Two Good Movies (Four, Actually)

July 26, 2015

I saw two really good movies recently, but they’re both genre pictures and they might have slipped under your radar. Correct that if you care to: they’re both out on DVD.

th-1EX MACHINA is the latest and best in a mini-trend of thoughtful science fiction movies. (Even Tom Cruise’s recent EDGE OF TOMORROW has a tiny little brain under its light GROUNDHOG DAY veneer.) This one is about the essential Philip K. Dick concept, which has fascinated scientists for a century, readers for more than sixty years, and film honchos for maybe 35. It can be expressed in six short words: how do you know for sure?

You don’t have to be a techie to recognize the famous Turing Test. If a mechanical device can fool a human being into believing that it is human, does that not constitute intelligence? Alan Turing imagined a subject typing impromptu questions to a person and a computer and receiving their typed answers from the next room. If the interrogator can’t positively identify the human by session’s end, the contraption thus “passes” the Turing test. Should you find that laughably simple, consider the case of ELIZA, a program written at MIT in the mid-Sixties as (one would hope) a parody of Rogerian psychoanalysis. ELIZA simulates a responsive therapy session: “I’m troubled by bad dreams.” “Why do you think you have bad dreams?” “Because my father hates me.” “Who else in your family hates you?” The illusion of intelligence, which is actually only the ability to parse a few words, fooled many users, even after its amazed and delighted creator, Dr. Joseph Weizenbaum, patiently explained how ELIZA really worked. This blind tendency to map human emotions onto machines is today referred to as “the ELIZA effect.”

In EX MACHINA, we revisit the Turing test many, many, many iterations outward. In that proverbial Near Future, the young lad Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a contest staged by his employer’s brilliant, rich, eccentric founder, who became a modern Croesus by creating the greatest search engine in the history of the world. This Sergei-Musky figure, Nathan, is played by the mesmerizing Oscar Isaac, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite film actors. You can’t take your eyes off him, as you couldn’t in INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS or A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, in which he will remind you of the young Michael Corleone a dozen times. (Isaac will get to have more colorful fun in Disney’s forthcoming STAR WARS and X-MEN flicks.) Nathan soon reveals that the grand prize wasn’t just to spend a week at his magnificent, sheltered, high-tech research facility and bachelor pad as advertised, but much more: to be the subject in the most awesome Turing test in history, d00d. Nathan has created the next best thing to a human being (he chose the form of the gorgeous Alicia Vikander, a dancer by training whose movements marry mechanics and grace in a pleasant new way), and it will be up to Caleb to get to know her and evaluate Nathan’s achievement. Then, the first time the two are outside the compound’s ubiquitous zone of security cameras, “Ava” whispers: “Don’t trust him. Don’t believe anything he says.”

Wow. We’ve already been led by the nose several times here by writer-director Alex Garland, and we’re not even at the halfway point. Caleb has our empathy as the dewy innocent youngster. Nathan has already proven himself more asshole than could possibly be imagined, and he keeps pouring it on. Ava is far from a blank slate. And there are reversals and revelations galore still to come, which I won’t dwell upon. This is the man who wrote 28 DAYS LATER…, SUNSHINE, the English NEVER LET ME GO, and DREDD, so he knows from screenplays. Knock yourselves out watching the behind-the-scenes stuff that makes Vikander appear to be mostly mechanical. What makes EX MACHINA work hearkens back to the Turing test. It’s all about the effect of technological achievement on human beings.

thIT FOLLOWS is both the title and a comprehensive two-word synopsis of a clever new horror movie that’s been getting a great critical reception since its release earlier this year. (THE BABADOOK is another recent modestly-budgeted terror triumph that I heartily recommend.) The premise of IT FOLLOWS is simple and diabolical: there is such a thing as a sexually transmitted demon. When you have sex with an afflicted person, the demon begins pursuing you instead. Object: brutal murder. It can inhabit the body of anyone, even somebody you know. There’s only one of it, but it can switch hosts at will. It doesn’t move fast, only plods with a rhythmic gait — but it will keep on following you, however long it takes, until it kills you. You can get rid of it by having sex with someone else, thus transmitting the curse, but if that person dies, the demon will work its way back down the carnal trail and come after you again. One more hitch: nobody else can see or hear it. Only you. (And the audience, of course.) It’s the paranoid’s worst nightmare: something actually is out to get you, and there’s no way to prove it to anyone else. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS time.

When I was a kid, I loved the classic Universal monster movies; I still do, after adjusting a bit for subsequent sophistication. To me, the most disturbing monster wasn’t Frankenstein’s experiment, or Dracula, or the Wolfman, or Mr. Hyde, or the Creature from the Black Lagoon. The one that really got under my skin was the Mummy. Because the Mummy was relentless. Classmates used to sneer: anybody can outrun the Mummy, man. True enough, but if ever you desecrated its tomb, even if you then flew in a plane to the U.S., it would walk across the ocean floor if it had to, step by step, and one day it would catch up with you. IT FOLLOWS brings the same creepy unease without traveling to Egypt.

The Babadook comes from a book book book.

The Babadook comes from a book book book.

No, we’re in suburban Detroit, a bombed-out shell of a city that’s virtually deserted; this is that kind of “chamber piece” that exists in its own little claustrophobic world. The teenagers at the heart of the story encounter very few adults, and most of them are incarnations of the demon. There’s a quick gruesome shot early on to help establish how high the stakes are, but in general IT FOLLOWS depends on sustained dread, not graphic gore or cheap jack-in-the-box “gotcha!” moments. It’s a cousin to THE BABADOOK in this regard, and the polar opposite of such fare as the CHUCKY or FINAL DESTINATION franchises.

Writer-director David Robert Mitchell and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis get the most out of their digital gear, making a normal day look menacing (most of the setups in this horror movie are exteriors). They repeat a little motif I love, a slow left-to-right pan to set the scene. It’s innocent at first, but as they repeat the move once we’ve gotten used to the demon’s slow, determined rhythm, they’ll show it coming from way off in the background during the pan without visual comment. By now we can make it out a mile away, but where a lesser talent would probably stop the move and push in, we just go, holy moley, girl, look behind you! A similar shot was one of the best moments in THE DESCENT (my fourth recommendation, a little bloodier though), as we pan past the trapped spelunking girls and get our first look at one of the cave-dwelling creepy-crawlies behind them. Did we just see what I think we saw? You don’t need a loud noise and a musical sting to jolt the viewer, or a big visual effects budget to make an impact. All you need is some old-fashioned creativity. The low-budget, high-powered IT FOLLOWS is crammed full of it.

That pan in THE DESCENT that wants to pass by what's in the background, while you're screaming,

That pan in THE DESCENT that wants to pass by what’s in the background, while you’re screaming, “Did I just go crazy?”

P.S.: If you’re interested in ELIZA, she’s actually available as an app. I doubt Dr. Weizenbaum is involved.

8/24/15: Maika Monroe, the young scream queen who stars in IT FOLLOWS (and THE GUEST, a terrific psychological thriller, so make that five good movies), was named today to VARIETY’s Ten Actors To Watch list for 2015. She is already getting attention among casting directors: she’ll star in the new INDEPENDENCE DAY flick.


My Name Is Tom Dupree, Dammit!

July 13, 2015

thUsing the wrong computer language can actually lose you customers. Anybody who read the recent Bloomberg Businessweek issue (not just the cover, the entire ISSUE) on coding will have some inkling, but here we go.

My name is Tom Dupree. (Thank you, no, please take your seats.) It’s not Dupre, or DuPree, or Du Pree or Depree or Duprieux or anything else. It’s Dupree. Like “Dupree’s Diamond Blues.” Like “Cousin Dupree.” Like YOU, ME AND DUPREE (why does that movie title sound familiar?). Those simple nine letters, the perfect number for a theater marquee — my god, it could be a stage name! — placed in exacting order are how you spell my given name, and there is no other goddam way. Not one other single solitary bob jack cat tail way. French, wherefrom my surname springs forth, can sometimes be a confusing, um, milieu, but look here: I’ve just handed you the answer to the test! Go spell my name to a child. Or a computer science professor. Bet you can do it perfectly now. Thanks, and you’re welcome.

Now. I have this rule. I will never respond positively to any direct-mail solicitation that cannot reproduce those precise nine letters using one space break and first caps only. If you misspell my name, I’m no friend of yours and I instantly grow tired of whatever you’re selling. I mean it: I’ve ignored some worthwhile stuff over this, and I will continue until they lower me down. I’m tough but fair: I’ll accept “Thomas,” even all caps, but you gotta nail the last part or you are dead. To. Me.

But get this: one time, long ago, I complained to some financial institution with which I no longer deal (over this same flippin reason; I’m serious) who kept sending everything to Thomas DuPree. They said the computer language used by their database couldn’t bring the rogue capital P down. (I suspect the language to be COBOL, which is all over the banking industry, but I invite comments by people more savvy than I. Anybody know?) In other words, I would have to be Thomas DuPree forever, because this particular language defaults to the misspelling. It must be a popular one, too: I had the last laugh with my now ex-financial institution, but I still get solicitations from well-meaning charities that not only continue the mistake, but sometimes send me a stack of peel-off return address stickers employing the hated fargin error! (The most recent set came today, from the nice but inaccurate folks at Thirteen…) I’m tempted to gather them up and send them back in the postage-paid envelope, but I stop and think, not to a nonprofit: only to the Republican Party. (Save and recycle your postage-paid envelopes from Reince Priebus, chillun. That’s what I do.)

