<back :: contents :: next>
Once upon a time, in a land far from here...
I interrupted to ask if this far land was Russia. She smiled and shook her head, "Nyet. It is New York." Then she continued the story.
In that far off and strange land there was a talented woman named Silvie who wrote stories and articles, and produced and directed films -- science documentaries, mostly. She had made a good name for herself, as well as a modest income, and although she lived by herself, she was a very happy person. And why wouldn't she be? She considered herself one of the luckiest people alive. She worked for herself doing something she considered important, and she loved doing it.
Silvie had started her career working for a big studio, but when she had gained a little success she'd left and worked on her own projects. She was fiercely independent. She was very good at working with people in a team, but terrible at taking orders. If someone came up with a great idea or a constructive suggestion she happily adopted it giving credit to those responsible without her ego getting in the way, but if anyone tried to use their position of power to force her to do something she felt was wrong she became positively combative. Her attitude caused endless friction in a normal, hierarchical, corporate environment.
She had worked inside enlightened studios where people enjoyed doing great work, and egos didn't choke up the open atmosphere, but such places were rare, and she generally preferred not to gamble her work on whether she would be battling management.
On the other hand, all those who'd worked with Silvie on her independent projects loved the freedom of being outside the big studios. If you wanted to have your mind and abilities stimulated and spurred to heights you didn't know you were capable of, and if you wanted to be taken seriously in a group where the project mattered instead of ego and chain of command then you thrived on her team. Being able to say you'd worked with Silvie was one of the best things you could do for your career, and people would happily give up lucrative deals in order to work with her. She'd developed a reputation similar to the Coen Brothers, but in the documentary world. Her work was always innovative and brilliantly researched.
And it wasn't just her team who responded well. Scientists and engineers welcomed her because she understood them and their motivation, and could talk with them on their own level about their research. They knew she had no hidden agendas and that a documentary from Silvie would make their work available to the public in all its complexity. Her films managed to avoid confusing viewers, but on the other hand didn't over-simplify the subject or talk down to the audience. Silvie had an unusual talent for connecting people and information in unexpected ways which could synergistically enhance their messages. She could convey the excitement of a field without over-hyping it -- a surprisingly difficult thing to do.
Silvie saw science and technology documentaries as a largely unmined field. Science and technology had been so badly taught in the past that there was now a vast resource of untapped information out there waiting to be conveyed to audiences. She understood that the common view of science being dry, quirky stuff done by socially inept freaks was an absurd caricature. Scientists actually tended to be cultured and thoughtful, and the childlike way they were excited by knowledge and ideas was something she shared herself. She was also very conscious of the fact that few things were capable of making as strong an impact on our world as science and technology.
Several years ago Silvie was researching a documentary on the new breed of technologies and devices variously called replicators, fabricators, 3D printing, stereolithography, or rapid prototyping. She preferred to use the generic name "replicators" for all these technologies because their most basic purpose is to replicate 3D objects from pure data, and that eventually the intention was to be able to replicate anything, even themselves.
She found the topic fascinating. This technology had the potential to revolutionise our society. Hundreds of years ago the printing press had ended the control of knowledge by a privileged few, more recently computers had blown wide the floodgates to information, and digital cameras made photography available to anyone. Soon replicators might let anybody design and build anything to suit their specific needs.
Some of the earliest replicators began as machines that laid down layer upon layer of material, building a 3D object out of a stack of 2D images. Later machines, like Neil Gershenfeld's FabLabs at Massachusetts Institute of Technology used various technologies (laser cutter, miniature miller/scanner, computer-controlled knife, oscilloscope, multimeter, function generator, RF analyzer, spectrometer, microscope, digital camera, flatbed scanner) to build things and perform tests. A few people (Pierre Meystre at the University of Arizona, Lute Maleki at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Forrest Bishop) had flirted with so-called matter holograms which might one day create solid objects, however they seemed elusive. Most replicators instead used the older, simpler 3D printing technologies, like Craig Bowyer's RepRap.org at Bath University in UK.
One person who was looking so far ahead that his work was, at the time completely impractical, was Eric Drexler back in 1986 when he published a roadmap for advances in nanotechnology in his book Engines of Creation. He saw clearly where the real future of replicators lay. His vision of the future will undoubtedly come to pass one day, but it will still be some time before it is fully realised. However one aspect came about much sooner than expected.
