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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (1/19/09) 10:20am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Missed a week, owing to spending more time on errands/travel and less time on reading/watching.]

Movies:  Lust, Caution
TV:  <none>
Books:  Flash Forward



Lust, Caution
This is Ang Lee's 2007 film about a spy (Wong Chia Chi) who tries to seduce/kill a high-ranking Japanese collaborator (Mr. Yee) in WWII Shanghai.  The movie is, perhaps, better known for its NC-17 MPAA rating than for anything else -- which is a shame, because it's a solid movie, and a far cry from arty spinach cinema.

Structurally, it's bog-simple.  Sure, it employs the dusty old trick of starting the movie with a snippet from the top of act three, but apart from that it's perfectly straightforward.  You've got a clear protagonist, a clear objective, and clear turning points.  That might sound pejorative, but it isn't.  In movies, simple is good -- good, and infuriatingly difficult.

How did they get such a straightforward plot to work?

I think it's all about stakes and danger.

The situation is such that if either Chia Chi or Mr. Yee takes one wrong step, they'll end up killed in some particularly nasty way.  Characters constantly point out how many deaths there are among the collaborators and among the rebels.  One rebel describes in detail precisely how he'd like to kill Mr. Yee, if given the chance. 

And it's not just talk -- a grisly (and lengthy, and bloody) killing early on in the film makes us viscerally aware of what's at stake.

Not only that, but the film turns up the paranoia as it goes.  There are more assassinations of leading collaborators, and there are more vicious roundups of rebel cells.  At one point Chia Chi gets a poison pill, "just in case".  And, well, "props are a clock" -- you know the show isn't done until all the significant props g

Once you've set the stakes that high, even a bad plot will suffice.  If you just saw (say) Chia Chi and Mr. Yee go out on a happy picnic, every word and action would be fraught with danger.  Say the wrong thing, and you get tortured and killed.

I don't actually have much else to say about it.  It's a simple, effective spy thriller.  And yes, it's got sex in it -- all part of the tortured relationship that develops between the two leads.

But for god's sake, don't tell your friends that.  If asked, reply airily that it was "a rumination on love and revolution, portrayed with engaging obliqueness and aching beauty."  That's far more impressive than "cool spy flick with a messed-up love story."


Flash Forward
This is a novel by hard-science-fiction author Robert J. Sawyer.  In it, an experiment at CERN's Large Hadron Collider sends everyone's consciousness twenty-one years into the future for a period of about two minutes.  I figured I'd give the book a shot because (1) it had been ages since I'd read a science-fiction novel[1], and (2) it just got greenlit for development into a new TV show.

Having read the novel, that second point frankly puzzles me.  A TV show has a continuing storyline:  the cop solves one crime, then another, then another; the doctor cures one patient, then another, then another; the Galactica has faces one harrowing dilemma, then another, then another.  Typically your show's pilot creates a story generator that can crank out story after story until you have enough episodes for syndication.

So you've got a pilot.  It has one group of, say, three to nine characters.  They have one set of visions.  That only gives you enough fuel for a very limited number of episodes.

Maybe they can circumvent this problem by employing an anthology format.  Maybe every episode gives us a new person-with-a-vision, and they see their future vision at the start of the show, and over the course of forty-two minutes we see how they deal with that vision and how it eventually comes to pass.

Or maybe they give the show a finite lifespan, as seems to be fashionable these days.  Maybe we jump forward seven years every season, and thus after three seasons, we've caught up to the future and we're done, having told one single (if lengthy) story.

The book, for its part, kind of splits the difference between these two approaches, and that's to its detriment.  Sure, it starts strong:  all those people whose consciousness was temporarily temporally translated?  Many of them were driving cars.  Or landing planes.  Or performing surgery.  So the first few chapters have our intrepid CERN heroes fighting their way through the immediate panic and destruction.

But very quickly the storyline splits into an anthology format.  There are about five or six central characters.  We see each of their visions.  Their visions set them on particular storylines.  And none of the storylines have anything to do with each other.  We're just flipping channels from A to B, from B to C, and on and on.

But that doesn't scuttle a book in and of itself.  It might not matter too much that the stories are mutually irrelevant, so long as the stories are interesting.  But alas, Flash Forward falls down again in this category.

The problem is, Mr. Sawyer never shows me something I haven't seen before.  Take the characters' responses to their visions:  some people decide that their future is immutable, and act appropriately stoic; the rest fight their damnedest to escape what their apparent future holds.  And that's it.  That's the whole variety of response.  There's nothing new, nothing surprising, no clever "hey, I hadn't thought of it like that" take on the visions.

(For example:  if I saw a vision of something I hated in my future, I would take steps to elaborately *stage* the events of that vision, so that perhaps it wouldn't accurately characterize my life at that point.  I mean, duh.)

But even those basic, broadly-portrayed responses would be okay if they led to *stories* that were particular and interesting.  Again, this book didn't quite do that.  Instead we get clichéd scenes, on-the-nose dialog, superfluous exposition about (for example) the Toronto mass transit system, and plot twists that get telegraphed so broadly I'm surprised the book isn't written in Morse code.  (Then again, perhaps it's appropriate that a book titled Flash Forward should be riddled with scenes where I know the end when I read the beginning.)

Even all that would be fine if the book delivered things that only a book with this far-out premise could deliver.  For instance, this book could be a hard-science treatise on the nature of time travel -- a convoluted physics dissertation cleverly disguised as a work of prose fiction.

And... no.  It didn't do that.  Instead, the LHC is a magic box, the flash forward is an arbitrary occurrence, and the book leaves it at that.  There's some whacked-out hand-wavey physics talk towards the end (the book meanders all over the place towards the end), but it's all very vague and mostly serves to shore up Mr. Sawyer's plot logistics rather than explain anything interesting about the universe.

Okay, fine.  But the other thing this book can do is ask interesting philosophical questions.  Its stories can dramatize unique takes on what it means to have free will, on what it means to feel hope or pessisism, on what it is to be a human being.

And... no.  Sure, there are scenes where characters have very simple, stilted, on-the-nose debates about (say) what constitutes free will.  ("I think we have free will!"  "Oh, yeah?  Well I DON'T!"  And so forth.) but he never works those questions into the stories.

Okay, so it doesn't tell an interesting story about individuals who have visions of the future.  But there's still one more unique opportunity here:  what is a *society* like when everybody has had a two-minute glimpse of 2030?

A brief tangent:  "Start the Clock" is a great science fiction story where one day, for some reason, every human being on Earth stopped aging.  The protagonist is nine, and has been nine for maybe twenty years.  phylomath12 mentioned that it sounded like a child-vampire from one of Anne Rice's novels.

That didn't sound right to me, but it was only later that I worked out why:  the story isn't just about the kid.  It's about the world the kid lives in.  The whole world feels cockeyed.  *Everyone* has stopped aging, not just one little girl.  This is how you get (say) planned communities of pirate ships for populations of self-sufficient 'nines', instead of just that one single protagonist who could perhaps fit into a vampire narrative set it more-or-less our familiar world.

Okay, back to Flash Forward.  It isn't just that (say) Lloyd Simcoe has had a vision of the future.  That kind of story has, frankly, been done to death since ancient times.[2]  It's that *everybody* has had a vision of the future.  And while Mr. Sawyer does a great job paying lip service to the tectonic changes with quick, bullet-list news bulletins of recent events, the post-visionary world *feels* exactly the same as this one.

And that's a damn shame.

Side note:  I'm getting tired of reading about stupid geniuses.

Many of the book's characters are employees at CERN.  They are some of the brightest physicists in the world.  Hell, one of the smartest comp-sci students I knew at Rice ended up at CERN.  So:  if these people are very very smart, I shouldn't be figuring things out faster than them.  I shouldn't be yawning while the smartest people on earth slowly fumble their way towards the conclusion I reached one page into the chapter.

There was only one scene where they seemed up to their level of intelligence -- the very first one after the flash-forward, where a roomful of scientists were trying to work out what happened.  They went about it very logically ("Were these hallucinations?", "Perhaps not, because they seem to be mutually consistent," and so on.) and it was engaging to watch their reasoning.

If only the whole book felt that smart.

Additional, more positive note:  this book was actually written in 1999, and its picture of 2009 felt surprisingly accurate.  Sure, there were missteps -- the air of terrorist paranoia was, of course, missing.  Generally, the world reflected the hopes of an optimistic and liberal sci-fi writer far more than it reflected the real world. 

The only technological place it really fell down was with the Internet.  In Sawyer!2009, Newsgroups are still popular.  In Sawyer!2009, it takes several days before the CERN geniuses realize, "Hey!  We could make a place on the Internet to gather people's information about the flash-forwards!"

Um... yeah.  If a flash-forward happened in real!2009, there would be a wiki for that inside of fifteen minutes. 

But there's no way Mr. Sawyer could have foreseen that, and in broad strokes, he got 2009 right -- to the point that it was several chapters before I realized the book was written a full ten years ago.

One last (and truly irrelevant) side note:  I got rather bored listening to this book.  So after a while I started amusing myself by shouting narwhal-like encouragements to the narrator.  At one point I responded to some sentence about bosons with, "Bosons, m*********ers!"

I defy anyone to say that phrase without wanting to grin.


Music-wise, I'm still listening to Mendelssohn.

Podcast-wise, I've finally started listening to Intelligence Squared, the NPR debate program that's frankly one of the most informative and interesting newscasts I've come across in years.  I'll be happily going through the back episodes of this for a while now.  Highly recommended.  I've also been catching up on the Grammar Girl podcast, occasionally gleaning new bits of information from it.

I've been less impressed with Obama's weekly radio address.  Like all political speech, it feels padded with the usual "My fellow Americans"es and "The indominable American spirits"es and so on.  It's pleasant rhetoric, but not terribly informative.  I tried listening to Studio 360 and Radio Lab, but didn't really dig either of them.  They struck me as a standard talk show and a standard This American Life wannabe, both carefully engineered to be reassuring and innocuous for NPR's core audience.

For next time:  I plan to finish off the first season of Dead Like Me and maybe try a few episodes of Burn Notice.  I'll listen to a few EscapePod episodes, and then probably start in on The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross's history of twentieth-century classical music.  And yeah, I'm still slowly working my way through As You Like It.

But the big news is that I'll see the LOST premiere and the latest couple episodes of Battlestar Galactica.  I am very excited about this.  I am going to spend a lot of time at the Drafthouse for the next few months.



[1] I think the last one I read was Foundation, back in 2005.  (Alas, that was before I started writing media updates.)

[2] I frankly hate stories where somebody has a vision of a horrible future and works like hell to avoid it, only to bring about that ending in a fit of dramatic irony.  Why?  Because *that's not how life works* -- not to my mind, anyway.  In reality-land, if you work towards a goal, to some extent, you accomplish that goal.  It's not like quicksand, where the more you struggle the more you get sucked down.  Fatalism is annoying and stupid.[2b]

[2b] "... then why do you like The Wire, Peter?"  Quiet, you!

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[User Picture]
From:innocentsmith
Date:Monday (1/19/09) 11:43am
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(For example: if I saw a vision of something I hated in my future, I would take steps to elaborately *stage* the events of that vision, so that perhaps it wouldn't accurately characterize my life at that point. I mean, duh.)

...I love you. A lot. XD! This needs to be a story, itself, you know.

if these people are very very smart, I shouldn't be figuring things out faster than them

Dude, I hate this. It's especially maddening because...surely these at least some of these people consume a lot of science fiction themselves, and should be fairly genre-savvy? Enough to go, "wait, no, that never works"? I mean, you could make the case that having something actually happen to you is different from reading about it, etc., and that's true enough. And not every work needs to have the "Scream" approach of people knowing the rules, or whatever, but still. It makes it that much more annoying when the people who ought to be best equipped to deal with a situation are making really, really obvious mistakes.

I've been watching Stargate: Atlantis recently, and enjoying it quite a bit, though not, I think, exactly in the way the producers intended. The show has so damn much moral dissonance (check its inclusion on the TV Tropes page for that quality, and srsly that's just the tip of the iceberg) that I'd find it basically unwatchable to watch with the assumption that the expedition members were good guys in the way, say, the crew of the Enterprise are good guys. It works quite well, though, if you look at the whole show as an allegory for colonialism, and why it's fcuked up. :/

And yet. When the supposedly highly trained diplomat leader encounters the situation "someone in our city is leaking information to the enemy," she jumps right to the assumption "well, it can't be any of my people, it must be one of the natives who've been oppressed by the enemy for milennia" and goes and first (a) puts them in a ghetto-analogue and then (b) exiles them to another part of the planet. Like, seriously? Don't you have to read any history at all to become a diplomat? *sighs*

by shouting narwhal-like encouragements

Dude. Somehow I had never seen that. *DIES*

maybe try a few episodes of Burn Notice

w00t! I really think you'll like that show - it seems like just your kind of thing.
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From:hujhax
Date:Monday (1/19/09) 2:37pm
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...I love you. A lot. XD!

