The Third Annual City Tech Science Fiction Symposium was an amazing success! Here are videos from the symposium’s presentations and discussions from Nov. 27, 2018. Watch them all on YouTube via this playlist, or watch them as embedded videos below.
Continental Breakfast and Opening Remarks
Location: Academic Complex A105
Justin Vazquez-Poritz, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, New York City College of Technology
Jason W. Ellis, New York City College of Technology
Session 1: Affect and Experimentation
Location: Academic Complex A105
Moderator: Jason W. Ellis
Leigh Gold, “The Legacy of Frankenstein: Science, Mourning, and the Ethics of Experimentation”
Lucas Kwong, “The Island Of Dr. Moreau, Fantastic Ambivalence, and the Victorian “Science Of Religion”
Robert Lestón, “Between Intervals: A Soundscape for all Us Monsters”
Session 2: Identity and Genre
Location: Academic Complex A105
Moderator: Jill Belli
Anastasia Klimchynskaya, “Frankenstein, Or, the Modern Fantastic: Rationalizing Wonder and the Birth of Science Fiction”
Paul Levinson, “Golem, Frankenstein, and Westworld”
Joy Sanchez-Taylor, “Genetic Engineering and non-Western Modernity in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl”
Session 3: American Culture and Media
Location: Academic Complex A105
Moderator: A. Lavelle Porter
Aaron Barlow, “‘Fraunkensteen’: What’s No Longer Scary Becomes Funny or, How American Popular Culture Appropriates Art and Expands the Commons”
Marleen S. Barr, “Trumppunk Or Science Fiction Resists the Monster Inhabiting the White House”
Sharon Packer, “Jessica Jones (Superhero), Women & Alcohol Use Disorders”
Student Round Table: “Shaping the Future: A Student Roundtable on Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower”
Location: Academic Complex A105
Moderator: A. Lavelle Porter
Panelists: Zawad Ahmed
Frankenstein Panel: Mary Shelley’s Novel’s Influence on Scientists and Technologists
Location: Academic Complex A105
Moderator: Justin Vazquez-Poritz
Heidi Boisvert, Entertainment Technology Department
Robert MacDougall, Social Sciences Department
Ashwin Satyanarayana, Computer Systems Technology Department
Jeremy Seto, Biological Sciences Department
Closing and Tour of the City Tech Science Fiction Collection
Location: City Tech Library L543
Remarks by Jason W. Ellis
Having just finished William Gibson’s All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999) and thus concluding his Bridge Trilogy, I cannot say with anything resembling certainty that I have read or not read these novels before. As I said when I began writing a few notes on my blog about Virtual Light and Idoru, I have a creepy feeling of having been in these novels before, of having read them sometime and some place. If I have encountered these novels directly before, the memory source for those encounters is locked away in some inaccessible part of my memory. Anyways, if I did read them before and there should be some memory, I am hopeful that it is still there and simply inaccessible to my mind’s eye in the present and not eradicated by some biological injury.
Despite my memory’s misgivings and uncertainty, I can certainly say that I enjoyed this vision of the future/present/near past illustrated in the fast and sharp language Gibson lays down in these three novels. In All Tomorrow’s Parties, we experience Laney’s virtuosity as a netrunner who builds alliances/buys alliances that out maneuvers the 0.001%er Harwood. Laney’s ability as a psychopharmacologically enhanced cyborg who can see the flows of data, understands what we have all just recently learned about the power of metadata, and seizes the accreting eddies and currents of information, narrative, and inevitability leading to something bigger, powerful, and otherwise unseen–an undertow of history.
Laney as netrunner seems an analog of what we have all become in one way or another. We manage our flows of information with RSS feed aggregators, news readers, the Facebook wall, the Twitter feed, the timeline, hashtags, tagging, Friend lists, Google+ Circles, subscriptions, etc. Before all of this, there was talk in the magazines about creating intelligent agents–small programs that would scour the Internet for the information and news that we would like to learn more about (perhaps through keywords and other coded instructions)–that helped manage what we read and saw while also managing our precious pre-broadband bandwidth.
It is worth noting that in both cases, watching the firehose of feed data now or harvesting news bits with intelligent agents, all data written by someone for the info consumption of others is a practice of historic preservation, archivization, observing what has come before. Taken one step further, none of us experience the present due to our biological senses and cognition systems that delay our experiencing the world beyond ourselves. Thus, the netrunner (and ourselves as modern netizens) are a further step away–observer experiences, reports multimodally over the Internet, we experience the multimodal report. To go further on this point or digress on the transformation of these experiences by the media and modal channels involved would likely cover several volumes, so I will end the digression here.
There are times when I feel like Laney must have felt in his dank cardboard hovel in the Japanese train station. Surrounded by his own filth and barely holding on to life with a ritual of cough syrup and sugars to keep his body barely operational but well enough that he could remain plugged into the data feed via his VR eye goggles. Trying to keep up what is going on in the world, going on with family and friends, going on professionally via the numerous and multiplying channels of social and broadcast media is daunting. It is a burden–a heavy one at that. Any attempt that I make at streamlining, modulating, organizing, and taming these never ceasing feeds of information makes me feel overwhelmed, lacking control, and otherwise wasted. My own compulsion to try to keep up, to interact, and to communicate in kind leaves me feeling dread over joy more often than not.
At least in Laney’s case in All Tomorrow’s Parties, he is working toward a goal of swinging the nodal point away from Harwood and towards something different, perhaps altruistic and thus the many Rei Toei’s are born of nanotech assemblers in the many Lucky Dragon establishments.
Another interesting image for me and my work as a researcher of our shared digital culture is the Bad Sector shop on the San Francisco side of the bridge. Chevette finds Tessa outside the Bad Sector shop working on her tiny video drone, God’s Little Toy (an increasingly ubiquitous and problematic technology today ranging from privacy violation to public safety in the air and on the ground). Later, Rydell goes to the Bad Sector to obtain two cables for Rei Toei’s holographic projector. Inside the Bad Sector shop, Gibson describes its Jurassic technologies–lingering on audio recording media going back to the beginning and vintage personal computers–particularly those encased in beige. Of course, the shop’s name refers to a bad sector on computer readable magnetic media–a physically unreadable or damaged location on the media platter–floppy or hard disk.
For media archivists, the bad sector is like a burned or rotted page in an ancient manuscript. There is the possibility that the data might exist copied by the manipulations of digital technology far more quickly than that by a human scribe, but if no copy or backup exists, the bad sector–depending on the type of magnetic media, its data density, etc–could leave some information permanently inaccessible. Although, I can imagine a bad sector can, in some very particular circumstances, tell us things about how technology-as-culture was developed and continues to develop (the physicality of drive mechanisms, error correction algorithms, the application of scientific principles to avoid physical destruction of the drive media, the deformities or problems with a given writer’s computer setup, how that writer’s computer influenced the development of cultural works–lost drafts, overwritten work, etc.). So, the bad sector can be seen as a loss on the one hand and potentially a gain for understanding on the other.
My office at City Tech (and the previous labs of vintage computer that I have built up, sold off, donated over the years beginning at my childhood home in Brunswick, GA, my flea market booth at Duke’s Y’all Come Flea Market in Darien, GA, my home in Norcross, GA, the Special Collections of Georgia Tech’s Library Archives, and now my college in Brooklyn, NY) is kind of like the Bad Sector on the bridge. It is cobbled together. It is incomplete. It is bricolage. It is pieced and held together with equal parts ingenuity and duct tape. Unlike the Bad Sector in All Tomorrow’s Parties, it is mine and not something bought and sold by off-bridge investors. Like the bridge in the novel, my vintage/retro computing lab is a community effort–I get and give, others get and give. I work on it and at it to remember where we have come from and to reflect on how our past innovations inform and continue to speak to our current digital culture. I want its archive to provide testimony about who we were and who we have become as human beings and thinking organisms. It is part of my research and pedagogy.
William Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy (Virtual Light, Idoru, and All Tomorrow’s Parties) is an impressive vision. My deja vu or amnesia–depending on your point of view–about the novels might say more about how much like the present some themes and images in Gibson’s novels speak to the way things were and are in the real world.
Continuing with William Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, I read Idoru (1996) this past Sunday.
My sense of deja vu was as pronounced as when I read Virtual Light, but I still cannot bring myself to say with absolute certainty that I had read these books before. I tend to believe that my triangulation of these narratives from conference going and secondary literature reading have implanted the seeds of these novels in my memory–with roots long, but stem and leaves stunted–almost translucent.
Idoru circles the entertainment-industrial complex’s creation of celebrity, fandom’s eclipsing of the actual cultural production of celebrity, personal metadata and its uses for surveillance and control, and another trajectory of emergent AI/personality construct–in this case the idoru, Rei Toei.
Rei Toei is like a more advanced version of the vocaloid, Hatsune Miku. Her entrance into the real world might be more aligned today with 3D printing technologies and robotics like Danny Choo’s Smart Doll (though, I’m sure Mr. Choo would do equally interesting and exciting things if he got his hands on a packet of self-assembling nanomachines described in the novel). Or, in 2009, a Japanese man married Nene Anegasaki, a character from the Nintendo DS game Love Plus (Telegraph story, BoingBoing video). These bonds are so strong that in 2012, a Japanese groom and his bridge destroyed his Nintendo DS and Love Plus game cartridge, which held his saved game data with (again) Nene Anegasaki (Kotaku story, Twitter post).
I recalled David Levy’s Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships (2008), which explores how humanity’s relationships with its technologies–especially those anthropomorphized or imbued with human qualities–has and continues to change over time.
In regard to Rez’s desire to wed Rei Toei, on the one hand, the union is of celebrity–albeit two forms of it: a human male musician and an AI construct gendered female and given form holographically (machinery and bandwidth permitting). What should we call this sameness?
On the other hand, it is a union of biological and technical, human and computer, human and technology, human and entertainment, human and the Other. What should we call this difference?
However, the wedding of human-AI construct seems pedestrian, a reinscription of heteronormativity. It is a capitulation to heteronormative culture instead of an embrace of the newness, the otherness, the differentness brought about by human-technology co-evolution (thinking of Bruce Mazlish’s The Forth Discontinuity).
Considering its heteronormative trajectory, what is Rez and Rei Toei’s marriage produce? Seems like there’s talk about some kind of becoming or emergence. This brings to mind arguments like Leo Bersani’s in “Is the Rectum a Grave?” or Christine Overall’s in Why Have Children? It should go without saying that a child need not be the result of a union/marriage/partnership, but if we follow the heteronormative logic of Rez and Rei Toei marriage, what might their desire be–merging, emergence, becoming, creating?
Regardless, I welcome these new developments, their possibilities, and how we account for them with language. But, I hope that the new is unshackled from simply repeating what has come before.
Over the weekend, I began reading William Gibson’s “Bridge Trilogy” beginning with his novel, Virtual Light (1993).
Reading the novel, I had a tremendous sense of déjà vu that was impossible to shake. I asked myself these questions in response to this strange feeling that persisted during the hours of reading and after:
Have I read this before? This is entirely possible. I used to have copies of the Bridge Trilogy novels, but I sold them before moving to Liverpool for graduate school. As I look back on my blog–or am reminded of things I have wrote about on my blog when I occasionally receive and respond to a comment on something long forgotten–I have read a number of things that I cannot now recall in my memory.
Have I read so much secondary literature about it that I feel as if I have read it? This is definitely a possibility, because I read through a lot of secondary literature on Gibson’s oeuvre as I was writing my dissertation and in preparing for my research trip to the University of California, Riverside Library in 2012. In academia, I have found myself circling works through the secondary literature. I learn bits and pieces through summary and arguments that I then piece together in my mind as a kind of jigsaw puzzle version of the work in question. You triangulate the narrative and characters from that data that you have. Of course, this is not the same as having read the real thing, but it is akin to how we know about some Greek dramas and ancient philosophies–the surviving references instead of the thing itself.
