One Minute Film School


Stop Watch 1
Today, I had a fella send me this message on LinkedIn:

Hi Mr. Kandborg. My name is *****. I have a story idea that I would like to direct and was hoping if you would like to work with me. I been trying to get in touch with producers but have no luck. Please let me know.

Typos aside (I certainly hope they’re typos), rather than dismiss the request out of hand as vague, incomplete and, well, odd, I decided to offer some suggestions since countless numbers of them were percolating in my head, unbidden. I’ve subsequently decided to post them here because I feel they may have some universal value to aspiring film makers everywhere.

Hi, *****. Sorry to hear that you’re having trouble getting in touch with producers. Maybe you aren’t being clear with what you’re looking for. You say you have an idea. Do you have a script? It’s unlikely that any established producer would be interested without one. As I like to say, having an idea for a movie is like having an idea for a painting. “Flowers!” Doesn’t mean much.

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vsBad Flower

If you don’t have a script, write one.

If you don’t know how, learn.

If you have no talent for writing, find someone who does.

If you have a script and no one wants to produce it (because really, why should they?), produce it yourself.

If you can’t raise a lot of money, make it for a little (I know of features that were made for $5,000).

If you can’t raise any, write something else, either something better, something cheaper or something shorter. Maybe all three.

If you want to direct a movie, direct a movie. It’s never been easier.

If you’ve already directed one, direct another.

If you’re any good, someone will notice, believe me.

If you’re not, please stop.

I hope this helps. Good luck. And remember: if you want to work in the circus, you’d better get used to crazy people, anxiety and the smell of shit. Embrace the shit.

All the best,

Mark

Tiger

I’ve thought all of these things when confronted with the boundless (and borderline insane) blind enthusiasm of one aspiring filmmaker or another who has, usually inadvisably, appointed himself the next Tarantino simply because he really likes movies, even though he may not be able to articulate, like, why. But I’ve rarely said them. Partly because I’m fairly sure they don’t really want to hear any of it, but mostly because I can’t bear to see the dreams of a fellow human being, however misguided, recoil and disintegrate before my eyes like a vampire hit by a sunbeam.

And I find nothing kills a crazy dream faster than a brush with reality.

Which is why I like to keep mine tucked away safely in the dark. On the few occasions where I’ve found the courage, or more accurately the hubris, to actually ask for a reality check like my new friend *****, the subsequent slivers of light have mottled the surface of my fragile, sacred passenger just enough to render me mute, confused and ultimately, immobile.

So the surprise here is that my advice to ***** is really advice to myself.

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Maybe this time I’ll have the wisdom to listen.

[NOTE: If this or any of my previous posts have encouraged you to think a thought (or hear a Who) you might otherwise have not, go ahead and comment, share or subscribe. Go on…]

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Think banning guns won’t stop mass murderers from buying them? Think again.


maxresdefaultFirst of all, the perpetrators of most mass shootings are not criminals. In fact, almost none of them are. Think about it — the profile is a quiet, anti-social loner, maybe with anger issues, maybe not, usually works at a menial job, maybe lives with his mom, maybe plays a lot of video games, maybe goes to university or high school… does that sound like some freaking street level drug dealer or gang banger to you? How about the part where it’s invariably reported that the shooter had no criminal record? Someone should do a study to determine why criminals don’t take the guns they have, walk into a school and start killing people before turning the guns on themselves, because they don’t. Criminals (and I’ve known a lot of them) are generally a short sighted, self-centred bunch. The last thing they’re going to do is commit a crime that doesn’t get them anything. The only thing they’re less likely to do is shoot themselves in the face after committing it.

But what if you’re not an actual ‘criminal’ and you want to get something illegal, like heroin, compared to something legal, like a gun? I don’t know if you’ve ever woken up one day and decided to go out there and pick up a flap of H, but let me give you a little tour of how that might go. You get in your nice little normal person car and you go downtown, because everybody knows that’s where you by drugs, right? What part of downtown? The bad part? When? At night? Okay. How much money should you bring? Wait a minute, this is starting to sound dangerous.

So there you are, a regular non-felonious guy with a regular haircut and glasses, driving around in your mom’s maroon 4-door Camry in the worst part of town at night, looking for some kind of criminal person. How do you know who’s a criminal? Putting aside the fact that it’s likely to be everybody you come across in this particular scenario, the smart money says that it’s definitely that fucking shady guy standing in that doorway and staring at you. Okay. So is he the drug selling kind of criminal, or the robbing you kind of criminal, or the stabbing you kind of criminal? I’ll give you a hint: they’re usually all three. Almost nobody who sells drugs on the streets is somehow morally unwilling to rob you. In fact, they’d much rather rob you than sell to you because the likelihood of getting caught is far less and the profit margin is infinitely greater. So there’s that.

But let’s say you’re not a quitter and you’ve come this far so you decide to go for it. Remember, after all of this the only thing you’ve actually managed to do is to find a sketchy guy in a bad neighbourhood to stare you down. So now what? Do you get out of the car? That seems like a bad idea. Do you pull over to him? Obviously he’s going to want to get into the car, and that seems like an even worse idea. He may lean in through a rolled down window like they do in The Wire, but you know what? This isn’t The Wire. This is some dude on some street trying to do crime without getting arrested, so if he does lean in the window it’s only going to be for long enough to tell you to open the door, because if you’re not really a drug customer willing to let him into your car to do a deal, he doesn’t want anything to do with you. And the longer he stays out of the car, the more exposed he is. In fact, he probably won’t even walk up to the car. So, you’ll have to get out.

Which means you have to park your car at night in a bad neighbourhood where criminals are watching you and walk away from it. But that’s the least of your worries. Because now it’s you that’s exposed. And guess what? If it hasn’t occurred to you already, it will occur to you now that it is absolutely clear to anybody watching that you’re there to buy something. With cash. And that you’re carrying it with you right now, as you walk up to the sketchy guy in the shadows that you have already determined is a criminal. And you’re about tell him not only that you have cash on you, but how much.

