Saturday, May 13, 2023

AI and the Second Fiddle

A few years back I read a news story in which some leading climate scientist pointed out that human beings could always, as a last-ditch fix for global warming, send up rockets full of bazillions of grain-of-sand-sized mirrors to explode at the edge of space and fill the upper atmosphere with said contents, effectively preventing x percent of the sun's rays from hitting the earth and so cooling things off for us earthlings more or less instantly.

Asked why we're not simply doing this already, the climate scientist made a surprising (I thought) answer.

The bazillion-tiny-mirrors fix would meaningfully and maybe semi-permanently change the appearance of the sky. 

The sky. The thing we've always lived under, blueness and brightness of which have been etched on human (and, no doubt, animal) consciousness for many, many millennia. 

I find myself thinking about this when I ponder recent astonishing advances in AI.

Just as human beings have always had a bright blue sky to live under, they've always had the biggest intellects on the block.

We're living, here in the 2020s, at the very moment at which the sky is going to change.

Soon AI won't just do math and play chess and fold proteins and design buildings and play the stock market and make art and compose music and perform music better than human beings can hope to; it'll even (nakedly privileging my own academic field) write literature better than humans.

No kidding: unless there is a moratorium on AI tech all kinds of soon (I'm not holding my breath: if there's anything being an American for more than a half-century has taught me, it's that money gets what money wantsand it wants AI), ChatGPT will soon, if simply asked, crank out brand-new Vladimir Nabokov novels all day long.

And some percentage of those (if anyone has the time or inclination to read them) will be blastingly excellent.

Same as Lolita

Same as Pale Fire.

We're about to be the second-smartest things on the planet.

We're about to be handed, for the first time ever, the second fiddle.

How many years will we be able to keep telling ourselves we're the bosses around here once a clearly, plainly, obviously superior alien intelligence has settled in and made itself nice and comfy? As it's already halfway done?

Is that the wrong question to ask?

How many months?

How many weeks?

What is the second-fiddle part, exactly? How does it go? 

Will AI be writing the sheet music?

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

"Twin Peaks: The Return" and the Fantasy of Returning

David Lynch and Mark Frost’s tortuous Twin Peaks: The Return drew some lukewarm reviews when it premiered in summer of 2017. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, for instance, complained that “the series’s deliberate, lovingly observational pace, though admirably bold, also turns portentous and vain.” In the six years since it aired, though, The Return has steadily accrued accolades, most notably Cahiers du Cinema’s naming it, provocatively, the best film of the 2010s. One reason The Return’s stock keeps climbing is that it rewards close and careful parsing and re-viewing—see, for instance, YouTube commentator Rosseter’s epic and fanbase-shaking video “Twin Peaks Actually Explained (No, Really),” with its remarkably thoroughgoing dissection (one I’ll reference later). 

Another reason The Return continues putting on thunder is less happy, maybe, but worth exploring: it transmits a compelling allegory for the U.S.’s still-darkening political situation—an allegory looking more oracular with each passing month and year. 









Friday, June 8, 2018

Parts Unknown

My unoriginal feeling is if it arrives at your consciousness seemingly bearing instruction, you ought to pay attention to it.

Even if the channel by which it reaches you is a TV channel.

That, unsurprisingly, is how Anthony Bourdain entered my consciousness.

Now, I won’t presume to know the first thing about the “real” Anthony Bourdain. And my only slightly less pedestrian thought is that probably no one else should either.

I sure don’t mind admitting, though, that whenever, in the last ten years or so, I’ve been channel-surfing and lighted on Bourdain’s performed self—his TV self—I’ve always stopped for a minute or fifteen or sixty to take some instruction.

Instruction in how to comport oneself among strangers. In the value of being smart without being pretentious. In how to age without getting old. In the importance of asking good questions of others, then shutting up and actually listening to their answers.

Also: in how to be male without being grotesque.

He was, in a way, the Mr. Rogers of my adulthood, reminding me not only to get out and see the neighborhood but to be decent and well behaved in the company of the neighbors.  

We see now the clue that was always right there in his TV show’s title.

