Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween special: A rare interview with the ancient vampire squid from hell.

How far apart are humans from animals—even the Vampyroteuthis infernalis, the "vampire squid from hell"?
Let's discuss.

Considering the human condition along with the Vampyroteuthis infernalis condition seems appropriate because "we are both products of an absurd coincidence," writes Vilém Flusser.

Subject of Vilém Flusser's Vampyroteuthis Infernalis: A Treatise

Q. How are you and humans the same? Flusser writes "We and the vampyroteuthis harbor some of the same deeply ingrained memories, and we are therefore able to recognize it in something of ourselves." Do you agree?

You know, it's hard to say—I haven't met all that many humans in my time. The oxygen minimum zone is pretty rough on humans, and conversely, I'm a fairly poor traveler when I leave this biome and drift upwards. I guess I'm a bit of a homebody. Flusser did visit me once, however—I don't remember the year—in a special suit he'd made himself, or so he said.

So I can, I suppose, extrapolate from him as he did for my species from me. (In fact, I'm currently working on a book called Vilém Flusser: A Treatise, with a Report by the Institute Aquatique de Spéculatif Humanoïdes so this is a bit of an advance preview. Please check any reused quotes against the final published text.) He was a nice man, and I'm pretty nice as far as deep sea cephalopods go, so that's one thing we had in common. He had huge glasses—he said they were the largest glasses in the animal kingdom—and I have massive globular eyes—they are the largest eyes in the animal kingdom in proportion to my body—so that was another bonding moment. Both our species, I could see, had deep relationships with our respective habitats—as if the very functions of our bodies and our behaviors were in some deep way determined by the habitats we ourselves inhabited. He wore a cape, and I have a cape-like webbing between my tentacles. I suppose what Flusser was discussing in your quote is something we talked about at great length, which is that when you get down to it, we really do come from the same phylogenetic tree after all.

So in some ways, what once was mine was also once yours?

I think we both preferred the dark in some ways. Which reminds me of another strange similarity. You may not know this, but I'm covered in photophores—meaning, one might see flashes of light shimmer off my mantle. They're these amazing little light-producing organs. It's quite nice, and a useful thing in a sea of eternal night where light can be your only way to communicate, throw a distraction, entice some prey, or see the manuscript you're working on. Well: Flusser was excited to see this light in action—something about technical images—because he felt it was so unique and different from anything humans could do. But when he was down here, we discovered that when his thinking grew excited, we'd start seeing these bursts of light flash from around his head and crackle through is beard and out into the water column. He was amazed—and said you couldn't see this up in his natural habitat. But down here, well—it really was quite spectacular to watch.

Q. What can the vampyroteuthis infernalis teach humans about the earth and our mutual place in it?

There are a few simple things. Don't try to send me some candy in a styrofoam cup, because by the time it reaches me it will have been compressed down to the size of a thimble, spilling all the candy. Flusser tried that once. But then again, do try—we in the deep sea have a phrase we like to use: "it's the thought that counts." And the thought really did make me feel good.

A couple other things:
1) It's okay to be a drifter sometimes. Use your jet propulsion once in awhile (it is fun) but going with the flow can be really nice. Flusser read me this great poem about "wandering lonely as a cloud" or something like that like that. It was very deep-sea in spirit, and reminded me of my life as a sometimes-drifter in the pelagic zone. Though I don't drift as much as others—like that Deepstaria enigmatica, dude, they are so LAZY.

2) Not everything with a scary name is scary. Sure I do a cloak thing where I spin my webbed tentacles up around my body and there are these little bristles that come out. I always yell PINEAPPLE when I do it. Does it look scary? Sure, maybe. It works to hide, and scare a predator away. But I'm doing this because I'M scared! Seriously! Those spines couldn't hurt a sleeping Laetmogone violacea and that thing just sucks mud all day long. I'm not trying to be scary, I'm just hiding all my wonderful photophores and my big eyes. Did I mention I have really big eyes? I'm kinda famous for it. Google it. But to someone else I look all scary—so now I'm a Vampire. From hell, supposedly. And there are so many way creepier things down here.

Oh, my friend Macropinna microstoma is BEGGING me to tell you about its eyes too. Ugh. Okay. I admit they're super cool.

3) Don't think for one second that weird and beautiful things like me don't exist, because they do. I do. Really. And have for a very, very, very long time.

Q. Did Flusser's intervention on you miss anything?

I am a really good dancer. For real. Giganticus is always amazed how light on my tentacles I am. And we throw some killer light shows down here at our dance-offs.

