The documentaries below were made in the 1970s by Lester Novros, then a professor at the USC film school where his students included George Lucas. The understated elegance of these films is nicely framed by Paul Novros‘s music. The younger Novros is a professor of jazz at CalArts. I asked him whether he had any soundtracks available. He was pleasantly surprised to be reminded of the work but has no separate recordings or scores.
“Sirens of Titan” and “Uncanny Valley” at the triple point of science, philosophy, and fiction are currently on stage at The Sacred Fools and International City Theatre, respectively. “Sirens,” adapted from Vonnegut’s 1959 novel, is sci-fi a la Bradbury: Mars-centric on the outside, fully optional physics, and Earth-facing at its core. Wealthy Winston Rumfoord and his large dog travel space for the hell of it and get caught in a dimensional swirly that puts them everywhere at once and localized on Earth on occasion. Rumfoord’s role is to make the lives of his wife Beatrice, sybarite Malachi Constant, and thousands of other dispensable earthlings a living hell. He press-gangs this lot into forced military servitude on Mars and dispatches most of them back to Earth to be annihilated in an intentionally futile war. A united and victorious Earth then congeals around a faith where God is entirely apathetic and humankind does what it can with itself. Beatrice, Malachi, and their son Chrono are interplanetary Jobs suffering torments at Rumfoord’s hands through a fixed and unalterable timeline, ending up on the largest moon of Saturn. Vonnegut has issues with free will and everyone is more-or-less along for a nasty ride in an uncaring Universe where Earth exists as a spare-parts depot for an Extremely Advanced Civilization from Far Far Away™.
Meanwhile, “Uncanny Valley,” a much more recent effort by Thomas Gibbons, looks at a mid-21st century where the very sick and staggeringly wealthy can offload their memories and essence into a robot body. It’s immortality of the kind that throws wrenches into the family machinery, especially when children are seeking their share of a giant inheritance. Asimov’s “I Robot” explored synthetic evolution through Susan Calvin, crusty robopsychologist to fifty years of U.S. Robots products. Her counterpart here is far less crusty but a psychologist all the same – Clare Hillis’s job is to oversee the commissioning of Julian, a ‘non-biological human,’ whose emergent personality will soon be subsumed by the tycoon who funded his creation to the tune of $240 million dollars.
“Sirens of Titan” the novel is relatively easy-to-read and occasionally engaging thanks to Vonnegut’s dry, cynical prose and gimlet eye on religion. The threads are hard to braid without periodic revisits to past chapters – who did what to whom and when? We can safely abandon ‘why’ because it is never satisfactorily addressed. A theatrical adaptation can’t offer flashbacks on demand and it is difficult to follow let alone decode the underlying philosophical argument – if it exists – linking the vignettes. “Sirens” may have influenced Douglas Adams with prescient references to infinite improbabilities and hyperintelligent pandimensional beings running a planet-sized simulation for their own ends. The excellent stagecraft and mostly solid performances, staples of The Sacred Fools and carrying well into their new space, can’t fully frame the meandering story which caps off with a One Tin Soldier ending.
Vonnegut unfortunately can’t compete with a future he helped to create, Gibbons has to compete with exceptionally fine prior art in android sentience. The first act of “Uncanny Valley” is low-conflict set up. Clare and Julian flip Pygmalion as she teaches him the fine points of being a convincing gentleman while realizing that true societal acceptance may never come. Act two has Julian, imprinted with the past and the DNA of a now-dead man, visiting Clare on the eve of her retirement. He dredges Clare’s own painfully buried memories of an estranged daughter as his son asserts legal claims to his fortune and questions his continued existence. This all fizzes up towards the last quarter of the play and comes off as a contrived end to justify the beginning and the middle. Julian is now blessed with eternal life and eternal youth. Tithonus and the Struldbrugs would be jealous. There’s a fascinating question of whether he should merely continue as before or renounce the past, strike out in new directions, fully embracing his rebirth. Unfortunately, it comes too late to explore. Asimov and Dick, among others, have taken this general idea a lot farther. The second season of then fledgling Star Trek: The Next Generation had a dying genius impose his consciousness onto the android LCdr. Data (“Schizoid Man”). Three episodes later, Data had his status and rights as a sentient being legally challenged by an ambitious Starfleet officer with ulterior motives (“The Measure of a Man”). ICT’s stagecraft and cast are also reliably attractive although we are asked to believe that people in 2042 dress, talk, and use smartphone technology as they do today. In the end, Gibbons has dug himself a hole with his premise and can’t quite climb out of it.
But, one man’s miss can be another’s bulls-eye. Vonnegut devotees will undoubtedly appreciate a no-holds-barred attempt to stage a foundational story. Similarly those not fully co-opted by Star Trek and other science fiction staples may be able to engage with Gibbons on the offered terms.
