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The Foyer is a Room: For John Timmons

He made much and there’s too much of it to say it all in one weblog post.

On Friday, December 12, I, other friends, and Tunxis Community College lost the powerful presence of John Timmons. John was a faculty and staff member of the college for over thirty years. I met John after moving to Connecticut in the mid 90s and started working with him closely soon after. At the time he was directing our ambiguous instructional media department. Why “ambiguous” doesn’t matter. What matters is that the department assisted the college with digital instructional and online tools. I remember my first encounter with John, telling him stories about my work at UT El Paso with digital forums. I wanted his assistance with replication and system development for commuter students. He jumped right on the case. We found the Webboard system and got right to work, and this was the beginning of a long and profitable friendship.

We developed tools and pedagogy. We developed Tunxis’s New Media program. We attended conferences. We met with others to talk stories and writing in the Narratives group. He introduced me to the guitar and gave me one. He helped build an air hockey table for my son. We developed and grew the 100 Days diorama. We collaborated on art, books, film, and media projects. He was principal, along with his partner, in guiding me through a divorce and opening my heart to new love and loves (for which I will always be grateful–that’s for you, Bae!). This was deep and intimate stuff, and along with Maggie, whom he dearly loved, and other good friends, we joined and have joined in a life circle that will continue to grow and effervesce even in John’s absence, because he was a big man with a big heart and big talent. He will never really depart the planet or the minds of those who knew him.

These last years saw us continue a habit: we’d meet and smoke and drink coffee or water or beer and talk for hours about what we had been thinking and were thinking. This was an old habit. In the old days, we’d stand outside the college and hatch plans, provoke those who walked by, then walk back to our offices. Then we’d go out again. Even when we quit the smoking habit, we’d sneak a pack together and pick up the conversation. We shared the art we were enjoying. He’d show me some progressions. Every movie he suggested was a good one. When I think of him now, it’s hard to be sad. Rather, I’m just glad he was a part of my life and I smile. I’m glad he will never disappear. Much of what I make from now on will see his subtle genius in it.

His legacy is and will be wide. No matter the demand, John would never say “No” to it. John’s influence brought online education to Connecticut and not a lot of people know this. He built the College’s first website and initiated early crews into the wonders of the digital database. He brought Interactive Fiction programming to new media students. When he told me about his adventures with Zork, Deus Ex, and Half Life, I knew we’d hit it off. His big line in this regard was just to say: “The Foyer is a room.” Or do well by your Grammy. It was because of his leadership that many people now have professions; they must now work to fill John’s shoes and learn to avoid saying “No” to the things and people that matter.

We’re doing a lot with wishes these days and so I’ll close with a story that John inspired in one of our fiction projects. It speaks a lot to John and how he thought about things. Sometimes it’s hard to read between lines. It’s called Wishing Tree.

People have that book they remember reading. They find the book later in life, pick it up, open it, then put it down because it isn’t the book they’d read when they were young. It has the same title, the same words, the same folds in those places where the reader had paused. But it’s a different book. The reader wonders what happened.

When I went back to that old wish tree, the paper slips now brown with age and clinking in the breeze like dried fruit peels, I found the one I’d written and hung there so long ago. Understand that we can wish to keep something; we can wish to hang on to what we have. In this world, one can wish for riches or peace or a cure or even another world or rain. Given this, the tree had sagged, so weighted down it was with wishes. When they’re new the trees stand green and high and proud, but whey they grow old, they lean and look sad in the shaded evenings. Their backs grow crooked. There are so many wishes.

When I removed my wish, the tree kept its posture. It wasn’t such a heavy wish, not so bold, and wasn’t the kind of wish that would bring the clouds to the desert or the warm to winter or life to the dead. No, it was a simple wish, the script written small with the nervous hand of a child. It is, however, customary to keep wishes to oneself, and so I can’t reveal the wish, and I wouldn’t know what to make of it anyway, as, since the wish had been made, I couldn’t say what had happened, what had changed. Why such a wish would matter to me, unknown. But I do know that in most things, other than oil spills and the sicknesses I can do nothing about, I would wish for nothing, as I yearn for nothing more than what I have.