So let’s say that he’s not a drug dealer, but he is a drug user. Uh oh. In this case, one of two things is about to happen: He is about to rob you, or he is about to con you. There is no third scenario here. Unless you just run away, but you’re here to by heroin, remember? And if you run away you’re just going to have to circle the block and find another guy exactly like him to walk up to and announce that you’re carrying a whack of cash. So, let’s give you a break and say that he actually is a drug dealer. It’s your lucky day.

But he’s not going to sell to you. Because although guys who stand on the street and sell drugs aren’t particularly smart, they’re also not out and out stupid. If they were, they’d be in jail already, not standing out here talking to you. It’s a survival of the least stupid kind of thing.

He’s not going to sell to you for two reasons: he doesn’t know you and you don’t look like a junkie. So now you have to convince him that you’re not a cop (good luck) and that you’re not a junkie, true, but you really want to buy some heroin, presumably because you want to become a junkie. The shear outlandishness of this second assertion may intrigue a dude like this enough to stick with it for a moment.

Go ahead. Convince him. How exactly are you going to do that? The more earnestly you try, the more you’re going to look like you’re trying to set him up. And the more laid back and cool you are to be about it, the more you’re going to look like a cop.

If this whole enterprise isn’t starting to feel like pushing an uncooperative boulder up a pointless mountain, then there may actually be something wrong with you. But I’m going to give you at least as much benefit of the doubt as this drug dealer is about to give you and see what happens. How much do you want? That depends, you say. How much does it cost?

I haven’t been counting mistakes up to now, but this is a big one. He will not tell you how much it costs. He will tell you what he thinks you might believe. After all, he’s taking a real risk here. You’re as unknown to him as he is to you. So he gives you a stupidly high number. One of the reasons he does this is to find out how much money you actually have on you, in order to gauge his next move. Because the one thing you have to start to understand at this point is that you are playing a game. And it’s a game you are completely unprepared to play. In fact, you have no game. But he does. And of course, he knows it. And he knows that you know it. Still think you’re walking away with heroin?

Okay, let’s see how this plays out. He tells you something like a hundred bucks, and all you know is that heroin’s expensive, so you believe it. What you don’t realize, of course, because you’re not a junkie, is that heroin, like crack and crystal meth, is incredibly cheap. It only gets expensive when you keep coming back. For the rest of your life. But this guy knows that you don’t know that, and you make the deal. And that’s when he tells you that he doesn’t have it on him.

This might be a lie, or it might be the truth if the part about him being a heroin dealer was a lie. Either way, you are fucked. Because he is going to tell you to give him the money and he’ll be right back (he won’t be), or to follow him to some more private location where he can stab you and take your money. Again, there is not a third scenario here, because he is a criminal and you are alone and you are carrying cash. He will not “go get” the heroin any more than the barista at Starbucks will “go get” your coffee. If he’s open for business, he’s open for business. If he’s not, he’s only talking to you to figure out the best way to take your money.

Actually, I’m wrong. There is a third scenario. And it’s not run away, because at this point he is not going to let you run away. No, the third scenario is you give him the money, watch him walk away and hope that your car is still there.

Now imagine that you’re not trying to buy heroin, arguably the most popular and easily attainable product for a criminal to obtain on the street, because it’s just about fucking impossible if you don’t know what you’re doing. No, imagine instead that what you’re trying to buy on the street is a fully loaded AR15 assault rifle. So this time you’re not carrying a hundred bucks, you’re carrying, what, five hundred? A thousand? And you’re handing it to a guy who has a gun. Only this guy isn’t standing on the street with it, he’s hidden away in some apartment somewhere, and you have to first find a guy who will take you to him, a guy who will get nothing out of helping you and who you’ve just told that you’re unarmed and carrying a bunch of cash. So guess what? You’re not walking away with that gun, either. You will be very lucky if you walk away at all.

This is all because criminals are not in the business of doing business with people who are not criminals. It’s too dangerous, and there’s no long term profit in it. I said that criminals are short sighted, but not when it comes to business. They know who their steady customers are. No one’s out there to sell one flap of heroin, or one assault rifle, because that’s not a business, that’s a favour. And if there’s one thing that criminals are not known for besides trusting guys with bad haircuts in 4-door sedans, it’s doing favours.

It’s time to look at this another way, and say that you want to buy that AR15 assault rifle, but it’s not illegal because you live in the United States and it’s today. You hop in your Camry, drive to Walmart and toss your credit card on the counter. If you have a valid drivers licence and no felonies, like nearly every other mass murderer in American history, you’ll walk out of there with a perfectly fine killing machine and as much ammo as you need in less than ten minutes. Now, go have fun.

So I say yes, make it difficult for law abiding citizens to buy a gun. You won’t be making it any easier for criminals, in fact you’ll be making it more difficult for them since mostly they buy guns stolen from law abiding citizens. But that quiet, disgruntled, radicalized or mentally unstable time bomb who lives in his mom’s basement and dreams of teaching the world a lesson will just have to make do with a bow and arrow or a kitchen knife if he wants to go out in a blaze of homicidal glory.

And wish him luck turning that bow and arrow on himself after he’s done.

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Well, Now I’ve Done It…


I’m very good at dreaming, but I have to admit that I’m less good at putting those dreams out there. Significantly less good. Does that sound familiar to you? I hope not, but if you’re like most of my friends and just about everyone I’ve ever met, it probably does. So, I’m going to guess you know what I’m talking about.

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I think that deep down, or maybe not even so deep down, we all know that this is true. But we doubt anyway. Why? I could try to answer that, but I won’t, because right now I need to focus, not on the problem as I usually do, but on the solution. Because I find myself in the unusual position of having put something I care about out there in the public sphere, and now I have to see it through.

It happened the way these things usually do. An opportunity presented itself at just the time I was able to take advantage of it. That’s right. Opportunity knocked, and I answered.

It would have been so much easier to pretend that I wasn’t home. But the knocking this time was especially hard to ignore.

Axe scene from The Shining with Shelley Duvall.

