The spirit in Vault B
The rain has come! Not as violent as I expected; just persistent. It rained all night and it will rain all day.
Today’s installment is a collection of things that have lately captured my attention and curiosity. As always, my hope is that you’ll skip around and perhaps find one or two that are interesting to you.
On Tuesday, I’ll send a newsletter with a link to a new project. I’m excited!
Why mess around? Let’s hear
ROBIN'S REVIEW OF THE GREEN KNIGHT
Back in August, the production company A24 made The Green Knight available for streaming on one night only, a fun idea. Obviously, I was very interested in this new adaptation, so I eagerly bought my ticket, settled in, and, well …
I didn’t like it. But this shouldn’t come as any surprise, and it doesn’t really say much about the movie. Why would you EXPECT a person who’s read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight a dozen times, who loves its galloping language, to enjoy the movie adaptation?
That’s the core of it: The Green Knight was overwhelmingly visual, barely verbal, and for me, the poem’s magnetism is all in the words. I think it would have been captivating to see Dev Patel and the rest of the cast rattle off those alliterative lines; funny and weird, moving and virtuosic. Instead, the movie’s spare dialogue rarely rose above a rasping whisper.
(What is up with the 21st-century movie whisper, anyway? I’m not enough of a cinephile to follow the tracer dye on this one. I noticed it in the brand-new Dune adaptation, too; as if the filmmakers had challenged themselves: how few words can we ask the actors to say, and how fully can they aspirate them?)
Here’s where I have to acknowledge that my cinematic preferences are uh deeply idiosyncratic. I like movies in which people talk nonstop. I think the mark of great dialogue is that you don’t even NEED to “perform” it; the meaning is there in the words, and when those words are great, you could just buzz them out through a speech synthesizer and still find yourself moved.
I think more actors ought to just buzz them out!
Keanu Reeves is, for me, an exemplar in this regard, which totally sounds like an underhanded compliment but totally is not; I truly think he’s the best. Of course, he probably would not describe his own acting this way, but it has seemed to me that, in his modern roles (including John Wick, so terrific) he is just … saying the words. Almost as if reading them from cue cards.
Which, remember: that’s exactly what Marlon Brando did!
The movie of my idiosyncratic dreams, furthermore, has no emotional meltdowns. It’s a movie in which many things —
There’s drama in that, too.
That’s the other thing about The Green Knight. The Sir Gawain of the poem is, in fact, very nearly morally perfect. It’s annoying —
The poem’s Green Knight says later:
As a pearl is more prized than a pea which is white,
so, by God, is Gawain, amongst gallant knights.
But a little thing more —
it was loyalty that you lacked:
not because you’re wicked, or a womanizer, or worse,
but you loved your own life; so I blame you less.
The Green Knight, the movie, flips this around completely: its Gawain sort of sucks, and it is only at the very end that he suddenly finds moral ballast, and doesn’t flinch when —
Looking at it that way, I suppose the poem and the movie make a fine pair: inversions, complements.
I think often of these paragraphs from a piece by Alice Gregory, part of the old Bookends column in the New York Times, reply to the prompt “can a virtuous character be interesting?”:
Living virtuously is hard. It takes generative intellectual work that is far more interesting than the defensiveness of “being bad.” I would rather consider the challenges that go into a consciously lived life than the inevitably hurtful products of a cruel one.
A truly radical 21st-century novelist wouldn’t ask us to see ourselves in made-up villains, and then, hopefully, revise our opinions of the real ones in our own lives. Rather, they would ask us to see the arduous and often acrobatic effort that goes into living a life of common decency. They would coerce us into believing that virtue is interesting and fun to think about and far more dazzling to encounter than malevolence.
It’s in that spirit that I believe a “proper” adaptation, one that took up the task of dramatizing a truly —
I discovered this after sending yesterday’s newsletter: from Blaft, a brief “tour of Chennai’s pulp fiction printing presses, lending libraries, pavement bookstores, and readers.” This is a perfect complement to Craig Mod’s video: the material reality of book production, totally different and yet somehow spiritually just the same!