 

Monday, December 15th, 2014


The End of Story in Godzilla

Peter Travers at Rolling Stone has a short review of Godzilla. He’s right about the “human” side of the film. I’d agree that the script is strange. I would ask this question, though, what would the human story be?

Chekhov could write a story about love. Gurov, for example, becomes a character who realized that he has it right in front of him. But the reader should be careful not to conflate Gurov’s story with other kinds of stories about love. Chekhov’s story is not about enduring connection, faithfulness (who know what Gurov will think later in his life), or giving or about how love is so fantastic. It’s about a moment of knowing, a realization in the moment that what he’s chased after so long has been with him in the form of Anna all along. In the same way, Connie’s story in Joyce Carol Oate’s famous tale is not about death or violence. It might be about growing pains or naivete. Figuring what “the story” is is a question I pose to students all the time and they struggle with it. They most of time fall back on plot summary as a response. Well, the story is about a kid who leaves his planet and goes on a romp with a pirate and a giant sloth.

I remember as a young teenager worrying whether a shark would crash through the shower wall. The space between the shower wall and the next house going measured about 6 feet or less. How a shark would punch through via air was hard for me to understand. Still, the fear was amazingly palpable, and I would rush through sometimes with soap in my hair during dry-off because I knew that the attack would come during the closed-eyed rinse-off. Jaws had this effect, a lingering fear or haunt of irrational event. Indeed, one of the lingering fears that followed out of my experience with Star Trek was not the wonder of space travel or a longing for world peace, but a fear of living amidst the spirit of totalitarianism and Hitleresque urban reality, where Nazi soldiers are relentlessly hunting down the “other” with no conscious thought. Star Trek taught to me to fear the relentlessness of bullshit.

Godzilla tries to follow two stories in its first hour. The cover-up story and the story of obsession due to personal loss. Both lines are killed pretty quick. Because the cover-up was benign–it doesn’t amount to the level Cranston envisions in a speech–and the obsession fruits nothing avertable other than a belated “Wow, you were right” from his son, Ford; the obsession has an a priori causal function: Brody wants to know what caused his wife’s death. But uncovering the cause has absolutely no consequence to the film.

The cover-up had no corporate, political, or Star Chamber etiology. Joe Brody’s wife Sandra is killed because a famished Monster needs to eat; whether this is known before hand or as an effect doesn’t really matter other than to understand that Monsters require nuclear fueling (but that’s pretty loose). This leads to a “proliferation” narrative where the hunger for nuclear power reveals an imbalance in the forces of nature, at least as viewed by Dr. Serizawa, and therefore requires a rebalancing. The balancer, of course, is guess who? But a proliferation backstory here doesn’t really make a lot of sense (there are too many real stories of this). The power of such a narrative doesn’t unify because the “gee, if we’d just left Godzilla alone in the first place” . . . then what?

And so the real story unfurls: survival and a story of “Gee, I hope Godzilla doesn’t hold a grudge because of our historical mistreatment of him.” The evolved Godzilla story is always the same, in other words: will he win the battle and save the day? That’s the grand narrative of sport without the save the day part.

The turnabout in the “real” story comes from Admiral Stenz, who finally relents to the good Dr’s plan: let Godzilla take care of the MUTOs; we can’t do it. This is the “let nature take it’s course” story. But that’s not a story; that’s a theme; nature will right itself if left alone. It’s a shorthand for plot devices and human retreat. Okay, let’s watch em fight now. In a way, cliche kills the potential storytelling in Godzilla because I don’t think many writers have put a lot of thought into what the story should or be as an alternative to the typical: will he triumph? Even in the older Godzilla films, story never really took significance. We wanted to see monsters and we wanted to see them fight. In the series, theme is more significant than plot, which is bad for storytelling but sufficient for seat time in the theater. People might argue the real story already happened or exists in the mythological ether and so Godzilla becomes psychological emollient, therapeutic elixir, cathartic spectacle, echo of dooms to come, or a symbol of the horrendous residue of war and irrational exuberance.

It seems to me that’s it’s difficult to sustain or write a “human” story in the context of disaster. When the Poseidon turns upside down, the story becomes “we have to get out of here,” a simple story of escape and survival. I find that The Poseidon Adventure and Willy Wonka have a lot in common. Both tales know what they want to accomplish. Not everyone is going to survive. The bad people will get what’s due them and that’s always satisfying. We smile or pump fists when the “bad guy” is spattered blind with acid by a fan-headed lizard and his pathetic can of shaving cream disappears in the mud.

There are no “bad guys” in Godzilla. There’s no force for the sake of it or evil to shine out of its hole, no henchpeople, jackboots, Smaug or Sauron, no veils of secrecy to disrupt. There are, however, unintended consequences to avert in their rawest form albeit of mysterious cause. No message exists in the film that says we’ve learned anything or that, yes, we should dump more funds into solar panels to avert the next disaster. Maybe people will interpret the preposition of imbalance in the film; maybe they will read climate change or human arrogance, or read something akin to “Let’s not revive the Tyrannosaurus.” I dont see it. What I see is human fatigue, sadness, and sense of ineffectualness.

When the tsunami comes, when the buildings crash down, when the dictator rallies, when dopes protect their political friends, when drought displaces and kills, thousands of human stories end just as the Cranston and cover-up stories end. Godzilla wakes from his fatigue after the fight, fatigued still, and requires recovery in the water off San Francisco. This monumental fatigue is a lingering image (it provides the most powerful juxtaposition in the film): the indefatigable monster. Maybe that’s good enough.

Sunday, May 18th, 2014


On Godzilla

The Godzilla movies were some of my first films. Godzilla and The Smog Monster we saw at the drive-in in El Paso in the early 70s. My son and I did some prepping. We watched the first version last week and finished with Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla last night, then went to the latest today.

I thought it was fantastic. I’ve read some no-spoiler critiques over the week out of curiosity if they came through the feeds. Some were interesting. Others were curious for their points of contention: the monster is too fat; the solutions to beat the monsters illogical, such as trying to defeat monsters that feed on nuclear power with nuclear weapons.

Gareth Edwards did a wonderful job with the notion of scale, though, which has always been a theme in Godzilla storytelling: scales regarding theme itself and scales regarding the relationship of just things juxtaposed to the monster. One of the common tropes in Godzilla is the image of the military (or the notion of human force), especially as seen with toy tanks lined up in preposterous ineffectiveness. Edward’s Godzilla is a moving landscape and imagines how a living landscape of tremendous size would displace water and air and fit within the built world. Consider how a beetle or an ant would translate human motility in film.

In the film, especially near the end, Godzilla is at war with gravity itself. The filmmakers appear to grasp the physical reality of a creature of such tremendous mass fighting the strength of the earth’s pull. From a game perspective, the ending boss battle is probably the best thing I’ve seen in a long time. It was the perfect read of later Godzilla movies that treated the monster with more humor and sense of emotional connection than the somber pickle-looking thing of the 1954/1956 work, which is understandable. Even still, at the time, they were pretty technically difficult to pull off.

It seems to me that the Edward’s version paid attention to the problem of eyes, also. He fixed this issue. Later in the film, the eyes of the monster tell their own story, related to the issue of massive girth, and the sadness and tragedy that comes with this “problem of such size.”

It’s a winner for me.

Saturday, May 17th, 2014


On Film, Flying and Cynicism

Just a few weeks ago, my wife, son, and daughter went to what my father would always refer to as “the show.” I still remember seeing Godzilla at the drive in. Sometimes in the theater dark I imagine what would happen if . . .

It was only recently that my daughter took my son to see the big opening for the last Harry Potter film in Ithaca, NY, while my wife and I remained behind, reasonably confident that everything would go fine, and it did.

People love going to “the show.” They pay for the pop corn, the drinks, and ease their way into a chair. Some people, like me, want to sit through the opening anticipatories and then also the ending credits, waiting for clues to the future and the often art outside the principle narrative.

I can’t imagine the horror and sorrow of friends and family who had all that dashed in Aurora. My heart sinks and sends condolences.