The axe-weilding harbinger of opportunity splintering the calm of procrastination came in the form of the latest incarnation of the Telus StoryHive Competition. Telus is a Canadian national Telecommunications giant that has come up with a brilliant way to procure new media content while at the same time supporting content creators who don’t normally have easy access to traditional methods of funding (read independent artists). A couple of times year they invite digital creators in Western Canada to submit proposals for Music Videos, Web Series or, in this case, short films. If they like your project and if you can demonstrate strong internet support, they’ll write you a cheque for $10k to make it a reality, no strings attached. That, as they say, is one hell of an axe. Okay, no one’s ever said that, but you have to admit that it is.

And Telus just happened to put out the call for 10 minute short films right when I had just come up with what I thought was a great idea for a 10 minute short film. All I needed was the money. How could I turn this down? Quite easily, if personal history has taught me anything at all. I can’t tell you how many opportunities I’ve walked away from in my life, for one simple reason:

Doubt [dout]
noun
1. a feeling of uncertainty or lack of conviction.
“There is considerable doubt that anyone will give two hoots about anything that Mark Kandborg thinks is worthwhile.”
synonyms: uncertainty, unsureness, indecision, hesitation, dubiousness, suspicion, confusion; More. MUCH more…

verb
1. feel uncertain about.
“I doubt my ability to do the job”

I’m sure you’ve heard of it. But this time, for whatever reason, doubt failed in it’s mission to cripple. It missed the tackle. It did it’s best, but I was still standing. And I went for it. They say, those wise people we like to ignore, that once you’ve made a decision, things tend to begin to move, almost of their own accord.

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Exactly. I mean, not literally, because the universe is a faceless and heartless collection of atoms that doesn’t care about the Andromeda galaxy’s imminent collision with our own, so it certainly doesn’t care about my little project. But figuratively, because once you’ve really made a decision, certain actions are bound to follow and those actions have consequences which tend to make things real, fast. And I had made a decision to submit a project which absolutely terrified me.

It terrifies me first because I really care about it, but mostly because I simply do not know if I can pull it off. See, I suffer from the common desire to seek the path of least resistance. I don’t like resistance. It makes me feel funny. But really, it makes me feel doubt. Because I forget that hard is usually better, that easy almost always leads nowhere, that taking the easy way is really just boarding a train at Okay and riding it mindlessly till you get off at Not Great.

The path of least resistance for me is doing something I know I can do. I know I can make a traditional film about guns or the mob or any of a number of traditional short film subjects, and I know that any of those choices will dictate every detail from approach to structure to tone. It’s a formula, and it’s one that I’m very comfortable with. So this time I said no to formula and yes to fear.

I want to make a live action film about a mouse, a cat and a bird where the characters are all played by grown ass men and women wearing animal costumes. There. I’ve said it.

I want to tell a story where irony sits atop irony to reveal even more irony. I want to challenge my audience by making something new, something even I haven’t seen. Because that’s what I admire in others: The willingness to stand alone, to build something without certainty. To have faith.

I want to tell the story of Munchie Mouse, a Candide-esque character who’s innocence allows him to see beauty and wonder in the most unlikely places. Which I believe means that he sees the world around us for what it really is, a fairy tale.

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We’re so lucky to be alive, to be experiencing new things, to be able to see beyond the darkness (and the doubt) through to the possibilities, by “squinting real hard”, as Munchie would say. Because I truly believe that the only way forward for our civilization, in this confusing time of distrust, judgement and outright paranoia is not to lash out, nor to ignore what’s all around us… but to have the willingness to see the good in people, in life… to actively seek out what Lincoln so beautifully described as the better angels of our nature, both in ourselves and in others.challenge_accepted

But I can’t do it alone. StoryHive is a competition, after all, and as such will rely on Votes, Likes, Shares and Tweets to help determine if this little story deserves to be told.

I don’t like to ask for help. I mean, I’m Danish, after all, stoic to a fault. It’s like that old joke about a Dane’s last words: “I’m fine”.

But I need your help if I’m going to take this to the next step, which is to face my fears and actually make this thing.

If you want to help, for the sake of curiosity if nothing else, here’s how you can do it:

  1. Vote! You can vote for Munchie Mouse and the Land of Dreams once every day for the next week by going to the Munchie Mouse StoryHive Page (there’s a 60 second video for you to watch if you’d like). You can share the project from there, too.
  2. Like the Munchie Mouse Facebook Page (you can also invite others to like it).
  3. You can follow Munchie Mouse on Twitter and he will follow you back, I can almost guarantee it. He’s just that way.

There. That’s it. I’m going to do something really uncharacteristic now, and say that…

I care about this.

No turning back now.

Time to put my money where my mouse is.

Munchie

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How Christopher Nolan Broke My Heart and Punched My Brain


“There’s a new name for fatuous, unforgivably ignorant, misguided and arrogant film making: Interstellar. Never has my intelligence been more acutely insulted. Christopher Nolan continues the tradition of schlock he began with Inception and carried through The Dark Night Rises. Hey, Nolan, news flash – we’re not all idiots.” – Signed, Clawing My Eyes Out

Okay. Maybe the above Facebook post was a little… heartfelt. But in my defence, my heart actually felt wounded. Like I’d been jilted, three times in a row. By the same person. Maybe I was angry at myself for expecting more. But damn it, I wanted there to be more. I thought he could change.

Don’t get me wrong. Nolan’s style is breathtaking. He really likes to show us things upside down, but still. His ideas and concepts, equally laudable. And Inception wasn’t so bad, really, which is why I say his descent merely began there. But for me, there were little things in that film which heralded the coming of what I see as Nolan’s disregard for his audience – like how he states as a central point of fact early on that jostling a subject while they are ‘dreaming’ will wake them up. Makes sense. I’ll buy that. But then, in the film’s pivotal scene, he has a van full of subjects sleep soundly through a wild high speed car chase and stay sleeping as they GO FLYING OFF A BRIDGE. Apparently, he doesn’t even have the respect to suggest that maybe they’re not being jostled too badly, an obvious, if suspicious, out – instead, he repeatedly shows their heads being yanked back and forth in slow motion closeups while remaining blissfully asleep. This is ignoring the logic he has already set up, all in service of an action scene with memorable visuals. Not cool, Chris. Not cool.

