Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Movies: Hangin' tough.

The strongest teen flicks of the '80s have a clever formula that uses a two levels of dramatic conflict as a way of jazzing the plot without actually having to confront any genuine issues that might be downers for the rambunctious, but essentially comfortable middle class privileged youths that made up this genre's primary consumption demographic.

The formula works like this:

Step 1: Introduce bullshit crisis. "We're gonna win that dance contest. And we're going to win it our way!"

Step 2: Introduce a real problem. "Holy, crap fellas, this chick's the victim of a botched back alley abortion!"

Step 3: Remove real problem as quickly as possible. "So, of course, she must leave the summer camp immediately."

Step 4: Resolve real problem in a way that vaguely suggests that the two problems are somehow connected. "We won that dance contest our way! As a blow against the kind of world that botch our friend's abortion!"

I'm not enough of a film scholar to know, but I'm going to peg this particular "innovation" to Saturday Night Fever.

Prior to that, youth exploitation movies were all step 1, "We're going to win the surfing contest", and step 4, "We won the surf contest"! Missing link flicks, struggling to evolve the genre, nodded to a second conflict, but it was almost inevitably a bullshit conflict as well. "What, Commie spies want to steal my dad's formula for magic space fiberglass? A formula which, coincidentally, could be used to coat a surf board to make the surfers moves extra far out!"

But Saturday Night Fever, partially because of its intended cross-over appeal with post-teen set, locked in some shit for its step 2 and 3. Here's the breakdown:

Step 1: "I just want to disco."

Step 2: "You thuggish friends gang rapped me."

Step 3: "So I'm going away."

Step 4: "This life is just too much. My only escape is disco!"

That established the DNA of pretty much every 1980s teen movie worth its coral lens filters and highly-marketable sound track.

Can you guess the movie?

Step 1: "We're going to dance!"

Step 2: "Let's burn books!"

Step 3: "Hey, does anybody else think we look a bit, I dunno, Nazi-ish when we burn books?"

Step 4: "Hooray! All it took was a few dumb books, and now we can dance!"

The formula exploits Baudrillard's conception of the artificial synecdoche: By forcing two objects into proximity, no matter how dissimilar, you can force one of the objects to become the signifier of the other. For example, I take beautiful people making with the sexiness and slap my toothpaste next to it. I do this enough times, and you'll start thinking that the link between the two is arbitrary but significant - like the link between the word blog and the thing your reading - and you'll see my toothpaste as a signifier of sexiness. In theory, I guess, you could start seeing sexiness as a signifier of toothpaste, but then you're a Don DeLillo character and you've got bigger problems than learning what I think about horror films.

In the case of first example, the conditions of the botched abortion and the desire to dance "our way" really have crap all to do with one another. By forcing them into proximity, the viewer starts to make connections: "Clearly, the sort of society that doesn't let its youth dance in whatever manner pleases them would also much rather see a young woman die than let her have a safe abortion." That this is sometimes actually true (some restrictive societies frown both on a little bump and grind and dancing) does not mean the statement is logical. It partakes of the sort of comic book extreme characterization that Robert Warshow characterized as Mark Trail morality: "Anybody who would break the law to illegally fish off season must also be completely willing to attempt the murder of a park ranger." For example, just because you would prefer you daughter stay off the pole doesn't mean you're pro-life on the abortion issue.

More importantly, the trite way in which the issues are raised and dismissed show that the films don't really share the convictions of their characters or their audiences. They just hope to rob a little gravitas from the suffering of minor, disposable character. By putting some second string nobody through the wringer, your leads' desire to dance in a manner that simulates copulation will, if done right, be transformed from the natural outcome of trapping nubiles in a deadly dull family campground into a titanic struggle for personal liberation with seemingly life of death consequences.

That said, there is some artistic validity in it. It does mirror, in a emotionally effective way, the sort of manic intensity of a young person's inner life. As stupid as it seems, there's a time when prom was a question of justice and honor and freedom. By giving these emotions their operatic intensity, while simultaneously confining them to their own egomaniacal sphere, such film speak a subjective, but real truth about teen life.

Which brings us to the most interesting thing about Sean Cunningham's post-Friday teensploiter The New Kids, a 1985 teen drama co-written by Stephen "father of Mags and Jake" Gyllenhaal and starring absurdly young versions of James Spader (who would later be in a movie where he spanks the screenwriter's daughter), Eric Stoltz, and Lori "Becky Katsopolis" Loughlin. The New Kids is a barely tolerable flick that is interesting mainly for the fact that, fairly early in the project, the filmmakers decided that step 2 and 3 were far more interesting than step 1 and 4 and just let the creepy, screwed up problem run amok all over their otherwise forgettable teen flick.

In The New Kids, the formula becomes:

Step 1: Hey sis, let's help our uncle fix up this old amusement park.

Step 2: What's this creepy clan of redneck coke heads doing harassing my sister?

Step 3: Holy crap, they just tried to rape my sister, dowse her in lighter fluid, and set her on fire!

Step 4: And now they've shot my uncle and are going to kill us all by setting their bloodthirsty pit bull on us!

The best reason for this intentional derailment is that fact that Spader, already playing the kind of sleazy predator that he'd make his career, has a million times the screen presence of our male hero, the game but ultimately forgettable Shannon Presby (a young TV actor who pretty much vanished off the face of the Earth after this flick). Spader plays weirdly dandified the head of our swamp-bred, dogfighting, coke snorting baddies, and most of the pleasure this flick has to offer is in watching him and his Lost Boys by way of Deliverance gang circle and then strike at the heroes.

It's there genuinely menacing presence, coupled with the sense that the filmmakers have strayed off script, that, more than any actual plotting or thematic suspense, gives the film its tension. You want to see what happens just to see how far the filmmakers are willing to go in violating their squeaky clean heroes.

The answer is, sadly, not quite far enough. The flick always pulls its punch before veering into the sort of crazed ugliness of, say, Class of 1984 and it isn't ready or willing to truly scar up the good looks of its leads.

Shame really. 'Cause it was threatening to get really interesting there for a moment.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Stuff: And the gift shop is killer.

If you're in DC, and you happen to be a criminal psychologist, an F.B.I. agent, or the haunted survivor of an infamous serial mass murder who is obsessed with avenging the death of your teen friends, then you might just think about swinging by the Evil Minds Research Museum: a by-appointment research museum that hosts a collection or documents, art, and artifacts gathered by the Bureau's Behavioral Science Unit in their endless hunt for America's deadliest serial killers.

BSU head Greg Vecchi makes the pitch:

One of the most exciting research projects that we have, is we’ve have started what we have labeled the 'Evil Minds Research Museum.' And what this is, this is actually a research museum where we are collecting serial killer and other offender artifacts.

And so these artifacts are like paintings, John Wayne Gacey paintings. Paintings that he was the Killer Clown back in Chicago several decades back, who would kill men and boys, and he would dismember their bodies and put them under his floor board. Well, after he was caught, well, he turned out to be a so-called killer of the community [NB: this is a transcription error, Vecchi actually says 'pillar of the community'], and he would dress up as a clown and do gigs doing clown stuff for the kids. And so he would draw pictures or paint pictures of clowns, and he had clown paintings in the room where he dismembered the bodies. And he had clown paintings that he did after he got arrested and when he was basically on death row.
And so we got those paintings and we are studying those paintings. We want to look at the brush strokes. We want to look at what drives him, what changes, because the pictures are completely different. Before he was arrested, for instance, the clowns were Flippo the Clown, very happy clowns, very colorful; afterwards his paintings were very dark. It was basically a skeleton or a skull dressed up or painted up to be a clown.

