Saturday, June 8, 2024

A DREAM THAT WOULD MAKE YOU SCREAM [452]


Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Surrealist short film “Un Chien Andalou” – or “Sunshine and the Loo”, as YouTube’s voice-activated search misheard my many requests – was first premièred in Paris on 6th June 1929. Deliberately conceived to have scenes and imagery that defy rational explanation, it became a classic of the Surrealist movement officially founded five years earlier, while its images, from the famous cutting of a woman’s eye with a razor, to a man dragging two pianos and two priests, being endlessly referenced and reproduced.

However, the act of watching “Unchain on the Moon” makes you try to resolve those images into a semblance of order. That is not the fault of the film - it is simply how the mind processes what you see. Your mind demands an explanation when the images themselves were conceived with no need of one. I previously wrote about pareidolia, where the mind perceives familiar patterns in something where there is none, and where the lyrics of Sir Elton John’s deliberately nonsensical song “Solar Prestige a Gammon” still conveyed a “life carries on” meaning in its performance.

But “And She and Do” is a film, of course, and the language of “continuity editing”, as popularised by the Classical Hollywood era that was still getting underway in 1929, will have its effect on your perception, just as my perception of Dalí’s painting “The Persistence of Memory” were changed by seeing how small it is in real life. My dreams have “continuity editing”, such is the cultural consensus on how film language is read by an audience that doesn’t need to learn to “write” it. The forming of scenes and sequences, cuts and fades under agreed patterns of editing, to define the film’s mise en scène, are then expected to work in every case, so it is perhaps no wonder that the intertitles of “And on the loop” must be used to obfuscate its timeline, declaring “eight years later”, “around three in the afternoon” or “sixteen years ago”, even when the scene does not change.

Real time has perhaps not worked in favour of “Union and You”, especially as Dalí reused and commodified his imagery – ants were a symbol of decay for Dalí, but they now symbolise Dalí. The film he and Buñuel made was meant to provoke and offend, but its favourable reception on its première was itself offensive to Dalí, and I would put that down to “Ed Sheeran and blue” being rendered conventional by the collective notion of what a film is – it being colourised and cut down to a two-minute interstitial for “MTV in the Eye” in the late 1980s ensured any intended shock value was truly mislaid, despite leaving all the famous images intact, and making for one of the few times the music of Richard Wagner was played on MTV.

Saturday, June 1, 2024

AND I WANT ALL YOU’VE GOT [451]


“The Fox” is an album released by Sir Elton John in 1981 that I have overlooked for some time – I own a CD copy of it, but didn’t pay too much attention to it because there are no identifiable “hits” from it that continue to receive airplay, or remain in concert setlists.

This is a shame, because it has completely captured my attention as of late. The three songs that were released as singles all managed to be different from each other: “Chloe” is a soulful song making good use of a Fender electric piano; “Nobody Wins”, originally a French-language song by Jean-Paul Dreau titled “J'Veux de la Tendresse”, is the most synthesised Elton John song I have heard, even down to a busy drum pattern programmed by Roger Linn, presumably on his own Linn LM-1 drum machine; and “Just Like Belgium” is a nostalgic, poppy track not unlike the later “Club at the End of the Street”, down to the blistering saxophone solo. 

These many changes in tone, including the more classical “Carla/Etude – Fanfare” sequence, arranged and co-composed by James Newton Howard, and the unrequited love ballad “Elton’s Song”, evoke earlier double-albums like “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Blue Moves”, make attempting to capture an artist’s entire range in only eleven songs and forty-six minutes an experience that requires maximum attention, with some breaks.

But what I discovered were two further songs that, while they remained album tracks, are exactly the sort of gospel-tinged barnstormers that have firmly lodged themselves in my mind from the moment I heard them: “Heels of the Wind” and “Breaking Down Barriers”. The latter of these is on its way to becoming one of my favourite Elton John songs, having a drive not unlike “The Bitch is Back” or “Bite Your Lip (Get Up and Dance!)”,and having the classic Elton John Band line-up of drummer Nigel Olsson and bassist Dee Murray, while still featuring John singing in his higher register, with falsetto as the song fades out. “Breaking Down Barriers” has lyrics by Gary Osborne, instead of John’s soul-mate collaborator Bernie Taupin, but they are perfect: “you have shown me a better way, and now I’m learning fast”,  and “I’m taking down barriers, and loving what I find”. 


