Sunday, December 16, 2012

Lawrence Weschler: Existence and Essence in the Uncanny Valley

 Welcome guest blogger, Collin Ford Lucken,Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering student at NYU-Ploy.

Lawrence Weschler, like many writers before him and many writers who will come after, writes for “the moment when the accumulation of detail mysteriously and almost of its own accord seems to blossom forth into a seamless whole” (Uncanny Valley 274). He writes for the same reason the builders of the Tower of Babel toiled on endlessly, in hope that their work will eventually make the “leap of faith” and, spontaneously of its own accord, reach Heaven (or true understanding of god, or the humans who created him).  Weschler is an experienced writer, he spent twenty years as a journalist at The New Yorker, and currently he is the Head of the Institute of Humanities at New York University where he teaches a graduate course in writing: The Fiction of Nonfiction. Weschler wrote mostly about cultural comedy and political tragedy during his time at The New Yorker, and it suited him because he has an unwavering sense of humor and deep curiosity in what it means to be a human. He is not so different from the programmers and digital artists at Pixar and Dreamworks, they all seek to capture the anima, the soul, of humanity.

“On the Digital Animation of the Face” is a perfectly fitting introduction to the paradox of the Uncanny Valley. Weschler shares with the reader the plight of a modern digital animator, and their war with “the Wall,” the ever so close but infinitely far possibility of rendering a one hundred percent realistic and believable digital human face. It is not hard to imagine the difficulty in creating a digital copy of the human face, which is, as Weschler puts it, “The Seat of the Soul” because the soul, or the consciousness, or the anima, or whatever you want to call it, cannot be quantified or qualified with mathematical reasoning; all computers can understand is math. A computer can generate a perfect-looking human face but because human faces are not perfect the resulting image is uncanny, disturbing in that it is so close to accurate but not quite right. The quest to capture the anima, the soul, what it means to be human, rests at the heart of the human condition; it has been for centuries.  A late medieval mathematician, Nicholas of Cusa, compared the journey to true knowledge of God (and because humans created God, or God created humans in his likeness, knowledge of what it means to be human) to attempting to create a circle by adding infinite sides to a polygon. The more sides added to the polygon, the closer and closer to a circle it becomes, but at the same time it becomes less and less like a circle because a circle only has one side and zero angles and heading up the number line towards infinity is heading in the wrong direction. This same paradox exists in attempting to recreate a digital human and is elaborated on by Andy Jones in Weschler’s essay. “It can get eerie. As you push further and further, it begins to get grotesque. You start to feel like you’re puppeteering a corpse” (Uncanny Valley 16). But Weschler finds that the human face isn’t only uncanny when replicated, it can be uncanny because of context. 

Lawrence Weschler
Certainly finding your likeness in the home of a stranger is uncanny. Weschler visited the apartment of art dealer Richard Gray, his host while he was presenting at the Chicago Humanities Festival, in his essay “On Coming Face to Face with Myself.” While walking through Gray’s house, Weschler finds something that surprises and embarrasses him--a sketch of him that had been made by David Hockney many years ago. While looking at the sketch in some stranger’s apartment, many thoughts went through his head. The last one he recalls is that he, in the painting, would be staring at anyone else who visited that apartment--or even Gray and his wife in their skivvies! The tone of the essay changes quickly from light to dark as the essay’s focus switches almost immediately to Breyten Breytenbach, an apartheid political prisoner.  There is always humor in Weschler’s work, but the reader can always expect that right around the corner is going to be something very important and serious. After all, in his twenty years of being a journalist for The New Yorker, he saw some of the grimmest situations the modern world has to offer. While Weschler’s humor keeps him sane in the face of the political tragedies he has been confronting since his days at The New Yorker, by contrast, his wit also draws attention to the more significant topics he explores. Weschler’s unique qualities are not only his broad view--his desire to understand humanity and what makes a person human--but also the way that desire effects his writing. He is deft, easily switching from the light side of life to the dark. This sudden contrast is sharper than a gradual transition would have been.  The sharp contrast highlights both sides of the extreme. The light--the irony of him staying behind in the drawing to stare at other visitors- becomes lighter, the dark -the plight of the prisoner--darker. His skilled use of language shows that the decision to use contrast is intentional.

