Saturday, October 23, 2004

Pondering Time Travel - TiVo>Oliver Sacks>Literature and Back to TiVo 

Time traveling has been on my mind a lot lately.

It all started with getting TiV0 last year. Then my thinking was refocused somwhat by reading Oliver Sack's New Yorker article about the perception of time. It was honed a bit further by the arrival of AC's iPodder opensource project. And then took on new proportions as I was devouring The Time Traveler's Wife while on jury duty. It has now reached a fever pitch with the discovery that TiVo is teaming up with Netflix. Are you following me here? No? Hmmmm. I will try to explain. I can't promise this all comes together into a single coherent view...it's more a constellation of interrelated thoughts that are working their way through my brain these days regarding the literal and metaphorical power of time travel.

There are Two Types of People: Those of Us Who Have TiVo and...
I'd found myself quite disappointed since we got digital cable some time ago. It seemed like it was going to be such a great thing. The idea of having the Sundance Channel and IFC in addition to a wad of HBO channels was so enticing. But the reality is that once you have those options, you cannot really avail yourself of them. Movies are on all the time, some of them relatively briefly, and who can keep track of it all? I'd had this idea that I'd be watching higher quality television instead of channel surfing and it simply wasn't the case.

I'm a second generation adopter. I wait until the technology wars are straightened out and the prices come down. With the exception of Internet access, I've done this with most of technological innovations of the last decade: DVD players, Palms, camera cell phones, etc. So , so I did not run out to buy a DVR when they first hit the market. There were two options (Replay and Tivo) and I wanted to wait until there was a clear winner.

We went on vacation to Hawaii and stayed at someone's home where there was a TiV0. That was it. Once I saw "the light", I was in need. So sometime about a year ago, TiVo finally arrived at our household. And time traveling began.

No longer was our digital cable investment squandered. Now we were able to take full advantage of everything we were paying for. Simply using a wishlist with a year in it enabled us to surf all of the releases from that year, e.g., a wishlist with the keywords 'Movies' + '2003' = all of the 2003 releases playing over the next few weeks. Awesome.

TiV0 also solved the "Great Daily Show" issue of 2003. See we like to be in bed by 11:30pm. But John Stewart starts broadcasting at 11:00pm. So we can turn to Comedy Central, hit pause on TiVo, run through our daily abolutions and then return to the living room 10 to 15 minutes into the Daily Show. Using TiVO, we're just time-shifted enought to be able to speed through all of the commercials and catchup with "real-time" just as the show ends at 11:30pm. Now we're so optimized that we don't see a single commercial (hooray!) and we can stop haggling over our bedtime. We also created a Season Pass for the Daily Show, so we can skip it altogether in "real-time" if we're tired, and still never miss an episode. *Whew*

So TiVo began changing our perception of time in some ways. We never see commercials. We only see television that we really want to see because TiVo always has something on that is of interest. And we no longer suffer under they tyranny of the broadcast schedule.

Wiping Your Nose vs. Catching Flies
So I was thinking somewhat about the nature of time due to the arrival of TiVo in my life when I read Oliver Sacks' amazing New Yorker article this summer about the perception of time (nicely summarized here by Old Rottenhat). The article begins by discussing the magic of time lapse photography and the ideas of HG Wells on time travel which fed into his creation of The Time Machine.

In the article, Sacks' relates his discovery that those who suffer from certain neurological disorders experience time quite differently. One subject moves so slowly in "wiping his nose" that Sacks' couldn't verify his claim to be moving at all without time lapse photography.

One of Sacks' Tourette's patients was aware of experiencing many more tics than Sacks could observe with his naked eye. They only became visible to the good doctor with the aid of a frame-by-frame analysis. Far more astonishing is Sacks' comment that some Tourette's patients apparently can snatch flies from the air due because in their perception of time flies move relatively slowly.

Sacks posits that perhaps we can learn to induce these perceptual states in ourselves on purpose in order to apply ourselves more effectively to specific tasks. In other words, we might learn to induce a form of locally-focused time travel.

