The Crystal’s “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)“, caused a storm of protest when it was released in 1962, and its ambiguous sentiment underlies ‘It Felt Like a Kiss’, Adam Curtis’ new film. It is a portrait of America between 1958 and 1965, a period when radical individualism emerged with superficial freedom and underlying entrapment. The film has been conceived of as much as a multi-media art piece, as a TV documentary, the BBC having given Curtis an unusual degree of freedom, possibly because they are not quite sure what to do with him.
Curtis is like the Malcolm Gladwell of film making, there is a nagging doubt that what is being argued isn’t science but the delivery is so masterful and thorough that its utterly compelling. It Felt Like a Kiss looks stunning from the trailer (look out for the full version), but perhaps its rhetoric will elicit similar mixed feelings as inspired the subject. Regardless, Curtis, who creates movies that are like the conspiracy theory films that clog Youtube (except that they produced with intelligence), will no doubt become a web celebrity when his next film, which deals with the Internet itself is released combining the meme like qualities of his format with a self-referential subject.
The BBC, in their infinite wisdom, have regionally restricted everything including trailers of It Felt Like A Kiss, so I am linking to the Guardian. A full version of the film is on Curtis’ web site, but is also UK only (I cannot watch it, because I’m in France).
This film is from 1955. It depicts, or appears to (I have no idea if it’s all a fantasy), a cycling idyll, during a postwar period in England when the bicycle was a working man’s (and woman’s?) transportation, without intended symbolism or activism.
Sport clothing certainly has changed a great deal.
Avid cyclists will also notice the well-executed double paceline, at the start of the second clip. The announcer mentions that a “hard riding” sport cyclist of the time might be expected to cover 100 miles in a day. That figure hasn’t changed much, and I’m not too surprised. Aside from a major reduction in weight, the addition of more gears, and the removal of fenders the bicycles closely resemble modern ones (in fact, I suspect these bicycles might be a bit more comfortable, if heavier, than their modern equivalents). Then as now, a hard-riding cyclist might well cover 100 miles on a weekend club ride. These bicycles would have been all-steel, made relatively locally, in Birmingham rather than China. Many here are three-speeds; all have fenders.
My one hesitation in posting this film is that probably most of its irony is probably going right over my head. I’m sure David can provide some insight into the accents, the places, and other British detail that is, typically, lost on me.
Two new people will be helping me stoke Smashing Telly as editors. Their qualification? Both are great, independent minded, pickers and collectors and have something interesting to say. These seem to be paramount skills in this here Internet age. Both are living in New York, but that is co-incidence.
Jim Nachlin was brought up in a mini commune in a Soho Loft in the 70′s and learned to ride a bike in it because the streets weren’t safe. I like him because he is genuinely eccentric and insightful in a way that people who try to be never are – and because he only likes second hand things.
Hunter Gatherer is from Detroit and now also lives in New York. At first I though he was a brit because when he blogged about the UK it had insight that could only come from someone who had been brought up there. Now I realize that his perceptions came from watching TV. Anyone who has powers of observation like that would be a great contributor here.
A short film made in the early 1950s about the elevated rail line that traveled from the base of Manhattan, up the Bowery and 3rd Avenue, to Gun Hill Road in the Bronx.
New Yorkers, how many places do you recognize as they zoom by? What brewery was that on 3rd Avenue?
The characters are an arty type, a drunk, a little girl, a young couple, and the drama or plot, such as it is, revolves around a nickel stuck in the wooden floorboards of the train (also notice the padded seats). The main characters here are really the subway and the city.
[ NASA have restored the moon landing video. Slightly odd in a way, because part of the appeal of the live transmissions was their distinctive poor quality compared to the film flown back later. They were really far away and the crackle and hiss created an electrifying sense of excitement. ]
Update: One of the bizarre things about the Internet is that despite its promise of real time media, refreshing a text based web site is a lot less interesting than watching TV when it comes to breaking news. I was looking for something online which captured the excitement of the moon landings in real time, and not a Twitter feed. SMS is less dramatic than what we had 40 years ago. It turns out that Jason Kottke has created a fantastic site which is showing the moon landings as they happened 40 years later to the second. a simple a powerful idea: watch it here.