Weschler’s language is precise, and meaningful. One word changes the meaning of a sentence, often a powerful adjective, and he knows this. During his brief recollection of the profile of Breyten Breytenbach in “On Coming Face to Face with Myself” he writes that the guards fiercely forbid Breytenbach from painting while he was incarcerated. Attaching the word fiercely makes the idea of the suppression of freedom of expression much more menacing. Often Weschler forsakes the precision of clever adjectives for the brute force of long, winding sentences:

While you’re at it, surround its magnificent hulking presence with an even vaster ellipsis, one that you rotate as well, only this time counterclockwise, providing a narrow vertical passageway on the other side, such that a visitor entering the maze might experience an initially tapered pathway widening as he or she went along, while the opening above, initially quite wide and expansive, would itself taper precipitously the deeper in one went, and then vice versa, until, suddenly, one was delivered into the heart of the labyrinth, that original half-basketball-court-sized elliptical agora, its walls pitching vertiginously from side to side (Torqued Brueghel 25).

 It’s a long complicated sentence, one that serves not only as a detailed description of Sierra’s art but one that gives the reader the same sense of wonder as a firsthand experience: it’s easy to imagine wandering through the twists and turns of the ellipses while wandering through the twists and turns of Weschler’s writing.  While his careful and skilled prose can be admired in its own right, it is also reflective of Weschler’s larger themes, those same themes that permeate much of his work.

Weschler, an intellectual, is heavily influenced by other who share his quest to define humanity. Weschler’s work is heavily influenced by Jean Paul Sartre, a 20th century French intellectual. Similarities to Sartre’s ideas are prevalent in Weschler’s writing, especially in Uncanny Valley’s Afterword. In Existentialism and Humanism Sartre writes “Existence precedes essence,” which strikes a remarkable parallel to the conclusion of Uncanny Valley’s Afterword:

The same with stories. God invented man, the wise man says, because he loved stories. And maybe the other way around: Man invented God for the same reason. Or maybe Narrative invented both of us: Couldn’t do without us. Hallelujah. Amen. (Uncanny Valley 278).

Here Weschler concludes, like Sartre did many years before, that before our creation humanity was nothing, and that before humanity, creation (or God) was nothing. Existence, to Weschler, precedes essence, as with Sartre.

Sartre concludes, in one of his most famous quotes, that we, as humans, are utterly free willed (he says we are condemned to be so, in fact), and that the choices we make are our ultimate responsibility. Weschler’s essay “Vermeer in Bosnia,” about his time in The Hague at a revolutionary War Crime Tribunal overseeing the case of Bosnian-Serb war criminal Dusko Tadic, concludes similarly in that, “We are left alone, without excuse” (Sartre Existentialism and Humanism), in the face of our past deeds. That despite our political or religious affiliations, despite our “orders,” we are free willed and the guilt of our actions rests only with us. To live and breathe is not the same as being human. Being a human and having humanity are not the same.  The boundary is difficult to see--like with the long sentences, where does “it” end--where does existing end and humanity start.

Perhaps that ultimate responsibility of choice is the epitome of what it means to be human. This is where Sartre’s opinion and Weschler’s divide. Sartre was starkly against the idea that there was an omnipotent celestial force, a god that created us. This absence of essence before existence is why Sartre believes we are left alone. While Weschler never overtly says in Uncanny Valley “Hey, I’m Religious,” he does make subtle hints to his beliefs throughout the text and a less subtle one at the ending his book’s afterword:  “Hallelujah. Amen.” Weschler would not agree that humanity’s free will comes from a lack of a God, he would argue the opposite, that god granted us our free will.

Be it the builders at the tower of Babel, or the programmers in Ehmryville California at Pixar studios, true understanding of the meaning of humanity will always be sought after. One can only imagine how future generations might attempt this. Weschler seems to already be content with his answer, that “it is the stories that are the true living entities of this third planet from the sun, and we, the humans, maybe merely the endlessly flowing medium in which they abide.” (Uncanny Valley 278). 

I can’t help but agree with him.


For a related post, read Human Clones: The Ultimate Uncanny

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Coven of Celsus, independent film in the making

Jeff Wager, keeping warm in fur bomber hat
I got the chance to chat with Jeff Wager, director and co-producer of the ultra sexy and very dark independent erotic horror film, Coven of Celsus, based on Randy V's book.

