David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: russia (page 4 of 5)

Aleksandr Sokurov: The Sun

I am not a great fan of Sokurov’s movies. Unlike his loose predecessors Tarkovsky (his sometimes mentor) and Sergei Paradjanov, both of whom I love, Sokurov’s emphasis on aesthetics-above-all gives his films a decadent quality lacking in his predecessors. Russian Ark was a staggering technical achievement that takes too oblique a view of Russian history. Father and Son pulls out one visual trick after another, but fails to take its premise (a near-sexual bond between father and son) anywhere. The Sun, about the day Hirohito announced he was not a god, is much more coherent, but Sokurov’s expressed avoidance of the political is at times myopic.

But there is one area in which I cannot think of a rival for Sokurov, and that is in sound design. I cannot think of another director who orchestrates the sound of his movies with such meticulous depth and attention to minute detail. The detail is so great that there were points in The Sun where I wished the actors would be quiet so I could take in the layers of sound behind them. The “score” of the first half of The Sun is a disorienting mixture of birdsong, faint but shrill electronic tones (recalling Artimiev’s scores for Tarkovsky), and brief strains of decontextualized classical music. I don’t do it justice by describing it; Sokurov and his sound crew–composer Sergei Yevtushenko and soundpeople Sergei Moshkov and Vladimir Persov–construct scores that rank with the most experimental and successful of the modern electro-acoustic movement.

In The Sun especially, the score is crucial to the success of the first half of the movie. Hirohito’s ancient position in the very modern world is portrayed uncomfortably with the electronic intrusions insinuating themselves into his relentlessly formal and regimented life. Seen in a theater, it’s an enveloping, unnatural sonic environment that marks this uneasiness. Much has been made of Sokurov’s increasing difficulties seeing, and whether or not the grayness of the first part of The Sun is an allusion to this, the richness of the audible aspect of the film is an implicit answer to the dilemma Alexander Kluge proposed in The Blind Director.

Update: It looks like Mr. Wheeler has beat me to the punch, as Androgynous Turtle waxed rhapsodic on Sokurov and sound over a year ago. I must say that I found Beau Travail to be a much more successful film than Sokurov’s Father and Son, but I was happy to find Mr. Wheeler’s comments. Please come back!

Denis Diderot: Rameau’s Nephew

(This etext of Rameau’s Nephew seems to be an adequate translation, and it’s a short piece.)

I’ve sat on this one for a bit because it is such a strange book, and I fear that a lack of context for it could easily lead a reader down the path of a wrong interpretation. Still, what is on the page is a fairly simple story; it’s the implications that are left ambiguous. The “I” who is the narrator encounters “He,” Rameau’s nephew, in the street, and has something of a one-sided conversation with him. “He” is something of a societal con-man, a poor man who has mastered polite conversation to climb his way to various functions and subsidence. Yet he is filled with contempt for those around him; his loves for art, opera, and his dead wife alienate him from the society he inhabits. He is often cynical, yet reveals the highest ideals at several points, and cries at his inability to bring them to life despite obvious intelligence and skill. “I” stands by and issues ultra-idealistic, naive remarks questioning “He,” taking a condescending Panglossian standpoint towards “He”‘s lack of ethics and integrity.

Hegel loved Rameau’s Nephew and declared “He” to be an advancement in consciousness, transcending “I”‘s conventional and unimaginative “honest self” construct. Lionel Trilling drew on Hegel’s interpretation in Sincerity and Authenticity to present a model of human evolution in which we conceived of an “inner self” strictly separate from our external behavior, one we could or could not be “sincere” to. “He”, Trilling says, is one of the earliest examples of the inauethentic self on full display; i.e., the man who forever measures the distance between his thoughts and the actions which he performs in society. Trilling states:

The moral judgement which the dialogue makes upon man in society is not finally rejected but coexists with its contradition, and upon its validity and weight depends the force of the idea that the moral categories may be transcended. And it is the Nephew himself who invokes the moral categories at the same time that he negates them–the moral judgement is grounded upon the cogency of Rameau’s observation of social behaviour and the shamelessness with which he exhibits his own shame.

