Forward to the Past

There’s a lot to be said for narrative structure. It holds a story together – if you get it wrong, then things go badly, simple as that. And part of what makes a story so interesting is the way it’s told – it has to be captivating, but it still has to get the job done.

A typical ‘trope’ I want to take a look at is the ‘Time Lapse’ Narrative – or the ‘Backwards story-telling’ as it can be described.

It’s usually a film that does what it says on the tin – tells the story in reverse order, from end to beginning instead of vice versa, revealing the effects first and working towards the conclusion along with the cause and motive. Or, the story is told through a series of events presented in memory form, so that the viewer isn’t sure what’s taking place when, and what’s supposed to be known up to this point.

A film that embraces this way of narrative structure, and one of my all-time favourite films, is Memento, directed by Christopher Nolan. Basically Guy Pearce plays a man who’s been injured in such a way that he can’t create long-term memories – everything he experiences is in short, few minute lapses. To overcome this he leaves himself constant notes – on polaroid pictures, in tattoo form on his body etc. To make this more effective though, rather than just telling you this and giving you a third party view, the film shows you two narratives – the first, in black and white, is the very first scene of the film, cut up – this one is shown in the right order. It’s divided up throughout the movie by coloured scenes which start from the very end of the movie, and are shown in reverse – the next memory we see from this is what happened before the last one. Therefore we see the consequences of a seen before understanding what cause it. The two sequences – black & white, and colour – continue following after each other until the movie meets in the middle, and that’s where it ends.

It’s an incredible decision to make, because there’s the risk that it could be thoroughly confusing, or that it just wouldn’t work at all – but the thing is it does – in fact, it enhances the story. By not knowing what happened before, we share the same journey as the main character – we can’t remember it just like he can’t, and therefore we’re forced into the scenario with him, and forced to make decisions based off of nothing but the information he has recorded – which, when it comes to it, isn’t really that reliable.

For sure, the movie wouldn’t have the same affect or impact if it was shown in chronological order – if you want to see a bit of it for yourself, the video below is exactly that (warning: spoilers, duh).

I can guarantee you it just doesn’t work in the same way at all – in fact it’s a little boring. Okay, a lot boring. And why is that? Because the narrative has nothing of interest. It’s just a plain old story following a plain old structure and script – there’s nothing to keep momentum, nothing to hold the eye of the viewer, no surprises or twists when we know what’s coming – or rather, what’s already been. There’s nothing surprising about the events that happen. That’s the key to good film narrative – there’s always got to be something left wanting.

Adoration of the Artist: Hieronymus Bosch

The life of Bosch is an intriguing mystery – little is known of his early life, or where he studied in painting and arts. He wrote little in the form of letters and had no diaries accompanying his work – in fact all we know of him is either through his paintings, or through brief references to him through other people’s writing – we don’t even know for certain when he was born.

Part of the Early Renaissance, Bosch lived all of his life in the Netherlands, and is known to have come from a family of artists and painters, though none of their works can be found today. He was named for the city he lived in, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, is believed to have had two brothers and a sister, and married sometime around 1480.

But the mystery isn’t all that makes him so interesting – his art is a marvel to behold, and in my opinion his work is the most detailed and interesting I’ve ever seen. He was fond of triptychs, a series of paintings that slotted in beside each other to create a combined scene, the most famous of which is ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights, which shows the garden of Eden along with Adam and Eve in the first panel, Paradise and the creatures and animals that inhabit it in the middle, and Hell and its sinner in the last. When the outer panels are closed they show God created the Earth.

The Garden of Earthly Delights – Closed panels

His paintings show a sketched and quickened pace, contrasting the with the Flemish traditional way of painting with fast but crucial brushstrokes that go uncovered.

One of my favourite paintings of his is ‘The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things’ as shown below.

‘The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things’ – Hieronymus Bosch

The sins are shown in the larger circle, starting with Wrath at the bottom then (clockwise) followed by Envy, Greed, Gluttony, Sloth, Lust and Pride, and are depicted through scenes involving people in everyday life, rather than personifications of the sins – this is probably to make people relate to them more in an attempt to stop them from doing these things. In the corners of the painting are the ‘Four Last Things’ – in this case, the four things that will happen after Judgement Day – beginning in the top left we have the Death of the Sinner, then Judgement, Hell and finally Glory. In the very centre of the painting is the eyes of God, and within that Christ can be seen emerging from his tomb.

The Latin in the inscription, Cave Cave Deus Videt, stands for ‘Beware, Beware, God Sees’.

A lot of contrasting meanings and interpretations have been given to Bosch’s paintings – and seeing as he never made any notes about any of them, there’s a lot open for discussion. In the early twentieth century they were viewed as heretical pieces, obscure and undesirable. Others thought it was a form of abstract humor or an early form of surrealism, intended to distort the world into one of nightmares and monsters. Many didn’t find his work very pleasant to look at for long – sure enough the closer you look, the more odd or gruesome scenarios you’re bound to find.

Nowadays its generally thought that his paintings were created to teach the stories of Christianity to the wider populace, and encourage them to follow God – sure enough the many depictions of Christ, beginning with ‘Adoration of the Child’ detail Jesus’ life in a storytelling fashion. ‘The Seven Deadly Sins’ also seems to back this theory up, as it feels as though its a reminder of what happens to those who Sin, and a warning towards the people at the time not to do so.

Whatever the true intention behind the paintings are, I’ve always found them fascinating in their attention to detail, and their incredible scope – the triptychs in particular are at a level of genius, depicting well known biblical stories in an epic way.

Avant Garde: A Surrealist Point of View

Beginning in the early 1920’s as part of the era of Modernism, the artistic movement of Surrealism was one that would influence and inspire a great many more movements in the later 20th century. Made up of illogical and occasionally disturbing paintings, and inspired by Freuds theories of psychoanalysis, Surrealist often took elements of the world we know and twisted them into other things, things that would best suit dreams and nightmares instead of anything realistic.

Most of the paintings contained strange creatures or places made from everyday objects, and consisted of unexpected compositions and shapes – many artists describe them as a combination of real-life and the dream-world. But at the same time, these pieces were often used to depict real-life issues or thoughts in a distorted way – thus a lot of surrealist artists made great use of symbolism.

Andre Breton, a leading painter of the time, believed that Surrealism was a revolutionary movement – and considering that in the Postmodern era many techniques used were almost identical to surrealist art, he could have been right.

Whilst Breton’s paintings are certainly something to be considered with their odd manipulations of the human figure, the artist I want to take a closer look at is Salvador Dali. A Spanish painter, born in 1904, Dali was best known for his bizarre paintings contributed to the surrealist era. His paintings are detailed and clearly a work of talent, but depict exceedingly odd and slightly disturbing scenes, credited to his wild imagination and tendency to be a little eccentric.

The Persistence of Memory – Salvador Dali

One of his most famous works is ‘The Persistence of Memory’, which as you might recognise depicts a series of melting clocks, including one melting over the branch of a tree, an image which is globally known. The most popular interpretation of the images in this painting are that time is fluid and flexible – it can be melted and bent and changed into whatever form imaginable – it can even be destroyed, if the pocket watch on the ground being eaten by ants is anything to go by. It’s been thought that it was a confirmation on his part to Einstein’s theory of relativity in that time is not fixed.

True to the Surrealist form, Dali used a lot of in-depth symbolism like this in his paintings. The elephant is known as a recurring image throughout his work, first appearing in the following painting, so brilliantly named:

‘Dream caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening’ – Salvador Dali

Inspired by a Roman sculpture of an elephant carrying an obelisk, the elephant shown has elongated legs and is carrying some form of obelisk shape on their back, creating a distorted version of reality. The reasoning behind this, apparently, is thought to be that the elephant represents a distortion of space and gravity.

“I am painting pictures which make me die for joy, I am creating with an absolute naturalness, without the slightest aesthetic concern, I am making things that inspire me with a profound emotion and I am trying to paint them honestly.”

              – Salvador Dali

Various other things make common appearances in his work – the egg is used to convey love and hope – ants often mean death or decay – the snail somehow relates to a human head – and locusts would represent fear.

The idea of Surrealism tended to be using objects and animals to mean something else – and in the strange world of nonsense and dreams and imagination, these things had a much more important definition, one that brought together the seemingly randomness of the painting into something more understandable, which is what I feel makes Surrealist art so fascinating to view – to study, analyse, and find whatever meaning you can in the vast array of strangeness.

The Curse of Cursive

Handwriting is a rather odd concept. Not only have we developed to a stage of being able to write a shared set of letters and words to understand each other, but we’ve each individually found our own way of writing them – much like a signature, our hand-writing is a way of defining ourselves, of telling us apart from others and giving us comfort in our own words.

What’s even odder is that there are those who believe that handwriting defines us a lot more than that. Graphology is the study of handwriting from a psychological point of view. Some people seem to think that a person’s handwriting can determine their personality, and what they’re likely to say and act like in a situation. Similar to the Lombroso theory (the assumption that a “born criminal” could be identified by a persons physical appearance and defects), it’s under controversy as a valid way to determine a human beings actions – in my personal opinion it’s ridiculous.

[Watch the following video from 16:09 to see examples of Graphology being completely wrong]

What is interesting are the justifications behind certain types of writing styles, and why they’re perceived that way by these ‘experts’. Graphology itself is said to be based on the fact that when we write, our ego is more active than at any other time, meaning that we put a lot of our thought and effort into the concentration of writing, and somehow pouring our personality into it in such a way that it can be read.

Let’s do a little experiment. Below is an example of my own handwriting:

my own handwriting and signature

my own handwriting and signature

Now, according to a graphologist, the noncontinuous looping means that I’m both selective and unsure of myself. The use of looping in a few letters could mean I’m a determined person, or that I tend to be relaxed and harmonious. A messy dot of the ‘i’ and stroke of the ‘t’ means that I have an attention to detail – or in another analysis it could mean I’m easily irritated, or maybe I’m just forgetful. Finally, the spacing is apparently a sign that I’m self-centred, ostentatious and don’t forget intrusive – all determined apparently because I like to leave a clear space between words when I’m writing.

While some of these verdicts might be correct, they’re correct in the same way horoscopes seem so magical for some people – they’re vague and general enough to apply to anyone and everyone. And don’t even get me started on the contradictions.

There are three main approaches in Graphology; the first in Integrative, which believes that specific stroke structures – how the letters are angled and looped and every line is drawn – relate to what the writer is thinking. Holistic graphology studies the basis of form, movement and spacing – it values the overall context to tell personality traits. Finally we have Symbolic analysis, which looks for symbols or habits seen in handwriting. An example of this can be seen in John Wayne’s signature, where a portion of his name is darkened, and the letter ‘J’ is said to be the shape of a lung – this was assumed to represent his lung cancer.

A letter from John Wayne, with his signature at the bottom

Of course the actual value of this ‘prediction’ is uncredited – it was said after he’d been diagnosed, and therefore has no real validity – but it goes to show how serious Graphology is taken. From 1930 to 2000, it was the most influential system in the United States, and there are academic institutions around the world which teach a degree in handwriting analysis. Even though being used as a form of proof in the court of law isn’t one of its prominent uses any more, Graphology is still used in the employment sector as a recruiting tool to evaluate candidates, despite the fact that surveys studying the results have been found negative.

So despite being completely ridiculous as a way of screening someone, and determining a person’s personality from, graphology is amazingly taken to heart by a lot of people – some who even want a degree in it so they can continue to predict things that aren’t true. If you’re interested, why not consult the encouraging ‘Personal Worth Chart’ dreamed up by the Handwriting Consultants of San Diego to give your own handwriting, or a friends, a fun, and probably wrong, evaluation.

Illusions of Life: The Beginnings of Animation

Animation, and the concept of movement in art, isn’t as modern a concept as you’d perhaps think – sure enough its only in the past century that its become a popular medium, what with feature-length films and the technology to sustain it, but attempts and successes at creating that sought after illusion of life are all throughout history. Before the likes of Disney and co brought frame-by-frame motion shown in sequence for our enjoyment, through the likes of Snow White and Pinocchio – in fact, before film was even a concept for us – depictions f people and animals in motion through static art have existed almost as far back as we’ve been around.

What I’m talking about are shown in cave paintings of the Paleolithic era, many of which show a series of animals drawn in oddly angled positions, blurring with one another, or with multiple limbs on one creature. Whilst no certainty has been give, its thought that these were the very first attempts at showing motion within a still image.

Moving on, we find an Egyptian mural painted on the walls of a tomb shows a sequence of images timed after one another – scenes of young soldiers being trained in combat. Interesting to note is there is no real way of viewing the images in motion – no spinning device, no way to move around it – but it does indicate the intention of showing motion as a series of events happening one after the other.

4000 year old paintings on an Egyptian burial chamber wall.

Sticking with the Egyptians, who seemed to have a knack for understanding anatomy and positioning, another form of ‘intended animation’ that’s far more successful can be seen at the Temple of Isis. Commissioned by Pharaoh Rameses II in 1600 BC, the columns that make up the temple are each decorated with a painted figure of the goddess Isis herself, her movements slightly different each time. To someone walking past it would give of the appearance of movement.

3 of the over 100 Temple of Isis drawings, showing the detail of each pose.

There are many more examples throughout history, but the next most significant step comes about in the 17th century, when humanity started developing the devices to show these pictures in motion at the intended rate, rather than as still images.

The Magic Lantern is a 17th century product, best described as the earliest form of a projector. Through the use of mirrors and lots of back-lighting tricks directing as much light as possible towards the glass, the owner could project oil paintings fitted onto the lamp on the wall or screen in front of it. Whilst mostly used for showing pictures, there were known cases of showing a series of images intended to show movement, thus making this the earliest depiction of an animated film (maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, but it was definitely the most convenient way anyone had viewed these images in order before).

After that begins the series of tropes and scopes – starting with the Thaumatrope of the 1820’s, which consisted of a small circular disk with two different picture on either side attached to a piece of string. When twirled, it gave the illusion of combing the two images into one. Then there’s the Phenakistoscope developed just ten years later. Sticking with the disk idea, a series of images were drawn evenly spaced apart and spun in front of a mirror – looking at the mirror, the images would appear to be moving.

Onto the Zoetrope, greek for ‘wheel of life’. In actuality, the Zoetrope wasn’t even actually a 19th century creation – the amazing thing is that in 180 AD a Chinese inventor by the name of Ting Huan created a device almost identical, instead made of translucent paper and hung over a lamp.

Finally we have the Praxinoscope, created in 1877 and used by the French teacher Charles-Emile Reynaud to project the first publicly shown animation, ‘Pauvre Pierrot’ (Poor Pete), in Paris. It’s one of the first animated films ever made, consisting of 500 individually painted images, presented and manipulated by Reynaud himself, and lasting about fifteen minutes.

 So as it turns out, before we even had the technology to view animation properly, at its intended speed, humanity had no trouble depicting movement and a sequence of accurately spaced images and paintings – all it lacked was the right equipment.

Connect the Semiotic Dots

What follows is the research and tasks I carried out for the Semiotics lecture. First off, I collected a few examples of signs, and sorted them into the three categories (a more detailed description of the three words can be found in the previous post).

– Icons (Representational)

– Indexes (Directly connected to the signified)

– Symbols (Lost its dependence on resemblance)

Symbols, Indexes and Icons

Next, I created a continuum (a table/graph with one subject chosen, and then shown through a variety of representational icons, to written symbols)

Semiotics table

The process goes from the received representation of a book, which is a photograph of an actual book, along through a detailed drawing of one, a cartoon image and then a kindle, which is basically the electronic version of a book in the modern world. Above that we have things that represent the book in a more symbolic way, including pages and bookmarks.

Then we move along to the abstract and the percieved, which in all definitions fall to words and letters. The word book, portrayed in different languages (here it’s shown in french), and other words for books (such as novel, story, volume etc.). Finally we reach the most abstract form which is the dictionary definition.

What’s This? What’s This? There’s Symbols Everywhere…

It’s always strange to think how the world could’ve been different. With a little change in thought or handwriting, the symbols we know stand for things today could have completely different meanings altogether – what if 3 was the symbol for twenty-four, or a smiley face emoticon meant someone was angry? Symbols are ideas, and ideas are generated from what we think of an object, and what we think it stands for. Our interpretations and meanings could have been opposite from what they are – a symbol is just the definition humans have assigned to an object.

It a little of a confusing subject I’ll grant you, but then I tend to over-think things, so lets simplify it a bit. This post will cover the topic we learned about in week 3, and a range of information on Semiotics – the study of signs and symbols.

Firstly, let’s be clear about what a symbol and it’s relatives mean.

A Symbol represents an object – it is the given idea, it’s most abstract form of identifying it, and most of the time bears no resemblance at all. The only thing that keeps it identifiable is our preconceived connection between the symbol and the intended meaning.

An Index is a little more familiar to us – it usually has similarities to the object its representing, whether in terms of colour, or the same characteristics, or if its just a silhouette of it. It could be anything from the Mickey Mouse head, to a painting of a celebrity.

Finally, an Icon is directly connected to the signified – it’s either an exact replica of the object, or it has a direct relation to it. For example, a hand-print relates to a person, and a photograph of a penguin is clearly identifiable as a penguin.

This is a penguin by the way. Contemplating his life choices (copyright T.J.Rich)

Take a moment to think how many different things this penguin could represent. What do you think of when someone says the word ‘penguin’? It could just be a photograph used to show what a penguin is – or it could be used for referencing, or anatomy. And then if we make it a little more abstract, the penguin as a symbol of Penguin books. Or maybe you think of Tux the penguin, mascot of Linux, a computer operating system. Or it could just remind you of Penguin chocolate biscuits. The list goes on; Penguinrandomhouse, Club Penguin, etc, etc.

The point I’m trying to make is that this animal has been taken and used for such a variety of things in such a strong way, that when someone says ‘Penguin’, dozens of meanings pop into your head beside the original creature. And this is where the importance of understanding symbol and icons comes into our way of living.

They can be used to communicate in a way that’s either universal, or that’s only shared between people who know the code – a drawing of a sun could mean light, power, or it could just be a way of saying hello, depending on who’s ‘reading’ it and talking through it. We give our own definitions to abstract symbols, and this leads to both an easier way of speaking across language, and a sneakier and more secretive way of communication. Either way, we’ve definitely gotten used to universal signs and interpreting them in the way they were intended to be interpreted.

Nine Lives

Throughout history, humanity have created gods and goddesses based on their own images and those of the creatures and world around them. Sometimes these can be seen through personifications of phenomena (the sun, war, love etc.) or they’re seen as protectors of people and places.

Animals are a significant factor in the world of mythology and folklore – from the wolf as a sign of trickery and deception in the tale Red Riding Hood, the snake as a cunning, sly creature like the one in Eden, or the bear as a symbol of strength and courage in Norse mythology. What I’m going to focus on is the cat, domestic and wild, and how its image has evolved through the years.

Wild cats, and felines such as lions and tigers, are generally personifications of power or war, and often associated with leaders and kings. Domestic cats are more symbols of home and general life, protectors in a far closer and familial way. Sometimes they were worshiped as simply important creatures of a divine nature, other times treated as a god themselves.

The most famous interpretation of a cat being recognised as a form of deity would be in the Ancient Egyptian culture, where the Goddess Bast was depicted as a cat, most often a fierce lioness who was defender of the current Pharaoh and the sun-god Ra. She was worshiped as a lunar deity because of a cat’s nocturnal nature.

Bastet, as shown in her later domesticated-cat form

As a female deity she was also associated with the gentler image of the domestic cat, and a sign of fertility and motherhood. She also took the role of patron goddess of cats, which were creatures that were well-fed and cared for as they were thought of as a connection to the gods.

Also worshiped in Egypt was the lion god Maahes, who represented the destructive power of the sun, and Sekhmet, a war goddess who protected Upper Egypt. There is also the Sphinx, who was not considered a God – it was a combination of lion and human forms to protect the place it was kept. Sphinx show up in other cultures as well – in Greek mythology one challenges Oedipus to answer a riddle if he wanted to get by her and enter the city of Thebes – this riddle is the well-known “Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?”

Moving on, we reach Norse mythology. The goddess Freya, known as the goddess of love and fertility, rode a chariot that was pulled by domestic cats the size of lions.

Freya

In Celtic lore, cats were considered to be guardians of the gates to the Otherworld (the spirit world), or guards of treasuries and the wealth of the gods. Some people even believed they were the spiritual link between humans and the universe.