Anyway…it’s sad: Anthony Bourdain, gone way too soon.

The good news is he was famous. So his face and voice get to stick around. And keep providing instruction.


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Lynch Drops the Bomb (and the Hammer)

I’ll admit it: I’m one of those who winced upon learning, a couple years ago, that David Lynch would be returning to Twin Peaks. Catch lightning in a bottle once, you don’t do anything as silly as it attempt it again, right?

Especially when again is fully twenty-six years later.

I also figured Lynch had to be smart enough to know better than to try.
So now, then, this corollary admission:

The new Twin Peaks, eight of eighteen episodes in, is pretty dang good.  

True, the Dougie Jones stuff is thin gruel. (Kyle MacLachlan’s often touching portrayal of a fugue-state Agent Cooper isn’t the problem; Lynch and Frost’s meandering, uninspired vision of suburban and corporate Las Vegas is—a problem only exacerbated by the fact they seem, sometimes, to be trying to spoof Mad Men and Breaking Bad with this stuff.)

Beyond that, though, the show does indeed recapture a fair amount of the surreal, wondrous-strange magic of the ’90 and ’91 seasons.

And at least some of the new season finds Lynch dropping the hammer, leaving behind the delightful, "is this for real?" hokiness that is the show's calling card to do what he did in 1986’s Blue Velvet and 2001’s Mulholland Drive: demonstrate he can hang just fine, thanks very much, with the Kubricks, Scorseses, and PTAs of this world.

Episode 8, which Showtime calls “Gotta Light?,” is pretty much one big drop-the-hammer moment—a not-uncommon assessment, I know, having taken in a fair bit of the best-hour-of-TV-ever! yowling (this, for instance—or this) that started about two minutes after the episode finished airing.

So what is Episode 8?

For its first twenty minutes, it’s just a particularly tense, taut, strong third-season episode—one featuring the most unnerving (as of that moment, at least) incursion yet of surreal/supernatural forces into the show’s universe.

And a Nine Inch Nails musical interlude, too. Because why not?

After that, though, the remaining forty minutes—and they work well as a standalone short, in case anyone’s intrigued but not familiar with the larger, admittedly complex Twin Peaks cosmos—are Lynch’s meditation on…

The bomb.

The nuclear bomb.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

How I Learned to Stop Worrying about Scorsese and Love Spike Jonze and the Coens

Caught both the Coens' Inside Llewyn Davis and Spike Jonze's Her in recent days. And I'm happy to report I'm now mildly embarrassed about the Hollywood-is-sick-unto-death screed Scorsese's beastly Wolf provoked from me.

Llewyn Davis may not be top-flight Coens. But it's pretty dang good. And if you're a fan of their stuff (and lordy is this boy), you'll see it makes an excellent companion piece to 1991's Barton Fink, another movie casting a second-tier artistarrogant, aloof, married to a burdensome "life of the mind"as irresistible cannon fodder for the universe's mean streak.

If Barton Fink is a bit of a hot mess, though, its supernatural freak-out climax incoherent in much the same way the final stretch of Kubrick's The Shining is, then Llewyn Davis is maybe a mite too leashed. It could sure use Fargo's wood chipper. Or No Country for Old Men's air tank. Or A Serious Man's tornado. Or something. After building a nice store of eerie tension (it's testament to the Coens' powers they can do this with a whole lot of Greenwich Village folk music playing), the movie arrives at its abrupt shrug of an ending, basically its opening scene all over again with one bit of added info. So unsure are the brothers how to finish their movie that they heap the job onto poor Bob Dylan. It's a would-be disarming ending that, unlike Sheriff Ed Bell's telling of twin dreams at the end of No Country, doesn't particularly reward reflection or scrutiny.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Feature Film Is Dead, and “The Wolf of Wall Street” Is Its Tombstone

There are lots of bad Hollywood films pitchforked at us every year, of course. But not many from the director of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas.

The Wolf of Wall Street is both a Martin Scorsese movie and a crime against cinema. It’s a soulless, brainless, lazy, relentlessly ugly calamity it’s hard not to read as hostile to its audience—an audience out fully three hours of its one and only life on earth by the time the nightmare’s over. 

