"Money was maliciously introduced in ancient times as a tool of enslavement" -
Michael Tellinger

"The present belongs to the future and future generations, and all old laws, religious and other, should be abrogated immediately. Free us!" - Vinay Gupta on Twitter

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." - R. Buckminster Fuller

"You find the strangest ways to be positive!" - Diane Duane, Wizards Abroad

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Looking back at AIFF 2011: Day One: Louder than a Bomb, A Conversation with Harry Shearer, Orbis Minor and Connected

What with one thing and another - combining the festival with the very welcome company of two old  friends, while under the influence of powerful antibiotics and not anywhere near back to 100% functioning -- I never found the time or energy to write about the festival while it was going on, this year. I did make a start, at the beginning, and this post is derived from that draft.

After this, what I intend to do in some future posts is to offer some brief reviews of the films I saw, because every one of them was remarkable.

Actually the festival started for me a day early, with the arrival at the airport of Jeanie. (What a lovely person she still is; we had a few things to catch up on since it's been over 40 years since we've seen each other.) I happened to have a copy on hand of one of the AIFF offerings, Louder than a Bomb, so we watched that Wednesday night at my place and we both loved it. Chicago high school students in a poetry slam competition; who knew? Outstanding story, compelling poetry, all in all a don't-miss. I thought the narrative could have made it a little clearer what was going on, and with some of the poets I would have liked subtitles, but still well worth seeing. I have a feeling this will be an enduringly popular documentary, even as it catches this current moment in our history.  (I saw this again later with neighbors, and it seemed even more  powerful the second time through. Definitely an outstanding, memorable, inspiring film. It was awarded an AIFF Special Jury Mention for Feature Length Documentary) Here's Roger Ebert's review.

Thursday (Day One of the Festival)  was a great day too. Sunshine, a mini-blizzard in Ashland (Jim Teece's photos on YouTube give some idea what it looked like - they were saying "Sundance revisited"):

And then clear driving to the airport to pick up Peggy; she'd flown on the same flight with a tired-looking Harry Shearer, who was delayed in getting here by plane, on account of the crazy mountain weather (he described the experience with understandable exasperation on his podcast later). Then there was a serious hail storm on the way back to Ashland (scary driving)-- more crazy weather --and finally we got to our first official event, A Conversation with Harry Shearer, at the Armory. (Photo from Shawn Levy's blog.)

Harry Shearer accepting his Rogue Award at AIFF.
It was a very entertaining and often hilarious retrospective of some of Shearer's career highlights (inspiring me to add his earlier films to my Netflix queue - I liked A Mighty Wind the best), and a nice introduction to his new documentary on New Orleans, The Big Uneasy, which promises to be a long-overdue expose of the Army Corps of Engineers. We have tickets to that later. Glad I didn't miss that "conversation"! Later, in his podcast, Shearer said he was disappointed to learn that the Rogue Award didn't mean he was a rogue, it was just taken from the name of our valley; but he's wrong about that; the name is intended to have the double meaning. Too bad he didn't catch that, but someone will probably tell him.

Much to catch up with Peggy in between films, too - hadn't seen her in even longer, and as with Jeanie, it was amazing to explore how two friends in youth could travel on such parallel paths through life that they can get together again decades later and still be on the same page! We all went on to Louie's by the Plaza, to test the fabled Best Hamburgers in Ashland (even my veggie burger was too delicious to seem quite guilt-free), and then finally by myself (while Jeanie and Peggy got caught up at the Columbia Hotel room) to the little Varsity 5 to see Connected: An Autoblogography of Love, Death, and Technology (also sometimes subtitled A Declaration of Interdependence). It was paired with a short documentary, Orbis Minor. That was an inspired pairing; kudos to the programmer. Connected is an interesting personal film with global intentions, exploring the filmmaker's (Tiffany Shlain) relationship with her father, who seems to have been a great one, and what she learned from him about brain science and Life, as two life-altering events struck in the midst of her work making another, less personal documentary about global technological connectedness and the promise it offers. Very entertaining, humorous, touching, and interesting.