We’ve have got thousands and thousands of pages of correspondence between a number of serial killers. Richard Ramirez, the night stalker. We’ve got Keith Hunter Jesperson, another famous serial killer, his complete manifesto of why he killed, written in his own handwriting. We have greeting cards, we have photos, we have serial killer art. But the museum itself, and here is where the value of it is, for the most part, almost all of the research of law enforcement is usually done interacting with the subject rather through an investigation, or, in what we do, more of a research-type of approach, where we would sit down with protocols and interview them like we do with the serial killers, or like we are doing with the hostage takers now. This is stuff that is taken out of their most personal possessions. Things that were not taken as law enforcement, but were taken on search warrants, or provided, maybe after they were executed, by their family. And so it gives a completely different perspective of their mindset—where they are coming from because this is correspondence to themselves, correspondence between them and their loved ones—their mother, their father—correspondence between them and other serial killers, and even correspondence between them and the many groupies that write to them and develop a relationship as a pen pal. And so this is a very exciting research, this research museum, where we are looking at their motivation and try to understand them from a perspective that, as far as we know, has never been undertaken.

That's entertainment!

But don't pack the kiddies in the station wagon just yet. You need to be a genuine researcher with the F.B.I.'s visiting scholars program to check out all the fun.

But fear not, you can visit vicariously through the pages of Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association (he said "annals"). They've got a downloadable PDF article on visiting the museum with plenty of photos. Enjoy.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Movies: Iffy pop?

Digitally-empowered fandom favors the group. Author and journalist Caleb Crain once described the rise to dominance of a mode of reading that he dubbed "groupiness." In the context of groupiness, readers approach works not for entertainment or information, but rather for the purpose of belonging to the network of communities that will grow up around such works. The consequence is that art becomes something that exists mainly to be discussed. It's primary function is to be talked about. It's a milieu in which a book gets read because the reader knows an important TV adaptation of it is coming out and they don't want to be left out of the water-color talk about the televised version.

(Crain and others go on to argue that this has imposed a specific, mass cult, one-sized fits all style on art. I don't know that I buy that. Cults and congeal around just about anything. Few authors get the kind of groupiness going that Robert Bolano does, and you'd have to work extra hard to prove he panders to his audience.)

One of the stranger effects of the culture of groupiness is that, on occasion, the chatter is genuinely more interesting than the object being discussed. For example, the utterly forgettable Captivity will be justly remembered not for anything within the film itself, but for its cultural position as the straw that broke the torture porn subgenre's back. Critical reaction to that film actually became the most important and interesting thing about it.

On a similar note, the 2009 remake of Last House on the Left might be better remembered not for anything director Dennis Iliadis or producers Wes Craven and Sean Cunningham put up on screen, but rather as a trench in the generational conflict between Gen X horror fans and their vastly more numerous Millennial replacements. The film, with a little assist by a dismissive review by Roger Ebert, became a touchstone for older critics who bemoaned the state of modern horror. Kids these days, they aren't creative, they don't know their history, they just want mindless violence. No respect, I tell you. Meanwhile the vast horde of the young answered with votes: On imdb, you'll notice that the remake actually scores higher than the original.

As far as controversies go, the generational conflict was the biggest, but hardly the most interesting. The remake, from both a technical and narrative standpoint, is simply a stronger film. Krug and his gang go from comic book baddies to something more like the highway men of the source material. The transformation of the film's lead family is more gradual, desperate, and genuine. The role of the daughter is bulked up and she becomes heroic in her desperate struggle to survive rather then a semi-disposable casus belli. The conflict between Krug and his own son is emphasized, bringing the tribal conflict aspect to the fore. One famous online essay suggests that the original Left carried traces of the original folk tale's conflict between Christian and Jewish identities in the Dark Ages - but this strikes me as a misrepresentation of the cultural context of the original story. The conflict in Europe's northern countries was not over converting Jews (a nearly insignificant demographic in the north), but rather a conflict over converting pre-Christian pagan cultures. The heart of the tale was about what happens when you ask Norsemen to turn the other cheek. The new film captures this sense of subsurface, reluctant, unavoidable barbarism better than the old one did. Finally, while the film lost its vibrant low-fi look, it is gracefully shot and achieves moments real visual power. The new kids were right.

The more interesting controversy was the bizarre undercard battle about whether or not your head would explode if it was put in a doorless microwave. I kid you not.

The "money shot" of the flick depicts the embattled patriarch of the Collingwood clan delivering death to Krug through the overly elaborate process of surgically rendering him paralyzed from the neck down and then sticking his noggin in a microwave oven that's had it's door broken away. It is, admittedly, the goofiest part of the new film. A self-conscious nod to the McGuyver-ish trap making of the parents in the original, it is uncharacteristic of the remake's Collingwood and feels like an add on. That said, would a dude's head actually explode?

Sadly, this is a proposition I can't test directly. Not because I don't want to, but rather because I do not own a microwave oven. Faced with that limitation, we'll have to just reason our way through this.

Here's your standard microwave oven set up.

Simplified, a microwave's magnetron (which should be a transforming robot, but isn't) takes high voltage electricity from your wall and makes microwave radiation. The use of the word "radiation" summons up visions of nuclear radiation, but you're conceptually closer to the heart of the matter if you think of the magnetron as a radio wave broadcaster; the magnetron sends out radio waves at a frequency of 2450 megahertz. The specifics don't matter so much as the fact that these waves can't pass through the body of the oven and they are absorbed by fats, water, and sugar. The process of absorbing this energy excites the molecules and causes them to move, This, in turn, causes friction. That, in turn, causes heat. This is why plastic won't heat up in your microwave, but a potato or a small cat will. (When you warm up leftovers and your Tupperware container is hot to the touch, it's because the food inside was heated up and this, in turn, heated up the Tupperware. The microwaves bounced off the container itself.)

So, the magnetron makes these waves and they are contained and directed by a wave guide: an empty channel in your oven that directs the flow of the waves. The waves then hit a mode stirrer which scatters them. This is meant to distribute the waves around the oven cavity, so you don't have one intense hot spot right below the wave guide.

This explains how, even with the door off, something in a microwave is going to get zapped. Unlike a conventional oven, a microwave isn't cooking objects by concentrating heat in a closed area. It's bombarding the cooking object with radio waves. The containment helps the process by reflecting stray waves back at the object, but it could be done without any sort of containment.

Without a doubt, Collingwood could cook Krug's head. By jamming the lock of the microwave oven with any ol' object, he could bypass the standard safety features that shut off the magnetron when the oven door opens. Then, placing Krug's head within the oven, our villain would be exposed to the magnetron's waves. These would excite the particles of sugar, water, and fat in his head. Heat would be generated and Krug would cook. The effect would probably slightly diminished because waves that miss Krug's head might bounce off the cavity and escape the oven, but this wouldn't alter the outcome.

But would his head explode?

That's a different matter. Because of the way microwaves cook things, they can sometimes cause a phenomenon called superboiling. When this happens, the liquid in the oven is hot enough to boil, but the lack of gasses in the liquid means that there's no steam or motion happening. You've got a really hot liquid that is just sitting there. This phenomenon is pretty rare because, usually, impurities in the liquids you're cooking (like maybe you're reheating a soup made up of several ingredients of different densities) react to the microwave differently and cause the release of "seed bubbles": gasses that kickstart the standard boiling process.

In a superboiling state, a liquid is basically waiting to explode. Mixing another substance with it or agitating it can cause it to go from a superboiled state to a slightly cooler, but now really active normal boiling state. Though what we're actually seeing is something cooling down to an agitated state, what it looks like is a still, calm liquid suddenly going ape. It looks like an explosion.

In theory, elements within Krug's head could reach a superboiled state and then, because of a shift in his position or a glitch in the power of the oven, go boiling and appear to suddenly explode. But this is extremely unlikely. The human head, like a goat's head stew, is one of those heterogenous environments that would have no problem venting gasses to adjust for boiling. There's a chance that individual elements might react with localized superboiling (his eyes might pop, for example), but this would be a real outside chance. Furthermore, it takes awhile for something to reach a superboiled state. In all likelihood, long before his head blew up, Krug would be dead from the lethal heat the agitated cells in his head were creating.

Preliminary conclusion: Krug would definitely die, but his head wouldn't explode.

And that's my two cents on what was clearly the single most significant film debate of the first decade of the 21st century.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Stuff: The future, only more polite.

An old friend of mine recently shot me an email about a project she's cooking up. I thought I'd let all y'all in on it. Here's the back story from one of her co-conspirators:

I grew up in a house full of old books and mildewed magazines. The entire eastern wall of my childhood bedroom was taken up with with bookshelves to store the collected and forgotten words of my parents. The novels and encyclopediae would hold my interest from time to time; Agatha Christie and J.D. Salinger and Encyclopedia Brittanica 1972. But the true heart of the library was in the magazines. My mother's collection of National Geographic and my father's collections of Analog Science Fiction and Fact and Asimov's Science Fiction.

In Asimov's autobiography, he describes growing up in the twenties and thirties, reading the pulp science fiction magazines. Over time, he says, the authors published in those pages came to seem as demigods to him. And he realized that what he wanted, more than anything else, was to be a demigod himself. I can't tell you how strongly I empathized with that feeling.
Science fiction was in my bones. I loved everything about it. I couldn't get enough. And, while there was a definite appeal to the majestic films and the grand multi-book series of the genre, it was always clear that the purest distillate of science fiction was to be found in short stories. It is a literary tradition built upon anthologies and magazines.

In college, I maintained subscriptions to On Spec and NFG, the two big Canadian science fiction magazines. Of course, I couldn't afford subscriptions to the American magazines, but I would read them all cover to cover standing in the magazine aisle at the big Bloor Street bookstores. Then NFG stopped publishing and On Spec shrank to a fraction of its former splendour.

And so it came that, last summer, I was lamenting that there was no longer a single Canadian science fiction magazine that qualified as an SFWA-approved market.

Well, Maya Angelou said it best: If you don't like something, change it.

So, I teamed up with my old friends Adam and Helen to see what we could do. We figured out that for just ten grand we could get a new magazine off the ground. And hey, what's ten grand in this era of interwebs and micropayments, right? Seems like a pretty piddling barrier between us and the awesome.

So look, we're not really asking you guys for money. I mean, if you're looking to give, we're not saying no, but we know that most people here are about as skint as we are. Really, what we're hoping is that you'll think this is a pretty great idea and help spread the word to those who might have a penny or two to share.

If that stirred up your love for the old pulps or appealed to you militant Canadian nationalism, check out the kickstarter page for AE and help a brother out. My friend, don't be a hoser.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Movies: Where my dogs at?

In their critique of American cinema's finest moment, Deep Blue Sea, Kyle Kurpinski and Terry D. Johnson, the authors of How to Defeat Your Own Clone, point out the difficulty of increasing the intelligence of a species through genetic engineering. Intelligence is one of those simple sounding concepts that gets all wiggly once we try to pin it down. This is due in no small part to the fact that what we call intelligence is actually a complex of related but distinct brain and body functions. Consequently, enhancing the intelligence of a species requires precise manipulations of an unknown number of minute elements in an effort to reach a vague-at-best result. It would be like building a puzzle from a box without a reference picture lid, and doing in the dark. This isn't to say that you shouldn't try it. Just because boosting brainpower is hard doesn't mean that it's impossible. But, the author's point out, giving evil-genius grade intelligence to sharks is going to be considerably more difficult than, say, breeding them without teeth. If you can do super-intelligent killer sharks, you can just as easily do super-intelligent plankton eating sharks. And, while you've got the hood up on one of the most dangerous species of all time, why not take out that little bit of extra insurance? The take away for Kurpinski and Johnson: "If we're concerned about the bioenhanced creatures of the future, we don't need less engineering, just less stupid engineering."

If only somebody had told this to the mad scientists of Nicholas Mastandrea's 2006 action horror flick The Breed, a creature feature that uses psycho gene-scrambled doggies as its baddies.

The flick's plot is factory-standard. A small group of attractive young folks getaway to a cabin on what's supposed to be a deserted island. But there's deserted and then there's deserted. The island is home to a pack of lethal canines, bred for size, speed, smarts, a sense of dramatic irony, and a profound distrust of the tradition relationship between dogs and humans. To really seal the deal, they've been infected with some form super-rabies that not only makes the insanely aggressive, but apparently wires them into some viral neural network that allows them to plan elaborate doggie ambushes and the like. Well, elaborate for doggies anyway.

(I have to qualify that last statement and emphasize the "apparently." Later in the film, one of our human protags will get the same bug. She'll start making statements about the super-puppy pack's motivations and movements that the other characters treat as uncanny. However, these statements trend towards the obvious: "They don't want us here?" Really? What gave that away? Was it all the killing that gave it away? And her ability to detect the pack usually manifests after the dogs are visible and they've started barking their heads off. Spidey-sense it ain't.)

The Breed's actually better than you'd suspect. Though, honestly, that's as much a testament to low expectations than it is praise of the filmmakers. Mastandrea's served as a second unit director for decades (and he's worked on everything from Monkey Shines to W) and he's got a workman-like narrative style that efficiently situates the viewer and never loses the action. The script, though working off the much used Beau Gest trapped-and-surrounded plot, actually manages to work in a surprising amount of exposition in the story's occasional pauses. The decision to use actual dogs instead of CGI pooches pays dividends. Finally, there's Michelle Rodriguez: an actress whose curiously predatory looks and understated physical grace are often the best things about the sadly far too often dire flicks she's in.

Even giving these folks their due, The Breed's still recognizably part of that largest of horror subgenres: the lazy Saturday afternoon time killer that's too bad to call good, but not so bad it drives you to change the channel. The plot works, but the only surprises are semi-regular jump scares that wear out their welcome pretty early. The origin story of the killer canines subplot lacks emotional heft because the brothers at the center of it are such thin characters that their emotional struggle with the truth of their own family's involvement in government-sponsored mad science never feels real. The whole psychic canine Internet thing struck me as so poorly developed as too be an unwelcome distraction rather than an intriguing riddle.

If the sense that it's slender pleasures add up to slight more than the energy expended to follow the film and ignore the occasional rough patches, one has to count The Breed as a (extremely qualified) victory.

Though throughout the film, I found myself pondering what working conditions were for the lab coats who made these killer pups.

"What are you doing?"

"I'm giving these stronger, smarter, meaner dogs a mutant strain of rabies that will make their thirst for human blood nigh unquenchable."

"Sweet. Is that going to make them more killy?"

"Hell yeah. Crazy killy. Killy times infinity. That's how killy."

"100% straight up badass. I love it. Um, but what about safety controls?"

"Um. I don't get you."

"You know, something like a missing enzyme or they've got no teeth or they need to call us every four hours or they grow paralytically despondent and commit suicide. Shit like that. You know, to prevent them from turning into unstoppable killing machines."

