The Signal

The SignalOne of the oddest – but most intriguing – scifi films I’ve seen recently was the 2014 movie, the Signal. It is a small-budget film that premiered at the Sundance Festival last year and seems to have gone to DVD soon after. I picked up a copy recently at a nearby HMV and watched it over the weekend.

It stars Laurence Fishburne as the only big-name actor, while the main role is played by newcomer Brenton Thwaites.

The film reminded me somewhat of George Lucas’s first big film, THX-1138, in its minimalist production and sets. But they’re not otherwise alike. THX-1138 was overwhelmingly white: in The Signal the sets are dingy, drab and dreary.

It also uses some of the shaky-cam techniques that made Blair Witch Project standout but has been overused ever since. But not enough to make my eyes hurt and head ache, and reach for the remote to turn it off.

The movie takes three young university students on a cross-country journey during which you learn they were accused of hacking a university server, but apparently cleared somewhat. As they drive through the American southwest, they decide to chase down the hacker who was really behind the attack, using the IP of a message to locate him/her.

All of which takes some time. Probably half the film is a road trip/coming of age movie in which the backstory slowly emerges and the characters are gradually developed. There are some technical elements thrown in to remind viewers there is some science in here, however thin.

I was almost tempted to turn it off and watch something else, something more exciting, but the DVD case had a photo of Fishburne in a biohazard suit, so I knew there was more to come.

When it does arrive, it’s a strange blend of Kafka, THX-1138, ET, The Shining, and other popular cultural and literary themes. I won’t spoil the movie, except to say that it isn’t ever really clear for most of the remainder what is going on. In fact, until the final scene you never quite get the point. It keeps throwing hints at you that never quite stick and make you wonder more.

I can’t get it through my head that it’s supposed to be a metaphor for love and emotion as it is claimed to be. When I think of that notion in scifi, I think of Spock and Kirk. But it does explain why the director put so much vacillating about love and feeling, especially in the first half. There’s some love-redemption going on, sure, but it didn’t strike me as the foremost theme.

Stay with it. It’s not the best scifi film I’ve seen, nor the most well-constructed story and the pacing is too slow at the start. Still, it redeems itself towards the end with some action, suspense and surprises. And like I said, it makes you think.

My final comment is that the last shot, that final glimpse that explains it all, is too fleeting. It should last another minute or so, just enough for the audience to take in the whole picture.

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Houses of Cards

Francis UrquhartWhile there are parallels between them, there is no direct, simple comparison between the original, British mini series, House of Cards, and the American series of the same name. The latter, aired 13 years after the original, owes much of its first-season content to the BBC’s production, but it quickly went its own way. Like its contemporary, The Bridge, the American version took on a life of its own – and a very distinct, American character – and can’t be considered a simple adaptation. Both are excellent shows.

In part, the vast differences between American and British political systems compound the problem of comparison and understanding.

Canadians, on the other hand, will easily understand the machinations of the characters in the British show because our system is quite similar, but they are more opaque in the American version. From the outside, American politics seem designed to increase confrontation and partisanship. And political venality (it seems all American politicians and votes are for sale to the highest bidder…), but that’s not my point here. Americans might find the British version equally incomprehensible.

We finished watching season three of the American series recently and began to watch the British series again, after several years hiatus (it remains one of my favourite series). The latter is somewhat dated – aired before the internet and cell phones – but still well worth watching: the acting is superb. As are in most British series. But the cast in the American House of Cards is, for the most part, among the best I’ve seen in an American series (Kevin Spacey excels).

The British version has more humour, albeit dry, wry wit. It might be best described as either a political satire or dark comedy. I’m not sure everyone will appreciate its subtlety.

The American series has some of this in the first season, but less as it progresses. It’s more of a drama-cum-soap opera with less satire. Underwood speaks to the camera a lot more in the first season than in later ones. And that’s too bad because I think it adds to the viewer’s engagement.

The main characters – Francis Urquhart in the British (Ian Richardson), and Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) in the American – are very different in style and behaviour. Urquhart speaks more to the camera than Underwood, and offers more knowing, sly glances and smiles than his American counterpart. Underwood is far more about raw power; the underlying tongue-in-cheek attitude of the British politicians is absent.

