Friday, February 25, 2011

Film Friday: Waiting for Superman (2010)

Directed by Davis Guggenheim (Inconvenient Truth), Waiting for Superman is a documentary about the failure of education in America. I’m a fan of documentaries, but this is not a good documentary. It's neither entertaining, nor does it provide useful information, and the only emotion it elicited was a strong desire to strangle the director. If you’re a conservative, forget this turkey.

Documentaries are best judged on two separate standards: (1) is it entertaining, and (2) does it provide valuable information. By “value,” I mean is it time well spent, not is the information consequential. Thus, for example, I’ve seen documentaries on fishing in New York City, suicides on Golden Gate Bridge, and humor in East Germany, each of which was well worth the time, despite the obscure subject matter. Waiting fails both tests.
1. Waiting Is Not An Entertaining Film
Waiting suffers from major defects that make it painful to watch. For one thing, it’s deathly dull. Guggenheim’s pacing is awful. His scenes are too long, and he wastes too much time on scenes which offer nothing, like watching a child brush his teeth. Better documentaries fill these moments with narrative, Guggenheim doesn’t. But that’s not to say Guggenheim doesn’t include narrative, to the contrary, he includes too much. Indeed, he only lets his subjects speak in soundbites, and he fills in the blanks himself. This shows a lack of trust in his subjects. What’s worse, when he narrates, he tries to sound concerned by injecting two second pauses at every. . . single. . . comma. . . or. . . period. This is beyond annoying.

Moreover, he waits almost twenty minutes before introducing the first substantive interview, and he spreads his interview soundbites throughout the film. Because of this, you wait forever to get anything interesting out the film, and it never comes together except in the broadest of strokes. Combined with Guggenheim’s heavy-handed false sentimentalism, Waiting leaves you feeling manipulated. It feels dishonest.
2. Waiting Does Not Provide Valuable Information
A good documentary also must provide valuable information. Waiting fails this test miserably. Waiting presents only small amounts of information, yet it reaches broad conclusions based on these snippets. There are 2,000 failing schools. But what percentage is that? We don’t know, yet Waiting presents this as sufficient to condemn the whole system. Why are these schools failing? We don’t know, yet Waiting blames bad teachers. What percentage of teachers are incompetent? Why are they bad? How do other countries or private schools fix this? We don’t know. And so on. In each instance, Guggenheim tosses out an isolated number, paints a broad brush criticism, shows a school where his criticism does not apply, and then concludes with “see, it can be done.” Yet he never addresses the fundamental questions of “why?” and “how?”

Guggenheim also skips the really significant questions. For example, he tells us only one in some unidentified number of public schools does an excellent job (he never defines what this means). By comparison, 20% of charter schools fall into his mystery excellent category. Thus, he concludes, charter schools are the answer. But he never tells us why charter schools are better, nor does he explain why the 20% do better than the 80%. That’s the real question, i.e. what’s working? He also points out that even our top students do poorly against the rest of the world, but he never asks why, and he criticizes current teaching methods, but never identifies them or gives us alternatives.

Also, his liberalism blinds him. Most of the problems he finds are the direct result of liberal policies, but he never connects the dots, and thus, he suggests more of the same. For example, he observes that American kids vastly overstate their abilities, but he never connects this with the relentless liberal push for teaching “self esteem,” and then he whines that teachers don’t make kids feel good about themselves. He also tells us the connection between money and education quality has been disproven, but then he presents a group of reformers who want to spend more money on teachers. Even worse, he annoyingly acts like he’s the first person to discover common sense. Did you know when teachers demand more from kids, the kids step up to the challenge? Or that money does not equate to success? Of course you didn’t, NO ONE KNEW THIS until now. . . forget that conservatives were saying these things for decades.

Further, because he refuses to connect liberal policies and the failure of education, he seeks out villains to explain what went wrong, but his villains are strawmen. The first villain is the passive voice villain, i.e. THEY. THEY set up a system that prevents good teachers from reaching kids. THEY set up a system that makes it impossible to fire bad teachers. THEY set up a system that lowers kids’ motivation and expectations. Who are THEY? THEY are the people who set up the system in the 1950s. This is a cop-out. The problem is the people who prevent reform. Blaming the long dead creators of the system or the system itself is a red herring, and shows a lack of seriousness.