"You're thinking about it all wrong. You need to be like, 'Who wants stoppable killing machines?' And the answer is nobody. Because then people can stop your killing machine. You might as well not start your killing machine if somebody can stop it."

"Good point. Then you know what we should do: Network their brains into a killing machine collective hive mind. They'd be like killy infinity plus one."

"I love you, dude."


"Yes. All these years, tormented by my unspoken passion. Driven to a tortured silent desperation by my boundless hunger for your embrace. So near, but untouchable. Though, before I forget, we should totally insert that 'I hate humans, especially scientists' gene Bill whipped up last week. I figure killy is one of those go big or go home sort of things."

"Sure, why the hell not?"

Psychic rabies? Honestly? To abuse a phrase, we don't need less mad science, just less stupid mad science.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Movies: Advice for time travelers, Part 2.

This is the second post in an increasingly goofy geek out over time travel initiated by the flicker Triangle. It picks up pretty much where the last on left off, so you might want to check that one out first.

In the last post, we discussed two possible interpretations of what's happening to Jess Prime in the flicker Triangle: supernatural punishment and an infinite time loop. Unfortunately, for the would be chrononaut worried about getting stuck in time, neither of these scenarios have a satisfactory exit strategy. In the case of supernatural intervention, you'll just have to hope whatever is screwing with you decides to stop. There's nothing you can do. Though even that's better than the second alternative. If you're stuck in a perfect loop of time - an eternal return scenario - then not only is there nothing you can do, there is literally no escape. In the former situation one can always hold out hope that the gods get tired of tormenting you. Happily for Jess Prime, we also discussed why she cannot be stuck in a perfect time loop. So there's still some hope for her and chrononauts that may find themselves in a similar situation.

So now that we've determined what isn't happening to Jess Prime, what is?

To explain Jess Prime's situation we need a different model of time travel. In fact, I think we need elements from two models: one to explain how the boat travels through time and one to explain why Jess Prime's fate is not strictly bounded by the principle of self-consistancy.

First, let talk about how the boat travels through time. From what we actually see in the flick, the Aeolus appears to be a Depression Era ocean liner. It has no crew or passengers. Despite the lack of a crew, the engines seem to work fine. When we first see the Aeolus, it is moving along under its own power and smoke is rising from its stacks. The clock's onboard have stopped (as does Jess Prime's watch, though none of the watches of the other members of Boat Party Prime have stopped, suggesting that Jess has already made this trip enough times that her watch has died on her). We know that, on the boat, one perceives time as rolling forward, but from the perspective of people not on the boat, you're traveling backwards in time.

From a theoretical standpoint, traveling backward in time is a lot tricker than traveling forward. Most models that account for the possibility of traveling back in time require mucking around with elements of mindwarping cosmic craziness that, as far as I can tell, are not a factor in Triangle. Physicist Kip Thorne has proposed that the curvature of space-time theoretically allows for the possibility of taking a "short cut" that is, in essence, so fast you could take a roundway trip that ended before you left. But that presupposes travel on a scale that dwarfs anything we could do on one of Earth's oceans. Another, somewhat similar theoretical option involves moving around two "cosmic strings" - infinitely long strands of hyperdense material left over from the earliest days of the universe and woven throughout time space - in a loop that would allow you to arrive at the place and time of your departure. Finally, Thorne and physicist Mike Morris showed how wormholes, theoretical tunnels in the fabric of space-time much beloved as plot cheats by sci-fi creators, might allow for travel to the past. Though the presence of a wormhole would, in theory, appear as a massive malformation of space. If it was large enough to travel through, than it would be something you could see with the naked eye. Jess Prime encounters no such distortions on the Aeolus.

So basically, we need a way to get an oceanliner stuck in a time loop without punching holes through space-time or fitting the ship with a warp drive. Luckily, a quirk in quantum mechanics does all this for us without us so much as breaking a sweat. For our answer we return to the work of Igor Novikov (who along with Thorne cooked up the self-consistency principle) and the concept of the "jinni" - or an item that, through a loophole in quantum mechanics, has a looping world line. I've used the term "world line" before without explaining it. Essentially, a world line is a single unbroken experience of time-space. You're life is your world line. Most objects, like yourself, have a single world line that continues in a relatively stright line from the past to the future. (Actually, because space time isn't flat, our world lines warp ever so slightly, but our experience of space-time is so similar to everybody elses around us, and their experiences are so similar to ours, that we do not notice any warping effects.) But some objects, called jinni (as in genie, as in "I dream of") have a loop for their world line. These objects have no begining or end. They appear fully formed and continue on until the collapse of the universe maintained against entropy by injections of energy from the universe itself. In theory, the vast majority of jinni would be marcoscopic. There's no limit to the size of a jinni, but the larger a jinni is, the more energy it requires from the universe to ward off the effects of entropy. This makes macroscopic jinni unlikley. Unlikely, but not impossible.

I propose that the Aelous is a macro-jinni. It was, through a quirk of the laws of the universe, created as an underway Depression Era oceanliner off the coast of Florida. This makes for some trippy consequences - for example, the Aelous was never built and launched, no band ever played the drums in the ballroom, no captain ever steered her, the food members of Boat Party Prime find aboard was never actually harvested and prepared - but it also explains some mysteries about the ship. First, where's the crew and passengers? There never were any. That's why the ship doesn't look like a bunch of panicked folks hauled ass off there in full woman-and-children-first mode.

How could the ship still be running after some eigth decades of non-crewed operation? The Aelous, like Jess Prime, can be considered to have a frame of reference to the time traveling shenanigans that are afoot. From within its frame of reference, cycles are experienced linearly. This goes back to the aging problem we discussed in last post: Just as Jess Prime ages throughout a cycle that other experience as a spen of just a few hours, the ship is decaying throughout the cycles. It is the victim of entropy. It uses up fuel, parts get worn down and break, sea water corrodes the hull and seeps in. In the immortal words of the Talkig Heads, "Things fall apart. It's scientific." Consequently, time loop or not, the ship should be a wreck. But, as a jinni, the Aelous has a little trick Jess Prime doesn't have: the universe regularly injects energy into the Aelous time loop system to reverse the ravages of entropy. The ship is a power vampire sucking energy from the universe. I must admit, I'm not quite sure wht a cosmic hotten up looks like, but if I had to guess, I'd imagine it would look something like a giant Perfect Storm grade disturbance that comes in advance of the ship, followed by extreme placidity around the ship itself. (Which raises questions: What happens to the universe becuase it is losing this energy to support a macro-jinni? Is the Aelous eating up stars? Are there babies who are never born, never concieved because the Aelous sucked up some energy? Could it eventually drain the resources of the enitre universe? Who knows?) Becuase the ship draws energy from the universe to fight entropy, it regularly gets the reset button hit on it. Unlike Jess Prime, it is actually starting over on a regular basis.

This entropy reset partially explains the Problem of the Piles mentioned in the previous post. Why do certain elements in the flick show the cumulative effects of multiple cycles, such as the stack of dead Sallys, but other things seem to be perpetually the same, such as the seemingly unending supply of shells for the skeet shooting rifle? Part of the answer is that being onboard the marco-jinni lets you travel through time, but only the jinni gets the benefit of the entropy reset. In the example mentioned, Sally Prime and All Sally Other Points on the Loop is traveling through time, but she isn't getting the an entropy reset (which, presumably, would resurrect her). But the shotgun shells were part of the ship at its moment of creation. They appear again every time the ship resets.

That still leaves a hitch in our Problem of the Piles: Why are certain elements of the flick that are clearly not a part of the macro-jinni not piling up? For example, we've got more dead Sallys than brains, but there isn't a enormous puddle of blood under the hook where Victor Prime and Victor +1 get the back of their head impaled. What up with that?

This question leads us to the second time travel concept we need to explain Triangle: the Many-Worlds Interpretation, or MWI. To grossly simplify one of the most absurdly complicated notions in the history of human intellectual endeavor, the basis of MWI works like so: Heisenberg's uncertainty principle states that you cannot know the position and velocity of a particle at an arbitrary level of accuracy. The fuzziness isn't a property of some failing on our part to measure with suitable exactness, but a property of reality itself. It's wobbly in some respects. This wobbliness is usually negligible when you get to a macro scale, where all the weirdness of the universe comes out in the wash. But it is still always there.

Because the basic building blocks of reality are hazy, when you're crunching quantum equations - like you do - the results allow you predict the probability of particles appearing at certain positions. In some interpretations, this leads to the proposition that there are different worlds, alternate world histories, where the particle appears in each position in a given world. We should note here that many physicists feel that the hypothesis of unobservable alternate dimensions violates Ockham's Razor, the guiding philosophical principle that the theory that involves the least novel elements is probably the best one. (There are other objections too, but we won't go into them, mainly because we're talking about a movie here rather than trying to prove a quantum theory hypothesis. Lighten up Francis.)

Now, as I said, most of this subatomic wackiness comes out in the macro wash, but some a couple of famous thought experiments show how this submicro sloppiness can impact that macro world. Most famously, there's Schrödinger's cat, the famous thought experiment in animal cruelty (sorry dear readers, sometimes you just have to imagine killing a fictional animal - it's called science) in which a cat is placed in a box with an apparatus that will either drop a vial of lethally poisonous gas or will not based on the vague quantum action of a radioactive trigger device. According to quantum mechanics, in essence, the math suggests that both cat-death and not-cat death are happening until the box is opened up and observed. Schrödinger actually concocted this thought experiment as an assault on quantum mechanics, but his living dead cat has become something of a mascot for the paradigm of MWI. Considered through the lens of MWI, Schrödinger's experiment causes what some physicists would call a decoherence: the world line, or history of the universe as it is experienced by people within it's frame of reference, splits into two branches, one in which the cat died and one in which the cat lived. Each of these is equally the real world, but the two don't intersect. The sense that there is a single "real world" is a product of the observer's relative frame of reference.

(An even more mind-shattering version of this experiment involves "quantum suicide," which simultaneously kills the person involved and makes them, from the relative frame of reference of the other alternative, becomes invincible to the method of death involved. As trippy as this notion seems, it weirdly mirrors the narrative of Triangle. Jess Prime survives while other Jess's die not because of her luck or will to survive - after all, there are an untold number of equally real alternatives where she is slaughtered - but because the continuity of our observation of her requires we follow a world line where she survives whatever is thrown at her. In fact, the quantum suicide problem is basically the key to the unlikely survival of every final girl in every horror film ever made.)

Here's the final proposal: The wackiness that Jess Prime is experiencing is a product of the fact that the macro-jinni Aeolus gives her a unique frame of reference from which she is aware of at least three different world lines at any given time. When Jess Prime (or any of her counterparts) travels in the jinni's time loop, they do not simply loop back to their own timeline. If that were true, the self-consistency principle would rear its ugly head. Instead, she's getting ported over to a similar, but alternate version of events. She's Schrödinger's Jess Prime, branching off along decoherences, watching and influencing things as they play out in a similar, but not exactly matching way. When she encounters other versions of her, they aren't from her past. Rather, they're from alternate world-lines.

This explains a handful of the problems in the flick. For example, Jess Prime can kill an earlier version of herself (Jess -Prime) and not vanish. The somethings pile up in the flick while others don't because every trip through the narrative plays out differently. There's no reason to think that, say, nine times ago, Jess Prime lost her locket or that she hit a seagull on the way to the ditch Jess -Prime's body every time. She's clearly killing Sally nearly every trip through, but she fate of the other characters must be less stable or we'd see pools of blood all over the ship.

Why do all these Jessi from different worlds end up on the same ship? I must admit, that's a bit of a puzzle to me. Perhaps it is a product of the macro-jinni's energy sucking ways. Constantly fighting the entropy of an infinitely repeating ocean liner is a big task for one universe. But a potentially infinite number of universes could handle it, no problem.

Regardless, for the stranded time traveller, this is actually really good news. The biggest upside of the whole MWI is that it is free of self-consistency. A time traveller ported over to another branch of world-line has no history to screw up. They could, to dig up the classic example, go and kill their grandmother (actually an alternate world version of their grandmother) and happily go on living within that world as the freaky time traveller dude who kills old ladies. After all, your history, now safely independent of your actions, becomes no longer relevant. (In fact, some granny hating time traveller could go kill your granny too, it wouldn't matter to you as you've been decohered - you've been observed in another world, so you're real there and that's all you need.) This means that you can operate with freedom and break the pattern without paradox anxiety.

If this is so, then why doesn't Jess Prime break the pattern. As strange as this sounds, she isn't creative enough. In the immortal words of Walt Kelly, "What we have here is a failure to imaginate." Jess Prime seems to repeat the same general pattern simply because she never thinks of anything else to do. The offs the same folks, takes the same trips, makes the same errors, and so on because she's convinced herself that if she could just perfect the pattern, she'd be out. But it is her very determination to go through the pattern that is dooming her to its repetition.

Don't be like Jess Prime. Imaginate like a son of a bitch.

What do you do if you are a time traveller and you appear stuck in a loop?

Step 1: If you've gone through one full cycle, you're not really in a loop. As a test, make a pile somewhere. Pick an arbitrary place and dump a single, insignificant object on it. Place a penny on the table near your front door or something. If you're in a branching pseudo-loop, you'll have a pile of pennies before too long.

Step 2: In the otherwise forgettable Incident On and Off a Mountain Road, our heroine's significant other gives her a piece of survival advice: "When all else fails, try crazy."

"What if crazy doesn't work," she asks.

"Crazy always works," he replies.

You're already stuck in a freakin' time loop. Time to break out the crazy. The implications of the MWI have freed you from paradox, so go nuts. Meet yourself and try to talk things out. Avoid going back home and runaway and join the circus instead. Stop in the middle of a conversation for a masturbation break. Shoot the wrong people. Do anything that is something that you wouldn't have ever done before. You can break the pattern, you just need to outcrazy yourself to do it.

That's my advice to you. Do the pile check. If that works, go nuts. It's that weird and easy.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Mad science: Can you hear me now?

The Guardian reports on an astronomer who claims that one of the unexpected consequences of switching to digital broadcast technology is that it makes the Earth harder to detect from space.

In the past, TV and radio programmes were broadcast from huge ground stations that transmitted signals at thousands of watts. These could be picked up relatively easily across the depths of space, astronomers calculated.

Now, most TV and radio programmes are transmitted from satellites that typically use only 75 watts and have aerials pointing toward Earth, rather than into space.

"For good measure, in America we have switched from analogue to digital broadcasting and you are going to do the same in Britain very soon," Drake added. "When you do that, your transmissions will become four times fainter because digital uses less power."

"Very soon we will become undetectable," he said. In short, in space no one will hear us at all.

Drake also notes that this goes both ways. Assuming that there's an advanced alien race out there, it is possible that they also let their communications systems develop for maximum efficiency, that is to say, max results for minimum energy expenditure. If they did, then they'd be as invisible to us as we are becoming to them.

What is true for humans would probably also be true for aliens, who may already have moved to much more efficient methods of TV and radio broadcasting. Trying to find ET from their favourite shows was going to be harder than we thought, Drake said.

Of course, this is only assuming that we want to be found. Perhaps a little cosmic camouflage is a good thing.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Movies: Advice for time travelers, Part 1.

We here at ANTSS like to think that we give you more than simple opinion pieces on fright flicks. Instead, ANTSS strives to give you info you can use! In previous posts we explained why, against conventional wisdom, splitting up is always the best strategy for escaping a slasher and how game theory can help you survive Jigsaw traps. Today, we're going to use the film Triangle to explore what you should do if you find yourself in trapped in what appears to be a time loop. That's right. One day, you're minding your own beeswax. Next thing you know everyday is Groundhog Day and there's screaming and blood and more screaming. Fear not! We got you through the slasher and the Saw traps, we'll get you through this.

As with all survival situations your first and most important move is to stop and figure out what the hell is going on.

So, what the heck is happening in the movie Triangle?

This isn't going to be a standard review. I'm about to spoil this movie nine ways through Sunday and be waiting to spoil it again on Monday, so if you haven't seen it and you think you might, read no further.

However, I'm also going to assume you've seen the flick, so I'm not going to discuss plot and character enough to make the flick make sense. It isn't that I'm afraid to spoil the movie for you so much as I worry that reading this without seeing the movie might be the horror blog equivalent of reading Malone Dies in Martian.

And if you're confident that you don't want to see the movie, I urge you to reconsider. It's a hoot. Since my initial exposure to his 2005 CHUD-on-the-loose flick Creep, I've always cautiously categorized director Christopher Smith as a man who is, frustratingly, always about to arrive. I felt he was a cat whose flick always showed potential, without ever realizing that potential. Now, after seeing Triangle, I think I was approaching Smith's work's from an unhelpful perspective. If Smith has yet to make to make his masterpiece, it's because he's too uncomfortable with the easy cut-and-paste methods of modern horror. He could "pull a Aja," as they say in the Fright Game, and, after establishing a bit of indie cred, turn his attention to cranking out proficient retreads at the bidding of his new corporate masters. But, instead, Smith's decided to walk his own route, even at the cost of stumbling. We've yet to get the Chris Smith masterpiece, but when Smith falls it's because he reached further. In a genre as conservative and nostalgia besotted as horror, the willingness to accept risks bred of ambition is refreshing. Triangle, like all of Smith's films, is imperfect. But the promise derives from Smith's refreshing belief that horror doesn't have to pander or be stupid. What frustrated me, in the end, wasn't Smith's unfulfilled potential, but the the genre's vast unfulfilled promise.

If that's not enough, you should go if only to see the spectacle of a horror film that believes it's possible to have fun even though you didn't turn your brain off.

Okay, either you've been convinced or you ain't been. ANTSS assumes no responsibility for possible spoilage.

On to the flick at hand.

The central tangle of Triangle involves an abandoned ocean liner that appears to be, somehow, stuck in time. Our protagonists get on the boat and find themselves in conflict with a mysterious assailant. This assailant turns out to be another version of Jess, sole survivor of off the "previous" time our protagonists arrived on the boat. We're going to call the heroine of the piece Jess Prime. Despite the loopy structure of the film, the narrative logic is fairly straight forward and we follow a single version of Jess throughout most of the film.

As Jess Prime and her friends battle the murderous Jess -1, Jess Prime puzzles out that she's stuck in a general pattern. Whenever a particular set of our original cast is removed from the boat (she mistakenly believes that they must be killed, though her own trip through the complete cycle of the plot disproves this), a fresh set of characters arrives on the boat. Or, more properly stated, the boat returns to a previous time-position shortly before our protagonists arrive. (From the relative vantage point of the "new" protagonists, the action on the boat would be "going backwards" - that's to say that the time spent on the ocean liner is actually time spent traveling back to a point before they arrived on the ocean liner. More on this later.) In order to get back to her son, Jess Prime decides that she must break the pattern. At first she attempts to do this through non-violent means. Eventually, she becomes convinced that the only way to break the pattern is to stop it from happening in the first place, and prevent the party from setting foot on the boat. (Though this is only part of her motivation: We eventually discover that she's also attempting to use the time traveling properties of the boat to prevent the death of her son, who in the normal world-line of the plot dies while she's on her way to the sailboat that ultimately takes her to the time traveling ghost ship.) She attempts to prevent Jess -1 from killing the remaining folks in her party. In the course of defending herself from Jess -1, she forces Jess -1 overboard. This fully eliminates Boat Party -1, introducing Boat Party +1 to the ship.

Jess Prime realizes that the moment Boat Party +1 steps on the ship, she got to eliminate them all in order to get another chance to stop the party from boarding. Consequently, she begins a murder spree inspired by the work of Jess -1. But, of course, Jess +1 forces Jess Prime overboard in a near perfect recreation of the battle between Jess Prime and Jess -1.

Cast from the boat, Jess Prime doesn't die (disproving the hypothesis that everybody in the party must necessarily die to start the cycle over again). Rather she washes up on a beach several hours prior to her launch on the sailboat that will take her to the time traveling ocean liner. She promptly heads back to her home, witnesses her (Jess -Prime - so named because her roll is to repeatedly not enter in the plot cycle, and therefore her position is oddly as stable as Jess Prime's) own brutal behavior to her autistic son, kills herself (Jess -Prime is killed by Jess Prime), and stuffs the body in the trunk of her car. She grabs her boy and rolls out to ditch the body. She gets involved in a car accident that kills her boy. Thinking that another round on the ghost ship would throw her back to Jess -Prime's house prior to his death, she grabs a cab to harbor and gets on the sailboat that will take her back to the time traveling ghost ship.

We've got an overview of the situation, less discuss options.

First, there's a potentially supernatural explanation. We need to face the possibility that Jess Prime is dead and being punished by the gods for her abusive treatment of her son. Throughout the flick, Jess Prime is exposed to portents that suggest that what she's experiencing is not exactly materialist in origin. The ship is named after the father of Sisyphus, the mythological king who was punished for violating the privacy of Zeus and doomed for eternity to fruitless toil. One of Boat Party Prime wonders aloud if Jess Prime's behavior isn't due to guilt over her son, a double edged comment the multiple levels of which the character would be clueless about. There are several references to seagulls, perhaps a satiric jab at the Buddhism manque wisdom of Jonathan Livingston Seagull: "Begin by knowing you have already arrived." Plus, there's a host of smaller, odder coincidences that wouldn't suggest time travel. For example, the drummer in a marching band that witnesses Jess Prime's car accident carries a drum that bears the same logo as the ghost ship's house band's drum kit. Certainly one could argue that this is just thematic playfulness on the part of the filmmaker, but what if these bits of data were not window dressing? What if they were somebody or something telling Jess Prime about her fate? Good as any other theory, really.

If, in fact, the problem is supernatural in origin, then it is safe to say that you're pretty much screwed. Humans are the playthings of the gods, yo. Clash of the Titans aside (besides, Perseus is more properly considered a demigod, so using him as an example of a human who took destiny into his own hands is stretching things), when the gods want you SOL, you are most definitely S, O, and very L. Not that you might not, eventually, negotiate your way out of it or escape briefly (Tantalus himself conned his way out of Hell for a brief moment), but this will basically be at the discretion of the gods. My recommendation is to take your lumps and hope that some legendary hero comes by and saves you at some future date. Not a great plan I know, but that's what you get for pissing off the gods.

