Thursday, December 10, 2009

VIDEO- Free Hugs

I was genuinely and deeply moved by this silly little video. What a wonderful idea!

A life is a little soap bubble. It might sometimes bump up against the other little soap bubbles and even stick for a while. But the advantage that soap bubbles have over lives is that no matter how close your life comes to another persons, the bubbles never merge.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

MOVIES- Primer

The first thing I have to say is- SEE THIS MOVIE! It’s available for instant viewing on Netflix.

So many movies nowadays are not so much dumbed down as downright stupid. You’d think that even if you are a moron, if you are going to spend 100 million dollars (or 200 or 300 million) making a movie then you’d want to spend a buck ninety-five on having somebody with a couple of neurons to rub together have a look at it to make sure you weren’t being stupid. But the great advantage of stupidity is that it makes it’s own circuit- it’s both conductor and insulator. So every year the majority of movies made are of an intellectual level that makes the average Marvel comic look like Dostoevsky. Even most SF movies, movies modeled on the literature of ideas, are abysmal logical failures.

Primer is exactly the opposite. It’s challenging. In fact, it’s a mystery that doesn’t tell you the solution. It’s also the first movie I’ve seen in a long time that I watched twice in the same day. After having done so I can vouch that the movie is at least internally consistent and that it makes perfect sense. I wasn’t sure at first. I was so used to movies that you had to make excuses for rather than having to understand. But trust me, the answer is all there.

But it isn’t plain. In fact, it’s purposefully not plain. That’s one of the problems. Another is that the main motivation of the characters is rather weak. And there are characters referred to that are never (or only briefly) seen and that further muddies the narrative. There are even loose ends that are never explained and can’t be deduced from the clues provided. Finally, some of the pivotal action takes place off-screen and has to be inferred. I’m sure all of this was intentional on the part of the writer-director-star of this first attempt movie. But considering how convoluted the story is and how involved the central conceit is to start with, it’s perhaps too much. Had the story been told as plainly as possible it still would have required far more from the viewer than the average movie.

Without giving away too much (because this is a movie that simply has to be experienced) I’ll set the stage. (A plot synopsis would be impossible.) A group of engineers who work for a high-tech company are working on a side project trying to build a new technology in their garage so they can form their own start-up company. At first they think they’ve found a way to deflect gravity, and spend some time trying to figure out practical applications of the new technology. But while they are doing that they realize there is an unexpected side effect. Gravity isn’t the only thing affected by the machine they have built. Things inside the machine also have their passage of time changed. (The rate of the passage of time is affected by acceleration and gravity so it makes perfect sense. Einstein, bitches!) Without trying to, they have invented a time machine. But one that only lets the object inside cycle between the time the machine is turned on and off. If you put your watch into the machine for a minute over 22 hours passes during that minute for the watch. But if you put a person inside the machine he can leave at the moment the machine was turned on, no matter how much later he enters.

It’s more complicated than that, but that’s the basic premise. So, what do you do with a machine that will let you relive any amount of time that’s passed since you turned it on? From this simple (?) beginning the story starts to twist in unexpected directions and take on multiple levels.

My own problem with the story was that I couldn’t believe the motivation for the characters. The event that most of the movie centers on is rather trivial compared to the lengths the characters go to in order to change it. They even as much as admit it at one point. But if you can accept that it’s important to them then you can go on to delve into the more interesting parts of the puzzle.

And it is, basically, a puzzle. The movie was made by a fellow named Shane Carruth for $7000. As a first attempt by a fledgling director/writer/actor it is a tour de force. Even if you don’t cherish the intellectual puzzle box that he’s built, the movie is involving and while it starts slow, it continues to build gradually until you find yourself sucked into the lives of the characters. But be prepared. There are scenes that are poorly focused, others that have overlapping dialog that makes it hard to tell what’s going on, and the whole thing indulges in poor color balance and editing tricks that obscure an already obtuse narrative. In spite of this it has the many of the benchmarks of good independent cinema. Compositions are strong, dialog is naturalistic, and the acting is understated and realistic. But while most independent films rely on emotion and drama to make up for expensive production values, this story relies on internal consistency and rigorous ideas to make up for lack of special effects. A SF movie without a single alien, explosion, space battle, or fantastic vista yet is more SF than a dozen or a hundred such movies usually manage.

