(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘film

“Some people worry that artificial intelligence will make us feel inferior, but then, anybody in his right mind should have an inferiority complex every time he looks at a flower”*…

Humor is said to be the quintessential humor capacity, last thing that AI could– will?– conquer…

New Yorker cartoons are inextricably woven into the fabric of American visual culture. With an instantly recognizable formula — usually, a black-and-white drawing of an imagined scenario followed by a quippy caption in sleek Caslon Pro Italic — the daily gags are delightful satires of our shared human experience, riffing on everything from cats and produce shopping to climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. The New Yorker‘s famous Cartoon Caption Contest, which asks readers to submit their wittiest one-liners, gets an average 5,732 entries each week, and the magazine receives thousands of drawings every month from hopeful artists.

What if a computer tried its hand at the iconic comics?

Playing on their ubiquity and familiarity, comics artist Ilan Manouach and AI engineer Ioannis [or Yiannis] Siglidis developed the Neural Yorker, an artificial intelligence (AI) engine that posts computer-generated cartoons on Twitter. The project consists of image-and-caption combinations produced by a generative adversarial network (GAN), a deep-learning-based model. The network is trained using a database of punchlines and images of cartoons found online and then “learns” to create new gags in the New Yorker‘s iconic style, with hilarious (and sometimes unsettling) results…

Comics artist Ilan Manouach (@IlanManouach) and AI engineer Yiannis Siglidis created The Neural Yorker: “Computer-Generated New Yorker Cartoons Are Delightfully Weird.”

For comparison’s sake, see “142 Of The Funniest New Yorker Cartoons Ever.”

Alan Kay

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As we go for the guffaw, we might recall that it was on this date in 1922 that the first chapter in Walt Disney’s career as an animator came to a close when he released the 7th and next-to-last “Laugh-O-Gram” cartoon adaption of a fairy tale, “Jack the Giant Killer.”

Disney’s first animated films began in 1920 as after-work projects when Disney was a commercial artist for an advertising company in Kansas City. He made these cartoons by himself and with the help of a few friends.

He started by persuading Frank Newman, Kansas City’s leading exhibitor, to include short snippets of animation in the series of weekly newsreels Newman produced for his chain of three theaters. Tactfully called “Newman Laugh-O-grams,” Disney’s footage was meant to mix advertising with topical humor…

The Laugh-O-grams were a hit, leading to commissions for animated intermission fillers and coming attractions slides for Newman’s theaters. Spurred by his success, the 19-year-old Disney decided to try something more ambitious: animated fairy tales. Influenced by New York animator Paul Terry’s spoofs of Aesop’s Fables, which had premiered in June 1920, Disney decided not only to parody fairy-tale classics but also to modernize them by having them playing off recent events. With the help of high school student Rudy Ising, who later co-founded the Warner Brothers and MGM cartoon studios, and other local would-be cartoonists, Disney [made 7 animated shorts, of which “Jack, the Giant Killer” was the penultimate].

Walt Disney’s Laugh-O-grams

“It’s like you watching a home movie of you watching TV”*…

Feeling fractal…

Welcome to Nestflix

The platform for your favorite nested films and shows.

Fictional movies within movies? Got ‘em. Fake shows within shows? You bet. Browse our selection of over 400 stories within stories…

Nestflix!

Homer: Wait a minute. You’re telling Moe’s story in Burns’ story in your story?

Lisa: Yes, dad. It’s like a play inside of a play, like Hamlet. [Homer is puzzled.] Fine, it’s like you watching a home movie of you watching TV.

Homer: [understanding] Oh yeah.

“The Seemingly Never-Ending Story”, The Simpsons

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As we put the “mmm” in “meta,” we might recall that it was on this date in 1975 that The Rocky Horror Picture Show opened at the Rialto Theatre in London (it premiered in the U.S, at the UA Westwood in Los Angeles, on September 26). Still in limited release forty-six years after its opening, it is the longest-running theatrical release in film history.

