On Pluto and science.

The new image of Pluto, taken from the New Horizons probe on Monday. http://www.theguardian.com/science/video/2015/jul/14/pluto-new-horizons-science-nasa-cheers-video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WvU_ir9jkG4

It was my father who introduced the night stars to us; that is the stars in the way they’re meant to be seen. My sister and I were aware of space, I mean, of course it’s all around us, but it was on a road trip that we became viscerally attuned to its magic.

Earlier that week my mother received a phone call late in the night. It was news from my great aunt that her son, my mother’s cousin (in Latin American terms that would make him my uncle), was dying of pneumonia. He had been calling out for my mother, Nelsy, on his deathbed. The two were very close once. The next day, after much family discussion, we organized a family road trip to see him. My sister and I gave notice at school and took our homework with us to do on the road. It would be a far trek from Toronto to Tucson and I didn’t even know my uncle. However at thirteen, I was glad to be out of anything to do with school and the teenage weariness that came along with being with others my own age. I loved school, I just never felt like I fit in at grade school.

I don’t remember if it was after we met my uncle (he died the day after) or if it was on our way home, but at some point my dad pulled over in the middle of the desert. He had to take a leak and there wasn’t a rest stop in sight. It was completely dark out, but for lights of towns reflected in the hills around us.. Each hill was girdled by the impossible greenery that fed off of it. Giant cacti, low bush, and alien-like flora dotted the stretch of the flat lands and valleys which reached up to the dunes and ridges. The freeway lights caught a bit of this, but my dad made his way to some bushes by the lighted path of our car’s headlights.

“Yac-ke-leen!” my dad yelled out from behind the bushes. “No mires para aca! Tell your mother to open up the sunroof.”

There were tiny lights above the window, but when my mother opened it up, it seemed like we were looking at the entire universe. My eyes seemed so small to take in the big expanse of the universe above. The sight of the milky way filled me with both fear and unexpected arousal. I woke up my sister and we both stood there enamoured by something so incredibly real that it should be impossible.

“Star Trek is real!” my sister said.

“Yeah,” I replied.

I was speechless. I’d grown up mostly in the city, living in apartment buildings, and never seeing anything like what I saw that night. It was like watching a fairy world materialize. The sky stopped being heaven to me. It was a place people could go to, went to, and the moon landing was an actual thing in my brain; before it was just textbook fodder. Clouds and flight were possible, but airplanes weren’t going to take me to space. I got hooked on hard science fiction books and alien stories right then and there. I took an astronomy course in university and made a compass to track the stars (an astrolabe). I almost failed the course, but the professor saw my enthusiasm and took some time to offer me a list of visual references that would help me for my final exam. It gave me confidence, if not for science, but to know that having a passion for something can sometimes surpass the boundaries we impose on our own brains.

Some time after having my kids, I got the harebrained idea of studying physics through the extended learning courses at the University of Waterloo. I ordered the materials and studied, but my mind couldn’t wrap itself around the abstract concepts. I gave up and the next summer I took a similar course through UofT’s continuing education programs. It was a course aimed at people who wanted to learn about astrophysics, but not necessarily get a degree in it. I loved it. If I had the money and the time, I’d go back and take more of them.

I did some research and looked into getting a mathematics or science degree on top of my English literature degree. I enrolled through UofT again and took half a semester of first year algebra. I barely passed the first test, but I was having so much fun. It was odd feeling like my brain couldn’t do anything because it was so overwhelmed with information. I’d get one concept out of the hundreds, but there was a huge satisfaction that came with figuring that one thing. I should have audited the course instead. I quit and went back to concentrate on my strengths: running and writing.

Today came with news of the New Horizon’s probe flying by Pluto, giving us a visual of a perfectly round dwarf planet. Pluto is the awkward goth of the solar system. Scientists have wars on the semantics of it, whether it should be classified as part of our turf or not. Pluto doesn’t give a shit. It’s been orbiting the sun in its weird pattern, isolated from discussions, and the meaning humans have imposed it. Lord of the underworld in mythology and romantically cursed with love for Proserpina for the benefit of Venus. It is because of that love in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, that we have seasons. There’s a reason for Pluto in some astrological charts. It helps believers discover their inner world and learn beyond the blanket of our darkness. That is, if you believe in those things.

There’s a weird thing that happens when an event in space exploration comes to the forefront of the news.  People get a little bit excited even if it has no direct impact on our personal life experiences. Every day we share an existence like celestial bodies orbiting and changing one another even if we are unaware of it. Traffic, meals, dogs, ants, the street busker, the traffic cop, teachers, et cetera, all influence our inner world peripherally. Our lives are so isolated from another though. You can’t read my brain and I can’t read yours. We can only decipher feelings and thoughts through gesticulations and words. As socially adept as you can be, we all live an individual insular existence. There are worlds within worlds beyond worlds influenced by other worlds within ourselves. We spend most of our lives trying to discover and come to terms with those spaces in our brain, so its quite a miracle that we can, and even attempt to, communicate. Connections are vital and the forces of repulsion and attraction drives our lives daily. We reproduce, make choices, build, destroy, and consume all in the name of an unspoken pull for purpose.

Our planet Earth can not exist without the other celestial bodies doing their thing around it. While we have our wars and go through the cycles of life, we are hurtled through the galaxy like a baseball being flung into the skies. Humans as space travellers continuing to make poetry about our spaceship Earth and our associations within it. But Pluto doesn’t give a fuck. It’s the honey badger of planets looking all spiffy and cool as people “oooh” and “ahhh” at its photo. It suddenly exists before our very eyes.

Looking up at the stars is an ubiquitous action.

There really is no particular point to this post, but to say I still love science. Science is like the cool kid I thought I wanted to be. Out in space with all the mathematics and scholarly language humans can muster, an astronaut is a tiny speck. The astronaut observes and studies, but to the ether it is nothing. Our probes are tiny gadgets that only mean something to us. In the mysterious universe of synchronicity, there once was a man who told his daughters to look up at the night sky to feel dreams become aspirations. Today there was a photograph taken of Pluto that told the world to look up beyond itself imploring it to continue dreaming.

**Edited to add: Pluto Shits On The Universe by Fatimah Asghar



My friend reminded me that I’m obligated to include SCIENCE!

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/70051022″>Thomas Dolby – She Blinded Me With Science</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user19454554″>Mad Hatter</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity: my review/analysis



Like most of my reviews that are basically analysis’s of the film, THIS IS A SPOILER ALERT! A SPOILER ALERT!  DANGER, WIL ROBINSON! My analysis is based mostly on my own readings and my own film critical viewing background. 

If you want reasons you should see Gravity without a spoiler alert, I will tell you now that I LOVED GRAVITY, but I had problems with it, which are illustrated below. If you want a preliminary review without spoilers go here or here

Do go see Gravity in the theatre if you can. Watch the trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OiTiKOy59o4

Once again there are spoilers down below due to my analytic nature, so go see the film and then come back to this page and see if you agree or not. SPOILERS BELOW. 


I got really excited when I read this: http://www.theverge.com/2013/7/21/4542974/gravity-director-alfonso-cuaron-defends-casting-sandra-bullock-female-lead-sci-fi

Readers of this blog can see why:  http://jacquelinevalencia.com/tag/reworking-with-women/

As part of some conceptual work, I’ve been taken excerpts from scripts with male lead roles and changed their gender. It’s been an interesting experiment and I’m still reworking some and gathering info on reader’s reactions to them.

What first struck me about Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity before even seeing Gravity was the fact that there was a possibility of an actress taking over the lead role in a space flick. For that, I am satisfied and Sandra Bullock is to be commended for her performance in it (although I think they could have utilized her better and will attempt to explain why below).

Bio-mechanical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is on her first space mission with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) who is on his last command mission. While doing their last space walk to repair the Hubble telescope, a Russian anti-satellite test causes space debris to imperil the mission. The team is asked to abort, it gets lambasted with the catastrophic detritus, hurtling the pair into a perilous situation.

Gravity is a technically brilliant disaster movie. I am impressed by directors who envision not just scenes, but entire films in their heads, without regard to how they can techically make them happen.

“I have to say that I was a bit naïve; I thought making the film would be a lot simpler,” Cuarón says. “Yes, I knew it would require a certain amount of tricks, but it was not until we started trying conventional techniques that I realized in order to do the film the way I wanted to do it, we were going to have to create something entirely new.” – Alfonso Cuarón

