A Model for Attention-Switching, Part I: Introduction

Throughout 2010 I suffered from ADD symptoms secondary to my long-standing sleep disorder.  Since December, I’ve been on medication to treat them.  Experiences both ill and treated proved to be missing pieces to a theory of attention-switching that I’ve been working on for a few years, and which I presented yesterday at the 2011 Boston Beyond I.Q. Conference.

Quite interestingly, this essay marks the first time in my life that I’ve given one of my popular brain-theory talks and gone home to write down a text version.  I said to myself, “if I don’t do this now, when it’s fresh in my mind, I’ll either never do it, or I’ll have to rethink things I’ve forgotten.” This reinforces the impression I’ve had that my current, medicated function is better than my lifetime baseline.  And there’s little question that I would never have received any kind of ADD diagnosis previously; I was simply at the very low end of normal.  This raises fascinating questions about the use of psychopharmacology to tweak personality for the better, which I am fortunately under no obligation to explore here.  Yet.


If you Google the title of this essay, you’ll get essentially nothing.  It doesn’t appear that anyone has created a model for how the brain chooses what to attend to and how it switches from one potential “attendum” (we might as well get the ugly necessary neologism on the table as soon as possible) to another.  No one has ever cooked up a mechanism that explains what’s going on the brain when we hyperfocus versus when we’re distractible, or why some people are prone to one or the other.

This is not quite as surprising as it might sound.  To begin with, the vast bulk of the psychological literature on attention explores what might be called micro-attention; you ask a bunch of subjects to switch between attending to the red dots and the green dots on a computer screen, and explore the factors that affect performance on this task.  Frankly, it’s simply not that interesting to wonder what brain mechanisms are involved in this; it’s very nuts-and-bolts and not big-picture.

If, however, you asked the subjects to attend to either the red and green dots, or what to make that evening for dinner, that’s very different.  That’s macro-attention.  And I don’t think it’s well appreciated that switching from one task or set of thoughts to an entirely different one is in fact a shift of attention; I think that changes in behavior that large-scale are more often viewed under a much broader lens, in terms of general executive function.  But it is such shifts in macro-attention, not micro-attention, that get out of control in Attention Deficit Disorder, and lead to unfulfilled lives characterized by countless unfinished projects.  Asking what mechanism might underlie macro-attentional shifts—that’s provocative.

There are two further reasons why no one has tackled such a model.  First, there is a tendency to roughly equate attention with consciousness, since we are usually conscious of what we are attending to, and vice versa.  And there are enough models of consciousness to populate a competition reality show.  I think there’s an assumption that when we crack the consciousness problem we’ll get the keys to macro-attention as a lovely parting gift, and that since the two are so closely related, it must furthermore be impossible to model attention without a model of consciousness.  So no one’s working on attention even if they’ve had my insight about macro-attention.

But in fact consciousness and attention are far from identical.  We are often conscious of much that we are not attending to; when I made this point yesterday in my oral presentation it was pointed out to me that there was in fact a hellacious pounding coming through the ceiling at that very moment (which I hadn’t yet noticed).  And the attentional blindness experiments pioneered by my old Harvard Cognitive Psych 101 professor, Daniel Simon, have demonstrated that we are in fact not conscious of much of what we are attending to.  Under the right circumstances, for instance, you can talk to a stranger without being sufficiently conscious of their appearance to discriminate them from a clever replacement (“I woke up this morning and everything in my room had been replaced by a merely decent approximation” is the corresponding Stephen Wright joke).  There are enough differences between the two that we should be emboldened to tackle a model of attention that will work with a model of consciousness to be named later.

Finally, the key to macro-attention turns out (according to me) to be a type of memory called “prospective memory.”  The folks studying attention are probably over-specialized and not thinking at all about memory—after all, at first glance the two don’t seem to be much related.  The folks studying prospective memory are well aware that it is involved in a form of attention-switching (specifically, when we tell ourselves to “stop and get milk on the way home” and then remember to do so when we see the supermarket), but they apparently haven’t asked themselves whether the mechanisms of prospective memory might be involved in all macro-attentional shifts.  Which is a shame, because if they did, they’d see that those prospective memory mechanisms do much more than just prevent cookies from being washed down with Coke: they are arguably the most important components in the organization of thought.

Note: Comments and feedback encouraged ... ditto for spreading the link.  I want to see if I can leverage this new technology to produce a better theory ...

Next: Prospective Memory

Here's a Poem, of Sorts

It has somehow come to my attention that this is National Poetry Month.