The second villain is teachers unions. This is what got Waiting a lot of attention because it’s stunning to see a liberal attack a union. But his criticisms are shallow, and again he’s only discovering common sense. Unions stand in the way of reform. Gee, really? They make it impossible to fire bad teachers. You don’t say? And. . . well, that’s it. At no point does he outline the real problems with unions, nor does he discuss the things they’ve done to stand in the way of reform. He doesn’t even use their most damning quotes against them: “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I'll start representing the interests of school children.” (Albert Shanker, President, United Federation of Teachers). Instead, the unions are presented as inadvertently hurting schools because their desire to protect teachers is something a few bad teachers exploit. But ask yourself, can a handful of bad teachers really harm 100% of the students. It’s pretty obvious there is a bigger problem here than his couple of bad apples theory.

Also, in defense of the unions and the public schools (**shudder**), he actually misleads the audience regarding the reason charter schools may do better than public schools. Public school defenders contend that charter schools get to pick their students, and thus have an advantage. Guggenheim attacks this claim repeatedly by pointing out how the selection process for some charter schools is random. But he fails to mention that it’s only random among the parents who cared enough to seek out the best schools for their kids. He then doubles down on this by selecting only black and Hispanic children (with one exception) whose parents are conscientious and deeply value education, and then presenting these as a random sample of poor families. When he shows these kids succeeding, he then savages the strawmen villain, “THOSE who said these children could not be taught.”

But this is a farce. If you want to see a truly representative example of the real problems faced by schools in poor minority neighborhoods, I highly recommend the documentary Hard Times at Douglass High: A No Child Left Behind Report Card. Hard Times takes a look at an historic black high school in Baltimore, and what it finds is absolutely horrific: 50% of the class not returning for the sophomore year, only 12 of 500 kids making it to their senior year, nearly 100% illiteracy, parents who don’t care and try to hide from the principal, parent-teacher conferences with no parents, etc. This is a much better documentary that shows what the real problems are, not the sanitized version in Waiting. If Waiting wants to provide any value in this discussion, it needs to get its hands dirty.

Finally, there’s an unspoken liberal boogeyman present throughout the film. Although Guggenheim never says the word “racism,” he constantly implies that racists are the problem. Take a look at his main point that kids are failing because “THOSE who said these kids couldn’t learn” have decided to abandon them. He explicitly identifies these kids as minority kids in inner city neighborhoods -- he completely ignores poor white kids; in fact, the only white kid he mentions lives in Redwood City, California in a multimillion dollar home. The implication is obvious; racists have undermined minority education. This is reinforced in several ways, e.g. all of the bad teachers Guggenheim shows are white, and in each case they are ignoring or abusing minority kids, and each of the reformers he follows is a minority. This is no accident.

Liberals have created a real mess in education, an area they have controlled exclusively for 50 years. It is much more comforting for liberals to think the reason education is such a disaster is a handful of bad teachers who misuse union rules and white racists than it is to admit their policies destroyed generations of black kids.
This is why Waiting fails. It’s a dull and annoying film that is ultimately designed to comfort liberals and excuse their failures; it’s not a film designed to expose or enlighten. In fact, if you pay attention early on, you get a clue to its true purpose when Guggenheim confesses his discomfort at abandoning his principles and sending his own kids to private school. This film is his attempt to justify that decision to himself, without admitting that his liberalism is wrong.

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Rules for Writing Fiction

Last week, I mentioned that I’ve been writing a couple books. In that discussion, I said that part of what inspired me to write was to see if I could do it while following a set of rules to avoid what I considered cheating by other authors. A couple people asked to see these rules, so here they are.

The first set is designed to avoid the things I consider “cheating”:
(i) No changing the reader’s “access” by letting the reader see everything the main character is thinking and then withdrawing that access at critical moments to generate tension or deceive the reader. It’s either all or nothing. I chose “nothing” because tension comes from uncertainty, i.e. not knowing what people are really thinking or how they will ultimately act.

(ii) No deus ex machina moments and no coincidences to move the plot. If a character tosses a jacket into a dumpster, that jacket does not somehow get to the cops five states away for use at trial for a crime no one even knows about yet.

(iii) Cause and effect. There can be no effect without a cause, and no cause without an effect. Every effect must be a logical consequence of the cause AND every cause must suffer its logical effects.

