Month: February 2014

An Emotional Atlas

As I started this project, I wanted everyone to map a specific settting-my Gram’s dining room-at a particular time-Sundays when we met for breakfast. However, I realized that this was a bit problematic in that it would severely limit how the maps would be made.

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The reason I had chosen this time was because of the emotional connection I felt existed with this experience.

Memory plays an important part to the maps. Invariably, any party of that side of the family would be centered around her dining room. It is this identification of the room’s importance to my mappers’ emotional memory that drives their narratives. As a collection, they are trying to prove something, not only to the audience they are imagining but to themselves. This idea greatly affects their maps. How they choose to outline the room does not become a question of technical skill, but also of familial affection. –From my introduction

These maps are not attempting to produce an exact replica of the room. Rather, they are stories. As I have tried to show through a discussion of the semiotics being used by my mappers, the individual maps are use techniques that display and confirm a connection.

See the atlas here.

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Maps of the Imagination

I began my project, Maps of the Imagination, wanting something more than a traditional map.  I believed that if I asked others to draw a map of an intangible place, of somewhere they had to imagine completely, the results would be fascinating and a challenge to interpret.

I summarized my trouble with asking others in the introduction of my atlas:

To illustrate how maps are more abstract and more personal than popular belief, I asked twelve people to create a map of his or her imagination.  The task was not easy; the participants, including myself, all struggled with how to portray something in a tangible form that doesn’t literally exist (at least in the way that each of us could see it, with our eyes).  I did not give any instructions about how to create the map outside of using a sheet of paper.  Mo matter how confused the participant looked or how many questions they asked, I would not clarify the information any further.  In this way, their responses would not be influenced by my own conception of an imagination.  

Many people asked me for clarification and I simply refused it to them.  Each map turned out different and wonderful in its own way.  However, the maps all followed similar trajectories, falling into one of four categories:

  1. Maps that looked like maps, either by identifying specific locations or by incorporating roads,
  2. Maps that depicted a single image and needed to be interpreted with semiotics,
  3. Collage maps of words or images, the latter also needing to be interpreted with semiotics, and
  4. Maps that tried to reach for something larger, expressing the abstraction of the imagination.

Once I identified these categories, I could fit the individual maps into each one and analyze them based on readings from Turchi, Wood and Hall.  Finding the quotes themselves was initially challenging, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed by rereading and searching for specific keywords.

After this, the only struggle I encountered was formatting the words and images next to each other in Word before changing the whole atlas into a pdf.  Like most things outside of text in Word, there was only one way to put an image on a page by itself: multiple page breaks and columns.  I can proudly say that I will be better at this the next time around, however.  I have Word figured out and can reproduce the work much faster.

All in all, I like how the Atlas turned out.  The maps given to me by others were more than I could hope for, and each one helped to solidify the points that the authors were trying to say about maps.  In the future, I’m going to look at maps with a much more critical eye.

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Making My Narrative Atlas

Obtaining all of the data for my narrative atlas, titled Feats and (De)feats of Association (a play on a quote by Robert Frost), was actually the easiest part of creating it. The Rowan University Writing Center (RUWC) is a relatively small space wherein the subjects are mostly standing still for long periods of time, making their locations easy to chart. It was finding a ‘narrative’ that really challenged me. Hopefully, I pulled it off.

First I started with an introduction:

Being a graduate assistant at the Rowan University Writing Center (RUWC) for the past two years, I spend a lot of time there—taking in the sounds, images, and movements that exist inside it. If you talked to me before I started Visual Rhetoric and Multimodal Composition this semester, I might have told you that I could explain every detail and happening that goes on within that space. And perhaps I could, but there’s a lot more to understanding a place than being able to pick out any detail about it.

Sometimes, you have to isolate things in order to better understand them. To see everything, in a sense, is to see nothing. Meaning cannot be made from an overwhelming blob of information; it can only be made from reaching into that noisy body of numbers, pictures, and words, pulling things out, and throwing them together like chemicals to see what kind of new compound they might make. As Robert Frost wrote, “An idea is a feat of association,” and this was exactly my intention when mapping the RUWC: to pick out different parts of its space and see what other parts conflict, compliment, and add to each other. It can only help me do my job better—seeing things in a different way—along with reinforcing the idea that maps reveal many things about our culture.

Much like other kinds of narratives, my narrative atlas has characters. There are the tutors, who are my coworkers and the tutees that come in for help. There are the tax volunteers, whom I will refer to as “Tax Workers” so that they better correspond to their “Tax Customer” counterparts (though they are taking a free service). Also, much like other narratives, this series of maps presents conflict and tension at times between these characters.

I intended for the first two maps of the atlas to establish the RUWC’s mission for readers who might not be entirely sure what a writing center does. By mapping the populations of regular tutees and literary vs. nonliterary posters, I got to illustrate the purpose of the RUWC while showing its continuously modified methods of outreach. Furthermore, establishing the place acts as a narrative move—showing the reader the ‘setting’ of the place wherein the action of the story will take place.

Once the setting is put in place, I move on to the conflict between us and the Tax Workers and Customers over the RUWC space. I did my best to characterize them, consistently making them blue and us red. What this turned into—perhaps naturally—as a series of maps that looked a lot like war strategy maps. Such maps were fitting for me to appeal to, and allowed me to frame my narrative as just that: a war. Of course, I had to acknowledge that this was a hyperbolic telling of a petty conflict over space, but using war-like maps worked as a strong exercise in finding and understanding meaning in visual rhetoric.

Once the conflict was established and the plot moves forward, I start to filter my interpretations through a Denis Wood-esque cartographic analysis of the rhetorical moves I was making. I think my most astute analysis came in my last map, “Invasion Pt. III: Compromise.” Here, I analyzed my use of color as a means of separating space:

Invasion Pt. III

The division implies a separation of space, as opposed to specific objects. And, much like the maps of North and South Korea or Israel and Palestine, the straight and distinguishable line separating the central space of the RUWC suggests that there is some sort of cooperation (be it stable or unstable) and understanding between both parties.

In other words, I’m exploiting a widely-understood code: state separation. Making one half of the space red and the other blue touches on separation—and perhaps even a post-conflict separation in my case.

I feel good about how my narrative atlas turned out. I’ll probably look at maps a little differently—particularly at who wrote it and what they might want from me as a consumer, voter, reader, worker, etc. And if I persuaded anyone with my map in any way, I apologize, but I guess that’s the nature of maps.

Stonecutter Homer

Why is Homer Simpson Yellow (And Why It Doesn’t Matter, Kinda)?

“Narf!”

“OK I love you buh-bye!”

“Hellooooooo, Nurse!”

You might recognize these catchphrases from the ’90s cartoon series The Animaniacs, a show about the three Warner siblings who were so zany that they had to be imprisoned in a water tower to ensure they couldn’t annoy anyone. Modeled after the Warner Brothers classic Looney Tunes, Yakko, Wakko and Dot were a trio of animals known for smooching everyone from Michaelangelo to Albert Einstein and breaking out into song on a whim. When you look at their jet black fur, clownish white faces and maraschino red noses, one can’t help but wonder: what the heck are they supposed to be, anyway?

The Animaniacs logo (wikipedia)

Recognizing the ambiguity in their own character design, the writers had a little fun with leaving us guessing. In an early episode, the Warner Brothers are in a session with their psychiatrist Dr. Scratchansniff when he poses the question to them. The brothers then segue into “What Are We?”, postulating all the potential animals types that might fit their description.

Ultimately, we realize the question is erroneous, and, in trying to deduce their identity, the joke is on us (“what we are, dear doctor … is cute”). According to Sean Hall’s “This Means This, This Means That,” “Adults often have to have things explained to them … because while the meaning of the drawing is often transparent to the child it is frequently opaque to the adult (68).” The visual interpretation of the protagonists is a gag itself.

Perhaps the most popular cartoon ever made, The Simpsons rose also rose to prominence in the ’90s, setting the precedent for primetime animated sitcoms. My mom let me watch it until she learned that Bart says “sucks” a lot, but I still managed to catch episodes when she was busy preparing dinner. Before she cut me off, she would always ask me, “Why are they yellow?”

After all these years, I’m pleased to finally have an answer to this question myself. In “Understanding Comics,” Scott McCloud describes a phenomenon called amplification through simplification. “When we abstract an image through cartooning, we’re not so much eliminating details as we are focusing on specific details (30).” Let’s use the lead character, Homer, as an example.

Homer Simpson of Sector 7G (boston.com)

Once the viewer acclimates to his skin tone, she will soon realize that Homer’s design is intentionally unremarkable; he is meant to represent the average middle-aged white collar middle class (as evidenced by his white-collared shirt). He has a squiggly line around his crown and only two remaining arches of hair on top of his head, representing his baldness (and therefore his age). His scruffy face isn’t animated with bristling hairs swaying with each turn of the head, but rather a flat, light brown circle painted around his mouth, suggesting lazes-faire attitude. Finally, his belly bump shows us he is a couch potato who worked hard to earn his beer gut. And, really, do we need to know anything more?

The modern cartoons of my youth have since been succeeded by the postmodern, perhaps most notable of all Adventure Time. A buddy cop-style series featuring the adventures of Jake the Dog and Finn the Human across the land of Ooo, Adventure Time scales higher up (toward the abstract) on McCloud’s picture plane than either the largely iconic Animaniacs or the Simpsons. Though many of the characters, including Jake and Princess Bubblegum, are very much on the iconic end of the spectrum, they often break from their default configurations into the realistic spectrum, creating a level of irony that the show has become so well known for. For example, you may have seen this clip of Finn trying to overcome his fear of the ocean:

Or, maybe the finely detailed contours of Ricardio’s face creep you out just as much as they do to me, signifying his nefarious nature.

Ricardio, heart of the Ice King (deviantart)

I used to think the fairly simplistic, iconic characters of my youth were drawn so as a way to cut the costs of animation, but, clearly, there is intentionality behind every tongue-wiggling scream.

Why you little!

White Bright Lights

Think about the last few movies you’ve seen, and think about color: Adventure movies are all cool and blue, fast metallics and flashes of red-orange. Dystopias are gray smoke and dirt, and horror calls to mind dark nights and blood reds (and actual blood) to create the tense fearful atmosphere we come to expect. But horror also unabashedly does with visual imagery what many other genres will not do, whether for fear of losing money (and lets be real: Most horror is not a cash cow), or fear of alienating the audience (again, not the biggest concern in a genre that features tree rape in one of it’s most classic films), which is deviate from expected color themes and imagery to craft something even more unsettling than an abandoned old house or hostel.

House of 9

House of 9 (2005)

Oftentimes I joke that my favorite type of film is “people trapped mysteriously in a room together movies” and part of that falls into one of my favorite contrasts in horror: Clean, white rooms or clean-cut families providing a conflicting backdrop to the acts of violence that will undoubtedly occur. The most evident of this is in these “people trapped” films: The Killing Room, Breathing Room, House of 9, among others. They provide almost scientifically clean areas in which atrocities take place, creating a canvas for horror that can make even cliche actions seem that much more difficult to watch.

Take the trailer for two comparatively similar films, such as the aforementioned Breathing Room and the dark and dirty Nine Dead:

Sean Hall tells us that “stories always change in the telling” and while both these movies ask their trapped characters “why are you here?” it’s in the telling that makes one better than the other: The visuals in one are powerful in their contrasts–the darks, lights, and reds, make up a story that is lacking in the dull consistency of Nine Dead‘s cinematography. But there is more to this contrast than relying on setting and cinematography. For this, we look to Lucky McKee’s films, Sick Girl, and, in particular, The Woman: McKee (and by proxy Jack Ketchum, who wrote the film) gives us clean not only in setting, but in characters. The Woman features the Cleek family, who, for all intents and purposes appear to be not just normal but a good All-American Family. They are the family you expect to have atrocities committed against, not the ones to be committing the atrocities: But that is what make the film successful.

The Woman

The Woman (2011): Father, business man, keeps a feral woman as a pet dog

The power in horror lies in unchecked fear, tension, and the things we do not expect. To seen beauty and light intermixed in our deepest fears is unexpected, and often unused in big-budget Hollywood horror. It’s powerful, and it is, to some extend, perfect.

On a final note, reflect back to a film we are all probably familiar with: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The setting of the “games” is a lush forest hidden under the same dystopian filters of the previous movie. But how different, how powerful, could things have been if it opted for the unexpected and gave us this tropical forest in full Caribbean Cruises-esque color as the backdrop for brutal murder? The answer is very, because there is something wonderful about the brutal beauty of color, and unexpected light in the face of the darkest realities.

Keeping it Innocent

When I watched this commercial for the Mattel Tommy Burst Toy Gun from the 1960’s, I had the same initial reaction most any other viewer would have in the year 2014: There’s no way this commercial would make it on air today. The child wields two toy guns that could easily be mistaken for a real guns at a distance–something most post-Columbine Americans would feel iffy about. On this surface level, though, the commercial is still considerably innocent: just a kid playing with a toy gun the same way most children do at one point or another. But on a deeper look, there are forces acting to keep it innocent.

Note the serial positioning effects of this commercial (or meaningfully tactical order in which its elements appear):

  1. The father begins reading the Dick Tracy comic to his son. As viewed today, this part of the scene screams To Kill a Mockingbird: the father, complete with Atticus Finch glasses and comb-over, reads to his son on their couch. Of course, this resemblance might not have seemed so apparent given the style of the sixties, but the nature of these elements—suggesting innocence and wholesomeness—is nevertheless highlighted in what follows.
  2. The son engages himself in the comic’s plot by taking out his toy guns, the Dick Tracy Snub Nose .38 and the Dick Tracy Tommy Burst. As the boy speaks of “blasting” his “way out” of Dick Tracy’s situation (playing the role of Dick Tracy), the father laughs light heartedly—gesturing that he is not only unalarmed by his son’s acting, but approves of it.
  3. The two sit together on the couch and look to their television, which follows up on the product’s name, price, and displays the company’s emblem.

There are two narratives happening here: one in the child’s immersion into the story and another, more subtle one in the placement of these parts. I’m particularly interested in the latter.

The father is meant to address the values of parents who might be skeptical if this toy is safe or appropriate toy for their children. His clean-shaven, kind, and attentive demeanor make him a moral authority for viewing parents to not only accept, but to abide by. When the son pulls out his toys and acts out “blasting” through his enemies, the father approves, ultimately deeming the toy okay. He ultimately says this toy is okay without really saying it.

I can see two clear sources of moral authority in this commercial. The first, as previously stated, comes from the culture/pop culture of the 1960s and the father’s appeal to the dominant values and aesthetics of white, middle-class America of that time.

The second comes from the Dick Tracy comic. Dick Tracy is a tough-guy cop who defeats bad guys through his wits and frequent gun fights—a bolstering of the strength and unambiguous righteousness of American law. As the guns bare the icon of his face on the packaging like a badge, questioning the moral value of these toys would be questioning American law itself. The package, furthermore, asserts that the toy will help mold the boy into a good citizen.

Idealizing the Hero

We’re in the middle of a superhero movie craze.  It started with remakes of superhero movies like the Dark Knight in 2008 and is continuing with the upcoming movies like Captain America: Winter Soldier and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 this year, and even The Avengers 2 in 2015.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the movies and the ambition behind them.  But I’m getting tired of the advertising: these repetitive movie posters.  Taking a closer inspection the movie posters are functioning in a pretty obvious way.

Sean Hall, in his book This Means This. This Means That outlines the many ways that viewers judge an image.  As he explains, “the forms of placement tell us what is most important to the producer in terms of communication” (89).  So what do the producers of movie posters want us to know about the movie, about the superhero?  If you think about audience perspective, the viewer can only see the movie poster from one angle: directly from the front.  They can control exactly what we see.

Let’s look at some of the features of posters.

First, nearly every poster places the superhero in the dead center of the poster.  The center is the most important place, “the thing that is seen to prevail over that which surrounds it” compared to the marginal objects (98).  In this case, the marginal objects are the rest of the city, like the buildings that surround Batman as makes a leap in his Batpod.  In the case of the Iron Man posters, it’s a handful of enemies and supporting characters that float somewhere around his shoulders in the background.  All of this points to the superheroes importance – basically, that the superhero of the movie is going to be the main character and the one the viewer identifies with, along with numerous other reasons.

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Photo credit: Splatter.com

Photo credit: sci-fimovieposters.co.uk

Similarly, the hero is closest to the viewer out of the other images.  No matter what is shown in the background, the superhero makes up the definitive foreground.  This has the same effect of being in the center because everything is geared around the hero.

Third, the hero is “larger than life” – that is, depicted much larger than other people and his surroundings.  When the superhero is looking down, the viewer is essentially looking up to the hero.  The superhero gains more power from this position, since being higher is generally a place of superiority.  He becomes a role model.  The hero’s skills, his aspirations, and his very identity become something to look up to, no matter what the personal morality of the viewer is.

An interesting note is that the most idealized object is placed at the top of the image.  It isn’t too much of a stretch to compare these images of superheroes to gods.  God is always at the top of his images, at the front and center of whatever else is marginalized.  The superheroes are effectively the gods of their small worlds.  Pretty true.  Batman holds the city together by himself without the credit.  Captain America single-handedly brings down one of the most powerful men in World War II (according to the movie, anyway).

 

All in all, it’s a good setup that sucks the viewer into the world of the superhero, setting him or her up to believe in the hero’s power.  It’s predetermined after the viewer sees the poster that the hero will not fail, or will come out triumphant no matter the cost.  The posters that show the hero involved in some kind of heroic action while also the focus of the poster only emphasize their heroic nature.

All we need now is a new way to advertise movies, so we don’t need the same thing every time.

Source:

Hall, Sean.  “Visual Structures.”  This Means This.  This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics.  London: Laurence King, 2007.  89-108.  Print.

Circles, Squares, and Triangles… Oh, my…

According to Chris Solarski’s article, details how all 3d shapes within a game–whether they are figures, environment, or props–begin as one of three basic shapes: circles, squares, or triangles. Each of these shapes are associated with an aesthetic concept:

Circle: innocence, youth, energy, feminity

Square: maturity, stability, balance, stubbornness

Triangle: aggression, masculinity, force.

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Katy Perry’s Prism Beliefs & the Viewer/Image (Fan/Stage) Relationship

If you’ve followed the tabloids headlines of high profile celebrity divorces over the last two years, you’re probably familiar with the very public end of Katy Perry and Russell Brand’s two-year marriage in December 2011. At the time, Perry was in the midst of her very successful California Dreams tour that featured fluffy pink cotton candy clouds, a stage overflowing with flavor-of-the-month lollipops and a couple of blue wigs to boot.

Katy Perry mixing it up with gingerbread men on her California Dreams Tour (Source: iheartkatyperry.tumblr).

Katy Perry mixing it up with gingerbread men on her California Dreams Tour. (Source: iheartkatyperry.tumblr)

Flash forward two years later and Perry is ready to embark on her second arena-sized worldwide tour in support of her third album, PRISM. She’s back with a new look and sound, and this time around fans should expect an almost toned-down version of the teenage dreamin’, bubble gum smackin’ sing-a-long extravagant that grossed nearly $52 million.

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Hollywood, Race, And Myths

This post is obviously in need of a disclaimer, on the off chance the Norse gods are real.

SO: Son of Nine Mothers, if you are real, sorry for calling you fictitious.

Back in 2011, when Thor came out, there was a bit of an uproar when Idris Elba was cast as Heimdallr, the gatekeeper-god, and as Wikipedia informs me “the whitest of the gods.”

Here was Hollywood meddling again, right? Everyone knows that everyone in the Dark and Middle Ages was white.  (There was no problem with almost all the Norse gods speaking with a British accent, because that is how we know they are civilized.) And what happens when this is done in reverse deserves its own post.

We’ll just gloss over the fact that many stories as close to canon as you can get in the King Arthur myth cycle have People of Color as knights. 

But knights (later cowboys)(and then Jedi) come in two colors, and they are both coded to mean something.

(Please note the next section contains lots of summary, I’m by no means an expert)

Traditionally, white=light=good, so black=darkness=bad. Does this connotation code an audiences’ perception of an POC hero? Is it simply that, as author Sean Hall writes, it is only a matter of perception that makes us aware of differences.

Why does a non-traditional depiction of fictitious character cause such a furor? I wondered, at the time, if it was partially that a PoC was given god-power that caused queasiness.

Elba’s casting is caught up in a lot of paradigms. It could, as the Salon article I linked to earlier (again, here) it could be read as a continuance Viking movies featuring PoCs. It’s detractors clearly see it in the framework of liberal media’s hostile takeover. It is caught up in the didactics of what means good and bad.

 

What it isn’t, is simple entertainment.