Here's a poem (actually intended as a song lyric) that has had at least one significant admirer which made me proud. It was written in February, 1975 (!) and of course has only been seen by a handful of people (in this form, by no one, because I just changed a word).

Blank Horizon

This spring is not as pleasant as the one before
(I'm sure that we'll remember we enjoyed it more).
My lady puts out bottles to collect the sun;
She caps them tight and brings them in when night's begun.
They never shine. She's sure she understands the stuff;
It's just she didn't get the caps on fast enough.
At night she dreams a stranger with a book relates
That sunshine is like water, and evaporates.

I found three things sufficient to define my world:
A woman, and an ocean, and the waves they curled.
I long ago decided that I loved them best,
And vaguely set some time aside to learn the rest.
My love would read astronomy to calm her nerves;
Did you know that the entire cosmos moves in curves?
We'll waste our summer evenings looking at the stars
(I wonder if she plans to buy some smaller jars).

Waves approach our shore, and tolerate the sand.
My lookouts wonder if they're adequately manned.
I monitor the radio for both our names,
But all they seem to play's the sound of wind, or flames.
We hear the summer thunder, and are filled with doubt:
It never sounds like human voices crying out.
My lady wonders why I don't show more surprise,
And sometimes sits alone and stares into my eyes.

           As miners pan for gold dust from the falling rain
         And scientists pose theories that they can't explain,
         A friend delivers letters to a girl I knew.
         Our front porch has a trellis, and a splendid view
         Of a blank horizon. It reminds me of you.

So, How Good is America's Taste in Movies?

Try to guess which movie has the higher average user rating at Netflix!

Annie Hall
Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel

Brokeback Mountain
What Women Want

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
The Twilight Saga: New Moon

Lost in Translation
American Pie 2

2001: A Space Odyssey
National Treasure: Book of Secrets

The Massive Problem With The Walking Dead

Well, I've watched and enjoyed the 6-episode first season.  It's not Dexter, but it's reasonably good TV.

There's only one thing that bugs me   Or maybe it's three things.

1a) Given what we are told of the nature of the disease that turns people into "walkers" (zombies), it's completely, absurdly, impossible that a zombie apocalypse has taken place.

1b) This gargantuan lapse in the logic of the back story is circumvented by the lamest possible plot device: having the P.O.V. character be comatose when it happened.

1c) Wait, did I say "lamest possible?"  Make that "second lamest."  Let's also make the character so incurious that he never asks anyone, not even a doctor at the CDC, how things got so bad while he was unconscious.

The living outnumber the newly dead by a factor of about 25,000 to 1.  If the zombie illness can only be contracted by contact with a zombie (as in, his teeth in your flesh) or his blood, and if the zombies are brainless and slow-moving, how did they ever get the upper hand?  Such an illness would have engendered not apocalypse but mild and embarrassing social inconvenience.

The only way to get a zombie apocalypse is to make the zombifying illness wildly virulent in the conventional, airborne manner, but there's been no hint that that's the case.  And for good reason: if that is the case, the big terror is just about catching something rather worse than the 1918 flu, and the whole bit about avoiding the resulting zombies is just a footnote to the general epidemic story.  Everyone would be most paranoid about other apparently healthy (but secretly infected) humans, not about the zombies--whom the living disease carriers would outnumber 10,000 to 1.

This problem could have been solved by having a terribly virulent zombifying disease that for some unknown reason ceased to be virulent (e.g., universal adaptation by human handwave lymphocytes), leaving only the zombie vector to spread it after the majority of the world had died.  And maybe I can pretend that that's what's going on here, even though no one has mentioned it and no one seems to have been affected psychologically by the period of infection paranoia (which would have significantly deepened the human drama, given that they all have to trust one another now).  But it's kind of scandalous that the basic premise of the show (and I presume the comic book) has been so shoddily thought through.

The Flavors of Science in SF: A Taxonomy, V2.1

About a decade ago, I started working casually on just that: a classification of the types of science in sf that would be more detailed than the obvious correct vs. incorrect vs. gray area / fudged.

The first version was prepared for a panel at Arisia on the science in sf films, which is why this draws nearly all its examples from them, but I think it works just as well for sf literature, as well. At some point I hope to expand it with examples from the literature and submit it to NYRSF.

Version 1.1 split the original No. 6 into two categories (now 7 and 8)--something I threatened to do in the original. There was also a new example for Speculative Science, and a further thought about 2009's Star Trek. Version 2.0 reorganized the categories and renamed one of the new ones, and added Idiot Science. Version 2.1 added Former Science and grouped the resulting four types of Mock Science into two pairs, and added more terminology for Impossible Science versus others.

