(And I Feel Fine)

May 21, 2011

This song, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” among other pronouncements of the apocalypse, have been circulating more than usual recently as responses to Harold Camping’s prediction that today, 5/21/11, will be “Judgment Day.”

If it’s possible to say it without being overly academic, I think the song has resonated in so many cultural contexts because it sums up postmodernism in an accessible, catchy way . I was teaching a unit on postmodernism with my students this week, and both the blending of different musical styles and the lyrics that form a list of an eclectic range of references to things, discourses, and ideas–high and low–speak to the dominant ways we tend to make sense of “postmodernism.” One could even think of the parenthesis in the song’s title as a sort of mnemonic device for making sense of the distinction between modernism and postmodernism. If with modernism, we see the construction of hopes and concerns around  a series of world-changing events, with postmodernism, we “feel fine” about it all. There’s a sense that affective engagement is lost, or at least watered down.

In the version of the performance of the song posted above, note too how much Michael Stipe puts into exclaiming the “I feel fine” line each time it comes–as if compensating for its parenthetical place in writing.

parenthetical girls

April 26, 2011

Parenthetical Girls is a Portland-based indie band, which Zac Pennington and Jeremy Cooper initially formed in 2002 as the “Swastika Girls”–a reference to the second of two tracks on Brian Eno and Robert Fripp’s 1973 “(No Pussyfooting),” an album now regarded as a formative, if somewhat overlooked, classic in the development of ambient rock.

As the band’s AllMusic biography puts it, they soon went on to embrace “the less-controversial handle Parenthetical Girls.” Perhaps their renaming can be read as holding on to a trace of the previous reference to the Fripp & Eno record, since the title of that album, pictured above, is in parentheses. And there is a neutrality to “parenthetical” that is certainly missing in the much more historically charged “swastika.”

They released (((GRRRLS))), a (sort of, with a few extra parentheses and Rs) self-titled album in 2006. I would consider this band’s use of parentheses alongside the various other instances of parentheses in non-mainstream–even anti-mainstream–music and media. Like their disorienting and punk use of the word “girls” in a band name with guys (similar to the other popular indie band with boy members, “Girls”), their music and style possess a certain aesthetics of resistance, perhaps most simply suggested by the question the punctuation marks pose of how to read them, or if to read them at all. Even AllMusic’s listing of the band’s first record, for example, lists their first album simply as Parenthetical Girls. The album cover itself has no text, further resisting the easiness of knowing what to call it. The cover, like the music and video posted above, also plays with stylistic simplicity, symmetry, assymetry, and gender difference–a combination which reads as, well, very parenthetical.

Phoenix

October 8, 2010

I went to see a great show at the Hollywood Bowl a couple weeks ago. Girls, Grizzly Bear, and Phoenix. Here are some images I caught on my cell phone towards the end of the Phoenix set–an almost animated series of parenthetical curves.

nasolabial folds

April 23, 2010

I recently came across Julia Lesage’s interesting column, “Watching for Botox,” on Flow. In her critical “auto-ethnography,” Lesage wants to “reflect on how cosmetic surgery appears on television and in public life, and why.” She contrasts “good work,” where various high-profile figures and celebrities get work done to presumably maintain public status, on the one hand, with makeover and plastic surgery shows, on the other hand. She shows televised images of the faces of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Pat Robertson, Lily Tomlin, and Glenn Close, noting their smooth facial features, and thinks of their enhanced faces as “open secrets,” visible counterpoints to the excessive narrativization of cosmetic surgery and scrutinization of bodies, often of lower-class people, on popular reality makeover shows.

Lesage’s piece reminded me of a video I’ve been meaning to post here.

The thirty seconds in this ad go by fast, so it might help to note the various parentheses:

The model/spokesperson for Juvéderm begins, “Parentheses have a place, but not on your face.” As she says this, she gestures the shape of parentheses between her nose and lips, and purple, textual parentheses are drawn over this area. The parentheses close in, and move to the right side of the screen, with the words “not on your face” between them, while the model’s face moves to the left side of the screen. Parentheses proceed to figure prominently. Next they appear around the words “up to 1 year!,” reinforcing the line she recites regarding how long Juvéderm lasts. Then they appear around the words “your doctor does it,” slightly shifting the verb that she speaks (from “uses” to “does”), while the model back-kicks the left parenthesis, peeking her smiling face through a grid of circles(?). She then makes the parentheses gesture around her face again as she refers to the “lines on the sides of your nose and mouth,” claiming that they disappear instantly with Juvéderm, while visually a pair of parentheses with the words “did she say instant?” inside open up, as the model leans against the left parenthesis. As she reads the possible side effects (bumps, swelling, pain, etc.), she smiles, triumphantly raises her hands up high, and spins through a pair of parentheses with Juvéderm contact info contained inside. She says, “Smooth, natural. Everyone will notice, but no one will know.” The text of “smooth” and “no one will know” each appear onscreen, getting a separate pair of parentheses.