Q. A recent review of the book culminates with "So ask not what you can do for the vampire squid from hell. What you do for the vampire squid from hell, you do for yourself." What the devil does that mean?
(Incidentally, the article also mentions the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, which, I understand, is a big fan of yours.)

Oh, such nice folks those MBARI kids. I like it when they visit. I'm not sure about the review—I live one measly biome outside the LA Times delivery area. Do you know they deliver all the way to the mesopelagic zone?!? I've been asking for years for them to expand their coverage. Every once in awhile an issue floats down through the bathypelagic zone, but by then it's been chewed on so many times and there's usually someone faster who gets to it first (stupid Sixgill Sharks!).

So I really shouldn't guess without having seen the review, but it sounds like it's maybe got something to do with biological interaction. You know what I'm talking about, the whole touch one thing it touches everything. Mutualism, Symbiotic relationships, Neutralism, Commensalistic relationships, Parasitism, Amensalism, Antagonism. I suppose we're all better at certain forms of biological interactions than others. Humans included I guess.

But seriously, what do I know? Maybe if I got the LA Times I'd be up to date.

Q. What are the three most shocking things about you?

My dancing. I don't have ink sacs—instead, I expel this awesome bioluminescent mucus that erupts in a dazzling cloud to blind and confuse any potential predators. Oh, and my dancing.


Vampyroteuthis infernalis is the only living member of its order—Vampyromorphida—and is found in tropical and temperate oceans throughout the world. It lives a solitary life and enjoys marine snow, and is disappointed to have once been associated with Goldman Sachs's blood funnel. It is the subject of Vampyroteuthis Infernalis: A Treatise, with a Report by the Institut Scientifique de Recherche Paranaturaliste by Vilém Flusser. Join him in the digital abyss on Twitter: @vampyinfernalis.

"At once inquisitive and whimsical, this unclassifiable book brings together some of the best work of two cutting-edge thinkers that were not only geographic but also intellectual neighbors."
—Eduardo Kac


Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

How natural is human sleep?

Coming to terms with American expectations of normal sleep.
Cross-posted with the Day In, Day Out blog series at Psychology Today

Matthew Wolf-Meyer gives a brief overview of the history of sleep and its common misunderstandings.


You’re sitting at your desk, slowly reading through your response to a friend’s email, when you feel the sudden tug of sleepiness. The next thing you know, you’re waking up with your head on the desk, your hands folded under you in a makeshift pillow. Or, you're riding on the train, playing a game on your iPhone, when the next thing you know you’re waking up and reaching under your seat to fish for your phone. You haven’t been napping long, so hopefully nobody noticed. Maybe it’s just incidental sleepiness – you haven’t been sleeping well lately – but it happens with more and more regularity. Maybe it’s time to see a doctor about it?

Over the last decade or so, Americans have become more and more aware of sleep and its disorders. One way to think about this change in public awareness is that it’s due to the new recognition of sleep disorders – that science has discovered new pathologies, their causes, and cures. This might appear to be the case with narcolepsy, the sudden onset of sleep, often associated with momentary heightened emotions, which has been diagnosed more commonly since the 1970s. In fact, we’ve had a reasonably well-articulated sense of narcolepsy since the 1820s, thanks to Scottish physician Robert Macnish, who described it as ‘drowsiness’ in his Philosophy of Sleep. We still don’t really know what causes narcolepsy, but we do have treatments for it that are reasonably well tolerated by narcoleptics. And this might be the reason why we’re paying so much more attention to sleep these days: changes in pharmaceuticals. But that’s not strictly true either, since throughout history we’ve have suitable if not wholly effective treatments for a number of sleep disorders – we just prefer pharmaceuticals to changes in lifestyle these days. Rather, our heightened interest in sleep has everything to do with our disconnection from history and the many changes that American sleep and society have gone through over the last two centuries, which make a lot of phenomena seem new, when we’ve been living with them for centuries.

About a year ago, I was on a conference panel with a laboratory scientist who specializes in developing technology for the assessment of sleep disorders; he gave a presentation on the state of the art in sleep science and medicine, a talk designed for his audience, which was largely comprised of scholars in the humanities and social sciences. Meanwhile, I gave a presentation focused on a minor event in the history of sleep science, an experiment led by Nathaniel Kleitman, then a professor of physiology at the University of Chicago, aboard a U.S. Navy submarine to ascertain the ideal arrangement of sleep while at sea (which I discuss in my book, The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine and Modern American Life). During the question-and-answer period, an audience member asked my co-panelist about changes in scientific conceptions of sleep, to which he answered – and I’m paraphrasing here – ‘That’s not my job, it’s yours.’

