Very few of my early musical memories are independent of my parents, who listened to a wide variety of genres, artists, and time periods. Through them I was exposed to Meatloaf, John Denver, Bach, Bread, Stevie Nicks, and a host of other musicians to whom I still listen. Their album library contained the entire world of music as far as I was concerned, and I didn’t listen to anything they didn’t until I was twelve or thirteen, when my older sister brought alternative rock into the house by way of Linkin Park.
There are some albums I remember listening to constantly; others just seem like music I had been hearing my whole life. George Winston is one of these artists whose work seems as second-nature and familiar to me as my own voice. George Winston likewise had a varied musical upbringing, enjoying the work of rock groups of the age, old jazz and blues standards, and classical pieces. This led him to develop a style of piano he calls “rural folk piano”, others call ‘new age’ or ‘easy listening’, and I just call awesome. Whether he’s covering Vince Guaraldi’sSchultz scores, country songs, or performing pieces of his own invention, George Winston’s music has always been a favorite of mine and is great music to write to or relax with.
I have 10 of Winston’s albums, and am sure there is more out there which I haven’t heard yet. I think what attracts me to Winston’s work is the simplicity of his compositions and sounds. One man and a piano – that’s what Winston offers and that’s what you get. He makes a habit of playing shows in nothing fancier than jeans, a comfy shirt, and stocking feet, walking on stage with so little pomp and circumstance behind him that many in the audience mistake him for a technician coming out to tune the piano. His work is easy to absorb and yet infinitely captivating – I really could listen to it for hours; I know because I have.
As I get into my eighth round of edits for my novel, I’ve really taken the idea of simplicity to heart. Simple doesn’t have to mean boring, or demure, or slow, or anything like that. When you write in bare bone language, you force yourself to be exacting about what you are trying to convey, creating a clearer picture for the reader. When you allow your thoughts to come through with simplicity, you give them a force that complicated, roundabout sentences and structures steal away. Every word in a sentence should have a unique value to it, but you don’t need to be running to the thesaurus every thirty seconds to try to avoid bland words. A spicy vocabulary isn’t the key to good writing; it’s not the horsepower of your words, but the ideas that get registered in the reader’s mind that give a story its punch.
It’s the simple things that come to mean the most to us as life marches on. Sunday mornings with our parents; cups of tea we shared with friends; mornings we slept in; going on that ferry ride when you were five. It’s in some of the simplest things in life, a red rose, the sound of rain, a smile, in which we find the most beauty. It should not be too surprising then that art that is simple can often be the most beautiful, the most captivating, and the most memorable.
When it comes to iconic directors of the Studio Era of Hollywood, one cannot overlook the masterful movies of Alfred Hitchcock. A visionary behind the camera and a good eye for talent, his movies were cinematically stunning as well as incredibly entertaining. North by Northwest is a perfect example of this talent. Every actor is a Hitchcock regular, each perfectly cast for their roles. But what are truly breathtaking about this film are the painstakingly implemented aspects of mise-en-scene that are present in every shot. These aspects work together flawlessly to produce a vivid and extraordinary film. While it is hard to pick just one scene to analyze from this film, let’s look at the unforgettable crop duster scene. This being said I am more personally interested in the parts of this scene that take place before the crop duster begins attacking our leading man. Therefore for the purposes of this exploration, the scene begins when the shot fades away from Eve Kendall’s face and ends when the car with the farmer appears in the distance.
First, let’s consider the lighting of these shots. Everything is extremely bright – so much so that the vast empty fields of brown and yellow almost hurt your eyes. This is definitely high-key lighting, used to match the time of day presented in the film, supposedly around two o’clock in the afternoon. The whole area is lit like this, not just the space around the main character, thus drawing our eyes all around him, forcing us to notice the setting in which he is standing. There is little in the frame to cast shadows at any point, making the environment look even more barren. The bus, cars, and Thornhill himself do cast long shadows, but Thornhill’s is barely noticeable as the camera is rarely above him, but is placed at about waist level the majority of the time. In summary, the lighting contributes to the visual sense of flatness, of emptiness that the audience sees returned to again and again in this scene. It gives us nothing to look at but the glaring nakedness of the setting. The audience will later realize when Thornhill is being attacked by the plane, why this lack of features was so impressed upon them: he has no cover, nowhere to run for safety.
The costume/makeup aspect of mise-en-scene, while understated in these shots, is nonetheless vital to the impact of this scene. When Thornhill steps off of the bus, he is a dark splotch on the otherwise mono-color light brown and yellow landscape. The bus itself, being a bright white, also draws our eye as it passes through the shot. When the camera does close-ups on Thornhill, the dark grey of his suit, while in the same general color-scheme of yellow and brown, stands out from the light dirt in the road and the cloudless blue sky, forcing the audience’s eyes to follow him. Thornhill’s dark hair and suit also causes the light-colored dust sticking to him to be noticeable as it is blown onto him by a passing truck, illustrating the dryness of his surroundings without the need for any dialogue.
This relates directly to the aspect of acting and staging. There is no dialogue in this scene and very little diegetic sound as well. The only sounds the audience hears are the sounds of the vehicles on the road as they drive past Thornhill, the distant sound of the crop duster, and Thornhill’s own feet as he shuffles in place by the bus stop sign. The audience’s ears are as empty as the setting before them and this forces them into a state of high alertness, making them wary of any sound or object that they catch sight or sound of. This, in turn, heightens the feeling of suspense. So does the physical acting of Cary Grant as the anxious Roger Thornhill. Without any dialogue, the audience can only read his body language to see how he is feeling. He stands tensely at the bus stop for a moment, looking around. All of the camera shots are long and far away. We are constantly reminded of how empty this place is by shots of the road from eye level, stretching off in either direction with nothing around it. Likewise we are allowed to see from Thornhill’s perspective as he looks around at the fields, barren, with no buildings except those way off in the distance. In one of these shots, we see and barely hear the distant crop duster, spreading its pesticides so far away we can barely tell what it is, let alone attach any significance to it. This is a classic Hitchcock device, where he lets you see the object of danger long before you are aware it poses any risk.
We watch every moment of Thornhill’s exploration of the space, never skipping ahead to see him still waiting – no ellipses are used. His hands go into his pockets, but his upper body remains tense, his eyes always moving. Every time a car or vehicle drives by, there is the slightest lifting of his hands out of his pockets, as if he is always preparing to initiate some action, but is then disappointed when no car stops. The audience watches three of these exchanges, which stretches out their sense of the time within the scene. The audience is waiting with Thornhill, and like him, they cannot make a move until an action occurs. The combination of Cary Grant’s great physical acting and Hitchcock’s choice of long, perspective shots combine to increase the suspense felt by the audience while emphasizing the delicacy of Thornhill’s position – he has been lured into the wilderness and abandoned there to be killed and he doesn’t even know it yet; for that matter, neither do we. We only sense, as he does, that something is wrong.
These aspects of mise-en-scene and their use together with space and time work together to reinforce the narrative by creating and sustaining a feeling of suspense and tension within the audience. It also keeps the audience focused on the action of the main character, while still managing to frame his position with several wide, vanishing point perspective shots. Without the aspects of mise-en-scene mentioned above, one of the most famous spy thriller scenes of all time would have seemed flat and tensionless, putting the audience to sleep.
Steven almost bankrupted himself doing laundry the first year he was away from home. He could be seen in the dorm laundry room at least three times a week, and sometimes more, a load or two spinning away in the machines as he stood by with a dreamy smile on his face, his eyes closed, headphone buds deep in each ear. It got so bad that food, let alone textbooks, was impossible for him to buy.
He was lucky enough to find a summer job as a lifeguard at the local Y. Though he hated every minute he spent in the chlorine drenched place, Steven would work double, even triple shifts to dig himself out of the financial hole he had washed himself into. He didn’t want to ask his parents for help, knowing that asking for their assistance would mean admitting to a truth he hadn’t fully acknowledged himself.
Steven was an addict. He was addicted to the smell of laundry.
For a while it was enough just to press his face into his freshly laundered sheets and clothes. But the scent would remain for only a few days, a week at the most. The smell of laundry detergent straight from the bottle wasn’t the same either; it was too concentrated, too acrid, and made his eyes water rather than his pulse slow in gentle contentment.
Steven had always been high-strung. Ever since he was a child he was prone to various nervous ailments and anxiety attacks. He didn’t know why, but the warm, soft smell of laundry, as it sloshed about in steaming water, as it tumbled dry, spinning and falling over itself like a skilled acrobat; the smell soothed him, so he could think and enjoy the world around him like everyone else.
He knew how it sounded. He couldn’t explain it himself. But the fact remained that functioning as an adult in day-to-day life became increasingly difficult for him if Steven didn’t immerse himself in the downy smell of laundry at least once a day.
Looking back, it was ridiculous how long it took him to realize the perfect solution to his problem. Steven smiled as he stood behind the Laundromat counter, watching the Sunday crowd in the midst of its peak drying phase. His Laundromat was the tidiest and cheapest in town, and it was always busy.
Steven was well-liked by the local community. His easy-going nature and calm demeanor fit in well with the rest of the sleepy small town. When asked what his secret was to such spiritual bliss, Steven would simply smile his dreamy smile, take in a deep breath through his nose, and answer, “Clean living.”
Of all the forms of visual art, photography is unique in that it has the ability to capture moments in real-time, as they are happening, virtually instantaneously. Since it’s invention, the photographic camera has been used to capture moments from our everyday lives, recording birthdays, family gatherings, the building of new structures, Sunday afternoons, and late nights. With the increasing portability of the camera, its uses became even more varied. You could carry a camera in your pocket, and now, most of us do in the form of a cell phone camera. Anything worth recording, (and it is we who decides what qualifies as ‘worth recording’), anything we wish to share or remember or examine can be captured in a flash and represented to the wide world with a few swipes.
