Trying to get my thoughts in order…

Over the weekend I watched four Star Trek films: 5 (The Final Frontier), 6 (The Undiscovered Country), 7 (Generations), and 8 (First Contact). I hadn’t seen any of them for at least a couple of years, and I found my reactions to some had changed, and some had stayed the same.

TFF I still like, though of course it has serious flaws of structure (too jokey in the middle, and the journey to the God planet too short and easy). But I like the character stuff, and the way they are tearing down idols in the manner of TOS.
TUC I find I like less than I did in younger years: apart from dinner with the Klingons and the “are we obsolete” scene, I find it hard to like. There are a lot of things about it that niggle at me, but then we could say that of almost any Trek film. I haven’t been able to figure out why this one rubs me the wrong way, but there it is.
GEN was a lot better than I previously thought; much has been made of the plot problems of the Nexus and Kirk’s death, but if we can accept these then there is a lot to like. The first 40 minutes are great; after this the level remains, on average, very good. We could wish for Kirk to end another way, but the intentions of the writers and actors were sincere, and I find that counts for something.
FC doesn’t impress me as much as it used to, now that I’ve become familiar with its plot; the various strands of the plot don’t add up to a lot, and I find I don’t much care about Picard or Data’s encounters with the Borg. (And once again the “we don’t use money in the future” speech seems unbelievable to me)

Now, what elements are there in common among the films I like, and the films I don’t? I think a large part of it may be to do with grandeur of scale, both physical and thematic.

TUC and FC feel relatively small in scale:
Despite the distances supposedly travelled in TUC, it seems like all the locations are in ready reach of each other (Earth, Kronos, Rura Penthe, Khitomer), and travel between them is easy and brief. The Kronos court room, the mines, and the conference hall all feel too small in scale (though for some reason the Klingon ship interior is HUGE). The interior of the Enterprise is widely explored, but only in the bathetic search for boots (and mashed potatoes).
FC is set on Earth, admittedly Earth of the past, but as usual with time travel stories the mechanism is basically ‘press X for past, press Y for future’. The lack of effort in the travel means I don’t feel impressed by the change in time-location. Also, the new Enterprise feels very cramped and small in scale for some reason.

Both these stories are very grounded in politics and military operations. Cochrane’s flight should be an exception to this, but unfortunately it is commandeered by Riker, who barks orders at Cochrane and gives off the attitude that space flight is mundane.

TFF and GEN by contrast deal with larger things:
In TFF, Nimbus III feels like a neglected outpost very remote from civilization. Just the look and attitude of things there suggest it’s a long difficult journey to reach it. The subsequent journey to galactic centre is sadly much too easy, but there is still a sense of moving from one kind of space to a very different one, and then stepping onto an alien world.
GEN has its roaming anomaly, which regularly traverses the entire galaxy every few years. The initial encounter has an impressively vast appearance, and the later stellar cartography scene gives a sense of the interstellar distances and forces that are involved in this story. The crash of the saucer-section is not as impressive as the film-makers hoped, and neither is the part of the story set in the Nexus, but the mountain peak Soran has chosen as his launch site is convincingly arid, rugged and remote.
There is also an unusual sense of temporal scale, with long-lived (immortal?) characters connecting the two periods of the story, and Kirk meeting Picard not by travelling through time, but by a kind of shortcut through “God’s waiting room”.

In contrast to the previous mentioned films, TFF and GEN are concerned with metaphysical themes:
TFF is essentially about a religious pilgrimage, along the way raising questions about the nature of God and faith, and the necessity of suffering, and it also touches on Vulcan philosophy.
GEN too is essentially a religious investigation: what is Nexus if not a physically observable Heaven? The harmonious wish fulfilment of heavenly life is compared unfavourably with the potential moral advancement of reality, in which suffering is balanced by the possibility of “making a difference”. Confining the minds of those caught in the Nexus, Heaven is smaller than the universe, rather than being infinite.

