Foggy, Raw, Learning Curve



One of my more annoying personal characteristics is a seeming aversion to instruction manuals.  For someone to whom reading is one of the four or five great pleasures of life, for whatever reason, I cannot abide the tedium of reading a set of instructions.  For one thing, nothing seems to stick until I actually try to perform the functions laid out.  I might as well be reading Linear-B.  (Oddly, I can read theoretical texts without much difficulty—physics, art, philosophy, psychology, and so forth—it’s only step by step “how to” works that both try my patience and do me no apparent good.)  Of course, when I do read the instructions, something does stick and I find the task at hand less baffling.  Nevertheless, all my life, I have my hands on what I want to do before getting past the table of contents in the manual.

Where they help is when I run into something that stops me in my tracks.  (Let me in my defense say here that I am not one of those males who make a fetish of not asking directions; I have no problem stopping on a road and asking someone where I am and how to get elsewhere.)

Anyway, I’ve been, the last few years, teasing my way through digital photography.  I’ve been posting the results as I go along.  I broke down a couple years ago and bought a new camera, a Canon 60D, which is not the top-of-the-line (good heavens, I  didn’t have five grand!) but is not an amateur machine, either.  It’s about what I needed to get me started and produces more than acceptable results.  (I suspect I’m going to have to pop for a better lens one of these days, not to mention a second one to extend the range.)

To date I’ve been shooting everything in JPEG and working with the images in Photoshop 7.  I’ve been hearing and reading about shooting in RAW all this time, but the JPEGs have been very amendable to my manipulations and I’ve been learning my way through Photoshop handily.  (A friend came over a couple of times to show me the initial stuff, which made the instructions make sense.)

Lately, I’ve been running up against the edges of quality.  Nothing I could quite put my finger on, just…an impression…that these photographs could be sharper or a bit richer…what finally came down to a sense that they simply didn’t contain enough information.

So I thought it was time to try RAW and see if it made a difference.

It did.  The first one being, I can’t open the files in Photoshop 7.  A quick check around the intraweebs and I discover that I need a plug-in for that.  Hm.  A hundred bucks.


The program that came with the camera does open them and there is a, what I initially thought was a cruder, processing program included.  Well, there are many things I don’t readily see available, but I can work with the files and convert them into JPEGS, which I can then pull into Photoshop for further work.

And it does seem that there is more to work with.

Back in the ancient past, we used to debate lens quality versus film acuity, the amount of information a given lens could transmit and the ability of a particular film to “see” it.  On paper, at least, it always seemed a silly argument, because even the cheapest aftermarket lenses transmitted far more data than the finest film was capable of recording.  And yet, there was a reason Leica lenses were so damned expensive.  You could see the difference.  It was palpable.  What information was recordable by the film was intimately dependent on how much information it had to, for lack of a better word, choose from.  In the end, it was a signal-to-noise problem, classic amplitude/frequency physics.  I was pretty good for a time at distinguishing the quality of the glass, as we said, from the quality of the image on paper.  In my own work, I could see it clearly, even though more often than not, it was not quantifiable in other than æsthetic terms.

If the quality isn’t there, it can drive you nuts, even if in every other respect there is nothing wrong with the image.  It’s like a noise in a motor than only you can hear.

So all I want for Christmas (for now) is the latest version of Photoshop (or equivalent) that allows me to work in RAW without having to buy a damned plug-in.

Why not get the plug-in, you ask?  Excellent question.  Basically, because I have rarely had any luck downloading those blasted things and installing them properly without days of struggle fixing whatever went wrong in the negotiation.

Besides, I’m sure what I’m using currently is antiquated.

Meantime, I seem to have managed to step up the level of quality this way.

Eroded Ascent

It Was Fifty Years Ago, Mr. Bond

“Do you expect me to talk?”

“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!

The exchange between Bond and Goldfinger may sum up the attitude of many who are tired, offended, or otherwise ambivalent or disinterested in the absurdly long career of the improbable James Bond, 007.  Even those of us who have been more or less unable to let go our adolescent attachment to the character have doubtless wondered why he hasn’t just died.

He should have, certainly after the criminal treatment he endured toward the middle and end of the Roger Moore years.  All due respect to Mr. Moore (he didn’t write the films, he had probably less control than most leading men), I for one never quite accepted him as Bond.  He was always a bit too pretty, a bit too sophisticated, a bit too…light.

But the movies were popular, he kept signing on, and we endured, waiting for the next incarnation of Sean Connery.

The iconic Bond image of Connery with the long-barreled Walther (yes, that thing was a Walther, but it was an air gun because the actual prop hadn’t arrived for the photo shoot) which was never seen in any of the Bond films is not the one that summed up the character for me.  Rather it was this one:

The first real good look at Bond, at the L’Circle club at the beginning of Doctor No.  This is the image that made me want to be Bond— utterly unconcerned, cool, detached, and completely confident within himself.  He’s playing a fairly expensive game of bacarat and he obviously could care less whether he wins or loses.  (Of course, this is not true—Bond always cared about that, but not over trivial things.  The trivial things simple fell in line when he walked into the room, and this was another characteristic that made him, to a clumsy, hormone-laced adolescent, such an enviable figure.  How badly I wanted to simply not give a damn and how thoroughly I gave a damn about not being able to do that.)

I saw that first Bond film on first release. I was eight at the time and it wasn’t the women that got me, it was that dangerous cool he had at his disposal.  Later, as I reached puberty, the women became important, but till then it was being lethal—and not using it—that was the thing.

And dressing well and talking well and comporting yourself as if you knew why you were there and what you were doing.  It was a total package that was the only viable replacement for the stoic gunslinger in the westerns.  In the scope of a kid’s imagination, Bond was doable.

I wrote an essay for one of the BenBella Smartpop anthologies, James Bond In The 21st Century riffing on an imaginary history of the films, with a departure from Sean Connery.  It could have happened, Fleming was not taken with Connery at first, and there were others who could have filled the role.  (Fleming’s choice was David Niven, which, given the physicality of the character, is kind of absurd.  But it explains the subsequent choices, I think, of actors.)  It was also an alternate history of the franchise had it not been the hit that it was.  It was a fun piece to write, but it addressed a serious question.

