Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Electronic Music Piece of the Day Give-Away

Here's a cute new piece in the BandCamp hosted 391 & the Army of Astraea Electronic Music Piece of the Day Give-Away thread, that changed, as many of them do, throughout the recording process to emerge as something very different than it started out. Originally conceived of as a "Steve Reichian" or "Philip Glassian" arpeggio-driven cycle, "Fortitude in the Face of Fallacy" incorporates several tracks of Latin percussion, an almost atonal synth guitar track, and orchestral undercurrent that swings the piece slightly to the world of Soundtrack / Film Score. The end product is a collage of soundscapes that falls somewhere in the "uneasy listening" vein, compared to an earlier 391 & the Army of Astraea tracks in this series, such as "Bipedal Locomotion", but as it is said - "It is what it is". Enjoy!


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

From the Writer's Studio: Lights, Camera...Polemic; A Look Back at James Cameron's Avatar

It was December 2009, and the highly anticipated new James Cameron Science-Fiction epic, "Avatar" was poised at the precipice of impending release. Fans of Cameron's earlier work could be sure, even without getting a peak at the much promoted teaser, that this film would hold to the directors illustrious track record of bringing striking imagery and new visual technology to the forefront of the industry. Terminator 2, Aliens, the Abyss, and Titanic all had successfully pushed the envelope, and Cameron had been rewarded for his optical ingenuity with huge box office windfalls, and a trail of industry awards that must have required him to buy a larger mantle over his fireplace.

Similarly to myself, Cameron's story-telling was influenced early on by reading Edgar Rice Burroughs novels in boyhood (be patient, this will mean something later). Burroughs' serialized tales of Tarzan; Lord of the Apes, John Carter of Mars, and Carson of Venus, all played off of the nineteenth century western European "noble savage" trope, and in my mind, regardless of any dated elements or cultural imperialism, Burroughs was one of the great early visionaries of printed science-fiction. With the arrival of Talkies, Burroughs' influence grew, and at by the time Baby Boomers and Generation X'ers were reaching maturity, he was still a virtual gateway drug to Sci-Fi action films, and as specified, in that genre, by 2009, Cameron was one of the obvious kings.

There is almost no way to debate Avatars visually striking, even beautiful, design of the elongated, blue-skinned alien race; the Na'vi, and their idyllic CG augmented world, Pandora. But what I would like to analyze in this post is the writing of the film. Admittedly, as I mentioned in an earlier post, the abject failure of another visually beautiful, yet shakily written outing; Ridley Scott's Prometheus, makes it a far worse offender, and ranks Avatar as frankly the better film of the two. Nonetheless, I still feel compelled to log my objections and complaints in regard to the penning of Avatar, even in retrospect, and eight years later.

Structurally Avatar is a Drama, and the vehicle is overtly Science-Fiction, but the plot is essentially "Cowboys and Indians". Within this, the motif of the westerner "going native" i.e. "the noble savage", is not exclusive to Cowboy movies, nor is it a phenomena that only occurs in fiction. In fact, it's such a familiar element that many of the acknowledged greatest films of all time have featured main, or secondary, characters who move away from a dominant culture, their culture, and toward an indigenous one. Generally, the indigenous culture is presented more favorably than the dominant culture in most respects, and thus, this justifies the character's embrace of these "alien" folkways.

Laurence of Arabia, Little Big Man, The Last of the Mohicans, Apocalypse Now, the Independent Gypsy-themed film Gadjo Dilo, and countless others have presented either actual, or fictionalized tales focusing on the protagonists cultural shift, and so, in that respect, Avatar was designed from the start to join that good company. Historically the motif has persisted in literature, long past the cultural imperialism of the nineteenth century, and has been plied as a plot engine, albeit as long as it was done in a more couched, respectful, and in general, was handled with what is often called "kid gloves".

But, where that list of amazing films succeed, it is in regard to this element where I feel Avatar fails.

Why you may ask? It's simple.

When the ancient Greeks delineated the psychology of the purposes, goal and effect of play writing and literature, they conceived of the notion of "catharsis". All drama exists to inspire catharsis - that is, to make the viewer feel a simulated and controlled emotional reaction to the stimulus being presented on screen or stage. Aside from catharsis, all drama, or even all comedies, may use their plots to present character arc development that is stimulated by morality or philosophy, in order to encourage the viewer to be sympathetic to the world view that the writer is attempting to promote.

I personally believe that when embedding philosophic elements in a script, play, novel, what have you, that these must be placed into a plot in a, let's say, seemingly neutral manner. Otherwise it will be seen as the polemic it is meant to be, and when drama shifts from catharsis to polemic it can quickly become propaganda - public relations dictatorial sister.

To me, the essence of Avatar is overtly propagandist. The film uses the Na'vi vs. Human paradigm as a parable of White Middle Class Americans in league with the Military-Industrial complex versus their own guilt and self-loathing and their so-called responsibility to the rest of the world, and in specific, to Native American peoples and other "victim identities". It seeks to encourage collective inter-generational shame for past generations abuses of  Native Americans, and by extension the indigenous peoples of the entire world. I say this not to diminish any of the trials or horrors that Native Americans, or any other victimized group worldwide, have experienced in the past, or at present, but rather to place the appropriation of these themes and images in the name of propaganda. To with, this race, class and gender warfare, and the encouragement of bourgeois guilt and self-hatred fits in nicely with archetypal Marxist-Globalist identitarian thinking and their penchant for anti-national sovereignty strategy. In this world view "the self" is always the villain, and since Donald Trump started plying "Make America Great Again" as his campaign slogan, the left has become emboldened to state this Globalist impulse forthrightly, belying their true sentiments with the response "America Was Never Great".

Unlike the other classic films mentioned earlier, this embedding of propaganda within the story of Avatar is not subtle, not impartial, and is, to me, manipulative.

I have no fear of being challenged by an opposing philosophy, and I actually relish messages contained in the subtext of films I enjoy. But when the creeping sensation of manipulation starts to move up my spine, and I sense that a film maker is utilizing my catharsis not to sway my opinion, but rather to manipulate me subconsciously in the name of a specific political agenda, I have to draw the line. In Avatar, this veil is only as thin as the CG generated blue skin of the Na'vi.

So, sorry James. Many of your films are absolutely great rides, and aside from the visuals, they contain interesting plot twists and intriguing character types and development. For me Avatar just doesn't pull it off honestly. Avatar feels like it's coyly hiding an agenda, and rather than trying to sway my opinion by making cogent philosophic points, it relies on the emotion generated by my catharsis to subconsciously bring me aboard the good ship SJW without me noticing it.

And, that for me, is a deal breaker.

Till next time.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Electronic Music Piece of the Day Give-Away

Alright, here is an unusual piece in the BandCamp hosted 391 & the Army of Astraea Electronic Music Piece of the Day Give-Away series. While I'm not adverse to utilizing samples or pre-existing clips as building blocks in my electronic / experimental work (as opposed to singer-songwriting, which I feel must be somehow pure) this tune, "Kalo Galochi", was constructed almost entirely out of heavily altered presets in the Ableton 9 Digital Audio Workstation, excluding one additional track played on the Theremin.

As a title "Kalo Galochi" is taken from Portuguese / Galician Romani, (more commonly know as Gypsies) for "Black Heart". In the Romani language of that region, Calo is also the name of their dialect as well as the ethnonym, or rather sub-ethnonym for Romani, and is originally derived from the Sanskrit "Kala".

Thursday, May 11, 2017

From the Writers Studio: Battlestar Galactica - The Enduring Beauty of an Effectively Penned Remake

This past March 20th marked the eighth year since the 2004 (2003 if you count the mini-series) Battlestar Galactica series concluded its run. I estimate that I've eagerly watched all 75 episodes in their entirety at least five times since, and to this day, I am struck by the creative power and vision that made it what it was.

This re-evaluation comes thereabout the upcoming release of the fifth installment of the "Aliens" franchise (a prequel, but in effect a redux, and a followup to the beautifully shot, but incompetently scripted "Prometheus") and the popularity of two relatively new series which also address the issue of robotic sentience - "Westworld" and "Humans". Now I know that Westworld has garnered mucho kudos, and don't get me wrong, I'm a huge fan of the show's creative head, Jonathan Nolan, especially of his recently departed sci-fi, action-thriller series "Person of Interest". But, invariably, everyone who has recommended that I check out Westworld has been blissfully unaware that the series is a elaboration on the 1973 feature film of the same name, starring Richard Benjamin, James Brolin, and Yul Brenner. For me, all of the essential elements of the original film are present and accounted for, but aside from some gender-objectification issues, it is essentially the same, and frankly, I think Humans does it much better.

