This Bright Flash: Chronicle and Source Code

For many of us, the way we see the world relies on a belief that all the mysteries are eventually knowable. Many of our ontologies hinge on the fact that all will one day be revealed, or that we’ll at least get a glimpse at what’s really going on as we move through this life, that it’s not all just some “lattice of coincidence,” as Miller explained it in Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984; scene embedded below). Our being is bound by time and space, and untethering it from its temporal and spatial planes requires knowledge from somewhere else.

Somewhere between the teen-angst-with-superpowers of Jumper (2008), the camera-as-character of Cloverfield (2008), and the amazing invention / discovery that drives a wedge between friends in Primer (2004), Chronicle tests the bounds of the human and the bonds between them. As a movie, it’s also not quite like any of these. “It’s the most human superhero movie you will ever see,” Dane DeHaan (who plays Chronicle‘s primary concern, Andrew Detmer) told Fox’s Film File, and that gets at one reason the movie is so compelling.

The Crush: Andrew Detmer

Set in my beloved Seattle (though obviously filmed elsewhere), Chronicle tells the tale of three high school friends of various social status who find something that gives them the mental abilities to move matter. It doesn’t take them long to realize how powerful this makes them and how much stronger they can get. This is all fine and fun until the downtrodden Andrew (e.g., abusive, alcoholic father, terminally ill mother, no friends, bullied at school, etc.) begins to exact revenge on his familiar foes and becomes punch-drunk with power, claiming to be an “apex predator.” His cousin Matt Garrety (second of the three, played by Alex Russell) attempts to mediate the madness, to no avail. Michael B. Jordan, who plays the gregarious Steve Montgomery and third of the affected, main characters, previously lit up the small screen on The Wire and Friday Night Lights. His megawatt on-screen presence alone powers much of the pace of this movie. By the time he is gone, Andrew has lost control and sent the plot over the edge.

For all the things that one could do with telekinesis, the film shows remarkable restraint. Sure, the boys go flying in the clouds and nearly get hit by an airplane, move cars around parking lots, give girls sensations heretofore unfelt, and totally own their school’s talent show, but when things get really bad, it’s restraint — theirs and the film’s writing/directing team, Max Landis and Josh Trank — that saves the day. The trailer probably gives away more than it needs to, but there’s plenty to discover in Chronicle, enough that I’m anxious for the DVD release and subsequent repeated viewings.

Send your dreams
Where nobody hides
Give your tears
To the tide
No time
No time  — M83. “Wait”

Duncan Jones‘ Source Code (2011) is another recent achievement. During the initial, getting-acquainted period, it feels like 12 Monkeys (1995), The Matrix (1999), and Memento (2000) all crammed together and compressed tight, but once it gets rolling, it’s on a track all its own. Writer Ben Ripley brings together some tightly written science fiction and raises some interesting questions. The film is not about time travel per se, but its causal questions are the same: What happens to one reality when we change another quantum reality’s outcome? Source Code, the system for which the movie is named, uses the last eight minutes of brain activity we all experience upon death to allow a person to experience a different timeline in another, compatible person (via quantum entanglement and “parabolic calculus”;  As William Gibson put it, “The people who complain about Source Code not getting quantum whatsit right probably thought Moon was about cloning.”). The idea of the system is to be able to find out what happened just before a catastrophic event (in this case a train bombing), in order to prevent further events from happening (e.g., a massive dirty bomb set for downtown Chicago). Somewhere between brain stimulation and computer simulation, Source Code does its work. But Captain Coulter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) goes in for one last shot at getting everything just right (like Aaron’s repeated runs in Primer) and manages to manipulate more than the system is supposed to allow.

Jake on a Train: Duncan Jones directs the lovelies.

The film’s not flawless, but most of the causes for concern are cast-related. The “bad guy,” Derek Frost (Michael Arden), is barely believable, and Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) serviceably scrapes by, but Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), the inventor of Source Code, is the standout bummer. As a serious scientist, as well as the movie’s real bad guy, he’s not only not believable, but his presence drags down an otherwise well-paced, well-performed movie. Gyllenhaal revisits and repeats a line from Donnie Darko (2001) — “Everything is going to be okay” — as well as some of the other themes from that movie.

There’s no end
There is no goodbye
Disappear
With the night
No time
No time — M83. “Wait”

These two movies rely on well-worn mythologies of mind power and its manipulation of time and space, and, like other narratives of this kind, their underlying conceits rely on glimpses behind the lattice of reality in order to move beyond. But more than that, they rely on the strength of the human spirit to overcome undue adversity. Whether it be bullying in the case of Chronicle or the horrors of war in Source Code, the real story is human.

