As tight as Kubrick

Justin disagrees with my taste in movies sometimes. And he invites me, who knows nothing, to discuss the following:

Last night we talked about the scene in The Shining where Wendy witnesses two men having sex, one of them in a bear costume. This scene makes no sense in the film; it is impossible to understand without having read the setup in the novel. Do you really think the inclusion of this scene constitutes tight editing? Separately, do you think that the star gate sequence in 2001 constitutes tight editing?!

Perhaps my use of the word “tight” in my previous writing about my first viewing of Paths of Glory isn’t quite right. I would probably prefer the word “perfect”, but that’s a word with less meaning in the context of something that requires subjective measurement. So, to broadly answer the questions as stated, I’d have to say yes and yes, but I suppose I need some just[in]ification for that position.

Even more than really intelligent movies, my favourites are the ones that have a strongly visceral affect on me while watching them. It’s not so much about the details, but about the feel.

More than any other Stanley Kubrick movie, The Shining dramatically improved for me with repeated viewing. I’m not sure why. When I first saw it, I wasn’t totally blown away. Shelley Duval’s acting might have been a bit of an influence in that, and the exaggerated accompanying score. But I think the more you watch a movie, the more you absorb the feeling of it as you pay less attention to the details in front of you (like the dialogue or the acting) because you’ve seen it before and you know what’s going on.

This particular idea was made especially clear to me after watching Amèlie a few times; I ended up not even reading the subtitles any more, despite speaking no French, and just went along for the ride.

Now, I find it a little strange to call The Shining out for the incoherency of its scenes, considering the subject matter of the film. I haven’t read the novel and I’ve got no idea what the significance behind the bear suit men having sex is. (1:41.54 into the movie, by the way.) But why is it being “impossible to understand” such a bad thing? I don’t really understand most of the weird stuff going on in the movie — and it doesn’t affect the feeling the movie has. I’m gratified that there is thought behind the madness, because it means that Kubrick didn’t just make up something random and stick it in. There is an internal consistency that might not be visible to the casual viewer but which ties everything together. I guess I often call that the “texture” of a movie.

(A film that exemplifies the whole idea of scenes not making sense but the whole movie having a big impact (and with its own internal consistency that is hard to find) is Mulholland Drive.)

So, is it “tight” for The Shining to have this scene that makes no sense? Conversely, would you say that it isn’t a good choice to leave that scene in there? In actual fact, it’s only the ending few seconds of scene, which could easily have been cut out. And there’s a scene a couple of minutes later with a similarly meaningless hallucination. Without going too much into trying to put words into the mouths of Kubrick and Stephen King, I’d say that cinematically the random appearances work to increase the scare factor (and internally to the film, to increase Shelley’s character’s bewilderment), and thematically to show that it’s not just Jack that’s gone crazy; there’s something weird about the whole place. If you took out the bear man sex (and the other random guy that turns up a few minutes later), you’d be losing a particular point that the movie was making at that point, in my opinion.

2001 is the previous argument magnified. The whole movie is essentially only about the feeling. And the climax of the film is the star gate sequence.

Here’s a quote from John Gruber, which he said on Hivelogic Radio earlier this year (six minutes in). He verbalised, and made me realise for the first time why I like long and slow movies:

The whole problem talking about [2001] is that the point of it isn’t something you just say “oh here’s the point”; the movie itself is the point: it’s the way that it makes you feel. That’s the way when I was a little kid that I used to feel about all the movies I watched that were movies for adults, movies that weren’t really just kid movies. I’d watch it and be like “ah, I don’t really get this, I don’t understand it, it just gives me a feeling”. I think that’s how 2001 works, even for an adult, it’s more about how it makes you feel.

Personally, the star gate sequence is an example of a cinematic element that I love, but I know that many people can’t stand. Where long scenes contain only abstract imagery and the sudden absence of narrative sends my mind into a reflection of everything I’ve just seen. I find it a unique experience when a movie has been filling my head for a couple of hours, and then abruptly stops, leaving my mind to coast along in the direction it’s been pushed. After trying to encompass the whole feeling of the movie in a protracted instant, my mind then empties and there’s nothing left to fill the gap.

Less slow-minded people probably get over it in about five seconds and then get bored, so I can understand the lack of universal appeal. I also don’t know if that’s what the film maker is trying to do; I should get someone who actually knows about film production and editing to tell me one day. This is the reason, also, that I like to watch movies until the end of the credits roll, but it doesn’t always work at emulating the experience I described above. Sometimes it does, particularly when the music has been well chosen, and it’s just as good provided my companions don’t then immediately stand up and walk out of the cinema.

Could the star gate sequence be half as long? Probably. Twice as long? That’d be an awfully long time. Could it be only ten seconds long? Probably not. There’s no way of pinning down an exactly period of time that such a scene should extend for, and given the very slow pace of the movie as a whole (it’s only 1/3 dialogue, after all), I think it’s appropriate as Kubrick cut it.

So we started talking about tight editing and ended up with a vague and possibly pretentious discussion about how movies make me feel. Did I answer your questions, Justin?


EMI rocks *and* rolls iTunes

Michael Gartenberg seems to have the scoop (is he allowed to, given his job?): “Apple and EMI have announced that they will be selling music without digital rights management”. But there’s more: “albums will be DRM free, have the higher sound quality but will remain at the same price point as current albums. Format is AAC and encoded at 256kbs”. That’s awesome.

[Update: seems I just missed the press releases and my weird Australian time zone means the press hasn’t caught up yet. Some tidbits from Apple’s announcement:

  • It’s not happening until May, but it’s worldwide.

  • There’ll be a “one click” upgrade button that’ll give you the enhanced tracks for the cost of the difference between the original price and the premium you have to pay for DRM-free singles. No word if this will update whole albums for no cost. Hope so.

  • Steve Jobs: “We think our customers are going to love this, and we expect to offer more than half of the songs on iTunes in DRM-free versions by the end of this year.”. Read: “You’d better buy the DRM-free tracks or we’re screwed. But if you do, a couple of the other labels will follow suit!”

  • EMI music videos will also be un-restricted. That’s great. I haven’t started buying music videos for a couple of reasons, but I love the idea of having my own playlists of them.]

To provide some context on the whole issue, Apple currently sells music from the four major record labels in the world, plus countless independents, through its iTunes store. The music they sell is relatively low quality, and comes with copy protection that precludes (a) sharing your iTunes-bought music library easily with your friends, and (b) playing your iTunes-bought music on any portable music player except the iPod. This copy protection scheme also significantly increases the chances that your music won’t play in fifty years time, if you still have copies of it.

Most other online music stores have similar restrictions, with a notable exception. The second largest online music store is emusic, which sells (better quality than iTunes) unprotected music from a large selection of labels excepting the big four (or thereabouts). I’ve been meaning to investigate these guys for a while, because I like buying things online due to instant gratification, and I’ve heard good things about their catalogue.

So I’ve been buying music from iTunes for a little while, not particularly fussed by the problems outlined above. The low quality was more of an issue for me, frankly, but that’s probably because I like Apple in general and don’t mind the iTunes/iPod lock-in. And I wasn’t aware of the quality issue in day-to-day use — the music sounds fine on my stereo and of course on my iPod — it was just that I knew in principle that if I hooked up a really nice system and looked for the difference, I’d be able to pick it.

I guess having lost one music collection so far on MiniDisc (way too tedious to transfer my music — recording the audio stream in real time onto my computer), I guess losing another set if my iTunes music became similarly too inconvenient doesn’t bother me too much. After all, you usually buy music before you know if it will be in you “top 10 of all time” list, and you never listen to everything in your collection with the same gusto. Well, in my case at least.

But that’s just me justifying it. Quality and longevity of iTunes-bought music has been the biggest problems with moving to the new media; why go backwards from CD, which works so well? So in one swoop, this pairing by Apple and EMI shows the rest of the music industry that this business model can work, and it should only be a matter of time before a lot more unprotected music turns up on iTunes. In fact, it should only be a matter of months before the independents follow suit (since they generally sell the same music, unprotected, on emusic anyway).

Very good news. Now, when are the other labels on board, when does iTunes become more (or truly) worldwide, and when does the same happen for video?


John Searle, misguided philosopher?

It is unusual to run across a mention of John Searle while reading Scott Adams, because the only other place I’ve heard of him is in philosophical arguments dating back to the eighties.

In that context, he argued against the “Turing Test” for evaluating artificial intelligence. The test goes that if you can’t distinguish between a computer and a human in a text-only conversation, then the computer must be intelligent. The actually test, in my opinion, is meaningless because humans can trick the computer by escaping into the real world — which the computer can only compete with if it has a similar “life experience”. (And I believe it was never proposed as a formal test of intelligence, just as a thought experiment, so I’m not arguing against Turing himself.)