The upcoming video game Lemnis Gate is a multiplayer first-person shooter in which the players take turns looping through the same level several times, each additional run adding a “layer” of action that can affect what happened before … oof, it’s difficult to describe! But/and it looks fun to play, maybe? I found this playthrough from Dorrani Williams totally winning; it’s fun to watch him slowly grok the concept himself.
Tell me if you recognize this sentiment, evident among many tech people, venture capitalists, cryptocurrency boosters, etc.:
I am brainless, but money is the real brain of all things, and how then should its possessor be brainless? Besides, he can buy clever people for himself, and is he who has power over the clever not more clever than the clever? Do not I, who, thanks to money, am capable of all that the human heart longs for, possess all human capacities? Does not my money, therefore, transform all my incapacities into their contrary?
A question for you. What’s a good music documentary that dives deep into studio recording and production? This might be something on YouTube, rather than, e.g., Netflix … I’m not really interested in personal stories or band drama —
My curiosity has been sparked mainly by this old 2002 article from Sound on Sound, detailing the basement production of the first Strokes album:
Then, about a week later, I got a call from Julian, saying “Gordon, we are scared.” I said “Why are you scared, Julian?” and he said “We don’t know if we’ll ever be able to get our sound again.” I suddenly realised that they were thinking of the EP that we’d done as “their sound”, and Julian said “Is it OK if we come back to your basement and try those three songs again?”
And of course I love Brian Eno’s argument, transmitted to me through Jesse Solomon Clark, that the studio itself is an instrument, one you can learn to “play”.
As always, I’ll slip any interesting replies I receive back into the newsletter (respecting your quotation preferences, indicated above); check back occasionally to find those.
I think I’m looking for something with the approximate nerdiness quotient of Pensado’s Place, except with real footage of musicians and producers at work in the studio, rather than recalling their techniques in retrospect.
(The episode of Pensado’s Place that features Finneas, better known as Billie Eilish’s producer —
A bit of a sad movie because you knew it was the last, but Let It Be shows The Beatles in the studio developing the tracks for the album of the same name. It’s also interesting from the perspective that they all were tired of each other but seemed focused on the work of making music.
I … did not know about this documentary! Sounds perfect, honestly. Could I have found this via googling? Probably. Did I ask the Double Dagger omni-mind instead, and did it deliver? Yes, and yes.
Chase reminds me about Sonic Highways, the show in which Dave Grohl visits famous recording studios with the reverence of a holy pilgrim. I’ve seen a few episodes and, indeed, totally loved. I should watch the rest!
Hrishikesh Hirway’s Song Exploder translated really well from podcast to Netflix series IMO! Good in-studio footage in parts, though largely retrospective. The Dua Lipa episode was fun.
I would definitely recommend Doug Pray’s Scratch from 2001 (and not just because a quote from my review at the time very nearly made it on to the DVD cover). As you can probably tell, it’s a documentary about “turntablism” hip-hop DJs, but watching people like Q-bert, DJ Shadow, Mix Master Mike, and Rob Swift talk about how they achieve these incredible effects and the inspiration behind them is pure joy.
I immediately thought of Tegan and Sara’s making of The Con back in the early 2000s. The reason I still remember this is because it shows how they built some of the songs and choices they made during production (which was quite inspired by the studio they had for that album). There’s some silly bits interspersed because Tegan and Sara’s banter is legendary, but for the most part, it’s about the making of the album.
Here’s one of my favorite bands showing all of their DIY ethos with a short documentary. I love the shots of the New Orleans neighborhood, the living-room jamming, and the honest cameos about the struggles of making a record.
Dan passed the question along to a top-flight music producer, who gave a fascinating reply.
I loved this blog post from Alan Jacobs about the session musician Jim Dickinson. Alan quotes Jim on his rudimentary but effective piano technique:
It’s so simple, it works in the studio. It creates space and tension and all the things you want a keyboard to do and it doesn’t get in the way of the damn guitar because rock and roll is about guitars. So, thank god I’ve had a career because I play simple and stupid.
The whole post is terrific, and I consider it a point in favor of my hypothesis that, when it comes to writing, or making music, or maybe anything, you can do it any way you want, as long as it works.
Sounds simple, I know, but not enough people realize this!
Here’s Adam Tooze on writing history in media res:
Indeed, I would go further. I side with those who see “in media res”, not just as a stylistic choice and a mode of historical and political analysis, but as defining the human condition —
apologies for the boldness of that claim. Being thrown into pre-given situations define us, whether though social structure, language, concepts, identities or chains of action and interaction, in which we are willy nilly enrolled and to which we ourselves contribute, thereby enrolling others as well.
Here’s Sheila Heti on “limerence”, new to me, a great word.
I have been trying lately to learn about writing systems beyond the Latin alphabet:
Here’s a review of a font called Lava, which has variants for Devanagari, Kannada, and Telugu.
I enjoyed this tour of Korean calligraphy and typography presented by Lars Kim at the SFPL. Hangul is super, SUPER interesting; I still don’t really understand the construction of its “blocks”, and I would like to …
Likewise, this article on “edo moji” Japanese lettering is great. Those shapes!
My interest here is not totally casual because, for my new novel, I have devised a fictional script. (It was, perhaps, inevitable that I would do this some day.) I bought a clutch of calligraphy pens —
Ha, you thought I was done talking about Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India, didn’t you? The book boasts a long, detailed entry on yakshis (or yakshinis, or yakshas), a broad class of supernatural beings omnipresent in stories across India, often (though not always) depicted as “beautiful women with large breasts who wear their hair tied in a knot,” e.g.
The entry includes this story:
Today, [a powerful yakshi] is supposed to reside in the mysterious “Vault B” of the Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, deep in prayer.
This temple is so ancient that no one is quite sure how old it is. References to the shrine appear in literature that dates back to the Sangam Era, before the time of Christ. For the past several centuries, it has been managed by the royal family of Travancore.
There are at least six vaults in this temple, designated by the letters A through F. Five of these vaults were opened in 2011 following a Supreme Court order, revealing one of the largest hoardes of gold and jewels anywhere in the world, estimated to be worth more than US $20 billion.
As of this writing, the huge iron door of Vault B remains unopened due to ongoing legal challenge. There are rumors of an even bigger treasure lying within; but there is also a legend which says that any attempt to open the vault will result in catastrophe. To start with, it will summon up a swarm of vicious demonic king cobras, but that’s not the worst part: it will also set free the fearsome Kanjirottu Yakshi, who has been inside the vault praying to Lord Narasimha for centuries. If her long meditation is disturbed, she will likely become more evil, powerful, and destructive then she ever was before.
Other people believe that this is all superstitious nonsense. They say that the stories about Vault B only serve as a cover for corrupt temple officials and government authorities who are slowly looting the temple’s treasures, selling them to black market antiquities traders for huge sums of money.
The best part is: this story is very much ongoing!!
If you do a news search for the temple, you find headlines like this one every few years: To unlock the chamber of secrets or not?
More recently, it’s had a rough time during the pandemic:
The administrators of Kerala’s Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple, one of the richest in India, informed the Supreme Court on Friday that the closure of the temple during the pandemic resulted in a “financial crunch”.
It had also ordered a second committee to be constituted to advise the administrative committee on policy matters. Both committees should start functioning within the next two months and an executive officer should be appointed without delay, the ruling had said.
The primary duties of the committees would be to preserve the treasures and properties. They would take a call on whether to open Kallara B, considered to be the richest among the temple vaults, for inventorisation. The committees would ensure that rituals and religious practices are conducted as per custom and on the advice of the Chief Thantri.
I have no additional commentary. This rules.
