Showing posts with label Pierre Schaeffer. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Pierre Schaeffer. Show all posts

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Frilly-necked postcard

Yesterday, while browsing through old papers, I came upon this postcard:


As an Australian, I recognized immediately this fine photo of a dancing specimen of our celebrated frilly-necked lizard [Chlamydosaurus kingii]. It's not really dancing, but simply running speedily across the sand in the direction of the photographer, with its frills flattened by the airstream. Now, who would have sent me such a postcard, and why did I keep it in a box of precious old documents? Here's the other side of the postcard:


It was mailed to me from Tokyo, 28 years ago, on 1 September 1984. The message reads:
Erimaki tokage, la nouvelle idole of Tokyo, le Macintosh des lézards!
In English:
Erimaki tokage (frilly-necked lizard in Japanese), the new idol of Tokyo, the Macintosh of lizards!
And the postcard was signed by a great French filmmaker, 63-year-old Chris Marker, who was a good friend of mine at that epoch. He was in Japan to film the making of Akira Kurosawa's movie Ran, which resulted in Marker's documentary AK, released at Cannes in 1985. Here is one of the rare portraits of Chris Marker (who detested the idea of personal photos and biographical stuff):


During the three or four fascinating years that I spent at the Service de la Recherche de l'ORTF [French National TV Research Center] in the early '70s, private screenings of Marker's short movie La jetée [The Pier], created in 1962, were one of our staple foods.


Pierre Schaeffer—founder and chief of the center—often explained to us why Marker's cinematographic essay was a great milestone in the history of movie-making. And countless cinéastes have indeed been impressed by Marker's ground-breaking style expressed for the first time in that tiny masterpiece.


And what does all this have to do with frilly-necked lizards and Macintosh computers?

Japanese fascination with an Australian lizard was the outcome of a promotional project created by Mitsubishi Motors. Confronted with a vehicle called the Mirage, the people at Mitsubishi's ad agency found that this word sounded like the Japanese "tokage". So, the expression Erimaki tokage became popular overnight, in the typical way in which certain memes apparently proliferate in that country.


Soon, the Japanese transformed the image of the Australian lizard into a cute manga creature.


In Australia, of course, we're not accustomed to thinking of our native fauna as imaginative objects of adoration... maybe because we've become accustomed to seeing the real creatures up close.


We know that many of our exotic animals are not as friendly or cuddly as they might appear. On the other hand, Australians are no doubt happy to pocket yen from tourists who arrive Down Under with aims of seeing Erimaki tokage. I can imagine a version of the Paul Hogan ad:
"We got some visitors here who like lizards. I'll slip another frilly on the barbie."
By coincidence, the original ad I'm referring to (directed, not at Japanese, but at Americans) dates from the same year as Chris Marker's postcard, 1984. But it looks terribly old hat today.


And 1984 was also the year in which the Macintosh computer arrived on the scene. I've always thought that their celebrated commercial has a science-fiction style that vaguely evokes the Chris Marker movie.


Since Chris Marker was fond of sophisticated machines such as the Mac, he was rapidly brought into contact with the French branch of Apple Computer, whose director was Jean-Louis Gassée. At the same epoch, I had submitted to that company a project for a futuristic video application, while knowing full well that the current technology was not yet capable of supporting my project. Apparently Apple France gave Chris Marker a copy of my project—named Videoville—and that's how we became friends. Chris was tremendously impressed, like me, by the potential of the Mac, and we dreamed about the sorts of creations that might soon appear. However, not long after that time, I went out to Australia, and I lost contact with Chris.

A month ago, I was sad to hear of his death [obituary]. Many of the papers written about Chris Marker have mentioned his adoration of cats. At the time I knew him, the creature that fascinated him most was, not the cat (nor, of course, the frilly-necked lizard), but rather the owl. Inside his house in Neuilly, Chris Marker had a marvelous collection of all kinds of artistic representations of wise and less wise owls.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

One-track mind and reading

The first time in my life that I tuned in exclusively to a single author, reading nothing else, was back in my adolescent Durrell days. Totally enraptured by this novelist, I've surely read the greater part of everything that Lawrence Durrell [1912-1990] ever wrote, culminating in Caesar's Vast Ghost, mentioned in my article of 27 March 2007 entitled Books about Provence and the French Riviera [display].

