Tuesday, September 25, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: FOR ALL MANKIND (1989)

Directed by Al Reinert

Music by Brian Eno

Edited by Susan Korda

Produced by Betsy Broyles Breier, Al Reinert, Ben Young Mason, Fred Miller


For All Mankind is a cinematic blend of all the different facets of the Apollo Program which put the first human beings on the moon. It isn't about any one Apollo odyssey, nor does it focus on indivdual astronauts, scientists, or ground control operators. Rather it is a synthesis in sound and images of what the Apollo Program means to the human species as a whole. Or maybe I should say it's what the filmmakers think the Apollo Program means to humankind as a whole, although I found it pretty convincing as well. I wanted to believe the grand mythology that director Al Reinert had crafted out of hours of footage shot on board the spacecraft by the astronauts themselves and the soundtrack rendered from a blend of Brian Eno's subtle musical score and  one-on-one audio interviews with various astronauts from different Apollo missions. Visually, the movie appears to track one roundtrip journey to the moon and back, but this journey is pieced together out of elements of various Apollo missions, including some perilous moments from the abortive but heroic Apollo 13 mission (Hollywood director Ron Howard's megahit Apollo 13 does a pretty good job of dramatizing that mission). The result is a kind of Ultimate Apollo Mission where any obstacle or malfunction can be overcome by the combined talents of astronauts and ground control operators working in near-mystical synchronization.

So For All Mankind isn't exactly an objective portrayal of the Apollo Program as a whole, nor does it depict any one mission in any great chronological and/or technical detail. It doesn't ask any hard policy questions about why America should've spent so much money on the project, or its value as a propaganda weapon against our grand Cold War nemesis the Soviet Union. The movie is more of an essay about the spirit of the Apollo Program, the dream, the myth. The filmmakers, led by director Reinert, want to convince you of the deeper, possibly even spiritual, value of humanity's journey into space. When I say spiritual, I don't mean to suggest that the movie is advocating any sort of religion or body of spiritual practice or some kind of a New Age thing, but rather the notion that people, as indivdiuals, families, societies, nations, can put themselves in the service of some larger principle and derive a benefit from that service. It's a vision of collective action that would no doubt be shouted down as "Socialism" by many Americans in elected office today. But then again, about half, maybe more, of our elected officials do not believe in evolution or birth control or free speech or reason or logic so we don't have to pay attention to those people.

Or maybe we do.

Reinert begins with President John F. Kennedy's famous speech laying down the challenge of getting to the moon within the decade, and the discovery of new rights, new frontiers, new vistas, for all humankind. JFK offers up the space program, and the quest to land on the moon by the end of the 1960s, as a kind of national program of self-improvement, a dream to strive for that will shake Americans up, get them to aim high. I am not usually moved by the words of politicians, and JFK lived and died before I was ever conceived, but I found myself wanting to believe the words. Hard to believe that this is the same man who was pretty eager to rain fire on Vietnam (along with Eisenhower, LBJ, Nixon, Kissinger, McNamara, Westmoreland, the Democrats, the Republicans, and many others, so, no, I'm not just picking on JFK here). JFK, from what I've seen of him, had a way with words, strong symmetrical facial features, and his speech seems to conflate humanity's adventure into space with the struggle for universal human rights as embodied at the time by the African-American struggle for Civil Rights. It's a noble vision later picked up on by Star Trek in its various incarnations: all of the cultural and ethnic flavors of humanity united as one Federation in the pursuit of a more perfect intergalactic union--a worthy dream that humanity is still struggling to attain.

The movie goes from Kennedy's speech directly into the preparations for launch: spacesuit diagnostics, checklists, tense men chain smoking and guzzling coffee in the control room, then blast off--and we are well into the journey. The words of politicians cannot compare with the experiential majesty of riding a rocket to the moon, floating in space while tethered to a vehicle moving at 25,000 mph, skipping along like children on the barren surface of the moon--and I think that's what gives For All Mankind it's peculiar power, for all of its surface myth-making. That raw experience that transforms humans who dare to leave the Earth. And how these first adventurers open up possibilities for all who would follow. It's also that raw experience which imbues the astronauts, and this movie, with that spirit I've already spoken of: one's life, mind, and  perspective on the Earth and the universe are all transformed once you see the homeworld hanging in the sublime dark of outer space.

Each stage of a trip from the Earth to the moon is depicted, with a great deal of humor and humanity, which caught me off guard. I expected it to be more of a technical exposition, but director Reinert takes the material in a poetic direction, and also brings in a lot of warmth and humor by his choice of footage: astronauts bouncing around their spaceship listening to Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, and Frank Sinatra; the ecstasy of the aforementioned tethered space walk; the childlike skipping and hopping of astronauts bouncing around the moon; and joyriding about the magnificent wastes in the lunar rover. I was left with the impression from both the film that the astronauts shot while out in space, and from the interview voice overs that these guys really loved what they were doing. A lot of times, I think astronauts come off as squares, as people so heavily trained and indoctrinated in the technical aspects of space flight (and it is enormously technical), and the individual personas of astronauts are so stage managed by NASA and other space agencies, that they end up unintentionally making the whole adventure of humanity into space seem dull, routine, just another job--maybe even the ultimate exercise in conformity conditioning. But the truth is that these guys have to be rigorously trained to get it right, to survive in the pitiless void of space. And in America at the time of the Apollo Program any taxpayer funded venture has to present a conservative, straight-laced front to get the money it needs. Deep down these astronauts have a lot of passion, and a lot of balls, then and now, and I've always secretly admired the men and women, from space programs all over the world, who have a desire to travel into space. Yes, I admire these people, even though I am also certain I would not get along with many of them, personally, especially the old guys still around from the Apollo Program. But that's all right. We don't have to get along, or know each other personally, just as long as people keep going into space.

