Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Culture Eats Itself

Leslie and I work mostly on different schedules. There are many days when the only time we are together is spent watching evening television. Our viewing options are limited because we don't subscribe to cable and, of course, because so much television programming is awful crap. She always has a few favorites which I eventually learn to like.  And I enjoy the Fox animation shows.

A couple months ago we saw two cop shows, just a few days apart, with identical plots. One was NCIS (which has an interesting ensemble cast) and the other was Castle (you never heard of it and it hasn't been canceled yet.)

Here's the plot: two separate crimes are being investigated.  The prime suspects with motive have alibis while evidence points to other suspects with no connection to the victims.  Eventually someone figures out that these apparently unrelated suspects secretly know one another because they commute every morning on the same train.

Both shows had a scene when they begin to figure it out.  "It's just like that old Hitchcock movie where two strangers meet on a train and agree to commit each other's murder.  What's it called?"  "Strangers on a Train?"

Alfred Hitchcock's 1951 movie Strangers on a Train.  The title itself tells quite a bit about the plot right upfront and, unlike the television shows, the movie goes on to explore the psychology and relationship of the conspirators - well beyond their merely getting caught.

What NCIS and Castle have done is crib a plot idea idea from a 60-year old film as a way to tie two unrelated shooting schedules into one supposedly coherent hour-long show. 

At the end the bad guys go to jail because advertisers have paid the television networks to hire production companies to create the minimum amount of entertainment necessary to make you and me feel good enough to watch their commercials and consider buying their products.  The writers earned their paychecks by stealing a little bit of cultural history. Capitalism has been served.

But why did they need to mention Hitchcock?  The shows would be just as good (or bad) if they'd omitted the reference.

Or would they?

Does raiding the common cultural legacy change the legacy itself?  Do quotes from earlier creations change our relationship to those very artworks? I think that when a two-bit police procedural cribs from a great film of the twentieth century, it is the film which take the hit.  No one has done Hitchcock any favors.  Some of his film's status has been taken away.  It becomes fertilizer for the more modern media.

One particular television show has become famous for cribbing from popular culture.  It stands head and shoulders above all the others in making references to movies, music, politics, religion, other television shows, even entire countries.  It's a huge success and I love it.  The Simpsons.

Here's a fascinating website that details some of The Simpson's many movie references.   (It's in Spanish.) After porn, more space on the Internet is devoted to explaining pop cultural references in The Simpsons than any other subject.  Or so it seems.  Try this search.

Sometimes I wonder "Are there any original ideas anywhere in The Simpsons?"  Maybe everything in every episode is just stuff from other places and I don't get all of it.  If I don't know what's going on I generally assume they're honoring some campy horror film or some unlistenable pop group - or both.

I figure there must be at least one person somewhere who knows what they're spoofing.  Could anyone get every reference?  And if someone did, would that person be able to hold a normal conversation?

Suppose The Simpsons wanted to do a parody of a movie which you had never seen or even heard of (like, in my case, this one).   If you learned about this after watching the animated episode would you want to go watch the original?  For me the answer is "Absolutely not".  I think that's a pretty common response.   After viewing an out-of-context comedy version, experiencing the original, in-context serious version would be kind of a downer where you giggle in inappropriate places.

I'm guessing that the references are not put there by the producers for people who have no clue.  The references are for the people who immediately get it.  These people, including myself sometimes, are rewarded with a little positive emotional response.  "I'm so smart." we think. "I feel good because I'm in on the joke." And because we feel good we're more likely to watch the commercials and consider buying the products.  Capitalism is served again.

In this funny 20th anniversary retrospective of the Simpsons Matt Groening talked about his original intentions for the show:
So my goal from the very beginning was to invade pop culture.  That was my goal as an underground cartoonist, [to] see how far I could carry this.
He carried it pretty damn far.  Matt Groening has done more than invade.  The Simpsons has conquered pop culture.  If only the US invasion of Iraq could have been half as successful.  Many of their little borrowings will, in the future, become better known by more people via the Simpsons than directly through the original esoteric thing, whatever it was.

