Tags: film

27

sparkline

Mistakes on a plane

I’m in Seattle. An Event Apart just wrapped up here and it was excellent as always. The venue was great and the audience even greater so I was able to thoroughly enjoy myself when it was time for me to give my talk.

I’m going to hang out here for another few days before it’s time for the long flight back to the UK. The flight over was a four-film affair—that’s how I measure the duration of airplane journeys. I watched:

  1. Steve Jobs,
  2. The Big Short,
  3. Spectre, and
  4. Joy.

I was very glad that I watched Joy after three back-to-back Bechdel failures. Spectre in particular seems to have been written by a teenage boy, and I couldn’t get past the way that the The Big Short used women as narrative props.

I did enjoy Steve Jobs. No surprise there—I enjoy most of Danny Boyle’s films. But there was a moment that took me out of the narrative flow…

The middle portion of the film centres around the launch of the NeXT cube. In one scene, Michael Fassbender’s Jobs refers to another character as “Rain Man”. I immediately started to wonder if that was an anachronistic comment. “When was Rain Man released?” I thought to myself.

It turns out that Rain Man was released in 1988 and the NeXT introduction was also in 1988 but according to IMDB, Rain Man was released in December …and the NeXT introduction was in October.

The jig is up, Sorkin!

The Force Awakens

You can listen to an audio version of The Force Awakens.

I’d like to talk about The Force Awakens (I mean, really, how can I not?) so there will be inevitable spoilers. Bail now if you haven’t seen the film.

Star Wars was a big part of my childhood. By extension—and because I’ve never really grown up—Star Wars has always been part of my identity, at least in the shallow sense of what I’d list under “hobbies and interests” on a theoretical form. Still, I could relate to Michael’s feelings in the run-up to the new film’s release:

Despite much evidence to the contrary, I don’t hang too many of my wants and needs on Star Wars or its continuing life as a franchise. I’m the fan-equivalent of a deep history archeologist, not a pundit or an evangelist.

While I’ve always been a big fan of Star Wars: The Films, I’ve never cared much about Star Wars: The Franchise. When my local pub quiz for nerds—The Geekest Link—has a Star Wars night, I enter with a prayer of “please no ‘Expanded Universe’, please no ‘Expanded Universe’.”

When I heard that Lucasfilm had been sold to Disney, I was intrigued—this could get interesting! When I heard that J.J. Abrams would be directing Episode VII, I was pretty happy—I like his work, and he’s a safe pair of hands. But I didn’t want to get too excited. Partly that’s because I’ve been burnt before—although I’m something of a prequels apologist in comparison to the hatred they inspired in most people. Mostly though, it’s because I’m aware that when it comes to something that doesn’t yet exist—whether it’s a Star Wars film, a forthcoming album, or an upcoming project at work—the more hope you place on its shoulders, the more unlikely it is to be able to fulfil those over-inflated expectations.

But as The Force Awakens drew closer and closer, despite my best intentions, I couldn’t help but get excited. Jessica and I watched and re-watched the trailers. The day that tickets went on sale, the website for my cinema of choice crashed, so I picked up the phone and waited in a queue to secure seats for the minute-past-midnight first showing (if you know how much I dislike telephonic communication, you’ll appreciate how unusual that action was for me).

I began to literally count down the days. In the final week, Jessica and I re-watched the Star Wars films in Machete Order, which I can highly recommend. That culminated on the evening of December 16th with a gathering ‘round at Andy’s to eat some food, watch Return Of The Jedi, and then head to the cinema before midnight. By the time I was sitting in my seat surrounded by equally enthusiastic fans, I was positively aquiver with excitement.

When the fanfare blasted and the Star Wars logo appeared, I was grinning from ear to ear. Then I experienced something really wonderful: I had no idea what was going to happen next. Going into this film with no knowledge of plot details or twists was the best possible way to experience it.

I didn’t know what the words of the opening crawl would be. I didn’t know who any of the characters were. I didn’t know what anybody was going to say. I know that sounds like a weird thing to fixate on—after all, didn’t we get that with the prequel films too? Well, not really. Because they were all backstory, there were clearly-delineated constraints on what could and couldn’t happen in those films. But with these new films, anything is possible.

I really, really, really enjoyed watching The Force Awakens. But in order to truly evaluate the film on its own merits, I knew I’d have to see it again in more normal circumstances (and who am I kidding? I didn’t need much of an excuse to see it again).

I’ve seen it three times now. I loved it every time. If anything, the things that slightly bothered me on first seeing the film have diminished with subsequent viewings. It stands up to repeat watching, something that isn’t necessarily true of other J.J. Abrams films—I enjoyed Star Trek Into Darkness when I first saw it, but with every time I see it again, it grows a little weaker.

As I said, there were things that slightly bothered me and I’ll get to those, but my overwhelming feelings about this film are very, very positive. I think the world-building is really good. I think the film itself is superbly crafted, as described in this excellent point-by-point analysis by Chris Dickinson. But above all, what I love the most about The Force Awakens are the characters.

Rey. What can I say? She is quite simply a wonderfully-written character brought to life by an astonishingly good performance. And of course I’m going to join in the chorus of people who are glad that we finally get a lead role for a woman in this galaxy. Granted, Star Wars: The Force Awakens isn’t exactly Mad Max: Fury Road, but still, how great is it that 2015 has given us both Rey and Furiousa?

(You know what it is? It’s a good start.)

Likewise with Finn: great character; great performance. Throw in Kylo Ren, Poe Dameron and even BB8 …I’m sold. I’m invested in their stories now. I want to know what happens next. I want to spend time with them.

But The Force Awakens wasn’t just about new heroes and villains. As audacious as it would be to start from an entirely clean slate, it also needed to tie in to the beloved original films. On the whole, I think this film did a good job of balancing the past and the future.

Paul came along to that midnight viewing; a ticket became available at the last minute. But he was prepared not to enjoy it, or even understand it, given that he’s never really watched Star Wars.