This isn’t a movie for people who think SF is Star Whatever (Wars or Trek). This is a movie for fans of Phillip K. Dick’s writing, Cornwainer Smith’s stories, and who aren’t afraid to test their powers of observation and reason to gather the reward of a little neocortical exercise. I can’t believe how much I loved this movie. I wouldn’t want every cinematic experience to be this one, but when you’ve seen too many GI JOES and toys that turn into cars and robots in the last year it’s nice to find a movie that actually challenges you rather than simply appealing to the reptilian need for sex, carnage, and bright colors.

Have you noticed a tendency for me to swear for emphasis in my writing? I hope not.


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

TELEVISION- Neverwhere

Neverwhere is a television series Neal Gaiman wrote for the BBC that originally aired in 1996 and is now available on Netflix. Like most geeks I’ve had affection for Gaiman’s writing since he was working on Sandman. But to be perfectly honest, his writing has never really grabbed me the way it does some people. Watching Neverwhere I was reminded of why.

Let me start by saying that I enjoyed the program. Considering how much really dreadful SF and Fantasy gets produced and put on TV, it was nice to see something that was interesting and didn’t insult the viewers’ intelligence. True, it has that “BBC look” that has come a long way in the last few years but was still pretty dreadful in the mid-1990s. You know what I mean- the sets look like they were built by a repertory troupe in an abandoned warehouse somewhere and everything is lit blue on one side and green or red on the other like the only lighting equipment they had was left over from some discotheque of the 1970s. Occasionally there will be a matte painting and when there is you almost can’t see the line where it begins. Still, the production values are much better than the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series’, or the earlier Dr. Who programs’ where often things looked so bad it would interfere with your enjoyment of the story.

The acting is also an obvious intermediate step between what passes on BBC genre television today and what they were doing in the 70s and 80s. It isn’t quite as natural and what they are doing on Dr. Who nowadays, but it’s far better than the line readings from a decade earlier. I won’t say that anybody here is exceptional but Patterson Joseph, who plays the Marquis de Carabas, does stand out.

But now, back to the heart of all this. What is it about Neil Gaiman’s writing that keeps me from considering him as great as my all time favorites? Tell me if you’ve heard this one: an ordinary fellow makes an unusual decision on the spur of the moment and as a result meets someone who takes him on and amazing adventure into a world he was completely unaware of, filled with strange, dangerous characters that are vaguely familiar yet oddly different from the way one would normally think of them.

I’ve just told you the plot to everything Neil Gaiman has ever written.

Oh, he does it well. In Death: The High Cost of Living it was easy to get caught up in Death’s personality and how different and appealing it was compared to any other personification of Death. In American Gods it was fun traveling all over the country visiting with the aged visages of familiar deities, some who had gone sour and weird in their dotage. In Sandman it was intriguing to see Morphius travel from heaven to hell in the DC Universe visiting with familiar characters of the macabre who were all as fun-house (of Mystery) distorted as he himself was from the guy in the 1940s with the gas-mask and squirt gun we remembered The Sandman as being.

But I digress.

In Neverwhere we watch a clerk in some soulless London company help a homeless girl lying on the street, drawing the ire of his yuppie shrew girlfriend who stomps off and leaves the pair to draw a door on a brick wall (Betelgeuse! Betelgeuse! Betelgeuse!) and step into a journey through the London Underground (Subway for us Yanks) that will wind up determining the fate of an angel. (Ghad! I ought to write blurbs for book jackets!) Along the way we will meet a pair of eternal assassins, the owner of the cat named Puss-in-Boots, a cadre of female vampires, the traveling miracle fairs of the underground, and lots of other stuff that is imaginative and strange but really doesn’t have anything to say about anything other than “Look at us! We’re imaginative and strange!!”

In fact, the closest thing to a moral in the story is ‘how you can’t keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree’ (or in this case the London subway system), or ‘you can’t go home again’. That is if there is a moral at all, which really there doesn’t seem to be. And the cleverest bit of allegory is that the Undergrounders can travel in the world of normal London because the mundanes “don’t pay any attention to them”, which makes them effectively invisible. It’s clever and glib, which is better than most television, but still not much.

It seems even to me that I’m being unduly harsh. After all, it’s just a friendly romp through a fantasy landscape. And at six half-hour installments, it moves quickly and has way more structure than crap like Lost and Heroes that just meander around everywhere in hope of doing something interesting eventually and take an investment of a significant piece of your life for you to get anything from them. In fact, I think this format- shorter (3-6 hour) self-contained stories as miniseries- is a much better way to tell genre stories on television. And if you have Netflix then it’s free through their streaming service. So if this were a review I’d recommend it. And if this were a critique I’d be wondering if Neil Gaiman has anything else up his sleeve.