The roles and the power associated with each leader is very different, too. Urquhart has to be more cunning than Underwood because his system is very different from the American. Underwood can sometimes batter his way through to success, where Urquhart has to squirm.

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The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproduction

I have been reading the essays of the late critic, Walter Benjamin, most famous for his 1936 piece, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproduction (an earlier translation of this essay is available here). Wikipedia notes of this essay that it has been,

…influential across the humanities, especially in the fields of cultural studies, media theory, architectural theory[1] and art history. Written at a time when Adolf Hitler was already Chancellor of Germany, it was produced, Benjamin wrote, in the effort to describe a theory of art that would be “useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.” He argued that, in the absence of any traditional, ritualistic value, art in the age of mechanical reproduction would inherently be based on the practice of politics.

While Benjamin writes of the authenticity of a work of art and how a reproduction lacks this (and how this affects the experience of the viewer), it came to me that some forms of art – novels in particular, but also the book in which his essays are reproduced – are meant for mass reproduction. Without the technology of mass reproduction, printed material was limited in its influence and reach. This in turn limited literacy itself.

Benjamin also mentions the lithograph as a technology that reproduced art, both of which are related to the printing revolution. He doesn’t mention its contemporary technology, steel engraving, which was developed at the same time. Lithography is a chemical process, while engraving is mechanical.

But what I think he ignores is that neither was intended to reproduce a piece of art, but rather to create a unique piece that could be reproduced with integrity (for example, illustrations in a book, but engraving was also used extensively for printing money). The artists who perfected these forms meant for their work to be copied and printed. Only when the plate or stone wore out from use, and finer details become smudged or lost, would the piece begin to lose its authenticity.

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership. The traces of the first can be revealed only by chemical or physical analyses which it is impossible to perform on a reproduction; changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original.

Benjamin was not merely commenting on art, but on politics and society. He opens with a somewhat mixed Marxist analysis, rambling a bit before making the point that modern reproduction takes art from its original use as religious and ritual items to the realm of the political. Mechanical reproduction removes art from its role, and in doing so changes the viewer’s aesthetic appreciation of it. In the essay, he gives the example of a photograph of a cathedral, which removes the viewer from the emotional and religious experience of being in the actual building.

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Ex Machina

Ex MachinaEx Machina – “from the machine” – is a British film that is more about philosophy and morality than science. It opens a can or worms, philosophically, that underscores issues now being raised by advancing and increasingly intelligent technology. Its spare but crisp production reminds me of George Lucas’s first film, THX-1138.

Spoiler alert, by the way…

It is, in its essence, a modern exploration of the themes presented in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein, using artificial intelligence as the  fulcrum, rather than the reanimating of dead tissue.

The film poses questions that are current in all AI research, but are also important on the larger ethical scale about how we treat intelligence outside our own, robots in this case being metaphors for companion and food animals:

  • How do we define sentience?
  • How do we recognize sentience in others?
  • How do we treat sentience?
  • Is there a separate morality and behaviour for our interaction with non-human intelligence?

None of these are answered in the film, although the quest for the answers is part of the plot (which is also part-thriller). And lingering over all of it is the Turing Test: is it real sentience or simply the illusion of it? And how can we tell the difference?

It also suggests the question of what exactly emotions are:

  • Can emotions be programmed?
  • Are emotions predictable and quantifiable?
  • Can a machine experience emotions?

Then there are the questions about gender and sexuality:

  • Is gender programmable?
  • Does sexuality reside in the intellect or the physical appearance? or both?
  • What attracts men and women?

The film also poses the question that is paramount in Frankenstein:

  • Is the human creation of an intelligence moral or ethical? Can it ever be?
  • What treatment or response does the creation deserve?

And as a sub-theme, the film throws in the morality of slavery and male domination: earlier models of robot appear to be kept as sex slaves by their designer (particularly Kyoko, the assistant and cook, who is revealed to be a robot only half-way through the film – and is perhaps more enigmatic and interesting than Ava, the lead character).

Are these merely sexbots: tools and devices for use, or are they sentient beings? Plus, the main robot, Ava, has evident and expressive sexuality. Is it real/authentic (i.e. a native response) or simply programmed? Are the males  – who both play a dominant role – sexist or sympathetic in their responses to the female robots?