Tumbling

But that’s not enough to indict the whole enterprise, and to be fair, I don’t. I leave that to others. However, I do feel that Inception tries to get all ‘deep’ while failing to muster anything more interesting or insightful than any high school kid might manage after smoking a couple of bowls. One big missed opportunity there, Nolan, and not enough for me. If I want a mind f**k with some art and intelligence, I’ll watch David Lynch. He never leaves me wanting. Confused, but never wanting.

Nolan’s disregard for both basic physics and the intelligence of his audience continues in the Dark Night Rises, but he takes it up several notches. I won’t even bother listing the problems with that movie here. Although I especially love that criminal mastermind Bane sacrifices a flunky to insure that the right amount of bodies will be found in the wreckage, but he doesn’t seem to think finding the plane’s wings kilometres from it’s fuselage might raise an eyebrow or two.

dark-knight-rises-trailer-full-plane-heistNo, I’ll save the bulk of my energy here for nolan’s self-proclaimed ‘scientifically precise’ Interstellar (which should first of all actually be called ‘Intergalactic’ since all of the travel is between planets and between galaxies, but NOT between stars). I would need far more time than you’re probably willing to invest right now to really get into it, but good lord. It’s hard to even choose between highlights. Or lowlights. Let’s set science aside for a moment and deal with some very basic problems. Like how many times does cowboy pilot Cooper ‘switch to manual’ during this movie? How stupid is that? And why does the NASA appointed astronaut (and an engineer, by the way) and instrument of humanity’s only hope not bother to ask how wormholes work until he’s just about to fly into one? And seriously, a folded piece of paper? Ok, now he gets it [face palm].

This is a Wormhole

I guess this makes sense to a filmmaker who gives us a world where scientists can send hibernating scientists and robots with strong AI to Saturn and through an Einstein-Rosen Bridge ten years ago but when it comes to plant biology, well, if the corn stops growing, humanity will simply starve (what’s the beer they’re drinking made from, by the way? Just curious. No, really).

Drinking a Bottle of Corn Liquer-1I mean, if they’ve figured out how to feed the world’s population on nothing but corn, surely they know enough to fix the ‘blight’ problem.

Maybe the engineers could’ve put aside some money for biological research (they can freeze people, for god’s sake. And why do that? So that the scientists don’t get bored on the way to Saturn?) by not building a centrifugal spacecraft completely unsuited for interplanetary travel just so that the scientists in hyper-sleep could have the illusion of gravity. Why? Because a centrifugal ship is gimmicky and saves the filmmakers a bucket load of money in production doing all the weightless effects of a serious movie like Gravity (which had its own issues, but still). And because then the All American farmer/pilot can once again ‘switch to manual’ and execute an impressive maneuver in an obligatory action sequence. Of course, the centrifuge design isn’t just expensive and completely unnecessary for the mission, it’s also problematic, as the astronauts discover once they’re already in space. 

Dramamine?

“I think we have some dramamine.” You think? And Dramamine? Really? What is this, the 1940’s? No. It’s some time in the second half of the 21st Century. Maybe that lady scientist has some in her purse.

Of course, the motion sickness problem, the one that apparently wasn’t dealt with in the simulations they obviously didn’t bother to train on as a matter of course for any trip into space by anybody, won’t be too bad as long as they don’t design the spacecraft with an absolute shipload of goddamn windows for absolutely no reason.

Windows 2

Oh, and how about transmitting GPS coordinates via a smattering of binary lines on a floor? Does anyone involved in the making of this film know how either GPS coordinates or binary code work? Apparently not. In which case it seems perfectly reasonable to take the ‘quantum information’ from the interior of a black hole and translate it into Morse Code. What!?!

Here Are the Coordinates in Binary

Then there’s the question of ‘Them’. A bewildered Cooper asks, understandably, who ‘They’ are. No idea? Alrighty, then! Let’s go! Not only is this pretty important question not answered, given much weight or even, as far as we know, investigated by the scientists… it’s hardly even mentioned again. Sure, ‘They’ offer a handshake upon arrival which no one seems particularly concerned about. But what’s the deal? What have ‘They’ done to even warrant their mention in the first place? Put the wormhole in place? What’s the compelling reason to assume that? Because an Einstein-Rosen Bridge (none of the scientists call it that because we’re too stupid as an audience to handle it, I guess) can’t exist naturally? Oh, I guess all of a sudden everyone understands what is and is not possible on the very fringes of speculative physics. So therefore ‘they’ did it, but we don’t try to contact them or figure out what their deal is as we face species annihilation. Of course, the bigger question is… why would you build the launch pad twenty feet from your boardroom?

Engines in the Boardroom

Do I even bother, now with the science? Like the simple fact that planets don’t (can’t) orbit black holes without a star? That without a star this little planet would be anything but ‘earth-like’. That any planetary object close enough to a black hole to experience meaningful time dilation would be torn apart in an instant by gravitational forces? That the accretion disk (so beautifully rendered in 3-D!) is a result of every bit of mass in the vicinity being pulled right through the planet into the black hole? That this would include enough X-rays and other forms of radiation to be instantly fatal to any form of life, space suit or no?

Whiteboard

“See, if we land on the sun at night…”

How about that waves hundreds of metres high can’t exist in less than a metre of water because they would need a trough of equal depth (forgetting what havoc the gravitational attraction implied to pull these waves in the first place would wreak on anyone on the surface) to exist at all? I could go on and on. And on (and on) without even getting into the terrible dialogue, the ridiculous characters…

Brilliant Scientist

“I am totally convincing as a brilliant scientist. And I am so terribly lonely that I am going to kill the only three people in the galaxy. Oh, wait.”

…or the ploddingly obvious plot ‘twists’, but I’ll stop.