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Plate of Shrimp: Miller from Repo Man explains it all [runtime: 2:44]:

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Mise-en-Zine: Adolescent Anthologies

Zines, well, mostly skateboard and BMX zines, defined my formative years. They were our network of news, stories, interviews, events, art, and pictures. It’s very difficult to describe how an outmoded phenomena like that worked once such epochal technological change, one that uproots and supplants its cultural practices, has occurred. FREESTYLIN’s reunion book, Generation F (Endo Publishing, 2008), has a chapter called “The Xerox was Our X-Box,” and that title gets at the import of these things. As I said in that very chapter, “Making a zine was always having something to send someone that showed them what you could do, what you were up to, and what you were into. Ours was the pre-web BMX network” (p. 116, 122). All nostalgia aside, zines are making a comeback, albeit in book-form. Anthologies of old, DIY photocopied publications are making their way through the labyrinth of quasi-traditional publishing.

The true gems of skateboarding zines include Andy JenkinsBend, Tod Swank‘s Swank Zine, Joe Polevy’s Rise Above, Rodger BridgesDancing Skeleton, Grim Ripper, and Power House, and Garry Scott Davis’s Skate Fate, the latter of which has just been collected into a fierce 320-page book, Skate Fate: The Best of Skate Fate: 1981-1991 (Blurb, 2011). In one of my own zines a while back, Rodger Bridges said of Garry Scott Davis,

GSD changed my life. He taught me design. Post-zine design. Pre-computer design. He made me perform leading on long-ass articles by hand, and checked my accuracy by pica. The progenitor of skeleton-less moves that changed skateboarding, skate zine and grunge typography/design. Way before what’s-his-name. In my book at least. And it don’t stop. He don’t stop. I’ve received multiple packages in multiple mailboxes due to multiple relocations over the years since our physical paths diverged. All of them filled with evidence of his creative continuum. CARE packages stocked with vinyl and plastic from his band CUSTOM FLOOR, back issues of Arcane Candy, and thick-ass zines chronicling life, Stingray obsession, and ongoing brilliant collaborations. My Skate Fate collection has survived hurricanes and flooded garages, sacredly stored in boxes and solidly kept dead-center. I can remember how it sounded when I shot Garry from deep within Mt. Baldy Pipeline — 10 o’clock or so at 4 p.m. some Friday (probably) approaching two decades in the rear-view and dead set on forward momentum.

A little closer to home, Greg Siegfried’s zine Need No Problem was a mainstay of our quaint, little Southeast Alabama skate scene. Hailing from Ozark, Greg was the first of us to skate and is still going strong. Need No Problem chronicled the comings and goings of ramps and spots and those who rode them not only in Ozark, but all over the Southeast.

Inspired by GSD’s The Best of Skate Fate book, Greg recently compiled all of the issues of Need No Problem into one volume. Like all of these collections, it’s a compilation of snapshots from an era that has long passed, the current incarnations of same having moved online years ago.

I have toyed with the idea of compiling my zines into a single volume, but alas having not been as diligent as Rodger Bridges, I am missing many issues. Mike Daily is putting together an Aggro Rag collection, which will totally rule… Anyway, I cannot overstate the importance of the experience of trading and making zines. As I said in Generation F, “Those first issues were the first steps on a path I still follow” (p. 117). Still true.

The Written World: William Gibson’s Bohemia

I’ve been weathering the wilds of William Gibson quite a bit lately. I’ve been reading several books by and about him and his work for months now. Having just finished the Bigend trilogy —  Pattern Recognition (2003), Spook Country (2007), and Zero History (2010) — and finally chewing through Distrust That Particular Flavor (2012), I am engrossed in the greys of the Gibsonian. But, even if you’re not obsessed with his work, you’re immersed in his world. As novelist Luke Monroe put it to Gibson on Twitter recently, “of all the speculative fiction authors, why did you have to get it right? I love your work, but now we are living it.”

William Gibson at Powell's Books in Portland (photo by Dave Allen)

His pre-cog abilities, the ones he used to predict and project the personal computer’s connectivity and utter ubiquity, make the writing in his most recent, present-tense trilogy so completely dead-on. Why does the world now look more like a William Gibson novel than one by Arthur C. Clarke? Gibson’s friend and cyberpunk peer Bruce Sterling explains:

Because he was looking at things that Clarke wasn’t looking at. Clarke was spending all his time with Wernher von Braun, and Gibson was spending all his time listening to Velvet Underground albums and haunting junk stores in Vancouver. And, you know, it’s just a question of you are what you eat. And the guy had a different diet than science fiction writers that preceded him (quoted in Miller, 2007, p. 344).

