Archive for the ‘Conspiracy theories’ Category

A weird, reclusive dictator is displeased with the United States, and may or may not have enacted his vengeance via a crack team of computer technicians over a world-wide computer system that dominates every aspect of life in the 21st century.

Yup. As a 48-year-old science fiction geek, I’ve got to admit that sometimes the modern world outstrips even my most outlandish flights of imagination from childhood.

Of course, wonderfully paranoid science fiction stories about computers are nothing new. Check out this piece from the great Neil Morris about an overlooked classic of the subgenre. This recently ran in the December issue of “The Speculator,” the newsletter for the Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers. If you’re not a member, consider becoming one. Getting the newsletter is just one of many perks.

Anyway, here’s the piece.

 

Neil’s Queue Tip of the Quarter:

Colossus: the Forbin Project (1970)

 

by Neil Morris

 

There’s a conflict inherent in movies: the battle between images and words.

In the silent era, printed title cards delivered dialogue and description, but this static, written material, usually inserted with a jarring cut, disrupted the photographic flow of film “language” and visual storytelling.

In the thirties and forties, words thrived in the form of spoken dialogue. This was due in part to the novelty of audio recording itself, but the main reason was that movies were still no more than cheaply-made filmed plays, photographically immature and economically influenced by the Depression. Shooting in remote, picturesque locations was costly and inconvenient, so producers mindful of the bottom line relied on inexpensive banter (writers, sadly, were a dime a dozen) to entertain an audience. Screwball comedies and sophisticated detective stories dominated, piling one charming line upon another to the point of verbal overload.

Later technological advances, particularly the rise of television and its influence on the development of theatrical widescreen formats, brought about a change in attitude toward the recorded word. Producers began to disapprove of scripts that were too “talky”; lengthy conversation belonged on the old soundstages that were now hosting televised dramas sponsored by detergent companies. Instead, studios wanted action-packed spectacles in Cinemascope.

Ever since the epic style of William Wyler’s “Ben-Hur” and David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” made filmmaking less lean, technology continues to push motion pictures toward the purely visual. CGI, with its ability to photo-realistically render any conceivable camera movement, gives kinetic-eyed artists unlimited creative power. That freedom has resulted in the ascendancy of the action movie. Ever-increasing waves of hyperactive eye candy rush across multiplex screens, from “Gravity” to “The Lego Movie” to the latest Marvel adventure. Even films that strive for the cerebral, like “The Matrix” or “Inception,” hide their intellectual aspirations behind crowd-pleasing gunplay sequences and dazzling explosions.

Then there are movies like “Transcendence,” movies that should be thought-provoking, that should give insight into the nature of existence given the subject matter, that could benefit from long, quiet moments of complex philosophical discussion, but devolve into mindless, special effects-filled shoot-em-ups (against pseudo-zombies, of course) because box office pressure and the cinematic zeitgeist demand it.

The tragedy of “Transcendence” reminded me of another film about the perils of artificial intelligence (no, not “A.I.”), one that was made in 1970, years ahead of its time, at a point in history when filmmakers challenged the conventions of the Hollywood system, when imaginative and compelling dialogue could still rivet an audience’s attention, and directors like Woody Allen and John Cassavettes could still have careers.

Unfortunately, it’s saddled with one of the most indecisive and informatively inaccessible titles in motion picture history.

I’m talking about “Colossus: The Forbin Project.”

What’s Colossus? What’s a Forbin? Why invoke that unholy word: Project? Didn’t the producers know that Project in the title of anything is an indication of off-putting pretentiousness and self-indulgence? Think Joe Perry Project, Alan Parsons Project, “Project X” and especially “The Mindy Project.” Perhaps they wanted to make a connection with The Manhattan Project, equating the digital dangers portrayed in the film with the dangers of the atom bomb.