(iv) Characters must act consistently with their own values, beliefs and interests. They cannot act out of character to move the plot, and they cannot act in ways humans won’t. Also, characters have a full range of motivations, e.g. their own happiness, morality, job requirements, pride, greedy, guilt, etc.; nobody acts according to one motivation only. Characters also evolve over time as the consequences of their actions come home to them.

(v) Use real trial procedures, not Hollywood trial procedures. No breakdowns on the stand, no last minute surprise discoveries or hidden witnesses, no fake trials that last weeks and take breaks after critical witnesses to give the characters a chance to investigate their testimony, and no “this is highly unusual, but I’ll allow it” rulings.

(vi) No supermen. Nobody is all knowing or all powerful, and nobody can read minds. Average people don’t kill in cold blood, can’t climb buildings, and can’t bend people to their will Jedi-style.

(vii) Everything important needs to be foreshadowed at least twice.

(viii) NO Star Trek TNG Deanna Troi moments: “I sense he has the following personality....” Character traits are revealed through the character’s actions, not by stating them.
Beyond the “no cheating” rules, I also set some stylistic rules that may interest you:
(ix) No filler. No wasted words, no irrelevant discussions, and no scenes that don’t develop the plot or an important character traits.

(x) The reader should be able to understand each scene from the dialog alone, i.e. what the characters are doing and thinking, and where they are.

(xi) Avoid long blocks of text, and avoid information dumps. Specifically avoid describing characters by giving blocks of physical description. Whenever possible, describe characters through something they are doing and/or in relative terms rather than absolute terms, e.g. “Unlike George, Bill was too short to reach the light bulb.”

(xii) Every character needs to be real enough that people think they know what the character is probably doing when they aren’t on the page, and that the reader can tell if they are acting out of character.

(xiii) Each characters needs their own dialog style, word choice, and beliefs.

(xiv) I also got the truly excellent advice of dropping as many adverbs (quickly, angrily, etc.) as possible, as they are meaningless.
Finally, there were three things I wanted to do within the story.
(1) First, I wanted real-realism, not Hollywood realism, particularly with regard to the choices the characters face and how courts work. I really wanted people to get a sense of how it felt to go through a trial, and what it would be like dealing with people you can’t trust. Interestingly, I found this made the plot move in interesting ways and it let me exploit clichés by twisting expectations. It also made the characters more real -- several of my readers even reported strong reactions to different characters I hadn’t expected.

(2) Secondly, I wanted to infuse a lot of philosophy, but to do it in subtle ways throughout the story so the casual reader wouldn’t notice.

(3) Finally, I wanted to leave the characters’ physical descriptions as minimal as possible (without appearing to do so), so readers could insert their own preconceptions. Nothing kills a story quicker for me than having a character described in ways that don’t fit how I expect them to look: “What do you mean the President looks like that guy from ZZ Top?”
So what would you add to the list (or subtract)? Thoughts?

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Friday, February 18, 2011

Film Friday: Galaxy Quest (1999)

Galaxy Quest is not the greatest movie of all time. Nor is it the greatest comedy of all time. But it is a very enjoyable movie, and it’s a great parody. Why? Because Galaxy Quest follows two golden rules for making an effective, memorable, and long-lasting parody: the film stands on its own merits without relying on the material it’s parodying, and it respects its subject matter.

** spoiler alert **
The Plot
Galaxy Quest’s plot is rather ingenious. A group of aliens (the Thermians) from a world where untruths of any kind (including fiction) are nonexistent, come to Earth to get the help of a group of actors. The Thermians think the actors are space heroes because they’ve been receiving old broadcasts of a science fiction show starring the actors, and they don’t realize these shows are fake. . . a point brought home brilliantly when the Thermians express sympathy for the plight of Gilligan and the castaways. For their part, the actors are a washed up group of never-has-beens who now appear at science fiction conventions to make a living. They agree to go with the Thermians because they mistakenly think this is an acting gig. Once in space, they discover a spaceship that looks and functions just like the ship they “crewed” in the television series. Only, this time, the bad guys are real. What could go wrong?
Standing On Its Own Merits
The key to an effective parody is making sure the film stands on its own merits. This is because many people won’t be familiar enough with the original material to get the nuances of the parody, and because of watchability. If a movie doesn’t tell an effective story, then it’s not enjoyable. And parodies that offer nothing more than a collection of gags strung together with a plot that copies what they’re parodying (like Meet the Spartans) feel lazy and derivative and give the audience little to enjoy except the punchlines. It’s one step above doing the parody as a stand up routine.

