What If (Altered Carbon vs 2049)

Somebody thought so highly of that phrase, altered carbon, they just couldn’t let go of it. Writers be like that.

I’m enjoying the Netflix show “Altered Carbon” as much as I failed to enjoy “Blade Runner 2049” and the two will remain linked for me for several reasons. One is of course that AC stole a lot of BR’s look (the original Blade Runner, that is) and essential milieu of extreme inequality and desperation. Another is the whole attempted Noir look and feel of the things. As a lifelong fan of Hammett and Chandler I’m a setup sucker for all that shit. I even give a pass on the word “dames”, which both features employ heavily though without the explicit naming. Lastly, they both make me think about the basic premise of science fiction and how and why it so often fails to live up to that.

The premise is “What If”. Science Fiction at its best posits some fundamental “what if” question and then attempts to answer it. Often the best what if’s are the simplest – take one small element of the world and alter it, explore the effects. Explore ALL the effects. Take the thing to its logical and illogical conclusions, and don’t get side-tracked or carried away off topic. Ursula LeGuin’s “Lathe of Heaven” is a successful example, I think. Here a man has the ability to change the world through dreaming, and his psychiatrist decides to use that talent to “improve” the world.

The what if that Blade Runner posits – what if we made slaves of androids – produces the logical conclusion that the slaves would rebel and their masters would hunt them down and try to kill them. Confessions of Nat Turner tells the same story and we call it American History. At the same time Blade Runner builds a whole world without any explanation as to why things are the way they are except, perhaps, because cool set design. All that is just background, though, and the gestalt works all right in that film. In the reboot, nothing works. An android got pregnant and had a baby. If the secret gets out then there will be more baby androids, and that would be an interesting story to tell only they did not tell that interesting story – instead we get a side story about one boring guy who thought he might actually BE the android baby but it turns out he isn’t. Anyway …

Altered Carbon, the main idea that people store their consciousness on floppy disks and insert them willy-nilly into bodies (a.k.a. sleeves) has a LOT of implications, and they do a fair job of sorting through a number of them – people with religious objections encode their floppy disks (ok, “stacks”) so they can’t be reincarnated, which fucks up some police investigations and family relationships. Other people are hacking the stacks to force that encoding onto unwilling victims. That’s a cool thought – and it gets cult-like hackers in there so we can has some cyberspace. Rich people have clones and fancy backup systems so they can keep occupying the same bodies forever and ever – which also means that anybody with access could impersonate them by stealing and occupying their clone body. Again, ok.

The show could have done without all the steamy sex, but it’s 2018 and there’s no TV show without random scenes in strip clubs and the couplings of various people as the go-to plot device to keep things moving along. In the end, as Sherlock Holmes was forced to say in the dreadful season 4 of the Steven Moffat production, “it is what it is”.

What works for me in Altered Carbon is that people are given this new technology and use and abuse it in lots of ways we likely would, but otherwise we all remain the same shit birds we’ve always been. In this respect, it works along the lines of a Black Mirror episode. What if we ran a cartoon character for parliament? Yeah, like that. As for the background, because cool set design etc … at least they spent a lot of money and it shows.

Often, a science fiction story will posit a What If and then nothing much comes of it. This can be quite realistic. Science, after all, is mostly tedious work! What if we colonized other planets? Then we’d be the same shit birds over there. What if we had wars with aliens? Then they’d be wars and wars are fucking awful. What if we made artificial creatures with super intelligence? Then they’d be smarter than us and either want to wipe us out (Terminator) or have nothing to do with us (my preference, as in my stories How My Brain Ended Up Inside This Box and Renegade Robot). What if you could go back in time? Then you’d be stuck there most likely, without any visible means of support or speaking the language, so you’d better bring a toothbrush and bone up on your survival skills. What if we built a Moon Base? The residents would probably live boring lives – have you checked out life on the international space station lately?

