Archive for the ‘movies’ category

Steampunk!

February 19, 2010

My first short post on this blog was titled “As a luddite…”, but visiting the steampunk temporary exhibit at the Oxford Museum of the History of Science  has made me reconsider my Luddite position (aesthetically as well as functionally – as my use of a blog indicates, of course, I have my uses for techology, but before now, I rarely found it appealing in itself). In a short article in the broadsheet for the exhibit, which opened in October and closes this week, Brian Catling from the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at Oxford notes, “Steampunk rewrites technology without the aid of electricity or nuclear power. It gives its sermons and tells its tales in an ornate courtly language that has never been mass-produced or suffered the humiliation of being simplified by plasticity.” Catling’s article is called “Steampunk: A Calibration of Longing.”

“Pachydermos,” gas mask – Tom Banwell

It is plastic-ness above all things that I dislike about technology. While I sometimes fear that the internet is giving me ADD, taking up too much of my time that could be spent with people in the flesh, etc., it’s more often than not the aesthetics (or lack thereof) of modernity that really get to me. I am more shallow than I’d like to think?

I’m not a huge fan of lab science, or of the celebration of hard steel and churning gears. In, say, Atlas Shrugged (which will certainly get a post when I’ve finish reading it), these elements creep me out aesthetically as well as morally. But I really like the aesthetics of steampunk. There’s enough old-ness and history in it to counteract the new-ness. It’s personable and dirty. Catling writes that in steampunk, “the mechanical is given a new status that elevates it beyond slavish function.”

I thought this guy’s bio was especially cool:

though I’m maybe less excited about his pieces than some of the others in the exhibit:

The blurbs of several artists in the exhibit stated that they had always had the steampunk aesthetic – the future imagined from the past – but hadn’t realized that it was a distinct subculture with a name.

That is, in part, because steampunk is a pretty new movement. While it got its name in the 80s as a more nostalgic relative of cyberpunk, recently it has been gathering…steam. It is principally a literary genre, but it also surfaces in other forms, like the The Wild Wild West TV show from the 60’s, before steampunk had its name, and the movie remake, in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic book and its movie, and (again) in Sherlock Holmes. These are not stunning specimens of quality cinema, etc., but then again steampunk in general doesn’t take itself too seriously, and maybe that is refreshing in itself.

Steampunk goggles, “Squid Attack” – Dr Grymm

Looking at these goggles and other wonders in the exhibit, one little boy, probably about six years old, said to his mother, “So this is what was meant to happen?”

Electric Skull – Amanda Scrivener/Professor Maelstromme

His Dark Materials is apparently considered to be steampunk or steampunk-inspired, with its zeppelins, clockwork, etc. So is the computer game Myst.

Most of the artists in the exhibit have unusual pseudonyms: Datamancer, Molly “Porkshanks” Friedrich, Doctor Grymm, Mad Uncle Cliff, Professor Maelstromme, Herr Doktor. It seems there is a certain sort of person who creates steampunk art.

Arachne Mechanica – Thomas Willeford

Many current – would they be “steampunks”? – cite Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and the like as inspiration. I am and especially used to be a fan of those authors myself, and maybe I have a little steampunk in me: here’s a mechanical fish I drew my freshman year in high school – long before I knew about steampunk:

I don’t think my fish would actually work, but that’s ok: Catling points out that mystery of function can be one of the most appealing aspects of a piece of steampunk art.

Incidentally,  when I was in London a few weeks ago, before I went to this exhibit, I bought myself a quite steampunky pocketwatch for just £9.

The long chain lets me wear it around my neck rather than in my pocket. I’m a little embarrassed to actually take it out and look at it in public – even around my neck, it is, so obviously, a pocketwatch – and I can’t tell if this embarrassment will get better or worse when I return to the US.

The issue of what constitutes steampunk music is apparently hotly debated. One group often classified as steampunk is Rasputina. Observe the steampunky wooden-gear-contraption at work around the middle of the video:

I liked that one, I think.

This one, not so much:

It reminded me of what I really don’t like about technology. Also, I swear the little boy near the end is Spoilsbury Toast Boy.

Some of the pieces in the exhibit were also quite creepy, sometimes in a fun way and sometimes not. For example, Molly “Porkshanks” Friedrich’s “Complete Mechanical Womb”:

Less ambiguously than cyberpunk, steampunk seems to delight in what is to me often disturbingly mechanical. And the delight is for the mechanics itself, rather than for any sort of dystopian message, though I can’t help but see a mechanical womb as dystopian. I like a good creepy image, but I don’t know if I’d want to live in a steampunk world, or at least not in Molly “Porkshanks” Friedrich’s.

…and now my laptop’s hard drive is apparently fried, reminding me of why actually I do hate technology. Now come barren days of work in Hertford College Grad Centre’s stark, modern, fluorescent computer room, without the pretty view out of my room’s two windows:

back when it was snowy here…

and without a pretty steampunk keyboard:

Ergonomic Keyboard – Datamancer

to keep me aesthetically satisfied.