“Actually”, I said, “I’d be really interested to find out what you think of it.”

I’m too close to the source material; I can’t objectively judge whether the new film could stand on its own, as opposed to be being the latest episode in an existing saga.

As it turned out, Paul really enjoyed it. Sure, there was stuff he was aware he was missing out on, but interestingly, there was even more stuff that we were all missing out on: the script is filled with references to events that happened in the intervening decades between the old films and the new. I liked that a lot. It helped solidify this as being simultaneously a brand new chapter and also just one sliver of a larger ongoing narrative.

The Force Awakens is very much a bridging piece between the old and the new. The torch was passed on with dignity, and surprisingly, it was Harrison Ford’s Han Solo that made it a convincing handover.

I say “surprisingly” because remember, we had just watched Return Of The Jedi before The Force Awakens and it is so clear that Harrison Ford really didn’t want to be in that film. I know Han Solo is supposed to be somewhat sarcastic, but it was dialled up to 11 for Jedi, and I’m pretty sure it was a very, shall we say, “naturalistic” performance. But here he is over thirty years later, really breathing life into the character.

Through the stewardship of Harrison Ford, we were lovingly taken from the original films that we know so well into a new story. Han Solo picked up the audience like it was a child that had fallen asleep in the car, and he gently tucked us into our familiar childhood room where we can continue to dream. And then, with a tender brush of his hand across the cheek, he left us.

In many ways, Han Solo in The Force Awakens is Ben Kenobi in Star Wars …but with a much more fleshed-out history and a more interesting personal journey. Now he’s the one saying that the Force is real (and he does it in the very spot where he originally ridiculed Kenobi). It’s as if Scully were to slowly come around to Mulder’s worldview and finally intone “I want to believe.”

The biggest gripe that other people have with The Force Awakens is how much the plot resembles that of the original Star Wars. It’s undeniable. The question is how much that matters, and a result, how much it bothers you. It really bothered Khoi. It somewhat bothered Andy. It didn’t bother me much, but it was definitely an aspect that prevented the film from being a complete triumph. But it’s also one of those issues that diminishes with repeated viewing.

Those bothered by the echoes between Star Wars and The Force Awakens are going to be really pissed off when they find out about World War One and World War Two. “Britain and America fight Germany again? Really!?” (Probably best not to even mention any of the Gulf wars).

I get the feeling though that the people who are bothered by the plot are perhaps overplaying the similarities and underplaying the differences.

So yes, in one sense Rey in The Force Awakens is like Luke in Star Wars—a young person on a desert planet far from the action. But then there are the differences: where Luke was whining about his situation, Rey is mastering hers. And of course there’s the fact that he in 1977 is now she in 2015. “That doesn’t make any difference!” you may cry, and you’d be exactly right: it shouldn’t make any difference …so why has it taken us four decades to get to this?

The casting of Rey and Finn is simultaneously unimportant and monumental. It’s unimportant in that it makes no difference to the story whether Rey is a woman or Finn is black. It’s monumental in that they are the main characters in what everyone knew would be the biggest film of the century so far.

One of the other complaints that people have with The Force Awakens is the unclear political background. Here’s Michael again:

The rebels killed the Emperor and won, but now they’re ‘the resistance’? Why? They’re backed by the republic, so why aren’t they just the armed forces of the republic? The First Order strikes against the republic (looked like Coruscant, but apparently wasn’t). How big is the First Order? Big enough to build Starkiller Base, but what does that mean? Do they control systems? Do they have support inside the republic? Is this like a separatists thing? How long have they been around? How are they funded?

This certainly bugged me. It was the kind of issue that could have been fixed with one explanatory scene. Sure enough, it turns out that such a scene was shot but then cut from the film. Mostly that was to keep the film’s running time down, but I suspect that after the dull talkiness of the prequels, there may also have been some overcompensating course-correction away from anything with even a whiff of politics. Alas, that phobia of trade routes and senators resulted in an unclear backstory. It wasn’t until my third viewing that I realised that Hux’s speech is the closest thing to a blackboard scene for the galactic geopolitics: there’s a proxy war between wannabe extremists looking to set up a caliphate (think ISIS) and a resistance (think the Kurds) being funded by the dominant power (think America) …up until The First Order carry out a 9-11/Pearl Harbour/Vulcan scale attack, leaving the balance of power wide open—the next film could take it in any direction.

One of the most impressive achievements of The Force Awakens is that after seeing it, I didn’t want to think about how it tied back to the original films, as I expected I would want to do. Instead, I was entirely preoccupied with questions of what’s going to happen next.

Everyone is talking about Rey. Where is she from? What is her parentage? The most popular theories are currently:

  1. She is Luke Skywalker’s daughter.
  2. She is Han and Leia’s daughter, the secret sister of Kylo Ren.
  3. She is Ben Kenobi’s granddaughter.

Personally, I’d like it if her parentage were unremarkable. Maybe it’s the socialist in me, but I’ve never liked the idea that the Force is based on eugenics; a genetic form of inherited wealth for the lucky 1%. I prefer to think of the Force as something that could potentially be unlocked by anyone who tries hard enough.

But there are too many hints at Rey’s origins for her parentage to go unexplained. All the signs point to her having some kind of connection to existing bloodlines. Unless…

Lawrence Kasdan has been dropping hints about how odd Episode VIII is going to be, mostly because it has Rian Johnson at the helm. He gave us the terrific Looper. One of the most unsettling aspects of that film was the presence of a child with buried potential for destruction through telekinetic powers. For everyone’s safety, the child is kept far from civilisation.

Okay, I know it’s a stretch but what if Rey is on Jakku for similar reasons? Her parents aren’t Skywalkers or Kenobis, they’re just scared by the destructive episodes they’ve experienced with their Force-sensitive infant. With enormous reluctance—but for the greater good—they deposit her on a faraway world.

No?

