Paul Newman's Own Way

30-Sep-08 5:06 PM by
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By now, we've all heard that Paul Newman passed away this weekend at age 83. Everyone has their own memories of this great actor; these are mine.

Paul NewmanMy own exposure to Mr. Newman's work is limited. The first I'd heard of him was when the pilot episode of Cheers dubbed Cool Hand Luke the "Sweatiest Movie Ever". Elsewhere, I'd hear that some men just get better with age — like Paul Newman. It wasn't until the 1994 film Nobody's Fool that I actually saw the 70-year-old actor, though I found this particular film forgettable.

Far more memorable were the classics for which he was best known, such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. For the past few years, I've heard reports that Mr. Newman wanted to collaborate one last time with Robert Redford, his sidekick from those films, but the timing and script never seemed right. I'm sorry he didn't get that chance to work again with his old friend.

Just as important as Mr. Newman's acting resume was his humanitarianism. His philanthropy involved more than donating a portion of proceeds from his salad dressing sales. He was also a political activist who donated generously of both his time and money. TIME, in commemorating the recently departed, put right in their headline that he was a "humanitarian and actor". The order of those titles is no accident.

I'll close this brief remembrance with the words of Bill Corbett: "It’s not a tragedy when an 83-year-old man dies, but it’s a mournful occasion for family, friends, and — where applicable — admirers. And it’s certainly an appropriate time to remember the life lived."

The Blessing and Burden of Methuselah

09-Jan-08 4:17 PM by
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They say the mind is the first thing to go — yet it's a part of the organ we understand, and are able to replace, the least.

Now, Dr. Gordon Bell intends to bring Harry Potter's pensieve to life by developing a way to duplicate the memories of the human mind as easily as any other storage device. Via Slashdot, Fox News asks, "What if you could capture every waking moment of your entire life, store it on your computer and then recall digital snapshots of everything you've seen and heard with just a quick search?" A query meant to excite — or scare?

This is more a science and human interest story than a cinematic one, but consider how many films deal with cybernetic transplantation of humanity. Recreating the essence of man through artificial means is at the core of films such as Blade Runner and episodes of Star Trek like "What Are Little Girls Made Of?" in The Original Series and "Schizoid Man" in The Next Generation (in contrast to Bicentennial Man, which is about a robot becoming human). These fictions embody a very real fear of death and a desire to live on after the failure of the organic body.

But at what price immortality? Besides ethical and spiritual dilemmas, there are also legal and privacy issues inherent in such permanent records. Consider the low-tech solution currently employed by the inventor cited above: "Bell wears a SenseCam, developed by Microsoft Research, that takes pictures whenever it detects he may want a photograph. The camera's infrared sensor picks up on body heat and takes snapshots of anyone else in the room, adjusting itself as available light changes." How would you like to be in that room with Mr. Bell, knowing he was playing Big Brother?

There's a film that employs uses a similarly problematic technique for recording human experience: Robin Williams' The Final Cut. In this movie's world, parents have the option of having their unborn child implanted with an EyeTech Zoe chip. This chip piggybacks on its host's senses to create a visual and aural record of its carrier's experiences. This chip is extracted upon death; someone with the profession of "cutter" then uses this footage to create a 90-minute "Rememory", a montage of experiences by which the living can remember the deceased. A cutter is bound by only three rules: he cannot sell Zoe footage; he cannot mix footage from different Zoe implants for a rememory; and a cutter cannot himself have a Zoe implant.

I stumbled across this film two years ago, roughly at the same time I was given an open-ended assignment to "write something academic about something cinematic." At the time, I had also been reading plenty of Star Trek novels, and the intersection of the two media begged for comparison and contrast. I put two different implants — the Zoe chip and a Trill symbiont — under the microscope and came up with a 2,000-word paper entitled "Preservation of Memory as a Means of Immortality: A Science Fictional Approach".

Though the professors evaluated the essay favorably, neither were familiar with the background material. I've yet to find to find someone who is and can thus evaluate my work from that perspective. If you're a Trekkie who's seen The Final Cut and are interesting in reading the implications of each medium's method of providing permanent mental capacity, please drop me a note.

If Only, If Only…

24-Oct-07 11:15 AM by
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Today, on the anniversary of Gene Roddenberry's passing, StarTrek.com has a thoughtful tribute to the legacy of Star Trek's creator:


… with Star Trek he created an iconic mythology which has succeeded in providing popular culture with a common reference point for all things futuristic and achievable. ("Achievable" being what distinguishes Star Trek from Star Wars.) Because Star Trek has become so firmly planted in our collective consciousness, far-reaching ideas can more easily bubble to the surface and gain acceptance, as the optimists among us push forward to realize that vision of the future. Replicators, tricorders, bio-beds, cloaking fields, transporters, and even warp drive are all concepts being pursued today by scientists and innovators, even when overwhelming conventional wisdom would dismiss them.

