Reading Science Fiction (and finishing the books)

Cover art by Dean Ellis

I’m diving into Science Fiction. And I’m loving it.

When I was a kid I liked sci-fi literature quite a lot. I didn’t read a ton of science fiction books, perhaps because I’m a slow reader and I also liked to read other kinds of books. But I remember reading Ray Bradbury’s short stories and loving them. I also had an original hardbound copy of Burroughs At the Earth’s Core, which I absolutely loved and eventually lost. I also read and loved Burroughs’ Tarzan and several of his John Carter of Mars series. I also loved sci-fi films and television (STAR WARS IV was life changing for me as an eleven year old). And I vaguely remember reading Herbert’s Dune and Asimov’s Foundation (remembering almost nothing btw) in college and loving those too. But time went by and my sensibilities began feel the weight of needing to read the classics of Western Civ. I can’t say how many times I started The Brothers Karamazov but it’s the same number as the number of time I didn’t finish it.

It’s been a long time since have read cover-to-cover a work of fiction let alone science fiction. Long gone have been the days when I let my imagination run over the covers of classic sci-fi books purchased at the supermarket or the used book store. These covers activated my young imagination and probably libido.

Cover art by Gino D’Achille

For nearly three decades now most of my reading has been non-fiction. I’ve really struggled to read fiction. But recently I decided two things: 1) I’m going to read fiction in the morning rather than when I get into bed and fall asleep five minutes later, and 2) I’m going to read science fiction rather than from the “western canon” of so-called great literature. Why science fiction specifically I can’t say, but it seems like the right choice. Maybe I’m more willing to give into my inner nerd and admit I love a lot of what sci-fi has to offer my imagination.

For as long as I can remember I’ve religiously spent between one and two hours every morning reading. I’m a man of routine. My coffee and my books and a quiet house before everyone wakes up are sacred to me. But I’ve lived for so long believing I should be reading “serious” stuff and not frivolous trivialities. Oh well, that’s changed.

“The Three-Body Problem” cover art by Stephan Martiniere

In a sense I feel like I’m trying to catching up. I’m looking at Hugo and Nebula awards lists, recommendations from others, and my own knowledge of sci-fi (and some guilt about books I should have read by now). My list of must-reads is growing, and it’s kinda exciting.

I just finished N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (decent read, more fantasy than sci-fi), Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem (kinda amazing, need to read the next two), and H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds (so wonderfully victorian in tone and style). I’m also re-reading Asimov’s Foundation (book one and loving it), pecking away at Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (classic and interesting) and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (a much better read than I expected, but I shouldn’t be surprised). I’ve also got a ton of books ready and waiting to be read next (I’m getting a lot of recommendations from online reviewers and “top” lists). I welcome any suggestions too.

In short, I’m loving reading these books. Switching to reading fiction in the morning is fun and I’m actually getting through these books. This surprises me – I can actually finish a book!

“Leviathan Wakes” cover art by Daniel Dociu

Finally, I have to say I love the cover art of quite a lot of sci-fi books. There must be something about the genre that inspires artists more than most other genres, for the art is often staggeringly good.

Chinatown and the Rule of Thirds

This is a re-post from 2008. Still timeless.

Many films are beautifully shot. Few, though, are as consistently well composed as Chinatown (1974)*. Shot in Panavision (anamorphic) format with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio the somewhat extreme rectangular image would seem to offer significant challenges to effective image composition. As I was pondering this challenge I was struck by how much I loved the images in Chinatown, which I just watched again the other day. That’s when I went back to basics and considered that even with widescreen images there are still fundamentals of composition at play. In this case I figured I would grab a few images (one from each major scene) from the film and apply the Rule of Thirds to each image.

The Rule of Thirds is simply as follows:

Divide the image into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, then put the focus of the image either one third across (from either side) or one third up or down the screen. Those lines, and the points at which they intersect, are the strongest invisible forces in an image.

In Chinatown the images are constructed around those lines and intersecting points. By doing this the aspect ratio becomes a relatively mute point as the human brain automatically takes in the whole image, mentally divides the image into thirds, and finds pleasure as key visual elements are constructed around those thirds. Of course, deviation from the power of the thirds creates visual tension, which is an additional tool in the filmmaker’s toolbox.

