Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Rest
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for February, 2012

Herald, Poet, Auteur: Theódhoros Angelópoulos (1935-2012)

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

These stones that sink into the years, how far will they drag me?
The sea, the sea, who will manage to drain it dry?
I see the hands beckon each dawn to the vulture and the hawk
bound as I am to the rock that pain has made mine,
I see the trees breathe the black serenity of the dead
and then the smiles, frozen in place, of the statues.

– Ghiórghos Seféris, Mythistórema, Part 20

Like many other cultures, mine has funerary customs that are thinly disguised pagan rites.  One of them is the mnemósyno: forty days after someone’s death, friends and family get together to reminisce.  It has been that long since the death of filmmaker Theódhoros Angelópoulos, whose work I found flawed yet deeply compelling.  So this is my mnemósyno for him.

Angelópoulos, killed at 76 in a completely preventable accident while filming the final installment of his latest trilogy, was a director’s director.  If you don’t know his name, don’t rush to download his films from Torrent or Hulu.  He requires enormous patience and dedication: his films are long (several reach four hours) and he was famous/notorious for unbroken takes that last more than ten minutes and include unapologetic dead time.  He was not the only Hellenic director to become internationally famous (Koúndhouros, Kakoyánnis and Ghavrás are familiar names, to non-Americans at least) but he was the one who stayed steadily in the limelight, piling up awards like kilims.

Fellow directors and film critics likened Angelópoulos to Antonioni and Kurosawa, but his true siblings are Tarkovsky and Malick.  The three share many attributes: they are masters of oneiric images drenched with nostalgia for lost Edens.  Their characters are semi-abstract symbols, their dialogues vestigial: the poetry resides in their stunning images, often coupled with equally haunting music.  All three have a powerful affinity for water, and they often use specific colors as emotional or mythical signifiers (for example, the rare flashes of red in Angelópoulos’ The Weeping Meadow; in one instance the color appears on an unraveling scarf that serves as Ariáthne’s thread between two long-persecuted illicit lovers at the moment they part for the final time).  Their best films (Malick’s New World, Angelópoulos’ Odysseus’ Gaze) are hypnotic, otherworldly.  When their inspiration flickers, their works become ponderous, pretentious to the point of parody – and they have not one atom of humor between them.

Angelópoulos had an additional burden that nevertheless enriched his art: the heavy pieces of beautiful but broken statuary that are the Hellenic legacy.  Unlike Malick and Tarkovsky, he’s intensely political and his films are palimpsests of myth and history.  Scenes often start in one epoch to dissolve into another – and they are inhabited by characters who are simultaneously everyday people and ancestral archetypes that cast long shadows.  His films can be appreciated entirely as aesthetic achievements but for those who know Hellás they are full of echoes and ghosts.  His lost Edens are not the innocence of childhood nor prelapsarian wilderness; they’re the lost homes and historic opportunities of his people.  His wanderers do not seek to find themselves; they seek once-safe harbors now guarded by fog and barbed wire.

As one example, The Travelling Players at first glance is a slice of life: it depicts the precarious, picaresque existence of a group of wandering actors who go through the provinces in the forties and fifties, playing a pastoral potboiler.  However, the film has at least two more layers: the actors, who are an extended family, reenact the tragedy of the Atreides.  They also bear witness to the Nazi occupation, the resistance to it, and the devastating civil war that followed it.  As another example, Odysseus’ Gaze is the story of a Hellene emigré filmmaker’s quest to discover a lost reel by the Manakis brothers, photographers who pioneered film art in the Balkans and recorded everyday life across ethnicities.  It is also an elliptic, allusive odyssey through the region’s past (a time of deep-rooted diaspora communities, extinguished since by resurgent nationalisms) as well as its fragmented present, including the brutal war that dissolved Yugoslavia.