The Amazing Adam Curry
I had the good fortune to work with Adam for three years back in the mid-90's. Adam has been a surfer riding the crest of multiple waves of cultural change. He was a VJ at MTV and left at the height of his career to found what one of the first web developments firm in The City. Then he left that company in 1998 to return to his hometown of Amsterdam to found a broadband technology company. Most recently, AC has surfaced with iPodder, an opensource software project.

iPodder allows you to download audio blogs to your iPod. You can schedule what you want to listen to and when you sync your Pod, iPodder downloads whatever you have scheduled. Essentially, iPodder is TiV0 for web-based audio files. This project has caught on like wildfire and so once again his fans (and even his detractors) must acknowledge that AC has an unerring nose for the ideas of the future.

Now having contemplated TiVO, the Sacks article, and Adam's new accomplishment, I began thinking that part of what is so enticing about the concept of time travel is the concept of choice. I don't like what is going on WHEN I am, so I switch to another TIME where I think I will enjoy myself more.

A Gift Without a Manual
Audrey Niffenegger's extraordinary first novel The Time Traveler's Wife was my companion for a long and silly bout of jury duty in September. The best thing about suffering through an extended voire dire was the opportunity to devour this book.

I don't want to tell you too much about it, but the basic elements can be shared without spoiling your reading experience. Due to a genetic disorder, the protagonist is a time traveler. He cannot, however, control where or when he goes. The challenge of "when" exists on two levels: he cannot choose to time travel, he just does. And where he goes is totally beyond his control as well.

Part of what is so engaging about Neffenegger's work is that while we often fantasize about time travel as being in some part about control, Neffenegger's protagonist - much like Sacks' patients - has no control over his abilities. He just is. And it's a pretty dangerous "gift" to have. He arrives to each "other" time entirely naked. And he cannot seem to change anything. What is also engaging is her exploration of what it might mean to love someone who comes and goes without warning in this way. It's a beautiful, terrifying and terribly romantic novel. It probably would have made this list had I read it earlier.

This novel has stayed with me. Specifically, the issue of having this uncontrollable experience of time travel has kept me thinking for quite some time.

Time Keeps on Slipping, Slipping, Slipping...
At the end of September, TiVo and Netflix announced a partnership.

Now I've been meaning to write about Netflix for a while. A year or so after my father died, K. came up with the brilliant idea of getting my mother a Netflix subscription. Mom loves movies, isn't much for going to the videostore (too overwhelming), and she's got plenty more time on her hands these days. So I log into Netflix and program her queue. It's so much FUN. I send her movies I know she'll like, films that might stretch her boundaries a bit, and whatever else her friends have recommended to her.

Netflix makes this all so easy. The DVDs arrive with return envelopes, so when she's done she just throws them in the mailbox. No trips to the store. And since the account is linked to my email, I always know when she's returned a movie and I can ask how she liked it the next time I call. Where TiVo has been a brilliant thing for K. and I, Netflix is the technology that has enabled me to bring quality entertainment to my mother on a regular basis. And I mean regular. She averages about 6 or 7 movies from Netflix each month.

The TiVo/Netflix partnership sounds like you will be able to order a movie from Netflix and have it downloaded to your TiVo within a few hours. HOW COOL IS THAT? The TiVo/Netflix library should be much larger than Pay Per View.

So now we have the prospect of even greater control over what we see on the great black box in our living room. But as the experience of our hero in The Time Traveler's Wife bears out, this "magic" is somewhat illusory.

Obviously we will now have an extraordinary range of choice in this regard which some will undoubtedly find paralyzing. But until we can learn to imbue ourselves with the tantalyzing abilities that Sacks proposes where we can alter our perception of time and our abilities to function within time, we will still stand the risk of squandering the gift of time itself.

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Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Musical Vacation for an Insomniac 

In many ways, this blog is one of gratitude. It's the place where I record many of the things that brighten my life - some greater and some smaller. Tonight, despite a long day I find myself struggling with a rare bout of insomnia.

Insomnia is occasionally quite useful. Tonight it allowed me to take care of something I promised to do for to an up and coming young singer/songwriter. That took some time (finding CDs, ripping files) and I find that I am still somewhat awake.

Given the circumstances, I am turning to a musical vacation of sorts. Where am I going, you ask? Here's the soundrack for some pre-sleep relaxation.

Resphighi - Pines of the Janiculum from the Pines of Rome
(Favorite recording: Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Orchestra)
I picture myself in a breezy stand of pines looking off from promontory above an ancient city. I breathe in. I think I can feel the browning needles cushion my feet as you wander towards the precipice for a better view.

Mozart - Concerto in A for Clarinet and Orchestra (2nd mvmt)
(Favorite recording: CBS Masterworks, George Szell conducts w/Marcellus on Clarinet)
All thoughts stop and I follow the melody played by the clarinet.

Bach - Concerto for Violin and Obio - Adagio
(Favorite recording: believe it or not...an album titles "Greatest Hits of 1720")
The world is moving on its axis like clockwork. I examine the parts of my memory that bring a soft smile.

I am grateful for the tremendous sense of peace that each of these recordings brings to me. They are a free vacation from our troubled little orb.

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Thursday, October 14, 2004

The New York Film Festival 

From the past titles of posts here, one would expect that this one would be an aggregation of films about New York City. But actually, K. and I just completed our third film festival experience. We've done Sundance, Tribeca and now the New York Film Festival this year. Of the three, there's no question that Sundance offered the most consistently enjoyable experience. But the NYFF did offer one amazing experience that you will be able to experience for yourself in December.

Here then are the four films we saw at Lincoln Center:

Tropical Malady
A Thai film about...well, here people are going to disagree. If you were to ask Dan, Linda and K., they'd say, "Who the heck knows or cares?!" This film was so difficult that when the screen went black at one point (it was unclear if this was a reel change or intentional), the woman in front of me remarked, "This is the best part."

I can't claim to have loved Tropical Malady, nor even to have fully understood it. But here's what I thought I saw: a (admittedly oblique and highly symbolic) two-vignette film about man's struggle against his animal desires.

The first section of the film culminates with what the film program described as a "shockingly erotic moment." I'd beg to differ. It's a peculiar moment at best consisting of much mouth-to-hand contact. It's unclear if it's licking or aggressive sniffing going on, honestly. But whatever it is, it's intense for the participants if not the viewer.

I think that overall this movie feels much like listening to a schizophrenic being interviewed. They seem to be on the verge of making sense but just as soon as you think you might understand what they're getting at, the conversation takes an abrupt turn into obscurity once again.

Or (My Treasure)
This is the tale of a young Israeli girl's attempt to pull herself and her mother out of the gutter. Or and her mother Ruti (Ruthie in the English subtitles) live a chaotic existence. Or is trying to live the life of a normal high school girl. Only she can't always make it to school because she is working as a dishwasher or collecting bottles and cans for recycling fees.

Making matters worse, Ruti is drawn by some inner compass to prostitute herself in the alleys of their city. The film suggests that this may not be strictly helpful in a financial sense, but that Ruti is so seriously broken that the streets and her drunken, dangerous johns are somehow her magnetic north.

In the course of the film, Or tries to pull her mother from the streets - sometimes literally. But it doesn't work. Ruti cannot stop herself. There's an addiction here and nothing we see suggests that is related to drugs.

Both actors are so strong that they appear to be channeling their roles more than performing. Given the depth of naturalism in the performing style, the directorial style is strangely mannered. Each shot is set up and characters wander in and out of frame until the key moment in each scene where the characters are perfectly framed and that moment of drama unfolds. It is an engaging technique in a few instances, but as a consistent technical motif it does not forward the storytelling and it pulls the viewer out of the narrative.

Or is an engrossing work from an emerging artist. It's not fun, but it is accomplished and worthy of some attention. I hope her future work is less mannered and uses film for more fluid and cinematic storytelling.

The Holy Girl
More women and sex. Only this time, it's about Catholic guilt and repression. The Holy Girl tells the story of a young girl named Amalia who lives in a hotel with her mother. Amalia is being taught in school to be alert for a calling from God.

Amalia is standing on the street when a doctor from a convention at the hotel decides to use her rear end as a scratching post for his third leg. Rather than be repulsed, she decides that he is her calling. Her calling to us looks like a crush and its unclear how it relates to God, but she decides to go on the pursuit.

