Sunday, January 24, 2010

Life, Digital Life and Dangerous Art: Or, why I just might keep watching Caprica…

Today I came home and sat down to check online for episodes from a few of my regular shows. I don’t have cable, and so I’m at the mercy of channels that post “rewind” courtesy episodes on their websites. Fortunately, most of the shows I watch do so. In the process, I stumbled upon Caprica, the prequel spin-off to the recently finished Battlestar Galactica run. At first I told myself I wouldn’t get into that show, because I didn’t care for the way they were teasing it on the trailers. But since the pilot was still posted, I thought I’d give it a chance.

Without spoiling anything too drastically, the setting is a world basically like our own, though with some really interesting twists (classical Greek polytheism meets late 20th-century religious cynicism for one). The premise is still really vague and mysterious, but it seems to be that a teenage girl designed an artificial intelligence, which due to being misunderstood and abused by humankind, will eventually go “bad” and become the Cylon badguy of Battlestar.

Ok, forgive me for the dry Science Fiction, but I had to give some context. What sparked my attention was how aptly it addresses the idea of the Internet and technology in today's world (as any good sci-fi should). There’s a line where the intelligent program is defending herself as a real person and she lists-off how people leave lots more than just "footprints" online. Credit card purchases, photos, journal entries, newspaper archives, medical records… in short, biological and psychological profiles...

Here's where my attention really got caught...

While I was watching this show, I was also on something of a mission. My good friend is getting married soon, and she wanted a picture of my tuxedo. I didn’t have one, but I knew other people did. This led me to manually searching through the Facebook picture archives of a dozen of my old College Choir alumni friends, looking for candid and performance shots with our short-coats. That in itself led me to pause for a moment or two.

With only a little premise, I could easily dig through 6+ years of many, many people’s lives. Moreover, thanks to the friends-of-friends feature and people’s penchant for posting large amounts of personal information and photos online, I found that if I wanted to, I could probably reconstruct a decent outline of the last decade of the lives of complete strangers.

Without trying, and in a very real way, I’d proven the very point of the episode. Science fiction to social commentary, just like that. This also seems to resonate with my last post, where I reflected a little bit on the dominant metaphor of the film Avatar. (The movie audience vicariously lives the story by technology the same way the character lived in an avatar.)

Where am I going with this? I mostly wanted to bring up the situation anecdotally, share the moment of coincidence and just say “hey creepy.” I also wanted to plug Caprica, because despite how disturbing the show’s producers can get, they touch on some really apt themes and messages that are worth looking at.

But it also leaves me with something of an open-ended question too, which I might pursue in later posts. There are a lot of shows out there that are pretty powerful because they touch on real questions. But it’s also important to be really aware of what answers are being put forth.

For the past few years I’ve written and advocated that valuable artistic engagement is based not so much on aesthetics (whether it’s pretty) but more on the validity of its thematic content (whether it’s true). I’ve since come to learn the hard way that such a philosophy is a bit dangerously na├»ve. It’s not just whether the question is valid, you also have to see how they’re answering the questions.

These days I give my compliments to television producers. They’re asking better questions than they used to. It used to just be drama for emotion’s sake and comedy sit-coms for the masses. Now they’re delving into stuff. Bravo. But some of their solutions have been far from wholesome. I got caught in the middle of it for a while…still do sometimes. And I’m curious to see what Caprica brings up.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Fickle Avatar, or why a movie can be simple but still good

Editors note: I appologize for the rambling nature of this one, it's been a long while since I've written here, so I'm out of practice, and I have a lot of divergent thoughts spinning in my head at the moment. So please take the ideas as more underdeveloped than I'd wish...

So I have to admit two things up front:

1. I loved James Cameron's Avatar
2. I'm really really tired of people ragging on the movie.

I keep hearing the same complaints over and over again, the plot is too simplistic, the story is nieve...etc. Well, I'm going to try my best to avoid being snippy about all this, but I'll put out here right now my thoughts on those ideas. I'm reminded of Johannes Brahms' comments when a music critic remarked how his 1st Symphony was awfully similar to Beethoven's 9th. (For those of you who aren't music nerds, his response was "Any @#$( can see that.")

His point? The same as mine: Get over it.

Dear critics, you think you can do better, try yourself to make a movie that makes more money. (Oh yeah, and by the way, last time I checked, it's the highest grossing film ever, not counting inflation.)

Ok. My little hissyfit is over. Thanks for being patient with me. Now on to some real comments about it.

1. A simple plot, a simple message.
I don't have a problem with simple plots. The message was straightforward. It's a thinly veiled allegory or parable for how we did some serious damage to the Native Americans. And we really did. Sometimes I think this really gets lost on my generation. We hear about it so much we're really cynical. So instead we deride any depiction of "over-utopian" views of Indian life before the big bad colonists came along. That's a defense mechanism on our part. It doesn't change the fact that we still haven't come to grips with the fact that as a civilization we came in and erradicated another one. I'm not saying we can undo it, but I don't think we can ignore it either.

While on that note, I think it's also worth mentioning that other than the historical theme, the basic pro-environmental view is also worth looking at. This is where religious people start tweaking out and getting fidgety. "It's promoting pantheism!" They decry. I say no it's not, really. It's depicting a society that saw their connection with Nature as a whole. They gave it an theomorphic name. (And by the way, they hid it behind science quite directly too, noticing the rather high-caliber biological explanations for their religious attitudes.) It's not really my aim to get on a high-horse on that one, I just felt like mentioning it.

2. Bigger and deeper things

For those of you who still don't like my defense of the plot's simplicity, then here are two much deeper elements that nobody seems to notice or talk about. The avatars themselves... they present quite an interesting metaphor. The use of digital technology to lead a person to eventually come to a much deeper appreciation and harmony with nature? Critics seem to look at that as hypocracy. I see it as a very subtle and deep irony. Moreover, it's a metaphor for what we're doing as audience members.

The film is most famous for its "groundbreaking" 3D technology. In essence, we're emersing ourselves into the reality of the film as deeply as our technology can go, so much that our nervous systems are being tricked into thinking we're surrounded by the sensory experiences of the world on the screen... Hmmm, does that sound...familiar?

That's the whole point of films. In video games, we use that very word, avatar, to describe our virtual projections into the created worlds. Some are highly critical of this. To keep it in the movie, let's look even deeper. The main character, through his avatar, comes to a deeper understanding of nature, it's what brings him to his crisis moment. However, interestingly enough, in the "simplistic plot" the avatar isn't enough. Eventually, he has to go through a deeper change that more fundamentally transcends his false-interface. If he's going to internalize and live out the lessons his technology taught him, he eventually has to go beyond just using that technology as a tool... I'd say that's a fairly nuanced and profound way of saying we can use our media to teach us lessons, but it's not just escapism, we need to actually change ourselves. That doesn't seem too superficial to me.

The second thread I won't go too deeply into, I think I've already touched on a lot so far. But if you're curious, I'd say look at just how many blazingly Christian metaphors are within the story. Conversion and Baptism/Resurrection in particular. My point is just this...

The plot may have been "predictable," but it wasn't meant to be a mystery...
It didn't present any original story twists, because it was essentially relating a true (rather that original) story...
The storyline might have been "simple," but its very ontological metaphors and secondary meanings go much deeper than anyone is giving it credit for.

I, for one, am going to see it again.