Found this bowl of, you know, sitting on a table, and took them outside into the sunlight.
I liked the result.
On Wednesday, I had wanted to use the above cartoon with my post about remembering The State‘s coverage of Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
It’s one of Robert Ariail’s most popular ever, and it served a good cause — it was turned into a poster, copies of which were sold, and the proceeds donated to disaster relief.
Unfortunately, it’s from the pre-digital days, so I couldn’t find it online.
Robert was kind enough to email this to me, so I share it now.
The original that ran in the paper was black-and-white, although color was added for the posters. After scanning the original to share it with us, Robert photoshopped in some color to recreate the poster effect…
This is by way of following up on a brief exchange Kathryn and I had yesterday about the dearth of appealing characters in the TV shows that currently compel our attention.
Bryan sent me a link to this piece, headlined “The Moral Relativism Of Serial Television.” It’s actually several years behind the curve, with this observation:
The sweet spot for serial television drama right now exists on non-premium cable channels. After decades of dominance by the broadcast networks, followed by a period in which the premium cable channels broke the mold with hits that reached mainstream culture like Oz, The Sopranos, and Dexter, non-premium channels like the Fox property FX, BBC America and AMC have rushed in to, at least temporarily, hold a lock on the highest volume of compelling drama on the small screen today.
That’s something I might have said two or three years ago (think “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Walking Dead”). What I sense happening now, or about to happen now, is a shift beyond non-premium cable TV, and on to series made for streaming and bingeing, such as “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black.”
But the general observation of the piece is that there is a seemingly deliberate lack of characters to root for, or even care about, in the most compelling recent dramatic series.
It ends, as do so many episodes of these popular series, on a dark note:
It is at least marginally troublesome that as a society, our most compelling entertainment increasingly eschews the concept or even the ideal that good exists in the world and ultimately should prevail. An artistic criticism of this view can legitimately point out that life is rarely so neat as to allow for the inevitable victory of the white knight. However, the rejoinder to this point is that we are not considering real life but rather television, which exists because we would rather watch it than real life. The entire raison d’etre of the medium is to idealize real life interactions into conclusions that are satisfying on at least some visceral level. If our television tastes are any guide, America increasingly takes satisfaction from a muddled mess of emotional responses which are provoked by disorderly and sometimes directly contradictory stimuli. Perhaps, if a society can be judged by its entertainment, what we are witnessing is the leading edge of the end of America’s desire to collectively be the good guy, or even to support the good guy in his efforts to be good. Or perhaps we don’t need television to tell us this; perhaps we need look no further than the ballot box.
Do we really not want to find good in characters and root for it? I don’t think that’s the case, although there’s no doubt we are living in a more cynical world than the one I grew up in.
I think we are still human, and there is still good in us, and within us lives a desire to perceive good, and embrace it — however many times we’ve been disappointed. I think the dark, moral emptiness of these recent entertainments is a function of writers and directors who are trying to produce high-quality material, and who buy into the insidious notion that moral clarity is lowbrow and insufficiently “artistic.” So they steer clear of it.
But does “quality” really have to be so dark, so morally arid?
I think if someone would come along and produce similar series, but with the humanity-affirming characteristics that marked “The West Wing,” the world would joyfully cheer, and reward the effort with their loyal patronage.
Think of that — a new series with the cinematic quality of “Breaking Bad,” but with characters like Jed Bartlet and Leo McGarry and Josh Lyman — characters you want to see succeed. As I watch the series for the first time, each night as I work out, I simply don’t see any characters who are utterly lacking in appealing characteristics. Even the adversarial figures who try to thwart our heroes have understandable, sympathetic reasons for taking the positions they do. While there are occasional digressions from this approach (one of the weakest scenes I’ve encountered was the one in which Jed Bartlet humiliates a character based on Dr. Laura with what he seems to imagine is a clever manner, but which is painfully trite — by asking her whether she literally supports all of the strictures in the Old Testament), by and large there is an appealing understanding of everyone’s motives.
Which is the way we should all live our lives. We should take strong stands based on what our discernment has taught us to believe is right, but strive to appreciate the convictions of those with whom we disagree. It could serve as an antidote to the default mode of today’s partisans, which is to demonize opponents, and scoff at their motives.
