Monday, April 29, 2013

Brief, Highly Subjective Divagation on Nick Cave

So what do we make of Nick Cave?  He looks rough and ugly, but he sounds like Leonard Cohen.  To call him “post-punk” implies that there’s something punk about him.  I don’t think there is.

Now, I’m rather new to his music.  The first Nick Cave album that I encountered was his latest, Push the Sky Away.  It was chill as fuck, except really sinister at the same time.  Although actually, my first exposure to Cave came years ago, long before I knew who he was.  This was way back in the day (I mean in my adolescence, which I’d rather forget), when I watched Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987), in which Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds perform at a Berlin bar.  I don’t know what the song is called, but the refrain goes like this: “La la la la, a murder of crows, la la la, no one saw the carnie go” (the la la las are filler, I don’t remember much of the lyrics).  It sounded wonderful creepy. And the female lead—a trapeze artist—dances moodily in the audience, while Bruno Ganz—and Thomas Bernhard asserted that Ganz was the greatest German actor of his time, in his novel The Woodcutters—Burno Ganz is an angel and the humans can’t see him, but he loves the trapeze artist and gawks at her while she dances.

And I subsequently always associate Nick Cave with the grimy Berlin nightlife, and with David Bowie in Berlin, and especially with the Weimar scene.  Not that I know much about the Weimar “scene,” it’s probably a series of clich├ęs.  But there are images that one associates with Weimar:  expressionist movies, expressionist movie posters; cabaret; weird sex; Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog; Brecht and Weil; Dada; weird androgynous singers like Klaus Nomi (who wasn’t from that period, but he doesn’t have to be, these are just images); and finally poor goddam Amanda Palmer.  Jesus, the obscenity of millionaires on Kickstarter.  Do they not see themselves? Have they no self-awareness?  Kickstarter is theoretically a good idea: let poor artists with ideas go online and get money to make their ideas into reality.  I don’t object to that.  But Amanda Palmer is not poor (her husband, Mr. Gaiman, certainly isn’t poor); and Zach Braff isn’t poor; and whoever’s involved in Veronica Mars (this was not a thing that I followed when it was on TV), I say, they’re certainly not poor.  And why do people who can’t write poems attempt to write poems (cf. Amanda Palmer’s “Poem for Dzhokar”)?  First off, they’re not even trying to write poems.  They’re writing free associative prose with line breaks.  They’re like fucking adolescents who think that poetry is just supposed to be a pseudo-mystical (or mystifying) outpouring of feeling; now, it’s painful enough when adolescents do this, but Christ, Amanda Palmer’s 36.  Also, she’s a song writer, she’s written songs, a song is a poem with music attached, she should know something about meter at least.

Thanks for screwing up the Weimar aesthetic, Palmer.  Now we can only wait for the inevitable Cabaret remake (presumably starring Lady Gaga) to come along and revive it.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Teaching a Gorilla to Hate Itself: Barbet Schroeder’s Koko: A Talking Gorilla

Is there an intrinsic difference between a human and a person?  Or, to put it another way, does the category of “person” expand beyond the category of “human?” The parliament of the Balearic Islands thinks so.  In 2007, they passed first-of-its-kind legislation to grant great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans) the rights of legal personhood.

Now, what kind of personality does a non-human great ape—say, a gorilla—possess and how do we reach this determination?  Barbet Schroeder sought to explore this question with his 1978 documentary, Koko: A Talking Gorilla, which profiles the famous eponymous gorilla, who can communicate with hundreds of signs and respond to hundreds of words of spoken English.  But Koko isn’t the only star of this film, although she gets top billing; equally important is the scientist who trains and “mothers” her, Dr. Francine “Penny” Patterson.

Now, Koko and the teaching of Koko and the research done on Koko—the whole field of Kokology—raise all sorts of complex—if not downright vexing—questions about science, ethics, and what it means to be human and what it means to be a person.  So let’s knock off some linguistic issues before we get to the really juicy ethical questions.

First off, does Koko understand language, or are her responses and performances of American Sign Language (and speech, with the help of a vocal synthesizer) merely the result of elaborate conditioning?  In linguistics, they make the distinction between performance and competence.  A parrot, for instance, can perform human language quite well.  It can say whatever you want it to.  But that doesn’t mean it understands the language, and thusly it can’t be said to be competent in the language.  The scientists working with Koko sought to reverse this equation; they argued that although Koko (and other non-human great apes) may not have been able to perform most human language (this is a biological fact; they just don’t have the vocal equipment to do it), they may still have had the cognitive competence necessary for a true understanding of it.  And this is where sign language comes into play, because an ape may not be able to vocalize words, but it can certainly sign them.