Are there so many aspects of the present (or recent past) like those we encounter in Virtual Light that I feel as if the novel mirrors the present? Besides the image of the bridge and its bricolage/assemblage/community, Virtual Light has augmented reality, navigation systems, cracking car computer/communication system, SWATTING (of a kind), armed drones, an erased Middle Class, a San Francisco dependent upon the service industry, and a security-industrial complex. I recently read Bruce Sterling’s The Hacker Crackdown (1992), which seems to figure into the novel by anecdote and theme (differentiating hackers/merry pranksters from hackers/criminalization). The connection between the themes of his over two-decade old novel and the present is strong. Maybe it should be required reading for contemporary security analysts.
So, have I read it before? I’m still not sure, but I’m left with a strange feeling about the novel and the present.
This is the sixty-first post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.
This publishable-length essay, “Michael Bay’s Transformers and the New Post-9/11 Science Fiction Film Narrative,” is a significant expansion of a presentation that I made at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts in 2008. I sent the longer form of the essay around for publication, but at the time, I could not invest the necessary time to meet the demands of the anonymous reviewers. It was around that time that I began studying for my PhD exams. The dissertation followed closely thereafter. Now, I think too much time has passed and too many more examples have appeared for me to re-engage with these ideas–at least at the present time. I’m confident that I would need to begin almost from scratch. Also, my research interests have moved into other areas, which would require retooling for the demands of this research as opposed to my current approaches (of course, there are texts and ideas contained here that I might bring over to my current scholarship). Thus, the essay, quotes, and works cited might best serve my readers’ purposes and interests as another Recovered Writing post. Perhaps one of you are working on a project in this vein and this essay can serve as a foil to test your approach, or this essay might encourage you to pick up the reigns and take these ideas further. If nothing else, maybe you’re a fan of the Transformers and want to think about the cultural underpinnings of these characters and their stories (if you are in this camp, you can find another essay that I wrote about Transformers and gender here).
Michael Bay’s Transformers and the New Post-9/11 Science Fiction Film Narrative
Jason W. Ellis
26 March 2009
The towers, for their part, have disappeared. But they have left us the symbol of their disappearance, their disappearance as symbol.
Jean Baudrillard, “Requiem for the Twin Towers.”
The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States of America have unequivocally and paradigmatically shifted the cultural outlook and fearful anticipation of people within and without the borders of the United States. It is the subject of this essay to explore how that shift is manifested in American Science Fiction (SF) film in the aftermath of that mid-September day through the linkages to earlier SF film rooted in American Cold War culture. Before 9/11, American imaginative fear and anxiety was firmly entrenched in the symbol of the thermonuclear bomb–a thing delivered by rockets and targeting computers, and after 9/11, that anxiety changed to the suicide bomber–a cyborg uniting ideology, high explosives or other technological means of mayhem, and the person. The Cold War threat was removed from the personal, and the inaction of thermonuclear war realization resulted in the science fictional imagining of what could be rather than a reflection of what was. The post-9/11 threat presents a reconfiguration of threat as something personal, up-close, and very real–something that has come to pass and may occur again. It is the fact that 3,025 U.S. citizens and persons from other countries were killed on September 11, 2001 that caused a transformation in the perception of anxiety, fear, and threat from elusive enemies and resulted in a new kind of personal response narrative in SF film.
It is important to more fully interrogate the differences between American Cold War SF and its milieu, and the radical changes that followed the Cold War and the intervening years prior to the September 11 attacks. John Lewis Gaddis significantly connects the “images” of the Cold War with the distancing of the threat from the everyday lives of Americans:
Despite moments of genuine fear, however, as during the Berlin and Cuban missile crises, the only images we had of destroyed American cities were those constructed by the makers of apocalypse films and the authors of science fiction novels. Real danger remained remote. We had adversaries, but we also had the means of deterring them.
Even cold war insecurities, therefore, never meant that Americans, while living, working and traveling within their country, had to fear for their lives. Dangers to the American homeland were always vague and distant, however clear and present overseas dangers may have been. The very term “national security,” invented during World War II and put to such frequent use during the cold war, always implied that both threats and vulnerabilities lay outside the country. Our military and intelligence forces were configured accordingly. (Gaddis 8)
The threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War was a real fear, but the only imaginative representation of that threat was “constructed by the makers of apocalypse films and the authors of science fiction novels” (Gaddis 8). It was left to the realm of fiction to create representations of the attack that never occurred. Additionally, as Gaddis points out, wars took place elsewhere and not on American soil. The Cold War dueling powers–the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R.–worked out their frustrated advances in other places–particularly in Southeast Asia–rather than take the fight to either country’s home front. It was the fantasy of films such as John Milius’ Red Dawn (1984) that Communist forces would invade the American heartland during World War III. In Red Dawn and all other films of that era that confronted or alluded to the nuclear annihilation of North America and/or the rest of the world were constructing one of many possible scenarios, but none of these were based on the reality of thermonuclear warfare made possible by scientific and engineering advances during the long 1950s. Fat Man and Little Boy, the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the last phase of World War II, pale in comparison to the potential devastation of warfare involving fusion bombs never once used outside of the isolated testing environments in deserts, atolls, and the upper atmosphere. Thus, there was real data about the effects of nuclear warfare, but it was this very speculative aspect of nuclear holocaust that sets Cold War SF apart from that which came after the very real, graphic, and televised hijacked airplane attacks on New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.
It is evident that with the number of American Cold War SF films from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) to Dr. Strangelove (1964) to Escape from New York (1981) that a lot of creative energy and capital went into grappling with nuclear annihilation from outside. Part and parcel with this massive undertaking of the potential annihilation of the United States and the rest of the world is the inescapable realization that these imaginings were something that we all to some extent entertained. It is unavoidable that the threat of nuclear war and apocalypse entered into the cultural consciousness, and it was something that we all thought of alone or in the communal engagement of films that represented implicitly or explicitly the potential horrors of nuclear war unleashed from without.
The cultural currency of apocalypse did not leave SF film in the years between the Cold War and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In fact, the imaginative target reconfigured or transformed in the intervening post-Cold War years where the threat and fear lost focus. Instead of a clear and present danger presented by the former Soviet Union, there were “uprisings” and “hotbeds of activity” around the world after George H. W. Bush’s Gulf War I. It was the transformation of threat and the dream of horror, even visited upon our soil and friends and family, that culminated in the dream-turned-real on September 11, 2001 when nineteen al-Qaeda terrorists took control of four passenger airliners and turned history’s path into the undiscovered country. Jean Baudrillard approaches this counterintuitive and unspeakable truism of the dream in his shockingly provocative essay, “The Spirit of Terrorism:”
The fact that we have dreamt of this event, that everyone without exception has dreamt of it–because no one can avoid dreaming of the destruction of any power that has become hegemonic to this degree–is unacceptable to the Western moral conscience. Yet it is a fact, and one which can indeed be measured by the emotive violence of all that has been said and written in the effort to dispel it. (Baudrillard 5)
What if things were not as they were? What if this government or that multinational corporation were done away with, then what would happen? It is these kinds of “what if” questions that we all entertain. However, we do not all consider the full ramifications of our wishes, or what might have to be done to make our wishes come true. For Baudrillard, it doesn’t matter how innocent our dreams might have been. The fact is that we wished for that other future in our own daydreams or in the SF that we enjoyed. In any event, the unconscionable wish came true when we awoke, and there was no possibility of returning it to the imaginative ether. Baudrillard continues:
At a pinch, we can say that they did it, but we wished for it. If this is not taken into account, the event loses any symbolic dimension. It becomes a pure accident, a purely arbitrary act, the murderous phantasmagoria of a few fanatics, and all that would then remain would be to eliminate them. Now, we know very well that this is not how it is. (Baudrillard 5)
It is true that Mohamed Atta, Marwan al Shehhi, Hani Hanjour, and Ziad Jarrah piloted the hijacked-airliners-turned-flying-bombs into the civilian and military targets within the American homeland. However, it was the dream and wish we each held or bought into through the apocalyptic visions presented in SF film that implicates each of us in some way to the events of that day. Furthermore, it is necessary to make an account of this dimension of the events of September 11, 2001, because otherwise would be to isolate the event from the greater rhizomic networks within which it is connected. It is essential to any understanding of that tragic event, including all those things that led up to it and all those things that followed, that we also understand our own relationship to the event personally and culturally.
Understanding the September 11 attacks as a symbolic act against the United States’ economic, military, and interventionist hegemony requires juxtaposing the event with an earlier sneak attack–December 7, 1941, what former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called, “a date which will live in infamy.” However, the juxtaposition of these two events is not as well defined as was proclaimed ad infinitum on television during and following the attacks. On this point, Baudrillard offers:
The Americans lacked such a wound (at Pearl Harbor they suffered an act of war, not a symbolic attack). An ideal reverse of fortune for a nation at last wounded at its heart and free, having atoned for it, to exert its power in all good conscience. A situation science fiction dreamed of from the beginning: that of some obscure force that would wipe them out and which, until that point, merely existed in their unconscious (or some other recess of their minds). And all of a sudden, it materializes through the good grace of terrorism! The axis of Evil takes hold of America’s unconscious, and realizes by violence what was merely a fantasy and a dream thought! (Baudrillard 61-62)
The United States had not suffered a symbolic wound, or in other words an unexpected strike against the national body that carries a greater signification than nation-state warfare, prior to the September 11 terror attacks. The Pearl Harbor attack were certainly a strategic blow to United States preparedness prior to World War II, but that strike was accompanied, albeit late, by a declaration of war by another nation-state, Japan. The September 11 attacks are analogous to what Baudrillard identifies explicitly as a situation originating in SF–the attack from the “invisible man,” or the unexpected devastation by Heinlein’s bugs in Starship Troopers. The September 11 terror attacks represent the unexpected from without, from the alien Other, from out there and targeted against us. Al-Qaeda’s operation represents the culmination of this imaginative impulse that began much earlier during the Cold War era, but turned out from fear of nuclear annihilation toward the symbols of hegemonic power rooted in capital and military power. However, most alarmingly, George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” and “Global War on Terrorism” solidified the American imagination around the events of September 11, 2001 back out toward loci of ideological difference, tension, and conflict. Furthermore, Slavoj Žižek corresponds with Baudrillard when he says the following in his essay, “Welcome to the Desert of the Real!”:
The Wachowski brothers’ hit Matrix (1999) brought this logic [the logic of experiencing the “real”] to its climax: the material reality we all experience and see around us is a virtual one, generated and coordinated by a gigantic megacomputer to which we are all attached; when the hero . . . awakens into the “real reality,” he sees a desolate landscape littered with burned ruins–what remained of Chicago after a global war. The resistance leader Morpheus utters the ironic greeting: “Welcome to the desert of the real.” Was it not something of the similar order that took place in New York on September 11? Its citizens were introduced to the “desert of the real”–to us, corrupted by Hollywood, the landscape and the shots we saw of the collapsing towers could not but remind us of the most breathtaking scenes in the catastrophe big productions. (Žižek 386)
Here, the main point is that the imaginative was made real. Hollywood had been there first with images of vast destruction, albeit from a distance, that became real that early September 11th morning. The terror attacks required no computer generated effects or a special effects department. Could George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) have engineered a spectacle on the scale of the events in New York and Washington that day? Perhaps, but the reality of the spectacle shared away from the computer and television screen brought something to the event that no effects house could reproduce. The lives lost, the physical destruction, and the political aftermath are real effects, as tangible as tears, which make the events of September 11, 2001 more real than any Hollywood simulation.
Žižek further elaborates on the realization of the imaginative through a discussion of another tragedy, albeit one sentimentally and visually recreated through film–the HMS Titanic:
When we hear how the bombings were a totally unexpected shock, how the unimaginable Impossible happened, one should recall the other defining catastrophe from the beginning of the twentieth century, that of the Titanic: it was also a shock, but the space for it was already prepared in ideological fantasizing, since Titanic was the symbol of the might of the nineteenth-century industrial civilization. Does the same not hold for these bombings?
Not only were the media bombarding us all the time with the talk about the terrorist threat; this threat was also obviously libidinally invested–just recall the series of movies from Escape from New York to Independence Day. The unthinkable that happened was thus the object of fantasy: in a way, America got what it fantasized about, and this was the greatest surprise. (Žižek 386-387)
Žižek’s point is that in tragedies such as the sinking of the HMS Titanic, or the September 11, 2001 terror attacks that the news media and entertainment media prompted or prepared the United States and the world for the inevitable execution of imagined horror. Also, Žižek, like Baudrillard, invokes SF as an example for the imaginative dream for the attacks. However, it is the brilliant observation that the surprise was not the attacks, but the realization that the United States received the results of a dream transformed into reality. Hence, the fantastic became real on September 11, 2001.
Like the Ouroboros, the fantastic-become-real in the symbol of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks returns with serious consequences for the fantastic and SF in the post-9/11 world. The key element of American Cold War SF and the SF that follows the 9/11 terror attacks is anxiety over the possibility of harm from the Other. In Cold War SF, the anxiety comes about from an anxiety of a terrific and horror-laden future resulting from thermonuclear war. However, this nuclear future was not made real–it represented an anxiety over an amorphous and transparent future of non-reality. Essentially, the bomb was not made real in the sense of fulfilling its purpose–detonation over enemy targets. Additionally, it bears repeating that the only use of atomic weapons took place during state-to-state warfare during the Second World War. It was literally on the other side of the world from the United States that the B-29s Enola Gay and Bockscar performed their respective atomic bomb missions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two Japanese cities largely unknown to the American people prior to the war. Also, there was not the build-up and immersion in the impending actions by the United States government and military against the Japanese people in the media (it does not seem plausible that a significant number of readers had perused Cleve Cartmill’s 1944 short story, “Deadline,” and realized its immediate implications). Therefore, the anxiety over nuclear attack was nicely isolated around a particular aggressor (i.e. the Soviet Union), and the attack itself was not made real beyond the limited and largely non-engaged Japanese home front. On the other hand, the September 11 terror attacks by the religious and ideological al-Qaeda soldiers against the symbols of American hegemonic power and all persons in the vicinity of those symbolic places reconfigured the locus and understanding of anxiety of attacks by the alien Other. The threat was made surprisingly real, and the battleground shifted radically from elsewhere to here. Furthermore, it is in this reconfiguration of anxiety over the 9/11 terror attacks that resulted in something else in SF film narrative concerning the way in which individuals engage their anxiety made real. In the following section, I will discuss the transformation of anxiety into citizen soldiery through the emblematic and representative example of Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007).
Michael Bay’s Transformers is a slick and action packed summer blockbuster brimming with special effects featuring the battle between the Manichean Transformers in the here-and-now of planet Earth. Obviously, Bay’s film suffers from a certain amount of blockbuster engineering. On the surface, the film is about a one-dimensional conflict between the good Autobots who serve as humanity’s protectors and the evil Decepticons who aspire to kill and destroy anyone and anything in their path towards recovering the regenerative “All Spark.” Luckily, the film is about much more than meets the eye.
A useful point of entry into Transformers is the movie poster tagline, “Their war. Our world.” This sums up the autonomous robot, alien Other war between Autobots and Decepticons. Their war moves from the barren and resource-depleted Cybertron to the lush and resource-rich Earth, which is effectively mirrored in the resource producing Middle East and resource consuming American West Coast. However, the Transformers tagline can be read as applying to the here-and-now of the Global War on Terror. “Their war” is what the military analyst William S. Lind calls Fourth Generation warfare:
Characteristics such as decentralization and initiative carry over from the Third to the Fourth Generation, but in other respects the Fourth Generation marks the most radical change since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. In Fourth Generation war, the state loses its monopoly on war. All over the world, state militaries find themselves fighting non-state opponents such as al Quaeda [sic], Hamas, Hezbollah, and the FARC. Almost everywhere, the state is losing. (Lind par. 13)
Fourth Generation warfare is essentially non-state actor controlled guerilla warfare, i.e., between non-governmental organizations and states. This is the kind of war al-Qaeda wages with America, and its symbolic declaration was the September 11 attacks. Furthermore, “our world” is another way of saying the United States of America–our supposedly isolated world safe from threats abroad and the hot zones of war during the Cold War and post-Cold War years leading up to the September 11 attacks. Thus, Transformers is a veiled SF narrative that points the way to a reconfiguration of SF narrative following the changes in American homeland isolation and the false sense of safety following the end of the Cold War.
The reconfiguration of SF narrative post-September 11 is best approached by returning to Žižek’s potentially inflammatory essay, “Welcome to the Desert of the Real!” In this work, he describes the fantastic origins of the terrorist attacks on the United States and the uncertainties surrounding our post-9/11 future. However, the point that bears discussion on the transformation of post-9/11 SF film is where he writes:
We don’t yet know what consequences in economy, ideology, politics, war this event will have, but one thing is sure: the United States, which, till now, perceived itself as an island exempted from this kind of violence, witnessing this kind of thing only from the safe distance of the TV screen, is now directly involved. (Žižek 389)
The key to understanding new post-9/11 SF narratives has to do with Žižek’s idea of “direct involvement.” During the Cold War, and in the post-Cold War years before 9/11, United States citizens indulged in viewing war and conflicts around the world from the armchair comfort of their own home. The television screen separated the viewer from televised war, and the real-world distance between viewer and those enduring war was great. Improvised explosive devices and suicide bombings were largely a world away. It was understood that there was no war within the American homeland. It took place elsewhere, and that elsewhere was safely very far away. And as I discussed above, Americans dreamed about the destruction delivered on September 11, 2001 in the way that we all imagine the annihilation of oppressive hegemonic powers. The anxieties of the American Cold War do not hold up any longer when the threat was made real during the 9/11 terror attacks. Following the realization of the fantastic dream, individuals must respond to a threat in ways before that were speculative at best. It is the transformation of anxiety that yields a new kind of personal response to the anxiety of the real. I argue that Michael Bay’s Transformers represents a reconfiguration in SF film narrative following the September 11 terror attacks and the beginning of what former President George W. Bush labeled the Global War on Terror. Instead of revealing anxieties and veiling commentary in a Cold War mode of SF narrative, post-9/11 SF narrative focuses on the threat to the American homeland, and the way “directly involved” citizens deal with that threat. The border between the supposedly safe American homeland and the dangerous outside world is broken, and the threat is transferred from a visually imagined somewhere else to here. Thus, anxiety over the fantastic is transformed into a response to that anxiety made real.
The visual narrative that interconnects the film with the intensive media coverage of 9/11 facilitates the direct involvement of citizen soldiers in Transformers. Visual cues and the film’s edited form construct these correspondences. First, the overall narrative structure shifts between images of the American homeland and American war-making abroad. The former includes the large and well-manicured Witwicky home, a high school, and a relatively peaceful lake setting populated with young Americans. The latter includes scenes from Qatar in the Middle East, the Pentagon, and the President’s Air Force One aircraft. The film is edited to repeatedly show a war scene away from the home front followed by a scene at the home front until climaxing with a juxtaposition of the two–war on the home front. For example, the first scene of the film features Captain Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and his team of American soldiers returning to their “home base” in a state-of-the-art vertical-lift V-22 Osprey air transport. Soon after arrival, the Decepticons Blackout and Scorponok, disguised as a U.S. military helicopter, attack the base with advanced weaponry and gigantic robotic brawn. Instead of seeing American war making in the Middle East, the audience is treated to a special effects extravaganza of killer robots from another planet simultaneously attacking physical and virtual nodes in the American military Communication, Command, Control, and Intelligence (3CI) network.
Following the visually dazzling attack on the American military, the film transitions to an idealized, quiet high school setting on the West Coast where Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) hocks his great-great-grandfather’s belongings. Among these artifacts is his ancestor’s glasses, which bear the imprint of an otherworld sublimity from the so-called “ice man,” who we later learn is the Decepticon leader, Megatron. The film is consciously edited in such a way to transition between there (desert and military) and here (high school and suburbia). However, it is significant to the narrative build-up that the violence and intensity of the confrontations on the home front increase as Captain Lennox’s team moves closer to the American homeland. In a sense, Lennox’s team is radioactive and their return heralds a critical mass explosion and narrative release at the end of the film. Hence, the away-war overlaps the homeland creating a new war on the home front. Therefore, the recall of Lennox and his soldiers to America is the basis for the reconfiguration of the American homeland as an isolated space to the new battlefront in the Global War on Terror veiled within the Autobot/Decepticon war.
Bay’s film further embraces 9/11 narratives through borrowed rhetoric and visual images left unseen during the television coverage of the terror attacks. The first mise-en-scène is prominent at the beginning of the film with our introduction to Sam’s high school. There is a newspaper, half folded on his history teacher’s desk with the visible headlines: “Smash Jap” and “War Extra: Yanks Sink.” This homage to the director’s pre-9/11 film Pearl Harbor (2001) connects it to the circuits leading to and from 9/11. The September 11 attacks are imbued with the sneak attack narrative of Pearl Harbor despite the obvious differences between the two discussed above. However, the sneak attack narrative embeds this newspaper image, as well as Transformers, with the overarching American sense of victimization at the beginning of our involvement in World War II and its reemergence almost sixty years later on September 11, 2001.
Further engaging 9/11 narratives, and perhaps visually exploiting them, Transformers sets up the final confrontation with a plane and a building. The end bracket situating Transformers within a 9/11 narrative takes place during the climatic battle between the good Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), leader of the Autobots, and the evil Megatron (Hugo Weaving), leader of the Decepticons. Megatron transforms into a menacing otherworldly aircraft and flies toward his nemesis. Optimus Prime grabs and holds onto Megatron who then swoops up and through a high-rise office building. The audience sees Megatron’s aircraft with Optimus in tow enter, fly through the building, and exit with a visibly wounding and destructive effect. Joshua Clover describes this short sequence as, “by far the most detailed reconstruction of what was hidden from our human eyes within the spectacularly visible violence of September 11, 2001” (7).