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Thank you, Sherlock Holmes!

February 13, 2010

Some new great search terms by which people have found my blog:

“dolphins eating plastic”

“livestock in iran”

“howdodeers”

“old chinese american men”

“what fish do turtles not eat”

“pic of a deer eating a person” (four separate searches for this)

I have also got a lot of visitors searching for various terms I used in my Xinjiang riots post: “uighurs,” “Kashgar,” etc., and, strangely, “Kashgar dentist,” “Kashgar dentiset,” and “Kashgar dentisti.” I just hope that these searchers are not actually in need of a dentist in Kashgar.

Someone got here searching for “interning at nichibei times.”

I was a little frightened to return to my blog after so much time away. I wrote a few things in the fall – one of which I have now posted and more of which are yet to come – but I just didn’t have the energy to edit and post them. As my numbers of viewers understandably declined further and further, I stopped checking.

So I was surprised to see that although the decline continued through November, the numbers experienced a seemingly random increase toward the end of December and especially through January. At first I thought maybe it was due to the simple fact that my blog has been around for more time to be clicked, leading Google to rank it higher. But I also noticed that, in addition to the wonderful search terms cited above, more people have been getting here via searches – on Google and elsewhere – for “Whack follol de rah,” both with and without the exclamation point at the end. 46 of the 78 searches for the phrase without the exclamation point have been in the past 30 days.  (My blog is the second result that comes up for the term on google, after an Irish translation forum.) Others have come here by searching “follol,” “whack follol de rah meaning,” “follol de rah,” “whack de la de rah,” and other variants.

It would have been strange, especially since I hadn’t been posting for so long, if people were searching for my blog by name. It seemed near impossible that that so many people would have thought to look up the phrase after hearing the song from which it comes, “The Rocky Road to Dublin” (as much as I would like to think that Irish music is taking over the world). When was the last time I heard Irish folk music in pop culture, I thought, and that song in particular?

The Dubliners, the group who does the best-known version of "The Rocky Road to Dublin." Adorable, no?

Then I realized that I must have Sherlock Holmes to thank. I was thrilled when I recognized the jaunty, fiery “Rocky Road to Dublin” in the background of the movie’s boxing scene, and I probably annoyed my friends by hopping up and down in my seat as the Dubliners vocally accompanied Holmes in taking out the other fighter. (This was not the only fight scene where they played Irish music, I am happy to say!)

Not sure what this has to do with the rocky road to Dublin, but that's ok...

It wasn’t a movie I felt I should like. Apparently, it has a lame plot, though this is less apparent if one never reads mysteries and gets closest to the genre by watching House.  But good old-fashioned swashbuckling, however inappropriate for the Holmes stories, as well as repartee, always appeals to me. I saw the movie twice, once in California, once in Oxford (two tickets for the price of one with my phone service here!), and appreciated it both times.

Then I appreciated it again when I realized it was bringing me blog visitors. I also noticed, while doing research for this post, that google’s fifth autocomplete result for “irish song” is “irish song in Sherlock Holmes.” This post is dedicated to those searching for that song, and those searching for “whack follol de rah,” so that their quest may not be in vain:

Whack follol de rah is a set of nonsense syllables, which are common in Irish music. A more flavorful version of “fa la la.” In The Boondock Saints, which I watched recently, when detective Greenly explains the deaths of two Russians, who he thinks were Irishmen celebrating St. Patrick’s Day: “So these guys are stumbling through the alley. ‘Too ra loo ra loo ra!’ This guy takes a blunt object, fuckin’ WAAH! Hits the guy with the bandages around his head,” he’s referring to another, much less fun and more recent song, “An Irish Lullaby.”

I picked “Whack follol de rah” as the name of my blog because, although it’s doesn’t literally mean anything, it expresses quirky, spicy joy in what I think of as super-verbal rather than sub-verbal fashion. In “The Rocky Road to Dublin,” a song about a nineteenth century man’s adventures as he travels from Tuam to Liverpool via Dublin, the nonsense syllables seem to burst out to express some sort of undefinable triumphant intensity of living.

And for the song itself, I can’t resist: Behold! The Orthodox Celts, Serbia‘s most famous Irish music group:

They’re actually quite good, aren’t they? The words are hard enough for native speakers. I particularly like the way he sings “bundle it was stole.” The Orthodox Celts have apparently inspired a younger generation of Serbian Irish groups, including Tir na n’Og and Irish Stew of Sindidun. I would almost say these groups are trying harder than the Irish to be Irish, but then again, Dubliners isn’t so subtle a name either.

Dirt makes everything more interesting

June 28, 2009

I mean this somewhat more literally than you might think.

