The Taser's Edge


Michael König via Kottke via Gizmodo

Whale Fall (after life of a whale)

It should not surprise you to know that WNYC’s Radiolab has once again shown that art and science are not at odds. Coming to you via me via The Atlantic‘s Maria Popova (aka @brainpicker), and reminding you how awesome you once knew decomposition was (before you got yelled at for picking up that deer antler you found):

and please make sure to visit Sweet Fern Productions, the makers of the video

A Proper Sabbath Video

visit Sojourners online

E is for Elmofication

The reason that Sesame Street will always be great, I think, is that it defined educational television even when the show’s creators didn’t really know what education television was; they decided what educational TV was, and then they created it.

Sesame Street continues to be good because it keeps changing and because it keeps up with the times. Of the recent pop-culture-based sketches (including versions of Glee, The Closer, and even True Blood), my favorite is definitely their spoof of Mad Men, maybe because the Street is always at its best when it’s being classy:

But all that’s not even what this post is about. It’s about art. I love art forms that are clearly art when you stop and think, but that don’t really receive the recognition of other art forms. For instance, muppeteering. I hated the Elmofication of Sesame Street as much as anyone who grew up before it, but this movie, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, looks great, because it will help more people see that this is an art form:

Not Everything Could Also Be Something

(from Cornell Creative Machines Lab by way of

The Tree of Life (2011; directed by Terrence Malick)

Disclaimer: What follows might be pretentious, but please don’t think the movie’s pretentious just because it actively resists being written about by me. Also, consider yourself warned.

First, watch this trailer in full-screen. Watch it twice if you wish.

Supposedly, Terrence Malick has been working on the ideas behind this film for decades, and the technology and time had finally come for it. The trailer is entirely accurate if you’ve seen the film, but it’s fairly misleading if you haven’t. For instance, you might think that  the plot is actually something substantial. In fact, nothing in this film is substantial in the sense that nothing can actually be grasped and held onto. If anything, it has the viewer.

Tree of Life is about a family of five and then four in Waco, Texas, and about one of those five growing up into a wounded adult. But it’s also a visual meditation about God and death, nature and grace, Creation, destruction, a time, Time, family, children, marriage, boys, good and evil. Yes, it’s also slow.

For this particular film, it seems better to talk about themes than plot, but the two themes I name aren’t exhaustive in any way. They’re just most interesting to me.

First, it is about art, everything, and life. (I wouldn’t always group those three together.) I’m certain that the film is meant to be, as much as film can be, an imitation of the experience of life. It resists every attempt to be described or cognitively understood, because that’s how life is. Empiricist and intellectual approaches to life always end up being reductionist, and there’s a sense in which, if you take those approaches alone, all that is wonderful will be missed.

Alongside those approaches must come the emotional. And beyond that, there is the experiential. Some things can only be experienced: they can’t be understood; they can’t be described; they can’t even be felt in the sense that we normally talk about our senses. If you want to “get” this film, see it once and struggle to make sense of it. See it a second time after you decide to give that up and just experience it.

Second, it is about the mundane and the extraordinary. Many contemporary films and much of contemporary literature seem to want us to believe that their characters and their characters’ experiences are totally individual. No one else could experience what they have experienced, therefore no one else can understand them, therefore no one else can empathize, therefore we’re all alone.

That, in fact, seems to be how the main character, Jack (played by Hunter McCracken as a kid and Sean Penn as an adult), experiences life.  He doesn’t get along well with his father (played by Brad Pitt), who, while he inarguably crosses verbal and physical lines with his wife and kids, is far from a monster. Surely Jack’s problems with his dad have their own character, but they are also the problems of every son and his father.

Or are they? In order to tell the story of this family, Malick shows the story of the birth of the universe, from the Big Bang to the most recent Ice Age. The juxtaposition of father/son dynamics with the Big Bang and the dinosaurs makes this particular father/son relationship into a unique experience and simultaneously makes the Big Bang and the dinosaurs into something totally mundane (“daily”) and ordinary. That is, the Big Bang and friction in a father/son relationship are equally mundane and equally extraordinary. It’s an awe-inspiring thought.