Can we trace the resurgence in “cosmic fantasy”? I’m thinking of projects like the 2010s comic book series Prophet, the ongoing Kill Six Million Demons webcomic, Jonathan Hickman’s latest X-Men stories. Gideon the Ninth, in a way! The new pen-and-paper RPG Stillfleet, too.
It connects back to Jack Kirby’s New Gods, and the cosmic strain he brought to Marvel: Silver Surfer, Galactus, the Watcher, etc. Indeed, the large-format graphic novel Silver Surfer: Black, published in 2020, is a perfect example of the modern cosmic fantasy I’m thinking about.
The video game Destiny also plays in this sandbox, and if we compare it to the same studio’s previous offering, Halo, we see a wisp of tracer dye. The progression from Halo to Destiny feels like a retreat from “high modern” science fiction —
It strikes me as a return to the Jack Vance-ian mode, alongside a relentless telescoping of scale: the new cosmic fantasy sort of begins with dark techno-gods twisting reality into knots, rather than culminating there. It’s a deep lineage, with links to Vance, to M. John Harrison’s Viriconium, even to the original Dungeons & Dragons, which took both as inspiration —
(For the uninitiated, Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth is interesting to dip into, because it prefigures so much other science fiction, or science fantasy, or whatever; the first stories were published around 1950. Vance died in 2013. He lived in the Oakland Hills, and I would think of him whenever I looked up at the line of dark trees and glinting windows.)
If you’re a reader of science fiction, or science fantasy, or whatever: have you noticed this resurgence, too? And, if so, can you put your finger on what might have catalyzed it? Conversely, feel free to tell me I have this totally wrong. It’s something that’s flickered in my peripheral vision for about a decade now; an influence I am trying to be very deliberate about accepting or rejecting.
RIP Gary Paulsen. From an interview with NPR:
BALABAN: What ultimately saved a teenage Gary Paulsen was the library.
PAULSEN: And it became a sanctuary for me. The librarian —
she watched me for a while. I was kind of this urchin, you know, a street urchin. Then she finally said, you want something? I said, nah I’m OK. And she gave me a card and — hard to talk about it. It was a card with my name on it. And, God, nobody had given me anything like that. Nobody gave me anything.
It’s worth listening to the audio, so you can hear that it’s hard for Gary Paulsen to talk about, around 2:58. A library card is a powerful thing.
If you are, like me, a fan of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, you will perhaps, like me, be shocked to discover there is A MUSIC VIDEO you never knew about, animated by the studio in the mid-1990s. It’s fabulous: a futuristic vision, simultaneously both totally Ghibli and totally strange.
I discovered this thanks to a recent edition of the Animation Obsessive newsletter, for which I’m grateful.
I’ve been having an unexpected amount of fun playing Brogue, a classic in the “roguelike” genre of video games, free to download for Mac, PC, and Linux.
Some of you reading this already know about roguelikes: a kind of video game with deep roots —
There are a whole host of modern roguelikes (or “roguelites”, somewhat more forgiving) with slick graphics and clever mechanics and fancy things like “sound effects”. Brogue is deeply traditional: its dungeons are built entirely from single Unicode characters. A stone wall is
# … a magic staff is
/ … a great and terrible dragon is
It’s so minimalist that it works like reading: at first, the interface is just a spray of random characters, but then, as you’re pulled into exploring and battling and, inevitably, making difficult decisions, it resolves into a kind of gripping dream, just the way a book does, just as improbably.
And that core roguelike characteristic, the fact that each attempt brings with it a new dungeon to explore, unknown and unknowable, is really … exciting? Each dungeon is generated from a single numeric “seed”, generally random, but you can sock away seeds, and you can share them, too. I will reveal to you that I had a lot of fun in the dungeon with the seed 282310737, making it down as far as level 12.
These images are just amazing, aren’t they? The Met has a huge collection of prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi—almost too much to process.
That’s it for today! Media Lab committee, more tomorrow. Everyone else, I can’t wait to share this new project on Tuesday!
From Oakland, still getting hosed down,
Sent to the Society in October 2021