Grafting Jesus

Camera tightens on Dr. Hochslatman.  As television personality Corretta Vickers leans forward to pose her next question, he strokes his salt and pepper beard thoughtfully.

“Dr. Hochsham,” she says seriously.  “This amazing discovery sounds absolutely amazing.”

He squints at her profoundly enough to crease the skin beneath his eyes.  “Hochslatman, and yes, it is amazing.”

“But how does it work?”

“The procedure we’ve developed uses advanced optogenetics to alter the neurological connections in the subject’s brain, effectively replicating a healthy state of mind in every way.”

“Yes, I see,” she replies with a serious nod.  “But how does it work?”

Hochslatman refrains from rolling his eyes, but his lip does curl as he tries to explain.  “Our personalities are created by both the patterns of interconnection in our brains and our neuron’s innate, genetic behavior.  Through our procedure, we rewire the human brain to be more well-adjusted.”

“I see,” she repeates.  “There’s something I don’t understand, though.”

“Was it the word ‘interconnection?'”

“No, I got that.”

“‘Neuron?'”

“No, still good.  What I don’t understand is how you know what is healthy and well-adjusted.”

“Well, Corretta, that’s actually quite simple.  Psychologists and neuroscientists have long since identified the behavioral characteristics that result in success and happiness, along with their concomitant neurological states.  All that remained was the optogenetic technology to graft those conditions onto a living brain.  Now we can give everyone the state of mind of someone perfectly capable of coping and adapting to life:  a growth-oriented mindset, just the right amount of empathy, a little–”

“Just the right amount of empathy?”

“You don’t want too much, because then you suffer on behalf of others.”

“Oh, I see.”

“Just the right amount not to make you a–”

“Fuckwad?”

“I was going to say a misanthrope.”

“Fascinating, doctor,” she sighs.  “Will this make all of us the same?”

“The procedure has some inherent variability.  There’s perhaps a 5% variance on any trait induction.  That’s not enough for any significant reduction in social adjustment, though.  Think of it as a 5% chance that you won’t find a particular joke funny when everyone else does.”

“That could save Hollywood millions!”

“Yes, creating successful romantic comedies should be considerably easier once the majority of the population has been subjected to the procedure,” he agrees.

“Is that what you think will happen?  A majority of the population?  Do you think there will be some people who will reject your treatment?”

“Reject?”

“Some people who will want to keep their brain the way it is.”

“People who want to remain unhappy?”

“Well, ‘natural,’ maybe?”

“Those people deserve what they get.”

“What’s that?”

“Themselves.”

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6:04 and Departure posted in Stories

I just pulled two stories from the blog posts, edited them, and posted them as permanent PDF links on the stories page.

I wish I could think of something else to say to pad this post, but that’s just all I’ve got.  I know I’ve disappointed you all, and I’m sorry.  I’ll try harder in the future.

fragment [unknown]

I see only the white rage
the whole ocean and world bleached by my fury
for days we peel our meals off him,
strip by strip, flaying him like a Christmas goose,
reclaiming what he’d taken

I try to make him a child in my mind
foolish gluttonous child
scold him and forgive
But I feel a simmering beneath my skin,
the wrath running over my stiff muscles,
oil dancing on a hot skillet

Logic and Storytelling (in, you know, Sci-Fi)

Joseph-Gordon-Levitt-as-Young-Joe-in-Looper1

The first stories I wrote as a young teen were science fiction, so writing Slingshot was really just a return to form.  I’ve always loved sci-fi.  Now that I’m all grown up, I can rationalize it by saying that science fiction is a genre that allows writers and readers to explore the big questions with free range for their imaginations.

Now that I’m raising little sci-fi geeks of my own, I watch a lot of the pulp stuff.  You know what I mean: it’s best not to think too hard about The Avengers.  From time to time, though, Hollywood delves into deeper fare.  Every once and a while the schlock mill produces something and actually invites you to think about it.

Enter the recent sci-fi film Looper.

Here’s where today’s post gets very spoilerific and if you haven’t seen this movie and don’t want it ruined then you should go ahead and click “back” or your shortcut to Facebook up on your menu bar or something.

Now, I know that deep down, Looper isn’t interested in the physics or mechanics of time travel.  Looper is doing exactly what I was extolling science fiction for doing:  asking big questions.  It wants us to think about what makes us who we are, what is the chain of causality, and what does it take to change the cycle of violence and despair inherent in a life of crime.

I know that’s what they wanted to accomplish…but would it be too much to ask that they do a better job with the time travel itself?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect every time travel story to be based on a cutting edge knowledge of quantum physics.  Time travel is almost certainly impossible (though you never know!), but it also happens to be one of those sci-fi tropes that almost inevitably results in bad storytelling (that and psychic powers).

It’s such a reality-altering concept (like psychics) that it takes a very careful hand to use it without screwing up.  I’m not saying that writers tend not to create a believable model of time travel, I’m saying that they generally can’t even be consistent when describing how their means of time travel works.

Case in point, Looper.

I’m not even going to complain about the fact that movie’s premise is that organized crime in the future has access to time travel and all they can think to do with it is to dispose of bodies.  But let’s track the way time travel works in Looper.  Our anti-hero young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) works as a hitman in the past for the mob.  Like all “loopers,” Joe knows that if he lives long enough to catch up with the future where time travel is possible, his older self will be shipped back to none other than himself for execution.  Then when old Joe (Bruce Willis) does appear one day, young Joe messes up and lets him go, leading to all sorts of problems.

Now, old Joe’s plan is to pull a Terminator on the mob boss of the future responsible for sending him back.  As he changes the past, his memories shift, but through it all he is able to hang on to the memory of his future wife–his inspiration for altering history.

Eventually, to prevent old Joe from murdering a then-innocent young boy, young Joe shoots himself to break the chain.  Then old Joe vanishes into thin air because the chain of events leading to him being there has been broken.  (This in itself is a problem detailed here.)

Earlier in the movie, though, another looper with an older self on the run was nabbed by the mob of the present (who do the bidding of their future counterparts).  To coax the older, doomed looper to them, the mobsters begin disfiguring the young looper.  We, the viewers, see the old looper on the run as he discovers to his horror that he has an ultimatum carved in scars on his arm.  Then, as his countdown expires, body parts begin to disappear.  First, his fingers.  Then, his nose.  Eventually, they even lob off his legs.

This is a completely different mechanic than the one that’s at work when old Joe vanishes into thin air.  After all, if the old looper’s legs were cut off, how did he run away from his young self in the first place?  Yet, instead of disappearing or magically relocating back to his point of origin, his legs just disappear inside his normal pants.  No crutches or wheelchairs appear to assist him…so in this timeline how’d he even get to that spot?  (Don’t get me started on the fact that Looper also throws in the other boogeyman of sci-fi logic, telekinesis.)

That’s not even the worst time travel paradox in the movie.  At one point, we’re treated to a view of old Joe’s memories.  He remembers being the young Joe and successfully executing his older self.  Then he began his thirty year countdown to his own death, living it up, blowing his whole savings, meeting his dream girl, etc.  Then, when the mob comes for him this time he lashes out, killing the assassins and escaping into the past without his hands bound so he can get the best of his younger self and change history.

The problem is that “this time” is the only time.  There is only one trip to the past and it was part of the timeline already.  At this point in the narrative, time is clearly a, well duh, loop.  Old Joe is part of that loop and his single timeline leads to his own death.  Somehow, though, the screenwriters have that single future timeline inexorably tied to two different presents.

I know, I know, I’m nitpicking.  “Stop thinking about it so much,” you say.  “Just enjoy the movie.”  But is internal consistency really so much to ask?  Would a little logic really be so hard?  Remember, movies like Looper want us to think.  Is it my fault I’m so good at it?

Dry

On the third day, he forced open his eyes, breaking away the crust of salt that had kept him from seeing the world since the fierce glow of the sun had woken him that morning.  Something felt different in the way the sea was moving his limp body.  He could still feel the bubble of the ocean beneath him, the swell of buoyancy that had allowed him to survive so long, but the waves were no longer batting him back and forth.  The acidic swill inside his stomach had settled.  He no longer had to time his breathing to match the sloshing to and fro of the waves.

He did not bob.  He was still.

At first he could see only the white glow.  But squinting allowed him to resolve faint hues of blue at the edges of the sky.

When he was ready, he lifted his head out of the water and looked around him.

When he saw the objects resting half-submerged in the glass-sheet plane of the sea, he could not identify them.  He lapped in their direction with the remaining strength in his right arm and came close enough to take hold of the nearest of them.

When he gripped it, matted clumps of his soggy white flesh came off, as if the object was serrated on every edge.  From the lack of pain, though, he knew that it was simply a sign of his decaying body–and likely, of his impending death.

The object itself was impossible to identify.  He catalogued its properties with what mental faculties he had left.  It was long, slender at one end.  Some portions of it seemed translucent, others had a pearly shimmer.  He knew it was man-made, but he could not discern if it was a piece of art, some kind of tool, a piece of some larger whole, or if it was something he might have easily identified before he went into the water three days earlier.

He let it slip from his fingers.  It stayed just within the moon shape of his open palm, surrounded by a thin fog of his blood in the water.

Hundreds, or thousands of other items dotted the surface for as far as he could see.  Each might be as puzzling as this one, and he no longer had the energy or will to investigate.

Floating in a Sargasso Sea of refuse, somewhere beyond the reach of the tidal pull of the moon, he was finally finished, finally spent and ready to surrender.  He had survived all that might have been expected of him.

He let his head fall back into the water–slowly, without any audible splash.  His eyes closed again.  Without the splashing of the ocean, he imagined that they would not be sealed shut by evaporating salt water, but he didn’t care.  There were still hours to wait, during which he tracked the heat source above move over his body and followed the orange bloom creep downward through his eyeball.

As night came, the last night, he thought, naturally, of her.