Why does it matter that we went to the moon?
Did we really ‘come in peace’ by sending people on a purposeless voyage riding incredibly expensive, Nazi designed, bomb rockets, in an inter-empire pissing contest, while millions starved?
Human beings are hard wired to murder each other. We are tribal, hairless apes whose aggressive tendencies, when transferred from the sticks and stones of the ancient African savannah to modern industrialized nations, threaten the atomic slaughter of millions with a single phone call. And despite our species-wide back slapping about human capacity for caring, we are selective about who we care for. Just as we feed dogs dozens of other mammals during their lifetime, but would go to jail if we fed a dog to one of them, our capacity for empathy is selective and over-rated. Many of the people that suffer daily in poor regions have been treated worse a pet dog; they are like the food we give to our pets, something we don’t think about because they are physically distant.
Sending people to the moon helps quell the most egregious effects of our instincts. It is the most notable thing hairless apes have done since shedding hair because it places our notion of drive and purpose outside of the planet, and therefore allows anyone on the planet to share equally. It symbolizes our ability to channel aggression to conquer space rather than each other and a creates a tangible purpose that is independent of terrestrial geography.
If space missions allow people to behave as one looking out, from some perspectives, they are all that we have done looking in from outside. An alien staring at our planet for the last 4 billion years from the remote vacuum of space might see nothing more than the silent blip blip as a handful of people left earth and went to the nearest ball of rock and back, more than a generation ago. And 40 years later – nothing.
That blip blip, created all of the challenge of war, all of the excitement of weapons and all of the triumph of victory – without the killing, something that resonates on a personal, sentimental level.
When I was 3, my grandfather met Neil Armstrong and gave me his autograph. It started a lifelong obsession with space technology which gave me the same instinctive visceral kick as toy gun. I now have an 18 month old son and I’ll be able to give him something other than toy soldiers to play with and something more to aim for than those blips.
If you can overcome the fact that Niall Ferguson seems to have slowed his metabolism to alter his rate of speaking to avoid any exertion whatsoever in the summer heat that this talk was delivered, then it’s interesting – interesting because it is dull and obvious but wrong.
Darwinian Natural selection takes a minute to grasp and a lifetime to misunderstand, as Ferguson demonstrates – his premise is that markets might be Darwinian. Perhaps the reason he is appears so cautious, is that accepting that greed driven markets are Darwinian is one step away from politically unacceptable Social Darwinism.
Maybe it was for this reason that Paul Kedrosky originally put up the clip with the disclaimer: “I’m skittish about the over-application of neo-Darwinian thinking to everything in sight , but this talk by Niall Ferguson is worth a look”
Since neo-Darwinism refers to a strict interpretation of Darwin’s exact description of Evolution, Niall Ferguson’s market evolution is nothing of the sort – it could equally be saying that markets are Lamarckian and not Darwinian, since successful market strategies are passed on during the lifetime of those who develop them.
This is the problem with applying Darwin to everything. Clearly all order is ultimately self-emergent, it is a meta law that must therefore apply to every collection of interacting systems but unless you describe the mechanism you aren’t saying much.
For example, Darwinism requires a finite environment (creating the constraints for competition), mutation (to create new things to select) and inheritance (to create a cycle for rules of selection to apply). The rules of selection themselves are defined by the interaction of a specific system and specific environment. Capitalist markets are based upon growth markets where supply and demand are elastic and where advantage comes from invention – or ideas. The genes are memes and there is no proof yet that memetic Darwinism is more than analogy.
Ferguson is surprised that when he showed a slide of Dawkins and Gould to an audience of bankers at a conference organized by Goldman Sachs, not a single person could identify them. However, Ferguson may be able to recognize evolutionists and evolution in the colloquial sense but not Darwin and his theory. Understanding the exact mechanism of evolution is the contribution that Darwin made and is often misunderstood because the idea of natural selection is so easy to grasp in a general form.
That markets are Darwinian in the colloquial sense of survival of the fittest, is obvious but unfashionable. That markets are truly Darwinian means that they are not Lamarckian and that a business advantage cannot be transferred during the lifetime of the system that Darwinian rules are operating on – that would be remarkable. Just as there is some debate about whether memes are really Darwinian, its not clear that markets are, but not for the reasons that Ferguson argues.
[ I suspect that memes are in fact really Darwinian and that the way that the Lamarckian problem is removed is to figure out what the equivalent of an organism is for memes.
Organisms themselves are persistent features which remain after all their constituent molecules are replaced through eating and pooping. In this way, organisms are actually like ideas or rather a specific message containing ideas.
In the generalized world of any type of idea or information, memes are ideas contained in messages and memetic organisms are a specific example of a message, for example in the binary encoding of a computer, the pen marks in a letter or a business transaction.
The life cycle that makes this non Lamarckian is the successful or unsuccessful application or transmission of an idea or collection of inseparable ideas from one message encoding to another. This could be from a computer to a print out or even a collection of neurons in someone's head, in every case the message idea is contained within a new message medium.
Reproduction of animals through transfer of an idea of how to build that animal (contained in its DNA) from one animal to its offspring is a specific case of memetic transfer. ]
My hobby is Physics, specifically information theory. Not a popular pastime to have, perhaps, but my Dad is a physicist and the interest rubs off.
One thing I’ve learned is that to get simple explanations for things, counter to popular belief it’s better to get the view of the best physicists than the best communicators. Richard Feynman was both.
The extras are thorough and useful for this type of subject matter, but the format is very like an old school interactive CD-ROM, where the interface re-invents the wheel and omits standard functionality such as the ability to embed.
[ BTW - these Microsoft Silverlight powered videos were almost impossible to watch for me, due to stopping and starting. Like the bad old days before Youtube used flash embeds and web based video suddenly seemed good enough. Silverlight is, in theory solid, so what's up here? Is it just me? ]
[Mass Moonwalks have already been organized in London and Vienna. Here is an instructional video so that you can nail it and join in.]
Jackson was weirder than Elvis and sold more records, ergo instant media bonanza and Internet meltdown. Nothing like a premature celebrity death to keep the ailing newspaper industry from its long overdue one or the Internet from spreading sanity-threatening, pandemic memetic flu.
You see, the Internet is a giant pile of interconnected tubes which has the principal function of amplifying celebrity and thus revealing that the vast majority of humans are sheep. An entire country twice the size of France may be on the brink of revolution but no matter, Michael Jackson has died and the heat generated by overloaded server farms threatens accelerated global warming. Google originally thought that the number of queries it was receiving today was a Denial of Service Attack.
Anyone dying is sad, but as Andrew Sullivan points out, sadder than Michael Jackson’s death, was the normal life that was stolen from him from childhood. It’s the only sensible point I’ve seen today, other than Gawker which taking its traditional ‘meta’ stance and instead of morbidly following the Jackson wake is doing an autopsy on the media coverage itself. Gawker points out that in country where libel laws don’t extend to the dead, having been charged on 4 counts of child molestation is not going to make this pretty in the long run.
This is a rare opportunity (the last one was possibly Princess Diana’s fatal car crash) to look at what happens when ordinary humans temporarily become weirder than Jackson himself, with emotion either genuinely felt and therefore often hysterical, or cynically milked and therefore deplorable. The lasting story here will be the supra-normal reaction of the fans and of the media.
Here is a small roundup of media absurdity so you can switch off your radio, unplug the TV at the socket and tape up the windows for the next 48 hours.
The BBC, under the headline: “Africa cries for Michael Jackson“. is reporting that Michael Jackson’s brother, Marlon, is planning to develop a hybrid slave history and Jackson Five theme park in Nigeria, where, In Lagos, a Radio Continental presenter broke into uncontrollable weeping live on air and her co-presenter had to take over.
“Everyone thought he was this weird freak, but when you’re with him he’s as normal as everyone else“. Is he blind? “We used to dress him up and sneak him out of his hotel room and do normal things in shops“. Lets be straight, playing ‘lets do normal things in shops’ is not a normal game.
“‘Weird Al’ Yankovic wouldn’t be ‘Weird Al’ without those infectious Jackson parodies“, missing the obvious point that Weird Al would have been, in fact, a whole lot weirder if he’d done a straight up imitation.
Zeenews India wins the worst headline of the day award with a painful attempt at poetic metaphor:
“…billions of humans disagree about the nature of God. But everyone knows what the moonwalk is.”