But is this signing indicative of actual comprehension, or is it just mimicry and conditioning? Throughout Schroeder’s film, we see numerous impressive displays of signing by Koko, and although this frequently comes with the prompting (and often the example) of Dr. Patterson, there are also cases where Koko signs in response to a merely verbal cue, indicating that she can understand spoken language even if she can’t speak it, and furthermore that she is connecting the meanings of the signs with the meanings of the words, and attaching both signs and words to their referents in the physical world.  Furthermore, Koko is quite capable of signing things unprompted to convey her desires to Dr. Patterson.  Now, I’m neither a linguist nor a biologist, but this strikes me as indicating true comprehension on Koko’s part, and something that goes far beyond even the most elaborate conditioning.

On a more technical linguistic note, does Koko’s ability to communicate (and she’s undoubtedly communicating) qualify as language?  She tends to communicate in very short little bursts, often of a single sign.  There is little in what she says that could be called syntax.  However, there are still hints of it, like in this phrase that she produced via voice synthesizer, “Eat food apple apple hurry.” Now, there’s certainly some repetition in this phrase, but it’s actually made up of discreet parts. “Eat” is a verb that expresses her desire, “food” is what she would like to eat (more desire), “apple” specifies what she wants to eat, the second “apple” could conceivably be said to serve as an intensifier, and this is especially the case with the following word, “hurry,” which is a command verb.

And who is she commanding? Dr. Patterson, her constant companion.  Now, I don’t want to denigrate Dr. Patterson (especially because she’s still alive and how do I know whether or not she’s litigious?), but what struck me the most about this movie (or rather, disturbed me the most) was Dr. Patterson’s ability and willingness to make Koko feel bad.  Which is an accomplishment in itself, I suppose.  Now, I don’t deny animals the capacity to feel emotion (I am not Descartes), but I suspect that the emotions of your typical wild animal are practical and externalized.  If a lion makes a kill, it will feel “good” about it, and if it fails to make a kill, it will feel “bad” about it.  But I doubt that it feels good or bad about itself.  But Koko, thanks to Dr. Patterson’s education, is capable of feeling bad about herself.  When Koko “misbehaves” (and from a moral perspective, there’s no such thing for a wild animal), Dr. Patterson tells her (both verbally and through signs), “Koko bad.  You’re bad.  You’re not good now.” And then Koko herself will end up signing, “Koko bad.” Now think about that.  Koko isn’t saying, “That thing that happened is bad,” or even, “That thing I did was bad,” but rather, “I myself am bad.” “Good” and “Bad” come to define not acts, but Koko herself.  They become “marks of identity,” to borrow a phrase from Juan Goytisolo.  Koko may be the first gorilla in history to feel bad about itself.  Dr. Patterson is not just turning her into a human, she’s turning her into a neurotic human.  And that just seems unethical; why in the world would you want to take a guiltless animal and force it to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? Thanks to Dr. Patterson, Koko has become aware of her nakedness.  And if Koko is Eve, then Dr. Patterson is the serpent.

I want to close this post by referencing American writer Shalom Auslander’s short story, “Bobo, the Self-Hating Chimp.” Auslander’s story depicts a chimpanzee, Bobo, resident in an American zoo, who, in a moment of sudden enlightenment, develops all of the self-awareness and cognitive capacity of a human.  And almost immediately thereafter, he becomes deeply depressed and starts to hate himself.  The story ends with Bobo the chimp committing suicide.  Now, Koko is still alive and hopefully she thinks she’s “good” more often than “bad.” But for her sake—and she’s a person, after all, at least in the Balearic islands, and personhood comes with rights—it probably would have been better to leave her in a state of guiltless, Edenic ignorance.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Young People in Love and Nostalgia: Reflections on Hong Sang-soo’s Oki’s Movie

I’ve seen a good number of Hong Sang-soo movies by now—and reviewed several of them for this blog; I think Hong might be the most reviewed filmmaker on Say a Prayer for the Octopus—and I think Oki’s Movie (2010) might be one of my favorites.  It certainly has a sweetness to it that one doesn’t always find in his other movies.  Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t follow the general framework of the Hong Sang-soo movie: film students, film teachers, filmmakers (often with overlap between them) go to restaurants, get drunk, say upsetting things to each other, and then pursue ill-advised romantic (mis)adventures.  And we certainly get that with Oki’s Movie.  But the sweetness at the heart of it tempers the more overt viciousness that we see in such Hong features as Woman is the Future of Man or Woman on the Beach.

Oki’s Movie is divided into four sections and five time periods (Hong is fond of fragmentation; The Power of Kangwon Province is split into two distinct sections and his recent Another Country into three).  The film follows, from end to beginning to places in between, the awkward love triangle between a film student turned filmmaker/teacher, Nam Jingu, a film student who may or may not have become a filmmaker, the titular Oki, and the late middle-aged film professor Song who vies with Jingu for Oki’s affections. (And before we proceed any further, the reader is warned that spoilers abound!)

