Graphically Challenged: Why Covers do Matter

Posted in Books, Unsung Feature by Joie on December 8, 2008


Left (Design: David Pearson), Right (Design: Ralph Steadman)


Better famously known through its abridged snippets scattered among the master theses and PhD dissertations in collegiate dungeons around the world, the Ur-essay of all aesthetic manifestos still retains is ever mystical aura. A perpetually renewable source of enlightenment, Walter Benjamin, as pop historian Howard Hampton, rightfully notes, “has become become a convenient, all-points totem, one who blessing and validation are sought through the offerings of a host of supplicants…in this shopworn, once-upon-a-time-academe form, he stands for an indivisible synthesis of blissful disenchantment and unshaken theoretical faith.” Despite Benjamin’s dying belief that the age of Fascist fetishization has passed, that we should acquire a richer visual literacy unfettered by commerce and prestige, he couldn’t have imagined the marketing battle between publishing rivals for his 1935’s “Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility (a second, much longer variant from the famous, widely circulating first edition, “…Age of Mechanical Reproduction).

Two editions released and refurnished this year, conspicuously with dissimilar translations in each, but ultimately (over)determined by their physical allure, their pulpy facade vulnerably exposed to the discerning consumer. Which book will be adopted, which book will be put to sleep in the inventory storeroom?

Intellectually-speaking, means I’m here for the “official” version (the right side, by Harvard University Press), this newly extended essay (“Reproducibility”) ventures into more prodigious discussion of film as a medium that can liberate art from its confined spaces to even more confining spaces, from museums to bedrooms, from Dennis Hopper to Joe the Plumber. Despite its fawning, tasteful cover, I’m sold only because it will bear me future fruits of critical rigor, as it attempts to say something about the insidious nature of repetition with the floating cartoon heads of the dead Frankfurt bookworm.  Thanks to Kevin from HUP for pointing out that the cover art was an original from Ralph Steadman, known for his collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson.

To the left side is something else altogether, a dilapidated curiosity shop that rings true to its title, a familiar version, like a baby blanket, I’ve encountered so many times in all my undergraduate classes. Yet, it keeps me coming for more, with the outside matching the thematic aspirations of its insides. Radical to the end, old-fashioned only by appearance, the design (for “Reproduction”) captures the author as a brand, the modern equivalent of aura, a work of art itself thanks to the printing revolution. Replicating the experience of reading itself, as the same book is multiplied in the mind as many, the trompe-l’oeil of a cover unveils the material act of holding a book, with its stubborn dimensions and the endless row of spines awaiting at the library shelves. It thrives on minimalist simplicity and renews the reader’s interest in the cosmopolitan writer’s prismatic observations, contradictory projections, and his weary, utopian voice, alive through the incantation of reading, albeit still full of glory and melancholy.

Penguin Series

Penguin's Great Ideas Series, all covers designed by David Pearson

Like many unsung anti-heroes of any industry, the cover designer’s work exhibits the same fate as Poe’s purloined letter, open to the world, but everyone only noticing the “author,” (the director) the one whose existence rests on a prominent name, horizontally slashed on the surface. The success of one does not mark the success of the other, but the failure of either will lead both to the trenches of obscurity. In a parallel manner, taking a quick browse through the Criterion Collection yields an even more difficult decision. Since the auteur mantle is already a given, the real question lies in the search for the other auteur, literally, the winning poster child on the DVD.

In this post, my initial interest of these two books, sharing the same author, but lacking identical appeal, will now funnel down to a self-motivated promotion of graphic extraordinaire, industry-secret typographer, David Pearson, who is the executive designer of the Penguin Classic branch, which includes this new edition of Benjamin’s essay in novella form as part of their GREAT IDEAS series. Surgically beautifying the so-called masterworks of literature, Pearson may have already carved his own legacy among the great morticians of cultural remains.