I guess we can deduce from my speculations the sorts of stories that interest me. Although I’m not much interested in morality tales of the ‘tolerance=good!’ sort, I like stories that reflect on the nature of life and humanity. OTOH I imagine that these same contemplative aspects might be, for other Trek fans, irrelevant or even a source of distaste.

I’ve read this complaint in a few places; I’m not sure if it’s the opinion of several different people or just one nut who gets around a lot. Basically, some people get very self-righteous about novels, movies, etc. that disobey the vampire “rules”: vampires should not go out in daylight! Vampires should be allergic to garlic! Vampires should not sparkle!!!!!!!!!!ONE

The first argument against this attitude is that we are not talking about the laws of physics here, but about fictional, magical beings. It doesn’t make a vampire less believable to say they can walk in daylight than it does to say they live on human blood. All that is required is for the story to be internally consistent.

The second problem is the supposition that artists should subordinate their imagination to the rule of an external judge. That’s a sure way to kill creativity, especially if the imposed standards are essentially arbitrary.

The fact is that most conventions of vampire fiction were invented by writers over the last couple of centuries (as opposed to coming from folklore), and many are silly or at least outdated: Fear of crucifixes makes little sense in our irreligious age. And are you going to demand that vampires not be able to cross running water? In that case, that’ll pretty much put an end to the genre, thanks to modern plumbing and drainage. And then there is the lore that vampires have numeromania and if you throw a handful of wheat the vamp must stop to count the grains – a story that consistently enforced that rule would be a comedy, not a horror.

The best thing is to judge a work by its success or failure in dramatic terms, not by its adherence to formulaic rules. So I have no problem with any variation on the vampire myths. Sparkly vamps aren’t personally my thing, but whatever floats your boat is fine by me.

 

Revisited two outliers from the Alien universe:

Alien Resurrection DVD cover
ALIEN RESURRECTION

It’s interesting to think about why the later films are less successful than the first two. The first two are thematically very basic, 1. Old Dark House, 2. War movie. Any moral ambivalence lies in the human shenanigans.

The later two films tried to go deeper, in a way Hollywood isn’t set up to bring off. 3 is about acceptance of death (symbolised by the Alien), with the planet location being purgatory/hell. I basically like it, and it’s on my list of films to re-edit.

4 – they never quite figured it out. The overall plot motivation seems to be “We want another Alien movie.” There are ideas about the merging and crossing over of alien and human identities, but these are dropped into the plot sporadically, in amongst the action set-pieces and humorous interludes. The humour generally undermines the tone of the movie, and seems to be the film-maker winking at us, rather than something emerging naturally from the characters (as in the previous films). Weaver plays the human/alien hybrid character with a lot of smirking and artificial gestures, and is not particularly believable. Also, one thing that really bugs me, and always has, is Ripley providing a mercy killing – with a flame thrower! Surely a bullet to the head would have been kinder?

Thinking on the deceptive simplicity of the first two Alien films, I dug out my copy of

Alien vs. Predator DVD cover
ALIEN VS. PREDATOR

In terms of achieving its aims, this is a much more successful film than Resurrection. I just wish there had been more grandiosity and sense of plot direction in the later part of the pyramid section. In comparison with the earlier film, we could say this one is a tasty take-out burger, while Resurrection is a high-grade steak that is half raw, half burned to a crisp.

Next up, another viewing of Pitch Black, which David Twohy developed from his proposal for an Alien sequel set on the creature’s homeworld.

 

I posted this in a forum, and thought I’d put it here as well….

As someone currently attempting to complete my first novel (after numerous previous attempts), I think I’m more aware than most of the mechanics involved. Yes, I said mechanics. Characters don’t always spring into existence fully formed, especially if you are dealing with a lot of them. This is where method and technique matter just as much as inspiration.

The first thing to remember is character=story. Plugging characters into a story that has no personal meaning for them usually makes for an unsatisfactory story. Ideally, the main character’s personality will relate directly to the themes of the story and goals of the plot.

