How Popular is Reading Science Fiction?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 19, 2016

What I’d really like to know is how popular is reading science fiction? It’s almost impossible to separate books, movies and television shows when discussing science fiction. Science fiction movies are certainly less popular than sex or sports, but they might give apple pie a run for its money. Trying to figure out the popular appeal of SF books is a complete riddle.

I have a life-long interest in science fiction, both as a consumer, and as a topic of philosophical study. Why did fascination with science fiction blossom in the mid-20th century, and spread like kudzu in popular culture ever since? I’ve been thinking about writing a book about science fiction literature, but I’m not sure how many people read about the history and nature of the genre. One of the best books I’ve read on this subject is The World Beyond The Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence by Alexei and Cory Panshin. Have you even heard of it? Probably not. It won the Hugo in 1990, for Best Non-Fiction Book.

The World Beyond The Hill - Panshin

Over the decades I’ve read a number of books about science fiction, but other than the people who write about science fiction, I don’t know anyone personally who buys such books. My guess is hundreds of millions of people love to watch science fiction at the theater or on television, and several hundred thousand love to read science fiction, but I’d guess only few thousand humans in this whole world like to read about science fiction.

To get some idea of science fiction’s popularity I used the Alexa site, an Amazon company that tracks web stats. If you study the numbers and sites, you’ll probably notice that interest in media SF drives most of the higher rankings. It’s very hard to gauge interest in just printed science fiction. I do know that decades ago some SF digest magazines had over 100,000 subscribers, and now they are all around the 10,000 mark. But far fewer people read science fiction short stories compared to novels. Science fiction novels don’t dominate the best seller lists like Sci-Fi does at the box office. Most fans prefer to see SF than read it.

Site U.S. Rank Global Rank
io9.com 36,961 1,675
starwars.com 1,343 3,928
tor.com 6,459 21,874
startrek.com 9,893 28,465
sciencefiction.com 36,977 105,387
scifinow.co.uk 113,513 122,368
sfsignal.com 49,097 210,023
locusmag.com 73,260 263,078
strangehorizons.com 72,413 278,212
sffworld.com 137,467 309,193
bestsciencefictionbooks.com 89,148 312,016
dailysciencefiction.com 99,167 383,305
lightspeedmagazine.com 130,384 417,852
sf-encyclopedia.com 170,106 454,412
clarkesworldmagazine.com 126,308 485,754
worldswithoutend.com 145,960 540,963
asimovs.com 256,251 856,963
escapepod.org 265,635 1,048,438
analogsf.com 643,265 1,147,547

You can look at Alexa’s Top 500 sites to get an idea of how well-known web sites rank. All the SF sites with short stories rank 99,000 and below in the U.S. So reading science fiction short stories is not very popular at all. In comparison, The New Yorker comes in at 491 for the U.S., and 1,582 for the world. The Atlantic rank 324/866. The super-intellectual New York Review of Books comes in at 8,100/20,016. For a more common read, People Magazine is ranked 151/549.

I guess I’m fascinated by a topic that has little interest to most people.

Essay #999 – Table of Contents

Are Historical Movies An Insult to History?

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, September 14, 2015

Last night I watched Belle Starr, an old 1941 western with Gene Tierney and Randolph Scott. I didn’t know anything about Belle Starr before the movie, other than her famous name. So after the show I looked her up on Wikipedia. The movie was complete bullshit. Now this is a particularly bad example to ask this question: Should we avoid movies that claim to be based on history?

THE IMITATION GAME

In the past year I’ve seen films about Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking and J. M. W. Turner. All three films won awards and received much critical praise. In each case I felt like I was looking at detailed recreations of the past. Yet, when I read “A Poor Imitation of Alan Turing” by Christian Caryl, I was troubled that I might have gotten a very wrong impression about Alan Turing. I now wonder about my history lessons on Hawking and Turner. Watching those films let me feel I was getting to know those men. Now the more I read, the more I doubt, the more I feel confused, and even misled.

Movies make a far greater impact on our brains than reading black and white words on paper. Even documentaries can give the wrong impression, so we must be extra cautious with historical fiction. Should we assume any fictional account of history is only fiction? That’s really hard for me to do. I can’t turn off my sense that I’m learning history when I’m watching a film, or reading a historical novel. If I know some of its real, then all of it feels real, especially if the storytelling is good. Fiction can be very convincing.

We have all kinds of ways of learning about history. History books, journals and courses are the most respected sources, but there is also museums, paintings, photographs, archival film, newsreels, sound recordings, transcribed interviews, letters, diaries and even archeological artifacts. If you’ve ever seen a Ken Burns documentary, you know how powerful such evidence can be. Yet, when we watch a movie, it feels like we’re reliving history. It’s very hard not to let Hollywood teach us about the past.

stephenandjane

I must wonder, did The Imitation Game treat Alan Turing fairly? Would Alan Turing have been flattered to see himself on the big screen as a cinematic hero? In a way, it was vindication for being mistreated in life. In another way, it was an insult, because they still got him wrong. I’m pretty sure the real Belle Starr would have laughed her ass off at seeing Gene Tierney’s version of herself. Stephen Hawking has been very kind in his praise for The Theory of Everything, saying it was broadly true, and at times it felt like he was seeing himself on the screen. However, Slate magazine compares film and history in “How Accurate Is The Theory of Everything?” and again, I’m disappointed by how I’ve been tricked. How disconcerting must it be for a real person to compare what they see on the big screen to real memories?