Dorothea Lange, born in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1895, is at least partially responsible for this trend of documentary photography. Her work with the FSA, the Farm Security Administration which was created during the Great Depression in an attempt to help the hundreds of thousands left destitute and starving by the economic collapse, remains some of the most beautiful and affecting photography in American history. Lange humanized problems and hardships that might have otherwise been viewed as abstract numbers and faraway tragedies, in many cases directly influencing the distribution of money and aid to the places in America that needed those most. By capturing in an enduring medium that which her eyes saw, she gave weight to her perceptions and experiences, and the experiences of thousands.
Her photographs have been displayed in countless museums around the world. Her series of photographs documenting the internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans during World War II were considered so critical by the government body who commissioned them that they were confiscated. Lange’s work resonates with people, the same way a family photograph resonates, even when the figures in them may be complete strangers – it shows the truth of the human experience, of our everyday life, the hardships and joys and relationships which bind us all together, no matter where we live or what our economic background may be.
There’s a maxim repeated frequently in writing classes and seminars: Write what you know. As someone who writes a lot of genre fiction I always found this advice somewhat useless. I don’t know what it’s like to live in a zero gravity environment, but I can imagine it, so why shouldn’t I be able to write about it? But as I’ve matured in my writing and in my life, I’ve come to understand this rule differently. No matter what genre you write in or what medium of art you call home, it’s important to create work which resonates with your own experiences of living in this world; it is these experiences which have universal implications for us all, these emotions and perceptions which give a work of art meaning for a larger audience than just ourselves.
Write what you know. Document what you see, what you feel, what you think. Snapshots of history are valuable, whether they preserve a history with international implications or the story of one person in a larger world. They give context to our experiences, reasons to improve, and, perhaps most important of all, assure us that no matter what we’re going through, we are not alone.
Alexander von Humboldt, as characterized by Kehlmann in Measuring the World, is a different type of man from Gauss all together. Kehlmann represents him as a man determined to classify, calculate, and quantify the world around him; and never to doubt that such things are possible. Within Kehlmann’s text, Humboldt is driven in this task because he is in fact terrified by everything that he does not know. Kehlmann communicates this through the character of one of Humboldt’s professors, who teaches him that “Whenever things [are] frightening, it [is] a good idea to measure them” (Kehlmann 16).
Kehlmann’s novel postulates that the fantastic makes itself inescapably known to Humboldt whenever he thinks he has reached the pinnacle of human knowledge about the world which surrounds him. One of the firmest examples of this device is found in the chapter entitled “The Mountain”, in which Humboldt and Bonpland, his companion and assistant, seek to scale the mountain Chimborazo. This journey is fraught with visits from the fantastic to the point that even Humboldt’s comedic companion Bonpland is at the mercy of them. The narrator tells us, “At first Bonpland was oblivious to the gentleman in dark clothes trudging sadly at their side. Only when the figure transformed itself into a geometrical shape…did he feel uneasy” (Kehlmann 144). Even so, it is Humboldt himself that seems the most dogged by these inexplicable visions. The narrator tells us that Humboldt, “As for himself…[had] been seeing the lost dog for quite some time…It wasn’t a pretty sight, and he was having to keep a tight hold on himself to keep from screaming” (Kehlmann 146). Humboldt is seeking to deny the experience to himself. By treating it rationally and without emotion, Humboldt tries to ignore that which he can not quantify.
Yet even for the great rational naturalist, reason is not sufficient defense against the fantastic. At the end of his great achievement, when he is trying to quantify the amount they have climbed, how much of the world he has conquered with measurement, he breaks down. “Please excuse him, said Humboldt, he was having difficulty pulling himself together. Please could someone put the dog on the lead!” (Kehlmann 150). As much as Humboldt tries to rationalize and ignore the fantastic events that infringe on what he thinks of as reality, Kehlmann demonstrates through his use of this romantic aspect, that there are experiences in life that even the greatest naturalist cannot catalog and dissect . Humboldt cannot accept such unknowns and therefore he tries to deny their existence.
“As I stand out here in the wonders of the unknown at Hadley, I sort of realize there’s a fundamental truth to our nature, Man must explore . . . and this is exploration at its greatest” (“Space Quotations”).
“The wonders of the unknown” are what every explorer from the dawn of time has sought to penetrate and unravel. Kehlmann presents us Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Gauss as such voyagers into the unknown, albeit in very different ways. One preferred a telescope to a canoe, and the other couldn’t measure a mountain without climbing it. Furthermore, they had very different relationships to the “unknown” aspects of the world. The character of Carl Friedrich Gauss seemed to revel in the fact that there were things he could not truly know, things beyond even his great mind. Conversely, the character of Alexander von Humboldt lived in fear of the things he could not classify. Rather than accept that within this world lays things that cannot be rationalized or understood, let alone measured, he tried to deny that such things could possibly exist. Daniel Kehlmann uses his historical fiction novel, Measuring the World, and its romantic aspect of the fantastic to get across a larger message. That the true mysteries of the world are beyond the understanding of man; they can’t be quantified, or even explained. In fact, the world is, at its heart, immeasurable.