Even as some wish he would return to the future and others marvel at his prescience in the present, Gibson’s journey to this particular now hasn’t been a direct path. Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture (University of Chicago Press, 2006) helps map the minutia.

Turner’s book traces the path of Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, Howard Rheingold, and the rest of the Whole Earth Network from the actual commune to the virtual community, showing how their offbeat past informed our online present. Turner writes that they “imagined themselves as part of a massive, geographically distributed, generational experiment. The world was their laboratory; in it they could play both scientist and subject, exploring their minds and their bodies, their relationships to one another, and the nature of politics, commerce, community, and the state. Small-scale technologies would serve them in this work. Stereo gear, slide projectors, strobe lights, and, of course, LSD all had the power to transform the mind-set of an individual and to link him or her through invisible ‘vibes’ to others” (p. 240). Gibson dropped out and tuned in as well, but once he and the other cyberpunks moved on to trying to envision the 21st century, many of their like-minded, counterculture contemporaries were trying to build it. As Gibson told Wired in 1995, “I think bohemians are the subconscious of industrial society. Bohemians are like industrial society, dreaming.”

Gibson continues:

Punk was the last viable bohemia that we’ve seen, perhaps the last bohemian movement of all time. I’m afraid that bohemians will eventually come to be seen as a byproduct of the industrial civilization; and if we’re in fact at the end of industrial civilization, there may be no more bohemians. That’s scary. It’s possible that commercialization has become so sophisticated that it’s no longer possible to do that bohemian thing.

I put this question to Malcolm Gladwell years ago, the question of youth culture’s commodification, and he responded, “Teens are so naturally and beautifully social and so curious and inventive and independent that I don’t think even the most pervasive marketing culture on earth could ever co-opt them.” Gibson is not so optimistic, or he wasn’t in 1995. Here he talks about the grunge thing, which by that time had had a very public and much-debated commercial co-opting:

Look what they did to those poor kids in Seattle! It took our culture literally three weeks to go from a bunch of kids playing in a basement club to the thing that’s on the Paris runways. At least, with punk, it took a year and a half. And I’m sad to see the phenomenon disappear.

Perhaps this says more about where Gibson’s head was at the time than it does about the creativity of the youth. After all, we’ve seen plenty of cool things happen in the last seventeen years, and Gibson was writing Idoru (1996), one of his darker visions of modern culture, saturated with multi-channel, tabloid television. His later work is beset by a blunter approach.

When she wrote about things, her sense of them changed, and with it, her sense of herself. — William Gibson, Spook Country.

Even at his darkest, Gibson is still cool. I have to say that Spook Country is my favorite of his novels. Where others are more action-packed or visionary, Spook Country is all subtlety and surface. He told Kodwo Eshun in 1996, “There’s a very peculiar world of literature that doesn’t exist which you can infer from criticism. Sometimes when I’ve read twenty reviews of a book I’ve written, there’ll be this kind of ghost book suggested…  And I wonder about that book, what is that book they would have wanted and it’s a book with no surfaces. It’s all essence.” Spook Country may be the closest anyone gets to writing that ghost book, and it’s just so… cool.

‘Twas not always the case. Gibson explains:

When I started to write science fiction, I knew I was working in a genre that was traditionally deeply deprived of hipness. I went looking for ways to import as much rock-and-roll aesthetic into science fiction as was possible. Going back and listening to Steely Dan’s lyrics, for instance, suggested a number of ways to do that. It seemed that there was a very hip, almost subversive science fiction aesthetic in Donald Fagen’s lyrics which not many people have picked up on. But there’s other stuff — David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs album, which has this totally balls-out science fiction aesthetic going. The Velvet Underground, early Lou Reed — that was important. I thought, OK, that’s the hip science fiction of our age, and so I’m going to try to write up to that standard, rather than trying to write up to Asimov.

Keep that in mind: Every step is a step on a path. And every step is informed by the one before it. You are what you eat, so eat well, my friends.

References:

Eshun, Kodwo. (1996, November). William Gibson in Dialogue with Kodwo Eshun: The Co-evolution of Humans and Machines. Unpublished Interview.

Gibson, William. (2007). Spook Country: A Novel. New York: Putnam, p. 171.

Miller, P. D. (2007). Bruce Sterling: Future Tense. In R. Christopher (ed.), Follow for Now: Interviews with Friends and Heroes. Seattle, WA: Well-Red Bear, pp. 329-346.

Turner, Fred. (2006). From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

van Bakel, Rogier. (1995, June). Remembering Johnny: William Gibson on the making of Johnny Mneumonic. Wired, 3.06.

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Apologies to Andy Feenberg for stealing his title for this piece, and to Dave Allen for stealing his picture of Bill.