Our approach to history has always been fast and loose. Often shows on The History Channel are an abomination. Remember, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and the quote, “When the legend becomes fact… print the legend.” Of course, that’s the movie’s side of things. Quite often when I see clips from Fox News, I get the feeling their sense of reality was learned from Ronald Reagan’s screenplay tinted view of history. We often remember the facts the way we need them remembered.

I’m starting to wonder if I should avoid any film or television show that claims to be based on truth, because movies are so powerful, that once I see them, that’s how I see history.

JWH

The Way We Were and The Way We Are

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, September 9, 2015

One of the few positive aspects of getting older is living long enough to see great changes in society. Although, a savvy young person should be able to observe the same changes by watching old movies. It’s not the same thing as living through those changes, but it’s good enough for intellectual chitchat. I’ve been watching a lot of old movies from the 1950s, especially ones from 1951, the year I was born, and struggling to understand why I like them so much now that I’m 63. It’s amazing how much different America is today than it was then. What’s far more important, is seeing how we’ve stayed the same. That takes a discerning heart, and it’s easy to overlook how we haven’t changed because all the new stuff overwhelms our senses.

To get the easy stuff out of the way quickly, in the 1950s there were no smartphones, internet, personal computers or social apps. White males dominated society, people of color were barely visible on screen. Women usually wore dresses, stayed at home defining themselves as wives and mothers. There was a double standard for sexuality back then, and women were considered tainted if they had sex outside of marriage. There wasn’t much of a youth culture. Watching these old films its easy enough to spot obvious differences between then and now, like how men wore hats and suits all the time, and cars looked like those we see in Cuba today.

There are less obvious differences that are more subtle to spot. Movies in the 1950s feel like they are made for adults, while many movies today seem to be made for adolescents or the adolescent in us. There were some science fiction and fantasy films back then, but they weren’t the norm. And even then, their science fiction and fantasy had a foundation of realism that modern genre films lacks. Partly that’s due back then because fewer movies were completely escapist, and they didn’t have CGI to make the unreal real—which tends to make the real unreal.

Like I said, it takes more work to study how we’re the same. The reason why we can still enjoy the plays of Shakespeare is not because we enjoy people talking funny and wearing weird clothes, but because how we see ourselves in those people who talk funny and wear weird clothes.

detective-story-1951

Last night I watched Detective Story (1951) about a morally rigid cop Jim McLeod (Kirk Douglas) learning his wife Mary (Eleanor Parker) had an abortion before they met. Detective McLeod was raised by a criminal father that McLeod despised. McLeod upbringing contra-conditioned him to demand that everyone fit an exacting black and white categorization. McLeod judged everyone that came into the precinct as righteous or evil, with no room for compassion, or understanding. I see that kind of rigid morality all the time on the nightly news, and sadly in some people I know. McLeod’s thinking was no different from members of ISIS, people living in Old Testament times or Donald Trump’s political persona.

Ace in the Hole - 1951

A more complicated example of sameness is Ace in the Hole (1951) which also starred Kirk Douglas, as Chuck Tatum, a cynical reporter capable of great compassion or cruelty depending on his personal needs. Chuck Tatum used his psychological skills to manipulate people and orchestrate sensational news stories. Tatum reminded me of Steve Jobs, because he believed it was good to push people into doing more.

The Big Heat

Many young people think terrorism is something new since 9/11. It’s always existed in human society. The Big Heat (1953) has Det. Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) fighting terrorists who control the police force and corrupts the government. Small minded men with big guns kill Bannion’s wife with a car bomb. They kill witnesses and anyone who tries to help Bannion. Makes me think of the news from Mexico, but corruption using violence to rule is common throughout the world.

And it’s not just seeing that the bad people then are just like the bad people today. The good people then are like the good people today. Det. Lou Brody (William Bendix) in Detective Story  tries very hard to get Jim McLeod to bend and see shades of gray in the folks they arrest. In fact, if you look at every character in this film, to see what motivates them, you can find parallel characters in today’s movies and real life.

This reminds me of something I learned from anthropology. Neanderthals were a species that lived unchanging lives for hundreds of thousands of years, making the same tools in the same old way all their long species’ lifetime. Our species, Homo sapiens, have changed a lot over the millennia, yet, there are other traits that don’t change, and like the Neanderthals and their stone tools, we keep constructing similar personality traits over and over again, with the same routineness that our cousins flaked out stone scrapers.

For most of my life, the 1950s was my least favorite movie decade, but in recent months, it’s become my favorite. That will change. It always does. I stay up late watching shows that I once thought dreary and depressing, and now I find fascinating and inspiring. I remember the 1950s, just barely, since I was born in 1951, and these movies little resemble the memories I do have of those times. The closest they overlap are of a trip to New York City in 1959.

Living in Kidland in the 1950s was much different from Hollywoodland. I didn’t know any cops, mobsters, B-girls, reporters, or small-time hustlers. My world looked like those old home movies that The Center For Home Movies work to preserve. And I’d bet lots of family home movies taken today have strange similarities with home movies taken back in the 1940s and 1950s. I live in a house and neighborhood that was built in the 1950s, and sometimes on my morning walks I pretend I’m seeing the neighborhood like it was long ago. Since most people park their cars behind their homes it helps with the illusion. I see women coming out in their robes to pick up the paper, and they look like the women I saw when I delivered papers in the 1960s. I’ve read a lot of books written in the 19th century, and on the surface people appear very different, but if you look closer they don’t. Just read The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope. It’s much harder, but I can even find overlap with tales as old as The Bible, Homer, Plato, or Lucretius.