The dream of the Apollo Program, JFK's noble speech--were such things ever really said or done in America? Watching this movie, reflecting on what I've read in history books, and thinking about the small stretch of American history I've observed during my relatively brief adulthood I found myself disbelieving what I was seeing and hearing. This movie struck me as much of a piece of science fiction as a Lensman novel or something by Heinlein, Asimov, or Clarke. I can't imagine America today, with its partisan gridlock, rampant anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism, and contempt for true community and collective endeavor ever attaining the stars. But maybe it's not fair to just trash America, in this respect. Factions and wars and bigotries and  fatal bitterness of all kinds engulf many parts of the world as we speak. I've said it before, I'll say it again: I'm a pessimist. I do not believe humanity has the right stuff. I do not think we'll make it to the stars. But watching this movie made me want to believe.

 For All Mankind, I repeat, is an exercise in mythmaking that borders on propaganda. But it's not propaganda for some self-serving political faction, or an ambitious individual, or any one nation state, or even necessarily for the Apollo Program astronauts or NASA itself. It is propaganda in service to a dream of infinite adventure and enlightenment for the human species.

Watch For All Mankind, for free, on Hulu:


Saturday, September 22, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: MY DINNER WITH ANDRE(1981)


Starring/Written by Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory

Also starring Jean Lenauer as the Waiter


Music by Allen Shawn 


Edited by Suzanne Baron


Cinematography by Jeri Sopanen


Directed by Louis Malle



My Dinner With Andre consists almost entirely of a meandering conversation between two friends, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, who haven't seen each other in awhile and meet up at a nice restaurant. At least that's how it's supposed to come off. It is thematically focused and precise in how it explores two men who find themselves facing personal and professional challenges in their lives, but it is crafted in just such a way as to give the illusion of a long, free-form conversation between two friends catching up on recent events. It's similar to a play that has been directly adapted for screen with only minimal modifications to conform to cinematic values.

Except . . . it isn't quite like that. Basic techniques involving cutaway shots of the waiter's ambiguously irritated face (maybe he's just tired, maybe he just always has that expression on his face), and the realistic soundscape of a restaurant with its tinkling glasses, and subdued hush of conversation punctuated by an occasional laugh or raised voice give it a strange near-documentary feel. The two friends speak as though they are actually in a restaurant. The acting style is not theatrically elevated, and the audience is invited to listen in on things through Wallace Shawn's first person narration in the opening scenes as he makes his way down cold New York streets to meet his friend.

Wallace Shawn is a playwright and actor who finds himself short on work in both areas. He is supported by his wife who works as a secretary. Andre Gregory is a theatrical director who has spent a number of his recent years having unusual artistic experiences and spiritual journeys with people like Jerzy Grotowski and a Buddhist monk. Shawn has bills and debts. Gregory has a trust fund, perhaps, and never seems to worry about money. They are playing versions of themselves. That is to say, if you've never heard of either of these guys, Wallace Shawn is playing Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory is playing Andre Gregory, but I suspect there is some degree of fictionalization going on, but I couldn't, on a first viewing, tell you in what areas of the story, and to what degree.

Not that it's essential to know what's biography and what's fiction, but it is interesting to note that part of what Shawn and Gregory are wrestling with in their conversation has to do with how a person within a technological society can have a genuine experience of reality, and part of what I, as an audience member, was wondering was, "How much of this script is based on real life events, and how much made up?" Shawn and Gregory also talk about how people often times perform themselves in everyday life, how they take on roles, and here these two are playing themselves on screen. But they don't come across as characters in the usual sense. They actually seem quite candid and ordinary even when they are grappling with weighty philosophical and existential issues or describing bizarre adventures. The very fact that they are playing versions of themselves within a movie actually, in this case, seems to kind of tone down and distill who they might be in their everyday private lives, or in the course of their careers in the theatre. No grand declamations or sudden reversals, no cutting accusations, and no transformations into mythic beasts or thundering robots, although Gregory details at length some wild visions which seem right out of a Hayao Miyazaki film.

There is a kind of basic philosophic conflict between these two friends, although it is grappled with in a civilized fashion. Shawn is a skeptic, a believer in scientific knowledge and the joys and comforts of daily, domestic existence. Gregory is a mystic, seeing patterns and hidden connections where Shawn sees only coincidence and superstition. Gregory is concerned that the advance of high tech capitalism is creating a kind of hallucinatory hell on earth of hyper-consumption, alienation, dehumanization, and wage slavery that constitutes a new, insidious form of totalitarianism in which artistic elites such as himself are the new Albert Speers, holding the lower classes in deadly contempt. Shawn is sympathetic to Gregory's concerns, but cannot buy into mysticism, and sees no way of returning to a pre-rational point of view. The way these two men hash out their differences is a model of how people can agree to disagree and not shut each other out or retreat into ideological posturing or dogma. In this sense, My Dinner With Andre is, perhaps unintentionally, a moral film. Watching it, I felt like I wanted to try to be more humane towards the people I know in my life, even towards those I would consider enemies or fools. Shawn and Gregory model this kind of humanity and civility, once again probably unintentionally, for the audience.

These two guys need to get back together and hash out what has gone on in the world since 1981. I'd love to listen in . . .







Saturday, September 15, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: THE CAGE OF ZEUS (2011) by Sayuri Ueda

Translated by Takami Nieda
First English Publication September 2011 by Haikasoru
Original Japanese Publication 2004 by Kadokawa Haruki Corporation

Check this: roundtrip gender. This is a term of the future, imagined by novelist Sayuri Ueda for her novel The Cage of Zeus, the author's first novel to be translated from Japanese to English. I can't help but wonder: was something lost in translation? Maybe, maybe not. But the term refers to someone who, with the help of advanced medical science, is able to switch back and forth between the two broadly defined categories of female and male biological gender. The term is kind of funky, but the idea is sublime.