It may be the show's central facet but the device of pop culture reference is by no means unique to The Simpsons.  The idea of using other peoples earlier work - in smaller or greater chunks, largely recognizable but altered to a new context, often without attribution - is all around us these days.  It started with hip-hop music.  It has been made ubiquitous by the rise of cheap technology, over enthusiastic fans and a voracious media where a hundred cable channels seem puny in comparison to the entire Internet.    

The result?  We, as a culture, have found a new dominant paradigm for our time.  It the dawning of the Age of Cultural Peculation.  (What's Peculation?  Another definition.)

Our entertainment industry rips off small bits of existing cultural flesh and consumes it without chewing too well.  It then creates newer, more generic, less unique, less satisfying cultural product to use as it sees fit.  It feeds us this stew, hoping a few chunks of old, good stuff will blind us to the thin, watery broth which is the principal ingredient.

If they can keep us happy consuming this crap, Capitalism will be served. But the more they do it the more our Culture will suffer irreparable harm. The more we let them do it, the more we deserve no better.

Other Mixed Meters Simpsons references:
Placido Domingo: High Culture Meets Pop Culture
The Simpsons and Samuel Barber
The Real Simpsons

Here's a list of other pop culture references to Strangers on a Train.

Nathan Fillion, star of Castle, also starred in the wonderful, short-lived science fiction show Firefly.

Here's the source of the Van Gogh portrait of Goundskeeper Willie.  The other pictures were found here and there on Flickr.  Generate your own Simpsons title screen here.

Here's a recent NY Times article, Texts Without Context, by Michiko Kakutani which deals with some of these issues on a much higher and more literary intellectual level. Here's the last sentence:
we face a situation in which culture is effectively eating its own seed stock.
Here are some words I managed to avoid using anywhere in this post.  (You're welcome.)

Peculation Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Wolfgang Wagner (1919-2010)

To mark the death of Wolfgang Wagner,  grandson of Richard Wagner, here are two pictures and a quote from Twilight of the Wagners, by Gottfried Wagner, son of Wolfgang.

Picture 1: Wolfgang at age 20.

Picture 2: Wolfgang and his brother Wieland flank the man they called "Uncle Wolf".

And this remembrance of Wolfgang Wagner by his son Gottfried - from page 41 of Twilight of the Wagners:
And Hitler, again and again!  After the National Socialist' seizure of power a "Fuhrer annex" had been specially built onto the Siegfried Wagner House, and inside the annex was built the "Fuhrer fireplace."  After a performance of Gotterdammerung in the Festspielhaus, my uncle and Father accepted Hitler's invitation to a lengthy nighttime discussion at the "Fuhrer fireplace" on the future of German art in the spirit of Richard Wagner, as an expression of the renewal of the world through National Socialism.  I had some difficulty in understanding my father's torrent of words, but didn't interrupt for fear of provoking him to break off, and he continued his story.  "We were sitting around the fireplace, and Hitler sketched out for us his cultural visions of the future. 'Once we have rid the world of the Bolshevik-Jewish conspirators, then you, Wieland, will run the theater of the West and you, Wolfgang, the theater of the East.' "

Wolfgang Wagner Tags: . . . . . . . . .

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

30 Second Spots - Flashing (for Kraig Grady)

According to my archive this is Mixed Meters' 500th post.  See the previous 500th post here.

The point and shoot in my pocket takes pretty good video except when there isn't enough light. And it accepts no human help when attempting to focus. Sometimes it can't focus at all.  This video uses both of these shortcomings to their best advantage.  Watch in high definition for maximum graininess.

The clip was filmed in the dead of night on a lonely American street corner.  Our heroes are rushing to the aid of someone who is having a very, very bad day.  Or bad night, actually.  We never find out what is causing the problem or if help arrives in time.  Unlike so many awful television dramas there is no neat wrapping up of the plot at the end.  How like life.

The music takes one hard meaningless turn in the middle.  And then it ends abruptly when you least expect it, in a flash.