I’ve heard similar sentiments from scientists and physicians before. They’re busy on the frontline, dealing with the demands of patients, writing grants, and conducting their own research, and don’t have the time to do investigative social research. At one conference where I was talking about the history of the sleepwalking defense for murder cases in the U.S., I saw more audience members – scientists, physicians and other medical professionals – take more notes on my quick discussion of the history of narcolepsy than on the changing conceptions of intent in American law, both of which one cannot fully appreciate without understanding the U.S. in the 19th century.

One of the things social scientists are especially good at is debunking things that we’ve come to accept as natural. This process is often referred to as denaturalization – showing how what we take to be natural is the result of a history of human action that has moved something from being understood as social to natural. One of the cases I discuss at length in my book is that of consolidated sleep in the U. S. The eight hours of sleep so many of us seek out each night is not based in nature, but instead is the invention of many doctors, scientists, and business owners, and began in the 19th century to only be fully realized in the 20th.

Previous to the mid-1800s, many Americans slept in what’s referred to as biphasic fashion. That is, they would fall asleep around dusk, wake up a few hours later for a couple hours, and then sleep for a few more hours before waking around sunrise. Or, they would sleep for a few hours at night and a few more during the day. We have evidence of this in England, thanks to historian Roger Ekirch, and, as I discuss in The Slumbering Masses, American medical literature in the 19th century is full of references to these kinds of sleep patterns. When you think about it, our nights are often much longer than eight hours, so even if our sleep is determined by our environments, we would assume that humans would sleep much more than they do; instead, humans need less than a full night’s sleep as reckoned by the sun. We need somewhere between 6-10 hours each night, a figure that changes over the life course, with children and adolescents needing more and the elderly needing less. How we manage to get that sleep is up to us, or, rather, it’s often up to social norms.

In the U.S., we tend to prefer nightly, consolidated sleep – eight straight hours, with no nap during the day. For preschoolers it might be different, with longer nightly sleep and naps to boot. But, elsewhere and over the course of history, sleep arrangements have been different. In their efforts to understand biological phenomena, scientists can sometimes substitute what they believe for scientifically deduced fact. This is the case with American models of sleep, where early researchers in the 20th century used the consolidated model of nightly sleep for the basis of their scientific research. If they had used different models – say models that favor biphasic sleep – contemporary sleep science and medicine might look a lot different than they currently do.

Social scientists then, and cultural anthropologists especially, work hard to denature the facts that have come to be taken for granted – by scientists and the public. Critique of this sort is important for a number of reasons. First, it serves as a corrective when beliefs come to be taken as facts. Secondly, it opens up science to be a dialogue. When science is only happening in labs, it’s liable to be susceptible to the biases of researchers and the expediencies of grants, publication and promotion – hence the recent increased awareness about the prevalence of fraud in scientific publishing. And, most importantly, it infuses science with the lived experiences of individuals – which is why we do science in the first place: to make our individual and collective lives better. So when we take scientific fact as the basis of our lives – whether it be something we read on the internet or a pill we’re prescribed – we should always consider whether it helps us make sense of our life. And if it doesn’t, we should keep looking for answers. Some of those answers might be found in history or in other societies, where we might come to see that our sleep hasn’t always been what it is or that we might arrange our days and nights differently. This isn’t so much debunking science as helping bring it to life.


Matthew Wolf-Meyer is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life. He blogs regularly here, and is currently writing a series of blog posts for Psychology Today.

"A groundbreaking contribution to our understanding of sleep and its manifold discontents. With scrupulous care, Matthew Wolf-Meyer probes the current state of sleep medicine as well as its absorbing history. At a time when modern society’s dependence on sleeping pills and plush bedding has never been greater, The Slumbering Masses is all the more welcome for its ambitious compass and penetrating insights."
—A. Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Patience & chaos: The battle to bring "Love in Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson" to the big screen. (Part 2 of 3)

Born in 1911 and deceased in 1938 at age 27, much about American blues singer Robert Johnson's birth, life, and death remain a mystery. Here, Alan Greenberg discusses his decades-long journey to bring a screenplay about Johnson's life and the culture of the Mississippi Delta and blues music during the 1930s to the big screen.

The thing about Robert Johnson was that he only existed on his records. He was pure legend.”
—Martin Scorsese

What follows is a continuing discussion of the decades-long struggle to bring "Love in Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson," a screenplay by Alan Greenberg, to the big screen. Read Part 1 here.  