In this future world, someone who explores a roundtrip gender identity can switch back and forth between male and female, female and male many times throughout their lifespan. It goes without saying that this imaginary human future, which has colonies on the Moon, Mars, and the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, has overcome most of the bigotry and hatred directed towards gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people that, as of this writing, still plagues humanity in the real world. Not only have these future humans overcome such things, but they are pushing into some interesting new territory with this roundtrip gender idea.

The one thing that humanity cannot seem to handle in this future, at least in Ueda's telling, is a truly bigender human, someone with fully functioning biological sex organs of both male and female. It's the very edge of human experience. And it's happening in the orbit of stormy Jupiter . . .

Science fiction stories about space adventures seem to feed on our desire for novelty, for adventure, for new frontiers, new worlds, and our ability to overcome any and all obstacles that might prevent us from creating a true intergalactic civilization. Yes, science fiction frequently deals with dystopian visions, but I'm talking here about the triumphant branch of science fiction literature. The science expert's and engineer's literature of the Golden Age of Science Ficition: John W. Campbell, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Stanley G. Weinbaum, E.E. "Doc" Smith, the writers and stories that inspired the people who made NASA, who articulated a grand future history of an ordered, rationalistic techno-conquest of human misery and the fulfillment, by that same process of techno-conquest, of every human desire.

 Humans, within science fiction and to some extent in real life, have dreamed up rockets and lunar excursion modules and shuttles and space stations and mythical star galleons powered by faster than light reactionless drives to colonize the moon and harvest its natural resources to establish orbital manufacturing complexes; terraform Mars; exploit the storm energy of gas giant Jupiter; and expand the human dominion into deep space. It's the stuff of dreams. Or maybe just silly paperback books with stern looking heroic types in militaristic uniforms--Master and Commander in Space. 

 Ueda's The Cage of Zeus is a classic sci-fi saga right out of the Golden Age but with a much more sophisticated take on sexuality and gender identity. Not only are the heroes not all square-jawed macho men (although they are included in the mix), but you have a lot of tough, competent women, and a whole community of bigender people who represent a new breakthrough in humanity's capacity to not just engineer technology, but to engineer human bodies into whatever shape you can imagine.

We fantasize about our technology taking on newer and more powerful forms, but we do not typically fantasize about our fundamental human forms changing too much in most of these space adventure fantasies. It's almost as if we are deluded by a kind of chauvinism when it comes to our human bodies and minds. We assume that we'll be able to keep our old human forms when we start making long term voyages to Mars and beyond. But  humans evolved across billions of years to life on earth with gravity and open spaces and wind and bodies of water.

Zero gravity, extreme isolation, communications lag, long travel times, cosmic radiation, threats of damage to spacecraft including the horror of  depressurization, and cramped environments are difficult for humans to adapt to, and can degrade the health of space explorers if not kill them outright. Psychological disturbances have been observed in long term space sojourns. Barring the development of more hospitable and durable spacecraft and space stations it is hard to conceive how even the most determined, courageous,naturally talented, and well-trained astronauts could survive a five-hundred day round trip to Mars and back.

 Assuming we can achieve the necessary technology to successfully travel to Mars and back, and then, in generations to come, establish working colonies on the Moon and Mars, maybe even construct some space-based mining facilities in the larger rocks of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, we might eventually find ourselves at a point where we must modify our bodies and minds to be able to go further into space. We could probably carve out living civilizations on the Moon and Mars and some semi-automated facilities in the asteroid belt that would allow humans to survive and thrive, but out past Mars we would find ourselves in unforgiving territory.

Yeah, at that point we'd be knocking on Jupiter's door, poking it in its big red eye. Jupiter is a planet without any true surface, a gas giant subject to massive storms that could swallow good ol' Terra whole, no big deal, a snack, really. Maybe two or three earths at a go--now that would be a meal fit for the King of Planets.

So, no, a colony on the non-existent surface of Jupiter wouldn't be possible. But you could maybe build a space station in orbit . . .

 Inside the space station Jupiter-I, humans experiment with transforming themselves into a new subspecies in order to survive in deep space within artificial environments. The transformations start out as modifications to existing adult humans, but then these modified humans, known as Rounds, are able to give birth to children who are the new subspecies from birth. The Rounds are only allowed to legally exist inside the Jupiter-I space station which orbits the King of Planets.

Why are the Rounds only allowed to exist on Jupiter-I? Because the unified human government which has dominion over Earth, the Moon, Mars, Asteroid City, and Jupiter-I has outlawed the Rounds because they are, by their very nature, unacceptable to the mainstream of human society.

What's unacceptable about the Rounds? The Rounds exist as both males and females simultaneously. They have been engineered as beings who, as a society, are entirely self-sufficient and without gender discrimination. They have fully functional sex organs of men and women, and they are capable of having sex as both genders simultaneously, each Round is capable of being impregnated and of impregnating another Round simultaneously. Rounds can also breed with the old stock of human beings. In fact, a Round, if they so desired, could impregnate themselves with their own seed. So, if a Round population in deep space met with catastrophe where only a few survived, it would still be possible to repopulate.

Mainstream humans are seriously freaked out and disturbed by all this. This future society has come to accept the full spectrum of known human sexuality--homosexuality, bisexuality, heterosexuality, transsexuality, asexuality--but there is still an aspect of human psychology that wants to pigeonhole people as being either male or female. A being which totally confounds that binary and offers up a new gender identity beyond the broad categories of male and female is still largely unknown in this future world. Occasionally, people are born with sex organs of both biological sexes, and a decision is made by the parents to surgically alter the child one way or another depending on the condition of the organs. The Rounds confound human prejudices on many levels.

The Rounds have some prejudices of their own, too. Their leader is a stern, but compassionate authoritarian named Fortia. Fortia believes that the Rounds should be totally devoted to the mission of space exploration, even willing to sacrifice their lives for the experimental data that could form the basis of human expansion beyond Jupiter's orbit. Some of the Rounds think that this is out of balance, that such an ideology makes them into living, breathing probes--robots, in effect.