Imagine that — television that not only gives us heroes to root for, but which shows us ways to be a better society.
Now that would be television worth watching.
I almost never read Cal Thomas’ columns. I find they tend to have a certain sourness about them, whatever the point. Or maybe the expression on his mugshot just inclines me to perceive a sourness.
Whatever the case, I was drawn in to his column in The State this morning by the image of Tim Tebow kneeling.
The main point of the column didn’t interest me much — it was of a certain type, which we see written from the perspective of an ideologue complaining that ideologues of the opposite camp have a double standard, and criticize people of the writer’s camp for doing a certain thing, but don’t criticize people of their camp when they do the same thing. You know what I mean. You’ve read this one a million times.
In this case, he was angry that people who vehemently defend a guy named Michael Sam — apparently someone who people who follow football know all about — did not equally defend Tim Tebow when he was playing the game and taking a lot of flak.
The part of that that interested me was the Tim Tebow part.
And here, I’m going to have to ask you to bear with me as I propose an anachronistic topic. I realize that everybody who follows football, or is really into Culture War stuff, thoroughly hashed and rehashed everything there is to say about Tebow years ago. Well, I didn’t. I get interested in stuff when I get interested in it. Like “The West Wing,” which I will continue trying to interest y’all in discussing until I run out of episodes to watch on Netflix… and probably far beyond.
The advantage to you of a topic like this is that y’all have already thought it out and have wonderfully well-honed, nuanced positions on it. So you’re ahead of me. Assuming you can still remember your positions after all this time.
While everyone who followed football was really, really into taking strong stances on Tebow, I was peripherally aware of him. And what I was aware of was the kneeling thing. The “Tebowing.” Because it was kind of hard to miss, permeating visual media the way it did.
And each time I saw the image, as this morning, I wondered what to think of it. And I was always of two minds, at least.
On the one hand, it’s great that a guy isn’t embarrassed about his faith, and willing to witness to it in public — and in his case, in a considerable spotlight. On the other hand, it was awfully showy and “look at me,” seemingly a textbook example of what Jesus spoke against in Matthew 6:5.
And I find myself wondering whether Jesus’ judgment on this topic was culture-specific. He was speaking in a time and place when public prayer was a way of raising yourself in public esteem. Whereas, as Tebow himself can attest, doing so now subjects you to considerable abuse and ridicule. Especially when you play for a New York team.
Finally, on the third hand (yes, I know this metaphor is no longer working), I like the Tebowing gesture totally apart from theological questions. I’m a big fan of Arthurian legend — I may have mentioned that before — and Tebow’s gesture evokes the kneeling knight, his sword held before him like a cross. Which, to a geek like me who thinks pre-Raphaelite paintings are cool and not at all trite or corny, is appealing.
Thoughts? Or is this just too anachronistic for y’all? If so, I won’t try yet again to get a thread going on the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars…
My youngest daughter, the one who’s in Thailand now, adopted the above image as her new profile picture on Facebook. As I said in response, this is one of my favorite pictures I ever shot — perhaps one of my favorites that I ever saw.
It shows my two youngest. This was back when they were known in the family as “the little girls.” We had the three “big kids” who were close together in age, then a five-year gap, then the little girls.
Now they’re grown, like the big kids.
This was also back when I was still using my Nikon 8008, an awesome camera that now sits in a drawer because dealing with film is such an expensive hassle. I used to shoot black-and-white all the time — this was probably shot either on Tri-X or T-Max — which I would develop at home, and make my own prints. I would close off a bathroom that had no windows, set up my enlarger, put towels down at the crack under the door, and spend a whole Saturday printing.
This is one of those prints. The resolution is a little soft (actually, we would have referred to focus and grain rather than “resolution”), but that’s the way it was with 400 ASA film with ambient light indoors. But that’s one of the things that makes the picture work.
Remember the photos of protests in the Ukraine that I noted seemed more intensely real than a photograph could be? (Burl said they probably looked like that because of the HDR process, and I think he’s probably right.)
This photo of LIndsey Graham meeting and greeting had a similar quality, I thought.