Honestly, the supernatural thing seems a cop out to me. So let's assume that the situation depicted in Triangle is materialist. It's weird and unlikely, granted, but it is the product of a wrinkle in natural laws and not the result of otherworldly intervention. Given that, what are we looking at.

Here's what were not looking at: Eternal return. Criticism of Triangle has provoked bloggers to dig into their storehouse of allusions and invoke La jetée and 12 Monkeys. The connections are both thematically obvious and factually incorrect.

The concept driving both those excellent flicks is the idea that time protects itself by making paradoxes impossible. One of the classic theoretical problems of time travel is the creation of paradoxes. Y'all know the sort of time warping shenanigans I'm talking about: Could you time travel back 90 years and kill your own grandmother, meaning you'd never been born and therefore could not travel back in time and kill your grandmother? One answer to this question is that time will always already be protected from your intervention. The past is set in stone and if you're in the past, your actions have already been determined. The sticky wicket here is the "self-consistency principle" advanced by physicists Igor Novikov and Kip Thorne. Basically, the concept of "self-consistency" preserves the past: Because any moment in time requires a specific structure of events to "arrive," then that structure is immutable. If you leap back into the past, then your actions were always a part of that structure. You can't change the past or the present.

On first glance, this seems like an attractive explanation of what we're seeing in Triangle. Attractive but inaccurate. Like my pick-up lines.

Jess Prime regularly changes the details of her present and sees evidence that previous incarnations of her (Jess -1 through -infinity) have altered her present. There's one glaring example of this and two less obvious, but kinda more interesting examples.

The most blatant evidence that Jess Prime is not, in fact, stuck in a permanent loop comes when Jess Prime and Jess -1 first come in conflict. Jess -1 is blowing away members of Boat Party Prime in the theater with a skeet shooting rifle. Jess Prime fires back, grazing Jess -1's forehead with some buckshot. When Jess Prime consigns Jess -1 to Davy Jones's locker, Jess -1 has clearly taken a few pellets to the forehead. Jess Prime never suffers a similar injury. When Jess Prime becomes the baddy and starts chasing around Boat Party +1, she takes cover pronto. When Jess +1 brings on the lead for lead trade, Jess Prime never gets nominated with buckshot.

It's a small thing, but time travel is annoying like that. It's all details.

If Jess Prime's fate was etched in stone, than her fate should be identical to fate of Jess -1. But it ain't. In fact, her experiences should also be the immutable blueprint for Jess +1's experiences, but they aren't: Jess +1 experiences missing the baddy and facing a version of herself that isn't sporting a head wound, both experiences that Jess Prime did not experience.

Another crucial, but more subtle difference is the fact that no person in an eternal return scenario can ever complete a full loop of a cycle. Recall La jetée and 12 Monkeys. In both cases, the moment both characters realize that they are in an self-consistency trap, they die. The Man and James Cole can't carry this knowledge back to the beginning of the cycle. Why not? Because that would change the timeline. Even if they were unable to prevent the actions that formed the past, the fact that they were now going through the motions aware of the cycle would be different from the first time they did it, when they were unaware of the fact that their actions were leading to the very timeline their actions helped create. Consequently, we can state that no character in an eternal return story can ever complete the cycle with their awareness of the cycle intact or the cycle wouldn't be self-consistent. Jess Prime manages to go full cycle with her awareness of the cycle intact. For shits and giggles, we can actually extrapolate that no version of the cycle is ever the same for Jess Prime because, at the very least, she's going through the motions with an awareness of having gone through the cycle n - 1 times before where n = the number of the cycle she's about to go through. At the end of the film, for example, Jess Prime is about to start the cycle over again for a at least a third time (her actions reveal she's getting on the sailboat because she knows it will give her another shot at time travel, so we've done it at least once before the flick starts), aware of the minimum two times she's done this before. This is different than the time before, when she would only be aware of having done this whole dance once before. Difference means no eternal return. Therefore, Triangle isn't an eternal return story.

"Okay, CRwM, so there's little differences," you say. "Perhaps time doesn't sweat the small stuff. Maybe, so long as you don't alter the final outcome, the timeline ain't picky and the little stuff comes out in the time wash."

Related to the awareness issue, there's the issue of relative experiences of time and aging. From the view point of the killed of members of Boat Party Prime, the time it takes to complete any number of cycles is always equivalent to a single cycle. They "start over" whenever a cycle is finished with no knowledge of the previous cycle. From Jess Prime's frame of reference, however, all the cycles occur in a linear sequence with a single unbroken thread of time-space experience shooting through them all. She doesn't "start over" so much as she arrives at yet another replay of similar events. That is to say, an infinite number of cycles would always be experienced a single stretch of four or five hours to the boat party, but every cycle is experienced as an additional four or five hours in the life of Jess Prime. In short, Jess Prime is aging while her companions in Boat Party Prime are not. While not immediately noteworthy, eventually Jess Prime's aging would be a clear violation of self-consistency. Since an infinite number of cycles are experienced as a single cycle, the only cycle anybody in Boat Party Prime, except for Jess Prime, would have an experience of would be a final cycle. This means Jess would go through 156,000 cycles and eventually reach the age of 100. From the viewpoint of Boat Party Prime, Jess Prime would have never showed up to the sailboat. Instead some insane old woman would come to the boat, rant that she was actually the late twenty-something Jess, and then croak on the dock of old age.

This leads us to the third and perhaps most subtle proof that Jess Prime isn't stuck in a story of eternal return. We're going to call this proof "The Pile Problem." On three major instances, Jess Prime comes across a pile of objects that reveal the loosely cyclical nature of her story arc.

1) While searching for a way to defend herself from Jess -1, Jess Prime loses a locket. Its chain snaps and it falls on a pile of similar lockets.
2) During Jess -1's kill spree, the wounded Sally attempts to crawl away from Jess Prime (thinking Jess Prime is the killer) and crawls to a section of the ship that is littered with mounds of dead Sallys.
3) Leaving to bury the body of Jess -Prime, Jess Prime hits a seagull with her car and tosses it off the side of the road, where it lands among the bodies of several other seagulls.

Aside from being a neat dramatic flourish, these piles are one of the best indicators that we're not in a self-consistent trap. First, because the presence of previous objects prevents the latest object added to the pile from falling exactly the same way. In a self-consistent eternal return loop, Sally's body would always give out at the same spot, in the same place. The locket would always land the same way, so would the corpse of the seagull. Even if we dismissed the idea that small tweaks to the timeline don't screw everything up, there's actually a far more serious violation of self-consistency going on here. The big problem isn't where the bodies and trinkets fall, but the fact that we keep adding mass to the universe at every cycle, mass that is apparently created ex nihlo every time Jess Prime goes through a cycle. Which gives a problem not unlike the aging issue we've discussed before. Assuming Jess Prime made through 150,000 cycles (as long as it would take her to reach 100 years of age), she would have added nearly 10,000 metric tons of dead Sally to the universe. That's a lot of dead flesh. And it's an impossibility in a closed system like an eternal return model of time travel.

There's other contradictions worth mentioning in passing. While exploring the ship, Jess Prime and Boat Party Prime run across messages painted in blood on bathroom mirrors and various trails of blood on the floor. Why doesn't this stuff pile up like Sally Prime and Sally Various Negative Numbers' bodies? Shouldn't the blood trails be rivulets of crimson after a handful of cycles. And how many bathroom mirrors does this ship have anyway?