With the advances in distributed intelligence that grew out of Craig Reynolds' work on flocking, Chris Langton's ants, various other people's swarming and pathfinding programs, and Anita Flynn's thumb-sized robot Ants, the stage was set for the development of microscopic builder robots. These tiny robots were created by several teams independently. As with so many inventions, society seemed to be at just the right stage. The microscopic robots could assemble detailed 3D objects using a set of surprisingly simple rules. The machines were not really microscopic in the way Drexler envisioned. They were about the size of grains of sugar. Each miniscule robot worked fairly slowly, but together thousands of them were capable of speedy feats of construction that had to be seen to be appreciated.
While she was working on the documentary about replicator technology Silvie kept thinking about the parallels with the chemical machinery of living cells, particularly plants, and how they were able to manufacture a wide range of materials, including themselves, out of little but air, sunlight and water. That surely would be the holy grail of replicator technology -- to make whatever was needed out of just air, water, and ambient energy. This led her to an interesting view of the role of plants in our world. They alone could turn free energy into new life. All animals, including humans, are completely parasitic upon plant life. We are incomplete replicators. We are unable to replicate ourselves fully. We need various complex parts already built for us by plants -- many vitamins, the essential amino acids, and some oils. This was a nice counter to the point raised by some people that the inability of any human-engineered replicators so far to duplicate themselves without any outside help meant they were not "proper" replicators. If those machines were not then neither were we.
The very day Silvie completed final postproduction on the replicator documentary there was a message waiting for her at home on her answering machine. It was Roger, a writer she'd been friends with for decades, wanting her to attend the opening next week of a new movie he'd written the screenplay for. She rang him back and he was very surprised when she agreed to come. "Wow. What persuaded you, Silvie?" When she explained that she had just finished a job and was between projects just now, he laughed. "Yes. You tend to use work as an excuse to avoid such social events. Marjory and I will be really looking forward to seeing you. It'll be great to chat again -- been way too long."
When she got off the phone she wondered for a while if she really did what Roger said? Did she use work to avoid socialising? No. She would describe it differently. She didn't avoid people. Her work let her spend lots of time with some of the most interesting people in the world. She enjoyed being in the company of those people and she loved her work.
The week drifted past as Silvie dropped back into a kind of idling frame of mind in which she perused her old notes on topics for possible documentary project and opened herself to new science and technology. She knew that something would seize her enthusiasm soon and she would have her next project. So many exciting things were constantly happening in the sciences and engineering. It always puzzled her that the mass media rarely ever reported it. It made her work all the more exhilarating and important, but she couldn't help wishing she had more competition. The market was there. It was obvious from the way the public eagerly consumed her documentaries that they were not the stupid, sports-obsessed herd that politicians and media executives thought they were.
On the night of the opening for Roger's film Silvie put down the book she was reading, then showered, ate a snack and got dressed. Normally she dressed in jeans, flannel shirt, and jersey, with boots on her feet, but being conscious of the glamorous people who would be there tonight she dressed in something that would be a little less conspicuous. She wore grey slacks, plain white blouse, and black, flat-heeled shoes. She never used makeup or any jewellery at all and she was not about to now. She had little time for pretense or keeping up appearances, expecting people to take her simply as she was.
Silvie had no partner so she simply caught a taxi to the premiere and walked in alone, pleased that fewer cameras flashed during her entry than the people who preceded or followed her. She enjoyed her relative anonymity. She was well known in scientific and engineering circles and that's what mattered most to her.
The theatre's foyer was bright and opulent, with lots of glass, chandeliers, mirrors, and about a hundred high-fashion attendees milling about, being served drinks and hors d'oeuvres. She stood for a moment in the entrance, a little overwhelmed and beginning to regret coming, when a familiar voice called her name. Silvie scanned the crowd till she saw bright-green-haired Elaine in an elegant, long, form-fitting, white dress waving enthusiastically to her from the top of one of the wide, curved staircases. Silvie grinned and headed toward her. Years ago she and Elaine had been a couple. They'd drifted apart, but would always be friends. At the foot of the stairs they embraced, then Elaine grabbed Silvie's hand and tugged her upstairs and through the throng to a quiet area where Roger, Marjory and a number of old acquaintances were chatting.
Marjory hugged Silvie telling her how glad she was to see her again, and Roger said they'd posted Elaine as lookout at the top of the stairs to watch for her.
Silvie raised her eyebrows. "You were that sure I was coming?"
Elaine affected a gruff voice while cracking her knuckles, "If you didn't we woulda sent the heavies around to lean on ya." She ended with pretend tough-guy spit amid chuckles from the group of friends.
"Well, thanks for inviting me. It's great to see you all again. I'm glad to be here."
Marjory asked, "Keen to see Roger's latest masterpiece?"
Roger waggled his finger in disagreement. "Hardly a masterpiece, love. And I'm only the screenwiter... though I'm proud of what I've done -- my best writing yet, I think. I just hope it makes it past the critics."
Silvie said, "I've always had a lot of respect for your writing Roger, but I'm not sure how much I'll enjoy this movie. I'm sure it's a very well done story, but action flicks are not really my cup of tea. They generate too much anxiety for my comfort. I generally come away from them feeling emotionally exhausted."
Elaine chimed in, "Yeah. I wonder why so few happy films are made anymore."
Thomas, another of the writers in the circle answered Elaine, "They never were. People don't like happy films. They're boring. A good film needs a protagonist and an antagonist, a difficult journey for the hero to complete in the face of odds. Tension, disappointment and frustration keep the audience interested as a story ascends toward the climax, and is then resolved. This has been known and used successfully for centuries."
This didn't seem right to Silvie, and by the frown on Elaine's face she didn't agree either, but unable to think of any counter-examples at the time Silvie didn't say anything further. Elaine kept her thoughts to herself too.
After the movie, as they were leaving the theatre, Elaine said, "Well, I'm completely rattled now. Feels like it'll take hours for my adrenalin to drop to normal. Putting yourself through an emotional meatgrinder like we did just now can't be good for you." She thought for a moment. "You know, what we were saying before the film -- I don't believe what Thomas said. I think it is possible to make happy stories."
Silvie agreed. "Me too. I kept thinking about it during the movie. Would you like to walk and talk about it for a while?"
"I'd like that." Elaine held hands with Silvie as they strolled along the footpath. The temperature was perfect for New York in the spring. There was still an hour or two of daylight, but the sky was overcast causing a lot of lights to come on early. A gentle breeze seemed to be keeping the air clear of car fumes and clarifying the light so that everything looked extra sharp. The air was damp and there were signs that a light shower had fallen while they were in the cinema. There was something electric and exciting about the atmosphere.
Silvie looked at Elaine walking beside her -- bright green hair and snowy white dress so bright in the late afternoon light it almost hurt her eyes. Elaine was not beautiful in the normal sense. She was a little too stocky, her mouth was a bit too wide, and she didn't walk gracefully, but when she smiled there was something impish about her that lit up her face and turned people's heads. Decades ago, when they'd first met, Elaine had swept Silvie off her feet. That was a long time past. They'd since gone their separate ways, no longer lovers but remaining best friends -- friends for life.
They walked for a while in silence, then Silvie said, "Surely what makes a 'good' story can't be collapsed down to some simplistic recipe. Why should something as open-ended as storytelling be constrained by a formula? It just doesn't sound right to me. But what's really bothering me is that I can't think of any examples of completely happy stories."
Elaine nodded. "I can't think of any either. My favorite films are mostly happy, but even they have some tension at a few points."
"Your favorite film used to be Amelie."
"Still is. Yours still Whisper of the Heart?"
Silvie sighed and smiled, "Yes. Such a sweet, optimistic romance."
"You could argue that both Amelie and Whisper of the Heart are primarily happy films with some incidental unhappy bits. I don't think they rely on the anxious parts."
Silvie agreed. "Maybe the attitude in some films lets pleasure be found in things that would normally provoke unhappiness. Like that amazing New Zealand film The World's Fastest Indian -- have you seen it?"
Elaine shook her head.
"It's about Burt Munro, a New Zealander who broke a land speed record on a modified Indian motorcycle."
Elaine interrupted, "Doesn't sound like the kind of movie I'd enjoy."
"Actually, you might. It's a surprisingly upbeat and quirky movie. At one point he crashes his machine and has badly burned his leg, but he struggles out of it, lies on his back and starts laughing. Another example is when someone points out to him that his car has a flat tire. His response is that it's only flat on the bottom. In some ways that encapsulates the feeling of the film: see the good side of life, even when it offers bad things."
"Hmmm... You know, that might be a partial explanation of how one of Amelie's sequences works. I've never understood why I laugh at the part where she plays the practical jokes on the mean grocer. I don't like practical jokes, so it should have been upsetting to me, but it isn't. And it isn't just that he deserves to be brought down a peg. In my view that's still no excuse for practical jokes. Somehow these relatively harmless practical jokes are whimsical and funny... except changing his mother's speed-dial number to the psychiatric help line. That one always struck me as crossing the line... But on the whole, Amelie treats even potentially disturbing things as light-hearted sources of good humor."
Silvie pointed out, "Like the scene in the haunted train ride in the amusement park, where Nino touches Amelie's neck to scare her, but she is clearly enraptured by the contact."
Elaine nodded emphatically. "Yes. It is mostly fun and happy, but even things that might produce axiety are viewed in a way that can be uplifting."