It only takes one person to ruin it all. Invading armies are not required. Neither is a dictator. This doesn’t mean that we should put up with a culture that makes such acts easier than harder. It’s cynicism to simply persist on the present course. As Kundera wrote in The Unbearable Lightness of Being: “…for in this world everything is pardoned in advance and therefore everything cynically permitted.”

Perhaps, soon, going to the movies will be like flying.

Saturday, July 21st, 2012


A Question about Interpretation and Influence

Something bugging me. It’s been bugging me since 100 Days 2008. But it’s come back since I’ve been reading Hargood and Millard on Narrative and Theme.

It’s bugging me in a good way.

But here’s the story.

Let’s say you watch John Timmons’s video perusals. Of course, a first viewing will produce an interpretation or reaction, whatever it may be.

Then read my response to it in the form of Grandfather’s Favorite Spot.

Then go back and view John Timmons’s video again. The idea is that the interpretation of the video will be permanently altered because of the fiction and the viewer can never have their original interpretation back. The video is permanently changed, even if the viewer discounts the second work. (An opposing issue would seem to be “forgetting.”)

The same phenomenon is at work in the following example:

Let’s say a viewer encounters Carianne Mack Garside’s watercolor called progress.

Then the viewer encounter a re-contexting of it in poetic form. This poem, for example. This will happen if one purchases the 2008 book which places the context for these works in juxtaposition.

If the viewer goes back to the painting after having read the poem, the interpretive context is “permanently” altered. I observed and thought about this during the gallery show of the 2008 work. Blake opens his Experience poems with a pointer to the notion, thus the theme of innocence and experience is baked into the concept.

Hear the voice of the Bard,
Who present, past, and future, sees;

I’m not making an argument for the degree to which the original interpretation is changed. But that original experience is lost forever. It may not be profound and in some cases it won’t matter all that much to world affairs, as when a person on the lot finds a better car than the one they first saw and might have purchased. But I am seeking a name for the phenomenon.

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010


The Last Airbender or What was He Thinking?

As we’re fans of Michael Dante DiMartino’s animated Avatar, my son and I attended Shyamalan’s version today titled The Last Airbender. My first response is, “What was he thinking?” and “It’s not that hard.”

The animated work is an excellent unification story, a journey narrative of impressive complexity, color, and emotional pull. Aang, the last air bender is lost and the nations of the world have descended into war. Aang returns after one hundred years and with the help of some very interesting friends, puts the world back into shape. That’s the story, told in three parts. However, the story is also broken into several subplots, those of Katara, her brother, Sokka, Toph, Suki, Aang’s parallel character, Zuko, and his uncle, Iroh. They’re all interesting and DiMartino takes the time to develop them. However, the essential story is grippingly simple and Shyamalan could’ve told the super story with some nice dips into character, but, alas, the things as it stands is very strange.

What devastates Shyamalan’s version, a barely visually impressive vignette, is that it simply jumps through a portion of Aang’s journey so that unfamiliar viewers will wonder what the heck’s going on, doing so with the feeling that two or three hours of the good material had been slashed. In the film, the characters are little more than thinly rendered shadows, act as a means of carrying unnecessary dialogue or stage direction, and are basically shapeless, drab, and arbitrary. Zuko is treated pretty well, but his part ends before it begins. I’ve been to movies where the story persistently remains in an intro phase, and then it ends, and I wonder, when the hell did this thing start? This is one of those, and so I say, What was he thinking, with such solid material to work with, too. Gee wiz. What a shame.

Sunday, July 4th, 2010


Summer Projects

Monday is the Solstice. 8:30 or so and dusk can still be seen. Great.

This summer I have a few projects. Some are trivial. Prep for Fall teaching, bone up some programming. Other things not so much. In May I decided to learn how to play the guitar. And 100 Days is pulsing like the desert sun. I’m, therefore, writing at mediaplay, where the summer work is stored.

Today, boosted by this film by John Timmons and loads of images by other’s in the collaborative, I learned about an old man who lives in Osaka and whose father may or may not have died in the bomb blast at Nagasaki. He’s still with me. I see him holding his photograph. And I see the mother on the porch and hear the thinking of the fictional narrator, whose thought process is really my own.