Perhaps more importantly than the film’s engagement of 9/11 narratives is the way in which Transformers represents Žižek’s idea of “direct involvement.” The home front lead characters of the film are Sam and Mikaela (Megan Fox)–two average Hollywood-generated uncanny high school kids. Initially, Sam is protected by his Autobot guardian, Bumblebee (Mark Ryan), but after the temperature of the home front war increases with the arrival of Captain Lennox and the release of Megatron from the hidden caverns in the Hoover Dam complex, Sam is required to step-up in the heat of battle. His charge is to get the transforming, technoscientific All Spark MacGuffin out of the combat zone and into the hands of the U.S. military, which is believed capable of protecting the All Spark from the U.S. military doppelganger Decepticons. During a moment of reluctance on Sam’s part to become “directly involved,” Captain Lennox grabs his shirt collar and yells, “You’re a soldier now,” which effectively drafts Sam as a young citizen soldier. Additionally, Mikaela, without needing a soldierly pep talk, employs her knowledge gained on the other side of the law from her car thief father to steal a tow truck and extricate her wounded Autobot friend, Bumblebee, from the fight. However, in the escape, she, with Bumblebee’s approval, decides to turn around and fight. In doing so, she makes a more active contribution to the battle than Sam’s thrilling getaway and rescues Lennox’s team from a storefront firefight reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001). This, along with earlier scenes revealing Mikaela to be a knowledgeable and strong female character presents a complicated picture of the gender politics in the film that deserves further study. Additionally, Mikaela’s decision to turn back, and Sam’s last minute choice to use the All Spark to destroy Megatron reveal another major difference from earlier American Cold War narratives. One such film is the previously mentioned Red Dawn, which is the kind of story that Tom Engelhardt calls “the American war story,” in which, “you had no choice. Either you pulled the trigger or you died, for war was invariably portrayed as a series of reactive incidents rather than organized and invasive campaigns” (Engelhardt 4-5). Transformers develops from a series of events that present choices whereas the teenagers of Red Dawn react to the conditions placed upon them by the Communist invaders. Therefore, Sam and Mikaela, as young U.S. citizens, are drafted into the Global War on Terror as signified by the Autobot-Decepticon war raging between the buildings and on the streets of the fictional Mission City–a city that emblematizes the mission of promoting the new ideal of the American citizen soldier protecting the now invaded homeland within the intertwined Transformers/September 11 narrative.
Within that narrative space, Sam’s “direct involvement” in the new war on the homeland hinges on his family motto, “No sacrifice. No victory.” This is an often repeated saying in the film, particularly between Sam and his father, Ron (Kevin Dunn). The family motto, made famous, or perhaps infamous, by Sam’s explorer great-great-grandfather, Captain Archibald Witwicky (William Morgan Sheppard), is ingrained in Sam’s identity and figures heavily in his character’s overt motivations. As a “directly involved” citizen soldier in the Global War on Terror, Sam’s family motto connects him to the professional soldiers in the film during a scene in the Sector Seven bunker at Hoover Dam. Captain Lennox and his men have a showdown with the Sector Seven operatives, because they agree with Sam that Autobot Bumblebee should be freed to aid in the fight. During this confrontation, the Defense Secretary John Keller (Jon Voight) tells Agent Simmons (John Turturro), “Losing’s not really an option for these guys.” As Secretary of Defense, he represents the armed forces of the United States, and his saying “losing’s not really an option” conjures the memory of a whole host of losses that America still struggles with in maintaining a decaying triumphal identity following World War II. Additionally, Engelhardt notes that “with the end of the Cold War and the ‘loss of the enemy,’ American culture has entered a period of crisis that raises profound questions about national purpose and identity” (Engelhardt 10). The faltering of American triumphalism during the Cold War and after is emphasized by this exchange between Keller and Simmons. Furthermore, Sam’s family motto, “No sacrifice. No victory,” represents the American need for triumph in this new struggle brought to the American homeland from afar while acknowledging the necessity for sacrifice. Thus, Sam’s identity as a citizen soldier bound by his family motto operates as an analog of the professional American soldier’s need for fulfilling a historically and culturally constructed belief in triumphalism.
Unfortunately, Sam’s “direct involvement” in the Autobot-Decepticon transformation of the Global War on Terror falters, because he appears to make no real sacrifice. Sam’s central role seems to primarily fulfill what Peter Clines reports Steven Spielberg wanted to be the focus of the film–“a boy and his first car” (32). Furthermore, Sam runs away from danger in the hopes of passing along the All Spark to military authorities, but in the end, he destroys the All Spark in order to defeat Megatron. This sacrifice costs Sam nothing, and destroys the Autobots’ hopes for revitalizing their dead planet. Besides this heavy loss, the only apparent American/Autobot casualties are Jazz (Darius McCrary) and a few U.S. military “red shirts.” So, what did the American citizen soldiers really give up? Apparently nothing. Sam gets the girl as well as a car that transforms into a robot, and Captain Lennox is delivered home by Autobot Ironhide (Josh Harnell) to see his wife and baby girl. The majority of the Decepticons are killed and disposed of in the deep waters of the Laurentian Abyss. Therefore, humanity, read as Americans, gives up very little to win their war with the Decepticon disguised technological threat without having to consider Žižek’s question regarding the “surprise” of the average American to suicide attacks: “Does not this surprise reveal the rather sad fact that we, in the first world countries, find it more and more difficult even to imagine a public or universal Cause for which one would be ready to sacrifice one’s life” (388)? How can we accept Sam risking his life as cars tumble about him, and windows are blown out by explosives when we know as a literate film audience that in general he is not in a great deal of danger? We see Sam hanging on the precipice, but in the back of our minds, we understand that it is only a film and tremendous safety precautions are in place, or he is merely lying on his back on a green screen devoid of any real danger. Sacrifice cannot be simulated, or can it?
The only characters shown in the film to sacrifice are the heroic Autobot Transformers, but these computer-generated characters are simulacra masquerading as human technologies. In the case of the Autobots, the origins of their name come from the fact that original Transformers toys were organized such that the automobiles were the good guys or Autobots, and everything else (pistol, F-15, microcassette recorder) were the bad guys or Decepticons. In Bay’s film, the Autobots tell Sam and Mikaela that their name means, “autonomous robotic organisms.” This is a clever explanation, but an unsatisfactory one. In fact, Autobot can stand for all of the Transformers, just as Decepticons, an amalgamation of “deception” and “con,” represents the deceptive nature of all of the Transformers to infiltrate and hide via the mask of human technology. What does it mean for the heroes and the villains of the film to carry the same transformational signification? I assert that this underlies the most significant source of the post-9/11 anxiety, which is the fear of the invisible Other. Americans learned on 9/11 that the ideological enemy carries no flag and wears no uniform–those persons who perpetuated the terror attacks infiltrated American society by a transformative performance. Depending on the context of their surroundings and the exchange of information and messages between cells, these Fourth Generation warriors used the assumption of a social contract to their advantage in the preparation, staging, and implementation of their attacks on the United States. Unlike the Transformers in Michael Bay’s special effects laden film, the 9/11 attackers are true transformers in the sense that they were shadow warriors who hid in plain sight. However, the 9/11 attackers are not the same as the earlier Cold War image of the subversive Communist agent. The 9/11 attackers and their ilk do not desire to sow discontent, but rather intend to create a symbolic event from the death of others facilitated by their martyrdom. Therefore, the reality of the al-Qaeda operative is far removed from any imaginative belief in the elusive Communist agent during the American Cold War.
Transformers is evidently connecting to a number of emblematic issues in the post-9/11 cultural landscape including anxiety of the dream made real, citizen response to the real, concern over sacrifice in response to the real, and the issue of distinguishing friends from enemies. There are a number of other SF films that connect to and explore these issues as part of a growing trend in post-9/11 narrative creation. One such film that I argue is science fictional due to its uncanny recreation of the events of September 11, 2001, is Paul Greengrass’ United 93 (2006), which presents a strong example of citizens turned soldiers. Films such as Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005) and Matt Reeve’s Cloverfield (2008) engage narratives of the city under attack, and individuals attempting to save their own lives and the lives of others while trying to make sense of an imminent, seemingly unstoppable threat. Also, the expansion of superhero movie franchises including Spider-Man (2002, 2004, 2007) Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and Iron Man (2008) all represent citizens turned soldiers who make choices and sacrifices to contend with unexpected threats made real. Alfonso Cuarón’s film interpretation of Children of Men (2006) further strengthens the concepts of responding to anxieties inspired by the unexpected real. Another film adaptation is Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend (2007), which presents a reevaluation of the protagonist Robert Neville (Will Smith) and his providing the genesis for the future through a cure he developed to the transformative vampire virus. Another perspective is presented by George Lucas’ Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) in which a chosen son falters down the wrong path, guided by the elusive and hidden-in-plain-sight evil mentor in the hope that his choice will protect his wife. These are only a sampling of the many SF films released after the September 11 terror attacks, but there is obviously a trend in the representation of and personal response to anxiety resulting from the fantastic made real.
How long will the new post-9/11 SF film narrative be with us, and what is its long-term meaning for American culture? Unmistakably, the new post-9/11 SF film narrative developed from two deeply rooted historical developments–the September 11, 2001 terror attacks and the ensuing call for a “Global War on Terror” by then President George W. Bush. The attacks initiated an unparalleled realization of vulnerability and a new call for individuals to deal with matters that were, until that point, dealt with a world away by the United States government and its military forces. The realization came that the government and its military might is incapable of fully deterring Fourth Generation warfare. This catalyzing comprehension initiated the anxiety of the real, true event that Baudrillard and Žižek confronted in their respective works. Furthermore, the Global War on Terror and the Department of Homeland Security’s “National Threat Advisory” (currently yellow, signifying “Significant Risk of Terrorist Attacks”) serve to sustain the anxiety of the catalyst event, and it is evident that the perpetuation of that anxiety of the real event that has taken place and may take place again has worked its way into the capital-driven cultural productions in American cinema. It has taken almost eight years to arrive at our present position from the September 11 terror attacks, and there was little chance of a shift in perspective during the Bush administration, which launched a retaliatory war in Afghanistan and a war of misguided retribution in Iraq. These wars are still with us today, and will be for some time. However, there are shifts in perspective taking place within the United States government following the historic election of President Barack Obama that may soon find resonance in SF film. According to a report in The Washington Post on March 25, 2009, the Obama administration, as aware of the incendiary and rhetorical power of words as its predecessor, quietly backed away from the use of the phrase “global war on terror” (par. 1). The monolithic and essentializing conceptualization of the “global war on terror” served to increase the anxiety initially generated by the September 11 terror attacks by sustaining it through Bush’s dualistic stance, “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.” Unfortunately, the problems emblematized by the September 11 terror attacks are not so simple as to align a country against “terror.” The term “terror” cannot contain or represent the complexity of problems that brought about an equally complicated network of persons with varying (and sometimes conflicting) ideological and religious beliefs as al-Qaeda. Additionally, al-Qaeda is not the only group (or individual) engaged in the use of non-declared attacks against civilians in the United States, or elsewhere. And, it is the issue of elsewhere that the new President of the United States, and entire American citizenry, should turn their attention. Following the September 11 terror attacks, there was a massive turning inward, a collective mourning for those persons lost in the attacks, but more significantly for the loss of innocence and the separation between the individual and the real. Žižek puts it more directly:
Either America will persist in, strengthen even, the attitude, “Why should this happen to us? Things like this don’t happen here!”–leading to more aggression toward the threatening Outside, in short: to a paranoiac acting out–or America will finally risk stepping through the fantasmatic screen separating it from the Outside World, accepting its arrival into the Real world, making the long-overdue move from “Things like this should not happen here!” to “Things like this should not happen anywhere!” (Žižek 389)
Unfortunately, Transformers and the other post-9/11 SF films falter on this very point. The new post-9/11 SF narrative is still hung up on the idea that real events like the terror attacks should not happen to America and Americans. These new films resist an ethical cosmopolitanism that symbolic events with real casualties and destruction should not happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime. The new American President, elected in part on Shepard Fairey’s iconic “Hope” and “Change” political artwork, has not yet embraced this cosmopolitan attitude as evidenced by his retaining Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the unabated use of unmanned Predator aerial drones to kill al-Qaeda militants and Pakistani civilians. Will new post-9/11 SF films engage and critique this most significant aspect of the pain and anxiety Americans face when confronted by the real? It is certainly my hope that the SF films in the future question the change that remains the same, and that audiences walk out of the cinema troubled, angry, and eager to make change real.
Baudrillard, Jean. The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays. Trans. Chris Turner. New York: Verso, 2002.
Bay, Michael, dir. Pearl Harbor. Touchtone Pictures. 2001.
—. Transformers. Dreamworks and Paramount Pictures. 2007.
