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What Can Superhero Media Teach Us About Ethics: A Pretty Much Pop Culture Podcast (#63) Discussion with Philosophy Professor Travis Smith

What Can Superhero Media Teach Us About Ethics: A Pretty Much Pop Culture Podcast (#63) Discussion with Philosophy Professor Travis Smith

in Comics/Cartoons, Film, Podcasts, Pretty Much Pop, Television | Tagged with: ,| October 7th, 2020 Leave a Comment

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Is there no end to the seemingly endless fascination with superhero media? Your hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt are joined by Travis Smith, who teaches political philosophy at Concordia University, to discuss. Travis sees their resonance as a matter of metaphor: How can we do more with the abilities we have? His book Superhero Ethics: 10 Comic Book Heroes, 10 Ways to Save the World, Which One Do We Need Now? matches up heroes like Batman vs. Spider-Man for ethical comparison: Both “act locally,” but Batman would like to actually rule over Gotham, while Spider-Man engages in a more “friendly neighborhood” patrol.  What philosophy should govern the way we try to do good in the world?

Lurking in the background is the current release of season two of the Amazon series The Boys, based on Garth Ennis’ graphic novels, which assumes that power corrupts and asks what regular folks might do in the face of corporate-backed invulnerability. This cynical take is part of a long tradition of asking “what if super-heroes were literally real?” that goes through Watchmen all the way back to Spider-Man himself, who faces financial and other mundane problems that Superman was immune to.

Given Travis’ book, we didn’t really need supplementary articles for this episode, but you can take a look at this interview with him to learn more about his comic book loves and the Canadian heritage that led him to start fighting crime (you know, indirectly, through ethical teaching).

Learn more at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts


The Life, Work & Philosophy of Bill Murray: Happy 70th Birthday to an American Comedy Icon

The Life, Work & Philosophy of Bill Murray: Happy 70th Birthday to an American Comedy Icon

Image by Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons

“Bill Murray is to me what calculators are to math,” Jason Schwartzman once said of his esteemed colleague. “I never knew math before calculators, and I never knew life before Bill Murray.” Having been born in the 1980s, a decade Murray entered already well-known after three early seasons of Saturday Night Live, I could say the same. Through characters like Nick the lounge singer and half a nerd couple with Gilda Radner, Murray established himself on that show as a goofball, but a goofball of a higher order. As the 80s got into full swing, Murray got into the movies, and ever more prominent roles in the likes of CaddyshackStripes, and Ghostbusters assured him a permanent place in the pantheon of American comedy.

For those who cared to look, there has long been evidence of concentrated thought and feeling behind the deadpan impulsiveness of Murray’s onscreen persona: his supporting turn as Dustin Hoffman’s lemon-eating playwright roommate in Tootsie, his passion-project adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor‘s Edge, his post-Ghostbusters escape to the Sorbonne.

It was in Paris that Murray studied the work of the Greco-Armenian Sufi mystic G.I. Gurdjieff, who describes a path to enlightenment called “the way of the sly man,” one who makes maximum use of “the world, the self, and the self that is observing everything.” This concept, according to the Wisecrack video above, has become integral to Murray’s distinctive way of not just acting, but being.

That counts as just one of the theories advanced over the decades to explain the curious phenomenon of Bill Murray. The man has also been called upon to explain it himself now and again, as when an interviewer at the Toronto International Film Festival asked what it feels like to be him. His response takes the audience into a guided meditation meant to make everyone listening understand how it feels to be themselves, right here, right now.

Maintaining this sense of the moment, as Murray later explained to Charlie Rose, is one of the goals of his own life — and presumably not an easy goal to achieve for someone who’s been so famous for so long, a condition he addresses in the 1988 interview animated for Blank on Blank below. “I’m just an obnoxious guy who can make it appear charming,” he says in summation of his appeal. “That’s what they pay me to do.”

That same year, they paid him $6 million for his role in Scrooged (playing, incidentally, the most obnoxious character of his career). He’d already been cautioned against the dangers of such rapidly acquired wealth and fame by the fate of his fellow Chicagoan and SNL alumnus John Belushi, who by that time had already been dead for five years. Murray had also, he says, undergone a “spiritual change” that showed him “there was some other life to live. It changed the way that I worked,” giving everything “a different presence, a different tension.” Onscreen, this change culminated in the roles he took on after putting broad comedies behind him beginning with 1999’s Rushmore, the breakout feature by an up-and-coming director named Wes Anderson.

Casting Murray opposite the teenage Schwartzman, Rushmore showed that he could be more affecting — and indeed funnier — in minor emotional keys. A few years later, Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation took him to Japan, where he drew an Academy Award nomination with his performance from the depths of cultural and personal disorientation. Today, on Murray’s 70th birthday, his fans impatiently await his appearances in Anderson’s The Paris Dispatch and Coppola’s On the Rocks, both of which come out next month. Having long since become an institution (albeit an insistently unconventional and unpredictable one) unto himself, Murray can surely look to the heavens and say what, with uncharacteristic earnestness, he told his SNL audience he wanted to say 33 years ago: “Dad, I did it.”