This of course brings us to the primary problem that any re-make of an existing series, or any adaptation of a feature film of yesteryear must face in order to really pull it off in. In regard to Westworld I just don't think much that is truly new is being brought to the table, and let's face it, if you are tackling this hurdle, there best be something new to eat at the table. Don't throw out the table and replace it with a new one, mind you. You just need to change the setting and a few of the courses.

For me, Battlestar Galactica Re-dux was that series that got it right. First of all, it was a blessed endeavor, in that the original series already possessed an interesting premise, which the creative team updated, shook out the bugs, and added new aspects that eluded the context of the original 1978 series, all the while staying loyal to the vision of the original story-line and feel of the show. So let's go over the changes, additions and choices that the writers and producers of Galactica Redux decided on, and hypothesize why they made those clearly correct decisions.

First and foremost the character of Gaius Baltar is the most obvious problem. While John Cocilos chewed up screen time in the original, and was a delight to watch as a hand-ringing evil villain, the original Baltar's motivations made almost no sense at all. He was a human who sold out his race to a robot enemy he knew designed to kill every living human. In the original series pilot Baltar states that he was betrayed and that his planet alone was to sparred from genocide, and we can safely assume that he imagined he would end up running the place. Once he was the only human left, then one must ask, aside from his own self-preservation, what was the payoff after that? We can hypothesize that he embraced the idea of being allowed to govern a planet of Cylons? But wouldn't that leave him with no companionship or family, and no human contact for the rest of his existence? Sorry, doesn't seem like much of a trade off for a job in middle management.

The new Baltar, on the other hand, expertly played by Jamie Callis it should be mentioned, was nuanced and complex, had an elaborate character arch, and was duped by his own not unsubstantial failings into assisting the Cylons in their genocide. 

Totally sound and believable.

The next major shift was that the creators decided to split the Adama character in two. In the original
series Adama was the all knowing father-leader figure. Military commander, political leader, and spiritual guide. Frankly, though having a Moses at the helm seems like a wonderful plus in real life, it does not facilitate drama in the same way as having those worlds collide. By creating the character of Laura Roslin, and later by even giving Baltar a shot at the presidency, and leaving Roslin the spiritual heart of the series, Ron Moore and the gang effectively divided the interest of the viewer and were able to shift the story-line over time, to evolve it, and move it to its conclusion.

On to the next character shift. Much was made of the Starbuck / Kara Thrace character before Redux made it's debut, and certainly fans of the original series needed time to adjust to Starbuck as a strong, and perhaps self-destructive woman rather than an arrogant misogynist male. This could have been just a minor tweak, a bone to modernity and the rising percentage of female viewer demographic, but instead it brought about several interesting elements, one of which was Starbuck's death and rebirth as an avatar who aiding the fleet in reaching their "end". Her shift to the feminine also gave room for romantic relationships, with several other characters. This was something to hold on to, and let's face it, both Starbucks got around.

A more general, but pivotal shift in the story included the invention of humanoid Cylons, who for all of the mysteries of how Blade Runner Replicant they were, and how mechanical they were was never fully answered, created a completely different sensibility for the series. While the original Cylons were just awesome, I mean they were robots that sported swords for goodness sake, and the new "soldier" Cylon was more or less an updated model, the human-appearing Cylons created a paranoia throughout the series. Who was a Cylon? Could he or she be a Cylon and not even know it? And later, how do we, the humans characters in the show as well as the viewer at home, individualize these beings who all appear identical for the most part?

By bringing along many of the other characters, at least in namesake, as well as creating new ones, and doing the same with the visual look of the series, the production team of Galactica Redux effectively updated the outward appearance of the show while at the same time giving the fans who held an affection for the original universe a lifeline to their heart. Yes heart. Many of us were kids when the first Galactica aired, and fell in love with the space ships and the idea of what is now called "the singularity".

The singularity, if you're not aware, is the belief that in the event that humanity does ever succeed in creating artificial intelligence, there is a good chance that such an intelligence might logic out that we humans are the problem, and they will design to replace us. Whether this is a technological fantasy, or it actually will come to pass is almost irrelevant. What is not is the sense that humans have that we can be replaced. We see it in life, in romantic relationships, and even personal loss. After all, when one person dies, the world goes on, right? So why not the whole species? In that sense, whether the cause of that replacement is robots such as the Cylons, Skynet and the Terminators, or even the Walking Dead's un-dead almost makes no difference. 