Even with smartphones, Ecclesiastes was right.

JWH

Fun With Memory Loss

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Last night I watched Seven Men From Now, a 1956 western with Randolph Scott, directed by Budd Boetticher. (I had to look up the year and the spelling of Boetticher’s name in Wikipedia.) It’s a movie I had seen recently. My memory told me it was a few months ago, but it was July of 2012. (I had to check my Amazon Orders history to find out when I bought the DVD.) Last night I started watching the show from a recent DVR over-the-air broadcast recording, before switching to my DVD copy. I was surprise by how little I remembered. In fact, before I watched the film again last night I could not have written down anything about the plot, other that what the title triggered in my memory—Randolph Scott is out to kill seven guys. I didn’t even remember it was revenge for them killing his wife. I’m sure I’ve seen this film other times, but my memory completely fails me. I’ve been addicted to westerns since the 1950s, and every few years I binge on as many 1940s and 1950s westerns I can find.

SevenMenFromNow1956-WB

I’ve been paying attention to how well my short term and long term memory works. I don’t recall hearing the phrase mid term memory, but it feels like I should have that kind of memory too. I know my short term memory is failing because it’s very difficult for me to keep running scores in games, or remember which exercises I’ve done in my morning physical therapy exercises. Obviously, my failure to remember anything from a movie I watched three years ago says something about my long term memory.

What I want to do is write down a list of scenes I remember from last night, and then in a month, make another list of scenes I remember. Then do it again in a year. I’ll have to either update this essay every time I retest, or republish it as new. I’ll leave the DVD somewhere to trigger my memory in a month.

This morning I’m surprised by how much of the film has stuck with me overnight. One reason might be because I was comparing the video quality of the broadcast version against my DVD copy. And throughout the film I consciously admired the scenery.

  1. Opens with Randolph Scott walking in the rain at night in what looks like a desert near a rocky outcrop. He’s wearing a grey slicker. 
  2. Scott goes into a cave and sees two men sitting by a fire drinking coffee. They invite him in. Scott tells him his horse was stolen and eaten by Indians.
  3. Several short scenes of them talking about a killing in a nearby town.
  4. Camera jumps to outside the cave where we hear two shots.
  5. Daylight scene of Scott riding a reddish horse with blond mane and holding a line pulling a second horse.
  6. Several scenes of Scott riding across rocky territory and desert. Then he stops because he hears something.
  7. Scott rides over a ridge to see man and woman struggling with wagon and two horses stuck in a muddy pool of water. 
  8. Close up of man and wife, woman falls face first into mud.
  9. Scott rides up but doesn’t say much. Man asks for help. Scott gets off horse and prepares to help without saying anything still.
  10. Man asks if Scott could drive the team. Scott curtly tells him to drive it himself and hooks up his two horses to the team with ropes. They pull the wagon out of the mud hole.
  11. The man and women express their appreciation and ask Scott to come with them. The man is overly talkative, and openly admits he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Scott says he’s heading south. Man says they are heading south.
  12. Several scenes of them crossing various kinds of country.
  13. Scott stops them when he sees cloud of dust in distance. Tells man to get his gun.
  14. A troop of Calvary soldiers ride up and warns them to turn back. The wagon man says he won’t. They continue.
  15. Scenes of them traveling across more kinds of country, including sandy desert.
  16. They reach an abandon stage station. Scott goes in by himself for closer look and finds an old prospector stealing all the booze. Bottles are stuffed inside his shirt, he clutches others, and bottles stick out of the packs on his mule. He warns Scott to get out of the territory because of the Indians. He’s hurrying off as they talk. 
  17. Old man leaves and the wagon couple ride up just as two cowboys ride up from another direction. One is Lee Marvin and he knows Scott and calls him Sheriff. Can’t remember the other guys name, either character or actor, but he looks sort of like Aldo Ray. 
  18. Scott tells wagon couple what to do as the other two men unsaddle their horses.
  19. Scene switches to dinner inside the station. Marvin is flirting with the woman and insulting the husband. Lots of tension. Scott stays outside. Marvin tells couple that Scott is chasing men who killed his wife in a Wells Fargo holdup.
  20. Scene switches to wife taking coffee out to Scott and tries to get him to talk about his wife. He won’t.
  21. Next morning as they get ready to leave they are scared by band of Indians just appearing next to station house. Scott settles the situation by giving them his second horse, which he knows they want to eat. Indians ride off. 
  22. All five people head out. Again traveling across different terrain. Beautiful fall tree leaves near river beds, dry and sandy in desert stretches, totally rocky near canyon walls.
  23. They come across signs of Indian attack. Then see a man running on foot from Indians. Lee and Scott ride off to rescue him, killing several Indians. When Scott goes to get the man’s horse who was on foot, that man tries to shoot Scott in back but Lee Marvin shoots him in the back. It seems that was number three of seven.
  24. They next stop near a river to water horses and wife does laundry which she hangs out on line. Scott helps her. Lee Marvin tells them they are wasting their time because a storm is coming up. 
  25. Several scenes of traveling and camping. Marvin tells Scott he knows the seven men who stole the Wells Fargo shipment of $20,000, but he and his buddy aren’t part of that group. He’s going to tag long while Scott tracks them down and then take the money, and informs Scott he will kill him if he gets in the way. Scott doesn’t say anything.
  26. Other scenes of traveling, eventually stopping to camp in the rain.  Marvin goes inside wagon for coffee and continues insulting the husband and flirting with the wife. The husband is obviously a coward, and the woman defends him. She also seems to be developing a thing for Scott. Oddly, lots of rain in this desert country just north of Mexico.
  27. Finally Scott runs off Marvin and his buddy for causing trouble.
  28. Sexy scene of Scott bedding down under wagon while it’s raining, and we see wife in her slip in the wagon going to bed. They talk to each other through the floor boards. 
  29. Marvin and buddy head into the town which is the wagon’s destination, and meet up with the last four of the killers. Marvin tells them Scott is coming. They say they are waiting for a wagon. Marvin and buddy realize they’ve been riding with the $20,000 all the time.
  30. The leader of the four send two of his men out to ambush Scott.
  31. Scott leaves the couple to ride into town. Gail Russell tries to kiss him goodbye. We don’t know if she was aiming for his lips or his cheeks because he turns away. 
  32. Several scenes of two riders preparing an ambush and Scott killing them. Scott gets shot in the leg. His horse runs off. He tries to catch one of the killer’s horse, and it drags him along, bashing his head into a rock.
  33. Wagon shows up, finds the unconscious Scott. The couple nurse him and husband tells wife he has what the killer wants. Scott overhears as the husband confesses he’s carrying the strongbox to the town for $500. Scott confronts him and man tells Scott that he didn’t know about the killing. Scott has him throw down the strongbox in the middle of a small canyon and tells the couple there’s a cut-off for California just before getting into town. They leave. Scott waits.
  34. The husband decides he must go into town to tell the sheriff that Scott is in the desert waiting for the last two killers.
  35. The couple arrive in town just as the two killers and Marvin and his buddy are saddling up to go look for the wagon. Husband tells killers Scott took the strongbox and is waiting for them. They go to leave, but the leader of the gang sees the husband is heading towards sheriff’s office and shoots him in the back. Marvin comes over to look at the dead body and tells his buddy that the husband wasn’t a coward after all, knowing the wife holding his body hears. 
  36. The two killers head into the canyon and circle round from two sides. Scott kills one. Marvin and his buddy sneak in and catch the leader alone and kill him. Then Marvin kills his buddy.
  37. Marvin then walks out to middle of canyon and stands near the strong box.
  38. Scott comes out. They talk. Marvin tells Scott to walk away. They have a shoot-out and Scott kills Marvin before he can even pull his guns.
  39. Scene cuts to town and Scott is in clean clothes, but still limping, directing a wagon of Wells Fargo men loading the strongbox.
  40. Wife comes out of hotel all dressed up and gets ready to go on the stage.
  41. Scott tells her he’s going back to his town and he’d see her around. He leaves.
  42. Wife tells stage driver to unload her bags because she isn’t going to California.
  43. The end

Damn, I’m absolutely amazed that I remember this much. I can roughly visualize the scenes I describe. I remember details like Marvin’s long green scarf around his neck, and bright yellow scarf around soldier’s neck. Gail Russell, who I remembered as Gail Davis until I got the poster above has dark hair and is very beautiful. She played the Quaker girl in Angel and the Badman when she was ten years younger. In Seven Men From Now she is described as 25, but you can tell she’s not. I remember her dresses and how tight they were in the waist and chest. They are 1950s fashion of the old west. Everyone in this film was too clean and their clothes too new.

I could probably write down hundreds of details right now. The colors in this film were extremely vivid, especially the fall tree foliage along the riverbeds. I also remember the colors and patterns of the horses. And I remember the coffee pot and tin cups in the early scenes and wondered if they were the same pot and cups in the station and those at the camping in the rain scene.

How much will I remember in a month, or three months, or next year? I know most of it will disappear. This web site, which ironically I named “Auxiliary Memory” will have these details for me to recall later, outperforming my wetware. Eventually, I will write down a new list of scenes remembered before I look at them again, to compare how much I remember and forget.

pickup_on_south_street_ver3

People who regularly read my blog must realize I’m becoming rather obsessed with my memory. I’m learning I must take care of my memory like I’m taking care of my general health, my back, teeth and other parts of me that are starting to wear out. Youth and vitality lets us ignore how our mind and body work. I figure the older I get, the more I’ll have to consciously study at keeping things going.

We have memory loss at all times in our life. Maybe it’s a little more scary when we get older because it happens more, but how much more? The night before I watched Pickup on South Street, a gritty film noir from 1953 about a pickpocket accidently stealing microfilm from commie spies in New York City. I don’t think I can remember it like I did the western above, since two days causes a fair amount of memory erosion. However, I might remember fifty to seven-five percent of what I remembered from last night’s flick. It was a gripping film, with lots of good emotional tension. Richard Widmark was amazing as a cold, calculating hustler. It was so riveting I stayed up well past my bedtime.

Our brains are somewhat like hard drives—they fill up. Unless there’s some kind of metaphysical networking to mystical cloud storage, we have limited space in our brains. Obviously, forgetting is essential. Imagine if we were robots that had to consciously decide what to erase each day. Lucky for us that chore is handled by our unconscious minds, yet it is amusing to consciously observe how pieces of ourselves disappear.

My fantasy analogy for getting older is to visualize a B-17 flying back to England that’s been all shot up over Germany in WWII. Aging is like the plane slowly coming apart over the English channel as more gauges and controls fail. We’re still flying, but we’re coming apart in the sky, losing altitude. We do what we can to keep flying, and as we run out of fuel, we even toss equipment out the hatch to save weight and gain a little height. We always know we’ll crash into the Cliffs of Dover, but we keep flying anyway.

I like to imagine myself as the pilot of that plane, doing everything I can to keep flying, but still laughing at the absurd existential situation I’m in.

JWH

An Insult to Ordinary Guys and Gals

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 4, 2015

Hollywood should be given great credit for promoting liberal causes, but all too often it fails at teaching social acceptance for the ordinary. I’m proud that Hollywood has enlightened Americans to empathize with minorities and LGBT folks, but if you pay attention, the movie industry maintains the status quo for a lot of other prejudices. The new film I’ll See You In My Dreams is a great example. It’s filled with accepted stereotypes and prejudices, yet it earns a  94% at Rotten Tomatoes.  Now, I’m not just picking on Hollywood or this particular film, because the prejudices they reveal are the ones we embrace.

Ill-see-you-in-my-dreams

Hollywood is very prejudice against ordinary looking folks, and maintains a bias for exceptional beauty and sex appeal. In other words, all the stunning alpha males and females get to fall in love and have sex, and all us plain folk get to be sidekicks and the butt of jokes.

Blythe Danner and Sam Elliott are two beautiful people that fall in love because they inspire chemistry and the other characters don’t. Danner plays Carol Peterson, a widow, who has ignored men for twenty years, even though her fashion shouts, “Look at me!” It boggles the mind that Carol wouldn’t have noticed an appealing male in all that time, because she would have had thousands of guys hitting on her. Then Carol sees Bill, played by Elliott, and it’s love at first sight for both of them. How inspiring is that? This is Hollywood endorsing the stereotype that only the most beautiful are acceptable. Sure, it is realistic as Darwin, but all us omega male and females should protest.

Don’t read any further if you don’t want to read spoilers.

Carol and her friends sneer at the regular guys they meet at speed dating. Average guys are portrayed as pathetic and gross, but I identified with every one those speed dating dudes. The audience laughs at them. And the audience laughs at Rhea Perlman as Sally, for her honest horniness and aggressive humor, at Mary Kay Place as pretty Rona who envies Carol, and pudgy Georgina played by June Squibb for being uptight and timid. Everyone in this movie is white and bland as Wonder Bread. The rat and the pool boy offer the only bit of spice in the story, but the rat is even too pretty to be a roof rat and the pool boy looks like he should model for Geek Squad ads.

The point I’m trying to make is Blythe Danner meets Sam Elliott and they are the only ones who fuck. Everyone else is on the sexual sidelines. Are ordinary people only meant to be spectators of beautiful people and their antics? It would help if Carol and Bill were interesting, but they’re actually boring. The writers gave the actors nothing to work with except a big cigar and turned up collars. Carol has literally been sitting around her house for two decades, apparently not doing much more than feeding her dog, having her pool cleaned and taking clothes to the cleaners. Sam Elliott prefers to sit in his yacht alone and not smoke the cigar he constantly clamps in his mouth. Carol sings, but that’s a lame trait tacked on by writers to give her characterization, but it doesn’t work, because Bill never hears her. And did the writers have to be so lazy as have Carol go goo-goo for a rich guy?

I sorely wished this film had been more daring. What if the Bill character had been played by Wallace Shawn? Elliott and Shawn are about the same age. Could the writers have developed a Wallace Shawn Bill in such as way that he would have been fascinating to Carol Peterson? Besides her good looks, Carol doesn’t have much appeal, so why does Bill single her out as special? Just because of her looks? It’s implied, but never demonstrated, that Bill’s a savvy and sophisticated guy. He would have had hordes of dynamic women throwing themselves at him, so why did he pick a lonely lump of a woman who has been doing nothing for twenty years? I found that hard to believe. If he had just been playing her as one of many, that would have been more believable and interesting.

I hate when writers expect us to assume two lovers are interesting just because they look good. I hate when writers think two good looking people meeting are interesting enough to make a story.

The real relationship that develops in this story is between Carol and Lloyd, played by Martin Starr, who is a lonely Millennial pool boy that has no future. I’d been more impressed with this film if they had ended up hooking up. I’ll See You In My Dream is so Hollywood romantic that it’s painful. They had a real situation to explore – four lonely retired women – yet the filmmakers went for pathetic jokes about getting high on medical marijuana. They bet their whole bankroll on the two beautiful people, and ignored the possibility that ordinary folks could find friendship, connection, love and even sex.

Carol admits to Lloyd that she’s waiting around to die, and he admits he’s saving money for a future with no plans. It annoys the crap out of me that the movie suggests retired people are merely waiting around for the grim reaper to come say hello. Yes, I know I’m going to die, but I’m keeping busy until then. If this movie was truly honest, Carol and Lloyd deserve each other far more than Carol and Bill. Even the pathetic horn dog at the speed dating event deserves better than Carol. He’s trying, she’s not.

Carol Peterson is a Cinderella that passively waits for her Prince Charming. When her PC does show up, he tosses her a flirty line at the drugstore. He’s too cool to show up for speed dating. Bill on their second encounter, bluntly asks Carol out while she’s getting into her car in a parking lot while he casually sits in his car. She says yes because he’s handsome and drives an impressive Cadillac. She goes to bed with him after a ride on his yacht. She waits twenty years and falls in love after two dates? Well, that’s the way chemistry works, but I’d rather see movies about how it works for ordinary folks.

Now, here’s another area of inequality. If an ordinary guy had stopped Carol with that line in the drugstore she would have considered it sexual harassment, but because a suave hunk delivers it, she’s flattered. If Wallace Shawn had driven up in the same Cadillac and asked her out she would have made jokes about him with her friends.

The movie should have been about the four women meeting four ordinary guys at the speed dating night, and developed a story about how each found someone. Instead we have one plotline about aging beauty hooking up with aging hunk. Damn, it’s like those zillions of high school movies, always about the quarterbacks and prom queens, but at the other end of life. Why must romance always be about alphas? The film needed a heart for ordinary looking folks like Freaks and Geeks, which Martin Starr played in, or the ensemble casting of The Big Chill with its great characterization, that Mary Kay Place costarred.   

I’ll See You In My Dreams is one of those rare films at Rotten Tomato where the audience rating was much lower than the critic rating (72% to 94%). Maybe there are other filmgoers out there tired of the photogenic falling for each other. We do have to applaud Hollywood for making a film about retired people. And I’m willing to join any standing ovation for Hollywood when it makes a film not based on a comic book. But I’m always disappointed when a film doesn’t take a chance, or seeks some edginess. I also saw Inside Out this week and was amazed at its creativity. Inside Out went up to the plate and pointed to the sky and hit the ball into orbit. I’ll See You In My Dreams was content to just get on first base.

That’s the thing, I’ll See You In My Dreams is a pleasant, feel good movie. It caters to our stereotypes and prejudices. Most people will enjoy it. But they won’t question it. It doesn’t push the social awareness envelope like Dallas Buyer’s Club. It reinforces the idea that beauty is what counts, and I think for most people, they feel that’s true.

But like I said, I’ll See You In My Dreams plays to our mundane prejudices. Women friends my age who claim to be retired from sex would come out of retirement and jump into bed with Sam Elliot at the slightest come on. And most of us old guys would have picked Blythe Danner as our Sun City dream girl. That’s how we’re programmed biologically. Yet, we have evolved minds. Could you have imagined the humor if Sam Elliot had picked Rhea Perlman over Blythe Danner in a different version of this story? Brett Haley and Marc Basch should have mixed it up more instead of going for the obvious hookup of hotties.

For all those years after her husband died Carol was content with her dog as her daily companion. When she loses Bill, she replaces him with another dog. The message of the film seems to be only guys that inspire chemistry count, otherwise, all women want are dogs for housemates. Carol gets a rescue dog, but she doesn’t even consider rescuing one of those lonely men.

I know people of color get tired of always seeing us white folks up on the silver screen – well I get tired of always seeing beautiful people. Especially characters who have no redeeming characteristics other than their looks. It’s not that I want to put George Clooney out of work, but I’d like to see some leading men that look more like me. And least, it would be inspiring if ordinary guys weren’t so scorned.

JWH

Why Did The Robot in Ex Machina Look Like a Beautiful Woman?

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, April 30, 2015

Ex Machina is a 2015 British science fiction film about artificial intelligence (AI) written and directed by Alex Garland. The story is about a billionaire  who connives to have a brilliant programmer come to a secret location to Turing Test a robot prototype. Oscar Isaac plays Nathan Bateman, the billionaire, Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb Smith, the programmer, and Alicia Vikander plays Ava, the AI robot.  The film has little action but is quite thrilling. And I’m overjoyed to have a science fiction movie without silly macho weapons, fantasy feats of martial arts, and cartoonish battles to save the world.

Ex Machina asks, like computer scientists have been asking for the last sixty years, and philosophers for the last 2,500 years, what makes us human? Once we understood how evolution shaped life, we knew that whatever qualities that make us different from animals should explain our humanity. Artificial intelligence seeks to reproduce those qualities in a machine. We have yet to define and understand what makes us human, and robot engineers are far from making machines that demonstrate humanness in robots.

Although I’m going to be asking a lot of questions about Ex Machina, my questions aren’t meant to be criticisms. Ex Machina entices its audience to think very hard about the nature of artificial intelligence. I hope it makes people think of even more about the movie, like I’m doing here.

ex_machina-wide

The main idea I want to explore is why the robot had a female form. The obvious answer is movie goers find sexy females appealing. But is looking human the same as being human? AI scientists has always wondered if they could build a machine that average people couldn’t distinguished from a human, but they always planned to make the tests so Turing testers couldn’t see the humans and machines. However, in movies and books, we get to see the machine beings. Adding looks to the equations make them more complicated.

Because so many robot engineers and storytellers make their robots look like human females, we have to ask:

Would Ex Machina have the same impact if the robot had a human male shape or non-human shape?

Is the female body the ultimate human form in our mind? In a movie that explores if a machine can have a self-aware conscious mind isn’t it cheating to make it look just like a human? Since we judge books by their covers, wouldn’t most people think a mechanical being that looks and acts exactly like beautiful woman be human? By the way, I can’t wait to see how feminists analyze this film. Imagine see this movie a different way. Instead of asking if robots have souls, if the film was asking if women had souls. In the theater, we could also see two extremely intelligent men testing to see if a beautiful woman is their equal.

By making the robots female, the filmmakers both confuse the machine intelligence issue, and add a layer of gender issues. It also shoves us into the Philip K. Dick headspace of wondering about our own nature. Is everyone you know equal to you? Do they think just like you? Do they feel just like you? Could some people we know be machines? What makes us different from a machine or animal? In the book Blade Runner was based on, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Dick was comparing soulless humans to machines with his androids. Machines are his metaphor for people without empathy.

If the two scientists had been played by actresses, and the robot was a sexy actor, how would we have interpreted the movie differently? A bookshelf of dissertations could be written on that question. What are the Freudian implications of us wanting the robots to look like beautiful young women? How would society react if scientists really could build artificial mind and bodies, manufacturing millions of beautiful women sexbots that have to integrate into our society? Of course, many humans will immediate try to fuck them. But if AI machines looked like people, why should they act like people? Guys will screw blowup dolls now – is a vaguely womanly shaped piece of plastic all it takes to fool those men into replacing real woman?

How would audiences have reacted if the robots of Ex Machina looked like giant mechanical insects?

Ex Machina explores many of the questions AI scientists are still puzzling over. Personally, I think it confuses the issue for us to build intelligent machines to look like us. Yes, our minds are the gold standard by which we measure artificial intelligence, but do they need bodies that match ours?

If the robot in Ex Machina had looked like a giant metal insect would the audience ever believed it was equal to a human? We think Ava is a person right from the first time we see her. Even though it’s obvious she has a machine body, her face is so human we never think of her as a machine. This is the main flaw of the film. I understand it’s cheaper to have humans play android robots than build real robots, and people powered robots look too fake, but in the end, anything that looks human will always feel human to the audience.  Can we ever have a fair Turing Test with a creature that looks like us?

We don’t want to believe that computers can be self-aware conscious beings. Actually, I think this film would have been many magnitudes more powerful if its robot had looked a like giant mechanical insect, had a non gender specific name, and convinced us to feel it was intelligent, willful, self-aware, feeling, and growing. Which is what happened in Short Circuit (1986) with its robot Johnny Five.

The trouble is we equate true artificial intelligence with being equal to humans. Artificial Intelligence is turning out to be a bad label for the concept. Computers that play chess exhibit artificial intelligence. Computers that recognize faces exhibit artificial intelligence. Computers that drive cars exhibit artificial intelligence. We’ll eventually be able to build machines that can do everything we can, but will they be equal to us?

What we were shown is artificial people, and what the film was really asking:

Is it possible to create artificial souls?

Creating an artificial human body is a different goal than creating an artificial soul. We have too many humans on this planet now, so why find another way of manufacturing them? What we really want to do is create artificial beings that have souls and are better than us. That’s the real goal, even though most people are terrified at the idea.

Alan Turning invented the Imitation Game that we now call the Turing Test, but the original Turing Test might not be sufficient to identify artificial souls. We’re not even sure all people have souls of equal scope. Are the men of ISIS equal in compassion to the people who win a Nobel for Peace? We can probably create robots that kill other humans by distinguishing sectarian affiliations, but it’s doubtful we could create a robot that works to solve the Earth’s problems with compassion. If we did, wouldn’t you think it had a soul? What if we created an expert system that solved climate change, would it only be very intelligent, or would it have to have a soul?

In the end, I believe we can invent machines that can do anything we can. Eventually they will do things better, and do things we can’t. But will they have what we have, that sense of being alive? What would a machine have to do to reveal it had an artificial soul?

Can a machine have a soul?

In the course of the movie, we’re asked to believe if a robot likes a human that might mean they are human like. Eventually, we’re also led to ask if a robot hates a human, does that make them human too? Is love and hate our definition of having souls? Is it compassion? Empathy? We’ll eventually create a computer that can derive all the laws of physics. But if a machine can recreate the work of Einstein, does it make it equal to Einstein?

Ex Machina is sophisticated enough to make its audience ask some very discerning questions about AI minds. Why did Alex Garland make Ava female? Across the globe robot engineers and sex toy manufacturers are working to build life-like robots that look like sexy women. The idea of a sexbot has been around for decades. Are super-Nerds building fembots to replace the real women they can’t find through Match.com? If men could buy or rent artificial women to make their sexual fantasies come true, will they ever bother getting to know real women? Why does Nathan really build Ava?

Caleb falls for Ava. We all fall for Ava. But is that all we’re interested in – looks? If Caleb thinks Ava is a machine, especially one with no conscious mind, he will not care for her. But how much do Ava’s looks fool Caleb? How much are we fooled by other people’s looks anyway? If you fall in love with a beautiful woman just because of looks, does that justify thinking you’re in love with her?

We’re all programmed at a deeply genetic level to be social, to seek out at least one other person to bond with and develop a deeper communication. What Ex Machina explores is what features beyond the body do we need to make a connection. A new version of the Turing Test could be one in which we offer people the friendship of humans or the friendship of machines. If a majority of people start preferring to hang out with AI beings that might indicate we’ve succeeded – but again it might not. Many people find pets as suitable substitutes for human companionship. I’m worried if we gave most young men the option to marry sexbots, they might. I also picture them keeping their artificial women in a closet and only getting them out to play with for very short periods of time. Would male friends and female robots fulfill all their social needs?

