Saturday, January 25, 2014

Recent Sci Fi and other Cinema… Can there be drama without villains?

The world keeps becoming SF'nal in interesting ways.  Yesterday, I gave a talk at Google for Vinton Cerf's Interplanetary Internet Group, aiming to extend out cyber networks across the solar system… (you may recognize Vint not only as one of the "fathers of the Internet but also portrayed as the "Architect" in The Matrix series.) Pictures forthcoming.
Meanwhile, I stand amazed as obstinacy at last starts to fail and Americans finally declare they've had enough of major parts of the insane Drug War… which reminds me of what Winston Churchill used to say about us Yanks, that we could be "relied upon to do the right thing -- after trying everything else."
And in that spirit...
== pocket film reviews -- drama without villains! ==
EuropaReportLast week we enjoyed the modest and sweet SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN, which was quite lovely and - for a refreshing change - portrayed no male vileness among any major characters.  Just the ups and downs of love while solving a somewhat zenlike scientific-technical problem.
Interestingly, I might say much the same about EUROPA REPORT, which also completely lacked any villains, just brave astronauts trying to survive and get their jobs done amid accidents, (some plot-convenient blunders), and monumental discoveries…
…which also kind of describes the magnificent Cuaron film GRAVITY, again with no villains, other than nature and the harshness of space.  How interesting to spot this theme among a small number of recent films.  That you do not need red-glowing eyes or gloating-evil bad guys, or even men-behaving-badly to - on occasion - make interesting cinema.  (See a lagniappe about GRAVITY, below.)