To paraphrase, Trilling suggests that “He” has taken the first step towards Nietzsche’s analysis of ethics, not by condemning morality but by saying that it is not an authentic performance, so that morality is something that must be done with conscious intent, and may not reflect what a person has in their heart. (It is this position that Alasdair MacIntyre would later identify as the keystone weakness of Enlightenment ethics in his brilliant After Virtue.)

It is the “I” that first interests me. While “He” is hardly coherent in his beliefs, alternating between a Nietzschean destruction of Enlightenment values and a more arbitrary Schopenhauer-esque personal bitterness at the world, “I” does a fairly lousy job of refuting him. “I” is, if anything, less likable and certainly less interesting, and in no way could be said to represent Diderot’s own values. Even at the very end, when “He” declares that he’d rather beg favor than work for a bourgeois life, “I” spits on him, calling him amoral and lazy, all the while displaying the attitude of the well-off fat cat who’s just come from a salon. (The introduction by “I” is particularly obnoxious when read in this light.)

While “He” rants and trumpets himself, “I” offers token opposition, but what is “I”‘s reaction to “He”‘s charge of hypocrisy in the upper classes, attacking the shallow salons and social habits of the perfumed set, accusing them of not knowing good music from bad, and not recognizing life from death? “I” begins to acknowledge the hypocrisy of his own people, but only in parenthetical comments, not in his actual dialogue:

In all this there was much that we all think and on which we all act, but which we leave unsaid. That, indeed, was the most obvious difference between this man and most of those we meet. He owned up to the vices he had and which others have–he was no hypocrite. He was no more abominable than they, and no less. He was simply more open, more consistent, and sometimes more profound in his depravity.

Interesting that “I” excludes himself from this charge. Interesting that shortly after this observation, he once more attacks “He” for lacking exactly this consistency. “He” declares his praise for the cynic Diogenes, who abandoned corrupt society to live in squalor in pursuit of truth. “He” confesses that he likes the benefits of haute couture too much to leave them behind, and “I” viciously attacks him as a cowardly wastrel (with which “He” cheerfully agrees). This inconsistency is too great to be unintentional. “I” is more of a target than “He”: “I” admits “He”‘s points, but only to himself, and does not condemn himself for working within society. But for “He” to take advantage of the corrupt system is a betrayal. “I”‘s interest lies in protecting the notion of fair play within the system that “He” has damned. After all, it’s in “I”‘s best interests.

Diderot’s attack, I think, is the first critique of Enlightenment reformism, the notion that a system can yield intellectual integrity and incremental improvements even as its people are terrible hypocrites. Moreover, it shows one of the system’s brightest exponents (“I”) able to hear and understand criticism of the system while still condemning the messenger. “I” privately admits the strength of “He”‘s critique to himself, yet ends by publicly thrashing “He,” claiming “He” has no credibility. Yet of course, the critic’s credibility was ruined by openly criticizing the system in the first place. By straying from acceptable (hypocritical) speech, “He” loses authority in the very system his unacceptable speech attacks. “I”‘s argument is a more sophisticated variant of “Play by the rules. If you don’t like it, go to Russia.” One look at the Washington press corps today, and the similarities are painful.

Kira Muratova: The Asthenic Syndrome

To begin with a tangent: one of the things that I love about the Times Literary Supplement is how dutiful they are about getting experts to review books in their fields, so that instead of, for example, hearing praise for the wonderfully informative, picturesque prose of Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, as happened in countless American publications, you get to hear how badly Menand’s book misrepresented the pragmatic philosophical tradition, as Bruce Wilshire discussed at length, concluding:

Menand’s failure to grasp the purport and consequences of distinctively philosophical ideas becomes damagingly clear. What is the meaning of truth, persons, groups, reality, matter, mind, the meaning of meaning itself, the meaning of “pragmatism” itself? James’s pragmatic theories of meaning and truth depend on his metaphysics of radical empiricism or pure experience, but references to this metaphysics are absent in Menand, and so James’s pragmatism cannot be grasped. Neither can Dewey’s, nor Peirce’s.

It would be nice to say that The Metaphysical Club is on balance worth having. Menand provides interesting and valuable historical knowledge often overlooked by “pure” philosophers, touching on important thinkers such as Chauncey Wright, Horace Kallen, Alain Locke, Randolph Bourne, W. E. B. Du Bois, Arthur Bentley, Edward Ross, Learned Hand and many others. But I cannot say this nice thing. Menand’s valuable information about the circumstances surrounding the emergence of ideas will badly mislead unless one already knows quite a bit about the ideas themselves. It is not safe to assume that even many learned, educated, or inquiring people possess this knowledge and discipline.

Right on, Mr. Wilshire. (Sorry, the article is not publicly available, but it’s in the subscriber archive of the TLS.) More recently, Stephen Greenblatt picked a fight with Alastair Fowler, who had slammed Will in the World, over seventeenth century European population statistics, and Fowler came out the more knowledgeable winner.

The point is that there is often a real difference between presenting one’s experience of a work and critiquing the work itself, and often people present themselves as qualified to do both when they can actually only do the first. So I fess up: I don’t know enough about life in the Soviet Union during perestroika to claim that I truly understand Kira Muratova‘s The Asthenic Syndrome. But then, I’m not sure that Jonathan Rosenbaum does, either. He describes the first forty-five minutes of the film in detail, then throws up his hands, declaring:

Doubtless there are other details referring specifically to aspects of everyday postcommunist Russian life that are too local to register with much clarity to outsiders like me. Truthfully, I found the movie a lot easier to follow when I saw it a second time and knew not to look for too much plot continuity, though I can’t claim there weren’t parts that still baffled me. The movie’s a treasure chest, and if we get to see it more, more will surely become clear.

Nevertheless, the fundamental aspects of The Asthenic Syndrome come across loud and clear–and you certainly don’t have to be Russian or postcommunist to recognize them as central philosophical as well as behavioral strains in our public life.

(Now I don’t have to feel so bad about discussing the film.) I disagree with Rosenbaum; the movie has a very specific context and makes allusions within it, and speaking to some Russian friends after the movie, it was clear that they were both essential to the film and presented only by allusion. The film is bereft of political (or even markedly cultural) references, yet unlike Alexander Kluge’s The Blind Director or the work of Bela Tarr, which also deal in elusive allegories, Muratova’s film exists within a very definite time and space, that of Gorbachev-era perestroika in the Soviet Union.

If you don’t know that perestroika is seen as the source of millions of deaths stemming from deregulation, corruption, and crime, the melancholy and despair that fill The Asthentic Syndrome seem disconnected from a particular cause: what is Muratova critiquing, exactly? Rosenbaum sees it as a general critique of politics and systems, but that is to deny its overwhelming sense of specificity. Muratova made a film for Soviets, and to reduce it to a series of abstract statements, as Rosenbaum does, sells it severely short. Without the context, the film is simply an ugly, abstract meditation on nothing in particular, one that can be used in assorted political contexts, but which lacks much innate value. Knowing the context reveals the emotion behind the puzzling surface.

The film proceeds for its first segment as Rosenbaum describes: a washed-out, black and white portrait of a woman, Natasha, grieving after her husband has died. But the actress playing Natasha is so hysterically over-the-top, and so unrealistic and disconnected in her mood swings as to be off-putting. So it comes as a relief forty-five minutes in when, with absolutely no prior indication, the camera pulls back to reveal that the film so far has been a film within a film. Everything is now in color, and an audience is bored with this art-house movie, not bothering to question the actress who played Natasha, who is the special guest. Eventually only one man is left in the theater, our hero Nikolai, who has fallen asleep.

Nikolai, it turns out, has some kind of (highly symbolic) narcolepsy, and spends much of the film asleep. He teaches, but rarely displays any emotion beyond resignation and exhaustion. He is clearly the opposite of Natasha, almost comically so. He wanders in a world filled with unpleasant people throwing decadent parties where the party game of the hour is to pose two nude people to make a scene depicting “love.” Nikolai repositions himself and a woman to, pace Kafka, appear to be lying next to each other in a coffin.

So it proceeds. The visuals are mostly drab and underplayed, and the extras in particular make a point of not intruding with much visible emotion. This is, evidently, a portrait of society in despair, a society which has lost a principle of order, albeit a cruel, totalitarian one, and is lost. Historically speaking, given the popularity of Putin’s return-to-authoritarianism regime, Muratova’s vision seems quite prescient.