I'm quite pleased with this: I think there a couple of fresh insights and I like some of the terminology (category 5 took two years and half a dozen attempts to get right). I'd love to get some feedback, so if you think this is interesting, feel free to pass a link on to others who might not be reading this blog.

Science in SF: A Taxonomy

Our fundamental division is between five types of Possible Science and five of Impossible Science.

We begin with two types of Actual Science, in which the laws and facts of science as we know them are adhered to and form the basis for a believable speculation or extrapolation whose details are either given or easily inferred.

1. Best Science. In Best Science, the story explores the likeliest extrapolation or implications of the known science. The quintessential example in film is Gattaca. The space sequences in 2001: A Space Odyssey (up until the encounter with the monolith stargate) are Best Science.

2. Also Science. Here, the extrapolation or interpretation of the known science is not likely, but is still possible, and is chosen for story or thematic reasons. If we were extrapolating the likeliest outcome of android technology, we would never give them three-year lifespans, but that bit of Also Science is probably justifiable and is absolutely central to the story of Blade Runner. In 2001, the notion that aliens may have interfered benevolently with our evolution is Also Science.

The remaining three types of Possible Science are Not Yet Science.

3. Speculative Science. Science itself is incomplete and evolving. In Speculative Science, either missing science is invented (e.g., some currently unknown aspect of neuroscience, especially the nature of consciousness), or a plausible revision of current science is proposed. As with Actual Science, the details are given, the dots connected. It’s very common in written sf but hard to do in film, because it requires so much exposition. For the longest while the best example of Speculative Science in film was the invention in Primer, whose screenplay solves the exposition problem by largely omitting it. Then physicist Kip Thorne conceived the idea of a space-travel film involving wormholes that would be wall-to-wall Speculative Science, and got Christopher and Jonathan Nolan to make it. Exposition? We'll put that in a book! (The Science of Interstellar.)

4. Magic Science. While no laws of current science are broken, there is an explanatory gap that is filled in by essentially evoking Clarke’s law that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from you-know-what. Magic Science usually implies the discovery of new science or technology, but unlike Speculative Science, it doesn’t specify what it might be, let alone give us the nuts and bolts to chew on. Klaatu’s ability to make “the Earth stand still” is Magic Science, as is the Krell machine in Forbidden Planet. That the monoliths in 2001 are capable of remotely affecting the minds (and perhaps even the DNA) of the man-apes is Magic Science.

5. Better Than Science. This is Magic Science with a crucial difference: the current laws of science are actually broken, whereas Magic Science simply exploits the fact that they are incomplete. Anti-gravity, FTL travel, and time travel—all these classic sf tropes that violate physics as we know it, but not a plausible revision of same, are usually treated as Better Than Science. The stargate in 2001 is Better Than Science, as are warp drives in Star Wars and Star Trek and jumpgates in Babylon 5.

In most Impossible Science, not only are the laws of science as we know them violated, there is no possible revision of those laws that will make the science work. Less commonly, basic facts of science are ignored. Works that are entirely Impossible Science can be accurately classified as Science Fantasy rather than Science Fiction (or "pseudoreal" rather than "extrareal," where straight Fantasy is "contrareal").

In the four types of Mock Science, the impossible science nevertheless works in the narrative.

The first two types are Pretend Science.

6. Former Science. In this quite rare version, outdated science is presented as real; it goes down easily and works thematically. The most obvious example is Ray Bradbury's Mars in The Martian Chronicles, but a more recent one (and the one that brought it to my consciousness) is Ted Chiang's ultra-strong version of linguistic relativity (the so-called "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis") in "Story of Your Life" and its film adaptation Arrival. It's not really credible that learning a new language could change one's conscious experience of time, but the idea works largely because the idea that language deteremines thought is familiar to many audience members (not all of whom might know that it's been discredited), and it is integral to the narrative and its thematic clout.

7. Fabricated Science. In this relatively rare version, the impossible science is an invention rather than an imitation or mischaracterization of actual science. The quintessential example is the global sterility in Children of Men. Another, from literature, is the psychoactive drug with an impossible specificity of action that plays a key role in Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. Fabricated Science is usually left unexplained, and serves a clear metaphoric or thematic function.

The next two types are Ersatz Science.

8. Sounds Like Science. Here the impossible science is an imitation or mischaracterization of the real (and hence—can we talk?—stupider than Fabricated Science). Captain America's shield is made of vibranium, a rare element mined from the earth with almost supernatural powers. That sounds scientific, and I bet that some MCU geek has identified its spot in the periodic table—but for vibranium to exist, the laws of physics would have to be different in a way that affected only the behavior of that element. Impossible. That staple of 50s sf, "mutations" caused by radiation, is another example: yes, radiation does cause mutations, but muations aren't like that. The presence of an asteroid "the size of Texas" that might be on a collision course with Earth in Armageddon is a case of ignoring scienctfic fact (typically learned in seventh grade). Like Magic Science and Better than Science, Sounds Like Science may be offered without explanation, or it may be accompanied by hand-waving or fundamentally meaningless jargon.

9. Never Mind the Science. This is an important sibling to Sounds Like Science; the difference is that the gross violation of scientific law is not presented to us as a scientific idea, but it is instead a (usually fundamental) story aspect whose impossibility is ignored by convention. That exposure to gamma rays could turn Bruce Banner into The Hulk is Sounds Like Science (like almost all science in superhero comics), but that the Hulk is absurdly stronger than allowed by the laws of physics is Never Mind the Science. All movie monsters that are so large that their bones could never support their mass, such as Gojira, are Never Mind the Science. Explosions in space are a ubiquitous and fairly trivial example.

Finally, we have ...

10. Wrong Science. Scientific laws are violated, or facts ignored, for no story purpose whatsoever, apparently because the author or screenwriters simply didn’t know better. Almost everything other than the stupid giant asteriod in the Armageddon trailer (which convinced me to not bother with the actual movie) is Wrong Science.

There are four modifiers that can apply to many or most of the above categories.

Super Science. This is a violation not of the content of science but of its form and practice. We are shown a scientific breakthrough or invention that in the real world could never be accomplished by these people, and/or that quickly, and/or with those resources and/or budget. Tony Stark’s construction of the first Iron Man suit is Super Science (the suit itself has a Better Than Science power source and is otherwise a mixture of Magic and Sounds Like Science). Like well-done Sounds Like Science, we are used to accepting Super Science by convention.

Idiot Science. This is Super Science's rare opposite number, when the form and practice of science is portrayed as impossibly inept. That the true orbital path of the wandering planet in Melancholia appears to have been succesully relegated to nutjob websites is largely a sociopolitical error, but it is also requires a gross overestimation of the difficulties of planetary observation and orbital mechanics.

Anachronistic Science. Tomorrow’s science is portrayed as happening in the present, or current or future science happens in the past. All steampunk is Anachronistic Science. The memory-erasing machine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is Anachronistic Science with Best and Speculative elements (although the movie demonstrates why we’ll probably never bother implementing such technology even once it becomes feasible).

And finally, the all important …

Bad Science. An attempt is made at one of the above categories, and although the science isn’t demonstrably Wrong, it still doesn’t work for you; it takes you out of the story and makes you wince at its stupidity. That’s Bad Science. Whether science strikes you as Bad depends in part upon your scientific knowledge, but (especially as we move down the categories) on taste. That the alien mothership in Independence Day apparently runs the Mac OS is Sounds Like Science, but for many it’s Bad Sounds Like Science. Botching the hand-waving explanation is a classic form of Bad Science; The Force in the original Star Wars trilogy was (like almost all psi powers in sf) simply Magic Science, but the introduction of midichlorians in the prequel trilogy struck many as a turn to the Bad Side, in that the explanation added nothing. In fact, a good criterion for identifying Bad Science is that fixing it would improve the story—if Jeff Goldblum’s character had to struggle to interface with the alien OS, that could have been exciting and funny and needn’t have taken more than twenty seconds of screen time.

Some Other Examples:

Minority Report. It argues that there is a predetermined future which can nevertheless be altered by free will, and I think that’s excellent Speculative Science, but someone with a different favorite interpretation of Quantum Mechanics (e.g., Everett rather than Bohm) might think it Bad. Either way, however, that there might be precogs who could see that determined future is pure Magic Science.

The Prestige. Tesla’s machine is Anachronistic Super Better Than Science.

Star Trek (2009). The reason why Red Matter stands out is that it’s Sounds Like Science used where Magic Science or Better Than Science was expected. Which is to say that there’s probably an infinite number of more credible ways of blowing up an entire planet, but they went for Cool and Dumb. (One suspects that this was Dark Matter in an earlier draft, until someone pointed out that dark matter and black holes are different things.)