Why did a franchise that became, for a time, so massively ridiculous continue to be such a big deal?

I think the answer is in the new manifestation.  Daniel Craig (and the writers) has gone back to the source in many ways and given us a Bond more in line with Fleming’s original conception of someone who is genuinely dangerous who wears a veneer of polish, culture, and civilization.

Once again, though, we harken back to that first on-screen look at Bond and see its reemergence in Craig’s portrayal.  Detached, completely in control, cool, and competent.

But with a difference for the films.

He’s vulnerable.

The last time Bond was vulnerable was in On Her Majestie’s Secret Service and Tracy Bond.  After that, he was in all but the Kryptonian origin, Superman.  It became the trademark.  Nothing got through, not really.  He had his empathy boxed up and set to one side, to be taken out on special occasions.

And there’s an appeal to that, to be sure.  We have all been undone by our notoriously fickle and sabotaging emotions, made fools of, acted stupidly.  What would we give to be able to avoid all that?

Well, the price is too high, but we have fantasy characters through which to pretend.

But I think it goes too far and they become so unlikely—not in their actions, the plots that give them a showcase, but in their emotional lives—that we cannot identify with them at all.  All we have then are the toys, the lifestyle, the fashions, and the rollercoaster ride of an action sequence.

Craig has been allowed to open Bond up so we can reconnect, albeit in a small way, with the pathetic human being caged behind the armor.  The fact that Craig is a first-rate actor (possibly better than Connery even in his prime) doesn’t hurt.

Bond has survived, though, because at his base he still represents a level of competence in a fickle, dangerous world we would all like to tap into.  Bond is always centered, he always knows what he’s about and how to act on that knowledge, and that is a very attractive ideal.  When you look at the first three Bond films, you can see that and a slightly vulnerable man, one who doesn’t always get it right, who can become involved, and can therefore be hurt. After Thunderball they became all about the gadgets and some surreal good vs evil drama that actually gave a good shadow-theater representation of the world at large.

The other thing that has carried us through so many really awful Bond films, though, is the myth of the uninvolved sybarite.  He comes in, takes his pleasure, kills the bad guy, and leaves unscathed.  He’s a moral avenger who gets to party occasionally.  His reward for doing the right thing was good food, fast cars, fine clothes, and great sex.  Bond never got fat, never caught a ticket or the clap, never left behind a single mom, and always looked good.  In return, he saved the world.  There was no sacrifice, really—he was a mercenary.

Except that’s not what Fleming wrote.  And when they rebooted the franchise and chose to do Casino Royale, they put that in there.  It may be ignored in subsequent films (I hope not, it’s what elevates Bond above the common), but it was there—Bond is sacrificing his soul.

That first novel, Casino Royale, was about that.  Bond was a new agent, freshly-minted with a 007 license, and fully a third of the book is him in hospital, working through the emotional and moral calculus of continuing to do this ugly, brutal job.  To their credit, the makers of the first Craig film kept that in.  We were even, dimly, shown its conclusion in Quantum of Solace, where at the end Bond has made his choice, and put on the armor.

It will be interesting to see if they continue to keep him human, if only slightly, or if they’ll do what they did before and turn him into the Road Runner getting one over on all the coyotes on the planet.

Happy birthday, Mr. Bond.

The Last One

The last motion picture theater of my youth is gone.

For several years, The Avalon, sitting on Kingshighway, across the street from a mortuary that has now become a church, has been shuttered and slowly decaying and finally has met its inevitable fate.

In a way, good.  It has been an eyesore for some time, a constant reminder of neglect and a ruin of a bygone era.

Hyperbole? Indeed, yes, but true nonetheless.  As you can tell by what remained, it was an elegant, simple building, with a lovely facade.  A symbol of an age thoroughly gone—the single-screen, stand-alone movie theater.

The last film I saw there was back in 1986 or ’87—The Last Temptation of Christ.  The theater had passed into the hands of a single owner who was a bit of an eccentric, and he tried everything to keep it going.  He had a bit of a windfall with that film because of the timidity of every other movie theater in the city and county.  They all refused to show Scorcese’s flawed depiction of Jesus’ final days.  The Avalon announced it would screen it and it was no doubt the last time it had sell-out audiences for several days.

By then, the wear and tear was already very apparent.  One of the speakers had been busted for years, generating an annoying buzz off to stage left, and he had never, evidently, made enough money to fix it or replace it.  For ordinary dialogue it was fine, the buzz only became noticeable during very loud sequences.  Probably a torn cone.

But the air conditioning worked, the concession stand still operated, and the seats were kept in repair.

After that, we never went back.  When the doors closed, I expected someone to buy it and try to restore it, but I always thought that during the ’80s and ’90s, when so many of these disappeared one way or the other.

There’s a scene in Woody Allen’s film Radio Days that shows the family Going To The Movies during the 1930s.  In Allen’s handling, it is a reverential scene, like people going to church, slow, a processional, and while I never quite felt that way, there is certainly something of that in my memory.  Nostalgia often becomes a frame for reverence.  Going to the movies for us was a Big Deal and our major entertainment, up till the age of VCRs.  I have vivid memories of a childhood with many options for movie-going.  St. Louis was full of them.

A few of the buildings remain.  The ultra-modernist Martin Cinerama is still there, but it serves as a church now, which pains me.  It was the most expensive theater to go to, but it was the only Cinemascope screen in town.  I remember seeing Grand Prix there.  I also saw 2001: A Space Odyssey there four times.  But not much else.  We may have seen How the West Was Won there, but my more vivid memory of that was seeing it in our local theater, The Shenendoah, and being annoyed at the peculiar warp in the center of the screen where the wide Cinemascope picture had been compressed.

The Melvin is still there, but it, too, is a church, one of those little revival things that can barely support itself.

And of course The Fox is still there, majestic centerpiece of our threater district, and up the street a little bit is Powell Hall, which was once The American, a movie house of the grand tradition.