Also, the Rounds have a name for the old stock humans: Monaurals. Rounds and Monaurals live mostly separate lives on Jupiter-I, although, as mentioned, it is biologically possible for Rounds and Monaurals to have sexual relations and to procreate. This, too, becomes a source of conflict . . .

Aside from their fully functioning, biologically bigender state as individuals, there is also the thorny issue that the Rounds have been created as the result of experimentation upon human volunteers. Yes, the first generation of Rounds consented to the experimental procedures, but some people, especially on Earth, are disturbed by certain implications: Are the Rounds meant to replace the old version of humanity? Will all humans be subjected to modification against their will? Are Rounds, not the old stock of humanity, to be the inheritors of the stars?

Some of these objections are rooted in reactionary attitudes and paranoia, maybe even some trace elements of religious fundamentalism, although religiously based intolerance is not emphasized in Ueda's novel. The main objections are rooted in financial arguments: tax dollars should be spent on projects on the Earth, the Moon, and Mars. Jupiter-I and related expeditions to the Jovian moons are perceived by some as epic boondoggles. The fear and hatred on the part of humans seems to stem from the basic fact of the Rounds' newness as a category of human being. Also, the Rounds are a tiny minority. Human history seems to suggest that any time you have a human community that is smaller than some other human community, the larger group will find some way to stigmatize, exploit, scapegoat, and maybe even eradicate the smaller group. The Rounds are, in a deeply unfortunate sense, in danger of becoming the cutting edge of human scapegoats.

You'd think that the Rounds living in Jupiter-I would be pretty safe from the forces of conservatism based primarily on Earth, but such is not the case. A well-funded anti-government organization called the Vessel of Life has made it known that its constituency does not approve of the Rounds. The Vessel of Life has been linked to terrorist actions and groups, but they are apparently so well-heeled, and possibly supported by powerful political factions, that they have avoided being wiped out by the official united human government. The Vessel engages in legitimate scientific research projects, humanitarian endeavors, think tanks, and has a great deal of cover for its illegal activities. The Rounds have seemingly become a wedge issue for the Vessel of Life to de-legitimize the current human government and seize power for themselves.

But the Vessel of Life isn't content to just play politics and try to de-fund the Jupiter-I operation through legislative means. Government security forces have been tipped off that the Vessel has recruited a professional mercenary on Mars to spearhead an all-out assault on Jupiter-I and the Round community living there. How does a terrorist gang successfully attack a space station in Jupiter's orbit? Good question . . .

When I first read Ueda's novel, I was dissatisfied with how much of the book dwelt on the details of the terrorist operation against Jupiter-I. The early chapters dealt with the Round society on the space base in such a compelling fashion, that the terrorist assault just seemed contrived to add momentum and melodrama to the narrative. I read the book a second time and realized that what Ueda was really interested in was exploring value systems in conflict within the context of a larger political/dynastic struggle.

Yes, it does seem monumentally stupid and destructive for a terrorist group to try to strike an installation near Jupiter (for that matter, I wonder how wise it would be to put a space station so close to a planet as volatile as Jupiter, but I'm not a planetologist, so what do I know?), but the idea behind the terrorist assault has less to do with morality and more to do with the politics of the conflicting factions on Earth. Even if the Vessel of Life's operation were a total failure, just the fact that they were able to get operatives near or even inside Jupiter-I could possibly put the scare into legislators controlling the budget for the whole experiment. So, is the Vessel's goal destruction or just intimidation, or both?

That's the deep game that the powers that be are, perhaps, playing. But Ueda doesn't neglect the complexities of the Round society. Even within a small, near-Utopian group such as the Rounds there is discontent. Not all of the Rounds agree that their lives should be totally devoted to the project of existence within artificial environments in deep space. The younger generation of Rounds have read stories by Monaural humans that depict the lives of Earthians. Some of these Rounds want to know more about the Monaurals and their "ancient" culture.

Some Rounds are born with psychological gender identities that don't fit within their biological sex as bigenders, but it can be difficult to leave the Round society for the Monaural society of Jupiter-I. Monaurals serve long tours of duty on the space station, so even if a Round underwent surgery to bring their biological sex in line with their psychological sexual identity, they would still have a long ways to go before they would be able to rotate back to the human settlements on Mars. Due to the legal barrier, a Round can either reside within the Round colony as a Round, or undergo sexual reassignment to become a Monaural, but a Round can never leave the Jupiter-I station. It's a stark choice for a Round wrestling with their sexual identity.

Ueda also addresses value conflicts among the Monaural characters. Jupiter-I's armed security contingent is led by a tough guy named Harding who is seemingly bigoted towards the Rounds, and has physically assaulted a round named Veritas. He's also a shoot first, torture later kind of guy who sees no moral conflict with using the harshest methods possible against enemy combatants and prisoners. But his bigotry and affinity for violence are not quite what they seem . . .

Harding is opposed on some issues by a male Monaural named Shirosaki who is the leader of an auxiliary security contingent from the human settlement on Mars. Shirosaki and his soldiers are sent to back up Harding. Shirosaki is not quite sure what to make of the Rounds or their society but he is open minded and level-headed, where Harding is temperamental, impulsive, and stubborn. Shirosaki is a kind of everyman character representative of the vast middle of this future human/Monaural society. He does not have any personal feelings at stake in the operation, but neither is he neglectful in executing his duties.

There is also the science staff on Jupiter-I led by a female Monaural named Kline, and the Round representative who communicates directly with the Monaurals, Tei, and other assorted Rounds and Monaurals.

Systemic and cultural conflicts exist between the scientists and the soldiers as well. Ueda addresses how value systems of those from military subcultures and those from scientific/academic subcultures can be opposed.