I wrote to him to say, “Nice picture. I like the lighting. Is it staged, or candid?”
“Candid,” he replied.
And I suppose it would be. I don’t think they would have struck those particular poses and expressions in a staged shot.
But there’s something about the light that makes it look staged, and professionally so, as though a movie director were involved. And the black-and-white adds to the effect.
It seems like a Dewar’s profile kind of print ad, or something like that.
See what I mean? Or is it just me?
I clicked on a headline offered by Slate, “Anti-Gay Segregation May Soon Be Coming to Oregon,” because I was curious what in the world that could be.
But I didn’t find out because I got totally sidetracked by the photograph of something like a cross between a mausoleum — one erected by someone who detested the deceased — and the ventilation tower of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel (which we saw in the movie as the entrance to the secret headquarters of the “Men in Black”).
But the cutline said, “A 2007 rally for gay rights at the Oregon State Capital in Salem, Ore.” And I thought, That’s the actual state capitol of a state in the United States? Wow. They sure do go for some ugly out in Oregon.
Wikipedia describes it this way:
Chosen from 123 entries in a countrywide competition, the design of the new building deviated from the normal design of state capitol buildings. The design was labeled a combination of Egyptian simplicity and Greek refinement. Overall it is Art Deco in style, and is one of only three state capitols in the United States constructed in that architectural style.
Yeah, I’m glad there are no more than three in that style. I can barely take this one.
And I thought I kinda liked Art Deco, until now.
It’s like the architect thought, “I’ll start with something that vaguely suggests a dome, but make it cylindrical — only not smoothly cylindrical; I’ll add this ridge thingies. It’ll look kinda like the chamber of a revolver, or the edgy interior of an oil filter. And I’ll make the whole thing out of something that looks like cheap concrete.”
Man, I’m glad I don’t have to drive by that every day. I can think of a lot of bad things to say about that generation of SC lawmakers who built our present State House, but at least they had some taste. Or maybe, as a native South Carolinian, I’m just genetically predisposed toward neo-classical.
At the Capital City Club this morning, I happened to glance toward a window on the South Side, and saw nothing but gray.
I didn’t know whether it was high fog or low clouds, but I find it interesting to watch the outlines of the State House sort of come and go with the drift of the mist.
It seemed to me this could be a metaphor for the legislative session that was starting today, but I was stumped as to how that worked. It’s not like the future is murky. This session will be like all the others — a lot of huffing and puffing, but little attention paid to the state’s real needs.
Or not. Maybe it was an omen. Maybe this year, they’ll get some good stuff done. One can hope.
Oh, and in case you think I can’t ever take a decent picture from atop SC’s tallest building, I share with you this sunset from one evening last week. So there…
Lou Reed, a massively influential songwriter and guitarist who helped shape nearly fifty years of rock music, died today on Long Island. The cause of his death has not yet been released, but Reed underwent a liver transplant in May
With the Velvet Underground in the late Sixties, Reed fused street-level urgency with elements of European avant-garde music, marrying beauty and noise, while bringing a whole new lyrical honesty to rock & roll poetry. As a restlessly inventive solo artist, from the Seventies into the 2010s, he was chameleonic, thorny and unpredictable, challenging his fans at every turn. Glam, punk and alternative rock are all unthinkable without his revelatory example. “One chord is fine,” he once said, alluding to his bare-bones guitar style. “Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.”…
… I happened to remember the above video. It’s one of Andy Warhol’s “screen tests” that he did of various people who hung around The Factory back in the mid-’60s.
Basically, Warhol would turn a camera loaded with a short bit of film (about four minutes worth) onto one of his subjects, and just let that person be for that length of time.
Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips put 13 of those clips to music, and I saw their show at Spoleto in Charleston a couple of years back.
Somehow, their lyrics seem appropriate to express just how old we’ve gotten since Reed sat there drinking that Coke.
For some of Reed’s own music, I include the clip below…
Of all the things I like to write about in spite of knowing nothing about them, music is one of my favorites.
Lately, I’ve been boring members of my family by making them listen to the opening of Leon Russell’s “I Put a Spell on You” from his eponymous album (the one before the Shelter People one). No, not a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins cover. Totally different song.
