WABI-SABI

One red leaf

One red leaf

Perfection isn't real. Perfection only exists in mind. Therefore, for something to be a perfect depiction of anything else -- a feeling, an image, a sound, an idea-- it must be imperfect.

That paradox gets my heart going every time I think about it.

Say it: wabi-sabi. It's balanced in the mouth like an aged cabernet. It's rhythmic to the ear like controlled breathing to a long distance runner. There is no perfect translation from the Japanese, it's source, but the measure of it's aesthetic is deep and profound. It speaks of balance and peacefulness, imperfection and beauty, and above all, life.

Nothing lasts forever, but in the digital age we're often led to believe otherwise. Everyone's heard that every bit of data we enter into our various electronic devices persists, eternally discoverable. There's always a record, we're told, always a copy backed up on a server, somewhere. Everything is searchable.

Wabi-sabi says otherwise. Impermanence defines all things. Wabi-sabi says that perfection is an unattainable goal. What we create––as individuals and as cultures--exists in finite time. In the digital world those lifespans may be artificially extended but ultimately they reach an end. All things are finite, and as such, all things are imperfect.

It's essential to realize that there's always a new creative discovery, a new idea to pursue, even if nothing lasts forever.  But the moment a creative person thinks his or her invention is so important that it can transcend time's infinite reach is the moment creativity fails to understand it's own finite heartbeat.  Nothing lasts forever, and an embrace of that melancholy thought confers vital license for creative people of all stripes to take passionate risks and dare to reach for greatness.

Perfection may be unattainable, but it is an asymptotic goal, and we can eternally approach it. To achieve the sublime, perfecting imperfection becomes one of the most fabulous koans of all.

--MS

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THANKFUL

Thanks for the help. I think I speak for all of us at 1AU when I say one of the big reasons we love what we do is that we have the great, humbling privilege of working with new ideas everyday. As professional creators, our working lives are all about having conversations on subjects we may have only just discovered, or recently excavated. What we make is not unlike the fruits of a long, successful expedition. When Howard Carter uncovered Tutankhamun's Tomb in 1922, the discovery itself made him famous, but it's arguable that a discovery like that would not have attracted anyone's attention if it did not involve great challenges of politics, funding, and endless, delicate digging in desert sand. The adventure of discovery is nearly as important as the discovery itself.

In short, I'm thankful.

Ninety years ago this week, Carter made his fateful discovery, opening a tiny hole into one of archaeology's--and popular culture's--greatest discoveries. But Carter is no instantaneous discoverer. He is no lucky traveller on a lark with a trowel. For decades he made his way across Egyptian sands, searching, digging, reading the signs for a long lost culture hidden from the 20th century by disinterested sands. Most of those years he labored in anonymity. In fact, eighty-nine years ago Carter almost gave it all up, and not by choice. His benefactor George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, gave the great archaeologist one more season worth of funding. He told Carter either to make a major discovery or call it quits.

Timing is everything. Carter became a legend.

Should Carter have showered his benefactor with obeisance? With deference? With fawning subservience? I don't think so. Carter made the discovery; his funder made the discovery possible. There's a space in history's bookcase for both.

I would suggest that the things Carter most owed his benefactors are gratitude, thanks, and appreciation. People who make discoveries, who risk bold ideas of all sorts often have the vision to even dream such things because the paths they've taken in life are not about acquiring the means to empower such things. Lifetimes of academic study or artistic development often do not yield the resources to fund novel enterprises. Risks do not mean these enterprises have guarantees of success. They would be ordinary things if there were no risk, and for those asking for backing, be it financial, political, or just someone to hold the ladder while we climb up to the ceiling to paint on our backs, it's essential that we retain an honest dollop of awareness that we'd be nowhere without our benefactors.

Are you a benefactor? A client? Thank you very much. Now, pardon us please: we have work to do.

While I may sound like an entitled, self-interested, smug know-it-all, I actually believe that people, governments, and institutions that have the means to support risky scientific, aesthetic, or academic enterprises are obligated to do so. It's part of the social contract. Societies require many inputs to be healthy and whole. Just as farmers shouldn't have to be responsible for laying the roads that help them get their goods to market, artists and explorers should have some means to pursue goals which inevitably will contribute something substantial to the societies in which they live.

But money and politics will get you…money and political stamps of approval. They don't do anything to stage an opera. They don't lift a single shovel of sand. That's why on this Thanksgiving I'm also celebrating, even calling out, the often unsung numbers who stand shoulder to shoulder as teams, enabling enterprises of all sorts. You think Spielberg makes his movies by himself? How about Elon Musk and his rockets? Of course not.

I'm thankful for that tight, close group of colleagues who help me transform seemingly impossible mountains of ore into refined jewels one shovel at a time. I'm thankful for all the late night checks on render queues, for spontaneously generated ideas for clever 3D models captured on the backs of envelopes while walking up from the mailbox, for smart schemes to hide a microphone in a shot. I'm grateful for a sense of humor on set when the clock threatens to knock us out, for smart ideas that are unafraid of being alternatives to expectations, for helping wash dishes after a wrap party. But mostly I'm thankful for the sense of teamwork that comes from shared ownership, that none of us are able to make what we do by ourselves, and that when we work in sync we're capable of things we can only dream about as individuals.

I'm grateful to walk out into the desert every single day secure in the knowledge that I'm not alone.

This Thanksgiving, consider how you excavate the deceptively plain sands all around you, empowered by your benefactors, colleagues, friends, and community. Nobody creates in a vacuum. But because some people make their way through life propelled by the need to create and explore, it's essential that we maintain a dialog about the many ways all parties to the process play a role. Call it reciprocal gratitude. It's not something that needs to be spackled onto our lives like an abrasive obligation. Instead, consider it a shared bottle of water, something to hand off to the person next to you when you unexpectedly find yourself digging in the sand, trying to get something done.

From everyone at 1AU Global Media we wish you all the best for a safe and satisfying Thanksgiving.

--MS

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THE TROUBLE WITH LOOKING BEHIND-THE-SCENES

We build reality one element at a time. Back in the 1950s, Superman leaped tall buildings in…a theatrical harness with a couple of stage hands pulling rope through a block and tackle off set. But what did we see?

"Truth, justice, and the American way!"

Superman flew. He had to: people watching television decades ago saw it with their own eyes.

But that's television; we all know it's just make-believe, even if we tune in to lose ourselves intentionally in the story. Movies are a whole lot more immersive, just by means of working within more expansive boundaries and defining different expectations. But things are changing all over the land of make-believe, from the Province of Television to the Domain of Movies. None of our electronic fictions are precisely what they once were, and it isn't just because computer generated effects have replaced ropes and harnesses for our heroes.

Movies still command a certain measure of cultural attention, but not like they did as recently as twenty years ago. Arena- filling rock and roll bands have taken on profoundly different roles in the culture, too, as have books and other cultural events to a lesser degree. Even television no longer acts as the soothing zone of cerebral down-shifting that it used to be. Twenty years ago NBC's "must-see-TV" line-up held much of the country in thrall, provoking Friday morning office conversations that must have sapped a measurable portion of the nation's productivity.

The change came slowly, methodically, creeping in on catspaws. An easy cause for the change, obviously, was the advent of millions of new web-based ways for people to spend their time, distracting them from large, more widely shared events. The web and its handheld, wireless offspring further fragmented attention. But I believe one of the greatest factors in a new cultural ennui is the corollary to infinite choice. Infinite choice demands an inevitable qualitative discount on well made work just to keep the endless pipes full. As a result, theatrical curtains that used to hide how everything in the world was made have suddenly parted.

Typically we enter into a partnership with performing arts, or any work of art, for that matter. Even if a rock star makes it look like they're just wildly gyrating, the reality is always so much more prosaic: hours of rehearsal, endless practice all alone to perfect complex riffs, preproduction planning, and on and on and on. The partnership with an audience is about suspension of disbelief. We dream about our media idols because the illusion of so much charisma and power and performance excellence is one of ease and effortlessness. We want our magicians to levitate, even as we know that gravity never takes a holiday. We want what they seem to have.

Ever watch a cooking show? Millions do. Cooking shows teach you everything, even if you never intend to cook what they're showing. Most people never try the stuff being made in state-of-the-art studio kitchens. But expectations rise by watching these things, nonetheless, and with those expectations puffing up like soufflés, so do the minimum requirements for general satisfaction. Is this bad? Probably not. An educated public, no matter what the subject, is a better social body. But when everything is ordinary, it's harder to hold an audience's attention.

Lower production costs and an effectively infinite number of media outlets means that humanity's innate curiosity can now be effectively sated for any subject at all. Behind-the-scenes programs, blogs, podcasts, photo galleries, magazine articles, and more can teach you the secrets of just about any subject or endeavor you may want to know. Curious about how to play a diminished C chord on a guitar? Check. Want to know about the manufacturing process of fast food french fries? Yep: that's available too.

It's a funny thing. I like having access to all sorts of information about how the world works. I like knowing how papayas grow just like I also want to be able to look up how to properly place a comma in a sentence.

But endless informational resources about endless subjects is not the same as going behind-the-scenes. Behind-the-scenes programming removes the necessary suspension of disbelief required for theater. Just like audiences still go to see magicians even though they know it's a trick, they go to the movies knowing that the stories they're watching are built by armies of people working for months in movie making businesses. The compact audiences metaphorically sign with creators not to see how it's done facilitates necessary disbelief. The fact is, Superman only makes sense if we believe he can fly. If we see the ropes, we all laugh; it ruins the magic. The moment we go back stage and see that there really isn't a bottomless pit into hell but instead just a wooden trapdoor, we lose a bit of the surprise and emotional connection with regard to the plight of the character and his our her narrative.

