Posts Tagged ‘PhD’

The academic poster is one of the different ways you can share information about your subject. For the humanities, a least, this format forces you to really think about how you might convey your topic in a visually arresting way.  The science subjects have had ownership of this part of the academic landscape but things are changing.

The Humanities Resource Centre at the University of York, where I am based, run a competition every year for PhD students to submit a poster which: –

  • Offers a clear ‘taster encounter’ with your research project for a non-specialist audience
  • Has a quickly appreciable dramatic visual impact

I thought, as my research looks at Anglo-American films and anime which have a distinct visual style, this might be a fun way to rethink my research.

I knew from the start that I wanted to design a poster which would emulate, in some way, a movie poster – bit of a no brainer there. I also want to use text in an interesting way. Initially wanted to use a word cloud to present key words from my research, perhaps to replace the face of an iconic figure such as Rick Deckard (Blade Runner.)

posthuman word cloud

Word cloud of key terms related to my PhD

In the end I borrowed the style of text from The Matrix; vertical acid green trails of the film titles in the posthuman noir corpus fill the background of the image. Meanwhile for the main titles I chose a font which would emulate those used on Blade Runner posters in the colour red, which stood out against the dark background and symbolized the violence of the genre.

I also wanted to use images from both Anglo-American film and Japanese anime. I toyed with using one to be a shadow of the other – which didn’t work quite as well as I wanted – but settled on using the two figures as mirror images of each other. For the figures I picked Rick Deckard as the main image and his mirror/shadow would be formed by a robot from Ghost in the Shell.

To match the moody, dark tone of posthuman noir I had to keep my own poster fairly dark – in hindsight I feel was a mistake as it only really reads well when A2 sized or larger.

I’ll let you judge for yourselves whether this image works as a window into my research…

PhD Poster two

My PhD poster

 

I entered the poster, not thinking it would do well but happy that I had been able to view my research differently. A month or so passed and I found out it had come joint third. Not too bad for my first attempt at an academic poster. If you want to see the poster that won, and other entrants you can here.

 

 

Last week I re-watched Transcendence, (Wally Pfister, 2014) a film which I didn’t hate at the cinema but which I felt in many ways let itself down. There was a lot of potential in the idea, but as with most posthuman films, especially those which involve some form of collective consciousness, it pulled back from the brink, relying on a traditional A.I. = evil clichés for the climax.

 Transcendence Trailer

Transcendence failed to generate a lot of interest in the box office, firstly because it wasn’t the sci-fi action-er the trailer indicated it might be, not a cardinal sin in my opinion, but this probably resulted in false expectations for some audience members. Secondly, and more importantly, because the film has a tendency to undermine itself through the way its characters easily and conveniently change their life stances.

….. From here on in there are spoilers for Transcendence and Ghost in the Shell …..

Watching Transcendence this second time I found myself, for the most part, firmly on the side of A.I. /Will Caster, as this computer program/human uploaded consciousness pursued its agenda to develop technologies which would regenerate desolate landscapes, and damaged human tissue. What exactly was wrong with the way this program enabled blind men to see? Or disabled people to walk? Was this getting a little too close to playing God and thus playing down the Frankenstein hubristic line?

Martin is healed/enhanced by A.I. Will Caster

Martin is healed/enhanced by A.I. Will Caster

Sure, at points, Will Caster/A.I. went a little overboard and took measures which fixed the damaged humans beyond what was required. The scene where the previously beaten up construction worker single handily lifts gigantic girders, caught on someone’s smart phone footage, oozes with humanity’s fear of the other. The construction worker has become one of ‘them,’ posthuman, something that with physical enhancement might begin to follow an agenda parallel, or even at odds, to normal/traditional humans.

This is the perennial concern of the posthuman movie, exacerbated in Transcendence by the fact that all the characters enhanced by Caster/A.I. are also networked together and to him/it.

Collective consciousness or the networked hive-mind appears as a prospect of true terror in posthuman movies across most of the west. In societies that pride the autonomy of the individual above the collective this method of becoming posthuman is often demonised. Although many movies and stories offer the mantra that “there is no ‘I’ in team” British and American science fiction continues to rally against future societies which encourage too much collective integration. There may be no ‘I’ in team, but don’t be too team oriented either for therein also lies danger (Will Robinson). Whether this is a throwback to the fears of collective societies of cold war communism, or a reflection of self-orientated neo-liberal values, the negative attitude to collective consciousness seems here to stay.

This is one of the major areas where attitudes differ between Anglo-American and Japanese popular media. In the Japanese anime that I look at for my PhD I have found that there is a more positive portrayal of networked minds. There are many complex social and philosophic reasons for this which I may go into in another post stemming from the religions of Shinto and Buddhism, and from the way Japanese society has constructed a sense of collective identity, post the Second World War.

(An interesting aside in relation to posthuman noir… Many of the Japanese posthuman characters who are framed as outsiders, both in their nature as posthumans as well as their position in society, are brought doubly back into the fold by the end of their narrative journeys, they regain human emotions and are reintegrated into Japanese society. More on this in a future post, although more on this idea of the tragic loner character separated from the rest of society is explored in chapters on Japanese film noir in International Noir.)

Ghost in the Shell poster

Ghost in the Shell poster

I wonder if these differing positions will have an effect on the live action version of Ghost in the Shell which is currently in development. This film is already courting controversy in the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi, who may have proven her action heroine and sci fi abilities (see my post on Lucy) but who isn’t Japanese like Kusanagi. But in relation to the question of collective consciousness, I wonder if the live action version of Ghost in the Shell will follow the original film ending with Major Kusanagi merging consciousness with The Puppet Master villain, losing the individual personality to become part of something greater? We will have to wait and see.

On a slightly different, but related, level I found re-watching Transcendence provoked questions on the possibility of a human ever being able write a truly posthumanist film. (If anyone has suggestion on films which can really be classified as posthumanist I’d be excited to hear.) Is it ever possible to think beyond our anthropocentric concept of the universe? And do we really need or want to?

These thoughts are particularly pertinent to me right now as I have begun to work on the first feature film screenplay for my PhD. Often with my current idea I wonder if I have bitten off more than I can chew as I try to think of ways to think beyond some human binaries, beyond notions of current human embodiment and what the intangible elements that make humans human might be. When I began this script I wondered if I would be able to write a posthuman noir script that might even be posthumanist, but the further my research goes the more I realise these two things might be incompatible. The agenda of posthuman noir is not to push a posthumanist revolution, but rather to re-enforce a humanist standpoint.

If I attempt for posthumanism do I fail in writing a story that explores the theme of posthuman noir? I guess I will find our when I get there, but at the moment I just need to concentrate on keeping my strange posthuman noir train on the rails.

 

Lucy poster

Lucy poster

Lucy, by Luc Besson, has just been released UK cinemas to a mixed response. Let me put my cards on the table right now, I thoroughly enjoyed the film. Is it perfect? Of course not. Very few, if any, films are perfect. In fact I’m not sure if I can think of any ‘perfect’ piece of entertainment—although that debate is open if anyone want to put a candidate forward.

However, what Lucy does quite nicely is package the ‘high theory’ of becoming posthuman inside the easier to swallow pill of a fast paced, violent action movie.

Lucy [Scarlett Johansson] a foreign student in Taipei, inadvertently becomes a drug mule for some terrifying Korean gangstars [ lead by Min-sik Choi] when she shacks up with the wrong guy [a stupidly dressed Pilou Asbaek—Kasper Juul to Borgen fans—with a junkie’s infectious nervousness]. From there on things go from bad to worse for Lucy until the bag of drugs in her stomach is damaged when she resists a would-be rapist and the new drug enters Lucy’s system sparking her evolution to superhuman and beyond.

 

***SPOILERS follow, although I say nothing of the ending***

From the start Besson makes some interesting editing/directorial choices. Lucy, in the hotel reception waiting to hand over a briefcase to the gangsters is intercut with a cheetah stalking gazelles on the plains. Lucy and the gazelle’s situations are equally and obviously hopeless but, of course, life fights to stay living. This is one of the pervading themes of the film.

The intercutting of documentary footage, predominantly of animals and natural settings, continues throughout the movie. Initially jarring, when it accompanies the lecture given by Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) on the ‘science’ of this sci-fi it begins to make more sense. Yes, this is a pretty simplistic way to deal with the ideas of how increased use of the human brain capacity could influence a human’s position in relation to the world around them, but it makes the central conceit accessible to all viewers. Although, the tone sometimes overbalances on the tightrope between understandable and patronising.

Lucy manipulates hair length and colour

Lucy manipulates hair length and colour

Knowledge is power, is another of Lucy’s themes. Unlocking the potential to use more than 10% of her brain, the eponymous protagonist learns to control herself to the point of being able to order her metabolism to spontaneously grow and change the colour of her hair to escape detection; then control the world around her seeing the signals of mobile phones [a gorgeous visual] and manipulate gravity; and finally she cracks the one constant that defines existence: time.

Lucy manipulates her metabolism

Lucy manipulates her metabolism

Despite the concepts of life beyond the flesh, transcendence and actual posthumanism—a move from anthropocentric [human at centre of everything] to an entity in tune with animals, nature, time and technology—the old fears of losing the body make an appearance. Professor Norman sets up a binary of choice for cells: immortality or reproduction. If the environment is adverse cells chose immortality, which in the case of Lucy means dissipation, a merging with the surroundings. The result is an unnerving body dissolving sequence in the confines of an airplane bathroom, already the site of terror for many flyers. The confined space contrasts with the reaction of Lucy’s body and brain which want to continue expanding. A warning that the flesh can only push at the boundaries so much before the strain results in destruction. Is the message ultimately conservative, as is often the case with science fiction?

The integration of technology into the body and dissipation into omnipresence that appear in Lucy have strong visual and thematic nods to two cult anime properties, Akira [Katshiro Otomo,1988] and Serial Experiments Lain [Yoshitoshi Abe, 1998]. In one of the final sequences of the film, Lucy’s body extends and distends into sinuous vines of black cables to form a supercomputer, which resembles an anime meets H.R. Giger design. This is both beautiful and unsettling which plays on our fear of the distortion of the human body, the fear of the other and the monstrous.

Here’s a long clip from the dub of Tetsuo’s terrifying loss of control and bodily mutation.

Yet there is a dispassionate control to Lucy’s transformation/integration of technology, as opposed to the violent, terrifying integration which overcomes Tetsuo at the climax of Akira. Is this a comment on the strength of the female, who undergoes numerous natural bodily changes and penetrations, to adapt to these evolutions in a way the male cannot? Besson certainly does favour female protagonists who take agency over their environments and kick serious ass, one of the reasons I went to see the film in the first place.

One of the major flaws of the film is the issue of emotion. Once Lucy gains control of her body’s responses she is driven by a need to pass on knowledge, to survive and follow through her evolution to its full conclusion but she loses her emotional responses.

A tearful phone conversation between Lucy and her mother marks her emotional peak. Overwhelmed by being able to feel, hear and see all around her as well as recalling all memories, even the taste of her mother’s milk, this is Lucy at her most vulnerable. She is also on a hospital bed, being operated on to remove the package of drugs. Here Lucy is shown completely without control; she has not gained a handle on the new sensations bombarding her and she is at the mercy of the surgeon’s scalpel. This forms a sharp contrast to the rest of the movie where slows Lucy gains control over everything.

This dispassionate, detached tone starts seeps into all elements of the movie which starts to remove the audience from their emotional involvement in what happens. We want to see her succeed, but we don’t feel her need to.

Parisian cop Pierre De Rio

Parisian cop Pierre De Rio

Like so many posthuman characters she becomes an automaton on a mission. This should be balanced out by the human characters around her. The instinct is there as Lucy is partnered with a French detective Pierre Del Rio [Amr Waked] in Paris to collect the other samples of the drug and evade the Korean gangsters. But Del Rio is also too hard, perhaps it is in the casting but he does not provide the more ‘feminine’ emotional counterpart to the rational traditionally masculine position that Lucy occupies. There is not enough time for them to generate a spark, one that would lend a stronger explanation to why Del Rio is prepared to form a last line of defence in a fight to the death to protect Lucy while she gains final evolution.

Despite the loss of emotion, Lucy is still worth a watch for the smart, concise way it engages with questions of human evolution, becoming posthuman and the sheer joy of the action sequences and gorgeous locations.

Imagine a world where your psychological condition is constantly monitored; where you, and everyone around you, are placed in a perfectly suited job perfectly; where crime is pretty much a thing of the past. This is the Tokyo of Psycho Pass, watched over by the benevolent/intrusive eye of the Sybil System – the computerised system that monitors the psychological conditions of on all the citizens within the Tokyo environs.

Of course this isn’t the idyllic utopia that the concept suggests, refusal to seek treatment for a cloudy ‘psycho pass’ [the name given to people’s mental health] can result in time in a dentition centre, or psychotic outbursts due to the fact the citizens of Tokyo can no longer tolerate even the slightest amount of stress. Those with severely clouded psycho passes are locked up, considered to be latent criminals aka it’s only a matter of time until they give in to their immoral urges and commit a crime.

Poster for Psycho Pass

Poster for Psycho Pass

The protagonists of this show work within the Public Safety Bureau’s Criminal Investigation division. Akane Tsunemori is a new Inspector, assigned to a team in the pilot episode. Meanwhile Shinya Kogami is an Enforcer, one of a select few latent criminals who have been released from detainment facility under the mentality of ‘use-a-thief-to-catch-a-thief.’ In this way the inspector’s psycho passes are protected from the corruption of needing to think like the criminals they are trying to arrest.

Oh and I should probably mention the gun too, the dominator, a weapon controlled by the Sybil System which can change modes depending on the level of force the Sybil System deems necessary. The trigger is locked on people whose psycho passes are within safe levels, next up is a non lethal paralyser mode followed by the lethal uber-destructive body-exploding mode for those who are no longer worth saving.

Wow, that took a long time to set up. And by now you are probably wondering what western text this is an adaptation of. Brave New World, perhaps? 1984? Both these texts are quoted in various episodes and the antagonist even carries copies of these books around with him. But no, I offer up that Psycho Pass is actually a cyberpunk version of Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes? Really? Yes, really. Now Mr Holmes has been riding on the wave of an extensive revival in recent years with the BBC’s contemporary adaption Sherlock, CBS’s also contemporary, but transported to America, Elementary and Guy Ritchie’s rather more violent masculine, steampunk film versions. Even I have had my hand in the Holmes cookie jar, with a theatrical site specific version of The Speckled Band which was performed at The Treasurer’s House, York and Ripley Castle. [Here’s the trailer for those interested.]

Why so much interest now? Well I think all these adaptations tap into the sense audiences these days are constantly being forced to act like the great detective in their everyday lives. We are bombarded with infinite information that we have to analyse and investigate to find the truth, or our truth; the useful from the red herring. But more on that another time, perhaps.

Now how is our cyberpunk, sci-fi show, this Blade Runner meets Minority Report via Brave New World, related to the great detective?

Well, like many crime stories it owes much to the format established by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A genius detective, who might be a little sociopathic or at least bad with people; his loyal, emotionally understanding companion, who might also be pretty good with a gun; and finally a sociopathic, manipulating criminal mastermind as the big bad to be eventually faced and hopefully defeated, often at the cost of our great detective’s own life.

Shinya Kogami - Cyberpunk Sherlock

Shinya Kogami – Cyberpunk Sherlock

Shinya Kogami is our Sherlock, once a normal Inspector, he let his obsession to solve the case and his ability to think like a criminal get out of hand, leading to his demotion to Enforcer. As a latent criminal, he works with the police, but he is not one of them. In this capacity he can do things a rule abiding officer could not. His deductive powers, keen ability for observation and ability to see the bigger pattern from the minutiae also place him firmly in the Sherlock mould. In particular episodes he is not afraid to abandon the constricting law system to pursue the criminal and the truth.

Akane Tsunemori and Shinya Kogami  aka Watson and Holmes

Akane Tsunemori and Shinya Kogami aka Watson and Holmes

Kogami find his loyal, emotionally switched on, moral back up in the form of Akane Tsunemori. This Watson is a woman, but refreshingly her gender is not made the main interesting point about her. She never acts in a traditionally ‘feminine’ role. [Unlike Lucy Liu in the pilot episode of Elementary.] There may be a current of attraction between Akane and Kogami—isn’t there always something a little more between Watson and Holmes—but it is never made a main plot point. Instead Akane is a stalwart of the right, moral decision. From the pilot where she shoots her Holmes to defend an innocent woman, who the system has wrongly deemed unfit for existence, she is set up as the defender of justice. Not to mention a sharp shooter, who misses Kogami’s vitals when she paralyses him.

Shogo Makishima aka Moriarty

Shogo Makishima aka Moriarty

And finally the third side of the triangle: Moriarty. Shogo Makishima is the asymptomatic [he commits psychologically damaging things without any effect to his psycho pass] Homme Fatale. Yeah, you read that right, homme fatale, the man who turns up and emotionally manipulates the protagonist into a downward spiral that could result in his death. Move over Irene Adler, it’s Moriarty who really gets under Sherlock’s skin. [Somewhere the fan girls all cheered, but that gay romance isn’t exactly what I’m getting at.] Even Makishima’s character design fits this idea of the Homme Fatale. He is seductive, but with a sense of elegance; his movements are sensual which is even evident in his fighting style in the gripping scene where he and Kogami face off for the first time.

Makashima, like Moriarty, acts as an enabler for others. As the scanners never pick up a fluctuation in his psycho pass he can move at will, setting up the perfect situations for those who would normally set off the Sybil System’s alarms. This reminds me of a quote from Sherlock Holmes in the story The Final Problem:

“The man pervades London, and no one has heard of him. That’s what puts him on the pinnacle in the records of crime. I tell you Watson, in all seriousness, that if I could beat that man, if I could free society of him, I should feel that my own career has reached its summit, and I should be prepared to turn to some more placid line in life…”

The final episodes of this show draw on the narrative structure of Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty’s explosive encounter at the Reichenbach Falls, and spoiler alert, may have a similar conclusion.

Kogami and Makashima

Kogami and Makashima

Another, final interesting point to raise is the similarity of the settings. The dark, twisted alleys of Victorian London metropolis are, plus some more tech, pretty much the same squalid urban spaces that criminals in sci-fi noir inhabit. But like Sherlock Holmes, Psycho Pass’s settings also include the higher end of society, elite academies [like Sherlock story The Adventure of the Priory School] and the palatial homes of the rich and famous. Of course the urban labyrinth has been home to the detective and his criminal antagonists since Edgar Allen Poe, so it is only natural that in its futuristic guise it plays host to a new set of villains and heroes.

My only final note is that at some point in the future I might blog about Psycho Pass in even more detail as it is one of the shows on my PhD viewing list.

My former PhD buddy and York writer extraordinaire, Helen Cadbury, invited me to take part in this blog tour about writing process. [Click on her name above to see her answers to the questions below.] I find it fascinating to see how different writers work, there as many processes as there are writers really, and I must admit I might be trying out some of the other bloggers techniques to overcome my own moments of procrastination.

Apologies in advance, this blog is the end of this particular chain. I haven’t had the time to seek out other blogger writers to nominate. So my little branch will be filled with blossomy details of my process and you’ll have to backtrack and try Helen’s other nominee, who hopefully will keep the vine alive.

So to the questions…

1) What am I working on?

I’m what I think might be termed a magpie writer, or a writer with a severe case of creative ADHD.

Writers are magpies, stealing the shiny stories from everyday life - image from here

Writers are magpies, stealing the shiny stories from everyday life – image from here

I tend to have more than one project on the go and perform a complex juggling game with deadlines. At present I’m working on…

A feature film script for a sci-fi cop thriller with a genetic modification twist.

A very british horror radio play [think Wicker Man].

In the early stage of a play commission for Christmas…

Anything else..? Oh yeah my first screenplay for my PhD by creative practice, that’s a sci-fi noir with a posthuman twist too….

As you can see I have an issue with focusing on one project. [Side note: this does not include all the shorts, flash fiction pieces and the medieval web series I’m working on.]

Is all this healthy? Probably not, I was on verge of a creative mental meltdown around Christmas 2013 and vowed never to work on more than two projects at once… see how well that worked.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

We all bring our slightly different experiences to everything we write, so in a really simple answer to this question my work differs because it’s mine, it’s focused on my own skewed view point of the world.

As  for a more complex answer…I’m not sure. As I write scripts in genres like sci-fi and action adventure, which usually have female protagonists that in itself is a difference.

Fighting aliens and saving cats - image from here

Fighting aliens and saving cats – image from here

Think about the last time you saw a strong female lead in a sci-fi film, there’s Ripley from Alien franchise but in the last couple of years the tent pole films have all been about guys – Star Trek, Oblivion, Elysium, Iron Man 3…

One strong influence on my work in the last decade has been Japanese Anime, since seeing Spirited Away I’ve been hooked. There is a real freedom in the blend of genre tropes, characters and styles in anime that I love and that makes me think more freely about what can and can’t go into my writing in particular genres. I talk about this in detail in an interview for One&OtherTV here. Anime also makes up part of my PhD research so I can see it continuing to influence and inspire my work in the future.

 

3) Why do I write what I do?

Again there’s a simple answer: because I find these genres fun and exciting to create in.

And a more complex version… I used to think I had to write things that were worthy or overly complicated and, let’s face it, full of pseudo intellectual pretentiousness. Being a bright kid at school I was quickly encouraged to abandon children’s fiction for the ‘classics’ both modern and older. I got stuck somewhere in the Victorian period [not that I’m complaining, my stage plays have been adaptations of Victorian/Edwardian Literature which I still love].

Young Sherlock Homes poster - image from here

Young Sherlock Homes poster – image from here

Growing up I had loved action adventure films like Indiana Jones, Young Sherlock Holmes and sci -fi Blade Runner, surely if I wanted a career in writing I couldn’t do things like that, could I?

After studying for my MFA in California I realised that I was being an idiot. Of course I could write whatever I wanted – I have to say a big thanks to a professor out there who ran a ‘writing for the family audience’ screenplay class which knocked most of my pretentious attitude out of me.

4) How does your writing process work?

As I said in answer to the first question my process is one of juggling multiple projects. I think I like to have at least two on the go to flip between if my writing on one is getting stale or I reach an plot/character impasse. I’m a great believer in the power of the subconscious to solve any writing problems if it is given enough time/space/material. I’m a huge consumer of story in all forms, films/tv/anime/comics/fiction/plays/newspaper articles, I feel I have to understand what is out there if I’m going to add to or subvert a genre.

I’ve always been someone who is inspired by visuals so my process involves trawling photos and the internet for images that I can modify to become locations in stories or objects that can become macguffins [or mcguffin or maguffin]. In the same sense I like to travel, visit museums, walk in the countryside. I can’t over emphasize how important this is to my work for generating ideas to not be cooped up in only one space. Not being able to come up with an idea is an alien concept to me, I’m constantly inspired by the world around me, both the real physical world and the digital one. Having the time/brain capacity to get all these ideas down in correct format is more of an issue for me.

Research is also pretty key to my work, whether I’m creating in speculative futures of my own imagining or recreating the landscapes of the past I like to put in the time to research properly. Maybe this is because I’m one of those irritating people who will read/watch something and complain when the details aren’t right.

Image reference board for one of my previous projects

Image reference board for one of my previous projects

As for getting stories on paper, since I got into screenwriting about 5 years ago I’ve become an uber-planner. I like to have a detailed outline done before I start any script pages. This way I can work out a lot of the plot holes and iffy character motivation moments before I’m in love with the pages I’ve written.

Recently I’ve gotten into a habit of writing first drafts in 2-4 weeks. It’s really important to get to the end of the script, because until then you really can’t start to edit and turn the story into something that’s actually good. The first draft is never any good, I’ve pretty much gotten over the mental hurdle of realising this, so I vomit it out as quickly as possible [after research preparation] so that I can start cleaning up and feeling better about the story.

My final point on process is something that is occurring as I work further into my PhD by creative practice. I am becoming more aware of the reasons behind my creative decisions. Not in an overly analysing way, it isn’t detrimental or freezing to my process. I feel I have a pretty good gut instinct for the stories I tell, the locations I place scenes in, but now I am beginning to really understand why my gut tells me to do these things. Perhaps that has nothing to do with my PhD and is just my maturing as a writer, still it has occurred after I’ve started to really pick things apart for my academic research and so I feel they must be linked.

So I think that’s it… again I apologise that this is the end of this particular chain but I hope you’ve found this interesting or at least mildly amusing.

Last Wednesday I took a day trip to Durham, primarily to attend a seminar run by the Inventions of the Text series  in the English Department [a department I was attached to, with the History, department for BA]. I saw BioShock and games narrative mentioned in one of the papers and we’ll, what’s an academic nerd girl going to do but turn up?

BioShock was one of the games that I had hoped to include in my PhD thesis before I realised that I just wasn’t going to have the words to do the research justice. As I am on a PhD by Creative Practice course my thesis is only 30-40,000 words, which is less than half a normal PhD thesis. My initial scope of film, anime and video games was a little over ambitious.

This doesn’t change the fact that the game BioShock fits all the criteria for my PhD research. It is set in a posthuman noir world with a very unreliable narrator/protagonist who navigates the gamer through the genetically modified nightmare of Rapture.

BioShock is a first person shooter game where the player inhabits the view point of Jack, a guy who is on an airplane that crashes in the sea near a lighthouse in 1960. On reaching the lighthouse Jack finds it is actually the entrance to the underwater city of Rapture, built by Andrew Ryan as a place where science and the arts could flourish outside of government control, or any control for that matter. Jack soon discovers that the citizens of Rapture made a breakthrough in genetic engineering through use of ADAM a substance harvested from sea slug, granting the citizens superhuman powers called plasmids.

 

As the trailer makes very clear this is a game which revolves around choices; the player’s, the characters’, the moral and the immoral decisions we will make to survive. This is what makes the twist and turns the player experiences as Jack all the more challenging.

Amnesiac playable characters are pretty common in computer games, they allow for important information about the world of the game to be explained to the gamer without it feeling too expositionally clunky. [NB – not always a successful strategy.] The first person shooter POV also places the gamer right into the view point of the character, usually with a pair of hands wielding weapons of mass destruction in front of you.

I’m not a huge fan of first person games, I think growing up playing Tomb Raider has made me feel more comfortable seeing the whole of my character on screen, from an over their shoulder P.O.V. But I warmed to BioShock because visually and narratively there was a lot of draw me in.

Now what makes BioShock different and unsettling is the twist in the identity of the unreliable, amnesiac protagonist. For two thirds of the game, you bomb along, following the directions of friendly rebellion leader Atlas, trying to survive the bat-shit crazy citizens of Rapture so you can escape to the surface and get your old life back. So far so ordinary for this type of game until the designers pull the rug from under your feet.

The fact that the playable character, the gamer’s identity within the game, is revealed to be false, a clone of Andrew Ryan who Fontane/Altas, designed to take out the king of Rapture, really sucker punches the gamer. Like the main character, the gamer believed they had some autonomy in the game world, they could explore where they wanted and could make large moral decisions like whether to harvest [kill] or free the Little Sister characters

But Jack, and the gamer, never really had any freewill and now ‘would they kindly’ play by the rules of the designers and die…

This brought the gamer to think about the horror of the game’s thematic concepts of brain washing, genetic cloning and control, but also to think about the process of playing videogames in general. Once you engage in playing a game you surrender your freewill to the game’s mechanics, don’t you? Or do you?

That issue was the crux of the paper given by Dr. Julian Reidy at the Inventions of the Text Seminar, titled “You just complicate the narrative!” Computer games as ‚Erzählspiele’ (narrative games). [That’s a quote from BioShock Infinite, by the way, Daisy Fitzroy shouts it at Booker in one of the alternative realities.]

Video game criticism usually falls into a debate between ludology  [it’s all about playing the game] and narratology [it’s the story, stupid]. Some critics feel that because the gamer is constrained by the rules of the game world, there is little room for the interpretation that occurs when someone reads a book or reads a piece of art and therefore games cannot exist as art in their own right. [I’m paraphrasing terribly and overly simplifying.] Needless to say this is something I disagree with.

Dr, Reidy posited a two way communication between gamer and game, demonstrating that narratives are developed from even the most simplistic game mechanisms, the gamer can’t help creating them; story cannot be cut from mechanism, they co-exist.

Moving on to BioShock Infinite he examined how the latest in the BioShock series [and the original game, in my opinion] draws the gamer’s attention to how they, and the playable character, complicate and reinvent the narrative—an attitude not much different from the way we engage with literature or history. Interesting, huh? And you thought it was all about mashing guys in the face with a skyhook…

Hopefully the article this talk was based on will be published and translated from German into English soon so that I can read and rethink the points raised.

[The talk also sparked a thought on my recent gaming/viewing.I’ve been revisiting the Silent Hill game series while watching Twin Peaks for the first time… Do we think Silent Hill 2 can be read as a game version of a Lynch film/show? I don’t know, but there are a lot of visual and narrative similarities.]

The second talk was given by a PhD candidate at UCL, George Potts, titled ‘You seen The Godfather?’ – The Sopranos and the postmodern gangster. The discussion revolved on the ways that fact and fiction inform each other.

The Sopranos exists in a modern world where the gangster characters would have seen films like the Godfather trilogy or Goodfellas. The show uses these already established media pieces to take apart the idea of the gangster, separating fact from fiction and howing the blurs in reality.

This got me thinking about my own creative work. How many times have I reacted to a horror movie by thinking ‘Why would they do that, haven’t they seen a horror movie before?’ I find characters who exist in ‘present day’ versions of reality who haven’t experienced the same cultural devices that we have stand out. It’s the same as writing a movie now without smart phones.

Any character of my generation or below—without a good excuse of growing up beyond the reach of electricity—would be hard pushed to not mention Tomb Raider, Indiana Jones, Uncharted or even Harry Potter when faced with an action adventure scenario. Are these references avoided because there is some copyright law doom looming or just writer oversight?

I reference the above Indiana Jones scene—the running behind the gong in the opening of Temple of Doom—when two characters in my adventure film attempt a similar trick to escape bad guys. “It worked in Indiana Jones, didn’t it?” says the love interest. “But that was a film!” the heroine retorts.

It felt natural that these characters, who were obsessed with archaeology, history and myth as kids, would have at least seen Indiana Jones movies. Movie referencing is part of our everyday slang, our short cut language of the twenty first century. I wonder if any character can feel realistic if they never reference games or films or tv shows? Is this any different from character referencing literature, poetry or myths?

I don’t know the answers, just ponder the questions…

So the seminar series did exactly what it should have, it provoked new academic and creative thoughts. It was an interesting, exciting and mentally stimulating evening.

In part one I set up the reason for my visit to the Kubrick Archive and highlighted one of the first drafts of the A.I: Artificial Intelligence script which Ian Watson wrote. In part two I discover just how many permutations of the story Ian Watson did… Short answer: a ludicrous number.

Filled with a delicious lunch from the Japan Centre, including a matcha green tea [a real energy boost] I descended once more into the archives to try and make some more sense of the process through which the film A.I: Artificial Intelligence was created.

For my second day trip to the archive I placed the boxes of materials in as close to chronological order as possible and picked out the earliest box. Most of the materials, which were not in order, [why would anyone want to make my life easier] were from drafts in 1990.

Through reading a series of faxes I began to see how the writing relationship between Ian Watson and Stanley Kubrick worked. It seems that almost every day Watson would fax a new iteration of a section to Kubrick, which would be read, notes made and faxed back with ideas for changes and edits.  As a writer the very idea of working like this made me want to collapse with exhaustion. I’ve had experiences of turning out very quick re-drafts of treatments but nothing on this scale—I think this went on for about eight months.

Ian Watson has a fantastic article on his own website about his time on A.I. which gives more of a sense of the pressures and inventive freedom of working with Kubrick which can be found here.

What continued to surprise and delight me as I read through the numerous iterations of A.I. was the sheer inventiveness of Watson. There are some thoroughly wonderful visual and thematic ideas that just never made it near the end film—ideas that I would love to turn into movies in their own rights.

There are robot oracles stuck in abandoned reactors, where the area around has turned into a crystal encrusted tomb; Rouge city as noir a gangster controlled nightmare Las Vegas with dark secret revolving on eternal life; there are robot cults of various types who worship or sacrifice David, our little robot boy. The crystalline imagery does make it to the final film as the Blue Fairy statue frozen in ice after many centuries have passed.

Any of these ideas sound more interesting than the final film? Yep, that’s what I thought. Although at the same time I see how much of a risk they would have been to film; robot popes, I’m imagining, have always been a hard sell. Then there is always the question of audience, it seemed that Kubrick initially wanted this to be a general audience film that the whole family could see… it is clear that some of these darker, sordid drafts didn’t conform to this image. Nor did the final movie which got awarded a 12 certificate in the UK or PG-13 in the USA.

Another fascinating element that emerged from trawling through these different drafts is how Watson would get attached to a motif which would appear in various versions, each time slightly changed, to fit the new agenda. I’ve found I have a tendency to do the same thing when I’m writing. I get attached to an image or a concept which doesn’t work, I cut it out and then when another story comes along I try to mold my cut motif into the new story.

Bell Tower at Reschensee - Image fro http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reschensee

Bell Tower at Reschensee – Image fro http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reschensee

I’ve been trying to get the town under the man-made lake at Reschensee into a screenplay for about four years now. The location has been in my mind far longer, from tales my grandparents told of this underwater town and others like it. At one time or other this place has featured in three projects, from which it has been cut each time because, although it is beautiful/ haunting/ making a statement of man vs nature, it has never been quite right. I’ve always felt that I’ve been shoe horning it in somehow. One day, Reschensee you will be the location for a touching romantic moment or more likely, a stirring action sequence. I did see a Miyazaki, The Castle of Cagliostro, which has a similar location in after I wanted to write about this place, so at least someone has managed to make the image work.

With Watson it is a different image, a pit that bores deep into the ground that repeats. It is a source of eternal torment and punishment a la Dante’s Inferno, or a mysterious location which could great immortality. See how the image modulates in the different iterations, same location, very different purpose.

It’s the same with characters. Often as I start a new story my gut tells me I need a character in a particular moment to move the plot along, but that character might be drastically changed by the time the drafting process is over. The same thing happens in Watson’s drafts for A.I. The boy robot, David, and his friend Gigolo Joe need a sympathetic helping hand to push them on the quest, that much is clear, but who that character is alters dramatically from journalists to recluses.

There was so much potential in that tiny box, only a fraction of the creative output that went into the movie. To a lover of science fiction, Watson’s drafts are a real demonstration of the power of an imagination to generate different variations under pressure of tight deadlines. I’m the kind of writer who also functions best, sometimes, when the deadline looms like the blade of a guillotine.

Whether this brief trip to the archive was completely useful to my own research is up for debate. There was one very noir version which I would love to find in its entirety to read, and perhaps there is a conversation to be had with Ian Watson about it in the future, and I would love to know which anime he recommended to Stanley Kubrick.

However, visit has inspired a desire to read multiple drafts of the film scripts from my core texts: Blade Runner, Gattaca, Dark City, The Matrix to see how they developed into the final films. Perhaps there are gems in these drafts that, due to various elements of economics or risk, never made it to the final product.

As a screenwriter it has made me think about early drafts and that perhaps I need to be more inventive, maybe I need to go that extra step outside the box and be more experimental in the early story stage. Because even at my strangest, I have nothing on some of the things I’ve read in the Kubrick Archive.

To finish here’s the theatrical trailer for A.I.

Location: University Archives and Special Collections Centre
London College of Communication
Elephant and Castle
London
SE1 6SB

Website: http://www.arts.ac.uk/study-at-ual/library-services/collections-and-archives/archives-and-special-collections-centre/stanley-kubrick-archive/