*is flattered, blush-y*

This needs to be a story, itself, you know.

:)

It makes it that much more annoying when the people who ought to be best equipped to deal with a situation are making really, really obvious mistakes.

Right -- and if you absolutely need the character to do the thing that always gets you killed in genre fiction, it's amazing if you can set it up so that the character knows all the risks but still doesn't have a choice.  (I remember hearing that 28 Days Later has the end-all-be-all of this sort of scene.)

Don't you have to read any history at all to become a diplomat? *sighs*

Oh, if they hung a lantern on that later on, it could be so much fun.  "You did *what*?"  *is speechless*  "Haven't you read... *anything*?!"

Dude. Somehow I had never seen that. *DIES*

It's tempting to make a dizzy_land app of it:
"Milk, dark, or white chocolate?"

*narwhal pic*

IS THAT NOT THE RADDEST SHIT YOUVE SEEN ALL DAY
w00t! I really think you'll like that show

~ cool ~

I liked their "Ask a Spy" videos, and hey -- Bruce Campbell!
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[User Picture]
From:innocentsmith
Date:Monday (1/19/09) 4:21pm
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This needs to be a story, itself, you know.

:)


No, but really! Write that story! *pokes*

if you absolutely need the character to do the thing that always gets you killed in genre fiction, it's amazing if you can set it up so that the character knows all the risks but still doesn't have a choice

Not that many writers have that much control over their plot, but yeah. But you can at least show why they have compelling reason to make this choice they ought to know is wrong - it's definitely more emotionally intense, and a genre-savvy audience is right with the character in the "oh shit, but I guess I have to" dilemma.

Oh, if they hung a lantern on that later on, it could be so much fun

Well, they actually do: in one of the later seasons there's an episode where the major characters get captured and put on trial for war crimes/mass terrorism against the Pegasus galaxy. And it is kind of great to have them called on their bullshit, except that it's pretty much a clipshow episode and, thus, inevitably sucks a bit.

One of the problems is that they've just had so many fuckups that they're sort of unlikeable: there's a great moment when, after the clip of the Heroic Tragic Self-Sacrifice of the diplomat-leader one of the judges just goes, "I'm sorry, you're seriously bitching and moaning to us about how you lost one of your major cast members friends, when you've been responsible for the deaths of thousands?!" And...it's kind of hard to disagree, really. But the show doesn't want you to disagree, at least not to the point of actually disliking the lead characters, so of course it turns out that the trial is rigged, so the heroes are torn between wanting to nobly defend their actions (a la the way these things worked in Trek) and just blow shit up and escape (a la their usual M.O.). Except that they're not really equipped to do either. And in the end, they get out by having their new leader bribe one of the judges.

Hence my comments about it being unwatchable if you see these guys as heroes instead of just lead characters in a political allegory. It doesn't help that a lot of the Pegasus-native characters are various shades of brown. >.< It does beg the question of WTF the writers and producers think they're doing, of course.

And actually, the Unfortunate Implications and how dark they make the SGA vision of the universe seem to be a central source of comment (not to say wank) for the fandom, and the smarter fans are pretty frequently pissed off at the creators. One of the most justly famous fanworks is a long and brilliant fic called "Written by the Victors," in which, basically, several of the major characters "go native" (to use the icky Victorian phrase) and refuse to return to Earth in favor of staying and supporting the people they've been working with all this time. It's told largely in Scrapbook Story form, with various Earth historians and biographers arguing about WTF happened, who was to blame, etc., and it spawned a whole little shared universe of fanart and made-up historical documents. (I ♥ fandom.) I'd read "Victors" before I started watching SGA, so I'm pretty influenced by that in my reading, but if I weren't, as I said, I don't think I'd be able to enjoy it much.

It's tempting to make a dizzy_land app

Heh. If I try to think of who you would be apping as, though, and whether that would be RPS or something along the lines of character!Stephen Colbert, I start to get a headache...

Oh god I am so behind with the wrapping-the-game-up stuff at Dizzy, kill me now.

and hey -- Bruce Campbell!

Bruce Campbell = win, especially in this series.
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