Writer, producer, director, and photographer

It was meant to be my bedazzled introduction to the upper echelon of Hollywood.

In mid-1980, a few days before returning to New York, I was in London at a friend’s with Werner Herzog. Somehow my manuscript for Love in Vain had reached the head of the film division of the William Morris Agency, and he tracked me down by calling me at the flat I was visiting. With Werner secretly listening in, the agent told me he’d read Love in Vain and urgently wanted to sign me to William Morris for representation.

“We’re going to market you as a genius!” he raved.

Werner cupped his mouth and rolled on the floor laughing.

Days later I was back home in New York City and sitting with Martin Bauer, a chief honcho at William Morris, and his junior agent, Fred Milstein. Together we left to meet with Martin Bregman, producer of Serpico and one of the top producers in town. The three of us walked down the mahogany paneled and carpeted hallway like Dorothy and her friends on their way to meet the Wizard of Oz. Then we entered a cavernous mahogany-paneled office with embroidered drapes, a Persian rug, and an enormous desk of carved mahogany. Behind it sat a little middle-aged Jewish guy—Martin Bregman. He offered a perfunctory welcome and listened to the two agents go on and on about me.

Bregman seemed very, very bored.

The junior agent continued with his glorious vision of me.

Bergman seemed sleepy, his chin pressed to his chest.

The agents continued despite Bregman’s utter disininterest.

Bregman began to snore.

Milstein continued his pitch regardless, until I suggested he look at slumbrous Bregman. Quietly we left. So went my first taste of Hollywood.

A short time thereafter, without any help from William Morris, I flew to Denver to meet with Mick Jagger about producing Love in Vain. Face to face with him in his room, Mick’s first words to me were: “Want a woman?”

This was a harbinger of the business partnership to come. In the throes of his split from wife Bianca, Mick was hard to find as he eluded the attempts of her divorce attorney to contact him. Once I needed to see him about our contract negotiations, but he was in hiding. When I checked the Stones’ Broadway office to no avail, Keith Richards, the least likely person to be in that office, told me in a low voice to go with him to his hotel. There Keith packed a hold-all bag, and soon we were in a limo again, headed for JFK airport. Keith mentioned that he had put together a band called the New Barbarians, and when we drove onto the tarmac and boarded the Rolling Stones jet Keith said his pickup band was flying to a gig, in Cleveland. The flight was a party of rock stars beyond the Stones, with favors aplenty. Backstage at the venue in Cleveland, Keith changed into a red satanic outfit and told me to be at the right corner of the stage for the third song on his playlist. When I moved there after the second song, Keith kneeled onstage and sang Love in Vain to me. On the flight home, with the revelers in fine form, Keith casually sat down with me.

“So you want to find Mick?” he asked, matter-of-factly. And he proceeded to tell me that Mick was in a London flat above the Rolling Stones office, with an unpublished phone number.

At first, in this pre-cell phone era, upon returning home late that night my wife didn’t believe a word I said. Who could blame her? I could hardly believe it myself.

Following three years with Mick, two independent producers hooked up with me to fund “Love in Vain,” and soon I was with a small crew in Mississippi starting pre-production. Then one day when I picked up a newspaper I read that one of the producers had been shot dead by his son.

When the other producer returned from an African safari, having been incommunicado for weeks, he gave the pre-production money, on someone’s ill-advised recommendation, to the 22-year-old playboy son of a prominent British actor, Peter Finch. Neither the money nor the kid were ever seen again.

After making his great film Elephant Man, David Lynch was given a copy of Love in Vain and tracked me down. Over the course of several conversations David expressed unbridled enthusiasm for the screenplay and the prospect of him directing it.

One day David called and seemed to have something on his mind. He told me how excited he was to make the film, so excited that he’d begun seeing himself down in Mississippi, surrounded by his loyal crew and his cast of African-American actors. He then paused with the realization that he had insufficient experience with African Americans to feel comfortable directing Love in Vain.

Times do change. Three decades passed before David would read the screenplay again. By now, his perspective—and his vision of directing Love in Vain—had also changed.

But first would come an episode with Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute.

(More on that soon.)


Alan Greenberg worked on Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear, Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900, and with Werner Herzog on classic screenplays Fitzcarraldo, Cobra Verde, and Heart of Glass. His screenplay Love in Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson, which includes a foreword by Martin Scorsese, will be out from U of MN Press later this month.
Please check back on our blog for Part 3 in the discussion of the making of Love in Vain.

