Friday, 30 April 2010

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Future Movies I: The Road and 2012

Hollywood has an enormous power over the public’s perception of the world – Gandhi is one of my heroes, but when I picture him, I’m picturing Ben Kingsley. We, for our part, want the public to think about and prepare for a difficult future. So when Hollywood makes movies about what the future might be like, we should pay attention.

Unfortunately, though, Hollywood images of the future tend to be pretty grim: most video stores even have a single section now entitled “science fiction / horror,” since any future they show is likely to be horrifying. Just the last few years have given us The Book of Eli, The Road, 2012, I Am Legend, Children of Men, 28 Weeks Later, Resident Evil, Terminator films and series, and even WALL-E, the first post-apocalyptic children’s movie.

None of these films are a particularly realistic future either, but some of them are fine stories (WALL-E) and some are not (Resident Evil). Last winter, in The Road and 2012, we got one of each.

The Road manages to be both a good film and a respectful adaptation of an almost un-filmable book. Unfortunately, more people likely saw the advertisements than the actual movie, and may have gone in with the wrong expectations.

The trailer begins with a grainy montage of stock disaster footage – lightning, hurricanes, tornado, volcano, forest fire, rows of police running towards an accident. Like many trailers these days, it simply makes up random stuff and claims it’s in the movie; none of the Extreme Nature scenes appear in the film, but were apparently intended to help this film piggyback the blockbuster opening of 2012.

Worse still, in one of those jarring trailer flashes to white-on-black titles and surround-sound thud, the trailer states, “10 YEARS FROM NOW.” The events in the book and film do take place several years after The End of the World, but it’s an abstract setting rather than a Nostradamus-style prediction. It’s likely the fault of the studio and not the filmmakers, but it cheapens the film’s impact and comes at a time when our culture does not need even darker fantasies.

You see, The Road is as dire a future as we can imagine without going into supernatural territory. Everything but humans have died – nuclear winter is implied but never named – and there are no plants, no animals, no life. The sky is cloudy, “like some cold glaucoma dimming away the world,” the land is covered by a thick layer of ash, and the forests are stands of blackened shafts that crack and fall one by one.

The remaining humans turned to cannibalism, of course, and the few left tend to be the ones who won the struggles. What distinguishes the main characters -- called only The Man and The Boy – is that they will not resort to this even when it means their lives. It’s the one moral line they can still refuse to cross as they trudge across a Pinteresque landscape of nameless wanderers and spare dialogue.

That doesn’t sound like an appealing story, but millions have found the Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel worthwhile – author Cormac McCarthy’s spare prose is so well-crafted as to feel weightless, and pulls the reader swiftly along a difficult path.

The filmmakers did well at translating this world for the screen: familiar faces like Viggo Mortenson, Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce are almost unrecognizable under the caked grime, and the soundtrack is appropriately spare. They adhered reverently to the book’s thin and episodic plot, refraining from any of the usual Hollywood moralizing, crowd-pleasing action or neat resolutions. If anything, they went the opposite direction and omitted the book’s most shocking scene, perhaps careful to stay away from the lurid territory of slasher flicks.

The world of The Road, however, is probably impossible: No one has ever experienced a real nuclear winter, but even a constantly overcast sky should allow for plants – greenery exists in the near-darkness of the jungle floor, and on the shadowy edges of caves. The cold should also not preclude plants: grass and willow trees survive in polar lands where it is far below freezing almost every day of the year and dark for six months, so the above-freezing rain described in the book should not kill off the world’s life. Nor would radiation: as Alan Weisman pointed out in his book The World Without Us, the radioactive area around Chernobyl has become a lush wildlife sanctuary. If anything, our sudden absence would produce a profusion of life that we currently kill off.

Even if all the green plants in the world died, however, there should still be mushrooms and insects, as writer Ran Prieur pointed out -- mushrooms are mentioned once in the book, insects not at all.

I nitpick these details to emphasize that this world is just Cormac McCarthy’s thought experiment, the logical extreme of his usual desperate men scrabbling across stark landscapes. Science fiction once teemed with such creative-writing hypotheticals: What if everyone lost their memory? What if a generation were born blind and deaf? What if all the plants vanished?

