May 14, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Science fiction has crept into the mainstream more than ever before on movie and television screens, but what largely ends up in these venues are adventures stories with monsters and rocket ships and such.
Much of the population still hasn’t encountered science fiction in its literary form, and that’s an important distinction. The written word often re vealed the genre as one of satire and surrealism, as well as scientific and technological speculation, where everything came together in a way that masked social criticism as something fantastical. Science fiction in its literary form is the exact opposite of most examples of it on the screen — it is often subversive.
Right on time, to prove that point, is this graphic novel adaptation of the Jack Vance short story of the same title, which tells the tale of Edwer Thissell, the new consul on the planet Sirene who fumbles along in a series of cultural mishaps that defy mastery. In a set-up worthy of Lewis Carroll, has to function on a world that, among other things, requires masks (governed by a complicated, symbolic hierarchy) be worn in public, that communication is achieved through a litany of musical instruments and song styles. Social cues on Sirene are realized through an etiquette born on an alien world and, therefore, the furthest thing from natural behavior and consideration to an off-worlder. When Thissell is charg ed with the task of tracking down an off-world criminal, he must navigate these differences to the deficit of his pursuit.
Humayoun Ibrahim’s European illustration style — and presentation of action — draws a direct line between classic science fiction literature and its spiritual descendent in the visual arts. Not the screen versions that the public embraces to the tune of billions of dollars a year, but the more thoughtful, experimental form of the graphic novel, which is in service to the larger point of view inherent in Vance’s work.
If anything, “The Moon Moth” shows just how natural and powerful the two forms are as a team, and begs for further explorations in mining the rich philosophies of science fiction past for a new audience seeking substance rather than just special effects.
April 13, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Pronouncing a work “the most important movie ever made” might be likely grounds for lively debate, but I take no counter points in my declaration of Georges Melies’ 1902 silent epic “A Trip To The Moon” as deserving of that title. It’s just true; there is no argument.
“A Trip To The Moon” is probably the most famous 110year-old movie in existence — you know the one where the rocket ship pokes into the face of the Man in the Moon?
It’s recently been unveiled to a younger generation through the book “Hugo Cabret” and the subsequent Martin Scorsese film, which not only features clips from it and other of Melies’ work, but offers a pretty faithful, though fictionalized, biography of the filmmaker.
When I was growing up, “A Trip To The Moon” was often held up as an example of what silly things people used to believe about the moon. In my adult years, I realized that it was more an example of what whimsical and imaginative things people used to attach to the unknown and what amazing talent and effort it took to realize these far-out notions visually. In the era of digital effects, the effort that someone like Melies went to is hard to fathom — and the notion that dancing girls fulfill the same humorous and no-more-silly punctuation to the his outer space tale as C-3PO did to George Lucas’— has given the film the appreciation it deserves, finally.
As part of this new appreciation, the film was given the restorative treatment last year, with a Cannes debut for a new print — in color. The film was originally presented in handcolored form in 1902, and this restored version was the product of a meticulous process to bring back that beauty. To celebrate the update, the French music duo Air was commissioned to write a new score.
This release from Flicker Alley offers that restored version, with two other black-and-white versions given similar treatment, as well as two other films, interviews with Air and a documentary chronicling the Melies’ original production and the current one to return it to its original form.
This latter bonus is a marvel, managing to wrap into one instructive package Melies’ importance as essentially the inventor of special effects, how early forms of movie piracy practiced by Thomas Edison nearly undid him, as well as accepted plagiarism by rival film companies. It is also a testimony to the slow grind of the film production and post-production process in the silent era, to the way lost films are found, on the rigors of film restoration and on the hard work of digital production — much more than pushing buttons — and much, much more. It’s an invigorating hour that traces the technical history of film that every one should see. The restored color version is the centerpiece, of course, and it deserves that honor. In representing the work, restorers haven’t attempted to give the print a slick, updated coloration, just a vibrant return to the original, which means sometimes imprecise colors that burst with surrealism and provide an alternate action to the figures on the screen.
Air’s soundtrack is unexpectedly perfect — when coupled with the color, it transforms the film from an exercise in nostalgia to a vital and relevant bit of film experimentation. This is an art film through and through, before such a genre really existed, and the capacity for Melies’ vision in both preand post- production to grasp something larger than reality is revealed in all its glory.
