Staff Picks: Robot Maids, Airships, Geocities


This Week’s Reading

From the cover of Past Futures.

Many of the past’s technological prophesies seem so quaint today—nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners, urban transportation via zeppelins, clean car emissions, robot maids—and sometimes I’m not sure there’s intelligent life on this planet, much less another one. But I’m heartened by the new book Past Futures: Science Fiction, Space Travels, and Postwar Art of the Americas. It served as the catalogue to a show at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art earlier this year, and part of its aim is corrective: though the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in the space race, they didn’t have a monopoly on exploring imagined worlds and ideas. Artists and writers in Latin America in the 1960s and seventies were also giving thought to what might be. Mexican David Alfaro Siqueiros imagined the cosmic landscape in paintings like Earth as seen from the stratosphere. Argentineans Ana Kamien and Marilú Marini choreographed a dance spectacle called Marvila the marvelous woman vs. Astra the super sneak from Planet Ultra and her destructive monster. One of my favorites is Paraguayan Carlos Colombino’s Cosmonaut, made from oil on carved wood, in which a spaceman’s face looks like it’s being sucked out, tentacle-like, from his helmet. It’s at once elegant and frightening, old and new—like the future itself. —Nicole Rudick

There’s an unexpected coup thirty minutes into Werner Herzog’s The White Diamond. The protagonist—Graham Dorrington, an aeronautical engineer who’s brought his latest airship to Guyana for its inaugural launch—is suddenly and irrevocably overshadowed by Mark Anthony Yhap, a local who’s been hired to help with the project. You can sense it coming. Dorrington’s enthusiastic affect, while endearing, has begun to spoil, and into the film’s growing protagonistic void steps a new—and more true—Herzogian hero. Gazing up at the airship and reclining in a clear-plastic inflatable armchair, Yhap delivers a Dude-esque monologue that completely refocuses the film. And, improbably, his appeal only grows from there: subsequent scenes depict his love for his red rooster and his habit of looking out at Kaieteur Falls through a single droplet of water. (Here, again, he delivers another of his unforgettable lines.) The film might not be Herzog’s greatest work, but Yhap alone makes it worth watching. —Stephen Hiltner


From The White Diamond.

The Internet, as it matured, was bound to long for its low-tech past. For those who grew up on dial-up, it’s been fascinating to watch the growing nostalgia for the Web of the nineties; what began as a couple of wistful listicles has exploded into an art form, one that critiques the branded monotony of social media by remembering the alarums and excursions of simpler times. Last year, Paul Ford’s invited users to unshackle themselves from the tedium of Facebook by building simple, custom-programmed homepages that recalled the unpretentious spirit of early university Web sites; Windows 93 emulated the unstable, rough-edged aesthetic of Microsoft at its peak; and now comes Cameron’s World, a sprawling digital collage that comprises more than seven hundred gifs and graphics rescued from the defunct Yahoo! GeoCities community, which was, in its way, the original social network. Though it’s easy to dismiss as a mere novelty, the collage, designed by the artist Cameron Askin, is a meticulous and weirdly affecting memento: it hearkens back to “a time when a website really was a ‘site,’ ” as Askin told Hyperallergic. “A homepage was thought of as a second ‘home.’ There’s more of a spatial sense to the online world.” Compare that to today, when controlled environments like Facebook “iron out many of the wilder intricacies of personal taste that used to define self-expression on personal homepages.” —Dan Piepenbring


From Cameron’s World. Image via Hyperallergic.

Microfiction, flash fiction, super-shorts: whatever you call them, at first glance, these stories are the six-second Vine video to your feature-length film, just another symptom of the endemic crisis in “art and attention” (Birkerts) allegedly brought on by the digital age. True, they’re peculiarly apt for the moment—they find a natural home in the text, the tweet, the status update—but a closer look at the genre’s genealogy tells a different story. In the stories of his 1969 collection Black Sheep and Other Fables (La oveja negra y demás fábulas), Augusto Monterroso, one of the pioneers of the form, layers a poetics of pastiche over the foundations of the oral folktale, reaching as far back as Greek epic to create succinct comic allegories for the modern day. In “Penelope’s Cloth, or, Who’s Deceiving Who,” Horatian dictums are transformed to become the colloquial complaints of Ulysses’s bored housewife; in “The Lightning that Struck the Same Place Twice,” a crass commonplace is taken up and transformed. Short but searching, these stories gesture back to the preliterate past even as they anticipate a postmodern present. —Chloe Currens

I have reservations about the seemingly cursed genre of rap biopics—Notorious lingers in the mind—but I had to try Straight Outta Compton. From an early tracking shot following a young Eazy-E out of the window of a raided drug house, it was clear the movie had been handled differently. The pacing sets it apart. Concert and performance sequences don’t bog the film down in foggy nostalgia but seem to have a real danger and urgency—you forgot that at one point playing “Fuck Tha Police” was a radical political act. The conscious decision to don all-black attire foregrounds the sleek revolutionary air about them, like Black Panthers with Raiders caps. Yes, there are the briefly Bacchanalian sequences of success and excess (and why not?), but the movie quickly becomes far more about the embroiled destinies of rising kingpins and how to handle egos once you make it beyond an unlivable situation. —Casey Henry