Category Archives: Film

Westworld, Now and Then

consciousnessWestworld, the popular 2016 TV series, is breathtaking in its multilayered presentation of reality and fiction. As the robots who serve as theme park “hosts” gradually gain glimpses of their own condition, they become self-aware. Identifying with these cyber-humans, each with their own engineered backstory and narrative loops, we realize that like them, we are locked within patterns of programmed behavior, interrupted by glimpses of the possibility of freedom.  

now-trip-blueAfter watching two episodes before sleep one night, I awoke the next morning like one of the hosts—“as from a dream”—wondering at my own knowledge of it now, and the capacity to create my own new narrative on the fly.

Commentary at the meta level of story creation interlaces the dialogue of the show, with frequent references to the narrative framing of the theme park’s creators (chiefly Anthony Hopkins, in a role surpassing Hannibal Lecter). As viewers we are encouraged by this ironic device to question our given reality, to see our place in our own repetitive plots and to imagine a wider world beyond our immediate lens.

As with Groundhog Day (or my paranormal adventure novella, Rendezvous at Jumbo Pass), the device of the time loop, or repeated scenes and action sequences, is critical to the growth of the characters’ dawning understanding of their condition, and to our identification with that gradual process of dawning self-awareness.

Westworld (1973)

poster-westworldThe TV series is modeled on the original premise of Westworld, a 1973 screenplay by Michael Crichton. Owing to a shoestring budget, the film’s scene construction is generic in the extreme. Chrichton himself, in notes from the making of Westworld, resigns himself to an array of token machinery merely suggesting scientific advance.

In this memo to his production design team, Michael Crichton explains the look he wants for the Westworld Robot Repair Room.

“I hesitate to state this so bluntly, but this movie is fantasy and in the end I don’t really care if the equipment surrounding each table is ‘appropriate’ or not, so long as the total effect is impressive and organized in some way.  There is a fine line between a thrown-together look, and an organized look.”

From the Robot Repair room we cut to Roman world, stock characters posing in stock sets, static and patently fake—which is perfectly appropriate, since the park itself is fake.

Later the two main characters, park guests, reflect on the simulation while sunning themselves in the desert:

“It’s as real as anything else.”

“Yup, I reckon.”

This brief nod to the central metaphor of Westworld is about as meta as it gets in the 1973 film, which otherwise plays to the one-dimensional nature of the old westerns whose tropes it incorporates, without depth in character, plot or theme.

The more overt theme concerns the darker side of the park (as in the later Crichton work, Jurassic Park). The consumeristic dream, marketed as “fail-safe,” turns to nightmare when the Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) turns rogue. Twenty minutes later, wide-eyed, he discovers fire; in the process becoming more reflective (i.e., more human) and thus, vulnerable.

The death of the Gunslinger at the end of the film illustrates the wide gap in cinematography and viewer attention spans in the forty-three years between productions. The action stops for over a full minute (unthinkable by today’s standards), switching between the smoking robot corpse on the floor, and Richard Benjamin’s florid expression of finality.

Futureworld (1976)

brainwaves2Like the first film, the sequel, Futureworld,  is so cardboard in its presentation, one is tempted to think the intent is ironic, fitting with the nature of the theme park’s simulated worlds. But where is the knowing wink, the stylish contrast, the flash of deeper meaning? In truth, in the absence of any visible framing, one is left to discard the effort as a tawdry genre flop.

As with the original Westworld, descriptors that come to mind include: generic, unimaginative, flat, stock, hackneyed, amateurish, laughable, shallow. Examples abound: the red plastic tape supposedly collecting biometric data on the faces of the clonees; the stultifying dialogue (“Um, yup”); the empty corridors; the computer banks with their flashing lights, whirling data disks, and rudimentary graphics (albeit state-of-the-art in that era).

When Chuck Browning (Peter Fonda) and Tracy Ballard (Blythe Danner) glimpse for the first time the clones of themselves and world leaders, Ballard emotes, “Oh my God. I don’t believe it.”

