chaos and genius

finished consuming james gleick’s chaos this morning on skytrain. he knows how to write entertaining books on science, drawing on the personal lives of mathematicians, meteorologists, physicists, and biologists to show the human struggle for understanding. plus the book has a lot of very beautiful pictures relating to the development of ideas in the field. i’d be interested in reading some of the developments in the field since the book was originally published in 1987.

chaos largely looks at science done in the 70s, as the study of chaos really began to take hold, with characters like the curious mitchell feigenbaum figuring prominently. you have to marvel at the daring minds who set themselves at the dangerous vanguard of science. careers are at stake. reputations are gambled upon. when theories and research suddenly click and the world is forever changed it is stunning. gleick captures this excitement and wonder. he makes science and scientists sexy.

and how cool is this: a free download of a chaos program that lets you visually look at mandelbrot sets and strange attractors, made by autodesk and based on gleick’s book.

recently i had a chance to read a more recent book by gleick, genius, looking at the life of richard feynman. from his work at los alamos to his investigation into the challenger space shuttle explosion, feynman provoked and innovated fiercely. gleick portrays a man who is extraordinarily driven, funny, charming, and brilliant. again, gleick captures not only the essence of the scientist, but puts science into a social context.

feynman’s character flaws and eccentricities are laid bare, revealing the personal side of genius (as opposed to the very public discoveries and breakthroughs scientists announce).

in this book, too, it is gleick’s writing style that drives the narrative briskly through a heavily populated timeline. he really understands what is exciting about the work people like feynman do.

i’ve signed gleick’s faster out from the library, which i’m looking forward to. i’ve read so-so reviews of it, but i’m betting it’s worth a go. also can’t wait to get my hands on his new book on isaac newton. yum yum.

night of the iguana (1964)

a quick witted, sharp tongued film directed by john huston, based on the tennessee williams play.

richard burton plays lawrence shannon, previously known as rev. dr. lawrence shannon. the film opens with shannon at the pulpit preaching to a full congregation. his monologue quickly turns abusive as he turns on his flock, accusing them of being nothing more than rumour mongers that have turned against him. apparently the good reverend has a past involving a weakness for young women and strong drink.

the film switches scenes to show us shannon working as a tour guide in mexico. his current contract has him toting around a busload of do-gooders led by the cantankerous judith fellowes (grayson hall). this time it is the young and pretty charlotte goodall (sue lyon) that is messing up shannon’s mind with desire. he is a man on the brink of caving in again to his emotional needs and physical urges. he spends the bulk of the film trying to sustain the belief that he is a man of god, although he is well aware that charlotte is enough to have him permanently defrocked.

things shift dramatically when hannah jelkes (deborah kerr) and her grandfather nonno (cyril delevanti) make an entrance. the movie becomes more concerned with the nature of human relationships and the concept of love. this combination of wit and drama illustrates what wise selections were made in casting. but no matter how meditative or dramatic there is still great humour:

hannah jelkes: “there are worse things than chastity, mr. shannon”

lawrence shannon: “yes, lunacy and death.”

the noble savage attitude dates the film, but otherwise it is held up with quick dialogue, colourful characters, and lively acting. the strong, independent female character maxine faulk (ava gardner) is most memorable.

immediately i was struck by how this movie should be remade with russell crowe as shannon, and someone like susan sarandon as judith. i’m not sure which actress of the moment would play charlotte or what firecracker could play maxine (salma hayek?).

however, a quick peek in the imdb shows that it was already remade in 2001 by predrag antonijevic. and guess who it starred? jeremy irons.

susie ibarra (and trio)

after listening to a couple of ibarra’s cds on the tzadik label i wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. she has some mainstream sensibilities (‘azul’ is a crowd-pleaser that i’m nearly sick of now), but focuses primarily on an improvised jazz sound. we had the chance to catch her at a jazz workshop at this years jazz festival here in vancouver, and it was insightful into her technique and philosophy.

susie’s roots are in piano, which she played for years as a small child. later on she played drums in a punk band. then she moved to new york to be a painter, but saw sun ra play and was converted to jazz. i read somewhere she played under milford graves, something that comes through in her sound. she perceives percussion as a melody, and after hearing her say that it shifted the way i listened to her albums. i’m no jazz aficionado, nor am i particularly musically trained, so it’s always fascinating when i pick up some conceptual background for how to listen to music. susie had a bunch of other percussionists in the room come up and get a bit of a lesson. she is a warm person, though seriously shy. her voice is barely more than a whisper.

the first time we saw her on stage was with her trio as an opening act out at the vancouver east cultural centre. she was quieter, more nervous, and exhibited several disturbing obsessive compulsive ticks: constant tucking of hair behind ear, though there was no hair to tuck. rubbing of forehead. fidgeting with clothing. incessant tightening of same cymbal.

besides the strangeness, susie is a hummingbird percussionist. force, precision, and swiftness. she’s engrossing, her arms moving at a blur pace. the appearance of mastery.

as a trio, however, they are lacking something. i’m not positive i know what it is, but there is an element not quite right. one of the factors i think affecting them is that they often play from a score. they don’t look comfortable with this, and any improvised moments feel dangerously controlled. i think susie might be a bit of a control freak, something that makes her studio recordings sound so good. jennifer choi can throw out the tunes with flash, though showy violinists kind of irk me because they feel very pretentious (showy fiddlers, conversely, are stylish). craig taborn is good on the piano, but he looks very restrained by the parameters of this trio. he looks as though he wants to explode into moments of complete freeform.