Orbis Minor is a 15-minute film by Zach Kienitz, a Montana film school student. It takes a very different view of  technological connectedness (or what it means when technology changes how people relate to their world and to each other). Through a series of long takes, from an unmoving camera set in several different places, it effectively makes the point that while we are caught up in our minds--minds affected by the technology we use so much of the time--the natural world is still very real and moves at its own pace.

The young filmmaker of Orbis Minor was there for an interesting Q&A, and gave me some further food for thought. He asked how long people thought the first shot had gone on, and the answers (after a waggish "one hour," which got a laugh - it did at first seem to last practically forever, just a shot of river water going by) ranged from one to five minutes. I was the one who said five minutes. He said it was only (I think) one minute long, actually. And said that when they showed the film to different age groups, the older people (the age of the audience members who stuck around for the Q&A - Boomers, mostly, like me) tended to be on the "one minute" end of the scale, while the younger audience, say 18-22 year olds, tended to be at the other end, thinking five minutes or more. I remarked that I'd thought it was five minutes and I'm old, but added, "It was just that after Connected, with all those quick cuts, this was an adjustment. But I liked it once I got the idea what was going on."

He said Connected (at somewhere under 90  minutes) had probably 2,000 shots and his film (at about 15 minutes), just eight (I think these were the numbers) of those very long takes. During which, in voice overs, several people from different generations mused about how they felt about the present culture of technological connectedness. This juxtaposition of their thinking and the inescapable visual of the natural world, there on the big screen in front of you and refusing to act like high-speed Internet, creates a very meditative and ultimately thought provoking effect on the viewer. A remarkable short film, I thought.

The other thing I remember about the Q&A, which gave me a personal insight, is that he said that in another study, they tested how many frames people of different ages took to "get" an image. The general idea was that the kids (say, 18-22) got an image in just a few frames, while it took the Boomers many more. I heard some of the other Boomers commenting that no wonder they thought Connected went by too fast, but I have to say I kept up with it just fine. My only complaint is that it repeated the use of some of the shots too many times. Indeed, in that question of how long I felt the first shot of Orbis Minor had taken, I did perceive the second film as an 18-22 would. But though it felt excruciatingly slow to me, at first, I was able to adjust and enjoy it in the same way that my age cohort did, after probably 30 seconds. I have one foot in each world, apparently. Not a bad thing. I don't own a cell phone and don't text, but I do sorely miss my laptop whenever it crashes; I use it for everything from Twitter to blogging, and revel in everything I can do in making connections online. But I also need to get outdoors and just sit and meditate too. If we ever have to go back to doing without all this, I'll be okay with that too, probably.

(Fractal-Tree from http://emergent-culture.com/)
I didn't grow up with this technology the way the kids have, so I don't swim in it the way they do; but I've had to work with it my entire adult life and I enjoy playing with it now, so my own reaction and comprehension times have pretty much kept up with the changes. But then I've always had a bit of a problem conveying my scattershot thoughts to other people, which is why I started writing early on in life. That same characteristic, of having a brain firing in all directions most of the time, has served me well in the new technological environment. Blogging with links and all the rest of the interconnecting stuff enables a much more satisfying, more dimensional kind of writing, for me. What it does for other people... well, I'm not responsible for that. I just do it because I have to. One of the young poets in Louder than a Bomb said something to the effect that once she started writing, the world began to make sense to her. Jeanie surprised me by turning to me then and asking if that's how I felt, and I said yes. What a perceptive and sensitive question for Jeanie to have come up with. 40 years apart, and we still like the same movies, too. Guess I finished this post up in a personal-journal frame of mind... back to the films next time!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Really quick review: Permanence by Karl Schroeder

Something going on in my community reminded me of how, when I was a child, my father infected me with his own lifelong interest in utopias, both literary and sociological. I can remember him explaining that though they never survive for long, at least as originally envisioned, they are always worth the trying and have much to teach us. I've relished dozens, maybe hundreds, of utopian and dystopian tales in my life, and many are science fictional. This one, for instance, isn't exactly about utopias, but like a lot of science fiction it is full of characters all striving, in different ways, to find a better way for the species to live.

Permanence (2002) by Karl Schroeder (from my review in SLJ)

In this future, humans have long-since mastered the art of surviving in alien environments but have become divided.

Pioneer Halo Worlders first left our home world to settle brown dwarfs between the visible stars, adapting to new environments with daring, art, and creativity. But when faster-than-light travel was discovered, the wealthier, more monolithic Rights Economy moved out and claimed for itself all the richer, more Earth-like planets of the "lit" stars; that society's overriding principle is ownership--of everything.

Meanwhile, the human need for enlightenment expresses itself through Permanence, a non-metaphysical religious order seeking the eternal survival of the human species.

In a beginning reminiscent of classic Heinlein, scrappy young Rue daringly escapes from a bad situation and heads for her home in Halo World. Along the way she happens upon an alien artifact that promises to make her rich, but instead lands her in a galactic crisis; she must find her sea legs fast. Meanwhile, in a Rights Economy project, Michael, a monk in the outlawed NeoShinto order, is assisting in a scientific study of extinct alien civilizations as he covertly collects their kami, or essence.

Rue, Michael, and a large cast of equally colorful characters must determine the correct use of mysterious alien technology and then fight like the dickens if their species is to survive. This suspenseful, complex tale asks many intriguing philosophical questions and illustrates more scientific principles than a semester of science labs. Some readers might not quite follow all of the plot's rapid twists and turns, but they will want to hang on to reach the story's satisfying conclusion, where a thoughtful solution emerges amid plenty of fireworks.

Ad astra...

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Borrowed family memoirs: one too healthy, one too dysfunctional, and one just right (book reviews, video)

If I were a great writer like these three people, I'd write about my family, too, because it was quite a ride. (Probably, most families are.) These three memoirs were eerily reminiscent of my own family life: one family way more functional than mine, one way less, and the third close to how it was for me sometimes, from the inside. For those of us who lack the talent to tell such large and complex stories, other people's can be a great way to understand our own.

Here's  the video that sparked this train of thought. It brought back key memories of  my own in that "just right" way, and reminded me of both books reviewed below. Gaimon captures wonderfully that quality of adolescence in which we were an adult one moment and a child the next. (Also what it's like to be one-too-many.) However, I can see from this that at 16 he was already in some ways in a place where it took me another ten years to reach. (And then of course he just kept going, to a stellar career.)

The family in my own Goldilocks memoir that's "too good" is the one in Searching for Hassan by Terence Ward. Same time (almost) same places, same countries (more or less), same kind of work, a very similar kind of people ... but these folks just don't seem to have the kind of mental booby traps that, well... made my life's work just keeping my head above water, rather than having the brilliant career my mother always thought I should have had. But if we'd met them on our travels, our parents would really have hit it off and perhaps become lifelong friends (while their children raced on ahead of me and soon out of sight, becoming successful and accomplished while I kept making the same mistakes and finally barely learned to cope). My parents did go back to revisit old friends too, but we never could have united in this way as adults as a family for such a joint quest. It's a wonderful story. I posted a review of that one earlier, here.

And finally, the one that's "too dysfunctional"in my little fairy tale is The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls. In an interview, Walls said that the word "dysfunctional" never came to her mind as she wrote the book, and I can understand that. Our families and our stories are just what they are, and only outsiders put labels like that on them. (One of my favorite quotes from my mother--which she must have had many occasions to say, or I woudn't remember it so well--was "Don't worry what they think. They don't know you.") My parents didn't end up like the ones in this book, thank goodness, and never would have, as they were not delusional at any point (just rather more idealistic, adventurous, and stubbornly optimistic than most) but much of their journey on the way to where Walls's family ended up conveys something of the quality of our life, too. In this version of my borrowed memoir, the parents ultimately failed but the children succeeded, flipping my own story arc. Here's how I reviewed it in a local paper:

In any competition for "Best First Sentence in a Book of Any Kind," this would have to be strong contender: "I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a dumpster." How did the mother and daughter come to such a pass? It's a fascinating story.