Flashing (for Kraig Grady) - (c) 2010 David Ocker 95 Seconds

At the end of last year I received an email from my friend Kraig Grady, a composer of mysterious microtonalities who has recently taken up residence in Australia.  Kraig and I both misspent parts of our youth in a group called the Independent Composers Association.

He sent me a one-minute piece which he wrote for some online composer "thing" called 60x60 (sixty composers each write a one minute piece.)

Kraig titled his piece "Ocker" because (he actually said this) it somehow reminded him of me.  I don't see the resemblance - but you, Mixed Meters' Three Readers, can decide for yourselves.  I'm very honored, of course.  Listen to Ocker by Kraig Grady here.

Kraig must know that the word "ocker" has a special meaning in Australian slang.  When I tell my last name to Australians I usually get a wry smile in return.

I must also confess that I never wrote back to Kraig thanking him for the eponymous honor.  Sorry about that, Kraig.  To make up for my lack of social graces I've dedicated this piece to you.  I hope you can forgive my impolite behavior.

Just to be clear, neither the video or the music of Flashing (for Kraig Grady) remind me of Kraig at all. 

(Read about my series of pieces called 30 Second Spots, now improved with video.)

ADDENDUM: Although Kraig may live in Australia physically, online he lives in a place called Anaphoria. You can visit Anaphoria here or here.

Ocker Tags: . . . . . . . . .

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

30 Second Spots - Water With Ducks

According to Blogger this is Mixed Meters' 500th post. Read my first uncharacteristically short post here.  It's dated September 16, 2005.

The principal reason I started Mixed Meters was to have a place to share the tiny musical compositions I was regularly creating on my laptop during visits to Starbucks. I called these things "30 Second Spots" in spite of the fact that they are never exactly thirty seconds long.  You can read more about the whimsical rules of 30-second-spot writing here. 

There must be a couple hundred spots so far.  No one is counting.  Some of them are embarrassingly bad.  I tried to combine the better ones into a surrealistic CD album.  What I discovered is that longer pieces were essential to balance a torrent of short pieces.  Now, 18 months later, I find the album mildly embarrassing and way too long.

Lately I haven't posted much music on Mixed Meters because I haven't been able to prioritize composing time.  I do have one 5 minute piece ready to post.  It was to have been my holiday offering ... for last Christmas.  Wait for it.

On Monday night I decided to make time for composing.  I ignored several unfinished pieces and created a new 30 Second Spot instead.  This spot has video.

I shot the clip last month at the Los Angeles County Arboretum.  There are birds in it.  Many of the videos to which I've composed music have birds in them.  What's that about?

Here's a landscape picture taken at the Arboretum that same day.  Click to enlarge.

The music begins with a small melodic fragment.  This was sung to me by some wind chimes as I took my daily walk on Monday.  I worked it around in my head as I walked and it transformed into an infamous melody from the Dark Musical Ages.  Opera queens and music theory nerds will recognize it immediately.  Leslie, when she listened, had no clue that anything was quoted.  However, she did accuse me of sexism in the treatment of the female duck.  Everyone's a critic.  Please leave your comment in the space provided.

I suggest you watch in High Definition.

Water With Ducks - © 2010 by David Ocker - 77 seconds

Here are links to other videos with my music. Some of them qualify as 30 Second Spots I suppose.



Rain Random

Squawk (This video was also taken at the LA County Arboretum)

Birds Who Don't Know the Words

The Chowder Jump (One video with three different sound tracks. The third is a combination of the first two)

You Can Pet Dinosaurs (This doesn't have any music, but it's the most popular item I've ever posted on the Internet.)

Duck Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . .

Sunday, March 07, 2010

In which David dreams of an Oscar Filter

It's hard to miss that tonight is the Oscars. It's the movie industry's own very public popularity contest to crown its newest royalty. Only movie industry insiders get to vote of course. Why should anyone else care who wins a contest like this?