"Love in Vain has accomplished what I have tried to do for a long time: that is, to develop screenplays as a new genre of literature which has its own natural right of existence."—Werner Herzog

"It may be the best movie you’ll see all year—even if it’s just inside your head." —Entertainment Weekly

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Rethinking Michelangelo Antonioni's modernism: A conversation between Karl Schoonover and John David Rhodes

Michelangelo Antonioni, 1995.

The iconic Italian arthouse auteur Michelangelo Antonioni (1912–2007) would have turned 100 this fall, and here UMP authors John David Rhodes and Karl Schoonover discuss how his complex films have transformed their understanding of the politics of the moving image.


Karl Schoonover: I’m interested in the fact that both of us are rethinking Antonioni’s modernism right now, after writing books about realism in Italian cinema. In different ways, our books, Stupendous, Miserable City and Brutal Vision, interrogate the ways post-WWII Italian fiction films borrowed from the cinema’s documentary capacities. For example, Neorealism’s humanist dramas gain potency by investing in cinema’s technological naturalism and its detailing of a particular place or body. The film image and the contingencies recorded therein are not just a reflection of real events; they exemplify an entire social reality. The screen becomes a venue for the transformation of life's quotidian details into a political message. Traditional histories have told us that Antonioni's filmmaking takes Italian cinema in the opposite direction, with the modernism of his films signaling the waning of arthouse cinema's infatuation with the film image’s indexicality and Antonioni’s disinterest in politics. This conventional perspective sees Antonioni’s dynamic images as always moving away from gritty realism and towards art-for-art’s-sake abstraction. While quotidian details still populate his images, the argument goes, they are there exclusively to serve as the fertile platform for a formal experimentation that aims to leave objects and their particularities in the dust.

Noa Stiematsky’s work on Antonionio’s earlier documentaries (Italian Locations) argues for a much subtler understanding of Antonioni’s modernism. After reading her work, I began to consider what it would mean to revisit Antonioni’s films and consider how his images register a social reality. What if his supposedly abstract formalist landscapes were political? What if we approached his celebrated 1960s arthouse feature films – L’avventura, La notte, L’eclisse, and Il deserto rosso – with the same attention that Luchino Visconti’s La terra trema demands of us?

Screen shot from Antonioni's film Blow-Up.
Posing these questions feels a bit like playing devil’s advocate with the orthodoxies of film history. From the early 1960s, the critical consensus that developed around his aestheticism had the effect of banishing the political and social textures of his films. When European art cinema fell out of fashion in film theory because it was identified with decadent and narcissistic formalism, Antonioni's relevance further suffered: with the possible exception of Blow-Up, his films were rarely taught and seldom addressed by scholars. Today, his films again feel crucial, especially with the rise of a new generation of global art cinema directors (Tsai, Jia, Apitchatpong) whose work echoes Antonioni's aesthetic commitments: they use extended duration, wandering camera movements, and overtly graphic frame compositions to produce counter-narratives against globalization and neoliberalism. When we re-watch Antonioni’s films through the lens of this new generation, something long submerged reappears: we are able to see a persistent attention to the particulars of social reality in his images that lays bare the texture of a rapidly globalizing world.

"Registering social reality"

John David Rhodes: The way you phrase the problem—how to think of Antonioni's cinema as "registering social reality"—is exactly what I've been working to understand. What is funny is how, once I began to look at his films in this way, it all became so obvious.

My work on Pasolini was ignited first by an interest in the form of his early films. I was interested in how they were made, and thinking about their formal awkwardness led me to think about what I was actually looking at in the images. (What I was seeing was the refracted registration of a specific urban, architectural history.) In a sense, despite how different their aesthetics are, my work on Antonioni has followed a similar sequence.

The obliqueness of Antonioni's approach, which is often a literal obliqueness—looking at an object or location from an oblique angle—has meant that critics have been interested, understandably, in celebrating and exploring the so-called abstraction of his work, and have, in a sense, abstracted his abstraction from the world that it pictured. Critics like Seymour Chatman made important gestures towards recognizing Antonioni's historicity, especially in regards to urban form, but there is still so much to see and to know in the films.