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The Missing Frankenstein Movies

Legacy Collection: FrankensteinI was worried when I saw a new package for the Frankenstein films in WalMart recently. Labelled the “Complete Legacy Collection,” it offered eight original films on the Frankenstein theme, from 1931 to 1948. I snapped it up and read the back. I had to have it. (I always check the films they bring in pre-Halloween, in case they have any classics I don’t yet have….)

Oh oh, I said to myself as I read the cover. I had purchased all of the Legacy monster movie collections a few years back (they were first released in 2004)  and my set of Frankenstein movies had only five films in it. This one had Three More Monster Films! True, one of them as Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein, but even if it was a comedy, it did include some of the great stars (Lugosi, Chaney and Glenn Strange, who replaced Karloff as the monster in later films of the series).

If the entire series had been re-released with additional films in each set, I thought to myself as I stood there, it mean I would have to buy all the sets all over again. Susan wouldn’t be happy. I put the box into the cart, and looked for the others. Fortunately for my wallet, there were none. Yet.

A little reading online made me realize this was simply a repackaging of the entire 30-film one-box collection that had been released in late 2014. Universal has repackaged the films in several versions with varying numbers of movies since the first release, from four to 30 in each. Some even have the 1943 Phantom of the Opera movie, one of the few Universal horror of that era titles I lack.

The Legacy Collection first packaged 14 films from the original Frankenstein, Wolfman and Dracula series made by Universal, in three boxed sets. The originals star the actors who would become famous for their roles in the first of them, all shot in the early 1930s: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. The sequels didn’t always include the original actors, however (and some of the replacement actors – like John Carradine as Dracula – are poor choices). But these are the films I treasure.

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Where Have The Real Heroes Gone?

Another hero
Another hero

Heroes, it sometimes seems, have been relegated to legend and myth. There are none left, none of the sort I used to associate with the name. Not in the media, anyway.

The word has been so abused in the media over the last century, tossed about in such a cavalier manner that it has lost its former credit; it has become debased language, its pith cored for showy effect, like glitter, like so many over-used superlatives have been. Its strength drained away.

Calling someone a hero today has the same punch as a teacher saying a child “lives up to his potential.”

A hero is now someone who shops wisely, drinks milk instead of pop, or drops off a bag of cat chow at the local animal shelter. I am a hero for recycling my kitchen waste, or so a label on my green bin says. There’s a gardening hero in Australia, who is called that for creating a TV show about – you guessed it – gardening. You can be a hero in your living room just by playing a video game and pushing buttons in the right order on a fake guitar.

It’s like the word awesome – so few things generate actual awe in us, but the word appears under Facebook pictures of kittens and puppies or tossed around in status posts.

Standing under the millennium-old arches of Westminster Abbey, I felt awe. I felt wonder. I felt diminished by the weight of history around me, reduced to a mere mortal by the lives that had passed through these halls before me. Awed by the sweeping majesty of it all.

Someone on social media bragging they’re awesome  – appropriating a word so it merely means egotistic or happy  – simply cannot compare in emotional depth to what I felt in the great cathedral, any more than my adding banana peels to the green bin is heroic.

And that’s unfortunate, because we really need a word for those people who do real, heroic deeds. Calling a firefighter who saves a child from a burning house a hero today puts him or her on the same level as me and my banana peels. And that’s not right. We need heroes to look up to, to idolize, to remind us of how important it is to act for non-selfish reasons.

Just being a good person isn’t being heroic. We used to call these people “good Samaritans” but in the age of hyperbole, we seem to have to raise the volume and make out that anyone who does a good deed, no matter how trivial, appears heroic.  And in doing so, we trivialize real heroism.

There are brave, courageous people who stand up for our rights and freedoms. There are kind and compassionate people who do acts of caring and determination. There are people who are courteous, polite civil; who say please and thank you, hold doors open and don’t fly into road rage at being passed on the highway. There are people who volunteer their time to help others, advocate for the greater good, and donate money to their causes.

They’re all wonderful, kind, even brave people. But they’re not heroes.