Chinatown was shot by John A. Alonzo. He was nominated for an Oscar for best cinematography. Here are the images from the film (I, of course, added the white lines):





















Vintage psychedelia by Ryan Larkin

Two more psychedelic classics from animator Ryan Larkin. As I watch these pieces I can’t help but think how wonderful it is that Larkin turned his amazing artistic talents to the hard work of animation. I wish more artists would do so.

Walking (1968)

Street Musique (1975)

These films bring back many vague but good memories of the aesthetics of my youth, that is, I seem to remember the cool, funky, colorful, and exploratory art of the late sixties and early seventies that these films exemplify. I miss that period, but I also am glad we have moved on. I am also reminded that Larkin did these films by hand: each frame is an actual drawing or painting on paper or canvas—no computers, no cgi, just one photograph taken for every 1/24 of a second of finished film.

The Stars Are Beautiful

The Stars Are Beautiful (1974) 19 min 16mm, by Stan Brakhage (1933-2003):

Part 1

Part 2

More on Brakhage at Senses of Cinema.

I find this kind of non-narrative experimental filmmaking wonderful. When I studied film in college my interests gravitated to this kind of art. Maybe it was because I was also studying art history and had a fondness for modern art. Maybe also because I love poetry. I think any work of art is a kind of test of what we bring to it. That test is not only of us, but of the artist and his/her work of art. A kind of dialogue ensues if we pursue it. Brakhage worked with a language, at least on its surface, that is foreign to most people. One could say it is abstract, I prefer poetic. However, I think there is a universal resonance within his best films that makes them work at a deeper level than is possible with more common forms of film language. I also had the privilege of attending a two evening presentation and discussion with Brakhage where he talked of his processes, inspirations, showed a number of his films, and introduced us to other filmmakers. It was revelatory.

Stan Brakhage

Peter Greenaway is wrong

Peter Greenaway lecture: “New Possibilities: Cinema is Dead, Long Live Cinema”

Is Peter Greenaway correct in both his assessment and prescription for cinema? No. His call for a new cinema is like saying we need a new kind of painting, one that does away with brushes, with the canvass and its tyrannically limiting edges, with paint, with the subject, with even the typical displaying of paintings. We did that, remember? It didn’t work that well; what we generally got was academic, “meaningful” meaninglessness. I understand each of the four cinematic tyrannies Greenaway decries (people have been decrying them for decades), but I think Greenaway is wrong, not in his observations per se, but in his approach. Greenaway’s approach is very much within a Cartesian/Enlightenment Project vein. He is mired in the analytical, in particulars, in a world without ultimate, normative positions. In fact, one can easily say his entire talk, though fascinating and entertaining, is a kind of extended opinion piece delivered with pomposity and dry humor, but no more.

This is not to say that his ideas are not insightful or helpful. They are, and he certainly is a filmmaker who is exploring cinema and its possibilities more than some filmmakers today. However, the real need, the real requirement regarding cinema (and any artform), is not to begin with an examination of the particulars and the technologies of the form, or even the history or the form, but with the question: What is Man? This is the great lost question of our age. Instead, what we get with Greenaway, as evidenced in his various examples of his own work, are ever more complicated, lengthy, and virtually un-watchable mashups of techno-cinema musings (no matter how philosophical they may appear) providing ever more information, ever more detail, ever more cinema-of-attractions juxtapositionings, but less and less essential humanity. In short, Peter Greenaway’s message is ontologically and teleologically dead; an empty and vain promise. Greenaway’s position is, before he even begins, one of hopelessness–and he revels in being the ring master.

Still, and from an entirely different direction, I will proclaim: Long live cinema!

The Politics of Gender in French Cinema

French professor Geneviève Sellier (Université de Caen–senior member, Institut Universitaire de France) gave a lecture “The Politics of Gender in French Cinema” at New York University’s La Maison Française on April 14th, 2010. Sellier is the author of Masculine Singular: French New Wave Cinema (Duke University Press, 2008; translated by NYU Professor Kristin Ross).

Here is the audio of that lecture: