Habitual Contempt and Helvetica

Habitual contempt doesn’t reflect a finer sensibility

It’s been 15 years since design doc Helvetica came out, which means it has been 15 years since I noticed this quote in the background of their interview with designer Stefan Sagmeister. In that decade-and-a-half, my memory contorted the quote just enough to make the source impossible to find—I’d turned it into “habitual cynicism does not reflect a refined sensibility,” which I guess was closer to the insight I’d needed at the time. Snarkiness and cynicism were very much still in vogue I when I was trying to find my voice as a pop culture writer in the mid-2000s, and my jumbled version of the quote played a major role in my realization that advocating for the things I enjoy is a more valuable contribution than explaining why popular things are actually awful.

To celebrate the documentary’s anniversary, film and visual art collective is streaming Helvetica for free worldwide for the next week, which was as good an opportunity as any to track down the actual quote. Turns out it’s part of conceptual artist Jenny Holzer’s Truisms, 1978-1983, which to my modern eye is a real mixed bag of statements, from Tao-inspired wisdom (“at times inactivity is preferable to mindless functioning”, “the most profound things are inexpressible”) to misguided self-indulgence (“exceptional people deserve special concessions,” “giving free reign to your emotions is an honest way to live”). Even if I disagree with about half of it, though, it strikes me as a list worth spending some time with. Given how much a misremembered version of one line has impacted me, it’s bound to have some other useful prompts.

Sound of Ceres – Arm of Golden Flame

Sound of Ceres, the cinematic dream-pop evolution of shoegazers Candy Claws, has announced an ambitious new album “inspired by Maurice Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé, Gustav Holst’s The Planets, and Les Baxter’s midcentury exotica.” The album follows a three-act narrative structure to explore the emergence of mind and meaning in an otherwise meaningless universe, which is quite a lot to tackle, but with narration by performance artist Marina Abramovic (who is set to restage her iconic piece The Artist is Present as a fundraiser for Ukraine) and dramatic orchestral accompaniment, the first single “Arm of Golden Flame” certainly sets the right tone. This will be one to watch out for.

Due out June 17, 2022 on Joyful Noise.

Monday Short: Dreamland

Monday Shorts is a blog series I write for the Quickdraw Animation Society, spotlighting an independent animated short each week.

Festivals and film critics are prone to splitting films into binaries to make them easier to talk about. Films are fiction or non-fiction, comedy or drama, animated or live action. Within animation, films are 2D or 3D, CG or hand-drawn, narrative or non-narrative. As useful as those terms can be in quickly conveying something about a film, they all share the same issue: none of those pairs are as binary as we like to think. The best art thrives on ambiguity, pushing back against easy definition in ways that challenge our need to categorize everything.

Mirai Mizue’s 2018 short Dreamland is a perfect example. The whole film is a rapidly-cut assemblage of rigid geometric shapes and patterns, with nothing resembling a representational drawing, let alone a character. If you were to judge it based on the looped GIFs that Mizue shares on his Twitter feed, it’d be hard to see it as anything but non-narrative. It epitomizes the “abstract shape” stream of animation that dates back to Oskar Fischinger’s optical poems from the 1930s—a stream that has a “love it or hate it” reputation among even the most dedicated cinephiles.

Abstract as it is, though, Dreamland has a real emotional arc…

[Read the full post on the Quickdraw Animation Society’s Monday Shorts blog]

Animal Collective – We Go Back (Video by Winston Hacking & Michael Enzbrunner)

Winston Hacking’s videos never fail to blow my mind. Whether it’s his work with musicians like Flying Lotus, BadBadNotGood, Washed Out, and Andy Shauf, or his own personal work, his endlessly inventive collages make for some of the most beautifully surreal media artworks out there.

His worlds are always in motion, and are never quite what you think they are. Scene transitions don’t follow any obvious logic. The ground falls out from under you. The camera rotates and reveals that what you thought was a flat surface is a 3D sculpture. Everything is collage and deconstruction, constantly reshaping and reorienting. As someone who’s never had much of a visual sense, I can’t wrap my head around what it takes to map out these kinds of nested illusions.

It’s basically a magic trick, and I’m more than happy to keep falling for it.

Andrew Wasylyk – Dreamt In The Current Of Leafless Winter

A gorgeous piece from Scottish musician Andrew Wasylyk, billed as “an attempted hypnagogic fog of meditation & possibility.” The 16-minute track builds slowly, a cloud of gentle twinklings and meandering melodies eventually coalescing into an insistent drum pulse, rising piano arpeggios, and inquisitive saxophone. The accompanying video, directed by Tommy Perman (of last year’s wonderful Positive Interactions project) ties the music to a multilayered, ever-shifting view of nature, echoing the song’s warmth in a bramble of soft light, tangled branches, and gently distorted reflections. The song and video both are bathed in twilight, comfortable, captivating, and kaleidoscopic.