Sunday, May 31, 2009

Down on Up

The problems with Pixar’s latest film Up are primarily formal ones. These include the onslaught of events, and a virtual saturation of characters.

The events in Up are sequenced irregularly and create strange senses of importance: for instance, the breaking of chocolate bars takes up more time in the film than a trans-hemispheric journey. A rare bird turns out to be rainbow colored, in case one has missed the colorfulness of the house or the vast cluster of helium balloons that provide it with lift. The events that are the best in the film achieve a majestic quality of slow time that could have been maintained throughout—such as the excruciatingly drawn out, diagonal ride of an electric stair-chair descender. This film really only needed about four events; as it is, there are dozens of events that fill out the plot, and too many of these events flit by so quickly that they cannot be substantive, and therefore are throwaway. More of the story's time could have been given to the defiance of urban sprawl, the isolation and domesticity of unregulated air space, and the spectacular vistas that we see so well in a few scenes early in the film.

When too many characters flood the plot, narrative sensitivity and attention to detail can tend to be dampened. In this case, the gradual introduction of more and more characters climaxes with a canine infinitude that is more ridiculous than funny. In a film like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, hoards of running, red-eyed humans gone mad works; in a film that should remain skyward, such as Up, hundreds of talking cyborg dogs on the ground do not work so well. This character splurge rather ruins the conceit of an animation film, wherein anything is possible—which is precisely why some things should not be done. Restraint would seem to be the key to digital storytelling.

Finally, a missed opportunity: an airline or aircraft manufacturer could have benefited from a case of ingenious 'product placement' with the ballooned house seen from an airliner cruising by, people gawking while sipping small cups of soda. Here are some rough ideas:

Up made me nostalgic for the quiet, richly intertextual and darkly comical Wall-E of last summer. Or maybe it just exposed just my penchant for the post-apocalyptic genre, which I plan to teach a class on this coming fall.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Airport Reading

I recently completed my dissertation at UC Davis on the textual aspects of airports in U.S. culture. After filing my dissertation I took a short trip to visit some friends in Portland, Oregon. On the way there, I snapped a picture in the Sacramento airport without too much attention to what I might capture. In fact, I held the camera to my side and took the picture without looking into the viewfinder at all. Now, I'll take the take the time to 'read' this image in order to explain a little about my dissertation.

My dissertation is interested in how airports read. In this picture, I can see people reading various things: magazines, computer screens, books, text messages, and newspapers. Airports are the place to read, as evinced by the way that bookstores are increasingly migrating out of cities and towns and into terminals and concourses.

Beyond the people reading in the airport, there are also a lot of things to read about the space itself. In this departure lounge I see signs for gates 25 and 27, directional markers meant to be read and followed. I see a sign for "free Wi-Fi"—a hanging text that prompts me to discover further reading material on my laptop, if I have one. Several people in the picture have taken the "free Wi-Fi" cue and stare into their screens. If I cannot get 'connected', I will have to resort to lower-tech forms of reading, or just space out. People watching is another kind of reading suitable for airports.

I see multiple trash receptacles, which tell me that this is a space where consumption and waste is expected. I also see a tree which appears to be rather discordantly 'greening' this built space of transit. Or perhaps the little tree is inviting Nature in—in which case the color complementary small red alarm boxes on the columns may be imagined as berries beneath the canopy of off-white ceiling tiles. Aside from the verdant motif, however, the dominant color scheme reads monochromatic and is laid out in mostly geometric patterns of alternating lights and darks.

A majority of the dark shapes in this scene are the ubiquitous rows of airport chairs that the psychologist Robert Sommer calls "hard architecture": such seating is quite clear and uncompromising about how passengers are to comport themselves and communicate (or not) in this space. Anyone who has spent significant time in such chairs should be familiar with the feeling of craning your neck to talk to someone next to you, or leaning awkwardly uphill to talk to someone across from you. Through this seating arrangement, the airport forwards a sociological understanding of how people should be organized and spaced out (how people should feel) in this space.

And above, the square fluorescent lamps offer light for easy reading. In the airport everyone has their identity checked: passports read, employee ID cards verified, and boarding passes scanned—the airport reads its human inhabitants. All these practices combined make up airport reading: this is a legible context wherein nature and culture collude, inside becomes outside, bodies blend into technologies, and everything proceeds as in an endless delay.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"here" & "apps"

Today I am a guest contributor to the blog Changing Lives, Changing Minds, a literature blog out of UMass-Dartmouth. You can view my post here.

Two new media observations:

1. On that curious word here: A friend recently pointed out that the linked word "here" has attained a funny way of functioning as a floating transit point with no necessary stable spatial anchor. Online, the linked word "here" can lead one anywhere (here), or nowhere (here). I also see that there is a place called which is thoroughly cryptic but existentially reassuring. I wonder if the linked word "here" is a sort of virtual "non-place"—an updated version of how the anthropologist Marc AugĂ© has used this term to describe spaces that are designed for passage and transition, never to serve as distinct places in and of themselves (e.g., airports, highway rest stops, & ATMs).

2. Lately I've been seeing a lot of advertisements that evince the plethora of "apps" available for the iPhone. I was discussing some of these applications with my students recently in class (the iHandy Carpenter with its digital level, The Moron Test, etc.), and one student rolled his eyes and said "They've got an app for everything." Yet when people are surprised (or annoyed) that there is an iPhone application for "everything," it seems to me that this is not entirely different from being surprised (or annoyed) that there is everything there is in the world. Perhaps this is the secret trick of the iPhone: it refreshes the already existing world with a surprising quality of recognizability. (Because surely we couldn't have apps that were unintelligible or ineffable.) Thus the iPhone apps depend on our continual experience of a rather underwhelming revelation, something to the the effect of: "I can't believe that there are so many things in the world!"

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Rey Chow on New Media

Recently I attended a talk by Rey Chow, who gave a provocative talk called "Postcolonial Visibilities: Foucault, Deleuze, and the New Media Technologies." Among other things, Chow discussed the seemingly paradoxical phenomenon by which images of the lowest resolution end up achieving the highest visibility. Consider, for instance, the way that camera phone snapshots can be captured nearly spontaneously and then disseminated at an exponential rate, causing the 'first images' that we often see of an event to be distinctly unframed, out of focus, pixelated—yet also the ones that tend to stick in our minds (and in Google image archives, as well).

As students seem increasingly to have ready-to-hand access to portable imaging technologies such as camera phones, I wonder how such 'writing tools' (if I can dare to call them that) could be put in the service of analysis and composition in the humanities classroom. In an American Studies course I am currently teaching, called "The Ecology of Beauty," I plan to experiment with this by having students capture two images, one of 'nature' and one not of 'nature' (how else to categorize it?). The goal will be to complicate not only the categories of nature and non-nature, but also to think about how tiny-screen image capturing is an ecology in its own right: our devices are a part of how we see, frame, and interact with the 'the world' as a viewable landscape, a space always just waiting to be imaged. What will students take pictures of? How will they describe their taking of these pictures? Are we able to be phenomenological about the visibilities that we can hold in our hands as 'objects'?

In her talk Chow posed challenging questions about a pictorial fluidity and mobility, i.e. about the immanent recyclability of new media images. Chow suggested that we need to develop a new flexibility for thinking about how humans are constituted as subjects through these technologies that from one perspective look like no more than little surveillance machines that we carry around on our bodies as we traipse through a heavily-monitored, hyper-individuated world.