And it's a tough thing, steeped as we all are in infinite information. We all have access to trailers and magazine articles and web sites that reveal tons of details about how something gets made. But I suppose my thesis is this: treat behind-the-scenes information with respect, lest you no longer appreciate anything. It's one thing to learn all about a magician's life; it's another thing entirely to learn how he makes the tiger disappear. As soon as you know where that tiger goes, you'll not only stop caring, but you'll be more likely to click on something newer, something incrementally more scintillating, and your own attention will continue to fragment.

Fragment it too much, and then nothing matters at all.

-MS

PS -- Yes, yes, it's always the same old request here at the bottom of the blog. "Please share with your friends if you like it...yadda, yadda, yadda." There are even the little buttons around here where you can post it to Facebook, Tweet it far and wide, distribute it all sorts of ways. But you know what? You COULD! And you know what that would do? That would make us SMILE.

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STIRRED

Jean-Luc Godard makes a fine cuppa joe. Movies are like food. What's perceived as good isn't the same for everyone, and it isn't even the same for each of us sampled on different days. A person don't have to give up what he or she already likes in order to discover something else. Therefore, even though I'm going to guess that you hadn't planned on this trip into French New Wave cinema when you started reading, check out this five minute clip from Jean-Luc Godard's 1967 movie Two or Three Things I Know about Her. I don't like to make it a general habit of focusing on a bit of media out of its proper context. But this scene strikes me as something representative of a much larger idea. It's also happens to be beautiful on its own merits.

I've read about this scene before, but I must sheepishly admit that this scene and the entirety of the movie from which it's excerpted has always been a yawning hole in my cinematic background. By now I'm assuming you've clicked the link and watched it. One of the things that grabbed my attention even before its famously existential coffee moment is the fabulously sculptural way Godard arranges his space. Twenty seconds into the clip we see a man and two women at a corner banquette in a Parisian cafe. The nearly perfect balance of their triangular sculpture is as much a part of the overall narrative as the individual characters themselves. Even if we know nothing about the movie, nor the stories of the characters it contains, we immediately feel a smart tension in this image, the three players each in their own worlds, all balanced spatially in the shot. The geometry of the scene tells us that each plays a role in the other's life; without one, the triangle would collapse.

Godard deftly deftly directs us to the contents of a magazine one person is reading by showing us one of the actor's eye lines-- that is, the direction the character is looking. It's too easy to poke fun at the avant-garde voiceover that immediately follows; if that's what you're doing, cool it for a second and listen again! This isn't twenty-first century irony; this is an actual idea, fresh from the moment it emerged into the culture.

The shots are tight, whether framed on the magazine pages or on the faces of the characters. The minute vibrations of the carefully handheld camera place us directly in the scene, at the table. But it's the movie's sound in cinematic collaboration with the picture that makes this special. Television would not ordinarily try something so experimental, so unrealistic. Television pretends to be real life, even if it sets its stories on distant planets or gilded cruise ships. Cinema has the freedom to think differently.

The background sound drops away, replaced by our narrator's interior monologue, whispered no less. Could we declare this the exercise of a showy young auteur, a self indulgent artistic stunt? Sure. But listen to what the narrator says and watch his characters embody the space.

"Maybe an object is what serves as a link between subjects, allowing us to live in society, to be together." We see coffee stirred in a cup, a froth of bubbles spinning on the surface like galaxies, like dancers, like flower petals in a stream. The monologue muses about objectivity and subjectivity, about finding a place for oneself in a world in motion, in relationships of all kinds. That first line, about objects serving as links between subjects, is as much about human relationships--intangible things, but still objects philosophically--as it is about the value and aesthetics of those relationships--the biggest subject in most people's lives.

"Say that the limits of language are the world's limits," it continues, "…and that when I speak, I limit the world, I finish it….But if by chance things come into focus again, it may only be with the advent of conscience. Everything will follow from there."

No wonder this man is whispering. It's challenging to discover the universe in a coffee cup, to say nothing of confronting your own mortality in a Parisian cafe.

Now look: I like a spandex superhero movie as much as the next popcorn chomper, and I'm plenty geeked about Double-Oh-Seven and a band of long-marching hobbits heading my way. But here we see a collection of washed out close ups and stirred coffee and Parisian faces and cigarette smoke and I feel my blood accelerating. Artistic invention is not always about light and color and movement. Sometimes it's about noticing the most essential details in the world right in front of us, and then taking the time to wonder about it all. Those observations take moments of focus sometimes, and any subsequent wonderment takes internal resolve. Most of us do not want to spend precious personal energies to question our place in the universe when we stir our morning cuppa joe. But there is easily as much surprise, energy, amazement, and daring romance in the keenly observed real world as there will ever be in the manufactured life of our fantasy creations.

PS — Have something to say? Leave us a comment! Don’t want to miss the latest from 1AU? Sign up on our mailing list. (Cool email like ours is better than that boring stuff that clutters your inbox, right?) Consider yourself a fan? Please re-Tweet us, post to Facebook, or otherwise forward us to your friends. Cool? Yep: cool.

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