This Osaka is perpetual. It is always present, like the El Paso I still remember from my last visit or the corridor of Park Street in Hartford. I wonder where the old man is now. I wonder what he’s eating. I wonder if his mother is alive.

The last couple of days have seen graduation to a new level of guitar playing. The funny part is that I go from beginner to a little more than beginner as I have thousands of hours left to go toward mastery of something I don’t really know much about. Luckily I have friends who do. I’ve learned a piece that weeks back I couldn’t even have attempted without a lot of pain and frustration. What’s amazing about all this is that I’ve re-connected with the thrill of just learning something new, something that I’ve always wanted to do but hadn’t had the time to consider seriously.

The brain is physically changing. And that’s thrilling. I often joke that I want to connect a program to my head that will teach me to do things. It’s a joke of course. The fun part would be missed. It’s totally thrilling to learn something new.

Sunday, June 20th, 2010


Godard, Bolaño, and Things in Between

The past few years have seen different themes. Last year we were talking and studying jazz music and its relationship to issues of performance, creativity, history, hypertext, and new media. This semester, we’ve picked up a new or more elaborate theme: film, new media, hypertext, and performance: we’ve gone from Roberto Bolaño through to Anthony Braxton, connecting items along the way. This has all in many ways played out in 100 Days 2009 and will continue in 100 Days 2010.

I remember John Timmons visiting and showing me work he’d completed on one of his recent film projects. His sense of screen space is sensual and evocative and much of his study (how he thinks about it by making films) of the camera reminds me of the way Bolaño dramatizes character, but it is recalls Godard’s existential vision of “cinema as life” and what this may mean in literary craft and music.

Carol Maso in The American Woman in the Chinese Hat plays will different methods of narrative, often inviting the metaphor of the camera into her work, as, I would argue, a counterpoint to the aesthetcs of conventional point of vew: how can Catherine “run away” from the eyes of the reader? And then there’s Coover’s A Night at the Movies, where the old cinema screen is perforated and comes alive. Much of the work we touched on Contemporary Fiction plays with visual apparatus. The image of projectionist is cast against the dying world of the theater become moving, mechanical photography, ad thus a part of sculptural memory. In Bolaño’s novel Distant Star, the vision of the historical study of the dim characters of political coup, which is a facet of the study of human memory, is problematic because of what we chose to turn into a fiction and that fiction’s epistemological context. I contend that Bolaño’s is a Borgesian method, a persistent act of examination of the images we think we know well, such as those images created by Garcia Marquez, those images that are so powerful they impinge on the real. The unnamed narrator of the novel does not imagine the death of the murderer/poet Carlos Wieder ,but he is free to dramatize the death of the Garmendia sisters, two acts of image making that frame the novel’s travel and the narrator’s becoming. In 2666, the critics’ subject is a random agent; his novels are the critics’s only anchor but they are a foam anchor in turbulent seas.

I’ve watched Godard’s film Vivre sa Vie to get a feel for Brody’s elaborate examination of the work. In the film, Nana makes a decision to pursue an acting career only to take up prostitution as a means (we assume) of making a living or as a means of pursuing curiosity, slowly moving from one to another complex choice. But Godard’s method is both intimate and objective (objective intimacy? Sure). In context, Godard makes it difficult to interpret Nana’s actions as why something happens is either unknown (not on screen but suggested perhaps through dialogue, text, or dance) or should perhaps be obvious; we don’t really know why Nana wants to be in films as this would suggest absolute or pure circumstance. The film doesn’t negate interpretation or meaning, however. Priests don’t swoop in and save the day. We know that much.

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010


Avatar

James Cameron’s Avatar, avatar.jpgmuch like Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, takes computer generated graphics and human to digital gesture drama and expands the possibilities of filmic space. Films are learning what computer-based games have knows for years: that you can use the tools to envision creatures, characters, and worlds that simply cannot be done with scissors, lace, and painted cardboard. The movie has the look and feel of the worlds of Cyan and any number of computer and video games, complete with boss battles and level-design transitions. As I watched the film, I wondered what the future holds given the tools.