Okay, well, if you don’t like that theory, you’re going to hate this one:

What if Rey is the daughter of Luke and Leia?

Eww! I know, I know. But, hey, you can’t say the signs weren’t there all along. And the shame of an incestuous union could be the reason for the child’s secret exile.

It’s preposterous of course. Even in a post-Game Of Thrones landscape, that would be going too far, even for Rian Johnson …or would it?

Now I’ve planted the idea in your head. Sorry about that.

Still, how great is it that we we’re all talking about what’s going to happen next?

Some people have asked me where I think The Force Awakens ranks in comparison to the other Star Wars films, and I wasn’t prepared for the question. I honestly haven’t been thinking about it in the context of the original films. Instead I’ve been thinking about the new characters and the new storyline. As Maz Kanata would say:

The belonging you seek is not behind you, it is ahead.

100 words 078

I’ve noticed lately that my experience of films is lasting long after leaving the cinema. I end up reading opinion pieces and listening to podcasts about the film for days or even weeks afterwards.

Interstellar, Ex Machina, Mad Max: Fury Road …I enjoyed each of them in the cinema, and then I enjoyed thinking about them again by huffduffing related material to catch up on.

Sometimes I find myself doing it with other media too. I finish a book, and then listen to reckons about it afterwards.

I guess this is the water cooler effect, but extended to the internet.

100 words 072

Today was tiring. I didn’t do anything too strenuous—I was in the office in the morning and then up in London in the afternoon, but for some reason I just felt very tired out. Travelling to London and back will do that.

So when I got home, I had a nice relaxing evening. After dinner, I opened a bottle of Dark Star Sunburst ale, made some popcorn, and put on Interstellar.

This was my third viewing and it was just as gripping as the first two.

It’s a film that’s really divided opinion but I’m most certainly a fan.

100 words 064

Jessica and I went to see Mad Max: Fury Road at the Dukes At Komedia last week. We both thoroughly enjoyed it. There’s the instant thrill of being immersed in a rollicking good action movie but this film also stayed with me long after leaving the cinema.

This isn’t really Max’s movie at all—it’s Furiosa’s. And oh, what a wonderful protagonist she is.

Max’s role in this movie is to be an ally. And for that reason, I see him as a role model—one who offers a shoulder, not to cry on, but to steady a rifle’s aim.

100 words 005

I enjoy a good time travel yarn. Two of the most enjoyable temporal tales of recent years have been Rian Johnson’s film Looper and William Gibson’s book The Peripheral.

Mind you, the internal time travel rules of Looper are all over the place, whereas The Peripheral is wonderfully consistent.

Both share an interesting commonality in their settings. They are set in the future and …the future: two different time periods but neither of them are the present. Both works also share the premise that the more technologically advanced future would inevitably exploit the time period further down the light cone.

100 words 003

I measure transatlantic flights in movies watched. Yesterday’s journey from London to Seattle was four movies long.

  1. The Imitation Game: a necessarily fictionalised account of Turing’s life (one of the gotchas about top-secret work is that it’s, well, secret). But couldn’t Tommy Flowers have been given at least a walk-on part?
  2. Fury: Brad Pitt plays Lee Marvin in a war story told through the eyes of the naive rookie as seen in The Big Red One and Saving Private Ryan.
  3. Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part One: The Hungering.
  4. Paddington: just right for the end of a flight.

Interstelling

Jessica and I entered the basement of The Dukes at Komedia last weekend to listen to Sarah and her band Spacedog provide live musical accompaniment to short sci-fi films from the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth centuries.

It was part of the Cine City festival, which is still going on here in Brighton—Spacedog will also be accompanying a performance of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, and there’s going to be a screening of François Truffaut’s brilliant film version of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in the atmospheric surroundings of Brighton’s former reference library. I might try to get along to that, although there’s a good chance that I might cry at my favourite scene. Gets me every time.

Those 100-year old sci-fi shorts featured familiar themes—time travel, monsters, expeditions to space. I was reminded of a recent gathering in San Francisco with some of my nerdiest of nerdy friends, where we discussed which decade might qualify as the golden age of science fiction cinema. The 1980s certainly punched above their weight—1982 and 1985 were particularly good years—but I also said that I think we’re having a bit of a sci-fi cinematic golden age right now. This year alone we’ve had Edge Of Tomorrow, Guardians Of The Galaxy, and Interstellar.

Ah, Interstellar!

If you haven’t seen it yet, now would be a good time to stop reading. Imagine that I’ve written the word “spoilers” in all-caps, followed by many many line breaks before continuing.

Ten days before we watched Spacedog accompanying silent black and white movies in a tiny basement theatre, Jessica and I watched Interstellar on the largest screen we could get to. We were in Seattle, which meant we had the pleasure of experiencing the film projected in 70mm IMAX at the Pacific Science Center, right by the space needle.

I really, really liked it. Or, at least, I’ve now decided that I really, really liked it. I wasn’t sure when I first left the cinema. There were many things that bothered me, and those things battled against the many, many things that I really enjoyed. But having thought about it more—and, boy, does this film encourage thought and discussion—I’ve been able to resolve quite a few of the issues I was having with the film.

I hate to admit that most of my initial questions were on the science side of things. I wish I could’ve switched off that part of my brain.

There’s an apocryphal story about an actor asking “Where’s the light coming from?”, and being told “Same place as the music.” I distinctly remember thinking that very same question during Interstellar. The first planetfall of the film lands the actors and the audience on a world in orbit around a black hole. So where’s the light coming from?

The answer turns out to be that the light is coming from the accretion disk of that black hole.

But wouldn’t the radiation from the black hole instantly fry any puny humans that approach it? Wouldn’t the planet be ripped apart by the gravitational tides?

Not if it’s a rapidly-spinning supermassive black hole with a “gentle” singularity.

These are nit-picky questions that I wish I wasn’t thinking of. But I like the fact that there are answers to those questions. It’s just that I need to seek out those answers outside the context of the movie—I should probably read Kip Thorne’s book. The movie gives hints at resolving those questions—there’s just one mention of the gentle singularity—but it’s got other priorities: narrative, plot, emotion.

Still, I wish that Interstellar had managed to answer my questions while the film was still happening. This is something that Inception managed brilliantly: for all its twistiness, you always know exactly what’s going on, which is no mean feat. I’m hoping and expecting that Interstellar will reward repeated viewings. I’m certainly really looking forward to seeing it again.

In the meantime, I’ll content myself with re-watching Inception, which makes a fascinating companion piece to Interstellar. Both films deal with time and gravity as malleable, almost malevolent forces. But whereas Cobb travels as far inward as it is possible for a human to go, Coop travels as far outward as it is possible for our species to go.

Interstellar is kind of a mess. There’s plenty of sub-par dialogue and strange narrative choices. But I can readily forgive all that because of the sheer ambition and imagination on display. I’m not just talking about the imagination and ambition of the film-makers—I’m talking about the ambition and imagination of the human race.

That’s at the heart of the film, and it’s a message I can readily get behind.

Before we even get into space, we’re shown a future that, by any reasonable definition, would be considered a dystopia. The human race has been reduced to a small fraction of its former population, technological knowledge has been lost, and the planet is dying. And yet, where this would normally be the perfect storm required to show roving bands of road warriors pillaging their way across the dusty landscape, here we get an agrarian society with no hint of violence. The nightmare scenario is not that the human race is wiped out through savagery, but that the human race dies out through a lack of ambition and imagination.

Religion isn’t mentioned once in this future, but Interstellar does feature a deus ex machina in the shape of a wormhole that saves the day for the human race. I really like the fact that this deus ex machina isn’t something that’s revealed at the end of the movie—it’s revealed very early on. The whole plot turns out to be a glorious mash-up of two paradoxes: the bootstrap paradox and the twin paradox.

The end result feels like a mixture of two different works by Arthur C. Clarke: The Songs Of Distant Earth and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

2001 is the more obvious work to compare it to, and the film readily invites that comparison. Many reviewers have been quite to point out that Interstellar doesn’t reach the same heights as Kubrick’s 2001. That’s a fair point. But then again, I’m not sure that any film can ever reach the bar set by 2001. I honestly think it’s as close to perfect as any film has ever come.

But I think it’s worth pointing out that when 2001 was released, it was not greeted with universal critical acclaim. Quite the opposite. Many reviewers found it tedious, cold, and baffling. It divided opinion greatly …much like Interstellar is doing now.

In some ways, Interstellar offers a direct challenge to 2001—what if mankind’s uplifting is not caused by benevolent alien beings, but by the distant descendants of the human race?

This is revealed as a plot twist, but it was pretty clearly signposted from early in the film. So, not much of a plot twist then, right?

Well, maybe not. What if Coop’s hypothesis—that the wormhole is the creation of future humans—isn’t entirely correct? He isn’t the only one who crosses the event horizon. He is accompanied by the robot TARS. In the end, the human race is saved by the combination of Coop the human’s connection to his daughter, and the analysis carried out by TARS. Perhaps what we’re witnessing there is a glimpse of the true future for our species; human-machine collaboration. After all, if humanity is going to transcend into a fifth-dimensional species at some future point, it’s unlikely to happen through biology alone. But if you combine the best of the biological—a parent’s love for their child—with the best of technology, then perhaps our post-human future becomes not only plausible, but inevitable.

Deus ex machina.

Thinking about the future of the species in this co-operative way helps alleviate the uncomfortable feeling I had that Interstellar was promoting a kind of Manifest Destiny for the human race …although I’m not sure that I’m any more comfortable with that being replaced by a benevolent technological determinism.

August in America, day twenty-two

I’m back from a lovely evening out with Jared and Jessica, unwinding in my Chicago hotel room after a day of travel.

It began with a journey on the BART to San Francisco airport. Figuring out how to operate the BART ticket machines is always an interesting exercise in bizarro world interface design. But figure it out we did, and Jessica and I made it to the airport in plenty of time …which is just as well, because it took the TSA quite a while to find someone to give me my pat-down when I opted out of using the millimetre wave scanner.

The four hour Virgin America flight to Chicago passed without incident. We had bulkhead seats which meant we could stretch our legs out a little bit more. We ate some snacks. We watched some bad comedies: Identity Thief and The Hangover Part III.

When we arrived in Chicago, there was a car waiting to take us to our hotel: one of the excellent perks provided to speakers at An Event Apart. In mere hours, we made it through rush-hour Chicago traffic to the Westin hotel.

When we were checking in, there was a notice to guests that things might get a little noisy in the early hours of Sunday night and Monday morning. They’re planning to do some helicopter-shot filming for two movies currently in production: Michael Bay’s Transformers 4 and the Wachowski siblings’ Jupiter Ascending. Guests are requested to keep their windows shut.

Remembering Ralph McQuarrie

Ralph McQuarrie died yesterday at the age of 82. His pre-production paintings shaped the Star Wars films …and the Star Wars films shaped me.

His work adorned my bedroom wall when I was growing up—I remember this Return Of The Jedi poster in particular.

Return Of The Jedi

His sweeping vistas populated with small figures dwarfed by their otherworldly surroundings helped to establish the Star Wars universe as something that existed beyond the confines of the films. George Lucas made the movies …but Ralph McQuarrie shaped the mythology.

His passing is being marked elsewhere on the web:

Who goes there?

Local lads British Sea Power have started up a residency, playing the first Friday of every month down at The Haunt. Myself and Jessica went along to the inaugural event, which was great fun.

The only downside was that it clashed with a one-off screening at The Duke of York’s of The Thing, the 1982 classic that conspicuous by its absence from the recent John Carpenter all-nighter.

Now I’m sure you’ve probably seen the Thingu parody that’s been doing the rounds.