Related Content:

Bill Murray Explains How He Pulled Himself Out of a Deep, Lasting Funk: He Took Hunter S. Thompson’s Advice & Listened to the Music of John Prine

Bill Murray Reads the Poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, Billy Collins, Lorine Niedecker, Lucille Clifton & More

Bill Murray Explains How a 19th-Century Painting Saved His Life

Art Exhibit on Bill Murray Opens in the UK

Watch Bill Murray Perform a Satirical Anti-Technology Rant (1982)

Watch Dan Aykroyd & Bill Murray Goof Off in a Newly Unearthed Ghostbusters Promotional Film (1984)

Listen to Bill Murray Lead a Guided Meditation on How It Feels to Be Bill Murray

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

This Is What The Matrix Looks Like Without CGI: A Special Effects Breakdown

This Is What The Matrix Looks Like Without CGI: A Special Effects Breakdown

in Film, Sci Fi, Technology | May 29th, 2020 Leave a Comment

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Those of us who saw the The Matrix in the theater felt we were witness to the beginning of a new era of cinematically and philosophically ambitious action movies. Whether that era delivered on its promise — and indeed, whether The Matrix‘s own sequels delivered on the franchise’s promise — remains a matter of debate. More than twenty years later, the film’s black-leather-and-sunglasses aesthetic may date it, but its visual effects somehow don’t. The Fame Focus video above takes a close look at two examples of how the creators of The Matrix combined traditional, “practical” techniques with then-state-of-the-art digital technology in a way that kept the result from going as stale as, in the movies, “state-of-the-art digital technology” usually has a way of guaranteeing.

By now we’ve all seen revealed the mechanics of “bullet time,” an effect that astonished The Matrix‘s early audiences by seeming nearly to freeze time for dramatic camera movements (and to make visible the eponymous projectiles, of which the film included a great many). They lined up a bunch of still cameras along a predetermined path, then had each of the cameras take a shot, one-by-one, in the span of a split second.

But as we see in the video, getting convincing results out of such a groundbreaking process — which required smoothing out the unsteady “footage” captured by the individual cameras and perfectly aligning it with a computer-generated background modeled on a real-life setting, among other tasks — must have been even more difficult than inventing the process itself. The manual labor that went into The Matrix series’ high-tech veneer comes across even more in the behind-the-scenes video below:

In the third installment, 2003’s The Matrix Revolutions, Keanu Reeves’ Neo and Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith duke it out in the pouring rain as what seem like hundreds of clones of Smith look on. Viewers today may assume Weaving was filmed and then copy-pasted over and over again, but in fact these shots involve no digital effects to speak of. The team actually built 150 realistic dummies of Weaving as Smith, all operated by 80 human extras themselves wearing intricately detailed silicon-rubber Smith masks. The logistics of such a one-off endeavor sound painfully complex, but the physicality of the sequence speaks for itself. With the next Matrix film, the first since Revolutions, due out next year, fans must be hoping the ideas of the Platonically techno-dystopian story the Wachowskis started telling in 1999 will be properly continued, and in a way that makes full use of recent advances in digital effects. But those of us who appreciate the enduring power of traditional effects should hope the film’s makers are also getting their hands dirty.

Related Content:

The Philosophy of The Matrix: From Plato and Descartes, to Eastern Philosophy

The Matrix: What Went Into The Mix

Philip K. Dick Theorizes The Matrix in 1977, Declares That We Live in “A Computer-Programmed Reality”

Daniel Dennett and Cornel West Decode the Philosophy of The Matrix

Why 1999 Was the Year of Dystopian Office Movies: What The Matrix, Fight Club, American Beauty, Office Space & Being John Malkovich Shared in Common

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.


Zlatan Kickin’ It

Zlatan Kickin’ It

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Join Us for the NYC Premier of An Art that Nature Makes at the Film Forum

Join Us for the NYC Premier of An Art that Nature Makes at the Film Forum

If you follow Wooster Collective, you know we believe in the added value of art in our everyday world, and the important intersection of urbanization, decay, and art.

We would like to invite you to the opening of An Art that Nature Makes, the newest film acquired by sister company BOND/360 opening August 10th at Film Forum (209 West Houston Street). Filmmaker Molly Bernstein and subject Rosamund Purcell will be present for Q&As Wednesday and Friday screenings.

The film celebrates photographer Rosamund Purcell whose works are unbound by normality. “A collector of objects who is also deeply curious about the universal human urge to collect, Purcell and her obsessive eye are themselves difficult to classify. This blurry boundary is well captured by writer Jonathan Safran Foer when he asks: ‘Is she an artist? A scholar? A documentarian? A living cabinet of wonders? Her originality defies category.'” (Yahoo! News)

Tickets here.

From Rosamond Purcell’s studio. Photograph: Rosamond Purcell. Courtesy of BOND/360.

Skeleton against “Metaposition” penmanship sheet. Photograph: Rosamond Purcell. Courtesy of BOND/360.

About the Film

An Art that Nature Makes details Purcell’s fascination with the natural world – from a mastodon tooth to a hydrocephalic skull – offering insight into her unique way of recontextualizing objects both ordinary and strange into sometimes disturbing but always breathtaking imagery.




Finding unexpected beauty in the discarded and decayed, photographer Rosamond Purcell has developed an oeuvre of work that has garnered international acclaim, graced the pages of National Geographic and over 20 published books, and has enlisted admirers such as Jonathan Safran Foer, Errol Morris and Stephen Jay Gould.

Purchase tickets here.

We hope to see you there!