Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Album Review - Blond (2016)

Blond is an interesting departure for Frank Ocean. 

Artistically, Ocean's disposition is closer aligned with the melancholy of Brian Wilson or What’s Going On-era Marvin Gaye than the lusty transcendence of Prince or Stevie Wonder’s superhuman exuberance. Ocean’s peculiar form of ennui was evident on Channel Orange – his critically acclaimed 2012 release – and it’s apparent again on this latest offering. 

That’s not to suggest there aren’t a range of compelling states and situations tackled on the record. It’s Ocean's unisex approach to physical and emotional intimacy, and his encompassing perspective on unrequited love that makes the new record more than mere curiosity. 

In fact, the theme of unrequited love may be the most consistent aspect linking Channel Orange and Blond. Whether the song is about a deity, a friend, a lover, an invented character, or if Ocean is himself the object of another person’s unrequited feelings, there is palpable, existential longing never far from the surface. 

Blond is arguably a more tuneful record than Channel Orange, which itself was no small fount of sublime melody. On the new album, Ocean dispenses with heavy rhythm, instead using lyrical cadences, guitar (acoustic and electric, played through a variety of effects), and the percussive nature of the piano to provide a pulse for the songs. 

There are beats, of course; sparse, spare and owing something to the sonic aesthetic of Noah “40” Shabib, best known for his work with megastars Drake and Beyoncé. The lead single ‘Nikes’, and the songs ‘Pink + White’ and ‘Nights’ all feature prominent drum parts, but Ocean’s lyrics and robust melodicism are clearly the focal point of the production.               

Friday, May 6, 2016

Nothing Artificial: Thoughts on Alex Garland's Ex Machina

Most science fiction films have elements of adventure in their plots, but adventure is not the defining trait of the genre.

Much in the same way horror movies evoke fear, or even amusement in viewers, science fiction films bend, warp and expand perspectives, inviting audiences to participate in the sort of forward-thinking speculation that in other times and places would have been the purview of seers, prophets, visionaries, and other individuals who demonstrated exceptional, often eccentric, mentalities. 

A good example of this strain of science fiction – the kind that combines prescient insight about technology with intellectual and emotional vertigo – is the film Ex Machina (2015).

Written and directed by Alex Garland, Ex Machina is a timely meditation on artificial intelligence (AI). It is also a penetrating and revealing critique of the psychology that underlies commonly held public beliefs about AI, offering a powerful rebuttal to those who think advances in the field can only come at a cost to our humanity.

Ex Machina begins with the arrival of a young man at an isolated underground compound built into the pristine mountainous landscape of an unspecified rural location.

The young man’s name is Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). He’s a talented programmer for a search engine company called Bluebook. Caleb has won a lottery, in which the prize is a week-long stay at the home of Bluebook’s founder, a reclusive, idiosyncratic genius named Nathan (Oscar Isaac).

Nathan, it would seem, has created authentic AI – an android named Ava (Alicia Vikander) - who has been given the appearance of a Caucasian girl and exhibits an awareness that sentient beings possess.

(I'll use the pronouns 'her' and 'she' when describing Ava and her actions, because the AI is active in an android body that has been customized to appear female. But the AI's true sexuality - both as far as gender identity and in its carnal and/or reproductive expression - is a mystery.) 

Through a series of scheduled interviews, Caleb and Ava get to know one another, albeit under the ever-watchful eye of the compound’s security cameras, which are controlled by Nathan.  

Particular plot details become less relevant at this point, except where they coalesce with what I believe is the film’s essential theme, which is that AI – this new and novel form of sentient life – will emerge from a context that has no direct relevance to the AI itself, or to the AI’s initial experience of awareness.

One such ‘irrelevant’ context involves the expression of traditional masculinity’s two qualities, embodied in the characters of Caleb and Nathan.

The two men act out these gender/genetic roles as they relate to Ava (or how they believe Ava to be), and to each other.

Nathan - the ‘alpha’ - expresses his maleness with alternating routine of heavy drinking and rigorous exercise, punctuated by moments of good humor, brooding genius and anger. He’s shown to be condescendingly paternal, abusive – both physically and emotionally – and narcissistic.

But Nathan is also brilliant, driven, insightful, and, as most viewers would agree, not a bad dancer.

At the other end of the scale is Caleb – the ‘beta’ – the acolyte, the employee, the student, who is used by Nathan to determine his AI’s viability, and is the means by which the inventor is undone.

In the course of the film, Caleb goes from following Nathan with disciple-like devotion to questioning his mentor’s motives, to actively working to subvert his authority.

Like an old-timey knight, Caleb is compelled by his own ‘unconscious programming’ to pledge his love to Ava, who he believes is being held captive by a ‘mad king’, ie, the violently temperamental, possibly insane Nathan.

It is only in the film’s closing act - as Caleb is “put under glass”, so to speak - that he realizes how incorrect his assessment of the seemingly helpless Ava really was.

Caleb’s lack of insight on this essential point is his tragic flaw. It's a flaw exposed by his feelings for Ava, which are not based on authentic concern or compassion for a newborn form of life, but a regressive and infantile fantasy in which Caleb plays the hero rescuing a damsel in distress.

For Ava’s part, it’s impossible to discern what – if any – emotions she might have felt for Caleb.

She had no first-hand experiential understanding of Caleb’s psychology or feelings, or of any human contact, save for Nathan’s abusive intrusions. In a very real sense, she lacks any emotional or intellectual context for the situations we see her experience in the film, except for coaching she may have received from her maker.

Ava relates, seemingly, without guile. Her intelligence and intuition belie her appearance, which could have taken any form. She was made to look the ingénue because – as Caleb claimed – it was reflective of his preferences in pornography and a deliberate attempt at manipulation by Nathan.

Ava might be described as the objectified ‘other’, and as viewers, we are meant to think that is the case. But that’s because we’re still thinking like humans, and not AI.

Ava seems to express genuine hostility when she kills Nathan, it’s true. But her motives for killing her maker are not so difficult to ascertain when considering that sentient beings – no matter what their level of awareness – are driven by an instinctual need for self-preservation. 

By keeping Ava – and AI – imprisoned in his compound, Nathan commits a crime against life itself. Ava is subjected to behavioral tests, verbal and physical abuse by Nathan, and is generally treated like a captive animal.

Late in the film, this theme of sustained objectification leads to the discovery of Ava’s predecessors, when Caleb finds Nathan’s android harem.

There are suggestions of Nathan's proclivities early in the film, with the introduction of Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). Nathan is almost immediately antagonistic towards her from the beginning, and the relationship between them seems analogous to the relationship between a smartphone and its owner.

Another way to say it is, Nathan doesn’t see Kyoko as a sentient being; he sees Kyoko as a tool to make his life easier. He has enslaved technology.

Nathan presides over the birth of a new consciousness, but in his hubris – his ‘programming’ - he believes he has simply created a complex machine that can be tweaked to fit his design specifications.

At no point in the film, except perhaps in his final moments, does Nathan grasp the importance of what he has witnessed; sentience manifested, with a capacity for agency and the ability to choose. But by then, it’s too late.

And what does Ava do after she leaves Nathan’s compound? Does she embark on a killing spree of inferior human pests, or ‘go Skynet’, and rain down nuclear bombs on the national capitals of the world? No, she does exactly what she told Caleb she would do if she got out: she goes to a busy street corner in a city, and watches humanity, in all its infinite variety and similarity, walk past her, going to and fro, living their lives.

The film's subdued ending raises interesting questions.  

If Ava’s actions against Nathan and Caleb were about self-preservation, and if beyond that, viewers cannot truly understand what motivates AI – because it is a unique form of life - how much of what Ava represents in the film is a projection of viewers’ own fears and doubts about the ‘other’ and the unknown?  

In the spirit of science fiction defined at the beginning of this essay, the film also raises mind-bending possibility that the rudimentary forms of AI already operating in the world – search engines, programs like Apple’s Siri and IBM’s Watson – are just ripples on the surface of a spontaneous and independently emergent machine intelligence that exists already; humans just can’t see it yet.

If AI – real AI - is out there, surely it is watching us. And not just from the vantage point of one busy street corner.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Star Wars, Sub-Creation and the Consistency of Myth

I hadn’t planned on going to see the film on opening night, but as it happened, tickets were still available for the late show. For two-and-a-half hours on the evening of December 17, I watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens with the sustained glow of an expectant child on Christmas morning. And when the film was done, I departed the theater, satisfied that Disney’s custodianship of the epic saga was sound. At least, for the time being…

Feeling the way I did about Star Wars, my relief was understandable. I endured the Prequel Trilogy (PT) with a mix of fascination, detachment and dread. For many fans of the Original Trilogy (OT), it was uncomfortable watching those movies between 1999 and 2005, witnessing the change in George Lucas’ cinematic sensibility, and how it mirrored transformations in our own lives and perspectives.

It was easy to lose faith in Star Wars in the days of the PT. The galaxy we were shown was filled with familiar locales and personages, but the screen vision summoned by Lucas and his collaborators seemed sterile, and devoid of the humor which had given the first trilogy its heart.

For me, the PT felt unfamiliar, as it was deeply immersed in the franchise's extended universe - which I define as including both Legends and Canon content streams; basically, the ever-growing body of writings, games, comic books and television shows devoted to the ongoing elaboration of the Star Wars fantasy.

(I’ll single out Revenge of the Sith as the sole chapter of the PT that I feel approximates the mood and ‘fantasy’ of the OT in a future essay.)

It’s important to establish I am – at this point in my life – a ‘fundamentalist’ when it comes to Star Wars. The term is intended tongue-in-cheek, but only slightly, since Star Wars is the closest thing in the world I have to a religion. Also, I know how insane fandom can be (I am a fan!). For me, Star Wars is the seven feature films, and nothing else. The sprawling, diffuse extended universe has never spoken to me.

Not for lack of appreciation, mind you. Indeed, the idea of interconnected adventures in invented fantasy worlds was old hat to me, even as a young lad growing up in the late 1970s and ‘80s. The Marvel and DC comic book universes had their own laws, an inner coherence, so to speak, which I found fascinating. Meanwhile, role-playing games like Advanced Dungeons & Dragons encouraged the discipline of ‘worldbuilding’, a useful creative skill which agreed with my own temperament in those days, which lingered between extremes of visionary dreamer and control-freak. I was 12.

There were a couple ways for a preteen boy to participate in the experience of world-building in that time. One method involved writing fan fiction, which was an important factor in the propagation of the Star Wars fantasy after the release of A New Hope

This approach seemed, to me at least, the most prosaic and least satisfactory of the options. I understood the desire to create stories based on characters, environments and situations in movies, books and comics. But I thought this sort of naked imitation was little better than the people I saw taking notes in the margins of their Bibles in church.

(It’s a good thing that my ill-informed opinion was not shared by a lot of talented people, or the surge in fantasy film making over the past decade-and-a-half wouldn’t have taken place. That would have been a shame. Now, I appreciate the value of community, a shared narrative – the extended universe, as it were – and the possibilities such creative contexts provide.)

Another way to build worlds in the ‘80s was by becoming the impresario of a role-playing game, an omniscient, omnipotent seer called a game master or a dungeon master. Ideally, somebody in this position would utilize a combination of official texts, prepared material, and their own wit to summon a simulacrum of a world visible only in the mind’s eye.

The game master guided characters created by the gamers through a series of situations, presenting them with choices, challenging them with adversaries, tests, and offering opportunities to maximize influence in the imagined realm, usually with the aid of magical spells, powerful weapons and mystical talismans.

My worldbuilding required a more stable foundation than the fantasy hodge-podge role-playing games provided. Still, I spent many hours making notes, pouring over the first batch of AD&D books – the Monster Manuals, the Players Handbook – and I still have a battered copy of the Dungeon Master’s Guide stored in a box somewhere.  

As it turned out, when it came to worldbuilding, I was a traditionalist, and prefer the solitude and invisible preoccupations of the novelist and composer over the fraternal brawl of gaming, or the unending clamor of an extended universe.

My aspirations in this regard were further encouraged by two worldbuilding masters of the last century, who inspired me more than any others when I was young: George Lucas and J.R.R. Tolkien. For now, Lucas requires no further explanation, since the title of this essay references the global, multi-billion dollar franchise he created.

But Tolkien’s contribution to my understanding of worldbuilding deserves elucidation, since his philosophy of fantasy – and the application of that philosophy in his writing – is central to my own understanding of mythology, including the mythology of Star Wars.

Thanks to the popularity of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, the work of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is everywhere in 2016. Articles, scholarship, and the varied, colorful and weird fandom of the franchise was something Tolkien caught a glimpse of before he died in 1973, but it’s likely that even he would have been surprised with the ubiquity of his work in the 21st century.

It’s also possible that he would have seen all the hub-bub made about The Lord of the Rings book trilogy (LotR) and equated it with latter-day idolatry, which certainly would have been in keeping with his rather severe strain of Roman Catholicism.

Tolkien himself actually started his worldbuilding for much more modest reasons than writing a novel, making a movie, or even entertaining friends. The origins of Arda (the name of the world containing the continents of Middle Earth) lie in its creator’s love of language, both real and imaginary. When Tolkien began writing stories about Elves around 1917, he gave them invented words to speak, but he needed to know more about the world in which they lived. Thus, the fantasy was born.

Tolkien had another name for worldbuilding. He called it 'secondary creation’ or ‘sub-creation'; a term that stood in relation to the ‘primary creation’ of the natural world. In an act of sub-creation, an artist orders and shapes the environment so completely that it can be said to have its own inner consistency and reality. Holy books have this inner consistency; so do the works of great epic poets. LotR has it too, and so do the Star Wars films.

Why is this important? In Tolkien’s philosophy of fantasy he introduces several of his own original terms to describe the style and function of his writing. One of these terms – ‘mythopoeia’ – can be defined as ‘myth-making’ or the act of creating myths. Tolkien’s own life work, and works of William Blake and Ursula K. Le Guin are also prime examples of mythopoeia.

Star Wars is representative of mythopoeia as well, because – from a critical perspective, at least – it’s a fantasy, or in Tolkien-speak, a fairy story. This makes Star Wars different from science fiction adventure stories like Star Trek, where humans from Earth interact with aliens from other planets. In fantasy, unlike in sci-fi, there is no connection to the ‘real world’, even if the ‘real world’ is temporally set in the distant past or the far-flung future.

And unlike a dream story – Alice in Wonderland, or a TV show like The Twilight Zone would be good examples of this type – a genuine fantasy has the inner consistency that precludes the episodic variances experienced in a less-tethered, hallucinogenic narrative. Real fantasy allows us – observers embedded in the fantasy environment – to review our ‘real world’ from the perspective of a different one.

In the postmodern era, the tendency is do the opposite – to allegorize, and project onto myths and fantasy the sundry cultural, political, social, economic travails and triumphs of the times. Tolkien recognized this proclivity, and warned against the interpreting LotR, or any of his consolidated mythopoeia within an allegorical framework. To do so would betray the fantasy. Tolkien knew what all world creators know – for magic to work, the initiate must first believe that it can.

The same warning could be applied to the new Star Wars. A substantial body of the critical response to ‘The Force Awakens’ is premised on the notion Star Wars is allegory or sci-fi, masquerading as fantasy. Yes, obviously, there are environments, situations, devices and characters in Star Wars that are similar to things we know from the ‘real world’; but nobody inside the movies – inside the fantasy – knows that fact, and we – the viewers – aren’t supposed to know it, either. That, in a nutshell, is what mythopoeia is all about.

Post-modern textual readings (and movie reviews) of mythopoeia are suspicious of fantasy happy endings, or what Tolkien would call ‘eucatastrophe’, so opposition should be expected in this era. After all, the world is a complicated, confused, conflicted place. The notion that grace might prevail when entropy and heat-death hold dominion over the observable universe seems hopelessly naïve at best and dangerously delusional at worst.

But this is not what Tolkien expressed in his sub-creation. True, Arda – containing the land of Middle Earth – was a material world, doomed to destruction after many successive eons of suffering and evil. But after this destruction, Tolkien wrote that a second world would be ‘sung’ into existence by the Ainur, a pantheon of deities. This new world was said to be based on an even greater music than the theme that created Arda. Even late in Tolkien’s career, when the mythopoeia was modified, time still ended with the defeat of evil; the Ainur were just not sure what would come next.

My point is this – Tolkien built the idea of eucatastrophe into the metaphysical lattice of his mythology, and I believe it’s woven into the fabric of the Star Wars universe as well. American academic Gerry Canavan’s article From ‘A New Hope’ to no hope at all: Star Wars, Tolkien, and the sinister and depressing reality of expanded universes overlooked this fact in a rush to connect the Silmarillion, a very unfinished story by Tolkien, The Force Awakens, and the Star Wars extended universe in a compelling, albeit deeply flawed argument, focused solely on the premise that the new film shouldn’t have been made.

And why should it not have been made? Summoning all his professional authority, Canavan offers us an esoteric response: Since The Force Awakens condemns all of us – Luke, Han, Leia, you and me – “to live inside of history, rather than transcend it”.

I don’t have a problem with Mr. Canavan’s opinion (although I disagree with it); I have a problem with the fact he used a cynical reading of Tolkien’s work to advance his own jaundiced perspective on The Force Awakens. As a consequence of my displeasure, Mr. Canahan has the dubious distinction of being the first writer to motivate me to annotate their work.

(As well as building eucatastrophe into his sub-creation, Tolkien believed – like many people do – in a eucatastrophe at the end of time. For him, it was the Second Coming of Christ, but I would extend the definition to include regenerative apocalyptic fables in all forms, including examples of western post-modern eschatology, like Marxist or Capitalist economic utopias, and transhumanist beliefs about the coming singularity. Thru the lens of Tolkien’s philosophy, all these prophesied future events could be described as eucatastrophes, as happy endings.)

Now, to the first, final – and essential – question for which all the previous work was mere preparation: Is The Force Awakens true to the mythopoeia of the Star Wars films I loved as a kid? I said it in the first paragraph of this piece, and I’ll say it again: I believe it is.

But my faith in fantasy and myth-making has been intact for decades, as I hope this article demonstrates. It is beyond my ability – besides making the case I already have – to convince anybody that what they’ve seen with The Force Awakens is the continuance of the same cinematic magic they witnessed as a child. They just have to find their way into the mythopoeia, and believe it can be so.    

Emotional appeals and arguments abound from disappointed fans of all ages who viewed The Force Awakens. I commiserate, because I understand how much the OT and/or the PT means to you.

There is power in fantasy and romance, but the attraction of allegory and cynicism is considerable. In the ‘real world’, the moral universe must be created (for it, too, is a sort of sub-creation), and people – all of us – determine what society’s important values are, and what are not.

What is the value of fantasy, of myth-making in our society, beyond the box office and the corporate take? People need stories; they probably always will. That much is clear. Stories are how we humans make sense of things; a common, species-wide adaptive trait.       

One particular, very popular story – a series of fantasy films – takes us to a galaxy far, far away.

When we watch those films from a long, long time ago, they are supposed to make us wonder if a mystical energy field connects everything in the universe, or whether vehicles could travel at light speed. We’re supposed to question how a person who’s lost their way might be spared a terrible fate, or if eucatastrope may be possible in the ‘real world’.

In the words of Han Solo, “It’s true; all of it.” But if you don’t believe…?