Avatar. A key scientific idea is that a planet or moon with an extraordinary strong magnetic field might produce an ore that is a natural room-temperature superconductor, but with a composition so complex that it still defied artificial manufacture. You have to know more about the physics of superconductivity than I do to decide whether that’s Speculative or Better Than Science, but (at least in the theatrical cut) the movie actually omits all that detail and presents it as Magic Science.

Well, I Guess I'm a Film Buff

Fourteen hours is a lot of time to devote to dinner and a movie, and $60+ a lot to spend on just the movie. But that turns out to be the cost to see the newly restored print of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Red Shoes (1948) at the Film Forum in New York City--if you live in Boston.

It was a bargain.

I believe it is fair to say that The Red Shoes is the only famous movie by the British writing / directing team. It was certainly the only movie of theirs that I had heard of back when I was a more casual film fan. I think it is also fair to say that, were she forced name a favorite filmmaker, Sonya (my companion on this insane adventure, and much else of course) would name them. Which is how it came to pass that I saw a near-handful of other films by the Archers before seeing their acknowledged masterpiece: A Canterbury Tale (Sonya's favorite), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (a masterpiece to film buffs), Peeping Tom (the film that effectively ended Powell's career by daring to portray a serial killer sympathetically), and the hugely underrated bomb-defusing drama The Small Back Room. I want to see them all, now.

Some random thoughts on watching The Red Shoes (I'll hide the spoiler-ish ones):
  • This restored print is among the most gorgeous things you'll ever see. And it's not just the things that are supposed to knock us out (like the redness of the shoes) that are extraordinary; even the character's faces look exquisite. See it on a big screen if it comes to your city. Buy it when it comes out on Blu-Ray.
  • It contains what is easily the most extraordinary dance sequence I've ever seen on film (a precis of the title ballet). It makes the justifiably famous dance sequence in Singin' in the Rain, which owes it an enormous debt, seem like a sketch.
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I have loved all of the Powell / Pressburger movies I have seen, but (with the very possible exception of A Canterbury Tale) none struck me as likely to vault into my all-time favorites list upon re-viewing. The Red Shoes absolutely does. It is at least as good as any of them, and it is most to my taste: I am drawn to its themes as I am not drawn to those of, say, Colonel Blimp, a movie I admired ferociously but many of whose concerns seem remote to me. The Red Shoes is All About the conflict of Life and Art. As someone who once wrote a song about Yeats whose chorus went "I think he would have rather married / Maud Gonne" (i.e., than achieved artistic immortality), this couldn't have been more up my alley if I'd written the specs.

V: The Stupidest Hour in the History of TV?

The thing is, the pilot episode of ABC's V remake doesn't play as stupid.  The production values are sky-high, the dialogue and acting credible.

It's only afterward that you realize how preposterous and vacuous it actually was.

Point one: the first thing the arriving aliens tell us is that they have only come to Earth to get one resource which they have exhausted, and that once they replenish that, they will leave, and in return they will give us technological advances.

Well, here's the kicker: that missing resource turns out to be aluminum foil for conical hats. 

Or perhaps it was dryer lint.  Or CD copies of America's "Horse With No Name."

In fact, we are never told what the resource is.  The entire plot point is never mentioned again.

Point two: one of the first things we say to the aliens is "our scientists say that it's impossible that you look exactly like us" (which they do, only better).  To which Anna (Firefly's Morena Baccarin), the alien's gorgeous leader, replies curtly "Our scientists can explain that."

And their explanation is ... they've eaten so much dryer lint and listened to so much America that it has transmorgified their hideous alien physiognomies into the cast of America's Next Secretly Reptilian Top Model.

In fact, this plot point is never mentioned again, either.  I think we're supposed to think that the aliens have offered their explanation and that our scientists have been duly convinced, but that's preposterously bad storytelling.  You can't leave their explanation out; their explanation is our only justification for trusting them.

And of course the only conceivable explanation is that we share the same origin.  In which case, they are not alien visitors, they're essentially us.  And everything we think we know about human evolution is wrong.  Both of which would make thought-provoking plot angles (as alien lies we were led to believe), if the show had any interest in provoking any thoughts other than "that makes no sense whatsoever."

(Note that Philip K. Dick's Now Wait for Last Year has this same idea; aliens from the planet Lilistar have arrived and, playing on their status as our secret progenitors, have enlisted us in their war against horrible bug-like aliens.  Of course, there is a delicious PKD twist which I shan't reveal if you haven't read what is widely regarded as the best of his non-famous novels).

Point three: everyone calls them "the Visitors," or, for short, "the V's."  No one has asked them what star system they come from?  They haven't told us?  No one cares?  And when was the last time you heard someone call the Iraqis "the I's" or the Russians "the R's"?

