Blog o’ the Humours

In which one modern American man, semi-permeable in both mind and body, through rarefied feats of biochemical introspection (powered by an impeccably cursory knowledge of contemporary biochemistry in admixture with an equally negligible grounding in thoroughly discredited medical theories of antiquity), (a) pinpoints the one internalized substance that has bested all others to govern his thought, temperament, behavior, and overall mojo on a given day, and (b) offers random ruminations on same.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Asteroids, Meteors & Other "Acts of God"

Given today's expected fly-by of an asteroid 17K miles above earth, along with the bizarre coincidence of a damaging meteor shower over Siberia, I couldn't resist posting this excerpt from a long-abandoned novel, which deals with, well, an asteroid hitting the earth and celestial-body damage in Siberia.  This is from the late ’90s, hence some retrospective factual errors, e.g., absinthe is now legal. Progress.—MC

Acts of God (I)
by Matthew J. Campbell

Ringo Starr is falling to earth. Not the former Beatle a.k.a. Richard Starkey, but “Minor Planet Number 4150” — an asteroid, that is, named “Starr” in tribute to the former Beatle.  It was discovered in 1984 by one B.A. Skiff of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, and formally designated “Starr” in 1990 by the Minor Planet Center of the International Astronomical Union, located on the Harvard campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Minor Planet Center describes Ringo Starr (the ex-Beatle) as “a Liverpudlian of lively personality and deadpan humor who occasionally sat in as drummer with the Beatles during their early days in Hamburg,” further noting, “Ringo actually joined the group in 1962, after the original drummer, Pete Best, left.”

This asteroid has not always been falling to earth. For approximately 4.56 billion years, and until only recently, it had been pursuing a 3.3 year solar orbit (at perihelion, a distance of 278 million km from the sun), when it was abruptly nudged out of its standard path by another celestial object, and thus began its fall to earth.

“Nudged” is the word most favored by astronomers and the newspaper reporters who interview them in reference to this celestial collision. Members of the broadcast media, on the other hand, tend toward a more sportif verb choice: “walloped” or “blasted,” to name two.

(Asteroid) Ringo Starr measures from 7-16 km in diameter, it is estimated; astronomers expect to be able to gauge its diameter more accurately as it nears the earth.  By way of contrast, the asteroid that struck Siberia in 1908, flattening and entombing a herd of reindeer and sending out a glass-shattering shockwave with a 600-mile radius, is thought to have had a diameter of less than 0.2 km.  Therefore, were Ringo Starr to remain in one piece as it hurtled through earth’s atmosphere, its landing could be truly earth-shattering — as one network newscaster put it, “the rim-shot heard around the world.”

The other Beatles are also minor planet namesakes, as follows: (4147) Lennon, also discovered by B.A. Skiff, 3.6-year orbit (the asteroid, not Dr. Skiff), 325 million km from the sun at perihelion; (4148) McCartney, discovered by E. Bowell (Skiff’s colleague at Lowell Observatory), 3.4-year orbit, 303 million km at perihelion; and (4149) Harrison, Skiff again, 4.4-years, 349 million km. 

Pete Best, it will be observed, has not as yet become a minor planet namesake, nor has he received serious consideration for the honor. Also, it is important to note that, aside from Ringo Starr, none of the aforementioned minor planets is known at this time to be falling to earth.

“Falling to earth” is of course a geocentric expression, born of a mind in thrall to this planet’s gravity. In actuality, at present, this asteroid is describing a trajectory through weightless space, a straight line. The earth, in its elliptical orbit, will intersect that line — or at least travel close enough to the line to attract gravitationally the asteroid, at which point it can more accurately be said that Ringo Starr is “falling to earth.”  Shortly thereafter, the television networks will report a truly profound wallop — somewhere.

Although it is known that (4150) Starr will strike the earth, no one (and no computer) can divine just where the minor planet will fall. This is, therefore, the perfect set of circumstances for a wager, and gambling on the locus of impact is rampant around the world. In placing bets, some gamblers stage an approximation of the forthcoming event, spinning a globe and stabbing downward with a fingertip in imitation of the falling Starr, then betting on the point of touch-down. (To subscribe to this logic, though, is essentially to believe that Starr will strike the same place twice, a scenario that seems even less likely than a lightning-bolt encore.) Other bettors, falling prey to unsavory (if entirely predictable) jingoistic urges, have wagered that the asteroid will strike a highly populated region of a foreign nation, whether a political adversary past or present or merely a more or less begrudged trading partner; in the U.S., for example, a disproportionate number of bets have been placed on locations in the former Soviet Union and China, as well as in the OPEC nations.

Conversely, there is also a pronounced trend in America of betting on one’s own region/city as “Ringo Ground Zero.” (NB: On a moral axis, such an action could of course be described just as readily as a betting against; the term “betting on” as used here refers primarily to the internal logic of a wager.) It is tempting to dismiss such bettors as kooks, masochists, or, in the words of one prominent syndicated columnist, “crater cravers.” And it is true that one can find among this group a significant number of mentally unstable or self-destructive individuals, along with those who would readily subject themselves and their neighbors to any indignity in order to appear on television for even the briefest of moments. But there is also a third, more civic-minded category of citizen who bets his or her hard-earned dollars on an asteroid the size of a mid-sized town superimposing itself upon his or her own community — or who, if abstaining from a financial wager, still harbors this desire. These people reside, almost without exception, in the moribund towns, the towns that have dried up or rusted, that have been dug up or washed away — those places that, regardless of the cause of economic downfall, have now been abandoned but for a few remaining caretakers: the old, the sick, the fearful, the nostalgic. It is the lattermost of these caretakers who bet on or pray for the arrival of Ringo Starr at their doorstep. They are willing to “take the hit,” and perhaps to perish themselves, so that their once-great town might become one of those fortune-kissed communities that boast a wonder (or freak) of nature, with all its attendant tourism.  These hopeful citizens can be seen coasting through the outskirts of town in the tail-finned cars of their youth, peering expressionlessly out their side-windows onto the various skeletons of agriculture or industry — surveying the land for an opportune crater site, perhaps — then readjusting their gazes forward and upward, through the tinted portion of the windshield, scanning the sky overhead for the appearance of a burning emerald or sapphire, the asteroid named after some musician who apparently came along after Elvis. And as they pass the city limits and make a U-turn to head back into town, they notice the weather-beaten sign saying, “Now Entering _________, Pop. 2,170,” and at this point they must certainly envision a new sign hooked onto the bottom of the old one, reading “Home of the Great Ringo Starr Crater.” And for the remainder of the drive, as they head home, it can hardly be doubted that their thoughts are on guided walking tours, or even burro-back tours, leading downward into the crater, with a handy tram heading upward for the return trip (the old and disabled being allowed to take the tram both ways — and pregnant women as well, certainly, if they so desired). At the crater’s bottom would be a restaurant, most likely named the Crater Cafe, along with a Crater Museum & Gift Shop selling souvenir items (asteroid-fragment cuff links come to mind, as do bolo ties and brooches, and perhaps even plastic-bubble water-filled paperweights — shake vigorously for “asteroid-fragment-in-a-snowstorm” effect). And all of this means home-town jobs, home-town profit. Only now, as they turn into their own streets, do they realize they are smiling, maybe even laughing, and as their own houses come into view, their thoughts are of their grandchildren, moving back home.

Ringo Starr (the onetime Beatle) has refrained from public comment on his eponymous asteroid’s fall to earth. He has also reportedly gone into hiding following the receipt of numerous death threats.

