Hand-colored photographs of Jerusalem and Palestine

A peasant spinning wool in an American Colony in Ramallah

A peasant spinning wool in an American Colony in Ramallah, 1919. Photographs like this one were taken by the photographers of the American Colony Photo Department,  in Jerusalem. Founded in the late 1890s, and its  staff photographers included Erik Lind, Lars Lind, Furman Baldwin, and G. Eric Matson. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

“M” is for Modern (Dialectic)

“M” for Mirrors

Child and murderer shadow in 1931
M, Child and murderer shadow, 1931

Fritz Lang’s M is the story of a child murderer, Hans Beckert (played by Peter Lorre), in Germany’s 1931 pre-Nazi economic depression. M was a new, original commentary on the conditions of the time, of the emerging concept of seriality in its most hideous form –serial murder and the paradigm of which was yet to come– and on society’s reaction to it, mass hysteria, a macrocosmic horde mentality where society can no longer think or feel properly. Beckert’s first close-up, and his later discovery of the “M” mark set up of a visual metaphor through a kind of intellectual montage. The framing, camera movement, and acting in these two scenes outline the coexistence and disparity between the image and the real, predicting what would be the dialectic of the modern era.

“M” for Madness

These two scenes become particularly meaningful because of the double-framing the mirrors. And what does a murderer look like? Beckert himself must have been wondering that as he gazes at his own image in the mirror. As the authorities try to create a physical and psychological profile of him, Beckert is doing the same in front of the mirror. The audience sees him for the first time in a medium close-up, on a slightly low framing angle, distorting him slightly, giving him an air of grandeur; we are seeing him as he sees himself. We are not seeing a small, forgettable man, scared and alone; we are seeing the side of himself that feels powerful as murderer.

An image frames another image, that is, the murderer frames his own image on the mirror, and the murderer on the screen is just an image as well, and, like René Magritte’s This is Not a Pipeas to say, this is not a murderer, but the image of a murderer.

Magritte The Treachery of Images provides a cl...

He plays with his expressions in front of a glass reflection in a window shop. His image is framed by stacks of bullets for high frequency artillery like a machine gun, a recent enough invention, and the beginnings of automated serial murder of the looming World War I and the coming World War II.Beckert plays with his face, just like children do; he reveals the “actor’s personality” the police’s psychologist dictates in the background. Within this frame we see the murderer’s double personality: the docile, the child-like, and the monstrous, the ill. Lang cuts from the psychologist saying “play-acting,” to Lorre, who droops his eyes apologetically, looking “indolent or even lazy,” reinforcing the dialogue.

Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert, gazing into a sho...
Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert, gazing into a shop window. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lorre disfigures his face with his fingers and bulges his eyes “showing clear signs of insanity,” (the same eye-bulging will reappear later in another important scene). At this point, the camera cuts back to the psychologist saying “madness,” bringing to the surface the other face of Beckert, the miserable maniac. As Anton Kaes states in his book, M, “Beckert’s problem is thus framed between play-acting and madness, between simulation and illness.” Though it was Lang’s first sound film, it effectively juxtaposes sound and image to further accentuate this duality.

M” for Murderer

In the mirror scene is when the audience first identifies the murderer, though the community within the story still has not. In the mark scene though, it’s  Beckert who identifies himself as the murderer; the “play-acting” is done, and the “truth” and the deceiving image become one. A medium close-up of his expression of terror shows this fusion: only his child self can feel terror, but the murderer self is powerful, not vulnerable; so only when the child becomes the murderer can he feel guilt and terror. His facial expression in this scene loops back to the grimace he made in the earlier mirror scene (Kaes).

Cover of "M - 2 Disc Special Edition - Cr...
M mirror scene. Cover via Amazon.

Again, framing plays a crucial role in the scene. Brecht is framed first within the shot, then by his own face, which occupies the entire left side of the screen; his face in turn frames his reflection on the mirror, which is also framed within the mirror. This, orchestrated with high contrast and hard shadows, creates a very graphically stunning composition. It almost eliminates greys; the audience is not preoccupied with middle-grounds. It is simple and striking, leaving a lasting impression on the viewer. Behind stark shadows and a somber mood, the high contrast black and white again mimics the dialectic of the film, the opposition of good and evil, of image and reality.

“M” for Metaphor

The mirror scene and the mark scene are joined together formally and thematically. They are points of inflexion in the visual narrative, they both serve as moments of recognition and realization. Mainly, the parallel framing and acting connect the beginning of the conflict and the beginning of the climax. In the mirror scene, we know. In the mark scene, he knows they know.

The two scenes not only share parallel framing and other elements of mise-en-scene, they also create a picture within a picture: the child within the murderer and the murderer within the child, both framed by insanity. The juxtaposition of child and murderer show the disparity between two faces of the same man, the modern era’s dialectic: the incongruity and fusion of the image and the real.


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Why Your Goddam AC Is Ruining the Planet

Air conditioning
Air conditioning (Photo credit: niallkennedy)

I recently moved to a smaller apartment in Brooklyn, further south from the post-industrial, gentrified Williamsburg to the greener, more diverse Clinton Hill. The building is sheltered by a huge tree I wish I knew the name of, which has kindly lowered the temperature inside our small one-bedroom apartment. We realized we might not even need to turn on our AC. So we sold it, right after a heat wave hit New York and drove the temperature upwards of 95 F. This may not seem like the most intuitive move, but the thing is, I live with a very smart and compassionate environmentalist freak, and I am too weak to protest against an argument with which I also kind of agree: ACs are evil. They are like heroin. And they make worse the problem they are designed to solve, that is, global warming.