Personally, I’m still laughing about The Thing: The Musical.

But there’s one piece inspired by the film that’s genuinely interesting. The Things by Peter Watts is a short story that tells John Carpenter’s tale from the perspective of the title character.

I see myself through the window, loping through the storm, wearing Blair. MacReady has told me to burn Blair if he comes back alone, but MacReady still thinks I am one of him. I am not: I am being Blair, and I am at the door. I am being Childs, and I let myself in. I take brief communion, tendrils writhing forth from my faces, intertwining: I am BlairChilds, exchanging news of the world.

Carpenter

One of the things that makes Remy’s Full Frontal conference so good—apart from the great content—is the venue: Brighton’s excellent Duke of York’s cinema.

The cinema occasionally plays host to all-night movie marathons like all three Lord Of The Rings films (the extended editions, of course). This weekend in preparation for Halloween their was a John Carpenter all-nighter. By pure coincidence, the AV Club just published this primer on John Carpenter.

The four-film marathon started at 11pm and finished at mumble-mumble o’clock. It was a blast. The chosen selection was:

  1. Halloween (1978)
  2. The Fog (1980)
  3. Escape From New York (1981)
  4. They Live (1988)

It’s a shame that The Thing wasn’t included but it was a great line-up.

However, it still can’t compete with the sheer brilliance of seeing John Carpenter’s directorial debut Dark Star recreated with puppets before my very eyes.

Improving Reality

Much as I enjoyed myself in Tennessee, it was shame to miss some of the Brighton Digital Festival events that were going on at the same time. I missed Barcamp and Flash On The Beach. But since getting back I’ve been making up for lost time, soaking up the geek comedy at The Caroline of Brunswick last Wednesday with Robin Ince and Helen Keen.

I also went along to the Improving Reality conference on Friday, which turned out to be an excellent event.

The title was deliberately contentious, inviting a Slavin-shaped spectre to loom over the proceedings after he closed dConstruct with his excellent talk, Reality is Plenty wherein he placed his boot on the head of Augmented Reality, carefully pointed his rhetorical gun at its temple and repeatedly pulled the trigger.

But AR was just one of the items on the menu at Improving Reality. The day was split into three parts, each of them expertly curated: Digital Art, Cinema and Gaming. In spite of this clear delineation of topics there were a number of overlapping themes.

I’m somewhat biased but I couldn’t help but notice the influence of science fiction in all the different strands. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Science fiction sets expectations for technology and culture …and I don’t just mean flying cars and jetpacks.

Mind you, this is something that cinema has always done. Matt Adams from Blast Theory asked:

How many romantic kisses had you seen before you had your first romantic kiss?

Or, on a more pedestrian level, everyone in the UK knows what an American yellow school bus is, even though they’ll probably never see one. It’s part of a pre-established world that needs no explanation. In the same way, science fiction is pre-establishing a strange world that we already inhabit.

José Luis de Vicente took us on a tour of some of this world’s stranger corners. He pointed us to the deserted Mongolian city of Ordos, a perfectly Ballardian location.

We also heard about the Tower of David in Venezuela. Intended as a high-rise centre of commerce but bankrupted before completion, it is now the world’s tallest favela.

It reminds me of William Gibson’s bridge.

It isn’t hard to draw parallels between Gibson’s Spook Country and the locative art presented at Improving Reality like Julian Oliver’s mischievous creation The Artvertiser.

He describes his work as “jamming with reality”—much like Mark Shepard’s Sentient Cities

But Julian Oliver is at pains to point out that that it’s not just about messing with people’s heads. He’s attempting to point out the points of control that might otherwise go unquestioned. There’s also an important third step to his process:

  1. Identify the points of control in the infrastructure.
  2. Hack it.
  3. Show how it was done.

This stands in stark contrast to the kind of future that Aral outlined in his energetic presentation. He is striving for a world where technology is smooth and seamless, where an infrastructure of control is acceptable as long as the user experience is excellent. It’s Apple’s App Store today; it’s the starship in Wall·E tomorrow (or possibly the Starship Opryland)—a future where convenience triumphs over inquisitiveness.

As Marshall McLuhan put it “there is no augmentation without an amputation.” In Charles Stross’s Accelerando that is literally true: when the main character—exactly the kind of superhuman cyborg that Aral envisions—has his augmentation stolen, he is effectively mentally and socially retarded.

Julian Oliver’s battle against a convenient but complacent future is clearly shown with Newstweek where William Gibson, Umberto Eco and Philip K. Dick collide in a project that skirts around the edges of morality and legality, hijacking wifi connections and altering news headlines for the lulz.

Then there’s Blast Theory’s current work on the streets of Brighton, A Machine To See With. It’s ostensibly another locative art piece but it may have more in common with a cinematic work like David Fincher’s The Game.

It’s all part of a long tradition of attempting to break down the barrier between the audience and the performance, a tradition that continues with the immersive theatre of Punchdrunk. This reminds me of the ractives in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, a form of entertainment so immersive that when a troupe attempt to perform a traditional theatrical piece, they run into problems:

The hard part was indoctrinating the audience; unless they were theatre buffs, they always wanted to run up on stage and interact, which upset the whole thing.

It’s a complete inversion of the infamous premier by the Lumière brothers of Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat where, so the myth goes, the audience ran from the theatre in terror.

It’s probably a completely apocryphal story. But as the representative from Time’s Up said at Improving Reality: “Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

Stories were at the heart of the gaming section of Improving reality. Stored In A Bank Vault, which is currently running in Brighton, was presented as part of PARN: Physical and Alternate Reality Narratives. These are stories where the player is empowered to become the narrator.

Incidentally, it was refreshing to hear how much contempt the game designers like Tassos Stevens held for the exploitationware of “gamification”—a dehumanising topic that was explored in Stross’s superbly damning .

There were plenty of good stories in the middle section of Improving Reality too, which began with a look at the past, present and future of cinema from Matt Hanson. Matt’s own remarkable work A Swarm Of Angels bears a striking similarity to “the footage” in Gibson’s Pattern Recognition—both are infused with a spirit of .

The subject of film funding is currently a hot topic and it’s unsurprising to see that much of the experimentation in this area can be found in sci-fi endeavours such as Iron Sky and The Cosmonaut.

Micropatronage can be very impowering. Where once we were defined (and perhaps judged) by the films we chose to watch and the books we chose to read, now we can define ourselves by the films and books we choose to fund. Instead of judging me by my what’s on my bookshelf or my Last.fm profile, judge me by my Kickstarter profile. Kickstarter is one of those genuinely disruptive uses of the network that’s enabling real creativity and originality to come to the surface in projects like Adrian Hon’s A History Of The Future In 100 Objects.

This change in how we think about funding feels like the second part of a revolution. The first part was changing how we think about distribution.

Jamie King, director of Steal This Film, hammered home just how powerful Moore’s Law has been for film, music and anything else that can be digitised. Extrapolating the trend, he pointed to the year 2028 as the media singularity, when it will cost $5 to store every film ever made on a device that fits in your pocket. He evocatively described this as the moment when “the cloud settles at street level.”

It’s here, at the point where anything can be copied, where the old and new worlds clash head on in the battle for the artificial construct that has been so inaccurately labeled “intellectual property”.

Once again we were shown two potential futures; one of chaos and one of control:

  1. There’s the peer-to-peer future precipitated by Bit Torrent and Pirate Bay where anyone is free to share their hopes and dreams with the entire world …but where no distinction is drawn between a creative work of art and a hate-filled racist polemic.

  2. Then there’s the centralised future of the iPad, a future where people will gladly pay money to climb into a beautifully designed jail cell. You can have whatever you want …as long as it has been pre-approved. So you won’t, for example, ever be able to play Phone Story.

This second future—where your general-purpose computing device is broken—promises to put the genie back in the bottle and reverse the disruptive revolution in distribution and funding.

Thinking about it, it’s no surprise that payment systems are undergoing the same upheavals as distribution systems. After all, money is just another form of information that can be reduced to bits.

The much tougher problem is with atoms.

Until recently this was entirely the domain of science fiction—the post-singularity futures of replicators and . But even here, with the rise of 3D thing printing, our science fictional future is becoming more evenly distributed in the present.

Improving Reality closed with a talk from Alice Taylor wherein she demoed the work being done at Makie Lab:

We’re making a new kind of toy: customisable, 3D-printed, locally made, and internet-enabled.

A year ago, this was a work of fiction by Alice’s husband. Now it’s becoming reality.

Just as Makie Lab envision a game that’s an infinite loop between the network and the physical world, I think we’ll continue to see an infinite loop between science fiction and reality.

A dark star is born

At Clearleft towers, we’ve been having semi-regular movie nights, based around a connecting theme. Previous themes include car chases (The French Connection, Bullitt and Ronin) and films set at Christmas that aren’t about Christmas (Gremlins and Die Hard).

Last week’s movie night’s theme was near-future science fiction. We didn’t get around to watching Minority Report but we did watch Children of Men and Sunshine.

is one of those films that gets better with each viewing. Little by little, it’s edging up my list of all-time favourites. It has a sense of awe, wonder and humility in the face of science that’s genuinely Clarkeian.

It also has plenty of loving references to those other films featuring the trifecta of sci-fi elements: a ship, a crew, a signal. The nods to 2001 and Alien are clear, but something I didn’t catch until just the other day was that the character of Pinbacker was named for Sergeant Pinback from .

I know this because, instead of our usual Thursday evening pub gathering and book swapping, the Brighton Speculative Fiction Group this week hosted a puppet show. Paul and Richard recreated all of Dark Star using cardboard, some string, a few dolls and some strategic lighting.

It was one of the best things I’ve ever seen. Here’s the highlight reel.

Analogue Inception

I don’t usually get all that excited about forthcoming films, but ever since seeing I’ve been like a kid at Christmas time. Everything about it looked like it was going to press all my buttons.

I went to see it on its first day of release at the lovely Duke of York’s cinema. It didn’t disappoint. If anything, it exceeded my ludicrously high expectations.

The structure of the film is that of a heist movie, but if the film were to be slotted into a genre, that genre would have to be science fiction. Personally, I would say it’s . But it’s a strange kind of cyberpunk where the emphasis is less on technology and more on the film-noir mood and transcendental possibilities of the genre.

In fact, technology in Inception is notable by its absence. There is a piece of hardware to enable the central premise of the film, but it’s of no more importance than the hardware used in —the last great science fiction film to cover similar territory.

Both films also avoid making any reference to specific dates. We assume that the narrative plays out in the very near future but we’re never explicitly told that. It strikes me that both films are attempting to place the action in a kind of continuous present.

Inception is particularly adept at avoiding anything that would date the film. Nothing dates a story quite like technology. has remarked on numerous occasions that the glaring omission of cell phones in dates the book to the 1980s …although younger people assume that the omission is a deliberate plot point.

Computers make no appearance in Inception. The unstoppable momentum of means that this year’s cutting edge laptop may appear laughably out of date by the time the film is available on DVD (and my reference to a specific storage medium like DVD dates these words).

Christopher Nolan goes further and avoids the use of digital input and output devices: the mouse, the keyboard, the screen (either LCD or cathode ray) …all of these things anchor a narrative to a specific period. Instead, there is almost a fetishisation of the analogue. When we see people planning and prototyping in Inception, it is with paper and cardboard rather than any computer-aided design tools.

It’s slightly jarring when the occasional piece of technology appears on the screen, such as an electronic key card for a hotel room door, or the electronic fingerprinting device used at American airports.

Analogue objects age too, of course, but the rate of ageing is slower. To borrow a term from architecture—and boy, is Inception a fun film from that perspective—the analogue and the digital are different :

The Shearing layers concept views buildings as a set of components that evolve in different timescales.