Angelópoulos was sure of himself to the point of obsession and self-indulgent hubris but this certainty also gave him the focus and bravery of those who have an overarching vision.  Some of his films were made during the time of the military junta.  He gave the censors false scripts and shot in remote locations, counting on his crew and the locals not to betray him.  He used well-known international actors in his later films (Marcelo Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau, Bruno Ganz, Michel Piccoli, Harvey Keitel, Maia Morgenstern, Irène Jacob, Willem Defoe) but kept them under iron control.  They were never allowed star flourishes, and he was demanding to the point of tyranny on the set.  Like all self-absorbed geniuses, he attracted talented, loyal partners who became near-lifetime collaborators: his cinematographer, Ghiórghos Arvanítis – the Nykvist to his Bergman; his music director, Eléni Karaíndhrou, her fey, melancholy pieces as distinctive as his film techniques.

I’ve seen most of Angelópoulos’ films.  I liked some far more than others, but each contained moments that transported me, that made the hairs rise on my arms: the red-sailed boats in The Hunters, floating by like swans to the heart-stopping strains of Elytis’/Theodhorákis’ Blood of Love; the mounted brigand rising into view at the Soúnion temple in Meghaléxandhros, wreathed in the molten gold of sunrise and the arabesques of Chrysanthos’ voice; the mother in The Weeping Meadow, as young as Michelangelo’s Pietá Mary or Sofoklés’ Antighóne, talking to her two dead sons who fought on opposite sides in the civil war; the brief but searing soliloquy of Thanássis Véngos, the Hellenic Chaplin, in Odysseus’ Gaze.  Angelópoulos eschewed the locales most people associate visually with Hellás.  He preferred the beautiful, forbidding north, snow, mist, bare trees, black waters, slate roofs glistening with rain.  That is my mother’s part of the world, very different from my father’s sunny Aegean but just as much what makes us – me – who we are as a people.

The films of Angelópoulos were an umbilical that nourished me, a spirit home.  The world is a poorer place without his idiosyncratic art, despite the stone-heavy hand he put on his creations.

Their souls became one with the oars and the oarlocks
with the solemn face of the prow
with the rudder’s wake
with the water that shattered their image.
The companions died one by one,
with lowered eyes.  Their oars
mark the place where they sleep on the shore.

No one remembers them.  Justice.

– Ghiórghos Seféris, Mythistórema, Part 5

Images: Theódhoros Angelópoulos; Harvey Keitel in Odysseus’ Gaze; “Get up, get up, my sweet boy…” — Eléni (Alexándhra Aidhíni) in The Weeping Meadow.

Won’t ANYONE Think of the Sexbots?!

Monday, February 20th, 2012

From 2008 to 2009 I was a fellow (gratis) of the Institute for Emerging Ethics and Technology. IEET is the public face of a non-libertarian branch of transhumanism that considers itself left-leaning progressive – by US standards, that is. In 2009 I left IEET, because the willful ignorance of biology and the evopsycho blather got to me (as did the fact that there were no non-white non-males in any position of power there). A month ago, they contacted me to ask if I would like to have more of my essays reprinted on their site, and if I’d answer a questionnaire.

The quality of the comments on the IEET site made me decide not to publish there. On the other hand, the questionnaire gave rise to thoughts, especially in light of the steady erosion of women’s status across the globe. I won’t quote lengthy specifics, they’re all around us: from US congressmen trying to pass laws that classify miscarriage as murder to the resurgence of religious fundamentalism and its relentless seepage into mainstream politics. Here’s the list of questions, which I call The Ok, The Bad and the Funny:

The Future of Feminism

  1. How do you think “sex selection” is going to impact women? In China and India, millions of female fetuses have been aborted… do you think this will continue as sex selection becomes more widespread? Or will it even out – or even favor girls? I’ve read that sex selectors choose girls over boys in places like South Korea and Japan…
  2. Women are advancing quickly in political and business positions. They are now 60% of college students, even in graduate programs. Do you think this trend will continue, enabling women to become the dominant gender in many parts of the world?
  3. Getting pregnant no longer requires a male mate. Do you predict a gradual or sudden decline of marriage, for this reason? Do you predict more single mothers-by-choice? An increasingly wide variety of family groups?
  4. Will men become irrelevant, if propagation can occur between two women via parthenogenesis? Is this something that is scientifically possible in the near future?
  5. Do you think the word “feminism” is going to be dated in 40-50 years, because we’ll moving towards a genderless society? That there will be numerous possible gender options, that are easily changeable? Or will there be “women” for at least the next 100 years?
  6. How do you think social institutions will change, as nations become “feminized” due to increasing female presence in power positions? Will increasing women’s power effect education? International relations? Economies? Democracy? the environment?
  7. I have noticed that women don’t seem as interested in cryonics, or life extension. Am I right about that? Why is that? Do you think women are as intrigued by immortality as men? If not, how will progress in life extension proceed in a future where men are declining in influence?
  8. Do you think male and female sex robots will be prevalent in the future? Will they dominate sexuality? Or will only men be interested in them? Will prostitution, and the sex industry in general, be impacted, or replaced by sexbots?
  9. Men presently – generally – have greater physical size and strength than women. Will this change in the future, via various enhancements and augmentations? Will the two genders become physically equal in all aspects? If so, how will this change the dynamics between them?
  10. Genetically, it appears that men are likely to be “outliers” – to be at the far extremes in either intelligence or stupidity. Do you see this changes in the future, via genetic engineering? Do you see women eventually winning 1/2 the Nobel Prizes every year, or even more, for example?
  11. There are still cultures that practice customs like Female Genital Mutilation and Arranged Marriages and Honor Killings. Do you see those misogynistic practices ending soon? Or will they be tolerated for several more decades, because many are disinclined to assert Western ideals on traditional cultures? How will notions about “religion” change as women gain in power?
  12. Do you see other technologies looming ahead that will deeply impact women? A male birth control pill, for example – how would that change society?
  13. Finally, do you see women entering science and tech in larger numbers? Do you think they have different interests in these fields? Do you think they have goals and inventions and purposes they want to accomplish, that differ from male goals/inventions/purposes?

The attentive reader will notice several overarching attributes.  Beyond the gender essentialism, half of the questions are “But… what about the men??” including the angst about family configurations, control of reproduction and, not least, sex robots – clearly, a burning issue. Also telling is that the questionnaire is titled “The Future of Feminism” rather than “The Future of Women”. Insofar as feminism is the simple yet radical notion that women are fully human and should be treated as such, it is frankly stunning that many people, and not just Anders Breivik or the Taliban, are virulently hostile to feminism. This speaks volumes about the prevailing assumptions of the first globally linked human civilization and its likeliest future direction: women’s prospects look ever bleaker as the global economy circles the drain, since women are shoved back into chattelship, illiteracy and poverty whenever there’s a downturn or an upheaval. Variations of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale have replayed in many places within my lifetime.

“Feminizing” keeps popping up in the questionnaire as well. It looks like the IEET definition of the term is “if at least one woman is present in X” regardless of the final configuration. As far as I’m concerned, for any X to be feminized it requires more than 50% female representation — and last I looked, men still own and run just about everything on this planet. Equally importantly, “feminizing” that makes a difference also requires the high female representation to be across the board (not stuffed into the lower echelons, as research techs in science or gofers in corporations and governments); last but decidedly not least, it requires that X not be devalued in prestige, authority and compensation because it is XX-heavy (math in Japan, partly because during the shogunate merchants were classified as below peasants, and samurai did not soil themselves with money affairs: their wives handled all that, hence no prestige was attached to numbers; medicine in the USSR: most doctors were women, and the perks and pay scale of the profession were low).

Yet another characteristic of the questionnaire is conflation of cause and effect. As one example, everyone knows that many more women should have won Nobels but they were pushed aside by ambitious men with influential mentors and devoted wives. Lise Meitner, Rosalind Franklin, Chien-Shiung Wu, Jocelyn Bell, Lynn Margulis, Jane Goodall, Susan Berget – to name just the very tip of the iceberg. Additionally, intelligence is far more complex than the isolated genius cliché propagated by the IEET questionnaire. As for idiotic suggestions by evopsychos — as a representative example, the contention that men bequeath genes “for brain size” from the Y chromosome, thereby making men routinely more intelligent than women: beyond contributions to spermatogenesis, the next major function determined by Y-linked genes is ear hair.

Here’s another example of muddled causation:  when women see that most men who sign up for cryonic preservation share the physical and emotional attributes of the male cast in The Big Bang Theory, no wonder they’re electing not to join these men in their thermos jar dreams – or in eternal post-rupture bliss (cryonics’ current zero chance of success strictly aside).

I could go on at considerable length but I won’t beat up on the questionnaire too much: it did try to include sciency questions, basic and unfocused as they were. Some of the questions amused me in a sad way, making me conclude that the movement might best be dubbed “transhumorism”. Nevertheless, the concerns mirrored in it do not bode well for the future of humanity. In the end, we will get the fate we deserve as a species. But I’ll say this much: feminism will become irrelevant when questionnaires like this become irrelevant.

Images: 1st, the cast of The Big Bang Theory (as well as an encapsulation of the dynamics); 2nd, self-explanatory; 3rd, the sex dolls of First Androids.

The Mysterious Story: A Theory of Fiction, with Exercises (Part 2)

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

by Calvin Johnson

I’m delighted to once again host my friend Calvin Johnson, who earlier gave us insights on Galactica/Caprica, Harry Potter and A Song of Ice and Fire. Because the essay is slightly longer than usual blog length, it appears in two parts.

The Mysterious Story, Part 1

The Mysterious Story, Part 2

Opening questions are how a story starts the seduction of our minds. To keep us reading, a story must carry out a balancing act, like a good joke, between logic and surprise.

If, for example, Tolkien had never answered the question of “what is a hobbit,” but instead zoomed off to examine the lives of Russian serfs, we might well feel cheated of the logic of the story. If, by contrast, Tolkien had written, “A hobbit is another name for a rabbit, the end,” we might feel the story lacks enough surprise as a reward.

Understanding that a story balances logic and surprises gives underlying support for many so-called “rules” of writing that seem irritatingly arbitrary to novice writers. Deus ex machina endings, where a sudden character or event out of nowhere “solves” the problem, violate the principle of logic. Chekov’s dictum, that a pistol on the mantle in the first act must be fired in the third act, also feeds on the principle of logic, as well as what I call the “reverse-Chekov dictum,” that if you are going to fire a pistol in the third act, better introduce it in the first.

Classes and books on fiction writing often advise one to write stories wherein the main character, or a main character, changes; e.g. Rick in Casablanca, who evolves from an aloof, uninvolved man to a freedom fighter. In truth, such character evolution isn’t formally necessary at all, but character arcs do provide a powerful and logical pattern for our minds to tease out. Rick’s story is made all the more logical, and more compelling, by the fact that he had previously been a freedom fighter.

# # #

Logic alone is not enough. There must be surprises as well.

But surprise is a tricky thing. One method of introduce surprise is introducing a random event.  While common, it is a weak structure, because randomness is the opposite of logic.  A random event–such as a cyclone ripping through the fields of Kansas, or an old flame walking into your gin-joint–can kick off a story, but the response must be rigorously logical and one cannot rely upon too many random events. It doesn’t matter that real life is full of randomness; our minds demand patterns and rebel when the patterns don’t make sense.

Another strategy is through concealing information.  The logic is there, but only apparent in hindsight.  Again, this is a tricky strategy.  Simply withholding information from the reader so you can spring a surprise on them can tread dangerously upon logic.  Too many weak plots, especially those built on mistaken identity, rely upon characters making assumptions that few normal people would make.  Concealment can work, however, if the character concealing the information has good reason to.

A third and stronger strategy is misdirection.  One give a logical alternative while dropping clues to the real solution. This is a favorite strategy of J. K. Rowling, making Snape, or Lupin, or Sirus Black appear to be a villain, while quietly laying the groundwork so that when the true villain is revealed, you say, Ah! That makes sense after all. (Rowling is not above using heavy-handed concealment when it suits her, though.) Alternately, one can frame an situation to imply a wrong assumption, which is how the joke about the grasshopper works.

Surprise doesn’t have be just in plot. It can be in character as well.  My two favorite pieces of advice for constructing characters are, one, work against cliché and convention (i.e. instead of making the female love interest pale, thin, and helpless, make her dark, large, and kick-ass), and two, in addition to a primary character trait, add a secondary, seemingly contradictory character trait. A globe-trotting archaeologist who is afraid of snakes. A gangster who shoots his rivals yet gives money to the poor. A wizard powerfully skilled in dark magic who still worships the memory of his one true love.

