241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

Cinedix: Contemporary Film Lexicon

An ABC of film through which Paul Kempers finds relationships between various entries from a lexicon on contemporary film. From “South Korean feel good” to “Cinéma á la Grècque” to the “Secret of the Plotless Plot” to “Bruce Willis dialectics.”

Humour, the unexpected, and Pacino, Al – Many thinkers have broken their heads over what makes something funny. Great minds like Sigmund Freud and Henri Bergson have baffled themselves over the exact mechanism to trigger laughter. The father of psychoanalysis argued that spasms of laughter were unconscious manifestations of emotions buried within the Id and the Ego, that spurred the Superego to urge the mouth to open, the stomach muscles to contract, and the vocal chords to fibrillate at maximum intensity. But still, he couldn’t quite lay his finger on what actually made something funny.

Although the vitalist Bergson believed he had uncovered the riddle of laughter with Le Rire, little laughter could be heard during the monotonous readings of his treatise on humour, and there was no revelations on the secret of the joke.

A similar fate befell the casual philosopher, Harry Mulisch, who gladly pontificated the circumstances of wit without as much as a grin from the fellow member of his gentleman’s club. (“Does the joke precede laughter, or is it laughter that brings about the joke? These oppressive questions are a necessary imperative within my writer’s practice.”)

Typically, the practice of humour wisely avoids definitions of humour. Or it’s found in the dry laconic observation that humour comes into existence once the joker enters the stage. Like one forgotten German comedian once said “Humor ist wenn ein Komiker da ist” – an equally dubious as striking deduction in light of German history and Rudi Carrell’s career.

Humour is likewise spoken little of in the world of film, apart from the screenwriters who are expected to have an answer to everything. (“Humour is the result of a mutual misunderstanding between the simple logic of the dictate of tension”) And while actors often discuss their trade, I can’t imagine a conclusive statement on the concept of humour to have ever crawled through the doors of café De Smoeshaan.

But there are actors that are unexpectedly funny.

Take Al Pacino, for example. The 74-year-old actor recently visited the Venice film festival, where two of his newest films were premiering. Pacino plays in Barry Levinson’s filming of Philip Roth’s The Humbling— a burnt out, depressed stage actor begins a relationship with a lesbian woman—and in Manglehorn, in which he, according to Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, plays a “confused ex-convict and locksmith, who has great difficulty with social contacts.”

It all sounds very promising: the depressiveness, the confusion, and the difficulty with social contacts.

Also very promising is the discovery that the eternally grumpy looking Pacino has a sense of humour. He makes some surprising remarks during the press conference. When asked why he’s wearing mirrored sunglasses, the actor replies that his eyes are irritated from allergies. His glasses, the sharply trimmed goatee, the rings, and the beaded necklace, the mullet growing into his neck, are all part of his newest role: an aging rock star searching for his long lost daughter. The film is called Danny Collins.

When he sneezes the actor says: “I’m not sure what I’m allergic to. Maybe it’s my goatee?” See: healthy self image, a girlfriend forty years his junior, competition with Robert De Niro.

Filmlexico Cinedix appeared between 2005 and 2007 in De Filmkrant. The series was revived in 2013. The episodes are sent at irregular intervals to an irregular group of recipients. The author Paul Kempers is a film historian and works at, among others, the Amstedam film museum Eye as writer and editor.

They may not have been called teenagers yet (this word didn't exist until the New York Times wrote a feature on teenagers in 1945) but these youthful subcultures were still recalcitrant, anti-establishment and they dressed to their own codes. In some European cities, this resulted in the formation of youth gangs, some more violent than others:

An arrested member of the Scuttler gang

During the late 19th century, groups of young men known as the Scuttlers alleviated the tedium and smog of the industrial Manchester streets with petty crime and inter-gang battles, fighting with heavy buckled belts decorated with pictures of beasts, the names of women or hearts pierced with arrows. These buckles, swung from their arm, were not intended to kill, but to maim their opponents.

With their hair cut short at the sides but with a so-called donkey fringe (longer on the left side and plastered down over the left eye) and their hats tilted, they were a far cry from the other youths in their working class neighbourhoods. Their bell-bottomed trousers, brass-tipped pointed clogs and colourful silk scarves added to their idiosyncrasy.

Apache Gang

At the start of the 20th century, Parisian youths banded together to form the Apaches, a criminal gang known to be especially violent and ruthless.

They wandered Paris, rejecting their working class status and seduced by cars, girls, nightlife and money, preferring to spend their time at the Moulin Rouge rather than slaving away in a factory.

Apache revolver without a barrel and stabbing knife

The Apache was likewise a dandy: always well dressed in a silk scarf and cap, and with an undeniable hautain air of cool, who had a sense of honour and a taste for distinction. Part of the Apache subculture was a dance that mimicked street fighting, that at times became so violent that members were seriously hurt and even killed.

A group of Eidelweiss Pirates

Fast-forwarding to Nazi Germany, gangs of youths formed that were more politically inclined than their predecessors. The Edelweiss Pirates were a group of loosely organised youths spread all over Germany between the ages of 14 and 18 who refused to take part in the Hitler Jugend.

A group of Eidelweiss Pirates

They heavily rejected the norms of the Nazi regime through mostly small gestures: using outlawed symbols, their dress (long hair, colourful chequered shirts, bright flashy neck scarves,) camping trips (now seen as an innocent pastime that during wartime Germany could have serious consequences,) singing anti-Hitler songs; or by pestering the Hitler Youths by ambushing their patrols and beating them up or stealing their bicycles.

A group of Eidelweiss Pirates

But the Edelweiss Pirates also assisted deserters, concentration camp escapees, and helped spread Allied propaganda leaflets. Of the Ehrenfeld Group, a faction of the Pirates, twelve members were publicly hanged in 1944, including their 16 year old leader Barthel Schink, who had plans to blow up a Gestapo building in Cologne.

Whether getting caught up in bar fights or fighting fascism, these groups had one thing in common: they refused to conform to their elders and explosively resisted.

16 year old Barthel Schink

The diacritic, or accent mark, is a symbol added to a letter to indicate that it has a different phonetic value. Our Latin alphabet is a purely phonetic system of writing – unlike, for example, Chinese which is also representational – so these marks are essential in reproducing spoken meaning. Though rare, diacritics do appear in English but mostly in loanwords (‘soufflé’, ‘naïve’, ‘exposé’, for example). Generally though, different letter pronunciations – in particular, vowels – are dictated by their relationship to other letters in a word (like the ‘i’ in ‘like’ and ‘lick’) or by context (as in, ‘to read’ and ‘to have read’).

At school, during Spanish lessons, I would often leave out diacritics through incompetence or laziness. The exception to this was the tilde (~). I applied it diligently as its exclusion would often be a source of amusement to the teacher and anyone else who twigged when años (‘years’) became anos (‘anus’) up on the whiteboard.

There are numerous examples in the Romance Languages of these not-so-romantic faux pas. A small survey of three friends (Italian, French and Spanish) exemplifies the specificity needed when using these small markings but this is perhaps more revealing of them as individuals than the nature of their mother tongues. Giulia offered a couple in Italian: però (‘but’) becomes pero (‘pear tree’) and, of course, papà (‘dad’) is elevated to papa (‘pope’). Justine cheated a little with her French suggestion: traîne (‘dress train’) and traînée (‘trollop/whore’) – this time it is an addition and not an omission that adds vulgarity.

José El Catalan enthusiastically sent thirteen examples in Castilian – but none in Catalan. He’s a man with a certain way with words mixed with an academic nonchalance – his preferred posture of study was in bed, horizontal, cigarette in one hand, papers in the other, an ashtray balanced on his chest – that I am yet to encounter elsewhere. He sent me a couple of inoffensive slip-ups, most were in the following vein: pené (‘I punished’) and pene (‘penis’); cardó (‘to have combed’) and cardo (‘a very ugly person’); moña (colloq. ‘homosexual’) and mona (colloq. ‘drunkard’). However, he ended with a reverse example where an additional ~ proves problematic: cono (‘cone’) becomes coño (‘cunt’). He also included a note: “enséñame el cono” (‘show me your cone’).

The charm associated with the umbrella term Romance Languages, suddenly seems fraught. Maybe we should return to its historical antecedent: Vulgar Latin. This term provides not only a clear past – as these particular languages developed from a colloquial form of Latin – but can also be used here to hint at the favouring of vulgar terms to exemplify linguistic quirks. The word ‘vulgar’, from the Latin vulgus, means ‘populous’ or rather ‘the people’. It was – still is – amongst the people that language can develop successfully and not in any one centralised government.

On occasion, attempts are made to bring language into line. The Portuguese Language Orthographic Agreement is a treaty that was proposed and signed in 1990 with the aim of standardising Portuguese in all countries where it is spoken. It was adopted by Brazil in 2009 and by Portugal a year earlier where it was supposed to be fazed in slowly, but instead has largely been ignored and resisted. Its measures include a standardisation of pronunciation and the removal of silent consonants (acção (‘action’) becomes ação) as well as some diacritics. It can crudely be likened to homogenising British and American English – for example, in English, you could make a case for changing ‘colour’ to ‘color’… Although I suspect such an attempt would be met with as much resistance here as it has been in Portugal.

One of the most infamous examples championed by Portuguese newspaper columnists is that of the humble tortoise. Although incorrect – the Agreement of 1990 would not actually omit the diacritic on this particular word – the example nonetheless stands as a brash shortcut, a vulgar vehicle, for those in opposition to such homogenisation against the wishes of a country’s vulgus. With the loss of its grave accent, the cágado (‘tortoise’) becomes, simply, cagado (‘shitty’).

This article first appeared in Arc 18.

Illustrations by Jonas Berthod

cuckoo clocks in the living room

Nearly everyone knows them: cuckoo clocks. That miniature house fastened to the wall, heavily decorated with leaves, birds, or other animals. Two iron weights, usually in the shape of pineapples, dangle beneath, and its wooden pendulum is most often covered in a leaf.