The rest?  All the stand-alone neighborhood theaters are pretty much gone.

The ones I spent my adolescence in were within walking distance, albeit long walks:  The Shenendoah, The Ritz, The Washington, and The Columbia.  I saw Gone With The Wind in The Columbia.  To be fair, that one is somewhat still there.  The building is, anyway.  After the theater closed, it was converted into a sports facility for a while, with handball courts.  It burned.  Now it is a private home, a showcase bit of architectural bravura owned by the architect.  I sometimes wonder how many people anymore know what it once was.

But the others are just gone, torn down.  Parking lots.  That’s also what became of The Granada, another of my favorites.  I remember when it was demolished, standing in the remaining space and trying to fit the immense theater of my memory into the claustrophobic area of the empty lot.  That’s another one I recall the last picture I saw in—Star Crash.  It rained hard that night, too.

The Granada in particular galls.  I knew a bunch of people, my age, who had formed a company to try to buy it so they could turn it into a revival theater.  The owner, for reasons that escaped us all, refused to sell, delayed and delayed, until one year the roof fell in and the building became a hazard.  The cost of renovation at that point was too high and soon after it fell to the wrecking ball.

The Ritz…yes, I remember the last picture I saw there, as well.  The owners had tried to convert it into a multi-screen venue, which sort of worked, but the crowd had deteriorated into a Roman mob and I was threatened with a knife in the hands of a ten-year-old I told to shut up.  The film?  Airplane II.

Not sure about all the others.

The litany is long, like absent friends.  The Crest, the Crestwood, the Ambassador,  all the Loews theaters, Midtown, State, another one that eludes memory just now, the Mark Twain, the Creve Coeur…

I remember the first time I went to a multiplex.  I didn’t know then that it was the wave of the future.  My dad took me to The Des Peres to see 2001, on a screen not much larger than a widescreen LCD you can put in your home now.  They were known as “Jerry Lewis Intimate Theaters” and we thought they were a joke.  Well.

Movie houses, as they were once affectionately called, suffered, I think, the demise of the B Picture more than anything else.  In an era where the cheapest Hollywood production can only be done for close to ten million, the need for box office returns simply will not support the way theaters used to operate.  Oh, there are certainly B pictures, but they go direct to television (cable) or direct to DVD.  No one is going to pay the cost of an evening at the theater for less than a major motion picture, so the bread-and-butter of the former age is gone.

I can understand, intellectually, what happened, and if I had been a businessman in the movie house business back then I probably would have taken the same series of decisions that has resulted in the current loss of what for many decades was an American institution.

Going to the movies is a social activity.  It’s not like gathering a couple friends at your home to watch a DVD.  It is a civilizing activity when conducted the way it once was.

One benefit of this, probably unforeseen (I didn’t see it), is the revival of live theater.  If you’re going to pay a lot of money to go be entertained, the novelty and impact of the stage is the thing that draws the audience.  Not, perhaps, large audiences—many local theater groups struggle—but devoted audiences, and this, I think, is a good thing.  Live theater is about the story, the characters, not the special effects.  At live theater, you have to pay attention.

I miss going to the movies.  We stopped doing it years ago because, frankly, it was just more convenient to rent the video.  The “pause” button has spoiled us, weakening out bladders, giving us opportunity to replay what just happened because we don’t pay as close attention as we used to, and avoiding sitting in a hall with people who don’t know how to shut up during the film.  It became expensive and a bother.

Now it’s a special event, something we might do once or twice a year.  (I have every intention of going to see John Carter of Mars at the theater.)  And, yes, there are still theaters—multiplexes, often in shopping malls (although that peculiar institution itself is struggling, so who knows what may happen)—and they are expensive.  Now we have OMNIMAX theaters, which, impressive as they sometimes are, is nevertheless part of an ongoing tradition in film to try to coax people to leave their homes and go to the movies, like VistaVision, Todd-AO, Cinemascope and a dozen others, all trying to offer people what could not be had on television.  The current revival of 3-D is such a gimmick.

Anyway, I thought I’d take some space to lament the passing of yet another monument from my youth.  The intersection where The Avalon once stood was home once to a remarkable piece of urban architecture, a Famous-Barr department store that, when it was built, was shocking for its modernity.  That’s gone now, too, a strip mall in its place with a Walgreens and an Office Max.  Around the neighborhood you can see the architectural motifs on apartment buildings and private homes that speak of a more optimistic, confident time—and, perhaps, a more thoughtful time.

Or not.  Nostalgia is deceptive and memory a dangerously mutable realm.  But there is still some comfort there, to go along with the melancholy.


An Age of Wonder and Annoyance

I have two things to talk about that are related by the slenderest of threads. Bear with me.

First I’d like to say something about how marvelous is the age in which we live, at least from the perspective of someone who has now lived in a couple of “ages” since arriving on this planet in 1954.

A short while ago I had lunch. While having lunch I like to watch something, so I popped the DVD of The Right Stuff   into my player and settled back to my roast beef and movie.  While watching, it occurred to me how blase I’ve  become at this technology.

See, growing up, movies were a Big Deal.  My parents went every other week at least and took me.  Going To The Movies holds a special, nostalgic place in my memory.  It was a shared event, but more than that it was in fact An Event.  TV was there, sure, but it was crappy and even at age four I kind of recognized the difference.  Movies were Big, they were Special, they were Unique—and they went away.  Though it was dependable.  The first run theaters got the new films and ran them for a week, maybe two.  The next batch were due in and they swapped them out, so the films went to the cheaper neighborhood theaters, usually only for a week.  Plus, these were double features.  You sat in the theater for up to four and half hours to see two movies.  Before I was born, it would be two movies, plus—cartoons, a short subject, maybe a news reel.  Going to movies was a significant amount of time and a major outing.

We brought our own snacks.  Mom would make up some popcorn or put a brown bag of candy together, and we might—might—bring a bottle of soda to share.  The concession stand was more than we could afford usually.