After all, “Colossus” is a Cold War film, and Colossus, the titular computer designed to take missile defense decisions out of the hands of a responsibility-shirking presidential administration, is a product of the nuclear tensions between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. That Colossus becomes self-aware is an afterthought, its sentience unexpected and unexplained, much like the suddenly-emergent consciousness of Skynet in the early “Terminator” films. But at least it’s an intelligence that knows what it wants and knows how to say it, unlike the reticent ghost in the machine Johnny Depp plays in “Transcendence,” his intentions misunderstood because of his secretiveness and inability to communicate clearly.

Colossus’ voice, once it’s synthesized midway through the film, is no soothing HAL 9000, velvet tones disguising treachery. It’s mechanical, terse and gritty, but thoroughly captivating, like what God would sound like if He used Stephen Hawking’s talkbox. It’s not your buddy, it’s not your therapist. It’s the voice of authority, or as Colossus puts it, the voice of control — with a capital C. When broadcast to the world, Colossus spells out its plans for humanity in no uncertain terms.

Adapted from the D.F. Jones novel by screenwriter James Bridges (“The China Syndrome”) and directed by Joseph Sargent (director of the original, somewhat verbose, but no less suspenseful “Taking of Pelham One Two Three”), Colossus is a film centered on language. Apart from an excursion to Rome, the story takes place in a handful of sets where politicians and scientists sing the praises of their creation then must plot against it in secret when the entity turns on them, risking discovery that will incur swift ICBM retribution. Colossus and its simultaneously-developed Soviet counterpart, Guardian, invent and share an indecipherable mathematical language, much like the private speech between identical twins. Dr. Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden, before he became Victor Newman on “The Young and the Restless”), a stern perfectionist of immense ego and insensitive directness (just watch what he so matter-of-factly asks of colleague Susan Clark), knows his invention well when he says, “Colossus deals in the exact meaning of words and one must know precisely what to ask for.”

If only Dr. Forbin had considered that when he encoded Colossus’ prime directive.

****SPOILER****

For if anything, Colossus is the reflection of its creator, a ruthlessly logical being, and rather than perceiving it as a superior intellect bent on enslaving or eradicating an inferior human race, it should be seen as a dutiful soldier carrying out its programming to the literal extreme. Colossus’ given mission is to prevent war, and it took Dr. Forbin at his word, reasoning out the most efficient solution: Restrain Man.

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Eleanor RigbyI love the Beatles. Maybe I should curb this habit of over-analyzing their song lyrics. But I heard “Eleanor Rigby” on the radio, and I can’t help myself.

Just as a reminder, here are the lyrics to the song (I won’t bother repeating the chorus. You get the idea.)

Ah look at all the lonely people
Ah look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby, picks up the rice
In the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window, wearing the face
That she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Father McKenzie, writing the words
Of a sermon that no one will hear
No one comes near
Look at him working, darning his socks
In the night when there’s nobody there
What does he care

Eleanor Rigby, died in the church
And was buried along with her name
Nobody came
Father McKenzie, wiping the dirt
From his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved

I always figured it was just a mournful meditation on loneliness and isolation. But today, I realized there was something that always puzzled me about the song.

I’m thinking specifically of the last verse, and the reference to Father McKenzie “wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave.” Father McKenzie’s denomination is never specified. I’m guessing Anglican. Possibly Catholic. I was raised Catholic, and I’m not as familiar with the Anglican church. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that Anglican priests, like their Catholic counterparts, just deliver the funeral service for their congregants. They aren’t expected to pick up a shovel afterward and actually bury them.

So I can’t think of a reason why Father McKenzie would be burying Eleanor Rigby himself, unless … HOLY CRAP! FATHER MCKENZIE IS A PSYCHO!

Kind of puts the song in a whole new light, doesn’t it?

And another thing. How come on the back of the Sgt. Pepper album, Eleanor Rigby is the only one with her back to the … never mind. That’s a totally different thing altogether.

 

nerd2Well, it’s happened again. Week after week, two blog entries I’ve written get the most views.