It has one of those “you are in the studio” false starts at the beginning. Actually, two or three of them. I’ve always thought those things were a little obnoxious, because they seem to play on fans thinking it’s cool to hear their rock ‘n’ roll heroes being informal, making mistakes, and it seems self-conscious, as in “We know y’all will enjoying feeling like you’re rubbing shoulders with wonderful us in the studio, so we’ll throw you a bone.”
Or maybe I read too much into it.
Anyway, I like this one because of what Leon does with it. There’s one false start. Then another. Then he, and a guitarist, play a sort of winding, downward pattern. And then suddenly, Leon does that thing where you run your finger down the keys in one long flow, from right to left (what’s that called?), and then the rollicking song actually begins.
It feels, to me, like the musical version of jump-starting a car with manual transmission by letting it roll down the hill and letting out the clutch with the gearshift in first. If you’ve ever done that (I’ve had to do it a couple of times with my Ford Ranger), see if listening to this kind of feels that way to you.
Or maybe I’m just crazy.
Here’s the other musical thing I wanted to bring up. This is probably a question for Phillip Bush, like when I asked why awesome songs such as Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” are so awesome. What musical tricks make the endorphins flow?
I’m thinking that about the theme song to “Orange is the New Black,” which we’ve touched on here previously.
The magic seems to occur in two places. One is when Regina Spektor gets to the line, “And you’ve… got… ti-i-IME!” What is she doing there? It’s unusual, and very appealing. The other cool part is the bridge (I think), where she shifts gears and goes:
Think of all the roads.
Think of all their crossings…
Anyway, it’s very appealing, whatever she’s doing. I wish I could put it into words. But if I could, I guess we wouldn’t need music, which would be a shame…
Well, here’s your chance. Your last chance.
Robert’s having a show Thursday from 5-8 p.m. at City Art Gallery, and his originals are on sale. After that, he’s donating what’s left to the Hollings Library at USC.
Come on out, and bring your checkbook.
Consider this picture a gentle protest against our governor again putting the state Arts Commission in the crosshairs.
Here, of course, is the problem with her repeated efforts to do this agency in: It’s not, near as I can tell (and maybe I’ve just missed the stories explaining this), because she thinks there is a better, more efficient way to accomplish the agency’s mission.
It’s because — and please, I’d love to be shown how I’m off-base on this — she wants to be seen by her base as attacking government-funded arts, period. Which I know some of my readers will applaud. Others will not. (Doug will likely argue that we shouldn’t fund the arts when roads, prisons, etc., go unfunded. I will reply that we can adequately fund all those things and give the arts a boost as well. Just because we haven’t doesn’t mean that we can’t.)
My headline, by the way, was the text that accompanied the above photo, which I saw when my wife shared it on Facebook. For a split-second, I thought it might be one of my granddaughters, because that’s just the sort of thing they would do. But the hair was wrong.
The picture, and the message, seem to have originated with Marymount Manhattan College’s Department of Theatre Arts.
Three years ago, the staff of ADCO had our annual Christmas party at Hobby Lobby. After refreshments, each us was given a canvas and paints, and challenged to create something for the walls of our offices.
Fast-forward to this year…
Now, here’s a test of your artistic perspicacity: Above and below are images of two paintings. Can you tell which is by ADCO, and which is by Rothko himself?
No cheating! To check yourself, you may look it up on Google Images after you share your answer. You’re all on the honor system, and sure, you are all honorable men. And women.
Over the weekend, I experienced the polar opposites of cinematic achievement: First, AT&T was having a free weekend for premium channels, and while I recorded a number of films I expect to enjoy, one of those channels also showed David Lynch’s execrable “Dune.” I had not watched it since that bitterly disappointing night in 1984 in a Jackson, TN, theater when it first came out. Those few minutes I watched over the weekend convinced me that it wasn’t just that my expectations had been so high at the time. This actually was the worst film I’ve ever seen in my life. Every line of dialogue, every visual touch, every gratuitous plot change from the book (“weirding modules”? Are you kidding me?), was so bad it had to be as intentional as those revolting pustules the make-up people put all over the Baron Harkonnen’s face (something else that wasn’t in the book). Every aspect of it was horrible.