The parenthetical play throughout this commercial undoubtedly serves to drive home the jingly message of the first sentence: that “parentheses have a place, but not on your face.” We see them used to contain text, interacting with the words she speaks (and, playfully, with the moves she makes).

Nasolabial folds, the curved lines extending from your nose to your lips, are often described as parentheses. Referring to wrinkles, the metaphor resonates with the “unwanted” cultural textuality of parentheses, as I have expanded upon in other entries here and elsewhere. What is frustrating about the commercial’s cutesiness is that, while text doesn’t belong on faces (unless it’s tattooed, I suppose), these folds do.

Interestingly, not only are parentheses used to describe these facial lines, but they also are used to represent lips in smiling and frowning emoticons. Parentheses may not belong on faces, but they make faces. There has been a lot of fascinating scholarship on the face that I would be interested to read through these different facial parentheses. Gilles Deleuze has written, “It is not surprising that . . . it is the face, with its relative immobility and its receptive organs, which brings to light . . . movements of expression while they remain most frequently buried in the rest of the body.” This is to say that we read into slight details on the face, so as to better understand complicated, otherwise unarticulated, affects. This also explains in part why the “close-up” has been so important to many different film theorists, and why the concept finds continued relevance today in the work of many contemporary media theorists.

I wonder to what extent the desire to cosmetically remove facial “parentheses” is related to the ability to alter representations of the face in digital compositions. And, moreover, I wonder what this might mean in light of the face as a site of affective reading.

The smooth, digital face above is from Kirsten Geisler’s Dream of Beauty 2.0, from 1999. Mark Hanssen has argued that the “encounter with the Digital Facial Image (DFI)” is a “new paradigm for the human interface with digital data,” represented by works such as Geisler’s. Geisler’s work is also critiquing this interface, longing for the wrinkles and subtleties that make us human.

Up in the Air was one of the most critically acclaimed movies last year, evidenced by a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes’ tomatometer, and its position as one of the top contenders for last year’s best picture Academy Award. When I went to see it with a couple friends this past winter while traveling in San Francisco, I was surprised to notice a memorable reference to parentheses at a key moment in the film.

*PARENTHESES = SPOILER ALERT*

In the film, George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, who travels around the country to fire people at companies who have hired his company to lay people off.  He happily spends more days than not “up in the air,” en route from site to site, living his life out of his suitcase, accruing a record number of frequent flyer miles. Bingham meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), who seems to lead a similar life with a similar philosophy, and they begin a casual, playful romance, meeting occasionally when they can arrange to overlap in particular cities where they might be traveling. One day, after deciding he wants to take things to the next level, he shows up unannounced at her home in Chicago . . . to discover that she has a family.

After he’s left, they have  a phone conversation. Clooney tells Farmiga that he thought he was part of her life. She replies, “I thought we signed up for the same thing. I thought our relationship was perfectly clear. You are an escape. You’re a break from our normal lives. You’re a parenthesis.” Clooney responds, “I’m a parenthesis?”

In a movie that has often been noted for its dialogue, this exchange has stood out in several commentaries. Some blog posts on the film refer to it in their titles, such as “Up in the Air: A Life Lived Without Parentheses,” or “parentheses,” and many more reviews refer to the line. One blogger writes, “I thought the ‘parentheses’ speech was heartbreaking.” Joseph Natoli’s thoughtful, and more critical, review on Senses of Cinema refers to the dialogue as a way to read the movie’s moral: “One way of looking at the movie–call it the ‘constructive’ way–is to think that Bingham learns in the course of the movie that when you avoid the serious in life no one makes you a serious part of their life. You become, as Alex (Vera Farmiga), a woman he assumes is as totally an air borne wanderer as himself, no more than a parenthesis in another’s life.”

Armond White’s New York Press review might be the harshest review of the movie I’ve seen, and White, too, doesn’t ignore the parentheses speech, when he compares the film to Jason Reitman’s previous film: “At least Juno expressed screenwriter Diablo Cody’s overly confident post-feminist resentment, but Farmiga’s derision of Bingham–‘You’re a break from our normal lives, a parenthesis”–is not even Juno-clever. Up in the Air merely flaunts Reitman’s media savvy. It’s as if he studied glibness at Mike Nichols University.”

This “derision,” in the form of the parenthesis, as a textual metaphor, calls attention to the writerly dialogue of the script, and seems to be a figure around which people who both like and dislike the film’s writing can praise or criticize the film more generally. The metaphor itself is interesting too, because I don’t think I’ve heard a person called a parenthesis before–I think this is also part of the reason why this exchange is effective at sticking with many people. It’s an unusual metaphor, but one that plays into a shared cultural perception of the punctuation mark as insignificant.

(Untitled)

November 25, 2009

I.

I finally had a chance to see (Untitled), in a theater. It’s an independent film directed by Jonathan Parker. The film is a satire of the art world, set in New York, about Adrian (Adam Goldberg), a struggling avant-garde composer, his brother Josh (Eion Bailey), a successful painter, and Madeleine (Marley Shelton), a gallery owner, who manages Josh’s work to support her gallery. She won’t let him show his work in her gallery though, nor will she entertain him as a romantic interest, despite his desire for both. Most of the film focuses on her relationship with the serious Adrian, as she attempts to expose his work to the art world and takes a sexual liking to him as well.

The film has been very well-reviewed, which impressed me before seeing it, because the plot seems like one that could easily be too pretentious. I think the film’s biggest strength is in its simulation of its art world. This lends the film a degree of satirical credibility and, importantly, legibility. The music and art in the film, created by musicians and artists for the film, are actually really good and have obviously been thoughtfully made.

And, check this out. A parenthesis in the already parenthesized film?

This specific piece didn’t play a significant role in the film–it wasn’t really remarked upon, but I was lucky to find it in the trailer. It hangs in a show at Madeleine’s gallery; it is preceded on-screen by a tilt from its title card, which reads:

(Untitled)

Rubber

2008

This was one of several pieces featured in a show (in the film) by an artist, who presents single found objects and presents them as art–such as a post-it note, a thumbtack, a pencil, and this parenthetical bit of rubber whose title is shared with the film itself.

I’d be interested in comparing this to Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know. These two films have a lot in common–both are independent productions about artists and the contemporary art world, and they both use parentheses prominently (in this film’s title, in Me and You‘s advertising, and both within the films themselves). Considering these films together, parentheses seem suggestive of independent and art-world aesthetics, and, interestingly, both films almost seem to conceive of themselves as parenthetical to the art worlds they depict, or vice versa–self-consciously and light-heartedly aware of their own statuses as art films.

These parenthetical aesthetics might be traced through other independent media texts as well. I’m thinking of (500) Days of Summer, the pop song by the indie band The Blow, called “Parentheses,” and the album simply titled () by the Icelandic band Sigur Ros.

(Untitled) raises questions about what art is today–questions that have, throughout art history, been asked when people confront new works of “art” that previously would not have been considered art, such as found objects like pencils and pieces of rubber.

II.

This piece above is called Conversation Map (I worked on my film today. Are you dating someone now?). To generate this image, Warren Neidich attached lights to people’s fingers and arms as they conducted a conversation in sign language, photographing the light movement in long exposures, digitizing, superimposing, and then coloring the resulting “conversation map.”

In her book Digital Art, Christiane Paul writes of Neidich’s work, “Through the use of digital technology, Neidich’s conversation maps not only document and visually translate a process but also represent it as comparative conversational patterns. The original photograph is transformed into a seemingly painterly abstraction. A notable characteristic of digital images that focus on aspects of encoding and visualization is that the process and meaning of an image do not always reveal themselves on the visual level but often rely on external contextual information to help ‘explain’ the work.”

So, for example, in the case of Neidich’s work–and so much art–a key piece of “external information” is the work’s title, directing us how to form a relation to the work we are trying to experience. In this case, the title marks a point from which the image-generating process began, which the final image is somehow a representation of. But we would never be able to look at the image and read it as “I worked on my film today…”–we need the artist to give it to us in his title, in parentheses.

(IN)appropriation

June 20, 2009

A couple weeks ago, I went to the 2009 “Festival of (In)Appropriation,” hosted by the Los Angeles Filmforum and curated by two UCLA film studies graduate students. It was the first program of what is intended to be an annual celebration of contemporary found footage filmmaking.