If The Road tries to be a personal story in a purely imaginary setting, however, 2012 is its opposite: a $200 million steaming pile of distilled absurdity with pretensions of prophecy, backed with enough budget to feed five Chicagos’ worth of starving Third-World children. The resulting slick package invites you to thrill as the romantic leads outrun a fireball, cheer as the puppy is rescued at the last minute, and sigh in relief as all rude and ugly characters die discreetly off-screen.

The story begins with scientists huskily explaining that “Neutrinos have mutated into some other particle!" What that could possibly mean is anyone's guess, but apparently "it’s affecting the Earth’s core like a microwave!” A later video exposition claims that some vaguely-defined thing causes Earth’s crust to shift every 640,000 years -- we see a cartoon Tyrannosaurus Rex saying, “Not again!” The narration then claims that geologist Charles Hapgood believed this idea, that Einstein endorsed it, that the Mayans were the first to discover it, and that Christians called it the Rapture.

You can write a book with everything wrong with those few lines, but just to take a few examples:

• If life on Earth is wiped out every 640,000 years, are they saying life re-evolves from scratch every cycle? With hominids evolving back too? Are they saying one of these wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago but never before, or that they died out 640,000 years ago, or what?

• There really was a Charles Hapgood whose book was endorsed by Einstein – presumably mentioned because Einstein is one of the few scientists people know. As far as I know, though, Hapgood said nothing about 2012 or the Rapture – his upheaval theory tried to explain why the continents seem to have looked different in the past, before scientists proved that they move slowly. Einstein, for his part, was a physicist, not a mystical prophet.

• According to any Mayan archaeologist I have read, the Mayans never prophesized that the world would end in 2012 – according to some, in fact, they didn’t have a concept of the End of the World as we do. Even if they had, however, why should be believe something because they did? Should we also begin sacrificing human slaves to angry gods?

• The movie drops the Rapture name for extra points among the megachurch crowd, both in the script and in the callous poster tag “Will You Be Left Behind?” But the Rapture, contrary to popular belief, is not the traditional Christian idea of the End of the World; it is specific eschatology invented in the 19th century by a British sect leader named John Darby, popularized among hippies by Hal Lindsey’s 1970 book The Late Great Planet Earth and later taken mainstream by the Left Behind series in the 1990s. It is not even remotely what most Christian churches believe or have ever believed, and is just as New Age-y as the 2012 idea itself.

I could mention all the other bits of 2012’s disaster kitchen sink – solar flares, bubbling wells, volcanoes, tidal waves over the Himalayas (!), and large sections of Nevada dropping through the ground into … um … that giant void that’s apparently inside the Earth. But you get the idea – in the paragraphs above I just gave more thought to the premise than the filmmakers did or than millions in the audience are supposed to.

If this story were obvious fiction, none of this would matter – people are allowed to like escapist candy, and filmmakers are in business. But like the Left Behind series, the 2012 fantasy predicts something terrible happening to this, real world, soon. The only difference is that the Left Behind authors seem to truly believe something ridiculous, whereas the filmmakers seem to be transparently capitalizing on people’s fears to make money. They can claim the movie is mere entertainment, but they didn’t make up an original ridiculous movie like The Core or Volcano: they are exploiting an existing wave of paranoia in a troubled people.

I devote space to this because, as I mentioned at the top, Hollywood influences how we see the world, whether we like it or not. We deserve stories that deal realistically with what families might face in the years ahead, and that present a hopeful picture of what life might be like. If you think this can’t be done, that might be Hollywood talking.

So what kind of futuristic stories would I propose? More on that next week.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Dance shoes

The Girl is now taking lessons in Irish dancing -- a common thing for girls to learn here, like gymnastics -- and she is very proud of her shoes. Let me tell you, there are few things cuter than a line of wobbly four- and five-year-olds trying to Riverdance. And every time I look at these shoes, I think, "There's no place like home."

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Happy around Arbor Day

I rarely link to other posts, but Sharon Astyk has put into words exactly why I'm not fond of Earth Day. Personally, I preferred it when it was Arbor Day, celebrating the specific and tangible action of planting trees, rather than celebrating ourselves for how much we care about vague abstractions. I also don't turn my lights out for an hour once a year, which reduces zero wattage from power plants -- it needs to be most hours, all year, or it is meaningless.

