Monday, June 22, 2009

A Creative Sideline in Standup Storytelling

Every now and then, I wonder about other possible careers if the whole academic philosophy thing doesn't work out, and sometimes a life as a stand up comedian is among what I consider. The only real problem with that is that I'm not very good at writing jokes. Most of the funny things I do and say in real life are witty remarks specific to situations I'm in (sitcom humour), and telling increasingly ludicrous, strange stories filled with digressions and non-sequiturs. Neither of these, I thought, would really work on stage at a comedy club.

But I realized today that I could actually make the stories work. It wouldn't be anything close to ordinary stand-up, with people making pithy observations and threading them into complex analyses of society and life. I noticed this while I was walking to the liquor store tonight (LCBO goes on strike Wednesday, and I had to stock up) after reading some In Search of Lost Time. I'm on volume four now, Sodom and Gomorrah, and I had just finished a sequence where the narrator described this really irritating bellhop in his hotel, and did this for no apparent reason. The story wasn't advanced, the bellhop is never going to show up again. And I realized that the whole seven volumes of this book is an extended story that the narrator tells about what he remembers of his life. I could design stand up routines as if I was narrating a series of cartoonish stories. That way, I could invent characters and insert a lot of blatant and subtle critiques and ideas into them, while getting laughs. Imagine Bill Bailey or George Carlin doing his own version of In Search of Lost Time, and that's basically where I'm going with this.

As I walked down the street, I began imagining routines, long stories about my encounters with an effete homosexual older businessman known only as The Baron. We would go from discussing wine in a sparsely decorated penthouse with entirely white furniture to a shady monkey knife fight coordinated by his Filipino friend Pablo, who he knew from "the war." But when I asked him which war it was, he said that he never fought in any wars, and that it was more like a dispute in a restaurant in Manila over who was going to pay the bill. And it wasn't in Manila; it was actually in Oakville. But tempers certainly did come to flair, let me tell you.

And so on.

Most of my ideas were about The Baron, but I had other ideas too, during my walk to the liquor store. They included an encounter with a singer-songwriter whose lyrics are incredibly clichéd and painful to listen to, but she's completely oblivious; an array of The Baron's young Asian lovers; a series of mix-ups between Beaver gas stations, beaver the animal, the term for a vagina, the sitcom Leave It to Beaver, and The Baron's refusal to have anything be left to him on a matter of general principle. Ok, so most of my ideas do involve The Baron, but this is a character with a lot of potential, and I only thought of this idea a few hours ago.

One story I would save for the end of a longer routine is an amusing, yet also touching, story of visiting the liquor store to stock up before an impending strike (following a long strange digression on last-minute races to the liquor store and buying wildly absurd liquors – scotch, Cointreau, creme de banane, Wild Turkey bourbon, Ouzo – because you were in such a hurry) and overhearing a girl at the register tell her co-worker, a thirtysomething man serving me, that she was planning to get a ring to wear just to stop obnoxious guys from hitting on her as they were buying their vodka coolers, probably to lace with rohypnol and give to underage girls. I would answer her on my way out with one piece of wisdom: that the guys who would pay attention to the ring are too nice to have hit on her in the first place, and a guy that obnoxious wouldn't care if she had a husband in the room. "They're the quiet ones," says the co-worker. As I walk out the door, I answer "And the quiet ones never say what we want to."

Everything in that last story except for the strike happened almost word for word last month.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Philosophy and the Essential Ambiguity of Film

To begin, an example of how my thought processes work. Monday night, after Conan was over, tv inertia found me switching over to Bravo and watching the last half of an old episode of Without a Trace. The plot was about a missing teenager whose girlfriend had been involved in a near-daily series of sex parties held at his best friend's house. The girl had been a regular at the parties until she met her boyfriend, when she stopped going. But after the host started spreading rumours that the boyfriend had cheated on her, she returned, and the fight they had when he discovered this fact happened right before his disappearance.

The actors playing the party host and the girlfriend looked incredibly familiar, but I couldn't remember the name of the episode, or the names of the actors. But this morning, as I woke up, I remembered where I had seen the party host before: Canadian teen sitcom Student Bodies, which I used to watch semi-regularly when I was in high school. The actor was Jamie Elman, and on his imdb page, they had listed the name of the Without a Trace episode, "Sons and Daughters." The girlfriend in that episode was Kat Dennings, who starred last year in Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist with Michael Cera.

Now, here's the idea I had in the shower this morning, after looking up this thread of interconnecting movies. I noticed another item on Jamie Elman's filmography, When Nietzsche Wept, in which he played a young Sigmund Freud. After searching through some reviews on the internet of this movie, I discovered that there were none, except a couple of forum posts on, one of which was a one-sentence endorsement, and the other of which said it was fit for MST3K. Apparently, Armand Assante had a decent performance, but the film was a gross oversimplification of his views.

It reminded me of an opinion I've held for some time about philosophy movies: that they should not be made. Why they shouldn't be made is a matter of the very different form of philosophy and film. Philosophy is a clearly written argument or exploration of an idea. Philosophy is largely making declarative statements and arranging them to articulate a concept or an argument. It is a matter of words, and occasionally illustrative diagrams, but mostly words. The purpose in philosophy is to explain, and interpret those explanations.

But film is a medium of images, and images don't declare anything: they just are. Sure, you can film a lecture, but a fascinating lecture is a boring film, and attempts to represent philosophies in film are best done through characters whose motivations can be understood as being rooted in or inspired by particular philosophies. If characters actually talk about their philosophical motivations, usually in long, ludicrous speeches, it becomes boring. Philosophy strives for clarity, but films strive for ambiguity. A well crafted image is a display that can consist almost entirely in interpretation. Interpretation in philosophy only begins after the text has been clearly stated. Philosophical interpretation must begin from a clear standing point in the text, and if the starting text itself is obscure, the interpretation will collapse. This is the key difference between the image and the text.

This is why novels work so much better in stating philosophical ideas. The works of Marcel Proust, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Milan Kundera are three examples that come immediately to mind. The adaptation of Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being is an excellent example of the difference between novels and films when it comes to philosophy. The novel was largely an exploration of Kundera's philosophical engagement with Nietzsche, and his interpretation of Nietzsche's eternal return concept. (I think Kundera committed the common mistake in Nietzsche readers, thinking of the eternal return as the sameness of repetition, when it's actually the repetition of difference, but that's neither here nor there.) The characters were cyphers for the philosophical exploration. The novel was a philosophical exploration that happened in a political and personal narrative context, and as such, it was a brilliant success.

In his adaptation, Philip Kaufman understood exactly what to do with his film. To have the characters state explicitly Kundera's philosophical engagement with Nietzsche and have the film revolve around that would have sent the audience to sleep. Instead, Kaufman's film focussed on the articulation of these ideas in the actions of the characters themselves. The audience sees the characters engage with the world, and we can work out through their actions the ideas that animate them. There are some wonderful images of Daniel Day-Lewis in the film that illustrate his philosophy of being's lightness much better than any speech ever would. Wondering whether he should rejoin his wife Juliette Binoche, who has fled the superficial and selfish society of Zürich for Prague, he stands in a pond playing with ducks, his arms outstretched on a foggy afternoon. After finding tranquility together working on their farm in rural Czechoslovakia, Day-Lewis, driving a tractor, raises his arms in mocking thanks to God, sitting on a line between the brightnesses of blue sky and green fields, Binoche watching and laughing. These images are ambiguous in themselves, and their explanatory content depends centrally on the audience.

After first conceiving this idea, I thought of a narrative inspired by that Without a Trace episode that would be an excellent philosophical novel, and if I eventually decide to pursue it, would be the first genuinely philosophical novel I write. I hope you don't mind my spoiling the end of a six year old episode of Without a Trace. At the end of the episode, we discover that the county sheriff was engaged to Kat Dennings' mother, and had discovered that his own daughter from his previous marriage was a participant in Jamie Elman's parties. Irrational with rage over seemingly having lost his biological daughter to a nihilistic lifestyle, he follows his soon-to-be-daughter-in-law back home. That night he sees the boyfriend visit and try to reconcile, only for Kat Dennings to turn him away. Dennings had told her mother that she was raped to cover up her involvement with Elman's parties. The sheriff, thinking the boyfriend was Dennings' rapist, captures him as he leaves Dennings' house, and takes him into the woods where he strangles the boyfriend to death. The end of the episode sees him confessing to Anthony LaPaglia and being led away to jail.

I wondered what could the motivations possibly be of a lawyer who would try to get him off, someone whose defense strategy would have to consist in badgering the highly traumatized witnesses to force them to break down on the stand and tricking them into contradicting themselves. This lawyer would have no ethical values other than his own power in convincing people that his desires were the truth that should motivate them. I can think of no motivation for anyone to convince a remorseful confessed killer to plead not guilty and allow his lawyer to destroy the psyches of the prosecution's witnesses. This lawyer would go ever farther than not believing in an absolute good, because you can believe in a plurality of good and still be ethical. That's me. This lawyer would have to believe that there is not, and cannot be, any good at all. Each case would be, for him, an expression of his own power. He would be a living exercise in what we could call, paraphrasing Nietzsche, a monstrous nihilist, a man happy to have overcome the values of the society in which he lives, but who sees no need to create new values.

Monday, June 15, 2009

A Union of the Mystical and Liquor

Finally, the union of my cultural heritage with two of my greatest passions. Manufactured and distilled in Newfoundland, uniting a design based on mystical and religious engagement with ethical philosophy, along with hard liquor. Crystal Head Vodka.

It certainly earns my endorsement, Dan.

