Monday, August 05, 2013


First there’s the genome, which is what unfolds the plan for your very own body, molecule by molecule.  

Then there’s the envirome, which modifies the genes through methylation, turning genes on and off, up and down.  It plays the genes like a piano.  Technically it’s called the epigenome and it’s affected by nutrition, stress, exercise, safety and happiness, and so on.

Then there’s the culturome, which runs on memes instead of genes, little bits of info that might be just what you need in order to function or might be a nuisance.  The memes are usually specific to the culture, so might be about using a thread and needle or about gardening or about driving a car, or about music or books.  It builds preferences and a kind of vocabulary.

The connectome is one’s thinking as it shows up on sensitive instruments: neurons connect in patterns between nodes and along both physical strands and changes in the molecular content of the fluids.

Arts, in particular the performing arts used to design experiences, depend upon all of the above.  The more of each a person has, the more sophisticated the experience will be.  Old people have an advantage and so do traveled people and daring people and people with a lot of contact with other people or beings of all kinds.  The advantage is of resources and they are of two kinds:  the sensorium of raw memories that are sorted, parted out, and saved in neurons to be reconstituted later; and the patterns of connection that are used to manipulate those memories.  

This will be clearer if I use an example, so I choose “Hell on Wheels,” which is a Western series from AMC that I’ve been watching.  It’s a far more evocative experience for me because it is filmed just north of me on the Alberta side of the border.  When I watch I recognize wolf willow, I smell grassland, those sounds of creaking saddles and boot heels on plain board floors echo in me.  It’s all familiar, which is part of the reason I prefer it to “Deadwood.”  

The Indian extras in “Hell” are supposedly Sioux but this is Blackfeet country. I can understand some of what they say:  kika (wait now); mistapoot (go away); and some of the prayer language.  (They mostly hear the language spoken as prayers at public events.)  When the tough old “Swede” says to the Indians in reference to the Winchester repeaters he’s brought them,  “Sokapi!” and makes the gesture for “good,” it makes me laugh with recognition.

The most brilliant thread in this series about the two Ingmar-Bergman-type gaunt grotesques -- insane versions of Max von Sydow.  This type migrated to this part of the world in the early days and linger on, partly because of being outliers anyway, and partly because of having uses that arise from their dour, dominating personalities.  The “Swede who is actually Norwegian”-- Christopher Heyerdahl -- might be seen as the product of a far north place where a driven personality survives better than others, but on the other hand is at the edge of the kind of madness that afflicts people who don’t get enough sun -- Vitamin D shortage, some suggest.  I’ve taught with people here who are very much in this pattern.  I know how unstable such people can be -- often alcoholic or depressives.  All the ones I knew were grandiose narcissists.

Tom Noonan plays the equally tall and equally deranged eccentric missionary.   This one seems Irish and plainly has schizophrenic paranoia if the psych handbook is in your cultureome.  He reminds me of my Irish grandfather. The actor came to my notice in “Damages” where he managed to look menacing just by standing there and asking simple questions with a little smile playing across his face.  Putting these two characters together was a little like the story about the psychiatrist who tried to cure two patients of their conviction that they were Jesus by putting them in a room together for a day so they would see they couldn’t BOTH be Jesus.  But in the end they had agreed that was the case.  A novel using these two characters might be pretty amazing.  (Of course, the actual actors are perfectly sane, very successful, actually.)

The rest of the characters and plot are out of the Truffault/Spielberg playbook.  In that context, tall strange men end up being Daniel Day-Lewis playing Lincoln.  Okay, but always a little sentimental.  My education has taught me to prefer dry and tart, even a little acid.  Another Bergman dimension is the confrontation of religion and not just death, but killing.  I saw “The Seventh Seal” in college -- an impressionable time.

By now we’ve known a zillion handsome flawed men, black and white buddies.  At least Mount can really ride a horse.  (He suggests Wallace Stegner’s high-line of the Great Northern characters, educated but force-based.)  Likewise, spunky pretty girls are everywhere now.  The prostitutes here are falling out of the tops of their clothes instead of the bottoms like contemporary streetwalkers, but they look real and not like the runway models of “Deadwood.”  

Eva with the tattooed chin (April Telek) is a better actress and better concept than the writers have explored so far.  Very few entertainment people have enough knowledge or experience to develop a bi-cultural person of the period, but then who would get it anyway?   And yet, since “Star Trek,” which is essentially an anthropological series, we’ve become used to strange looking people.  In the Fifties we might be shocked by a woman with a tattooed chin, but we would also have been shocked by her mulatto lover.   Of course, Colm Meany was on “Star Trek” all along.

There are always people who feel they know a lot and seize on politics and this series was criticized for not showing Chinese railroad workers.  But knowing more, it turns out that the railway building that started on the Pacific coast hired Chinese, but the railway building from the Atlantic side hired Irish and acquired blacks displaced by the Civil War.  The tidbit about buying them out of jails also approaches esoteric knowledge, but adds to the richness of the plot.  The series is very high-handed about resurrecting good characters who die too soon in time-honored soap style.  I don’t mind.  Some will, but I’m used to stories morphing.

So the point is that there are interacting connectomes in the heads of the scriptwriters, the actors, and the watchers.  Most of it stays under consciousness.  Some would argue that it ought to stay there, that each of these people should be in the NOW, that it dilutes and skews experience to combine levels.  They want a child’s spontaneous reaction, that vivid intensity.  True to my credo, I want both/and.

It appears that all three (four including “Common”) of the tall men are both/and guys.  They are stage actors, Mount actually teaching acting, but I think he needs to watch out not to become a poor man’s Daniel Day-Lewis.  They seem to actively participate in the development of plot and character.  Serieses no longer have directors, who often prove to have auteur complexes a la Truffault and Bergman, so they have “show-runners.”   

This part of the high prairie has become what Monument Valley once was: a familiar landscape in Westerns.   I like the material culture in “Hell”: sets, costumes, props.  Low-key.  And I forgive the return of full-makeup for the women -- esp. eyes.  I just LIKE it.  The open cinematography of the prairie, the curves of horizon, the edges of groves, the unexpected waterways, the geometry of tents, are no less seductive for being familiar.  The cinematography is often exceptional.

To a person back east, to a person from Europe or South America -- with quite different internal connectomes -- it would be a different movie.  In fact, this is a very Christian movie -- you can tell because the second season ends in apocalypse, foretold all through.  So what would an Arab see?  A true desert Arab not educated in the US?

1 comment:

Randall Huffman said...

Eva with the tattooed chin (April Telek) is a better actress and better concept than the writers have explored so far....

not april telek.

Robin McLeavy plays eva.

I think you were confused by a picture that has both actresses in it.