Cuarón has accomplished quite a feat by visualizing long tracking shots set in space and making them a cinematic reality. We don’t just see the illusion of a long tracking shot, but the combination of depth of frame perspectives creating a unique “possible” 4th wall view. As the camera pans back from a two dimensional view of earth, Stone and Hubble are revealed. Earth becomes a background, Stone is our centrepiece until Kowalski appears floating by stealing our focus from Stone and places the audience back in space again. Moments later, the shuttle becomes the background while Kowalski continues to charge our view becoming bigger and smaller as he space walks. Plopping himself next to Stone, the pair frames Hubble making it the focus while Earth continues to be the backdrop. The viewer witnesses the astronauts interactions, listens in as Mission Control interjects, and we are placed back in our seats in the theatre, hovering over the impending action: a bolt escapes Stone’s hands, Kowalski rescues it right at the tip of the audiences’s noses: we are cast back in  three dimensional space as part of the scene. This technique repeats itself throughout the film: from beyond the calm until disaster strikes where we are thrown from viewer to participant. Cuarón places the viewer into a point of view perspective from inside Stone’s helmet, then cutaways to space or Kowalski, and then back to extreme close ups of Stone’s reactions.

It’s something akin to an IMAX science centre 3-D presentation with thrills and drama looming around the viewer. It’s a sui generis in film techniques to be able to make the audience part of the action in a  very attenuated way: generating dynamic white-knuckle environments while still reassuring the filmmaker’s audience that they are merely spectators to an event. If cinema is the visual materializer of dreams, then to wake up is to see the magic within its emotional evocations. Cuarón takes the idea of the lucid dream in space and plays with it rather well here. I will reiterate though that Gravity will merit a few more re-watchings for me to declare it anything more than just a stepping stone in filmmaking (I’ve seen it two times).

I’ve read many opinions comparing it to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 . From my view, I can see how technologically it may start something new in blockbuster film. Using a combination of art film techniques (depth of view, Hitchcock-esque long tracking shots, etc.), with big budget frameworks in a film is not a revolutionary action. You can see art house in blockbuster films such as Inception or Titanic. However, utilizing the same suspense genre art shots in Titanic doesn’t make it new Psycho. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 was visionary and stands alone as one of the best science fiction films out there because Kubrick envisioned a new way of looking at science fiction: as a prophetically introspective possibility. Philosophically, Kubrick took Nietzschean views of the superman, mixed them with Eastern philosophies, and molded them into a otherworldly story set in our solar system. In Gravity, Cuarón  has taken the story of a space disaster and used it to chronicle one person’s desperate struggle to get back home. There’s no philosophy here and there’s nothing grandiose in its premise.  Stone’s isolation from those that can save her down at Mission Control is a very palpable situation. Without her connections to Earth she is entirely left to her own devices to survive.

Is this then basis for comparison to 2001: as a simpler version of 2001? Not even close; the similarities stop with both subjects being astronauts. . Although he is a big fan of Kubrick, Cuarón hasn’t made Kubrick a focus. What Cuarón presents here is a portrait of disconnect, loss, fleeting interactions with others, and the meanings one can find within the short moments in the present. Stone grieves the loss of a child. Kowalski and the Earth (home) provide an anchor (where she has none) for her to hold on to. She goes from endeavouring to subsist, to suicidal defeat, and then to a full blown yearning to fully live again. Kubrick’s 2001 didn’t have these themes and had way more symbolically (in its colour schemes, visual metaphors and film processes), than Gravity did from beginning to end. The story in Gravity is in its continual action which makes it more of a modern redemptive spectacle instead of a symbolic tale; which is quite alright though. Not everything we enjoy and marvel at can be both ingenious in technique and in narrative, but I digress.

The story: I had issues here with the film. Casting a female lead for this film was ballsy enough of Cuarón and I am so glad he fought against the grain for it. My issues lie with the female empowering trope placed by popular culture which the director might have subconsciously fallen for: Stone only finds meaning in her life in remembrance of her lost child. I think this part of the plot could have been thrown out. She could have found value in her life’s work as a bio-mechanical engineer, or to have a life outside of work, for instance. If it had been Kowalski in her shoes, he would have wanted to get back home because he just wanted to. His observations of the things back home from space, made him think about how small he was in comparison. He sacrifices his life for Stone because he inherently believes in living, his last moments are filled with meaningful views of his place in space. Stone’s character is someone who has gone through thorough training to get to be in NASA, yet we don’t see her acknowledge her awareness of her unique situation. She’s a person in space! Maybe this fact could have given her a purpose to pause, but instead Cuaron goes for the easy route, that familiar female trope: she has to be a mother for her to have meaning in her own world. This is not a small issue; it’s a rather grand issue for female heroines’ future in film: one that needs to be acknowledged, discussed, and remedied.

