Vale Anthony Bourdain

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This city is the self-proclaimed centre of democracy, science, and culture. Unlike many other self-proclaimed centres, though, this one’s claims tend to be borne out by history.

I landed yesterday, blinked and nodded politely as my lovely driver gave me the rundown on the city he’s doubtless done a million times before. Got to the apartment, dumped my everything, found a cold beer in the fridge and toasted my own arrival.

As I took my first few tentative steps out into the streets, an all-caps message arrived from my partner: Anthony Bourdain was dead.

Before we get into this, it must be said that I never met the man. But it’s testament to his talent as a presenter, as a writer, as a storyteller, as a presence, that the news of his passing felt like a punch to the fucking gut.

Between a full-time job each, my partner and I struggle to find time to sit down and smash TV shows — particularly those of the intellectual variety. But during a prolonged fortnight of illness some two or three years ago, The Layover popped up on Netflix, and we destroyed it. Since then we’ve watched nearly all of No Reservations and every episode of Parts Unknown, and between us we’ve read most of the words he wrote. Tony was a source of wisdom on many things, most recently how to prepare garlic: a quick Google that settled a light-hearted argument at work.

Every episode of his series was meticulously planned and shot, playful and experimental, and always accompanied by the most beautifully constructed narration. His crew were seemingly eternally devoted, and clearly thinking above and beyond the necessities of the job; Zach Zamboni’s extended philosophical essays on cinematography have turned up more than once in my reading lists for class.

I was desperately looking forward to seeing the episode Tony shot in Hong Kong that was directed by his girlfriend Asia Argento and shot by the inimitable Christopher Doyle. Now I’m not sure I can bring myself to see it, knowing what we all now do.

In how many fathoms of darkness must a soul be swimming in order for this to be sweet release? Surrounded by those who would take a bullet for you, in how much pain does one need to be to take this action? It must have been insufferable, insurmountable.

I’m just stunned. I’m still getting over this, and will be for some time. In many ways I’m glad to be travelling, at the moment. Anthony Bourdain brought travel down to earth, to the people and their stories, and to the food that locals don’t think twice about scoffing — Tony saw cities not as tourist traps, but as living, breathing places where people do indeed pass through, but people also live, work, and die.

There’s not much to say. Just: thank you, Anthony Bourdain, for your words, your wit, and your way of seeing the world.

in transit

My head knows what time zone I’m meant to be in, but my body has no idea. I’ve reset all my clocks, but apparently it should be 2am, so naturally I’ve just sat down with a beer. I haven’t really slept; dozed on the plane here, and had a quick power nap once I realised how long my layover would be.

I have to kill eight hours in Abu Dhabi, in the gigantic circular Skypark that houses all the cafes, bars, duty free. Those observing Ramadan are indulging in the wee hours before the sun comes up. It took me longer than I’m proud of to figure out why some people didn’t take meals on the flight from Melbourne.

From my vantage point at the SkyBar I can see the tiny glass box in which three men are quietly smoking. I feel like the haze should be thicker, but clearly the ventilation problem was sorted out long ago.

I’m on my way to Athens. I’ve read a lot about Athens; studied it in high school. I’ve hard it’s just one of those places to have to experience. So I’m looking forward to doing just that. Speaking of soaking up places, I’m meant to be filming on this trip, so maybe I’ll finish my beer and go do that thing.

dust to dust

I’ve attended three memorial services this year. March isn’t over yet.

Annihilation is one of my favourite books, and I can’t tell you why. It’s something about the way humanity is reduced to just its connection with the world around us, and done so simply, and only in words. Names, backgrounds, the trimmings with which we identify ourselves. None of it matters.

Today’s memorial service was secular. It was a fitting and touching reminder of how life is about family, it’s about vitality, about making the most of every day. But it was primarily about the connections we form with each other, be they familial, be they long-lasting, be they fleeting.

There is no real rhyme or reason to this post. Sometimes you are a member of the expedition, working your way through the unknown; sometimes you are Area X itself, all-knowing, but also uncaring. Sometimes you want answers; sometimes you want to just give in, let go, and be.

