Posts Tagged ‘guestpert’

UPG Guestpert: Geoff Klock, part 2

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

In February 2012, we interviewed Professor Geoff Klock about his epic video Hamlet mash-up.

Well, it just got more epic-er. Whereas his first mash-up included 65 clips from film and television which tell the story of Shakespeare’s Danish Prince, the new incarnation includes a staggering 198 clips, all 4.5 seconds or less.

We don’t even know where to begin in describing it, so we’ll let Geoff do the talking.

UPG: Tell us a bit about this new Hamlet mash-up.

GK: Nearly 200 clips from different movies and TV shows in under 15 minutes! And I somehow got 12,000 people to view a 15 minute video about Shakespeare on YouTube so that is pretty good!

UPG: Your first Hamlet mash-up was quite thorough and presumably a huge amount of work to put together. What prompted you to do it again?

GK: I thought I was done the first time with the 65 clips. But after the first version launched people kept sending me stuff – especially Kevin Maher, one of my biggest supporters, who found my favorite clip: Fonzie admitting thoughts of suicide (?!). I found more stuff and it got out of control. I did not decide to do it again. I was continually updating it. I thought for like a year I was three clips from having a complete set. But every time I got those three there were always three more in front of me. And there still were even when this one went up.

But I realized that if I kept waiting for those three more clips no one would ever see it. And now that this new one is up people have pointed out literally 15-20 more that I missed! They keep apologizing, but I feel like it is super fun. I am going to update this every year.

UPG: Did you find that you learned something new about Shakespeare’s play and/or its place in contemporary culture through working on this project?

GK: Mostly that Hamlet is impossible to escape. Literally when I thought I was done the first non-Hamlet-related DVD that came from Netflix was Savages, and guess what — it had a Hamlet reference in the first 5 minutes!

UPG: What surprises did you find in compiling this massive collection of clips?

GK: Christopher Plummer said To Be or Not To Be as a young actor in 1964 playing Hamlet on TV, then again as a Klingon. There were three incarnations of Addams family and they all quote Hamlet! I was able to end three major speeches of Hamlet with someone saying they were sick of the speech, and I found three clips of people leaving a performance of Hamlet just as To Be Or Not To Be began.

UPG: As a professor, do you find this to be a potential teaching tool? Or were you just creating it for your own satisfaction?

GK: Like a lot of things I pretend to intellectual reasons but really? It just makes me laugh.

UPG: What’s next? Are you done with mash-ups for the time being?

GK: I think I am done for a while. I have another major project starting I hope to announce soon!

You can see the mash-up in all its glory here:

 

UPG Guestpert: Signe Baumane

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

From time to time we interview guest experts, or “guestperts” for the PhLog. Signe Baumane is an acclaimed animator who is currently finishing her first feature film. Titled “Rocks in My Pockets,” the film details her family history, the history of her native land of Latvia, and the issue of depression; how it affected her ancestors, and how it has affected her. In spite of all of this, the film is also very funny. We sat down with (ok, emailed) Signe to talk with her about her work.

STILL

UPG: Your work deals a lot with mythology and animal imagery. Is this a direct connection with your Latvian background or another obsession entirely?

SB: I don’t know how one can separate those egg whites and yolks broken and stirred into the omelet of personality.

I don’t know where Latvia starts or ends inside me – is she (and yes, Latvia is she :- )) responsible for my mythological way of looking at the world?

If that was the case, every single Latvian would be interested in mythology and speak in metaphors, but it isn’t the case.

But YES in the terms of abstract “National Mentality” – which is a myth that every nation creates about themselves to separate them from the others – Latvians love and understand metaphors more than other nations, and Latvians love fairy tales, animals and nature more than anything.

When I was growing up the world that I lived in was full of magic and wonder -under every rock there was hidden life or a message (a rainworm, but sometimes a note or a golden key to a secret door), every tree communicated with me, every creature had a secret connection to me.

One is supposed to lose that wonder when they grow up but I guess my brain had malfunctioned and didn’t drop the animalistic, pagan ways of looking at the world. And why would I want to have that adult serious brain anyway? Dead serious brain is dead. It’s more interesting to live in the world that delivers secret messages and keys from under its rocks.

Picture 15

UPG: There’s a romantic idea of a connection between artists and depression or other forms of mental instability. Vincent Van Gogh and Edgar Alan Poe are just two examples. Do you think there is an actual connection to be made between depression and creativity? Or is the idea of the tortured artist just another myth?

SB: Many brilliant people suffer from depression, not only artists – scientists, politicians, you name it.

Aaron Swartz had a very brilliant mind. (what happened to him is so unjust and tragic it breaks my heart, but politics is only small part of this story, suffering from depression is much bigger part of it)

It seems to me that a brilliant mind also casts a deeper shadow.

To describe how it feels to be brilliant and depressed I have to use an allegory now, please forgive me my Latvian mind…

In one of his short stories O’Henry wrote about a thief whose specialty was opening safes without breaking them – the thief would file off the skin of his fingertips so that his fingers would become very sensitive, then with those very sensitive fingers he would turn the code knob on the safe very slowly, when the knob would hit the right number it would have a click so slight that only the thief’s exposed nerves on his raw fingertips could sense it.

The thief never failed to open all safes.

One has to have a sensitive mind to be able to crack the code of the world, but being so sensitive is also very painful.

Emotions

UPG: The technique you use in “Rocks in My Pockets” is quite unique to your work. You use a combination of cell animation and stop motion, with 3–dimensional sets. What prompted you to expand your style of animation for this project?

SB: In 2008 Aspesi, a famous Italian fashion designer (he doesn’t sell his clothes in USA because he believes Americans don’t have taste : )) asked me to do a mural for one of his shops. While I was working on it, he asked if I can do paper mache sculptures. I has no idea what he was talking about but said YES. Making the first paper mache sculpture was nerve wracking but I got into it and 2 years later Aspesi had about 30 Signe Baumane sculptures and he had to ask me to stop. He couldn’t turn his shops into Signe Baumane museums.

P1260912-Aspesi

But I couldn’t really stop. I was racking my brain how I could incorporate this new skill into my films. Paper mache is hard to animate well – it is quite rigid. So I came up with the idea of having paper mache backgrounds. I really like the look.