I'm not going to say too much about the terrorists themselves as that would spoil some important twists and turns in Ueda's plot. The main thing with all the characters in the book is that they embody various positions within the complex value systems at play within The Cage of Zeus. Each character occupies a particular perspective within the conflict, and they are forced to struggle with their values as individuals and how their values conflict with the value systems of other individuals and which society they belong to, Round or Monaural. The book is kind of schematic in this sense, and there are times when it seems more like an analytic simulation of a speculative scenario rather than a flowing fictional narrative, but it is compelling all the same. Some of the stiffness of the language may be a a by-product of translation from Japanese into English, but in my experience science fiction narratives are often more concerned with mapping out theoretical situations using unadorned language than they are in stylistic extravagance. The Cage of Zeus is definitely within the tradition of literary hard science fiction in that all of its speculations are based on credible extrapolations from the fields of astrophysics, nanotechnology, biology, sexology, sociology, engineering, and psychology, among other fields. If the language is a little dry, the ideas are still compelling. In fact, a plain style is perhaps an advantage in telling a story as complicated as this as it allows the ideas and conflicts to come across directly, and not be obscured by convoluted language.

Ueda does something else which is rather commendable. While her characters are somewhat schematic, she does justice to the complexity of their thoughts and feelings. She is especially insightful about delineating the different aspects of sexuality, biological gender, and gender identity, and how all of these things interact. Many of the characters, including the terrorists, are full of conflicts and find themselves at the mercy of larger community concerns if they are not being manipulated outright to further the aims of powerful interests behind the scenes. Without giving too much away, I think it is fair to say that nothing is resolved easily within The Cage of Zeus. Humankind's struggle to attain the stars continues to be a struggle of factions against factions, humans against humans, soldiers against scientists, Rounds versus Monaurals, individuals against societies, individuals divided against themselves, humanity in all its stunning variety versus the pitiless void of space . . .

The Cage of Zeus also got me thinking about how there are new frontiers to human identity and sexuality just waiting to be created. In real life, I'm not sure that humanity is going to ever make it off this planet and create a truly intergalactic society. I'm a pessimist. I do not think the human race has "the Right Stuff." We're too hung up on greed, ideology, religious fundamentalism, and we seem to put the basis for our technological advancement in the hands of the warmongers and the weapons makers. I don't think there's any intelligent life out there in the universe. We're the only game in town when it comes to intelligence, so it's up to us to spread intelligence to the stars, but that's not going to happen. As a species, we're more interested in trying to kill and/or control each other on this world. If we wanted to extend ourselves to other planets, we'd have to have a radical shift in our priorities to a more cooperative mode, as one united species, later for all these factions and nation states, and I just don't see that happening. But maybe there is still hope, in communities here and there, on the frontier of human identity and how we relate to each other on this planet.

But it's nice to fantasize about a human future out there in space. Even if it is as dark and conflicted as the future Sayuri Ueda conjures up in The Cage of Zeus.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Third Time Around as a Podcast Guest Commentator



Here's me doin' a third round with my colleague JQMan as a guest commentator for an up and coming podcast. We talk about Bioshock 1 and 2, Chrono Trigger, and Tsui Hark. SPOILERS ALL AROUND!!
HIT IT!!!

Addenum 9/15/12:

In this podcast I referred to Sephiroth, the villain from Final Fantasy VII, as a "nihilist" more or less.

Well, the next day after posting this podcast I got an email from the One Winged Angel himself correcting me on this point:

"Bro, what do you mean I'm a NIHILIST?!? You think I would obliterate the entire planet and absorb all the souls of all the living things to transform myself into a god if I believed in NOTHING?!? Dude. I believe in ME, okay? I get up in the morning and WORK. I HUSTLE. A NIHILIST would just sit home and watch Katie Couric and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Get it right!! We still up for badminton this Saturday? Holler at me. S."

I stand corrected.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: NAQOYQATSI: LIFE AS WAR (2002) Directed by Godfrey Reggio

Written and Directed by Godfrey Reggio

Music by Phillip Glass
Cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma
Conductor Michael Riesman
Music and Soundtrack Producer Kurt Munkacsi

Editor and Visual Designer Jon Kane

Director of Photography Russell Lee Fine

Producers Joe Beirne, Godfrey Reggio, Lawrence Taub
Co-Producer Mel Lawrence
Executive Producer Steven Soderbergh

The first thing we see is the mythic Tower of Babel. Perhaps we are meant to reflect on languages, communication, how human beings have been divided from one another by different ways of speaking, believing, living, dying, worshipping. We zoom into the Tower of Babel, and find ourselves floating through bombed out apartment blocs and office buildings, the mythic surface giving way to something all-too-real and contemporary. As the movie progresses we are subjected to imagery of computer models of life, humanity, chemistry, climate, weather, the quantification of every aspect of nature. Nature is brought under the control of ultra-technology. Life is designed and decanted according to precise specifications. War is the new engine of evolution, a Hobbesian combat of all-against-all. I think back to the Tower of Babel. It would seem, in retrospect, to presage the failure of humans not just to communicate, but also the failure to take control of our own destiny as one species sharing one planet. We've handed the command and control functions over to the Machine. It is our new God, Monarch, Executive, Supreme Being, whatever. But is this wrong? Is it right? Did we ever really have a choice? Are we guided by pure instinct, even when it comes to technology? Must we always do that which is possible, no matter the consequences? Only one thing is for sure: there are going to be a lot of dead bodies . . .