Sound familiar? It’s a concept that’s at the heart of Inception’s dream logic: the idea that the passage of time slows down within a dream, allowing a far longer narrative to play out in a dream world than in the faster-moving “reality” of the dreamer.

Inception takes pains to use the medium- to long-term obsolescence of physical objects: trains, planes, cars, guns and—above all—buildings. The film neatly sidesteps the inevitable timestamp that electronic technology would impart on the narrative.

Inception is a film that will stand the test of time remarkably well. The phrase “timeless classic” is one that gets bandied about far too freely, but in this case it could well turn out to be the literal truth.

Update: Adrian Sevitz points out that Inception is also remarkably lacking in product placement, or branded products in general. It’s true: I can’t recall seeing a single logo in the film. That’s something that has dogged with its unfortunate choice of brand extrapolation: Pan-am, Atari, Bell…

Culchavulching

Having a neighbourhood bookshop will always add a few points in the “feel-good” column in the balance sheet of life. City Books is located just a short stroll from my front door. As well as stocking a remarkable amount of signed books, they also put on regular events at The Old Market—also a short stroll from my front door.

A couple of weeks ago Jessica and I saw Rick Stein there, cooking some recipes from his latest book. Tonight we saw reading from The Death of Bunny Munro—his first novel since And the Ass Saw the Angel twenty years ago. It was a thoroughly enjoyable event, mostly thanks to the rapport between Cave and the host for the evening, Will Self.

It’s certainly nice having all this so close to home. Usually I’d have to travel up to the big smoke, as I did for Michael Moorcock and Alan Moore at the British Library—and as I’m sorely tempted to do again for Seamus Heaney on Beowulf.

The next Brighton-based chat I’m planning to attend will be more filmic than literary. The Duke of York’s cinema—yes, the same place that will be hosting Full Frontal—will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of Alien on October 25th with a screening of the film followed by an interview with (of Bladerunner fame) and (of designing-Darth-Vader’s-costume-yes-really fame).

If you are a fellow Brightonian geek, grab your ticket now. If you’re a non-Brightonian geek, you might want to consider a trip to Brighton for this.

Let the right tweet in

It’s de rigueur for non-human entities to have a twitter account these days; magazines, diseases, spaceships and buildings. Brighton’s Duke of York’s cinema has been on twitter for a while now.

As with most twittering organisations, the stream has news of future events, such as the impending visit by Charlie Kaufman. But rather than simply using Twitter as another channel for announcements, the people behind the account are using it to have a proper conversation with the cinema’s audience. Hence the requests for movie marathon suggestions or late night shows.

A couple of weeks ago, they posted this irresistible tweet:

anyone that fancies seeing Let The Right One In at a spooky late night screening on Thursday 2nd April DM us for tickets

So I did. That’s why I found myself in the Duke of York’s cinema at 11pm last night, sitting on a comfy sofa up in the balcony, drinking a (free) Swedish beer, watching a mesmerising, beautiful, frightening film (imagine if Twilight had been directed by Bergman).

Watch this film. If you live in Brighton, you know where to go.

Iron Man and me

All of my Flickr pictures are published under a Creative Commons attribution licence. One of the reasons I switched over to using this licence was so that people didn’t have to write and ask me whenever they want to republish one of my photos. But I still get plenty of emails from people asking me if it would be okay to use one of my pictures. I’m very lax at responding to those requests. If and when I do respond, I point out that they don’t really need to ask; as long as they credit me—as either adactio or Jeremy Keith—then they can use my photos wherever and however they want.

Back in March, right before I was setting out for Mix’08 in Vegas and South By Southwest in Austin, I received a typical request:

Is the photo Andy in the VAB your image on flickr? If so can you please contact me with regard to possibly allowing us to use a part of this image in a feature film.

Andy in the VAB

I didn’t respond. I was too busy packing and gearing myself for a big showdown with Microsoft (this was right before they reversed their decision on IE8’s default rendering). I soon received a second email with more details:

The photograph would be cropped in a way where no people would be shown. We are interested in using this image as a background to insert our main characters which would be included as part of a biography film on our main character which is shown at an award ceremony honoring him in the film.

I thought it was an odd picture to be asking about. Let’s face it; it’s not a very good photo. It’s blurry and washed out. I guess it’s somewhat unusual in that it was shot inside the at Cape Canaveral. Usually members of the public aren’t allowed inside. Myself, Andy and Paul were lucky enough to be part of the first open day since 2001. It was all thanks to an invitation from Benny, a bona fide rocket scientist at NASA—thanks again, Benny!

I never got around to responding to the emails. I figured that, whoever it was, if they really wanted to use the picture, they would notice the licence and realise that they didn’t have to ask permission.

I quickly forgot all about it. Other events were foremost in my mind. I got a call from Pete Le Page and Chris Wilson telling me that Internet Explorer 8 was going to render pages as if it were—get this—Internet Explorer 8. Now I was going to Vegas for a celebration instead of a battle.

After a long trip across the Atlantic, I awoke in my hotel on the first morning of the conference, eager to hear the opening keynote. But before I could head downstairs, my mobile phone rang. I answered it and the woman on the other end said, “Hi. I sent you two emails about using a picture of yours…”

“Ah, right!”, I said. I then launched into my usual spiel about Creative Commons licencing. I explained that she was free to use my picture. All she had to do was include a credit somewhere in her little movie.

“Well”, she said, “the thing is, getting your name in the credits usually costs at least $1,500. That’s why we need you sign the license release form I sent.”

“Wait a minute”, I said. “What is this for?”

“It’s for a movie that’s currently in production called Iron Man, starring Robert Downey Jnr.”

Holy crap! One of my photos was going to be in Iron Man? That certainly put a new spin on things.

“So I guess you want to use the picture because it’s inside NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building?” I asked.

“No. We just thought it was a picture of some warehouse or something.”