Second is character depth. The more detail a characterisation has, the more real they seem. Think about their little likes and dislikes, their happy and sad memories, their individual ways of dealing with the world. Don’t be afraid to make heroes terribly flawed – but remember to give them some underlying kindness and desire for love, or else they won’t be sympathetic.

Third is character detail. Although some scorn them, character charts can be invaluable, not only for keeping a record of your main character’s, um, characteristics, but also for ensuring your secondary characters aren’t just cardboard cutouts. Here’s one I prepared earlier:

Summary: (Age: , Sex: )
Appearance:
Personality:
Likes:
Dislikes:
Greatest desire:
Surprising fact:
Traumatic moment:
As a child:

When you fill one of these out, you’ll often notice characteristics bounce off each other and produce more character information (which can in turn help develop the plot).

If you relate a character’s personality to the plot, a lot of character detail should emerge automatically through the narrative and action, but keep an eye out for important characteristics that don’t come out that way. In this case, you should (generally) show (not tell) this characteristic. E.g. if you decide that your character has a short fuse, it’s necessary to show this play out, which requires planning: what is going to anger the character? How exactly will they react? Ideally you’ll make this scene a part of the plot, or at least part of an ongoing process of character development. The same thing applies to character relationships. If, for example, you want two characters to fall in love, you’ll need scenes that specifically show (or imply) the characters transitioning from not-love to in-love – things like finding each other attractive, realising they have the same attitudes, the same life-goals, finding that they miss each other.

I hope someone finds this useful!

A definition of art

22 August, 2011

A work of art is a beautiful, made object.

I arrived at that definition while trying to clear away the Romantic and Modern dross that has accumulated around the concept. In essence, art (deriving from the Latin, roughly meaning skill, craft or technique) is a thing created by a person (so a sunset may be beautiful, but it is not art). It is created to be beautiful, i.e. its function is aesthetic, not practical (hence Wilde’s assertion that art is useless). And its virtues proceed from its being an actual thing that exists in the world, not a concept or ideal.

What do I mean by ‘beautiful’? Obviously there are artworks which we can enjoy which don’t necessarily fit the conventional idea of beauty. But if they stimulate us in a pleasant way, then I would call them beautiful. (And if we find them genuinely unpleasant, we avoid them.) But still, what is beauty?

Recall Pinker’s description of music as “cheesecake for the mind”. I think that fits with my materialist idea of what art actually does. In the case of music, patterns of vibrating air are received through the senses, and stimulate electrochemical activity in the brain which we find rewarding. Proportions and textures and interrelationships are arranged in patterns which we perceive to be “right”, for whatever psychological or biological reason.

As you can see, I don’t believe in a literally spiritual dimension of art. I don’t think that a great artwork exists somehow beyond time, space and conventional morality. I also regard “profundity” as a product of perception, and not as a special mystical insight. I can reach the end of Bruckner’s 9th with a sensation of intellectual and emotional ecstasy, profundity and insight – but what is this ‘insight’? The world has not changed, and neither have I (except perhaps in becoming more sensitive to aesthetic experience).

I don’t think this way of looking at art diminishes it or my experience of it. Art still affects me; it’s just that I don’t proceed from that effect to the notion that I have received mystical (or sociopolitical) insight.
 

From this site: http://www.pureintimacy.org/piArticles/A000000433.cfm
Bear in mind as you read this that Bundy was executed in 1989, well before the current explosion of porn upon the internet.

JCD: How did it happen? Take me back. What are the antecedents of the behavior that we’ve seen? You were raised in what you consider to be a healthy home. You were not physically, sexually or emotionally abused.

Ted: No. And that’s part of the tragedy of this whole situation. I grew up in a wonderful home with two dedicated and loving parents, as one of 5 brothers and sisters. We, as children, were the focus of my parent’s lives. We regularly attended church. My parents did not drink or smoke or gamble. There was no physical abuse or fighting in the home. I’m not saying it was “Leave it to Beaver”, but it was a fine, solid Christian home. I hope no one will try to take the easy way out of this and accuse my family of contributing to this. I know, and I’m trying to tell you as honestly as I know how, what happened.

As a young boy of 12 or 13, I encountered, outside the home, in the local grocery and drug stores, softcore pornography. Young boys explore the sideways and byways of their neighborhoods, and in our neighborhood, people would dump the garbage. From time to time, we would come across books of a harder nature – more graphic. This also included detective magazines, etc., and I want to emphasize this. The most damaging kind of pornography – and I’m talking from hard, real, personal experience – is that that involves violence and sexual violence. The wedding of those two forces – as I know only too well – brings about behavior that is too terrible to describe.

JCD: Walk me through that. What was going on in your mind at that time?

Ted: Before we go any further, it is important to me that people believe what I’m saying. I’m not blaming pornography. I’m not saying it caused me to go out and do certain things. I take full responsibility for all the things that I’ve done. That’s not the question here. The issue is how this kind of literature contributed and helped mold and shape the kinds of violent behavior.

JCD: It fueled your fantasies.

Ted: In the beginning, it fuels this kind of thought process. Then, at a certain time, it is instrumental in crystallizing it, making it into something that is almost a separate entity inside.

JCD: You had gone about as far as you could go in your own fantasy life, with printed material, photos, videos, etc., and then there was the urge to take that step over to a physical event.

Ted: Once you become addicted to it, and I look at this as a kind of addiction, you look for more potent, more explicit, more graphic kinds of material. Like an addiction, you keep craving something which is harder and gives you a greater sense of excitement, until you reach the point where the pornography only goes so far – that jumping off point where you begin to think maybe actually doing it will give you that which is just beyond reading about it and looking at it.

JCD: How long did you stay at that point before you actually assaulted someone?

Ted: A couple of years. I was dealing with very strong inhibitions against criminal and violent behavior. That had been conditioned and bred into me from my neighborhood, environment, church, and schools.

I knew it was wrong to think about it, and certainly, to do it was wrong. I was on the edge, and the last vestiges of restraint were being tested constantly, and assailed through the kind of fantasy life that was fueled, largely, by pornography.

JCD: Do you remember what pushed you over that edge? Do you remember the decision to “go for it”? Do you remember where you decided to throw caution to the wind?

Ted: It’s a very difficult thing to describe – the sensation of reaching that point where I knew I couldn’t control it anymore. The barriers I had learned as a child were not enough to hold me back from seeking out and harming somebody.

JCD: Would it be accurate to call that a sexual frenzy?

Ted: That’s one way to describe it – a compulsion, a building up of this destructive energy. Another fact I haven’t mentioned is the use of alcohol. In conjunction with my exposure to pornography, alcohol reduced my inhibitions and pornography eroded them further.

JCD: After you committed your first murder, what was the emotional effect? What happened in the days after that?

Ted: Even all these years later, it is difficult to talk about. Reliving it through talking about it is difficult to say the least, but I want you to understand what happened. It was like coming out of some horrible trance or dream. I can only liken it to (and I don’t want to overdramatize it) being possessed by something so awful and alien, and the next morning waking up and remembering what happened and realizing that in the eyes of the law, and certainly in the eyes of God, you’re responsible. To wake up in the morning and realize what I had done with a clear mind, with all my essential moral and ethical feelings intact, absolutely horrified me.

JCD: You hadn’t known you were capable of that before?