Oh, there are other Sci Fi movies with no villain, pitting protagonists against nature or simple error: Apollo 13, Armageddon, Deep Impact, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Marooned, and 2010.
See my musing, Name that Villain: Bad Guys and Aliens in Sci Fi Movies. And of course, my explanation of the "idiot plot" laziness that has propelled so many recent dystopias and silly scenarios that seem nearly-always to portray civilization as hopeless and all our neighbors as sheep.
Contionuing in this vein, I stumbled upon a late-night TCM viewing of THE BEGINNING OR THE END.  No, not the trashy 1957 Peter Graves sci fi flick that I loved as a kid -- that replaced "or" with "of" in the title -- about giant locusts eating Chicago. Rather, this is a 1947 docudrama about the making of the Atomic Bomb, starring Hume Cronyn as Ropert Oppenheimer and featuring actors playing Albert Einstein, Erico Fermi, Leo Szilard, Vannevar Bush and so on.  Some scenes were altered/exaggerated or shifted for drama.  Still, it takes you through  history - much of it scientifically accurate - from 1933 through 1945 - and had some rather moving segments!  Including a placard at the end -- a message to "viewers in the 25th century" hoping we handled these new powers well.
Buck-rogersOh, have a look at the original Buster Crabbe - Flash Gordon movie! (The beginning of a serial series of cliffhangers.) It actually starts out not-too hokey! Pretty sci fi'ish, in fact. It even includes climate change!
The short film “Danger: Humans” by Tom Scott is a terrifying look at our species from the perspective of extraterrestrials. I contributed a number of its elements in the preceding, informal blog event that inspired Scott. Like the bits about capseisin, walk-hunting and our weird sonic-vibration sense!
Do you miss Firefly? Okay then, here's some good clean fun.  A collection of the best curses in Mandarin Chinese from that wondrous show.
Finally, aw heck, I can't help it. Some time ago I linked to WIRED's super-short sci fi story contest that featured one of mine (the only one with a plot, three scenes, conversation, action and drama)… and a perceptive reader just pointed to striking similarity with a recent, smash-hit motion picture!  Judge for yourself:
Vacuum collision
Orbits diverge
Farewell love.
Ain't it obvious which recent film we are discussing?  Look, Alfonso Cuarón, earned from all of us the greatest respect.  Still, in Hollywood-law they judge the spectrum of coincidence - from homage to 'borrow' - by a standard of percentages -- of fractional point-by-point overlap.  So... can you see even a single point of my story that does not overlap with GRAVITY?
Is it worth at least a beer or two, hm? ;-)  Hey... (to use the phrase much in vogue among my kids)… I'm just sayin'.
UPLOAD-SELF-COMPUTER== sci fi news ==
George Dvorsky at iO9 explores Why you should upload yourself to a supercomputer… some of the pros and cons and possibilities.  A fun -light rundown.
Taking those ideas more seriously… in Economic Consequences of AI and Whole Brian Emulation, GMU economist Robin Hanson has been exploring what would be the motives, capabilities and incentives of software beings, living and working in virtual or cyber realms.  While there would be inherent differences, it is surprising how Malthus (the law of limited resources) will rear his head even in a domain of variable clock speeds and the power to copy one's self.
Astounding-world-future,jpgGo see this mid-20th century newsreel featuring amazingly accurate predictions of the year 2000.  All right, okay, it's sarcastic.  Very very very very sarcastic.
Still, think positive! Here's an amazing look back at how far things have come. The two thousand home computer owners in the Bay Area get a chance to download (a 2 hour process) a pure text copy of the newspaper!
Oh my.  Canada's former defense minister is a … believer: Aliens will give us tech if we quit wars!
On the other hand, we are definitely on an upward path when Dr. Who replaces Santa Claus! 
Ray Bradbury's 1960s Prunes Commercial… hilarious!
== quickie shares ==
This optical illusion is so so SO worth your time.  
Water-wheel-welloJapan's huge magnetic net will trawl for space junk.  Compare to the first chapter of Existence!
This is a breakthrough for developing countries: The WaterWheel lets individuals (often women and children) transport water without carrying jugs over long distances.
== When is homage something else? ==
Chris-voss-glenn-brown-sci-fi-paintingControversy rages over sci fi artist Glenn Brown, whose paintings sell for millions… and whose works are almost always direct copies of other artists.  Contemplating this bizarre story makes the mind reel, because Brown makes no effort to hide his sources of "inspiration" but rather cites well-known SF cover artists Anthony Roberts and Chris Foss and others in the very titles of his paintings, which repaint - without digital copying - the Roberts and Foss originals in meticulous detail, mostly altering color, shading etc.
It is easy to understand the outrage, but I'm not sure anyone has a legal leg to stand on, as painters have long copied other painters and sold their copies.  If a movie used any of the creative elements, Foss would likely be the copyright owner. Only his version can grace book covers or advertisements. Indeed, I'd be surprised (tho I'm just guessing here) if Brown can even get away with selling prints -- and indeed, this legal quirk (that he can't sell prints) might help to explain the prices folks pay for his originals… copies that they are!
Is all this outrageous? Sure. The absurd chutzpah has me ticked off and deeply irritated.  On the other hand, I always swivel and interrogate my own reactions. And so, the contrarian in me asks: has the resulting publicity harmed Foss and Roberts and Curtis? Oh, and that is just the beginning of head-scratching. See also a posting by Scott Edelman on this issue.
My wife posed it to me this way.  "What if someone sat down and read Startide Rising and used it as "inspiration" to type a new version, only much better, copying every scene in slightly-altered words? And though he could not publish it, he sold the typescript copy for a million bucks?"
OUCH!  Touché, woman.  Touché.


Zen Cosmos said...

I generally agree with your SF film comment. However with respect to 2010 (and 2001) the off screen aliens, being godlike, are definitely villians. Their imposition might unite humanity BUT their actual motivations were must more nefarious if you took the trouble to read thru the entire Odyssey series--2001, 2010, 2061 and 3001 which Clarke eventually wrote out. Also I've actually been worried about space junk, and I contend that a combination of aerogel matrix and repurposed Buzzard ramjet collector would make an excellent scooper for humanity's space poo. Additionally all in orbit vehicles, stations, 'scopes and satellites should probably have an equivalent of a ralroad engine cow catcher. Once in orbit however, do we park it for later salvage at a Lagrange point and smelting or do we just thrust it into the Sun?

Dennis Davidson said...