Point four: it is ultimately revealed that many prominent humans in positions of power are secretly aliens, and that this is part of their plan to exterminate us.  Showing up over all the Earth's cities in huge spaceships, Childhood's End style, is just  the next phase in the extermination plot.

WTF?  WTFF?  Why didn't they just wipe us out when they first arrived here twenty or thirty years ago?  What is their rationale for going to all the enormous difficulty of cloaking their hideous reptilian alien physiognomies in the faces of mostly obscure Hollywood actors, and then providing us with universal health care?

Now, if it weren't for points one through three, I might hold out for some ultimately satisfying explanation for what the aliens are up to.  If that happens, I will buy the first person who notifies me of such (and provides a good argument for the storytelling worth of the explanation) one copy of every item of the show's merchandising tie-ins.

In the meantime, though, we have a show about an alien invasion where the alien's ostensible purpose here is omitted, where there justification for earning our trust is omitted and / or preposterous, and where their true purpose is preposterous.

Other than that, it was really good.

2001: A Space Odyssey: Kubrick's Unknown, Unfortunate Edit

Most folks know that Stanley Kubrick trimmed 19 minutes from 2001: A Space Odyssey immediately after its premiere. What's less well known is that the original cut was shipped to and screened in multiple cities, where it played for as long as a week.

I saw the original cut of 2001, at the Cinerama Theater in Boston, probably on Saturday, April 13, 1968, just weeks before my 14th birthday.

When I saw the film a second time, a year or so later, there were two changes that absolutely startled me. The first was the well-known insertion of the low angle shot of the monolith as Moonwatcher ponders the use of a bone as a weapon. I remember thinking, I don’t remember that at all! At the time, I was unaware that the film had been re-edited. 

Descriptions of the other well-established cuts (see the IMBD "alternate versions" page; alas, the more detailed rundown that used to be at www.underview.com/bhpalltrims.html has disappeared) all ring true to me, but, except for the added title cards, I did not notice them at the time—testimony to their correctness. (The title cards puzzled me, but I was able to convince myself that I might have forgotten them.)

Near the end of the movie, though, there was another change that so startled and bothered me that I was convinced I was watching an adulterated print. And this change, as far as I can tell with the powers of Google, has never been described anywhere. By anybody.

In the original cut, HAL is absolutely silent as Bowman makes his way to his chamber and begins to deactivate him. There’s nothing on the soundtrack but Bowman’s breathing as he makes his way through the EVA suit room, climbs the ladder to the antechamber, gets the tools from the panel, opens the door to the chamber, and begins to use his tool to deactivate HAL, extracting Memory Terminals 6 and 5. (It's possible that the close-up shot of HAL’s eye at 1:50:48 of the Blu-Ray is an insert, added to the re-edited cut; in the original there was no need to emphasize that HAL was watching at this point.)

It's not until 1:52:24, during the overhead shot of Bowman extracting Memory Terminal 4, that HAL first speaks: "Just what do you think you're doing, Dave?"dialogue that in the final cut begins 2:33 earlier, at 1:49:51. As HAL finishes this question (1:52:27), we cut to a side shot of Bowman. At 1:52:35, HAL says "Dave," and Bowman's eyes dart right. (In the existing cut, the shots of Bowman in the first half of the deactivation sequence, and his reactions, don't correspond to much of anything.) His eyes dart right twice more as HAL continues, "I really think I'm entitled to an answer to that question." At 1:52:42, we cut to a close-up of Bowman inserting the key into MT 3, 2, 1 ... and as he moves to extract Logic Terminal 5, HAL admits "I know everything hasn't been quite right with me," and we hear him continue "but I can assure you now very confidently that it's going to be alright again." At 1:53:18 we cut back to a side view of Bowman exactly as HAL says "I feel much better now," and Bowman's eyes dart right at 1:53:24 as he adds, "I really do." Two seconds later we cut to a rear shot, and HAL starts "Look, Dave, I can see ..."

And at this point in the existing cut, at 1:53:33, there is
a very uncharacteristic edit. At that moment the camera is behind Bowman, and he’s extracted half the modules in the top row. Suddenly, we are overhead, and Bowman has finished the top row and is halfway through the second row. This sort of elision is alien to the editing style of the movie, which favors long, complete, unbroken sequences.