Ringo Starr is falling to earth. The temptation is to report that this has set everyone to thinking — everyone everywhere, thinking, “What if it falls on me?” This would be a gross exaggeration, albeit a common one. How often do we say — or hear someone else say — “Everyone likes chocolate cake” or “Everyone likes Mary Tyler Moore”? True, billions of people do, but then again, billions do not, while billions of others have no knowledge whatsoever of the subject matter. Any use of “billions” is substantial, even when countered by other billions, therefore allowing Mary Tyler Moore to be overwhelmingly liked at the same time she is overwhelmingly disliked, even while she is extraordinarily famous while being virtually unknown. Another example: perhaps 40% of all people alive today are inhaling at this moment, while, it can fairly be assumed, an equal proportion are exhaling, leaving 20% not breathing at all, pausing after an in-breath or out-breath, mimicking the dead (and pointing out, via a mirror statistic, that the dead breathe only 80% less often than we do) — all of which seems like so many neat slices of a pie chart until one invokes the representative billions; in terms of this example, imagine 1.2 billion people, the entire population of China, say, rendered breathless all at once, while the 4.8 billion throughout the rest of the world stand by, collectively heaving and gasping in response.

When compiling the Tao Te Ching circa 500 B.C.E., Lao Tzu used the phrase “ten thousand things” to designate totality, ten thousand then being a number whose expansiveness granted it neighborhood with the infinite. It was a number with which no one could argue, with which no one could fail to be impressed. Not so in our time; we need billions to feel the brunt of massiveness, be it in terms of population, finance, distance, or what have you. Ten thousand is a mere pittance; millions, even, we have passed by. We are almost ready to make the leap to trillions, but not quite — we still confound trillions with billions in our mental imagery of the impossibly vast.  “Billions” is our boundary, now and for a while yet.

To return to the language of billions: as of this writing, “everyone everywhere” comprises somewhere between 5.5 and 6 billion people. While several billion have heard the news of (4150) Starr’s fall to earth, many many others, say one billion for the sake of argument, have never heard of Ringo Starr the asteroid, or even Ringo Starr the former Beatle. That is approximately four times the population of the United States. It is as though not a single person in China had ever heard the 1960s pop classics “Octopus’ Garden” or “With a Little Help from My Friends.”

To move the populational examples from simile to actuality: due to the destruction by hurricane of the lone available satellite dish, not a single person on the tiny island of Nui in the South Pacific island chain of Tuvalu has been informed of the impending cataclysmic event. Were all 9,000 residents of greater Tuvalu to be told the news, however, very few would bother to worry: to live on a mere speck of an island in the middle of an ocean is truly to appreciate the fact that the earth is two-thirds [or three-fourths?] covered by water. So, if someone, whether out of compassion or malice, were to say to the inhabitants of Nui — through a megaphone or bullhorn, perhaps — “Ringo Starr is falling to earth. It’s an asteroid, a big rock. And it’s falling to earth. Any time now. Get ready,” every one of these islanders would envision a great, though fleeting, splash.

On Manhattan island, however, every single person of ample age or wits to understand language at all has heard the news that Ringo Starr is falling to earth, and most are well-versed in the music and collective biography of the Beatles. Furthermore, they are all worried: to live in the business, arts, and media capital of the United States is truly to believe nothing worth happening happens elsewhere. There is a great debate over which part of town will be struck by the asteroid, with most East-Siders betting on the West Side and vice versa, Uptowners counting on a Downtown impact, and so forth.

In China, hundreds of millions know of the asteroid’s fall, and hundreds of millions do not. The same is true for India. In Siberia, most know; of these, a majority feel their region could not possibly be smitten by another gigantic asteroid so soon after the last one, while a pessimistic minority believe that all bad things happen in Siberia, so why not this, too. (Needless to say, the reindeer are completely ignorant at this point; any report of reindeer foreboding would be an act of reckless anthropomorphism.)

In addition to debates and wagers re. (4150) Starr’s locus of impact, apocalyptic prophecies abound, being transmitted face-to-face, via the mass media, and especially on the Internet, which has emerged as by far the most powerful — and the most populist — oracle of impending calamity (the other aforementioned communications media in turn devoting most of their time and/or space to analysis of ’Net-born thinking). New theories arise online every day in a swirl of clash and combination, web-surfers adopting or abandoning prophecies with the eye-blink zeal of stock-market traders. But although, at first glance, chaos would seem to prevail on the ’Net, over time, a few predominant beliefs (and companion fads) have taken form on the online ouija in a plottable chain of influence, beginning, as is common in matters of apocalypse, at the end: the Book of The Revelation to John. Shortly after the first news reports of (4150) Starr’s approach, hundreds of Christian web-masters around the world found an ominous parallel in the following quotation (rendered here in the New Revised Standard Version):

The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many died from the water, because it was made bitter. (Rev. 8: 10-11)

In the words of
WoeWoeWoe — “Bringing You The Last, First”®
NEWSFLASH! We have now heard the fateful sound of the third trumpet. WORMWOOD IS FALLING! WORMWOOD IS FALLING! Instant replay: FIRST TRUMPET, “hail and fire, mixed with blood” (Rev. 8:7) i.e. the Red Cross plane that crashed near Spokane during a hailstorm on October 19, setting the forest ablaze for miles around; SECOND TRUMPET, “something like a great mountain, burning with fire, was thrown into the sea” (Rev. 8:8), i.e. the December 2 eruption of the Mt. Pinatubo volcano in the Philippines, it’s lava spilling into the ocean and boiling countless marine animals alive. Now a great asteroid is falling (“aster” which means of course “star”) and the asteroid is even named “Starr.” It’s Wormwood folks. WORMWOOD! Trumpet #4 is on the way, friends, say your prayers and check this site EVERY SINGLE DAY for news. (Hint: think eclipse...) “WOE, WOE, WOE TO THE INHABITANTS OF THE EARTH” (Rev. 8:13).

Shortly thereafter, posted the following:
The World-Wide Witness is never one to say, “We told you so,” but we would like to point out that there are some sites that are more used to the invigorating exercise of walking in the light of Grace than others. So when we say, “See what we meant about the Beatles, now that its all come to pass as we said it would?” we are not denigrating the, no-doubt, well-meaning souls at      ,, (we cannot in good conscience, provide a link to the lattermost site), or any other fellow Christian sites. We are simply inviting you (and of course, them) to join us for a brisk stroll in the Sunshine of the Savior.
By the way, if this is your first time logging on, welcome fellow Sinner.
Those of you who have been surfing the site for a longer time now — and thank you all for your encouraging emails, those of you who sent them, you have brought many :)s to our face here at The WWWitness — you will recall how we revealed previously secret hidden knowledge as reported by one of the Beatles’ former intimates who has since been Saved but understandably wishes to remain anonymous, that the “FAB” in the “FAB Four” nickname of the Beatles actually stood for “Fornicating Adulators of Baal.” You will also recall, how, at one time these Beatles actually had the GALL to proclaim they were more popular than our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. (Better they should be named the Locusts, for they have truly been a plague upon our youth for generations now.)
Well, the new news, as related by The WWWitness’ good friend and student of the Apocalypse par excellence from Kentucky, Tom Mitts on his site, is, this Ringo Starr impostor (he goes by a false name, like the lifelong deceiver he is, his real name is Richard STARkey), is namesake of this star, which is the terrible falling Wormwood foretold in the Book of Revelation. Let it be known that The WWWitness hereby predicts that in a short matter of time Mr. STARkey, is going to find himself living by chapter and verse of another of the Good Book’s books. That book in question is in the OT and its Lamentations! And the chapter and verse he will fall on his knees and cry to heaven is Lamentations 3:19, “The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!” because he has invoked Wormwood upon us, because he had the “gall” to blaspheme against the Lamb.
Hearing, then answering the call to investigate this further, The WWWitness borrowed a Beatles CD recording from the public library, which was hideously scratched as though it had been clawed by demons, (the CD we mean, not the library, which though generally clean and tidy in appearance was sullied by heathen unsupervised children who when The WWWitness suggested that they curl up with a nice Children’s Illustrated Bible had the nerve to respond with profanity more befitting of Sodom or Gomorah than of a nice Southern Ohio township).
The deceiver STARkey sang on just one song on this CD, one recommended by our friends at the “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” Christian music site — although again, The WWWitness certainly does not share young Timothy’s views on these four idolaters from Liverpool, one of whom is already reaping his everlasting reward because “as you sew...” but again, not to say, “We told you so.” The song was called “Yellow Submarine” and contained these lyrics:
So we sailed into the sun
’Til we found a sea of green
And we lived beneath the waves
In our yellow submarine.
A little information-gathering amongst the online Faithful produced the definitive interpretation of these sinister lines, from our always inspiring interdenominational friend in Jesus, Pere Encensoir of

[EN ANGLAIS] The Blood and the Word
Dear friends, we are living now in a sobering time. For it would seem that the Apocalypse is arriving. ‘But surely this is an exciting time’, one might say, ‘one for which we, the faithful Christians, have waited these two millennia. Awe-inspiring, perhaps, even harrowing, but sobering? No, not sobering’. But yes, ‘sobering’ is the word for these times, for now we are called to sobriety. Terrible Wormwood is falling, as foretold in The Book of the Apocalypse, and as heralded in the fateful song of hell “Yellow Submarine” by the scabrous Scarabées [I leave the word for ‘Beetle’ (i.e. Beatle) en français so English speakers may enjoy the vehemence of my alliteration; I have tried the use of ‘benighted Beatles’ and ‘befouling Beatles’, but the sound of these words falls short of my contempt]. It will turn the sea to green, the green of La Fée Verte, the bitter, treacherous, enfeebling, stupefying, murderous green of... Absinthe. Yes, my friends, the liquid terror of the nineteenth century will return to France, to Switzerland, to all of Europe, to Canada, to all of America, to Asia, to Africa, to the Antipodes, perhaps even to the North Pole, the South Pole. Everywhere... the bitter alcoholic, wormwood-polluted ‘sea of green’ within the glass shaped so like a torpedo, the slow trickle of sugar-water seeping in, so like a venom, yet disguising the true poison, clouding the clear green deadly truth in the seductive murk of opal yellow, turning each torpedo-glass into one’s very own “yellow submarine”, into which one sinks, living “beneath the waves”... until one dies. Or worse still, for one’s immortal soul: until one kills. Absinthe, the curse of absence, to us French; apsínthion ‘the undrinkable’ to the ancient Greeks; wormwood to the English, a killer of tapeworms, of vermin — and such miserable specimens of vermin they are, those who pickle themselves in the deadly vinegar of absinthe; and to the Russians, the word for this curse? It is chernobyl, signifier to billions of horrific death and sadness. Yes, we should all be well-acquainted with the sadness of chernobyl, of wormwood, of absinthe.... Sobriety. Sobriety. Our only hope. We must not repeat the libertine lessons of Verlaine, of Rimbaud, of Jarry, of Wilde, the lessons of verse turned perverse. We must close our ears to their poisoned stanzas, and to the poisoned words of the prophets... the tantalizing, false prophets of Samaria, of Jerusalem, and now, of Liverpool, that contaminated nest of Scarabées. Remember these words, as I remember them, from the Book of Jeremiah:
In the prophets of Samaria I saw a disgusting thing: they prophesied by Baal and led my people Israel astray. But in the prophets of Jerusalem I have seen a more shocking thing: they commit adultery and walk in lies; they strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns from wickedness; all of them have become like Sodom to me, and its inhabitants like Gomorah. Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts concerning the prophets: “I am going to make them eat wormwood, and give them poisoned water to drink; for from the prophets of Jerusalem ungodliness has spread throughout the land.” (Jer. 23:13-15)
Bitter, bitter Wormwood is falling from the sky to poison the water of the earth. Do not eat of it, do not drink of it. Nourish your immortal soul with sobriety, sobriety... pity, piety, prayer... and sobriety.  More next week...
Yours Online in Christ
Père René Encensoir, S.J.

Absinthe, of course, being an apéritif, currently outlawed throughout most of the world, containing from 68-75% alcohol by volume (136-150 proof) and flavored with extracts of anise, hyssop, dittany, sweet flag, melissa, veronica, chamomile, and, principally and most infamously, wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). One of the bitterest substances humankind has ever taken it upon itself to ingest, wormwood is a yellow-flowered, grey-leaved plant of the Compositae (daisy) family, used in antiquity as a purgative and vermifuge (hence, perhaps, the name, though the etymology of “wormwood” is murky). The active ingredient in wormwood is thujone, a camphor isomer (C10H16O) similar in structure to tetrahydrocannabinol (C21H30O2), a.k.a. THC, the principal intoxicant in marijuana. Known to induce epileptic fits in concentration, thujone was blamed in 19th-c. France as the root of “l’absinthisme,” a purported disease of the day whose symptoms were said to include hallucinations, fits, stupor, suicidal and/or homicidal rages, and a failure to imbibe enough French wine on a regular basis — the lattermost “symptom” being perhaps the driving force behind the successful movement to ban absinthe, café tipplers of the day being admonished by vintners and their allies in politics and the church to abandon the succubic “Green Fairy” of absinthe in favor of “wine of faith, wine of love, wine of hope, wine of life.” Subsequent 20th-c. research found no demonstrable difference between “absinthism” (attributed to wormwood intake) and alcoholism. In fact, in order to achieve the independent convulsive effects of thujone mentioned above, an absinthe drinker would have to consume, in rapid succession, approximately fifty one-ounce portions of the high-proof liqueur; it is a rare and mighty guzzler who can down what amounts to more than a quart’s worth of pure alcohol at a sitting and still manage to breathe, much less to convulse.

Ringo Starr is falling to earth, and the people clamor for absinthe. Reputedly sparked by a little-known (and now defunct) web-site posted by a reclusive (and now deceased, rumored poisoned) French Jesuit, the absinthe craze is shared by millions, with the Green Fairy spreading her wings promptly at 5:30 each afternoon in legally sanctioned London pubs and Madrid cantinas, illicit Paris basement cafés and New York speakeasies (many of these last having abandoned legitimate operations — as pizza parlor, record shop, A.A. meeting house, etc. — for their original Prohibition-era raison d’être), track-lit Tokyo “abzo-bars” (Green Ringo and Perunofisu, to name two), bare-bulb Moscow bordellos (no names given, nor needed), and thousands of private homes, from Green Bay to Cabo Verde.

And as these millennial absintheurs and absintheuses drizzle their chilled springwater over the lump of sugar in the slotted spoon and into the flared bell of the glass, watching the sweet rain dull the liqueur’s clear medicinal green into an inviting cloud of opal-yellow, and as their nostrils dilate to receive the rising licorice-fumes, their thoughts and conversation turn, languidly...  to poetry.  For another of absinthe’s well-known epithets is “The Green Muse,” and rightly so: this elixir was the true ink infusing the verse of such fin-de-(19e.) siècle poets as Paul Verlaine (“For me, my glory is but an / ‘humble ephemeral absinthe’...”), Arthur Rimbaud (“Let us, wise pilgrims, reach / The Absinthe with the green pillars...”), and Oscar Wilde (“What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?”).  Now that the Green Muse has reawoken, she sings the praises of her former darlings to her would-be suitors of today, and thus inspires a fever of scribbling — for the poets in their notebooks, for the bartenders on their tabs, and soon, perhaps, for the undertakers in their logbooks. But if, while toasting their predecessors, our contemporary poets fail to remember the belle-époque slogan, “L’ABSINTHE, C’EST LA MORT,” let us, at least, make a point of noting that, for the likes of Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Wilde, while absinthe led to alcoholism, it was syphilis that sealed an early death. So pity the poor Green Muse, as she whispers such rhymes as these in some newborn bard’s ear:

A is for absinthe, known as the “fee vurt,”
B is the blotch where it spilled on my shirt.
S is for Starr, somewhere it will hit us,
I is for I bet it falls on Mauritius ($10).
N is the nice fog that covers my eyes
T is for tickets, goddamn DUIs.
H is for holding cell, where I spent the night
E is for Edward, who held me so tight.
Put it all together, and... I’ll have another.

Pity also the declaimer, who, having publicly relieved himself of his poetic inspiration, teeters worriedly atop the underground café’s makeshift rostrum — a complete set of the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary, stacked volume upon volume in two columns, the entire construction encased in an envelope of clear plastic (though whether to protect the book jackets or the language itself from wear-and-tear remains unclear). Seven absinthes into the evening, the poet suffers a moment of gravitational confusion and attempts to step down to the low ceiling, only to find himself so tall that his head meets the floor. However, his motionless, skyward-pointing rump provides a handy step-ladder for the next poet to ascend to the platform, as the dozen or two other absintheurs and -euses in this dim subterranean den reverently observe the dripping of the sugar-cubes, staccato plashing into the glasses like impatient stalactites.

As the weeks and months go by, those versifiers not lost to cirrhosis encounter a diminishing poetic return on their investment in absinthe; tolerances soar, and withdrawal comes crashing down, inflicting monstrous headaches and apocalyptic visions on the poets. Worse yet, scansion infects their work like a plague, once-robust rhythms and rhymes growing anemic and collapsing before their horrified eyes. In desperation, the Retro-Rimbaudians, -Verlaineians, and -Wildeans strike out in search of new inspiration; leaping anxiously through the decades, they alight upon the mid-century of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Cassady, Corso, Snyder, McClure, Mescaline, Ferlinghetti, Psilocybin, Holmes, and Ayuahuaska. Recast as latter-day hipsters, and shorn of repressive formal constraints, the Re-Beats convene in online “happencasts,” fleshing out cadavres exquis in spontaneous bursts of chemical-informed poetry, like so:

ZenNJ: i saw the best minds of my generation employed by hi-tech
BeatDaddy: me too!
Froggy: cascade of filth pissshit shitpiss raining on my head raining :::::::
BabyJack: alto saxophone crying black god strikes like lightning in the negro night
DarmaBum: you like yabyum? i like yabyum, lets yabyum
Bohoho: cool it with the “negro” business, man
BeatDaddy: hey froggy, are you named froggy cuz yr french or something?
ZenNJ: Moloch the operating system! Moloch the browser!
Froggy: nope. Re-Beat
Yaksha: i’m up for yabyum
DarmaBum: great! hop in my lap!
BeatDaddy: got room for me too?  :)
BabyJack: don’t inhibit me man i’m on a roll... majestic cathartic african warrior attack the bandstand passion burn burn fire molten lava
DarmaBum: 3’s a crowd dude
Yaksha: ok DB i’m in your lap let’s do it
Bohoho: i’ve had about enough of this “black savage” bullshit, and you other 2 can take your sickening cyberscrew somewhere else too
ZenNJ: Moloch falling! Wormwood falling! Silicon enslavement, Starr of expiation!
BeatDaddy: fine, i know when i’m not wanted, fuck you i’m gone DharmaButt (and learn how to spell!)
BabyJack: who died and made you LeRoi Jones?
Yaksha: wheeeeeeeee*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
Bohoho: are you addressing me? (and it’s Amiri Baraka, you square sonofabitch)
ZenNJ: hey could we get back to poetry?
DarmaBum: oh baby, you know how to yabyum!!!
NakedBrunch: This ’cast is full of talking assholes!
Froggy: pisspukeshitjismblood
3Woe: Woe to you, absinthe-swillers, fornicators, and corruptors! Your fate is at hand! “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.” (Rev. 14:8)
Yaksha: anybody know of a site where I can score some yage?

It is impossible to say definitively — though many of the habitually credulous have in fact made this claim — that the sudden resurgence in popularity of the late experimental writer, anti-establishment ranter, narcotic adventurer, abysmal marksman, and Beat-poet mentor William S. Burroughs stemmed directly from the sudden and simultaneous appearance in chat-rooms throughout the Web of the Burroughs quotation “Language is a virus from outer space,” attributed cryptically to “WSB.” But it is certainly possible.

In any case, Burroughs-mania has struck, pervading the World Wide Web and the whole wide world. And whatever the spark that ignited the trend, the frenzy is indisputably maintained by the rumor that “Bill” is still alive... somewhere. Sightings and soundings are reported virtually every day:
     Bill staring dyspeptically out the window of a Manhattan subway car as it rattles away from the station platform at 28th and 7th.
     Bill growling “—laser implantation of the fascist —” on a radio station picked up in rural Kansas, the frequency briefly visited and then abandoned during an automatic “SEEK” function, the broadcast impossible to relocate after the fact, even with the most finely calibrated digital tuner.
     Bill slipping out a third-floor dormitory window on the campus of a prestigious New England school for boys, just after lights-out.
     Bill haggling over the price of a Japanese-made stuffed-animal cat in a bazaar in Tangier.
     Bill selling cheaply photocopied, saddle-stitched copies of his own Naked Lunch door-to-door in the tony San Francisco suburb of Hillsborough.

Business theorists tend to concur that that lattermost “sighting” is in fact a crass attempt at legitimation of the rampant trade in pirated “Bill” goods, such as the following:

     The Naked Lunchbox — in fact, a plain grey lunchbox whose only Burroughsian referent is a sticker bearing the product’s punning sobriquet).
     The Naked Punch — an ordinary one-hole punch for home or office, sticker-adorned (see above).
     The Soft Machine — A completely useless hand-held widget with fluorescent fake-fur-covered gears.
     Uncle Bill’s Fix-It Kit — A toy cigarette lighter, spoon, tourniquet, and syringe (with child-safe retractable plastic needle) packaged with 6 oz. of brown sugar.
     The William S. Burroughs Inaction Figure — A six-inch-tall, polyester-suited plastic doll that sits on a toy park bench (sold separately), remaining completely immobile but for its eyes, which swivel in their sockets to remain fixated on those of the nearest person within a radius of six feet (batteries not included, nor needed).