A number of scenes do not seem to further the plot, but what's interesting is the way certain aspects of character and plot are developed over time, filling in blanks and keeping the audience engaged. In the last scene, however, the director elects to end the film without revealing how the story will complete itself.

I found The Holy Girl alternately engaging, funny, confusing, occasionally cringe-inducing, and relentlessly whimsical. Ultimately, it is a flawed piece that has a lot of unrealized potential.

House of Flying Daggers
So after all of these minor experiences, our last tickets for the festival were for HOFD. If you've already seen Zhang Yimou's Hero then you have a clue what you're in for when HOFD is released in December. If you haven't seen Hero yet, this movie is going to completely blow your mind.

I think the best way to describe HOFD is to say that it is a "Shakespearean dream opera." Shakespearean in that it is a tale embroidered on top of, but dramatically improving upon, the fabric of many fables and myths. Shakespearean dream in the sense that Zhang Yimou is able through the skills of his cast, costumers, director of photography, the location choices, and some spectacularly seamless special effects to enable the movements and the landscape to mirror the emotional state of the characters. Shakespearean dream opera in that the story, the heightened emotions, the plot and the choices of the participants and all extremely grand in scale.

The story is about the struggle between the House of Flying Daggers, a secretive group of the Robin Hood persuasion, and the corrupt militaristic government. In the midst of this struggle, the movie focuses on the personal stories of two local constables pursuing the prosecution of the fight against the outlaw group and a blind teahouse girl who may be the mysterious daughter of the lately assassinated (by the government) leader of the rebels.

As Zhang Yimou summarized it, whereas Hero was about sacrifice for one's country, House of Flying Daggers is about personal sacrifices for love. I think that is an accurate overview, but it doesn't clue you in on the experience of the film. So let me tell you this: the audience I saw this film with literally gasped out loud more than once from what they saw and spontaneously burst into applause several times to boot.

I find myself thinking about the film five days later. I can't wait to see it again.

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Monday, October 11, 2004

Shopping Sherpas 

Malcolm Gladwell posits that some people are connectors and others are mavens. Connectors tend to straddle multiple social groups and naturally connect people to each other in the natural course of events. (Want to know who's a connector? Join a professional networking site and see who you find.)

Mavens are folks who develop an encyclopedic knowledge of something and love to share that knowledge with others. I'm a bit of both. And there's nothing that I love more as a connector than to connect other to a particular type of maven: the expert salesperson.

There's nothing more frustrating than asking a salesperson in any type of business and having them simply turn the question back to you. Think about it. You're in a restaurant and you ask the waiter for an opinion and he says, "It's all great!" Or you ask a salesperson in a high end furniture store for their opinion and she says, "I don't know. Do you like it? Does it go with what you own?" ARGH. These people have no reason for being. The customers of whichever particular business they happen to be occupying space in are getting zero value.

I'm not saying that I want someone to SELL ME. I just want to have an interaction with a knowledgeable person whose opinion might add some interesting perspective to the sales process. This then, is a paean to a few professionals who earn their keep.

Cheese Elf: Peter Kindel at Artisanal (32nd & Park)
Peter Kindel clearly loves his job. His eyes seem to sparkle at the simple thought of cheese. Helping you to find the right cheeses for your cheese course at Artisanal is an art and he is its happy master.

Kindel smiles and spews forth helpful descriptors to help your palate predict what might please it. He doesn't shy away from using non-literal, but very helpful words. One cheese described on the menu as "short, sharp, stinky" he embroidered with an updated description: "I'd have to say that's it's beyond that now. It's downright mean."

It is a pleasure to be helped by one who takes a real joy in helping. Ask if he's there when you go.

Lighting Mensch: Ed Silverii at Lee's Studio
Got dark corners? Want an attractive and unique lighting solution from someone you can trust? Ed Silverii is your man. He's nice, totally honest, funny, but with an unmistakably through-and-through, streets-of-NYC style. (Talk to Ed long enough and you'll find out he's seen quite a few things in this city beyond the crazy, too-much-money-for-her-own-good customer that someone in this kind of establishment has to deal with regularly. Ed knows NYC from a life full of experience. He even goes way back with the Reverend Al before he was a figure on the national landscape.)