Of course, when Arbor Day is depends on what country you're in -- it was yesterday in Kenya, next Wednesday in Germany, a week from Friday in the USA and Japan. But it's usually in the spring, so Happy Arbor season.

See also this article in the New York Times, via Rod Dreher. Thanks, Rod and Sharon.

Update: Sharon continues the Earth Day thoughts here and here.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

The Future of Flight

I was planning to be in London by now.

My day job was sending me there on business, but I had also hoped to see more of the city’s museums and gardens and maybe give a public talk while I was there. Now more than 2,000 flights out of Ireland have been cancelled, along with the best-laid plans of more than 120,000 people in this country alone. At first authorities said the planes would be flying again Friday, then Monday, and now they say Wednesday – and now the volcano in Iceland that caused the trouble is erupting again.

As the skies remain quiet here, we are reminded how much we rely on air travel, not just for business meetings and holidays but to keep the supermarket stocked. According to the Guardian newspaper, Ireland and England might experience a temporary shortage of fruit, which is grown in Australia, New Zealand and other distant lands and transported to the other side of the planet every day to be eaten in huge quantities in Europe. The shortage may spread to other foods, from baby corn from Thailand to pineapple chunks from Ghana. In fact, 90 percent of Britain’s fruit and the 60 percent of its vegetables are imported.

“Many of Britain's supermarkets operate their supply chains incredibly tightly, using the principle of ‘just in time’ delivery,” the article said. “When disaster strikes, shortages of some items can start appearing within a few days.”

The hiatus – I don’t know that it really qualifies as a “disaster” yet -- could also create a temporary shortage of flowers, which are regularly shipped to Europe from Kenya and other countries, as well as pharmaceuticals and high-tech items that have a short supply chain.

Little events like this help us see in microcosm the larger disruptions we might see in the years ahead. It shows us just how tightly the world economy is bound together, so that an Icelandic volcano can ruin a Kenyan plantation. It also shows us how profoundly longer disruptions would affect us -- some other weather catastrophe, another spike in fuel prices, or another dip in the economy.

On the bright side, however, most of this constant circulation of planes around, and the goods they transport, are unnecessary. In fact, like so much of modern life, they involve a great leap backward.

Take fruit, for example, since so much of it is flown in. Medieval Britons didn’t need to ship apples in from New Zealand, even had they known about the place – they gathered apples in the autumn and kept them cool in the attic until they needed them. We are no less able to do this than they were, yet how many garden sheds and closets could you open to see stacks of apples?

Victorians commonly built greenhouses, in which they could grow many fruits or flowers not ordinarily found in Europe. With our ready-to-assemble parts and clear plastic sheeting, we could do the same things more easily. We just don’t.

If towns in Ireland or Iowa began feeding themselves again, though, oranges and bananas might still return to their former exotic status – my elderly relatives in the USA got oranges in their Christmas stockings, and community dances in wartime Britain often gave away a banana as first prize in raffle drawings. But perhaps that is as it should be. We just don’t have a human right to regularly eat large amounts of food that can only be grown thousands of kilometers away, especially when – as a recent survey indicated – a third of the food that comes into our homes is thrown away uneaten.

Air travel was not common until a few decades ago. In the early 20th century, people regarded airplanes as almost magical creations; schools and businesses closed when an airplane came to town, and pilots who broke the latest record made magazine covers and had everything from dishes to dances named after them. Even after planes became flying passengers, they were rare events -- Americans took only three million passenger flights in 1940, and while that number increased to 56 million in 1956, it was still mainly for businessmen and the rich. Families turned out to excitedly watch planes take off, and people dressed up for the flight as they did for church.

Two generations later the numbers had increased twelve-fold, until the average American was flying more than twice a year. Today most people regard air travel as an annoyance of long waits, poor food and noise pollution, but its withdrawal as an outrageous imposition.

As oil production goes down – and the US Department of Defense predicts a severe crunch by 2015 – air travel will have to go back to what it was at least two generations ago, if it remains at all. We can get electricity from coal, nuclear, wind and solar, we can warm ourselves with coal, electricity or wood, and we can transport ourselves over land in electric rails or buses. But there are no solar-powered manned planes, no nuclear airbuses and no wood-stoked jets. Planes need petroleum.