So it was very nice, Sunday evening, to wipe that away by seeing one of the finest new motion pictures I’ve seen in years: “Lincoln.”
Everyone should see this. Every American should, anyway, because it tells so much about who we are and what led to our being what we are. And it tells us something I think we’ve forgotten, which is that great things can be accomplished through our system of representative democracy, even when the barriers and stakes are far greater than anything we face in Washington today.
I could go on and on about the way Daniel Day Lewis inhabits Abraham Lincoln and eerily embodies everything I’ve read about him, or how Spielberg has honed his craft to the very limits of film’s ability to tell a coherent story, while simultaneously making you feel like you’re looking through a time portal at the actual events.
But I’ll just zero in on one thing that contributed to making it so good: The political realism. Most specifically, the way the film not only avoids the temptation to make everything appear to be morally black or white, but rubs your nose in the messiness of real decisions made in a real world.
The main narrative has to do with Lincoln, after his second inauguration, pulling out all the stops to get the House to pass the 13th Amendment, which made slavery unconstitutional. To get the two-thirds, he needs at least 20 more votes even if every Republican supports the measure. This means not only peeling off some Democrats, each defection like pulling teeth out of a dragon, but somehow keeping the peace among the radicals (such as Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones) and conservatives (such as Preston Blair, played by Hal Holbrook) in his own party.
Every stratagem is used, starting with the hiring of some sleazy political operatives (I was amazed to realize after I saw the film that that was James Spader playing lobbyist W.N. Bilbo) to employ every trick they can come up with, starting with raw political patronage and moving on from there. (A key part of the strategy involved offering jobs in the second Lincoln administration to lame-duck members of the other party who had just lost their bids for re-election, but not left office yet.) The Lincoln team even stoops to a half-truth — told by Honest Abe himself — at a critical moment to keep the coalition from blowing up.
It’s very, very messy. No plaster saints here, and feet of clay all over the place. Yet through it all, the ultimate nobility of what is being done, in spite of all the odds, shines through irresistibly. We see how politics, with all its warts, can accomplish magnificent things. At a moment when Democrats and Republicans can’t even seem to do a simple thing like keep from going over a “fiscal cliff” with their hands around each others’ throats, we see how politicians (and they evince all of the worst things we think of when we use that term) can accomplish something great, even when (or perhaps, because?) the stakes are so much greater.
This film not only doesn’t flinch at moral complexity; it wallows in it, to wonderful effect. An excellent example is the scene in which Lincoln muses aloud before his team about all the convoluted, mutually contradictory, logical and constitutional boxes he put himself and the nation in when he decided to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. And the tension builds as we come to fully understand why the Amendment — which would fulfill the dream of freedom that the Proclamation could not — must be passed NOW, before the war ended. And we share Lincoln’s intense, focused urgency.
No significant aspect of Lincoln’s public character is missing from this portrait, including the delight that both he and his audiences took in his jokes. (But not all the people all of the time — Secretary of War Edwin Stanton storms out rather than listen to a funny story at a tense moment.) And at the end, after all the deal-making and maneuvering and fiddling and pushing and pulling and playing to venality and petty egos — one is left believing that Abraham Lincoln was a greater man than any marble statue could ever convey. I don’t know how to explain to you how the film achieves that; it just does.
I suppose there will be some people who just don’t get it — black-and-white, concrete thinkers who will be disturbed at the honest portayal of the messiness of politics as it was practiced in 1865. The neo-Confederates who think the Lincoln would originally have kept slavery if he could preserve the Union is some sort of great “gotcha” won’t get it. Nor will those like the local political activist who, a few days ago, said on Facebook that “Lincoln was not a good man” because his attitudes about racial equality weren’t a perfect match for those of a 21st-century “progressive.”
But seeing “Lincoln” may be among the best chances they’ll ever have to see that reality is broader, and often more inspiring, than their narrow perspectives on it.