Not before I ask one more question, though: Ok, Nolan, so ‘love’ travels across time. Then, uh… doesn’t ‘hate’?

I know that many people simply like the movie and don’t care about any of the things I’ve touched on here. And that’s valid. I guess I’m just not that forgiving. Maybe it’s because I can’t help picturing a scene like this one: Consulting physicist Kip Thorn clears his throat, nervously. “Excuse me, Mr. Nolan, but it, uh, just doesn’t work like that.” Nolan turns to his accountant. “How much am I making for this?” The accountant whispers something into the director’s ear. “That’s what I thought,” he says. Looking the physicist in the eye, he shrugs. “Fuck ’em.”

Hear no Evil good

If you want big ideas that are handled properly, do yourself a huge favour and watch Sunshine, 2001 A Space Odyssey (again, I hope), Coherence (NOT Divergent or Convergence, for the love of god) or Timecrimes, just for starters. You’ll see, I hope, that while it’s not easy, it can be done.

I’m incensed, clearly, that someone with the power and resources of Christoper Nolan chooses not to make the effort, or simply doesn’t care. I don’t like being talked down to. Actual good ideas, well thought out and presented, can not be replaced by throwing out words like ‘quantum’ and ‘relativity”, nor by the endless repetition of a Dylan Thomas poem.

Frozen Cloud

“What was that?”

“Frozen cloud…”

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Soul Murdering Question # 1: Am I Any Good?


jean-luc-picard

Before I get to the subject at hand, I’d like to send a shout out to all of those who read “One Minute Film School” and were moved to follow my little page because of it. The flood of comments it received was amazing, and the degree to which that post seems to have resonated with readers was as startling for me as it was  gratifying. All of this, as you can probably imagine, means a lot.

Thank you all.

*   *   *

There was one comment in particular, from fellow blogger Nichole Eck, which has really stuck with me. So much so that I’ve decided to devote this post to the question she posits. Her comment starts out innocuously enough:

I have the same inability to kill people’s dreams, no matter how unrealistic or misguided! Even if I sometimes think that the sooner they get over their dreams and move on, the better (lest they end up like Willy Loman). I especially liked this observation of yours: “If you’re any good, someone will notice, believe me. If you’re not, please stop.”

It’s this next part that haunts me:

Do you know of any guidelines that can help people realize if they’re not “any good” at something? Is it just the test of time? (i.e. It’s been three years, and no one’s noticed; it must be time to stop.”)

Now, I don’t know whether Nichole’s final line is merely a hypothetical example, or something more. But I can’t help wondering if she’s referring to herself here, that she’s at a crossroads, unsure of which blinker to switch on. For this reason, and because I believe her question is as central to the artistic pursuit as it is universal, I can’t in good conscience write another post without at least addressing it. Especially since I think I may have some answers.

*   *   *

“How will I know?” – Whitney Houston

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So, how will you know? The simple answer is, you won’t. The slightly more complicated answer is, you just will. But the only useful answer is, it doesn’t matter.

Let me unpack these for you.

#1) You won’t. Why? Because you can’t. The quality you seek to identify in yourself is relative. It’s subjective. And it’s a moving target. Remember how you can’t know an electron’s position AND velocity at the same time? It’s like that. It’s also a lot like another potentially soul crushing question, this one asked by far too many women throughout their lives: Am I pretty? Like talent, “prettiness” is something you can spot and even, horribly, quantify in someone else. But, not in yourself. Ever. You’re too close. You’ve got too much at stake. Objectivity flies out the window.

This is why we turn to outside indicators, usually in the form of human beings, for answers. In theory this can be of some help. If a girl is constantly being hit on by strangers and told that she’s amazing, for instance, she can be fairly sure where she stands on the ‘attractiveness’ scale. In much the same way, an artist who is praised, critically acclaimed and, well, hit on and told that they’re amazing can be fairly sure where they stand on the ‘any good’ scale. But there are problems with this ‘external indicator’ approach which have probably already occurred to you.

First of all, very few people are enough of a knockout or a genius to generate such a powerful response to their looks or their talent so, statistically speaking, you’re probably not one of them. Don’t worry, neither am I. Also, you can never be sure what’s motivating a human to do or say anything, and they’re as likely as not to change their minds up or down in ways you can never predict. And we all know there will never be a true consensus. Some people hate Shakespeare. Even the Dalai Lama has enemies.

Consider people who are famous for being famous. It probably feels for those basking inside that fame bubble that there can be no question about their looks and/or talent. They’re famous! And they’re almost certainly wrong. Compare that situation to Van Gogh’s, who was tremendously undervalued as an artist in his own time. In short, trying to gauge something by another’s opinion, no matter how tempting, is as futile as trying to get a handle on that electron. You’ll simply never know.

#2) You just will. Well, thats interesting. Seems like I’m completely contradicting everything I just said, doesn’t it? Not exactly. I’m just approaching the question from another angle, in another way. What would you say if a close friend asked you “How do I know if I’m really in love?” I’ll tell you what I’d say. “You’ll just know. If you’re not sure, if you even have to ask the question, you’re not”. Harsh, isn’t it? But I think it’s the truth. You’re not stupid. Trust your gut.

The problem with this approach, as easy as it may sound (it’s not) is that for your answer to have any validity, you have to apply some rigorous introspection, soul searching and, worst of all, you have to be completely honest with yourself. Yikes. It takes courage to get under your own hood and really look around, and it takes even more to be willing to accept what you find.

Some people are in love with the idea of being in love. Similarly, a lot of artists are in love with the idea of being an artist. But as philosopher and Starship Captain Jean-Luc Picard once observed, “Wishing for a thing does not make it so”.

35781610Look, maybe your desire for talent outstrips the degree to which you actually have it. There’s no shame in that. But someone in love with love who spends their life with the wrong person is wasting much. Spending your life pursuing something you blindly hope you’re good at is equally tragic. And there’s probably something you’d be far better off pursuing, something you really do have a talent for.