Tell-tale

Julie Turkewitz recently wrote an article for The Atlantic on Chris Arnade’s photographic career documenting the downtrodden addicts of New York’s red-light district.

The glimpse Arnade offers into this world is disturbing, and many have questioned his motives and methods.  He is, after all, affluent–photography is a side-gig; high finance pays the bills–and some allege that he is both exploiting his subjects’ situations while also perpetuating them by paying paltry sums for them to allow him to photograph them.

As I examine these images, though, it’s not Chris Arnade who I think should be ashamed.

At least, not him alone.

Arnade’s subjects live at the margins of our society.  They are trapped in a cycle of addiction.  Some live fix to fix.  Many turn tricks to afford drugs.  In a nation of promise, they have none.  Many of them were born into this world without hope.  Some have brought other children into it.  Right beneath the lights of our greatest city, these poor human souls are caught in a vicious cycle of debasement and despair.

It would be easy to comfort ourselves:  I am not a drug addict.  I have my life in order.  Yet our choices and the choices of our elected officials have bearing on these people’s lives.  What have we, as a society, invested in?  How might their lives have been different with greater educational opportunities?  With a well-funded system of interventions, perhaps these people could escape the grip of these drugs.  Instead we send them through the rotating doors of the prison system.  The greatest nation on Earth has allowed these people to languish, and that fact calls into question the whole notion of our greatness.

If you look at the photos–and you should; you really should–you will see ordinary faces, staring out from a wasteland.

It is more than a physical poverty that these images speak to.  It’s a poverty of mind, of opportunity, of vision.  These people cannot see themselves as anything other than raw nerves, seeking out a salve.  And as a society, we have not found a way to see them as anything other than anathema, other than a blight.  We should have been striving together all along to find a route back to dignity, to a wisdom befitting citizens in the wealthiest and most powerful nation in human history.  That we have not is a ringing condemnation of our culture and its priorities, and it casts a pall on everything that is America.

Cowardly Art

Still reflecting on 2012, I caught an article on CNN declaring last year the “Year of Meh.”  The gist of Todd Leopold’s argument being that there was very little that was genuinely exciting in entertainment in 2012.

As a through-and-through movie geek, I paid most attention to his points about Hollywood.  In 2012, I had been looking forward to three giant geek-fest movies this year:  Avengers, Prometheus, and Dark Knight Rises.

The latter two are now notorious disappointments.  Prometheus is especially tragic since even though it was a clunk, awkward mess of a movie with some overwrought characters and some inexplicable ones, the deleted and alternate scenes (yes, I still watched the bonus material for a movie I didn’t like) prove that Ridley Scott had a decent movie on his hands, but he left it on the cutting room floor.

That would’ve been “decent,” but still nothing compared with his original sci-fi classics like Alien or Blade Runner.

The Dark Knight Rises was entertaining while soaking it up in the theater, but a little reflection opens up some gaping holes in the narrative.  More than anything, though it all had the feel of the last, sensational Batman movie, but lacking the bold presence of Heath Ledger’s Joker.  That feeling is getting all too familiar in Hollywood lately.

In the logic of Hollywood-think, “darker” is the new gravy train.  In the wake of the success of 2008’s The Dark Knight, the franchise factory has had its dials spun in one direction.  Sam Mendes, director of this year’s Bond movie Skyfall gives Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight direct credit as an inspiration.  That’s putting it mildly; the film actually turns out to be a kind of remake, with a villain constantly outmaneuvering the hero right up to the end, where the good guys still pretty much loses.  It even includes a scene with the baddie in a Hannibal Lecterish cell after allowing himself to be captured as “part of the plan.”  The need to recast all our pop culture heroes as dark or gritty continues in 2013 with a Nolan-produced Superman film Man of Steel and a new Star Trek sequel so eager to bask in the Nolan effect it’s actually going to be subtitled “into darkness.”

Next, prepare yourselves for the Avengers effect.  After Joss Whedon brought his distinctive voice to the Marvel comics superhero mash-up (which is still another dang comic book movie), Warner Brothers immediately rekindled plans to create their own super-hero all-stars flick, The Justice League.

It’s all so reductive.  And of course, this lack of originality stretches beyond just the action-adventure fare.  Romantic comedies are so formulaic, if you’ve seen the trailer then you’ve seen the whole story.  Hollywood is trapped by the three-act structure churned out by the bucketload.

It’s a shame.  Around the world, there is nothing more iconically American than our film exports.  Hollywood is the driving thrust of our cultural currency, our most potent ambassador.  It’s dearth of originality is a harbinger, a warning to dig deeper into ourselves and find more than an endless repetition of commoditized archetypes.

Yet even in this stew of “meh,” there are glimmers of genius, moments that speak to something deeper in us.  Mathew Shapiro stitches scenes from various films from the year together in his Cinescape series.  His 2012 entry is a tribute to the power of film.  It makes all these movies–slick successes and dreadful duds alike–look like intricate parts of a larger whole.  And that whole is our shifting cultural consciousness, prismed through the twenty-four frames of Hollywood’s often formulaic, sometimes moving story telling.