Godfrey Reggio brings his documentary/myth-cycle of human technological conquest of nature to a disquieting, perhaps transhumanist, conclusion in Naqoyqatsi: Life as War. In the first movie, Koyannisqatsi, the imagery and music depicted late twentieth century humanity's development of weapons of mass destruction, urban sprawl, and a nascent world-around computer network. Koyannisqatsi was mostly from the perspective of the conquerors: the USA, the Soviet Union, Madison Avenue, and sundry defense contractors and petroleum companies, with some sequences depicting the dehumanizing processes of mass entertainment, Las Vegas, and supermax prison-style housing projects. During one bravura, darkly comedic sequence various frenetic human activities--disco dancing, hot dog manufacturing, sped-up automobile traffic--are all integrated into a giant computer chip, suggesting the triumph of rationalized mass production techniques applied on a maximal scale to all aspects of human existence. The second movie was Powaqqatsi, which focused on the human wreckage of the processes set into motion in Koyannisqatsi. Powaqqatsi was not as direct as the first movie in how it chose to tell its tale, but rather took a roundabout approach, showing the march of techno-conquest from the perspective of the peoples and nations being trampled and exploited for slave labor to service the new globalized post-nature regime.

Naqoyqatsi, like the previous two movies in the trilogy, is, in form, a kind of experimental documentary consisting of provocative imagery cut together in an unconventional form, and set to Philip Glass's sublime and ominous original score. Yo-Yo Ma's solos add a mournful, elegiac quality to the soundscape. It is not an activist movie or a conventional political movie, although it is tempting to interpret it in such terms. It does not push any political platform or candidate, nor does it give any easy answers to the systems and dilemmas it illustrates. Rather, it offers an alternative paradigm to what we typically see in human political discourse, especially in the United States. It offers up no bogus messianic heroes or self-serving morality or unconvincing conservative/liberal outrage. What it does offer is a systemic portrait of human civilization being dominated and transformed into a civilization of cyborgs and replicants who are pitted against each other in merciless, factional combat. For those who do not cotton to gladiatorial exertions, there are also the consolations of consumerism and nostalgic, retro-pop fantasy delusions. It uses a mixture of original documentarian footage, computer graphics, and even footage from Koyannisqatsi and Powaqqatsi remixed and retinted for a new era. Like the previous two movies it does not have a conventional linear narrative, although this one is perhaps more linear than the other two. Its soundtrack and imagery invites the viewer to create their own narrative interpretations wthin certain parameters, and is not a movie meant to be taken passively. You must think through what you're watching, resist it even, and draw your own conlusions. This blog post constitutes my own personal ruminations about watching Naqoyqatsi. If you've never seen the movie I'm not sure it's possible to spoil it, but I would recommend you watch it. Reading a review of it is not the same as actually seeing it.

Naqoyqatsi zips into the depths of a twenty-first century where all human life and enterprise is directed towards the purpose of war eternal, a global village of Olympian warriors stripped of unnecessary emotions,  and ready to kill and die at a moment's notice for their corporate/governmental/ideological/religious masters. The world-girdling computer network of Koyannisqatsi has evolved into something like the hegemonic machine system of those Matrix movies: every human being is now plugged into his/her very own virtual identity/reality tunnel. Each warrior-citizen (think Roy Batty and Pris and the other replicants from Blade Runner) is locked into his own private trip of fantasy-empowerment. Each one man/woman army has been hypnotized into believing that they fight for whatever flag/nation/faith/professional sports team/pop cultural icon suits them, whatever keeps them marching, killing, consuming, the whole range of options has been determined and offered up in user-friendly, highly intuitive menus of easily understood icons and graphical interfaces by a system of perfect control. This system seems to be the final flowering of the march of technological conquest. All life is now pitted in a brutal competition to see who is fit to survive and be modified into a transcendent new species fit to conquer the universe.

How does the system determine how to select and modify appropriate life forms? Well, the genomic data of all life has now be rigorously quantified. Custom organisms can be decanted, tested, and, if necessary, put down, and tossed back into the manufacturing cycle. Weather and climate patterns can now be modeled with powerful computer systems. The movie seems obsessed with images of the quantification and regimentation of life and nature: soldiers marching in lockstep; full body scans feeding into precise computer models of life; computer models of hurricanes and waves breaking on shore; appetite, desire, lust, love, hate are all analyzed according to the infallible metrics of the global capitalist marketplace.

Belief has also been cracked. Nation states, ideology, and religion have been reduced to click-through icons on a screen. The great moral leaders, celebrities, heads of state, and thinkers have been transformed into clipjob TV retrospective hallucinations and, in one eerie, extended sequence, a procession of tragic wax figures. Yassir Arafat, Billy Graham, George W. Bush, Gandhi, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Pope John Paul II, Princess Di, Sitting Bull, Donald Trump, Jackie O., Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela, Ted Turner, and others are all depicted as a succession of wax statues. It's pretty damn creepy to watch. It is also weirdly reassuring: capitalists, crooks, geniuses, civil rights heroes, warmongers, communists, deciders, martyrs--we all end up in the same wax museum in the sky. So don't beat yourself up if your life isn't quite going the way you want it to, okay? You'll get your wax statue, too, in the end.

Hmm. Maybe that's not reassuring at all! Some of these people do not deserve to be in the same company as Martin Luther King or Gandhi or Einstein or Sitting Bull. Then again, that flattening out of the moral dimensions, the reduction of a wide range of people to a pantheon of sheer fame--maybe it's a new mutation of Warhol's pop-art transcendence, 15 minutes of fame, all that. Now, we all get a chance to choose a world famous avatar from times gone by, never mind our own individual dreams and schemes. Never mind what a given avatar might have fought for, stood for, believed in--they were famous! And now they've been stripped of all that pesky ambiguity, struggle, and morality for good or ill, destruction or creation! Now you can co-opt that fame with one click of an icon! In this process, we see a new scale of dehumanization: the true end of history, where all the beings that come along after a certain lock-down point are no longer active participants in their own lives, but are just  assets of the perfect system of control. Grim stuff.

Maybe a little paranoid, too. I can't help but feel there's something goofy about a movie,which is a high technological product, being used to offer up a strident critical view of a technological dystopia. Godfrey Reggio has said that he decided to use technological means to create the Qatsi movies because you have to play on the terms of the dominant techno-culture if you want your message to break through to people. Makes sense, but there is a weird tension, for me, when watching these Qatsi movies. I can't tell if they're mere paranoid, Luddite doomsday fantasies or if they're dead-on correct about the state of the world. After all, doomsday fantasies are a way of reassuring oneself: life sucks, everything is fucked, why worry? I know what's going on!

Sort of like conspiracy theories: connect enough dots, make enough accusations, no one can be trusted, but the truth is still out there, so I'll just share my grand insights with a select few people--for we are the chosen ones! Only we know the truth! And we're gonna publish our own books, and magazines, and hold conferences--and say fuck all to the mainsream media which is all under Illuminati/Bilderberger/Trilateral/John Birch Society/Cthulhuoid control!

Okay, okay, the Qatsi movies aren't really conspiracy flicks. But it seems to me that conspiracy nuts and doomsayers (full disclosure: I'm a bit of a doomsayer myself) have a few things in common. Also, watching the Qatsi movies feels, at times, like a secret, underground education. Like having your eyes opened by Morpheus in The Matrix. Or could it be that the Qatsi trilogy is a tool of the Illuminati?! (gasps)

But seriously: what gives Reggio's Qatsi trilogy its strength is its systemic long-view of human techno-conquest. These aren't conspiracy rants, but rather they constitute a free form analysis of what you might call the human technological instinct. Our seemingly innate drive to modify the environment and create tools and our capacity for pattern seeking, systemic methods of thought has led us to great scientific breakthroughs, grand works of art, engineering, and architecture, and advances in medicine which have improved the quality of our lives on this planet.

 But our capacity for systemic thought and quantitative scientific endeavor has also created the atom bomb, industrial pollution, vast inequalities of wealth and healthcare, mass slaughter via wars and genocides, and the potential for the creation of new super-viruses and bacteria via the uncontrolled use of antibiotics and designer pathogens. There's no way we can live without technology at this point, and yet it seems to be impossible to control. Reggio's Qatsi movies don't offer up any easy solutions or heroes. They are portraits of the world as it is in all its complexity. Naqoyqatsi seems to be a vision of the near future. So maybe Naqoyqatsi is a little bit more of a cautionary tale than the other two. With this third Qatsi movie, there's more of a sense that the future it depicts hasn't quite happened yet, that maybe we can take another path.

The closing images of Naqoyqatsi are redolent with a dark kind of hope: footage of human skydivers who seem to defy gravity, who seem to fly. Could these flying people be the fruit of some sort of transhumanist selective breeding program? Could all the conflict and strife and mass slaughter be bending towards the production of a new, superior form of humanity, suited to existing beyond the confines of the earth?

Or is it another fevered delusion born of human arrogance and cruelty? After all, skydivers only look like they're flying. They're actually plummeting at great speed towards the dirt.

Maybe these final images are meant to suggest our own towering delusions as a species, our collective fantasies of conquest, empowerment, of techno-immortality . . . These final images also seem to echo the falling rocket debris from the end of Koyannisqatsi.

Maybe, with this third and final Qatsi movie, we are at the end of the human dream of absolute power over nature. For that matter, maybe we have also reached the end of our collective fantasy that technology serves us as a tool, and we must now wake up to the fact that we are carried along by the techno-instinct as much as or even more than we have any control over it. Maybe we can't change our fate as a species, but at least we have some idea of what's coming. The first two Qatsi movies were trailers for the world as it once was in the time that those movies were made, preparing their audiences for contact with stark reality. Naqoyqatsi is a trailer for a merciless future that we cannot resist or change. Here's hoping Godfrey Reggio didn't get it all right . . .


Naqoyqatsi trailer:







Thursday, September 6, 2012

Here's me yammering on some more in this podcast thing . . .



Once again I am a guest commentator on my colleague JQMan's podcast. I talk at excruciating length about the movie version of Silent Hill, a deeply flawed but interesting piece of work. I tried, this time, not to say like too many times, but I think I still said it too much.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

GAME REVIEW: RESONANCE (2012)

A Game by Vince Twelve

Producers: Dave Gilbert and Vince Twelve
Executive Producer: Irina Pinjaeva

Programmers: Janet Gilbert and Vince Twelve
Lead Artist: Shane Stevens
Background Artist: Nauris Krauze
Music by Nikolas Sideris, North by Sound
Dialogue by Dave Gilbert, Janet Gilbert, Vince Twelve, and Deirdra Kiai

Cast
Edward Bauer as Ed
Sarah Elmaleh as Anna
Daryl Lathan as Raymond
Logan Cunningham as Winston


A homicide detective, a physicist, a doctor, and a muckraking blogger are all caught up in a search for the secrets behind a highly destructive technology that may or may not be the cause of a massive lab explosion and a citywide blackout. The destructive technology has supposedly been designed as a potential source of unlimted clean energy, but it could also be exploited as a superweapon. There's also a computer database compiling the DNA signature of every man, woman, and child in the United States. Both of these things have been created within the same American city. Coincidence or conspiracy?

There's also some doubts about whether the four investigators can trust one another:

 A conspiracy seems to be afoot with roots in both the federal and city government--is the homicide detective, Winston Bennet, in on it?

 Raymond, the blogger, is looking for a scoop--is he working on behalf of an anti-government faction? Or is he just another stooge of an authoritarian government run amuck?

The doctor, Anna, seems to have some troubled memories in her head--is she sane? Can she be depended upon?

 And Tolstoy "Ed" Eddings is the physicist-and that guy just seems like a bumbling, neurotic loser. If the conspiracy starts hiring bulky men in trenchcoats with automatic weapons this is the guy you'd want to trip to distract the attack dogs.