Legitimately licensed merchandise is also widespread, and there is a rumor of a forthcoming William S. Burroughs U.S. Commemorative Postage Stamp; Burroughs devotees are divided over whether the stamp image should portray “young, tasty Bill” or “canny, crotchety Bill.” Furthermore, a major Hollywood studio is reportedly developing a feature-length, PG-rated, animated adaptation of Naked Lunch, working title Pest-Control Bill.  In the casinos of Las Vegas, Reno, and (especially) Sparks, NV, “Willie’s Follies” floorshows draw capacity crowds to witness “Bill” impersonators (of both the “tasty” and “crotchety” epochs), topless dancers tricked out as Costa Rican shamanesses, and ventriloquists dressed only in cowboy chaps who, forsaking dummies, clasp microphones between their buttocks and feign rectal speech, breaking wind occasionally to punctuate one-liners.

Lurking just outside the periphery of the Burroughs limelight is “Bill’s” most favored narcotic: as the Re-Beats abandon Kerouac and co. for “Bill,” so do they pass from the recreation of psychedelics to the ’round-the-clock occupation of “junk” — the ’50s hipster’s umbrella term for opium and such derivative products as heroin, morphine, dilaudid, codeine, and demerol. As one cable-television editorialist posited, “Perhaps the reason this dead junky Burroughs is spotted so often is that so many misguided fools have come to look like him.” There is a certain correlational truth to this acerbic conjecture: as “Bill” is increasingly seen here and there, his newfound devotees fail to be seen in any of their regular haunts. Relatives and friends have begun to suspect that, if their absent loved ones continue to appear anywhere, it is indeed by virtue of haunting.

Former Beatle Ringo Starr has issued a press release assuring his fans that he has not succumbed to absinthe, junk, death, or poetry, despite rumors of all the foregoing. He also reports that, for the time being, he will remain in hiding.

(4150) Ringo Starr is falling to earth, still. But while the minor planet’s eventual arrival will certainly be greeted with fitting levels of popular terror and mass media coverage, its continual approach, day after day, month after month, had grown tedious — even mildly annoying. So, after hovering at the top of the public consciousness for some time, it has now been nudged out of vogue by more pressing calamities (e.g., avalanches, monsoons, terrorist/anti-terrorist bombings), political elections/coups, sports finals, fashion trends, movies, sex scandals, and, of course, “Bill.”

But, given that waves of popularity often behave like ocean waves, that is, criss-crossing, doubling back, fragmenting into ripples, and so forth, it just so happens that some inhabitants of on-line backwaters — graduate students with start-up pages set to ontology debate-rooms, for example, or collectors who devote their online time to the search for ancient thumbnail-sized items of esoteric purpose, or the so-called Cybermonks of the Brotherhood of the Ultimate Link, who, having taken a solemn vow renouncing use of the computer keyboard, journey through cyberspace exclusively on mouse-back, pointing and clicking their way through the web, link after link, hesitating sometimes briefly to read, to gape, or merely to lurk, before clicking off for parts unknown, each harboring the hope that upon his hard-drive will be inscribed the Global History file that charts the path to the fabled “Site of Sites” or “Nexus,” the absolute spiritual center of the World Wide Web, around which one is said to witness all sites everywhere aligned radially to form a Golden Disc, the sum total of all information, although it is also rumored that at the very center of this Disc there exists a hole, a gateway beyond the web leading, perhaps, to the ever-expanding multiverses of outer-space, to the axes enclosing the ray of time, where all moments become simultaneously accessible by a simple plotting of X and Y, to the higher plane of perpetual energy from which our own lives are cast off as mere fading sparks, or, at the very least, to God — the world’s johnnies-off-the-spot, in other words, first learned the news of the asteroid’s approach at the same time they happened across the Burroughs quote “Language is a virus from outer space,” and, pondering this juxtaposition, then proposed the following hypothesis (the “mute” cybermonks lending sympathy rather than words):
If language is truly a virus from outer space, then one can reasonably speak of different languages as separate “strains” of this language virus, and therefore, the rise of a new language can be synonymized as either a mutation of a viral strain or the sudden arrival of a new strain, and bearing in mind that if a form of language virus arrived once from outer space, it stands to reason that it will do so again, and given that, to withstand the friction of entry into earth’s atmosphere, the virus would require some form of dense protective barrier or shell that could safely ferry the virus to the surface of the earth, and given also that meteorites and asteroids could indeed fit this “shell” description, it is most intriguing to surmise that these falling “stars” are in fact the carriers of the language virus, and so it only stands to reason that the more sizable the asteroid, the greater the number of discrete virus strains that could be harbored within its core, and subsequently, upon impact, released into the atmosphere — and, by extension, the culture — and, speaking historically and/or Biblically, the greatest spontaneous generation of mutually incomprehensible languages ever recorded was the confusio linguarum of the Book of Genesis, the fission of one language into many that, as the Scriptures have it, took place in the aftermath of the fall of the Tower of Babel, lending credence, in light of the viral theory, to the notion that the fall of Babel was in fact a historical event, the demolition having been caused by a falling asteroid, a well-aimed stone hurled from God’s sling (speaking metaphorically), and so, with (4150) Starr (to continue the metaphor), God has launched another salvo, and it should be borne in mind that, given the size of this minor-planetary missile, this second confusion of language resulting from the imminent impact is going to make the fall of Babel look like an Esperanto convention.

Its fervor reignited by the new hypothesis, the Judeo-Christian world talks to itself of the Second Coming of Babel, with the satellite New Age and atheist/agnostic worlds listening in for pointers and points of ridicule, respectively. And as word of the language virus reverberates through the culture, the voice that originally spoke it (i.e., “Bill’s”) fades from the public perception. Just as well for the longevity of the idea: many a great notion has thrived by seeping down from the precarious heights of genius to the bedrock of popular wisdom, though sometimes coating all points in between. So, for example, Jesus’ memorable precept, “Do unto others...,” is simultaneously preached in church via its Biblical text (Matt. 7:12), piously referenced (if not often followed) in civic and political contexts as the more nebulously attributed “Golden Rule,” and dispensed as folk wisdom during childrearing as “Share and share alike.”

Just so, then, the notion of the asteroid-virus spreads through the culture rapidly and anonymously, speeding down the information superhighway like a fleet of express trucks dedicated to the overnight delivery of received wisdom. But, as on all highways, despite the constant flattening of high-speed traffic, a few weeds begin to pop up — dissenting voices, obtrusive and far from anonymous (though, for reasons of survival, often covert). Chief among these, as measured by site hits and use-group chatter, is Dr. Virgil “The Scourge” MacKellar, the onetime Associate Director of the Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute (HATII) at the University of Glasgow and current host of “MacKellar in the Cellar,” a weekly pirate radio program emanating from a peat-camouflaged bunker somewhere on the Isle of Skye, the show’s duration limited to exactly ninety seconds — a dodge against detection by Her Majesty’s police and broadcast forces — and its defiant five-watt signal being lobbed caber-like over three miles of open water to the North West Highlands of Scotland, where it is received, digitized, and streamed over the World Wide Web by a faithful and equally furtive accomplice. A week’s sample broad-/webcast:

Right, MacKellar here. Now last week, we spoke of that asteroid, the so-called Ringo Starr, and the purported virus from outer space, remember that? So here we are, everyone wondering where the big rock is going to hit, isn’t that so? Perhaps in America or Russia, they’ve got lots of room, or China better yet, China. Why not in Jamaica, eh, or Kenya? take out some of the dark fellahs, yes? Would you like that? Or if you’re a dark fellah yourself, how about Oslo, or Berlin, show the fair types a thing or two? Or perhaps your hope is that it’ll fall right here on Skye, put an end to the Scourge’s radio career. I’m sure that would please dear E.R. II to no end. Well, my friends, rocks will fall where they will, sixty, but the real issue is — what’s to make of this language virus in the pith of the asteroid?  I’ll tell you — nothing whatever. And why’s that? It’s because the virus is not really coming from outer space, it’s already here, and it’s spreading through cyberspace! spreading confusion everywhere it lands, an epidemic of Biblical proportions, ho yes, Biblical! yes, first, this great rock is Wormwood from Revelation, the next thing, it’s a holy missile come to flatten a rebuilt Babel, well just think of that, would you, in the flick of an eye, in the click of a mouse, we’ve gone from Revelation to Genesis, exactly arse-backwards in other words, thirty, no surprise there, none at all, the next thing you know, some online tosser will claim the asteroid is going to glide across the heavens like some angelic RAF jet and drop Psalms on our heads! No, you’ve no asteroid viruses to fear — fear instead the dissociation, fifteen, of signified and signifier, the bastardization of fact at the hands of hearsay, the sterilization of event into information, the acid-bath erosion of credibility and accountability, the annihilation of attention, of coherence,  that oh for God—

Rumors (and accompanying wagers) are widespread on the Web that both Ringo Starr (the former Beatle) and the secretly still-extant William S. Burroughs are in hiding with Dr. MacKellar, the embunkered trio clandestinely at work on one or more of the following projects:

     a post-confusio semantic vaccine
     an especially potent hybrid distillation of Scotch whisky, absinthe, and yage
     a Beatles reunion album employing new lyrics by John Lennon as transmitted from beyond the grave to an orgone accumulator drawing energy from the radium dial of the late Beatle’s wristwatch, the so-accumulated orgones being converted into ASCII code and subsequently into verses by a unique translation program developed after-hours by Dr. MacKellar during his tenure at HATII.

Meanwhile, Her Majesty is said to have deployed a secret weapon, possibly involving radio-controlled ferrets, designed to “flush the Scourge out of hiding.” However, in a possibly related occurrence, amateur astronomers surveying the Scottish night sky report the discernment of BBC1 programming in the normally nebulous lights of the aurora borealis. The same evening, throughout Canada, viewers of the recently debuted CBC television program Ringo Today report the sudden supplanting of an animated graphic of the falling asteroid with a title-card reading, “A Word from Sister Terry,” followed by a live-action transmission of a beautiful young woman, caramel-skinned and brunette, captured in full head-shot, with “lips like a pastry, lovingly glazed” (per one transfixed viewer), those lips pursed together at first, indeed resembling a fresh-baked sticky-bun creased in the middle, then swelling, parting, and proclaiming the following:

Do not fear Babel, friends. When the Lord said, ‘Nothing they propose to do... will now be impossible for them,’ He did not fear us... as rivals; He merely realized that... the impossible... is what we need to define what is... possible, just as death is what we need... to define... life, and silence... what we need... to define speech. Without the impossible, there can be no endeavor; achievement... becomes a word without... meaning, as does... failure. So the Lord gave us confusion, to... guarantee the impossible and... thus... define... the possible. Confusion is... the vessel of our knowledge... never to... overflow. This... is His gift.

Abruptly, Sister Terry disappears from view. Word of the mysterious and comely prophet — ostensibly, given her sobriquet, a Catholic nun — sweeps throughout the Canadian provinces and into much of the United States, and the following evening, antennas and satellite dishes throughout North America home in on Ringo Today, but disappointingly, there is no Terry tonight. After watching a full hour of computer-animated graphics, during which a pinpoint dot identified as “(4150) Starr” appears to make no movement whatsoever across a scale model of the entire solar system toward a companion dot labeled “Earth,” many Stateside viewers, feeling deprived of rightful arousal, switch the channel to a network news program, which at that moment broadcasts the face of a middle-aged woman with blonde-frosted grey hair, her lips not at all like fresh pastry, above the legend, “LIVE: MAR VISTA, CA.” The woman points to a golf-ball-sized indentation in her forehead and says, “Right here, this is where the rivet hit me, here, it fell from the sky, off a building, from a rivet gun.” A reporter’s voice prompts, “And since the announcement of the asteroid’s fall—” “Even before the announcement!” the woman cuts in. “It was the very day of the wallop! I felt this phantom pain in the crater in my head, and now every day, as the asteroid gets closer to earth, I can feel it, I can feel it right here.” She points again. “A pain?” asks the reporter, “You feel a... pain?” The woman moves her index finger in a circle around the rim of her rivet-mark. “It’s not a pain, exactly. It’s more like... a feeling. A relationship.”

Ringo Starr is falling to earth, and throughout the English-speaking world, home- and automobile-insurance policy-holders discover, to their chagrin, looming just above their signatures, a previously ignored paragraph set in the customary micro-font of credit-card APRs and Latinate chemical ingredients. This paragraph begins with the words, “Exceptions to Coverage,” and ends with, “...earthquakes, tidal waves, asteroid/meteorite impacts and other acts of God.”

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

This post is offered in tribute to Chris Marker, who died yesterday (making "Memory" the obvious-choice humour of the day, in keeping with the theme of this long-dormant blog).  I wrote this piece back in ’97 with no real aim for it beyond a vague notion of "Maybe I'll try to publish it somewhere, someday"—this was before the days of blogging, of course.  Re-reading it now, it seems earnest but not especially publishable, in the sense of some outside arbiter deciding to kill a tree in its behalf, and there are a number of elements in here I'd change (e.g., typos, factual slip-ups, saying "comprised" where I should say "composed," public lusting over Irène Jacob) if I were to start trying to make improvements.  But I know I won't have time to do so, so I'll take a warts-and-all, "good enough for Blogger" approach and just click "Publish" (closing an aspirational circle of sorts).  Spoiler alert: There's a La Jetée spoiler in here, so if you have yet to see the film, do skip the paragraph beginning "The plot twists. . . ."  Or better yet, get your hands on a copy of the film and watch it—a much better use of your time than this humble essay, if you're new to Marker.—MC

Still Life With Motion: The Images of Chris Marker

An outdoor shrine where people offer up prayers to their lost cats, so that when the animals die, the spirits will know their names.

A gathering in a public square of young people who dress colorfully, like clowns, and move about jerkily, in imitation of robots.

A department store display with a JFK robot that lip-synchs to “Ask not what your country can do for you...” while an eerie female chorus echoes, “Ask not, ask not...”

In my mind, there is a messy drawer holding scraps of information on each place I have never visited but would like to, one day. I might glance through its contents when I come across a new image of the place in question, before adding that image, in turn, to the pile; I might also do some rummaging at a party, comparing my fading mental pictures with the more reliable narrative snapshots of travelers.

The three scraps shown above inhabited my “Japan” drawer, and were gleaned, it seemed to me, from magazine pieces I had read over the years, supported perhaps by clips on television or by NPR reports. How surprised I was in 1993, then, while watching a videotape of the movie Sans Soleil (‘Sunless’), by French film maker Chris Marker, to realize that all three of these images, along with an embarrassingly high number of the rest of my Japanese “recollections,” came from this one film, which I had first seen five years earlier.

This phenomenon, the casual yet crystalline image that lodges itself inside one’s memory, is not only a recurring property of Marker’s work, it is quite often his subject matter. In his creation of such elemental images — film sequences that behave like still photos in the memory, or, conversely, stills that behave like moving images — he ponders not only how such memories are made, but how these images look back at us over time, guiding us and, as I learned firsthand, often deceiving us.