Even longer ago, a newspaper reporter out West decided it would be fun to do a feature on those nutty guys and gals who write “cover copy” for paperbacks. He called me up, along with a few of my counterparts at other New York publishing houses, and he wrote an entertaining story. One prob. This guy’s name was — I think I remember this right — Scott LaFee. So in Scott’s otherwise lovely piece, I became Tom DuPree. The first thing I thought was, GRRRRRR! The second thing was, Scott: don’t you ask your interview subjects how their names are spelled, as doofus high-school reporters are taught to do as the very first question?

I’ve bawled, I’ve complained. Sometimes the Roman letters can be fixed by the secret coders in the beast’s belly. But the Great Database Producers (otherwise known as GDP) of America can now be divided into two parts: those who get it right and those who can’t or won’t. So I repeat for “executive summary” skimmers: spell my name incorrectly, and you could be offering a backstage meet-and-greet VIP package to the frickin Second Coming, but I’m still going to throw your illiterate form letter the motherlovin frick away.


The River Of Retail

November 24, 2014

th-1I’ve just traveled back in time, to a more innocent age. I did it by reading a book about Amazon.com. “By the time you read this book,” opines business writer Robert Spector in the finale of his AMAZON.COM: GET BIG FAST, “Amazon.com will have changed in some profound way.” Man, did he get that right – because HarperBusiness published this tome way back in 2000, when Jeff Bezos’s website was just five years old and nobody’d ever heard of an “Internet bubble.” By the time I read this book, Amazon (the by-now-anachronistic “.com” was quietly dropped in March 2012) was barely recognizable.

Business books like this one are churned out mainly for eager MBA candidates and execs on the make who are busy taking notes or marking up the pages; Mr. Shelton helpfully provides summational “takeaways” at the end of each chapter so readers don’t even have to uncap their pens. The writing won’t win any awards – the market calls for simple, straightforward, didactic prose – and the book is poorly (hurriedly?) edited and proofed: dropped connectors, “baited breath,” “technocolor,” multiple introductions of the same event. But you do get a look at Amazon.com just as it was becoming an actual power, from a reporter who is still marveling at this new Internets thing. “The real winners,” writes Mr. Spector from 2000, “will be the so-called ‘clicks-and-mortar’ retailers that combine a physical presence with a virtual presence…the future belongs to these multichannel operations.” “One day,” he predicts, “we will even see Amazon.com in the physical world, either with stores or kiosks,” and in New York City, for the 2014 holiday season, his farfetched Hail-Mary concoction will have actually come true.

th-2Mr. Spector is much better at describing what has already taken place: the famed creation story in which Bezos quits his cushy job at D. E. Shaw & Co. – he’s flat-out brilliant – and, entranced with the mind-reeling growth of the Internet, uses Spocklike logic to choose an entry-point product (books) and a city from which to base his startup (Seattle). We watch as Bezos assembles a team of equally smart people who know nothing about retailing, yet build a crude infrastructure and go live on July 16, 1995. In a time period so compressed that it ate people up (you had to be young and driven to work there), Amazon.com became a constant exercise in scaling out, in keeping up with an unprecedented growth rate, in whacking the largest moles anybody had ever seen. The Amazonians fill more and more warehouse space and toss away their initial plan to be a store that is only virtual. They go public and charm investors by admitting they plan to lose money as far out as the eye can see, throwing every penny into getting big fast. They enter Britain and Germany by buying existing e-sellers and giving them an Amazon storefront. They add music and video to the mix and start a website buying spree. They hire executives from Wal-Mart and other retailers for adult supervision over the distribution chain. Within five years, they’ve survived their first soul-searing holiday rush and built one of the most famous brands in the world. In January 2000, they change their logo to the famous “smile arrow” that connects A to Z in the company name: we intend, they announce, to sell everything (except firearms, living creatures, pornography or tobacco). When Bezos holds up an unusual food product at a press conference, Mr. Spector is obviously getting his first look at what he calls an “edible (presumably)” turducken. And that’s where this book leaves them.

The author basically lionizes Jeff Bezos, who is named Time’s Man of the Year for 1999. Although Mr. Spector does note some early missteps – charging publishers for favorable placement on the site, just like Barnes & Noble and Borders had for years, only failing to tell customers about the sponsorships; Purchase Circles, which could let you see what others at your company are buying, which was TMI for outraged corporations like IBM; an unflattering fight with a lesbian bookstore in Minneapolis which had been using the name Amazon since 1970; and selling English-language copies of MEIN KAMPF from the US site to customers in Germany, where the book is banned – and reports some groaning from afar about working conditions, we never get a fully rounded view. For that we need thirteen more years to pass, and the publication of a very different book.

thTHE EVERYTHING STORE by Brad Stone isn’t written for business students: it’s a more major piece of narrative nonfiction. Mr. Stone has the benefit of the ensuing years in which Amazon has grown into a global colossus, large enough to push around his own publisher, Hachette (proprietor of this book’s Little, Brown imprint) and agitate for a larger piece of the pie, delaying or denying shipment of Hachette titles in the process. The dustup has only recently been resolved; click on the book cover to see how much Amazon has relented since I wrote this. I bought my copy, during the standoff, from Powell’s Books. (Fun fact: both Larry Kirshbaum, who ran an in-house publishing program at Amazon, and David Naggar, who presided over its settlement with Hachette, are former executives at the Warner Communications books group, which morphed into this particular member of the Big Five publishers.)

