Monday, September 19, 2011

2001: A Space Odyssey (Review)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) Classic film, a creation myth. Based on Arthur C Clarke's short story "Rendezvous with Rama", and the book. Answers the question How did we become human? Clarke tended towards mysticism, see his Childhood’s End for an earlier treatment of the theme. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, starring Keir Dullea.
     I first saw this movie in the triple-screen version, with 16 or 32 speakers, which immersed you in the experience as no other movie technology has done. It enabled multiple images, the kind of layered visual experience that the web has made commonplace. The movie just doesn’t have the same impact in Cinerama,  especially on a TV screen. Howeve, the result of the smaller screen and only two speakers was a new insight: this is a movie about technology. The tension comes from the fact that Dave and Frank have to solve an engineering problem. Dave and Frank focus on the engineering challenge, suppressing whatever impulses to panic are roiling beneath their carefully calm surfaces. Impressive. It’s rare that problem solving in itself generates such anxiety.
     HAL-9000's misbehaviour endangers their lives, but its (his?) assessment of the mission is valid: something strange will happen near Jupiter. Just how strange is still a subject of debate: what does the light show signify? It’s some sort of journey by Dave, but he’s not in control, and whoever or whatever is taking him isn’t saying what or where. The scenes in the bedroom (decorated as a French palace) don’t answer any questions; and the appearance of the star child doesn’t help resolve the questions either. Some sort fo rebirth is about to happen. Did Clarke and Kubrick envisage a sequel? There is one, 2010, which we’ll watch fairly soon.
     I think Clarke didn’t understand evolution correctly, or else wilfully forgot what he knew about it. This story, like Childhood’s End, implies some directing intelligence. Star people have some sort of soft spot for Earth and its life forms, and take a hand in directing their development. Clarke wants to believe that we humans are special after all, that our technical inventiveness denotes progress, and above all that scientific adbvances are a form of progress. It is, in a small way; but since our moral and intellectual development lags behind our technical skills, it is dangerous progress.
     One of the most impressive things about the movie is that all the visual tricks and illusions were achieved without computer graphics. Still, I give it ***

Conrad Black in Gregg & Company (TVO)

Conrad Black on Alan Gregg (TVO, 18 September 2011)

     Last night (17 September 2011) I watched Alan Gregg's interview with Conrad Black. It was recorded some time before Black returned to prison. It left me with mixed impressions. There is no question that Black is a very intelligent man, and accustomed to deference. He interrupted Gregg several times, which Gregg tolerated with good grace. Watching such a program, we have to remember that it is edited: which camera angles to show is decided after the taping, the display of facial expressions is the director's decision, and we don't see or hear a continuous, uninterrupted flow of conversation, because the interview has to fit into the 30 minute time frame. On the other hand, it is impossible to fake the connection between interviewee and guest that is Gregg's strength. This time, Gregg seemed to be more on his guard than Black.
    Clearly, Black is still outraged at what was done to him. He blames both the "prosecutorial culture" of the US justice system and the "corporate governance zealots" for his woes, apparently convinced that in Canada or Britain there would have either been no charges brought against him, or else he would have been acquitted. He refuses to accept any guilt or culpability for actions that many people could and did consider as unethical at least, and possibly criminal at worst. He knows that many other people don't accept his principles, but he's convinced they're wrong and he's right. This kind of moral and ethical absolutism is either disingenuous, or else Black has not yet achieved the level of humility that he claimed at the end of the interview, when Gregg asked him how his experiences have changed him. On the other hand, I believe Black when he says he had been unaware of how what he calls "sociological conditions" result in injustice. He seems to have made a good impression on his fellow inmates, 36 of whom took the trouble to write letters of support when he appealed his sentence. Whether his insights into how poverty is a systemic effect of mercantile capitalism will prompt him to advocate for economic or political changes remains to be seen.
     There is a good deal of truth to Black's observations about how the US justice system is focussed on convictions. Prosecutors are for the most part elected. Incumbents run on their record of successful convictions, and challengers win by promising to be even harsher. The result is an incarceration rate six to fourteen times that of any developed country. As Black points out, it is unlikely that Americans are six to fourteen times more inclined to crime than other people. But it's a bit of a jump from that to agreeing that Black's own case is one of wrongful conviction.
     Black's expressions were interesting. When he listened to a question, he showed a stony and somewhat hostile face: he seemed to be assessing whether the question was a trap, or whether he could safely answer its substance. When answering, his face was more mobile, but he never showed the kind of spontaneous enthusiasm that many of Gregg's guests have shown when they talked of principles they upheld. The only time I thought I saw genuine emotion was when Black referred to the graduates of the GED program in which he tutored fellow inmates in English. He seemed to be embarrassed that he was moved by the event, and his high praise for how the Florida Bureau of Prisons handled it seemed to me to be an attempt to hide his emotions. By praising them, he could distance himself from what he himself felt as he witnessed it.
     That's when, on reflection, I realised that Black is a very private person. His vocabulary is abstract, his sentences well formed, often with multiple dependencies, and when he referred to himself, the tone was as dryly factual as he could make it. Even his outrage was couched in terms of an abstract attack on the US justice system, and an expression of hope that others, who might not have the resources he had, would find his account of use. It's as if he were thinking about himself in the third person, with only the exigencies of English grammar requiring him to use "I".
     Overall, the interview seemed to me a carefully constructed performance. Black is a skilled actor. I doubt he would do someone else's script as well as he does his own, however.