Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Aristocrats

Douglas Hofstadter is like a god to many of us geeks. He inspired a generation of people to pursue such intellectual fields as artificial intelligence, computer science, cognitive science, logic, philsophy and much more. Mostly it was his Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid that made many of us devotees. But another one of his great books was Le Ton Beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language. The book essentially takes a short poem ("Ma Mignonne") of Clement Marot and gets dozens of differnt people (and machines) to tranlate it from French to English, and weaves it in to a very long (600 large pages!) discussion on the nature of language. This is of course simplifying the book, but you get the idea. It is a wonderful book.

Now imagine that instead of having an obscure poem and famous (and not so famous) literary snobs to the translating, you have an obscure joke - a filthy disgusting obscure joke. Then you have about 100 filthy and disgusting famous comedians retell the joke their own way, and then you put weave it all together in what resembles a documentary film about this joke. You get a really good film.

The Aristocrats is an "in" joke among comedians that has apparently been around since the days of vaudeville. There is no authorative version, and everyone tells it their own way. Like translations, the version you hear reflects the writer as much as anything else.

It is really a vile joke, and it is not funny. Those are the only two constants that all the versions have, but watching it get told over and over, interspersed between discussion of it becomes very funny. No two comedians have the same version. And it is something that they all know. If you do not mind hearing a very gross joke get told over and over and over, go see it.


old carriage sports lounge said...

Wow--I am SO stupid compared to you. But nevertheless, I am really keen on seeing that film--I read about it in The NY Sun and it sounds wretched and fascinating at the same time.

30 something said...

Douglas Hofstadter used to be like a god to me. That is until I realized that GEB is actually much ado about nothing. To be sure, it was the most fun I have ever had reading a book. And if the purpose of the book was to be entertaining and educational it would certainly have been the most successful publication of its kind in history. Certainly no other book whose intention it is to introduce its readers to the enigma of consciousness comes even close to GEB.

However the purpose of GEB was not to introduce the topic of consciousness studies and cognitive science in an entertaining and provocative way. The purpose of GEB was to actually teach us something about consciousness. In this it totally failed. While I learned a lot about art, music, logical puzzles, physics, computer science and Zen koans, I learned exactly zero about consciousness.

Hofstadter himself realized that people were not getting the purpose of the book and in the introduction to the 25th anniversary edition to GEB he complained about this turn of events bitterly. While it is clear that the book is a cult classic, and it deserves to be, it falls way short of fulfilling its purpose, of saying something informative about consciousness.

Jesse said...

"People will forever be able to invent novel variations on Helvetica that haven't been foreseen by a finite parameterization, just as musicians will forever be able to devise novel ways of playing "Begin the Beguine" that the electronic-organ builders haven't yet built into their elaborate repertoire of canned rhythms, harmonies, and so forth."

- Douglas Hofstadter, "Metafont, Metamathematics, and Metaphysics," reprinted in Metamagical Themas

I eagerly await the electronic organ that can play "Begin the Beguine" in the novel manner described in the film.