And after the movies left the theaters, they were gone.  If you  hadn’t seen them when they came out, during the three or four weeks they were in town at one or another theater, you were s.o.l.  Some of the bigger hits might be rereleased a year or two later and a few films were perennially rereleased, but the vast majority did not come back.  You had to remember them.

Television changed that somewhat when networks started leasing movies to show at certain low-traffic times, and then in the late Sixites and early Seventies there were a variety of movie programs—Movie of the Week, Thursday Night At the Movies, A Picture For A Sunday Afternoon.  Suddenly all these old films started turning up again, and of course after ten P.M. local networks aired a lot of B pictures or films from the Thirties and Forties, but you had to stay up for them, and you never knew what you would get.  (Some of my favorite memories with my dad come from Friday nights, sitting up late, watching some of these movies, some of which were unintentional howlers at which we’d poke fun.)

A lot of people today probably don’t see the wonder in being able to go to a store or online and buy a film and watch it at home.  VCRs didn’t come in till the late Seventies (and the early models weren’t great), but it ushered in an age of comparative cultural wealth.  The idea, when I grew up, that I could actually own one of these movies, for myself, and watch it when I chose to…

You forget occasionally to sit back and appreciate what we now have.  It is amazing—the technology, yes, but the fact that I can drop a disc in a machine and watch The Maltese Falcon or  Gone With The Wind  or  The Right Stuff  whenever I please is…incredible.

That’s the good part.

The other amazing thing is this vast and complex online community—several communities, actually, some overlapping—that we have with more ease than it used to be to make a long distance phone call.  It’s amazing.  I can communicate with people I would never have known existed in one of those previous “ages” and talk about things only a rare handful of people I ever met face to face would even have been interested in before.  Like-minded, like-enthused, like-whatever people around the globe who can now “chat” online.

And with whom one can trip over an area of sensitivity so fast and so inexplicably that it makes your head spin.  I have recently had this shoved in my face just how easily some folks take offense and how impossible it can be to explain yourself or extricate yourself.  Unless you want to be an ass, it is often better to simply leave the group in question rather than see the crap continually stirred.

But because it is so easy to leave, not to mention remain anonymous, I think many people never learn the nuances of real interaction.  Distance used to serve a vital social function, namely keeping people apart by virtue of the difficulty of communicating.  Letter-writing requires thought—the trouble you have to go through to draft the letter, address it, go to the post office, etc. I think tends to make people more thoughtful and thorough.  It’s not like a casual conversation, which the ease of communication has sometimes turned the most serious conversations into because it is difficult to tell when it is time to stop cracking wise.

Further, though, once a foul has been made, it doesn’t go away.  It perpetuates, spreads, and suddenly people all over may know all about the reputation you have earned through misadventure.

Part of the problem—a big part, I think—is the fact of the words remaining behind after the conversation is over.  Spoken conversation has a half-life, very short, and events carry people past ill-considered phrasing or cliches, aided by the visuals, the body language and facial expression.  But when you write something down, it has weight, and online exchanges acquire significance never intended for a brief exchange.  You can consider the words, read them over again and again, and derive meaning and intent whether it’s there or not.

The wonderfulness of our enabling technologies render us lazy, allow us to take for granted things which in an earlier time, with less speed and availability, would not have been so poorly used.

So instead of a thoughtless sentence being immediately apologized for, brushed aside, and forgotten, the offending sentence lingers, a solid legacy that reminds and continues to irritate.  The down-side of modern ease.

Part of the pleasure of all these things should be from not taking them for granted, from a near conscious recognition of just how cool things are.  On the one hand, we maybe have to grow thicker skins—certainly we have to learn new interpretive skills—and on the other maybe let our skins thin a little so we can sense the amazing gift much of this world is.  Hard to know where to apply what and for a whole generation or two there is the perfectly understandable if annoying question, “What’s the big deal?”

Unfortunately, if you have to ask…

Star Wars and Science Fiction

On Thursday, July 21st,  I gave a talk at the Daniel Boone Regional Library on the nature of science fiction.  I had a good turn-out, the room was almost full, and the talk was generally well-received.

I used a comparison I’ve grown used to deploying, comparing Star Wars to something else and pointing out how it is not science fiction but rather a quest fantasy dressed up like SF, which is not at all uncommon, but can be confusing when talking about the differences that make SF unique.  Normally, this point gets across without too much trouble and for that reason, perhaps, I’ve grown a bit complacent in how I present it.

One person in the audience kept coming back to it, arguing that my definition of what makes Star Wars a fantasy is not sufficiently differentiating to separate it from science fiction.  We went back a forth throughout the evening.  The exchange was fun, respectful, and illuminating, but I still think I failed to address the concerns made.  For one, I didn’t identify the direction from which the objection came well enough.

The question centered around the requirement that SF be about how humans deal with significant changes in the environment around them, causing them to see the universe fundamentally differently than before—requiring them to change.  As stated, all fiction of any worth makes this demand of characters.  No change, no drama.  I put the emphasis on the specifics of the environment—an environment that is changed out of our norm by advances in technology or encounters with aliens or one of the several other motifs SF has deployed in the past, like time travel, telepathy, advanced weapons, faster-than-light travel and so forth.

Well, Star Wars  has all that, so why doesn’t it qualify as SF?

I think I failed to get across that the changes elicited by such things must also be in accord with the nature of the new environment.  The fact is, Luke doesn’t meet that criteria, nor really does anyone else in Star Wars.  Nor do they have to, because the changed milieu in which they move is not acting upon them the way it would in a science fiction novel.

My questioner seemed to be taking the stance that Luke was going through a Hero’s Journey, ala Joseph Campbell’s thesis in The Hero With A Thousand Faces.  Everyone knows, or should know, that Campbell was a close adviser to George Lucas on the first two movies and they conform to Campbell’s  mythic analysis.  Why does this make Star Wars fantasy instead of science fiction?  Don’t  SF characters go through a Hero’s Journey?

Well, many do, certainly, but not all, and science fiction really isn’t concerned with reifying those kinds of myths.  And here’s where I fumbled.

