Songs That Broke My Heart: Days in the Trees (Reich) by No-Man

Any playlist of sad songs I might compile must include No-Man, but it was no easy task to select only one piece from a songbook positively chock full of them. To make my job a bit easier, I went back to the band’s beginnings.

Similar in style to their first breakout single “Colours” (a dramatic reimagining of Donovan’s mid-60s folk-pop hit), “Days in the Trees” is very much an artifact of early 90s minimalist art-pop. Despite its superficially dated production, the song is quintessential No-Man: Tim Bowness’ melancholy vocals hovering over Steven Wilson’s looped breakbeat, accompanied by Ben Coleman’s dramatic violin and very little else.

I found myself drawn to a relatively obscure alternate version subtitled “Reich”, first released in 1992 on the virtually impossible to find original EP and the subsequent mini-album Lovesighs – An Entertainment, and now available on the retrospective anthology All the Blue Changes. In a personal reassessment, Bowness expresses reservations about the mix and performances in the released version, but concedes that “Reich is a piece I still love”.

Utterly unlike a prototypically unimaginative remix in which rigid disco beats are bolted onto scraps of a song, this version has only the most tenuous of connections to its source material. It omits Bowness’ vocals entirely, in favor of a gently repeating keyboard arpeggio. The title alludes to composer Steve Reich’s brand of systems music, which reached its hypnotic apotheosis in Music for 18 Musicians. A generation of electronic musicians expanded upon Reich’s interlocking patterns, and Reich himself later completed the circle by experimenting with electronica and remixing on his 1999 album Reich Remixed.

The stark ambient soundscape of “Days in the Trees (Reich)” provides an atmosphere for an astonishing soliloquy extracted from David Lynch’s seminal TV series Twin Peaks. Donna (Laura Flynn Boyle) is a teenager disillusioned by unsavory revelations regarding her best friend Laura’s drug abuse and sexual misadventures. Over the course of the series, she is exposed to even greater depths of corruption and depravity in her seemingly idyllic small American town.

Lara Flynn Boyle as Donna in Twin Peaks
“It was the first time I ever fell in love.”

While pursuing information on her own, Donna finds it necessary to ingratiate herself to a lonely male stranger. The mode of seduction she chooses is to recount the story of her first kiss. Her ploy quickly becomes a real confession, even an uncomfortably intimate flirtation. It’s an ostensibly happy memory, but her state of bliss over an event in the distant past is shot through with melancholy over a sublime moment long gone. Forced to confront the profound darkness festering in her community, this young woman prematurely mourns simpler times forever out of reach. Her tale portrays herself as a girl just beginning to sense that sexuality was a dangerous force her friend had already embraced but she couldn’t yet harness.

Boyle may not be one of the world’s most celebrated actors, but her performance in this scene is nothing less than stunning. Bowness and Wilson edited and condensed her monologue, but opted to leave in the sound effects of a cigarette lighter and her exhalation, effectively providing an audio vérité percussion track. Here is a full transcript of the truncated version that appears in “Days in the Trees (Reich)”:

“This is from a long time ago, is that ok? I was about thirteen years old, fourteen maybe. We were going to the Roadhouse to meet boys. They’re about twenty years old. And they’re nice to us. And they make us feel like we’re older. Rick asks if we wanna go party and Laura says ‘yes’, and all of a sudden I feel this knot building up in my stomach. But when Laura gets in the truck with Rick, I go anyway. A stream in the woods, and when I think, it’s pale and light out. Laura starts to dance around the boys. She begins to move her hips back and forth. And we take off our clothes. I know the boys are watching. Laura starts to kiss Josh and Rick. I don’t know what to do, so I swim away. I feel like I want to run, but I don’t. He kisses my hand and then me. I can still feel that kiss. His lips are warm and sweet. My heart jumps. He’s talking but I can’t hear him. It was the first time I ever fell in love.”

The brief song drifts away on her last word.


Further reading:


You’re reading an entry in The Dork Report’s ongoing mixtape The Songs That Broke My Heart. Get started with the introduction or dive right in. Know a sad song you’d like to see added to the playlist? Please let me know in the comments below.

The Songs That Broke My Heart

Rock ‘n’ roll is not an everyday conversation topic around our family table, but the improbable longevity of The Rolling Stones was remarkable enough to come up once during dinner. I had recently listened to “Sympathy for the Devil” for the first time in a while, and remarked upon how surprisingly dark and intense it was, so much so that it gave me chills. My grandmother asked why, then, would I deliberately listen to something that unsettled me?

She had a point. Upon reflection, I’ve found that most of the music I hold dear is chilling (like the aforementioned ode to Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita), chilly (like some of the more academic, brainy music by Brian Eno, Philip Reich, or Robert Fripp), or just plain cold (pretty much everything else). Some have subject matter that makes you want to jump out a window, some just sound like they do, and some may not be sad per se, but are rather so painfully beautiful I almost can’t bear listening to them.

How on earth did incurable sad sacks like The Cure, Nick Drake, or Kurt Cobain become pop stars? Why do we listen to the likes of “Hallelujah”, “Mad World”, or “Hurt” for fun? The answer is simple, but opens a can of worms: prehistoric humans almost didn’t invent music for entertainment or personal expression, but rather as a component to ritual, spirituality, and community.

To think of music as merely entertaining or escapist is to belittle an entire art form with limitless capabilities. Even at its best, it can be dissonant and ugly (such as György Ligeti’s Requiem, which still sounds alien today in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) just as easily as it can be pretty and moving (Johan Pachelbel’s Canon in D, so lovely it has passed into cliché and back again). It’s possible to make the same point about other oft belittled media, such as comics — where the uninitiated may be unable or unwilling to accept that the same format that stars Ziggy and Superman can also be as trenchant as Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury or as literary as Art Spiegelman’s Maus.

Hence this new series of short essays exclusively for The Dork Report: The Songs That Broke My Heart, in effect a playlist of melancholy, misery, and loneliness. It is not meant to be an objective list of the saddest songs of all time, but rather a personal compilation of songs that create an emotional response in me now, at this time in my life. But first, I’m going to start with something slightly more esoteric. Watch this space for my thoughts on No-Man’s “Days in the Trees (Reich)”.

The Songs That Broke My Heart:

  1. No-Man: Days in the Trees (Reich)
  2. Beck: Sea Change
  3. John Cale: Hallelujah

The Three Hour Avalanche: Cloud Atlas

Books are books, and movies are movies. I usually don’t want or expect any adaptation to copy its source — in fact, it’s usually in everyone’s best interests for a derivative work to strive to be its own thing, and not… well, derivative. But Tom Tykwer and Lana & Larry Wachowski’s Cloud Atlas turned out to be an astonishingly faithful adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel. For a book so sprawling and commonly deemed unadaptable, I fully expected more characters and incident to have been necessarily jettisoned. But almost everything is there, with most of the screenwriters’ additions coming in the form of structural changes rather than material.