The author's mother is seen as a romantic, a would-be artist with a tendency to become seriously depressed; her father is an abusive alcoholic, amoral and delusional much of the time, but scraping by thanks to his extraordinary charm and intelligence. They are dropouts without a commune (except for thieir own isolated family), Bohemians without friends, protesters without a cause, dreamers without real conviction. Their theory of child-rearing, as their mother often reminds them, is "what doesn't kill you will make you strong." Thanks to their neglect, the children suffer so many close calls that the book sometimes feels like a horror story. If, as a reviewer quoted on the book cover asserts, "Memoirs are our modern fairy tales," this one is Brothers Grimm, not Disney.

The parents do, however, have some extraordinary qualities that they pass on to the children, among them intelligence, creativity, resilience, and the ability to make an adventure of adversity. Actually, the author's first memories are relatively happy, and certainly interesting, times in Arizona and California. Her mother sets up a studio, while her father dreams of strange inventions and draws up plans for a glass castle in the desert. (As a child, the author stubbornly believes in the castle, and through various permutations it serves as a gauge of her relationship with her father as she grows up.) But as the family's economic fortunes decline they slip further into poverty, eventually coming to the end of the line in a dank shack in a dark hollow in a dying town in West Virginia, the poorest people in what might well be the poorest town in the country.

As the parents retreat further from reality, somehow the Walls children do grow stronger, and ultimately, as the book's first sentence foretells, the author travels a long way from the shack in the hollow. So do two of her siblings: leaving the folly of their parents behind, they escape one by one, each helping the next one along in the traditional way of emigrant families looking for a better life in a different country.

So why is the mother still nearby, now in the city, rooting in dumpsters while her daughter rides in taxis? This is a rich reading experience, well told with wit and vivid imagery. A friend recommended it to me, and I pass it on to you.
Another fine family memoir that really touched me, though not in quite so personal a way:
Burnt Bread and Chutney

and other memoir-related posts.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Brave Yemeni women

Role of women in Arab protests continues in Yemen. YouTube video below.

See also news story: women also assert that it is not "unIslamic" to protest!  That site has a video as well and it is so incredible to see these women marching in their oppressive black full-body hoods. (If you think this suffocating so-called "veil" is a matter of spirituality or choice, you've never worn one of those things.)

I can't imagine the courage it takes these women to engage in this public activity but when they do, the spirit is contagious.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Ashland Independent Film Festival 2011

I haven't been able to write yet about this year's festival but I do hope to review some of the  films I saw, before too long, because they were really good. Meanwhile, critic Shawn Levy's blog gives a good idea what it was like, from weather to special moments. Here are the links:
http://blog.oregonlive.com/madaboutmovies/2011/04/the_big_uneasy_harry_shearer_g.html (not AIFF, but The Big Uneasy, which we saw at the festival)
AIFF loves Levy. Last year, he did a fascinating "Talkback" based on his biography of Paul Newman. This year, he did a wonderful job of interviewing Morgan Spurlock in a "Conversation with". From that last post, I think he likes us too: 
"But Ashland is onto something.  After 10 years of choosing films well, teaching an audience to embrace the small and the unusual, treating filmmakers and visiting guests like long-lost family, and sticking determinedly to a core of talented staffers and committed volunteers, it has continued to grow in stature, quality and impact.  Filmmakers, even those who don't win anything, are dazzled by the setting, the audiences, the warmth of the event.  AIFF is a not-for-profit, as we were reminded continually before screenings, and will depend on donations to continue for another decade.  But if goodwill were a form of money, it would be one of the richest film festivals in the world."

Thanks, Shawn! I also stumbled upon this Ashland blogger named Steve, who did what I wish I could've - covered everything as it happened. I found it interesting to read about the ones he saw that I didn't, and compare notes on the ones we did both see (I mostly agreed). Here's the first of them:  http://bloggingashland.wordpress.com/2011/04/04/ashland-film-festival-week/

Finally, check out some of Jim Teece's videos on YouTube. This one has two of my friends in the background!