I was first turned on to a metonymic reading of Antonioni's films when I realized that I could read the address of Vittoria's apartment building in L'eclisse: 307 Viale dell'Umanesimo. (Other critics have since followed this trail.) The "realism" of this evidence led me to consider the broader, historical and theoretical implications of Antonioni's use of the Roman suburb of EUR (begun under Fascism and developed in the postwar years) as one of the primary locations for this film, something I explore in my article for the book I co-edited with Elena Gorfinkel (Taking Place: Location and the Moving Image). This approach—which attempts to synthesize theory with history in reading Antonioni’s work—is followed by a number of writers (including yourself) whose work appears in the collection that I’ve recently edited with Laura Rascaroli.

Antonioni's vision is, in fact, abstract and abstracting. But it is the abstract (oblique, formally belabored, defamiliarizing) mode of looking that makes us really see these things, people and places in the first place. The abstracting gaze is already competing and coming to terms with a landscape that has become, itself, increasingly abstract. We, with and through Antonioni, apprehend one abstraction through the other and vice versa. The point, though, is not that the world is abstract—universally so—and so can be written off or explained in one fell swoop. Abstraction for Antonioni is—and this perhaps strikes the note of a truism or a cliché—a method of mediating a universal and a particular. He practices a kind of abstract realism, in which both terms have to be entertained simultaneously. Become enthralled with the abstraction, we lose the social reality he is documenting (and often criticizing); become obsessed with the reality (the information indexically inscribed in the image) and we lose the power of his art to make the world seem worthy and in need of criticism.

KS: The end of L’eclisse forces the viewer to feel and to confront this precise tension. It suggests why Antonioni works to maintain the awkward cohabitation of document and abstraction within his images. Here an already loose narrative gives way to a poetic sequence that abandons the main characters of the narrative, who are never seen again. This 7-minute sequence of uneventfulness feels like a meditation on what constitutes the objective world: its temporalities, surfaces, textures. Those final minutes of the film ask how, if at all, that world matters to the narrative we have just watched for the previous two hours.

In the film’s opening scene, a heterosexual couple faces the disintegration of their relationship. But this discord is haunted by the obtuse compositional and aural presence of inanimate objects in this domestic setting’s interior. This scene epitomizes the obliqueness you’ve mentioned. But in the unexpected ending, the stubbornness of inanimate objects takes over. What was once approached from a sideways angle is now coming at us head-on. Empty streets, abandoned construction sites, broken fences, a forgotten pile of cement bricks. Humans sometimes appear but they are not personages or characters. More often the film gives us unpopulated shots: the uneven surface of worn pavement, insects scurrying across cracks in tree bark, sediment draining away like trailing smoke.

A screen shot from Antonioni's film L'eclisse.
From a convent-
ional viewpoint this is one of the most modernist passages in Antonioni’s films, and it could certainly stand alone as a short experimental film. For me, it is important to reassert the physical properties on display here because this sequence interrogates precisely that threshold between abstraction and documentation that you just described. Some of the most powerful shots are those registering what is the seemingly least eventful action: water leaks from the bottom of a corroded waste barrel. These shots record a very simple set of transformations: the polluted rainwater trickles out and gently erodes the fallowed city dirt in furrows. Yet, as the camera follows this small action, we feel like we’re witnessing something remarkable. This leakage proposes cinema as a kind of alchemy, illustrating its most basic features as a medium: indexical and abstract, quiet and animated, quotidian and exceptional, corroborating and transformative.



Karl Schoonover is assistant professor of film and television studies at the University of Warwick. He is author of Brutal Vision: The Neorealist Body in Postwar Italian Cinema and co-editor of the anthology Global Art Cinema: New Theories and Histories.

"If there were ever any doubts about neorealism’s enduring power to generate fine scholarship, Karl Schoonover’s book should lay them to rest. To this most exhaustively studied body of films, the author brings a doubly original perspective-both geopolitically oriented and ethically charged. The result is a theory of spectatorship that goes far toward accounting for neorealism’s pivotal role in the history of film."—Millicent Marcus, author of After Fellini: National Cinema in the Postmodern Age

John David Rhodes is reader in literature and visual culture at the University of Sussex. He is co-editor with Elena Gorfinkel of Taking Place: Location and the Moving Image and author of Stupendous, Miserable City: Pasolini's Rome.

"Taking Place turns critical attention to the ingredients of place in film, allowing us to regard a given film as a virtual archive of places. This emphasis is all the more welcome in the postmodern world, in which the massive reality of non-place and the hegemony of global space have become predominant. The book is a pioneering venture carried out with notable success."—Edward S. Casey, Distinguished Professor, SUNY at Stony Brook

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Same-sex marriage: In November, four states have the power to make history.

It's going to be a nail-biting month: While Minnesotans will decide whether to ban same-sex marriage at the polls in November, voters in Washington State, Maine, and Maryland will be deciding whether to legalize same-sex marriage.