Looks to me like a direct copy of Chris Foss's painting. My advice to Glenn Brown is to split the sale price 50/50 with Foss. Send him a check for $2,842,178. with an apology and proposal to split all future 'appropriations'of Foss's work. Foss could then offer to paint a copy of Brown's copy of his work. They could continue along that thread channeling Komar & Melamid art of satire.
That said, the practice of appropriation in the artworld is fraught with problems. Often, the appropriated art is embedded in a new artwork. Brown seems to have dispensed with that altogether.
Artists may want to follow the lead of scientists on credit and attribution whereby scientists cite prior work in their research papers. Artists could include visual citations with their artwork that would reference art or artists that influenced or inspired aspects of the work in question. A new practice of visual citation would be especially helpful in scientific art, scientific visualization, and the burgeoning sci-art and STEAM creative production activity. Visual citations could provide an avenue of accounting for work done and assign credit where credit is due. They can provide a way to acknowledge prior work whether it's the composition of a scene, a rendering technique, or a particularly effective camera move. Visual citations could also be explanatory and tell the viewer how the visuals were made. In Brown's case he might explain how he copied Foss's work. Did he use a slide projector or simply eyeballed Foss's painting? For science media like planetarium shows, visual citations can supplement screen credits by providing a summary of the work done, techniques used, and lessons learned. This information is invaluable for smaller institutions that cannot afford the big budget productions yet want to bring the high production values to their audiences.
In summary: cite your sources, ask before copying, give credit where credit is due, and share money made off of other's work.

Lorraine said...

But isn't drama always without villains? I thought when there are villains it's melodrama. Or is melodrama the same thing as drama?

Tom Crowl said...

I also caught that showing of "Beginning or the End" (having first confused it with the later very enjoyable 50's big-bug flick)... and much recommend it!

There's also a lot going on in the world of RPG's and adventure oriented video games in the science fiction genre... not all of them great but they're getting better all the time.

Fallout and the Mass Effect trilogy both give it a good shot... and there are a few potential hits coming along like Watch Dogs.

The video game styled graphic novel also shows promise with companies like TellTale Games. So far they're not doing Sci-fi but its a natural for the form.

Stefan Jones said...

What is most astonishing about the Foss / Brown painting is that someone was willing to pay over five million bucks for that piece of crap.

I suspect it was bought on speculation, as an investment, based on Brown's "rep," rather than any inherit qualities.

I mean . . . cripes. Even after taxes, I could retire, comfortably, for $5 million.
* * *
The BEST of today's SF&F movies and TV shows are some of the best ever made. While there will continue to be plenty of crap, the upper end will continue to get pushed upwards.

I listened to an excellent podcast yesterday, an entry in the "You Are Not So Smart" series:

Podcast 014: How stories can change beliefs and behaviors

Alex Tolley said...

Contrast the Foss/Brown painting with the outcry over George Zimmerman's painting based on a photo that AP is suing for copyright infringement.

A lot seems to boil down to whether the painting transforms the image to make an artistic statement. One wonders if Warhol would have been able to do what he did in today's climate.

I find it hard to understand how Brown has done much at all to warrant non-infringement of copyright in this case.


I had tried watching "Beginning or the End" on Friday. I couldn't manage much. I stopped shortly after the newly wed physicist found the oscilloscope was unplugged. Despite the big name actors, the acting to that point was abysmal, and the script so stilted that I found it laughable.

I also think Hollywood had some hubris to think the film stock would last 500 years in a time capsule. Films have been decaying even in libraries after barely 50 years, and less than 100. The irony will be that this film will be available to the C25th in various formats long after that time capsule version has decayed.


@Zen - I am not clear why you think the aliens in the Odyssey tetralogy are villains. Certainly in 3001 the concern is that the aliens may be set on destroying the earth. But Clarke has always portrayed these intelligences as being like gardeners having to eliminate weeds. Just dispassionate, not malevolent. I see them not as villains, but more like a force of nature, albeit directed.

gregory byshenk said...

One important thing missing from the outraged discussion about Glenn Brown is that isn't Brown who is selling the painting in question. As some of the reporting makes clear, this is a resale, by someone else, of a work that Brown sold years ago. And the price is high because people now seem to value works painted by Brown.

Gilbert Gene said...

Sci fi movies sometimes are not interesting or somewhat boring though not all because I loved the Apollo 13 and Armageddon, the effects were perfect & so real.
Happy watching! :)

Jumper said...