This is a film that asks the searing question, "What happens if you lift a bunch of fictional 'men' out of a Bud Light ad, drop them into an NC-17 playground, and let the cameras roll?"

And then leave nothing on the cutting-room floor?

I’d synopsize the story, but there is no story.

I’d mention the characters, but there are no characters.

There’s just a bloated, depthless cartoon that makes the idiotic mistake of cranking the debauchery knob to an anemic “10” when it’s well over two decades now since Bret Easton Ellis gave us a similarly revolting Wall Street nightmare (American Psycho) with the knob wrenched to 12 and a half.  

If debauchery's all you're going for, and you can’t get your knob to at least 13, what's the point?

Monday, July 1, 2013

"Mad Men" and the Myth of Counterculture

How did hip morph, in U.S. culture, from a secret code of the dispossessed to something good for selling semi-disposable furniture and hamburgers?

It seems a pressing question now that hip is so omnipresent in our lives, lurking in every Starbucks coffee cup, every Urban Outfitters store, every Volkswagen ad. It even finds distressingly fertile ground on the Web, winking out at us from a billion images of light saber-wielding cats.

The suspicion for years now has been that the 1960s were the turning point—the moment when hip quit flirting with the mainstream (à la Dizzy and Kerouac in the '50s), abandoning its bungalows and rat-hole apartments to shack up with capitalism. And because advertising was the medium by which so many square Americans made first acquaintance with hip's delights, Madison Avenue has often been cast as the horse whisperer that lassoed hip, made it behave, and sold it to Peoria and Levittown.

For this reason, it's inevitable we look to the celebrated AMC series Mad Men, set on Madison Avenue in the '60s, for theories about what really went on in advertising in those crucial years. And the good news is the show doesn't disappoint, offering a sophisticated, nuanced vision of a love-hate relationship between the advertising industry and the ultra-hip counterculture headquartered just a few Manhattan blocks away.

As Mad Men sees it, '60s advertising didn't just co-opt and defang hip; it also found a soul-mate in it, was infiltrated by it, and even learned to do its bidding—just as hip learned to do Madison Avenue's.  In positing a complex symbiotic relationship between hip and consumer capitalism, not a simple parasitic one, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner throws in with such recent cultural theorists as Thomas Frank, Joseph Heath & Andrew Potter, and—especially—John Leland.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Six Pithy to Semi-Pithy Observations about Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow"

1. It has to have started as a joke about a novel so complex it turns into rocket science. Actual rocket science. 

2. True, it's a Bakhtinian orgy of a thousand discourses, many of them remarkably specialized. But it's narrated in just two main voices, really: the grandiose, God-sized one that gives us the famous opening line, "A screaming comes across the sky," and the deliberately facile (o-or glib!) one that's in charge for roughly a million Roadrunner & Coyote-type scenes, including the one that gives us the equally famous "fickt nicht mit dem raketemensch!" After a few hundred pages they're both pretty hard to take—the second especially, as it gets to sounding a little too much like this guy:

3. It's like a brilliant, ambitious, thoroughly researched novel about the last days of World War II dropped acid. Rather a whole lot of acid.

4. World War II is to Pynchon what the JFK assassination is to Don DeLillo in Libra: postmodernity's founding moment, o-or the moment at which the modern world's complexity outstripped the human mind's capacity to conceptualize, theorize, narratize, chart, map, or otherwise grasp it (behold GR's several hundred characters and dozens of fragmented, often only semi-followable plot lines, some of them of ambiguous ontological status). This post isn't about Libra, so I won't quote DeLillo. But here's Pynchon on the Warand, by extension, on his own book:

The War, the Empire, will expedite . . . barriers between our lives. The War needs to divide this way, and to subdivide, though its propaganda will always stress unity, alliance, pulling together. The War does not appear to want a folk-consciousness, not even of the sort the Germans have engineered, ein Volk ein Führer—it wants a machine of many separate parts, not oneness, but a complexity . . . .  Yet who can presume to say what the War wants, so vast and aloof is it.
And here's another interesting passage, courtesy of Pynchon's character Roger Mexico:
"There's a feeling about that cause-and-effect may have been taken as far as it will go. That for science to carry on at all, it must look for a less narrow, a less . . . sterile set of assumptions. The next great breakthrough may come when we have the courage to junk cause-and-effect entirely, and strike off at some other angle."
5.  It's thrilling, sure, watching a planet-sized brain hit all the afterburners, shake off all the shackles, give itself license to say or depict absolutely anything that occurs to it, propriety and concern for whether the reader's keeping up be damned. (Really: no novel was ever more toweringly indifferent to its audience.) But it gradually becomes clear this avalanche of language, to steal a phrase a friend uses to describe Moby Dick, is concerned mainly (if words like "concerned" and "mainly" even make sense here) with denouncing a nebulous, death-obsessed, hyper-bureaucratized "Them" bent on dragging the modern world, through such insane enterprises as World War II, into its grave. And you almost have to wonder, after a certain amount of the old ultraviolence (there's stuff in this book, to note it, Bret Easton Ellis wouldn't touch with a ten-foot whatever), whether GR is really an indictment of Them or their unwitting agent.

6. I am a Pynchon fan, believe it or not: The Crying of Lot 49 has to be one of my ten all-time favorite novels. If you're looking to get into Pynchon, start with that way more controlled, way more coherent book. It's a maximalist novella.

Now that's funny.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Three Thoughts on Tarantino's "Django Unchained"

1. Though there's no point denying it'll do its part, for better or worse, to shape young Americans' thoughts and feelings on the subject of race, saying Django Unchained is a movie about race is a little like saying Chinatown is a movie about the American immigrant experience. This is because Django does absolutely no serious thinking on the subject of race; it attempts no insights about race as a force shaping American memory and consciousness. What it is, simply, is a movie about movies—and their seldom fully exploited potential for wish fulfillment.

What's the most primal, enervating wish, arguably, a human being can have?

That for revenge. 

In what context might an American filmmaker set a revenge-wish-fulfillment story if his goal is to make contemporary American audiences lose their minds with glee right there in their movie seats?  

Well, how about a scary abusive-husband context? (There's your Kill Bill.)

Or a Nazism/antisemitism context? (There's your Inglorious Basterds.) 

Or—why not?—an American-slavery context? (Hello, Django Unchained.) 

It's hard not to think Tarantino will be doing Crazy Horse and Custer next.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Building as Brillo Box (or, An Excursion to Two Philly Architectural Landmarks)

Before anyone takes me for a more devoted student of architecture than I actually am, I'll go ahead and admit if I hadn't moved to the greater Philadelphia metropolitan region in the mid '90s, I probably never would have become fully aware of the Guild House's existence.

I first saw it in some Rizzoli coffee-table book in '95 or so. A little black and white photo in a chapter on postmodernist architecture. I'd just moved to Bethlehem, about an hour north of Philly, for grad school at Lehigh, and the Guild House's nearness put a hook in my head.

That and the fact it seemed to be one genuinely weird piece of architecture.

Within a year or two of seeing it in that book, I was riding around North Philly with a couple friends on an evil-hot summer day when all of a sudden there it was, gliding by us in the rippling July sunlight: the GUILD HOUSE, austere and naked and aggressively ugly in its sea of concrete and asphalt. 

The hook settled deeper in my brain.

Seeing occasional mention of the place over the years in books and on websites (inevitable if you're studying postmodernism) strengthened my resolve to go, like, see it one day.  

Or confront it, rather, since that's what it seemed to demand. 

That day finally arrived a couple weeks ago, in summer 2012, when I set out from quaint Buckingham, Bucks County, to go dig on not only the Guild House but another Philly landmark I'd too long neglected: Lescaze and Howe's PSFS building, the 1932 international-style masterpiece at Market and 13th.

The skinny on the Guild House is it's a city-subsidized old-folks' home on Spring Garden Street (not the shady grove the street name would suggest) designed in the early '60s by American super-starchitect Robert Venturi. It was one of his first buildings, and lots of architecture scholars and critics point to it as the founding moment of postmodernist architecture in the U.S.