So, we can safely say that we're not in a story of eternal return. And that's a good thing for you my impetuous little chrononaut, because there's crap all you can do if your stuck in a eternal return loop. Eternal loops do wacky stuff to free will. You've got it, in a theoretical way, but you've also always already used it. The practical result is that you've already done anything you could do. The upshot is that you'll never actually experience the feeling of going through cycle after cycle. If you're in an eternal loop, you might get a "oh crap" moment right before you die or something, but the principle of self-consistency ensures that you can't ride the loop again with any awareness of the loop you didn't have on the first ride. It's science's little gift to people stuck in that eternal hell; for the most part, the trapped never realize that they are trapped. So you've got that going for you.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Movies: Folk surrealism at the Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society.

After World War I, a discharged doughboy named Albert Grass returned to his hometown of Brooklyn. Overseas, Grass had become fascinated with the theories of Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. This positioned Grass on the leading edge of what would become a full-fledged American cultural obsession throughout the 1920s, when Freud went from the quiet drawing room of the analytical session and exploded into the noisy, if often hazy on detail, realm of pop culture icon.

It was during Freudian boom that Grass gathered a local circle of like-minded Freud fanciers and founded the Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society. Although psychoanalysis was all the rage among the well-off, the CIAPS was notable for its distinctly working class origins. The membership, who met regularly in an office off Surf Ave, were drawn not from the brightest lights of the Roaring Twenties in-crowd. They were working stiffs, blue-collar types from the local neighborhood.

The society was remarkably long-lived - the society held together from 1926 to 1972 - and left behind a rich legacy of what might be dubbed folk surrealist art. For fans of outsider film, the cream of this material is the society's output of "dream films." In 1927, Kodak introduced the Cine-Kodak, an inexpensive 16 mm handheld aimed that the amateur filmmaker. The society embraced the new tech and began making short films that dramatized their dreams. Often these films included an overlay of somewhat heavy-handed Freudian analysis.

A selection of the odd flicks, ranging from the 1926 The Midget Crane to 1972's The Bobsled, can be found on the website of artist Zoe Beloff.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Stuff: Things are really dead in San Antonio.

So, if visiting the Alamo seems overly reverent, Ripley's Haunted Adventure's front door is across the plaza. While the big budget, ever-open haunted house attraction goes for the regional appeal by referencing The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, I regret that they didn't capitalize on the specific location and have the angry corpses of Mexican soldiers attempting to eat us tourists. Or a zombie Bowie coming at our skulls with his famed knife. Seems like a wasted opportunity.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Meta: The stars at night are big and bright.

Please forgive the delay. I seem to have suddenly found myself in San Antonio. Regular posts will continue soon.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Stuff: From blood-sucking outsiders to kosher sparkles.

In the Forward, writer Allison Gaudet Yarrow does a pop-light dissection of the Jewish subtext of the modern vampire. Horror fans might not find much new info here, but I took note of a curious bit on vampiric overtones in the story of Jacob and Esau.

Rice may have made a straight trade, from vampires to Jews, in her latest book, but it’s not just contemporary literature that pits those strangers from the East as either one or the other. Some claim that the original myth of the vampire comes from Genesis. A famously hairy and spurned brother struggles with whether to kiss his twin’s neck or to bite it. The parsha reads: “And Esau ran toward him and embraced him, and he fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” Sounds like a surprisingly joyous reunion (Jacob had cheated his brother of his birthright, you will recall), but rabbis point to the dots above the Hebrew word neshikah, “kiss,” which indicate another meaning.

Louis Ginzberg writes, in the book “Legends of the Jews,” “In the vehemence of his rage against Jacob, Esau vowed that he would . . . bite him dead with his mouth, and suck his blood.” This midrash plays with the closeness of the words neshikah and neshicha — kiss and bite, respectively. About as close as the spellings of Hanukkah and Chanukah, but with distinctly darker overtones of fratricide and vampirism.

Quickly, Jews were transformed from victims of night prowlers to the blood-sucking outsiders themselves. One of the hoariest old axes of antisemitism — the blood libel — is that Jews drink blood, or mix it into their matzo. Erik Butler, a professor of German studies at Emory University who studies vampire psychology, says that historically, vampires were symbolic of any persecuted group, and legends about them grew around whatever images the culture had to present. Hence, subjugated Jews became as good an outsider for vampires to represent as any.

The author goes on to ponder the implications of the vampire's mainstream status, from vaguely Semitic boogyman to romantic lead.

Now, of course, vampires are as often the good guys as the bad. Sarah Jane Stratford charges vampires with stopping the Holocaust in her debut novel, “The Midnight Guardian” (St. Martin’s Press, 2009). Her vampires are both morally responsible and self-interested: They use their considerable powers to thwart genocide while combating hunger, as Hitler’s death camps are killing off all their food. These millennials transform the traditional vampire into a monogamous do-gooder. One called Eamon is even a cross-averse Jew himself, having led a pious life before being bitten. Now he’s too busy hunting Nazis to light Sabbath candles, but he can enter churches, unlike the formerly Christian night creatures.

If vampires are equipped to cripple the Holocaust, surely they can manage the suburbs, where they have descended upon diners and high schools. “Twilight” series writer Stephanie Meyer is a Mormon, but Melissa Rosenberg, who is responsible for the Twilight screenplays, is a Jew. She told Los Angeles’ Jewish Journal that the vampires of “Twilight” are “kosher,” if “kosher” is a synonym for “cool.”

With the current ubiquity of vampires, perhaps they’ve outlived their metaphorical life. No longer the “other,” they now just highlight a chosenness to star in their own fiction. In the 2009 film “Daybreakers,” everyone’s a vampire. The outsiders are human. But can these emblematic outsiders depicting minorities (Irish, women, blacks, Jews) still wear that badge now that they have entered into the mainstream? Maybe not. Maybe we’ll turn to mummies instead.

Have vampires lost their ability to represent the outsider because the "outsider" status has lost so much specificity to audiences in a relatively heterogenus and liberal culture?

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Books: What are we feeling here?

Joe Hill, who looks more and more like his dad every author photo, interviews for The AV Club. It's promo for his latest book, Horns, and it contains an interesting take on the terror versus horror debate. Back before debates about participation awards and top ten lists became the primary fixation of horror blogs, bloggers used to actually spend their time debating points of the genre. One of these debates was horror versus terror. Now a lot of folks packed quite a bit of nuance into their positions regarding the definitions of these two brands of fright, but the cheat sheet version came down to something like terror being rooted in fear of physical harm and horror being a more psychological, uncanny thing.

Hill seems to agree with the widely held definition of terror, but his take on what defines horror is notable for its unique angle:

I was talking to someone the other day who was talking about a line in the new Peter Straub novel [A Dark Matter], which I haven't read. A character in the book’s saying, "What am I feeling here, horror or terror? I think it's horror." There is a difference. Terror is the desire to save your own ass, but horror is rooted in sympathy. It's really rooted in this notion of imagining what it might be like for someone else to suffer the worst. On that level, I suspect that horror fiction is very humanizing.

I'm just now mulling over this bit, so I don't really have a fully formed opinion on it. At first, I liked what I perceived as the clean applicability of it. The two-fold problem with horror in the conventional wisdom definition was that it 1) rested on a nebulous "know it when we see it" appeal to an emotional response that could exist separate from the content and 2) examples of the definition could often be boiled down to the threat of physical harm, suggesting that horror was just anticipated terror. On further consideration, I'm curious whether or not Hill's distinction doesn't mean that all the products of the genre always fall under the category horror and never terror, insomuch as films and books and the like are always mediated experiences through some stand-in (even first-person cinema supposes a character behind the camera who is, at most, a stand-in for the viewer)?