Luke Skywalker’s entire journey is destined.  He walks the path he does to fulfill the potential left unfulfilled by his father, making this a story tied to a thick strand of myth that is the same in that film as it was in Aeschylus or Euripedes.  The universe through which Luke moves is functionally no different than the myth-strewn landscape through which Hercules, Theseus, or Perseus walked.  The aliens in Star Wars are not really aliens, but mythic archetypes and racial stereotypes.  Take the whole corpus of Star Wars and drop it  into any of the stories of the Age of Heroes and the only things you would have to change are the modes of transportation and the weapons.  Luke doesn’t have to change because who and what he is will not meet the changed conditions of the universe, but because the universe has a predetermined role for him to fulfill and he need only become what he can inevitably become.  The universe in this instance is almost a conscious enabler in a process that has nothing to do with what we know of nature.

Luke’s training is the same as that of any warrior monk of any period of history.  He’s a squire, an apprentice, Obi Wan is a knight, the Emperor is a wizard and Darth Vader his co-opted henchman.  Where have we seen these before?  The universe of Star Wars is a magic quest that sees no reason for anything to change simply because it is different.

Rather than compare it to what it is usually compared with—Star Trek—let’s compare it to something strikingly different.  Blade Runner.  Is there a Hero’s Journey in Blade Runner?  Sort of.  Deckard must go on a quest, meeting challenges, in order to become who he really is.  But the landscape has utterly changed, so when he gets to the end he has not triumphed.  All he has learned is that he was lied to all his life and that what he is has no place in the society he has just defended.  And what are the challenges he has faced?  Are they threats to society?  Perhaps, but not in any reifying way.  He has to kill beings like himself who are designed to a purpose and want only to be free of their destiny.  Very much like Deckard himself, who has at the beginning quit the service he finds damaging to himself.

The changed conditions of the environment require him to do what is not in his nature, so there is no fulfillment of potential, only a kind of indentured servitude with the elusive goal at the end of not having to do it anymore.  And at the end what he learns is that his prey is not what he thought it was, that in achieving the ends set for him by society he has perhaps committed a worse crime, a moral crime, and that the reward he sought was intended for someone he no longer believes he is—in fact, he will be hunted down by others now for having learned what he is.

Only another level, just as important, is an argument over the nature of slavery and what is human, deployed in a manner than sidesteps the arbitrariness of personal prejudice—the replicants are Made Objects rather than designated as such by those without empathy.  Like anything else humans make, are they not property?

This is not a scenario easily translated into fantasy—even the Urukai of Tolkein and the Orcs are undeniably evil by virtue of having been made, the idea being that any imitation of nature in such a process is by definition corrupted—because the replicants are individuals, not archetypes, and that’s where the dividing line is.

And finally there is the science thing.  Star Wars depicts a universe wherein science and technology are almost always inferior, usually corrupt, and complete failures at answering the questions posed by nature.  The Force overrides all—dark or light—rendering anything science might do pointless.

The whole point of science fiction from the beginning has been to establish that such ways of seeing the universe are invalid in terms of human potential.  The “nature” of Nature is not amenable to petitions based on—for lack of a better term—religious concepts of reality, which is ultimately what Star Wars is all about.

What would a genuinely SFnal Star Wars look like?  I’m not sure, but for one thing all those blasters would be laser-sited and no one would miss.  For another, there would likely be no robot slaves (which is what they are)—intelligences at that level would long since have acquired status equal if not superior to the organics life forms around them.  For still a third, there would likely not be an Empire with even the slimmest semblance of homogeneity.

One could go down the list.  The scope and scale of the civilization depicted wouldn’t fit within the narrow confines of the feudal system portrayed.  As for Luke and Leia? Well…

But as to the Hero’s Journey, there are two ways to look at it within this context.  There is the one the hero makes in order to fulfill expectations built into the universe around him—which is the journey Luke Skywalker makes—and this is mythic and religious.  The other is the struggle to find ourselves, our true natures, and fulfill or at least complete the personal journey to become our own selves.  The rest of the universe doesn’t give a damn about this, it is your journey and fulfills no one else’s expectations.  Doing so is its own reward—or, in some cases, punishment—and does not have world-changing consequences.  The former is a fantasy conceit, the latter…well, that’s reality, isn’t it?  And as it plays out in science fiction, it is part of a reality that shares little with fantasy.

My Obligatory Piece About Ayn Rand

From time to time, here and there, someone brings Ayn Rand up as some kind of role model.  Lately it’s even in the national news, thanks to the Tea Party and an apparently not very good film of Rand’s seminal masterwork, Atlas Shrugged.  The uber conservatives now crowding reason out of the halls of congress with their bizarro legislation and their lectures from the floor and on committees about how their toilets don’t flush right so why should regulations on light bulbs be passed are the children of the Dragon’s Teeth cast randomly by Ms. Rand and her philosophical cult followers.  It amazes how people who profess to believe in a philosophy of independent thought can sublimate themselves so thoroughly to the dogmas of that philosophy and claim with a straight face that they are free thinkers on any level.  The phrase “more Catholic than the pope” comes to mind sometimes when crossing verbal swords with these folks, who seem perfectly blind to the contradictions inherent in their own efforts.  Rand laid out a My Way or the Highway ethic that demanded of her followers that they be true to themselves—as long as they did as she directed.

Ayn Rand’s novels, of which there were three (plus a novella/parable I don’t intend to discuss here), moved by giant leaps from promising to fanciful to pathetic.  There are some paragraphs in any one of them that are just fine.  Occasionally a secondary character is nicely drawn (Eddie Willers is possibly her most sympathetic and true-to-life creation) and from time to time there is even a moment of genuine drama.  But such bits are embedded in tar pits of philosophically over-determined panegyric that drowns any art there might be.

But then, her devoted fans never read them for the art.


What Rand delivers in both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged is a balm to the misunderstood and underappreciated Great Man buried in the shambling, inarticulate assemblage that is disaffected high I.Q. youth.

The give-aways in both novels involve laughter.  The opening scene in The Fountainhead characterizes Howard Roark for the entire novel, prefiguring the final scene in the novel, which translated to film perfectly in the weird 1947 Gary Cooper thing.

Howard Roark laughed.

He stood naked at the edge of a cliff….He laughed at the thing which had happened to him that morning and at the things which now lay ahead.

Of course, the thing that had happened to him that morning was his expulsion from university for not completing his assignments.  You can pretty it up with philosophical dross, but basically he didn’t do what he was required to do, instead opting for self-expression in the face of everything else.  Hence the misunderstood genius aspect, the wholly-formed sense of mission, the conviction of personal rightness, and the adolescent disdain for authority no matter what.

But his reaction?  To laugh.

Any other kid in the same situation generally goes skulking off, bitter and resentful, harboring ill thoughts and maybe an “I’ll show you” attitude that may or may not lead to anything useful.

But not a Rand character.  They laugh.  It’s Byronic in its isolated disdain for rules or logic or anything casually human.  It’s a statement of separation.

It’s also just a bit psychotic.

The other scene is from Atlas Shrugged in which Dagny Taggart falls into bed with Henry Reardon.  Both are depicted as mental giants, geniuses, and industrial rebels.  They are self-contained polymaths who make their own rules.  And one of the rules they now make for themselves is that adultery is the only sensible choice for two such kindred beings.

And as they’re tumbling into an embrace?

When he threw her down on the bed, their bodies met like the two sounds that broke against each other in the air of the room: the sound of his tortured moan and of her laughter.

Of course, this most poignant moment is preceded by a long paragraph of Dagny explaining to Hank Reardon that she was going to sleep with him because it would be her proudest moment, because she had earned it.  It’s really rather ridiculous.  It’s the kind of thing that, if done at all, would most likely occur at the end of an affair, when both parties are trying to justify what they’d done, which is basically commit adultery because, you know, they wanted to.

But it’s the laughter that characterizes these two people in these moments.  Crossroads for them both, turning points, and what do they do?  They laugh.  You can’t help but read contempt into it, no matter how much explanation Rand attempts to depict them as somehow above it all.  For her it’s the laughter of victory, but in neither case is there any kind of victory, but a surrender.

Later in Atlas Shrugged Reardon gives her a bracelet made of his miracle metal and upon snapping it closed on her wrist, she kisses his hand, and it is nothing short of a moment from Gor.  Dagny gets traded around through the novel until she ends up with John Galt, and no matter how much Rand tries to explain it, the scenarios she sets up for each transition turn Dagny into a groupie.  She becomes by the end of the novel the prize each of them men gets when they’ve done a particularly impressive trick.

Rand attempts to portray their interactions (if you can call them that—really, they’re more contract negotiations, which means Rand owes an implicit debt to Rousseau) as strenuously righteous achievements.  No one just has a conversation if they’re a Rand hero, they declaim, they negotiate, the issue position statements.  They are continually setting ground rules for the experience at hand, and while maybe there’s something to this (we all indulge this sort of thing, from earliest childhood on, but if we tried to do it with the kind of self-conscious clarity of these people nothing would ever happen), it serves to isolate them further.  They are the antithesis of John Donne’s assertion and by personal fiat.

Only it isn’t really like that.

The problem with being a nerd is that certain social interactions appear alien and impenetrable and the nerd feels inexplicably on the outside of every desirable interpersonal contact.  People like Rand attempt to portray the group to which the nerd feels isolated from as deliberately antagonistic to the nerd because they sense the nerd’s innate superiority.  This is overcomplicating what’s really going on and doing so in an artificially philosophical way which Rand pretends is an outgrowth of a natural condition.  The messiness of living is something she seeks to tame by virtue of imposing a kind of corporate paradigm in which all the worthwhile people are CEOs.

As I said, it’s attractive to certain disaffected adolescent mindset.

But it ain’t real life.

I have intentionally neglected the third novel, which was her first one—We The Living.  I find this book interesting on a number of levels, one of the most fascinating being that among the hardcore Randites it is almost never mentioned, and often not read.  The reasons for this are many, but I suspect the chief one being that it doesn’t fit easily with the two iconic tomes.  Mainly because it’s a tragedy.

We The Living is about Kira Argounova, a teenager from a family of minor nobility who comes back to Moscow after the Revolution with the intention of going to the new “classless” university and becoming an engineer.  She wants to build things and she knows that now is her chance.  Prior to the revolution, she would never have been allowed by her family or social convention—her destiny was to have been married off.  That’s gone now.  We never really learn what has become of the rest of her family, but we can guess.  And Kira is intent on pursuing her dream.

But she can’t.  Because she is from minor nobility, she soon runs afoul of the self-appointed guardians of the Revolution, who oust her from the university just because.

She ends up a prostitute, then a black market dealer.  She becomes the lover of an NKVD agent and uses him.  She is already the lover of a wannabe counter-revolutionary who can’t get his game on and ends up in self-immolation.  The NKVD agent self-destructs because of the contradictions she forces him to see in the new state and Kira goes from bad to worse and finally makes an attempt to escape Russia itself and ends up shot by a hapless border guard at the Finnish border.  She dies just inside Finland.

It is a strikingly different kind of novel and it offers a glimpse of where Rand might have gone had she stuck to this path.  Sure, you can see some of the seeds of her later pedantry and polemic, but the bulk of the novel is heartfelt, an honest portrayal of the tragedy of dreams caught in systemic ambivalence.

One can understand the source of Rand’s fanatic love of the United States—she grew up under the early Soviets, and there’s no denying that this was a dreadful system for a bright, talented, intellectually-bent young woman—or anyone else, for that matter—to endure.  The freedom of the United States must have been narcotic to her.

But she fundamentally misunderstood the American landscape and identified with the glitzy, large-scale, and rather despotic “captains of industry” aspect rather than the common citizens, the groundseed of cooperation and generosity and familial observance and openness that her chosen idols took advantage of rather than provided for.  She drew the wrong lessons and over time, ensconced within her own air-born castles, she became obsessively convinced that the world was her enemy and The People were irredeemable.

Sad, really.  Sadder still that so many people bought into her lopsided philosophy.

She made the mistake so many people seem to make in not understanding that capitalism is not a natural system but an artifice, a tool.  It is not a state of being but a set of applications for a purpose.  It should serve, not dictate.  She set out a playbook which gave capitalism the kind of quasi-legitimate gloss of a religion and we are suffering the consequences of its acolytes.

However, it would seem the only antidote to it is to let people grow out of it.  There’s a point in life where this is attractive—I read all these novels when I was 15 and 16 and I was convinced of my own misunderstood specialness.  But like the adolescent conviction that rock’n’roll is the only music worth listening to and that the right clothes are more important than the content of your mind, we grow out of it.

Some don’t, though.  And occasionally they achieve their goals.  Alan Greenspan, for instance.

And even he has now admitted that he was wrong.  Too bad he didn’t realize that when he was 21.

Other Buzzzzzzzz

I am not going to go see the new Green Hornet movie.  I knew that long before its release, when I heard Seth Rogen had been cast as the Hornet.  I just knew it would be a waste of everyone’s time, money, and sentiment.

I’m sorry.  Hollywood has been doing superhero movies now for decades and they’ve gotten a few of them pretty right.  Except for a ridiculous semi-musical romantic interlude, the first Superman movie with Christopher Reeve was fine.  Mostly this was due to Reeve and co-star Gene Hackman (who can save just about any movie), but they treated the material lovingly the whole way.  Subsequent versions, not so much.  In fact, by the fourth outing as Superman, Reeve must have been a bit embarrassed.  Clearly, the problem with sequels is that we’re dealing with material that was born to be a serial, and the best medium for that is television, not big budget cinema.  That said, a few of these aren’t so bad.  It helps not being immersed in the comic books to begin with (for instance, I was able to enjoy all three of the primary X-Men films without getting all worked up over the liberties taken by the studio that incensed many dedicated fans—except for a Baker’s Dozen back when I was 13 or 14, I did not follow the comics), but I can more or less enjoy many of these outings.  Have to admit, though, to date the Marvel franchise has fared much better.

But the Green Hornet is another matter and one of the things that Hollywood so often forgets is that the material must be taken seriously!


These were the guys I grew up with.  Brit Reid and Kato as played by Van Williams and Bruce Lee, 1966 to 67.  The car especially, Black Beauty, really rocked.  Now, I saw these in first-run and haven’t seen them since, so doubtless they have dated and dated badly.  But my imagination took the original viewing and went amazing places with it, and that is the problem with a lot of these films.

No doubt the film-makers took a cue from the Iron Man movies.  There is a lot of humor in those films, but—the films are not humorous.  Tony Stark is funny, but funny within context—and with a lot of credit going to Robert Downey Jr. for just doing a tremendous job in the role—and that’s something film makers fail to grasp time and again.

For instance, the best Three Musketeer films ever made were the Salkind productions in the 70s with Michael York and Oliver Reed.  Great films.  And funny!  But funny as a consequence of the action within context—the characters themselves were not jokes, they were serious.  Much later, a third film was made, Return of the Three Musketeers, with the same cast, but something had been lost—they were turned into buffoons in order to artificially inject humor rather than letting it arise from the context, and it is painful to watch.

Long ago now Tim Burton made a Batman movie and cast a comic actor, Michael Keeton.  A lot of people probably moaned, fearing the worst.  But Burton treated the material seriously and Keeton played it straight.  Likewise in the sequel, but when Burton lost control Keeton bailed, and good for him, because the studio starting injecting jokes, much as had been done with the James Bond films, and taking the premise much less seriously, until they produced a truly foul film (one of the few I have been utterly unable to watch more than 15 minutes of).

Keeton, however, had done serious films before.  He had a reputation as a comic actor, but more in the line of Jack Lemmon than Seth Rogen, who has gone from one slapstick dumbshit vehicle to another, and apparently the studio opted to play to his strengths in that regard here.

I don’t like movies or television that rely on stupidity to carry the story.  That’s why I no longer watch most sitcoms.  Stupid is not funny to me.  The great comics knew that good comedy was not to make fun of people’s stupidity but to derive the humor from stupid situations.  Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp was not stupid.  Lucille Ball’s character was not stupid, either, she simply never knew enough to follow through effectively on her schemes, and the situation tripped her up.

That said, superhero stories walk a fine line between significance and the absurd.  I mean, really, these people are improbable at best.  It is all too easy to paint them as ridiculous or such utter fantasies that no real drama could result from their stories.  It’s difficult to write sympathetically, not to say powerfully, about people who are so much more than average.  And the scenarios!

But that’s what makes them iconic, because they achieved that balance and then some.  So you have to be careful when translating them from one medium to another.  In this instance, they clearly didn’t get it.

Now back to our regularly scheduled day.

Transparencies of Days Past

Gradually, given enough time, I’ll both learn proficiency with the new digital medium and transfer my best images from nearly forty years of photography.  I’ve been doing this “in between” all the other things on my plate and it hasn’t had top priority, but once in a while I find some old negatives or, in this case, transparencies that make me wonder, for only a moment, why I’m doing anything else.  I finish working something like this over…


…and I get a thrill such as I used to whenever I first made a new image that I thought was worth a damn.

What’s fun now is  that I barely remember taking some of these photographs, but I remember them.  This was an abandoned house behind the property of the people I once worked for.  Furthermore, I shot this with my view camera, a 4X5 Linhof.  I very much wanted to do fine photography and I was raised on the idea that the f64 Group—which had members like Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Wynn Bullock, and others—were the gold standard.  Most of them shot with large format view cameras.  When I finally acquired one and started working with the format, I fell in love.

Negative size relates directly to print quality, that much is obvious, and I could make some very large prints from 4X5 negatives.  But the color work!  This was shot on a long obsolete Ektachrome, E3.  Through most of the 60s on until, oh, the mid 80s or thereabouts, amateur transparency film was E4.  That designates the emulsion type and the processing type.  E3 had been the studio standard for decades and even up through the mid to late 70s large format transparency film was E3.  I could process this myself at home, but it was a magnificent pain.  It required re-exposure part way through the process.  But it possessed a color saturation and vividness e4, as far as I’m concerned, never had.