Marker’s 1962 short film La Jetée (‘The Jetty’), is comprised entirely* of black-and-white still photographs, linked by a spoken narration and a sparse soundtrack of faintly heard music and incidental voices. The inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s full-length feature 12 Monkeys, La Jetée is the story of a post-apocalyptic era in which the inhabitants of a ravaged Paris send emissaries both forward in time, to seek power sources from the re-built civilization of their descendants, and backward, in order to try to prevent the ruin they have wrought upon themselves. (Whether they deserve such a reprieve is another question, as they have created a subterranean totalitarian state in which citizens are forced to take part in these time-travel experiments, which routinely render them mad, or, just as often, dead; one would think that, after having destroyed one civilization with nuclear weapons, presumably through an excess of selfishness, it might dawn on these folks that a little live-and-let-live would be in order, but some people never learn, I suppose.)

The nameless hero of the film is chosen (read “coerced”) to be one of these emissaries due to his strong visual link to the past — in particular, he is haunted by a single image from his childhood, of a woman’s face on the jetty at Orly airport at the precise moment that a man nearby is murdered. The present-day experimenters know that, due to this propensity toward visualization, this man will be able to successfully relocate his own past when projected backward (the procedure seems to be somewhat noncorporeal; while the exact mechanism is never explained, this does not detract from the film, as the real issue here is not “how” he time-travels, as in genre science fiction, but “that” he travels).

The plot twists, as the mysterious, dark-toned still photos progress, until the man makes a final decision to remain in his past and, finding himself on the jetty at Orly airport one day, runs to meet a certain woman, only to encounter a certain goggled, armed emissary from his own present, only to realize that it was his own death he so memorably witnessed all those years ago.

What do the still photographs suggest? Aside from their mimicry in form of the time-traveler’s single image of fixation, they suggest a story that has already been told. When we watch a “live action” film, we lose ourselves not only in the story, in the characters’ predicaments, but in the illusion that the events we witness are taking place as we watch them (even if we are viewing an old movie: just watch Sunset Boulevard, and feel your heart seize up when Nora Desmond takes aim and fires into Joe Gillis’ back — Joe Gillis, another screen quasi-hero who, at the beginning of the film, bears witness to his own death).

With stills, though, we know that this film has been “processed”; while most of us have not directed films, we know what it is like to have photographs developed, and there is no illusion as to their reflection of past events. We thumb through them and see, for example, the progression of events in our family vacation: we were driving from San Francisco to San Antonio, so first, we see several shots taken within fifty miles of our Bay Area home (we’re all a bit trigger-happy at the beginning of a new roll of film), followed by two or three of the Mojave Desert (whether separated by five miles or fifty, it’s hard to tell, the landscape is so uniform), followed by Arizona desert outside Phoenix, with cactus, and so on, until the final exposure that we saved for the Alamo. We know as we look at these pictures that we have been to all of these places, but we are certainly not there now; we are just looking at highlights of our trip.

Likewise, the images of La Jetée proceed in an inexorable order, like photos laid down one-by-one on the dining room table — the highlights of a man’s life, from youth (and adult death) to death in adulthood (and youthful witness of it), a series to be replayed again and again without reshuffling, for, as the narrator says, you cannot escape time.

So are we, in fact, viewing these stills from a safe perspective in the past? Can we be fooled into thinking these images occur in an ever-present present? Before you answer, consider the fact that every film, including Sunset Boulevard, is nothing other than a series of still photographs. Is La Jetée, then, a collection of stills, of snapshots, assembled in the temporal order of a movie, or an actual movie that has been selectively — even extremely — edited down to its most memorable images? Or is all this really just a question of scale, and not of form? And is there, at bottom, a “smallest indivisible unit” of meaning in the Marker image?

In Silent Movie, a 1996 installation at U.C. Berkeley’s University Art Museum (now renamed the Berkeley Art Museum), Marker stacks five televisions in a tower formation. Each screen plays images from a laser disc Marker has produced: antique film footage (of buildings, clocks, etc.) combined with new images shot on video by Marker, of a handsome yet slightly mannish woman dressed in clingy femme fatale garb and executing a number of film noire gestures (smoking seductively, looking furtively over her shoulder, etc.). The content of the images says, “We are all of the same era,” but the video format says, “No, I am newer.” While each television shows images from an identical laser disc, a computer orders these images differently on each screen through random selection.

Over a half hour’s time, as I watched the various screens, the individual images recurred quite a bit. But while the pictures became familiar, their temporal order, of course, did not. As time passed, I could sense a feeling of familiarity, even of nostalgia, rising in me via this exhibit — nostalgia, clearly, for events that had never happened. These images had not just become detached from their original temporal order; there had been no original order. I now knew them all well, but simply as a jumble.

But isn’t this how much of our memory works? Remember that driving trip from San Francisco to San Antonio? I made it with my parents in 1978 (I was twelve), and I now recall the Grand Canyon in Arizona, the Carslbad Caverns in New Mexico, and a beautician’s sign in El Paso, Texas (which featured a man on a surfboard with what appeared to be a tidal wave curling over his head and a caption that read, confusingly, “California Hair Salon”), with equal clarity, and only my knowledge of basic Western States geography serves to inform me that these images were experienced in the order just presented.

Silent Movie, then, undermines our notions of traditional narrative, but it does so in the familiar language of memory. So this “movie” comes closer to our daily reality than we are accustomed. How like those first silent movies, in which incredulous viewers were riveted by the image of a man sneezing (as though he were contaminating their very breathing space!) or terrified — and sent ducking for cover — by the image of a silent, black-and-white train hurtling toward them, though of course they knew that there were no tracks leading into the theater. (Didn’t they?)

An aside: Recently, after watching the film Microcosmos, a beautiful nature “documentary” (I put the word in quotes because there was more classic narrative in this film than in a good number of recent “dramatic” movies; especially winning was a retelling of the myth of Sisyphus through the indefatigable efforts of a certain dung beetle), I was hypothesizing that there is no human equivalent to the behavior of certain insects in mating with species of flora that mimic the look and smell of their own species’ genitalia. Nope, we wouldn’t fall for that, I mused. And then I thought of the arousal we might experience while viewing a film (in my own experience, for example, watching Irène Jacob doing her stretching exercises in Red), and I realized that we, in our squeaky cinema seats and with our feet planted firmly on the sticky ground, are the bee pollinating the flower. There is no sexy woman or man up there — it’s just light on a screen, a succession of stills. But for a moment, you could’ve fooled us — and in fact, someone did.

Which brings us back to Chris Marker, who fools us, in Sans Soleil, into thinking we are experiencing the filmic notes and written correspondence of a late filmmaker and world traveler, Sandor Krasna, as gathered somewhat arbitrarily by his widow, or surviving lover. A few seconds of a cherry blossom festival in Japan. A few frames of a woman in a bustling marketplace in Cape Verde who avoids and then confronts the camera (and, by extension, the viewer), this moment being frozen into a still image before our attention flits somewhere else in the world. All in all, a series of short clips that all function like stills, like color slides arranged in a carousel in questionable (unfathomable, irrelevant) temporal order.

The narrator explains: “He wrote, ‘I’ve been around the world several times, and now only banality still interests me. On this trip, I’ve tracked it with the relentlessness of a bounty hunter.”

As the film progresses, a dichotomy arises between two public cultures: the crowded Cape Verde, where refuge from cameras is, nevertheless, sought and defended, and the even more crowded Japan, where all is recorded, and the image — the clever copy — is celebrated. “Ask not, ask not...”