we had a chance to watch them play again the next day. same thing. this time we had bad seats and spent most of the show watching taborn pull his pants up. this time round, however, i could appreciate the sound of the performance better. they’re a band i’d rather not see live. i spent most of the first show wanting to bearhug susie so that she’d relax a bit. that said, i’d happily dish out for their next album. i think they’ll get better on stage with experience.

june 28 & 29, 2003, roundhouse
june 28, 2003, vancouver east cultural centre

werckmeister harmonies

béla tarr again brings us intimate filmmaking filled with stark beauty. werckmeister harmonies is an effort that brings us the peculiar and haunted character of jános (lars rudolph), a young man who dreams of elsewhere and stands in awe of the world’s creations.

at 145 minutes it is substantially shorter than his previous effort, satantango. because of the way tarr approaches filmmaking, with emphasis on characterization and inner contemplation, werckmeister harmonies feels too short. not that it is incomplete, mind you. it’s simply that tarr’s universe is an addictive one. i remember the incredible feeling i had for days after first watching satantango years ago. at something like seven hours in length, satantango was an experience that engulfed me entirely, changing my visual perception. an epiphany. a metamorphosis. a subtle shifting of my neurons.

seeing béla tarr in person, hearing him speak of his concept of filmmaking after satantango, impressed upon me the importance of his work and philosophy. people speak of tarr in the same tones as andrei tarkovsky, and for good reason. they share a visual language and both explore the human search for meaning, presenting images that permanently append themselves to your mind. while we watched satantango tarr spent most of the time walking the rainy streets of vancouver. he commented on how much he enjoyed the walk, which is telling of his visual sensibilities.

his films are dark, described as ‘apocalyptic’. in harmonies, an old man, naked and frightened, stands alone after a brutal attack on a hospital. drunks are directed in an explanation of how the earth and moon orbit. quietness. footfalls on dark streets. creation. destruction. the nature of humanity. while his films could be ‘apocalyptic’, they can also act as reassuring reminders of the many facets of existence and our struggles to cope with them. it is not our success that marks us, but our continuance in that struggle.

his past two films are based on novels by lázló krasznahorkai. i’d like to track these down if english translations exist in order to better understand how tarr approaches the translation between text and image.

béla tarr, in one of his good humoured comments, spoke of how he would probably continue to make the same film over and over again throughout his career. to many filmmakers this sentiment would be demeaning, but to tarr it seems as though it is a commentary on the complexity of the individual, and the impossibility of truly capturing their entire being on film. if he keeps making the same films repeatedly it only means that i will have many years of cinema to look forward to.

valerie dee naranjo

as part of the 2003 vancouver international jazz festival we attended valerie dee naranjo and drum heat out at capilano college. sal ferreras, who heads the local group drum heat, looks like an intense guy, with incredible concentration while playing. valerie is even more intense. her day job is as lead percussionist and arranger with the saturday night orchestra. she is a highly professional musician, which comes through in every motion she makes on the stage. she is almost scary. the other musicians seem to tremble under her gaze, as though one missed note will lead to some kind of punishment.

i think it’s probably the level she plays at that intimidates. a highly proficient performer, this night she played the gyil (african parent of the marimba) and the marimba. the gyil has incredible reverb, a peculiarity that sounds to have been ironed out in the evolution of the marimba.

one of the most remarkable things of the evening was the amazingly annoying man behind us that insisted on gabbing on about music theory, world music, and a thousand other things he professed to be an expert on. he sounded like a semi-intelligent arrogant knob. why do people have to go to events and talk about nothing but their shallow knowledge of the event at hand? if they must make small talk can’t they do it about something else? and why am i so smug as to get annoyed over other people’s stupidity?

the main thing was valerie and her gyil playing, though. and sal playing a wooden box. and the other fellow playing various hand drums. good stuff.

derrida and chomsky

derrida is a terribly funny man. directors kirby dick and amy ziering kofman capture a thoughtful and amusing side of the thinker in their documentary bearing his name.

the film opens with derrida rummaging about his apartment in search of his keys. this focus on the everyday, the unglamourous, world of the much flaunted philosopher is refreshing. it is these moments that ground his ideas in the realm of daily life.

while there are moments of cinematic posturing and pretension, derrida’s delightful personality is what makes this film necessary viewing.

john junkerman’s power and terror: noam chomsky in our times, by contrast, is a much more serious effort with substantially graver subject matter. the primary difference between these films is that chomsky is a somewhat monotonous subject. what i mean is that to listen to chomsky talk at length is to feel waves of sleep come over oneself. while i gladly read his books and enjoy the mental barrage of his research, recordings of him speaking are virtually unlistenable. it was a struggle to keep my eyes open during some of the longer segments of this film.

however, beyond my inability to sustain attention to chomsky’s speech, the content of what he discusses is invigorating. his scope and focus are earnest and intense, and his fearlessness to engage unpopular subject matter is impressive. i recall after the world trade center disaster that chomsky was one of the first loud voices of reason on the matter. it is for this i put toothpicks in my eyelids and work through his words. if he could learn to modulate his voice a little more i think it would greatly assist his cause.