#3) It doesn’t matter. I can almost hear how pissed off you are at me right now. If it doesn’t matter, why even bother talking about it? Because you’re going to think about it anyway, that’s why. So I thought we could explore some ways to think about it together. But, ultimately, it just doesn’t matter. This is good news!

tumblr_m4pbbjvRt71rvzvq4o1_500What I’m really saying here isn’t just that the question is meaningless, which it is, I’m saying that even if an omniscient deity or a post-singularity supercomputer could tell you definitively if you were any good or not, it wouldn’t make much difference. Why? Because you are not your art.

Your art is your art. It is outside of you. You create it, and either it is valuable and interesting or it isn’t, but whether you’re ‘any good’, especially at this one moment of all possible future moments, is not what matters. Who cares whether you’re a good car maker, that’s just ego. Do you build good cars? You make your art, your art doesn’t make you. Remember that. And the most important word in that truism isn’t ‘you’, it isn’t even ‘art’. It’s ‘make’.

“Is the art that I make any good?” Now there’s a question.

And I’ll try to answer it in my next post.

Aloha

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An offensive, appalling waste of time


I was blown away by this post. Equal parts unbridled passion and brilliant writing, the big idea presented here needs, in my opinion, to be heard and considered.

humanismThere’s an absurdity in calling oneself a humanist. The hat, which I’m proud to wear, solicits polarised emotions that are not easily reconciled. Here’s the rub: I loathe humanity, but at the same time I am also her greatest cheerleader. I’d build, without even a moment’s hesitation, an entire museum around a single human hand, and right next door I’d erect a mausoleum to house its pair. My heart beats faster every time I watch a space launch, and it breaks in two every time I turn on the News. I am at once amazed and horrified by our species, and so it should not come as a surprise to learn that what I consider one of the most astounding moments in human history is also the fountainhead of one of its greatest ever blunders; a missed opportunity which I, as a card-holding humanist, lament every time I pass some…

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Neanderthal: Religious or Pragmatic?


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It’s widely believed that the first documented religious behaviour was that of Neanderthal, as archaeological evidence suggests they were the first hominid, and therefore creature of any kind, to bury their dead. The quasi, or perhaps proto-, religious mindset has been inferred from further evidence that the fallen had flowers placed ‘ceremoneously’ near the body.

What if this is a case of retro-projection of our own, far more advanced, mindset? Could there be a simpler explanation?

In exploring this question, I began with another question: what would earlier hominids have done with their dead? The answer seems clear cut. Probably nothing. Yet if one presumes that the hominid lifestyle around this time and somewhat previous to it was tending toward encampment vs continual wandering (hunt/gather, move on, repeat), the problem of the doing nothing with the dead would have presented itself as one to be solved.

We can look at this problem in at least two ways. The first is from an evolutionary point of view. The group’s elders die and lie where they fall, as do the children, the post-childbirth mothers, the sick, the wounded and the hungry. Mortality rates in these hominid groups was unimaginable and would have resulted in bodies everywhere around the camp or cave, in various stages of decomposition. One unfortunate trait among the dead is that they don’t move. It’s easy to imagine that having countless fetid corpses in the same area where the group eats and sleeps is a significant further health risk to an already dangerous existence. Not only is the spectre of disease an obvious threat, but so would be the ever present likelihood of unwanted carnivores encouraged by the intoxicating smell of death. One expects that after relatively short periods of homesteading, the group would be forced to move on, even if they were lucky enough to have found a perfect place to live. The dead would eventually and certainly have rendered even the most idyllic location unhealthy. Those who did not move, or at least move quickly enough, would have been less likely to survive, as would their offspring. This survival feature would clearly leave an evolutionary stamp.

The second point of view is somewhat more immediately pragmatic. Living among the rotting dead, especially for a social creature with strong feelings of kinship which hominids evidently possessed, would have been less than pleasant. First of all, there would be the smell. There’s little evidence and no reason to believe that the dying would have had the foresight or physical ability to drag themselves away from the fire or their sleeping spot to expire. Imagine how much worse this environment would have been for cave dwellers. The urge to move on would have been palpable.

_53638745_jomo_erectus_bbc_640It should be pointed out that this situation would only have occurred and presented a problem for a very particular type of creature: one which was social and lived in groups; one which had enough biomass for the average corpse to be inviting for bacteria and large carnivores; one which lived and slept on the ground (as opposed to, say, in trees); one which lived in an environment relatively free of heavy undergrowth and humidity which would quickly compost the offending relative (sub-Saharan Africa, say); one which required a relatively long and healthy life to reproduce, and, most importantly; one infused with a powerful sense of territorialism and which had developed the technology (fire, organized perimeter enforcement) to enforce it, thus both encouraging and enabling the encampment lifestyle. I would suggest hominids as the only group of species ever evolved which meet all of these criteria.

So there, briefly outlined, is what I call the Dead Hominid Problem. Dealing with the DHP by any other means than packing up one’s sticks and stones and setting out for new ‘digs’, for any but the most contemplative and inventive species would have been, quite literally, unthinkable and likely was for a very long time. For you or I, the solution is obvious. Two solutions actually. Bury ’em or burn ’em. Done deal, problem solved. Bacteria: dealt with. Smell: dealt with. Hungry carnivores: dealt with. As a bonus, one which would likely have had little value for our cognitively challenged ancestors but would be incredibly important for most of us, not having to watch day after day as the face of our loved one decomposes: priceless.

Model of a Neanderthal man, Neanderthal Museum, Mettmann, Germany

Enter Homo Neanderthalensis. Religious? Hard to say. But smart? No doubt. Smart enough to figure out that if you throw the ‘un-movers’ into a pit and cover them up, things get a lot more pleasant around the camp? Quite possibly. Of course, like all great discoveries, it may have been an accidental one. The discovery that relatives who die in a mud slide don’t smell as bad or attract as many predators might have gotten them to thinking. And since Neanderthals are believed to have had at least rudimentary language skills, an important discovery like this could easily have been communicated both laterally (to others, which would spread quickly) and linearly, through time. Once something of this magnitude and with this degree of general interest were to take hold, you could never go back. Those who somehow missed the news or were disinclined to utilize it, would have been supplanted through the miracle of natural selection. Adapt or die, in this case, would have been more than just a powerful metaphor.