Being so faithful to this particular book comes with a potential downside. One of the greatest pleasures to be had in the novel is its wide range of genres and tones. Sequences include a pulpy 70s thriller, a light-hearted old folks farce, a sci-fi dystopia, and a postapocalyptic wasteland. Each is familiar to a degree, but only insofar as Mitchell employs known genre tropes to his own ends. Each is written in a different voice, ranging from archaic historical vernacular to imaginary fractured and devolved languages of the far future.

Tom Hanks and Halle Berry in Cloud Atlas
Tom Hanks and Halle Berry in Cloud Atlas. Hanks’ character on the metaphysical conundrum: “times are you say a person’s beliefs ain’t true, they think you’re saying’ their lives ain’t true and their truth ain’t true.”

These devices may work better on the page than on the screen, for a reader is able to savor the lushly stylized language of each period. But subtract the novel’s devices of epistolary exchanges, internal monologues, fireside storytelling, and formal interviews, you’re only left with dialogue and visual depictions of action. What’s illustrated on screen comes across as a gumbo of The China Syndrome, The Matrix, The Road, and Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. For instance, when David Mitchell took on the tone of a conspiracy thriller, I found it impressive. But when it’s realized on screen, it feels like a Friedkin or Frankenheimer knockoff with extra corny dialog.

The aforementioned faithfulness extends to plot, tone, character, theme, incident… almost everything except structure. The elegantly spiraling structure of David Mitchell’s novel is one of its most justly celebrated features, and it could have theoretically been adopted to cinema. Instead, the film scrambles the various story lines into one long montage that comes at you in a nearly three-hour-long avalanche. The obvious benefit is the highlighting of how recurring themes are interlinked and interwoven, how patterns of behavior repeat throughout history, and for the more metaphysically inclined, how souls are reincarnated, and how good and bad deeds echo forwards and backwards through time.

James Darcy and Ben Whishaw in Cloud Atlas
James Darcy and Ben Whishaw in Cloud Atlas. “My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”

The three directors told the A.V. Club that they all worked simultaneously in close collaboration, but were required to be credited for specific sequences. For better or for worse, it seems pretty clear to me that the action sequences set in futuristic Korea have the Wachowski brand all over them. In this dystopia, corporations have replaced both government and religion, not that dissimilar to the world of the Wachowski-produced V for Vendetta). While intense and lengthy, these glorified chase sequences are not as extreme as their eyeball-spraining 2008 film Speed Racer. But Tykwer is a highly kinetic and visually oriented director as well, as he proved right away with Run Lola Run, so maybe I’m off base here.

One of the primary selling points of the movie is its stunt casting of a relatively small troupe of actors into a multitude of roles. The sad truth is that many of the makeup effects for actors playing across gender or race boundaries just don’t work. Hugo Weaving suffers in particular, with no amount of latex able to disguise his permanent menace and leer (how much do you want to bet he’s a sweet family man in real life?). But there are a few triumphs. For instance, I didn’t recognize Hugh Grant in at least two of his roles. Tom Hanks runs up and down the hamminess scale, but I thought he was genuinely excellent in the role of Zachry, a humble but atypically thoughtful goat herder whose deepest religious beliefs are challenged.

Bae Doona in Cloud Atlas
Bae Doona in Cloud Atlas. “Wars do not combust without warning.”

Like many, I fell in love with the beautifully written, structured, and ingenious novel. But most interestingly of all, it’s the first thing I can remember reading in a long time that had anything approaching a message, or, for lack of a better term, a “moral of the story”. In short, resisting oppression of all sorts is always worth it, even if one person can’t fix the world. Mitchell shows us a world seemingly inevitably doomed to drastic decline via slavery, global warming, societal collapse, and world war, but its heroes nevertheless act against political, corporate, or religious oppression. Many (but not all) of them suffer for it, but their acts resonate in ways both large and small.

It is in this context that I must pinpoint one serious crime the movie commits against the book. I noticed only one significant deviation from the novel that, for me, almost negates everything I found most powerful in the book. I don’t object that something was added (in fact, I usually argue that most adaptations of books need to be more liberal in their interpretations), but rather that what was added betrayed a desire for sentiment — in essence, a happy ending. Anyone that has experienced the novel and the film will know exactly what I’m talking about. The movie ends on a positive note for humanity at its chronologically latest point, while the book ends with a moving internal monologue set near the beginning, as a character decides to dedicate his life to the abolitionist movement.

Despite serious reservations like this, I was totally swept up in the movie and have to rate it highly overall. As a movie, it’s a towering, almost unbelievable achievement. It was essentially an independent production, with a large portion of the financing coming directly from the filmmakers themselves. Cloud Atlas was not made as a corporate exercise; it exists because three filmmakers felt they had to do it. The message of resisting oppression of all sorts, including corporate, must not have been a good selling point when it came time for them to shop their movie around to potential distributors, giant corporations all. So go see Cloud Atlas, if for no reason other than its verve and audacity.

Favicon & Apple Touch Icon Adobe Fireworks Template

Once upon a time, web designers & developers had it easy when it came to the venerable favicon. Our tiny .ico files served a much greater purpose than their meager 16×16 square pixels would suggest. These humble graphics allowed us to populate the status bars, tabs, and bookmarks of our visitors’ browsers with our emblems. They were a test of our ability to communicate our brands in a strictly limited number of pixels.

With the advent of high-resolution displays and touch devices, mostly but not entirely from Apple, the favicon exploded into a variety of dimensions, formats, and purposes. Some still fulfill their duties in the good old desktop browser, some appear as web app icons on mobile devices, and some are automatically slurped up for other purposes by apps like Reeder and Transmit.

The latest version of HTML5 Boilerplate has codified seven different versions as the current baseline requirement for any self-respecting modern site. For an in-depth look at what each of these various files are for, and how to implement them, look no further than Mathias Bynens’ Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Touch Icons.

Favicon and Touch Icon Template for Adobe Fireworks

Hans Christian’s HTML5 Boilerplate Favicon PSD Template is indispensable for anyone wishing to easily create the full array of icons at once. But for those web, UI, UX, or just-plain-design designers that prefer to do this type of work in Adobe Fireworks (as do I) rather than Photoshop alone, I’ve created an alternative template. I’ve mostly followed Christian’s lead, with the exception of including a 32×32 pixel favicon for certain browsers on high-resolution displays (such as Safari and Chrome on the MacBook Pro), as detailed by Enrappture.

John Gruber of Daring Fireball brought this issue back to prominence with his post How to Create Retina-Caliber Favicons. In short, he recommends creating a single .ico file with 16×16 and 32×32 resources, which affords the designer the greatest control over how the favicon will appear in different contexts. Chris Coyier of CSS-Tricks countered that this strategy adds complexity and results in a larger file. His rule of thumb is that with a simple, clean design, a favicon containing a single 32×32 resource ought to scale well. The important takeaway is, of course: test and see.