The article goes on to posit that humanity could realize its great potential if we would set our sights on the stars and not on petty terrestrial squabbles over land and oil. I suppose that's what makes Star Trek science fiction…

TNG at 20: The Human Condition

25-Sep-07 11:59 PM by
Filed under Star Trek; 5 comments.

Star Trek is a tale not of aliens, technology, and anomalies, but of humanity. However evolved the future's citizens claim to be, they still find ways to learn and and places to grow. Though Worf or Data or even Wesley may've developed the most over The Next Generation's seven years, the hero I found to be the deepest, most complex, and most intricate was their guide through the stars: the very human Captain Picard.

As many commanding officers do, Jean-Luc Picard initially came across as a stiff and remote authority figure: barking orders, didactically lecturing his crew, and providing an extremely straight man for the tomfoolery of Q. But when Picard was given the opportunity to not be a foil but take the center stage for himself, his humanity truly shined.

Though we met almost everyone else's parents and children, Picard had neither. Yet it was his estranged relationship with his brother Robert that we found most empathetic. This wasn't an unknown child appearing on his doorstep or a licentious mother causing him embarrassment; it was two siblings — one who stayed in the family business, the other a prodigal son. That very basic bond is one with which many of us have struggled, and though we'd hope to overcome such issues by the 24th century, it gives us hope to see a man as great as Picard overcome them.

It is one of many trials Picard faced in his time aboard the Enterprise. He lived decades in an unreal life — separated first from his starship family, then from the one he came to love. He was given the chance to put right what once went wrong, only to see the entire tapestry of his life come unravelled. He loved one woman, only to have duty take her away; he loved another, only to give her away himself. Despite a broken heart, he was held prisoner, tortured to the point of a broken mind.

And, of course, there was Wolf 359: where he was a mere onlooker as his own mind and body were used to send hundreds of his fellow Starfleet officers to their deaths. How does any man — not an android, not an empath, but just a man — overcome so much tragedy?

I don't know — yet Picard did so, and somehow became stronger for it. And he showed his unwavering spirit in his love for Shakespeare, archaelogy — and his crew. The most brilliant Star Trek short story I ever read was "The Promise", by Shane Zeranski, which I will spoil for you by quoting Picard's breakdown when he realizes, after thirty years, he may never leave Kataan:

I loved them… and I never told them. I never told a one! Not Data, not Worf, not Riker… not even Beverly. And now they're gone and I'll never see them again! I always — expected that… that I might, but — but I won't… If only I could see them — just once more, just… once… more! They were my family… my family… and I've lost them.

I can hear each of these words come from Jean-Luc's mouth, and they speak of a man wracked with a despair that can come only from a deep and powerful passion. Picard engages in the full range of human experiences, from joy to sorrow; it is this fearlessness with which he faces his own nature that exemplifies Star Trek as an exploration not of mapping stars and studying nebula… but of charting the unknown possibilities of existence.

The full breadth of Picard's character is demonstrated in the videos presented after the jump:

(more…)

Us the People

05-Apr-07 8:41 AM by
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We have met the enemy, and he is us.

The greatest threat the world faces is not global warming or terrorism; it's ignorance. Yet it's the stupid people who are reproducing; birth control prevents conception only among those smart enough to use it. With no natural predators, humanity is evolving to favor not positive traits, but common ones. If "Go forth and multiply" is a warfare tactic, then in Idiocracy, it's a winning one.

In this film, recommended to me by a Showbits member, Luke Wilson plays an average G.I. Joe who, in a nod to the book Looking Backward, is put into a deep sleep meant to be shorter than its actual 500 years. When he wakes up, America is an idiocracy — a government run by idiots, as that's all that evolution has left. Though Joe is first mocked, derided, and even feared by the populace (much as any high school nerd would be), they eventually realize his fair-to-middlin' I.Q. makes him the smartest man alive. Wrestler-turned-president Camacho asks for his help to fix the world's troubles — but Joe's challenge isn't solving the basic quandaries America has found itself in, but convincing the population that his unfathomable answers will work where corporate-motivated solutions have not.

This film succeeds more as a political commentary than the comedy it tries to be. It doesn't take the audience long to recognize the exaggerated redneck — sorry, Appalachian American — behavior, and these jokes play themselves out fairly quickly. After the first half-hour, it's unlikely anything original, creative, or surprising will happen, given how stupid and predictable everyone but Joe is.

In our superiority, we're more likely to empathize with him and his obvious grasp of the situation. But how many of us will identify with the idiots and their blatant inability to grasp the inconvenient truth: that their practices, behaviors, and "solutions" are, in fact, causing the very problems they are trying to solve.

All that is necessary for evil to win is for good men to do nothing. Whether the problem is white trash or environmental change, we may not have the generous five centuries Joe did before our dilemma becomes obvious and irreversible.