March 12, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Originally published in 1974, renowned French cartoonist Tardi paid tribute to his legendary fellow countryman, Jules Verne, in what the publisher describes as “vintage icepunk” and finds social criticism wrapped up in sarcastic satire, but outfitted in some great designs of Vic torian science.
The book opens in 1889 with danger in the arctic and the discovery of a strange spectacle: a grand sea vessel impossibly resting on top of an enormous and foreboding iceberg. What follows is the investigation — and perhaps seduction — of our hero, Plumier, whose seafaring adventures in the arctic and curious investigation of his missing uncle, who is an eccentric scientist with curious abandoned experiments and contraptions, give way to the answer he seeks.
What Plumier finds is Tardi’s way of investigating how easy and amusing evil is. Rather than a burdensome madness, it’s a delicious enticement, a liberating decision that might just be the only sane reaction to a world that embraces injustice as its one reliable constant. New evil plans meant to pick up the pieces and move along with the destruction of life as we know it becomes not just a bridge to adventure, but a continuum to narrative, as well as life.
Tardi’s story is one thing, but his beautiful renderings give it a depth that brings it far beyond satire.
The attention given to the Victoriana — in technology, fashion and graphic layout — functions as a love letter to that bygone world, which keeps the book from ever seeming cartoonish, and that its major strength. Tardi never copies straight the era he captures, but wraps it in modern and literary concerns to make it something more than just another Victorian adventure.
September 27, 2011 § Leave a Comment
With his retrospective at MCLA Gallery 51, artist and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts art professor Gregory Scheckler doesn’t just look back on 21 years of work – he’s mixing it up a little bit.
“Remixed Messages: Artworks by Gregory Scheckler from 1990-2011″ opens on Thursday, Sept. 29, with a reception at 6 p.m. at MCLA Gallery 51, 51 Main St. Coming in as his 100th exhibit, the show will celebrate Scheckler’s art-making with an emphasis on his efforts to mix and match images to bring out new meaning and relevance.
“The main idea is to smash things together,” he said.
Scheckler’s work has been building up to this moment over the last few years, with his Collision Course series best exemplifying the movement of his visual concepts. And Scheckler does exactly that.
By pulling from art history up to modern times, Collision Course features images such as “That’s No Moon,” which references Magritte, Titian and even George Lucas. Scheckler’s painting plays on Magritte’s “The Treasury of Images,” which famously proclaimed that “this is not a pipe.” Instead, Scheckler includes the Death Star from Star Wars and offers “this is not a moon.” It’s Scheckler’s update of Mag-ritte’s cynical idea that pictures can – and do – lie.
“It’s perfect for today’s world, where we are surrounded by millions of images everyday: ads, logos, photojournalism, film, YouTube, web pages, artworks,” said Scheckler, “and, of course, we still have all the war and nationalistic propaganda that Magritte was against. I mean, just turn on the television and watch a couple of commercials. They are all instant surrealism, full of impossible magical things.”
Scheckler says that even some of his paintings, less likely to be grouped in with the idea of remixing, fit the bill, such as his series capturing single birds.
“They are composed from combinations of life and nature studies, compositional studies, color studies, concepts steering the poetry of the title, and the placement in a gallery or a home,” he said. “With these, there’s the raw creativity of finding the initial image, but to that is added the creative aspects of editing and organizing the image, and conflating the titles with science ideas. These are a less obvious remix than the larger, compound narrative paintings.” Mixing the arts and sciences has been a major center of Scheckler’s movements in mixing disciplines over the years.
“To me, pulling together varying forms seems a natural response to the world around us, and is realistic,” Scheckler said. “The human imagination stems from the human brain, which itself consists of many different and sometimes competing processing centers.
“Visual perception, for example, is a suite of abilities borne out of more than 30 different segments of the brain. We mix and remix, filter and re-filter, every image by seeing and thinking about it – multiple interpretations is the way our minds work.”
Part of Scheckler’s remix technique comes from his training as an academic realist painter through the general practice of copying artworks from the past. Part of smashing things together relies on if not total irreverence for the works, at least the ability engage with some portion of that. For “Silly Dances plus O-Ring Problems,” Scheckler looked honestly at a painting by 19th-century painter Bougeureau while working to recreate it.
