Regular readers will know how much I enjoy a good piece of meta-ness or self-reference. My latest ‘project’ is based around this idea.
I was experimenting with the features available on CafePress, and needed a unique design to upload. The result is Meta Mug – A receptacle for your hot beverage, incorporating a QR code design which links to… the page where you can buy more mugs.
This sort of thing is very much of the New Aesthetic tradition and I know that plenty of merchandise has QR codes on it. However, I wonder if anyone has created a self-referential mug in precisely this manner.
In 1927, Time magazine printed a chart showing sex-appropriate colors for girls and boys according to leading U.S. stores. In Boston, Filene’s told parents to dress boys in pink. So did Best & Co. in New York City, Halle’s in Cleveland and Marshall Field in Chicago.
Today’s color dictate wasn’t established until the 1940s, as a result of Americans’ preferences as interpreted by manufacturers and retailers. “It could have gone the other way,” Paoletti says.
It is hard to overstate the influence of Disney cartoons on our folklore. The stories of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty et al have been around for centuries, but the versions presented by Walt Disney and his studios have become the definitive, almost canonical representations of the characters. Many people have a huge problem with this, because the studio’s versions tend to overlay its particular moral prism over the stories, which can be partriarchial – or just very saccarine – and much of the ambiguity and darkness is lost in the retelling. For example, Disney’s relentlessly upbeat The Little Mermaid has a very different fate to Hans Christian Andersen’s Den Lille Havfrue. The former gives up her entire heritage and identity for the love of a man; the latter tries and fails to stab him, and then finds herself consigned to a purgatory in the spirit world.
I love stuff like this – it speaks to the idea of a shared humanity and global culture, something that only the internet reveals.
And it is enriching art like this which is likely to be compromised by the propose SOPA legislation in the USA. Yesterday a number of sites, including Wikipedia, went ‘dark in protest at the proposed law. SOPA is a US initiative and so its difficult to know what we in the rest of the world can do to support it. Signing this Aavaz petition (along with a couple of million other people) might be a good start.
In a paywalled Times article this time last week, Hugo Rifkind highlighted our loss of the communal Christmas TV moment. EastEnders can never achieve the dizzy ratings heights of the 1980s, Eric and Ernie are dead, and even the numbers for Her Majesty The Queen’s Christmas message are in decline. Rifkind blames the spread of new viewing technologies as the cause of this: A plethora of channels; asynchronous viewing options like Sky+, TiVo, and iPlayer; and the alternatives presented by DVDs and YouTube.
It is interesting that despite this decline, new technology can provide a facsimile of the old, communal TV viewing experience. Instead of discussing an episode over the water-cooler or at the school gates the following morning, we all have a ‘second screen’ and discuss it in real time over Twitter. This is not a particularly original observation, but I mention it because it is Twitter that tells me just how universally popular is Sherlock, the second series of which began last weekend, with Episode 2 to be aired later this evening.
Hilariously, given the above paragraph, I did not actually watch the first episode ‘live’ – instead I caught up later in the week via iPlayer. That doesn’t detract from how popular the show seems to be, at least among the connected Twitterati.
There are plenty of explanations for the success. The writing is excellent and funny. Actor Benedict Cumberbatch exudes an autistic confidence that is true to Conan Doyle’s original character. Mysteries and puzzles are always the most popular stories (c.f. the perennial dominance of detective stories over Lit Fic) and the Sherlock series adheres to the rules of a good detective story, presenting all the clues to the audience as they are presented to the sleuth himself.
However, I think it is the representation of technology, and the visual choices inspired by technology, which make the thing feel so contemporary. Holmes receives text messages and interacts with Lestrade on a mobile phone. Dr Watson has a blog, and the villainess of Series 2, Ep. 1 had her own Twitter account (both of which, as is obligatory these days, also exist in the real world and keep up the conceit). However, it is not just that the characters use technology that makes the show interesting, but how the director integrates that into the visual style. Sherlock employs the popular technique of overlaying motion graphics onto the action. It is method made easy by new digital editing tools (see the opening scene of Stranger Than Fiction with Will Ferrell for an ostentatious example of the genre, as is Fifty Nine Productions’ work in Two Boys at the ENO). In Sherlock, the subtle use of this style makes the technology seem fully integrated into the way the characters view the world. The text messages flow past and through Sherlock, he barely has to look at his handset. I think it mirrors the way most of us live, with our eyes flitting between the screen and reality so quickly that it is sometimes difficult to remember how exactly a particular piece of information came to us. It certainly represents the way a large audience segment are experiencing the show. Are they watching Sherlock, or are they watching #Sherlock? Both.
Writing in Vanity Fair, Kurt Andersen asks whether we are in a decades long design rut. During the twentieth century, design and style evolved at a predictable pace – so much so that images from any given decade are instantly distinguishable as being from that era. The styles of the 1950s, say, would never be mistaken for those of the 1930s or the 1970s. This holds, says Andersen, across the art forms – fashion, design, architecture, cinema, and music from most of the twentieth century are all very much of their moment. However, in the past two or three decades, this evolution has stopped. The 1990s look very much like the 2010s, give or take a collar and quiff. Our big cultural events are all repeats, reboots and revivals.
