June 17, 2024

Big conference this weekend, at which my panel presented to an empty room. Now that all of that is done, here are some new things to read and look at.

Song/video: “The Rest of Us” by Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld

Colin Stetson has made some of my favorite albums of the last few years. He plays the bass saxophone, using a variety of microphones, percussive techniques, circular breathing, and a frankly astonishing degree of respiratory control to create all kinds of strange and interesting sounds with surprising emotional resonance. He’s collaborating on a new album with Sarah Neufeld, who plays the violin for Arcade Fire, among other places; this is the second single, and the first video. I’m actually not entirely sure about the video, though it’s at least interesting (would you hunt a wolf with a shotgun?), but the music is excellent. I’m looking forward to the album, which will be released next week.


Article: “Strange Continuity” by Jeffrey M. Zacks

This weekend, we finally started watching The Story of Film: An Odyssey, a BBC documentary miniseries on the history of cinema. It’s a bit heavy-handed at the beginning, but really well done, and genuinely global in its look at the innovations that have shaped filmmaking. In the first episode, there’s a discussion of cuts and editing, which are now effectively invisible to us when we watch a movie and so seem obvious. Early films, though, didn’t use cuts at all, and when they were initially introduced they worked quite differently; one early work discussed in The Story of Film, about firemen rescuing people from a burning building, showed all of the outside action all the way through, and then switched to an inside view, going through the whole sequence of events again from that perspective. It took a few years for filmmakers to come up with the idea of switching rapidly between perspectives within a shot or scene to depict a sequence of events one time, but from angles or views. Buster Keaton took advantage of these new techniques in the scene below, from the movie Sherlock, Jr., in which a projectionist falls asleep and dreams of stepping into the film on screen; once there, he is repeatedly baffled by the way the entire scene changes around him.

What makes this scene effective, at least in part, is the fact that when we watch a movie we don’t actually experience disorientation or discontinuity, in general, when we see cuts in movies. Except in extreme cases, we’re able to piece together the sequence of events without any trouble. And, maybe more surprisingly, people never seem to have had any trouble doing this; there are no reports of audiences being baffled by editing, and Zacks cites studies in which people in remote areas who have never seen film are shown these techniques for the first time and, in general, have little trouble understanding what’s going on. His theory, in essence, is that understanding cuts in films requires our brains to do something they do all the time anyway; to build an “event model” of what is going on in front of us by stitching together a series of discrete images into a coherent whole. I won’t go into all the neurological stuff, since he explains it much more clearly than I could anyway, but the idea that film works when and because it matches up with the way our brains work anyway opens up all kinds of possibilities for working both with and against our biology to produce particular responses.


Article: “The Passing of the Indians Behind Glass” by Francine Diep

I wrote a dissertation that dealt, in part, with the idea that the place of Native Americans in contemporary American culture is shaped by the tacit assumption that they are, in some sense, gone— vanished, extinct, no longer part of the world we live in. This is reflected in the fact that discussions and images of Native Americans always depict them in the past, and usually the long past. (If you want to know more about that, you can look at this book and this one. This problem is perhaps embodied most clearly in the issue of museum dioramas, which depict not only people but, ostensibly, provide a complete view of the world they live (or lived) in. That so many of these have featured Indian societies of the past, and only the past, reinforces the perception I am talking about. (That they are most often in natural history museums is maybe a bigger problem, which Diep doesn’t discuss as directly as I’d like). Recognizing this, many museums have either gotten rid of such dioramas or rebuilt them to address the concerns of native peoples, but the problems of making compelling exhibits that discuss Native Americans and their cultures without falling prey to such dangers are not solved.

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