Sunday, March 31, 2013

From Maudy Thursday Till Easter

In a Charles Dickens novel I believe a character said "life is a series of partings and goings" but maybe I have that quote wrong. It sounds true, so I'll assume it's correct  until I'm told otherwise.  If Dickens didn't say it he should have.

It's human nature to try and find patterns in things. It's wonderful to see how the Fibonacci number sequences reoccurs in nature or how through statistics, knowing the odds and number of bets, you can predict the profits of a casino down to the penny with over 99% certainty. Knowing what the casino will win is good for tax purposes or seeing if the casino runs an honest house but it can't tell you what a single individual will win or lose. It's like the universe has these overarching patterns of order that are made up of little pixels of chaos.

In the grand sweep of things most of us live predictable lives. The probability of almost any event can be calculated and all the individuality can be averaged out to show the big picture. That the very idea behind an actuary table. We're 100% certain of dying  but the odds change with age and conditions.

Two people, two bits of chaos in my life were Allen and Bill. Allen was a mystic, he never talked about God but he always talked about questions. And those questions lead to more questions. Allen felt there weren't too many wrong answers -just answers that weren't right for you. You knew you had the right answer when it felt like the right answer.   

Bill was from England, which was pretty exotic in the pines of South Jersey. He was also a hard core militant socialist -rude, poetic and well educated. It still amuses me to recall that he smoked Dunhill cigarettes, his one concession to posh living. Then again, complex people usually come with a few contradictions. 

 I was going to post an old poem written under the influence of both Allen and Bill. The poem was part of a unfinished stage play From Maudy Thursday Till Easter. It has gotten me in trouble because some saw it as blasphemous. It's also been praised.  But for now I thought better of it, I'm not in the mood to offend random readers or be provocative just for the sake of being provocative.

The whole Passion Play, the story of the last days of Jesus, is a complex one that comes with its own contradictions. The story endures because somewhere between order and chaos, the profane and the divine, somewhere in a ocean of contradictions we create the narrative we want to believe. We try our best to have our lives reflect the order of the universe at large. Another quote I'm not sure comes from a Prussian General that said something like "war is easy to wage when you're winning". Likewise the fate of the universe is easy to accept when you're on top but what happens even when you're supposedly the Son of God  and a long painful and agonizing death awaits you?

Easter has so many interpretations, not only among the devout that celebrate it as a holy day but also among the non believers and people outside the Christian faith. Even if all religion should dissolve away the story of the crucifixion of Jesus would remain as a huge cultural reference and a pillar of art.  As one close friend pointed out, " Is crucifixion any more devastating than dying of AIDS? The Crucifixion of Jesus is the symbolic death of every person. That even when God is made flesh, he ends up being no better off than the rest of us." Here too I'm not totally sure I got this quote right.  Allen was here right now he would be smiling, he'd probably say don't worry about the details if getting to the truth. He would also say keep asking questions, never stop being curious.

In all the twists and turns of Easter -where the faith demand that it's factually true and purely religious -or where the secular world slowly seeped in with Easter eggs, candy and movies like Ben Hur or The Robe (films that orbit the Gospel but certainly aren't part of it). One more small twist comes to mind. Bill had few personal possessions. One thing he carried with him was a four penny coin  of Maudy Money . It was old and very worn, before it got Bill that coin must have passed through many hands.

In idiosyncratic traditions of England, the Royal family would have the mint stamp out special coins to give out to the poor on Maudy Thursday.  It was the day that Jesus humbly washed the feet of the poor and at one time the kings of England mimic the ritual.  The foot washing no longer happens but handing out a few coins still remains fashionable. These days the handful of poor that receive Maudy Money quickly sell it off to coin collectors, it helps pay for the day to day expenses of living. Since Victorian times the coins have had a much greater collector value over the face value. Bill had a jaundiced view of it, he saved the coin for the day when the world might change and there'll be no kings or paupers.