Beyond being a mensch and an interesting guy, Ed is incredibly knowledgeable and helpful with finding the lighting (and furniture) to make your home one of a kind. He'll tell you when it makes sense to spend less money and when it really makes sense to spend more.

Go up the escalator and ask for him by name!

Mistress of All Eyewear: Hedda Szmuk at The Eye Man (B'way & 84th)
You need eyewear? Hedda is your answer. Why is she so great? Because she's highly opinionated and extremely adept.

Hedda will find you an excellent pair of frames within minutes. And then if you want to continue, she'll spend as long as you like finding other truly excellent options. As you explore the spectrum of spectacles available, you will be treated to Hedda's saucy commentary along the way. Our friend Christina had so much fun shopping there that she bought three pairs of frames!

You should also be forewarned that if a pair doesn't look good on you, Hedda might just snatch them off your face and absolutely forbid you to buy them. That's one of the things I treasure in a salesperson: someone who's willing to override my momentary foolish attachment to something that does not flatter me.

I have so much fun shopping with Hedda that sometimes I invent excuses just to drop in and say, "Hi". Go, have a laugh and get yourself some groovy glasses.

Furniture Jedi: Norman Teitelbaum at Maurice Villency
Time to furnish your apartment with real furniture? No more IKEA? There are lots of good options around NYC: Pompanoosuc Mills, EJ Audi, Lee's Studio and Scott Jordan, for a start. But at Maurice Villency, you can get unparalleled service - especially if you ask for Norman! If you couldn't tell by any other means, his knowing smile quickly indicates that Mr. T has been around for a loooong time. He knows what contortions we go through in choosing our furniture and he's here to help you if you will let him.

With zero pressure, Norman will glide you around the store, responding to your descriptions of what you think you require. Each new piece of information you give him narrows the field until he's got it down to a science. And if you can't find what you want at MV, he'll steer you in the right direction elsewhere. Every visit to Norman is a treasure. I bring ALL of my friends.
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Friday, October 01, 2004

The Price of Admission 

Sometimes a film or a stage production has a single moment in it that I call "the price of admission." That moment so stirred something in me that I will not ever forget it.

On occasion, I also use the phrase "price of admission" to describe a moment that was so fantastic that regardless of the fact that I might consider the work in its entirety to be unsuccessful, or even a failure, that moment outweighs the rest of the experience.

Here then are an array of these moments from two mediums, theatre and film, that have etched themselves into my consciousness forever.

Angels In America: The Descent of the Angel
I had the good fortune to see Angels several times in its original Broadway production at the Walter Kerr. There were so many terrific things in that production, especially in Part I: Millenium Approaches. (Part II: Perestroika is a much more difficult piece linguistically and conceptually.)

The POA moment for me came at the end of the play and it was is vivid in my memory that it became a central part of the elegy I wrote for my father. At the end of the play, Prior Walter is alone in his bed, terrified. The ceiling of his apartment opens and The Angel descends into the air above his head and announces, "Greetings, Prophet. The great work begins: the Messenger has arrived." The stage goes black. And I found myself sobbing. I can't even really explain why. I'm not interested in organized religion. Something about that moment felt like it had reached some sort of Platonic form. Some great mystical truth was happening and it was resonating with something inside me, I know not what. Thank you, Tony Kushner.

Apollo 13: Ed Harris Scans the Control Room
At the end of the film, Ed Harris is standing in the center of the control room. All of the engineers and managers are jumping up and down and cheering because they've just learned that the crew has successfully landed in the ocean. The camera finds Ed Harris. He's not moving. His eyes slowly scan the room and he allows himself to look around. We can see emotions scudding across his broad open face. Tears well in his bright blue eyes. His weathered face begins to break up into a flood of creases as he slowly begins to smile.

Absolutely brilliant. A wonderfully understated performance that only works on film. Without a closeup, you would never be able to read the minute shifts and waves of thought that scan over his visage. I liked the movie. But that particular moment was it for me.