The ultimate emergence of the Cylon consciousness was the vehicle for the Galactica Redux prequel "Caprica". While this outing was excellently acted, particularly by Eric Stoltz, I have always believed as a screenwriter that if Caprica was a boxing match, it was a fighter leading with the wrong hand. Caprica spent so much time in telegraphing the origin of Cylon intelligence as derived from a virtual world representation of the first model's creator's daughter (wow, that's even hard to say!) that they forgot a cardinal point. That we all knew the end of this story. The news flash wasn't that Cylon's developed sentience, and they walked us through each painful step as if we didn't know where this was all going. I'm not saying that story-line shouldn't have been included in the Caprica series, just that it shouldn't have been the dominant story-line. More about the practical physical development of the machine would have made more sense, and most probably an element that they did include later (and I'll credit Michael Taylor for doing it at least), but the conflict and competition between Stoltz's character and his corporate competitors was a wonderful element, that most likely occurred too late.

Blood and Chrome, another prequel, had a more severe problem, albeit a very simple one. This was to be a series set in the first Cylon war, chronicling Commander Adama's youth, but frankly, unless the team had some more interesting ideas than just telegraphing the events that happened in Redux, what was the point, really? Space ship battles can be great, but, they effectively captured the essence of what Blood and Chrome would be in the Redux Webisodes and the "Razor" movie. So, Blood and Chrome felt kind of predictable and superfluous. I wanted to like it, really, I did, but in effect, I'd already seen it. So, that show never even stood a chance with the network dorks, and it never moved past the pilot / movie.

As I said, it has been eight years since Galactica has been on the screen, and for many, it is still sorely missed. I personally don't think that any show that has debuted since has been so clever and well done. People cite "the Expanse" as if I should fawn over it, and usually they are the same people who tell me, after I tell them how bored I am with the show, that I shouldn't worry, because there is great stuff coming up that is in the book. No thanks. If a series needs me to have read a series of books for it to make sense, I'm out. You don't have to read the Walking Dead graphic novels to watch the Walking Dead television series, and they should not be identical. They are different mediums. BTW, you can watch Galactica Redux without ever seeing the original as well. It stands alone, yet references the original for those who did see it. It has its cake and eats it too, and it's yet another reason that the show was, is, great.

When my script-writing partner in Nevekari Enterprises, Kevin Lennon, and I started marketing our still yet to be produced Space Opera, "Partisan Earth", in 2012, we felt this so strongly that we came to view our show as the next in a very specific line of series, that broke new ground and which I feel will remain pivotal in the genre. For me these are, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Joss Whedon's Firefly, and Battle-Star Galactica Redux.

I like to believe that our politically charged, multiple-season scripted epic, Partisan Earth, will be counted among those beloved, classic shows one day, and I know that Partisan Earth can do for Space Opera what Game of Thrones has done for fantasy on television, what the Walking Dead did for the Zombie genre, and what Battle-Star Galactica Redux previously did for Space Opera. To learn more about this very special project, please feel free to visit: http://nevekari.com/Partisan-Earth.html

So, kudos to Ron Moore, David Eich, Michael Rhymer, Michael Taylor, and all the hundreds of others who were behind, and in front, of the lens, and made Galactica Redux what it was. 

A brief post-script here, if I might.

In light of his recent passing, a round of applause should be sounded for one of Ron Moore's Star Trek alum, and special effects coordinator of ST:DS9 and Galactica Redux, Gary Hutzel. His hefty contribution to both of these "stellar" outings should be noted and appreciated wholeheartedly.

Thank you very much Gary, and rest in peace.    

Monday, May 8, 2017

Electronic Music Piece of the Day Give-Away

Howdy and salutations, fellow human beings. It's that time once again for another BandCamp hosted 391 & the Army of Astraea Electronic Music Piece of the Day Give-Away. This particular track is entitled "Herem Qorban", which is ancient Hebrew for, roughly, the contradictory descriptive; "tainted" or "impure" sacrifice. I'm pretty sure that the phrase would be more grammatically correct as rendered as "Qorban Herem", but I kind of like it the other way around. The diminutive little ditty is mostly based around an incessant rhythm track, and is offset by a somewhat middle-eastern feel to the synth parts and de-constructed voice samples.