Later, in other domains, I often made a point of reading everything I could lay my hands upon from poets, intellectuals and researchers who impressed me greatly: Rainer Maria Rilke, of course, then my friend and mentor Pierre Schaeffer in France, and great US computer scientists such as Marvin Minsky and Roger Schank. At the same time, I was thrilled in particular by the literary opus of Kurt Vonnegut. Concerning all the above-mentioned authors, I ended up acquiring and reading all their fundamental writings. But, in all these cases, my basic emotion [to use the concept at the heart of Minsky's recent masterly synthesis entitled The Emotion Machine] was admiration, rather than total fascination as in the Durrellian universe. There always seemed to be some little thing that was missing in their works: maybe simply the power and magic of first-person poetic writing.

These days, once again, I've become a one-author reader. His name won't surprise readers of my blog: Richard Dawkins, born in Africa... like all of us, at one time or another. As a reader, I feel that my commitment is for life! Faced with the Dawkins phenomenon, I'm a little like a novice monk about to make his permanent vows. [Dawkins would surely sprout some kind of invisible rash if he learned that a devoted reader dared to liken him to a spiritual abbot.]

Unweaving the Rainbow, as the title implies, is all about rainbows, of all kinds: those that we see in the sky, formed by light passing through droplets of water, and those in our human minds, construed by the foibles of Darwinian evolution. The soul of this book is poetic. Was it not Keats who complained that Newton's analysis of the colors of the rainbows had destroyed forever their charm? Dawkins deals, as it were, with Keats, placing him on the sidelines of fabulous scientific revelations that enable us, now, to know the rainbow.

A Devil's Chaplain is pure Dawkins curled up in a leather lounge in front of a log fire, talking on about anything and everything: that's to say, about life and death, and the quest for profound challenges in our meaningless existence. Dawkins tackles all kinds of topics, including the emptiness of fashionable French philosophy (professed by intellectuals such as Lacan, Guattari and Deleuze), silly religious reactions to the cloned sheep named Dolly, alternative medicine, and the obnoxious expression of religion that disgusted the world at large on 11 September 2001. Dawkins reiterates that the religions of everybody are to be condemned, once and for all: Catholics, Protestants, Jews of all denominations and Moslems.

In the wake of Dawkins, I simply can't imagine what I might ever read from now on. Maybe old Tintin comics. Better still, exciting tales of archaic fiction from the Bible...

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Exceptional filmmaker

I'm a little ashamed to admit that I've never yet had time to view any of the mammoth documentary films created by the celebrated 54-year-old US filmmaker Ken Burns.

It's literally a matter of finding time, because each of this man's major productions—The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994) and Jazz (2001)—lasts for an average of a dozen hours. So, it's a bit like planning to read Tolstoy.

The reason I mention this award-winning cineast [apart from the fact that critics on the web are currently praising his most recent fifteen-hour masterpiece, The War] is that his name appears when you're using the excellent Macintosh video-editing tool named iMovie. He invented a simple but ingenious technique known today as the Ken Burns effect, which consists of applying subtle panning and zooming to photos, with a view to breathing life into otherwise fixed images. And Apple's software tool implements this effect in a methodical manner.

I'm convinced that my former mentor Pierre Schaeffer [1910-1995] would have been thrilled to discover the simple power of the Ken Burns effect. At the Research Service of the ORTF [former French broadcasting system], we were often accused of producing TV documentaries of a "talking heads" kind, which might have been created just as well in radio. Like Schaeffer, I've always considered that images don't really need to move very much in order to be meaningful, if not exciting. They merely have to give the illusion that they're moving. From this point of view, I see the Ken Burns effect as a highly Schaefferian concept.

Schaeffer, celebrated throughout the world as the inventor of musique concrète (music composed of sounds that would normally be described as noises), used to warn us that, if you intend to recreate the sound of a bucket of nails falling onto a steel plate, for example, then you must not be tempted to use a microphone to record the actual sound produced by a real-life bucket of nails falling onto a steel plate. You can obtain a far more "realistic" sound by using a specially-prepared piano, or ideally a synthesizer. It's a Schaefferian truism to say that, to give the impression of being authentic, things don't really need to be authentic. They merely have to... give the impression of being authentic. And this is precisely what "movements" of the Ken Burns kind succeed in achieving.