Here's a photo I took of it when I confronted it that day a couple weeks ago:

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Andy's People

When I was growing up in the '80s and '90s, I for sure dug Warhol. If you were a hip kid back then (I wasn't), or even a hip-kid wannabe (that was me), you didn't get too much say in the matter: the spirit of Pittsburgh's oddest son so pervaded the Cooltown of Sonic Youth and the Smiths, Douglas Coupland and Bret Easton Ellis, David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch, that dissing Andy would've been tantamount to admitting that your enthusiasm for all those others was pure posture.

That's not to say I had to will myself to like Warhol. From my first glimpses of the Marilyns and Elvises, Jackie O's and Brillo boxes, soup cans and electric chairs, some irony-loving lobe of my brain sat up grinning—so digging the cat was never the devotional chore just exposing myself to some other hyper-hip figures of the era proved to be. (I think I mentioned Bret Easton Ellis.)  

Eleven years of college only approbated those twinges of naked ironic pleasure, buttressing them with the more cerebral reasons we all recite now for advancing Warhol as a no-effing-around Major Figure: that he erased the silly (not to mention sanctimonious, not to mention essentialist) line between art and commerce. That he demonstrated emptying the self to be as great a trick as plumbing its depths. That he illustrated more convincingly than any other artist the extent to which we moderners have foregone reality to live in what Robert Hughes calls the Empire of Signs.

And so on.

A visit to MoMA a few months ago, though, reminded me forcefully why we keep going back to the same artworks over and over again as we age:

The bleddy things change

No matter how many years dead their creators.

I didn't realize till four or five weeks after that MoMA trip (the main delight of which was the Cindy Sherman retrospective) that some Warhol I'd seen had gut-punched me, had messed me up on a level that had me thinking about our tinsel-headed friend at least once a day, every day, all those weeks later. 

The craziest part was I couldn't even remember the picture that had gotten me.   

And I still can't. I just know it was something I'd seen plenty of times before—something from the early period, before Warhol eschewed painterly effects (drips, smears, lacunae, muscular brush strokes) for the increasingly hard, lurid, photographic surfaces of his most famous images.

It was something like this, maybe:

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Flying the Coop

The man known as D.B. Cooper is back in the news after a bunch of years away.

Who's he? 

Just the only person ever to hijack a U.S. airliner and get away with it. 

The night before Thanksgiving, 1971, Cooper, a bureaucratically suit-and-tied white man, jumped out of a speeding Boeing 727 into a raging thunderstorm high above Washington State, parachute on his back, $200,000 in twenty-dollar bills clutched, presumably, to his chest.

We the People never heard from him again. And only the half-decomposed remains of a few marked twenties, discovered a decade later by some kids on a riverside, testified he hadn't been just a dream.

What a beautiful story. A confluence, like all beautiful stories, of at least a few human dreams, wishes, golden mind-threads, some of them timeless, some of them historical and moment-bound.

It's an American outlaw story, of course, in the Bonnie-and-Clyde, of-, for-, and by-the-people tradition. D.B. Cooper hurts nobody. The hostages all go free. The blow, if there is one, is to the System, the Bank, the Corporation, Fort Knox, made on behalf, in some weird way, of those jogging away from the scene, down the tunnel to family and friends at the gate, those left with the gift of a fantastic story to tell the rest of their lives: The Night They Were on the Plane with D.B. Cooper.

It's a story of the eff-it audacity, the hilarious fury, of the power-to-the-people 1960s. Which didn't really get rolling until 1970 anyway.

It's a story of the triumph of the diminutive human over behemoth technology. John Henry defeating the steam shovel. How many times, after all, has each of us beheld the sealed portal in the emergency aisle, winced at the howl of those goose-vaporizing engines, gazed down the long aluminum tube of human heads, and sensed that death was sealed not only magically out but also, somehow, inexorably, in?  
That we were, in effect, corpses in the grasp of some giant robot like Frank Freas's?