In the program notes, the curators write, “Whether you call it collage, compilation, found footage, detournement, or recycled cinema, the incorporation of previously shot materials into new artworks is a practice that has generated novel juxtapositions of elements which have produced new meanings and ideas that may not have been intended by the original makers, that are, in other words ‘inappropriate.’ This act of appropriation may produce revelation that leads viewers to reconsider the relationship between past and present, here and there, intention and subversion.”

As they lay it out in their description and in their parentheses, these found footage works both appropriate (verb) and are inappropriate (adjective) at the same time. The series of binary relationships these films and videos help us think about (past/present, here/there, etc., and many more not listed) can be understood as being foregrounded by the parenthetical “(in)” of the program’s title, which draws our attention to the simultaneity of a thing or quality and its opposite. (Ironically, though, inappropriation and appropriation are not quite opposites. Appropriation is to take property; inappropriation–not technically a word–is of the inappropriate, the not proper.)

I think the two projects that were most (in)appropriate were the first and the last on the program: Daniel Martinico’s The Blockbuster Tapes and Scott Stark’s Speechless. The Blockbuster Tapes selectively documents a three-year project the filmmaker did, in which he rented videos from Blockbuster, made subtle, brief, but humorous manipulations into the videos and returned them, leaving these glitches to be (not? barely?) experienced by future renters. Stark’s film interwove 3-D reels of female genitalia with footage of landscapes. The very graphic nature of these images and their recombination were explicitly inappropriate.

utopia

There were several great shorts in the program. Some of my favorites were those that were less “inappropriate” but  had more of a poetic formalism to them, such as Sandra Gibson’s Untitled (“Tiny Bits”) and Gregg Biermann’s Utopia Variations. Gibson’s short abstract film visually recalls films such as Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight. She “chopped up and reconfigured” bits of film in an optical printer–so that we see sprockets and margins of unknown filmstrips pass before our eyes, slowing down, then going in reverse. Biermann’s film broke up the “Over the Rainbow” sequence from The Wizard of Oz in an algorithmic way, so that screens kept splitting, building to a climax of 25 screens simultaneously, with each screen from the sequence playing the song simultaneously but slightly syncopated. It then symmetrically returns to just one screen by the end of the song. It is a very captivating video, an aesthetic experience in its own right, but it also seems to speak to the unique properties and powers of manipulation—-and common glitches (like a scratch on a CD)–in digital contexts. I also really enjoyed “Repeat Photography and the Albedo Effect,” which was a collage of a boxing scene from Raging Bull, NPR coverage on global warming, and sound art. It is the first part of Caroline Koebel’s tripartite Flicker On Off.

(In)appropriation–repurposing already existing footage–of course has a prominent place in popular cultural practices, and this is something that the curators and that many of the pieces in this program were engaging with, explicitly and implicitly. Recently, for example, “literal versions” of various music videos have been circulating in high rotation on YouTube. These videos take familiar music videos and rework the lyrics to the songs they are for to humorously reflect what we “literally” see in the video.

Conversely, there are also “misheard lyrics” videos that take an actual pop song but pair it with images for words that the song’s lyrics resemble, or often sound more like, which is helpfully and humorously reiterated by typing the “misheard” text over the images. One of the first of these that I saw, which I saw a couple years before I saw any “literal versions” music videos is for Christina Aguilera’s “Ain’t No Other Man” (misheard as “Ain’t No Weather Man”):

A Fair(y) Use Tale

April 26, 2009

Here’s a video by Eric Faden, whose title makes admirable use of parenthetical play. “Fair(y)” is the video’s joke on Disney, demonstrating how the public can fairly appropriate copyrighted material. It uses clips from several Disney movies to string together different characters’ words to tell a story whose happy ending is its own legitimacy.  

(nostalgia)

March 29, 2009

I’ve been thinking and reading a bit about experimental film recently. Text is generally more prominent in experimental film than in other modes of filmmaking, especially once sound began regularly assisting in conveying narrative.

Experimental cinema is also often understood as being in dialogue with, responding to, rejecting more conventional modes of narrative filmmaking. Indeed, one of the main things that experimental cinema generally experiments with is narrative. 

If narrative cinema uses parentheses in screenplays to indicate nonverbal or unspoken elements of a film, it might not be surprising if one were to find that in efforts to foreground processes of production (which certainly include writing), parentheses, along with the cues inside them, would take on marked roles in experimental cinema and screenwriting. Su Friedrich, for example, has an interesting short screenplay, “(Script) for a Film without Images,” which is just dialogue for a conversation.

