Fast cars with spoilers

August 20th, 2017

Spoiler alert: Today’s post is about the film Baby Driver, which has been out in theaters since June 28. I’m not giving away the ending, but I do describe the film on a structural level. So if you’re planning to see it, and haven’t yet, you might want to hold off on reading this post.

Let me start by saying that I am a huge fan of Edgar Wright. The artful way he mixes genres, as in horror with comedy/bromance in Shaun of the Dead or coming of age flick with video game in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, is always inventive and fun and exciting to watch.

But in Baby Driver he takes genre mixing to an entirely new level. To my surprise, none of the reviews I’ve read of this film seemed to have caught on to just what this writer/director is up to here.

Going way beyond merely mixing genres, Baby Driver makes the film itself a battle between genres. Each of the main characters believes him/herself to be in a genre film of a particular sort. Much of the dramatic tension in the film comes from the fact that different characters believe they are in very different genre movies.

Kevin Spacey’s character believes he’s presiding over a heist film, in the spirit of Rififi. Jamie Foxx’s character believes he is starring in a nihilistic violent crime-spree film, in the spirit of Natural Born Killers. Eiza González and John Hamm’s characters think they are starring in Bonnie and Clyde. But the characters played by Ansel Elgort and Lily James know that they are really in a bittersweet coming of age romantic musical.

Much of both the humor and suspense of the film derive from this genre clash. In many scenes the characters are confused by one other, each reacting as though somebody from a completely different movie had somehow wandered onto their set. The only person who is rarely confused is Baby, perhaps because he knows that we are really there to watch him.

One by one, each of the supporting characters finds out that this is not his or her movie — first Jamie Foxx, then Eiza González, then John Hamm, and finally Kevin Spacey. The moment near the end when Kevin Spacey’s character suddenly realizes that he’s actually in somebody else’s movie, and that this is really a sweet teen romance after all, is completely priceless.

Spacey plays the moment with subtle humor and a charming lilt of graceful resignation. It’s as though he is saying “Well ok, now that I know this isn’t going to be my movie, I’ll be a sport and help you finish your movie.”

In short, this isn’t really a genre film — it’s a film about genre films. That’s a brilliant conceit, and for me it totally worked.

Spin control

August 19th, 2017

All 16 of the prominent artists, authors, performers and architects on the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities resigned on Friday, the latest group to protest Donald J. Trump’s defense of white nationalists after the violent demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va. In a statement, a Whitehouse spokeswoman said Mr. Trump was going to disband the commission anyway. “While the committee has done good work in the past, in its current form it simply is not a responsible way to spend American tax dollars,” the statement read.

All 7 members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff resigned on Saturday, the latest group to protest Donald J. Trump’s defense of white nationalists after the violent demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va. In a statement, a Whitehouse spokeswoman said Mr. Trump was going to disband the U.S. Military anyway. “While our armed forces have done good work in the past, in their current form they simply are not a responsible way to spend American tax dollars,” the statement read.

All 535 members of Congress resigned on Sunday, the latest group to protest Donald J. Trump’s defense of white nationalists after the violent demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va. In a statement, a Whitehouse spokeswoman said Mr. Trump was going to disband the government’s legislative branch anyway. “While Congress has done good work in the past, in its current form it simply is not a responsible way to spend American tax dollars,” the statement read.

Sight and sound

August 18th, 2017

The other day I talked about the coming age of wearables, and how that paradigm shift might alter, in fundamental ways, our interaction with the Cloud and perhaps with each other. One of the readers commented that Millennials already exist in a world of tightly interconnected social networking through the Cloud, via their SmartPhones.

I countered that there is a fundamental difference between social interaction through a SmartPhone and social interaction face to face. Your phone requires you to look at the screen, rather than at the person you are with. As a colleague of mine observed today, he would prefer a technology that doesn’t get in the way of sharing a beer with his friends.

Today I had a discussion with another colleague on this general topic, and the conversation turned to visual versus audio, when interacting with the Cloud. Maybe audio will turn out to be a better direction. Perhaps the future of wearables will veer more in the general direction of Alexa (or Her, for you dystopians out there). The most useful interface may turn out to be the one that simply whispers in your ear.

I suspect we will end up with some creative combination of the two, with each augmenting the other, perhaps using novel approaches to integrating sight and sound in interface design. That’s pretty much what JARVIS is, and it seems to work for Iron Man. :-)

Back to the future

August 17th, 2017

This evening I finally got around to trying The Void at Times Square. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a shared walk-around VR experience.

In this particular experience, the tech is used to simulate you and your friends being the heroes of Ghostbusters. Essentially, you walk around shooting ghosts, which is fun.**

Yet to me one of the most surprising aspects of the experience was what happened when we arrived. My friend and I turned up with our SmartPhones, and we showed the ushers the tickets we had each purchased on-line.

They said we needed to have paper tickets. They pointed us to the ticket vendor line, so that the person there could print out our ticket on paper. Only after our tickets had been safely printed out on paper were we allowed to enter The Void.

I love the irony. We had paid to experience the shareable technology of the future, and we hadn’t known exactly what we would find.

But what we found was more surprising than we could have imagined: In the future, when Virtual Reality is everywhere, your tickets will still need to be printed out on paper.

** No actual ghosts were harmed during the making of this experience

The varying benefits of future wearables

August 16th, 2017

When a disruptive new communication technology comes along, different subpopulations are affected differently. For example, the Web and the SmartPhone had very different impacts on people aged 18-25 than they had on people 65 and older.

These technologies did not necessarily have a greater impact on one of these age groups or the other, all things considered. But they certainly had a different impact.

I’ve been thinking about this in the context of ubiquitous wearables, which will be forthcoming sometime in the next few years. Let’s fast forward a bit and consider the imminent technical landscape.

With the wearables that will become widely available in the next four years or so, you will be able to see a high quality wide angle digital image overlaid upon your visual field, properly registered to the world around you. Furthermore, this overlay will be modulated by software that will make powerful inferences about the people and objects you can see.

If you are a young person, you might find the greatest utility in the improved opportunities this will afford for social networking. Conversations can be augmented by shared games and other entertainment, and you will be able to maintain multiple simultaneous channels of private discussion, even during face to face conversations within a group. The awkward “social signaling” required to send or receive a private text within a social situation will go away. And the boundary between local and remote social interactions will become even more blurred than it is now.

If you are a senior citizen, a lot of the things that you may now find troublesome will become easier and less stressful. You will receive unobtrusive help in finding your way through difficult to navigate places and in recalling the names and identities of people you haven’t seen in a while, as well as private reminders of when to take a pill or what items to pick up at the grocery store. Your astigmatism or myopia will be automatically corrected by a single pair of glasses, even as your prescription changes over time. Small or dimly lit text will automatically enlarge and become easier to read.

Of course some benefits will accrue equally to everyone. For example, signs in foreign languages will be automatically translated and rendered readable to all. Train and bus schedules, preferred travel routes, listings of movie and theater times, restaurant seatings, warnings about food allergies, these will become instantly available just by looking. People of all ages will wonder how folks in earlier eras, deprived of such conveniences, had ever managed to get through the day.

As with all previous disruptive media technologies, wearables will have a profound effect on our everyday reality. But also as with all previous such disruptions, the particular effect on you may vary, depending on your needs.

The dark crazy place

August 15th, 2017

I freely admit that I am feeling a deep sense of schadenfreude, in response to our president’s astonishing moment of shooting himself in the foot today. The advisors of this one-time show host can no longer hide the fact that their boss is a complete idiot.

Today the poor slob actually said (you can’t make this stuff up) that violence in defense of marching with semi-automatic weapons while carrying Nazi flags and shouting anti-Jewish and anti-black slogans is equivalent to violence in opposition to such an ideology. He actually went there. He went to the dark crazy place.

I don’t actually think that this guy is in favor of racist anti-semitic hate mongering. I think it’s more that he literally has no idea that there is an important moral issue at the core of this conversation. He is just that completely out of his depth.

Melodrama and the duality of fictional narrative

August 14th, 2017

I have recently been watching Bates Motel on Netflix, and I am struck by how it functions on two very different yet parallel levels. This is true of all fictional tales, but is particularly evident in melodrama.

The melodramatic nature of Bates Motel simply helps to highlight an intrinsic duality within all narrative storytelling: Writers and their characters exist in very different yet intertwined realities. When a writer takes us on a journey into the reality of her characters, she inevitably provides a glimpse into her own backstage process.

To the reader or audience, characters seem to exist mainly so that they can evolve emotionally, in reaction to the challenges of an ever changing reality. The audience derives pleasure from identifying with fictional people who seem to respond to challenging situations by undergoing interesting psychological growth and change.

But the writer knows that all encounters between characters and fate must be explicitly engineered. In a fictional narrative, every turn of events needs to be deliberately constructed by its author.

Sometimes, as in a heightened melodrama such as Bates Motel, this duality can become very obvious. Much of the fun of a melodrama is due to the extreme nature of its constructed “reality”. As we watch empathetic characters react to extraordinary events, we find ourselves wondering what they will do in the face of such outrageous and unexpected turns of fortune.

Therefore when the writers introduce new characters, or get rid of old ones, or simply add an unexpected twist to the plot, the audience is essentially being invited to inhabit two simultaneous realities. One is the reality that the characters experience, in which everything they encounter is real. The other is the reality of the author, who is very clearly creating a kind of game for the viewer by throwing all sorts of unexpected events in the paths of our favorite characters.

This duality is present in all fictional narratives. But in a melodrama it becomes so obvious that it can become a dominant aspect of the audience experience.

Spontaneous glass harmonica orchestra

August 13th, 2017

At dinner tonight
We all tuned our wine glasses
And we made music

36 questions, revisited

August 12th, 2017

This evening I attened a dinner with five colleagues at which we started to go through the 36 questions that lead to love. We did it pretty much just for fun.

After all, it’s not as though the six of us want to end up in a relationship together. That would be way too Sense8. But as it turns out, it’s an amazingly good way to break the ice with a group of people.

I highly recommend it at your next professional meeting. But only if you are meeting with people you like.

Sensory superpower

August 11th, 2017

Some years ago I posted a recollection of scuba diving in the company of deaf people, and how they were able to seamlessly continue their conversation under water. It was a wonderful example of a characteristic that is generally thought of as a disability becoming flipped, situationally, into a kind of superpower.

I was reminded of this just recently when an old friend told me that he was starting to lose his hearing, and so he had had an in-ear hearing aid installed. The tech is pretty cool. For example, the battery is integrated into the unit, and charges via induction. He keeps the charger under his pillow and it recharges every night while he sleeps.

But the coolest part is that he has it set up to integrate with his SmartPhone. When he gets alerts or messages, he can privately hear them, without needing to look at his phone. To me this feels like an early prototype of some future, less obtrusive, form of augmented reality.

It’s fascinating to witness two such clear examples of a disability flipped into a superpower — one in an encounter with our natural heritage, and the other in an encounter with our cyber future. Perhaps, with some creative thinking, we will eventually discover other sensory superpowers can be at our fingertips (maybe literally).