The Fisher King: The Waltz in Grand Central
There can be only one. And it's Terry Gilliam. One of the most unsung visual directors of the unconscious. All of his films are really variations on Don Quixote, which is ironic since Don Quixote is the one film he's never been able to make.

At any rate, in The Fisher King Gilliam really began to strut his imagery in a purely romantic way which was epitomized by the scene in Grand Central. Robin William's character has fallen for Amanda Plummer's. He's stalking her about and follows her into Grand Central. Under the power of his pure, agonizing, and thus far unrequited love, Grand Central's commuters are suddenly turned into a mass of waltzing humanity. A crystalline moment. The main room of the station is now different for everyone who saw the film.

The Little Princess: The Servant Gives a Look
An uncredited actor, Sandeep Walia, does something here that's hard to describe. I can't figure out what happened to me when I first saw this or why. Is it the actor? Is it the storyline? Is it the editing? Is it the musical note underneath his glance?

I'm stumped. All I know is that our poor heroine has been fatherless for the entire film. She and her father are separated at this point by only a hair. But they are not yet reunited. The "Indian servant" enters the plot to give the young girl an intense, Ben Kingsley-esque style of knowing look and suddenly the truth is revealed. Or that's how it felt to me. I burst into tears. (Is there a theme here?)

Magnolia: Everybody Sings
Paul Thomas Anderson is the single greatest filmic director of his generation. By filmic, I mean that he uses film to tell the story in ways only possible on film. Rather than rely on exposition, the story is expressed by what we see and learn in the shot. Plus, he has an innate sense of drama in the way that he lines up a shot that further communicates what is going on in the story. Look at the opening shot of Hard Eight or the famous tracking shot of the party by the pool in Boogie Nights and you will see what I mean.

Given his gifts, it's not surprising that P.T. Anderson feels the need to experiment. There are many experiments within Magnolia, but the one that took my breath away was the moment where suddenly all of the characters in the film are bound together by a mystic, music video moment. Each of them begins "singing" (lip syncing) "Wise Up" by Aimee Mann. And it's not a short segment either.

Beautifully shot (natch) and wonderfully paced, the omniscient camera moves from story to story and each character sings a portion of the lyrics that perhaps they really need to hear. Not everyone liked it, but I thought it was daring, shocking, and ultimately, very moving.

Mnemonic: The Iceman Walks
Director Simon McBurney's Complicite (formerly known as the Theatre de Complicite) brought a production called Mnemonic to the John Jay College theater a few years ago. Mnemonic was a multimedia theatre production which wove the characters' search for their identity as members of a family into the search for the identity of a man frozen in ice in the Alps in prehistoric times.

The production had many wonderful pieces of stagecraft, images and strong performances. However, the price of admission was watching the cast transform a chair into The Iceman. The chair is incorporated into the story as being a family heirloom of our protagonist (played by McBurney). It is prominently used throughout the show. Suddenly, at the end of the piece the chair was sort of unfolded by the cast (you couldn't tell it was designed for this) and as a group, they functioned as puppeteers to move the chair across the stage in its newly humanoid form to tell the story of the Iceman's final moments; how he came to be where he died on the glacier.

It's so hard to do this moment justice. But just as PT Anderson does things on film that can only be done on film, McBurney does things on stage that only take wing in live theatre. It was absolutely breathtaking.

A Winter's Tale: Hermione Comes Alive
The RSC came to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1994 with a tremendous production of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale directed by Adrian Noble. It was a gorgeous production of what can be a very difficult show.

This play is full of problematic moments, e.g., the famous stage direction "Exeunt, pursued by a bear." (You try finding a bear for that role.) At the end of the play, Leontes the King, believes that his wife, Hermione is dead. In a moment of jealous rage, he believes he caused her death because of her supposed infidelity. At the end of the play, he has come to realize his mistake, but it's too late. Her faithful servant brings him to a statue of her that he's not seen. It's supposed to comfort him. At the moment that he pronounces his sorrow the statue steps down from the pedestal. Hermione is alive.

This scene can be completely hokey...or completely unbelievable. But in this production, the actors achieved alchemy. Even knowing the play, I held my breath unsure of what was going to happen. And when she stepped down from that pedestal...well, you know by now what I did.
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