Ex Machina is supposed to make us ask about what is human, but I’m worried how many males left the theater wishing they could trade in their girlfriend or wife for Ava? So is Ex Machina also asking if society will accept sexbots? Is that way Ava had a human female body?

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Why I Wish I Had a Memory Like a Robot

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, April 4, 2015

Have you ever wished you had a perfect memory? I have.

Have you ever wondered what having a perfect memory would be like? Me too.

Have you ever imagined what your memory would be like if you were a robot? Yeah, I think about such far out ideas too. Future intelligent machines will store memories as digital files, and would only forget if they decide to delete them. Robots will record everything they see, hear, feel, smell and taste. If a robot read a book or watched a movie, they could store the complete work as a file. They’d have perfect recall of whole libraries. When I spend twenty hours reading a nonfiction book full of wonderful information, I might be able to give a vague five minute summary of it two weeks later.  Robots would remember everything, and link everything in the book to everything else they know. Damn, I wish I was a robot.

I hate that I take in so much knowledge and quickly forget it. I hate my memory is so unreliable.

Bad Lands

Movie watching is a great example of my frustration with my limits of memorization. For example, last night I watched Bad Lands, an old western from 1939. I’m quite positive I’ve seen it before. I am also quite positive that I’ve experienced the same plot used in another movie. If I had a perfect memory I wouldn’t need to watch a movie again. If I had a perfect memory, I’d remember where and when I saw Bad Lands the first time. If I had a perfect memory I’d know what movie Bad Lands ripped off. If I had a perfect memory I’d know what other movies the actors from Bad Lands had been in. I’d also remember when and where I had seen those movies too. A perfect memory would mean knowing a vast web of interrelationships – much like the internet.

With the help of Wikipedia, I figured out this western was inspired by The Lost Patrol, from 1934, which I also have vague memories of seeing. And by jumping over to IMDb, I could follow the links to see what other movies all the actors from Bad Lands played in too. Robert Barrat (1889-1970) who played the sheriff, has 161 movie and television acting credits at IMDb. Some shows I remember seeing, and many more I could have seen – but alas I don’t remember Barrat in any of them, nor did my memory feel any recognition  when I saw him last night in Bad Lands. I did recognize Noah Beery, Jr. and Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams, from movie memories which I can’t recall their titles. I did think Guinn Williams had been a side-kick in some Errol Flynn movies, and IMDb validated those hunches. I even felt Beery and Williams had been in other movies together, but so far the internet hasn’t helped me prove that whiff of intuition.

If I was a robot, I’d be a western movie guru.

another-dawn-1937

What’s spooky is last night was the second night in a row of picking out an old movie to watch, thinking they were new to me, and realizing in a déjà vu manner, I had seen them before. The previous night I had seen Another Dawn, a 1937 flick with Kay Francis and Errol Flynn. It didn’t take long to feel I’d seen it before, but for the life of me I couldn’t summarize the plot. I enjoyed both movies because I didn’t remember enough to know how’d they turn out. I either faintly remembered the ending of Another Dawn, or guessed it, and I guessed wrong about the last man standing in Bad Lands. Being human means seeing a movie again can be fun. Would anyone with a robotic memory ever watch a film twice?

The Big TrailStagecoach

I want to remember everything. I wrote about Kay Francis last week, and listed her top films according to IMDb, but some people wanted to know which of her films were my favorites. I’ve seen many, but can only name a couple off the top of my head. I know there are others I really loved when I saw them, but can’t remember the titles, or even what they were about. Isn’t that a pisser? My memory has never been very good, and now that I’m getting older, it’s getting downright untrustworthy – even flaky.

My unfaithful memory is painful. I’d love to have the kind of memory were I could say, “These are my favorite 10 westerns of the 1930s,” and then tick them off in a flash. I can remember I love The Big Trail for 1930 and Stagecoach from 1939, but can’t remember anything in between.

One reason I called this blog Auxiliary Memory is because when I do write an essay about my favorite westerns, it will be in a memory I can recall. When I’m watching TV with Janis or Susan, I often ask them, “Where have we seen her before?” Susan is surprisingly good at remembering, and Janis is almost as good. Both are far better than me. But I think it pains Janis most when she can’t remember. We’ll often be in the middle of a really engaging show and she’ll have to pull out her iPhone to track down an actor or title. I’ll have to pause the TV, because nothing will stop her until she’s tracked down her fact. Janis is like a bloodhound on a scent when chasing an elusive memory.

I like to contemplate what life would be like if we all had perfect memories. But would we have as much to talk about if we all remembered everything? Would I turn to Janis to say, “We saw this actor back in August 4, 2003 when we saw The Ideal Husband,” knowing she already knew that? And Susan would not enjoy making fun of my poor memory, nor I get to praise her for having such a good one.

Even though we might have less to talk and joke about, wouldn’t it be great to have perfect memories? Everyone would have gotten 100s on all their school exams, and we’d have no need to take the written test at the DMV. And think how much easier it would be to write a PhD thesis having memorized all the research? And after we watched a wonderful film, we could play it over in our head whenever we wanted. Parties would be so much less stressful when we could remember everyone’s name.

Probably there’s some huge downsides to having a memory like a robot.  Although, couldn’t we just delete the bad memories? Or would we?

JWH