Is there anything to suggest that burial of the dead had a religious component? Well, there is the flower issue.

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But it may be worth noting that flowers smell good and the idea of covering up stinky (or soon to be stinky) things with good-smelling things is a pretty common and easily cognated behaviour, if a somewhat ineffective one in the case of a corpse. Nonetheless, it may have been a practice which had gone on for millennia as a weak solution to the DHP which would have left scant archaeological trace until combined with the practice of burial, which would have effectively entombed the practice with the body. In fact, an intermediary step on the road to the effective solution of putting corpses in holes would logically have been to leave the dead where they lie (or move them) and covering them up, with material like dirt, rocks… and foliage.

A different proto-religious impulse within the prototypical hominid mind might arguably be surmised by the adoption of kin burial by Neanderthals beyond something as ambiguous as flower arranging, however. It’s conceivable that a growing understanding of “as you go, so go I” which would seem an emergent step closely related, and necessarily subsequent, to “I am”, would have made decomposition and other indignities visited upon members of their own tribe less and less easy to bear. This, perhaps, was the beginning of the concept of a soul, or at least of a concrete belief that there is, indeed, someone “in there”, and that that “someone” could one day be me. And that, one could further surmise, could indeed be the first incarnation of a religious impulse.

neand

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On Dogs and Churches: Are There Hard Limits to Human Understanding?


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I’ve been thinking lately about a particularly instructive image, that of a dog walking the aisles of a cathedral during mass. It’s instructive in that one can consider how much of its reality the dog, or more particularly the dog’s brain, can understand. The smartest dog in the world will know that there are people all around it, perhaps that some of them are familiar, that the room is warm and dry, that there are many sounds of different frequencies about and that the people are curiously still… but not much more. The dog can ever understand what is really going on.

Humans have brains, too. Are there truths, perhaps great sweeping truths, about reality that we simply can never hope to understand, even when the evidence is as abundant as it is in that church?

This is by its nature an extremely difficult question to answer. The dog doesn’t know what it doesn’t know, after all. And it doesn’t know that, either. We, of course, have considerable advantages over the canine brain. But these advantages are by no means infinite.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “Middle World” to refer to the sphere of our experience. Our brains evolved in the world of medium-sized objects, medium velocities, and so on. As a result we don’t intuitively understand that rocks and people are made up almost entirely of empty space because, as Dawkins points out, when we punch a rock we experience a very real solidity. And it’s helpful that our brains don’t see objects for what they really are. If they did, we might spend our lives throwing ourselves at walls the way that moths throw themselves at a lightbulb. Moths, of course, evolved in the absence of light bulbs.

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It’s humbling to realize that lepidopteran lightbulbs are everywhere for us. Forget that every atom in our body is switched out many times during our lives, so that we are at this moment merely approximate copies of ourselves from even a year ago. Surprise! Or that each of us spent an eternity in a state of non-existance before the incalculably unlikely event of our birth, with the logical implication that we will return to that same “normal” state in a few years. Yay? We can probably grasp those realities. Others are not so easy.

Cosmological distances are notoriously difficult for our minds to comprehend. Many methods have been proposed to help us, but beyond a certain point they lapse into meaninglessness. The distance to the Sun might be easier to contemplate in relation to the distance to a nearer object like the Moon, for instance. The Sun lies at a distance from us roughly 400 times that of the Moon. But the concept of multiplying any great distance by a factor of 400 strains our brains considerably (other than as just a number) and when you couple that with the fact that we are hard-pressed to wrap our heads around even the distance between ourselves and the Moon, a relatively nearby rock that we can easily see, the whole exercise reaches the periphery of usefulness. What about geological time? The Rocky Mountains were formed after the extinction of the dinosaurs. Does that help? I doubt it very much.

But we can see the Sun and the Moon and we can experience the passage of time. These are, at least in some ways, still a part of our “Middle World”. What about the square root of -1? We can use this concept easily by plugging it into an equation. We understand perfectly how it “works”, but what is it? What is Pi? What is mathematical infinity? For that matter, what is the number 8?

The answer to this last query may seem self-evident at first, but consider these troubling questions: Is ‘8’ a construct or is it real? It has no mass or volume and it presumably exists outside of time, if it exists at all. If intelligent life had never evolved, would the concept of ‘8’ have any meaning, or exist? [Probably, since if you take four objects and group them together with four separate objects, you will likely always end up with an additive number equivalent to their sum, whether anyone is around to notice or not] Nonetheless, my assertion is that we can never know for sure because we simply don’t know what ‘8’ is. If you’re still not convinced of the elusive quality of the ostensibly pedestrian concept we call ‘8’, it may be helpful to consider one last question: If the Big Bang had never occurred, if universes had never existed and never were to exist, if matter and time and space had never come into being… where would that leave the number 8? I personally feel that as a non-physical entity outside of time, it would likely still exist. So if that is indeed the case, I ask a final time, WTF IS IT? Discuss.

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In anticipation of a barrage of well-meaning and very wound up mathematical theorists rushing to their keyboards to expose my puny understanding of the discipline, I would like to remind my readers that the ‘Waxing Upon the Number Eight’ portion of this little exploration is by no means an element central to it. I merely present it as an example of how complicated even the most familiar and accepted concepts can be when examined closely, and how easily we accept what we don’t really understand at all and move on.

Despite my brash suggestion that its most basic elements are not and probably never can be fully understood, Mathematical Theory itself is, in the academic sense at least. So let’s get weirder. Quantum Theory. String Theory. Quantum Gravity. The Higgs Boson. Spooky Action at a Distance. Quantum Tunnelling. The Uncertainty Principle. Dark Energy. Dark Matter. Eleven dimensions. Some of these are measurable and predictable, some are fairly well understood, many can be used to elicit very consistent results like microwaves and cell phones. But we’re pushing it, and while all of these game-changing concepts were discovered or postulated in just the past hundred years, many of them were unimaginable even a couple of decades ago.