“He chose dopey subject matter. Look at this fake woman: she’s totally unbelievable, entirely unrealistic, the wind just so and she is floating on her tippy-toe,” he said. “This isn’t even a good, rich erotic fantasy – it’s about as tantalizing as ads for healthy yogurt. All the skill for something so, so silly. And Bougeureau wasn’t really aware of that silliness, his work was supposed to be a very, very serious icon of beauty.”
Frustrated by the painting, Scheckler began to look for ways to change it and noticed that the spiraling form of the nude in the painting stood out. Scheckler eventually decided to include in the background a cloud formation that resembled the forms from space shuttle explosions, while the woman spins on through art history in the foreground.
“Contemporary artist defaces antique sentimentality, just as real accidents trumped nostalgia for the space program,” Scheckler said.
Scheckler says his idea of fun would be to bring some paints to a museum and rework certain portions of famous paintings, and he points to the online frequency of digitally tampered-with variations of famous art as a sign that other people surely feel the same.
Still, behind the Scheckler’s jokes is a serious question that he asks himself and others who define themselves as realist painters: What parts of human experience and knowledge are you going to be realistic about? “What do you edit out, what do remove from view, and can you be realistic about anything if you edit too much or too little?” said Scheckler. “Is it just that you’re copying what things look like, or translating them into intentional artistry? Or are you going to investigate how the mind works, what we feel about things, what’s happening in the world today, or what contemporary science tells us about realities that you cannot experience directly but for which you need a microscope or telescope or difficult mathematics? How will you, the maker of visual pictures, make visible the things that we cannot see but know to exist?”
At the center of Scheckler’s queries is the question of what exactly is real. Scheckler believes this can best be addressed in forms like a remix that takes into account the diversity of artistic reality in the 21st century. There is no longer one way to interpret anything, nor one discipline with which to eke out an interpretation.
And while Scheckler’s images might not provide clear-cut answers, he never meant them to any how – that’s work for the viewers to do.
“As an artist it’s not really my job to tell people what the truth is,” Scheckler said. “It is my job to prompt the imagination to get us out of the box of the status quo a little bit.”
September 1, 2011 § Leave a Comment
This post-apocalyptic graphic novel takes a “You Are There” approach to the grim future as you — the reader — are spoken to from within the pages by a succession of players in a violent drama that unfolds with effective simplicity.
The setup is this — you, the reader, wake up and encounter a one-armed man who leads you on a frenzied escape from the mysterious creatures who stalk this dead earth. Together you sift through piles of rubble for safety, forage around for untouched canned food and address the hopelessness of your plight via one-half of a conversation always kept going by the character on the page.
Creator Ralphs piles the debris high in his drawings — there is terror and despair in the crumbling chaos — keeps the danger mysterious — probably zombies, but equally likely mutants or just the angry detritus of post humanity — at a distance. This creates more creeps as the interaction between the characters reveals the desperate measures humans will take to survive just for survival’s sake. There’s no reason to keep going, but the human instinct makes it so — and so it goes for you as a reader.
You know nothing good is going to come out of the end of this book, but you keep moving along anyhow, the experience itself reason enough not to give up.
August 19, 2011 § Leave a Comment
The genre of Time Lord Rock has probably been missed by many — and I can’t blame anyone for that — but it’s part of the latest iteration of an old format — fan music. Back in the 1970s, you could wander into a Star Trek convention and always find some room with bad folk music inspired by the show. This tradition has continued on, but boomed thanks to the Internet, and buoyed by the sometimes immensely enjoyable Wizard Rock — that is, music inspired by the Harry Potter books.
Time Lord Rocks pulls from the long-running British kids series “Doctor Who” for its inspiration, with a focus on the recent revival version, and manages to mix both the sights and sounds of the show with a likable power pop sound.
The band wears its pedigree on its licks with the opener “Regenerate Me,” which builds from the classic Doctor Who bass riff and transforms it into a feel good acoustic strum, utilizing a variation on the synth portion of the theme and combining it with some sincere and sweetly overwrought lyrics about the character. Most songs follow in kind, a mix of ballads and fist clenching self-realizing power pop that will be agreeable to any teenager.
When they veer off that standard formula is when they really shine — “Big Bang,” a variation of actual soundtrack music transformed into a rousing ramble that does its best to explain storylines, and “Eleven,” a pseudo prog-rock adaptation of the same music, are peeks into what could be achieved here with the proper bravura.
May 4, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Nowadays, so much of our information is kept digitally, and even as we throw out our cassette players and videotape machines, we treat the new technology as if it is eternal. It’s not a big secret that data CDs degrade — after all, they’re just cheaper versions of the hard drives in your computers that seem to break more often than they should. Can we face up to the fact that what we are attempting to save forever may not last as long as we crave?
J.P. Chan’s short science fiction film “Digital Antiquities” takes such a scenario and jets us a few decades from now in a future that’s so close it seems almost entirely familiar until it’s revealed just how far the networks extend into normal life — and how digital storage is just another way we attempt to preserve the minutiae of ourselves.
Jo Mei plays Cat, who runs a data recovery store, and Corey Antonio Hawkins is Kai, who wanders in one day insisting that Cat run recovery on an old CD that was left to him by his deceased mother.
Cat doesn’t have the equipment to run it through — it’s just too old — but the fact that she sits ground zero on a pile of “digital antiquities” means Kai just might get his way.
Cat’s store is a typical, rundown junk electronics shop that you might find anywhere nowadays, except there is live voice recognition of customers, automated door locks with encryption, 24-hour back-up to the cloud and a wall full of digital picture frames of the moving past — ghosts on constant haunt. By the end of the film, we find the ultimate metaphor for the digital clutter we are burying ourselves under — an emotional situation as much as it is a physical one.
In its 15 minutes, “Digital Antiquities” says more about our flawed human relationship with technology than 1,000 “Blade Runners” — and, as such, it hits closer to home than you’d expect.
May 4, 2011 § Leave a Comment
In the film “Sleep Dealer,” director Alex Rivera chooses not to focus on the shiny future of a successful nation, but rather the gritty one, south of the border, where technology doesn’t dominate the landscape; it infects it.
Rivera’s film follows Memo Cruz (Luis Fernando Peña), a young Mexican farm boy whose hobby is hacking into various satellite communications. When he intercepts an action against so-called terrorists stealing water, he sets into motion a series of events that sends him to Tijuana to find work telecommuting into robot bodies in the United States for construction work. From there, Rivera unfolds a world parallel to our own, just in worse shape.
Rivera grew up in upstate New York, where he became familiar with stories of immigration through a family divided between Peru and the United States. These concerns became mixed up in his psyche with science fiction, thanks to his mom’s job at IBM, which spurred on an interest in computers and technology and their use in fictional scenarios.
“As an adult, it all started to come together for me when I started to realize that we were living in this very globalized trans-border reality,
and part of that trans-border reality that we live in is immigration and another part of it is the Internet,” Rivera said during an interview last week. “In many ways, whether it’s through the workers that surround us or whether it’s through the information and the products that we consume, our reality has become global and our reality crosses borders, no matter whether we’re in traditional hubs of immigration like NYC or whether we’re in Western Massachusetts. Whether you’re in Georgia or California, the U.S. is now a country that in its guts is post-border.”
Rivera began to see immigration as a gateway to telling stories about this new reality. The specific seed for “Sleep Dealer” was planted when he read a 1997 Wired Magazine article predicting a future in which everyone would telecommute. He crossed this prognostication with absurdity inspired by his own experience and interests — what if immigrants could telecommute and do their menial jobs without actually entering the country?
“Part of the dream/nightmare was this realization that the U.S. for many decades now has absorbed the labor power of millions of immigrants but not acknowledged them as citizens or proper, full participants in society,” Rivera said. “So this idea of a future where immigrants could beam pure labor to the United States, it seemed like a joke but also like a prediction of what actually could happen, as well as a comment on what is already happening today.”
Although “Sleep Dealer” does function as a cautionary tale about technology, it also recognizes its value. That’s at the center of what Rivera wanted to do with the film — examine all implications, positive and negative, specifically on how technology aids the movement of economic concerns that are much larger than the individual lives it touches.
“Sometimes people ask me, ‘Why are you so anti-technology?’” Rivera said. “I am not anti-technology, I love technology, and I love what it’s enabled in my life and a lot of lives around the world, but I do think technology is a force that is complicated, and it enables a lot of alienation around the world as it also enables connectivity.”