Sirens of Titan
adapted by Stuart Gordon from the novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
directed by Ben Rock
Chemist Robert Burns Woodward – Courtesy Harvard Archives
Robert Burns Woodward (1917-1979) is as well known to chemists as his namesakes are to poets and journalists. His contributions to the synthesis of organic compounds cannot be overstated and a staggering number of now-famous professors passed through his labs at Harvard.
My education was in physical chemistry, far removed from organic synthesis. I scarcely recall seeing any of faculty members from that area when I was in graduate school – the field is that fragmented. Unlike many others of my stripe, I enjoyed my undergraduate organic chemistry classes although I struggled in them. Legions of students have been told that the subject is to be endured, not enjoyed, and requires only memorization. This is utter claptrap. If taught well, and Berkeley did (at least back then), it is like learning a language; alphabet to words to grammar, sentences, literature, and interpretation. Those with an artistic bent also find a lot of fun in the complex three-dimensional structures that are represented out of necessity in two-dimensional drawings. You can’t speak this or any other language by memorizing a dictionary. Organic’s problem is that the material has to be presented and assimilated in such a short time.
Woodward’s generation of chemists didn’t have the modern arsenal of apparatus to determine the composition and structure of what they had made. In fact, they helped develop – or at least drive the need to develop – x-ray crystallography, magnetic resonance, optical and mass spectroscopy, and a variety of other methods closer to physics and physical chemistry. Deduction and inference played a starring role. E.J. Corey, only a few years younger than Woodward, later developed retrosynthetic analysis into a fine art leading to his own unshared Nobel in 1990. Corey looks at complex molecules as assemblies of successively smaller molecular fragments. Some of these might exist as stable compounds, others as hypothetical fragments that could be prepared with the right hooks for further use. Any molecule may be disconnected in several ways and the chemist has to use physical laws, experience, and intuition to decide which approach makes the most sense. Repeat recursively and it is usually possible to get to a relatively simple path from a desired product to commonly available starting materials – a common examination question and a standard tool in the modern chemist’s repertoire.
Some thirty two years after my undergraduate degree, I find myself using the retrosynthetic approach far from its original use. I try to look at problems as a nested collection of subproblems, going down the tree until they become relatively tractable. At the end of this, I have a plan that has traded off time, cost, and risk ending up with a list of materials, procedures, checks and crosschecks, time and personnel estimates, and a good idea of which step or steps pace the effort. In engineering, these map to schedules, risk analyses, bills of materials, assembly, test, and reporting plans, quality control, critical path analyses, and cost although in no particular order. People who do this are called System Engineers in my industry and many companies have claimed to have invented the concept.
Looking backward is how organic chemistry students are encouraged to approach problems if they want to succeed in their courses. The temptation is of course to apply it everywhere and that’s not quite so appropriate. It works if there’s a clear idea of what needs to be done. What sets Woodward, Corey, and their equivalents in other fields is knowing what to go after and what to set aside. That can be done many ways but it helps to be brilliant. If the computers can be taught to do that as they have been taught to do systematic decomposition, it’s over for us. A second temptation is to over-romanticize. These accomplishments in synthesis are usually the result of large research groups implementing a plan and doing the long, often tedious bench work which, when complete, is associated with the group leader’s name. This is where chemistry and high-energy physics intersect. This method of chemical training is imperfect and is periodically questioned when things go horribly wrong at the human level. The scientific and artistic merits of the work have to be assessed in that light.
There are not many films or recordings of Woodward and his equally legendary multi-hour lectures. He transcended his field and his institution, given leeway to do what he liked how he liked it. Dylan Stiles has unearthed a gem from the Harvard archives – a rare departmental seminar from 1972 where Woodward presents the 15-year collaborative effort between his group and Albert Eschenmoser’s lab resulting in the total synthesis of the large, unwieldy, and beautiful Vitamin B12. The introduction by Prof. David Dolphin is itself thirty minutes long with insights into the departmental culture of that time. The main event is a brutally clear and patrician exposition while the speaker chainsmokes in-between sips of his daiquiri. The grainy black-and-white visuals are charming but somewhat hard to read. Nathan Werner’s slides from a 2010 seminar are a very useful supplement.
39 years ago today, Voyager 1 took flight on its Grand Tour. It has gone farther than any other man-made object in history and won’t stop until it reaches the stars long after we and all that’s important to us are dust. Idealism wasn’t for chumps back then. Or maybe it was. JPL and NASApost the mission data from all these interplanetary missions and it is all free.
I had the great fortune of looking out my grad school office window into a sculpture garden of Rodin bronzes. The lost wax process used to make these marvels keeps eluding me. Every time I think about it, I forget steps and/or get them mixed up. These two videos from the Israel Museum and The Getty go a long way to shoring up a sagging memory.