In fact, what has happened here is that Kubrick has cut 2:33 of visuals from the middle of the deactivation sequence. As I remember the original cut, we saw every module coming out during this deleted footageI may even have a memory of a long shot of Bowman floating in the chamber and continuing the deactivation. And it's during this cut footage that we heard most of the best-remembered parts of HAL's monologue, such as his advice to take a stress pill.

Is this clear?  To tighten this sequence, Kubrick trimmed 2:33 of visuals from the middle of HAL's deactivation, and he took the audio of that 2:33 and placed it over the preceding 2:33 of the movie, causing HAL's monologue to start as Bowman is enroute to deactivate him, rather than after the deactivation has started.  Andperhaps more importantly to the perceived pacing2:33 of soundtrack that consisted of nothing but Bowman breathing was cut.

Does the evidence of the film support my memory? Absolutely. I've already noted that the version I've reconstructed makes much better sense of the two cuts to side shots of Bowman and to his reactions. But there's an outright smoking gun. Note that in the final cut, the pitch of HAL’s voice has lowered and his speech (“Dave. Stop. Stop, will you?”) has slowed before Bowman has extracted a single module. That makes no sense; the slowed and altered speech has to be a product of the deactivation. In the original, it was.

(Furthermore, 2:33 seems to work as the length of the elided portion. Bowman inserts the tool to extract the first module at 1:52:05 and the 9th module (having skipped one) at 1:53:18, so he is extracting a module per 9 seconds. After the edit, a further 12 modules have been extracted, and, as he tires, he has slowed his pace to about 12 seconds between modules. We would thus have expected about two minutes to have passed. However, there were numerous modules in the top row that he skipped over (presumably those that are the equivalent of HAL's brainstem and run the ship's life support system), and he would have had to maneuver past them. Between that, pausing to rest or react to HAL, and simple editing leeway, I think it's entirely credible that the sequence runs 30 seconds longer than you'd expect based on what precedes and follows it.)

The original edit makes more sense and plays out very differently. It makes little sense for HAL to ask Bowman what he's doing, and then demand an answer to the question, while Bowman is simply crossing a room and climbing a ladder: Bowman isn't doing anything yet. HAL’s assertion “I feel much better now. I really do” is hugely ironic and pathetic coming after Bowman has extracted his memory modules (presumably these contain information about the ship and mission, and their extraction hasn't yet disturbed his sense of self). “I can see you’re really upset about this” was originally an understatement so massive it would have been comic if it weren’t so sad, where in the re-edit it’s perhaps too perceptive. “I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over,” in the re-edit, is just an attempt to ward off deactivation before the fact, and comes across as defensive and self-interested, while in the original, it is HAL’s reaction to the feeling of being deactivated, and it is almost heartbreaking. When HAL finally just asks Dave to stop (in a clearly altered voice) when Bowman is much more than halfway through the deactivation process, the alteration of his voice is an unexpected but very clear consequence of the deactivation, and it is again actually rather sad.

I have been carrying this profoundly vivid memory, and telling this tale, for years. Now that I've scrutinized it on disc, I am very pleased to see that there is not only objective evidence for my memory in the existing cut, but that it’s even possible to nail down the location and length of the edit and see how the audio and video originally synched. I really believe that the original sequence was much better than the re-edit: the only mistake Kubrick made in trimming the film. At this point, he had already trimmed enough that he didn't need a further cut, and he could afford to indulge in several minutes of silence in order to set up the film's most memorable monologue, and to retain its original emotional impact, rather than sacrifice it. It bothered the hell out of me the second time I saw the movie, and it bothers me to this day. Now that the missing footage has been found, I hope that those in charge of deciding what to ultimately do with it will give everyone else the chance to see if they like it better, too. (Edited 4/15/13.)

Watching Watchmen

Well, it’s either phenomenally good, or merely great with some significant but minor flaws that will keep it out of the top of my all-time favorites list, but still near the top of this year’s Top 10. I will need another viewing or two to decide (and there will be no final verdict until we see the 30 minutes that were removed from this cut.)

What was great?