The sycophant award goes to Deepak ‘I knew Michael personally, we were best friends’ Chopra on Beliefnet:
“I sat with him for hours while he dreamily wove Aesop-like tales about animals“. Not something I’d be able to sit through without narcotics, personally.
The Web and Twitter are awash with adolescent ‘nobody understands how I feel’ self-indulgence so I’ve picked out only one sample via WJZ Baltimore which is no more atypical or less bland than thousands of others:
“I was @ a concert and I was a contestant at all Michael Jackson look-a-like contest! it will hard to cope with his death!!” Oh well, we still have his double. Seriously though, what kind of sadist organizes a Michael Jackson lookalike contest for kids?
My favorite quote so far, however, is this one from Hitfix:
“It’s always the little strange details about someone that super-famous that stick out“.
What, tiny details like him changing from a six foot African American man to a bad wax works’ white version of Diana Ross with a child’s voice?
From the comments, Jon picks edge of darkness in his favorite TV from the past.
“One of a long series of big drama serials that pretty much sustained British TV in the post-Play for Today years. It fed straight into the nuclear paranoia instilled from a childhood where we subconsciously listened for the early warning sirens. ”
Here it is on Veoh (a login allows you to watch it and parts 2-4 in full).
By popular request, this list was supposed to be just British TV programs, but I’ll limit that restriction to myself since I grew up there and also since I actually think UK TV is overrated. These days the US does drama much better – e.g. The Wire.
The principal criterion for my choices is not necessarily which things I think are actually good, but those that provoke existential longing. This comprises a combination of homesickness and nostalgia, brought on from the dislocation in both time and space experienced by mid-life crisis prone, aging expats.
1. Janet Street Porter profiles punk for the London Weekend Show.
Picking this may seem so unbelievably obscure that it’s self indulgent. But it’s a specific and personal memory that I had assumed would be lost in some tape archive in the bowels of London Weekend Television. That someone has found it and put it on Youtube demonstrates perfectly the almighty power of the web. Punk blew a vast hole in the flank of tawdry, laurel resting, UK culture, like nothing else before or since. It still seems modern, yet its older than the Second World War was when it was filmed.
2. Brideshead Revisited.
As in the 1981 version. Despite the campiness which I had to explain away in detail to my wife who is French, Brideshead is a serious project, the only TV program that Halliwell ever gave 5 stars to. It is quintessentially English and has all the posh stuff that I rebelled against as anachronistic, stuffy crap and now see the attraction of. For BBC zealots, note that this was a Granada production.
“We were eating the Lobster Thermidor when the last guest arrived…”.
3. Nuts in May
I wasn’t sure which Mike Leigh item to pick, but eventually settled on this. It’s a perfect slice of where lingering Edwardian sensibilities met 70s New Age. I knew people who had parents like Keith and Candice-Marie.
4. The Sweeney
Hearing the theme tune to this makes me feel very strange. Nothing represents the slightly impoverished but gritty reality of the 70s like The Sweeney. It was nasty and brutish and went on for 3 years. The character development of the main protagonists, Regan and Carter, surpassed US cop shows from the same period and rendered them tough but endearing. Diamonds in the rough.
Sweeney Closing Track with stills:
5. The Shock of the New
Although it has been updated, ironically here I’m referring to the old Shock of the New, broadcast in 1980. A visual feast of a tour through modern art with a tour de force commentary providing an equally stunning audio treat.
Clip: The Shock of the New, Marcel Duchamp:
Horizon these days seems to be dumbed down, but perhaps I am just getting older. It was my introduction to science and what drew me to California, when I heard scientists being interviewed at seductive locations like the Salk Institute. Ever since then, scientists have to have American accents to sound credible and techie.
Clip: Horizon Interview with Richard Feynman:
7. The Good Life
In picking a UK sitcom, both Fawlty Towers and Porridge are perhaps better, but I’ve chosen The Good Life for sentimental reasons. It reminds me of growing up, bits of it were even filmed in the town I grew up, and richard Briers’ character could have been my dad. This is light entertainment, but it profoundly captures the feeling of what suburban London was really like in the 70s better than anything I know.
Clip: First scene from the first episode: