Lost Tribes and Human Nature

I found this video, of an uncontacted tribe meeting a white man for the first time, utterly compelling.

I admit that the Enigma style sound-track (actually Yeha-Noha by Sacred Spirit, a new feature on YouTube helpfully reveals) helps churn the emotions.

But there is a beauty in the images, in the actions of the startled men and women on film. Initially, they are clearly shit-fucking scared. Although they are armed, and could have let loose an arrow into the explorer’s gullet at any moment, they do not give in to their fear. Curiosity is the more powerful emotion. They dare to touch the hand of the explorer and his cameraman. And crucially, they trust him enough to shake his hand, taste the salt, and take him to their village. For his part, the white explorer (film-maker Jean-Pierre Dutilleux) appears honest and sensitive, and the moment early on where he reaches out his hand is just sublime.

Its an imperfect experiment, but these uncontacted tribes are the nearest thing we habe to a tabula rasa, a mind unpolluted by the sensibilities and preconceptions of our infinitely connected world. And, untrained and unprepared for the moment, they win it. Its a blow to the idea that humankind is essentially destructive and violent, and that politics must essentially be about protecting ourselves from others, in the pursuit of self-interest.

The video is actually from 1978, but these tribes-people are totally outside of time and only Dutilleux’s short-shorts date the piece. But I came upon it because of a more contemporary campaign to help preserve uncontacted tribes in the Amazon Rainforests. There is a lot more fascinating imagery, and a petition to sign, at UncontactedTribes.org.

Evolution of Skydiving Videos

In my youth, I would go skydiving at weekends.  My take-up of the sport was round about the time that digital video was coming onto the consumer market and into the world of freefall.  Most electronics shops sold high-end mini-DV units for four figure sums alongside VHS camcorders.  All units were relatively bulky and you required a homemade helmet with a camera-mount bracket on the front.

The films we produced then were rudimentary.  They were washed out and a bit shaky, and any that were edited were typically very basic montages set to some kind of dance-music sound-track.  Here’s an example I made earlier.

Compare that with this beautiful thing from design studio Betty Wants In, advertising a skydive centre in Melbourne. Its in a different league to what I saw being produced a decade ago, even from the professionals. Chief amongst its virtues is the focus on stillness and calm, and the relative stasis that you achieve in freefall (relative being the operative word). By contrast, when I was doing this sort of thing, the entire culture revolved around speed and the iconography was all cliched lightning bolts and flames. It shows how the practitioners of this relatively new genre have evolved, helped of course by the reduced price and size of HD video.

Thought of You

Check out this stunning animation by Ryan Woodward:

I was delighted to see this, because it takes to a perfect, polished conclusion a visual style I messed about with briefly, a few years ago:

For the avoidance of doubt, I do not claim that my sketches had any influence on Ryan! ‘Construction’ type sketches are a common enough aesthetic, and I’m not even sure that it was an original style when I created my own animation.

Rather, I just say that there is a certain pleasure in seeing such an idea realised. When I was messing about with tracing paper, I knew I did not have the artistic training, nor the resources, nor the talent, to actually realise what I saw in my head – a depressing realisation one learns to accept. But watching Woodward’s piece, I see he has incorporated everything I would wish, especially a sense of the transient, the fleeting, and the whiff of faeries.

See also: Fifty Nine Productions animations for Jónsi.

Tropes

The latest YouTube craze is to take a common film or TV cliché or plot device and splice them together.  Its a diverting way to highlight the many recurring scenes that we see in our media, the audio-visual grammar of our entertainment.

A couple my favourites are Cool Guys Don’t Look At Explosions and Let’s Enhance, below.

Via that video, I came across the massive time-sink that is tvtropes.org. I think a wiki-style project to create a YouTube video for every TVtrope listed would result in a fantastic media- and film-studies resource. A good use of our cognitive surplus, I reckon.

Update

Tom Cruise, running.