Amazon’s not a cute startup any more. But this is no Hachette job (sorry): though he does not talk to Bezos in person specifically for this book (as a business journalist he’s had the pleasure more than once), Mr. Stone does acknowledge the founder’s help in giving the go-ahead for “innumerable interviews with his friends, family and employees.” Bezos’s hesitation seems to be that he feels it’s still too soon to tell Amazon’s story comprehensively (I do not believe it has anything to do with the identity of the publisher), and the company is indeed a quickly rolling stone; it won’t be much longer before this book too is out of date.

Meanwhile, though, we get a ripping yarn about a scarily intelligent, scarily ambitious, scarily obsessed man who saw the face of the future back when everybody thought he was just a bookseller. Jeff Bezos reminds us naturally of Steve Jobs: the same driven personality, the same steely mind, the same screaming impatience with anything short of perfection, even the same “reality distortion field” that worked its will on every aspect of the innovative companies they built. They were both adopted by loving foster parents, and each man grew rich and famous without their biological fathers being aware of their relationship. It is clear from reading his story that Amazon as we know it wouldn’t exist without Jeff Bezos — the same existential importance as Steve Jobs had to Apple.

We inevitably go over some of the same territory as does Mr. Spector, but THE EVERYTHING STORE has caught up barely a quarter of the way in. Bezos’s vision was 20-20 even when he seemed to be the only guy with eyesight, back when the new company was called Cadabra (it sounded like “cadaver” to people on the phone. Another candidate was a little too on-the-nose: type in “Relentless.com” and, to this day, you’ll go straight to Amazon). You can’t succeed without having the guts to fail, and Bezos suffered some spectacular flops, primarily during Amazon’s big buildout during the dot-com boom, when the company wasted most of $2.2 billion in bond offerings in buying up smaller players that didn’t pan out. Its share price peaked on March 10, 2000, a few months after Jeff had been named Time magazine’s Man Of The Year, and Job One suddenly became simple survival.

th-3Amazon benefited both from Jeff’s foresight and the naiveté of others, to whom online commerce was viewed as a novelty, a technological fad that would eventually go away. Rather than do the hard, expensive work themselves, companies like Toys ‘R’ Us engaged Amazon to run their online presences. Later Circuit City, Borders and Target all entered into similar partnerships, but all they were doing was ceding advantage to Amazon. (About half of the in-person Borders stores were actually quite profitable when the company entered bankruptcy, but they were locked into too many pricey 15- and 20-year leases, more cannon fodder for Amazon’s lean, lithe business model.)

For anybody who is still surprised at the ruthlessness with which Amazon opposed Hachette (price wars are commonplace among other retailers but anathema to the cozy book industry, which sells its product on consignment and financially continues to press its historic advantage as the gatekeeper separating author and audience), one need only look back to 2002. Amazon’s contract with the United Parcel Service was up, but the shipper was facing union negotiations and felt it had no wiggle room. Amazon had already cultivated a relationship with Federal Express and that, coupled with driving its own trucks directly to the U.S. Postal Service, gave the retailer the necessary leverage. Amazon’s Jeff Wilke called supply-chain manager Bruce Jones and said, “Bruce, turn them off.” Within hours, unnoticeable by Amazon customers, its business with UPS simply dried up. A couple days later, Amazon received a bulk discount at UPS and taught the company “an enduring lesson about the power of scale and the reality of Darwinian survival in the world of big business,” writes Mr. Stone.

The flip side of that, of course, is that Amazon created a new revenue stream for the book industry by refining its desultory tentative steps into electronic documents. E-readers existed before Amazon’s Kindle debuted in 2007, but they were oriented toward the publishers, clunky and expensive. Amazon upended the industry by continuing to think about the customer (purchase of a Kindle book is even simpler than buying a paper copy on the Amazon site), and now it has a two-thirds share of the e-book market, which is not quite one third of all books sold in the US, a percentage which is likely to grow.