The woman on the other end of the phone—her name was Ashley—said she could reimburse me for the use of my photo if I signed the form she sent. I thanked her, told her I didn’t need any reimbursement, and said I would print out and sign the form for her. Ashley made it clear that I would need to get the form faxed to her before the end of the day.

There was a printer in my hotel room so I set about getting it connected up to my Macbook. That’s when disaster struck. My Macbook began making the dreaded ticking time bomb noise. Within seconds, my hard drive was dead, broken, kaput. Pining for the fjords, it had shuffled off this mortal coil and was an ex hard drive.

Well aware of the irony of my Apple hardware failing while I was attending a Microsoft conference, I abandoned all hope of printing out the license release form and sat in on the opening keynote. This consisted of a few words from Ray Ozzie, a quick look at IE8 and about a billion hours of Silverlight demos. That’s what it felt like anyway.

The next day, I made my way to Austin for South by Southwest. That turned out to be quite an adventure.

Once I finally made it to Austin, I settled into a comfortable routine of geeking out, having fun and generally over-indulging. As I was making my way to the conference centre one morning, my mobile phone rang. It was Ashley.

“Sorry I didn’t manage to get the form to you”, I said. “My laptop died on me. I know it’s too late now.”

“Actually, there’s still time”, she responded.

“Look”, I said. “Let’s cut out the computers completely. Can you fax the form to my hotel? I can sign it and fax it back to you straight away.”

And that’s exactly what we did.

Iron Man was released a few weeks later. I never got ‘round to seeing it in the cinema; I’m not a big fan of the whole cinema-going experience. But some time later I was travelling across the Atlantic yet again and one of the in-flight movie options was Iron Man. I fired it up, wondering if my picture had made it into the final cut and even if it had, whether I’d be able to spot it.

Three minutes into the movie, there was my photo.

Jeff Bridges and Robert Downey Jnr. in Iron Man

It fills the screen. The camera lingers over it while performing its best Ken Burns effect. Not only was Robert Downey Jnr. photoshopped onto the picture, Jeff Bridges was on there too! The Dude!! …On my picture!!!

My Flickr pictures have been used in some pretty strange places but this must surely be the strangest …and the coolest.

Before and after

The Dark Knight on the silver screen

Remember what I was just saying about not going out to the movies much? Well, I decided to make an exception today for for three reasons:

  1. Brighton Pride is on today. Surely most people would rather go to that on a sunny afternoon than sit in cinema?
  2. The film is showing at the atmospheric , the oldest continuously operating cinema in the UK, the furthest thing from a multiplex.
  3. This is the quintessential water-cooler pub movie and I can’t take part in the conversation for fear of learning a spoiler. If I want to join in, I need to see the film.

So I went to the cinema and had my prejudices about the cinema-going experience confirmed. To be fair, the audience—usually the worst part about seeing a movie in public—were well-behaved (such a difference from when I lived in Germany). The problems were all technical.

For the first twenty minutes of the movie, the sound was dialled down and I was straining to hear what was going on. Once that problem was fixed, I was able to really immerse myself in the experience… until the climax of the film, at which point the projector began to strobe a blue light every couple of seconds. This lasted for a few minutes. Even once it was fixed, it was too late: the illusion was shattered. I, and no doubt everyone else in the room with me, was no longer thinking about the moral complexities of Bruce Wayne’s tortured inner soul; I was wondering whether I should go and demand a refund.

After my last movie-related post, Jeff Schiller wrote to say:

I think there are reasons to see a movie in a theatre, as long as it’s the right crowd. There is something great about sharing an experience like that with a large group of people you don’t even know.

That might be true but it’s so rarely the right crowd. The corollary also holds: it’s pretty awful to share an experience with a large group of people you don’t even know if they aren’t enjoying it to the same degree. And anyway, I’m not sure the communion of the cinema outweighs the technical compromises. When I watch a film at home, I get to decide who I see it with, how dark the room is and how loud the sound is while I enjoy the pristine perfection of a digital reproduction.

Maybe I should just treat cinema-going the same way I treat watching movies on airplanes: it’s okay for films that are so-so but don’t spoil a really good movie by watching it in a substandard environment.

Well, at least now I can finally go and read this spoiler-containing blog post and discuss The Dark Knight and game theory with James in the office on Monday morning.

That sound

Despite being a huge Pixar fan, I still haven’t seen Wall•E. That’s mostly due to my belief that a typical cinema is not necessarily the best viewing environment for any movie, but particularly for one that you want to get really engrossed in …unless the cinema is empty of humans.

I’m not sure if I can hold out much longer though, especially after reading this wonderful story about how the people at Pixar responded to one blogger’s reaction to seeing the first trailer for the movie last year. Eda Cherry describes herself as having a strong fondness for robots so Wall•E is already pushing all the right buttons. The moment when he says his own name is the moment that pushes her over the edge — it makes her cry every time. Partly it’s the robot’s droopy eyes as he looks up into space but also:

It’s the voice modulation.

That would be . I remember as a child receiving the quarterly Star Wars fan club newsletter, Bantha Tracks, and reading about the amazing amount of found sounds that went into the soundscape of that galaxy far, far away: animal noises, broken TV sets, tuning forks tapped against high-tension wires. And of course R2D2, voiced by Ben Burtt himself.

Now, with Wall•E, he’s voicing another lovable robot, one capable of moving humans to tears. His involvement is no coincidence. In the initial brainstorming for the project, John Lasseter repeatedly described it as R2D2: The Movie.

The journey involved in turning that initial idea into a finished film is a long one. For a closer look at the process at Pixar, be sure to read Peter Merholz’s chat with Michael B. Johnson. Their storyboarding process sounds a lot like wireframing:

We’d much rather fail with a bunch of sketches that we did (relatively) quickly and cheaply, than once we’ve modeled, rigged, shaded, animated, and lit the film. Fail fast, that’s the mantra.