What if you set out to imagine a whole new world, other places, other cultures, other creatures? In that case you’d better get your thinking cap on and really do some thorough imaginings, because if all you’re going to come up with is Cowboys and Indians, or Medieval Warlords, or Sexy Computer Hackers (as if), then you’re in luck – you can probably sell that crap to HBO and make it big time.

 

 

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When a book would have been better than the movie

On the basis of nostalgia and recommendations, I finally got around to watching the movie ‘Creed’. Nostalgia for me in this case has two roots – one being my childhood in the Philadelphia area, and the other being the time I saw the original Rocky movie when it first opened – dubbed into Spanish in a movie theatre in Quito, Ecuador.

I liked the original Rocky – who didn’t? – and managed to avoid seeing any of the sequels, until now. I thought the movie began with great promise. The background of the main character had a lot of potential – black kid orphaned as a kid, raised in poverty in foster homes and juvenile detention centers, a kid with fighting in his blood as well as his environment, rescued from this obscurity by the wealthy widow of a former heavyweight world champion. He is subsequently raised in opulence in Los Angeles, but still has the fighting in his blood thing, only now that he knows he is the son of a legend, the blood thing has become literal and concrete.

Here is some psychological complexity that could be delved into. He doesn’t really lose his “inner ruffian” but at the same time, he sort of does. Everyone knows he’s rich and just slumming. He has no real credibility, other than this chip on his shoulder that is out of place in his new world of financial independence and white-collar career. He should be having some internal struggles, which the movie attempts to portray at times, but this should also be externalized. He should be continually challenged. Every time he puts on his mean face there should be people scoffing at him, mocking him, saying “go on back to your palace, fool”. The movie shows this only one time, at a nightclub when a performer calls him “baby creed” in a tone of affection, which he takes the wrong way and lashes out inappropriately, but this should have been all over the movie, and would have been all over the book.

Instead, the movie wastes a huge chunk of time on a boring romance with a manic pixie dram girl whose main attribute is to look a lot like Rihanna. Every time she’s on screen you’re thinking, man, if she only had green eyes, she would look more like Rihanna. She’s a singer going deaf so she’s helping that along by playing music super loudly and hanging out in nightclubs, and aside from that, she is nothing, really. She has no history, no friends, no other interests besides being beside her man when he needs her the most.

The main thing about the movie is that Sylvester Stallone is actually good in it. He’s too good, in fact. Whenever he shuffles off screen the quality level of the script drops way off. It’s not really interested in the Creed kid. It wants him to “win” and by win I mean winning the Marco Rubio way, by coming in second, but attaboy, maybe next time. Ya showed heart, kid, and that’s what really matters. You dug deep down and it turned out the boxing thing really is genetic, and everyone is assigned a role at birth whether they know it or not, and it is what it is and you can either dig deep and express your genes, even if the sole expression of your genes is simply to look a lot like Rihanna, or you can be a loser like everybody really is.

The kid doesn’t miss out on his fate. Destiny won’t be denied. Is there any doubt that in Creed 2 he will become the champion of the world? And then the other genes of his forefathers will come into play. You know, the demon ones! Women! Rum! Poker! Getting fat and lazy! Some other octogenarian will have to whip his ass into shape, but whipped into shape that ass will surely be, just in time to spring up off the canvas and deal a mortal blow to the opponent who has no genetic royalty, is just another working class tattooed scumbag whose blood is ultimately worthless.

Cheesesteaks. Yes.

North Philly Shithole. Yes.

“You can’t get to heaven on the Frankfurt El ’cause the Frankfurt El goes straight to Frankfurt”

Ex Machina II: The Rant

Well, I finally got around to watching Ex Machina, a terrible movie with a good ending, part of which was just that it felt so good that it was ending. I get that it’s a Brogrammer Pygmalion and as such has something to say about what a Pygmalion would be if it were made today – sexist, mysoginist, grandiose, pseudo-intellectual bullshit – in other words, pretty much like any other movie made today.