Sans Soleil begins and ends with a single image, that of three children walking down a road in Iceland in 1965. Why is this image present in this film, this feigned posthumous documentary on Japan and Cape Verde, on viewer and viewee? It was said to haunt Sandor Krasna. As the voice-over informs us, “He said that for him it was the image of happiness, and also that he had tried several times to link it to other images but it never worked. He wrote me, ‘One day I’ll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader; if they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.’” Black, as in “Sunless”?

I think so. After my third viewing of the film (and the second confounding of my memory of the film), in late 1996, this thought came to me: In architectural circles, there is often talk of “positive space” and “negative space.” Positive space is occupied by plasterboard, beams, doors — the “stuff” of buildings. Negative space is concerned with what remains when the building is removed: the walking space, the living space, the space that makes the building useful (in the sense of Chapter Eleven of the Tao Te Ching, which, to paraphrase, asserts that it is the empty space in a vase, and not the clay, that makes the vase useful). I believe Marker is thinking along these lines when he calls this collection of filmed images “Sunless”: it took sunlight to make all of these images, but it is only when these images are stored away in our individual memories (where it is absolutely dark), becoming the remembered scenes that haunt our own lives, that they take on their true meaning. The “Sunlessness” makes them useful, the frame for our images of happiness.

Three years before he filmed the Icelandic children on their road, Marker came across another primal image of happiness in his documentary Le Joli Mai (translated a bit too bouncily for my taste as ‘The Lovely Month of May’), which he shot in Paris throughout the month of May 1962. A man who sells suits for a living (and who wears a white dress shirt that maddeningly obliterates many of the film’s white-lettered English subtitles) describes to the camera his unhappy life; he is angry because he can never get ahead, he is always working, there is too much traffic, his wife nags him. When asked about politics, he says he has no interest in it, nor in films that make him think. “I like a picture where guys bring out their guns and do some killing” he says, “or where they use the phone.” After reminiscing about these images, and attesting to his vicarious enjoyment of seeing tough guys on the screen (“being small myself and running to fat”), he contradicts his earlier position, asserting that basically he is, in fact, happy.

Somehow, these filmed images slip seamlessly into our lives, influencing our notions of who we are, and of how we feel about ourselves (happy/unhappy, worldly/woefully undertraveled). For one man, it’s children walking in Iceland; for another, it’s tough guys “busting up the works” (or, of course, using the phone). For such images — in their banality, in their constant readiness for recall in no particular order — the remembered temporal order may be irrelevant (at best) or mistaken (at worst). In these images — in so much of Marker’s work — movement is remembered as a frozen moment, and stillness follows stillness in imitation of movement. So the “smallest indivisible unit” of the image would appear to be elusive, and, like temporal order, a misleading concept to begin with. To fix the image in our minds, we must, as Marker urges, “see the black.”


* OK, this is the one factual error I need to address.  There is one key, brief scene in which La Jetée becomes a "motion picture."  Silly me, I either missed it or forgot about it back when I was writing this.  Or, in keeping with the film itself, perhaps I blinked..... 

Sunday, May 21, 2006


[The actual humour of the past month has been “Work,” trailed in a photo-finish by “Fatigue.” Hence, the long hiatus between postings, and the fact that I’m just now, on May 21, getting around to keying in and posting the blog entry below, originally scribbled in a notebook on April 25.]

Today, I blew on Calders. It’s my 40th birthday, and it occurred to me while ambling through the “Surreal Calder” exhibit at the SFMOMA that there’d be no better way to celebrate four now-complete decades of drawing breath than to put said breath to some good, honest work.

Not that my usual on-the-job use of breath isn’t honest…. The words I expel on the breath might be deceptive from time to time, in service either to the greater good or the greater convenience, but the breath itself?… Irreproachable.

Which, come to think of it, can’t necessarily be said of the breath I used to blow on the Calders. In fact, I more or less expected to be reproached by the museum guards for anything other than visual interaction with the objets. Which is why I turned my Calder-blowing activity into something of a game, with the guards as my unknowing opponents.

When you blow on a Calder mobile, it doesn’t behave terribly like a tree, despite the wall-cards’ assertion that we should all be intoning “Tree… Tree…” to ourselves while observing the works, as a sort of realistic counterbalance to Calder’s wiry extensions into the unconscious. The Calder reveals its component parts—e.g., black metal rods fastened to colored metal plates—one set at a time when touched by the breath, one unbalanced fulcrum joggling the next, and the next, etc., so that the effect, once your original breath has fully dispersed, is of various independent hands gradually becoming aware of your presence, then waving a friendly “howdy” your way. Your average tree limb, blown upon, is a much more jittery customer, seemingly annoyed at having to deal with a localized humanoid gust in lieu of a proper leaf-shaker from Mother Nature. The tree couldn’t care less about you, in short, but you can rest assured that the Calder is your pal, an ally in harmless mischief.

The same claim, of course, can’t be made of the SFMOMA guards, who, despite their benevolent smiles and nods, their unassuming stature (nary a six-footer among them), their comfily rubber-soled, equanimity-inducing footwear, and their softly bubbling, lulling small-talk among themselves in one or more of the many Philippine dialects, have proven themselves fearsome pen-pouncer-on-ers the moment they hear the tiny plik of a Uni-Ball pen-cap’s removal. (“No pens!” they assert, advancing on you with pencil nubbin extended toward your sternum—whether to offer to you for your sanctioned, graphite-fueled note-taking desires, or with which to run you through, you can never be entirely sure.)

So it was with a rare damn-the-consequences brio, which I can only chalk up to mid-life crisis, that I dared not only to blow on the Calders to my heart’s content (and eyes’ delight), but to do so in as close proximity to one or more SFMOMA guards as possible, even going so far as to engage them in conversation as a subterfuge…

MJC: Good afternoon.
Guard 1: Good afternoon, sir. [Turns to resume conversation with fellow guard.]
MJC: [Whips head toward Calder mobile: Puff…. Puff….]
Calder: Weeee!
MJC: Excuse me.
Guards 1&2: Yes, sir?
MJC: Do you happen to have a pencil I could borrow?
[Guards 1&2 draw sharpened pencil nubbins from the recesses of their blazers.]
MJC: [Aside] Aha, armed to the teeth, just as I suspected! [Accepting Guard 2’s pencil] Thank you very much! [Aside] Well, at least now it’ll be a fair fight… if it comes to that.
[Guards 1&2 resume private conversation]
MJC: [Blow…. Wheeze….]
Calder: Again! Again! Again!
MJC: Here’s your pencil back. Thanks.
Guard 2: [Seeming to notice that MJC has no paper in hand, and perhaps wondering whether MJC has just used the pencil to scratch some untoward place on his person] You’re welcome, sir.
MJC: This sculpture looks a bit like a tree, don't you think?
[Guards 1&2 smile benevolently—not at me, I realize in a moment, but at the two small children across the room who, no doubt following my own bad behavioral example, are attempting (so far ineffectually) to blow on and thereby stir a Calder mobile hanging far above their heads.]

Postscript: I backtracked through the exhibit and looked once again at a figurative wire sculpture of two acrobats, and thought, “It’s like a pen-and-ink drawing on air,” and, after duly chastising myself for taking pride in an aesthetic observation that probably dates back to five seconds after the piece’s initial public unveiling, I mentally congratulated Mr. Calder on both his creative whimsy and his transgressive spirit—the latter because, of course, pen and ink are absolutely, sternly, irrevocably forbidden within the SFMOMA galleries.