Magic, Good and Bad (2)

[Video: the first 2-1/2 minutes of the 2006 Hogfather mini-series]

A few weeks ago, a post here shared this one’s title. (At the time, I didn’t intend to do a follow-up, so the earlier one wasn’t numbered.) That post considered… well, the point of the fiction in fiction. If the underpinning of what happens in a story is “real” — the laws of physics and so on — then why make up any important details? (Other than special cases like keeping the material non-libelous, of course.) Writers invent not just names but entire casts of characters, family histories, geographies, historical events (both the core facts and the marginalia), languages…

And when you get into the fantasy and science-fiction genres — “speculative fiction,” as they say despite the tautology — well, even the laws of physics go out the window.* History gets re-written. Facts we know now are replaced by other facts we will know only in some particular version of the future. Things turn into other things (or seem to) just because someone waves in their direction with a hand, a wand of miraculous construction, or an infernal machine…

As I said in that first post, I didn’t intend to debate whether the use of impossibilities presented as commonplace was good or bad. I wasn’t trying to make a case for or against fantasy and/or science fiction. And the post drew substantial thoughtful comments from Froog and Marta (which I thought might happen, in both cases). I continued to think about the topic myself, too, since I hadn’t really drawn any conclusions.

And then the Christmas holiday drew near…

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Magic, Good and Bad

[Image: excerpt from a 1941 adventure of Mandrake the Magician, “The Adventure of the Striped Orchid.” Click to enlarge; if you’d like to read the whole thing, find it at the ilovecomix archive (free registration required).]

You don’t have to be particularly old to know of the Mandrake the Magician character and comic strip — which is still being published daily, although it first appeared in 1934. (Mandrake himself is widely regarded as the first costumed superhero.)

Mandrake is indeed a “magician,” in a loose sense of the term. More precisely, he’s an illusionist. For instance, in the above series, he didn’t actually make the “Uncle” character swell up like that; as the caption for the fourth panel says, Uncle just seemed to inflate. A key element of Mandrake’s mythology can be found in the word “gesture,” often modified with a form of the word “hypnotic.” Mandrake gestures hypnotically. Mandrake’s hypnotic gesture. And so on. The hypnotic spell takes effect immediately, presumably just because Mandrake knows exactly how to waggle his fingers and flip his wrist. Furthermore, the spell strikes only his selected targets and does not, well, explode omnidirectionally, like an anti-personnel weapon. As you can see here, the strip’s art at such a key moment takes the point of view of Mandrake’s hapless victim.

Oddly, though, Mandrake’s spells sometimes affect inanimate objects as well as people. Over there on the right, we have a cover from one of the Mandrake comic books (click to enlarge it); clearly, he has just gestured hypnotically in the direction of the jewel thieves — as a result of which, the thieves imagine themselves disoriented, spinning in mid-air.

…but the bag containing the jewelry is itself in mid-air, and it has sprung open, and the jewels themselves are spilling out.

What’s going on here? Has he hypnotized the jewels? Or has he somehow included an illusion of the open sack and the spilling jewels as part of the overall illusion? Either way, you have to admit, that’s a hell of a gesture.

While researching this post, I noticed something else a little off — namely, that Mandrake himself either gets caught up in the illusion (in the way that a woman wearing cologne can actually get a whiff of herself) or, again, somehow includes himself in the illusion just to make it complete.

At right, for example, another of the comic book covers highlights a moment when Mandrake has hypnotized a cowboy (or has he?) to picture himself, mounted on a horse, galloping across the roof of a house. But Mandrake (and his faithful companion Lothar) is looking up into the air. If the cowboy has simply been hypnotized, and is not actually galloping overhead, then what is Mandrake (and Lothar) looking up at?

(The horse, too, seems awfully panicky.)

Finally, if you really want to get picky: in order to hypnotize someone, Mandrake must be looking into his or her eyes. (Earlier in the “Striped Orchid” series, he must fight off a drugged Lothar — who has attacked him from behind and caught him in a death grip. Until Lothar releases one hand for a moment, allowing Mandrake to turn and look back at him… and pierce the druggy fog with a hypnotic gaze.) How has he hypnotized the cowboy in this case? the horse? Lothar? himself?

Thinking about the holes in Mandrake’s universe has been one small result of my having read a post over at Froog’s place, way back in October. I’ve been pondering that post ever since.

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Midweek Music Break: David Byrne and Brian Eno, “Home”

Several of Running After My Hat‘s regular commenthood are overhauling what “home” means to them:

Nance — and Mr. Mature, of course — are caught up in readying their house for a (dearly longed-for) sale. Marta — amongst writing a flash-fiction story every day this month, and competitive skating, and teaching, and the gods know what else — has moved with her family into their first house, with all the attendant packing and unpacking, inspections, signings of documents, painting, arranging and re-arranging, and re-assessment of what counts (and how much). And in a turn almost unimaginable, at least to me — having followed his blog for four years — Brit ex-pat Froog prepares to leave China altogether, bound for… Lithuania? Uruguay? parts unknown (but presumably with no shortage of watering holes)?

From At Home: A Short History of Private Life, by Bill Bryson:

Houses are amazingly complex repositories. What I found, to my great surprise, is that whatever happens in the world — whatever is discovered or created or bitterly fought over — eventually ends up, in one way or another, in your house. Wars, famines, the Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment — they are all there in your sofas and chests of drawers, tucked into the folds of your curtains, in the downy softness of your pillows, in the paint on your walls and the water in your pipes. So the history of household life isn’t just a history of beds and sofas and kitchen stoves, as I had vaguely supposed it would be, but of scurvy and guano and the Eiffel Tower and bedbugs and body-snatching and just about everything else that has happened. Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.

From Brian Eno, writing on (speaking of 2008’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today album):

This record was born as a dinner conversation. While dining in New York with David and some other friends, I mentioned that I had accumulated a lot of music, which, despite my intentions, I had never formed into songs. David volunteered to give them a try…

Upon starting this project, we quickly realized we were making something like electronic gospel, music in which singing becomes the central event, but whose sonic landscapes are atypical of such vocal-centered tracks.

David Byrne himself adds:

The challenge was more emotional than technical: to write simple, heartfelt tunes without drawing on cliché. The results, in many cases, are uplifting, hopeful, and positive, even though some lyrics describe cars exploding, war, and similarly dark scenarios.

These songs have elements of our previous work — no surprise there — but something new has emerged here as well. Where does the sanguine and heartening tone come from, particularly in these troubled times? …some of my lyrics and melodies were a response to what I sensed lay buried in the music. My task was to bring forth into language what was originally non-verbal. In the end, we have made something together that neither of us could have made on our own.

This particular number, I think, doesn’t fall quite into the “electronic gospel” genre. There’s a nearly martial, rolling-snare-drum effect which plays well behind Byrne’s vocals, and that voice verges on strident. But the lyrics speak of both the universal and the deeply personal meanings of home. Especially when the song is overlaid (as here) by dozens of still photos of dozens of types of houses, it’s easy to imagine an utterly different performance: solo, acoustic, nothing at all electronic — a plucked string fastened at one end in the present day and at the other, deep in history.


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Midweek Music Break: Booker T. and the MGs, “Time Is Tight”

When people think of music in the 1960s-’70s, of soul music, they think automatically of the Motown record label. But there was a heck of a lot going on further south then, too, down in Memphis: the home of Stax Records.

Originally Satellite Records, the company was forced to change its name in response to a complaint from another, older label by the same name. The renaming took the form of a quasi-acronym, derived from the names of its two owners: Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton. Name aside, it carved out a niche for itself in a number of other respects:

  • The recording studio was located in a former movie theater, where the seats had been removed but the sloping floor remained intact. Wikipedia describes the resulting sound as “big, deep, yet raw,” and cites one music historian who who says that “because of the distinctive sound, soul music fans can tell often within the first few notes if a song was recorded at Stax.”
  • Stax’s stable of big-name performers tended to sound less slick than Motown’s: Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett (whose music was released on the Atlantic label, but recorded and produced at Stax), Isaac Hayes…
  • …and even their “house band,” who provided backing for the big names, made a name of its own — as Booker T. and the MGs.
In a recent post at The Barstool, as he calls it for short, RAMH blog-friend Froog mused on his selections as the top five favorite basslines in popular music. In a comment to that post, he mentions that a bassline can be thought of as being of one of two types:
  • Hooks are “quite simple bass figures that are one of the most prominent features of the song”; while
  • Chuggers are “often even simpler bass parts, [which] because of that very simplicity… drive the song forward powerfully.”

Froog’s top five, he says, all qualify as “hooks.” I’ll take his word for it — I’m not familiar with all five of the performers he highlights, let alone those performances. But I totally recognized the concept of the “chugger.” It’s not the word usually associated with the MGs, but yeah — that’s their bassline. The more conventional word for it, I think, is groove.

Interestingly, Wikipedia has an entry on groove:

Groove is the sense of propulsive rhythmic “feel” or sense of “swing” created by the interaction of the music played by a band’s rhythm section (drums, electric bass or double bass, guitar, and keyboards).

It goes on to include a comment by (presumably) a musician:

Steve Van Telejuice explains the “groove” as the point… in a song or performance when “even the people who can’t dance wanna feel like dancing” due to the effect of the music.

(This might be even more interesting — to say nothing of authoritative — if there were any reference to a “Steve Van Telejuice,” anywhere on the Web, other than in connection with this quote.)