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“They said I was a valued customer, now they send me hate mail”*…

Is shopping therapy… or an occasion for therapy?…

… Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, videos of irate anti-maskers screaming, throwing things, and assaulting employees at big-box and grocery stores have become a social-media mainstay. As Americans return en masse to more types of in-person commerce, the situation only seems to be declining. At its most violent extreme, workers have been hospitalized or killed. Eight Trader Joe’s employees were injured in one such attack in New York, and in Georgia, a grocery-store cashier was shot over a mask dispute. Far more frequent are the accounts of short-fused shoppers becoming verbally abusive or otherwise degrading over slow service or sold-out goods. Earlier this month, a restaurant on Cape Cod reportedly was so overwhelmed with rude customers that it shut down for a “day of kindness.

America’s ultra-tense political climate, together with the accumulated personal and economic traumas of the pandemic, have helped spur this animosity, which was already intense and common in the United States. But it’s hardly the only reason that much of the country has decided to take out its pandemic frustrations on the customer-service desk. For generations, American shoppers have been trained to be nightmares. The pandemic has shown just how desperately the consumer class clings to the feeling of being served.

The experience of buying a new television or a double cheeseburger in a store has gotten worse in your lifetime. It’s gotten worse for the people selling TVs and burgers too. The most immediate culprit is decades of cost-cutting; by increasing surveillance and pressure on workers during shifts, reducing their hours and benefits, and not replacing those who quit, executives can shine up a business’s balance sheet in a hurry. Sometimes, you can see these shifts happening in real time, as with pandemic-era QR-code-ordering in restaurants, which allows them to reduce staff—and which is likely to stick around. Wages and resources dwindle, and more expensive and experienced workers get replaced with fewer and more poorly trained new hires. When customers can’t find anyone to help them or have to wait too long in line, they take it out on whichever overburdened employee they eventually hunt down.

This dynamic is exacerbated by the fact that the United States has more service workers than ever before, doing more types of labor, spread thin across the economy—Uber drivers; day-care workers; hair stylists; call-center operators; DoorDash “dashers”; Instacart shoppers; home health aides; Amazon’s fleet of delivery people, with your cases of toilet paper and new pajamas in the trunk of their own car. In 2019, one in five American workers was employed in retail, food service, or hospitality; even more are now engaged in service work of some kind.

For people currently alive and shopping in America, this economic arrangement is so all-encompassing that it can feel like the natural order of things. But customer service as a concept is an invention of the past 150 years. At the dawn of the second Industrial Revolution, most people grew or made much of what they used themselves; the rest came from general stores or peddlers. But as the production of food and material goods centralized and rapidly expanded, commerce reached a scale that the country’s existing stores were ill-equipped to handle, according to the historian Susan Strasser, the author of Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market. Manufacturers needed ways to distribute their newly enormous outputs and educate the public on the wonder of all their novel options. Americans, in short, had to be taught how to shop.

In this void grew department stores, the very first of which appeared in the United States in the 1820s. The model proliferated in cities as the 20th century neared and industrial manufacturing expanded. By consolidating sales under corporate auspices in much the same way that factories consolidated production, businesses such as Wanamaker’s, Macy’s, and Marshall Field’s hinted at the astonishing ways American life would change over the next century. But consolidation also created a public-image issue, argues the historian William Leach in Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture. Corporate power wasn’t especially popular in fin de siècle America, where strike-breaking industrial barons taught those without wealth to mistrust the ownership class. People were suspicious of new types of big business and protective of the small dry-goods stores run by members of their communities.

Department-store magnates alleviated these concerns by linking department stores to the public good. Retailers started inserting themselves into these communities as much as possible, Leach writes, turning their enormous stores into domains of urban civic life. They hosted free concerts and theatrical performances, offered free child care, displayed fine art, and housed restaurants, tearooms, Turkish baths, medical and dental services, banks, and post offices. They made splashy contributions to local charities and put on holiday parades and fireworks shows. This created the impression that patronizing their stores wouldn’t just be a practical transaction or an individual pleasure, but an act of benevolence toward the orderly society those stores supported.