"I wonder if it's possible to make a movie without any bad parts at all -- not even ones viewed through a happy lens." Silvie pondered. "If you imagine a scale with horrible, depressing, violent tragedies on one end, and beautiful, uplifting stories of pure happiness on the other end then there doesn't seem to me any sensible reason why there should not be some stories right at the extreme of pleasure."
Elaine was nodding. "Some of the stories that come close to that now are loved by millions of people, so it's not niceness itself that prevents such stories being made. It must be something else."
For almost a block they walked wrapped in their thoughts. Suddenly Silvie stopped walking and said, "Belief! If people believe something can't be done, generally they won't even attempt it. Likewise if they believe something is true, it can remain unquestioned for thousands of years. People have a long history of doing things simply because they believe that's how it's always been done."
Elaine looked doubtful. "It couldn't be that simple, could it?"
"Belief is an incredibly powerful way of derailing thought." She started walking again. "People believe conservative political parties are financially responsible, yet every time they get control of the economy they drive their country deeply into debt. It always falls to a left-leaning party to repair the economy. This happens over and over again and you can show the figures to any conservative but they refuse to see it. They can't see it. Belief prevents them."
Silvie continued, "Religion promotes the belief that it is the source of morality, yet the most moral places in the world are the most atheist. Religion has actually always corresponded with the most socially damaging behaviors. But it doesn't matter how much evidence a religious person is shown, nothing can shake their conviction that moral behavior springs from religion."
For several more steps Silvie was quiet then spoke up again, "Here's another one: for centuries people have believed that you can categorise other people on the basis of their race, even though countless statistical surveys have shown that's complete nonsense. Yet people steadfastly believe anyway. I'm sure I can think of plenty more examples. Belief blinds people to the facts, even when faced with a mountain of incontrovertible evidence."
They continued in silence again for a little while before Silvie said, "I wonder if... maybe most people actually love happy stories, but this belief that a story must be told a particular way prevents us from seeing it."
Elaine frowned. "That seems absurd. The financial forces against that would prevent it, surely."
Silvie shrugged. "You mean like economic pressures have brought about self determination for women everywhere? Whenever women are given control over their own lives the wealth and well-being of society immediately improves. The advantages of equal opportunity should be impossible to resist."
"Hmmm... point taken. Well, is there any way to prove whether happy stories are discouraged by beliefs?"
"I don't know."
They fell into silence again, deep in thought as they strolled.
"Here's a thought," Elaine said. "People like to reminisce about the pleasant events in their lives. We love to relate stories of when a child's first steps are taken, or the trip to the beach with your best friend when you sat together eating hot chips while watching the sunset, or your favorite little nook that nobody else knew about where you'd go to read when you were a kid, or the time when you and a group of your friends spent all day at the amusement park -- the cherished moments of our lives that we love to tell and retell." She looked at Silvie with raised eyebrows.
"Hmmm... Interesting idea. Step outside formal storytelling and there might actually be a lot more happy tales being told."
Modern children's books are often happy tales. The younger the target audience the higher the proportion of happy tales. How did we move from that to mostly unhappy tales? Could it be that happy stories have become associated with childishness?
Children on an easter egg hunt can delightedly enjoy the quest for hours. They move upwards through various stages of excitement, squealing and laughing each time another treasure is found.
She couldn't see any compelling reason why it would be impossible to write a story with absolutely no unhappy elements. And over the course of the next few weeks many parts of such a story did gradually accumulate in her mind.
She was between projects at the moment so she decided to see what was involved in creating a truly happy tale. At first it was going to be merely a short story, simply to prove a point, but eventually it seemed to her that the only way to truly prove it was to make it as a movie.
Although she was very well known, she was not rich, so over the next year much of her time was spent raising funds for it. She was unprepared for how difficult that would be. The fact that there were so few truly happy tales, and none that she could find that had no unpleasant aspects at all, caused most people to doubt that it could be done. Most of the money came from her own savings. Of the remainder, the bulk came from philanthropists and friends. The remaining part was finally invested by a big studio. (Lidia explained here that the studio was using it as some kind of financial write-off, but I didn't understand the details.) It took her a while to accept the money though, as the studio wanted 51% of control in the film. It was crazy that they wanted to contol a film that they had no real interest in and that they expected to lose money. And she had spent too long working as an independent to give up her freedom now. Eventually a deal was negotiated where she retained full control over the making of the film and they controlled distribution and screening. Although she was uneasy about this she eventually acquiesed. She needed the money to make the movie.
So, finally the film would begin.
<back :: contents :: next>