Yet the relation of the two parts puzzles me. The film-within-a-film, never named, is so artificial as to even be considered a “bad film,” and thus something being rejected; certainly it seems to have no resonance for any of the “real” characters. But the balance of the opposites–lack of affect vs. hysteria–makes it out to be something more complicated. My tentative conclusion is that the film-within-the-film is intentionally designed to have an alienating effect, to be so extreme as to push the audience into the corner of the narcoleptic who is the film’s true protagonist. The old violent extremes, Muratova seems to say, have vanished and are no longer relevant, but that means that there is no revenge to be had, no purgation of anger for the descendents of the victims of Stalin. Rather, the rug has just been pulled out from under them, and they are left in an unregulated void.

I was intrigued by The Asthenic Syndrome, but often confused, sometimes bored, and rarely moved. (An anomalous, memorable sequence of a unlikable old matron ineptly playing the trumpet is a notable exception.) But this film was not made for me. It is a portrait of a unique situation that I never experienced, and it does not go out of its way to generalize or polemicize, though it has its strong opinions. It is of its time in a way that Tarr’s The Werckmeister Harmonies is not, yet that gives it a strength that allows it to easily best Angelopoulos’s tepid, feeble Ulysses’ Gaze, which is more concerned with making a pompous statement than capturing life.

Machine Translation

Among others, The Literary Saloon discusses Wyatt Mason’s article on translation and Proust in The New Republic.

After having spent the better part of four months reading the new Viking/Penguin Proust, and the old Kilmartin/Enright Proust, and the erenow Moncrieff Proust, I will tell you there is no comparing them. No matter the local differences aplenty, the global movements of mind and the quality of vision are undeniably, uniformly there. Reading each from tip to toe, no matter which, one follows Proust’s narrator as he makes his way, “descending to a greater depth within myself”–ourselves. That depth survives in translation, in all the translations, for–however subjective assertions of “goodness” surely are when assessing literary quality–greatness is calculable, irrefutable, inviolable: a great writer survives any translation.

There is, I believe, a Borges essay that refers to the same phenomenon–that works of greatness can survive translation better than lesser pieces of art–but I haven’t been able to locate it. This case is somewhat undermined by the fact that two of the three Proust translations that Mason mentions (the new one and the Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright) are strikingly similar, and the third is not very good at all. I’d also direct true believers to Douglas Hofstadter’s translation of Eugene Onegin, which begins:

My uncle, matchless moral model, When deathly ill, learned to make, His friends respect him, bow and coddle– Of all his ploys, that takes the cake.

Whatever has survived, I doubt it’s Pushkin. Maybe you could amend the phrasing to be, “a great writer survives any faithful, competent translation,” but that introduces two subjective adjectives into the equation, of the “I know it when I see it” category.

Consider Jeff Vavosour’s article on computer platform emulation, Back To The Classics: Perfecting The Emulation For Digital Eclipse’s Atari Anthology. The slavishly perfectionist approach of people who write emulators (here’s a remarkable Apple IIgs emulator) is ironic given that many of the early games they’re emulating were themselves extremely loose ports from arcade console games, adapted to the limitations of the hardware. On the difference between ports and emulation, Vavosour artfully writes:

In its most basic approach, emulation is an on-the-fly translator. The analogy I’m fond of is this: In porting, it’s like you took a foreign movie, gave the script to someone fluently bilingual, and got that person to rewrite the script in English. You’d rely on the translator’s appreciation for the nuances of the original language, appreciation for the subtext, the message of the movie, etc. The quality of the product would be entirely a property of the translation effort, and regardless, what is important to one person is not what’s important to another. Some double-entendres and the like just don’t come across, and need to be replaced with something of equal value, or else ditched.

In emulation, you’re watching the original foreign movie, but someone has given you a translating dictionary and all the books on the language’s grammar and nuances. Looking up each word on the fly as it’s spoken, and appreciating all the impact it has, and still being able to follow the movie in real time sounds impossible. It would be, unless you could think about 10 times to 100 times faster than the movie’s pace.

Of course, this is just an analogy, since the goal is to replicate the platform for thousands of games, not port each individual piece of software. But the precision of the platform emulation is still paramount, because every quirk counted:

It really pains me when I read reviews that talk about how appalling it is that our emulation appeared to slow down somewhere, as, for example, one review commented of the smart bomb effect in the N64 version of Defender on Midway’s Greatest Arcade Hits, released a few years back. The emulation slowed down because the original game slowed down, and emulation strives to reflect every nuance of the original game. There are often timing nuances and sometimes even original code bugs, which become part of a player’s strategy in playing the arcade game. For a truly authentic experience, every one of these quirks needs to be reproduced.

Do I hear an echo of Nabokov’s famously stringent attitudes toward translation here? There is no tolerance for variation in emulation, and this is because any competent game player’s experience is located in details as small as the ones that Nabokov finds in the rhythms and sounds of words.

Of course, there is no analogue for emulation in literature, unless you can imagine a Russian pseudo-brain hooked into your synapses, translating the myriad nuances of Eugene Onegin into a lingua franca of structured senses, emotions, and images that are exactly those that a Russian reader (any Russian reader!) would have. This would have to be the mythical (and now discarded) deep structure of linguistics.

So as I return to the Moncrieff/Kilmartin Proust now, I have to think of it as being that horrid Apple IIe port of “Pole Position II” that I played back in the early 80’s, standing in the shadow of the majesty of the original console.

2004 Music Wrap-Up/Geek-Out

The most memorable piece of music criticism I read this year was Dan Warburton’s Time, gentlemen, please. Warburton acutely describes the sheer impossibility of listening to, much less reviewing, the onslaught of avant-garde albums coming his way. (I would call it Sisyphean, but his rock never seems to make even temporary progress.)

Next to his valiant efforts, it seems silly for me to construct a best-of list from the paltry number of albums I heard this year. But I figure I’ll still use my small soapbox to boost my subjective and non-authoritative favorites out of what did cross my way.

I did much of my listening in the subway this year, and consequently heard a lot more pop, jazz, and classical music, and a lot less of anything requiring attention to timbral subtleties or the layering of sounds. Next to the uppercase sounds of the trains, especially the far louder older models, it seemed pointless to listen to music that wasn’t primarily melodic. There are some improv musicians I still intensely follow–Otomo Yoshihide, G&#xfcnter M&#xfcller, Tim Berne, Franz Hautzinger–but in general I pursued that scene much less than in prior years.

So here’s the (unordered) baker’s dozen:

Tetuzi Akiyama/Martin Ng: Oimacta Ng on turntables, Akiyama on filthy, metallic acoustic guitar. Dirt and drone.

Autistic Daughters: Jealousy and Diamond A sentimental choice, actually. I haven’t been a fan of Dean Roberts’ noisier, more experimental work, but somehow when playing pop songs, he uncannily summons up the sounds and spirits of Kiwi music of the 80’s, music that I have loved since I was 14. Roberts is from New Zealand, but I’ve never heard him sound like this before. In that context, Martin Brandlmayr’s intricate, precise drumming (his sounds remind me of Tony Oxley, but not the way he uses them) is totally anomalous, but enjoyable anyway.

Bach: Mass in B minor (cond. Celibidache) A very late addition to the list. Since I don’t especially care for HIP performances, my tastes for choral Bach are more in line with Karl Richter and even Otto Klemperer. Celibidache’s lush, flowing version has already become my favorite performance of recent years. For Celibidache detractors: this is surprisingly one of his less eccentric performances, with fairly normal tempi.

Dungen: Ta Det Lugnt Totally derivative psych-pop, but the most well-crafted thing of this sort since the heyday of the Olivia Tremor Control and the Green Pajamas. Near-perfect production even when the material is weak.

Frog Eyes: The Folded Palm/Ego Scriptor Blackout Beach: Light Flows the Putrid Dawn Three short records from Carey Mercer, one solo, one with his Frog Eyes band backing him, and one with just his wife on drums. What can I say? I heard a lot of undifferentiated pop music this year, and Frog Eyes immediately jumped out at me. Mercer’s histrionics (see David Thomas, Captain Beefheart, Peter Hammill, Russell Mael, that sort of thing) come off shockingly well, and the music absorbs a lot of influences without getting showy or self-conscious about it. And for reasons I can’t quite explain, I adore their publicity shot.

Milford Graves/John Zorn: 50th Birthday Vol. 2 I like Zorn the most when he drops the conceptual baggage (or most of it) and turns into a reconstructed free jazz player. With Graves as the ideal partner, here we go.