Worth Mentioning:

  • The interactions between the child actors are unbelievably real. Boys doing fun things, gross things, dumb things, dangerous things together. Boys figuring out what to do when they’re bored. My assumption is that no child actor is good enough to do that (although these are great) and that Malick (who is famous for the ludicrous amount of film that initially heads into the editing room) didn’t tell them what to do, but told them to become friends and to play, and then filmed it for days on end.

Two Comparisons:

  • The obvious comparison of recent years to me is The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky’s own film about life and everything, but I don’t think that there was anything mundane in the drama of that movie. Still, The Fountain is terribly underappreciated, and you really ought to watch it while you’re waiting for Tree of Life to come to, for instance, Florence, SC. It’s on Netflix Streaming.
  • The substantial comparison, however, is to 2001: A Space Odyssey. My pet theory is that Malick used dinosaurs instead of apes to elude the comparison, but the movies are most similar in that refusing-to-be-described, demanding-to-be-experienced, may-lull-you-into-a-coma sort of way. (For the record, I don’t know why I watched 2001 three or four times without giving up on finding something there, but the attempt paid off, and I don’t regret the time spent. Others might have the same experience with The Tree of Life.)

On first viewing and one night’s digestion, very good with the possibility that it’s great or even…MEGA-GREAT!!!(tm).


In which not-quite-TLC returns

Returns, you say?  To what?  This:

Returns, you say?  From what?  Don Hertzfeld’s Rejected, of course:

(Hertzfeldt is second because Hertzfeldt is first.)

h/t to AdFreaks for the former reference

What Does God Sound Like?

Today is Transfiguration Sunday (a fact I admit I didn’t realize until seeing the bulletin at church this morning).  From Matthew 17:

[Peter] was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”  When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified.

I like this image of the Transfiguration, because despite the pasty-whiteness, it really captures some terror on the part of the disciples:

In the scheme of things, it doesn’t seem as important how the sound waves created by God’s voice are heard by human ears in comparison to the information conveyed by the language used by God.  Google “What does God’s voice sound like?” and you will find a lot about discerning God’s will but nothing about pitch or timbre.

However, it does matter for our imaginations of God what God’s voice sounds like, and the Church could help its members’ imaginations by talking about the question.  Does God sound like Charlton Heston?  James Earl Jones?  Some other rumbling male voice?  Alanis Morissette?

Many waters (Revelation)?

Okay, this book is not about Revelation.

Thunder (Baptism of Jesus)?

Sheer silence (NRSV’s thought-provoking take on the classic “still, small voice” to Elijah)?

The point being that the voices we think of as God (from famous movies or from church productions or skits which have an offstage speaker into a microphone) almost always belong to faces with at least some stubble and possibly a full beard.  So what do we do to challenge that?  Use a female voice, and you may get people to think or to question (which would be great), but you may end up replacing a male God with a female God, which repeats the same problem.

The response to this which I often hear from theologians is that God is without gender or sex.  I hate that answer, abhor it.  If there is no connection between the image of God and the sexes, then sex is meaningless.  And sex is far from meaningless.  There must be a connection between us and God, not in every single thing (lest we get into, What does the inside of my elbow reveal about God’s character?) perhaps, but you can bet that if something is as important to us as sex is, it indeed is part of the image of God in us.

What does it say about how limited our imaginations are that there are only about five different ways that we can imagine God’s voice sounding–clearly male, clearly female, purposely androgynous, and maybe electronic or some kind of animal?  Start imagining bigger, because you can bet that a voice that brings out the type of terror that God’s voice on the Mount of Transfiguration did in the disciples, and which is described in so many different ways in Scripture (as the above only scratched the surface) just might be slightly more interesting than our current imaginations allow.

This makes me think of a couple folks I have known who do claim to have heard the voice of God audibly.  I wonder what that was like.  One of them was driving at the time, and is still alive, so I don’t think the voice inspired pure terror for him.

Filmography 2010

Make sure to full-screen this truly impressive visual and audio mashup of 270 films produced or distributed in 2010 (full list here):

Now if only someone would make something this high-quality for every year in movie-making history.

(thanks to frequent The Splendid Table contributor Sally Schneider‘s Improvised Life blog)

Happy New Year!
January 1, 2011, 1:00 am
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