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Boccaccio’s Decameron

The DecameronI never read The Decameron in any original, or complete translation. I have a bowdlerized edition I read in part some time ago, perhaps the 1970s. I recall seeing an art film based on the book, in the 1970s (directed Pier Pasolini). But I can’t recall it in any detail, except that it was subtitled. I have an old Penguin edition upstairs, its pages yellowing, mostly unread, but saved for that time in my life I felt able to tackle it. Seems that time has come.

This week I found a copy of a recent translation of the Decameron at a local used book store, a revised Penguin edition,  It’s the same translator – McWilliam – as my old Penguin, but he has redone the book with a revised, updated translation and an enhanced introduction. For me, a comprehensive introduction is always a draw because I want to know about the author’s life, influences, style and times.

It occurred to me, as I stood there browsing it this week, that my literary education was severely lacking in not having read it. Which was all the justification I needed to buy it. Well, to be fair, I really need no justification to buy any book. Reading is such a great pleasure than it is its own reward. A life without books would be shallow, indeed. Oh how sad to have only the drivel in the local paper as one’s sole reading material!

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Anthony and Cleopatra

Anthony and CleopatraWhile Julius Caesar is my favourite of all Shakespeare’s plays, I think Anthony and Cleopatra is my second favourite. I know it’s hard to choose any favourites from his plays, they’re all so good, but this one seems to resonate with me more than most others, enough to encourage me to reread it this week.

Perhaps it’s because both lead characters are past their prime (as I am), but – like all of us who have put a few years behind us – reluctant to acknowledge it and still see themselves as their younger selves. In that, Cleopatra shines, while Anthony looks like a guy in a mid-life crisis. In a more modern setting he’d buy a Harley or a sports car. Or, like Anthony in the play, take a mistress.

Perhaps it’s because while they are, despite the irreducible effects of age, still full of passion and life and love. They are also full of doubt and uncertainty: that makes them very human; full of the foibles that love, lust and politics bring. And that’s what Shakespeare does best: brings our foibles to the fore. No character in his works is free of flaws. Nor are any of us – it’s a lesson to remember.

It’s a play set on the cusp of great change: the Roman empire and Egypt are just on the edge of significant and critical upheavals. While Rome will rise in imperial power, strength and glory under Augustus – only called Octavius Caesar in the play – and his successors, Egypt’s greatness is behind her and she will fade after Cleopatra; reduced to a mere province in the Roman empire.

Reading the play is a bit like reading the story of the Titanic: everyone can see the iceberg approaching except the characters in their own story. Yet we cannot avert our eyes from the tragedy in store. Anthony’s comment that, “The time of universal peace is near,” foreshadows both the Roman victory and his own demise.

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The Road Not Taken

The Road Not TakenI was surprised to read a recent piece in the New York Post that suggests a poem I have long loved was actually not what I thought it was about. It was one of those epiphanies that made me reassess my attitude not only towards the poem but towards what I had assumed it meant.

The poem is Robert Frost’s famous piece, The Road Not Taken. You might remember it as “The Road Less Travelled” by which it is sometimes misnamed. It’s a short poem, only 20 lines long, each with a mere nine syllables. Many of us read it in school as part of our English courses. It remains a staple in many anthologies, a century after it Frost wrote it.

According to the writer of the Post piece, Stephen Lynch, it isn’t an “…ode of individuality, to not follow the pack even though the path may be more difficult.” Rather, it was written as a sly jest.

This notion comes from David Orr’s recent book of the same name. Its subtitle is “Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong” and in it Orr takes a fresh look at some of the most popular, modern poetry. I just ordered my copy. It sounds like fascinating reading. Orr writes the On Poetry column for the New York Times Review of Books.

Remarkably, for a book that is essentially about poetry, Orr’s work has generated a lot of discussion online. While it also explores many other areas, such as social issues and pop psychology, it is refreshing to see poetry become a major talking point again. Frost himself wrote that he saw his poems as “all set to trip the reader head foremost into the boundless.” Perhaps a book about Frost’s poems can do the same.
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Stop Whining, Elvis Haters

DilbertDon’t people who hate Collingwood’s Elvis Festival ever get tired of whining and bitching about it? I guess not. There’s another whining letter about it in this week’s Connection. More than twenty years the festival has been running successfully and they still haven’t figured it out yet.

Just because you don’t like the event, doesn’t mean others don’t. In fact, tens of thousands of people really enjoy it and come from all over the province, from nearby US states and even from overseas to attend it. We cannot all like the same things and we certainly cannot all like what little lightens your narrow little world. Let others enjoy themselves even if you don’t.

Just because you can’t see the great economic value of the event doesn’t mean others don’t. The restaurants and hotels are full, so are a lot of shops. Open your eyes: this event brings in money for the town’s businesses. No, it doesn’t benefit everyone: no event on the planet will do that. But it benefits a great number of local businesses who employ people. Let them enjoy the trade and the customers even if you don’t.

Just because you don’t want to make the effort to see what it’s all about, to enjoy a day downtown with the crowd doesn’t mean it should stop. Sit at home in your darkened room if you must. Wiser, less curmudgeonly folk accept that for three or four days a lot of other folk are going to have fun here, so they join them. or not: but stop bitching about those who do.

I get so tired hearing people whinge about Elvis, whinge about other people enjoying themselves. Whinge about an event that is good for the town but because they don’t like it, they don’t want it here. No one can have fun when they don’t want to. What a selfish, narrow-minded attitude.

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Reading Tennyson’s Ulysses

Last weekend, while watching the delightful movie, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, I heard Bill Nighy make a wedding speech that included lines from one of my favourite poems: Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson. I recognized it immediately and it made me open the poem and read it again. The poem was written by Tennyson in 1833, but not published until 1842. I can’t recall exactly when I first read it, but it was in high school, in the 1960s. I’ve read it many times since.

It’s funny how one can read into a poem something entirely different on another reading. Or the third, fourth or tenth… Well, perhaps not funny as in humourus. Rather it is remarkable. Mysterious. Illuminating. Age, especially, seems to shine a new, different light on words and meanings.

Age is one of the things I think about more these days. Age and mortality. Not in a maudlin way, but rather as in seeing doors open and new paths to explore, making the most of what I have. What age does to us, what it presents, how we manage it. And how others have seen it. With both my parents dead, my own age presses upon me in ways it never did before.

But back to Tennyson. The poem, a monologue, opens:

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

The poem is ostensibly about Ulysses, the voyager returned from his adventures and his battle in Troy. After ears away, he feels constrained, is restless, and itches to go back out on the road. His home has lost its former glory and seems barren to him. His wife, years older, is no longer the beauty he left behind when he headed to Troy. Conformity bores him, frustrates him. Everything he left behind has changed – himself most of all – and he wants to be the man he was when facing adversity, years before.

But equally it is about us, all of us, as we age. Do we drift into retirement after a lifetime of school and work, to paddle downstream, drift with the current towards death? Or do we itch for more adventure? Are we satisfied with who we ae or do we want to be something else? Someone we once were?

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Victor Hugo’s Hunchback

HunchbackI have just finished listening to a well-read audio book (in English) of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, Hunchback of Notre Dame, or more properly, Notre Dame de Paris, as the original title was written. I had read the novel several years ago in a more recent Penguin edition, but hearing it on my peregrinations around town with the dogs gave me time to focus on some sections I had glossed over in the written form.

Unlike the abysmal Disney animation of 1996, and unlike all the films and TV series that have been made of the story since the first (Esmeralda, 1905), the novel doesn’t have a happy ending. It’s a sad, bitter tale. And Quasimodo, the hunchback, is not the main character. It is only in part his story. The happy, dancing hunchback of Disney’s tale is a cruel abomination of the tragic figure in Hugo’s novel.

Lon Chaney’s 1923 version was the first truly great portrayal of Quasimodo, but the censors of the time, under the Hays Code, forced the writers to recast several characters – Claude Frollo goes from villain to virtuous, and his brother, the drunken scholar Jehan, goes from vain bumbler to villain. The plot is also twisted to include bits Hugo never wrote, including a Pygmalion-like ball where Esmeralda is disguised as a noble lady.

If you don’t mind silent film, you definitely should see it for Chaney’s portrayal, but it isn’t the story Hugo wrote.

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