Friday, October 29, 2010

Nostalgia for Texture

First example.

I have a thing for French postcards. The ones from the ‘20s and ‘30s. I don’t like them all equally. The “artistic” nudes – the ones posed like statues with vases or columns, done up like Salomé in veils and snakes, or in Nibelung armor – frankly bore me; the “anatomical” ones, well… What I like best is the flappers with cars or with bicycles on country roads, reading the Kama Sutra on the grass with a girlfriend, with those silly cloche hats and the Clara Bow makeup and the sloppy black stockings in mid-thigh disarray. The stockings especially. Not that I’m into that ordinarily. It took me a while to see what it was. It was that they weren’t nylon. Nylon was invented in 1940. Silk and rayon and cotton drape differently on the leg. You can’t rumple nylon.

Second example.

Stopped in “Buckaroo’s Mercantile” the other day, one of those shops that sells retro stuff: Archie jam jars, Chango Macho 7-day candles, ‘50s ashtrays, Mexican floral oilcloth by the yard, spud guns, lampshades, vintage film posters. Like the tin adverts for Schlitz and Pennzoil, the posters were reproductions, but good ones – digital; the place had a good selection, but the owner said he could order others online, from a catalogue. Then, apropos ordering – oddly – he apologized for his laptop: he didn’t much like it, but it was useful for business. Why did he feel a need to apologize for his computer? What he sells is nostalgia for technologies of reproduction before digital: chromolithography, glass appliqué, letterpress – technologies with stronger tactile qualities than what we live with now (digital, offset). He can move some of the cheaper originals – fruit labels, postcards, bowling shirts – but there aren’t that many around and the good ones would be too expensive for his niche, so his business is mostly in simulacra: the posters and new tin printed to look weatherbeaten, the new clothing silkscreened with old insignia, the published anthologies of ‘20s and ‘30s matchbook cover art, Tijuana bibles, Topps wacky packs, Mexican film posters…done by four-color offset in Singapore on smooth matte stock, the matchbooks enlarged to show every fiber of the cheap stock they were printed on… but what they’re now printed on has no fibers, it’s perfectly smooth, and the indentations of the matchbooks' and Tijuana bibles’ letterpress type are now purely optical, a high-tech trompe-l’oeil.

Intermediate thought.

Those French postcards – where did I see them? Printed by Taschen in Singapore (or maybe China).

Third example.

From Dean Blackwood’s liner notes for the very remarkable compilation CD American Primitive Vol. II: Pre-War Revenants (1897-1939) (Revenant Records): “Particle physicist Carl H. Haber of Lawrence Berkeley (Calif.) Laboratory heard on the radio that archivists needed ways to nondestructively extract sound from old recordings. He makes arrays of sensors for tracking minute particles in powerful accelerators. To align their arrays, they scan sensor surfaces by using a micrometer with submicrometer resolution. The scientist used his microscope to make a two-dimensional map of the grooves on a 78-revolutions-per-minute shellac disc. He also wrote software that calculates the velocity with which a stylus would move in the mapped grooves. A sound clip from the virtual disc sounded better than the same section played back from the original disc with a stylus did, Haber reported in the December 2003 Journal of the Audio Engineering Society.”

A thankful thought.

Without digital technology, none of this weird old shit that I love so much would be coming out on CD. There’s more of it available now, to more people, than there ever was.

Fourth example.

(From a proposal for an MLA talk that was not accepted and never quite got off the ground.)

Found-Footage Film as Elegy.

Elegy is a tendency in found-footage filmmaking, though not all found-footage film is elegy. My films: Decasia – The State of Decay (Bill Morrison, 2002); Welt Spiegel Kino (Gustav Deutsch, 2005); Wienfilm 1896-1976 (Ernst Schmidt Jr., 1977); Kádár’s Kiss (Péter Forgács, 1997); Lyrical Nitrate (Peter Delpeut, 1990). My non-elegiac control group, some of which include moments of elegy: Rose Hobart (Joseph Cornell, 1936); The Forbidden Quest (Peter Delpeut, 1993); Diva Dolorosa (Peter Delpeut, 1999); Film ist. (Gustav Deutsch, 1998/2002/2009); The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (Esfir Shub, 1927); Tribulation 99 (Craig Baldwin, 1998).

These films are elegies for what? For content, medium, form, possibilities lost, roads not taken. Content: lost worlds, people now dead, places changed utterly, eras past. Medium: particular moments in the technological history of cinema, often approached with a focus on the medium’s materiality, e.g. the chemical degradation of nitrate film, dye fading or saturation, scratches. Form: past techniques and styles of filmmaking, acting, mise-en-scène, dress. The films are sometimes, not always, nostalgic, but never simply so. They are often utopian, their mourning of possibilities lost (roads not taken: moments in the development of technologies or of cinematic codes that precede forks in the historical road through narrative & formal options) amounting usually to a critique of the present (of the roads in fact taken, especially of the normalized narrative strategies of classical Hollywood cinema and of the cultural and political hegemonies it supports). The utopianism is more often than not recuperative: the films mourn possibilities lost, but in so doing return them as possibilities to mind and attempt to reclaim them – as elegy will – for those still living.

Added reflection, 2010.

Modern found-footage filmmaking normally requires cutting-edge restoration practice & editing technology, and I’ve seen most of it on DVD.

Fifth example.

(Noise is the new black:) That fat splintery tone that Jack White gets with the White Stripes and which seems to have carried over to the Dead Weather, that tone that just screams authenticity, the sonic correlate of his tube amps (the technology before last!), the neo-Western bone grime of Horehound, and the insistence (on Elephant) that “No computers were used during the writing, recording, mixing or mastering of this record” – how does he get that tone? Big Muff and Digitech Whammy, mostly, is my guess.

More examples and, eventually, theory to follow.

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