The Laboratorium
April 2006

The Sincerest Form of Self-Flattery


I think we have a new winner in the category of “most bizzare form of cultural appropriation.”

Our story begins with a promotional video for French Connection (well-known to everyone who’s ever been confused to see what appears to be a curse word on an otherwise trendy item). The video, entitled “Fashion v. Style (embedded video link),” features two women (“Fashion” and “Style”) engaged in cartoonish hand-to-hand combat in a series of dank stone basements. In addition to a few bits of acrobatic cliché, it features a quasi-operatic soundtrack and several ever-so-convenient incidents involving clothes-ripping, water, and oil. As if there were any doubt that yes, this advertisement showcasing women’s clothing is in fact targeted at youngish men, the ad concludes with a kiss and a headbutt. Not one or the other. Both. (The sax and violins have made it the subject of numerous complaints to the British Advertising Standards Agency.)

Although the video is the centerpiece of a French Connection advertising campaign, it bears a certain resemblance to another, earlier, video,for the Groovecutters song “We Close Our Eyes (video link).” That ad also features two women engaged in cartoonish hand-to-hand combat in a series of dank stone basements. It too, features acrobatic cliché, convenient excuses for the removal of clothing, and the one-two kiss-headbutt combination to seal the deal. The most significant difference is that it is a genuine music video, set to a dance song.

Groovecutters, noting the similarity, posted a side-by-side comparison of the videos and called out French Connection. They notified the lawyers at their record label and dropped words like “rip-off” and “bootleg.” Two choice lines:

It would have been nice for them to use the music too….instead they went with some very odd classical/opera piece…..Cutting edge, controversial, provocative - FCUK you are soooo SS05, Groovecutters were there a year ago! Click here to see our video and click here to see the rip-off version that FC are using.

and

It just makes me laugh that something that was created for our track has been changed into something that symbolises French Connection’s latest corporate message.

It’s worth at least a look at the side-by-side pictures to get a sense of just how similar the two videos are. (It’s hard to watch the videos themselves without feeling at least slightly degraded by the experience, but if you can bring yourself to look, the juxtaposition is even more striking.) It might be more accurate to say that we are not even dealing with two distinct videos, one of which is a copy of the other, but rather with the same video, filmed twice. As Brand Republic reported in February (I can’t find a public Internet version of their story, sorry):

The French Connection spot uses the same models, the same choreography and even the same director, … Duncan Jones, as the original Groovecutters video. It also appears to be shot in the same location.

Read that last quotation again, closely: “the same models, the same choreography …the same director … the same location.” Duncan Jones made the video, and then he made it again.

There are so many issues here, I barely know where to start. The legal questions turn out to be surprisngly bland; we know just enough to know that we don’t know. Everything turns on what kind of contractual arrangements the prodution teams had with their clients. What did the warranties, indemnifications, representations, and assignments say? We don’t know. Perhaps Jones and company had the right to give Groovecutters and French Connection substantially similar videos. Perhaps they didn’t. But that’s a matter of contract law, and the contracts here aren’t, as they say, in evidence.

The cultural-slash-academic issues have more to them. I don’t mean the eternal question of whether it’s really “plagiarism” if you’re copying your past work. That question isn’t so helpful, because saying that this was or wasn’t plagiarism is just arguing about definitions. The real issue, around which the definitional one merely dances, is whether this sort of double-dipping involves a commitment to forms of honesty that we consider situationally appropriate and that are consistent with the norms of the relevant cultural community.

So did it? I really don’t know. Jones did, after all, film the darn thing a second time. False claims of credit tend to involve a core element of laziness. But Jones didn’t take the footage and just slap new music and French Connection title card over it. No, he went back into those tunnels, brought back the same actresses in new FCUK clothes, and ran through the whole shoot again. There are a lot of shots in there; this can’t have been an easy or a cheap project (even with the benefit of having done it once already).