Rivera sees that for some people, the online experience involves a service like Facebook, which might allow them to be more in touch with friends and family, even as they see them in person less. On the flip side, he sees another side of this phenomena, one that allows migration to become a standard in seeking work while enabling the process of tearing apart families for economic reasons.
“Workers around the world are moving, crossing borders more and more, sending money around the world and saving their families by doing that, and in some sense in an individual family, perhaps that story is hopeful, but it’s also historically odd,” he said.
“It’s never happened that we’ve had so many people who, for some reason or another, up and leave their families, leave their homes, often never to return, just to find a job. It’s such a part of our reality today that it seems normal and natural, but globally it’s actually painful and unnatural and it’s enabled by technology. Technology lets people move; technology lets people stay in touch with their families remotely. Technology lets people send money back, so there are ways in which I think the way we live is more connected and more alienated all at once, and that’s almost a global condition.”
Rivera’s political concerns dictated how he could approach the film as science fiction — specifically what the futuristic landscape would look like. He said his conception of Mexico in the film had as more to do with what he has observed as to how technology peppers a landscape than how movie audiences perceive the way the future looks. Unlike so much high-profile science fiction churned out by Hollywood, Rivera’s film is not a fantasy driven by lust for technology.
“If you say to somebody this is a science fiction story set in Mexico or set in Sudan, or like ‘District 9,’ a science fiction set in South Africa, all of a sudden the paradigm changes because we know that it’s not literally the future of the entire world that’s skyscrapers and flying cars — that’s ridiculous,” Rivera said. “A lot of the world today visually looks largely like it has for centuries. There are maybe details that change, little things, but it’s not like the whole landscape changes every 10 years.”
What he had witnessed while traveling in Mexico for documentary purposes had a direct effect on how he depicted the future in his film.
“In Mexico, there are definitely some aspects of life that technologically are even more sophisticated than what we have in the U.S. — phone systems, the penetration of satellite TV, things like that — in little rural villages in Mexico are very advanced, but the streets still aren’t paved, there still isn’t good running water,” he said. “Tiny details of life evolve and leap into the future technologically, while the landscape is almost reverse developing, and so if that’s your mind set going into making science fiction, then all of sudden your budget can be different because you’re focused on creating futuristic details while the whole landscape can almost be photographed in a documentary spirit.”
Rivera cites one of the archetypal images of the our digital age — the poor, rural farmer in a third-world setting talking on a cell phone — and sees it
“That’s become an iconic image of our age, but it’s also an image that shouldn’t become easy because it’s awkward to me that there are people who have access to cell phones who don’t have access to clean water. Why is that?
“To me, it’s because the global economy has seen a purpose to getting them a cell phone, to link them into the global systems of commerce, to allow families to separate and migrate and become part of a global workforce and still stay connected to their families who they leave behind. Getting those technologies of information into every corner of the world, for the economy there’s a real benefit there to allowing them to become a part of the global system, whereas getting them a clean glass of water?”
As Rivera investigates what technology means to identity, he includes that of nations alongside families and individuals. As virtual connections are made — whether personal ones or, as in the film, commerce-related — that shadow world tears down the physical borders by making them antiquated. Some of these virtual connections are between people, certainly, but some of the more powerful ones are through commerce, and Rivera envisions a future in which public concerns are privatized, and the individual loses rights in that situation.
“I think that the film mixes up the Internet, the global economy and the matters of migration and workers,” he said. “It does raise the question where do borders fit in and where do governments fit in?
“It was intentional in the film that there wasn’t much of a presence from governments. It’s all companies and individuals trying to figure out how to best survive and protect their interest.”
But one doesn’t need a science fiction scenario to see the idea of nationality slowly crumbling away. Economic forces have done it already in many corners of American life. “Sleep Dealer” may speak of an uncertain future moment, but to Rivera, that time may already be here in one form or another.
“If companies like General Electric can move around the world, if our military is all over the world, if our sheets are changed at a Holiday Inn by someone who comes from halfway around the world, if our children are being raised by nannies who come from another part of the world, how much do we actually live in a country?” he asked.
“If our reality is so transnational — everything we eat is produced overseas, everything we wear is produced overseas; when we’re in old age, we’ll likely be cared for by someone who comes from overseas — I mean, to what extent are we still a nation?”
April 2, 2011 § Leave a Comment
If you’re interested in the best new science fiction series currently viewable and you’ve been looking for it on TV, then you’ve been stumbling around the wrong medium. Its name is “Ark” and it consists of nine short webisodes on Hulu.com that were released in 2010 and serve to seize back the genre as one that doesn’t tell the usual stories, nor in the usual way.
With segments that run from around four to nine minutes each, “Ark” tells the story of two people, played by Renee O’Connor and Adam Cardon, who wake up to find themselves on a space ship — and they don’t know why. What follows the intro is a frenzied, tense unfolding of the mystery that leaves off at a major cliffhanger that will have you gasping for a second series.
The action is punctuated by a great sense of design and a creative way of letting everything unfold. I can only imagine this was on the cheap when compared to the typical Hollywood venture. It’s the work of director Trey Stokes, also a puppeteer and amusement park ride designer, but it looks better than most of what you’ll ever see because it relies less on splash and more on technique, little snips of video and cryptic editing, as the two characters deal with the mystery they’ve been handed.
One odd aspect is that the story plays like a vague remake of the 1970s Canadian science fiction show “The Starlost” — itself unfairly maligned — which involved members of an Amish-type community rebelling against religious tyranny. They discover that their “world” is merely a biosphere on a giant spaceship hurtling to its doom toward a sun.
There are aspects of the plot and even the design — particularly the area of the ship the two characters wake up in and the outside of the ship itself, not to mention various portals and tunnels contained. If this is an intentional inspiration, it’s a great one and the writer Robbie Thompson makes brilliant use of it.
One thing’s for certain, while the major television networks waste their time on dull spectacles like “V,” this is where the future lies for science fiction television. Too often ruined by mainstream production — and too often rendered toothless by a fandom that focuses its obsession with quality too much on visuals and too little on scriptwriting — “Ark” speaks to the power of what can be accomplished in our digital age aside from the mainstream.
For all the big profile shows that have scrambled to be the new “Lost,” “Ark” has beat them all to the punch by understanding that what’s needed in the genre is originality and spirit more than flashy effects and retreads that don’t bother to do any actual retreading.
April 2, 2011 § Leave a Comment
There probably couldn’t have been a more perfect moment for this DVD collection of a lesser-known British television show from 30 years ago, since no point in time has seemed more like the events portrayed in “Noah’s Castle” than the present.
If 9-11 accomplished anything, it set into motion a reality that sometimes seems to be disintegrating before our eyes, a reality similar to the one presented in this 1980 dystopian fiction production.
Sometime in the vague future or alternate present former soldier and current shoe store manager Norman Mortimer (David Neal) — an intense and grim father of four– sees a world of food shortages, inflation, riots, looting and military intervention and opts for decisive action in the protection of his family.
They move into a huge house on the far side of town that provides more security and a lot more space in order to hoard goods to ride out the end of the world.
Stockpiling food isn’t that easy, though. The family has to keep it a secret, especially once the government makes hoarding illegal, but such things have a way of sifting out into the community, as well as putting more weight on a family bearing the brunt of the world falling apart.
And so Norman’s family begins to crumble, most notably in the form of his rebellious daughter Nessie (Annette Ekblom) and his wife (Jean Rimmer) who finds herself a virtual slave to a most unwanted guest — Norman’s former boss, the creepy Mr. Gerald (Jack May). Gerald has insinuated himself on the family through implied blackmail in order to make use of the ample stocks, and with a lecherous eye toward Nessie.
Meanwhile, the family is also thrown into the middle of the struggles between an official food distribution group, an anarchic and socialist Robin Hood-style group of food thieves and shifty black marketers attempting to make a profit from misery.
It’s a grim vision of life doled out in half-hour chunks — a perfect way to view it since the mood could easily pile up with concurrent viewings, especially in this day and age. But it’s a remarkable testament to how so little has changed in 40 years — and with each episode punctuated by a news broadcast compiling the fictional days’ gloomy world news, there’s plenty for anyone to identify with.
The feeling of helplessness against the march of governments and desperate ploys to control your own destiny are surely played out now in the real world and “Noah’s Castle” portrays exactly that situation.