The free Photoshop plugin ICO (Windows Icon) Format is the cheapest and most straightforward choice for web designers who decide to go the single-resouce route. If you want to get fancy with your favicons, you can use software such as Kodlian’s Icon Slate or IconFactory’s IconBuilder to create a single favicon file that includes both 16×16 and 32×32 resources.

I hope at least some fellow designers find this template file useful. Please feel free to comment below or contact me via Twitter if you have any suggestions or feedback.

Version 1.1
2013-01-10
Download Template

Version History:

  • Version 1.1, January 10, 2013: This post and accompanying Adobe Fireworks template file revised for clarity, particularly on the topic of supporting high resolution devices as recently debated on Daring Fireball and CSS-Tricks.
  • Version 1.0, September 12, 2012: Initial release.

Exclusive! The Expendables 3 Poster

Carter. Grier. Hamilton. Jolie. Jovovich. Thurman. Weaver. Yeoh. The Expendables 3 movie poster

Coming summer 2014 — The Expendables 3! Starring Lynda Carter, Pam Grier, Linda Hamilton, Angelina Jolie, Milla Jovovich, Uma Thurman, Sigourney Weaver, and Michelle Yeoh.

This movie does not exist, but should. Hollywood, call me.

Douglas Adams: What a Wonderful World

Despite being the ostensible protagonist of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Arthur Dent is remarkably out of control of his destiny. Throughout, he survives various calamities equipped only with only a Babel fish, towel, and implausible happenstance. But most of its cast of characters are equally adrift in a senseless universe: Zaphod Beeblebrox is the ultimate irresponsible slacker, just hanging out as the universe unfairly happens to produce everything he needs. Ford Prefect just barely clings on to a dead-end travel writing gig in the backwaters of the galaxy. Mr. Prosser and Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz are mere salarymen dispassionately dispatching their duties, too jaded even to evilly enjoy their cataclysmic impact upon others (the symbolic mirroring between these characters was laid bare in the original radio series, where they were both portrayed by the same actor — curiously not the case in the TV show, when it ought to have been trivial to do likewise, considering how much alien makeup was involved).

If you’re just joining The Dork Report’s trilogy (in three parts… so far) on Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, don’t miss Part One, on its highly improbable leap from radio to TV, and Part Two, on its influence & legacy.

If the many misfortunes that befall Arthur seem meaningless, and his escapes equally arbitrary, maybe it’s because Adams was one of the world’s most famous atheists. He was friend and matchmaker to outspoken debunker of supernaturalism Richard Dawkins — indeed, he introduced to him to his future wife Lalla Ward (who played Romana during Adams’ tenure on Doctor Who, and is still revered today as “the lord high queen of the nerds” by Topless Robot). It would be extremely convenient to draw connections between Dawkins and the Hitchhiker’s character Oolon Colluphid, were the chronology not so inconvenient: the series was written long before Adams discovered Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene, and before they became friends after Dawkins wrote Adams an admitted “fan letter.” Colluphid, of course, wrote the highly influential and controversial trilogy Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God’s Greatest Mistakes and Who is this God Person Anyway?, and Well, That About Wraps It Up For God — an oeuvre only slightly less pointed than Dawkins’ own.

Lalla Ward and Richard Dawkins
Douglas Adams the matchmaker: Doctor Who star Lalla Ward and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins

Absorbing Hitchhikers’ in prose, on stage, TV, or radio has long been the first baby step for many current and future atheists. The first few moments of all versions of the story feature numerous gags about God, the most well-known of which involves the infamous Babel Fish. When I first read the novel as a kid, I was of course pleasantly grossed out by the notion of sticking a fish in your ear. Whether or not a child reader grasps the overt allusion to the biblical Tower of Babel, most would be versed enough in science fiction to recognize that Adams was mocking the accepted convention that English is spoken throughout the universe. Star Trek and Doctor Who both made offhand comments to explain the language barrier issue in pseudo-scientific manners, which is perhaps the healthiest narrative approach — why get bogged down in technicalities, which only get in the way of telling a good story? But Adams decided to confront the conceit head-on, and not only subvert it but also take it to a startling philosophical conclusion. In literary theory, this would be a casebook example of deconstruction. Here’s the relevant excerpt from the original radio show:

The Babel Fish is small, yellow, leech like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from the conscious frequencies and nerve signals picked up from the speech centers of the brain; the practical upshot of which is that if you stick on in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language – the speech you hear decodes the brainwave matrix. Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindbogglingly useful could evolve purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final clinching proof of the non-existence of God.

The argument goes something like this:

“I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing”. “But,” says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED” “Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic. “Oh, that was easy” says Man, and for an encore he proves that black is white and gets killed on the next zebra crossing.

Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo’s kidneys, but that didn’t stop Oolon Coluphid making a small fortune when he used it as the central theme of his best-selling book Well, That About Wraps It Up For God.

Meanwhile, the poor Babel Fish, be effectively removing all barriers to communication between different cultures and races, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.

— The Original Hitchhiker Radio Scripts, Douglas Adams, p29-30

The Babel Fish from the BBC Series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
The Guide entry on The Babel Fish

The above excerpt is from The Guide itself, the book within the book (another gift to literary theorists). The Guide is full of useless information, when not outright incorrect, but one wonders if Adams was wistfully imagining a more advanced alien society possessed of greater secular wisdom than our own — one in which even lowly travel guides take it as a given that there is no Flying Spaghetti Monster, Invisible Sky Daddy, or Ceiling Cat watching over us. What is especially remarkable is how economical the above excerpt is. It’s elegant, concise, and above all, funny. In only a few lines, Adams co-opts two common theistic arguments into a logical equation that ≠ God: so-called “irreducible complexity” and the ultimate get-out-of-any-argument gambit, faith. To him, faith and belief aren’t enough when it comes to the really important questions:

“Isn’t belief-that-there-is-not-a-god as irrational, arrogant, etc., as belief-that-there-is-a-god? To which I say ‘no’ for several reasons. First of all I do not believe-that-there-is-not-a-god. I don’t see what belief has got to do with it […] As a carapace for the protection of irrational notions from legitimate questions, however, I think that the word has a lot of mischief to answer for […] I am, however, convinced that there is no god, which is a totally different stance.”
— Douglas Adams, interview with American Atheist, quoted in Douglas Adams and God – Portrait of a Radical Atheist by Nicolas Botti

To the above, I say “can I get an amen?” The word “belief” is appropriate for matters of superstition, but not for matters of science. The self-professed “radical atheist” we hear from above is considerably more gentle and breezy when he playfully tweaks religion in Hitchhiker’s. But it’s easy to imagine how these books might incite the ire of the easily offended Religious Right currently dominating the US political scene. That is, if they were literary-minded enough to sit down and actually attempt to read a book — any book — which clearly they aren’t. Consider how the Monty Python film The Life of Brian was famously protested against for precisely the wrong reasons. Its detractors assumed the film mocked Jesus (when it is in fact quite respectful), but failed to recognize that the Pythons’ true target was organized religion itself. This also fascinated Adams:

“I am fascinated by religion. (That’s a completely different thing from believing in it!) It has had such an incalculably huge effect on human affairs. What is it? What does it represent? Why have we invented it? How does it keep going? What will become of it? I love to keep poking and prodding at it. I’ve thought about it so much over the years that that fascination is bound to spill over into my writing.”
— Douglas Adams, interview with American Atheist

The same Christian fundamentalists that decry the ostensible witchcraft at the core of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books (whether they acknowledge Rowling’s own Christian faith or not) would surely object to the capricious, overtly godless universe in which The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is set.