This one deals with a bizarre conspiracy theory about coded messages from FEMA on the backs of road signs. I used it to explore a hypothesis of mine regarding the nature of conspiracy theories, which is that they’re essentially the result of a pattern recognition impulse gone haywire.

But this one gets by far the most views. In it, I examine the way that one’s values can change gradually over a span of decades, to a point where popular entertainment once regarded as innocuous can later seem offensive. As an example, I cite the movie “Revenge of the Nerds,” which features ostensibly sympathetic characters engaging in exploitative behavior toward women such as surreptitiously taking topless photos of cheerleaders with hidden cameras.

And week after week, according to the metrics helpfully provided by Word Press, variations of two search terms garner the most views on this blog: “FEMA road signs conspiracy” and “topless cheerleaders.” (more…)

Sometimes it disturbs me when I check out the search terms that lead readers to this blog, because they seem to reflect an intent that’s the polar opposite of what I’m trying to get across.

For example, I wrote a piece about the underlying misogyny in the movie “Revenge of the Nerds.” And some people apparently found that while doing a search involving the terms “cheerleaders” and “topless.”

Actually, that doesn’t bother me too much. I’m not one of these people who believes there’s something inherently misogynistic about porn. If there was, pretty much every guy on the planet could be termed a misogynist. And cynical as I can be about human nature, I’m not yet ready to jump off that precipice. (I imagine the people who stumbled across this blog in a search for topless cheerleaders were pretty annoyed, though. Sorry guys. I could be wrong, but I have an inkling that sort of thing is available elsewhere on the Web.)

I’m more concerned by the fact that one of my most enduringly popular blog posts, in terms of people reading it after finding it via Google searches on related terms, is this one dealing with secret FEMA codes on the back of traffic signs. As you can see, my purpose was to make fun of how batshit loopy that particular conspiracy theory is. I figured the guy who posted that video was the one guy who subscribes to it. Even by conspiracy theory standards, that one’s just too bugf**k insane to have a significant following, right?

But it’s had many hits in the months since I posted it from people apparently seeking more information on this plot to convey information about sinister hidden government bases via secret codes on the backs of road signs.

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m not a big believer in conspiracy theories. I’m more of an Occam’s razor guy — absent compelling evidence to the contrary, go with the most basic and obvious explanation.

Yes, conspiracies happen. Yes, they can be widespread and insidious. The reason I generally don’t subscribe to them is because they tend to be based on a presumption of widespread organizational efficiency that’s rare under any circumstances, but especially for government operations. (I used to cover government as a newspaper reporter. Trust me on this one.)

And subscribers to these theories seem to prize them for their comic book theatricality to a point where they’ll pointedly overlook far more likely explanations because, hey, they’re kinda boring.

Prime example. I have a friend who’s very active in his Catholic church. He was convinced that he’d found evidence of a Satanic cult.

Apparently his church hosted a funeral Mass for a young woman who died of a heroin overdose. Her acquaintances — a heavily tattooed and multiply pierced crowd — had been in attendance. Afterward, a number of items such as candle holders had gone missing.

My friend was convinced that the young woman’s friends had stolen them for use in a Black Mass, where they would worship Satan.

My reaction? Yeah. That’s why junkies typically steal shit. To use them as props in Black Masses. Come on. If a bunch of junkies could summon up Satan, they’d probably steal his wallet and go score some smack.

Thanks to my buddy Doug for forwarding this to me. This guy explains how local road signs actually include secret codes, which FEMA, NATO, and (Surprise surprise!) the U.N. use to identify the location of detention camps or helicopter landing sites or something. To me, this perfectly encapsulates what a lot of conspiracy theories are about: pattern recognition gone haywire. That’s the great thing about the Internet. You can get the full explanations — which are weirdly fascinating from a purely anthropological standpoint — without having to sit next the twitchy guy dressed all in camouflage fatigues at your local redneck bar, whom all the regulars know to avoid.