Having appeared so recently in the SC Shakespeare Company’s production of “Pride and Prejudice,” I particularly enjoyed the ending of Maureen Dowd’s column about the Petraeus scandal:
The military might want to have its future stars read Jane Austen as well as Grant and Rommel. “Pride and Prejudice” is full of warnings about the dangers of young ladies with exuberant, flirtatious, “unguarded and imprudent” manners visiting military regiments and preening in “all the glories of the camp.”
Such folly and vanity, the ever wise Elizabeth Bennet cautioned, can lead to censure and disgrace.
I was really impressed to read about these details in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln:”
That pure, unadulterated tick is the sound of an original watch that Lincoln carried.
“I heard the actual pocket watch existed,” Spielberg said in an interview with The Post, “and I wanted to know whether they’d let us wind it and record it. I didn’t know if they would, and they did. I thought that was very important. So, every time you hear that little ticking in the story, that’s Abraham Lincoln’s actual pocket watch.”
Spielberg dispatched a team to find other sounds that surrounded Lincoln in his final days. They collected the ring of the bell at the church Lincoln attended, the squeak of latches at the White House, the snatch of Lincoln’s carriage door, the weight of boots as a weary Lincoln walked through the White House, the creak of a seat from which he rose…
Wow. Very cool.
Reminds me of a story I heard about “Mad Men.” The cousin or nephew or something of one of my wife’s best friends had a bit part in the opening episode of last season. Remember when some young white jerks from a rival agency were dropping bags full of water on civil rights demonstrators down on the street? He was one of the young white jerks. Anyway, the interesting thing was the way they impressed upon him that he must not, under any circumstances, spill the water on any of the props in the office set. Because everything, down to the paper clips, was authentic, real like-new items from the mid-60s.
But these sound details seem to go beyond that. Too bad I’m losing my hearing.
Looking forward to seeing “Lincoln,” but I want to finish reading Team of Rivals first. I’m only a couple of hundred pages into it so far…
Schoolteacher and former state superintendent candidate Kelly Payne shot the picture above last night, from the moment in scene 2 when I announce, “May I present our new neighbors at Netherfield: Mr. Charles Bingley (top), Miss Caroline Bingley, and Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy…”
Though I’ve shot a lot of pictures of the production myself, is actually the first picture I’ve seen with me in it other than the dance one in which I am tiny and blurred. Seeing this, I’m thinking I might need to make the smile bigger. Sir William is an ebullient and convivial fellow.
If you’d like a better view of the whole thing, come on out. We’re performing in the amphitheater at Finlay Park at 7:30 tonight, Friday night and Saturday night, and then that’s it.
And it’s free.
In case you haven’t had enough of “Gangnam Style,” here the special version for adolescent members of the British ruling class.
The Guardian, that great leveler, has kindly offered a translation:
Tardy book, beaks, chambers: like all the best rap songs, the Etonian version of Gangnam Style is almost entirely unintelligible. Fortunately,Eton College publishes a glossary to its arcane lingo on its website, and so with reference to this great resource, and with a bit of help from those in the know, we can at last reveal what on earth those poshos were on about…
Follow the link for the glossary.
I find myself envious of these lads. Not for their priceless prep school education, but because they effortlessly speak that way, while I have to consciously work at it every night.
Which is my setup for saying, come see “Pride and Prejudice” tonight at Finlay Park at 7:30. It will show at the same time tomorrow night, and also next Wednesday through Saturday. But allow me to point out that it appears the weather will be perfect tonight.
Below is a picture someone took (I grabbed it from Facebook) of me and the gang doing a dance called “Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot.” Really. That’s what it’s called. Here you can see them doing it in the BBC series, the time that Darcy (the Colin Firth Darcy) and Elizabeth first dance. They do it a lot more slowly than we do. Amazingly, they have a conversation during it. Bet they couldn’t do that if they were dancing as fast as we do.
That’s me on the far end of the second row of dancers. Admittedly, the picture’s sort of blurry. If you want to see it better, come see the show.
This morning, ten days after I trimmed my beard, one of the regulars I see at breakfast pretty much every week day suddenly noticed and asked, across the room, what in the world that was I had on my face.
Once again, The Chops provided me with an excuse to invite someone else to come see SC Shakespeare Company’s production of “Pride and Prejudice.”
It opens tomorrow night — that’s Wednesday night — at Finlay Park, at 7:30.