Carpenter, John. Escape from New York. AVCO Embassy Pictures. 1981.
Clover, Joshua. “Dream Machines.” Film Quarterly 61.2 (2007): 6-7.
Cuarón, Alfonso. Children of Men. Universal Pictures. 2006.
Engelhardt, Tom. The End of Victory Culture: Cold War American and the Disillusioning of a Generation. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.
Favreau, Jon. Iron Man. Paramount Pictures. 2008.
Gaddis, John Lewis. “And Now This: Lessons From the Old Era For the New One.” The Age of Terror: America and the World After September 11. Eds. Strobe Talbott and Nayan Chanda. New York: Basic Books, 2001. 1-21.
Greengrass, Paul, dir. United 93. Universal Pictures. 2006.
Kubrick, Stanley. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Columbia Pictures. 1964.
Lawrence, Francis. I Am Legend. Warner Bros. 2007.
Late last year on October 3, 2013, I had the pleasure of interviewing Paul Lally, the producer, writer, and director of an educational program from 1977 called “Space Station L-4.” Now, Paul is the Executive Producer of Caio Italia with Mary Ann Esposito.
Space Station L-4 was distributed by Children’s Television International and shown on PBS and in classrooms across the USA. It starred Cotter Smith (X-Men 2) and Venida Evans (The Adjustment Bureau). The show teaches junior high students about ecology and environmental topics from an observation point in outer space at L-4. It combines a science fictional frame (astronauts on a future space station positioned at a Lagrange point around the earth) with science fact about the ecology of Earth from an outside observer’s point of view.
In the interview, Paul tells me about the development and production of Space Station L-4, and we venture into other areas such as his experiences working on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and his ideas about engagement, learning, and pedagogy.
I paid CastingWords.com to transcribe our 1 hour 18 minute conversation. I have gone through the transcript and made corrections, but there remains the possibility of my missing something. All errors are mine.
Jason Ellis: I was curious, maybe just to start things off, where did the idea for “Space Station L4” come from?
Paul Lally: I worked for Children’s Television International, which was a company that produced in‑school programming for students. I recall that it was probably someone at the company sailed out the idea, offered out as a curriculum, as a course possibility in Earth Sciences.
This was something outside of my preview. I didn’t get near it until they landed the idea and got the funding, or whatever it was, for it. Then I came in on it. That’s kind of how it started.
They looked around for different ways to supply programming back then for in school programs, that’s how they were constantly doing that, and as a supplier to you know Great Plains or wherever these distributors were, and still are I guess in some respect but, yeah so they modified. I don’t know if that’s much of an answer, but somebody did yeah, somebody did.
Jason: Right, it was an American produced show; it was something that came from CTI here in the United States?
Paul: Yeah, Children’s Television International was a Virginia based company that I worked for. I worked for the company for like three years. I was a producer, director, writer there.
I would do different kinds, I did a short story series for them, I did one on newspapers, one on movie making, and storytelling series, a variety of in school programming series. Ray Gladfelder was the guy, he’s not in business anymore, he’s since passed away.
But itself has kind of vanished but, it’s not to be confused with Children’s Television Workshop which is Sesame Street. That’s another thing entirely so. Discrete from each other.
Jason: You mentioned in your email, one of your earlier emails between us that after you did get attached to the project, and you were working on it that you guys built a 360 degree set.
Jason: Can you tell me more about what that set was like?
Paul: Well, you just imagine a big, in a television studio, film studio, a sound stage. We build a very long cylindrical shaped environment, something like a submarine kind of thing. On entry, once we went in they closed it behind us so that we could shoot 360 degrees, and never be off set. We were enclosed in the set.
I wrote these very long scenes, like seven, eight minute‑long takes where there was no cuts. The premise was that they were working up there. About once a week, they would have a 15 minute broadcast to earth and that was the premise.
They would be talking to you but then they start interrupting. They’d have various oxygen, or some kind of problem so the class would be interrupted. The actors alternated between looking in the camera meaning, “Space Station. People.” Then saying, “Whoops, give me a second.” Then we go back.
I have wrote all these scripts so that I blended, for instance, they may have listed the shows somewhere in the study guide. If it was on earth for instance, or soil. Let’s say the one week’s topic was soil. He just talked to the students.
I had a curriculum or, what’d I have? The topic of what I had to write about then, as a writer I made it more of a conversational thing. That’s how I would do it. The point I’m getting at is I would intersperse the teaching points with another story line that was happening, like, they were waiting for the supply ship. It had been late and they were hungry. Scientist wants a sandwich.
There’s a little other side drama would be happening. Some weeks it was funny, some weeks it was other things to do. All very casual. That was the way to do it.
Jason: It sounds fascinating to me, because I could imagine how engaging that could be to students. You’re learning something but then you have that drama or that comedy take place in parallel to it.
Paul: Yeah, that’s what we do just to break it up. Also they came about, love if they still had the shows to certainly explain it better than me. It’s been 30 years, a thousand years since I’ve done it.
I pitched right into it and these actors memorized, we shot steady cam which nowadays is pretty common use. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the instrument. It’s a camera that’s attached. It’s free floating. It has some shoulder‑mounted thing. It’s very float‑y, and very ethereal kind of shots with steady cam.
But back then I had the second one even invented for God’s sake. I saw it and as a young producer I said to the director, I said, “That’s what I’m going to get.” We rented one so we could float around and get this sense of gliding.
There was no cuts so even though they had gravity there; you had the sense of kind of never cutting between scenes. You just kept going, these actor memorized. Plus, what the trick was; they would walk around with clipboards like they were consulting notes, but a lot of times they were just trying to get their lines for their endless scenes.
Paul: They were very good at. Cotter more than, I forget the actress’s name but it was Cotter Smith, and a man and a woman. They were kind of up there. The point of L4 is a point in space where you’re equal just between the moon and the earth. It’s a kind of equilibrium L4 force.
There is L1, L2, L3, as I recall faintly, these spots and you may know about that. It’s a point in space where it’s balanced, and it’s sort of the metaphor was balance and they were sort of like ecological traffic cops up there monitoring the earth.
They were keeping an eye on the earth and monitoring and reporting back. Hence, that was the root of the earth sciences sort of thing was that while they were doing their thing, looking at hurricanes here, or something over there, doing their work up there, they would also spend 15 minutes a week with, and I can’t honestly remember the age group.
Because I still write pretty sophisticated stuff, but I had two kids at the time so I didn’t have the answer. I just laid it on them, I think it was middle school, but I honestly don’t know. It could have been higher, junior high. I don’t know where you start earth sciences to be honest.
Jason: Yeah, from my memory at least when I went through middle school. That would have been right around sixth, seventh, eighth grade middle school.
Paul: Yea, that’s what I think too, yeah. I tell you what’s popular to me [laughs] . There was a big ITT called Big Blue Marble back then, just ancient. It was hugely popular, and L4 beat them out I think. I got a gold medal for that show.
It was the best whatever, but it won. It beat out Big Blue Marble. It’d be the equivalent of beating the New York Yankees, showing up and hitting a home run. I was very surprised and pleased to say the least.
Jason: Right, no doubt.
Paul: Yeah, it was fun.
Jason: You mentioned Cotter Smith played one of the astronauts on the space station. You sent me the Wikipedia article. I remembered him then from X2. He played the President in that movie. But he has a very distinctive look, and I want to see what he would look like.
Paul: He looked like that young. He’ll look like Cotter. I have known him my whole life. We’ve been friends since he lived in the Washington D.C. area which is where we were based, so we would audition actors in that area.
I think Vanessa or Vanetta, I forget her last name. Anyhow, I can’t remember the female, the actress who was in it. Let’s see what else is shaking here. The set was pretty exciting just to go in and get locked in. You just close the door and you couldn’t. I would stage these scenes where they would talk to the camera for maybe two minutes, and then we had some films too.
We had pre‑produced things. God knows where we got them. On soil, or something, I don’t know.
I used that technique on a newspaper series the next year. I went down to a newspaper down in Virginia, but three actors in there with all the other real people and they did the same thing. They had scenes and talking about how newspapers were, and then they’d have ongoing dramas, scandals. It was the idea of mixing, what do you call it?
Kind of a little bit of reality show. That’s not a fair way to say it, but I did it twice and the premise worked. The science thing, I want to be able to give you substantive answers for what we were actually working on or helpful answers, because I don’t want to be reminiscing here. As much as I don’t mind doing that, I want to be able to help you with what you’re trying to get going with yourself here, what’s happening.
Jason: The project that I’m working on now is, I’m investigating television depictions of space stations. I’m real familiar with the science fictional aspects of it, but less so things that are either non‑fictional or maybe educational, and take a close look at “Deep Space Nine,” from “Star Trek” or “Babylon 5.” One of my friends is the one who tuned me into “L‑4”. He probably is maybe 10 years older than I am. He saw it on TV.
Paul: He remembered it, OK.
Jason: He immediately knew it. He started talking about it. He started having all these memories about it.
Paul: [laughs] That’s great.
Jason: It was from his younger memories so he doesn’t have a sharp recollection of who the actors were, those types of things, but he enjoyed it. I should convey that to you, that I think that was probably his most favorite TV show growing up.
Paul: Well thank you, that makes me feel good. It was very different and innovative. We had a computer voice. The associate producer, Melody Rosen was her name, we did a little mechanical voice where she would read it and she would distort it. They had this ongoing relationship with a computer, back and forth.
It was like a sentient being, to speak, but it was just a voice. They’d say, “Such and such, put up.” She was the one that would activate these little film clips and things, it was just a device. I remember that little part of it, that little component.
The best part was the last 13 shows, and it was the best. We filmed the 13th one, they were getting ready to go back home, they were going to get replaced. Their replacements were coming up, and they were recapping what they did and what a good time it was, and how to take care of the Earth. It was a really ecologically driven show, and mindful of the earth, and that was way back when.
I still remember Cotter Smith said, “All throughout this, we’ve told you how important science can be, now it’s important for you to see how important imagination can be,” and he starts walking toward me. Then Vanessa starts walking next to me, and the camera backs up and keeps backing up.
By then we had taken the back end off the set, so we came out. Then you see the set, and I had people coming in, stage hands, booming, and lights and stuff, you go for your transition in one shot from the Space Station to a TV studio.
It was wonderful. I’m rolling credits over that too. It was the best, I loved it. To this day, I think about it. It blew people’s minds, to see the transition, I remember that part of it.
We had shots of the cameraman and the sound recordist, and the computer voice started saying who it was, “Sound recordist, John Fitzpatrick”, and on, and on, and on. It was a little credit package, maybe 40 seconds long.
I’ve done it ever since, I do it in different shows that I produce. A cooking series I do, “Ciao Italia” which I’ve been doing that for 23 years now. Every once in a while we’ll reveal the studio, take away the curtain from the “Wizard of Oz.” It’s enjoyable.
Generally speaking, I remember I worked with teachers, I worked with curriculum consultants, and they would tell me what the theme was. Say it’s about soil, they would give a list of what has to happen as a writer, and then I would concoct the story around it, and then get the teaching points in.
Then we would supplement it with pre‑done films, or pre‑recorded visuals and things. Just to give you a sense of the process.
As I recall, it was very much ecologically driven, of course at the time environment was just early coming in, it was the ’70s. My God it was people waking up to ecology and to the things that dominate our culture now, but it was unknown back then. I was sensitive to it so it was able to infuse the scripts, with that the answer.
Jason: It sounds like your show was really innovative, it was coming right after “Silent Spring,” it would not have been on most people’s minds at that time. It was not nearly as big or as promoted as it is nowadays.
Paul: Exactly, you’re quite right. You could sense the importance of it and sense that it was Earth, and at that time we had had enough distance. The iconic photograph of seeing the Earth from far away, “Big Blue Marble” was the name of the series. It would beat it out, because to see the earth from the moon shots. It was really transcendent for people to see the earth as an object in space.
It was the first time. This was probably back in the late ’60s or something like that. It was just an unawareness of the fragility of the planet. Hence, I was sensitive to that as a writer, and as a producer and director, just to do my best to infuse the actors in the future.
It was a given that they were concerned about the Earth, that’s why they were up there. They were like cops, friendly cops, but they were up there enforcing the ecological balance of the earth, and that sort of thing. It sounds a little more dramatic that it was, it was pretty casual. That’s what I have to say about that.
Jason: Thinking about the way you shot the program. You had this steady cam, everybody’s inside this 360-degree set, the astronauts, are they dressed in some sort of astronaut garb like either a spacesuit or jumpsuit?
Paul: Yeah exactly, like a jumpsuit. A Star Trekkie kind of thing, not Star Trekkie too much, but it was kind of a unisex sort of outfit. I remember that. Considering it was an instructional television series, it was not too fancy, it looked simple.
It was blue with their name on it, something really simple, but not a uniform. It’s a good question; I don’t know how involved we got with that part of it.
Jason: You had the two astronauts, a man and a woman, and you also had the computer voice character who introduced videos, for showing the astronauts and the audience who was watching the show.
Paul: Yes, and back in the old days you had live things and you had cartoons. I’ll try and do one other thing; I can give you a better example if I can find, that place L‑4. They had a list of the programs. I can’t think of another. I keep saying soil, but there must be some other topic. They listed it in that one library that may have had the series still. They had the list of the programs as I recall.
Jason: I didn’t look that carefully actually to see what the programs are.
Paul: Yeah. They have actual programs. It’s Space after this. I’m not find it. It’s Space Station L‑4. Wait a minute. Now it’s a TV company. It’s very strange for PBS Special from ’77. What the hell?
Look at this, this weird thing. I’ll send you a like a little, it’s just a paragraph. A PBS Special from 1977. This is all like half right, and half wrong. It spanned 16 episodes. A fascinating look back at where cutting edge science was in the late ’70’s. What they were expecting and how it’s played out in reality.
This show discusses plan for a fully functional space station, which would sustain life somewhere other than Earth. I have no idea what the hell this is? I don’t even know if it’s my series. Who cares? That’s not important for you. It’s way too specific for what you’re doing, but I just saw it.
This is like trying to discover some relative who lives in Cuba, or something. “Wow! Where are they? What are they doing?”
Jason: Right, exactly.
Paul: I think we lost the trail on them.
Jason: Trying to uncover the archaeology of these visual artifacts. I had conversations with my students about the ephemerality of their digital online communications, and the things that they watch and do online. The same is true for more traditional media as well. These things are easy to disappear, and then you trying to track them down later can be a real challenge.
Paul: Absolutely. A good example was I worked for 10 years. My big career break came when I went with Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. I worked for 10 years there as a Director and a Writer, and that was after I did this L‑4 stuff.
I see much of Fred’s work is just kind of vaporized. It’s out there, but it’s sort of all faded away. Since I’ve been with Mary Ann Esposito, I produced her cooking show, and she’s had like 23 years.
I decided long ago, saying, “I’m going to archive this stuff.” Literally, her body of work is online free. You can go to our website, ciaoitalia.com. All of her videos are there, like 1,200 videos. As long as the Internet is alive, her body of work will be there. It makes me feel good.
The very thing you’re working in your business and mine is very ephemeral. Like our conversation, it’s just here today and gone tomorrow, and to have some kind of record. It upset me that Fred’s work is down the tubes. It was so essential for young children. You probably grew up with Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.
Jason: Yeah. I was going to ask you before we entered the conversation today about you; your work on that show, which is unrelated to what my profession. That’s just being a fan, you growing up with that.
Paul: Of course, yeah. It was a huge thrill for me. It was a huge break. I started working with Fred when he had just become like a world figure. They called it his “Carey Grant” phase of his life it was so great. Everybody knew. We went to Moscow, we filmed. It was just great.
It was great to work with him. A very small setup. He did all the puppet’s voices. He was just a one‑man‑band really. We reached a huge effect on children. He’s coming back now. The company is doing an animated series, which it’s a pale imitation.
The guy is a genius. It was wonderful. It was a thrill to work with. He was as regular as you or me. You would have loved being with him. He’s just a great guy, and interested in you.
You’d want to talk to him, and he’d have you blabbing about yourself in about 60 seconds. You’d just be “Blah, blah, blah.” because he was just genuinely interested in the human condition, except he talked too slow.
You’d say, “God, Mr. Roger’s talking. You sound like Mr. Roger’s, but we’re having a normal conversation,” rather than simplistic stuff. It was normal. That’s sort of my spiel I give folks, who knew about Fred. I was there. My kids grew‑up working on the set, painting dots on “Neighborhood of Make Believe,” that kind of stuff.
We had Thanksgiving with Fred every Thanksgiving. He was a vegetarian, and my daughter didn’t like turkey. The two of them would have their own little special thing on Thanksgiving. We’d have massive turkey with Fred, and Gabriel would have like little lobster bisques, or some damn thing. It was just the human touches that make the world go around them.
Jason: Right. One thing that I guess bridges these two works in my mind, you working on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and then with Space Station L‑4. It’s a pre‑digital age. Everything is physical. The puppets are real. You can see them. There’s like a texture to them. The way they’re made, and the sets and everything.
Then what you’re saying about Space Station L‑4. You built this amazing set that everything takes place in, You even tell how that’s made at the end of the show.
Paul: Yes. To show the hand inside the puppet as it worked, at the end. I thought it was great for kids to know. In science some of my closest friends are these sort of button‑down, wired‑up, binary kind of people. They’re scientific. They think that way, but they’re creative too.
There’s a bridge between me, a creative artist and an astrophysicist. They are creativity bridges instantly both ways. It was fun for me to have the bully pulpit if you will. This was a small company. I was in my late 20’s, or I don’t know. I could just do whatever the hell I want. I knew I had to do everything. I wrote it, and directed it, and produced it, and I edited it. It was kind of a one‑man‑band thing.
That series was a reflection of my world view if you will. It’s a rare opportunity to do that, and clearly for school students. I reached out to an audience that was very important, an informative audience.
You’re right, not having any kind of CGI though. Nothing, nothing! We embedded shit, but it was just nothing. We shot at 60 mm film, colored negative. We edited it on a Steenbeck, which is a flatbed editor. I don’t think they make them anymore. I think they still do a little bit.
You cut film, you had film bins. You had a work print. They kept the negative. You would get a work print of the negative. You would cut the work print. Then you’d have these negative conformities, scientifically antiseptic world, where you have to cut the negative without getting any dust on it. You just can’t believe it.
You would match your work print. None of this is going to make any sense to you. The amount of labor required in make believe was just astonishing.
My main point, overactive point, is that we engaged people’s imagination, rather than showing them everything. At one time I got something like an asteroid; some kind of thing hits the ship or something. I don’t know what. It was very subtle.
I think, “Oh, I can take care of this.” There’s no alarm going off. They try to stay cool, but they’re still talking about Space Science. It’s all imagining though, because I’m not showing you stuff outside, or anything.
In fact, the first three shows we shot the set looked kind of empty. I thought it looked pretty good, but we had this wide angle lens. It looked sort of naked. I had the set guy build a central column or something, like a four brand object that we could keep swinging around.
I’ll give you a personal note too. It was my first thing I really directed like a big studio deal. I can remember going in the first day of it, and I saw the clad bird sticks and stuff. I thought to myself, “Jesus Christ!” I saw the set and I went inside, and I said, “Oh, my God!”
At a certain point I said, “You know what? I have to begin. I have to start. I have to say, ‘OK, everybody.'” I’m the guy. I didn’t even know I was the guy. It was coming down on my head, and then I learned.
Just the idea that it was me. I had to do it. I was no longer waiting for somebody else to say, “OK, everybody.” I was the guy. I remember that vividly. I have not looked back since. It’s just going forward into my producing career. It was pretty thrilling and nerve racking, and everything else. I didn’t know if I could do it.
Roll sound, the sound is rolling, or the action, action and cut. All that kind of stuff you do. I could do it. It was quite informative for me on that series, because I think it was the first thing I really did. Now I’m doing all reminiscing, that’s not helping you. It was just my experience with it.
Jason: I appreciate hearing those things. From my own experience, it’s completely different. It’s only by you hearing these kinds of stories, do I get any kind of sense of what it must have been like taking on those different kinds of roles on a TV show like this.
Paul: It was. It was a teamwork thing, where you build teams. I had worked for people who were awful to work for. Basically, they were just terrified when they were in over their head, or whatever. I didn’t want to do that.
It told me that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be the guy. I wanted to be the guy with the hat. I wanted to be that guy in varying different ways over my whole career.
I’ve done that, because this imaginary world that the media is so powerful. For me it’s not the medium as much, as just the chance to get my imagination going, that is all, in that environment. I have just known nothing but it my whole career.
I’m in my 60’s now, and I’ve done this for 40 years, just all sorts of damn things. L‑4 was the real kicker. That got me going. I still remember that. I’m trying to think of something else. Go ahead.
Jason: When you shot the program, was there ever an external shot of the Space Station, or was that all left up to the audience’s imagination?
Paul: That’s a good point. I think not. I think we didn’t. We probably stole some shot from NASA. Oh, yeah. I remember this. With NASA, back then, there was a storage facility down there. They had high resolution colored prints of satellite shots of the Earth.
The resolution was so high, that no matter how close you zoomed in with a camera, you could still see that the grain was so fine on these prints. They were maybe 12 by 12 inch prints.
You could walk in to this huge storage facility and check out what you want and bring it back. The casualness of it all was astonishing. We begged, borrowed, and steal some clips of stuff. We may have had some visual thing of that. What will happen if, God help me, if you ever see the beginning of it?
The show, it kind of explains it, I don’t know how the opening actually went. I know that the voice was talking and the way the show opened all the time. There may have been some pretend shot or some damn thing. Maybe, before the Space Station, there was Skylab. I may have done some fudging around with that. Skylab that’s the tubular shape feel. This was considerably bigger.
Of course, the explanation about gravity, these people are just walking around, just moved right forward. Forget it. None of this big, shit swirling around and pretending. We’re just going to right into, “How you doing?” No pretending that they had any gravity issues.
My point was that the study cam, it was very innovative. It was almost kind of woozy. This guy was a very good operator, but you never seen that kind of camera movement before really. He was a master at it.
Where you continually move, it’s like a human elbow if you’ve ever seen a camera attached on it. It has that same function. It has that double swing off the harness of the body.
You can’t beat it for continuity, for continuous shooting. I made it with continuous scenes. He would talk for a while, then he’d cross over, do something else, she would interrupt him, he’d get back to the point, come down stage, do this, then go over here, and then do an introduction to a film. Then that would be the end of the scene, like four minutes or something, and then we’d stop and then we’d set up and do the next scene.
In post‑production is when we’d slug in the little film segments explaining or expounding, on whatever scientific point we were trying to get across.
The final, I didn’t even think about this, was really, the premise was and I’m sitting in my classroom. I’m used to watching fairytales here. I’m used to watching TV with the other students.
Once a week, at 12:15 PM, the Space Station broadcasts a show from space. It’s enormous because I’m in school, that’s where I’m going to watch it. It began as though it were a broadcast, “Commencing in five, four, three…” There was that sense of a broadcast happening.
You turn on the TV. You’d have color bars and the countdown. That was the conceit that it was a broadcast. It wasn’t some stand‑alone story. It was literally like live TV. It was on film. Does that make sense to you? It’s coming back to me as a premise. Is that making sense to you?
Jason: Totally. Whenever I found out about these things, I try to bring my research into the classroom. I find that there’s a lot of things that my students who most of them are born in the mid‑1990s, to late 90s now. I think they might have been babies when 9/11 happened.
It’s hard to imagine what they don’t know. Just the same way, I don’t know. There’s so many thing that I haven’t had experience of.
Paul: Exactly. Where’s relevance versus irrelevance? That’s what makes this thing fit the tenor of the times. L‑4 met, felt rather often the existing media expectations of the time. Broadcasts in school, even though you had your major networks, that was it.
We wedged in this little cockamamie thing like it was War of the Worlds, but nice. It seemed real. At every step, the actors, my writing, it was dead serious. Not dead serious, that it wasn’t pretend, because it was.
The nice thing was that they talked to the students like you and I are talking. I’ve always believed in that. At the end of my vocabulary my word choices were sophisticated. I didn’t just talk. I’m making my biggest confession. You know who my chief research was for this?
Jason: No. What’s that?
Paul: Compton’s Encyclopedia, like 1942 or something. I remember finding this thing and I said, “Fuck, volcanoes have been around forever. What the shit? What’s the basic thing?”
I’m not kidding you, I didn’t tell anybody anything. All the teachers, all the sports directors, and all this stuff. Part of me was just being cussed saying, “You know what? I’ll bet you I can pretty much this Earth Science?”
I’m being fair to modern discoveries and stuff, but my roots were in my little house. Compton’s Encyclopedia, that I grew up with as a kid, sitting in the bathroom reading Volume 7. [laughs] I went back and used it.
This is to say the least, pre‑Google, and pre‑everything else. It’s just where’s my research. I’m more skilled, I have more intuitive skills in say other academic or discipline, so I leaped into it. I got the thread of it.
I saved a few scraps of scripts over the years. I may still have one, as an example of how we presented these teaching points. How I did it. I was pretty straight forward. I may have a partial script or two or three pages just as a memento of what is was to do that series. It really was innovative, I thought.
Jason: The thing is that it’s completely even laudable to use a source like that, for something that’s foundational.
Paul: Yeah. Thank you. That’s exactly right.
Jason: When I talk to my students about how they should be approaching their studies, there’s nothing wrong necessarily with beginning with encyclopedias or even Wikipedia. That should be the beginning of your search for new knowledge. You get those foundations and you build on it. Then you go out and seek out more things.
Paul: Yes. Good. I’m with you on that. I did one on newspapers too for Kinnet & Co. You’re constantly unsettled. You never knew when the scene was going to change from being didactic, meaning you will talk about a teaching point to the drama, toward whatever was going on.
That was fun for me to institute. Like if you have the metaphor, if you have a camera frame, nowadays, shaky cam, nobody cares. It’s kind of loose, the unsettled frame. It puts the oneness on you the viewer.
If the camera is being hand‑held and kind of shaky, you have to settle it in your head. Makes you work. The metaphor for me in my script writing would be that I had an unsettled script that you didn’t know what was going to happen.
Paul: You’d pay attention and just when I’d sense, “OK, they’ve had enough of this shit for a while, enough volcanoes.” Then I would advance the other story. It was like a tennis match back and forth.
Jason: That’s really smart on your part to develop it like that. I think where some of these educational programs go straight for attracting their audience and keeping them engaged, they just stick to the talking points. They don’t let people have a break to let their brains catch up. Let them think about what they are buying or what’s going on.
Paul: I’m sure you have that challenge, you’re an educator. The challenge of holding those people, it’s hard work. [laughs]
Jason: In my own classroom, I do different things but I always try to break it up. Every 10 to 15 minutes, I want to be doing something else. Just because I know that dealing with college freshmen, even though they’re 18, 19 years old, they have grown up in a much more, for lack of a better term, a more ADD environment.
I know that in order to keep them engaged, I need to keep their attention shifting. I can always bring it back to what the overall topic of the class is. For me to hear that you were doing this back in 1977, on your own educational program.
Paul: I’m sure they appreciate it too because indirectly or subtly or in a subconscious way, you are honoring their cultural biases. The Italians say [foreign language] , we talk the same language. It’s a sense of; we’re all in this together.
When I would write these scripts, even though I was writing for an adult talking to a student, I always had the feeling, the diction, the dialogue, everything was very much equal. Like you and me. Just, “Here we are, here’s how these volcanoes work, there’s something else, blah, blah, blah.”
Except, you’re kind of casual. Just like of course. Nothing could be more simple or fascinating. The other thing I remember, I did a political science fair. It wasn’t as good, it was a political science fair for high school based on a guy who taught. It was a classroom.
The same deal, it was a steady cam. He had these eight or nine students, and then you at home. It was called “Politics, Politics”, I think. He wasn’t as good as an actor.
All of us have had a dynamic or captivating teacher in our lives. We’ve had a few. I’m sure you had one stick in your mine. That’s what I wanted, that premise of someone who was just so excited about politics, he couldn’t help it. He couldn’t help talking about it.
I wrote the scripts like that. It was awful, because he wasn’t that good. It was all right but it was a real heartbreaker because, Jesus, why can’t I go do this. I couldn’t do it. I had to direct the guy. It broke my heart because really it was like writing it for a teacher.
I did that with the other ones too. The people who talked, the lead characters, whether it was the newspaper series or the science series, they always were completely invested, engaged in the act of communication.
I go on the principle that while you and I am talking, we aren’t really figuring out how we are going to talk. We aren’t figuring out our objects and direct objects. It’s just happening.
I would write my scripts that way, the scene that way. I would write them and I would say it out loud, and I would start to get rid of words and clean it up. It’s pretty amazing how, and I’ve done a lot of study about this, how when you write for spoken words, a full third of what you think you’re putting in, you don’t use.
All you got to do is to say it out loud and you can clean up your scripts that way. Your ear is far better than your mouth, if that makes sense? I would take the L‑4 script and cut out.
The first go through, I would remove maybe a third of the dialogue. You didn’t have to put all that stuff in. I didn’t do it till after I said it. The work is in my brain as a writer.
Jason: I appreciate you telling me that, because when I go into class tomorrow, I’m going to remind my students that I ask them to do that whenever they’re revising their different types of writing assignments. There’s something else that goes on there whenever we’re internally talking to ourselves, like reading back something we wrote.
Paul: Absolutely. Read it out loud and always listen to your ear and not your mouth. That’s my rule. Your ear will always tell you. The instant you do it, don’t even question it. Just scratch it out.
If I just wrote down everything, the last 30 seconds of what I’ve been saying, if you transcribe that, it’s almost unintelligible. It’s bursts of information. It’s fascinating. Once you learn the trick, it’s the easiest thing in the world as a writer.
I’ve taught screenwriting courses so that sort of explains it.
Paul: Yeah. I did a couple at University of New Hampshire. I did at The Institute of Art here in Denver. Yeah. Screenwriting and did television production and I did some teaching.
I have a Masters, and I’m proud to say that it took me 15 years to get it, but I got it, in journalism. I thought that I would teach. That’s why I got on the master’s degree track, but then kept doing other things. The course has helped me to preach what I’ve been practicing for years.
It’s fun. I still write. I produce a cooking series, executive producer. I write fiction. I write novels. I’m still trying to get published. I published one and then it died in editorial. At least I had the thrill of having drinks with my agent in New York and signing the contract, but that was it.
Paul: I wrote it and they kept saying, “Oh do this. Do that.” I’ve had that experience in my life, which is pretty damn exciting. All spinning out of this early desire to communicate. I did children’s television series. On camera stuff I’ve done on YouTube. If you could go to Vimeo, if you type in Gather Round or TeleTales, you’ll see me. I’ll send you a link.
I did this story telling series with an artist. I do all the voices and I do the on camera hosting and it’s really fun. A lot of kids love the hell out of that. They grew up on them. She draws, it’s fabulous. Drawing live and I’m narrating, doing all the voices. I’ll send you a link when I get there. I know I’m just sort of rambling. I want to help you how I can.
Jason: You’ve given me a lot of stuff to go over and think about with the show. Also, just your experiences. One of the things that I think some of my colleagues and some folks maybe lose sight of is you going for graduate degrees.
They don’t necessarily think about what it is you’re accomplishing. I think that the things that you’ve accomplished over these last 40 years, are enough and more for someone who has this desire to communicate. I think that’s a wonderful phrase.
Paul: Thank you. You are very eloquent in telling me that. It’s true, but it’s also nice when someone tells me it’s true versus the guy who I shave every morning in the mirror. That’s part of this job, and I’m sure you’re very unsung. You are back behind the scenes. You have to draw faith in yourself because mostly that’s what sustains you, and it believes in what you are doing.
I’ve always felt that way with these very sun sundry, challenges to communicate with. I’ll give you a good example on our cooking series that we do, Ciao Italia. It’s the longest running cooking show in America, on PBS, like 25 years now.
If you watch cooking shows, well that show ties it. When I took over, it was a regional show before it went to the network. I was researching it and trying to figure out, what is the deal on this show. I’ve realized that something as simple as the close‑up camera, the up camera, meaning camera looking high.
I thought only God looks at food straight down. You know like a cam of brownies, that was my joke, but I said, “What is this straight down shit, how unappealing is that? What is this staring over an autopsy or something? Fuck that.”
Paul: I’m being a wise guy. I have the regular camera that looks at Marian, and then I have a close‑up camera on the floor, the floor camera. This kind of really extreme close‑up, what I call the love camera, these really close, beautiful, succulent shots and then the high camera.
All I did was I stood next to my wife at the time, who has since passed away, but I stood next to her and I watched her cook. I normally don’t cook, but she cooked. I measured my angle of my eyes. If you stood next to me while you were cooking, it is 60 degrees. It’s weird, but it’s true. I make sure that my jib camera never goes higher than 60 degrees looking down.
If you stood next to me, that is how you would look at the food. Isn’t that interesting? It’s true. The food looks kind of appealing. It doesn’t look laid out. It works. I didn’t tell anybody. I am telling you because it’s behind the scenes stuff.
Who cares as long as it works but I thought, “son of a bitch, look at that.” I would get in there and I would drill into components of my craft. To try to figure out how can I gain some sort of mastery over it, because I had never done a cooking show before.
That is a long tirade but next time you look at a cooking show and you see, if you do, and see a straight looking down shot. Just remember, only God looks at everyone that way.
Jason: I will.
Paul: It’s silly, but it’s true.
Jason: To me, it’s fascinating to hear you talk about these things because this is really all about, I believe the technologies and humanities, are always working together.
Jason: You are a writer; you’re a director, an editor. At the same time, you’re thinking about optics and about perspective. The relationship between people, and the way they look at things.
Paul: Right. Exactly.
Jason: That requires a different way of thinking. To bring into what is otherwise a more humanities show about cooking. It’s neat to see how the gears are turning in your head, how you are able to accomplish something that gives a new perspective that we all know, and enjoy just from our daily lives, but we take for granted. You put that in the TV show.
Paul: Yes, you’re right and the little things like if you’re trying to learn, if I’m showing you how to flip an omelet and you’re trying to learn how to do it. Even though you’re standing in one place, your eyeballs, you’re mentally zooming in.
You’re zooming in, even though you’re standing, you’re not physically leaning over you’re zooming in. I’ll use that focus or that intensity.
One of our close‑up guys, all of my shooters are sports shooters. They worked the Red Socks games that were based in New Hampshire. They worked in Boston doing the Red Socks and Patriots. They’re very experienced shooters and this guy can go in. He can work close‑ups like you wouldn’t believe. I’ll direct the show, I’ll just say, the rhythm is there.