Children were – and are – especially fond of them. Time and time again, the little bird peeks out from behind the door to announce the time of day with its call, all the while opening and closing his beak, rocking to and fro, and sometimes even flapping his wings.

Although at one time the clocks were extremely fashionable, they gradually waned in popularity. They were generally considered increasingly kitsch and owning one became ‘not done’. The pinnacles of chic were the clocks from the Dutch areas of Friesland and the Zaan region, or otherwise the comptoises from France. In many cases, the cuckoo clock was exiled to the corridor, often ending up in the attic, and from there on, not seldom, into the rubbish bin!

But why kitsch? Even I have to admit that there are some very ugly specimens out there. The woodcarvings have become gradually less refined and the garish use of colours has become increasingly common. To my sentiment, the word ‘ugly’ is highly applicable in these cases. But to refer to them as kitsch? No.

When I think of kitsch, I think of all the so-called ‘old Dutch’ style Frisian and Zaanse clocks that have been widespread since the fifties and now ‘decorate’ the walls of elderly care homes in great numbers. These clocks can be classified as kitsch because they’re made up of parts from all over: with their multiplex or particleboard housing, their mechanics straight from the Black Forest, and their cast copper decorative elements emblazoned with the text: ‘Nu elck sijn sin’.

There is such a thing as an authentic Zaanse clock, but these are more than half a meter tall, its heavy pear shaped weight must be lifted twice a day, and it will set you back around ten thousand Euros. But then you’ll be the owner of a sample built in the 18th century!

'Zaanse' clock

Nowadays, most ‘experts’ assume that the cuckoo clock was ‘invented’ around 1730 by Franz Anton Ketterer in Schönwald in the Black Forest. Occasionally, the existing types of clocks of the period were fitted with two ‘organ pipes’ that held two small built-in bellows. Every half hour, a mechanism lifted these bellows in turn and since they differed in pitch the ‘cuckoo clock’ was born.

The famous house shaped cuckoo clock was not conceived until much later in around 1860. These clocks were modelled after the signal houses that had become a recent fixture along the railways crossing through the Black Forest, hence their nickname ‘Bahnhäusle’ among the inner circles. Although these early examples already were covered in woodcarvings, they were still relatively sober in execution. Increasing prosperity around the 1880s meant a boom in the variety in design and size. Some clocks were even provided with a second bird:the quail. He pops out every fifteen minutes and each hour he’ll chirp the time in the number displayed by the hour hands. Quite a few of the clocks are equipped with chimes. After the cuckoo’s call, a melody will play, like ‘Edelweiss’ or ‘Der fröhliche Wanderer’ or a snippet from Mozart’s ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik’ to name a few examples.

Since the beginning of its inception, the cuckoo clock has kept up with each style of furniture: ‘Biedermeier cuckoo clocks’, extraordinary Jugendstil examples, clocks in Art Deco style, but also ‘modern’ sixties and seventies versions.

Nowadays, the clocks are often fitted with battery-operated mechanics, ‘decorative’ weights and ditto pendulum. The realistic sound of a chirping cuckoo is programmed onto a chip and played through a speaker in the clock. With this clock in mind, I can sympathise with those referring to the cuckoo clock as kitsch. But the cuckoo’s call has yet to be relinquished and, still, some half a million clocks are manufactured in their ‘place of birth’: the Schwarzwald in the south of Germany. And not, like many believe, in Switzerland or Austria!

the guestroom at Henk Valk
childrens clocks
cuckoo clocks in the living room

Let me tell you a story about bananas.

I was a staff writer for De Groene Amsterdammer for about five years; I was also editor in chief ad interim for one of those five years. This meant that I chaired the weekly staff meetings, looking for things to fill next week's edition with.

Usually, these meetings were fun. These were truly intelligent, intellectual, experienced journalists. When they mentioned Marx, or Weber, or Pushkin, you could be sure they had actually read Marx, and Weber, and Pushkin. This included the strange guys who did the corrections and the guys who did the tele-marketing, calling people at home to sell subscriptions. Most of these were published authors, philosophy students. De Groene was a bit of a sanctuary, a reservation or, if you like, a zoo.

But a clever zoo.

I remember distinctly a young intern. In his second week, I asked him if he had anything to contribute. Yes, he said, I'd like to write about bananas. De Groene has many faults, but it also has a great tradition of trust. Bananas, I said. Fine. Two pages? 1500 words? By next week? Yes, great, the intern said. It was only after we had jotted down the word 'Bananas, 2 pages' on our list that someone in the group asked 'What's with these bananas, then?'

Out came the story: banana's are a monoculture, every banana is genetically the same as all other bananas in the species, there's a virus raging through banana-plantations and as all bananas are vulnerable in the same way, the traditional chiquita banana (the Cavendish variety) may actually disappear. There are other banana varieties, of course, just as healthy and wholesome and nutritious, but these are usually a bit smaller, and have darker skin, and customers in the western world don't like them much. So: crisis.

A very good story. Got picked up by all sorts of other media - radio, TV. If you don't believe me: VPRO's Labyrinth has the story again, next Sunday. Well done, for an intern.