Much of this commotion seems intuitive, but only in hindsight. The fact is that Jeff Bezos is continuing to play a chess game against his competition — which is not only other retailers but also other technology firms — by thinking many moves in advance. The placement of Fulfillment Centers (i.e., warehouses) across the country is customer-centric, but not just for what Amazon sells today. These vast units are not tucked in the middle of nowhere: they’re near large cities, which will help Bezos achieve same-day service and gain the ability to deliver perishable groceries to most of the nation. Those infamous Amazon drones that Jeff proudly showed to 60 MINUTES sound crazy right now. But once so did Kindle, free shipping with a paid subscription, streaming audio and video as part of that same package, renting out server capacity, and a long, long list of other realities Jeff has basically willed into being. The notion of Amazon itself was judged to be nuts many, many times by graybeards who are still eating their words.

Mr. Stone concludes his book with a charming, lyrical bit of reporting. He tracked down and befriended Jeff’s biological father, 69-year-old Ted Jorgensen, who is the well-liked proprietor of the Roadrunner Bike Center in Glendale, Arizona. Mr. Stone explained who Jeff grew up to be, and Jorgensen’s eyes “filled with emotion and disbelief.” He sent letters via mail and e-mail to Jeff and his mother, and after a few months, the founder replied graciously and kindly. “He wrote,” reports Mr. Stone, “that he empathized with the impossibly difficult choices that his teenage parents were forced to make…he said that he harbors no ill will…and then he wished his long-lost biological father the very best.” There simply wasn’t room in Bezos’s makeup to waste time sifting through the past. It takes all his formidable skill to try his best to keep up with the future.


A Toy That’s Just My Type

November 16, 2014

th-3“Doris, take a letter!”

Have you ever heard anything like that? Dialogue in an old movie doesn’t count: I mean with your own ears in real life. The chances are greater if you’re older, greater still if you’re a woman. (And you may substitute any name, male or female, you wiseacre.) I’ll bet most of you haven’t, though it was once as unremarkable a phrase as the also-obsolete “this is where we came in.” (See footnote*)

“Take a letter” is the sound of a executive asking his (usually his) secretary (not “assistant,” secretary or steno, or, pace Kurt Vonnegut, one of the “Girl Pool”) to listen to him dictate a business letter, take down every word in shorthand on her (usually her) note pad, then go back to her desk and type it up for his signature. It is the way business was done for decades, and it was done this way because the executive hadn’t the faintest idea how to operate a typewriter.

We’re all made aware daily of the tremendous technological changes brought about by the ubiquity of digital devices over a fast (until you compare America’s infrastructure to the rest of the computing world’s, that is) broadband connection. But an even more vital cultural shift was in play long before the Internet revolutionized communications. In order to use a computer, you have to be able to type. So these days, everybody has learned. There isn’t just a computer on every desk. There’s also a keyboard.

There may remain a few emeritus execs who are senior enough to remember the steno pool, but today they are as rare as the three-martini lunches they once enjoyed. When these gents were growing up, typing was literally for girls. High schools offered classes, but they were as overwhelmingly female as “home economics”; the boys were in shop class. (The forward-thinking few who counterintuitively reasoned that typing class was therefore a great way to meet chicks tended to do well later in life, but they were still the few.) Young women dominated because typing class was seen as preparation for a job as a secretary, of which there were millions. Certain men made their living as typists, but as the operators of linotype machines.

Typewriters transformed the act of writing and dominated it for more than a century after their invention in the 1860s: now all output was eminently legible, no matter how ragged the author’s cursive scratching. But operating a typewriter is a skill, taught and learned — and without this skill the keyboard is useless.

Pretty damn close to my first one.

Pretty damn close to my first one.

Most writers I know who are anywhere near my age were fascinated by the limitless potential lurking inside their first typewriters. It’s the same feeling rockers describe upon beholding their new guitars. My first axe was a portable Smith-Corona whose hard carrying case latched over the top. Without the upper snap-on, it was light enough to rest on my lap in a chair or on the bed. It was the most amazing thing my fifth-grade eyes had ever seen. I couldn’t imagine a word this machine couldn’t reproduce so beautifully that anybody could read it! Hallelujah!

There was only one problem:

I didn’t know how to type.

The fullness of time has instructed me that I probably should have found somebody to teach me proper touch typing (those classes were in high school, still a few years off), just like I should have had somebody explain correct left-handed guitar stringing before I taught myself chords from right-handed sheet-music pages. Once their fingers are properly seated (that’s why there’s a tiny raised ridge on the F and J keys below your very fingers today), touch typists can type their asses off without referring to the keyboard, the same visual disdain employed by great musicians. That skill really helps, trust me. But, swimming upstream like the sturdy salmon (I flunked metaphor class), I got by, enough to casually entertain on the one hand and earn a living on the other.

I learned how to type by, well, typing. When I tell you that I began by copying some of my favorite Poe, Bradbury and Asimov stories single-spaced onto yellow legal-pad sheets (Shakespeare was just too quirky and difficult), you might at first think me extreme. But you would then be surprised (as was I) by the handful of professional authors who have told me they also did such copying as kids. There must be something universal about watching the wonderful words flow through your fingers and land on the page. If you’re attuned to the feeling, it fuels the fantasy that you could make them up yourself one day. Nuts? No more than communing with a record by playing air guitar. The simple mechanical process of retyping something you love engenders a real kinship with the author — even with Poe, who never saw a typewriter in his life.

