The Daily

Arts & Culture

Man in Hole

February 4, 2015 | by

Turning novels’ plots into data points.

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Kurt Vonnegut

Motherboard has a new article about Matthew Jockers, a University of Nebraska English professor who’s been studying what he calls “the relationship between sentiment and plot shape in fiction.” Jockers has crunched hard data from thousands of novels in the hope of answering two key questions: Are there any archetypal plot shapes? And if so, how many?

The answers, his data suggest, are “yes” and “about six,” respectively.

Jockers, it should be clear, is pursuing a different meaning of plot than the one we conventionally reach for—he conceives of it as an emotional concern more than a narrative concern. His research was spurred by a concept called syuzhet, one of a pair of terms coined by the Russian formalist Vladimir Propp. As Jockers explains, Read More »

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How to Write a Dance

February 4, 2015 | by

Remy Charlip and the problems of dance notation.

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“Flowering Trees,” a page from Remy Charlip’s Air Mail Dances.

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
—W. B. Yeats

How do you tell a person in another place or time what a dance looks like, and how it should be performed? You could use words, describing, second by second, the movements made by every dancer on stage—but inaccuracies would creep in. Take an instruction as simple as “lower your arm”: How would the precise angle, attitude, and displacement of the arm be explained? As an algebraic vector? And what about the hand, the fingers, the knuckles, the rest of the dancer’s body—what are they doing? Such a method would come to resemble programming code, in which reams of language and symbols come to stand for something that’s supposed to look simple and elegant. The problem is that a dance is read by a human, not a machine.

What about images, then? You could reduce the dance to two dimensions, represented frame by frame, using diagrams and drawings. Yet even for a short sequence, you’d need so many! It would come to resemble a flip-book or an animated GIF, preempting the most efficient and simple method we’ve ever had to record dance: moving images, or film.

Before we had image-capturing technology, the need to preserve dance, as a record, gave way to attempts to write dance down. Dance notation, the symbolic representation of human movement, has developed into systems for making graphics recognizable as living movement. Traditional dance notation marks a path through space and a relationship to music. As Edward Tufte writes in Envisioning Information (1990), “Systems of dance notation translate human movements into signs transcribed onto flatland, permanently preserving the visual instant.” It’s a question of “how to reduce the magnificent four-dimensional reality of time and three-space into little marks on paper flatlands.” Dance never looks the same twice, unless it’s on film. Read More »

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To Lie in the Cheese, to Smile in the Butter

February 3, 2015 | by

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Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Gertrude Stein, 1906.

From Matisse Picasso and Gertrude Stein, a collection of experimental prose and “word portraits” written by Gertrude Stein between 1909 and 1912. Stein, who was born on this day in 1874, had arrived in Paris by 1903 and began to develop a kind of literary Cubism, steeping herself in the art of Picasso, Matisse, and others. These pieces saw her evolving approach to aphorism and especially to repetition, the device she made her trademark, even if it chagrined some early readers.

To lie in the cheese, to smile in the butter, to lengthen in the rain, to sit in the flour all that makes a model stronger, there is no strangeness where there is more useful color, a description has not every mission.

Leaning together and destroying a principle preciousness which is not mangled, this is so loaned that there is no habit, not at all and yet there is the late way, there is an instance of more.

To be painful is not more than a street, to be a principal apricot is not more than a cherry and yet there is an expression, there certainly is. Read More »

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The King and I

February 3, 2015 | by

Auctioning off the Elvis memorabilia at Graceland Too.

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Photo: Eileen Townsend

The Absolute Auction of Graceland Too was over in one fell swoop. This past Saturday morning, about a hundred warmly dressed bidders, journalists, and rubberneckers had assembled on East Gholson Avenue in Holly Springs, Mississippi. The auctioneer informed us that the sale was over not even a minute after it began. Everything available—some six hundred items of variously worthwhile Elvis memorabilia—had sold to an unnamed online buyer for the sum of $54,500.

The crowd was visibly distressed at the news. There were groans, shouts of false advertising. The auctioneer, Greg Kinard, an immaculately dressed man of considerable stature, apologized and explained: this was the way it had to be. This was how Paul MacLeod would have wanted it. Kinard thanked everyone for coming out, assured us that there had been no false advertising, and reminded us to pick up one of the pink or blue T-shirts for sale: GRACELAND TOO FOREVER!

Stripped of its lurid speculative detail and Southern Gothic charm, the story of Graceland Too and its ill-fated proprietor, Paul MacLeod, is a sad and simple one. MacLeod was seventy-one when he died suddenly this past July, a victim of undiagnosed and untreated paranoid obsession. He’d spent the last years of his life poor and without family, in a rotting house without running water. His neighbors, for the most part, disliked him, and though he had multiple visitors nearly every night, he died alone and friendless. Read More »

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Affectionate, Yet Arch: An Interview with Vanessa Davis

February 2, 2015 | by

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Vanessa Davis is a cartoonist and illustrator living in Los Angeles, the author of the collections Spaniel Rage and Make Me a Woman. Her father was the photojournalist Gerald Davis—last year came Strange Stories, a book commemorating his photography. Selected by the designer Todd Oldham, the images in Strange Stories make a strong case for Gerald Davis as a unique and under-recognized talent, a keen observer of mid to late twentieth-century American life with a wry, playful sensibility that falls somewhere between William Eggleston and John Waters. Late last year, in a busy, light-filled café on Sunset Boulevard, I talked with Vanessa about the book and her father’s life and work.

Your dad was born in New York City. Was he always into art?

He was born in 1940, in Brooklyn, but he grew up in the Bronx. When I was a kid, he would tell stories about growing up and it sounded like a classic 1940s Bronx-Jewish childhood. He played stickball, people called him Slim, he had a girlfriend named Cookie.

I know he went to Baruch College to study petroleum distribution—whatever that is—but at the same time he was hanging around at the New York Times photo library, where my Uncle Danny worked. And after that he took a class at The New School with the photographer Lisette Model. He went to museums all the time, but it just seemed like something that was sort of organic, part of his New York experience. He didn’t live in the world of fine art—being an artist wasn’t part of his identity in a really self-conscious way. But he was very art-minded. Like, he loved the painter Morris Louis, and he used to talk about this one time when he just sat in the Museum of Modern Art and looked at Picasso’s Guernica for an hour. Read More »

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Speaking Bluntly

January 28, 2015 | by

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Colette in 1907.

Two letters from Colette, who was born on this day in 1873, to her friend Marguerite Moreno.

 

Rozven, mid-September 1924

… I should like to talk earnestly to you about your copy for Les Annales. You still do not have quite the right touch. You lack the seeming carelessness which gives the “diary” effect. For the most part you have approached your gentlemen as though they were so many subjects assigned in class … For one portrait which works—Jarry—there are two others—Proust and Iturri, say—who don’t. They are just not sufficiently alive!

Read More »

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