You know – part of why we are artists is because we hate doing the same thing over and over like other people can do (or at least they can tolerate it better), so if I kept doing what I have done in “Teat Beat of Sex” or “Birth” or “Dentist” it would bore me so much that would fold myself into a fetal position and weep for 3 years.

We need to try new things all the time, have new challenges. That’s why it was so exciting for me to make “Rocks In My Pockets” – new storytelling form combined with new technique. It’s nerve wracking but also exciting.

UPG: You’re from a small country that very few people know anything about. Since your films play on the world stage, do you feel a certain obligation to educate people about your homeland? Or is it mainly because you’re interested in issues of identity that the country features so strongly in your work?

SB: I don’t feel that I have an obligation to educate people, period. I am here to entertain them, engage them into a conversation, shake them up, make them think.

In order to educate anyone one has to think she/he knows one or two thing about the world, and I don’t have the feeling I know much.

In “Rocks In My Pockets” I am telling a story that fascinates me – a family’s history throughout 112 years in a country that had very adventurous/tragic history because of its geopolitical position.

When I was 20 I had a couple of bibles (books that told me the Truth about world) that I read and re-read and almost memorized.

One was Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle,” the other was collection of short stories by J. L. Borges. I was taken by history of Latin America depicted in this very special Borges way. I thought this Argentinean writer was very lucky to live in such interesting country with such amazing history. Then I came to New York and after a few years here I realized that Latvia had no less fascinating history than Argentina.

I guess it takes a distance to see something better.

Picture 6

UPG: Did you set out to make a funny film about depression? Is comedy a tool you’re using to explore this topic or just a byproduct of your style? What can comedy do to shed light on depression in a way that drama can’t?

SB: I never set out to do comedy. I don’t want to feel constrained by genre. The story unfolds through me and I deliver it to you the best way I can.

I wrote my first novel when I was 8, it was heavily influenced by works of Victor Hugo (who makes a brief entrance in “Rocks In My Pockets”), Dickens and Balzac, who were my favorite writers at that time (yes, I confirm it again: at age 8 those were my favorite writers).

I imitated their writing style, the tragic tone, the moody scene descriptions. Put some sex scenes in my novel, too.

It was a historic adventure novel set in Latvia in 1564.

But when I was 14 I wrote a short story from my life – how with the best intentions I cleaned our family pantry from stuff that I thought was unused and my mother came back from work and put everything I threw out back to the pantry.

The story was published in a local paper and was an instant hit. It was read on national radio and won writing competitions.

Accidentally, I had discovered my voice. A voice that tells the honest truth and other people find it very funny.

Resisting that voice, trying to go back to a Victor Hugo writing style would be like trying to be 4 inches shorter – I would have to cut my legs to fit the mold.

In any case – humor in my stories is never intended, it is a byproduct of the story am telling and my voice.

UPG: Thank you, Signe!

Signe Baumane is currently finishing post production on “Rocks in My Pockets,” but she can’t finish it without your help! Lend your support and find out more about this film and Signe’s work here: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1055277857/rocks-in-my-pockets

UPG Guestpert: Dano Johnson

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

Dano Johnson wrote and directed two animated films rooted in geometry.

Flatland, adapted from the 1884 novella by Edwin Abbott Abbott, tells the story of creatures living in an oppressive two-dimensional world whose lives are changed through an encounter with the third dimension. The film explores (as does the novella) the ways in which people are often blind to potential scientific breakthroughs and our limited ability to see beyond what is right in front of us.

The novel Sphereland, a sequel to Flatland, which was written by Dutch scientist Dionys Burger in 1965, serves as the source material for Dano’s follow up film Sphereland, which explores the concept of dimensions beyond the third.

We sat down (OK emailed) with Dano to discuss these films, and about converting science and mathematical concepts into drama.

UPG: What gave you the idea to take the novel Flatland and adapt it into a film?

I think all three members of the Flatland team – Seth Caplan, Jeffrey Travis, and myself – read the book in high school geometry and it stuck with us as a unique experience.  How often do you read a fiction book in math class?  Never!  When Seth graduated from AFI’s producing track he was looking through all the public domain books he’d read in school to get an idea for a project and he picked out the thinnest book in his stack – Flatland.  He knew me from our days in the e-Learning business and he’d worked with Jeffrey on a TV pilot, so we all started talking about Flatland.  There was a previous animated adaptation in the 1960s (starring a young Dudley Moore) but nothing since then.  We knew there’d be big challenges to adapt such an ‘unfilmable’ novel but we thought the story was so unique it would connect with audiences and teachers.

In regards to Sphereland, when I first read Flatland in school our paperback copy included Sphereland too.  There were a bunch of fun ideas in there that I wanted to explore so during the long hours of animating Flatland I slowly formed my idea for the sequel movie.

UPG: Is there a Flatland fan base? Do many people know about the novella?

DJ: There is a Flatland fan base of sorts. When we were first starting work on the movie we made a little teaser trailer and Seth went to a math teacher conference to present it. We assumed that every teacher would know about Flatland, but when we asked them less than half said they’d heard of it. One of the fun parts of independently marketing our film is when we visit math teacher conferences and interact with people who’ve never heard of Flatland. The minute you start explaining this strange little book their eyes light up and they want to hear more. Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and the film What the Bleep Do We Know have also popularized the story of Flatland, plus it recently got a nod on The Big Bang Theory. Many popular science programs and books that delve into string theory or higher dimensional physics use Flatland or similar analogies to explain the concept of dimensions. The great thing is that there is always someone learning about Flatland for the first time and if they’re seeking information they’ll run across info about our movie too.

UPG: How did you go about shaping (no pun intended) the main characters so that they weren’t just serving their allegorical roles, but were (also, seriously, no pun intended) multi-dimensional?
DJ: I think that both main characters (Arthur Square in Flatland and Hex in Sphereland) experience something remarkable that changes them and ‘re-shapes’ their views (pun intended). For Hex especially I thought about the experience of Galileo. Just as he saw the inner-workings of our solar system and was punished for trying to spread controversial knowledge, Hex saw the third dimension but her words can’t do it justice and she can’t get other Flatlanders to believe her. That pain of being rejected really affects her and we see how she’s closed herself off from the rest of Flatland (even in the design of her home, it’s essentially a shell where she can avoid others). I thought that was an interesting point to start with a character who must eventually make the choice to go public with her new discoveries, but this time she doesn’t just have words – she has the math that proves (spoiler alert) that Flatland is curved in the third dimension (end somewhat obvious spoiler alert). It’s literally the scientific process in story form where the whole time you’re rooting for the character to prove her hypothesis by experimenting and analyzing (with some exciting chases and inter-dimensional encounters along the way).

 

UPG: You have a surprising number of “name” actors playing roles in these films: Martin Sheen, Kristen Bell, Michael York, and Kate Mulgrew to name a few. Was it difficult to attract them to this project? Did it take a while for them to “get” it?

DJ: We were extremely lucky to get the cast we did for both films. Once we were able to get through agents and managers, we usually got a quick yes or no response as to whether they wanted to do it. Martin Sheen was very enthusiastic to do it. He really appreciated the social satire part of the book and the script. He was the first actor we recorded and it was truly remarkable to hear him bring our scenes to life for the first time. We’d been working on the script for a year and had table reads and scratch tracks, but hearing his take on the lines made me realize the animation challenge I had to match the great voice acting. Many of the actors, especially Michael York and Danica McKellar, appreciated the educational aspect and wanted to be a part of the films.  I’d say they all got it quickly – we always came overly-prepared with storyboards and animatics in case they wanted references but instead it was, “Let’s go in the booth and give it a shot.”

UPG: Flatland and Sphereland have had a lot of play in the educational market. Was that an original aim of the project?  Did you have a mathematician or scientist consult on the script?

DJ: Yes, from the beginning we knew the films probably wouldn’t have a theatrical or broadcast release (although if anyone’s interested we’ll take your call!). Seth and I had some experience in the educational market and thought any school that read the book would want to show the movie. So when the first script came out to around 30-40 pages we realized that the movie could probably fit into one class period, something perfect for teachers. One problem we foresaw was that the concepts in Flatland don’t necessarily fit into a curriculum category (for teachers whose calendar is full of ‘teaching for the test’). So we partnered with a few education consultants and math teachers to develop worksheets and activities to go with the movie. We were very lucky to work with Professor Thomas Banchoff of Brown University, who probably knows more about the novel Flatland and 4 dimensional geometry than anyone in the world (Tom also got to know Sphereland author Dionys Burger while he was still alive).

UPG: The two films have moments that rely on explaining mathematical concepts in order to solve problems the characters are facing. It must have been a challenge for you to take this material and dramatize it in a way that makes it both clear and exciting in the moment. Can you talk a bit about how you went about this process?

DJ: I think we learned a lot from doing the first movie where the math concepts are a bit easier (arithmetic dimensions can translate to geometric dimensions). Fortunately for us, the original novel treated this premise through the use of characters – we meet beings of 0, 1, 2, and 3 dimensions. So although we do have one ‘math lesson’ scene explaining dimensions, we then go on to see how these dimensions affect the creatures who are live in those dimensions. It’s a very important thing to understand since the whole novel and movie is in analogy for us to think about the 4th dimension and beyond! The math lesson scene is nonetheless important and through the animatic stage we were able to balance how much to tell and how much to show.

For Flatland 2: Sphereland we treated the math problems as puzzles and the only way to solve them is for the characters to imagine higher dimensions. It’s a bit more theoretical but as the characters work on the puzzles they see that they are all solved by one solution, so the math scenes build on one another and come to a nice, neat conclusion.

UPG: What is your background in math? Is it a subject that has always interested you?

DJ: I was always more of a science kid growing up (I think until middle school my career goal was to be a paleontologist). I had good math teachers and often excelled at it, but I felt science had a ‘story’ aspect to it that appealed to me (I always watched ‘Square One TV’ but really I was waiting for ‘3-2-1-Contact.’ PBS kids, am I right?). I definitely got more interested in math when I had a great class in college from Mike Starbird. His emphasis was less on ‘here’s how to solve this math problem’ and more ‘let’s build some problem-solving skills you will use throughout life via math even though eventually you’ll forget the math.’ I highly recommend his book The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking whether you’re interested in math or just creative thinking.

UPG: What are some of the surprising or unexpected responses you’ve received from the film?

DJ: We always get lots of positive feedback from teachers when we meet them at math conferences. I’ve had teachers just walk up and give me a hi-five, saying “I play it every year!” I think the best response has been watching the sequel with a crowd. It has a bigger emotional climax, followed by a joke (sorry, no spoilers) that just brings out big laughs and I love getting that response each time. Also, sometimes it’s fun to search on twitter for ‘flatland’ or ‘math movie’ to see if any math classes are watching the movie. The funniest tweet so far: “hahahaha wtf were watching a math movie about like talking crackers in geometry.” I think somebody also tweeted that Sphereland made them cry, so mission accomplished!

UPG: What’s next? Any plans for Flatland 3-D?

DJ: There are no plans for a third Flatland movie, but I’m sure if we get a great idea we’ll consider revisiting. We have actually had interest in converting Flatland: The Movie for the 3D Imax format (yes, really) but as of now it doesn’t have a green light (or funding). But Seth and I are looking into a few other popular math and science-related novels to option. We’d love to hear anyone’s suggestions for educational novels to adapt – please reach out to us via the Sphereland Facebook & Twitter pages. We really believe that telling stories about math and science inspires young minds and we aim to keep making quality films towards that purpose.

Thank you Dano!

You can find out more about these films at Flatlandthemovie.com and Spherelandthemovie.com. And check out the trailers below:

 

UPG Guestpert: Kriota Willberg

Thursday, November 1st, 2012

Each month (although it’s technically been a few), we interview a guest expert or “guestpert” for the blog.

This month features Kriota Willberg, an artist, writer, massage therapist, and anatomy teacher. She’s also been a dancer, filmmaker, teacher (of pathology, dance, and massage), and trained as a personal trainer. Instead of trying to explain her past to people, she often tells them she has a background in “body sciences.”

Kriota brings her skills in the body sciences to various unexpected areas of exploration.

With her blog The Cinematologist, Kriota examines medical themes in film, explaining (or finding excuses for) how their science actually might occur in “real” life.  Wonder how Peter Parker excretes those webs in the Sam Raimi version of Spider Man? Check it out here. Want to see her lecture on alien parasite infestations including the Ceti Eel? Check it out here.

In addition to her medical examination of movie plot devices, Kriota is the author and illustrator of Pathology Laffs, a series of cartoons dealing with various pathologies and medical phenomena. She also recently created a minicomic about injury prevention for cartoonists.

We sat down (ok, emailed) with Kriota to discuss her work.

UPG: Which came first for you, art or anatomy?

They have always been running neck-and-neck in my life. When I was a kid, I would draw, paint, dissect bullfrogs that my professor father would bring home from the biology department, or paint and assemble my Visible Horse model. As an adult, art/dance and anatomy became parallel career tracks. As a massage therapist I specialized in sports massage and injury treatment, and taught palpation, anatomy, and pathology. Simultaneously, I was a dancer/choreographer and later a filmmaker. Now I draw, write, and make needlework about the body while working as a massage therapist and I still teach anatomy to anyone who will listen to me talk about it. Over the last five years the boundaries between art and anatomy have gotten thinner and thinner.

UPG: What led you to combine these two elements of your life?

When I was in my mid forties realized I’d been dancing for about thirty years and it was time to stop. But I couldn’t stop making stuff. I decided to try to make things about body sciences instead of keeping my arts career and my day job separate, like I did with dance.

Kriota’s needlepoint of her own brain MRI

UPG: What can anatomists learn from artists? And how about the other way around?

I’ve met a lot of artists who say, “Oh! Scientists need artists to teach them to be creative, like us!” Which is, frankly, a naïve statement and a bunch of bull. Good scientists – in research, applied, and education – are oozing creativity. To think that the arts are the only place where creativity exists or is expressed is just dumb.

On the other hand, I’ve also been to arts/science conferences where a medical person is on a panel with artists and has been shocked, shocked at the level of investigative and intellectual rigor some artists apply to their creative practice. So there are low expectations on both sides, I guess.

I’m not sure that artists and scientists need to learn from one another as much as they might like to inspire and be inspired by one another. Artists could have studio-crawls for scientists, and scientists could have lab-crawls for artists and then they could all go drinking together and commit to crazy interdisciplinary projects that they would regret the next morning.

UPG: Many people who cross disciplines experience a difficulty in their other work being accepted people who are just in one of their disciplines. Has that been a problem for you?

Yes, I’d say that up until a few years ago, people expected me to only be good at one thing. When I started teaching massage and anatomy, dancers and massage therapists would assume I was quitting dance. Later, my dance colleagues were shocked to find out I was working as a sports massage therapist for the New York Giants. I’d get compartmentalized to whichever crowd I was working with that day. These days, lots of people are interdisciplinary (which is such a buzz-word, isn’t it?). It’s acceptable to have more than one area of expertise. I think that people are encouraging of my schisms now because I’m also thematically consolidated while being cross-disciplinary.

UPG: A lot of what you do with the Cinematologist is to justify uniformed choices by writers and producers who don’t care to do actual research into real science. Is there any film that you’ve written about that’s been just impossible to explain?

Sure! And that adds to the fun of the film! Face Off is just soooo stupid because a major plot point of the film is that one of the characters is type O blood and one is type B, or somesuch. If we ignore tissue typing for just a moment and look at transplant tolerance only from the perspective of blood type, rejection of the type B face on the type O body is guaranteed. Clot and necrosis city! If the movie were more “realistic” (ha!) John Travolta and Nick Cage would have had to fight over only one face. The type O face… But they didn’t do that, which was fine. Actually, as I think about it, the type O face might be useless to it’s original wearer after the type B person was using it. The problem is that it’s impossible to get all of the blood out of the capillaries in the tissues. The wrong blood type is attacked by the host’s body and voila! Clotting. The film was a highly entertaining laugh riot due to the mixed up plot. I love that film!

Kriota presenting material from the Cinematologist at Kevin Geeks Out in NYC

UPG: What’s so funny about pathology?

People, mostly.

Many people are dangerously cavalier about disease. People who tell me they “never get sick” seem to think they will never get cancer or Parkinson’s either. Some people just don’t want to take the time away from something else in their lives to exercise or sleep or wash their hands. They don’t seem to think these habits will have an effect on them. On the other hand, other people go to extremes of diet, exercise, and other types of supposedly health-inducing rituals to guard against disease. To the point where they seem to think that if someone is ill, it is obviously their fault for allowing it to happen.

Really, both scenarios are just rife with humor. Lots of comedy is built around someone ignoring or flaunting the rules. The same applies to the body.

Humor is also a great coping mechanism. Knowing that I will die, studying (and teaching) the variety of ways we could die, and working with patients who are fighting to live, means that I have a lot of steam to blow off. I call ‘em where I see ‘em. What can I say?

A panel from Kriota’s “Pathology Laffs”

I come up with gag cartoons about pathology and health all the time! I think they’re funny, but many of them require a page of explanatory text if you don’t know what fast axonal transport or exocytosis is. Does JAMA run gag cartoons?
____

You can see more about Kriota at her blog and even take an anatomy class with her if you live in the NYC area!  Although Kriota works as a massage therapist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center it would be a mistake to assume her opinions reflect theirs, or that they even know what she’s up to on her days off work.

 

UPG Guestpert: Jay Ruttenberg of the Lowbrow Reader

Monday, May 21st, 2012

Every month we interview a guest expert, or “guestpert” on our blog.

This month, we feature Jay Ruttenberg, author and editor of The Lowbrow Reader, a zine which is coming out in book form this month.  We sat down with Jay to talk about his work and lowbrow culture in general.

UPG: How did the Lowbrow Reader come about?

JR: I started working on the Lowbrow Reader in the fall of 2000, just after I moved to New York. Originally, I was hoping to make it an iPhone app, or perhaps an interactive publication tailored for an iPad with a strong Twitter presence. Alas, the technology wasn’t quite there yet, so we settled on an old-fashioned zine. In part, I wanted to start the publication because of the negative reviews that had greeted my favorite movie, Billy Madison; in part, I simply wanted to work on a project with the Lowbrow Reader’s designer, Matt Berube.

cover drawing by John Mathias

UPG: How would you define “lowbrow”?

JR: In comedy, I would say that Harpo Marx is lowbrow while Groucho Marx is highbrow. Of course, back in the day, the upper-crust favored Harpo: His fans included Wolcott Gibbs, Dorothy Parker, and Salvador Dalí, a celebrated designer of dorm-room posters. So maybe Chico is the true lowbrow icon? He is definitely the Marx Brother I would least like to meet in a dark alley late at night.

drawing by David Berman

UPG: Do you honestly feel that the lowbrow elements of our culture are being underrepresented?

JR: I worry most about the underrepresentation of middlebrow culture, and hope to remedy this by launching a second publication that will focus on it exclusively. I intend to call it “O, The Oprah Magazine.”

UPG: Who are your greatest lowbrow icons?

JR: Harpo Marx, Larry David, Joan Rivers, my mother, Richard Pryor, Mel Brooks, and Howard Stern.

UPG: As a writer, what drove you to take on the role of editor for a project like this?

JR: I have always enjoyed editing as well as writing. More significantly, one of the most rewarding aspects of working on the Lowbrow Reader is tapping the talents of others—whether writers, illustrators, comedians, or even the musicians who have performed at our events. It sounds corny and pretentious, but I’ve always viewed the Lowbrow Reader as a “collective,” or something along those lines.

UPG: From a zine to a book – what’s next for Lowbrow?

drawing by John Mathias

JR: First, let me take this opportunity to give an unsolicited, morning zoo–style plug to some upcoming Lowbrow Reader events. On Tuesday, May 29, New Yorkers of all stripes are invited to come to the lovely Housing Works Bookstore in Soho for The Lowbrow Reader Variety Hour featuring two of my favorite musical acts in the world: Adam Green and Supercute!, plus two of my favorite standup comedians, Wyatt Cenac and Professor Irwin Corey. There will be a similar event in Chicago later in the summer—stay alert, Chicagoans!

I am not sure what the future has in store for the Lowbrow Reader. I certainly don’t want it to just exist as a website, which seems so petit bourgeoisie. It is my hope to do more books, maybe some 7” singles, and perhaps an art show in a Chelsea gallery that smells like paint. I will also say that The Lowbrow Reader Reader is by far the best thing we have produced to date. If you read it and do not laugh out loud, you are probably a racist.

The Lowbrow Reader Reader is available for sale starting on May 22nd.

UPG Guestpert: Jay Stern and the Iron Mule

Thursday, April 5th, 2012

This months’ Guestpert is Jay Stern, the co-founder and co-host of the Iron Mule Short Comedy film festival, which is celebrating 10 years of monthly screenings in NYC this month.

Jay Stern (who is also the author of this blog) sat down with Jay Stern to ask himself a few questions about the Iron Mule and short comedy films in general.

UPG: What is the Iron Mule?

Jay: The Iron Mule short comedy film festival is the greatest unknown film festival in the world, screening monthly since April, 2002 in NYC.

UPG: Why comedy?

Jay: The festival started when my co-founder Victor Varnado and I were working at a comedy improv theater company, so comedy was a good fit, but we’ve been impressed with what a wide range of films we get which still qualify as comedy.  Comedy can be subversive, satirical, and also very powerful.  Since it’s underappreciated in the “legitimate” festival circuit, we’re happy to provide a place that celebrates this art form.

Victor Varnado and Jay Stern at the Iron Mule. Photo by Tom Henning.

UPG: What would you say makes a great short comedy film?

Jay: Documentaries, experimental films, animations, TV pilots, web videos, narrative films, autobiographies, mockumentaries, silent films – pretty much any genre or style can make a good comedy.  Generally a short film should work the way a short story does.  You shouldn’t try to cram a novel into 10 pages or a feature film into 10 minutes.  Our best films have a simple idea, they explore and heighten that idea as much as they can, and then they’re over.

And Shakespeare was 100% right when he wrote that brevity is the soul of wit. Keep it short.

UPG: Have you screened movies by or featuring famous comedians?

Jay: We have shown several movies by people you have heard of – some before they were famous, some after.  But we’re not into name dropping.  We’re happier with a good short comedy made by an unknown college student than a just OK one made by a comedy professional.  Unlike many film festivals, fame does not grant an automatic entry to the Iron Mule.  You have to crack up our audience.

UPG: A big part of your festival is your focus on building a community.  Can you elaborate on that?

Jay: Victor and I wanted to create a collaborative, open home where we could show our work and share it with like-minded people. Many people who met at our festival have gone on to work together, and we even have our first Iron Mule baby, born to a couple who met at our festival.

The mix of filmmakers, comedy professionals and “real” people makes for really fun after-parties.  I’ll never forget the time an audience member who worked at the Federal Reserve Bank tried to explain to a comedian exactly what the Federal Reserve does.  Sometimes the comedy continues after the show.

And there’s something really great about a LIVE audience watching comedy that filmmakers don’t always experience.  A movie can be seen by millions of people online and that’s just a number, but it’s great to share it with real laughing people — which us much more fun than watching it home alone on a monitor.

But there’s not just us — there’s a surprisingly robust micro cinema culture out there.  Events like the Iron Mule are becoming more popular across the country.  Our home, 92YTribeca, hosts all sorts of screenings featuring local filmmakers and discussions.  It’s so fun watching a movie in a non-cineplex setting with the filmmaker right there.  So go out there and support your local screening room!

Jay and Victor at 92YTribeca. Photo by Craig Swinson.

UPG: Final question: As the author of this blog, is this just your way of drumming up publicity for your film festival?

Jay: Good question. Since there has already been a big crossover between the UPG and Iron Mule communities, I’m convinced there are other UPG fans who make movies out there.  We’d love to hear about your micro cinema…

Anyway, I’m writing this blog so you can’t stop me.

The Iron Mule Short Comedy Film Festival is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a series of screenings this April at 92YTribeca in New York City.

 

UPG Guestperts: Matt Carman and Kseniya Yarosh

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

This month we interviewed Matt Carman and Kseniya Yarosh, writers and editors who produce a biannual zine called I Love Bad Movies. In each issue, more than two dozen writers, artists, comedians, critics, and nerds examine their favorite bad films.

photo by Meredith Wallace

UPG: What made you decide to edit a publication about bad movies?

Matt: When you start watching bad movies on purpose, it becomes clear that they are often more fun than good ones. They’re strange, flawed, and rewarding to varying degrees.

We’ve found many of our favorite bad movies via friends’ recommendations, video store cast-offs, or neighborhood trash cans (as with our VHS tapes of Lifeforce and Graveyard Shift 2). I Love Bad Movies is our way of sharing the joy of discovering these great-bad films, through intelligent and entertaining essays & comics. This way, you don’t have to dig through actual detritus to find the good ones.

UPG: How bad does a movie have to be to be included in I Love Bad Movies? What qualities elevate a movie from mediocre to (entertainingly) bad?

Kseniya: Not as bad as you might think. We’ve included plenty of flops, but we’re also open to movies that just didn’t age well or have an element of ‘wrongness’ about them that is worth investigating. We shy away from the rich mines of classic b-movies that have been covered by Mystery Science Theater 3000 and numerous publications/blogs, and focus on less-campy selections from the 1970s to the present that tried harder and failed bigger.

One way a mediocre movie can be elevated to “bad” (the kind we like) is if it suffers from genre confusion. For instance, the reason movies like Gigli and Old Dogs are hilariously bad is that they both started out as dramas but were eventually converted into… what someone at the studio thought was a “comedy.” They are laugh-out-loud funny but for all the wrong reasons.

UPG: Have you encountered bad movies out there that are so bad they remain completely unlovable?

Matt: Oh my word, yes. It’s All About Love: Claire Danes and Joaquin Phoenix’s divorce proceedings are hampered by her being cloned against her will. She is a famous ice skater and he occasionally has an accent. African people float into the air, everyone else catches heart attacks like a common cold, and Sean Penn spends the entire movie on an airplane narrating an incomprehensible e-mail to no one. Eventually Danes and Phoenix freeze to death in the arctic wilderness. It is the slowest, moodiest, worst junk.

Our contributors are careful to note when it’s more fun to read or write about a particular movie than actually watch it. In I Love Bad Movies #3, comedian Matt Koff explains that while his Robot in the Family essay might make the movie sound wacky and fun, viewing it will be an unpleasant, harmful experience. We should have listened.

UPG: What can “bad” art offer us that is enjoyable or insightful in ways that “good” art can’t?

Matt: Everyone likes feeling superior to something. Having a humdrum day? Looking at a Monet will probably remind you that you haven’t done anything with your life. Laughing at a dumb movie, on the other hand, will help you feel better about yourself. At least you could’ve done better than this.

UPG: In a hyper digital age in which each topic has its own blog and niche subset blogs, and print media of all kinds suffer financial and identity crises, what lead you to publish this zine in paper form?

Kseniya: Because we want people to relax, get a cup of coffee and actually read I Love Bad Movies. We strongly believe that reading printed text on paper is a more enjoyable and satisfying experience, and we wanted to make that a reality. There are so many things that we read online everyday, and only a fraction of them stick. We hope people’s experience with I Love Bad Movies is special.

Since our contributors put so much time and thought into helping us publish this zine, it’s important that we reward their work with a tangible finished product. Plus, aside from the police blotter, this is the easiest way for Matt and myself to get our names in print.

UPG: Each issue of I Love Bad Movies has a theme (“children’s movies,” “visions of the future,” etc.) Your current issue’s theme is “before and after they were famous.” What prompted you to explore this?

Matt: Among some more forgettable actors, our first four issues are riddled with bold names — stars who, way back when they were struggling young things or long after they’d peaked, made choices they probably aren’t proud of. We wanted the fifth issue to be packed with those fresh-faced/wrinkle-faced mistakes. Nicole Kidman, Amy Adams, and Spielberg’s favorite cinematographer Janusz Kaminski at the start of their careers (BMX Bandits, Cruel Intentions 2, and Cool as Ice, respectively), or Mae West and Orson Welles at the end of theirs (Sextette and The Transformers: The Movie).

Like a case of the flu, bad movie roles seem to affect otherwise famous people when they’re either very young or very old. This issue explores the fringes of fame and what results when talented people make untalented choices.

Nicholas Cage and Audrey Hepburn in bad movies at opposite ends of their careers.

UPG: You are co-organizing the Brooklyn Zine Fest along with writer/contributor Eric Nelson. Tell us about the event.

Kseniya and Matt: The Brooklyn Zine Fest, like I Love Bad Movies, was born out of a desire to showcase people and projects we love and support. Many of the literary/art-book festivals that take place throughout the year in New York come with either high brows or high barriers to entry. Until now, there has been little opportunity for smaller and scrappier publications like ours to reach the public on a larger scale.

On Sunday April 15th at Public Assembly in Williamsburg, more than 60 independent writers, artists, publishers, thinkers, doers, and maybe one candlestick maker will come together to celebrate what Brooklyn does best: create interesting, entertaining, and occasionally weird stuff. We’ve curated a wide variety of zine makers, so there will be something for everyone who likes at least one thing. Pick up a zine, grab a “marzini” at the bar, and of course, stop by our table and say hello!

To purchase issues or find out about bad-movie screenings and other live events, visit ilovebadmovies.com.  Find and Like I Love Bad Movies: The Zine by K&M on Facebook at fb.com/badmovies.

Matt and Kseniya are offering a special discount code for PhLog readers!  For a limited time, you can use code UNEMPLOYED20 at ksen.etsy.com for get 20% off all purchases!

Matt Carman is the author of Taken for a Ride, a collection of essays about his game show experiences. He hosts movie screenings with his co-editor, gives unwarranted scholarly credence to films like Gigli and Mac and Me, and is currently mapping the geographical setting of every U.S. prime time television show from 1946 to the present. carmanmatt.com

Kseniya Yarosh is a writer, illustrator, and researcher in Brooklyn whose zines have been featured on Flavorwire and Syndicated Zine Reviews. Kseniya’s presentation on “Love Story Disease” examines “dying girl” movies of all eras, and she is currently working on a zine about the ’90s Russian rock band Бра́во (Bravo). ksen.tumblr.com

UPG Guestpert: Geoff Klock

Saturday, February 4th, 2012

Author and professor Geoff Klock has made his own mash-up of clips from adaptations or films and television episodes that reference Hamlet.  With clips from 65 sources, this was quite an undertaking.  We at the Guild chatted with Professor Klock about this project.  You can see the video embedded at the bottom of this post.

UPG: Hello Professor Klock!  We’d like to start with… um… why?

GK: I teach Hamlet. And I showed clips of different scenes (Gibson, Olivier, Branagh etc) so my students could see different staging. And I told my students how influential Hamlet was, showing a scene from Spiderman 3 as an example. But I don’t think they really believed me. As I taught Hamlet I kept bumping into scenes from movies that would quote it: True Romance, Nightmare before Christmas, Billy Madison. And my students would come to me with the same: Transformers: Beast Wars, and The Addams Family. So I started to collect clips to show in class — to SHOW rather than TELL them that it was everywhere. And after a while I had too many clips to show and I needed a format that would allow me to get through them quickly.

UPG: What is the fascination with Hamlet?  Is it mainly the ubiquitous reach of this particular play?

GK: Hollywood relies on shorthand. If you want to show that someone is a genius you show them being great a chess, even though I think the relation between chess and brilliance is slight. (You can be great a chess but in my experience it does not necessarily translate into intelligence in other areas, for example, being a criminal mastermind). Hamlet has become shorthand for “literary” so if you want to show someone is well read or cultured you have them quote Hamlet. Because of this it is ripe for irony — for example quoting Horatio’s beautiful parting words to Hamlet at the death of a giant robot.

UPG: How long did this project take you?

GK: It took me about 6 months, but it was a lot of wait and hurry up: wait for the disk from Netflix, wait to make a digital copy, wait to upload the digital clip to iMovie, and then of course all the trimming to get one line to flow into the next across two clips. It was only a few hours a week for many many weeks.

UPG: Are there any specific popular culture adaptations or uses of Hamlet that you find particularly powerful?

GK: The one from Clueless I find really wonderful. Paul Rudd’s pretentious friend says “It’s just like Hamlet said: to thine own self be true,” and Claire, who is supposed to be a ditz, corrects her, pointing out that Hamlet did not say that. “I think I remember Hamlet accurately,” the girl says but Claire does not back down: “I think I remember Mel Gibson accurately, and he didn’t say that, that Polonious guy did.” Pretentious people — people who are idiotically proud not to own a television, proud for some reason to have never seen Game of Thrones — think they know more than pop culture nerds. But in my experience pop culture nerds pay as much if not MORE attention to the things they love as the book nerds. I love the pop culture kid slamming the literary person on their own turf using pop culture knowledge.

And Hamlet 2, which is a very weak movie (it is a satire on the inspirational teacher movie that has very little to do with Hamlet) gets kind of amazing just at the end when you finally see bits of Hamlet 2: the idea that the characters need to forgive each other and the idea that they could all be saved from the tragedy (with a Time Machine!) has a kind of Christian beauty to it, even at its most ridiculous (e.g. Hamlet gives Ophelia CPR and when she coughs out the water asks her to marry him).

UPG: What’s the most ridiculous incorporation or adaptation of Hamlet that you’ve come across?

GK: The Mystery Science Theater devoted to Hamlet is generally considered to be a weaker installment by MST3K fans but it includes one of my favorite MST3K lines– over the closing credits they say “HAMLET WILL RETURN … IN THUNDERBALL.” Cracks me the fuck up.

UPG: Have you discovered that there were other adaptations or references you left out that you’d like to incorporate if you were to re-edit this?

GK: I am expanding it now and there are lots: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (“something is rotten in Denver”), It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (“goodnight sweet prince” as they kick dirt on a crow in the woods), Downton Abbey (“he’s not the consummation devoutly to be wished”), Law and Order: SVU (“there’s the rub”), Dinosaurs, M*A*S*H, Anonymous, Comedy Bang Bang, Veggietales, Highlander 2.

UPG: Did you make any discoveries as you started lining these clips up together?

GK: In the expansion I discovered that Christopher Plummer was in a film version of Hamlet when it he was very young, and it made the clip from decades later, where he says “to be or not to be” in Klingon extra funny. Two people say “to be or not to be” before a large explosion, and in the expansion, coming soon, Kevin Klein and Robert Downey Jr. show up in two things each, and three people reach for the low hanging fruit of imagining Hamlet as a dog — because he is a Great Dane.

UPG: What do you think we can learn about Hamlet or popular culture by doing this kind of project?

GK: I should say that we can learn how influential Hamlet and Shakespeare are, but really I don’t think of it as being that educational in spite of the ostensible reason for its existence — I think if it as entertainment, for a particular kind of nerd (me). For some reason I have always found the smash of high culture and low to be super funny, so I just love it when, for example, we go from Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet to Olivier’s.

UPG: What’s next for you; do you have any other mash-ups in the works?

GK: I also teach Macbeth and Paradise Lost. I am working on a Macbeth Mash Up — featuring among other things The Chronicles of Riddick, V for Vendetta, Bugs Bunny, Dario Argento’s Opera, one appearance by Magneto, and appearances from both the younger and older Professor X.  For Paradise Lost I am preparing a Satan Mash Up because Satan in pop culture is far more influenced my Milton than either Dante or the Bible, and that should be fun. After that I am going to stop — although part of me thinks all three will continue to expand over the years. The more people that see them the more movies and tv shows I get pointed to.

Geoff Klock (D.Phil., Oxford University) is the author of two academic books, and is an assistant professor at BMCC, where he serves as composition coordinator. He is also on the Facebook, and the Twitter machine. 