Exercise: read a story carefully, taking note of the surprises, especially those beyond the initial hooks. What mechanism is used for those surprises? Going further, is the response to the stories logical?

And, for you writers out there, here is your final exercise: write a marvelous story, full to the brim with surprise and logic, that delights us with the patterns they weave in our brains.

For further reading: Samuel R. Delany, “About 5,750 Words,” which can be found in his book, The Jewel-hinged Jaw:  Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (Dragon Press, 1977; revised 2009). An excellent essay on how we read, and especially how we read science fiction.

Images: 1st, Anton Chekhov, who grew increasingly more sophisticated in the use of loaded guns in his plays (painter: Osip Braz, 1898); 2nd, Delany’s The Jewel-Hinged Jaw (illustrator: Richard Powers).

The Mysterious Story: A Theory of Fiction, with Exercises (Part 1)

Monday, February 13th, 2012

by Calvin Johnson

I’m delighted to once again host my friend Calvin Johnson, who earlier gave us insights on Galactica/Caprica, Harry Potter and A Song of Ice and Fire. Because the essay is slightly longer than usual blog length, it appears in two parts.

The Mysterious Story, Part 1

You all know this one:

A  grasshopper goes into a bar and orders a beer. The bartender brings the beer to the grasshopper and says, “You know, we have a drink named after you.” “Really?” says the grasshopper. “You have a drink called ‘Larry’?”

Most jokes rely on a combination of logic and surprise. We know the bartender is referring to the drink called a ‘grasshopper.’ But we think of ourselves primarily not by our species but by our personal names. Thus the pleasure in the joke is seeing the grasshopper’s response is perfectly logical though unanticipated.

Much of fiction works the same way.

Theories of fiction are as old as Aristotle. Many of these are prescriptive: for a story to be good, it should do this and that. I want to develop a descriptive theory of fiction: why do we perceive certain stories as effective? By understanding how stories works, we can write better stories.

# # #

Humans are outstanding at pattern recognition. The discernment of complex patterns spread over space and time has been the secret of our success, allowing humanity to develop agriculture and technology, and consequently for civilization to flourish.  Our talent for pattern-recognition is so overdeveloped, in fact, we see patterns where they don’t exist: spirits and gods, astrology and magic, constellations and conspiracy theories.

It is my thesis that our innate skill for pattern-recognition drives our love of story, and governs what we consider a good story. A good story is like a good joke: it is logical, so that we see the sense of the pattern, but contains enough surprise to give our pattern-recognizing machinery a workout.

I don’t claim my thesis is completely new, though I will suggest less common ways of closely reading texts. The closest antecedent is Samuel R. Delaney’s work on how science fiction texts are read, and read differently from mainstream fiction, in particular his classic essay “About 5,750 Words,” which I highly recommend if you can get your hands on it.

# # #

A necessary component of the drive to recognize patterns is our insatiable curiosity. Fiction does this by provoking questions in our minds–and, teasingly, withholding the answers.

For example:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit

grabs our attention: what is a hobbit? It is particularly enticing because the answer seems just out of reach: “hobbit” is reminiscent of “rabbit,” a similarity enhanced by the fact said hobbit lives in a hole in the ground like a rabbit. But is it a rabbit? Curious minds want to know, and soon we are off in the story.

So here is an exercise: take any piece of fiction, and read the opening paragraphs. Read slowly, sentence by sentence, and pay particular attention to how questions in your mind immediately start popping up. These questions, these mysteries, these hooks engage our pattern-seeking minds and draw us along.

I’ll do a worked out example: the first two paragraphs of Connie Willis’ award-winning story “Fire Watch.”

September 20 – Of course the first thing I looked for was the fire watch stone. And of course it wasn’t there yet. It wasn’t dedicated until 1951, accompanying speech by the Very Reverend Dean Walter Matthews, and this is only 1940. I knew that. I went to see the fire watch stone only yesterday, with some kind of misplaced notion that seeing the scene of the crime would somehow help. It didn’t.

The only things that would have helped were a crash course in London during the Blitz and a little more time. I had not gotten either.