I once knew an artist who laboriously rendered a magazine photo he saw into a fine art pencil drawing. He made postcards from that, whereupon the photographer who had sold his photo to the magazine spotted my friend's postcards for sale in a tourist shop. Lawyers became involved. But at some point the photographer bypassed his lawyers. On the strength of his persuasion on moral claim alone,he convinced my friend to withdraw his work from the public eye.

That they worked it out without lawyers makes me smile to this day.

LarryHart said...

Without having a personal dog in the fight, I go back and forth on the copied image issue. I can see both sides.

On the one hand, the mimicking artist is not claiming authorship of the image, only the skill of being able to reproduce it non-technologically. It's similar to an artist looking at a bowl of fruit or a landscape and drawing/paintint a realistic rendition. In this case the thing being rendered is itself a human creation, but that only makes the skill to do the reproduction more impressive, not less.

On the other hand, the mimicking artist is, in a real sense, performing the same action that a photocopy machine or a camera would do. And the original artist would have a claim against someone who photographed or xeroxed his artwork and sold it.

On the other other hand, that's probably the way a lawyer would look at it, but I'm looking at it more from an artist's perspective, and the fact that someone can do that by hand impresses the heck out of me enough to think of it as quantitatively different from photography or photocopying.

In Dr Brin's wife's analogy, you'd be pissed if someone could get a life-changing sum of money for copying something of yours, but I'd say it's the act of creating the copy that is the marketable skill in this case, not the thing being copied. He would not have gotten a million dollars because he ripped off "Startide Rising" in particular. He could just as easily have reproduced a different book (painting works better to illustrate the point) and left you out of it.

Bottom line, in the real world, I think such mimickry should be legally allowed, but common decency dictates that it's probably a good idea to get permission from the owner of the work being reproduced, and to volunarily pay a royalty.

IMHO, anyway,

LarryHart said...

Zen Cosmos:

However with respect to 2010 (and 2001) the off screen aliens, being godlike, are definitely villians. Their imposition might unite humanity BUT their actual motivations were must more nefarious if you took the trouble to read thru the entire Odyssey series--2001, 2010, 2061 and 3001 which Clarke eventually wrote out.

I don't know if you can judge the films based upon what happens in later novels. Judging just by how they are portrayed in the films 2001 and 2010, I don't think the aliens are necessarily villains.

HAL is, though. Maybe, being a machine, he's not strictly speaking "evil" (He's just drawn that way--Heh!) but in the narrative structure of 2001, he functions as a villain.

(In the narrative structure of 2010, of course, he becomes the redeemed Darth Vader of "Return of the Jedi")

LarryHart said...

Gilbert Gene:

I loved the Apollo 13 and Armageddon, the effects were perfect & so real.

The thing is, if I hadn't actually lived through the real Appolo 13 landing, I would have sworn that Hollywood just tacked on a happy ending to the story.

Tim H. said...

In 2001, the act of meddling with pro to-humans would be construed as an atrocity these days (Good luck with uplift, several generations would look like cruelty to animals.) ,in 2010 the alien intelligence destroys an ecosystem in Jupiter's atmosphere. they come out looking pretty bad, good luck serving the papers...

LarryHart said...

@Tim H,

I presume you're making a funny.

But IMHO, whether a story has a "villain" depends on how the story plot works, not on whether an external culture would construe a character as being bad. That's why I maintain HAL is a villain in 2001, despite there being a good argument that "he" is the moral equivalent of a toaster.

Paul451 said...

The irony of the Brown painting resale is that Brown doesn't benefit from the increase in value either.

Many artists have called for a royalty system for resales, to work a bit like capital gains tax, on the increase in value of resale value of art, which would attach to a work as long as copyright. (Ie, life of the artists plus... errr, the life of Mickey Mouse.)

I have some sympathy with resale-royalty arguments, especially for indigenous art. But in general I have no qualm with hand-made copies of art being sold without royalties; provided no one is fraudulently claiming they are anything but copies (by either claiming they are by the original artist, or claiming that they are original works by the copier.)

Did you mean that your friend hand drew every postcard he sold? Or that he drew one copy, then just printed off the rest? If the former, I see no legal dilemma with him selling them, they are his work, however inspired. If the latter, he probably was violating copyright.

But, IMO, preventing the latter is not a moral use of copyright law; the photographer has no more claim over sales of copies of the line-art, than an architect has over sales of copies of the photograph.

"One wonders if Warhol would have been able to do what he did in today's climate."

Warhol was regularly sued over copyright violations for "appropriating" other artists' works. A fair bit of "today's climate" probably came from rulings over Warhol's work.

Duncan Cairncross said...

I really thought nothing could surprise me then I read this

How Silicon Valley Conspired to Pay Everyone Less So That CEOs Could Make More

Duncan Cairncross said...

Opportunity rover clocks 10 years on Mars

I did not think it had been that long!

That is amazing - 10 years! - and it still goes

LarryHart said...

Duncan Cairncross:

Opportunity rover clocks 10 years on Mars

I did not think it had been that long!

Time works differently up there.


Scott said...

Mr Brin, with all due respect to your feelings about your work being copied and sold for a million dollars, lets look at the economics of the thing. I think what you really have to fear is someone taking your work and selling it for *pennies*, not millions. Someone selling your own work for less than you are selling it undermines your own income. On the flip side, who on earth would pay a million dollars for a copy of a story that retails for $11.99? For that to happen, there must be some difference, some distinction that is lacking in the original. Likewise Chris Foss's unaltered image is not worth $1m today. For whatever reason, Brown's is.

But I think that does speak to a royalty scheme, where Brown has to pay Foss a set fee for each copy of his own that he sells. Foss provided the framework, but not the million dollar product.

I also wanted to mention that the Year 2000 video, while sarcastic, really underscores how good we have it in the 21st century and how much we underestimated how mundane and dreary the wonderful miracles of the future would become.

Jonathan S. said...

HAL wasn't really a "villain" in 2001. It was just trying desperately to reconcile two conflicting programming directives - always reveal accurate information to the personnel on board, and conceal from them the real reason for their mission. It tried to fake hardware failures, in order to avoid the conflict; when the humans saw through this, it became convinced that the conflict could be resolved by getting rid of the personnel on board before it had to falsify information (since once they arrived, they'd know what the mission was, violating directive 2).

I blame the secrecy-obsessed humans on the ground, not the poor tormented AI. If they'd just thought things through, they'd have modified the second directive so that it could give its passengers full information as they approached the orbit of Jupiter (before the suspended scientists had to be awakened).

LarryHart said...

Jonathan S:

HAL wasn't really a "villain" in 2001. It was just trying desperately to reconcile two conflicting programming directives - always reveal accurate information to the personnel on board, and conceal from them the real reason for their mission. It tried to fake hardware failures, in order to avoid the conflict...

I realize I'm splitting hairs. But all you say relies upon a later movie or novel (2010) to make clear.

Taken on it's own, the "HAL" portion of 2001 pits Bowman against an adversary in a fight to the death. Narratively, HAL is the villain of the piece. This is not to blame the character, but just to observe how the story is structured. HAL might not be a bad guy, or even a "guy" at all (responsible for "his" actions), but in the narrative structure, there is a villain in that piece, and that villain is HAL.

LarryHart said...


I also wanted to mention that the Year 2000 video, while sarcastic, really underscores how good we have it in the 21st century and how much we underestimated how mundane and dreary the wonderful miracles of the future would become.

My brother, a high school history teacher, used to teach a unit which he called "My, how the future has changed", comparing different versions of speculative fiction across the years. I thought he had a good idea there.

David Brin said...


Paul451 said...

"Opportunity rover clocks 10 years on Mars"

Or as I prefer to word it: "Opportunity enters the tenth year of its 90 day mission."

Farsight Blogger said...

I don't think the alien in Ridley Scoytt's 'Alien' was a villain; just a creature thing doing what it does to survive. It's nature was the terror as it didn't act out of malice, rage or any kind of emotional drive.

Anonymous said...

By the way, "La Boheme" is an opera without villains. They are all nice people, and whatever their foibles, support one another..

And it is one of the most beloved.