There are actually still tons of writers whose prose arises outside the QWERTY board. Rod Serling, my all-time favorite crafter of dialogue, spoke his scripts into a Dictaphone for “Doris” or whomever to type up. My ole pal Kevin J. Anderson dictates first drafts to this day into a recorder while he’s exercising his body on hikes, the best self-administered healthcare program for an author that I’ve ever encountered. (When Kevin was just starting out, he used to economize by staying with us when he came to New York, and I can tell you, this guy worked well into the ((Eastern time)) night, and he did it on a keyboard. But by this point in a given project he was refining, not creating.) Tom Robbins writes his first drafts in longhand on a legal pad. So did Don Coldsmith, and that’s also how Jerry Seinfeld composes his bits. Harlan Ellison owns a sick number of replacement parts because he never wants to quit using a typewriter in favor of what I and nearbout everybody else is using right now: a word processor.

Point being this: if you have the basic talent, you can approach this writing bidness anyhow you frickin want, bucko. I’m not imputing any particular mojo onto a mechanical keyboard, but I do definitely declare that when toddlers can type in a Sesame Street way, that means the skill devolves to everybody lucky enough to attend a school where teachers actually motivate their students. Typing these days equals basic communication, even through rapid thumb-fire texting. If you can’t type, you can’t talk. Self-publishing on Amazon is simply the logical end result. When you see infants in strollers happily tapping their colorful tablets, you’re forgiven for getting that little frisson at the back of your neck: what happens when these kids learn how to type? I don’t know, mate, and neither do you.

* For most of the glory days of Hollywood, right up to the Seventies and the era of the blockbuster, most feature films played continuously and you could enter and leave the theater whenever you wanted, even in the middle of a movie. You would then see the part you missed during the next performance, until you recognized the part “where we came in.” Alfred Hitchcock famously upended this practice for the original 1960 run of PSYCHO, forbidding theater owners from letting anyone in once the picture had started. Disgruntled patrons were forced to wait in line out front, giving the impression that PSYCHO was a lines-around-the-block hit — and then the hype legitimately came true.

How Are You Julian?

October 22, 2014

Alex-Podulke-as-Julian-Barbara-Kingsley-as-Claire-in-Uncanny-Valley-by-Thomas-Gibbons-photo-by-Seth-Freeman.UNCANNY VALLEY is a provocative piece of social science fiction in the form of a play. In a just world, this is the sort of thing that would be winning the Hugo Award (science fiction’s Oscar) for Best Dramatic Presentation instead of the latest fan favorite from tv or the multiplex. Despite its out-of-genre antecedent, it certainly deserves to be considered alongside other serious works in the field. After all, the very term “robot” is derived from a play: Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.

This play, by Thomas Gibbons, tackles serious moral and ethical questions about robotics and artificial intelligence, based on one Big Lie, the “What If?” proposition that underlies nearly all worthwhile sf. In other words, let’s pretend just for now that a particular bit of technological advancement is not only possible, but already achieved in the “not distant future” of the piece’s setting. What might happen then?

There are two actors. Only one of them plays a human being. She is a neuroscientist named Claire whose team created a state-of-the-art automaton known as Julian. The two of them converse in her office, and in the process we watch Julian progress from childhood to…but that would be telling.

The night I saw it, Claire was played to perfection by Barbara Kingsley, whose resume is long and distinguished. In the role of Julian was the amazing Alex Podulke, a name new to me, one of those actors who can utterly control his facial features, even refrain from blinking when necessary; he has also perfected that rigid head-turn and slight overshoot-and-correction that suggest his movements are being powered by servomotors. (Street mimes can do that too, but usually it’s all the act they have.) Thus can a talented and committed flesh-and-blood actor regress into the “Uncanny Valley.”

The term was coined in 1970 by Prof. Masahiro Mori, who hypothesized that we can easily feel empathy for stylized characters (like those in cartoons), but as a representation comes closer to actual human appearance and behavior, we approach an area that inspires revulsion, or at least creepy wariness, a phenomenon that climbs back into empathy once again as we move closer still. That empathetic dip is the Uncanny Valley. To experience this phenomenon and perhaps nod to Prof. Mori’s insight, I invite you to consider Tom Hanks’s animated avatar in THE POLAR EXPRESS, or any of the characters in the 2001 film FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN. There are many reasons that 2011’s MARS NEEDS MOMS was a colossal failure (lousy script, an ill-advised moms-in-peril story, etc.), but prominent among them, in my view, was that audience members were forced to stare into the Uncanny Valley for an hour and a half. Or, to save you some trouble, just look at this “actroid” from Japan, where very sophisticated work in robotic simulation continues, and imagine “her” moving and speaking.