War and Incitement

I was talking about free expression at an event the other day, when the subject of incitement to violence cropped up.  I mentioned the formulation that Aryeh Neier (President of the Open Society Institute) gave at GFFEx last year, regarding whether the person doing the violence agreed with the person whose speech provoked it.

Blasphemy or religious defamation are essentially insults against a person or group of persons on the basis of one’s religious, or it could be another form of group defamation, where one is attacking or insulting members of a particular race or a particular nationality.  But it doesn’t have the effect of inspiring the supports of the speaker to engage in violence; rather it is the opponents of the speaker who might engage in violence.  So hate speech incites; blasphemy and religious defamation provoke.

That seems to me very important.  I think there limited circumstances in which it may be appropriate to punish those who engage in hate speech.  I think there are virtually no circumstances where it is appropriate to punish those who engage in in blasphemy or religious defamation, that is the circumstances in which they have provoked others to attack them.

An interesting retort to this, was to ask whether King Henry V was engaging in incitement to violence when he gives his famous, rousing speech?

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.

My only response was to suggest that, yes, the French would probably consider Henry’s speech an ‘incitement to violence’ and worthy of censorship, if only they could!  But in practice, such political speech is usually seen as exempt when matters of war and national survival are at stake.  Governments and their populations are usually comfortable with placing extra restrictions on our human rights during times of crisis.

However, there are times when this special exemption might not be as clear cut as we think.  Who, on 14th September 2001, objected to President George W. Bush giving a memorial speech for those killed in the attacks on the World Trade Centre just three days earlier?  Yet it was in that speech that he first used the phrase ‘War on Terror’, a formulation that has become hugely problematic and inciting.  The following week, when America was still reeling from the shock and in need of rousing leadership, the word ‘crusade’ slipped into the President’s remarks, which not only provoked the Islamic world, but certainly had the effect of inciting certain elements of American society to violent, disproportionate action.  The last film I went to see, My Name is Khan, deals with the aftermath of such words.

Back-up Your Brain

(This post contains vague spoilers, which should not damage your enjoyment of the stories in question)

Would I restore my mind from back-up?

I’ve been reading Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Cory Doctorow’s first novel.  It is a science-fiction thought experiment on what might happen if we all had immortality, and scarcity of resources had been abolished.  Money is redundant, because one can simply utilise public replication machines to generate whatever food or tools you need.  Instead, people earn credibility points (Doctorow calls it ‘Whuffie’) for all the good things that they do – The protagonist, Julius, earns this by maintaining the rides at Disneyland.  Through these tweaks to reality, Doctorow gets to meditate on human purpose and ennui in a time of plenty.

The central, fantastical technology available to the characters, is the ability to upload and back-up to hard-drive your mind and all your memories.  Should some accident or murder befall you (as of course it does to Julius) you can get a-hold of a clone body, and overlay your complete consciousness onto the tabula rasa.  Doctorow has played with this sort of technology before, in the delightful I, Rowboat (yes, a knowing pun on Asimov’s I, Robot) and another story involving an absconded mother (the name of which escapes me just now).  Apparently, such technology a staple of science fiction:  Back-ups and clones are certainly used in the Schwarzenegger movie The 6th Day and I am sure they are found in Philip K. Dick and elsewhere in the canon.

For those who wish to live forever, brain-backups and reboots are exciting idea, but the immortality on offer would be false.  In both The 6th Day and Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, its clear that in taking a snap-shot of your brain, you are not preserving your consciousness (or your soul) but simply making a copy of it.  As both Adam Gibson (the Schwarzenegger character) and bad-guy Michael Drucker (Tony Goldwyn) discover in The 6th Day, it is possible to make a clone of yourself before you die!  When your original ‘version’ dies, the fact that there is a replica of you living on somewhere is of no comfort as your own light fades.  When you finally expire, you know your soul cannot fly away and awake in the new clone, because the clone is already wandering around making memories of his own (see also ‘Second Chances’, a Star Trek: TNG episode with two Commander Rikers).