(This isn’t just the mothering trope, but the parenting trope that storytelling has fallen into. If Kowalski had been the focus, I would have pointed out how it would have been more of a red herring for the plot. Humans find meaning in their lives beyond the need to procreate and to connect besides romance. If we are to forecast a future of true equality, we must begin to think of ourselves as varied individuals and not just these traditional goals or needs from family and marriage. Not everyone aims to be a parent or to be married and there’s nothing wrong with striving for anything but either.)

There’s a scene where Stone connects with a Chinese man on Earth. There’s a huge language barrier, but they manage to exchange names. She tries desperately to connect to him more. This was another way Cuarón could have established Stone’s agency for survival. Instead, as she listens to the man sing a lullaby to his child, it’s then that she gives up and prepares to die. She can’t live without her motherly connection. It’s only until the spectre of Kowalski appears to reason her out of suicide that she wake up: she must continue on for the sake of her lost (her child), redeeming her in the eyes of the audience, and opening up a continuation to her narrative. Understanding that these moments are imparted within the span of a just few minutes (suicide, stay alive, redemption through her need to live on for her child), thus making Stone’s “awakening” feel quick, empty, and hastily tacked on.

The Kubrick reference where Stone throws off her spacesuit (which in reality would not find her in her underwear, but a rather involved inner suit of wires and tubes), floating like the giant space embryo from 2001, feels manipulatively placed. It is by far not a subtle image created here and one that I can’t imagine would play off well if Kowalski had been in her shoes. Cuarón is excellent at making one forget the magic used to create a movie, since it’s palpably felt in its realism. Unfortunately, what he does best is left to the film’s technical aspects and not utilized in fulfilling the true potential in its story.

It’s almost as if the film could have been more if it had more silence in it (out of the silence it already has which is awesome).  Stone could have been an astronaut doing whatever was in her power to get back to Earth (with no mention of children or possible romance), instead of the suicidal mother finding meaning in her child. Her disconnect with the grand world beyond her helmet’s view would have touched us all by it’s universal message. The grieving parent is an overused trope. I would be the first one to acknowledge Gravity as a groundbreaking film if this were the case. Instead, it is a thrill inducing, tear inducing, roller coaster and not the masterpiece that most have declared it to be. It’s not a flawless film and I’m not about to throw those flaws out the window without acknowledge the great spectacle of it.

I will acknowledge that Cuarón wasn’t afraid of making Stone’s character a bit flighty and spastic as opposed to going the other extreme: making her more manly in her reactions. Bullock’s delivery was genuine and something unique to both the actress and her previous portrayal of characters. She’s in charge, but still fallible, like any other human might be in her circumstances. I’m also not going to say the film should be discounted because of the faults I found in it. It was a great film to watch.

I would say Children of Men was superior, but Cuarón did have the story aiding device of a book to follow in making its story. Y Tu Mama Tambien is far more groundbreaking story-wise and I wish more people would go back and see that film and compare its narrative progression to Gravity’s. Cuarón  is incredibly skilled, but DaVinci didn’t paint the Mona Lisa every time either (not to say his other works weren’t masterpieces. Everything stands alone with muted tones or excelled brilliance in its palettes).

My favourite part of Gravity though, besides the parts where I found myself cringing in delight my seat, was when she finally arrives on land to be reborn from out of the sea, spilling herself onto the brilliant red and green masses of Earth. There’s something Joycean in that mermaid with legs symbolism there: a human taking on a new form with newly found legs. Stone teeters, but eventually stands up strong out of her trauma, her head towards the horizon, and everything is worth living again.

See? There is meaning there for her and it could have been unsaid; left to the audience’s imagination, that fourth wall view Cuarón had been hinting at could have been given a life of its own within the audience’s mind. The audience is both naive watcher and intelligent in that naivety; an empowering set up all its own. There is continuation beyond cinematic tropes, but it its too late for the audience to grasp it as the word Gravity signals the film’s end, so does the audience’s power to enlighten within.

I’m incredibly happy the film is doing so well in the box office because the world needs more action films with female leads; especially ones that don’t play into a stereotypical female plot development (Gravity may have casted a female lead in a non-traditional role, but still confined her within thata traditional female mother trope).

Sandra Bullock, I didn’t appreciate your acting before this film (except for your work in Demolition Man), but I do now.  I will give your other works a chance again just to see the potential you could have had beyond the confines of Gravity. Kudos also goes out to Steven Price’s personal evolution in soundtrack work. Good stuff overall, Alfonso and Jonas Cuarón.

Please do it again.