Last night (see picture above, at dusk, shortly before we ran the show), was our first time testing the lights and using the full set that we didn’t have at Saluda Shoals last week — winding staircases to descend, etc. (Which is a bit of an adventure when you’re turned delivering a line to another character, and bright lights are in your eyes, and you’re having inner-ear problems.) Tonight we’ll test sound for the first time in this venue.
And tomorrow we open. Hope to see you there.
Some years ago — it could have been 20 — I read an article by Umberto Eco that seems appropriate to this topic. I don’t remember all the particulars of the piece, or even in which magazine it appeared. But I seem to recall that the semiotician and novelist set forth the notion that we might be moving, beyond a post-literate society, to becoming post-verbal, returning to means of communication common in medieval days when, say, a pub called the Rose and Crown would be identified by a hanging sign showing pictures of those things, rather than words.
The premise would seem excessively alarmist, or at least premature, since the decades since I read that have seen an explosion of the written word on the Web. More people are writing, and reading, a greater profusion of words than at any time in the history of this planet.
But sometimes, we are faced with images alone, and words fail us. On friends’ Facebook pages, I’m occasionally confronted with images that just beg for accompanying text to explain them, but nary a word is offered.
And recently, I found myself in a world that brought the Eco piece back powerfully.
I was going to (and eventually did) write a light item for the ADCO blog about the addictiveness of Pinterest, which has hooked a couple of my co-workers. The spark was a study indicating that 20 percent of women who are online were into the site.
At first, I supposed that only women could possibly get into it, for as I perused the boards created by my female co-workers, I was overwhelmed by all the images of food and housewares and decorating ideas. As I said in that ADCO blog post, those screens looked like “the result of Edward Scissorhands going to town on a 10-foot-high stack of old copies of Better Homes and Gardens and Southern Living.”
But as I went through the little signup ritual for creating my own account, I saw how quickly the screen would morph into something that more interested me.
Here’s what happens: You sign in to the site. You are offered a screen full of slightly-bigger-than-thumbnail images. You are asked to “like” the ones that appeal to you. What you “like” affects what you see as you continue to scroll down. It’s rather fascinating to watch as the algorithm does its work. For a time, for a long time, the wave of images coming at you seems never-ending. The scroll bar on the right will seem to be approaching the bottom, then suddenly it will glide back up toward the middle as a new load of images arrives.
I saw a lot of images that interested me a great deal, but I couldn’t decide whether to “like” them or not. I mean, what does it say if you click “like” on a picture of a B-26 going down in flames? I don’t like that it’s going down, with American airmen dying in it. But I do want the program to know that I find images of WWII warplanes interesting.
Or what about a picture of Michael Caine as spy Harry Palmer? Will it think I like the raincoat, or “The Ipcress File?” This is a place where words would help.
And what does it mean when I “like” a picture of Marilyn Monroe? I mean, have you ever seen a picture of her you didn’t like, on some level or other? I haven’t. And yet, after I liked one or two of them, they kept coming in a profusion that suggested that Pinterest thought I had some kind of Elton-John-like celebrity fetish centered on her. I continued to “like” them, because that was my honest and uncomplicated answer. But I didn’t want it to offer me nothing but movie-star pictures going forward.
Just because I like Sean Connery doesn’t mean I want to see pictures of Rock Hudson (not that there’s anything wrong with that). And my liking a picture of Natalie Wood doesn’t mean I want to see Robert Wagner. And what’s with these Jody Foster pictures you keep throwing at me? I haven’t liked a single one, and they keep coming. Who do you think I am, John Hinckley? And just because I click on an interesting diagram of old military headgear doesn’t mean I want to look at one Confederate kepi after another!
So here’s where you end up, or where I ended up anyway: Pinterest now “knows” me well enough that one out of 10 or 12 things it throws at me will be mildly interesting. Which I guess is an achievement for a computer program.
But the language of social media — “like” and “friend” and other terms that so often don’t exactly describe the relationship in a given case — still needs work. Let’s not give up on words just yet.
Below are some of the pictures I “liked” as they were thrown at me. But really: What does it mean to “like” a picture of Bonnie and Clyde?