Wager's thoughts on turning the novel into a film:

There's both a great blueprint and some heavy lifting to be done. Randy V has painted a very rich picture in his book, which lets the imagination easily do its job... I can see the scenes quite clearly in my mind. 
DeAnna Langone keeping warm under sleeping bag
On the other hand, its written in the past tense, there's some incredibly graphic scenes that need to be 'adjusted' to keep from an X rating, and there's descriptive sections that are great for Art Department, but would never find their way into a screenplay. Additionally we'll probably do some minor tweaks and cuts to the dialog to make it flow more smoothly as a screenplay. I do plan on being as true to the book as I can be; as there's already an audience for the book and the characters, I want to help bring the images in their heads to life, not recreate them in a different image, if that makes sense!
Filming in Vermont
Thoughts on making Coven of Celsus:

We just finished Primary Photography, and things went pretty well... but like any low budget project can tell you, when you don't have money to throw at problems, you have to be extra creative when you hit bumps in the road
That said, I think "The Staircase" in New Hampshire was our toughest location. It's off a dirt road and cell reception was patchy, not to mention dragging equipment and 30 some odd cast and crew up the mountain side on an 18* night in November. 

As if that wasn't enough, I had a crew vehicle with gear breakdown on the way to location, we had a scheduling snafu that had us down and unable to shoot anything for almost 2 hours, I had and actor flip backwards off a prop restraining device and almost crack his head open, equipment malfunctions, and  we ran out of fuel for the prop torches. 

Despite these setbacks we pulled off some great shots, and I'm still very happy with the footage. There's going to need to be some pick ups to fix mistakes that were made in the heat of the moment, but we survived to shoot another day.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Back to the First Time