Galaxy Quest stands on its own merits. Indeed, even if you never heard of Star Trek before seeing Galaxy Quest, you still could enjoy this film because it deals with themes with which we can relate. Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen) plays Commander Taggart. He’s self-absorbed and obnoxious, and he thinks his fake rank matters. Who hasn’t met this guy? Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman) plays Dr. Lazarus, the ship’s second in command. He’s saddled with a character who has a catchphrase everyone constantly wants him to repeat: “by Grabthar’s hammer. . . you shall be avenged.” He desperately wants to be remembered for something else, but that isn’t going to happen. Gwen DeMarco (Sigourney Weaver) plays Lt. Tawny Madison, whose role was blatant sex symbol. You’ve also got the child actor who grew old, though people expect him to still be a kid, and the guy who never really belonged but has been wedged into the group (“Guy” -- played by Sam Rockwell (Moon)). These characters give us a group of petty, jealous, former friends who are stuck together working science fiction conventions, where they meet fans they've come to despise. We can relate to these themes, even if we’ve never seen William Shatner or Leonard Nimoy or a single episode of Star Trek, because we’ve all shared their pain or known people like them. . . people who are trapped in the past.

Moreover, despite the constant references to Star Trek, nothing in the story requires you to know anything from the show to get the jokes. For example, you don’t need to know the Thermians are based on the episode “By Any Other Name” from the original Star Trek to laugh your rear off when the device that makes them appear human fails just as Fred Kwan (Tony Shalhoub) is making out with one of them, or that James Kirk always lost his shirt in fights to laugh when the actors roll their eyes when Taggert loses his shirt. These are funny moments in and of themselves and don’t require us to connect dots to the prior show. Also, as the story progresses, the actors put aside their squabbling and realize why they used to like and respect each other. Their cynicism vanishes and gets replaced with honor, self-sacrifice and love. These are classic themes of redemption that we all understand and which draw us in without needing any knowledge of the prior material.

Since the premise is strong, the acting is appropriate, the writing is funny, and the themes are things that make us happy and to which we can relate, and none of this requires any knowledge of the parodied material, Galaxy Quest wins us over on its own merit. Compare that with Meet the Spartans or Epic Movie where half the scenes require you to specifically remember the original material for the joke to work.
Good Natured and Respectful
The second thing Galaxy Quest does right is to remain good natured and respectful of its subject matter. This is important with parodies because parodies walk a fine line between fair and unfair humor. Humans have a strong sense of right and wrong when it comes to humor and they don’t think it’s funny to laugh at misfortune, cruelty, or traits that cannot be helped. Parody plays dangerously close to this line. And too often, parody devolves into snideness or ridicule and what starts as tweaking the original for its indulgences, morphs into condescension, nastiness, hypocrisy, and petty attacks.

When Star Trek went off the air the cast set about ripping each other apart for the next thirty years. There were nasty books, cast members who wouldn’t speak to each other, Nimoy declaring Spock dead, an allegation of rape against a producer, and a whole host of nastiness that absolutely tarnished the image of these people, people we wanted to see as a tight group of friends. This is the stuff of parody and Galaxy Quest couldn’t ignore it because it’s become part of Star Trek lore. But exploiting this nastiness would cause the audience to feel revulsion rather than humor. Likewise, if Galaxy Quest played into the nasty stereotype of Star Trek convention attendees, as fat creepy losers, then it would cause outrage rather than humor.

Galaxy Quest solved this dilemma brilliantly by remembering why fans love Star Trek: because it offers a hopeful vision of the future where we’ve overcome the very problems being parodied. Galaxy Quest used this vision to inform its story, (1) by redeeming the actors by having them overcome their animosities and salvaging their friendships, (2) by redeeming the show itself by using the same mistakes, bad special effects, and bad logic that we laugh at throughout the film to save the Thermians at the end of the film, and (3) by redeeming the nerds at the convention by having Justin Long, the one person who truly believed in the show, be the one person who could save the day (he also isn't the typical pathetic Hollywood nerd). In effect, after poking fun at the show’s indulgences, the film tells us these indulgences are ok after all, that we were right to like the show, and that nerds can be pretty cool people.