I invite you to extrapolate.exp1

Can our ‘Middle World’ brains ever really understand what it means for a particle to exist not as an object in space but as a probability wave, regardless of how much evidence we amass? How about every particle? Can we wrap our heads around the undeniable fact that in 4 billion years the Andromeda Galaxy will collide and fuse with our own Milky Way? Keep in mind that our Earth has been here longer than that. What will that look like? Something like  this.

Can we ever viscerally feel that something as familiar as gravity, the attractive force which keeps you on the ground is likely not a force at all, attractive or otherwise, but results naturally from the fact that space-time curves around massive objects? How about that only a minuscule 4% of the universe is made up of anything we understand as matter (the rest, by the way, is not empty space. It’s something else. Empty space doesn’t exist), and that if you took all of the planets, stars and galaxies away, and just threw them out, the universe would remain essentially unchanged?

That matter

pops

in and out of

existence

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with the ease and frequency

of raindrops?

Or that most of the matter in the universe isn’t matter at all and most of the energy isn’t energy at all as we know them, but that both are far and away the most important factors driving…

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 everything?

All of these are likely true, and fit to wear the crown of “Miss Uncomprehensionality”, or be voted Most Likely to Succeed in Messing You Up. But let’s not forget the very real possibility that other universes, some perhaps where the number 8 does not exist, many perhaps where all of the strange things mentioned above don’t exist either but are replaced by other, stranger things, are all around us. Maybe even woven into our own.

So where am I going with this? Am I just trying to bum everybody out? Partially. But I would like to explore the possibility in Part 2 of this post that these things are only unfathomable to us as creatures whose brains have evolved through natural selection to understand rabbits and what it feels like to be hungry or to fall from a tree. That when the exogenous tools we rely on to bring reality into sharper focus like Hubble Telescopes, Particle Accelerators and Advanced Mathematics bring us to the end of what even the most brilliant among us can actually comprehend, there may indeed be a way for those limits to be exceeded. I will look at whether an intelligence created by a different kind of process can loose the surly bounds of the Middle World and, in the most complete sense possible, touch the face of God.

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Cryogenics’ Big Problem, or: How Not to Become a Zombie


I was inserting freshly charged batteries into my wireless keyboard this morning, and naturally my thoughts turned to the current state of cryogenic technologies. How close are we to actually being able to bring the dead back to life?

Cryogenics, or cryopreservation, is the practice of “freezing” the recently deceased with the intention of bringing him or her back to life at some future time, when medical science has advanced sufficiently to deal with what killed them in the first place.

Mention cryogenics to the average person today, of course, and the first image to pop into their head is likely to be that of the corpse formerly known as Walt Disney.

Although he’s inadvertently become the poster boy for the process, truth, in this case at least, is unfortunately less strange than fiction. The surrogate father of Mickey Mouse was cremated in 1966 and his ashes interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. I say ‘unfortunately’, because there is a certain appeal to the idea that the creator of an animation empire would be in line for reanimation himself.

But he didn’t miss the deadline by much.The first known human cryogenic freezing did occur in January 1967, just a month after Disney’s death. Missing the opportunity may not have been such a bad thing, as it turns out. Early attempts were little more than experiments, and although the body of University of California psychology professorHiram Bedford remains cryopreserved in a “dewar” (basically a really fancy thermos) at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation facility in Scottsdale, Arizona, expectations for his successful resurrection are guarded, at best. The reason is a little thing called crystallization, and even if your dead, it’s nasty.

That, my friends, is the Big Problem. Freezing any material involves changing its state. And in the case of cryogenics, it means changing it back as well. Otherwise, what’s the point? The problem with changing liquid to solid is that tiny crystals are formed, a process which is catastrophic to biological tissue. It’s worth mentioning that a sickening “popping sound” reportedly emanates from the corpse as it descends to preservation temperatures. That can’t be good.

So when you’re dead, you’re dead, right? Not necessarily. A lot has been learned since 1967. Although not, arguably, in the Middle East. Alcor Life Extension Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to solving the Big Problem. And they’re getting close. Maybe. The key, I’ll call it the Big Answer, is “vitrification”, or ice-free preservation. No popping sound. Yay.

Vitrification is achieved through the injection of cryoprotectants (think anti-freeze) prior to cooling. This lowers the freezing temperature and increases the viscosity. Rather than changing state, the syrupy solution becomes an amorphous ice, a “solid liquid”. Now for my favourite term of all: a “glass transition temperature” is reached. [NOTE: My supply of quotation marks for this post has officially been depleted]

There are some Small Problems to be worked out, however. Cryoprotectants like dimethyl sulfoxide are toxic (of course they are), especially in the high concentrations required to bring about the necessary effects. So there needs to be a way to lessen the damage caused by the solution to the damage problem. Enter ice blockers. Adding them to the mix means lessening the concentration of cryoprotectants. The result? Very recently California cryobiological research company Twenty-First Century Medicine successfully froze a rabbit kidney to -135 degrees Celsius using a cryoprotectant/ice blocker vitrification cocktail. And get this: the kidney was rewarmed and transplanted into a rabbit with full functionality and viability restored. The rabbit lived.

Now I get to talk about zombies. A kidney is not a brain. And the Really Big Problem in cryogenics is how to avoid something called Information-Theoretic Death. The brain is such an intricate and delicate organ that it may not be possible to preserve it without damage at the finest level. I’m no cryogenicist. Partially because I’m not sure if that word even exists, but mostly because I’m just not. But to me, a re-animated corpse without a mind, let alone memories and a fully functioning consciousness, is pretty much a zombie. Not good. Cool, arguably, but definitely not good.

So, dying is still serious business. My advice is to continue avoiding it where possible. Although the research is promising, we’re still some time away from installation of the elusive “snooze” button [quotation marks borrowed from a future post].

Brains…!

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