Monday, June 8, 2009

All Things and Events Are Raw Material

I think there is a lot of similarity between a philosopher and a comedian. We observe life and interpret it, discovering new perspectives on the everyday that had never existed before. Most of the time, when philosophers elaborate these perspectives, we do it in the name of intellectual progress, cultural critique, or moral indignation, to list a few motivations, all of which are quite serious. Comedians do the same, except their motivations are to make us laugh, although the best comedians have the motivations of a philosopher in mind as well.

This is what I enjoy most about Slavoj Zizek, a man who can find the most fascinating interpretations in the most mundane material, who happily blurs the lines between philosopher and comedian. When I say in the title of this post that all things and events are raw material, I mean it in the sense that comedians describe their material, the elements from which they build their jokes and funny narratives.

There is no element of our society today more trivial than twitter, perfectly summarized in this Penny Arcade comic from last April. However, an amazing profundity emerged from the twitter-verse a few weeks ago, as my friend Sheena explained on her blog. CBC's Jonathan Goldstein discovered that he had an impostor on twitter, and neither could convince their followers that they were the real Jonathan Goldstein. But, if I may allow my philosophical comedian to enter the discussion, I don't think such a thing matters anymore. (Imagine that I'm speaking the following paragraphs with a thick Slovenian accent.)

One of the fascinating thing about the internet is that it allows you to be present simultaneously for millions of people, but that presence is in a highly reduced form. This has been true of every long-distance media, that your presence for the people to whom you communicate is reduced to a highly abstract form. When I meet someone face to face, I am a full, nuanced, physical, fleshly human, intricate in detail. And many of those details are beyond my control. If it is hot out, I will be sweaty; if it is raining, I will be wet; and so on. But when I communicate through long-distance media, even the ancient smoke signal, the person to whom I speak only perceives me as smoke. To her, I am smoke. Likewise in writing a letter, to my recipient, I am text on a page. I do not mean this as a metaphor. When I send you an e-mail, I am quite literally text on your screen.

Twitter is possibly the most abstracting of all internet-based communication, and probably the only one that will survive the upcoming bandwidth crush, when there will simply no longer be enough room in our cables and satellites to send the large video and audio files that make up so much internet traffic. On twitter, I am a small profile picture that serves as an iconic part of my name, and 140 characters of text. I can be only what I can manifest in these 140 characters, so if someone were to pretend to be me (or Jonathan Goldstein), it would be a simple matter of replicating the style of 140 characters. Because I am the style of my writing those 140 characters, a skilled mimic could not only pretend to be me, but for my own twitter followers, become me.

In reductive communication, it does not matter who is doing the typing when you are only perceived as that which is typed. There could be a thousand Jonathan Goldstein, all replicating themselves 140 characters at a time. And they would equally be Jonathan Goldstein if they were perceived as Jonathan Goldstein. All the physical bodies sitting at computers typing themselves as Jonathan Goldstein could be entirely different, but if the style was right and they were successfully perceived as Jonathan Goldstein, then as far as twitter-presence was concerned, they would be Jonathan Goldstein.

Being perceived as a set of words makes you into a set of words, just as being perceived as a fleshly human in a face to face encounter is what makes you into a fleshly human. The power of perception to constitute how you exist is immense, and it is not a process of which you are in complete control. Certainly, there is some control. I type what I type on this blog and my twitter. But I cannot control how that typing is interpreted, how it is read. If we were all so aware of the degree to which we depend on others for what we are, perhaps we would not be so quick to consider our interpretation as precisely what was intended. Perhaps we would use that power more carefully, and listen attentively rather than scan, and take what is barely noticed to be the truth of things.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Short Posts and Bad Cover Versions

A couple of weeks ago, I was in a bar on a Monday with some friends visiting from St John's, and there was a mediocre bar band playing cover versions of our favourite songs from the 1990s and early 2000s. I think they took their inconsequential musical production very seriously, if only because of the emotional intensity of the songs they played, particularly the classic Radiohead and good Coldplay (in contrast to the shit Coldplay).

I just listened to "Karma Police," which was the first song in the set these dedicated cover artists played, and I noticed some key differences between their version and the original, which made the original quite a lot better, unsurprisingly. The point is that it only takes a few subtle differences to turn a striking song into a far schmaltzier version. I couldn't put my finger on it at first, because I could forgive the singer for not quite having Thom Yorke's voice. That would just be unrealistic.

The cover band played the piano part with a ton of sustain on the notes, blurring them all together. If you listen to the video I linked above, each of the piano notes in the first half of the song have no sustain at all, making each one distinct, and isolated from each other in the melody. It emphasizes the percussive quality of the song, where the cover version I heard in the bar made the song sound mushy. The original Radiohead communicated a feeling of alienation in the song, which was the whole aesthetic point of Ok Computer. It's fascinating that such a subtle change could alter an artwork so completely.