By whatever (in)formal definition, it seems clear that the music of Booker T. and the MGs practically embodies the concept. The songs start with a bassline, and the melody of the organ and lead guitar twine around it. The bassline isn’t an afterthought, a complement to what we think of as “the song” — it’s practically the whole point.

Here’s “Time Is Tight,” from the soundtrack of the 1968 Jules Dassin film, Up Tight!:

[Below, click Play button to begin Time Is Tight. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 3:15 long.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

The influence of the MGs went far beyond the Stax walls. The Beatles, among others, hugely admired the band’s sound. Wikipedia, again:

John Lennon was a huge Stax fan who fondly called the group, “Book a Table and the Maitre D’s.” Paul McCartney, like [MGs’ bass player Donald “Duck”] Dunn, played bass melodically, without straying from the rhythm or the groove… And as the story goes, after being locked away in the Memphis studio, when [Stax performers] embarked on the “Hit the Road, Stax!” tour of 1967, The Beatles sent limos to the airport and bent down to kiss [lead guitarist] Steve Cropper’s ring… Lennon was quoted as saying he always wanted to write an instrumental for the MGs.

Cropper (who co-wrote “In the Midnight Hour” and “Dock of the Bay”) and Dunn eventually would go on to appear in both “Blues Brothers” movies, and had otherwise successful solo songwriting and performing careers. (Drummer Al Jackson, Jr., was murdered in 1975.) As for Booker T. Jones himself, no worries — the guy is still going strong.

Want more? There’s a great post about Stax Records, including some photos I’ve seen nowhere else, at the excellent blog known as The Selvedge Yard. (Be sure to read the comments thread there, too.) And Steve Cropper mulls over his musical wanderings in a blog post at No Depression.


Update, 2012-01-14, 9:15ish a.m.: It’s not uncommon for me to be prevented, by one thing or the other, from replying promptly to comments here at RAMH. What is uncommon: not regretting that I can’t reply promptly. This is one of those rare comments threads which I have thoroughly enjoyed watching develop on its own. Thanks, folks.

Now to dive in myself…


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Waking Up to the Unreal

[Image: promotional still from The Troll Hunter, a 2010 “mockumentary” from
Norway about — well, perhaps you can guess.]

From whiskey river:

Fairy tales were maps formed of blood and hair and bones; they were the knots of the sub-conscious unwound. Every word in every tale was real and as true as apples and stones. They all led to the story inside the story.

(Alice Hoffman [source])


Sky Burial

This is the way they dispose of the dead
in Tibet. Letting nothing go to waste.
The loose bodies, with their blood still,
are lifted to high roofs, offered to the sky.
In this way everything becomes a temple
and bells ring to catch the carrion birds
in flight. Glorious bells! Unsettling circlers!
They alight like balding mathematicians,
like ancient men huddled over maps.

Their steepled wings flap now and again
like a preacher searching a hymnal;
their beaks could be penning red sermons
as the umbral body is unsewn, consumed—
concealed through all avenues of heaven,
borne again aloft in a scream of grace
echoing down the mausoleum of dark.

(Michael Titus [source])

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Where Worlds and Art Forms Overlap: The Icebook*

I feel somewhat at risk of turning this joint into one of those blogs which serve as dumping grounds for videos, rather than actual words. But some videos just demand circulation, y’know?

This came to me by way of an email message from my great blog-friend, Froog, who just knew it would appeal to me. (Actually, he suggested that I save it for a Friday whiskey river-themed post. But I think it deserves a spotlight (no pun intended) of its own.)

From the Vimeo page where you can find the original of the below video, from the minds and hands of artists Davy and Kristin McGuire:

The Ice Book is a miniature theatre show, a pop-up book that comes to life as if by magic.

It tells the story of a mysterious princess who lures a boy into her magical world to warm her heart of ice. It is made from sheets of paper and light, designed to give a live audience an intimate and immersive experience of film, theatre, dance, mime and animation.

And, at The Ice Book‘s own site, you can read of the behind-the-scenes process they used in assembling what is, apparently, a traveling show.

I always had the dream of creating a theatre performance that opened up like a pop-up book. A show that would mix video projections with live actors to create a totally immersive experience. We wanted to create a full scale, life-size theatre production.

The idea for the Icebook was to create a miniature maquette for this dream — a demonstration model to show to producers and other funders in the hope that they would give us some money to make the full scale show. (And we still hope that this will come true one day!) The Icebook has since however, grown its own legs and turned into a miniature show all by itself. An intimate performance for small audiences.

Thank you, Froog!


* Whether this should be a two-word phrase or a single word seems uncertain. I opted to go with the one-word variation, per the title as it appears in the video.

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Book Review: Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

I’ve (finally!) posted my review of Nabokov’s Lolita, over at The Book Book.