On the other hand, the story comes no where close to the wonder of the screen. I guess I might call Avatar a billion dollar cliche. The viewer knows what Avatar is coming in (war, greed, climate change, genetics) but I thought there would be at least some sophistication brought to accompany the high tech engine. This is a CG rendering of Dances with Wolves, an invader versus native story where the invaders must be dehumanized to humanize the indigenous people and this hammer home an ethic. But I’m already with that ethic. The evil corporation will take what it can’t negotiate from the nature-connected Na’vi by brute force to save the earth from its own disconnection. The corporation has military and genetic technology on its side; the Na’vi have their spiritualism, size, and ingenuity. Sully will fall in love with Neytiri and become a member of the clan and betray his “people” for the greater good. This premise is totally new. Sully, paused on a massive limb, is surrounded by luminous jelly fish, which is a sign of his promise to the people of Pandora. Haven’t seen that one before.

One greater issue with the story is history and perspective: no one seems to have much of it with the exception of the Na’vi. In this universe, corporations and their security forces have no sense that “We’ve actually done this before.” Earthers can travel to Pandora (such obscure names for places) for the required ore, which is incredibly valuable, using wonderful technology but other than technology the evil doers are never more than muscle heads, which, I believe, cheapens the narrative. It always strikes me as coincidental that the indigenous peoples’ sacred grounds are always right where the invaders need to go. We need grand conflict here but we don’t need to keep yanking out the same old rabbits.

As a final note, the first few minutes of ads were selling the Marines and the National Guard. Ironic? Not at all. These followed by two films that draw from Greek mythology. Fun fun.

Saturday, December 19th, 2009


District 9

My daughter and I hit District 9. We were a few minutes late and missed some of the background but not much. It’s documentary approach was immediately riveting. Wikus van der Merwe, played by Charlto Copley, was fantastic and the grittiness of the Johannesburg slums, the weaponry, and characterizations of the aliens was amazing in its realism.

The film is driven by an escape narrative. The escape plays in front of a backdrop of alien transfer to new and more controlled facilities. Wikus, after being infected with an strange and rare fuel during the relocation, begins a metamorphosis. He assists an alien and his son on the promise that medical equipment on the mothership, hovering above the city, can reverse the effects. They must retrieve the fuel to reach the mothership. Wikus and the alien develop a relationship of trust. Wikus puts his life in jeopardy for the alien’s.

But there are a few questions.

1. The aliens are pretty advanced. They have weapons and language. Supposedly they don’t use these tools to their benefit or for protection because they’re “workers.” But, in the film, they transact, show empathy, and make deals. How did they logically acclimate to their surroundings without wising to the ways of humans or their circumstances as these circumstances seem radically different from their origins? This behavioral acquiescence, which is an extended entomological metaphor, doesn’t quite hold water for this viewer.

2. The fictional world of District 9 is enclosed in a pocket of militarization in the form of a quasi-governmental corporation Multi-National United, a Blackwater sort of operation straight out of Ironman. MNU is charged with the care of the alien’s and their transfer and Wikus, a hapless MNU functionary, is put in charge of the operation because he’s married to the boss’s daughter. Hm. I love Wikus as a character but there are several weakening issues with his role in the responsibility of the project, but there you have it.

3. An extension of Problem 2 is the film’s assumption of endemic militarization, with no competing interests at all, which forms the film’s cultural/political point of view, the human urge to destroy things they don’t understand and exploit what they do. This I can understand in a world where military metaphors and military solutions run through the culture like salt in a curing house and stands out as a sign of the times. Outside influences are absent. Thus the film had a somewhat closeted feel, shunting other forces, such as the UN, away because they might complicate things.

4. Christopher Johnson, the name of the alien who escapes, claims that he wants to help his people (his transformation, like Wikus’ is a promise to assist him too)? Is this a play for a sequel and a video game?

I can understand the powerful images of “human” exploitation in the film, where 1966 resurfaces yet again. The films intensive focus on Wikus and Christopher as agents for right action is successful. I enjoyed the film. But the questions bug me. I’m the kind of film viewer who will ask: yeah, but why is that ship hovering in the air like that when its owners are on the ground scrounging for cat food?

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009