Refracted Input

Clare O’Farrell’s blog on books, TV, films, Michel Foucault, universities etc. etc.

I proposed the notion of song covers as palimpsest earlier on this blog. This version and video of ‘I will survive’ by Cake forms a wonderful palimpsest on the famous Gloria Gaynor song from 1978 which became a number one hit in 1979. It went on to became an anthem in Disco Culture of the late 1970s and early 80s which took on the song to represent the empowerment of women, the African American and the gay communities. In 2016, the Library of Congress selected the song for preservation as culturally and aesthetically significant in the US National Recording Registry.

Cake’s version strips the song of its accrued historical glamour and takes it literally onto the streets into the most mundane and despised of jobs. We see a parking inspector who engages in his job without favour or discrimination driving a decidedly prosaic and faintly ridiculous electric cart. No-one is safe from his impersonal ticket writing. The dream of something beyond nonetheless shines through in the small glass figurines which appear briefly at intervals throughout the song – modest trophies of the tickets written, of a job well done. This story is intercut with the musicians playing on the go in a street between urban highrises. The mundanity is reinforced by the driver’s barebones but felt, diegetic performance of the song on the job rather than having the music take place off screen as a backdrop to the action.

The ending is reminiscent of the ending of Holy Motors – which sees limousines return to a depot, but in Cake’s version this return to the depot at the end of the day is stripped down to the ordinary, the industrialism of logistics, in contrast to the dark surreal ambiguity of Leos Carrax’s film. This creates another interesting palimpsest, more intertextuality inviting dream and reflection.

I’ve been interested for a while in challenging notions of human exceptionalism and the nature/human civilization divide. A definitional paper I’ve come across.

Carlos Roberto Bernardes de Souza Júnior, “More-than-human cultural geographies towards co-dwelling on earth.” Mercator – Revista de Geografia da UFC 20, no. (2021):1-10. Redalyc,

Established as a counterpoint to culture-nature dualisms, the concept of more-than-human refers to the worlds of the different beings co-dwelling on Earth, including and surpassing human societies. Based on this notion and coming from different philosophical perspectives, including post-phenomenology, non-representational theory, eco-feminism, and post-humanism, cultural geographers have sought to broaden their interpretations to decipher the spatial multiplicities of living in the Anthropocene. This essay characterizes the more-than-human Cultural Geographies of Anglophone countries, which use artistic, literary, narrative, and experimental inter and transdisciplinary practices. ?ese approaches facilitate artistic, narrative, and creative geographical practices that create opportunities for immersion in and expression of shared worlds. Cultural geographers employ vital, atmospheric, affective, and corporeal studies to reveal complex multi-species arrangements of co-vulnerability and reciprocity experienced in modern-day places of tension. Understanding these earth-dwelling tessituras enables us to decipher terrestrial writings that contrapose hegemonic human exceptionalism.

Keywords: More-than-human Worlds, Anthropocene, Dwelling

All the warnings of pre-pandemic researchers about open plan offices have of course come home to roost. The article below links to a new edition of a much awarded book by Joseph G. Allen and John D. Macomber titled Healthy Buildings first published in 2020 and updated in October 2022 with additional research conducted during the pandemic. Given the expense of the enactment of the open plan ideology pre-pandemic and the resistance of workers in returning to these buildings, it will be interesting to see at what rate any physical change occurs.

Warning: most of this article is behind a paywall but there is enough to give you the idea.

The healthiest way to design an office post-COVID means a lot of companies will need a complete overhaul
by L’Oreal Thompson Payton, Yahoo Finance. Tue, November 8, 2022 at 7:45 AM

Modern offices are in dire need of a makeover. The once-omnipresent open-plan offices of the early 2000s are now seeing a decline in popularity due to COVID and the rise in hybrid work settings. An op/ed from New York Times lambasted open-plan offices for their noise and damage to morale and productivity, as well as overall health.

“For 40 years, we’ve been in the sick building era,” says Joseph G. Allen, director of Harvard’s Healthy Buildings Program and associate professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “We have not designed, maintained or operated our buildings with health as the North Star. This has been well documented. But now with COVID, it became obvious that the way you operated your building determined whether people got sick or not and for many businesses determined whether they could stay open.”

As a result, Allen believes that healthy buildings have to become a core business strategy, so much so that he wrote a book about it with John D. Macomber, senior lecturer of business administration at Harvard Business School. In their book, Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity, Allen and Macomber share The 9 Foundations of a Healthy Building:

The article above links to an excellent opinion piece by David Brooks in The New York Times titled: The Immortal Awfulness of Open Plan Workplaces

Oscar Wilde is said to have quipped that “God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability.” Our species is capable of folly on a grand scale. Exhibit No. 4,000 in this litany of woe is the continued existence of open plan workplaces.

For decades, research has found that open plan offices are bad for companies, bad for workers, bad for health and bad for morale. And yet they just won’t die. Human beings, if they are to thrive, need a bit of privacy — walls and a door. And yet employers, decade after decade, neglect to give workers what they need, refuse to do what’s in their own self-interest.

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I’ve found that recently I have been spending far too much time reading Twitter. As everyone knows the interfaces of various social media are deliberately designed to be addictive and the infinite scroll and chaotic ordering on Twitter was playing havoc with my researcher brain, trained over the years to find all the information and then put it in some kind of order.

So after having a look around for a solution, I found that I already had one on tap in another software program, namely Feedly, an RSS reader I have been using for many years. All I needed to do was upgrade my subscription to take advantage of its feature which allows the user to subscribe to specific Twitter accounts as RSS feeds. What this means is that I can now view the Twitter accounts in Feedly in separate chronological order under each individual account. I can also organise how they appear (titles, full article, magazine format, card format etc.) in my feed. In the screenshot below, I have organised them in title form which allows me to quickly scan to check if anything is of interest and then mark as read, which then hides them from my view. No infinite scroll, no chaotic ordering and once read, no more appearances in my current interface.

Reassuring findings for numerous academics – and other writers!

Helen Sword (2016) ‘Write every day!’: a mantra dismantled, International Journal for Academic Development, 21:4, 312-322,
DOI: 10.1080/1360144X.2016.1210153

Numerous books, blogs, and articles on research productivity exhort academics to ‘write every day’ even during the busiest of teaching times. Ironically, however, this research-boosting advice hangs from a perilously thin research thread. This article scrutinises the key findings of Robert Boice, whose pioneering studies of ‘professors as writers’ in the 1980s and 1990s are still widely cited today, and offers new empirical evidence to suggest that the writing practices of successful academics are in fact far more varied and individualistic than has generally been acknowledged in the literature.

Keywords: Academic writing, scholarly writing, research productivity, Robert Boice

I am currently watching an entertaining and well made Young Adult TV series – Dwight in Shining Armor. In one episode a random character, a history teacher, declares, “History is the story we tell about the events we have chosen to remember”. A nicely succinct formulation. No doubt a script writer who was dying to get this observation onto screen somehow!

Foucault, of course, made this point continuously throughout all his works.

Categories: TV

Weapon of Choice is a short 3 minute video clip of a Fatboy Slim track directed by Spike Jonze.

I wrote this review back in 2002 for my defunct Walken Works site when the internet was still fun and starting to emerge from its wild and woolly experimental frontiers. This video, which of course predates YouTube, was immensely popular at the time. When it was originally released it was played continually on television (I recorded it for repeat viewing with my trusty VHS recorder), provoked imitations, early internet memes and other ‘homages’. On YouTube, the official video currently has a staggering 61.8 million views, indicating its continuing popularity as do the comments attached to the video as well as any number of continuing parodies and memes elsewhere. It enjoyed a further renaissance when it was restored in 4K high definition in 2021 and its longevity can be seen in an informative April 2022 article on the Radio X site.

I have uploaded my review here with a few minor edits and updates. At the time, I had a fairly comprehensive list of links to reviews and other material associated with this video but the majority of them have all long gone – even on the wayback machine – except for a BBC site announcing awards for the video. One or two comprehensive reviews that still remain are interesting in that they display a style of internet review writing that has already disappeared into the mists of time.
Review by Marc Weidenbaum, 1 August 2001.

Wikipedia has some useful additional information on the video. If anyone can update me on any of the sources missing below, let me know.

A jaded businessman (Christopher Walken) sits in a hotel lobby with his baggage beside him, slumped weary and defeated in his chair. A vacuum cleaner hums drearily in the background. The man becomes aware of music coming from a radio perched on a cleaning trolley. He nods discreetly in time with the music, then stands swaying slightly. Suddenly and unexpectedly, he launches into a dance. He dances energetically up and down the escalator, races down the concourse, does a cartwheel with no hands, leaps onto a table kicking away the brochures and smiling with enjoyment. He dances down a corridor of mirrors into the lift and dives over a mezzanine railing and flies around the hall, hanging for a moment in front of a large painting of a boat at sea with a look of sheer elation on his face. Then he comes back down to earth, quite literally, and after standing briefly considering his wild moment of freedom, he returns wearily to his chair and his bleak cogitations.

This is one of my favourite Walken performances. For many people, it is such an unexpected departure from their clichéd view of Walken as villain, they simply cannot believe they are actually seeing him performing, and have speculated that they are either seeing a stand in or clever CGI effects. There are indeed a couple of moments which feature stand ins, when he jumps off the table – which Walken was unable to do because of his knees, the dive over the balcony and the cartwheel. But he was certainly performing on the wires and it was reported at the time that he got some quite bad bruising from the wires. He said nothing about this but the bruises were noticed in the dressing room. [Unfortunately my source for this anecdote is long gone from the net]. When this video first appeared on screens in shopping centres and stores, people would stop and stare, transfixed by its sheer bizarre uniqueness. Such was the impact of the video that free-to-air TV Channel 9 in Australia paid homage to it in its station advertisement for 2002. This station filler used the Fatboy Slim music, a large Sydney hotel and featured the various newsreaders, other stars and mainstays of Channel 9 whom one would never expect to see dancing. They danced on tables kicking away the brochures, danced near lifts and did cartwheels (or at least the stand-ins did!) and danced down stairs and in lobbies.

Walken, in fact, had had a long history as a dancer, learning tap from an early age and dancing impressively in such films as Puss in Boots and Pennies From Heaven. His first work was almost exclusively in musical theatre before moving on to serious acting in the late sixties. He can also be seen dancing in episodes of Saturday Night Live, notably in 1992 in an extravagent and most entertaining set with multiple partners, including the mock reluctant producer of the show, all to Irving Berlin’s standard ‘Let’s Face the Music and Dance’. Indeed, it was seeing Walken dancing on Saturday Night Live that gave the director Spike Jonze the idea of filming him. Walken has often taken the opportunity to perform a few dance steps in his other films as well.

Weapon of Choice was directed by Spike Jonze who has directed numerous other video clips and films, notably Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002). It won a well deserved six MTV awards in 2001 and also won best video of all time in April 2002, in a list of the top 100 videos of all time, compiled from a survey of musicians, directors and music industry figures conducted by a UK music TV channel VH1. Walken has also commented in interviews that it has been the most popular thing that he has ever done. The music itself is not particularly memorable. The clip features a slightly shorter and slower rendition of the version that appears on the single and the album Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars. The music was also mixed slightly differently for the 2021 restoration. The video was shown on large screens in art galleries and at film festivals in 2003 and 2004 as part of the now defunct Resfest and at other special exhibitions. It toured to the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) in Brisbane, where I had the chance to see it. It transferred superbly to the large screen.

It is extraordinary what Walken manages to fit into a mere three minutes. First of all, there is a virtuoso and energetic exhibition of tap dancing, particularly impressive for a man of his age (58). He is hyper-flexible, very comfortable and at home in his own body, which gives the whole performance a wonderful freedom and naturalness. It is also a performance which features that unique and arresting blend of anarchy, energy and discipline so characteristic of Walken’s best work. His use of props such as luggage trolleys and fixtures such as escalators and tables is also fun. In addition, as he mentioned on the Conan O’Brien show, one of his moves was inspired by watching racoons near his house in Connecticut. Then there is a whole story about a man who has become trapped by the choices he has made. He fantasises about how things could have been – could still be – if only he had the courage to choose differently, but in the end, resigned to his fate, he settles back into despair.

The Marriott hotel in Los Angeles where this was filmed, provides an imposing example of modern corporate interior design and takes on a vaguely sinister aspect in the dim lighting. This provides an interesting contrast to the camera work which is energetic and discreetly playful. Incidentally, the double mirrored walls were built by the film makers for the video.

Technical note
On the technical front, Audrey Doyle describes the role of computer software in the creation of the video: [again, the source for this has long gone from the net].

Combustion also played a major role at Sea Level on the video for Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice.” In this video, actor Christopher Walken is seen dancing à la Fred Astaire, while diving, flipping and floating in the air in a hotel lobby. Walken’s dance moves necessitated the use of numerous wires as well as six large support towers and a steel-crossing infrastructure that supported the wires. Because digital removal of all this equipment from the backplates would have been too cumbersome, Sea Level re-created the lobby in 3D in inferno. Walken was then extracted from the original footage in combustion, and composited into the 3D lobby in inferno.

“This work was fairly complex because there was a lot of perspective change, with Walken coming pretty close to the camera, then moving away from the camera, and then spinning around,” says Sea Level’s Bruno.’

A DVD of the clip was released as part of a compilation of a number of Spike Jonze’s music videos and other short films. There is the added bonus of a commentary by Walken marking his first – and perhaps only – DVD commentary.

This is not strictly speaking a music video, but a scene from a film set to Bob Dylan’s song ‘Ballad of Thin Man’. It appears in Todd Hayne’s highly creative 2007 biopic I’m not there about Bob Dylan. Six different actors play six different characters, representing Dylan at different stages of his life and career. None of these characters actually bear Dylan’s name.

Cate Blanchett plays the character ‘Jude Quinn’ – a 1960s folk singer – who abandons his folk roots for electric rock music which his fans see as a betrayal. Blanchett is thoroughly convincing and engaging as Bob Dylan and gets the gestures and attitude just right. Todd Haynes remarks: “I know a lot of people would have preferred to just watch the Cate Blanchett Dylan the whole way through.” I have to admit that I’m one of those people. I found the other performances and segments of the film somewhat less interesting.

‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ also happens to be my favourite Dylan song (I’m not otherwise a fan). The version for the film is sung by Stephen Malkmus and is very close to the original. The underrated Bruce Greenwood also offers a fine performance as a BBC journalist, Keenan Jones. Incidentally, Bruce Greenwood appeared in two very watchable science fiction series in the 1990s – Nowhere Man and Sleepwalkers – both disappointingly cancelled after one season. Nowhere Man, included liberal “hommages” to Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner.

But to return to the video. There is quite a bit of historical information concerning various incidents in Dylan’s career packed into the visuals. At one point, there is an allusion to members of the Black Panther party playing the song in an endless loop, convinced the lyrics addressed racism. There have in fact been numerous interpretations of what the lyrics might mean, but perhaps the most obvious reading is that they are reflective of that famous trope of the 1960s: the ‘generation gap’, between an older conservative generation and a younger, rebellious, more socially conscious generation. There’s also a fair serving of another sixties trope – a particular form of surrealist imagery. This is rendered and updated very nicely in the film with Greenwood providing a subtle and layered performance in the midst of this.

In short, the performances, imagery, the distancing monochrome and sarcastic strength of the music and lyrics make this wonderful sequence eminently suitable for repeat viewing.

David Beer provides some really useful quick tips on writing on his blog The Fragment.

19 very brief thoughts on writing. Not rules, guidance or advice, just some thoughts.

I particularly like these tips:

    9. If you aren’t enjoying the writing, change the writing plan to bring forward a project you will enjoy (or, alternatively, adapt the thing being written to make it more engaging).

    10. Have a writing plan that prioritises topics that make writing enjoyable.

    11. Enjoying the writing makes for better outcomes.

    12. Plan the writing to give you a reason to read the things you most want to read.

Applying a Marxist framework, this could be described as a story of the alienation of the worker in an industrial and urbanised consumer society. This wonderfully directed video/short film features a very strong central performance, striking characterisation of the car factory robots and seamless special effects. The driving industrial music perfectly sets the tone of an overwhelming anxiety crowding out all space to think.

It opens with an aerobics class – so far, so music video – an expression of the entrepreneurial self – striving for the perfect fit body, aimed at the voyeuristic consumer. But this is a video that bites back. The shot quickly pans out to show a man watching the class on multiple television screens in a shop window. One of the aerobics performers addresses him directly, soundlessly telling him in no uncertain terms where to go. The warm embrace of voyeuristic consumerism is not for him.

We see the man’s unease as he turns up for his factory job supervising car robots, an unease that ramps up another level after he has an implied work accident which leaves his arm in a cast. Walking down to the Thames, to take some time out from the urban streetscape, he encounters a factory robot drinking from the water like a predator in the wild. The predator menacingly turns him to face him as he decides to beat a hasty retreat.

Back at home, alone in his tiny dreary flat, the head of the robot smashes through the bathroom window – only to disappear again, leaving the man to examine the window once again intact. Out in the street, the robot starts to intrude on his everyday activities. Desperate, he turns to his unsympathetic boss at work who unceremoniously fires him. The situation worsens as the robot starts to appear everywhere, in the tube, in the street, until finally the man runs down the streets with the robot in full pursuit, trampling over a car. He ends up distraught sitting on the ground in a back street, surrounded by robots which remain invisible to the onlooker. There is no happy ending to his situation.

What adds to the menace of the robots is their physical interaction with the man’s real environment, drinking from the water, smashing through a bathroom window and stepping on a car which moves under the impact.

When I have shown this video to students and asked for their views, I have found the response that it is about a man having a mental breakdown, deeply frustrating. I have been similarly irritated by some viewers’ interpretation of Richard Kelly’s 2001 film Donnie Darko as a film about mental illness – rather than science fiction. It is this ambiguity that the director clearly wanted to clear up in producing his extended director’s cut.

It has taken me a while to analyse this annoyance. It has to do with the historical distinction Michel Foucault draws between madness and its gradual transformation into mental illness in the nineteenth century, in his 1961 work History of Madness. He argues that this transformation silences the voice and truth – and ultimately the suffering – of madness and reduces it to a pathology. Once madness is reduced to a pathology, it can no longer communicate truths about various aspects of human existence to others. It just becomes the object of science and medicine, an abherration that needs treatment and elimination – it is reduced and completely muzzled by the calm order of reason. But as we all know, particularly in a pandemic age, that orderly and narrow dream of control is no more than an illusion.

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