For example, adapting an example from Hofstadter, asking the question “How many syllables does an upsidedown M have?” requires that the computer knows about the shapes of letters and geometric properties like rotation, plus knowledge of the sounds of the names of letters. At this stage, the computer either needs this information given to it a priori by its inventor, a scheme which would never work in general for creating an “intelligent machine”, or actual understanding of such things. And the latter requires eyes and ears for interaction with the real world, at which point you’re looking more at a robot — and then consider problems of questions about the feeling of bungie jumping or eating too much Indian food. In essence, your computer needs to be able to fake knowing of such things, where you’re sure to eventually be able to trick it somehow, or build a replica human, which isn’t the point of the exercise — we want an intelligent computer, not an intelligent humanoid robot (although that would be cool too, obviously).

John Searle’s objection to the Turing Test lay along quite different philosophical grounds — that computers can’t think:

Suppose that, many years from now, we have constructed a computer that behaves as if it understands Chinese. In other words, the computer takes Chinese characters as input and, following a set of rules (as all computers can be described as doing), correlates them with other Chinese characters, which it presents as output. Suppose that this computer performs this task so convincingly that it easily passes the Turing test. In other words, it convinces a human Chinese speaker that the program is itself a human Chinese speaker. All the questions the human asks are responded to appropriately, such that the Chinese speaker is convinced that he or she is talking to another Chinese-speaking human. The conclusion proponents of strong AI would like to draw is that the computer understands Chinese, just as the person does.

Now, Searle asks us to suppose that he is sitting inside the computer. In other words, he is in a small room in which he receives Chinese characters, consults a rule book, and returns the Chinese characters that the rules dictate. Searle notes that he doesn’t, of course, understand a word of Chinese. Furthermore, he argues that his lack of understanding goes to show that computers don’t understand Chinese either, because they are in the same situation as he is. They are mindless manipulators of symbols, just as he is — and they don’t understand what they’re ‘saying’, just as he doesn’t.

(from Wikipedia, which seems a bit confused later on, stating

The Chinese Room argument is not directed at weak AI, nor does it purport to show that machines cannot think — Searle says that brains are machines, and brains think. It is directed at the view that formal computations on symbols can produce thought.

— but if there’s no contradiction there, it’s too lazy a Sunday for me.)

Obviously, to me, the “understanding and thinking” of the whole system must incorporate the actual rules that are being followed, rather than just the mindless object executing the rules. The fact that blindly following the rules allows the Chinese Room to pass the Turing Test (by assumption, no less) implies that the rules know a hell of a lot. My argument goes: either humans don’t understand anything, and neither can machines; or humans have understanding, and so can machines.

Anyway, I don’t like these sorts of arguments, because there’s so much terminology invented to argue about that the ideas behind them are a little obscured. That’s probably my layman’s excuse, though.

Back to where I started this whole thing. Scott references an interesting article:

[John Searle] is puzzled by why, if we have no free will, we have this peculiar conscious experience of decision-making. If, as neuroscience currently suggests, it is purely an illusion, then ‘evolution played a massive trick on us.’ But this ‘goes against everything we know about evolution. The processes of conscious rationality are such an important part of our lives, and above all such a biologically expensive part of our lives’ that it seems impossible they ”play no functional role at all in the life and survival of the organism”.

Scott then says:

Is it my imagination, or is that the worst argument ever? […] The illusion of free will helps make us happy. Otherwise, consciousness would feel like a prison. Happiness in turn improves the body’s immune response. What more do you need from evolution?

Well, I’m not sure if the link between happiness and immune response is direct and low-level enough to be used as a great argument in this case. Also, the argument might have been made worse after filtering through journalism-speak. But it does seem like a pretty poor argument. It is much more likely to me that the illusion of free will arose as a by-product of our ability to think ahead and think of ourselves in future situations — that particular skill that turned us from monkeys into bloggers. (Not that the difference is particularly noticeable in some cases.)

Not that we choose different paths of action to take based on what’s coming up, but we take what’s coming up into account in our actions. This means we had to have a symbol of “self” in our brains, which most easily is mapped to an “I”; and so we have consciousness. Since there are “choices” about what to do next, which involve our brain-symbol “I”, the illusion of free will arises because one of those choices is chosen. It’s just that we have no control over which choice to take, because that’s entirely determined by physics (in the “no free will” argument).

Clear as mud. Well, to John Searle.