It’s always been a matter of pride to me that I’m not very squeamish about insects, hygiene while camping, gory details while I’m eating, and other “dirty” things. The other day at work, Mei Mei offered me a pocky (for the unAZNconscious, a chocolate-covered cookie stick), and because I was on the phone at the time, I left it on my open laptop. When I got off the phone, it had melted onto the plastic above the keyboard, but I pulled it off and ate it anyway, and then scooped up the remaining chocolate and ate that too. I said something like, “Whoops,” to acknowledge to the horrified Mei Mei and to Pelushi-girl that my action wasn’t really socially acceptable. Pelushi-girl said, “Ewww!!”

That incident, along with the Sandman “literary graphic novel” series I’ve been reading, got me thinking about dirt in culture. Sandman is full of mythology, fairytale, and, best of all, different places and eras. Reading the series reminded me that I’ve never really liked ancient Greece and Rome. Of course they were incredible, way ahead of their time, and all that, but I think that’s part of the reason they don’t draw me the way the “Dark Ages” do. The artifacts from the “classical period,” if not the period itself, seem sterile – full of clean, standardized, white statues (often with smooth, blank eyes), and pure philosophy. Everything is visible – nothing hides behind hills or fog or darkness.

The Emperor Hadrian as Mars - all out in the open

The Emperor Hadrian - all out in the open

The Dark Ages, on the other hand, are compelling for me because they are dark, and therefore mysterious – centuries in need of a candle, full of things that go bump in the night… and dirt. Dirt seems to cling to both the artifacts from the period – tapestries and carvings going brown around the edges – and the ideas, which are messier, less rational than those of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Somehow, the dirt makes the era more friendly, just as the  traces of pocky chocolate and crumbs in my keyboard personalize my computer.

a delightfully grubby page from the Book of Kells (the gospels, transcribed by 9th c. Irish monks

a delightfully grubby page from the Book of Kells (an illuminated copy of the four gospels, transcribed by 9th c. Irish monks)

In Purity and Danger and other works, anthropologist Mary Douglas argues that many cultures’ ideas about pollution match Lord Chesterfield’s quip: “Dirt is matter out of place.” For example, in Leviticus, certain animals are considered “unclean” because they possess features that, according to Hebrew cultural categories, do not belong together or are out of place. Pigs are unclean not because they carry lots of diseases, eat garbage, etc., but because they are hooved and yet do not “chew of the cud.”

Things are often most interesting when they don’t fit into categories – when they’re dirty. I dislike classes and disciplines that think grouping and assigning labels is enough, without get one’s hands dirty and using those labels to make arguments and determine causality. But my complaints about academic categorization may get their own post later. Now, my focus is dirt. Part of the reason I’m majoring in history is that, more than in science – more even than in “social science” – things in history can’t  be easily categorized. History is dirty.

Of course, I’m lucky that I can look at dirt so theoretically. Maybe if I lived in a mud hut, I’d feel less positively about dirt (though maybe not – I’d probably be even less squeamish, and maybe feel closer to the land?)

Dirt is part of the reason that the Lord of the Rings movies are vastly superior to the other recent fantasy movies. I remember listening to two middle aged women on a train complain that they couldn’t stand to watch LOTR because all of the characters looked like they needed to take a good shower.

But that grubbiness is part of what gives the movies their grit and makes them look real, rather than made of plastic, or worse, made of a substance as intangible as “computer” (although LOTR is sometimes over-digitized, too, as with the Ents and especially the ghosts of Dunharrow.)

Saran-wrap ghosts :(

Saran-wrap ghosts 😦

In movies like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Golden Compass, on the other hand, everything seems a little too bright, smooth, and shiny. There’s nothing rough and knobby to grab onto or feel friction against or engage with. Everything just glides by.

Are they not all remarkably well-kempt?

Are they not all remarkably well-kempt?

Characters from Lord of the Rings are dirtier in their promotional photos than characters from The Chronicles of Narnia are in their actual fight scenes. I’ll give The Golden Compass characters more of a break on dirt-defined-as-physical-muck, since there’s less of that in the arctic regions. However, there’s no excuse for the series’ general lack of grittiness and dirt in the Lord Chesterfield sense – especially given that a main idea in the series is that Dust can put destiny itself out of place.

Another reason that dirt is interesting could be the  “fascination of the abomination,” as Conrad calls it in Heart of Darkness. Things can be so gross that you want to look.

Some kinds of sex can work like that. Sex, always an act of joining things, could easily lead to Douglas’s unclean “hybrids and other confusions.” Maybe that’s part of why sex is generally treated with so much discretion. The Bible’s idea of correct sex – the coming together of two to make one – is in a sense a completion, and Douglas argues that completeness is associated with holiness in the Judeo-Christian tradition. However, sex has to be handled with care, because if the two aren’t well-matched in the view of the culture, as with bestiality, incest, etc., everything could be thrown off balance. It makes sense that sex, and especially nonstandard sex, is often called “dirty,” and that when we want interesting details, we say, “Give me the dirt.”