The first vignette depicts an aging Professor Song and the newly minted film instructor Jingu as the latter’s life turns to shit.  He’s married to a woman who holds him in contempt (and is possibly cheating on him with his cousin), he can’t get money to make new films, and he makes a fool of himself in front of his colleagues and his students.  And his plight is rendered all the more sad as we travel back in time to see him and Oki just a few years earlier, as fresh-faced college students.

Oki and Jingu are a sweet couple and seem like generally good young people (although Jingu, like everyone else in a Hong movie, drinks way too goddam much, even though he knows from painful experience that alcohol causes him to act like an idiot).  Jingu is deeply in love with Oki, who doesn’t seem to know what to make of him at first; she’s also not sure why someone would find her romantically interesting.  Oki is something of a mystery (one of Hemingway’s icebergs, to be sure).  When Jingu comes a-wooing, she tries to scare him away by saying, “You know I’m a mess, right?” But on the surface, at least, she really doesn’t seem to be (at this point we’ve only had hints of her relationship with Professor Song); she seems to have her shit together.  And she and Jingu have a very tender scene in bed together (in contrast to similar scenes in Hong’s films, where the characters rarely have sex without being drunk and hysterical).  It’s very refreshing to see sex depicted as something pleasant and affectionate, both in a Hong movie and in general.

The third vignette—and by far the shortest in the film—depicts a single incident: following a big snowstorm, Oki and Jingu are the only students to show up for their class with Professor Song.  Now, where this takes place in the timeline, I’m not quite sure.  Jingu is wearing the same jacket in this vignette as he was in the previous one, so it’s roughly the same time period; is it before or after he and Oki start dating?  And have Oki and Professor Song ended their relationship by this point?  It’s hard to say.  All three of them seem very comfortable with each other, so perhaps this scene represents a tranquil period after Oki and Song have broken up but before things have intensified with Jingu. 

Because there aren’t any other students present, Song, understandably, doesn’t want to do any actual teaching, so he asks Oki and Jingu if they have any questions for him.  And what follows is something of a catechism. “Is it wrong to want an easy life?” “How do you overcome sexual desire?” “Is love important?” “Am I special?” (That last one from Oki.) “Do you love someone?” The answers to these questions are: There’s no such thing, you don’t, try not to think about it, someone thinks you’re special, and yes I do, respectively.  It should also be said that Song seems to envy Oki and Jingu their youth, whereas Oki at least would like to be older (or so she tells Song).  Jingu would also probably like to be older: he clearly has a deep respect for the older Professor Song, while he thinks that most of his own contemporaries are immature idiots.

The final section of the film is called “Oki’s Movie,” and is supposed to be a film that Oki made (whether as a student or a professional, I’m not sure, but I get the impression based on her narration that it’s a student film) in which she reflects on her relationships with Song and Jingu.  It depicts a trip she took with Song to Mt. Acha (which I gather is on the outskirts of Seoul) and another trip taken to the mountain with Jingu a few years later.  “Oki’s Movie” jumps back and forth between the two trips, and we see each stage of the trip with each man as they occur (so a visit to the restroom with Song is followed by a visit to the restroom with Jingu, etc).

In her voiceover, Oki says she made the film because she wanted to compare the two men side by side.  The making of this film must have been a nostalgia trip for Oki.  And one wonders where she is in life; where is the voice of the narrator coming from?  Has her life turned out to be just as disappointing as Jingu’s?  Were these outings to Mt. Acha perhaps the highlight of her life?  In Mike Leigh’s 1993 masterpiece Naked—a nightmare of life in post-Thatcherite Britain—the arch-pessimist Johnny has a rant—and I’m paraphrasing here—where he says, “Have you ever thought that maybe you’ve already had the absolute best moment of your life? And that everything was inevitably downhill after that?” Which is cruel but logical, if you think about it: Surely there is a moment or an experience in one’s life that qualifies as “the best,” however one wants to evaluate that.  It follows that everything that comes after is inherently inferior.  Now, that doesn’t mean it’s bad, necessarily, if you’re having a generally good life.  But suppose you aren’t? Then the absolute best moment stands out in ever sharper relief, and positively haunts you.  Is this what has happened to Oki? Were these relationships, potentially tumultuous though they may have been, the best moments of her life?  What does she feel when she looks back at them? Anguish? Longing? Regret?

God, being a young person is a risky business, and Hong approaches it in Oki’s Movie with an unusually (for him) strong sense of compassion for poor, ignorant young people.  Many of his films depict people entering into middle age and desperately trying to salvage their youth.  In Oki’s Movie, we get to see what these middle-aged film people were like before everything went wrong for them.  Let it serve as a cautionary tale for us.