With these goals in mind, Leach writes, customer service was born. For retailers’ tactics to be successful, consumers—or guests, as department stores of the era took to calling them—needed to feel appreciated and rewarded for their community-minded shopping sprees. So stores marshaled an army of workers: From 1870 to 1910, the number of service workers in the United States quintupled. It’s from this morass that “The customer is always right” emerged as the essential precept of American consumerism—service workers weren’t there just to ring up orders, as store clerks had done in the past. Instead, they were there to fuss and fawn, to bolster egos, to reassure wavering buyers, to make dreams come true. If a complaint arose, it was to be resolved quickly and with sincere apologies.

The efforts that Leach identified among turn-of-the-century department-store owners to paint their businesses as the true sites of popular democracy have been successful beyond what they probably could have imagined at the time. Most Americans now expect corporations to take a stand on contentious social and political issues; in return, corporations have even co-opted some of the language of actual politics, encouraging consumers to “vote with their dollars” for the companies that market themselves on the values closest to their own.

For Americans in a socially isolating culture, living under an all but broken political system, the consumer realm is the place where many people can most consistently feel as though they are asserting their agency. Most people in the United States don’t exactly have a plethora of opportunities to develop meaningful identities outside their economic station: Creative or athletic pursuits are generally cut off when people enter the workforce, fewer people attend religious services than in generations past, and loneliness and alienation are widespread. Americans work long hours, and many of those with disposable income earn it through what the anthropologist David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs”—the kind of empty spreadsheet-and-conference-call labor whose lack of real purpose and meaning, Graeber theorizes, is an ambient psychological stressor on the people performing it. What these jobs do provide, though, is income, the use of which can feel sort of like an identity.

This is not a feature of a healthy society. Even before the pandemic pushed things to further extremes, the primacy of consumer identity made customer-service interactions particularly conflagratory…

American Shoppers Are a Nightmare“– and as Amanda Mull (@amandamull) explains, customers were nearly this awful long before the pandemic.

* Sophie Kinsella, Confessions of a Shopaholic

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As we reconsider commerce, we might recall that it was on this date in 1939 that The Wizard of Oz premiered at the Strand Theater in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin– one of four Midwestern test screenings in advance of the Hollywood premier at Grauman’s Chinese Theater (on August 15).

Considered one the greats in the American film canon, it was of course based on the work of L. Frank Baum… who, before he created Dorothy and her adventures, was a retail pioneer. An accomplished window dresser (the equivalent at the turn of the 20th century of television commercial director), he founded and edited a magazine called The Show Window, later known as the Merchants Record and Show Window, which focused on store window displays, retail strategies, and visual merchandising; it’s still being published, now as VMSD.

Back Camera

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“Something can always go wrong”*…

Blood Simple

When what’s old is new again…

When Dennis Lehane joked in 2011 that the only real difference between Greek tragedy and noir was that in the former characters fall from great heights and in the latter they drop from the curb, he was pinpointing something simultaneously mythic and fatalistic about the American crime fiction tradition: the idea of cautionary tales being told at street level. “Whichever way you turn,” broods the antihero of Edgar G. Ulmer’s axiomatic Detour (1945), “fate sticks out a foot to trip you.” The same anxious malaise inflecting detective stories of Depression-era novelists like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler—whose twisty plots doubled as picaresque guided tours through a newfangled urban wilderness—would manifest in the flow of postwar thrillers that either literally adapted their contents or else reconfigured their themes for a visual medium. Stories set in moral grey zones and gritty environments were transformed into cinematic shadow plays by filmmakers who recognized and exploited the material’s expressionist potential. A movie like Fritz Lang’s wonderfully wicked The Woman in the Window (1944) sutures the seams between the elegant, sinister poeticism of Weimar-era horror and the hard-driving, irrepressible energy of pre-Code American crime pictures, an unholy matrimony yielding plenty of significant offspring. In 1946, writing about a group of American movies previously banned in France during the Nazi occupation—mostly signed by European émigrés like Lang who’d fled for the Hollywood Hills—critic Nino Frank evocatively referred to them as “dark films,” a coinage whose actual originality has been debated but proved lingeringly evocative. The description was taken as a workable industrial template for decades by Hollywood studios and insurgent independents alike.

Though noir was and remains an amorphous concept, it does have a few instantly identifiable features: like any genuinely red-blooded and pleasurable entertainment, you know it when you see it. The commercial appeal of noir lay primarily in its natural conduciveness to sex and violence, both always lurking and often intertwined in defiance of everyday moralism and official censorship, while its critical viability owed to its existential dimension, a spectrum broad enough to accommodate a muckraker like James M. Cain alongside Albert Camus. The latter famously said that Cain’s 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice was a deep influence on his own 1942 L’étranger; in both books, outwardly mild-mannered protagonists momentarily get away with murder, imagining themselves privy in the act’s aftermath to some secret knowledge about what Camus’s narrator calls “benign indifference of the world.” Or, as a pair of noir addicts put it in The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), a movie branded with the mark of Cain: “it’s hard to explain, but seeing it whole gives you some peace.”…

The Same Old Song: A Guide to NeonoirAdam Nayman (@brofromanother) leads us from Point Blank and Chinatown through Blood Simple and Night Moves to The Last Seduction and Momento.

* “Visser” (M. Emmet Walsh), Blood Simple

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As we get dark, we might send thrilling birthday greetings to Arthur Zwerling; he was born on this date in 1914. Better known by his professional name, Jeff Corey, he was a stage and screen actor and director (whose work included noirs like The Man Who Wouldn’t Die and the radio series The Adventures of Philip Marlowe).

Corey’s career was interrupted when he was blackilisted in the early 1950s, so he turned to teaching– and became one of the most influential acting coaches in Hollywood. His students, at various times, included Robert Blake, James Coburn, Richard Chamberlain, James Dean, Jane Fonda, Peter Fonda, Michael Forest, James Hong, Luana Anders, Sally Kellerman, Shirley Knight, Bruce Lee, Penny Marshall, Jack Nicholson, Roger Corman, Darrell M. Smith, Diane Varsi, Sharon Tate, Rita Moreno, Leonard Nimoy, Sally Forrest, Anthony Perkins, Rob Reiner, Robert Towne, Barbra Streisand, and Robin Williams. He resumed his acting career in the the 60s.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 10, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Poetry is the art of creating imaginary gardens with real toads”*…

Olivia Fanny Tonge , A Toad, c. 1905

Before the swallow, before the daffodil, and not much later than the snowdrop, the common toad salutes the coming of spring after his own fashion, which is to emerge from a hole in the ground, where he has lain buried since the previous autumn, and crawl as rapidly as possible towards the nearest suitable patch of water. Something – some kind of shudder in the earth, or perhaps merely a rise of a few degrees in the temperature – has told him that it is time to wake up: though a few toads appear to sleep the clock round and miss out a year from time to time – at any rate, I have more than once dug them up, alive and apparently well, in the middle of the summer.

At this period, after his long fast, the toad has a very spiritual look, like a strict Anglo-Catholic towards the end of Lent. His movements are languid but purposeful, his body is shrunken, and by contrast his eyes look abnormally large. This allows one to notice, what one might not at another time, that a toad has about the most beautiful eye of any living creature. It is like gold, or more exactly it is like the golden-coloured semi-precious stone which one sometimes sees in signet rings, and which I think is called a chrysoberyl…

From George Orwell (in 1946): “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad.” From The Orwell Foundation, via Berfrois.

* Marianne Moore

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As we appreciate amphibians, we might we might recall that it was on this date in 1913 that cartoonist John Randolph (J.R.) Bray first exhibited his animated film, “The Artist’s Dream” (later retitled “The Dachshund and the Sausage” for reasons that will be obvious).  Bray was not the first animator; indeed, he was following purposefully in the steps of fellow cartoonist Windsor McCay, who had added animations of “Little Nemo” and “How a Mosquito Operates” to his stage presentations.  But Bray earned a place in the history of the art by being among the first– arguably the first– animator to organize his work and his studio according to the principles of industrial production (that’s to say, with division of labor)– an approach that has survived to this day.

Bray

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