract the archetypical structures to which literature can be  reduced, on the basis of the shape that sine curves take according to the data recovered by the computer. Here is an example taken from Jockers’s website, about Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”:

© Matthew L. Jockers

I recommend you read the full blog post in order to fully understand how the system works, and, if anybody wants to try it first-hand, the tools have been made available on GitHub for everyone to use. I would like to underline anyway, how the object of analysis is not the fabula (i.e. the episodes of a story in their chronological order, which may differ from the order in which they may be presented to the reader), but the syuzhet, that is, in Jockers’s words, the “flow of the narrative”, so the order in which the events are actually laid on the page.

Jockers says he has come up with six archetypical plot structures by analysing more than 40,000 texts and we are hoping to see more of his results up on his website, in addition to the few examples already present: this might help solve a major perplexity that I would personally (and humbly) raise about the study.

The problem is given by non-linear plot structures. Understood that the chronological order has no importance when studying the syuzhet, I still wonder how a linear and a non-linear plot can co-exist in the same system. To make it clearer: let us suppose that through this model an archetype is developed, whose curve goes from happiness to crisis, then to happiness again; let us suppose that this archetype has stemmed from a linear plot and a non linear one. Wouldn’t it be illogical to say that the two stories belong to the same archetype, when they obviously have opposing outcomes (imagining, for instance, that the non-linear story has its actual ending within the crisis) and use similar words to convey opposite moods? How would Vonnegut’s “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt” (100) be interpreted by the system? The words are positive, but their meaning is not.

I imagine Professor Jockers has already thought of the problematic and I await earnestly for more information to be released, in spite of the scepticism I normally hold towards scholarly attempts to apply maths and statistics to the products of imagination.

As a small gift for reading this far, here is Kurt Vonnegut’s lecture from which Jockers took inspiration for his research:


Addendum: Italo Calvino had foreseen something similar in his strange novel Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (If on a winter night a traveler), where a mighty international organization extrapolates the formula for the creation of automated novels to be sold to the Reader. I suggest this book heartily as a much better penning of my very same point of view.

On Aaron Barlow’s ‘Tarantino in the World of Ideas’

While researching material for my dissertation I came across an interesting article by Aaron Barlow on Quentin Tarantino; in this piece Barlow brings various arguments to the table in defence of the art by the so-called postmodern director, but what really caught my attention were the last two pages, concerning the author’s opinion on the relationship between cinema and literature.

Barlow justly points out the differences existing between the study of literature and that of film, which lie in the approach to, as well as in the history of the medium taken into consideration (17-18). In his delineation, though, he seems to completely forget the existence of theatre and the importance it had in the development of the art of the sequence.

It is right to say that “the tradition of film is a tradition of commerce, in ways that the tradition of literature is not” (17), but in the past, as soon as acting stepped out of the parvis, theatre started to be a sales matter just as much. In post-Medieval times, the travelling companies needed to perform according to the audience’s taste if they wanted their coin to support their acting and even before the development of the figure of the actors the minstrels had their own guild to guarantee their interests (Bradbook).
The same goes for the public: most of the playgoers in ancient times could not read or write, but they had, as Barlow would say “eyes and a nickel” (17), or its equivalent, to enjoy the art unfurling in front of them.

And where did the first actors of the moving picture breed their talents, if not on a theatre stage? Even a modern director like Tarantino, who developed his art influenced by his great predecessors (Barlow 5), is affected by theatre, exactly through those directors he admires.

Thus, the point of this post is just to dissent with Barlow’s idea that the use of literary studies applied to film is to be aimed at drawing distinctions, not parallels, between the art forms. In spite of his point being interesting, I think that the differences are clear and abundant, while the similarities and mutual influences, being more subtle, are more intriguing and, very importantly, more fun to investigate.