It certainly made for a discomfiting read, on some levels. Anyone with a niece or daughter, as young as the title character or simply once that young — and, I’d bet, any one who herself was once that young — will find in its pages plenty to squirm over.

And yet, there are all those other levels: the annoyingly hard-to-resist charms of the voice of the narrator, the protagonist, Lolita’s stepfather (and abuser) Humbert; the lavish stylistic flourishes; the mounting tensions — leading first to the central “Will he or won’t he?” answer and, later, finally “…will he really kill? kill whom?”

Of course I’m writing here as a guy — a middle-aged guy, at that — and maybe this alone invalidates all my disclaimers to the contrary. But I have to admit that even while being most horrified, I could also feel a little frisson of titillation from time to time. This was especially true early in the book, before the “Will he or won’t be?” question got its (maybe inevitable) answer. It was like inspecting close-up the carapace of what looks from a distance like a beautiful beetle: the ugly hairs and horrible eyes jump out at you, and you almost can’t wait to back off again. It’s a grotesque parody, in a way — a Bruegel‘s-eye-view of infatuation.

(Of course the publisher knows and is quite willing to trade on, to toy with this. Just look at that cover from the book’s 50th-anniversary edition. Do you see the horrors of pedophilia there? I don’t, either.)

Anyway, obviously there’s a lot to feel ambivalent about. If you don’t mind ambivalence and messy morality, love language, and of course haven’t read Lolita, you might want to give it a try. Just don’t be surprised if, like me, you can’t imagine yourself ever reading the book again — and being grateful to have read it once.

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Bon Mot for the Week*

From poet David Kirby, who will be participating in a cross-disciplinary conference on creativity around these parts later this week:

I tell my own stu­dents that art is the deliberate transformed by the accidental, that you pursue your plan doggedly while staying open to the startling revelations that can kick your work up to a new level.

“The deliberate transformed by the accidental”: I like it.


* Post title shamelessly cribbed from Froog. For simplicity and directness, it just can’t be improved upon (although I don’t plan to steal it for good!).

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“I Can’t Market My Art!”
Oh, Yes You Can

In a recent blog post, loyal friend of RAMH Froog dredged up a name I hadn’t seen or heard for years: “cartoonist” Hugh MacLeod.*

I no longer have any idea where I first encountered MacLeod and his interesting work. At the time, though, he was struggling to forge some sort of business from his creative output while still suffocating in a day job. He’d started up an e-newsletter, and in each issue he included — free of charge — a sample of one of his special projects. That special project was the creation of drawings (“cartoons”? eeehhhh… maybe) which he’d doodled on the backs of business cards. Some of the drawings were quite dark in tone; some were laugh-out-loud funny; some just made me uncomfortable with how much they made me think.

Ultimately, I unsubscribed from the Gaping Void newsletter, as MacLeod called it. Not because it had ceased to be interesting, even valuable or important. No, simply because I was saving every single issue, with all the others, in a separate GapingVoid email folder. The computer I had at the time had begun to wheeze with overload and I started to throw things overboard: MP3s, images, software… Gaping Void.

And then I forgot all about it. Until yesterday, when I read Froog’s post, and shortly learned that MacLeod is making  a living doing what he wants to do. Crazy, huh?

If you want, feel free (of course!) to explore what is now MacLeod’s Gaping Void blog. But by all means (as Froog suggested) do stop over at the Lateral Action site for a terrific brief interview with MacLeod, in part on the topic of getting your art — dare I say writing? — in front of people who will want it for themselves.


“Artists cannot market” is complete crap. Warhol was GREAT at marketing. As was Picasso and countless other “Blue Chips”. Of course, they’d often take the “anti-marketing” stance as a form of marketing themselves. And their patrons lapped it up.

The way artists market themselves is by having a great story, by having a “Myth”. Telling anecdotal stories about Warhol, Pollack, Basquiat, Van Gogh is both (A) fun and (B) has a mythical dimension… if they didn’t, they wouldn’t have had movies made about them. The art feeds the myth. The myth feeds the art.

The worst thing an artist can do is see marketing as “The Other”, i.e. something outside of themselves. It’s not.

So: what’s your myth — your “great story” about your story?

* The “cartoonist” is MacLeod’s preferred term, rather than “artist.”

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Awards Season, at a Distance (and Highly Concentrated)

Heartiest congratulations to RAMH regular visitor and blog-friend Froog, who has performed the hat trick and then some in garnering — all at once — five best-of-the-year awards for his online presences:

  1. Most Prolific Blogger,
  2. Most Alcoholic Blog,
  3. Most Uncomfortably Personal Blog,
  4. China-Basher of the Year, and (the one I really envy him for)
  5. Most Diverse Blog

It’s about time someone gave him his due!

I understand Joan Rivers has begun making plans for the presentation ceremony. If she can just find a red carpet in his neighborhood which isn’t fluttering from a flagpole, she should be all set.

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