Assistant professor of sociology at Trinity University in San Antonio

This fall, same-sex marriage will be on the ballot like at no other time in history. There are only 13 states remaining in the United States “in play” with the potential to legalize same-sex marriage (the rest have either legalized same-sex marriage or have constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage). Four of these states will vote on same-sex marriage in November. In three of those states, the election could result in legalizing same-sex marriage—a historical first.

This fall, voters in Minnesota will decide the fate of a same-sex marriage ban. I document in my book, Gay Rights at the Ballot Box, how common these same-sex marriage bans have been in the United States since 1998 when voters in Hawaii and Alaska first considered the issue of same-sex marriage. Like voters have done in more than thirty other states, Minnesota voters will consider whether or not to write a ban on same-sex marriage into their state's constitution.

However, in voters in Washington State, Maine, and Maryland will decide whether or not to legalize same-sex marriage. Voters have only had the power to decide on legalizing same-sex marriage twice ever—in California for Proposition 8 in 2008, in which a same-sex marriage ban was passed in response to same-sex marriage legalized by the courts; and in Maine Question 1 in 2009, in which the legislature passed same-sex marriage and it was overturned in a referendum. Both times, same-sex marriage was overturned by the voters. These two ballot measures were the largest ballot measures in the history of LGBT ballot measures.

Earlier this year legislators in Washington and Maryland legalized same-sex marriage, and opponents quickly gathered signatures to put both laws on the ballot as referendums. In Washington the LGBTQ movement has had domestic partnerships for a few years, rights that were defended in a referendum in 2009. Washington organizers also have a long history of successfully sparring with the Religious Right at the ballot box. Maryland, on the other hand, is facing its first vote ever on LGBT rights with a referendum to its same-sex marriage law.

In Maine, LGBT organizers have put same-sex marriage on the ballot for the first time in history. Previously in Maine, the Religious Right has put any LGBT rights legislation up for a “people’s veto.” Rather than getting the legislature to pass same-sex marriage just to have the Religious Right put it on the ballot again, Maine organizers are controlling the timing of the referendum by putting it on the ballot themselves. After losing a referendum in 2009, Maine organizers have worked tirelessly to continue the campaign.

Although same-sex marriage bans have consistently passed across the country, there is reason to believe that this election may be different. Apart from North Carolina, the last major vote on same-sex marriage was almost three years ago. Since then, the number of states in which same-sex marriage is legal has doubled, approval of same-sex marriage has increased in all demographics, and a sitting president has come out in support of same-sex marriage. LGBT organizers have also learned from the last two major ballot measure campaigns—California Proposition 8 and Maine Question 1—and have spent the last three years learning new ways of speaking with voters about same-sex marriage. This process has resulted in a more sophisticated voter canvassing techniques and a deeper understanding of how voters think about same-sex marriage.

In addition, LGBT communities in Washington and Maine have a long and strong history of successfully fighting anti-gay ballot measures. Indeed Washington organizers defeated a challenge to the Washington domestic partnership law a few years ago. Polling data on the ballot measures also looks promising, although polling numbers have overestimated support for same-sex marriage in past ballot measures. I, for one, will be biting my nails on election day!


Amy L. Stone is assistant professor of sociology at Trinity University in San Antonio and author of Gay Rights at the Ballot Box.

"Offers smart, well-researched insight into how we may be able to make changes moving forward." —Instinct Magazine

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

With a little help: How crucial encounters with Werner Herzog and Mick Jagger led to the development of a screenplay about Robert Johnson's extraordinary life and legacy.

One of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Robert Johnson's
short life remains steeped in mystery and wrapped in some of the most enduring
legends of modern music.

Writer, film producer, film director, and photographer

It was 1974, and it all began when I was building a bed.

Living alone at age twenty-three on New York’s West End Avenue, all my belongings were packed except for my portable record player and a single vinyl album I’d just bought. The LP was Columbia’s second volume of Robert Johnson’s twenty-nine recordings, its cover art a painted image of Robert in a converted hotel room studio, seated with guitar facing a microphone and the converging walls, the white recording engineers looking on.

I set the stereo to “repeat,” and for several hours of sawing wood and hammering nails the music of Robert Johnson entered my bloodstream. Songs like “Love In Vain” and “Stop Breaking Down” were resonant from unknown realms to the depths of my soul, and soon changed my life. In my naivete I called the legendary head of Columbia Records, John Hammond Sr., and unexpectedly the great man answered the phone himself. He affirmed his enthusiasm for the idea and offered his help. Shortly thereafter he was dead.

Two years passed. I’d worked for Paramount Pictures and quit to find work in pursuit of real cinema. And to woo my future wife, an American who danced ballet at a theater in Munich. I lived in Munich and worked with Werner Herzog on several films, all the while transfixed by the idea of writing a screenplay that came to be known as Love in Vain.

The night before I left for the States to start my research, Werner and I stayed up very late discussing my vision of Robert Johnson and the eventual screenplay. We agreed that Robert Johnson represented the Real Danger in his culture and ours. He was aggressively audacious in challenging the Baptist Church and Christian life while singing of Satan in our midst. Werner and I pondered this until we agreed upon a more recent African-American singer whose looks and music were unrelated to Robert but who possessed that menace, that audacity, that defiance of all things racist (and homophobic), and settled on Little Richard.

A day later at 7 a.m. I sat alone on a bench in the desolate Brussels train depot, listening to the silence. Then, the clickety-clack of high-heeled shoes broke the stillness; completely alone, hair coiffed and wearing a gold lamé jumpsuit with a lavender satin cape, red spiked heels glittering, was Little Richard. When he cruised me I told him what I was up to and mentioned the previous night’s conversation back in Munich. He asked me if I wanted to have some fun. “More than you can imagine,” I cheerfully replied.

Back in Miami shortly thereafter, a year of research and germination ensued. Relying largely on intuition I accumulated a treasure trove of forgotten black recordings from the ‘20s through the ‘30s, discovering names like Charley Patton and Blind Willie Johnson and Tommy Johnson (unrelated), poring over field recordings of prisoners and church-goers, and pondering the outrageousness of backwoods black humor. Then I raised enough money to drive to the Deep South to conduct extensive field research, first in Mississippi Delta towns like Clarksdale and Friars Point and Greenwood, later spending a few days with Robert Johnson’s friend Johnny Shines, who fed me personal secrets about Robert as his daughter served me a dinner of white bread and a deep-fried chicken neck. Years later Johnny told the Village Voice that “Alan Greenberg has put an end to all the lies and crap about Robert Johnson’s life” with Love in Vain.”

A year thereafter I moved to the downtown West Village in New York City to write Love in Vain. Having no funds to sustain myself for the effort, I thought of people whose work and public statements suggested a rich appreciation of Robert Johnson, and a possible interest in lending financial support to my film project. I quickly settled on Mick Jagger, whose nonpareil interpretation of “Love in Vain” suffused me when I was hammering that bed.

In order to reach Jagger I conjured the idea of leaving a note and story synopsis with his girlfriend Jerry Hall’s modeling agency. That night I was chatting with Jonathan Cott, senior editor of Rolling Stone magazine, and told him of my idea about Mick Jagger.

Fervently he begged me to forget it.

He had just conducted the Rolling Stone interview with Jagger; while telling me that Mick would be five days late for an appointment and upon finally showing up would be irate if Jonathan wasn’t still there, the telephone rang. I picked it up to hear a very familiar voice in person for the first time: Mick Jagger’s. He was laughing, he said, because when young Jerry handed him my note she insisted the part of Robert Johnson sounded perfect for Mick.

Immediately I began meeting with Mick and together we began a production partnership that lasted three years. The first step was his funding of the screenplay draft. But the night before I was to begin writing, Mick and I had a productive meeting about the nature of the screenplay and its characters, and I had all of his support and confidence. Upon leaving, however, I looked Mick in the eye and declared, “This is going to be either the best screenplay ever written or the worst.” Big mistake.

It would be two months or more before Mick and I would meet again, when the work was in progress without any financial backing from him as agreed upon. I sent him the screenplay’s first fifty pages, which reached him backstage while hosting Saturday Night Live. Within days our lawyers were talking and the odyssey to produce Love in Vain had at last commenced.


Alan Greenberg worked on Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear, Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900, and with Werner Herzog on classic screenplays Fitzcarraldo, Cobra Verde, and Heart of Glass. His screenplay Love in Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson, which includes a foreword by Martin Scorsese, will be out from U of MN Press later this month.
Please check back on our blog later this month as Greenberg continues the discussion of the making of Love in Vain.

"Love in Vain has accomplished what I have tried to do for a long time: that is, to develop screenplays as a new genre of literature which has its own natural right of existence."—Werner Herzog

"It may be the best movie you’ll see all year—even if it’s just inside your head." —Entertainment Weekly