Ted: There is no way to describe the brutal urge to do that, and once it has been satisfied, or spent, and that energy level recedes, I became myself again. Basically, I was a normal person. I wasn’t some guy hanging out in bars, or a bum. I wasn’t a pervert in the sense that people look at somebody and say, “I know there’s something wrong with him.” I was a normal person. I had good friends. I led a normal life, except for this one, small but very potent and destructive segment that I kept very secret and close to myself. Those of us who have been so influenced by violence in the media, particularly pornographic violence, are not some kind of inherent monsters. We are your sons and husbands. We grew up in regular families. Pornography can reach in and snatch a kid out of any house today. It snatched me out of my home 20 or 30 years ago. As diligent as my parents were, and they were diligent in protecting their children, and as good a Christian home as we had, there is no protection against the kinds of influences that are loose in a society that tolerates….

JCD: Outside these walls, there are several hundred reporters that wanted to talk to you, and you asked me to come because you had something you wanted to say. You feel that hardcore pornography, and the door to it, softcore pornography, is doing untold damage to other people and causing other women to be abused and killed the way you did.

Ted: I’m no social scientist, and I don’t pretend to believe what John Q. Citizen thinks about this, but I’ve lived in prison for a long time now, and I’ve met a lot of men who were motivated to commit violence. Without exception, every one of them was deeply involved in pornography – deeply consumed by the addiction. The F.B.I.’s own study on serial homicide shows that the most common interest among serial killers is pornography. It’s true.

JCD: What would your life have been like without that influence?

Ted: I know it would have been far better, not just for me, but for a lot of other people – victims and families. There’s no question that it would have been a better life. I’m absolutely certain it would not have involved this kind of violence.

JCD: If I were able to ask the kind of questions that are being asked, one would be, “Are you thinking about all those victims and their families that are so wounded? Years later, their lives aren’t normal. They will never be normal. Is there remorse?”

Ted: I know people will accuse me of being self-serving, but through God’s help, I have been able to come to the point, much too late, where I can feel the hurt and the pain I am responsible for. Yes. Absolutely! During the past few days, myself and a number of investigators have been talking about unsolved cases – murders I was involved in. It’s hard to talk about all these years later, because it revives all the terrible feelings and thoughts that I have steadfastly and diligently dealt with – I think successfully. It has been reopened and I have felt the pain and the horror of that.

I hope that those who I have caused so much grief, even if they don’t believe my expression of sorrow, will believe what I’m saying now; there are those loose in their towns and communities, like me, whose dangerous impulses are being fueled, day in and day out, by violence in the media in its various forms – particularly sexualized violence. What scares me is when I see what’s on cable T.V. Some of the violence in the movies that come into homes today is stuff they wouldn’t show in X-rated adult theatres 30 years ago.

JCD: The slasher movies?

Ted: That is the most graphic violence on screen, especially when children are unattended or unaware that they could be a Ted Bundy; that they could have a predisposition to that kind of behavior.

JCD: One of the final murders you committed was 12-year-old Kimberly Leach. I think the public outcry is greater there because an innocent child was taken from a playground. What did you feel after that? Were they the normal emotions after that?

Ted: I can’t really talk about that right now. It’s too painful. I would like to be able to convey to you what that experience is like, but I won’t be able to talk about that. I can’t begin to understand the pain that the parents of these children and young women that I have harmed feel. And I can’t restore much to them, if anything. I won’t pretend to, and I don’t even expect them to forgive me. I’m not asking for it. That kind of forgiveness is of God; if they have it, they have it, and if they don’t, maybe they’ll find it someday.

JCD: Do you deserve the punishment the state has inflicted upon you?

Ted: That’s a very good question. I don’t want to die; I won’t kid you. I deserve, certainly, the most extreme punishment society has. And I think society deserves to be protected from me and from others like me. That’s for sure. What I hope will come of our discussion is that I think society deserves to be protected from itself. As we have been talking, there are forces at loose in this country, especially this kind of violent pornography, where, on one hand, well-meaning people will condemn the behavior of a Ted Bundy while they’re walking past a magazine rack full of the very kinds of things that send young kids down the road to being Ted Bundys. That’s the irony.