Speaking of literary-mindedness, for a man who wrote for the all-ages adventure program Doctor Who, Adams incorporated very little actual physical violence into Hitchhiker’s. It’s interesting that when Arthur and Ford are tortured on the Vogon ship, the means is not waterboarding, electrocution, or solitary confinement, but rather the reading aloud of poetry. For all the power of language to harm, Arthur and Ford are unable to talk their way out of their predicament. This suggests that in the Hitchhiker’s universe, literature is either obscure and irrelevant (as seen in some of more unhelpful Guide entries, or when Arthur fails to enlighten some cavemen with a game of Scrabble), or outright hostile (such as the aforementioned Vogon poetry, and the official documents that doom Arthur’s house and planet to demolition).

Adams had diverse interests beyond tweaking the noses of theists, and incorporated many gags into Hitchhiker’s that would appeal mostly to physicists and statisticians. Two things in particular that preoccupied him were metaphysics and computers, and he was able to put them together in the Deep Thought subplot. Curious humanoids outsource their philosophical questions to a sentient supercomputer tasked with calculating the answer to life, the universe, and everything. The answer “42” is just as meaningless as the question “what do you get if you multiply six by nine?” According to my reading, mathematicians might make sense of this equation if calculated in base 10 — AKA the decimal system — and gamblers would recognize 42 as the sum of all sides of a pair of dice. Unfortunately, these clever mathematicians and gamblers would be no closer to an understanding of the universe as anybody else. The pursuit of the answer and then the question wasted billions of years and immeasurable lives. Thus in one single plot twist, Adams pins a donkey tail on entire religions and whole schools of thought — they’re not just absurd, but also extraordinarily harmful.

The supposed irreverent nature of British humor is a tired topic among American geeks that came of age quoting Monty Python and Doctor Who in outrageously fake accents — even the most crass gags (I’m thinking here of Mrs. Slocomb’s tales regarding her “pussy” on Are You Being Served) sound more witty, sophisticated, and erudite to us when spoken in foreign accents. Here’s Adams on this very topic (regional humor that is, not cats):

“I think too much is made of the difference between US and UK humour. I don’t think there’s a difference in the way those audiences are treated. […] There are things the British think are as English as roast beef that the Americans think are as American as apple pie. The trick is to write about people. If you write about situations that people recognize then people will respond to it.”
–Douglas Adams, quoted in Don’t Panic by Neil Gaiman, page 94

Ricky Gervais enjoys a pint at The Golden Globes
Ricky Gervais enjoys a pint at The Golden Globes: “…and thank god for making me an atheist.”

The alleged great divide between American and British humor came back into relief again recently as Ricky Gervais closed the first of his Golden Globes hosting gigs in 2011. Most of his allegedly uncensored celebrity barbs turned out to be merely tired stabs at low-hanging fruit (certain Scientologists are gay, Charlie Sheen is a junkie, Hugh Hefner is an old creep that gets laid more than you ever will, etc.) that only resulted in more rolled eyes than bruised egos. But what upset outwardly pious Americans most was his closing quip “…and thank god for making me an atheist.” Anyone given to appreciating Adams’ cocktail of absurdism, logic, and philosophy would recognize Gervais’ brand of humor here. Unfortunately, the loudest voices in the current American landscape are holy rollers with persecution complexes.

Perhaps Adams’ atheism was the motivation behind his personal appearance as an archetypal modern man experiencing an existential crisis in the beginning of episode two of the Hitchhiker’s television series. If you believe Neil Gaiman, Adams stepped in simply because the original actor was stuck in traffic that day, but I prefer to imagine a greater significance. Just as Radiohead would later employ Marvin the Paranoid Android as a metaphor for the themes of paranoia and depression in their acclaimed album OK Computer, Adams plays a nameless everyman beset by the modern condition. Taking the long view of someone educated in evolution (which an alarming number of Americans believe to be more science fiction than actual sci-fi), he decides that it was all a mistake for life to leave the oceans in the first place.

Marvin the Paranoid Android from the BBC series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Marvin the Paranoid Android, looking a little more chipper than usual

But there’s a note of optimism to be had at the end of the series, which thanks to the wonderful narrative possibilities of time travel in science fiction, is not really the end but rather the beginning. Arthur, Ford, and the undesirable dregs of an ancient humanoid civilization land on prehistoric Earth and intermingle with brutish cavemen (interestingly, very much the same thing happens at the controversial conclusion to the 2003-09 TV series Battlestar Galactica, except much less funny). The series signs off with Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” — which works as both a sarcastic comment on humanity’s humble, decidedly not divine origins (we’re descended from interbred hunters & gatherers, hairdressers, and telephone sanitizers) but also as a sincere comment on Arthur and Ford’s begrudging friendship.

Thanks for reading Part Three of The Dork Report’s look back at Hitchhiker’s. Catch up with Part One, on its highly improbable leap from radio to TV, and Part Two, on its influence & legacy.


Further reading:

Douglas Adams and God – Portrait of a Radical Atheist by Nicolas Botti

American Atheist interview with Douglas Adams

Official BBC site: www.bbc.co.uk/cult/hitchhikers

Official Douglas Adams site: www.douglasadams.com

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Influence & Legacy

Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has been adapted and extended into virtually every media yet conceived by humankind — if more advanced species elsewhere in the galaxy are able to plug the story directly into their brains, they haven’t yet shared the technology with us earthlings. Back on Earth, Adams personally wrote the radio series (which many of those involved consider the definitive ur text), novels, a television series, and computer game. Although nowhere near the level of cultural saturation of its rough contemporary Star Wars, it is fair to state that it is something personally beloved by millions, but also a rather valuable franchise that placed quite a burden upon its creator. Like George Lucas, Adams spent the rest of his life shepherding and protecting, and yes, profiting off Hitchhiker’s.

If you’re just joining The Dork Report’s trilogy (in three parts… so far) on Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, don’t miss Part One, on its highly improbable leap from radio to TV.

Before and after Adams’ untimely death in 2001 — not that there is such a thing as a timely death — Hitchikers enjoyed a complex parallel existence in stage shows, licensed merchandise (including towels and rubber duckies), and additional written works by other authors. The now-superstar author Neil Gaiman’s second book Don’t Panic — only slightly less humble than his first, a Duran Duran hagiography — was a combination biography of Adams and history of Hitchhiker’s as a whole, cleverly written in a reverent pastiche of Adams’ own style. DC Comics adapted the original stories into comics form 1993-1997, after which things went relatively quiet until a 2005 feature film failed to catch on with American movie goers. Director Garth Jennings’s movie has many flaws, the largest of which may simply have been showing up too late to the fading Hitchhiker’s party. But much of the casting is inarguably excellent, particularly Martin Freeman as Arthur Dent and the voices of Stephen Fry and Alan Rickman as The Guide and Marvin the Paranoid Android, respectively (read The Dork Report review). The movie may have failed to reignite fan fervor at its peak, but the neverending trilogy got even longer when the Adams estate posthumously authorized a sixth prose novel by Artemis Fowl creator Eoin Colfer in 2009.

Sam Rockwell, John Malkovich, Martin Freeman, Mos Def, and Zooey Deschanel in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Getting the band back together for the 2005 feature film

But the vast influence of Adams’ original works is incalculable. I can’t speak to his influence in his home country, but he was an integral component of the holy trinity for a particular strain of Anglophile geeks growing up in America in the 1970s and 80s: Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the holy Doctor Who, forever and ever amen. Rolling Stone magazine gave away 3,000 free copies of the first novel in 1981, guaranteeing countless young unsuccessful bands called Disaster Area, one successful band called Level 42, and a generation of college kids heeding Ford Prefect’s sage advice to enjoy “Six pints of bitter, and quickly please, the world’s about to end.” The BCC television comedy Red Dwarf is a direct descendant (albeit, if anything, even more bitterly bleak and nihilistic). As a cultural institution, Hitchhiker’s was still hip enough in 1997 to inspire the Radiohead song title “Paranoid Android”.

Adams, together with fellow imp Tom Baker, forever stamped Doctor Who with its signature blend of hard science, absurdist humor, and barely submerged darkness. The ideal recipe is still debated to this day, perhaps most evident in Christopher Eccleston’s particularly bipolar vision of the character as swinging wildly between anguished and giddy — at once grieving his complicity in the death of his entire species, but not so despairing that he couldn’t fall in love with a cute young blonde earthling named Rose Tyler (The Doctor! In love! Almost as unthinkable as the romantic misadventures that would befall Arthur after the largely sexless early installments of Hitchhiker’s). But in 1979, for those British fans that preferred wit & whimsy over reversing the polarity of the neutron flow, they could switch the telly over to BBC Two to watch The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Peter Davison in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Fifth Doctor Peter Davison appears as The Dish of the Day in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy BBC series

As my frequent Doctor Who asides above prove, it’s virtually impossible to discuss Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy without a few detours into Whovian matters — not least because Fifth Doctor Peter Davison famously cameos in the television series as the exceptionally rare (and chatty) steak served at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I first read the novels as a kid, completely unaware of their radio or TV incarnations. I quite literally pictured Ford Prefect as The Doctor (specifically, the highly eccentric Tom Baker’s unforgettable performance as the Fourth Doctor). When my local PBS affiliate finally ran the TV series, I was quite disappointed to find that David Dixon is very nearly the physical opposite of Baker; and not nearly as… well, alien.

David Dixon, Mark Wing-Davey, and Sandra Dickinson in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy BBC series
David Dixon, Mark Wing-Davey, and Sandra Dickinson in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy BBC series

Trillian, who appears for the first time in episode two, was another huge disappointment. Whether by her own acting choices, contemporary cultural mores, or the whims of a randy costume department, actress Sandra Dickinson pitches the character as even dumber and more sexed up than a typical Doctor Who companion, which is really saying something (thankfully, 21st Century Who Girls generally enjoy much more substantial characterization). She and Mark Wing-Davey as Zaphod Beeblebrox both sport exaggerated American accents that make me scratch my head as much as our silliest mock British accents must irritate actual Britons (addendum: I have since learned that Dickinson is actually American, so I don’t know what it means that her accent sounded fake to me). Dickinson would later marry Davison, and their daughter Georgia Moffett would in turn wed actor David Tennant (making the Fifth Doctor the Tenth Doctor’s father-in-law — and this is without any real-life time travel). It’s as if Adams is still working beyond the grace as the behind-the-scenes matchmaker keeping it all in the Doctor Who family — and I haven’t even gotten around to discussing Lalla Ward and Richard Dawkins yet.

Lalla Ward and Tom Baker in Doctor Who
Douglas Adams as Doctor Who matchmaker Part 1: Lalla Ward and Tom Baker

But the single greatest repercussion of Hitchhiker’s has nothing to do with Radiohead songs, the relative eccentricity of Doctor Who leading men, or spinoff merchandise. It is, simply, the Apple iPhone. Allow me to be approximately the millionth person to point out that the eponymous guide itself has since become a very real thing, collecting lint in the bathrobe pockets of millions of Earthlings. It took a number of iterations of numerous interlocking components for it to happen, and it’s not hard to imagine that Adams was a direct influence on the visionary nerds that invented and assembled them. Computers were networked together in the 1960s, an infinite number of Ford Prefects began to crowd-source Wikipedia in 2001, and then devices small enough to carry all of this around began to appear in the 1990s (I remember really lusting after the magical Palm VII, which was capable of retrieving your email out of thin air). These elements finally came together in 2007 with the first truly usable portable information device, Apple’s iPhone — an invention I’m sure Adams would agree is more useful than even the towel. Wikipedia’s theoretically infinite hyperlinked database full of persistently and instantly available information proved about as reliable as the Hitchhiker’s Guide, loaded as it is with dense entries on fripperies like where to find the finest Pan-Galactic Gargleblaster, while having little comment on an entire lifebearing planet like, say, Earth. To quote the first edition: “Harmless.” Second, extensively revised & expanded edition: “Mostly harmless.”

Peter Davison and David Tennant in Doctor Who
Douglas Adams as Doctor Who matchmaker Part 2: David Tennant and father-in-law Peter Davison

So what is it that makes Hitchhiker’s so enduringly popular? It’s not too difficult to decode its DNA: Adams’ involvement in Cambridge University sketch comedy groups, his writing collaborations with Graham Chapman of Monty Python, and his appreciation of classic science fiction (particularly Kurt Vonnegut and the British institution Doctor Who). But Hitchhiker’s is not a sequel, parody, adaptation, or pastiche of anything in particular. Although it plays with many tropes of science fiction, it was a genuinely new thing. Adams had the following to say of American TV audiences, but I think it’s valid as a universal statement:

“Audiences in the US (through no fault of their own) are treated as complete idiots by the people who make programmes. And when you’ve been treated as an idiot for so long you tend to respond that way. But when given something with a bit more substance they tend to breathe a deep sigh of relief and say ‘Thank God for that!'”
–Douglas Adams, quoted in Don’t Panic by Neil Gaiman, page 94

Douglas Adams
Douglas Adams and the answer to life, the universe, and everything

Adams gave people something with a bit more substance, and they seized upon it. His ideas were so original that Adams spent most of his latter career patiently explaining where they came from. NPR’s Marc Hirsh has a more pessimistic take, equating James Cameron’s recent announcement that he would only make films set in the Avatar universe to the trap that Adams found himself in:

[Adams] spent the last 23 years of his life, starting from the original 1978 radio broadcast, continually rewriting the same story over and over for different media. And as much as I love the books and have enjoyed many of the different iterations, I can’t help but think that that’s an almost tragic waste of talent.
— Marc Hirsh, NPR (via Neil Gaiman)

True, he must have been frustrated to not be able to move beyond Hitchhiker’s for most of his career, but one need only look at bookstore shelves today to see almost everything he wrote still happily in print, including two novels in a new series starring holistic detective Dirk Gently. Writing and managing the Hitchhiker’s empire was evidently a slow and painful task for him, and he wasted a lot of time struggling to bring Hitchhiker’s to BBC TV and Hollywood, with mixed results. But outside of his nominal career as a writer, he would seem to have lived a rich life full of close friends (including luminaries as diverse as Richard Dawkins and Dave Gilmour), good deeds (q.v. his book Last Chance to See, on endangered species), and thinking deep thoughts.

Thanks for reading Part Two of The Dork Report’s trilogy (in three parts… so far) on Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Don’t miss Part One, on its highly improbable leap from radio to TV, and Part Three, on its status as gateway drug for many future atheists.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: From Radio to TV

British viewers may not blink twice, but it is always interesting for this Yank to note the privileged billing given to screenwriters in BBC programs. The opening credits for the 1981 serial The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy prominently hail “By DOUGLAS ADAMS” directly below its dramatically rocky logo, overshadowing the cast, directors, and producers. This is certainly not the case for typical American television productions, which tend to bury the lowly writer’s credit in type so small and fleeting that it’s hard to spot even if you’re looking for it. Shows tend to be popularly known more for their cast or sometimes the corporation that produced it (exhibit A: the hard-earned prestige status enjoyed by HBO). A precious few creators may have become known commodities in their own right, such as the rare cases of Chris Carter (The X-Files), J.J. Abrams (Lost), and David Simon (The Wire), but by and large writers remain effectively anonymous on American television.

You’re reading part one of The Dork Report’s trilogy (in three parts… so far) on Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Don’t miss Part Two, on its influence & legacy, and Part Three, on the friendly topic of atheism.

Aside from BBC standards and practice for onscreen accreditation, and the fact that the Adams name itself had become a brand, one could argue that he merited such recognition for sheer work ethic alone. Between 1978 and 1981, Adams wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at least five times: as a radio play, novel, record album, stage show, and television series (granted, some of these were collaborations, but the point still stands). All this while serving as script editor for the 17th season of Doctor Who, which entailed supplying three of his own scripts (The Pirate Planet, City of Death, and Shada) in addition to heavily rewriting many others. The Doctor Who tradition of divided loyalties would continue well into the 21st century as showrunners Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat would moonlight on Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures, and Sherlock. The only possible conclusion to draw is that doing Doctor Who is evidently easy, and provides lots of free time for extracurricular activities. I’m sure Russell and Steven will agree, right guys?

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
The opening credits of the BBC TV production of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy assert that the original radio series is the definitive article.

By all accounts, including his own, writing would not seem to have come easy for Adams. The sustained creative frenzy that produced Hitchhikers in all its forms would have burned any normal person out. That he pulled it off proves he may not have been a normal person, but it made him a more financially comfortable man that indeed never met another deadline again: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” Indeed, Hitchhikers’ runaway success afforded him the wealth to buy as many Apple Macintoshes as he wanted, and to take his sweet time adapting and extending the Hitchhikers universe into more novels, audio books, an influential text-based hypertextual computer game, and a stage show.

I personally consider the books to be definitive, mostly because that’s how I happened to first experience the story. In fact, it was years until I learned that its original incarnation as a radio series so much as existed. Writer Gareth Roberts, an expert on Adams-era Doctor Who, observed that the first two Hitchhikers books aren’t technically novels, but essentially novelizations of his scripts for the radio show. Further bumping the books down the hierarchy of relative definitiveness, the opening credits of the TV series proclaim it’s “Adapted from the BBC Radio Series” even though it followed the novel, which itself roughly corresponding to the first four radio episodes. Got that?

The first episode was a (very expensive) pilot, and could very well have been all we have today. Even after a full series was commissioned, each subsequent episode begins with a cleverly done recap, typically featuring excerpts from the titular Guide that segue into a resolution of the previous episode’s cliffhanger. The integration of animation into the live action footage reflects Adams’ highly digressive writing style, now de rigueur to audiences raised in an online, hyperlinked culture. Perhaps the sole element of the TV series that everyone can agree is excellent is the faux-computer animation, which was actually created manually using traditional cel animation techniques by Rod Lord of Pearce Studios.

Babel Fish from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
An example of the ersatz “computer” animation created outside the BBC by Rod Lord of Pearce Studios.

Neil Gaiman dedicates Chapter 13 of his book Don’t Panic, about the Hitchhikers phenomenon, to the painful production of the television series. Indeed, it seems to have managed to disappoint just about everyone: fans, critics, the BBC, and at least two warring factions on the creative team, including (and perhaps especially) Adams himself. He had wished to involve his trusted collaborators John Lloyd and Geoffrey Perkins, but all three were shut out by entrenched BBC TV lifers that looked down their noses at mere radio people. Further dooming things, production was handled by the BBC’s Light Entertainment division, despite the Drama department having all the experience and know-how anyone could ask for after having handled many years worth of Doctor Who serials.

Gaiman documents a high state of tension between producer/director Alan Bell and seemingly everyone else. Bell was reportedly skilled at bringing productions in on time and under budget, but less interested in story or directing actors. Gaiman quotes many veterans of the original radio series that felt Bell’s direction and staging was often artless and unsympathetic to the unique material. The pedestrian-looking resulting program must have stung, as the original radio team had all shown considerable technical ambition in realizing the unprecedented sound design of the radio series (Geoffrey Perkins details the extraordinary labor it took to create virtually all of the voice and sound effects from scratch in the book The Original Hitchhiker Radio Scripts — contrary to what one might assume, the legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop didn’t contribute much). A second series was commissioned, but Adams’ standoff with Bell contributed to its cancellation before it came anywhere close to beginning. Bell claims Adams missed his script deadlines as usual, and Adams counters he simply would not start writing until negotiations concluded to include Perkins and Lloyd as advisors (this is a brutally condensed version of the whole sad story, available in full circa page 84 of the first edition of Don’t Panic). I take Adams’ side on this one, as my career as a web designer has made me all too familiar with the pitfalls of beginning work before you have a contract.

The pilot episode opens on a rather decent model landscape of a quaint English village, complete with ersatz sunrise. This bucolic scene is, of course, not long for this world. We soon meet Adams’ archetypal everyman Arthur Dent, played by Simon Jones, who actually resembles Douglas Adams in stature and coiffure. Athur’s home and home planet are about to become casualties of two coincidental bureaucratic mishaps. As if Arthur didn’t have enough to deal with this dreadful morning, his pal Ford Prefect outs himself as being a roving reporter for the eponymous publication The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, hailing “from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse”. Incidentally, everyone’s favorite star — once they learn how to pronounce it — is itself expected to explode “soon”. But Ford, if he’s out there, may rest easy, for in the minds of astrophysicists, “soon” means anytime between now and 1,000,000 years hence. Perhaps the exact date is available on a slip of paper in a subbasement of a Vogon planning commission office somewhere in the galaxy.

But back to the TV series. Much of the radio cast reprise their roles onscreen, and it certainly plays that way. Its prose origins are betrayed by a few recognizably overwritten scenes, such as when Arthur and Ford redundantly describe the hallucinations they suffer in episode two, as if the audience couldn’t plainly see them for themselves. The downside is that the TV series comes across like an abridged greatest hits compilation of Adams’ most quotable lines (“Time is an illusion; lunchtime doubly so”). The upside is… well, it comes across like an abridged greatest hits of the most quotable lines (“The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t”).

While the outdoor location work is grounded in reality, the studio-shot sequences are theatrical in presentation, with long takes staged against traditional three-walled studio sets. The non-naturalistic lighting often works against the story, especially as Ford squints by the feeble light of a match to locate a plainly visible light switch in the brightly illuminated bowels of the Vogon ship. Arthur (who had admittedly just been through a lot) is unimpressed with the “shabby” vessel. Knowing the author and context, this word choice is very likely an ironic comment on the art direction. To be fair, later sequences are staged more dramatically (such as the forced-perspective gangways surrounding the massive supercomputer Deep Thought).

If you want to argue about how Hitchhikers looks on television, I think that sci-fi on the small screen ought not to be judged in terms of what was on the big screen at the time. Doctor Who still gets a lot of grief for its dodgy production values, but recall that it premiered in 1963, long before the stylistic and technological special effects breakthroughs showcased in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Star Wars (1977), and Alien (1979), so it’s a bit unfair to judge, isn’t it? It’s only a rather recent development that the production qualities of science fiction on television began to match the sorts of effects you can see in feature films. In this viewer’s opinion, the current best-of-breed visual effects on television haven’t yet topped Battlestar Galactica (read The Dork Report review), which featured outer space dogfights that matched or exceeded what is routinely showcased in Hollywood features — perhaps even by what is arguably the highest-profile genre series currently on the air, HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Mark Wing-Davey as Zaphod Beeblebrox from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Mark Wing-Davey (and the faulty animatronic head that cost more than his fee) as Zaphod Beeblebrox in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

As was (and is) the case with Doctor Who, you have to take the good with the bad. Is there any point critiquing Hitchhiker’s dodgy special effects, even considering the year (1981), medium (television), and budget (low)? Insofar was anyone could have predicted audience expectations, they likely tuned in more to savor Adams’ priceless words and ideas, not state-of-the-art spectacle. Here’s original producer Geoffrey Perkins on the topic of the paradoxical limitations and freedom of the radio drama format, and the unexpected repercussions when the serial was later adapted into other media:

“The line about [Zaphod’s] extra head was put in as a little extra throwaway joke which was to cause enormous headaches (sic) when the show was transferred to television. The extra head cost about twice as much as Mark [Wing-Davey] himself (though he thinks that was fair enough because it gave a better performance than he did!). In fact much of the time the head didn’t function properly and used to loll on his shoulder looking up at him, often ending up being operated by a man with his hand up Mark’s back.”
–Geoffrey Perkins, The Original Hitchhiker Radio Scripts, page 50

It’s interesting, and I think significant, that he uses the word “transferred” to describe the adaptation process. At the time of the publication of the radio scripts in 1985, Perkins and Adams still viewed them as the definitive article.

Thanks for reading Part One of The Dork Report’s trilogy (in three parts… so far) on Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Don’t miss Part Two, on its influence and legacy, and Part Three, on its status as gateway drug for many future atheists.

Sad Dinosaurs: Calling Bullshit on Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

As a public service, The Dork Report will now summarize all 2 hours and 19 minutes of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life for you:

My mommy was pretty, my daddy was mean, sometimes kids die, I inhaled too much DDT, and it makes me so sad. Sad like the lonely birth of the lifeless universe. Sad like an anachronistic demonstration of animal altruism in the cruel dinosaur-eat-dinosaur prehistoric biosphere. Sad like the decay of all matter and energy as the universe inevitably collapses.

I call bullshit.

The degree of enjoyment I took from The Tree of Life was in inverse proportion to the sense of obligation I felt to see it, which is to say: very little vs. a whole lot. The very private auteur Malick had fallen silent for a number of years after he burst out of the gate in the 70s with Badlands and Days of Heaven, but has been on something of an uncharacteristic tear lately, producing three films in 10 years, with more in the pipeline. Since he chooses to not participate in publicity for his films, we may have to wait years until we find out what motivated him to return from this mysterious interregnum.

The Tree of Life
No one was there to watch as the planets form from stardust… except Terrence Malick’s computers

Anticipation high, The Tree of Life was hotly discussed as his most beautiful, philosophical, and autobiographical film yet (the last point being especially tantalizing to film buffs looking for entry points into analyzing the man and his ouvre from a distance). The hook was further baited by the all-star cast (Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and it-girl-who’s-in-everything-these-days Jessica Chastain) and an awards campaign branding it as one of the key prestige pictures of 2011. The willingness of top-drawer talent to work with Malick, even if they may very well wind up on the cutting room floor (as happened to George Clooney in The Thin Red Line), suggests he is revered as a director of actors. The perennially prickly Sean Penn, however, had none of this. He publicly derided the completed film:

While [Penn] considered the script “the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read,” he believes that “a clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact.” Noting that Malick himself was little help when it came to explaining what he was going for, Penn adds, “Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context.”
The A.V. Club

All of Malick’s films are inarguably staggeringly beautiful, but their flimsy substance would get laughed out of a high school creative writing class. The Thin Red Line provided a much-needed meditative counterpoint at the time to the comparatively sentimental Saving Private Ryan, but too much of the film was taken up with the private thoughts of inarticulate grunts struggling to understand why they were killing each other when they’d all be much happier as cinematographers filming wildlife and sunlight filtering prettily through treetops. The New World approached outright silliness in its portrayal of Pocahontas as a pimply teenager in leather lingerie, caught in a love triangle over two of her European oppressors, and became truly absurd as the film contorted itself to avoid speaking her name.

Jessica Chastain and an unnamed dinosaur extra in Terrance Malick's The Tree of Life
I want to equate these two shots to the famous jump cut from prehistoric man to a spaceship in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I just don’t respect The Tree of Life enough.

There’s something to be said about Malick deconstructing two of the most overused subjects in Hollywood history (the World War II picture and the Pocahontas myth) for his own personal statements, but critics must really strain for these to hold up to discussion in serious philosophical terms. The Niles Files makes a valiant attempt to tackle The Tree of Life, looping in Blake, Proust, Joyce, and many other big guns to extract some meaning from Malick’s pretty pictures.

The Tree of Life was part of a miniature trendlet in movies this past year, in which the painfully intimate was equated with the distantly cosmic. Sadly, two better films with similar concerns were unjustly crowded out of the award season — curiously, both featuring young women. In Mike Cahill’s Another Earth, a girl whose carelessness ruined several lives finds hope for redemption when an exact duplicate of the entire planet inexplicably appears in the sky. Like everyone that has ever lived, she wonders if maybe there’s a better world where things turned out differently. For Cahill, it would have superfluous to concoct a pseudoscientific explanation for the phenomena, but another filmmaker that same year turned to physicists to properly substantiate his cosmic visions. Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia is exactly that — a painful but stunningly beautiful examination of crippling depression. One young woman’s mental illness all but splinters her extended family, a destruction so cataclysmic it is reflected in the eradication of the world. Von Trier harnesses computer animation for images of profoundly moving beauty, rendering Malick’s mopey CGI dinos silly in comparison.

Apart Hate: District 9

Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 is an old story told many times in fiction and history: an undesirable group intrudes upon the space and resources of privileged power possessors. This story never ends well. District 9’s highly allegorical culture clash corresponds to great many groups that have suffered in throughout history, many sadly ongoing: refugees, minorities, Roma, Jews, or immigrants. But hey, this time it’s aliens!

Peter Jackson produced writer/director Blomkamp’s feature length version of his short film “Alive in Joburg”. The concept is closely related to Graham Baker’s 1988 sci-fi cop buddy picture Alien Nation (developed by Kenneth Johnson for a TV series the following year), in which a fully-packed slave ship is suddenly abandoned on Earth. The slaves may have been freed, but stranded in a hostile, crowded alien world with no room for them, even if the natives didn’t find them distasteful. Alien Nation found its drama in the friction on both sides as the freed slaves are absorbed into human society in a variety of ways.

District 9 is far more vague about its aliens’ nature and more cynical about the possibility of their integration. The ship they arrived in may not even have belonged to them, otherwise they would presumably have been more inclined to attempt to repair it or at least live aboard. Were they an exploited labor force, or what we would call slaves? If so, what happened to their captors? The trailer includes at least one scene not included in the finished film, in which an alien interrogated by human police implies that they are preventing them from repairing their ship, when all they want to do is go home. This simple sentiment is never expressed by any alien character in the movie. In fact, more of them seem content to simply live in squalor. Why can’t or won’t they simply tell us who they are or what they want?

District 9 is comprised of an awkwardly stitched together melange of genres, less seamlessly than how Alien Nation merged the buddy cop drama with science fiction. For most of its running time, District 9 works as a fauxmentary made of ostensibly found footage. The fauxmentary has long been a format for farce (q.v. Zelig and This is Spinal Tap), but in later years The Blair Witch Project, Diary of the Dead (read The Dork Report review), and Cloverfield (read The Dork Report review) all found ways to effectively employ the style for horror, drama, and science fiction. The ongoing wave of reality television and the run-and-gun handheld style in vogue since Paul Greengrass’ kinetic The Bourne Supremacy are no doubt contributing to the trend of including the “camera” as, essentially, a character in the film.

The fauxmentary pretense is upheld for quite a while, until it suddenly shifts to a privileged point of view for a scene in which three alien characters speaking in confidence, without the virtual “camera” present. This shift is jarring, as we’ve previously witnessed everything from the point of view of the absent protagonist. It signals the beginning of a more traditional narrative, albeit one still visualized with the same aesthetic. It’s as if Blomkamp stuck to a first-person point of view until it became inconvenient, so simply shifted to third-person while preserving the same visual aesthetic.

District 9
“When dealing with aliens, try to be polite, but firm. And always remember that a smile is cheaper than a bullet.”

If the audience didn’t already contract whiplash, District 9 then dips into the body horror genre as Wikus (Sharlto Copley) undergoes a metamorphosis a la David Cronenberg’s The Fly. Even this doesn’t hold Blomkamp’s attention, and the film about-faces once again, this time into a standard-issue sci-fi action flick like Aliens (with a dash of Black Hawk Down). For its grand finale, it suddenly crashes back into fauxmentary.

The shifting genres and points of view mirror Wikus’ character arc. Initially a basically sympathetic company man, he turns villainous in our eyes when he displays vicious speciesism by destroying an alien hatchery with undisguised glee. His cosmic punishment is for his body to painfully mutate into that which he hates and fears the most (again, an archetypal Cronenebergian theme), after which he comes around to being sympathetic again. The ending is very effective in reminding us how far Wikus has transformed, body and mind, since we first met him.

District 9 is riddled with a number of irritatingly illogical elements, which are unclear if meant to be mysteries for the audience to ponder or if just outright plot holes or implausibilities. Most refugee situations in human history involve oppressed people with no political or military power. These aliens possess ferociously powerful weapons, but don’t use them to fight for better conditions or more food and resources. If they are so technologically advanced, why do they not also have some kind of functional societal order, as opposed to the self-defeating chaotic shanty town they’ve constructed for themselves? Perhaps the technology belonged to their mysterious and unseen captors, or maybe their ill-behavior is explained by the breakdown of order the occurs in any kind of refugee scenario. More questions: How can one little alien child, born on earth, have the know-how to reactivate the mothership? Why did it take 20 years for any of them to harvest the necessary materials from their own scrap? Surely more than two adult aliens could organize themselves to better harvest their own waste.

It would normally be reductive to search for a “moral of the story” from even the simplest film — the kind of assignment given to an elementary school reading comprehension essay. But since District 9 is clearly making an obvious point about racism and xenophobia, it has to be said that it shoots itself in the foot with its extremely problematic depiction of Nigerians as gangsters and cannibals. Granted, the Nigerian characters don’t come off that much better than the white South Africans we see conducting cruel genetic research on both humans and aliens.

Setting the film in South Africa was perhaps the least subtle way possible to present any kind of science fiction allegory for racism and xenophobia — at least since Star Trek: Enterprise dressed reptilian Xindi villains in Nazi uniforms in 2004 (just in case the slower members of the audience didn’t pick up on the unsubtle pun in the species’ name). It’s perhaps more comfortable to think that these types of situations have occurred in isolated places throughout history: in Nazi Germany, Rwanda, or Armenia. The alien refugee camps are of course most directly analogous to South Africa under Apartheid — the title itself alluding to the forcible eviction of District Six in Cape Town to Cape Flats in 1966. By contrast, Alien Nation made the more profound point that the same thing could happen anywhere.