Browning then deems it necessary to explain the obvious: “They’re duplicates. They’re creating and programming duplicates of real people… politicians and commissars and generals. They’ve all been replaced by these things.” The earthshaking metaphorical implications of such a revelation notwithstanding, the presentation is delivered without nuance.

At the climax of the action, Ballard confronts her own duplicate in a showdown on the street of the deserted Westworld town: “What are you?”

“You.”

Postscript: PsyBot (2014)

coverAt first glance the chapters of virtual reality experienced by Joe Norton in the novel PsyBot (originally titled Future.Net, then Future.Con) appear like those of the Delos theme park, Futureworld.  The various modules generated by the PsyBot virus are analogous to the Delos theme offerings (Westworld, Romanworld, Medievalworld, Futureworld, and Spaworld)—with the key difference that programmer Joe Norton is unwitting victim instead of paying guest. Both presentations serve to cast ironic light on the glitzy promises offered by such escapist fantasies.

biometric_visaIn such a light the transparent artificiality of characters, setting, and plot within the virtual reality modules themselves is, to use Crichton’s term, “appropriate.” The viewer/reader is invited to understand the nature of the illusion and to apply such discrimination in one’s “real” life, so permeated as it is with confident claims of happiness deliverable for a price.

Tellingly, Michael Crichton the writer explains his preference for dealing with this kind of theme in film instead of in a novel, his usual forte:

The actual detailing of these three worlds—and also the kinds of fantasies that people experienced in them—were movie fantasies, and because they were movie fantasies, they got to be very strange-looking on the written page. (http://www.michaelcrichton.com/westworld/)

virtual-reality-220mainStrange indeed, then, are the scenes encountered by unwilling volunteer Joe Norton in PsyBot, as he navigates the alien Hookup Room, the Saragossa Space Station, the virtual planetoid Desertia, and the cartoonish nightmare known as Witch Bay. Patently unreal—except to the poor schmuck whose brain has been co-opted to experience them as all too real.


Further Reading…

Rendezvous at Jumbo Pass: A Twisted Tale of Wilderness Adventure9780981143132

PsyBot: A Novel of Virtual Reality

Mind Control: Fiction or Nonfiction

Before the Flood

Before the Flood, a Leonardo DiCaprio documentary about climate change, was shown as a fundraising event for the Standing Rock camp for land and water rights in North Dakota. The connection between the two issues is represented by the Dakota Access Pipeline. Together these issues point to a variety of all-important problems and paths to solutions. Here are some that come to mind after the viewing:

The role of corporate power, in driving both fossil fuels and the propaganda against climate change science.

The urgency of the time frame in which action is possible to prevent cataclysmic changes: ; devastating weather events like droughts, floods, hurricanes and forest fires; rising sea levels in coastal cities and farmlands, causing displacement and conflict over resources; dying of species, oceans and ecosystems, and human cultures that depend on them.

p1030876-800x600The need to engage in the issue where we are, at our point of contact with the fossil fuel industry system: wells and fracking sites, seismic lines, pipelines, ports.

The need to deconstruct the opposing arguments. The climate deniers suspect proponents of the carbon tax for a conflict of interest, through global financial governance, from the measures they propose to reduce climate change. On the other side, climate change activists can target the self-serving links between the media-scienced political hirelings of the deniers and funding by fossils like the Koch brothers. But it’s not a zero sum game… or a game at all. The problem comes down to trusting the globalists (like Obama) to solve climate change, when they are tied to the existing rule of the fossil fuel industry as part of the financial elite; and when they propose technocratic solutions like geoengineering, AKA chemtrails, as the preferred method of solving the problem so we can continue our overfueled lifestyles.

So if not global, then local. But the antiglobalist Trump is also a denier, and heavily invested, as it happens, in the Dakota Access pipeline. Meanwhile in Canada we have the neoliberal Trudeau likely approving the Kinder Morgan pipeline, Site C dam, and other catastrophes for the indigenous peoples of the region, the local ecosystems, and global warming.

standing-rock

So we talk to our neighbors, feel the pain of the problem and the struggle, which is not only the world’s pain but the toxic effects of all this denial, both collective and personal, in one’s own body, heart and soul. Because even if we are aware and educated, even if we are concerned and taking action, our lives our programmed and dependent, woven into the very fabric of this matrix of destruction and falsehood. We all wear this cloak of denial, in every visit to the gas pump, each bite of cheeseburger or palm-oiled potato chip, every footprint we make on this overtaxed earth. We destroy, we burn, we exterminate. So we must accept this pain too and learn to live with it, making amends where we can. Exposing the hard choices to shared scrutiny, and putting heads and hearts and hands together to try things a different way.

youthThis too is where alternative governance grows: in the one-to-one, local village style (as at the Standing Rock camp). Where people have evolved to survive over millennia, not just one empire at a time. Taking care of where we are, where we call home, and knowing it deeper than our pavement. Feeling the earth beneath our feet, and the connection to our brothers and sisters in this species and all elements of the sacred creation. Deny this and we are as nothing, going nowhere for no purpose, and erasing all in our path.

 a-ahupuaa-01

skidoo

Talking Story, Inuit-Style

Review of Angirattut (Coming Home) 

Angirattut is the new film by by Zacharias Kunuk, the director of the Cannes award-winning Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. In this film the timeframe is brought to the present—through the lens of a group of Inuit returning to the abandoned site of the camp they inhabited 50 years before. The film is remarkable in featuring neither English speech nor subtitles, but only the continuous, measured tones of Inuit speech in their language, Inuktitut. Nor does much action of any kind happen: mostly sitting around “talking story,” as Hawaiians would say. Each listening patiently to what the speaker has to say, in their turn. Their story, their tears, laughter and eyes seeing all.

Inuit village skiddo

This experience, engaging with it, requires and rewards with patience: the image of the young man tending a fragile fire at sunset, beside the stone slabs of the grave of an ancestor, looking out to sea. The old woman, her legs swollen with diabetes, carefully placing feet and cane, with the hand of another, on the ground of moss and stones as she walks to the boat that will take her away again.

A fellow moviegoer remarked that in my novel Hunter’s Daughter he was first exposed to that quality of the Inuit to listen so patiently, not interrupting, not in a hurry to do anything else or go anywhere, and in a while they can have a turn. So the stories are shared. Memories revived, decisions made. There is an implicit respect at work, and with that respect, the responsibility to address issues with direct and heartfelt speech.

It is gratifying to see this fundamental character of Inuit society portrayed so purely. While the film may seem, for many of us Hollywood-dazzled viewers, lacking in action and plot, it is slow with a purpose, one that dawns on us, also slowly. It tells us, in its own words: This is how it’s done. With respect, with laughter and tears, ears hearing and eyes seeing all.

Baltimore protests

Revolution Tales (four reviews)

Revolution, Hollywood Style: From the Brutal to the Banal

There are no magic answers, no miraculous methods to overcome the problems we face, just the familiar ones: honest search for understanding, education, organization, action that raises the cost of state violence for its perpetrators or that lays the basis for institutional change—and the kind of commitment that will persist despite the temptations of disillusionment, despite many failures and only limited successes, inspired by the hope of a brighter future. (Noam Chomsky)

Mockingjay, Part 2

mockingjayThere are profound and important lessons embedded in the plot of The Hunger Games trilogy, and Mockingjay, Part 2 is no exception, as it tackles that most controversial human action of last resort, revolution. Where it disappoints is in the pat personalization of the issues, which makes for popular drama but not a satisfying political analysis.

Most telling is the “false flag” attack on the children, pivotal in turning Katniss against the revolution’s President Coin, even as she wanted to kill the “evil” Panem President Snow. With one stroke a massive public exposure is given to three of the most insidious tactics of the real world’s ruling empire: 1) staging attacks on one’s own people and blaming it on a supposed enemy; 2) after drone attacks, sending bombs on a second wave to kill rescuers and mourners from the first wave; 3) using torture and brainwashing to produce and control assets (Peeta) as “Manchurian candidates.” At the end of it all, however, the revolution succeeds: both evil presidents are dead, we have a black woman commander taking the helm, and there is peace in the land, babies at the breast.

How shallow the portrayal of the collapsing fascist state: it has no substance, only a genial aging Donald Sutherland, hardly the picture of evil; a corps of robot “peacekeepers”; and a legion of sewer “mutts” like a gaggle of golems swarming at the good guys. Oh, and another illuminating moment of transparency, when the smiling and coiffed TV host, Caesar Flickerman, delivers obvious false propaganda to Panem’s citizens—“Mandatory Viewing.”

Here are my quibbles with the movie’s take on revolution:

  • It assumes an armed revolution, and victory. I find this scenario theoretically improbable and in fact merely sketched in the background of the film.
  • Following Katniss, it points the finger of blame at one man, President Snow. One problem is that the film thus asks us to ignore the real sources of power and evil controlling imperial governments, making puppets and pawns of heads of state. Another problem is that Snow is made to seem warm, reasonable, human, even likable, though he does indeed bear responsibility for brutal policies such as the Hunger Games. That problem might be considered a virtue, presenting a rounded character; but I think in the balance Snow—or maybe it’s just the casting of Sutherland—is unconvincing.

Revolutionary success, in this film, comes so easy. Yes, there is hardship and death along the way, a protracted struggle. But then… such a seamless transfer of power to the commander. All is well in the Districts. This is a fairy tale transformation of dystopia to utopia, with the latter only presented as a final postcard and no clues as to how it magically transpired. Or maybe that’s just… another story.

Lila, The Revolutionary, by William T. Hathaway

lilia, the revolutionaryThis engaging tale takes the theme of revolution from a socialist perspective and advances it behind the fresh and unconditioned ethos of a child, eight-year-old Lila. Compared to the broad strokes (at least in the film version) of Mockingjay 2, it fleshes out the resistance, and shows also oppression but without much lethal force. Violent clashes consist mostly of police and protestors “clubbing” one another as in a street brawl of the 1930s. Contrast the contemporary scenario where any response short of absolute submission is liable to be met with gunfire.

Baltimore protests

And how easily the guards, managers, and soldiers of the establishment turn against their superiors, when faced with the humane logic of Lila about natural justice. “You’re a worker just like us. The owners are keeping you down too. Join us,” Lila chirps, and they defy orders, walk away from jobs, and join the ranks of rebellion.

As a result of such conversions, barricades are overrun again and again. Even the mighty USA is brought to account, when Lila arrives from her unspecified foreign country and inspires a socialist election victory in the seat of empire. The trillions taken offshore before the fall? No matter. Real value, says Lila, comes not from such spurious funds, but from honest labor:

Not such a big problem.… We make new money. It’s the factories that make the money worth something. We own the factories, we own the money. Their money is nothing. We make the money and give it to the people. The world doesn’t use that old money anymore.… That money is dead.

As I write this, a news item appears on my feed, entitled “If You Want to Limit the Power of the Super-Wealthy, Stop Using their Money.”  Economist Charles Hugh Smith writes, “The only way to reverse rising inequality and break the power of the super-wealthy Financial Aristocracy is to stop using their central-bank issued national currencies. When the world ceases to use the Financial Aristocracy’s money, their power to accumulate more wealth at the expense of everyone else will disappear.”

totalitarian

As in Mockingjay 2, the final battle is fought for the presidential palace (the White House). We hear of the CIA and NATO (offstage) attempting to orchestrate and intervene, and of the manipulation of a national election. The context of Lila is realpolitik, yet in the face of such overwhelming odds we witness the “power of the people” fully engaged in the cause of economic equality.

Lila, like Mockingjay 2, ends with a pastoral scene of family contentment on a farm. Both stories dispense with the messy aftermath of revolution, leaving such details of restructuring, it seems, to the factory committees to work out, with trust in the intrinsic goodness of human nature when freed from the yoke of capitalism.

Despite the seeming naiveté of the denouement (Lila is billed as a “fable,” after all), one must take heart in facing the real-world powers that be, since, as we hear more than once in this story, “Where have piecemeal reforms gotten us over the years? Only into a deeper hole, while the owners got richer. Better to demand what’s ours now, than to die the slow death of a slave, in poverty.”

economic inequality

Far from naïve, Lila’s rejection of conventional wisdom is supported by history, witness to the fall of every empire. As Smith writes,

Everyone who is convinced that the current status quo is permanent and unbreakable should consider what happened to the super-wealthy private landholders of the Western Roman Empire. When the empire’s power to coerce broke down, the super-wealthy vanished into the dustbin of history. Few believed that possible in 475 AD, but history isn’t a matter of belief. Believing it isn’t possible doesn’t stop history.

The Dandelion Insurrection: Love and Revolution, by Rivera Sun

dandelion insurrectionThe Dandelion Insurrection supplies a more detailed version of the revolution. This time the focus is on a “politics of love” than on a socialist manifesto of equality and ownership of production. Still the books are remarkably similar, in their depiction of a social movement of struggle, activism, and nonviolent resistance. (Sun even includes an appendix from noted researcher Gene Sharp with his 198 methods of nonviolent action.) As in Lila, success hinges—both on the front lines of confrontation and in the overall power dynamics of a nation—on persuasion of the agents of repression (guards, soldiers, police) to convert to the side of justice and humanity, even as state violence is ratcheted up.

People think there must be some magical tactic, beyond the traditional ones — protests, demonstrations, vigils, civil disobedience—but there is no magical panacea, only persistence. (Howard Zinn)

We see the success of the Dandelion Insurrection only up to the ultimate moment of confrontation, when millions are marching on the capital, led by heroes Zadie and Charlie… targeted by approaching drones. As with Lila, we see that victory requires the ultimate sacrifice. That final pastoral scene of success and peace on the other side of revolution is missing from this tale, but by now we can see that when the tide of human struggle for change reaches massive proportions, a change in the power structure is inevitable. The more distant question of how that transfer of power actually takes shape is again (as in Mockingjay and Lila) deferred to the reader’s imagination.

false paradise

More concerning is the premise of all three revolutionary scenarios: that a population oppressed will rise to the challenge of sacrificing what comfort and normalcy remains in life, to take to the streets and risk life and limb, to mobilize that radical shift from tyranny to freedom, from fear to love. Will this transformation occur among the media-sedated masses of the Western world? Perhaps it is only a matter of time, before the oppression of war and poverty drives people to rise up and put bodies on the line, to take a stand and march for a truly new world order: decentralized, democratic, humane, and free.

Postscript: Gray Mountain, by John Grisham

grisham, gray mountainA pulp novel for the masses may seem an unlikely addition to the literature of revolution. John Grisham’s Gray Mountain, however, pulls no punches in outlining the abuses of Big Coal in Appalachia. The entire corrupt machinery of Corporate America is here exposed for all to see; the particular setting of this novel serves well as a microcosm. There is no mincing “objectivity” here: the coal companies and their minions are the bad guys, and heroine Samantha and her cadre of legal volunteers are the good guys.

Herein lies the contribution of Grisham’s approach. It portrays the full scope of an evil system that destroys crusaders like the maverick lawyer Donovan, and pushes survivors like his brother Jeff to solitary acts of revenge. Yet its realism keeps damaged workers in their place, hoping for small courtroom victories. Near the end of the book, protagonist Samantha Kofer sums up the battle lines:

“They cheated, they won, and they’ll do it again because they write the rules. I guess there’s no way to stop them. They got the money, the power, the doctors, and I guess the judges. Some system.”

“There’s no way to stop them, Samantha?” Mavis pleaded.

“A lawsuit, I guess.”

Here is the realpolitik of America: corporate greed unchecked except for isolated, fearless crusaders.

The real revolution in this book occurs within the character of Samantha, who migrates from a failed Wall Street model to a humble position in the boonies where she can have a positive impact on people’s lives. In the process, the system is validated by a sympathetic judge, a dedicated team of lawyers with social conscience, and small victories of incremental justice. This is not a radical vision, and no doubt it is an inadequate one; but as a bestseller Gray Mountain serves the public awakening to the truth of how the system works at the present time, and offers a personal model of transformation: from a life spent as part of the problem, to a new start as part of the solution.

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further reading:

Is vs. Should: The Quantum Paradox

The Politics of Life

Chris Hedges, The Illusion of Freedom

JimQ, The Odds Are Never in Your Favor