Stepping into the Star Trek transporters or Fly-style teleporter carries the same philosophical risk.  I simply wouldn’t have the guts to step into such a machine – Not because I worry that my psychology or physiology might be altered due to a malfunction, but because even if the thing works perfectly, the guy stepping in is not the guy stepping out.

One of the few places in fiction where the idea that the soul does not persist through back-ups and cloning is in The Prestige.  Its a film I’ve previously slated for seeming to violate the rules of mystery-telling, but on reflection I think it is internally consistent (the opening shot of the film fortells the final revelation).  Both the Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale characters discover, in their own very different ways, that you cannot achieve immortality through the creation of a clone or a twin, regardless of how that might appear to the rest of the world.  In the end, both characters rightly weep at the demise of their clones, but Jackman’s character is the more tortured because he has caused the death of his ‘original’ self, merely by choosing to step into the crackpot machine in the first place.    This is a sadness that seems to be missing from the characters in Cory Doctorow’s stories.

However, realisation that backup-and-restore is not bona fide immortality would not discourage me from plugging in my brain and making a copy.  This is because we naturally value the things we have created, and we want to see them persist.  I would like to pass on bits of my DNA through children and grandchildren.  I would like people to read the thoughts I have written down, even after I become an ex-person.  A human consciousness restored from my uploaded back-up would be indisputably my creation, a more detailed product of my life and times than anything I might write or carve, or anyone I might sire.  Far better that they, in particular, get to witness the heat-death of the universe (Doctorow, with a nod to Douglas Adams) or the “more glorious dawn” of a Galaxy-rise than some other, generic homo sapien.

'The Same River Twice, part V' by ruSSel hiGGs. Creative Commons License.
‘The Same River Twice, part V’ by ruSSel hiGGs. Creative Commons License.

The Execution of Gary Glitter

The-Execution-Of-Gary-Gli-001

I watched The Execution of Gary Glitter tonight.  Just as executions have a morbid fascination, dramas about executions, like Dead Man Walking or The Green Mile seem to have that same fascination (although perhaps one degree removed).

I think the death penalty is a valid subject for Channel 4, a public service broadcaster.  Though it is not a live debate here, it is a real and divisive issue for our cultural cousins in the USA.  The hanging of paedophiles is an oft repeated thought experiment, whenever a Huntley or a Vanessa George is arrested, and it is sufficiently discussed in the UK for pollsters to regularly ask the public’s opinion on the issue.  According to the programme, 54% of British adults support its reintroduction.

The device of using Gary Glitter felt like exactly that, & hopelessly crass. If we executed people in the UK they’d be poor & unknown. (@leylandrichard on Twitter)

There’s no doubt that the choice of Glitter as the anti-hero was was a fantastic marketing ploy.  He is, shall we say, the most culturally significant bogeyman we have.  However, this also gave the narrative extra depth, because his rock-star past allowed the programme makers to pass commentary on popular culture. The Daily Mirror headlines for a Glitter trial felt real, and the MP3 remix sending Gary Glitter back to No.1 (on downloads) on the day of his execution was an obvious slam dunk. It is an uncomfortable thought, but I think he is the protagonist many writers would have chosen.  The device cannot simply be marked down as the product of pure cynicism.

Continue reading “The Execution of Gary Glitter”

Star Trek, Reviewed on Twitter

Chris Pine as Kirk, Zachary Qunto as Spock
Chris Pine as Kirk, Zachary Qunto as Spock

Sometimes, you don’t need a long review to capture the essence of a movie.  In two tweets, I think MitchBenn gets the new Star Trek movie in a nutshell:

First:

Particularly impressed by Chris Pine in Star Trek. Gives it JUST enough Shatner without ever lapsing into Comedy Captain Kirk Mode

and then

Nice contrast between old & young Spock- Quinto all conflicted and tormented; Nimoy SO over all that crap.

What more do you need?