It's now Easter morning here. I hope you find the experience you're looking for today.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Starting A Cult

Inside our minds is an entire universe onto itself. The body is constrained by the physical laws of matter and energy but in the bio-cyber space of thoughts -in our dreams, our imagination and in a possible mystical experience, all the hard and fast rules of reality can be suspended.

It's easy to think that life and conscious thought would be fantastic enough but most people want to explore what's beyond that horizon -at least once. People take drugs to experience altered states of mind.  We fall in love, which is a lot like being on drugs, not only for the physical benefits but also for the irrational drama.  And even though there are hard headed realists that proclaim "that all that's physically there, is all that really is" everyone else to some degree doesn't believe that. The average person is seeking transcendence, some experience that gives life "meaning".

Once as a college gag several of us decided to start a cult. It wasn't a serious idea but more like a mocking piece of performance art. The first wave of Tele-evangelists were raking in millions, Moonies were on every street corner selling flowers and politicians were tripping over each other to get in front of the public to talk about their "born again" conversions.   It seemed like there was one born again every minute.

Social media didn't exist back then, social circles had to be created the hard way. In a local newspaper we placed a personal ad.  Along with announcements for club meeting and lonely people seeking dates, our ad said "Messiah seeking converts, respond to box C-5" .  We expected a few letters of hellfire condemnations and we were not disappointed. The big surprise was over 30 letters from people that said -yes, they are ready to follow our new Messiah.  Given that some of the letters were just as much a joke as our ad, it still amazed us that we could have probably found twelve dedicated Apostles to start our spiritual mission.

In truth what is a cult?  Thomas Wolfe defined it as a religion without political power.  Politics and religion has always been a poisonous mixture.  The modern breakdown of organized religion mostly is the legacy of past wrongs where  religion was used as a stick to beat others into compliance and submission. 

No matter how much good that comes out of any faith eventually somebody is going to get killed in the name of God.  The world must be divided between saved and damned. Heretics must be weeded out. Special benefits must be secured and traded for money and power so that the faith can survive as an intuition.  It's kind of proof positive that where ever God goes Satan is there too.  The next question is God and Satan avatars of people's personal psycho drama or do they exist outside of the human mind as tangibly real beings?  And because questions like that, people from time to time were burned at the stake.  The big surprise is even when people are thoroughly repulsed by this kind of behavior, they still have a spiritual earning.

Sensing that we were playing with fire, we dropped the idea of starting our own cult.  We were afraid that a little bit of unintentional success could lead to so many unintentional consequences.  One of our co-conspirators was Stevie, an accomplished painter and an open Atheist -long before it cool or safe. He would wear a tee shirt that said "I saw the logic" in response to others who said they saw the light.  It really troubled Stevie to know that most people reject logic and embrace all kinds of irrational thinking. My response to Stevie was "if numbers can be irrational, why should people be any better?".

Life is wonderful but all the parts that aren't so wonderful can be pretty crappy. The cold hard realization that all we have is now falls apart in front of an eternity in heaven.  We at least want to think there is some cosmic justice beyond this world where that bully in middle school will be forced to contemplate his sins and there's a paradise filled with all our former pets and grandparents. 

Though Stevie was an Atheist, he was also very enthralled with "Christian mythology".  Every bit of mythology has a vital question, a kernel of truth or an unanswerable paradox at its core. Mythology represents the greatest form of storytelling where the most scarred human principals can be forever framed in the context of a fable -or a parable. Renaissance painters depicted the crucifixion of Jesus in all its gory details. On Jesus' face is the pain and doubt of human suffering when we face death. Stevie broke down all the different interpretations of a few of these painting. As he said "that's the hallmark of great art, it gets you to react to what is and isn't there, it reflects the ambiguity of life".     

So what is a man but the stories he tells?  (I think that's Shakespeare) If you listen a person carefully all of his beliefs are encoded in his stories.  Our personal narratives are filled with symbolic language because even the most precise words all by themselves -don't always work. 

Like I said, people don't want to fully accept the totality of physical reality. They want life to have mystery in it because then they don't feel so bad when they face parts of it they don't understand.  But the rub is a mystery is a difficult thing to leave alone. Neurotically we want to solve the mystery that we really don't want to know the answer to.  It's like a marriage. The relationship with my wife is the closest human relationship I have .  We can finish each other's sentences but I'm glad we can't read each other's minds.  A little bit of mystery is a good thing.

So  I'm left here with a handful of conflicting thoughts. One of the best statements of faith came from a Rabbi giving a formal lecture on the Book of Exodus. One student challenged him because there are no collaborating historical records that Mosses existed, or that the Hebrews were ever enslaved by the Egyptians.  The Rabbi conceded that are no historical records outside of Exodus that support any of the events that occur in Exodus.  For the Rabbi the ultimate truth of Exodus is "slavery is morally wrong". Maybe that message is too stark and simple for people to absorb, so a long involved story and a religious holiday was developed around the message to hammer it home.

There was another lecture I attended on the Mystery Cults of Ancient Rome. Many of these mystery cults explored the meaning of life. They would often have members pray, fast and be initiated with a glass of wine or beer laced with hallucinogenic mushrooms. This might have been the "very strong drink" that Saint Paul warned against in Timothy 5:23. I know how some people would be leery to think a person's greatest spiritual understand could be drug induced.

Last is the idea of a miracle. That all the laws of physics can be up ended without rhyme or reason other than the whim of God or the power of pray.  As Stevie might say it's cartoon logic. Like when an ostrich buries its head in the sand. Ostrich do bury their heads to keep cool but on the semi-desert plains of African an ostrich is afraid of nothing. Even lions don't mess these birds.

I have seen individuals as logic as Vulcans cross their fingers or pray out loud for a miracle when all other hope is gone.  Like a gambler in a casino making one last bet on impossible odds to win back all the money they lost.  It's like a metaphor where reality forks off to either the right or left. Either there is a loving God with a convoluted plan for you or the world is a casino of rigged games of chance where sooner or later you're forced to cash in your chips.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Robots Are Coming

Once a friend of mine was stuck with a problem on a film set. I say film set but I say that in a tone of voice that's somewhere between charitable and sarcastic. This was one of those productions that had a nano-budget. Many student movies in film school had lager budgets. The problem was he wanted an aerial shot of a car coming down the road and some following action. There was no money to rent a cherry picker nor would anyone volunteer a free one -even for mention in the ending credits
The next day I brought over a twenty foot ladder, leaned it up against a telephone pole and we took the shot. Yes it was dangerous and illegal -but all is well that ends well.

While doing research for a proposed Webcast show, I came across some other material from a few months ago. A local filmmaker is working on his version of a hobby helicopter with movie camera set up. That's nothing new but this person is focused on improving the steady cam features, where the camera can record HD video from the air but it looks like it was shot on solid ground. The end result is very impressive and he would be cheaper and more versatile than any camera crane, cherry picker or Rube Goldberg idea that I could come up with.
 Another feature with the helicopter-cam set up is the flight can be pre-programmed for the shot. The camera can also target one particular actor and keep that actor in the frame no matter what he does. As far as I know it's still in development but it is potentially a robot that can take the place of a cameraman.     

The world of robots is coming and it's going to be like personal computers in the 1980's where a few will pop up here of there and then very suddenly they will be everywhere.

Apple products have been able to gain worldwide market share partly because they have developed a cool factor into their corporate image. There is a dark side to Apple Inc. The pieces and components are manufactured all around the world often under virtual slave labor -though it probably feels quite real to the workers. Among the I-Phones, I-Pads and I-Pods; Apple has developed the I-Don'tCare. 

Apple Inc can hold up its hands and say they are clean because they subcontract the work to Foxconn, also known as Hon Hai Precision Industry Company Ltd. Foxconn made the headlines in 2010 when 18 of their workers in Huizhou China jumped from the roof of the factory and 14 died. Working conditions did not improve and in November 2012, 150 workers went up to the roof and threaten to commit mass suicide. This time the management of Foxconn promised to really really change this time. Apple was upset they were made to look like a bunch of international scumbags -and that messes with the Apple image.

Workers in China are still paid relatively little. The cost of labor in an Apple product is around 1% of the retail price. Most Chinese factories are mini cities where the workers sleep, eat and live ... as well as work 16 hours a day.

To prevent any future embarrassments Foxconn install safety nets on the roof and started buying one million industrial robots. The newest generation of industrial robots are easily programmable, can do a wider range of work and cost around $25,000. That price is over three times as much as the average worker in China costs but no robot has yet committed suicide because they were over worked. Robots don't need sleep, or respect, or a pay raise ... I wonder what the ghost of John Henry would say? 
Google's driverless car is the next big robot application. The US Army and DARPA are working on driverless supply trucks. Without a human driver it's easier to build a more battle harden vehicle. The cost of this kind of robot is already cheaper than a soldier and does not have the political fallout of real human casualties.  One of the scary spin off of a military driverless truck is defending the vehicle.

For now living breathing soldiers will protect robotic convoys but the robotic sniper is only a few years away. One prototype looks like a trash can. It can be placed around the perimeter of a base or along a defensive line. It stays on guard 24 / 7 and can recognize a human target as oppose to animal. It's programmed to be an expert sharpshooter so anything that gets within a 1,000 meter of it will be shot dead. I've heard its codename is Simon and it can only be deactivated by either a secret code or a direct hit from an 81mm mortar shell -which by the way a mortar version is in development that can track incoming artillery and fire back over the horizon. 

Once Google's driverless car is accepted on the road, the driverless truck will immediately follow. It going to be very hard times for one million teamsters and independent truckers. Driverless trucks already operate in remote mines in Canada.

The big frontier for working robots will be the service industries. They're might always be a human face at the counter of your favorite fast food restaurant but behind the scenes robots can cut down the human work crew to one or two where a dozen or more were once employed.

The robot in the workplace could be the biggest social game changer since the steam engine. As somebody who's interested in the arts I can see how industrialization fostered the Romantic movement of the 1800's. People began to look backwards whimsically and nostalgically on the past. The emotional and even the passionately irrational took precedence over the logical. Because industrial production was able to outpace demand, imperial expansionism and real wealth being re-circulated back into the economy through different socialistic programs, the first wave of the industrial revolution wasn't as bad as they could have been.

This next wave of the industrial revolution where a larger slice of labor can be automated -what kind of art movement will arise out of that? Maybe something darker and much more nihilistic.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Recipe For Making A Movie

There is so much online video content and most everyone who posts something has the dream that their little production will go viral.  It's like buying a lottery ticket though it's not entirely by chance what works or doesn't work. Still it's not a science, like all other arts and entertainment there is a hard to define magical something that can make all the difference between compelling or boring.

The webcast is moving forward but because of prior commitments will probably not start production until August or September. The people involved are looking at the webcast the same as if it was a TV show or movie. They mostly come from a video game background and feel that the future demand for video games will for simpler games that can be played on smartphones and small portable screens.  The big multi level interactive games that create whole virtual worlds like Assassin's Creed, Call of Duty, Bio Shock;  have reached a saturation point . The market as matured. Unless a company is willing and able to invest 50-100 million dollars with 2-4 years of development time  on a new game title , then it's next to impossible to be competitive.

These games are comparable to Hollywood's blockbuster films. The blockbuster film is caught in the trap where any compromise on artist integrity is justified because of the huge monster budget and possibility for the total loss of investment. If a movie goes bust -what do you own? A few intangible creative rights? A pile of old film stock? -though film will soon disappear and it will only be the zeroes and ones that made up the images. Movies, as well as videogames, rarely leave behind any physical assets that can be sold after bankruptcy and often what gets left behind is usually a liability. Like in the case of one independent filmmaker where a full year after production, when the film was sold to a distributor and all the creditors paid, the local municipality threaten to sued him for the cleanup costs of his movie sets and location sites.  It was settled out of court but it was too late for the filmmaker to spread out the costs to the other investors.

The whole entertainment world is in flux. Broadcast TV is more and more on a junk food diet of low cost productions, the types of shows so cheap to make that even tiny audiences can keep them afloat. The big exception is sports because hardly nobody is willing to watch yesterday's game. Sports still generates premium ad rates.

Cable TV has weathered its first couple of years of decline and is nervously wondering what is their place in the future?  Online content further fragments mass audiences, services like Netflix undercuts cable prices and it seems the public wants something it hasn't yet identified. It's like in the 1950's when Westerns and Cowboy films were extremely popular. It was almost to the point where if felt like every other film shot on the dusty trail. The public got bored and critics predicted the end of a genre. Then comes The Wild Bunch, A Fist Full Of Dollars and Pat Garret And Billy The Kid; these films redefined the Western.

One Hollywood producer made the observation that a good movie starts with a good story -but every story plotline has already been discover and explored. The same stories get retold over and over with different sets and different actors.  The stories remain the same but the context that frames the story is always changing. What people want is a something that's little different but very familiar.... an unexpected twist in a classic tale.

Another Hollywood producer, that I and a dozen aspiring writers had a long and mostly liquid lunch with, shared his thoughts.  The Producer, a true D lister, felt that if you tell the story of any character long enough eventually you'll end up with an evil twin, a case of mistaken identity and a blow to the head that causes amnesia.

The rest of the conversation was just as disheartening. He had read samples of our writings. He made it clear that good writing was necessarily a bankable script and the tore apart one of them not because it was badly written but because it was pure box office poison -an adult drama with a projected budget of 10-30 million.

Another downer was to hear nobody in the business actually reads a script.  Maybe a production assistant might skim the first five pages and the pass it up to an intern.  If the intern likes the first half and last three pages then the script will get passed up the chain.  Our D List Producer was quite proud to say he hasn't read a whole screenplay in years, that most screenplays are dreadful and there's a never ending supply of them. That every studio gets thousands of them every years and that he even gets an average of 3-5 unsolicited movie scripts every day. 

We then shifted to talking about the movie Snakes On A Plane.  The Producer used it as an example of what a successful Hollywood movie is all about. The movie might be crap but it made money and people are still talking about it. Craftsmanship and quality should never get in the way of making a profit.

At that point I had to pitch my idea. I asked the Producer of what he thought about a sequel to Snakes On A Plane -it was going to be Snails On A Plane. Then I went into a manic improvised synopsis of passenger trapped on a long flight over the Pacific in airplane filled with poisonous snails. About halfway through the Producer looked at me with a jaundiced eye and in a tipsy slurred voice asked -"where the f--- are these snails coming from?"
"From the escargot compartment" I replied with cheerful enthusiasm.

After the peel of drunken laughter from the writers, the Producer  turn to one side and refused to talk to me any further.  As Kurt Vonnegut would say -"so it goes".

So a good movie starts with a bankable idea. I still haven't given up on the magic part. Magic is difficult to describe. One time I saw several short films from Romania. They were all produced during the Communist Era when Nicolea Ceausescu ruled the country. Private ownership of movie film and movie cameras was illegal. Making a movie could land you a life sentence in prison.  Despite the risks people made movies.

Often the movie was stolen, smuggled in or salvaged from the garbage. The quality of the film changed from shot to shot.  There was no film to waste so the whole movie was shot without retakes, it was all on a one to one shooting ratio with practically nothing edited out. As one friend said -It's like watch Ingmar Bergman on acid".  

Certainly not a potential money maker but they were compelling. Someday I would like to capture just a little bit of that magic.