Great Books Series

Great Books Series

History of Logos

History of Logos


Hold me close and hold me fast: Reset, Remembered, Retold

Posted in Uncategorized by Joie on July 3, 2008

Louis Armstrong – La Vie En Rose


Amnesia has always been a narrative shortcut for dramatic effect, particularly one of suspense, inserted in the beginning of a film (as the plot mobilizes into a detective investigation of identity) or towards its very end (as a requisite hurtle before the sappy reunion). While Wall•E is no stranger to this rule, the film and its titular character do however share an uneasy relationship to the processes of remembrance and memorization, the twin halves of what we normally assign to as “memory.”
Segwaying into Meg’s post about the hazy “new order” between programmes and personalities, on the most basic level, Wall•E and the Gels aboard the Axiom are “humanized” exactly because they learn to replicate what they see and hear from stored cultural knowledge embodied by the Hello Dolly VHS and the computer’s memory bank of our civilization before Earth was trashed. Humanity abides not to the laws of biology, but whether one possesses the mental capacity for acquiring and recalling information, followed by enacting it within a wholly contingent situation. Alanis was right: you live, you learn. If comedy is the result of miscommunication, then our laughs and sighs during Wall•E and Eve’s initial courtship stem from watching signs of affection being misread and ignored by someone who’s oblivious to their intentions. Eve has only one directive so far: to find the MacGuffin (seedling in a boot).
By the second act, everything slowly changes for both robots and humans alike, culminating in a sumptuous scene of emotional recognition by Eve of her own recorded memory, her POV video as surveillance footage. It’s like watching your home movies 10 years from now and noticing details that escape your attention the first time around.   Eve not only witnesses Wall•E’s persistent dedication during her downtime, but the same identical scenes she experienced before, now in a radically different light.   Walter Benjamin couldn’t be more prescient about this triumphant moment of self-awareness through the unconscious mechanism of film:  tapping into a realm where objects are more fleeting than concrete, visible only within the frame that hold its precious cargo of frozen moments, gone then, here forever.
Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye – if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man…The act of reaching for a lighter or a spoon is familiar routine, yet we hardly know what really goes on between hand and metal, not to mention how this fluctuates with our moods. Here the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and liftings, its interruptions and isolations, it extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions.
Coincidentally, Benjamin’s observation mirrors director Andrew Stanton‘s own attitude in hiring talented cinematographer, Roger Deakins, as a lighting consultant for recreating the photographic apparatus’s penchant for flaws and blemishes, an absent trait in the world of animation, where imagination soars without limit, often without direction either.
We actually had a lot of stuff that wasn’t correct in our software. The math wasn’t doing the right thing, so all the subtle imperfections that you’re used to, that you don’t pay attention to that happen with the camera lens — the way things go distorted in the background, when they do it, how the plane of focus works, what things do in the foreground — all that was either slightly or majorly incorrect with our software, and had always been. I wanted to use the camera much more directly as a tool for intimacy in the film. I mean, I got a metal box falling in love with a metal box and a dystopian background, where am I going to get the intimacy? I’m going to use it with the camera by how shallow of a lens we use and how shallow the focus is, how narrow the lens is. So fixing all that and having Roger there to sort of confirm that we were in the right ballpark with it visually was just key to getting a lot of what comes, I think, unconsciously when you’re watching the film.
Luckily enough we do not need a monitor screen to access our memory, but the film, being a work of science fiction, never treads away from articulating a future where scientific wonders afford the ability to prosthetize our mind from its body. Look up the Precogs from the grandmaster himself, PKD. Instead of being confined to a particular individual or even a localized site (the brain), memory as potential and kinetic energy is transferable and disperse, to be memorized, to be recalled, to be used again and again. 
Eve fidgets with her hands as she reacts tearfully to the  “It Only Takes a Moment” scene from Hello Dolly, echoing the same movement of yearning that Wall•E expressed, their behavior results from imitation, their hands gradually engraved with familiar reminiscence.    Through this uncanny refraction by media itself are the two able to meet eye to eye, heart to heart. This is the stuff of remembrance, in which knowledge is retrieved in a manner that speaks beyond the level of barebone plots to byzantine associations worthy of prophecies and elegies, where meaning seeks confusion as an equal adversary.
When we finally reached the final act, the threat of amnesia leaves Wall•E in a state far worse than death itself, bereft of soul and spirit.  Reading the weekend testimonies, men and women, young and old wept when Wall•E reverted back to his automated self; saving him from deletion inadvertently made the adorable spunky cube into a flat square, a shell of wires and silicon chips.  Of course, this also happens to be the moment when the film succumbs to the cheap miracles of resuscitation by the ‘Snow White’ kiss (in this case, a spark of electricity), one can only eye-roll the numerous times Matrix got through that ordeal unscathed from fanboys booing at the incredulous act of faith performed by Trinity to the dying Neo.   But I guess that film was an allegory of religion or something, I prefer its simpler elements:  leather, bullet time, and Keanu.  Most people subscribes to what Richard Corliss recently stated in his appraisal of Wanted that fantasy films work because of a built-in motor aptly called “movie sense” in contrast to the scriptures of our common sense.
This answer may be sufficient for most audience members leaving the theater, but I think Wall•E already has its own built-in logic for this unexplainable feat of life after coma.  Recall that the film returns incessantly to a pair of hands in dire search of its righty and lefty, and that the explicit origin of this romantic desire comes from a fragment of an 1960s Hollywood musical.   Despite of its revamped setup, the indirect reference that director Andrew Stanton, the know-it-all movie magpie, wants the smarter kids out there to think about is Chaplin’s City Lights.   Joe Morgenstern beat me to the chase, but I’ll have my revenge soon.  For a more nuanced study of physical comedy’s legacy of jesters and simpletons (Wall•E has a vast family tree), look for the related post from Keaton.   In the 1931 silent film comedy, the tramp falls in love with a blind flower girl, he finds money for her surgery but lands himself in the slammer.  With her sight restored along with a new flowershop, she gives the downtrodden tramp a flower, only realizing when their hands touched that he was her mysterious benefactor.  She utters, “I can see now,” and these final words of the film verbally substitutes for the inexpressible warmth of their third skin, a crossroads of caresses between forgotten soulmates.   Stanton gleefully simulates this classic scene by dividing it temporally and spatially (and gender reversal!), first with Eve’s metaphoric blindness, then at the end, with Wall•E’s amnesia as mechanical blindness, both overcome by the power of touch, of hands enmeshed into one, holding its own form of material memory.  In short, a love conquers all ending that isn’t a deux ex machina, it’s all there, like bread crumbs leading up to the satisfying payoff.  
What’s truly delightful and moving about Wall•E’s intricate layering and retracing of past relics with present crises is the sentimental grasp it has over the viewer, paralyzing us to believe fully in the utopian dimension of the film, and I’m not referring to the optimistic epilogue, but rather how memory is fluidly passed on from human to robot, robot to robot, and on a metalevel, old media to new media, almost to the point of near indistinguishable.  Yesterday’s mass culture is today’s national treasure.  So much of the film, of form and content, relies on the fetish of live action by animation, the meticulous rendering of digital bits into its analog reality, and with that, comes the possibility of actual affect through special effects.  What Wall•E hopes we remember after another 700 years is that it too was a special time capsule, a host of cultural history and emotional relevancy, waiting to be imitated by a new classic far far away.  
P.S.  I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that I wasn’t re-viewing the tragic fates befalling on our star-crossed lovers, it would’ve be relentlessly cruel for Stanton to end on the lingering mood of The Notebook or A Very Long Engagement.  Rated G for happily ever after.  

Alzheimer ‘R’ Us in The Notebook