Welcome back guest blogger Carol Owens Campbell

Carol Owens Campbell
The first time Carol Owens Campbell saw rainbows dance across walls in the movie, “Pollyanna,” she became besotted with prisms. Now, not only does she sparkle her home with prisms, she also celebrates living a multi-faceted life. Earning a B.S. in Early Childhood Development forty years before earning a Solstice MFA in Fiction, Carol is co-author of “Views from a Pier” with her son Griffin, and wrote a recent article about her trip with her husband John aboard the Titanic Memorial Cruise.

~~~~~~~~~~    "Back to the First Time"    ~~~~~~~~~~

One of the most daunting conversations I ever experienced began when a child asked me to explain how to go “Back to the Future.” I could eat a plate of chocolate croissants just remembering how confused I felt. I knew I could explain how the idea for the movie first skateboarded into screenwriter Bob Gale’s mind. After all, the story of Bob Gale finding his father’s yearbook and wondering if he and his father would have been friends if they had gone to high school together is legend. However, the phrase, “back to the future,” in its literal translation, seemed inexplicable to the four year-old sitting beside me and surreal to comprehend, even to me.

Luckily, when Dr. Marilyn Kallet, the award-winning poet, asked me during her annual poetry workshop in Auvillar, France in May 2012 to write a poem based on another linguistic conundrum, the epigraph of Andre Breton’s poem, “Always For the First Time,” I was in close proximity to the delicious French pastries. 

However, as the circular logic of the words, ‘always for the first time,’ soaked into my conscience, and the fear of writing a poem using that elusive phrase radiated from my brain to my dry lips to my frozen fingers, I remembered the phrase, ‘back to the future,’ and my conversation with the little girl.

Carol & Fatiha
There I was sitting in the cheerful workshop room at the Maison V across from the Garonne River, beside classmates who would grow to be treasured colleagues (Peggy, Deanna, Stacy, Tom, Cari, Keith, Jina, and Laura), watching breezes blow laundry on a clothesline outside, imagining Lucy Anderton mixing lentil salad in the kitchen downstairs with her precious seven month-old Ophelia cooing in her lap, and Fatiha setting a picnic table under the grapevines.

Yet I was already nervous about the task ahead for I had never attended a poetry workshop before nor written a poem to read in front of others, let alone these poets I so admired.

Marilyn Kallet
Marilyn’s brilliance soon brightened my spirits. She proved much more adept than I could ever be at deconstructing a verbal conundrum. She explained that Andre Breton (1896-1966), the founder of Surrealism, often surprised audiences with “radical coherency,” an example of which is the poem, “Always For the First Time,” written about a beauty he desires. Breton “surprises, inspires, repeats phrases, and expresses the physical down her body,” Marilyn asserted that first day of class.

Days later, Marilyn would assure us that “Art is a primal experience. So is sex. Art is the place where we integrate the physical, mental and emotional. Furthermore, all writing about the body is political.” Marilyn would startle our sensibilities, teach us how to read our poetry as professionals, and honor our efforts with phrases such as “What is it about that line that recommends itself?”

After my first day in Marilyn’s workshop, I felt exuberant to understand that seeing a sunset may “always” evoke emotions, sensations, and saturated colors with the same rush as if one is experiencing the awe of a sunset “for the very first time.”

Marilyn, in her lyrical, empowering, supportive voice, encouraged each “poet” in the class to choose a subject, i.e., a taste, a view, a love, that would always spark those first time-feelings and write a poem, using Breton’s epigraph, about those emotions.

Auvillar at Night
That night I sat in my hotel room below the clock tower, fresh air puffing the curtains, croissants wrapped in parchment beckoning from the table nearby, a pilgrim on his journey to Spain clacking his walking sticks on the cobblestone path beneath the window, peonies in a vase by the bed perfuming the breeze.

The clock tower bonged. I marveled that I had gone back in time leaving Chicago as a distant memory to arrive in a village still snow-globed in the past.

From a 13th century chapel where I would soon read my poetry in French (Merci beaucoup to Marilyn’s tutoring) to villagers on the final night of the workshop, to the open air market in Valence d’Agen where I would buy raw silk scarves and sugared kumquats, to the Cathedral in Moissac where I would touch a Chagall stained glass window, to the fun I would have in a cooking class with Marilyn, classmates and Christophe Gardner (a renowned Parisian chef and master photographer), to strolls along cobblestones to the shop where Mary would serve hot chocolate and ice cream, I thrived with new passion for this place rich in history, in celebration of the past, and in its rebel attitude toward change.

Street signs in Auvillar
Yet I wrote my poem using a computer, took advantage of modern correspondence through emails to esteemed artist and VCCA Fellow Cheryl Fortier and her husband, John Alexander, (our attentive and gracious hosts from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the VCCA, which offers Marilyn’s poetry workshop, “O Taste and See,” each May), texted my husband John and son Griffin on my iPhone, and stood at an ancient wall on a hill overlooking the Garonne River mesmerized by the sight of nuclear reactor cooling towers, in their ironic hour-glass design, standing like futuristic giants on distant farmland as they powered the grid in Southern France.

I had embarked on an adventure not unlike Marty McFly, of “Back to the Future” fame, who traveled to the past to assure his future for I, too, had traveled to the past to make sure my future as a writer would be enhanced. Although I had earned degrees from the University of Alabama (Early Childhood Development) and Pine Manor College (Solstice MFA in Creative Writing, Fiction), although I am a fiction writer working on a novel, a former newspaper and online columnist, and a co-author of a creative nonfiction book, I felt poetry was too daunting. Now, thanks to Marilyn and her art-effervescing, life-energizing workshop, I consider myself a poet.

Here is the poem I wrote that night, and, in homage to Breton, I did not “revise.”


“Always For the First Time” Melody
         Carol Owens Campbell

Always for the first time
I hardly know you by sight

Your grin coaxes me to melt sophistication
Your eyes reflect my awe
Your stare possesses my soul.

It is there,
in your buttercup fields of wonder,
that sunshine stretches each petal toward truth.

When I gaze at your face, your innocence warms my chilled spirit
Purity effervesces
Bubble bath bubbles soar carefree
While you skip along a dirt road on your way to a future unknown.

Always for the first time
I hardly know you by sight

Yet if I were blind
I would know you by skin as soft as duck-down,
By the scent of rain lingering on your neck,
By the taste of custard about your mouth,
By the trill of your mandolin voice.

Besotted by your clarity for the person you are,
I offer you my gratitude, Ophelia Melody,
for the ways in which you beautify our world

And to each baby whose essence enhances my life

Always for the very first time.


 Virginia Center for the Creative Arts

VCCA France: A Creative Space

If you are interested in attending Marilyn’s art-effervescing, life-enhancing VCCA-France workshop, visit the program site for more information.

Poetry in La Chapelle. Marilyn Kallet performs her poetry for villagers in a 13th Century Chapel in Auvillar, France, May 20, 2012. (Photo credit: John Alexander)
*Ophelia Melody is the name of the seven month-old daughter of Lucy Anderton, poet in residence at the VCCA’s Moulin a Nef, Auvillar, France. 
 “Always for the first time, I hardly knew you by sight” is an epigraph from Andre Breton’s poem “Always For the First Time.”
**Information about Screenwriter Robert Gale and the movie, “Back to the Future,” courtesy of and writer/interviewer Katey Rich.