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Getaway Special: An idea whose time has come (book review)

Here's one I really loved. Years later I still chuckle at the thought of it. What reminded me of this great science fictional fantasy by Jerry Oltion were several articles and documentaries I've seen recently about alternative energies not yet developed. Are they real? Hoaxes? If they are real, why aren't they spreading like wildfire? In a collapsing economy, wouldn't cheap, easy alternatives naturally supplant the existing failing infrastructure, as people took matters into their own hands? and here are some more ideas). Well, first, before much money can be put into development, these seemingly quirky discoveries need to be tested and validated, and efficient means of production figured out. And if they are genuinely promising, they have to survive the efforts of powerful interests to make them disappear.

I'm inclined to think that the universe is full of undiscovered sources of cheap, easy, clean energy and the only things holding us back from using them are (1) an entrenched research establishment that's just not structured to go outside the lines of how they usually conduct research--not just the present intellectual but also the bureaucratic parameters--and so fails to bridge the gap between scientific method and the inventors who stumble upon things but can't explain them, and (2) probably even more than that, the thugs owning the currently existing energy  infrastructure, who have demonstrated over and over that they will stop at nothing to hold onto their empire (can anyone say "Bush"? "Carbon Club"?).

I mean, building a whole global civilization based on a limited supply of fossil combustibles? Absurd! What were the chances THAT would have happened? But it did. History is full of unexpected and unlikely twists, and the future will be too, no doubt. Just as we don't really have to be so limited in our energy choices, it's also possible we don't have to be limited to this planet. (It can be argued that we should be quarantined here until we get our act together... but then, maybe going off-planet would be the very thing to force the species to grow up. Why not? Certainly the planet would be better off without us...)

Which brings me to this book about a parallel kind of current limitation: what if a means of cheap, easy space travel were found? Heck, why not?! (This review is adapted from a short one I wrote when the book came out.)

Oltion, Jerry. The Getaway Special (2001)

Allen Meisner's business card identifies him as a member of INSANE (the International Network of Scientists Against Nuclear Extermination). He is worried.

Reasoning that the only hope for survival in a nuclear-menaced world is to get out of here, he's been theorizing about a cheap, almost instantaneous mode of faster-than-light travel. Fortunately he's rich, so he can afford to buy space aboard the shuttle Discovery -- two small "getaway special" canisters -- in order to test his idea. And his experimental "hyperdrive" proves wildly successful (if a bit dicey to control, at first).

In the true spirit of file-sharing, he feels that this new knowledge rightly belongs to everyone and, knowing that if he doesn't do something fast it will be buried by the Powers that Be and never see the light of day, Meisner broadcasts the formula on the Net. And soon the whole world knows how to go off-planet in any vehicle that can be made airtight for a few hours. Adventurous, tinkering humans lose no time in modifying their RVs and lighting out for the territory.

Judy Gallagher, a pilot on the fateful shuttle flight, is soon in cahoots with Meisner, racing against time to escape from Earthly powers desperate to control the new technology. The two build a ship (a customized septic tank) and head for Alpha Centauri--but in just one of many delicious twists, they find they aren't the first to get there. This is as much fun as science fiction can be. It's rich in the classic SF sense of wonder and in the most contemporary questions, and it carries the reader aloft with a wild and irresistible humor.

Well, I guess I liked that book! Time to read it again; with nuclear reactors doing the inevitable again, this time in Japan but sharing the grief all over the world by now, I'm feeling more in tune than ever with the good scientist Meisner and his INSANE organization. We're in it together -- and I wouldn't mind getting away myself just now. And I see there's a sequel - Anywhere But Here - which I will now find and read ASAP. His website says his favorite novel is Paradise Passed, which I missed somehow and will catch up on too. I did review Abandon in Place, which preceded The Getaway Special, and liked that very much; will add that review when I can find it. Glad to see there is more Oltion to read. And I haven't even started on his shorter fiction. He invented a new kind of telescope, the Trackball, which looks like the old Edmunds wide field one I used to have, but that's just superficial as this is an equatorial mount - but it tracks so you don't have to keep adjusting it!; in Meisner fashion, he put it in the public domain. Wouldn't you know, he's an Oregonian.