Paul: They’ll just think this is endless but, when I did “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” if you watch the show, he always comes in the door and moves left to right. All the time, because you read left to right.
It’s always in the door, feed the fish, characters, people moving always flowing left to right, in this culture. We’re not Japanese. I think Hebrew it’s reverse, but American’s left to right. [laughs] This is so silly.
These guys know the rules when we direct. Marianne’s spooning sauce on lasagna, and I have the 60 degree shot you see the whole lasagna it’s getting the sauce.
Then I’ll go to the love shot, which is way close. You’re watching that red sauce go down and see how it’s coating, but he’ll always move, he’ll be close and he’ll always start panning left to right. It’s always this sort of flow, and as he’s going he’ll zoom in, it’s fun.
It’s all choreographed, but what you get is this seamless exposition of technique. You see Marianne, she’s talking, you see this. You see I walk you into it and we’ve been doing it so long it’s automatic, it’s beautiful.
That gives me pleasure as a director, because they make me look great and I’m telling them that on the headset saying “Oh, this is the best” and I’ll have them saying, “Make love to this, make love to it.”
I use all these carnality things like the money shots and all this. It’s a very blunt world we live in, in television. It is fun and in the studio and as a director, that’s a whole other component where you’re wearing headsets and talking to maybe six people.
You build that little community, that is sort of our little space station to return to the metaphor. We’re in that little world.
Then Mary Anne’s there cooking and other people are there, but the people who are actually doing it, the camera boy people, the engineers, you’ve probably been in a television environment, to know that’s a very specific little coterie of people.
It’s fun for you, as an educator, to spill some of the beans of what I’m doing, and how I’m trying to invest that particular message. I told Mary Anne she can hook rugs, it’s immaterial to me. [laughter] I don’t care. I just want the passion of doing it displayed by somebody on camera and that’s all I need.
Then I know how to make that work especially by giving them that freedom to be who they are looking into a lens. It helps me to verbalize it, because I’m really expounding on my methodology of coming at anything. It’s just how I come at it, from different angles. What’s the word? Suss it out, SUSS. I don’t know where that word comes from?
That’s what I do and I’m doing it today and when you called I was editing. We were in Italy, two weeks ago, filming in this place up in the mountains up in the north. A cheese place, it’s a bit of a long story, in the Piedmont. There I am just cutting a away and I have a home office because technology is so simple.
I’m cutting here and I’m making choices it’s just instant one after another. There’s no debating. I’m just doing it, because I’m at a point in my career where it’s been so long that, there’s just certain things that you just know how to do, you just do it, and you think, “God, couldn’t find somebody to do what I’m doing. These decisions are happening so fast.” [laughs] It’s fun just to be aware of it.
Jason: This is amazing to hear these insights your having. I think one thing that gets lost on a lot of folks now days is not reflecting on their practices and how these practices develop over time. It sounds like you are very mindful and in cognition of those things?
Paul: I am and thank you for noticing, I am. That’s part of my job, part of my profession, I view this. In a way, I always tell people television can be very glamorous, or film making, I say “It really is a craft, don’t kid yourself.” That part of it, that component is really a craft and you could study it forever.
There is, with your producer and you’re handling the whole thing it is something more than a craft, it’s a profession because you do, your professing something, you’re a professor, I can’t put it out any more clearer than that, that you are professing something.
In my case yeah, I’ve been, I’m always mindful of it because you can get caught in little side eddies so quickly, because it’s such a collaborative process whether it’s film making or television series. Once everybody’s pulling together, like a tri‑re and everybody is rowing but somebody has got to beat the drum, and they’ve got to like they guy so in this case they love me.
It’s not like an asshole, I’m not beating the drum. I’m a nice guy. I hop down and I row some, because I’ve done everything so there’s nothing I haven’t done so it’s a constant awareness for me of what I’m doing. I’m surprised a lot of people aren’t mindful that way, they’re doing their thing.
Mary Anne especially, my cook, she loves to cook. I can get about one tenth into a conversation like this and forget it, her eyes glaze over. It’s not in her head.
But, you’re right, it’s fun and it’s been enjoyable for me to talk about this with you, because you’re in there with the brains of tomorrow, for God’s sake. What do you teach, and I don’t want to blab about this forever, but value tests. What courses are you teaching there, or what are you up to?
Jason: Right now, I’m primarily teaching the English One and Two composition classes and Technical Communication. Over the summer the highlight of my academic career so far was to teach a science fiction class.
Paul: Oh great. What fun.
Jason: That’s what my specialty is in 20th century American literature and science fiction.
Paul: I saw your blog or something.
Paul: Good for you.
Jason: I try to bring in my love of science fiction, but also the sciences. Originally I got my bachelor’s degree from Georgia Tech where I’m teaching now. I started out as a physics major. It didn’t take me very long to figure out I was better writing about science than doing science. I still have a love of science and an appreciation for it that I bring into my classes.
Paul: Good for you. That’s what Fred said. Fred Rogers loved what he did. He used everything puppetry, musician, on camera, producer. He used everything he had in him. It’s nice to draw upon all these different skills and that there’s a place for it.
Jason: You have to bring a kind of passion to it. I hear that passion in your voice when you’re talking about these things–not only Space Station L‑4, the newer things you’ve been working on since then.
Paul: Always. Yeah. In my case, I’m both the monkey and the organ grinder. I can do both. I can jump up and down. Some people need to see externally how happy they are inside. They can’t articulate it. I become a mirror for their excitement.
Sometimes I’m just excited, it’s also my way of cutting, A, cutting through the crap. B, making up for a lack of knowledge on many things. [laughs] I can come to, your act of omission. If I could get away with it, I get away with it at all times. That was my theory.
If I knew the truth of it, it was enough. If I didn’t have all the supporting documents but intuitively it was right, I would bullshit the rest up. In my case I didn’t need to hide behind something. I would let that excitement get out front. I don’t care what it is, whatever the project would be. Sometimes I have to do it for Marianne, for the cooking show.
I’d have to show her in my enthusiasm and excitement, her life’s work and all that stuff. It’s important, because she’s a little more narrow. She focuses on cooking. She’s not simplistic. She doesn’t see the larger view, the worldview. You’re in mass communications. You just sense that there’s a larger view. Some people get it, some people don’t.
That doesn’t make it less or more, but, for me at least, it heightens my responsibility to be bold and not be shy about it. It’s easy to be shy and say, “Oh. Fuck. You can listen to those voices and it slows you down.” All I can say is “Don’t. Dive into it because that’s where the joy is.” That’s the final thing that I’ve always kept in mind.
Julia Child said something about, “It’s tragic, if you can’t do something that makes you feel absolute bliss.” Many people have to do things that they are not blissful about. It’s their life.
It’s very important for anybody. In my case, I’ve been with Mister Rogers for 10 years, Marianne for 20 years. All my actors and anybody who I’ve dealt with, I wanted to show them as being complete and full in their lives as possible. Being who they are, doing what they love to do. Whether it’s an actor acting like it, or somebody really is.
Its modeling saying, “look, I’m a human being at a sub‑textual level. If I can do it, so the fuck can you. I’m no different.” I’m no different especially in normal people Marianne or Fred, not movie stars, not Tom Cruise. Forget that. I don’t comment on stars. I can’t get there. It’s too complicated for me. Human beings, human people. That’s is the secret mission.
Not Guy Fieri on the food network with purple hair and being crazy. Regular people loving what they’re doing. I really enjoyed presenting them in a mass media as though they’re somebody special. I’m always wondering about celebrity and all those kinds of things. I’m always happy to add a theory to something that may not even need it. That’s my rule.
That’s my current theory on that one. People and their lives and also my exhortation for you to be passionate about what you do and why. If I can do it, so can you. I’m a guy. It’s fun to be able to do that for my kids. And to be a fool. That’s great stuff. That’s what I do.
With your science thing, do you write science, or where do you see yourself going with this?
Jason: Currently, the type of writing I do is academic. I’m writing research papers either uncovering maybe lost artifacts or writing about the cultural relevance of the science fiction story. What does it have to say about something going on in the present world?
One of the things I’m working on now is there’s a three volume set called “Political Future Fictions” that just came out. I was asked to write a review of this. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to buy the books 500 bucks.
It’s a beautiful set of books. The novels inside the collection haven’t been printed in about 100 years for the most part. I’m reading these things they are from the late 1800s, early 1900s. They are so relevant. The circumstances of those stories back then, you could almost mirror with things that have happened unfortunately tragically like Sandy Hook or government shutdown.
All these things are happening again. As times change, many things still remain the same, but we forget that. I want to remind people that these stories are just being retold in different ways, in real life and addiction.
Paul: That’s great to know that. They’ve just fallen out of print, right? Because they weren’t around, whoever resurrected these works, right?
Jason: Right, exactly. They did get some attraction when they were first released. After maybe a decade or two, they just would fall off people’s radar. There wouldn’t be enough copies to go around in libraries, etc., and other issues of how like libraries are getting contracting, getting smaller. The access to these books anyway is getting more difficult.
Paul: Of course, yeah. That’s so great. They released for $500 bucks, no wonder. Is it some kind of vanity publication or something that makes them so expensive?
Jason: They’re like cloth‑covered academic press. With this review that I’m writing, I’m basically arguing these are important books. Libraries that read the journal that I’ll be publishing the review in, I’m going to encourage them, “You need to buy this set of books. It’s something that people would be interested in if you promote it. Let them know that you’re getting this.”
Obviously, most of us can’t afford to get those books. If I can convince the people that can buy them to make them available for other people, and hoping I can at least make a little bit of a push in the right direction.
Paul: Of course, yeah. This is kind of in a fate way, kind of H.G. Wells sort of thing, that sort of sense. OK, I got you on that. He was not alone in being a futurist.
Jason: Right. There were lots of people around that time writing very similar stories. It’s just that for a number of circumstances, Wells and Verne, or people we remember from that time. There were other people talking about the same types of issues.
Paul: Yeah. It was a product, not a genre, but a stable of people thinking. That’s terrific. Teaching at Georgia Tech, that’s good. Good for you, man! Are you on the 10‑year track? I don’t know where you are in your career. Are you liking where you are?
Jason: To be honest, I would give my eye teeth to have a tenure track job right now. It’s very difficult to land those kinds of positions nowadays. What I have is a postdoctoral fellowship.
Basically, I get to teach here for three years. This is my second year that I’m on right now. I’ve got another year. I’m safe for the time being. I’m continuing to look for work and apply for jobs.
My wife, she is finishing her dissertation on Postcolonial Literature. Once she gets finished, then we’ll both be able to work. We’re very mobile about where we move to. Really the sky is the limit at this point. We’re hopeful. We’re going to keep looking. It’s interesting figuring out where we’re going to end up.
Paul: Exactly. Good for you. I think it’s fabulous. It’s exciting. It sounds very encouraging too, because you’re not going to have any problems. You may not know it at the moment, and it’s going to be baffling.
It’s going to unfold for you, because you’re awake. That’s what matters, and I sense that in our conversation with what you’re trying to do. It feels to me like you’re not afraid to be passionate about what you’re doing, and that’s good. That will carry you far. You’ll do a great service. I know you will.
This doesn’t have to be a one‑time only. If you want to come back, you feel free to contact me. I enjoy talking with you, and it just develops. If I can be of help, let me know.
Jason: I appreciate that.
Paul: I don’t mean that in a casual way. I do mean it specifically. Now that I know kind of where you’re going and what you’re doing, I’ll try to see if I know who I know in this world that you might be interested in talking to.
Although, I can’t at the top of my head think of anything. It’s been so long since I did science related stuff or space stations, and that whole kind of concept. I think I have a sense of what you’re doing. Find out on that. See if they have those shows and all that. That would be terrific.