UPG Guestpert: Craig Wichman

Monday, December 19th, 2011

From time to time, we like to talk to guest experts (or “guestperts” as we wittily refer to them).  This week we bring you Craig Wichman, a NYC-based actor and producer who, among being an expert in radio drama and silent cinema, is currently writing the book Standing in Spirit at Your Elbow: The Radio/Audio History of Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’. We sat down with Craig (OK, so we really just emailed him some questions) to discuss this iconic Christmas story, and how it got to be that way.  Today, incidentally, is the anniversary of the book’s publication in 1843.

UPG: Hello, Mr. Wichman.

CW: Hi there!

UPG: What was the critical reception of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol when it was first published?

CW: Generally, glowing – as represented by author William Makepeace Thackeray’s calling the little book, “a national benefit, and to every man and woman who reads it a personal kindness.”

UPG: Was it as immediately popular in his time as it is today?

CW: Absolutely. The First Printing sold out at once, and was it quickly followed by a presold Second.

UPG: A Christmas Carol is Dickens’ most reproduced work.  Why do you think that is?

CW: The piece came from deep within a gifted artist’s heart: Charles Dickens, child of sometime poverty, had begun to make money – and was afraid of greed encroaching into his own soul. And after lecturing to working class Londoners, and walking their streets, he’d felt driven to create a piece specifically for all the Cratchits of the world.

Also, the book was specifically designed to be a Christmas present, and fits squarely in the British tradition of ghost/fantasy tales at that time of year.

And it has brilliantly drawn characters, a rich plot, humor, and horror.

It is a satisfying “full meal.” It has it all.

UPG: What was the first adaptation of A Christmas Carol, and did Dickens approve such things?

CW: Within a months of the publication, several theatre companies had mounted unauthorized dramatizations. And even before that, a published plagiarization began appearing. As part of the goal of the project had been to earn some much-needed money for Dickens  (his latest “big book” was not performing as well as expected), he was not amused!

UPG: Out of all the adaptations – stage, screen, and radio – which adaptations of this story that you think Dickens would be particularly proud of, and which do you think he would find odious?

CW: Reading someone’s mind like that is always tough… but Dickens was a very accomplished “dramatic” writer in his prose, and an amateur actor himself. So I’d like to think that he’d (much like me!) best appreciate those that are the most faithfully adapted & well performed. And would like least, those that replace his graceful, well-chosen words with dross, and/or are acted clumsily (or cloyingly, which may be worse!)

Personally, I’d hope he’d like the 1951 film, favorite of many, and the lesser-known-though-also-wonderful 1935 film written by and starring Sir Seymour Hicks, who’d Scrooged for many years on stage.


And the classic 1939 broadcast by Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater on the Air, with Lionel Barrymore, who would eventually play the role for nearly 20 years on the radio. Dickens did suggest that the story be listened to in a darkened room, and did public readings of it himself, so I think he might’ve appreciated audio theater productions of it.

UPG: Are there some adaptations of this story that are so ridiculous to defy reason?  What’s the biggest stretch you’ve seen someone try to do?

CW: Well, “ridiculous” is in the eye of the beholder! And I’m no snob – the animated Mr. Magoo version is one of the best, and THE best musicalization, I think. But there have just been SO many watered-down variations: just about every TV sitcom in history has done a Carol riff, and most are tired, one-note affairs.

UPG: A Christmas Carol is subtitled “A Ghost Story for Christmas.”  Did Dickens intend to write a scary story?

CW: Take a look at this illo, and tell me what you think?

(Also see note above about the Brit’s fondness for scary stories at Yuletide.) The ghosts, and the scenes they appear in, are eerie overall, and frightening when appropriate. And the building darkness of the plot, as Scrooge is ground down more and more by the reality of his own evil, is truly gripping and unsettling. As an actor playing the part, I really believe that he has one foot already in Hell in the climatic moment at his own gravesite.

UPG: Most productions we first come across are pretty cute.  Was there a specific turning point when A Christmas Carol started to become a sappy, sentimental story opposed to the darker piece that the story really is?

CW: There have been so many, and so many lost to history, that that point would be hard to place. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the earliest stage adaptations were already softening the sharp edges, and sweetening the bitter moments, of the piece. A review of an early play talks of “improvements” to Dickens (!) – and this was an era when the English even bowdlerized their best, Shakespeare!

I can think of a few recent examples, though: many of the animated versions (but not all, especially considering the classic by Richard Williams and Chuck Jones) have tried to turn it into a story “for kids” – which it emphatically is not! And an otherwise solid 1941 and 1949 record/radio production with Ronald Colman makes two fatal wrong turns: having the story be a flashback by the already reformed Scrooge, and using the maudlin device of having his redemption take place at Tiny Tim’s grave, not his own!

Those kind of choices take Dickens’ artful sting right out of the tale.

UPG: Why do you think this story has become so distorted from the original and so commoditized?

CW: Like other classic stories, from those in the Bible to Shakespeare, it is in the public domain, so free – and it has such a solid frame that it can be loaded with just about any type of gunk, and still bear the weight!

UPG: Do you anticipate this story will retain its popularity through the 21st century?  And if so, how do you envision future adaptations will handle the subject matter?

Can’t see why not? There was Jim Carrey’s CGI toon in 2009, and F. Murray Abraham is doing a new radio version right now (12/2011) – as are half of the other audio – and stage – theater companies in America.

UPG: And if so, how do you envision future adaptations will handle the subject matter?

I’d expect more of the same – plenty of riffs, mostly stale, with hopefully the occasional gem thrown in!

May you all keep Christmas well!

Craig Wichman is an Actor, Writer, Producer, and lifelong lover of The Carol who lives in New York City. He first played the role of “Ebenezer Scrooge” in an unfinished Super 8mm film in High School. Recently seen at the NY Fringe Festival as “Reuben Kincaid” in THE BARDY BUNCH,   he will soon be seen as “The Uncle” in the feature film THE ADVENTURES OF PAUL AND MARIAN. The creator of the short collage film A CHRISTMAS CAROL – IN EIGHT MINUTES [Embedded below], he’s also the founder of the award-winning Quicksilver Radio Theater, with whom he returned to the role of “Ebenezer Scrooge,” which is available here.