Galaxy Quest even carries this redemption theme into how we view the Thermians. When we are first confronted with the question of what would happen if a society with no concept of untruth or fiction ran into us, we laugh at their naïveté. This is the same thing The Invention of Lying did. But unlike Lying, which condescends until the final credits, Galaxy Quest eventually tells us there's something kind of nice about a world without lies -- a view the film reinforces when the squabbling cynical actors finally overcome their own flaws by becoming more open and truthful.
So what we have in Galaxy Quest is a movie which stands on its own merits rather than trying to ride the coattails of the original, and a movie which pokes fun at all the problems associated with Star Trek, but does so in a way that never feels unfair or cruel and which never insults you for being a fan. That’s a pretty good parody. Plus, it’s just a fun film.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Writing The Great American Novel(s)

I’ve been doing a little writing lately. Specifically, I’ve written a legal thriller, and I’m in the middle of a second. I’ve got one more to go, and then I plan to switch to science fiction for a while.

It seems that every American is working on their own novel. Indeed, it’s the rare person I’ve met who hasn’t got at least a basic idea of what they’d like to write, and interestingly, everyone has a different reason for wanting to write. Some have a story they want to tell. Some want to understand themselves. Some want to strike it rich as writers. Some just have the writing bug, or they love the idea of creating something.

I started writing the first novel because I wanted to see if I could do it. I’ve read a lot of books and seen a lot of films in the past, and several things kept bothering me. Too many authors cheated. They let their readers into a character’s mind right until they needed to generate tension, then they cut the reader off. Others created characters whose sole purpose was to push the hero through the plot. Ron Weasley falls into this category in Harry Potter; he acts according to the demands of the plot rather than according to his own interests and beliefs. Other authors routinely rely on deus ex machina or incredible coincidences to make their plots work. This bothered me.

But criticism is one thing and creation is another, so I drew up my complaints as a list of rules and I set out to see if I could write a book without violating these rules. Yep, I did that thing.

By now I’m writing because it’s addictive to create worlds and immerse characters into them, though I find I still need to set challenges for myself. Besides my list of rules, I challenged myself to include some pretty big philosophical points in the first book, but not so that casual readers would notice. The second book needs to give a realistic portrayal of how much attorneys work in the dark about the true motives and intents of their clients and of the other side, and how little they can be sure of about what really happened. Plus, I’m trying to build a genuine mystery where all the clues are constantly there, but the reader just won't assemble them until the end. Another challenge I’m looking forward too will be making one of the science fiction stories into a comedy, without it being a wacky comedy or slapstick (which I also find to be cheating).

The more I've written, the more I’ve discovered some interesting things. I found, for example, that my characters became independent, sometimes annoyingly so. As the stories progressed, they took on real personalities, and I found they wouldn’t always do what I wanted them to do. That meant new plot twists and actually kept me guessing how things would turn out. Indeed, strangely, I found my opinions about several characters changing. Some became more sympathetic, some less so. Some I even felt probably deserved their own books.

I also discovered that the more time I spent building these characters, the easier it became to see how other authors built theirs. Did they just toss them into the story to satisfy the plot (JK Rowling)? Were they designed to hit certain plot points (Stephen King)? Were they all the same character, presumably a projection of the author (Grisham)? Or were they real people with independence. At the same time, I started to hear film dialog a lot more clearly, and I realized I could almost see the dialog printed on the page. This showed me some of the real beauty in the writing in certain films, and the utter lack of it in others, and it gave me total disdain for formulaic pabulum.

So what I’m curious about today is how many of you have written something or want to write something, whether you finished it or not. What was it? What was it about? What did you learn or what did you find fascinating? And most importantly, why did you start? Do tell!

(Let’s put the issue of publishing aside for now, that’s a discussion for another day.)

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Friday, February 11, 2011

Film Friday: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Many people list 2001 as the greatest movie of all time. I don’t. I don’t think it’s a very good film. Yes, the effects are great and Kubrick’s use of music is excellent. But the plot is weak and Kubrick could have told the same story in a fraction of the time; that’s not good filmmaking. Moreover, the main selling point to 2001 is the film’s “philosophy,” but Kubrick cheated on the philosophy. Still, it raises issues that are fun to think about.

** spoiler alert **

I’m conflicted when it comes to Stanley Kubrick. I recognize his genius, but I find his films hard to like. His topics are unpleasant, his style is sterile, and his characters are lifeless. His films are like a painting that perfectly recreates a bowl of rotting fruit -- you may marvel at the technique and feel “enriched” for having seen it, but you don’t really want to see it again. 2001 fits this pattern perfectly.
Why 2001 isn't a great film.
My biggest problem with 2001 is the dull and simplistic plot. 2001 consists of four loosely related stories. The first twenty minutes are the story of mankind evolving in the shadow of a mysterious black obelisk to learn to use tools. Nothing happens here that couldn’t have been told in a minute and in more interesting ways. The second twenty minutes are the story of an NSA-type man called to a futuristic moonbase to examine the first evidence of alien life -- another black obelisk. Again, Kubrick stretches two minutes of information into twenty and the information given is less than fulfilling. Moreover, despite his efforts to give the main character depth by feeding us images of his kids and talk of happier times, the character is as sterile as the environment. He’s so sterile, we don’t even remember his name. The next thirty minutes are the most famous as a spaceship’s computer, the HAL 9000 (a one letter shift from IBM), goes insane and kills the crew. This is the part everyone remembers as it involves the only real plot in the film. But again, what Kubrick presents could have been shown in a fraction of the time and the only interesting character is the computer -- the others are robotic and lifeless. The last thirty minutes are a drug trip filled with symbolism as lacking in subtlety as kids looking through a dictionary for dirty words.

Indeed, I have a good deal of contempt for the ending. Kubrick tries very hard to make a “deep” film at that point, but he doesn’t really have anything to say. So instead, he throw a series of symbols at the audience in the hopes that you think there is more going on here than meets the eye. There isn’t. These symbols are obvious and they all relate to a single point: creation/procreation. They include barely disguised religious symbols, stylized images of sperms and eggs and symbolic orgasms, and even a large fetus floating in space. Then Kubrick gives the illusion of progression by adding the symbology of one of the astronauts aging and dying, before the floating fetus is born. While he’s hoping this makes you think something deep is being said, all he’s really saying is: God, sex, birth, youth, old age, death, rebirth. That’s not very deep or original. He might as well have said: bread, fridge, mustard, ham, eat, store. Both represent the cycle of life.

What I do like about 2001 though, and what makes this film so memorable, are the mysteries Kubrick presents. Now I admit up front that Kubrick is playing us for suckers in this regard because there is no solution to these mysteries -- and they are likely tautologies and thus cannot have solutions. But they are still fun to talk about. Let’s discuss.
Mystery No. 1: What are the black obelisks?
The big mystery in 2001 is the appearance of the black obelisks. The first appears at a time when man was still an ape-like creature. It appears one day and does something we cannot see (though we hear it ringing). Soon thereafter, one of the apes learns to use a bone as a tool. This is the beginning of the rise of man, discovering the ability to use tools. From this, we can infer the obelisks are pushing along man’s evolution. The final obelisk seems to reinforce this when it results in astronaut Dave discovering the nature of the universe and morphing into some space-baby.

But what about the second obelisk? Obelisk 2 is a bit of a problem, because no evolutionary change appears to accompany its arrival. In fact, the sole function of Obelisk 2 seems to be to point the way toward Obelisk 3. Yet, surely, if these obelisks are there to cause evolutionary changes, then Obelisk 2 could have done what Obelisk 3 does, so why force mankind to travel to Obelisk 3? Was Obelisk 2 just out of order. . . "this aisle closed. . . go to next obelisk"?

It’s possible Obelisk 2 was there to mark the evolutionary point where man becomes dependent on his tools. If you compare the sterile, but still human characters you meet on the moonbase against the inert and robotic humans onboard the Discovery One, there is a remarkable change: the position of human and machine are reversed. Indeed, on Discovery One, HAL does everything as the humans sit idly by. And when HAL goes insane, the humans struggle with the question of whether they have the ability to control Discovery One without HAL. By comparison, the humans on the moonbase still handle everything themselves. We even see the pilots steering the Pan-Am spaceplane. Maybe this is what Obelisk 2 was really doing, heralding the replacement of mankind by the tools man created?

If this is true, then all kinds of interesting questions arise. Who built the obelisks? In other words, who is controlling our evolution? And is evolution inevitable, i.e. is it being forced on us or is it only a choice, i.e. can we reject it? Dave and Frank fight back against HAL, but they don’t survive the movie. And if it is God causing evolution, then why use the obelisks? Surely a supreme being could cause these changes without using a mechanical device? Perhaps, God was replaced by his own tools and these obelisks are the tools that took over the universe? None of this is addressed in the film, but it's interesting to consider.