Things got decidedly worse in the Middle Ages, when cats became associated with witches and the devil. The classical stereotype of a witch was the image of an old woman on broomstick with a black cat, which was considered their ‘familiar’ – speaking to and even naming a pet cat was considered a mark towards witchcraft. They were thought to have influence over the weather – which is why a witch would ride with a cat sitting on the front of the broomstick to cast storms.

There’s an odd amount of superstition around cats as well – most particularly being that if a black cat passes in front of you at night, it apparently foretells of your death. In some cultures today they’re still seen as gods, or spiritual guardians, while in others they’re regarded as omens and hunters. As for what they’ve come to symbolise and personify, it seems to be a sense of fierce protection, as a fertility and motherhood symbol, more than anything else.

And Another Thing…

Continuing on from my last post, I’d like to talk more about the pictorial form of language, and visual communication combining words and drawings.

Nowadays, the best example we have of this is in comics, and in that area I turn to ‘A Tale of Sand’, written and illustrated by Ramon Perez. As a re-imagining of a screenplay by Jim Henson, Perez’s challenge was turning something that was designed for the screen into something that could be ‘read’. However, since the original screenplay was scrapped because it was deemed too ‘surreal’ for filming, Perez found the mood and story was quite suited to comic book styling.

What I love about ‘A Tale of Sand’ is that there are very few captions and text bubbles – most of the comic relies on visuals alone to tell the story, allowing the reader to find their own meanings in amongst the jumble of surreal pictures and colours.

First page of 'A Tale of Sand' - Ramon Perez

First page of ‘A Tale of Sand’ – illustrated by Ramon Perez. The colours make this scene almost dream-like, and abstract in nature, so we know something is out of place about it.

The story starts off with a heroic looking man in the middle of a party, that is apparently for him – but the trick is he has no idea where he is or way. In the next few pages he’s taken to the edge of the desert, told he has a ten-minute head-start, and starts running. Along the way he encounters an odd assortment of people and creatures, and a series of wild and weird situations and places. All of this absurdity is heightened by the fact that the main character never has any idea what he is doing or where he’s going, only that he’s running.

Perez’s art has a fantastic sense of life and depth, and brilliantly captures comedic timing and a story-telling pace to keep the reader involved and emphatic with the character. What’s really fascinating is that the original script is incorporated into the comic through backgrounds, pictures and other people – and only very occasionally as dialogue. The comic relies on it’s illustrations to get the story across, and it works beautifully.

Pages from 'A Tale of Sand' - the main character travelling through the desert.

Pages from ‘A Tale of Sand’ – the main character travelling through the desert. This is an example of parts of the comic where the original script is incorporated into the pages.

A nice note is that whenever there is writing, the typography is styled after Henson’s own handwriting, adding a more rough and lively nature to the text so that it actually fits into the pictures, rather than just being on top of them. In some parts of the story, the writing even becomes part of the action itself – in one case, the protagonist is literally trapped by a spout of nonsense from another character.

'A Tale of Sand' - Illustrated by Ramon Perez. A long-winded speech literally entangles the main character in the dialogue.

‘A Tale of Sand’ – Illustrated by Ramon Perez. A long-winded speech literally entangles the main character in the dialogue.

I feel that this comic is a perfect argument for how important visuals are when telling a story – especially when it manages to does so with barely any written words at all. It can be read just as easily as a normal book can, and in addition the use of graphics and colours enable Perez to show all the strange abnormalities and quirks that the original screenplay wanted to show, giving us a far greater insight into this world than if it had stayed as a purely written piece. This comic is full of life and beautiful drawings that really capture the readers imagination.

illustrations from 'A Tale of Sand' - Ramon Perez. The composition of this double-page gives insight to the surrealistic nature of the situation. As a purely graphic piece, there are plenty of things for the reader to take in and examine, with no words to distract from the sense of chaos and absurdness.

illustrations from ‘A Tale of Sand’ – Ramon Perez. The composition of this double-page gives insight to the surrealistic nature of the situation. As a purely graphic piece, there are plenty of things for the reader to take in and examine, with no words to distract from the sense of chaos and absurdity.

(I definitely recommend reading ‘A Tale of Sand’ whenever you get the chance)

Images shown belong to Ramon Perez, Jim Henson, and the other writers/illustrators behind ‘A Tale of Sand’.