  • The screenplay is absolutely brilliant in two aspects: its true grasp of the themes of the graphic novel, which it underscores and emboldens with authority, and its ability to compress the story into 2 hr 40 min. I can’t think of a single moment where the story was compressed or simplified and I reacted negatively: in every case I could immediately see the logic of the change. Speaking of which …
  • The ending, which is to say, the replacement for the novel’s giant telepathic mock-alien squid, is actually a huge improvement on numerous levels. (Take that, slavish fanboys!) When I read the novel originally, and eleven issues of complicated plot climaxed in a rehash of the Outer Limits episode “The Architects of Fear,” which in turn leaned heavily on the Theodore Sturgeons’s “Unite and Conquer,” I was more than a little let down. I had always assumed that David Hayter and Alex Tse changed the ending because destroying NYC with a monster had become old hat (Godzilla remake, Cloverfield), and that singling out NYC had acquired unfortunate resonance. I was hoping they would come up with something different and adequate. I didn’t dare hope that they realized the original ending was stale and maybe kind of dumb and that they could come up with something much better. But they did.
  • Jackie Earle Hailey is just spectacular as Rorschach, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Billy Crudup are very fine as The Comedian and Dr. Manhattan respectively.
  • This may be a function of the difference between movies and books as they interact with my brain, but I found the movie emotionally moving, at times very much so, in ways I didn’t find the book to be. Hailey and Crudup and the thematic underscoring in the screenplay get the credit, I think.

  • What was perhaps less than great?

    • In the rare cases where they had to invent substantial dialogue, it’s usually just OK and once in a while flat; there’s nothing remotely like Boromir’s speech to Aragorn in Lothlorien, i.e., at no point do they channel Alan Moore the way that Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens were consistently able to channel Tolkien.
    • The rest of the cast is nothing special. Again, the obvious comparison is to LOTR, where the twentieth best performance (i.e., everyone but Elijah Wood) is better than the fourth best here.
    • I probably had my hopes for eye-candy way too high, but I was merely satisfied with the movie as a visual feast, when I hoped or expected to be stunned.

    It’s very clear that there are some critics who just aren’t getting this. Ty Burr, for instance, thinks that setting the sex scene between Dan and Laurie to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” creates unintentional humor. I guess he missed the part where Dan is impotent when his clothes have been taken off but a stud when its his superhero costume that’s been removed, and it didn’t occur to him that the scene was mocking him.

    In the case of the really negative reviews, I can guarantee you that those critics went in with preconceptions about what the movie might be like or should be about. (As a movie to rival Iron Man, it does suck incredibly.) As the movie fails to slide neatly into the slot they had prepared for it, they start to tune it out, stop actually listening. When, for instance, Dr. Manhattan explains why he’s returning to Earth, they’re not even parsing the content, because they’re just assuming it must be pseudo-scientific babble rather than actual science, because they would never expect something that sophisticated from a comic-book movie. Viola! A very moving scene becomes “emotionally distant.”

    To sum up: this is a very fine and capable and in a few important ways quite brilliant adaptation of terrific source material. As such, a very easy **** or 10/10.

The Film Year in Review: 2008

Here is a brief review (and some key information on what other people thought) of every movie released in the U.S. in 2008 that I’ve seen as of the eve of the Oscar telecast.

I’ll count down from the film I liked least to the one I liked most. While this bears some relationship to a ranking by “best” (I’m quite sure that my favorite film was the best film, too, for instance), any critic who thinks they can really rank films by objective quality is kidding themselves. (In fact, once you separate masterpieces from the rest, any notion that there’s any kind of objective “better than” is a mistake. But that’s a screed for another time.)

For each film, I’ve named the writer(s) and director and given three other pieces of information:

  • “IMDB” is its user rating on IMDB.com. For those of you who aren’t users, 6.7 is average, 7.5 is a very solid score, 7.8 downright impressive, and 8.0 or better is Magic.
  • “Crit” is its ranking among critics based on mentions in Top 10 lists. The raw data is from MCN (Movie City News), but I’ve massaged and corrected it. NR means not in the top 100. (During the year, I use Metacritic to get a sense of the degree of critical enthusiasm, but once you get the Top 10 lists that information becomes largely redundant.)
  • “RT” is its Rotten Tomato score (the percentage of critics who liked it). Comparing this to the Top 10 ranking can be very informative.

Why do I bother with all that? Because I have tried to explain my reaction to each movie relative to everyone else’s. In fact, I’m not sure that an individual reaction to a film, without such context, has much meaning at all, since it basically assumes that the reaction of the critic is universal. Ha!

So here are 36 movies I’ve seen this year (most in the theater, and a few – numbers 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, and 14—more than once). I liked and would recommend them all. This is not so strange: I just don’t bother seeing movies that aren’t well received by either critics or viewers, I like every kind of movie, and I have the neurological gift of enjoying what’s good about a movie without letting its flaws spoil the overall experience (I can effectively “firewall” the parts that didn’t work for me and enjoy the parts that do). I’m proud to say that I merely liked only one movie that everyone loved; I wish you all similar success.

There are no spoilers here at all, I think.


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