All four of these characters are placed at the player's command in a point-and-click adventure/mystery that had me hooked from the opening screen. It is fully voiced by a strong cast, has clever writing, and appealing, well-crafted visuals with massive retro-charm. The original score by Nikolas Sideris is pefectly matched to the material, and I listen to the soundtrack quite frequently just to stimulate thinking in everyday life. (I have it cued up in a playlist with music from the Kemco/Seika adaptations of Shadowgate, Dejavu, and Uninvited for the NES. That's a playlist you listen to while gettin' to the bottom of things . . .) The dialogue is clever, humorous, philosophical, deadly serious when necessary, and strongly performed by a lively voice cast, especially the four leads. The story is soaked in the paranoia of the New American Surveillance State, and the plot is as twisty, darkly comedic, and cruel as a gonzo South Korean cinematic thriller. Resonance plays like a lost masterpiece of the 1990s PC point-and-click adventure game boom.

 Not only must you deal with the usual sorts of inventory, logic, and dialogue puzzles, but you must also deploy your foursome strategically in different situations to succeed. This element of team endeavor allows Resonance to play with ideas of perception, professionalism, and ambition. Each character has a different set of priorities, skills, tools, and access to different areas of the game world. It got me thinking, "In a crisis situation, it's almost never the lone individual who prevails." Resonance doesn't quite fully exploit this dynamic, but it makes a noble attempt. One of the dilemmas facing designers of games like this is just how complex do they want to make the various puzzles, and how many different solutions will they build into a given puzzle. Such considerations are measured against the desire to have a smooth flowing narrative, since games like this are much more story-based than a sandbox, open world 3-D type of game. A sandbox game is more about simulating the complexities of a virtual life as one damn thing after another, enlisting the player in crafting the kind of narrative they desire from a range of choices and complex decision trees woven into persistent virtual arenas. A 2-D point-and-click game is more like a movie or a stage play. In fact, I would say Resonance has a lot in common with a stage play, since it emphasizes dialogue, character, and a three act structure with reversals, irony, and revelations of both the plot and the people caught up in it.  It will be interesting to see if future point-and-click adventure games extend the scope and detail of implementing a kind of  "group protagonist" as a player character.

One of the interesting ideas driving the game is how it uses something it calls "Short Term Memory." In order to ask an NPC about something that does not come up as an automatic dialogue option, you must point at the thing in question and drag it into one of your STM boxes. Other items and events become seared into your player character's "Long Term Memory" by various circumstances. Memory itself is a theme in the game, and it is clever how the designers have woven it into the gameplay mechanics. I think that perhaps a bit more could've been done with both the theme and and the gameplay mechanic, but I only came to this conclusion after my fourth or fifth playthrough. It's a meaty, satisfying experience in terms of both gameplay and narrative.

Resonance is the product of a collaboration between the company Wadjet Eye Games, headed by the husband and wife team of Dave and Janet Gilbert, and game designer Vince Twelve. I am pretty familiar with the Wadjet Eye catalogue, but have yet to play any of Vince Twelve's previous games. According to the commentary track that you can switch on during the game (don't do it until you've played through the game once or twice) Vince Twelve had been working on the game by himself for four or five years and then hooked up with Wadjet Eye to bring the game to completion and to market. It will be interesting to see if and when these two entities collaborate again, and what comes of it. Wadjet Eye Game's previous efforts include the one-of-a-kind The Shivah, perhaps the only video game with a two-fisted rabbi as the detective hero. The Shivah is like a one-act or maybe a two-act off-off-Broadway play with strong dialogue and characters tormented by inner conflict. Wadjet Eye has also put out the Blackwell series of paranormal mysteries, which are kind of like a series of clever fantasy novels mixing ghosts and murder plots with a freelance journalist protagonist and her ghostly detective sidekick partner. Vince Twelve seems to bring more of a hard science fiction flavor to the mix. As a science fiction litearature fan I think it will be interesting to see Wadjet Eye and/or Vince Twelve come up with more games in the sci-fi mode.


Resonance is a pont-and-click adventure game that demands that the player think through some pretty tough puzzles. Well, they were tough for me. I've never been much of a math and quantitative skills kind of guy. I'm into literature, narrative, words, and there were times when playing Resonance where I became frustrated with this or that puzzle or problem. My frustration had nothing to do with the quality of the game or the design of the puzzles. I was frustrated with myself for not being up to the challenges at hand, and impatient to know where the story was going. But the game is worth the frustration. Of course, if you find yourself pulling your hair out, you can always hit up the various walkthroughs on the Internet. No shame in that. Only you and the NSA will ever know . . .

Which brings me to another set of musings: my enjoyment of Resonace, and point-and-click games in general, is largely a narrative one--in other words I come to these games for many of the same reasons I pick up a novel, or watch a movie. Although I try to tough out the most difficult puzzles, I must confess I often will consult walkthroughts because of my desire to know what happens next. With the exception of Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VII, and Earth Bound, I've never really been an obsessive, hardcore gamer. So I don't feel shame when I come up against something I can't figure out and decide to "cheat." I also find that "cheating" in this fashion usually does not lessen my enjoyment of the games as narrative . . . but something bugs me. What if these games are really puzzles meant to test my will to prevail? What if the more that I cheat every now and again, the more my will to prevail declines, and I find myself, some day in the future, facing a real life locked room puzzle, and with no FAQs, no walkthroughs, no nothing to save me?! What then?! Let's hope it doesn't come to that. But I still can't shake the eerie feeling that each one of these games is a little test, a mini-trial, and I'm not doing so great . . .

I've read in other places that nowadays no one really plays video games alone anymore, at least in the sense that the Internet is now the repository of human knowledge of all kinds, including all the trivia about video games and their solutions. So, maybe, the true test is learning to use the internet, use that collective repository of knowledge, to get through the tough problems. After all, in crisis situations, it is rarely the lone individual that prevails. Such a notion also ties in with Resonance's themes of collective action and collaboration amongst a group of determined people. So, maybe, I'm not a cheater at all.

How about that?

Resonance game trailer:



Click here to visit the WadjetEye Games website.