This particular one, though, had problems.  When I pulled it out of the sleeve it was clear that I had probably been the one to process it.  The image was washed out, heavy in the cyan range.  It may not have been properly stabilized, I don’t know.  But there was enough to it to make it worth scanning.

Once in Photoshop, I was able to revive the original color, much to my surprise, and the image is as sharp as one might wish.  I took it further by erasing a couple of superfluous details, ramping up the contrast a bit, then de-saturating it somewhat for a kind of “aged” look.  Little else was done.  The original exposure had captured everything I needed in good register.

The view camera kit weighed about thirty pounds and I lugged it all over for several years, trying to make “important” images.  A lot of it turned out to be magnificent garbage, but some…well, some came out not too badly.

You’ll find this one and a couple others now on the Zenfolio site.  Enjoy.

Photography and Change

Steve McCurry, a famous photographer whose image of an Afghan girl with brilliant green eyes for National Geographic has become iconic, has been given a great and sad gig—Kodak has handed him the last production roll of Kodachrome to take and shoot.  He’s doing it in grand style, traveling all over the world, with a film crew shooting a documentary about it.

I wanted to be a photographer for National Geographic when I was a teenager.  I knew nothing about how to do that, and for numerous reasons I won’t go into I never found out or took the chance.  I played it safe with a nice steady lab job and didn’t pursue a dream.  Oh well.

But I have nevertheless made some images of which I am very proud.  Here’s one:


I just finished Photoshopping this and doing some work on it to make it more what I wanted it to be.  There are reasons for the abandonment of film, yet I feel sad.  Kodachrome had a special look and it was for a long time my favorite film.  The idea that Kodak won’t be making it anymore—or any of its other films—is just too weird to me.  I remember when they purged their paper line.  They once made dozens of types of photographic paper (b & w) in a variety of surfaces and in the mid to late 70s they discontinued 90% of them.  The market was changing, resin coated paper was becoming popular, sales flagged on the harder-to-use fibre papers…

Still, it’s a loss.  I will be very interested to see what Mr. McCurry does with that final roll.  Meantime, like most of the rest of us, I’m learning to do this digitally.

Gotta say, it has possibilities for me that are very seductive.


Both images were shot in New Mexico.


Okay, so I contributed to the James Cameron Self Love Fund and saw AVATAR. Yesterday we went to the 3-D showing (no way I would spend money on the normal view, I can wait for the DVD the way I do with 99% of the movies I see anymore).  I’ve had a day to think about it now and I’ve come to some conclusions, which are hardly profound, but I think worth saying.

Let me say up front that I wasn’t bored.  Visually, this is a stunning achievement.  But that’s what everyone is saying.  It is, in fact, the best 3-D I’ve ever seen.  Often in the past the effect is minimal and the cost in headache high.  This was neither.  And it fully supported the visuals rather than masking mundane or poor image elements.  Pandora, the planet involved, is magnificently realized.  Cool stuff.  Real gosh wow.

The biology is problematic.  You have a wide mix of lifeforms analogous to Earth.  Some big lumbering critters like hippos or rhinoceri that also have features of a dinosaur, and some small things that are clearly wolves, and one big nasty cat-like thing that’s like a sabertooth tiger.  It’s unclear if any of these creatures are mammalian, but it doesn’t matter much.  Dinosaur analogs.  Most of them apparently four-legged.  But the “horses” the natives ride are six-legged, reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ thoats.  How does that play out in evolutionary terms?  Well, maybe that’s a quibble.

How then do you evolve humanoids out of this?  Well, maybe that’s a quibble, too.  This film is not about science on any level, regardless of the few bits of dialogue suggesting there are, you know, scientists, and that there is a studyable cause to any of this.

Because the story, basically, is hackneyed, cynical, and cliched.  I have to hand it to Cameron, he rips off the best.  Strong elements of Anne McCaffery’s Pern in here, as well as Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and a nod to LeGuin (The Word For World Is Forest), Poul Anderson (Call Me Joe), even Joe Haldeman (All My Sins Remembered).  If I dug through my memories I could probably come up with at least half a dozen more clear “borrowings” all mixed in.  There’s not an original idea in any two minutes.

The plotline, however, is straight out of post-colonial self-loathing and Western angst and while there is much to be mined from that pool that is legitimate for drama, its deployment here was purely sentimental button-pushing.  All the triggers were in place, with strong connections to the American Indian, Vietnam, and even a bit of Afghanistan just to bring it up to date.  And it was all thrown into the mix regardless of the logic behind it, which is profoundly flawed.  The few genuinely interesting touches are overhwelmed by the self-righteous indignation Cameron clearly wished to evoke.  We see Pocahontas, Dances With Wolves, and Custer’s Last Stand all in service to making a statement about…

The Big Bad Nasty Western Corporate Oligarchy Bent On Destroying Everything To Mine The Last Fragment Of Coal.

In this case, Unobtanium.

Which is somehow worth the cost of an expedition that would bankrupt the planet for the next century.

Which, if we buy the premise that interstellar travel is now practical, would be a pointless exercise in colonial assholery with no upside in terms of profit or prestige, because that one assumption means we’ve solved our energy and resource problems  and the scenario depicted rests upon a 19th Century mindset that would no longer be supportable—just as it pretty much isn’t now.

Which makes AVATAR a rather stupid movie.

Not that there wouldn’t be a way to actually sell this with a little extra work.  With a bit more imagination.  With less desire to beat up on a cultural motif that doesn’t actually need a half-billion dollar 3-D piece of propagandistic hyper sentimentalized derivative schlock movie to achieve.

Very simply posit that these trespassers are rogues.  It could be done in any of a number of ways and actually make a better story.  Not much better, perhaps, but it might be a little less cynical…

Why am I bothering to detail all this?  Because, beautiful as this film is—and it is beautiful—it pisses me off to see so much money dumped into a third-rate piece of hack writing when there are fine artists and projects begging for a little support, who have stories that would benefit the world much more than this dead-end preaching.

End of rant.