Now let’s go through it again in slow motion, sentence by sentence. I’ll add boldface to emphasize text that raises questions, with parenthetical questions and comments inserted. But imagine you are reading the opening for the very first time:

September 20 – Of course the first thing I looked for was the fire watch stone.

(Q: What’s a fire watch stone?)

And of course it wasn’t there yet.

(Q: How could the narrator look for something that isn’t there yet?)

It wasn’t dedicated until 1951, accompanying speech by the Very Reverend Dean Walter Matthews, and this is only 1940.

(Experienced SF readers will recognize this is a time-travel story–a partial answer to the previous question–but it raises several new questions. Q: How did the narrator get here? And why is the narrator here?)

I knew that. I went to see the fire watch stone only yesterday, with some kind of misplaced notion that seeing the scene of the crime would somehow help. It didn’t.

(Q: What crime? Help with what?)

The only things that would have helped were a crash course in London during the Blitz and a little more time.

(This partially tells us the story’s location in space as well as time. But our question about why the narrator is here is heightened.)

I had not gotten either.

(Q: Why not? Has something gone wrong?)

(Full story available free at http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/stories/firewatch.htm)

Such hooks come more rapidly in recent (late 20th-century) fiction and in short stories. Fiction from older, less hectic times is more leisurely in suggesting mysteries, and the longer length of novels allow for slower development.

Nonetheless, I propose that effective fiction works this way. Whether rapidly or at leisure, fiction lays out mysteries, provoking our curiosity. Now for different kinds of fiction the primary mysteries will be different. In so-called literary fiction, the mystery is often primarily of character: who is this person, why are they this way, and how does it affect their lives?  Other fiction is primarily plot driven: will the character succeed or fail? In the genre called “mysteries” there is a specific question: who committed this act (usually a crime)? In fantasy and science fiction stories there are also mysteries of setting: what is this world; science fiction can also have the additional mystery of “how did we get here”?

Furthermore, when a story is carefully read, you can trace how questions arise, are answered, but new questions replace them. For example, we quickly learn that a hobbit is a small person, but that’s not the end of the story; a wizard has come calling on the hobbit and proffered an adventure. How will that adventure end? And so on.

To amplify on the previous exercise: take a short story you like very much, and go through and determine the major mysteries: where are they raised, and where are they resolved.

The Mysterious Story, Part 2

Images: 1st, a perfect logic/surprise combo from Gary Larson, a champion of this trope; 2nd, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) tries to parse the mysteries of his long contract; 3rd, Willis’ Fire Watch collection (likely artist: John Jude Palencar).

Halcyon Day

Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

Life will pull you under if you let it and grind you to fine dust. I decided to steal a moment away from the usual cares while the mild weather lasted. Yesterday, Mr. Snacho and I went walking through The Great Meadows marsh in Concord at sunset – which was also moonrise, as the moon was one day before full. The sky and the water held rainbow colors; the land was infinite shades of brown and gray, deep in hibernation.

We’ve gone to that marsh in all seasons and it has never ceased to be wondrous, despite its obvious domestication. Once we chanced upon an enormous ebony and golden fuzzy caterpillar hurrying on its way to more food that would let it become a moth. We’ve seen all kinds of birds, from chickadees to hawks, as well as the occasional terrapin. I keep hoping that one day we’ll catch a glimpse of the elusive river otters, or the beavers from the lodge that peeks through the reeds.

This time, in the glass-calm water I detected a wake of two nostrils that eventually resolved into a muskrat busily fluffing its pelt. In the middle distance we spied three swans alongside the duck and goose flotillas. And we saw something incredibly beautiful across the sky, the contrast heightened by the bare branches. It coincidentally appeared in NASA’s picture of the day, so I discovered its lay name: the Belt of Venus.

Normally, the earth’s shadow below the reflected reddened sunlight is darker than the sky above. But yesterday, for some reason the shadow was a lovely shade of teal. While it lasted, it felt like we walked inside a shimmering opal pendant.

Whenever I see such beauty, I float on it and dream: what marvels like this will we see if we ever walk under strange skies?

My moon, faraway and alone,
sleepless and tireless, you hung on the balcony.
Come, my shipmistress, come to my window.

– from an old popular Hellenic song

Photos of Great Meadows: Peter Cassidy