Bio-fuels could potentially keep at least some planes flying indefinitely. But ethanol, for example, uses almost as much energy to create as it generates, so the remaining flights might well be mostly military, with a few for wealthy passengers.

I don’t think air travel will end soon or suddenly, but it will recede because it must, and I would like to see us cut back now precisely because I want to make it last as long as possible. I like the fact that my young cousin from Kansas could spend a year in Japan, that an Italian historian can see Mayan ruins and return home the next day, or that we can immerse ourselves in different cultures and landscapes in ways we could never do online.

Without planes cities and countries will become far away again, accessible only by slow ocean voyages or by the Internet – if we still have these things. “Remote” will refer to real distance again, rather than distance from the nearest airport. Travel will become a serious commitment of time and money again, for dilettantes and refugees.

I know other people who had to cancel flights this week, and they are annoyed but unconcerned -- they fly many times a year, and have often been to London for a football match or a party. Me, I’ve been on nine round-trip plane flights in my life – still more than my climate change ration, but not enough to become jaded. I never want to lose that sense of amazement at airplanes and new lands, the understanding that I am enjoying a rare privilege.

Friday, 16 April 2010

London trip

I will be in London on business for my day job next week -- that is, if the volcanic ash from Iceland lets up by then.

If I go, there will be no blogging next week. I will be free the night of Wednesday, April 21st and the morning and afternoon of Thursday the 22nd. If you happen to be in London and want to meet for coffee, feel free to contact me.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Sleepy Easter morning

How she finds this comfortable, I don't know.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Happy Easter

Originally published in the Columbia Daily Tribune, June 15, 2001.

While some people spend their vacations lounging by the pool, 87 men from across the country are working in the hot sun, helping build an addition to Grandview Baptist Church outside Centralia, MO.

For most of the year, these men are truck drivers, construction workers, pastors and retirees. For 10 days a year, however, they are Carpenters for Christ, building or repairing one church a year somewhere in the United States, leader Dave Tidwell said.

"We do this the same week each year, the second week in June," said Tidwell, who has been with the group 15 years. "It’s a 10-day trip for us to do a seven-day job - it takes about a day to get there, about a day to get back, and of course we don’t work on Sundays."

Participants say there are several Carpenters for Christ crews in Alabama and Texas, with a few others located elsewhere. Tidwell said his team, headquartered in Attalla, Ala., has about 125 participants and takes about 80 to 100 people on each trip.

Carpenters for Christ teams work only on Southern Baptist churches; participants said other congregations have similar projects. Churches with construction projects place their names on the Southern Baptist Web site, the North American Mission Board, and the seven-man council of Tidwell’s crew selects a church.

Tidwell said his team’s organizers were originally planning to work on a church in Macon but that "the church’s timetable to build was different than what we could do." Then they saw the request for help from the Grandview Church, not far from their original destination.

The workers built a second building connected to the church, to serve as a fellowship hall, restrooms, a kitchen and six Sunday school classrooms.

Church building coordinator Lee Hudson said some of Grandview’s 200-person congregation have come out to watch Carpenters for Christ in action. A few have been so impressed with the group that they plan to join next year’s mission.

"We do that - pick up a few people every place we go," said Tidwell, who works for Goodyear Tire during the rest of the year. "It’s a self-perpetuating thing."

Each worker pays $100 to take part in the project, money that goes for food and supplies. The church is renting Centralia High School down the road for rooms, and church members are doing the men’s laundry. Some members of the church also helped with tasks for which the carpenters had no specialists, such as plumbing, said pastor Jim Smith.

"This is the only thing where you pay $100 to work hard on vacation," joked Bill McNair, a retired piano tuner from Florida.

Tidwell said the idea of Carpenters for Christ grew out of volunteer disaster response teams in the late 1970s, when men who helped Southerners rebuild after tornadoes realized they could keep on doing good works. He said that while "there’s not 10 of these men" that work in construction during the rest of the year, "I’ll put their work up against any contractor."

"A lot of the men who do this are not always inspired by church services or speeches, but this is something they can do."