Romance and reflection

There is a mode of writing about film that I really enjoy reading — I’m cautiously calling it romantic-reflexive. Practitioners of this style include Murray Pomerance, Geoff Dyer, Raul Ruiz. It’s a style I enjoy because it feels immediate, almost as if the thought had just occurred to the writer. It’s an informed style, but rather than be peppered with footnotes or citations at every turn, the reader is just aware that they’re being spoken to by someone who’s done a lot of reading.

It’s a style that permits idiosyncrasies, but one that does not allow laziness. It allows for a nuanced discussion of film, but a discussion that is not hyper-critical. The analysis is not over-wrought, such that the film loses all magic, all its moments. I sense that this is a difficult style to master, but I’ve sketched out a few projects in the coming months that will hopefully allow me to give it a try.

For now, though, here, on this blog, I’m going to run the style past whatever I’m watching in the next few weeks, months. I’m currently halfway through Paris, Texas, so maybe that’ll be first.

Rules

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Taking my first steps in the world of programming, I’ve been intrigued to see that many of the overarching rules for ‘best practice’ and the more philosophical protocols for program design/code structure, are nearly the same as in screenwriting.

  1. Keep it simple.
  2. Show, don’t tell.
  3. Don’t repeat yourself.
  4. Only do one thing at a time.
  5. Write for your audience.

These aren’t rules in the traditional sense. They aren’t dictums passed down from on high that every programmer/screenwriter must adhere to. Occasionally you simply can’t keep it simple. You may well have to tell, rather than show. And sometimes, because it’s necessary (or because it’s something of an artistic flourish), you may have to repeat yourself.

Rather, these are popular rules, finely honed over the 120 years that people have written for the screen, and the 200+ years that programs have been written for machines.

It’s not just rules that translate between programming and cinema, though. There are quite a number of connections between the art of creating computer programs and the prevailing analytic approaches to film; but that’s for another time.

Whiplash (2014)

"There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'Good job'."
“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘Good job’.”

Richard Brody didn’t like Whiplash (2014).

That’s fine. Critics, of all people, are certainly entitled to their opinion. And Richard Brody is by no means an unqualified critic. What Brody’s done here, though, is fundamentally misunderstand the thrust of the film he’s critiquing. It’s a trap that a great many critics fall into: thinking the film is about one thing, when it’s actually about something else, or a bunch of other things.

‘The movie’s very idea of jazz,’ writes Brody, ‘is a grotesque and ludicrous caricature.’ It certainly would be, if this was a film about jazz, rather than a jazz film.

What on earth is a jazz film? Damn fine question. The notion came to me in one of the earlier scenes in Damien Chazelle’s film. Miles Teller’s Andrew leaves the Conservatory, heading home after thinking he’s failed to make the cut for the concert band. Amid the standard cutting of Andrew walking the streets between his school and his home, random shots show street lamps, illuminated windows, signage, traffic. This isn’t a standard contextualising montage between scenes – these are random shots interspersed with the character-centric frames.

This random approach to cinematography and editing persists throughout the film – take the phenomenal final shots which obscure the subjects’ faces, and not the parts a cinematographer would normally mask.

So while perhaps Chazelle is not glorifying jazz, the learning of music, or education more broadly, he is certainly contributing a jazz sensibility to the craft of cinema.

Billy Crystal is quoted as saying ‘That’s the thing about jazz; it’s free-flowing, it comes from your soul.’ This idea works for Whiplash: not only is the flow of images free, but they all feel as though they came from some deep place.

This is particularly appropriate given that this is not a film about music, or education, or history, or culture. This is a film about the systematic manipulation and mangled reconstruction of one soul by another.

Whiplash is a staggering film, that I’ll struggle to get over. It’s a stellar character piece, and I feel that the claustrophobic intimacy of its dark story will haunt cinema for some years to come.

Speed and politics

Need for Speed (d. Scott Waugh, 2015).
Need for Speed (d. Scott Waugh, 2015).

Cinema is movement. Movement is change. Change is politics — politics regulates change.

Movement in the frame is thus political.

The addition of speed amplifies the political impetus of cinema. Movement is cinema.

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[It’s okay, I haven’t lost it. These are perfunctory scribblings for upcoming research, that I thought were strangely poetic. Rough thoughts on the disappointingly not-that-disappointing Need for Speed here.]