The Juggling Man by Adriaen de Vries:
Adriaen de Vries's Bronze Casting Technique: Direct Lost-Wax Method
Back to the garden: So, did we chemists appreciate what we had in front of our eyes? Yes, quite a bit. The program was stressful and we’d wonder darkly whether we were on the wrong side of the Gates of Hell while having lunch in front of it. The fate of an adjacent parking lot stirred a lot of debate between a supportive faction of chemistry faculty, staff, and students and the late Prof.Albert Elsen of the Art History Department, eminent Rodin scholar, and advisor to the Cantor Foundation that donated the works. The Loma Prieta earthquake intervened and gave us all other things to worry about. The statues don’t look any worse for wear decades later despite fears that they’d dissolve into nothing. Careful stewardship and loving cleaning, enabled by a little chemistry, have served them well.
Stanford conservators work to preserve Rodin Sculpture Garden
Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica subtly did more than examine the ubiquitous font. Most of us would like to be designers in the same way we’d like to be athletes or musicians and we’re interested in those who do it well. Hustwit tapped into that need and let several prominent figures from that world have free rein to discuss what they see and how they see it. Elegant Paula Scher and twitchy Erik Spiekermann come off well, others sound like prats best avoided.
Scher has looked at information design and presentation with the artist’s eye, quite different from, say, an Edward Tufte. Her perspective, driven by artistic and marketing concerns, are at once intriguing and disturbing. She stretches and distorts to make larger points such as claiming that Helvetica was the font of the Vietnam and Iraq wars. It’s not a literal accusation, only that it is the kind of calming gloss that corporations and governments use to disguise their little murders. But, she also cops to fabricating the data she’s (re)presenting to make her point. I admire a lot of her work; it is bold, brash, and political. I don’t know whether I would enjoy living, working, or studying in something so shouty. Nevertheless, I’ve got my autosearches configured to let me know if she’s ever speaking within a couple of hours of LA.
Several of her other lectures are on the web and worth a look. Scher sounds like the canonical good seatmate on a long flight. I doubt she travels coach, though.
Hustwit’s films Helvetica, Objectified, and Urbanized. are available for affordable digital download from his website, $5.99/ea.
Lee Blessing could not have forecast in 1988 that the Cold War would take an abrupt turn for the weird just two years later. ‘A Walk in the Woods’ at ICT through 22 May has nevertheless enjoyed a successful life despite drastic shifts in superpower status and the methods of war. It isn’t surprising. It is easy to look back wistfully at Mutually Assured Destruction as nation states veer on collapse and real power is concentrated in a few hidden hands.
The play’s setup is simple and historically informed – two arms negotiators, veteran Botvinnik and newcomer Honeyman, try to achieve in the Swiss woods what they can’t over the bargaining table. The amiable Russian tries to engineer a friendship, the formal American worries that he’s being worked. That can happen when one’s opponent is the namesake of a legendary Russian grandmaster. The four evenly timed acts alternate between Pythonesque rhetorical posturing (“I came here for an agreement! No you didn’t!”) and moments of genuine connection when it looks like our heroes may have given their masters a face-saving way back from the brink.
This, however, isn’t a documentary or even intrinsically theatrical. Blessing strives for a duet of ideas, some more compelling than others. ‘Walk’ shines when the younger American slowly realizes what his older counterpart has learned: Neither side wants an agreement – MAD is too good for business on both sides of the curtain. The corrosive stalemate on the large scale is recapitulated on the small and all levels in between. The interwoven buddy comedy lives well with Tony Abatemarco (Botvinnik) and David Nevell (Honeyman) under John Henry Davis’s direction on a stark set (Christopher Scott Murillo) and subtle lighting (Donna Ruzika). But, cynics have the advantage in these situations and Blessing’s asymmetrical characterization keeps Honeyman on the back foot until the very end when he figures out that what’s real and what’s virtual in the world of diplomacy.
The monsters in ‘Walk’ are less frightening today than the one in Blessing’s equally popular ‘Going to St. Ives.’ Nations may treat one another poorly but they reserve true brutality for their own. Both have characters doubling as ideologies (and vice versa) reminiscent of Shaw’s theatrical polemics. Although the premise and the balanced characterizations give ‘Ives’ the edge as a play, ‘Walk’ is an evening of theatre worth the trip.
A Walk in the Woods
by Lee Blessing
at International City Theatre
27 April to 22 May 2016
Thu. – Sat. at 8pm
Sun. at 2pm
Long Beach Performing Arts Center
330 East Seaside Way
Long Beach, CA 90802
Tickets: Online and at the Box Office 562-436-4610 (M-F 9am – 5pm)
Argument Clinic – Monty Python's The Flying Circus