On a final note, our inability to explain Obelisk 2 really could be a sticking point in the “philosophy” of 2001. If Obelisk 2 doesn’t have a meaningful purpose, then how can we say what purpose any of the obelisks serve? Maybe their only purpose is to give the viewer a mystery? If so, that would be a tautology: they are a mystery because they were meant to be mysterious. If that is the case, and it could be, then Kubrick really is a jerk, and 2001 starts to become a pretty big fraud. Hmmm.
Mystery No. 2: Why does HAL kill the crew?
So why does HAL kill the crew? Several explanations have been advanced for HAL’s murderous behavior. The first (and the one accepted by the film 2010) is that HAL was confronted with a paradox. He was told to complete the mission, but he was also told to protect the crew. When he became convinced the crew had become a danger to the mission, he resolved this conflict by killing the crew. There are some problems with this theory however. For example, HAL’s solution seems pretty extreme for such a sophisticated machine. A better solution would have been to lock the crew up, which he could have done. At the very least, there was no reason to kill the sleeping crew members. Also, how can HAL complete the mission without the crew?

Now it’s possible HAL simply saw all humans as flawed and, therefore, a danger to the mission. We get a clue about this with HAL’s insistence that any mistakes made by the 9000 Series computers were the result of human error. . . you damn dirty apes! But even if that was the case, why doesn’t HAL just kill the crew by cutting off the air? Why does he try to cover up his murders by staging an accident? If his decision really was based on logic, i.e. he followed his programming, he should have executed the humans and then reported his successful saving of the mission, just as he would report other functions. His deceit tells us something else was going on. And you can't argue that HAL was just responding to the threat that Frank and Dave intended to shut him down because HAL was already being deceitful at that point. Clearly, his decision to kill them was premeditated.

The best explanation is HAL had attained some level of consciousness and for reasons unknown became homicidal. But why become homicidal? One could argue that because he was programmed to mimic mankind, he included our worst traits as well as our best. But you would think his propensity to homicide would have shown up in the nine years of testing before he was installed. . . "hey, where's my lab assistant?" A better explanation is that HAL suffered a mental breakdown when he learned about the obelisk. In fact, this point also makes sense in terms of explaining the role of Obelisk 2. HAL represents man’s mind before Obelisk 2 was discovered, as he was programmed in 1992 to mimic human behavior. He is incapable of dealing with the idea that man is not alone in the universe. Thus, when he learns of the obelisks, he goes crazy and decides to kill the crew to prevent them from discovering the truth -- a sort of “if we ignore it, then it’s not there” approach. By comparison, the crew, who were evolved by Obelisk 2, are now capable of dealing with their loss of place at the center of the universe. HAL cannot because he is a machine and did not evolve.

Of course, this is just speculation again, as Kubrick gives us nothing to solve this mystery. HAL’s own words make no sense because killing the crew would end his ability to perform the mission. Dave never speculates. And no other facts appear to help us solve this riddle. In fact, looking only at what Kubrick gives us produces another tautology: HAL kills the crew because he becomes homicidal.

In any event, this raises additional interesting questions. How comfortable are we putting our lives in the hands of machines? Can we ever truly program a machine to handle the sorts of paradoxes and dramatically unexpected facts which humans apparently can handle with ease? And do we in fact infuse our own creations with our own vices, i.e. (kind of like the Blade Runner question) could we make a computer that only acts according to our better instincts, and how would it react when it finally met us?
All in all, 2001 is a film you should see. It’s culturally relevant. It brought science fiction to the adult world and made it respectable. It ushered in the realism phase of science fiction -- its treatment of the silence and frictionlessness of space is truly impressive. It is an important film. Just don't expect to enjoy it.

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Friday, February 4, 2011

Film Friday: Groundhog Day (1993)

“What if there is no tomorrow?! There wasn’t one today!”

What would you do if you had unlimited time and there could be absolutely no consequences to your actions? That’s a question usually reserved for science fiction, but Harold Ramis uses it as the premise of Groundhog Day, a rather unique romantic comedy which has become one of the most memorable comedies ever made.