In this, it resembles another, literally quixotic creative endeavour. I’m reminded of Pierre Menard, the Borges charcter who so immersed himself in the world of Cervantes that he successfully re-created Don Quixote, line for line, from scratch. There are also elements of another notable shot-by-shot recreation: Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho. Jones, however, goes them both one better—even Ol’ Gus didn’t get the same actors, and where Menard made himself into Cervantes, Jones immerses himself in himself.

Groovecutters frame the question as one of “ripping off” or “bootlegging.” Those terms are ethical and aesthetic. They suggest a certain possible relation of authenticity between a purported creator and a work. For a group of remix-fueled DJs, to fail to add new elements or make any meaningful recombination when working with the old is a deep insult. It’d be like, oh, I don’t know, playing the exact same setlist over and over at every gig. There’s no re in the remix.

Then again, those implicit claims to authenticity are also problematic here. For one, the greatest contribution Groovecutters made to the video—the music—is the one element inarguably not present in the French Connection ad. For another, the video was produced for them, bears a Virgin Records copyright logo, putting Groovecutters in a a slightly odd position to be talking about “their” video. And finally, let’s not forget that this is a video aimed squarely at the adolescent groinal and steroidal impulses. Hott chixx! Beating the crap out of each other! And kissing!

Or perhaps we should read these two videos against a more banal backdrop. Chicksploitation is not a new genre. The pouting and the pummelling are tropes. Remaking this plotless basement fight is either the ultimate capitulation to the formulaic displays they involve or a wry commentary on it. You enjoy watching catfights? You liked that one underground? Well, have I got a treat for you!

One last twist. I cut out a few words from the Brand Republic quotation above for the sake of dramatic revelation. You see, Duncan Jones is the son of David Bowie. Pretty much everything here has a whole additional layer of irony and oddity when you ponder the problems of replication, recreation, and presentation posed by Mr. Space Oddity, the crown prince of sexually-ambiguous glam rock. According to Wikipedia, Jones himself, formerly known as “Zowie Bowie,” wrote an undergraduate thesis on the mind/body problem and artificial intelligence and later dropped out of a Ph.D. program to attend film school. The mind reels.

In short, I’m still in a state of amazement at this juxtaposition. There are entire cultural studies conferences in here. I’m just happy to live on the shores of a cultural ocean that regularly beaches such curious creatures from the briny deep.

The Dork Crystal


The Dark Crystal is a strange, strange movie. It’s been lurking on the fringes of my consciousness for decades. I’d played Gelfling Adventure on some unknown computer at some unknown place at some unknown time and I saw images from the movie from time to time. I knew that it was considered something of a misstep for Henson’s Creature Workshop, but I didn’t really have any good sense of why. The impression I had from the pictures I’d seen here and there was that there was something surprisingly dark and haunting about this supposed kids’ movie. But basically, in Grampa Simpson’s immortal words, “You remind me of a poem I can’t remember, and a song that may never have existed, and a place I’m not sure I’ve ever been to.”

Well, now I’ve seen it. And, yeah, everything I’d heard about it was true, and then some. How best to put this?

The Dark Crystal appears to have been made by means of an extended game of Exquisite Corpse. The general story is dark, foreboding, and quite clearly intended to be epic. Except for the unbelievably portentious voice-over introduction, however, the screenplay is wispy-thin pap, with insubstantial and unmemorable dialogue. The visual and character designs are eerie and otherworldly in a more elfin, clasically mystical way. The actual “acting,” though, is heavily Muppetized; things that ought to be heavy move like marionettes.

The end result is profoundly disconcerting. At ninety minutes, the movie feels langorous and drawn out too long. Every bit of plot development, although highly predictable and deliberately telegraphed, still manages to arrive on the screen as a non sequitor. The Gelflings fall squarely into the Uncanny Valley. And Muppets strapped down to a chair and tortured is a combination that should not have been.

In a way, it’s disappointing. What I thought of as oddly resonant images turned out to be flotsam. There are beautiful bits here and there (particularly the most impressive orrery of all time) and occasional moments when the what-might-have-been comes closer to having-been. It does appear that lots of backstory never found its way into the movie or showed up on screen in ways that would be comprehensible only to those already in the know. An interesting, tantalizing … failure.

Next up, possibly: The Black Hole. I encountered a read-along children’s book based on it, back when I must have been five or six, and had absolutely no idea what was supposed to be going on. It was an odd combination of dark and cutesy, seemed to involve a spaceship, and made zero sense. My guess is that the Dark Cystal effect was at work: that the incoherent children’s book was merely a reflection of incoherence in the movie itself. I’m curious, though, now, to see the original, and compare my time-distorted memories of a medium-distorted adaptation to the original. Was it the product of some serious drug abuse by the production team, or is there a better explanation for the bizzare images still floating around in the back of my head.

15713 Songs, 123.4 Days, 48.52 GB


All (15 Genres) All (282 Artists) All (1063 Albums)

Don’t even ask how long it took.

More Phrases I Dislike


I am not much of a fan of using sexualized language in nonsexual contexts. Phrases whose etymological origins are in the pornography industry strike me as particularly inappropriate for general usage. The metaphors are distractions at best; at worst they’re actively unpleasant or insulting. Thus, for example, I try not to use “money quote,” “screw the pooch,” “have them by the balls,” or similar phrases. Ever. Those phrases pretty reliably make me wince when I read them in otherwise-respectable prose; they yank me out of whatever focus the author had succeeded in in building up in me. I certainly like colorful metaphors and clever phrases, but not all imagery is equally appropriate.

Three Lawyerisms That Give Me Pause, or Pains


“Sounds in”—I once asked a professor who had just used the phrase what it meant, and he couldn’t come up with a definition using other words. The inability to define a word or phrase isn’t necessarily bad by itself—it could be one of those language-specific concepts that defies rational explication but with whose subtle inflection of meaning every native speaker is intimately familiar. I understand that “X sounds in Y” is a precise shorthand for the rougher concept “the general legal basis for X is Y;” I’m just bothered by the sloppiness of the metaphor. I know how you can sound off, but not how you can sound in. Using “sounds like,” “resonates with,” or “is situated in” would fix the imagery without seriously impairing the meaning.

“Emergent” for “emergency”—I don’t know where this usage comes from but I would hope that it hasn’t been with us long enough to have achieved permanent resident status. Emergency is a perfectly good adjective whose common meaning expresses exactly what you mean when you say emergent. Use it. Your motion is not emergent in the sense that it rises up above the surroundings or that it is in the process of coming into view. Those are the meanings that most listeners will first associate with the word. If, for some unknown reason, you nevertheless feel compelled to use a word ending in -gent, use urgent.

“De minimus” for “de minimis”—Plausible bad Latin is one thing. But mistaken phonetic reconstructions of Latin are something else entirely. The preposition de takes an ablative ending. “-us” is never an ablative form. End of story. Like so many other common disasters of legal Latin, this one can be blamed on lawyers’ sloppy pronunciation. If it weren’t for the lawyers who sloppily said “mi-ni-muss” instead of “mi-ni-meace” (to rhyme with “peace”) or even, if they must, “mi-ni-miss,” we wouldn’t have this problem. Then again, I probably shoudln’t get started on Latin pronunciation, or I’ll be up all night.

Becket


Becket died peacefully late Saturday night at his home in New Jersey, of chronic progressive liver disease. He was 87 in dog years. His other names included Toonie, Pupsker, The Pup, and Mr. Toon. He was the best dog in the world, and will be much missed.

Reconnecting with My Roots


I just finished Where Wizards Stay Up Late. It’s breezy and at times light on the details and long on unnecessary childhood anecdotes, but otherwise a fairly nice history of the ARPANET. I suppose it occupies the same niche that the history of New Jersey we were forced to read in sixth-grade social studies: an inoffensive and mildly boosterish mass-market history designed to instill us with the requisite civic sense of where we come from. The difference being that being of the Internet age and of the hacker tribe is a lot more salient to the modern me than being a 20th-century New Jerseyite was to my sixth-grade self.

Leaving aside the inspiring tale of engineers triumphing over all technical challenges (a genre that I find sentimentally satisfying on a primordial level, the way that some people find romance novels good for a reliable emotional high), it was an educational experience learning about the chronology. As a dutiful student of computer science, I already know about the great and brilliant ideas that make computer networking work: routing, packet-switching, gateways, addressing, protocols, layering, remote monitoring, traffic analysis, transmission control, and so on. What I didn’t have as solid an understanding of was their order. WWSUL really shines in showing how each of these ideas was invented or perfected to serve immediate engineering needs. I have a much better idea now of how ARPANET’s organic growth drove the whole kit and caboodle of innovation, one problem at a time. I hadn’t realized, for example, that TCP’s end-to-end solution for message integrity represented a backoff from ARPANET’s decision to make the network gateways responsible for assembling complete messages. WWSUL, to its credit, explains why both decisions made sense in context.

I continue to believe that large tracts of computer science (much like large tracts of math, physics, law, music theory, and many other subjects) could usefully be taught historically, rather than according to a specific after-the-fact taxonomy. Our modern syntheses are often quite elegant, but there’s something uniquely humbling and instructive about examining each piece of elegance in the context of the specific technical challenge that motivated it. Some of my best computer science classes involved reading historic papers closely; the approach takes you back to fundamentals. Studying both the ontogeny and phylogeny of an algorithm tells you more about it than just a running-time analysis would.

All of which is to confirm, perhaps, something that J.C.R. Licklider understood immediately: computer science has always been a human discipline.

Man and Grizzly


Grizzly Man and Project Grizzly would make for quite a double bill. Timothy Treadwell was such an original that another even remotely like him seems an extraordinary unlikelihood. The same could be said of Troy Hurtubise. And yet their obsessions worked out in such oddly similar ways.

Treadwell, obsessed with grizzly bears, spent thirteen summers living close among them in Alaska. Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man documents the tragic result: he was killed and eaten by one. Troy Hurtubise, obsessed with grizzly bears, created an armored suit to enable him to study them from close. Peter Lynch’s Project Grizzly documents the comic result: in its first field test, the suit proved unable to stand upright on a slope.

Treadwell and Hurtubise would not have gotten along. Treadwell was a loose, shaggy hippie type, with a back-to-nature message and a drop-out slow-down ease-up sense of human life. Hurtubise is a jittery striver, a technophile and a desire to conquer the unknown. They’d have hated each other and everything the other stood for.

Except for that thing about the bears. Both of them loved grizzlies. Both wanted to get closer to a bear than most people thought safe, sane, or possible. Both recognized the danger; both thought they’d been uniquely chosen in life to find a way to surmount that danger. You can see it in the films: both of them were truly happy only when there’s a bear about.

It goes deeper than that, though. Both were—or came across on screen as—profoundly bipolar. You can see it in Treadwell’s ranty monologues and Hurtubise’s sales pitches. You can see it in their charismatic ability to pull others along on their bear quests, and in the bitter paranoia-tinged rants that they slide into unexpectedly You can see that awful energy coursing in both of them, for good and for ill—and when it reaches an extreme, that’s when the attachment to the grizzlies surges forth.

Perhaps the bear is the bipolar animal? Quick research suggests it may be:

Of course, most of these are polar bears, not grizzly bears, but the concept still seems to have some resonance.

Adprecation


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We now return you to our sporadically scheduled narrowcast.

Houses Bleaker Than Bleak House (A Partial List)


  • The House of Usher
  • Satis House
  • Manderley
  • Wuthering Heights
  • Mistlethwaite Manor
  • Thornfield Hall
  • The House of the Seven Gables
  • The House of the Rising Sun
  • The Navidson House