There is much to admire in André Aciman’s Shadow Cities, a ‘classic’ New York Review of Books essay. For Radhika Jones, it is the way the writing evokes her own memories of New York. As for me, I like the concept of overlaying imagined cities and long-lost viewpoints:
New York is my home precisely because it is a place from where I can begin to be elsewhere—an analogue city, a surrogate city, a shadow city that allows me to naturalize and neutralize this terrifying, devastating, unlivable megalopolis by letting me think it is something else … Straus Park allowed me to place more than one film over the entire city of New York, the way certain guidebooks of Rome do. For each photograph of an ancient ruin comes a series of colored transparencies. When you place the transparency over the picture of a ruin the missing or fallen parts suddenly reappear, showing you how the Forum and the Coliseum must have looked in their heyday, or how Rome looked in the Middle Ages, and then in the late Renaissance, and so on. But when you lift all the plastic sheets, all you see are today’s ruins.
I didn’t want to see the real New York. I’d go backward in time and uncover an older New York, as though New York, like so many other cities on the Mediterranean, had an ancient side that was less menacing, that was not so difficult to restore, that had more past than present, and that corresponded to the old-fashioned world I think I come from. Hence, my obsession with things that are old and defunct and that seep through like ancient cobblestones and buried rails from under renewed coats of asphalt and tar. Sealed-off ancient firehouses, ancient stables turned into garages, ghost buildings awaiting demolition, old movie theaters converted into Baptist churches, old marketplaces that are now lost, subway stops that are ghost stations today … Going to Straus Park was like traveling elsewhere in time.
This is a marvellous evocation of why I enjoy much of the literature and imagery that I do. I have discussed the idea of overlaying of invisible worlds onto a physical space quite a lot on this blog.
To wit: The human ideas imposed onto China Mieville’sThe City & The City, and the secret Londons described in Un Lun Dun and Kraken; The transnational societies in Cory Doctorow’s For The Win; the myriad wifi networks on Exmouth Market; my idea for a London Underground game, marvellously realised by Chromaroma; and overlaying a fantasy narrative onto Edinburgh in Ghost.
Releated: there is the leaving of a digital breadcrumbs trail we saw in Stalking Shawn; andPulling echoes of the past into the present space in [murmur];
Watching Greg Wallace and Monica Gelati give their comments on ten different duck and leak dishes, I was reminded of David Foster Wallace’s fantastic ‘Present Tense‘, a Harper’s review of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. In the long essay, Wallace takes on the conundrum of ‘authority’ when applied to matters that are ultimately subjective, such as the use of language. He concluded that the author of the book has earned his authority by showing the breadth of his reading and thinking on the subject at hand.
I see a similar earned authority on Masterchef. Monica Gelati and Michel Roux, Jnr come to the series with quite a significant amount of (shall we say) ‘establishment’ authority, because they run Michelin starred restaurants. But the awarding of Michelin stars is a controversial affair and is ultimately based on the opinions of a small number of elite restaurant critics. Why should we, the hoi polloi who watch Monday Night telly, trust what they say? Masterchef is enjoyable and interesting because Gelati, Roux and Wallace (along with John Torode, who presents/judges the public and celebrity versions of the show) never take their own authority for granted. Each piece of feedback is explained and justified in quite a detailed manner. Even though cookery deals primarily with taste and smells, the audience finds that they agree with and endorse the (subjective) opinions of the judges. We all learn something about cooking as a result, and the show gives us insights we can take back to our own kitchens and dinner tables.
Compare this with Strictly Come Dancing, where the feedback is often extremely generic (“You know what, I really liked that dance, Audley!”), emotive comments based on the person, not the dance being judged (“Anita, you’re such a nice person!”) or riddle with soundbites – Flamboyant Bruno Tonioli’s orgasmic responses seem pre-prepared and designed to entertain, rather than inform. Craig Revel-Horwood and chief judge Len Goodman attempt to comment on the holds or the footwork, but there is scant explanation of how the dances are supposed to be performed, which leaves the audience on the outside of the experience.
X-Factor, of course, is hideously compromised by the fact that the ‘judges’ are also the mentors of the competing singers. Their feedback is tainted from the outset, and – within the context of the show – they lack the ‘authority’ to comment on any given act. This is before we take into account the deeply cynical and disingenuous feedback that implies that the terrible Frankie Coccoza is even in the same league as the astonishing Misha B.
The fact that the judges in Strictly and X-Factor wield their authority without constantly ‘earning’ it accounts, I think, for the disparity between what they say should happen, and the verdict that the paying audience delivers. It’s a funny paradox that Masterchef, which is run in an entirely authoritarian manner by the judges, still manages to involve its audience more than the shows that allow viewers to vote for the winner.