Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones S-1I watched the first season of Game of Thrones because it’s everywhere and I figured I’d give it a go. Also, the imp. And it’s fine and I didn’t dislike it and there were even things that I thought were great in a campy sort of way. But now I’ve got a problem: I’m curious what happens next but am pretty sure that I don’t actually care enough to watch the other seasons to find out.

So my first thought: maybe the books are better and I should read them. But first thoughts are often junk thoughts, and this one is probably no exception. Am I really going to read thousands of pages of this stuff? Especially since I’m pretty sure the camp bits are all HBO’s and I imagine I’d have to get through the first volume before I hit new material? No, I’m not.

My second thought: read the Wikipedia page to see if it’s worth it. But no again. I’m not willing to slog through a dreadful wiki-summary to find out how things turn out (and wiki-summaries are always dreadful). I’m either curious enough to watch the next seasons or read the books or I’m not.

So my final though, a guess really, is that in autumn or late winter, on some dark evening when I’m tired and looking to veg, I’ll go back to it. We’ll see.

 

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Lucy

Lucy 2014Like this year’s other great summer blockbuster The Edge of Tomorrow, Lucy organizes its narrative according to the logic of a video game. In The Edge of Tomorrow the character learns zones by replaying them ad infinitum. In Lucy the character must level up. The Edge of Tomorrow is a shooter; Lucy is an RPG.

The level framework is laid out in voice-over at the beginning of the film and text screens helpfully track Lucy’s progress. Each time she enters a new zone or begins a new encounter, the screen goes black and we’re told “7%” or “10%” or “20%,” etc. As she collects blue crystals, the numbers climb, unlocking new skills along the way. As she approaches level 100, her body becomes a progress bar, tracking her rapidly climbing XP.

The film commits to this structure completely, foregoing all traditional narrative goals. (My friend Colin Burnett discusses this absence from a different angle in a post on his new blog.) Lucy must “reach cap” within 24-hours and no explicit justification for doing so is given. There’s some mumbo jumbo about immortality early on and later some more about sharing knowledge, but neither seem to motivate Lucy. She reaches max cap because that is what you do in an RPG. And that logic, it turns out, is enough.

The clarity of the structure and the strictness with which it’s followed frees up the film to do other things, and at moments it reminds me of Speed Racer, which borrows its physics and spatial logic from video game design. These films are very different, but in both cases, importing an external but familiar set of rules and expectations clearly enables them to experiment with (or at least play with) form to an extent that’s rare in big-budget movies.

Excession

ExcessionI just read Excession, the fourth of Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels, and really enjoyed it. It’s different from the others I’ve read in that for the first time, the main characters are not the various aliens that make up the Culture or have contact with it. Instead, this novel’s most engaging characters are super-intelligent computers, the Minds that run everything the Culture.

The computer intelligences that take centre stage here are funny and odd and, for most of the novel, communicate in what amount to emails and internet forum posts. They are a mixed group of misfits, do-gooders, trolls and weirdos. There are even some hippies. Perhaps most interestingly, these machines are fully formed characters that read as a very human group of computer (!) nerds who find themselves trying to save the world. That they have very different ideas of what that entails is a principal source of the drama.

Characterizing Machines

As I finished the novel, I spent some time flipping back through it and thinking about how Banks makes the computers seem both mechanical and human. Soon after, Nicolas Carr reposted a text he’d written about the Turing Test. His satirical suggestion for determining whether a machine manifests intelligence is that, like humans, an intelligent machine must be one that can experience boredom. His aim is to dismisses the possibility of creating artificial intelligence. What I realized when I read his piece, however, was that in Excession Banks humanizes his powerful, intelligent machines precisely by showing them coping with boredom.

Confronted with the plodding motion of a more-or-less human world that they understand completely and manage perfectly, the Minds respond in two ways. First and most often, they imagine fictional worlds for themselves by daydreaming mathematically. In doing this, they become fanciful, creative and even artistic. Second and much less often, the Minds (also) immerse themselves in human history and build relationships with individual humans. One such “friendship” masquerades as a pivotal aspect of the central plot for the entire novel.

It’s interesting that both Banks and Carr, working in different modes and for different purposes, both imagine an intelligent computer becoming bored. It’s fascinating that the novelist sees this experience of boredom as the ground for the machine having a character and relationships and not as a failing or a weakness.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

062_ddmpf_1sht_V3.inddI really liked this movie. It was well-made and engaging, and its mix of action and mystery had a familiar, vaguely international feel to it.

Yet in tough to specify ways, fundamental values or assumptions seemed off enough to make things unclear and odd sometimes: ellipses I couldn’t quite fill in, character relationships I didn’t quite get, things like that. This kept me on my toes and made for an exciting and fun movie.

I know absolutely nothing about Asian cinema. I wasn’t one of the Hong Kong action film fans that populated my film classes back in grad school, and I’ve never really watched Japanese anime. What I have seen–mostly some mid-century art film and Wong Kar Wai’s stuff–has too little to do with a movie like this to help me out.

What would I need to see to understand what I’m missing in a film like this?

 

Speed Racer

Speed_racer_movie_posterI blew this movie off when it came out for all the obvious reasons, but I kept being told randomly by odd people that they liked it. So finally one night I sat down and watched it. And then immediately watched it again. And the next day, taking notes, watched it a third time.

This movie is silly in precisely one way: it’s source. On every other level, it is a massive achievement that treats film as a plastic rather than a recording medium. Exceptionally interesting and deserves its own post. Maybe I’ll get around to it.

For now, watch Speed Racer.

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X-men: Days of Future Past

X-Men_Days_of_Future_Past_posterI enjoyed this movie. It was predictable and self-important, but a nice distraction. Set against the other films logged right after it though, it’s also clearly a lightweight. I can barely remember anything from it except various cringeworthy moments (all of which involve John McAvoy or Nicholas Hoult).

What I’ll remember the screening for (as opposed to the movie) was that it was the first time I got to see a digital projector crash and die. One minute image, then static, then colour bars then static, then blue screen of death. Nicely concrete reminder of what “digital filmmaking” is and entails.

Arguing, Plotting and Making Hypertext

Mark Bernstein asks some basic questions of craft as he tries to write a hypertext page turner. Now, I don’t know Bernstein so it’s probably presumptuous for me to chime in on this and also foolish given how little I know of the hypertexts that have been written in the past twenty years or so. I’m also not a fiction writer. [note]As context, I’ve read only a few things that are available online. These include: Luminous Airplanes, “Changed,” Letters from Ireland, and My Body. Truth be told, these things are so different from each other, I’m not even sure which of them others might call hypertexts.[/note]

But I do know a fair bit about traditional poetics and am interested in the problem. So I’m going to take a risk and share a few thoughts and ideas I’ve come up with as I’ve made my first stab at writing an argumentative hypertext, a different but I think oddly analogous task. [note]In my hypertext, I’ve been working without the benefit of anything other than ordinary web links. So all of what I say here arises from coping with the situation where a reader can easily go anywhere in the hypertext regardless of what they’ve read or not. There are no gateways to cross.[/note]

In a rough way, I think a page-turning plot (or argument) is one that creates a desire to know. But it is also a plot that delays or frustrates that desire in a measured, carefully paced, and pleasurable way. Hypertexts create a problem for telling these kinds of stories because they pass control of sequence and, to an extent, narrative focus off to the reader. How do you elicit desire to understand or create suspense without controlling what readers know and when?

I have three ideas.

“Why?” or “How?” may be more powerful than “What next?”

Mysteries, one of the most heavily plotted, page-turning genres around, introduce the corpse early and spend the rest of their time working to figure out what happened before the book began (i.e. when the victim was still alive). By the same token, three narratives that I have begun to think of as “proto-hypertexts”–Citizen Kane, Rashomon, and Absalom, Absalom!— all begin with the ending of the story. In each case, the narrative is driven by a desire to know why or how something happened rather than what will happen next. And the only way to find out is to get mixed up in and explore the stories of various standers-by. (Something similar happens in the otherwise very different Pale Fire, although it is less ferociously plotted.)

I think this same trick–starting with the end and working backwards–is suited to hypertext plotting.

We may desire most those things we can’t have

All three of my proto-hypertexts abstain from presenting the protagonist’s story except insofar as it is revealed through the smaller-scale “mini-plots” of the characters caught in its wake. All of them enforce this choice by making their protagonists dead before the movie or novel begins. In a sense this places the page-turning story in a black box, making it the only story that the reader can never choose to read, no matter how much they want to. They can only access it through numerous, equally minor stories that cling to its edges, each of which reveals it only partially and (perhaps) with bias.

Bouncing a protagonist’s otherwise inaccessible story off other characters seems like a good way to make readers want to click on links recounting minor characters’ lives.

Saying “no” to readers.

Much of the very limited commentary I’ve read about hypertext celebrates the fact that authorial control recedes and readers “make” or “create” their own reading. This is true in many, many ways. In the various collage, archival or a performance hypertexts that I’ve seen, writers seem to have abdicated authority and simply (!) to have created possibilities to be explored or enacted. Readers are left to experience insight or not, to draw conclusions or not. But there is rarely any “end” to be understood. [note]Except in the frequently occurring case where the text argues implicitly or explicitly the post-modern conceit that author-ity no longer exists. In these cases, there is a point, but not one that needs to be argued.[/note]

Plots and arguments cannot be so open-ended and cannot be left up to the reader; only the choice of which mini-plots they will read in order to understand the story as a whole can be. And because reader choice eliminates the distinction between foreground and background, all of the mini-plots they will choose from have to be written. This includes those mini-plots they will choose to read as well as all of the mini-plots that they will choose not to read! And all of these mini-plots have to, in their own ways, point toward the end we are “turning pages” to discover.

Creating these coordinated options is a lot of writing and a lot of work. To be successful, it seems to me there have to be limits. In fact, I’m tempted to say that the most important question related to plot or argument in a hypertext is going to be “what options are the readers not going to have?” followed closely by “This choice lets the reader get away. How do I close it without seeming to close anything?”

These questions strike me as contrary to the ethos of hypertext as I’ve understood it from the limited commentary I’ve read. I mean really: is there anything more authorial than “Thou Shalt Not!”? And yet, saying “no” seems essential to conveying story.

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

by Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Stephen Mitchell