I am paraphrasing an excellent Gawker article I read the day after it was established (not that there was ever any doubt) that our AC would never see the light of day. And I felt great, I felt strong, because AC is for the weak, because it makes you weak. It stops the human body from acclimating to heat efficiently, so that you feel hotter, and have to have more AC.

“A hot summer day like today, in New York City, means countless wasted megawatts of electricity from stores pouring air conditioning into the street through open doors and offices which feel the need to maintain wintry indoor temperatures despite the beautiful sunshine outside. All of this contributes to guzzling of fossil fuels which will keep us dependent on foreign oil and dirty hydrofracking in the short term, and will overheat our planet and kill our species in the long term.”

Global mean surface temperature difference fro...

And hey, you thought that heat wave was bad? It gets worse, much worse. As part of their excellent climate change coverage, Mother Jones interviews Purdue climatologist Matthew Huber, who is “exploring the outer limits of just how much global warming human beings can tolerate.” All this of course paints a dire picture for humanity and whatever inconsequential-else roams the earth,

“By 2100, Huber points out, the mid-range estimates predict a rise of 3°C to 4°C in average global temperatures based on current economic activities, but those studies ignore accelerating factors like the release of vast quantities of methane—a potent greenhouse gas—now trapped beneath permafrost and sea ice that’s becoming less and less permanent.”

Hubert also comments on the AC dilemma,

“MJ: As global temperatures rise, people will resort to more air conditioning. To what degree will that energy-consumption feedback loop accelerate the warming?

Urban heat island profile

MH: The increased use of air conditioners is likely to have large deleterious impacts. The heat flux—into the “urban canyon”—in cities from the effluent of air conditioners will be substantial and add to the urban heat-island effect. The increased use of the power grid during peak hot conditions will place substantial and highly variable load on an already strained system. The power for the air conditioning has to come from somewhere, and for much of the world this means more burning of fossil fuels.”

So, come on guys, it’s pretty conclusive, climate change exists, it’s caused by humans, and dinosaurs did not love Jesus.

I lovelovelove that there’s actually talk about ACs this year. It was also a Room for Debate in the NYT, where a few good points were brought up, how it’s both crucial to the modern world and a necessity we can’t afford.

In our house, we understad AC is not where it stops. For a while, we were debating whether or not to turn our fridge off. We fantasized about what that would entail: no cold drinking water, buying more non-perishables, and buying only necessary perishables, like fruits and vegetables, almost every other day and in small quantities, so that there wasn’t time for them to rot.

What about organic produce? Should we absolutely also buy those, are they better for global warming? how much will that affect decomposition time? A lot, we guessed, so we almost always would have to eat at home. Or, the other less sustainable option, was to eat out every single night, but somehow that sounded worse environmentally. But is it? I’m not sure. Maybe a restaurant or a deli have their ovens on all day, and that sounds bad, but because they do, they can run these more efficiently and can produce food in mass.

So far, we got rid of the AC, and I finally bought mosquito repellent and this retro-looking lamp that is actually a mosquito un-beacon light, so that we can finally open the windows and let a little air in. We also started placing a bowl with water and a handkerchief of sorts next to our bed so that we could cool ourselves off at night, kind of like sweat, your natural, free coolant. Sounds pretty ghetto, but it works and feels great. Next will be the fan.

Someone, somewhere, sometime, will thank us, while cursing all the rest of you goddam AC horders.

Amazing Photos from the International Space Station

Friday I caught this story on the interwebs and could not resist. These photos of star trails as viewed from the International Space Station are super amazing, and astronaut and flight engineer Don Pettit is also really awesome, making experiments with water droplets and sound waves in zero gravity all the time. The Slate story I put together has more links that further explain. Now I will be regularly putting together slideshows from NASA images which is just very awesome for me. You can go to the Slate story for more images.

Astronaut Don Pettit's photos of star trails
Astronaut Don Pettit’s photos of star trails

“Minority Report” Iris Scanners Are Here

Part of Image:Planetary society.jpg Original c...
Carl Sagan. Credit: Wikipedia.

The latest Cracked article, 5 Absurd Sci-Fi Scenarios Science Is Actually Working On is a gem you should read. Another one is 6 Absurd Movie Plots You Won’t Believe Are Based on Reality. Science fiction with foundations in science and the overlap with reality are reliable mind-blowers.

I have been getting serious about my love for Carl Sagan in the last year, reading the Pulitzer prize winner Dragons of Eden, his last book, Billions and Billions, and I just finished Broca’s Brain. The latter gets into science fiction writing, the good kind, like that of Arthur C. Clarke (who wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey), that of Jules Verne, Philip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov, among others.

The way Sagan wrote about science fiction, with so much passion, intellect, love and nostalgia for his beginnings in science through science fiction, got me interested in the genre. I finally got serious about this too, and bought Isaac Asimov’s Robot Series.