th-1We discover Julian as a disembodied head on a stand, crammed with raw information but lacking any emotional intelligence, which he learns from his mentor. He gains body parts in a series of time-lapse blackouts as the unseen engineers gradually construct him: first a torso, then right arm, then left arm, and finally legs that allow him to walk around and explore. This represents his early education at Claire’s hands, and when we first see Mr. Podulke, he is damn near drawing the Uncanny Valley all by himself. He and his mentor even talk about it. (This play swats away the storied Turing Test — can a machine fool a person into thinking it’s human? — within five minutes. Kid stuff. Our ethical journey is already far more nuanced than that.)

The blinking comes first, perhaps so the audience can be gently brought up to speed regarding the Uncanny Valley. Claire explains that humans blink an average of five times a minute. But Julian’s blinking — of course, he has no physiological reason, unlike we dry-eyed people — is programmed for random intervals rather than once every twelve seconds, to help him avoid acting like a machine. One of Julian’s first questions when he sees his face in a mirror is, “Why are my eyes blue?” It sounds charming and naive, but it is actually an important plot point and will in fact be answered later. The servo-like movements are most pronounced when we first meet Julian and gradually dissipate as he gains appendages and social experience. I won’t go any farther except to tell you there is another dimension to Mr. Podulke’s performance, and that’s when the proceedings really transcend. The intricacies of Mr. Gibbons’s story give each character plenty of room to roam, and enough conflict to let both actors summon every note on the histrionic scale.

The trite greeting “How are you, Julian?” actually becomes profound when one removes the comma, and that tiny snip is the very crux of this smart, thought-provoking play. I don’t seriously think you’ll be able to catch it before it ends its New York run this coming Sunday, but I bring it up because its producer, the Contemporary American Theater Festival, is billing it as “A National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere.” I take “rolling” to mean that there may well be an engagement near you; check their website. If it gets close, buy a ticket, and let me hear from you. Me, I loved it.

P.S.: Don’t confuse this with a similarly titled play. I haven’t seen that one, so can’t comment.


This Single Is A Homer

June 13, 2014

76 coverWhen did everything change? Because everything sure has. High rollers pay to go backstage at rock concerts, which are themselves underwritten by huge corporations, and Dylan tunes are musical beds for commercials. A stint on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, as writer or actor, is a golden ticket to a career in sitcoms or the movies. Pop and hip-hop musicians are regular White House guests, and it’s the rare politician indeed that doesn’t have some classic rock stuffed into his iPod, itself created by a company founded by a couple of hippies in a garage, not all that long ago.

David Browne makes a compelling case for 1976 as the cultural hinge point in a swell new Kindle Single, THE SPIRIT OF ’76. (A Kindle Single is an electronic piece too short to be a book but too long to be a magazine article; the writing is of professional quality, curated by editors at Amazon.com and sold through the Kindle e-book platform, which means you don’t have to own an actual Kindle to read it: just download the Kindle software on any Internet-connected device you have.) Full disclosure: I’m a longtime Browne fan, dating back to when he was the chief music critic for Entertainment Weekly. I also edited his first book, DREAM BROTHER, a fascinating history of the parallel careers of Tim Buckley and his son Jeff which, among many other pleasures, demonstrates that musical talent may actually be genetic. He’s still knocking them out today as a contributing editor at Rolling Stone.

While we were celebrating our country’s bicentennial, Mr. Browne reports, the counterculture was becoming mainstream in so many ways; the tremors were rattling dishes everywhere. The new SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, a rock-world reaction against corny tv variety shows like Carol Burnett’s, won the first four of its Emmys. The two Steves, Jobs and Wozniak, were bringing the same sensibility to the decidedly non-hip world of computing. The Ramones arrived to carpet-bomb the artificial barriers between givers and receivers of music. A struggling, hangdog-looking actor created a movie sensation glorifying blue-collar determination and come-from-behind perseverance. A Southern-drawling peanut farmer who loved the Allman Brothers was a serious contender to dethrone the sitting president of the United States. They were all part of a wave of excitement and optimism that didn’t last long, but smashed its way through pop culture all at once. “It was the perfect year for new things to be born and develop,” says Tommy Ramone.

THE SPIRIT OF ’76 looks closely at all these events and more through that prism. It’s as breezy and authoritative as Mr. Browne’s astonishing book-length FIRE AND RAIN, which connects four important pop acts and albums from 1970 in such gorgeous detail that no matter how many times you’ve worn out these records, you will learn something new about CSN&Y, James Taylor, Simon & Garfunkel and the Beatles. (How does somebody so young find out all this stuff? It’s called journalism.) Mr. Browne’s work is so entertaining and likable because he seems to be speaking for the reader. He doesn’t live in a snobby critic’s ivory tower; he’s a fan just like you and me (albeit more industrious and learned). Pick up this Single and you’ll find yourself not only glad there was a 1976, but also sad that its vaulting spirit dissipated into venality and cynicism.


Retro Techno

March 15, 2014

missionWant to have some real fun? Do what I just did and rent MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, the first entry in Paramount’s popular and lucrative Tom Cruise movie franchise. You may remember it as a fairly smart action-adventure, but watch it today and it’ll be revealed as a time machine from another age.

M:I was released in 1996, believe it or not, a full eighteen years ago. I may well have some readers who hadn’t even been born back then. But what’ll strike you even more is how much technology has changed in barely a generation – both in the movies and in real life.

JURASSIC PARK had introduced “realistic” CGI effects in 1993, just three years before, so the spectrum of what we could see on the screen hadn’t yet been all that widely explored. As with its tv precedessor, the movie-version “Impossible Missions” force had access to all the latest tech playthings; that’s how they could sneak into high-security places, build elaborate sets to fool the chumps, etc. The visual effects supervisor on the film was John Knoll, a honcho at Industrial Light & Magic, which represented the state of the vfx art at the time. This was up-to-the-minute stuff, and that’s how we all accepted it in 1996.

But watch it today, 18 years later, and you have to stifle some unintended laughs. STOP READING HERE IF YOU HAVEN’T EVER SEEN THE MOVIE. I’LL TELL YOU WHEN IT’S SAFE AGAIN. Basically, our familiar tv boss, Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) sets up a big IM sting which is colossally botched, he’s shot to death, and the IM brass in Washington “disavows” our hero, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). So he has to set up a rogue IM force of other “disavoweds” to win back his reputation, retrieve the MacGuffin (a computer disk that matches our spies’ code names to real names), and discover the real mole who screwed the pooch and killed his mentor. YOU CAN COME BACK, IT’S OK NOW. So Tom Cruise calls forth the world’s best rogue safecracker and its best rogue computer genius (delightfully played by the hulking Ving Rhames). The first thing they’re gonna have to do is break into the CIA’s Langley headquarters, which has as many security checkpoints as does that RAIDERS idol. So Ving goes searchin, and he types

SEARCH LISTSERV

And a bunch of alt.this&thats show up on his screen. (Cruise does the same thing later when he’s trying to puzzle out a message in a Gideon bible.)

Now Ving has already bragged about this top-secret chip he’s glommed, a “686” – remember, this was the age when Intel 80486 processors were the bee’s knees in the non-Apple community, which was nearly everybody – so we’d already begun noticing the disconnect in the previous reel (it would have been so easy to call it a “P6,” as the Pentium Pro developers referred to their new architecture; nobody, least of all a supposed techie, called it a “686,” but so many contemporary viewers knew what a “486” was that it just sounded better). Before long, Ving also has to send a jamming signal by typing, in real big letters so we can read it:

SEND JAMMING SIGNAL

The techies bitch about how their modems can’t connect…it goes on and on. We 21st century viewers realize that any earnest portrayal of the state of the art has to slip through our fingers, because the art’s sophistication is progressing faster than one can even develop the celluloid (another doomed technology).

Another advantage of a second viewing is that this time you will probably be able to follow the convoluted plot. There is a beautiful scene that went over my head in ’96 because I was devoted to soaking up information, and this took a bit of a twist. It’s a SENDING SPOILER JAMMING SIGNAL meeting between a surprisingly rejuvenated Jim and Ethan in a café. By now, Ethan’s figured out that Jim is the mole, and we see events explained away in Voight’s voice but interpreted by Ethan’s imagination – once he even gets it wrong but quickly reverts to what must be the truth (but we find out later he’s wrong about that; see the potential for confusion?). He even asks, “Why, Jim, why?” But Jim is busy pinning it all on somebody else. Heady stuff: thanx, Robert Towne. JAMMING SIGNAL ABORTED

The M:I crew is probably shooting right now, because #5 has already staked out a summer 2015 date. Each of the four we’ve already seen is a real popcorn-chompin thrill ride, heavy on physical, in-camera stunts, and it’s amazing how the franchise manges to retain its integrity even as it invites director after director to have a whirl. (Who are the returning greybeards? Cruise himself, his former partner Paula Wagner, and now J. J. Abrams.) John Woo did a great #2 and managed to squeeze in his signature fluttering doves and two-gun-firing-horizontal-dive. Then Abrams, then Brad Bird, and #5 will be by Christopher McQuarrie. I’ll be there with popcorn in hand, but fully aware that the flick will be setting down some technological markers that may look just as naive in twenty more years. Meanwhile, do you remember who directed #1? If you don’t, betcha can’t guess. It was an auteur who really put his mark on the film, as have all his successors. But he was the first one to latch onto the match. Brian De Palma, baby.


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