Friday roundup

Well, another week and we’re still here, which I suppose bodes well. Yesterday I took note of the passing of film preservationist David Shepard (who is not still here) and earlier this week looked forward to the February 12 return of John Oliver to HBO.

I’ll be breathing a deep sigh of relief, having survived seven more days of a world increasingly in chaos, and lifting a glass to the so-far gentle gods this afternoon at Cafe Katja for my weekly glass of grüner veltliner and pestering of the bar staff. You have a good weekend too.

David Shepard (1940-2017)

David Shepard.

“It cannot be stressed too strongly that the sound motion picture was an entirely different medium from the silent motion picture, and not merely the extension of it,” William K. Everson wrote in his groundbreaking 1978 history American Silent Film. “The difference between the two media is literally the difference between painting and photography, and the frequent unreality — or stylized reality — of much of the camerawork of the silent film was, artistically, one of its greatest assets.” Nor is this all. The silent film also required, ironically, a more naturalistic and nuanced performance style from its performers; from its audiences, it required (and still requires) a new way of viewing, a close attention to the visual. In the sound film, dialogue cues might fill you in if you look away or are distracted for a moment. The silent film requires a studied intention to see. To be a silent film enthusiast is to be an advocate for a unique art form that retains, even (and maybe especially) now, remarkable pleasures and aesthetic experiences. But, strange as it may seem, contemporary appreciation of silent films doesn’t begin to approach the contemporary appreciation of literature, music, and visual art of the same period — from 1895 to about 1930.

Anyone who appreciates the unique appeal of silent film will be sorry to hear of the passing of film preservationist David Shepard earlier this week. Shepard made it his life’s work to collect, preserve, restore, and disseminate (as widely as he could) the first thirty years of American film history. He, along with Martin Scorsese and Kevin Brownlow, was one of the major figures who recognized the immense historical and continuing value of these films.

Shepard began his career at the American Film Institute, which was started in part to preserve the American film heritage, in 1968. Later, he joined Blackhawk Films, a company that distributed classic films to the home market in 8mm and 16mm formats; following the closure of the company, he acquired both its restoration technology and its film catalog, which included films by D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, and many many others. In more recent years, Shepard’s Film Preservation Associates worked closely with Kino Lorber, Lobster Films, and Flicker Alley to ensure that the restoration and dissemination of these films continued. Realizing that mere archival restoration wasn’t enough, he worked assiduously to keep these films in front of the public eye. A partial list of the hundreds of films that Shepard had a hand in restoring can be found here.

Shepard kept a low profile; he never published any books, and Film Preservation Associates never even had a web site; Scorsese (obviously) and Brownlow (who produced many documentaries himself and wrote several historical studies) were much better known to the public, but all three knew and admired each’s efforts. His enthusiasm never wavered, however, and many have paid tribute to his achievements and advocacy for silent film, as this and this demonstrate. An obituary from the Hollywood Reporter can be found here, but this interview from 2000 at has a wealth of other information. An appropriate moment of silence, then, for one of the heroes of American film history.

John Oliver’s reality check on the refugee “crisis”

Scary times call for a scared man.

Tucked away in the late-Sunday-night ghetto of pay cable, John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight has been on hiatus since late last year; it’s scheduled to return on Sunday, February 12. What differentiates Oliver’s satiric current affairs program from others like The Daily Show are the 10-20 minute deeply researched, informational reports on a variety of subjects — everything from retirement plans to Trump University, and more. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of these without learning something I didn’t know before. (And as something of a public service, HBO posts these reports on YouTube the day after they air on HBO. You can find a full archive of them here.)

Last September, Oliver explained the process by which refugees are investigated before being allowed into the US — something that came up again this weekend. So here’s a little education for you. And no doubt Oliver will hit the ground running later in February.

Et tu, Kellyanne?

In the aftermath of the “alternative facts” imbroglio set off by Trump Administration Virago-in-Chief Kellyanne Conway earlier this week, Merriam-Webster briefly and uncharacteristically dropped into the political fray with this tweet:

Armed with this little dart, the Dumptrumpsters cheered, whistled, and stamped their feet, claiming validation and victory. Such mob responses always generate suspicion in me, I’m afraid, and it may be that I was one of a very few who couldn’t help but hear an echo of former President Bill Clinton’s interesting epistemological challenge, “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” in the Minister of Propaganda’s suggestion.