Jason Kahn/G&#xfcnter M&#xfcller: Blinks Fellow ex-Angelino Kahn (late of overlooked LA rock bands like Leaving Trains, Trotsky Icepick, Universal Congress Of, and Slovenly) was responsible for unearthly, ringing percussion work in Repeat with Toshimaru Nakamura. Here he meets the more energetic and restless M&#xfcller for eight short series of textures that portray tensions between stasis and motion. Kahn moves more than usual, M&#xfcller less.

Thomas Korber/Erik M/Toshimaru Nakamura/Otomo Yoshihide: Brackwater Guitarist/electronician Korber is one of the most interesting younger improvisors. Not so much for his sounds, but for his overriding sense of macrostructure. It’s most noticeable in his solo work, but even here, the sounds that Korber makes at any time seem to be made with as much reference to the distant past and future of the piece than to the present, and usually more. Korber can sound less “in the moment” as a result, unwilling to abandon a larger plan and join in a spontaneously arrived-at communal direction, but it’s not like there’s a shortage of that in improv. Korber’s careful sense of placement and organization puts me more in mind of Georg Gr&#xe4we, Anthony Braxton, and Fred Van Hove, and it makes Brackwater stand out from other (often excellent) recordings that it superficially resembles.

Otomo Yoshihide New Jazz Quintet: Tails Out Their fourth album. I really liked their first, was puzzled by the second, and bored by the third. This is as good as the first, and it’s a progression from all they’ve done before. It includes tunes by Charlie Haden, Charles Mingus, James Blood Ulmer, and the Beatles, all in varying styles. On the last two tracks, they add electronics and drift off into more experimental ether. I’m still not sure what to expect from them next, but Otomo is enough of a musical genius that I have high hopes, especially now that crazy saxman Alfred 23 Harth appears to be in the group.

Radian: Juxtaposition The apotheosis of rhythmic, repetitive, geometric “post-rock.” Martin Brandlamyr again on drums, again amazing.

Keith Rowe/Axel D&#xf6rner/Franz Hautzinger: A View From the Window Hautzinger, who plays trumpet primarily with percussive breathwork, continues to be my favorite of the crowd of aggressively experimental trumpeters (D&#xf6rner being another). I loved Hautzinger’s Absinth album with John Tilbury, Sachiko M, and Werner Dafeldecker, and here he brings unusual textures to the fold again. The album also gets points for its two tracks sounding nothing like each other: one is a comparatively normal exercise in interplay and texture, the other is a monolithic, compressed, seething rumble.

Mark Wastell: Vibra #1 Up until this, my favorite music of Wastell’s was his overtone-laden cello-scraping in “Fermage” on Quatuor Accorde’s Angel Gate. I haven’t followed his recent, quieter work, but Vibra #1 is a twenty-minute drone on a gong-like tam-tam, with much richer variation than I expected. It made me think of the early portions of “Omaggio a Giacinto Scelsi” by Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuovo Consonanza (off of their Musica su schemi album), a piece I like far more than any of Scelsi’s own work.

Robert Wyatt: Cuckooland I was late to hear this one, but it’s Wyatt’s best since the 70’s. Unlike his recent albums, this is a collection of songs, not just moods.

REISSUES Can: the first 4 albums in vastly better sound
Dumptruck: the first 3 albums Eno: the first 4 pop albums in notably better sound The Homosexuals: Astral Glamour The Prefects: Amateur Wankers Sviatoslav Richter: Russian Archives 5cd Max Roach/Anothony Braxton: One in Two, Two in One Cecil Taylor: One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye

ALSO WORTHY Tim Berne + Big Satan: Souls Saved Hear Sabine Ercklentz/Andrea Neumann: Oberfl&#xe4chenspannung eRikm/Gunter Muller/Toshimaru Nakamura: Why Not Bechamel Mission of Burma: ONoffON Andy Moor/Yannis Kyriakides: Red v. Green David Thomas and 2 Pale Boys: 18 Monkeys on a Dead Man’s Chest Shannon Wright: Over the Sun

These and other fine recordings are available in various combinations at Erstwhile Records, Squidco, Aquarius Records, Verge Music, and elsewhere.

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