And perhaps the most notable example would be Hollis Frampton’s 30-minute (nostalgia). In this film, Frampton takes a group of photographs from his past and, one by one, burns them on a boiler plate. As we watch each one melt, a narrator, Michael Snow, narrates a story about the following image, as if he were the photographer of the image, effecting a doubly disjunctive cinematic experience. 

15475w_nostalgia0031

This 1971 film is a canonical work of experimental filmmaking, raising questions about the essence of cinema–the relationships between words, sound, and images, and between memory and truth. But one question I’m not sure that has been asked–and given the significance of written text and words for Frampton, it is especially worth asking–is why is the film’s title in parentheses?

For one, they signify displacement, which happens in the narration, both on the level of the voice speaking someone else’s first-person, and on the level of the discrepancy between the image seen and the image being described.

Visually, an explanation might be found in the placement of the photographs on the boiler plate. As in the above image from the film, the photographs generally sit on the plate so that the visible part of the plate in the film resembles two parentheses enclosing an image that is perhaps too big for it to really contain. As the plate burns the image, a series of the plate’s rings begin to leave concentric parenthetical burning marks upon the image.

nostalgia1xt8

Eventually, as the plate continues burning the image, the outer sides of the plate do contain the photograph but lose definition as visual parentheses because the image disappears. One could certainly then read the title (nostalgia) as a stand-in for the film’s main visual motif: if the “nostalgia” is in the photograph, the parentheses are the fire in which the nostalgia vanishes, which themselves only reliably exist when the image of the memory is still discernible. 

nostalgia2fk3

()bama

November 10, 2008

obama-button

Another post about New York Times parentheses. Last week, the well-known op-ed columnist, Thomas Friedman, wrote about the presidential election that was coming up in a few days. The title of the article is “Vote for ( ).”

Friedman explains that because “Times columnists are not allowed to ‘formally’ endorse candidates,” and because “the context of this election has changed so much from the policy positions the candidates started with,” he proposes three “character traits” his readers ought to consider when voting:

1. “We need a president who can speak English and deconstruct and navigate complex issues so Americans can make informed choices.”

2. “We need a president who can energize, inspire and hold the country together during what will be a very stressful recovery.”

3. “We need a president who can rally the world to our side.”

He concludes, “So, bottom line: Please do not vote for the candidate you most want to have a beer with (unless it’s to get stone cold drunk so you don’t have to think about this mess we’re in). Vote for the person you’d most like at your side when you ask your bank manager for an extension on your mortgage. Vote for the candidate you think has the smarts, temperament and inspirational capacity to unify the country and steer our ship through what could be rockiest shoals our generation has ever known.”

Presumably because he is not permitted to endorse a candidate, and to say “Vote for Obama,” or “Vote for McCain,” Friedman instead just gives us parentheses in place of a candidate: “Vote for ( ).”

Since Friedman proceeds to identify these traits we should “vote for,” we can understand the text of this piece as filling in the empty parentheses of its title. It’s interesting that parentheses act as a place-holder in this context. The nature of the parenthetical embrace, inviting to its interior contents, seems to be one reason why parentheses would serve as Friedman’s place-holder. He’s telling us, without naming names, who to embrace. Obama certainly seems to be the unnamed name in Friedman’s parentheses.

obama1

But there are other, related and unrelated, ways to read “Vote for ( )”:

-The empty parentheses seem to recall an empty oval shape on a ballot for a voter to mark in, to inscribe his or her vote.

-“Vote for ( )” is very close to being “Vote for 0″–“Vote for 0(bama)”–it’s just asking the reader to fill in the empty lines and make a full circle.

-Speaking to Friedman’s point, we need to vote for traits, qualities, structures, not a name, a face, an image. So he chooses a mark, a structure, rather than a name. The structure he chooses inscribes a set of relational qualities–withinness, asideness, inclusion–which perhaps overlap with the qualities he’s saying we should seek–someone who will “hold” things “together.” Implicitly too, though not directly endorsing Obama, perhaps qualities of parentheses speak directly about him–a candidate who, racially and maybe ideologically, is aside from what America is used to seeing in a president, a candidate who continually emphasizes an America that is inclusive.

-However, there’s also perhaps a more unsettling way to read “vote for ( )”: Vote for emptiness; vote for a placeholder; there is no name there to vote for.

What would it mean to actually vote for parentheses?

obama_24x36_4d

Note the O in HOPE–a half circle, a parenthesis turned on its side, opening onto a red-and-white-striped road. The “O” is the letter that stands out in HOPE–an open vowel sound, the O of Obama, and of 08.

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