In that presented as lies the problem. As anyone who has seen Rashomon will tell you, information can be presented as objective reality from a variety of perspectives, and you don’t need to be a student of Asian cinema — or an admirer of classical philosophy, obsessed since the construction of the stoa with the question “What is truth?” — to realize it. What’s more interesting to me is that Comrades Conway and Sean Spicer appear to have taken the same classes as I did in college.

Back in darkest antiquity — oh, the 1980s or so — the liberal arts were awash in a assault on the concept of truth itself. Especially in literary studies, philosophy, and history, the professoriate, many of whom were veterans of the upheavals of the 1960s, had the same attitude towards facts and reality as the current administration. Literature, abstract thought, and historical events were all brought under the new lenses introduced by philosophers, most of them from France. Your Honor, I wish to introduce the following Wikipedia definitions into evidence and request to have them read into the record, stipulating that Wikipedia definitions appear to be as good as any others in defining terms which themselves beggar definition:

Structuralism: The belief that phenomena of human life are not intelligible except through their interrelations. These relations constitute a structure, and behind local variations in the surface phenomena there are constant laws of abstract culture.

Deconstruction: The object of language and what upon which any text is founded is irreducibly complex, unstable, or impossible. … [O]riginary complexity, which by definition cannot ever be completely known, works its structuring and destructuring effects.

Reader-response criticism: Literature should be viewed as a performing art in which each reader creates their own, possibly unique, text-related performance.

Like it or not, the American academy greeted these ideas with hosannas, and subsequently they gave rise to a variety of epistemological disciplines (if they can be called that; perhaps “mutations” would be a better word) that have kept the professoriate busy to the present day. Here were ideas you could base any number of papers, books, and theories on, spewing language like spiders spin webs; you can defend anything so long as proof and even defense are by definition impossible, and at length and with terminologies and vocabularies that would test the imagination of a Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear. Jonathan Swift deftly ridiculed all of this in A Tale of a Tub more than 300 years ago, and his refutation continues to stand.

All this is harmless, fine and dandy as long as it takes place around the circle-jerk of a seminar table at a small private liberal arts college in the northeastern United States; there is some validity in some of it, just as a stopped clock is right twice a day. But once it seeps out into the dog’s breakfast of American culture-at-large, you’ve got trouble. “The president does believe that [voter fraud took place] … based on studies and evidence people have presented to him,” Spicer said yesterday, and what is this but Trump’s own unique, text-related performance? And according to this story, Herr Trump has requested that the government conduct its own seminar on contemporary epistemology in the public sphere, evading the controversy altogether. Also on the reading list, no doubt, will be the voter fraud accusations that arose during the Democratic primaries from Jill Stein, Bernie Sanders, and their minions. I imagine we can expect the final papers coming due sometime during some unforeseeable but inevitable future scandal, when, like most academic final papers, they will be quietly read and graded by some poor graduate assistant and subsequently tossed into the recycle bin.

Just as much as anybody else, I’d love to see Trump return to the backwaters of the celebrity swamp, and as soon as possible, but it’s worth considering our own role in our present tribulations. It turns out that facts and history are not quite as mutable as the theorists would have them; they do come in handy at times. But it’s a bit surprising to note, perhaps, that the President’s philosophical ancestor is Paul de Man — a leading light of the deconstructionist movement in the 1970s and 1980s, until it was revealed that he had in fact been a Nazi collaborator and the author of anti-Semitic tracts in Belgium during World War II. Hm. Perhaps not surprising after all.

The trouble begins at 6

Liza Lim and Elizabeth Hoffman.

To kick off the 2017 season of pop-up concerts at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, Marilyn Nonken will take the stage at 6.00pm tonight to perform two works that were specially written for her: Liza Lim‘s The Four Seasons (After Cy Twombly) and Elizabeth Hoffman‘s organum let open, the latter a New York premiere. Doors open at 5.30pm, no reservations necessary; more information is available here. If you’re coming, let us know. We’d be delighted to have you.

In an ill-advised attempt to attract the rabble, Ms. Nonken and Ms. Hoffman have asked me to participate in the performance of organum let open, which was inspired by some texts I wrote a decade ago. For this reason I have wrapped myself in a dress shirt, tie, and jacket for the occasion; I would ask you to hold your laughter until free drinks are served after the concert, at which time you can feel free to advise me on my sartorial missteps and tell me to buy a comb. You’ll have to listen to the music for the sublime part of the evening; I’ll provide the ridiculous.