** heavy spoiler alert **
The Plot
Groundhog Day is the story of a single day in the life of cynical television meteorologist Phil Conners (Bill Murray -- Ghostbusters), which he lives over and over and over again. Murray, his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell -- Sex Lies And Videotape), and cameraman Larry, travel to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the annual Groundhog Day Festival, where Punxsutawney Phil predicts the weather. Due to a blizzard, they are forced to remain overnight. When Murray awakens the following morning, he discovers he’s reliving the prior day. How many times does he repeat the day? The film doesn't say, but apparently forty-two distinct days can be accounted for in the film. Ramis says 10 years actually pass and co-writer Danny Rubin claims 10,000 years pass -- though this seems unlikely given Murray’s continued sanity.

Whatever the number, when Murray realizes he can do anything he wants, because everything he does gets undone the following morning and because no one can remember what he did, he takes advantage of this situation to act on his worse impulses: he lies to seduce women, he steals money, he endangers lives and he gets thrown in jail. He even tries to seduce Rita, but fails. However, the novelty of the situation soon wears off and Murray becomes depressed at the repetition and meaninglessness of it all. At that point, he tries to kill himself, but even that won't let him escape the time loop. Eventually, he turns to self-improvement. This brings him happiness -- especially when he realizes he should use his new skills to help others around him. This in turn genuinely attracts Rita and finally frees him from the time loop.
What Makes Groundhog Day Work?
So what makes Groundhog Day so interesting? For starters, it expertly combines comedy, science fiction and romance. To achieve this, Groundhog Day follows the golden rule of providing an engaging story first and then deriving the comedy and romance from the story. In other words, Groundhog Day is not a collection of gags strung together by a loose plot, nor is the plot an excuse to get two idealized lovers together, it’s an actual story and the humor/romance arise naturally out of the story. This provides two benefits. It expands the appeal of the film beyond just those who share the film’s sense of humor or those who find the romance engaging, and it helps the film stand up to repeated viewing. Why? Because this type of storytelling creates a world which we enjoy visiting and characters we like being with, whether we care for the jokes or not. By comparison, a film based on gags or romantic highs only works if you like the gags/highs and it will get dull as the gags/highs get stale. This is like the difference between Gone With The Wind and a collection of vignettes showing the greatest moments of civil war films.

But more importantly, Groundhog Day gives us something to think about. At first glace, you probably think like Murray that this could be fun. Here is your chance to try everything you’ve ever wanted to try (and then some) with no consequences. Want to eat everything in a bakery? Try it. Run around town in your underwear? Take drugs? Kill your boss? No problem. In this world, you can act on every sinful, destructive or perverted instinct you’ve ever had without fear of the consequences (the movie does a good job giving us some suggestions). This sounds like fun and it surely sparks the audience’s imaginations. . . “what would I like to do that I could never do in the real world?”

Yet, we also know deep down this would hardly be a satisfying way to spend eternity. Our “sins” are attractive to us because we know they bring a momentary rush or temporary satisfaction. But that type of thrill is fleeting. Eating a thousand cookies might be fun bu. . . ok, bad example. . . killing your boss might be fun once or twice, but we know it won’t be fun the fourth or fifth or tenth time. We know what truly sustains us is what Murray eventually turns to: self-improvement. He reads, he learns languages, he learns to carve ice statues and play piano. This actually fits with one of the first thoughts attributed to the Ancient Greeks -- you cannot find happiness by searching for it, you can only find happiness by engaging in other activities which produce happiness as a byproduct. Murray's realization then goes deeper as he discovers that these skills are only meaningful if he uses them to help the people around him. Thus, the key to living happily is to become a better person. Only after Murray realizes this does he win his release.

Therein lies the lesson: we can obtain a momentary thrill by exploring our darker sides, but we can only achieve true happiness in life by making ourselves better and using our new skills to help those around us, even in a consequence free world like the one in which Murray lived.

Thus, this film gives us two things to consider. First, it offers us the chance to imagine what we would do if we could let our dark sides run free without consequence. . . here cookie, cookie! But then it also enlightens us as it proves to us that we should be striving to achieve our better sides. That’s a pretty powerful lesson. Indeed, I would argue this is a much more effective lesson than the one-sided treatment you often get in shows like The Twilight Zone, where we see bad people punished for their sins, but rarely see them redeemed.

I think this is what separates Groundhog Day from the pack, and why this film has drawn such rave reviews from several religious groups. Buddhists in particular rank this film among their favorites because of its themes of rebirth and renewal, and Christians have praised the film for its message of redemption and that true happiness requires us to care for others. Both, I'm sure, are also pleased that the film clearly implies a higher power gave Murray this opportunity.

So what mischief would top your list?

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