I’m talking about going beyond retribution, which is what people want with me. There is no way in the world that killing me is going to restore those beautiful children to their parents and correct and soothe the pain. But there are lots of other kids playing in streets around the country today who are going to be dead tomorrow, and the next day, because other young people are reading and seeing the kinds of things that are available in the media today.
 

I posted this in a forum as a response to Alex Ross’s recent column “Why Do We Hate Classical Music?“, in the Guardian:

I’m afraid I find Ross’s argument hackneyed, as well as a bit confused.

First, the problem of new artists versus old masters. This isn’t unique to music at all. In fact the only exception to the rule I can think of is cinema, in which the mass audience generally dismisses anything over 20 years old. But then, in that field, there have been undeniable technical advances which make most earlier films look primitive – there isn’t really comparable technicological drift in other fields.

Second, the comparisons in other fields are in many respects invalid. Architects and painters in particular rely on an extremely small group of patrons for their success (or failure), whereas music really needs a mass audience.

Third, you will actually find people who disagree with the Modernist “icons”, despite the weight of conventional wisdom. For instance, we had a debate on the merits of Picasso in this forum earlier this year. I think a number of these icons remain so because of the strenuous vocalisations of a tiny minority, rather than their inherent values.

At the core of Ross’s piece is the same old controversy about “outdated” tonality suppressing “historically inevitable” atonality. If it is suppressed, it’s because people want it suppressed. And in my listening experience, it’s not even because atonal music is difficult, but because it’s boring. If the notes occur because of some extra-musical schema, their harmonic relationship is essentially random, and thus meaningless. And even outside this consideration, atonalists seem to me generally incapable of constructing a rhetorical or dramatic flow to a piece that makes it engaging. (But this is something even modern tonalists seem to lack.)

Indeed, it’s striking that film-makers have made lavish use of the same dissonances that concertgoers have found so alienating. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its hallucinatory György Ligeti soundtrack, mesmerised millions in the late 1960s. … If the human ear were instinctively hostile to dissonance, these and 1,000 other Hollywood productions would have failed.

This is a junk argument, partly because music accompanying a dramatic visual experience is processed differently to “pure” music, and mostly because atonal music in film always represents or evokes an alienating, horrific, or inhuman experience. It does this because it sounds “wrong”, and I would argue this wrongness stems from a cause that is biological, not “merely” cultural. (Inverted commas around “merely”, because I disagree with the Modernist idea that culture, particularly Western culture, must be undermined and overthrown).

Here are my thoughts on the biological necessity of tonally-based music:

1) Humans are wired to be pattern-finders. Presented with any complex, apparently chaotic system, we look for patterns and meanings. So strong is this instinct that we even find patterns and meanings in places where they don’t exist.

Music is complex, particularly classical music, and we derive pleasure from identifying and following its patterns, regardless of whether we identify these patterns as emotions or technical phenomena. There is an element of trust involved. We want to believe that there is some conscious intent behind the meanings we discover (just as we want to believe in God). For this reason, we have limited patience for music derived, or apparently derived, by chance.

2) Perhaps more controversially, I believe humans are programmed to find specific meanings in tonal relationships.

These meanings are both emotional and spatial. Two notes, the second a tone higher than the first, form a relationship which we cannot help but take as implying a change of elevation both physical and emotional. If the order of the notes is reversed, it must represent a decline or a reduction both physical and emotional. These meanings have value and interest to us, in as much as they are analogous to information about the real world.

If we introduce more notes, the meaning becomes more complex, thus more interesting and valuable. The use of several different tonalities/harmonies in close proximity brings a new dimension, which I suggest implies the simultaneous existence of multiple viewpoints, or places, in other words the complexities of community, or geography.

I assume you can see where I’m going with this. Tonality is a grid on which we can plot meaning. If we take away the grid, we are left with parts which are unrelated. Unrelated parts do not have meaning. Things without meaning are not interesting.

All this is not to say that tonal music cannot be incredibly boring, of course! The minimalists abuse tonality in another way, by repetition, but that’s an argument for another time.