In a retail store do you pay any attention to who was chosen Employee of the Month? When you see a car with a bumper sticker announcing "My child was student of the month at Whatever School" do you honk and wave excitedly?  Nope.  These are insider contests which have nothing to do with you.

You, I'm pretty much certain, are not a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Nor do you know anyone who is. Do you really care what they think? Apparently many people do.  Probably not my three readers, however.

This made-up awards event gets SO much press coverage.  Why should that be?  My theory is that Oscar season is really Payback season for American media. Motion picture advertising must be a large chunk of  newspaper and television income. Running puff pieces designed to stir up interest in this "contest" is a small price to insure the studios keep buying those big double page ads. Hardly anyone else does lately.

Tens of millions of people tune in to watch the Oscars - to root for their favorite teams, er movies. Just like during the Superbowl viewer eyeballs are sold to companies with products to push. A 30 second spot on the Oscar telecast is selling for $1,500,000 this year.  That's  $50K per Second - enough to hire an out-of-work person for a full year. 

All those television ads, all those extra movie tickets sold to the winning pictures, all that income generated - it's money in someones pocket.  It would be futile to suggest that we simply quit doing it because the result is so hopelessly fake.  There'd be nothing left of American culture if the fake stuff got removed from the media.  Sitcoms? Wrestling? Cop shows? Roller Derby? Every other awards show?  Beauty pageants? Political Conventions?  Do we have a great country, or what?

I, however, would prefer not to watch or read about the Oscars.  To that end I have this request: Can Capitalism provide me with an Oscar Filter?  After all, I have a spam filter on my email and an ad blocker on my web browser.  Why can't some clever person invent a circuit that causes interference on my television every time there is report from the red carpet.  This ought to be easy in an era of digital television broadcasts.  I'd be willing to pay.  It would be more difficult to deliver my newspapers with all the Oscar articles clipped out already - or maybe just obliterated by more red ink.  But if newspapers could develop the ability to individualize their news, they might just have a bit more of a future.

End of Rant

(Read my 2008 Oscar Rant: In Which the Ocker Goes To Me)

Fake Tags: . . . . . .

Friday, March 05, 2010


On the front page of RubeGoldberg.com you can read the definition of the phrase "Rube Goldberg" as defined by Webster's New World Dictionary.  Yes, "Rube Goldberg" has been part of our own English language since 1931.

Farther down the page you can also read that the phrase "Rube Goldberg" is a registered trademark of Rube Goldberg Incorporated and permission to use the trademark must be secured in advance and in writing.

I guess it's now possible for corporations to own parts of the English language.  The Republicans must be so proud.

Anyway, a "Rube Goldberg device" is an invention designed to do a simple task in a complex mechanical fashion.  Read more about Rube at Wikipedia.

By that definition, the amazing contraption in the following music video by the group OK GO is NOT a Rube Goldberg device, since it accomplishes nothing useful.  I suggest watching in high definition.  Keep your eyes on the background.  The video is highly entertaining.  Too bad about the music.

My favorite moment is the rotating guitar which plays a bit of the song on tuned glasses. My other favorite moment is the television and the sledge hammer.  Watch for the pile of TV's from the previous takes.

This Too Shall Pass reminded me of a Honda commercial from a couple years ago. That's not a R.G. device either - it accomplishes nothing useful. The video is more elegant but less fun than the OK GO video. It's not plagued by music - except a bit of drum box near the end - so you can enjoy the clinking and clanking.

I hunted around YouTube for something else Rube Goldbergish that actually accomplished some task. There's a lot out there to check out - and I didn't bother to look too hard. (This is, after all, one of those Mixed Meters posts designed for quickness not depth and I would like to go to bed soon.) But here's one that starts with an alarm clock and ends with curtains being opened.  Those curtains aren't on a bedroom window but they could have been, I guess - and then some useful work would have been accomplished.

Here's another Honda commercial - more in the creepy, threatening Pulp Fiction mode.

Yet again, thanks to John Steinmetz for pointing me to Mixed Meters' better material.

Rube Tags: . . . . . .