It’s certainly possible that a billionaire genius brogrammer would do nothing more with his time and his money than create several closets full of sentient sex slaves of various physical and ethnic types, and it’s certainly possible that having done that he would become even more of a drunken asshole. It’s much more believable that a young douchebag brogrammer would fall head over heels with the physical incarnation of his own web-search porn profile, but both of them are only expressions of the guy who made the movie, and the robot is his own Artificial Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and the whole experience was like watching the film maker masturbate. Kind of gross.

The ending was okay, but seemed obvious from the very moment we first met the sexbot and saw her partially shattered glass cage (LEMME OUT!!), a bullshit movie thing because everywhere else the fancy home was flawless. I know it’s a pain to get construction workers out there to Greenland or wherever the fuck, but movies, even terrible ones, could be a little more subtle with their foreshadowings.

As for the AI itself, there was almost no content there. Do you like me? Do I like you? What is art? Why am I so shallow? In movies – which create the future – AI are either mass murderers or sex slaves. It’s getting tiresome, people. Please make better movies.

Critical Thinking and Whiplash

Much human activity can be considered to be self-medication.  We have needs and we attend to them. Many activities can also be seen, in this light, as addictions. The young man in the movie Whiplash appears to suffer from a sort of obsessive-compulsion disorder that he treats with incessant jazz drumming practice. This is one way to see the movie. The other way, of course, is to see it as yet another remake of Rocky or Breaking Away. He wants to be great, we are told. “One of the greats” in his own words, and to be “great” requires endless sacrifice, hard work, persistence, dedication and above all “passion”. With those tools in hand, how can one not become “great”?

But “greatness” is a cultural artifact, not an objective achievement on a scale of one to ten. At one point in the movie the bully/teacher Fletcher intones that there are no more Charlie Parkers because everyone says “good job” and no one pushes hard enough, but the reason there are no more Charlie Parkers is that Jazz is not a thing and hasn’t been a thing that produces cultural greatness since the 1950’s. There are no more Mozarts, either. Why did Jazz die? Because all things die, not because nobody bloodied there fingers enough.

The movie seems to believe in the myth of the Great Artist more than it believes in the psychology of fucked-up people, but the young man (Andrew) is a fucked-up person, incapable of meaningful relationships, uninterested in the world for the most part, a youth who doesn’t have anything to say and doesn’t listen to anything outside of that one narrow band of acoustics. The movie doesn’t go there, except for a gesture towards a pop-babble notion that he drums compulsively because he never had a mother.

The Great Artist suffers for his art and thank God for that because otherwise we wouldn’t have Great Art. This is the myth, but the truth is that we ALWAYS have Great Art, because our societies demand that we have it, because as societies we need it, because it is a major component of our self-medication requirements. Therefore, we will always be declaring some Art to be Great, and that which is declared Great IS Great, ipso facto.

Some Great Artists suffer and some do not. Some get lucky in their time and place and some do not. Some make money and some do not. Some become famous in their lifetimes, and some do not. Having a passion is not enough. Talent, hard work, practice and perpetual improvement are not enough. You had better be aligned with your time and your place, and you had better hit all the right bells and beepers on your pinball voyage through the world. Failure is always an option, and the odds are in its favor.

The final scene of Whiplash reminded me of the rock concerts I went to in the 1970’s which for some reason always featured extensive drum solos. Nobody seemed to enjoy those sets. They were boring and obnoxious and went on far too long and eventually the whole concept was booed off the historical stage. What happens when the Great Artist’s Great Art is something nobody ends up wanting? It might be Great Art in another time and place, and art, more than most other human endeavors, does have the ability to time travel, but in that case the Great Artist is like a tree that falls in the forest. He didn’t make a sound, at least not then and there

The Man in the Amazon Castle

The Man in the High Castle was never one of my favorite PKD books, but it’s the one that won the Hugo and had some interesting elements along with its elaborate confusion of cross-reality checks. Now it’s an Amazon series in the making (the pilot is all we get so far) produced by Ridley Scott and put together with former X-Files and Heroes veterans. It plays very much like a contemporary television series – lots of great visuals and music, pretty girls and pretty boys, vicious Nazis and Japanese agents (the story is basically ‘they won World War II and partitioned America between them, but they really hate each other’). It’s America in 1962 and things have settled down really pretty rapidly. The fascists are brutal (hospitals burn cripples and the terminally ill, and the ashes fall all over) and have cowed pretty much every one, Jews and people of color are seriously endangered species, but fortunately for us there are attractive young white people to join the underground and give us our main characters to love and hate and root for and against. In other words, sexy ultra-violence, our favorite kind of show.

Trust no one.

The show is dark. Literally. I could barely see it on my screen. Expect a lot of twists and turns, suspense, surprises, betrayals, torture, sadness, murder, hydrogen bombs, meaningful I Ching glances, and above all “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy”, a novel (or film? in the book it’s a novel. In the show it seems to be a movie) about an alternate reality in which the Allies actually won the war!

Recommended? Yeah, I guess.

Better yet, if you want to watch something, watch “Enlightened”, on HBO, the Laura Dern – Mike White collaboration about a woman who gets her head straightened out after a major meltdown, but then has to go right back to the same old life she left behind. Great writing, great acting, great directing, really good stuff. Much more recommended by yours truly.

Cowboys and Apes

If I’m remembering my Planet of the Apes lore correctly, the original movies had Ape society modeled on a sort of European Medieval Feudalism, with a fairly strict class structure, including Jesuits and Knights along with scientists and foot soldiers. In the current reboot, specifically Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the Apes are basically Native Americans in a cheesy Western. They speak pidgin English, they ride bareback, they stampede elks over cliffs and fight grizzly bears mano a mano. They are your basic Comanche stereotype, even speaking their choppy English to each other (!) when not using actual sign language. They have more in common as well. They’re up against General Custer and his merry men under seige, who are loaded with a massive armory, know how to blow things up real good, can Indian-hate with the best of them, and feature at most one woman at a time whose only role is supportive helpmeet and all around wannabe perfect chick, down to her surgical skills when required (to save a male) as well as attempted nurturing of the autistic step-son. Top cowboy is your basic MacGyver version, able to leap tall buildings with a single roll of string and somehow roll out just enough cable wire to connect San Francisco to a defunct hydro-electric dam on Mount Tamalpais. With a staple gun and some boulder-shifting, he manages to make the lights go up in the city, the jukebox play, and save the day at they very last moment before all hell breaks loose and things turn to shit. This happens (spoilers!) because it turns out that the only bad injun is a sneaky, traitorous lying injun (whose followers are so ignorant and inept they willingly turn into vicious monsters en masse or peace-loving cave-dwellers just as en masse depending on which leader they decide to bow down before at any given moment, he naturally being the strongest with the biggest dick).

Indians, er Apes, can be lawyer-like too, finding a wonderful loophole in their only commandment (ape shall not kill ape) by conveniently reclassifying precisely who qualifies as “ape” whenever it suits them.

There must be a natural law of second-generation creativity, akin to entropy, wherein copies of all originals tend to devolve into crap if not outright farce.

Or is it a generational thing, where one person’s futurism becomes the next one’s nostalgia? A writer with genuine vision sees the franchise turned over by corporate overlords to a movie director raised on John Wayne and the Lone Ranger.

We’re worn out with dystopias now. The original Planet of the Apes came around at a time when dystopias were rather fresh and refreshing. Nuclear nightmare scenarios were just off the boat, pre-detente and all that. The thing hadn’t been done quite to death yet – that distant future after we ruined everything when we get another chance to fuck it all up again. What was nice about the original was that it was really okay that the Apes got a chance. We had ours, then they had theirs. See what good it does them!

The pretty people didn’t have to win all the time like they do these days.

And at least the old version had a female character of significance (Vera), even if it only had two women in it (the other being the literally dumb babe). This new one has only Keri Russell’s occasional appearance to heal the sick, console the strong, worry over the weak, and basically be everybody’s sexy background mom. It’s unfortunate and seriously there is no reason why many of the male roles could not have been female (human and ape alike), no reason at all. Can they not string wire? Can they not shoot guns? Can they not swing from trees? Can they not shimmy and shake? Movies have got to get to the point where people are people and it doesn’t fucking matter what gender they are, what they look like, what they wear, what they sound like, what their name is or their sexuality or the color of their hair or their skin or their eyes, because we can all be anything that any of us can be and it really should be obvious to everyone by now.

 

Gone Girl – a Basic Bitch of a movie

These days the way you mock conventional boring women is to call them a “basic bitch”. Basic bitches do the things everybody does, wear the clothes everybody does, and so on (they used to be called soccer moms, or stepford wives – it’s a mean old joke that’s forever being rebranded). One thing a basic bitch does is read the bestselling books, like The Goldfinch, or Gone Girl. How fitting, then, that the movie Gone Girl is itself a Basic Bitch of a movie. It barely makes an effort, like a football team that thinks it can just show up on Sunday and win the big game. It has the basic necessities. Bestselling book, check. Big time director, check. Hollywood star, check. Big budget, check. Stupid preposterous story, check. For a suspense story, it had almost zero suspense. The subway cat scene in Inside Llewyn Davis was more suspenseful than anything in this one. It went through the motions, like the actors did. Who even made an effort here? They couldn’t even keep the main actress’s hair sensible from one scene to the next. Supposedly set in Missouri, not a single character bothered to even fake a midwestern accent. There were almost no cinematic touches of consequence besides an occasional St Louis arch or New York City brownstone. And maybe that was all part of the point, which is, what a fucking joke we all are, we moviegoers and book readers. We’ll buy any old shit they feel like selling us. They don’t even have to try. Nothing makes any sense? Who cares. Nobody tries to act? Whatever. Nothing to look at on the screen? Hey, that’s America these days, ugly, boring and all the same. Whatever. It seemed to me that everyone involved was resting on their laurels, and their laurels are kind of shabby to begin with. I’ve seen a number of the director’s films, and been impressed with just one (Fight Club) and that one ended with a sneering dismissal of its audience as well, a great big Fuck You of an ending (See? it was all a dream. See, he’s just fucking crazy) as if just saying “oh that person is crazy” is all you need to do, it’s so simple and uncomplicated and actually explains nothing. Just crazy, move along, nothing to see. Homeless people? Just crazy. Unhappy wives? Just crazy. Psycho killers? Crazy, of course. That’s all you have to say, all you have to know. She was crazy. That other guy? He was crazy. Not crazy? Then stupid or mean or both mean and stupid. Pretty much sums it up. They see us as their own basic bitches, and they’re probably right. We will buy anything. The new movie out this week? We all line up. Next week we’ll do the same. Fuck if we care. It could be Ouija. It could be Liam Neeson once again out for revenge. It could be Gone Girl. Whatever. Everybody’s doing it. We’ll do it too. It kept occurring to me that the movie lacked “integriy” – maybe the book did too but I can’t speak to that – and what I mean is that there was nothing that felt “true”. People behaved the way they did simply because they were “crazy” or “an asshole” or “stupid” or “gullible”. Everyone was strictly a type that did what that type does. No one was actually a real peerson, with any of the depth that entails. No one is merely a puppet that behaves according to some simple rules. The Punch and Judy dolls were exemplative of this lack of any core. The director and the author were pulling strings, for effect, to shock/entertain/whatever. As Lisa Thatcher said recently in a review of a Fincher film, it’s as if cinema itself has nothing to say. Certainly the people who made this movie had nothing to say. It’s just a show, a spectacle, superficial nothingness. Your basic bitch of a movie.