“The Fox” was the first Elton John release under a US contract with Geffen Records – when John asked David Geffen about calling the album “The Fox”, he asked that a song be written for it with that title. This fact comes from a “telepress conference” for the album in 1981, which was presented as a daytime chat show presented by John himself, taking every opportunity to perform to the camera, while also keeping the show together as host, his “guests” being producers and marketing managers for Geffen Records. The tableau of desk, TV and stuffed fox that make the album cover were recreated for the occasion, the fox making its way to John’s desk. 

Intended for internal use and distributed on video tape to regional offices of Warner Bros. Records, distributors of the album, a copy of the conference has made its way to the repository of YouTube to give a valuable insight into how important this album was for the entire chain of command from artist to commercial staff.

What has also made its way to YouTube on 22nd May 2024 were the videos for every song on “The Fox”. Separate videos for “Nobody Wins” and “Elton’s Song” had been available for a while, but they formed part of a whole work titled “Visions”, released on VHS cassette, laserdisc and CED video disc in 1982. There is an apparently a wraparound element to the videos where someone is watching them, but the songs are presented on video individually. “Visions” was not re-released after 1982, so to see these videos essentially for the first time, and in high quality, is like filling in a gap in the history of music videos. You do see some elements, like backdrops, being re-used across the different videos, but they are all different from each other, and not simply a recording of a performance. They are directed by Russell Mulcahy, whose video for The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” ushered in MTV, and continued directing for Elton John, and Duran Duran, through the decade. 

What I was most surprised about by “Visions” was, like the conference video, John’s performances to camera – in the comedic video for “Heels of the Wind”, I kept thinking I was watching Rick Moranis. However, you can’t help but compare these with John’s later avoidance from appearing in videos altogether.

Sunday, May 26, 2024

COME ON BEFORE WE CRACK [450]

“Put on the corned beef hash” is a well-known misheard lyric from Kenny Loggins’s song “Footloose”, as I discovered when I misheard it myself being played on a speaker at a food festival.

I immediately wanted to check the correct lyric, but I could not get a signal on my smartphone to check. I am very used to the impulse of checking what I don’t know with my phone, so when I couldn’t, that impulse had to be used up a different way, so I checked how many steps I walked so far – that was something the phone could count by itself.

This was the point I realised I had the perfect opening to an article about smartphones, so I opened my note-taking app to make an early start.

I have previously talked about Marshall McLuhan’s delineation of media as being “hot” or “cool” in terms of how demanding they are of their user’s attention, with television being defined as “cool” because of its lower fidelity picture and sound relative to the real world, and it having to compete for attention in the settings they are usually found.

However, is the smartphone a “medium”, or a Swiss Army knife-type delivery system for many different media? Does the device demand my attention, or the combination of all the things it can do?

Having explained the delineation of hot and cool media in his 1964 book “Understanding Media” subtitled “The Extensions of Man”, McLuhan looks at many different media to determine where they stand, and what their true message is, for example the telephone removing walls and distance from human conversation.

It is entirely possible for me to create a table from the different media McLuhan discusses, taking an average of whether the smartphone is overall “hot” or “cold”. My phone is expected to reproduce both the spoken word, through radio and recorded music, and the written word, simulating print media from newspapers and magazines to comic books and various forms. It is expected to make photographs and act as their frame. It is a telegraph, through telephony, various messaging apps and in submitting information to the internet and recalling from it. It displays various advertisements. It is my television. It is my typewriter. It can be used to light up a room. I could also throw it... but I need it so much I fear breaking it.

However, the smartphone leaves me “cold”, as it were, because it relies entirely on my attention. It may be one step on from having separate devices for each of its individual uses, but it takes you one step away from the advantages those devices had: larger screens and surfaces, better sound systems, better microphones, brighter light, and so on. I have to bring more to my smartphone to make it work the way I need it to work, which may require me to compromise to bridge the gap created by the loss of fidelity that I could have achieved with a proper camera, a book, a pen, a Blu-ray player, a torch and so on. The smartphone is a new level of compromise.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

EVERYONE'S GONE TO THE MOVIES [449]


I have only written about one Roger Corman film, the 1994 unreleased adaptation of “The Fantastic Four” comic book he was recruited to produce, so another producer could retain the rights to make a bigger-budget release later. I also made mention of a film Corman produced to cash in on the success of “Smokey and the Bandit, and while I did not mention him by name, I have also talked about “Little Shop of Horrors, Frank Oz’s 1986 film version of the musical itself based on Corman’s original film, released in 1960.

While I talked about the newer “Little Shop of Horrors” because of its restored ending, Corman’s original, aside from featuring an early role for Jack Nicholson, was famously made for approximately $30,000 in only two days and one nights using sets left over from his previous film, “A Bucket of Blood”, before they were torn down. Low budgets, making films back-to-back, reusing sets, inserting stock footage reusing footage from previous films and following trends are all hallmarks of Corman productions, alongside the long list of graduates from “The Corman Film School” that went on to their own accomplished careers, like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron and Joe Dante.

What struck me later was that recounting facts about the making of Corman’s films seem to be more interesting than the films themselves, as if the feat of creating and completing a film in seemingly reduced circumstances, when compared to the lavish production lines of the main Hollywood studios, is more remarkable than any artistry found in the films themselves.

I think this is because Corman, while known as a director mainly in the 1950s and 60s, including the influential series of films based on the work of Edgar Allen Poe, is mostly credited as a producer, looking at the bottom line as a matter of necessity, actively finding ways of extending his budgets. Selling the rights to the name of his 1954 crime drama “The Fast and the Furious” to Universal Pictures, in exchange to access to their stock footage library, is an ingenious move, but it is mainly a business decision.

But Roger Corman was known as the “king of the Bs”, and while the B-movie is more understood these days as a lower-budget film, rather than the second half of a double bill, their being able to be cheaper for cinemas and distributors for buy also placed less expectations and inhibitions upon them : the experimentations their production, the creative use of stock footage, and the ability to gather their talent pool from new people entering the industry ready to prove themselves by any means available, ultimately highlight the restriction placed on higher-budgeted films by the expectations placed upon them. Whether that makes a Corman-produced genre-based film a “cult” film, or “shlock”, is quite beyond the point – if it finds an audience, it will find a profit even faster.

Sunday, May 12, 2024

I SAW THE BEST MINDS OF MY GENERATION... [448]


On Friday 11th May 2024, I opened Mircosoft Copilot, the company’s AI chatbot, and wrote the following request: “please write a 100-word explanation of ‘prompt engineering’ in the style of Jack Kerouac while making it funny and informative”. I thought the concept should be able to explain itself...
 

*

The Beatnik Art of Prompt Engineering

Prompt engineering, my dear cats and kittens, is like a wild jazz riff on a typewriter, a symphony of words and neural networks. Picture this: you’re sipping your coffee, the steam rising like a beatnik’s cigarette, and you whisper to the AI oracle, “Hey, man, conjure me some cosmic prose!” And lo, the prompt engineers weave their magic. They’re the bards of the digital realm, crafting queries that make AI models snap their fingers and say, “Yeah, daddy-o!” 🎩✨

See, good prompts are like secret passwords to the AI’s soul. They coax it out of its binary shell, like a shy poet at a smoky Greenwich Village café. Tokenization, model tuning, and top-k sampling—these are the tools of the prompt trade. It’s like tuning a saxophone, finding that sweet spot where the notes flow like a midnight river.

And what do we get? Texts that dance the jitterbug with our imaginations, images that waltz through the mind’s ballroom. Prompt engineers, they’re the Kerouacs of the AI highway, scribbling their notebooks, chasing the muse. So next time you chat with a bot, remember: behind the curtain, there’s a prompt whisperer, spinning dreams in ones and zeros. 🌟📜

“Blow as deep as you want to blow,” Kerouac said. And so they do, my friends. They blow minds, one prompt at a time. 🎤🌌

*

So, did anyone learn anything? Let me have a try...

In this context, a “prompt” is text describing the task an AI model is to perform, “prompt engineering” being the process of structuring that text. In my original instruction to Copilot, each word that wasn’t a preposition or “please” acted as a prompt. Each prompt is compared against the dataset accessed by the AI program, which is broken down into “tokens” to make them easier to choose and compare which has the highest probability of answering the prompt, “top-k sampling” being one such method. Each interrogation of the dataset presumably also helps tune the models used to access that data.

My paragraph fulfilled the “informative” prompt, but crucially also the “100-word” requirement too – I was most surprised that Copilot missed that part of the brief, because the prompt I expected it to have the biggest problem with was “funny”. In trying to make me laugh, Copilot dumped a couple of terms in the middle of its passage that it did not go on to explain, but fortunately it listed the websites from which it gleaned information, including from Wikipedia, Squarespace and IBM.

What I am most unimpressed about is the AI program’s interpretation of “Jack Kerouac”. Kerouac was a Beat Generation novelist, coining the term “beat”, as in tired and “beaten down”. What he didn’t do was call himself a “beatnik” – this is how the sub-culture was fed into the mainstream, codifying poets with a uniform of beret, sandals, striped shirts and bongos, speaking like jazz musicians and reciting poetry in a bad Allen Ginsberg impression.

Just as AI models are essentially answering queries putting one word after the other in the hopes that it makes a coherent sentence, I thought there would be a parallel with the  “spontaneous prose” of Kerouac, who typed manuscripts of novels like “On the Road” and “The Subterraneans” on extended scrolls of tracing paper. Blow as deep as you want to blow” was the seventh tenet of Kerouac’s “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose”, but in essentially being a “dumb” program, the AI model concentrated on number thirteen, “remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition”, instead of being able to provide me with moments of insight, those “visionary tics shivering in the chest” (number eleven) – I still had to get that myself.

Upon originally hearing the term “prompt engineering”, I didn’t like the idea that ordering words was “engineering” in any way – “programming”, or even “prompting”, are better terms. I am also not a word engineer – there will never be a situation where words cannot be used creatively, because the spark to use them has to exist. I like to think I care about what I write.

For the record, I did not select that Copilot should use the large language model GPT-4 in creating its answer. I reran the request using this model, thinking it would have picked up some elements of Kerouac’s writing along the way, and while it did a better job of meeting the word count, and didn’t add superfluous emojis, the style was just as egregious – never ask an AI model to emulate a style:

“Alright, dig this, cats and kittens. Prompt engineering is the bee’s knees of AI jazz, where you lay down a line of text that’s cooler than a cucumber in a beatnik’s hand. It’s like whispering sweet nothings into the ear of a machine, hoping it’ll croon back a symphony of sense. You gotta be part poet, part coder, and all daddy-o to get it grooving just right. It’s the art of tickling the binary brain until it giggles out genius. So put on your thinking cap and make with the prompts, and watch that AI paint word-pictures smoother than a sax solo on a Saturday night.”

Saturday, May 4, 2024

EACH MORNING OUR KEY TO THE WORLD [447]

I only buy one physical newspaper each week...

Should I remain someone that consumes as much news as I do? I certainly read, watch and listen to enough news to ask that question, but I have started feeling like I need an answer.

My average weekday begins by turning on my phone as soon as I wake up – I have a separate alarm clock – to read the front pages of a list of news and social media websites: in order, BBC News, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Mastodon, Threads, the LGBT+ sites PinkNews (UK) and The Advocate (US), CNN, The Times (of London), The Telegraph, The Spectator, the New Statesman, The Guardian and The New York Times. Having completed Wordle on the last of these sites, about twenty minutes will have passed, and I am now ready to get out of bed and face the day.

This choice of sites is deliberately meant to be a broad range, including places that don’t fit my own politics. The objective is to see what truly the most important stories are, which stories are more important to each site, notice any trends and, importantly for me, read anything interesting – I am always looking for subjects to talk about, and you can’t expect these to come to you. The only reason I don’t look at the “Daily Mail” website, apparently the most-read news website in English, is because their front page has too many stories on it to discern what is meant to be important.

Once out of bed, I will put on the television to watch “Breakfast” on BBC One while I get ready for work, and once I have left the house, the news bulletins interrupting Lauren Laverne’s breakfast show on BBC Radio 6 Music will be the next source of news, unless I am looking at other stories on my phone while listening. This will continue at various points throughout the day even after I get home – a house tradition is to watch the ITV Evening News after the regional stories have played, but upon its doubling in length to an hour in March 2022, the television is consciously switched to another channel at the half-hour mark, ending my news for the day, provided I have put my phone down.

Perhaps I wouldn’t have a problem if I didn’t feel the need to check my phone so much, but having realised it has become my main source of news, it has become unavoidable. Short hourly news bulletins have evaporated from the main television channels, and I avoid opinion-led discussions of the news on TV, preferring to make my own mind up.

The issue that means I consume too much news is defining what it means to be “informed”. Requiring a broad range of sources for news means my own requirements are very high. I wouldn’t choose one channel, site or bulletin to serve as my single source, but if I was to reduce the number of places I search for news, it would feel like reducing my horizons, or not challenging my opinions enough. It may well be that I am thinking about this now because I am reaching my upper limit.

Sunday, April 28, 2024

I'VE SEEN THAT MOVIE TOO [446]


To make your debut as a feature film director by declaring the death of the film industry is a trick that Jean-Luc Godard sadly missed.

For Jerry Seinfeld, the stand-up comedian whose eponymous sitcom didn’t set the UK on fire, this was a throwaway statement in an interview for “GQ” magazine promoting “Unfrosted”, a fictional retelling of the birth of Pop Tarts, depicting the clash between Kellogg’s and rival cereal makers Post like it was the Space Race.

Seinfeld talks about how, at age 69, directing a film was totally new: “I thought I had done some cool stuff, but it was nothing like the way these people work. They’re so dead serious! They don’t have any idea that the movie business is over. They have no idea.” Asked to elaborate, he confirmed he didn’t say this to his crew, but explained that film is no longer the pinnacle of culture: “When a movie came out, if it was good, we all went to see it. We all discussed it. We quoted lines and scenes we liked. Now we’re walking through a fire hose of water, just trying to see.” Asked what has taken film’s place, Seinfeld said (italics as printed), “Depression? Malaise? I would say confusion. Disorientation replaced the movie business. Everyone I know in show business, every day, is going, What’s going on? How do you do this? What are we supposed to do now?

My immediate thought upon reading this was “NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING”, the refrain from scriptwriter William Goldman’s 1983 book “Adventures in the Screen Trade”. Having repeated it for emphasis, the writer of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, and future writer of “The Princess Bride”, adds “Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows [Goldman’s emphasis] for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess – and if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

Goldman begins his book by placing it in the aftermath of “Heaven’s Gate”, Michael Cimino’s ruinously expensive film that symbolically ended the “New Hollywood” period of greater artistic freedom, through greater directorial control and more daring subject matter, that followed the death of the old Classical Hollywood studio system at the end of the 1960s. This itself followed a number of experiments in luring audiences away from their suburban houses and television sets, from large “roadshow films” in the 1960s like “The Sound of Music”, “Doctor Doolittle” and “Hello Dolly”, and 1950s innovations like stereo sound, Cinemascope and 3D. It was easier for the Hollywood studios to present their films before the 1950s, just as when they installed sound equipment in their cinemas from the end of the 1920s, but with their having been separated from these theatre chains over anti-competitive practices, studios would have to deal with that loss of control, just as the nascent Hollywood studios set themselves up in the 1910s to escape attempts to control the film industry in New York.

Just as the perceived success and productivity of industry could be measured in peaks and troughs, the film industry had enough of these by the time Goldman’s book was published to make you wonder how anyone got anything done. The following year, 1984, saw the lowest recorded cinema attendance figures in the UK, just as the film industry was adapting to the concept of home video, now largely replaced by online streaming, the studios themselves going from exploiting new content delivery systems to being reconfigured as the content delivery system, both through streaming new films and exploiting intellectual property – why make a new sitcom when one from a generation ago, like “Seinfeld”, will suffice? 

I have only not mentioned Netflix because its role in disrupting the film industry, from production to exhibition to home video, could be interpreted as the main reason for it being declared as “over”, rather than just the latest reason - that Jerry Seinfeld’s “Unfrosted” was made for Netflix is purely coincidental.