Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Some Stuff I learned this Holiday Season, aka Christmastime

This December, my daughter and I watched the 1964 Christmas special 'Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer' more times than I care to admit or contemplate. Thank God for DVRs, I guess. When I was a kid, you got to see it once, and that was it until next year, forget about it.

The big revelation watching it now at 36 as opposed to 6 is that every authority figure in that show is a complete asshole. Santa is a grumpy old prick who treats his loving wife like crap, and tells Rudolph's father 'you should be ashamed of yourself' when Rudolph's nose starts glowing. The elf boss gives would-be dentist Hermie no end of crap, and is totally closed-minded about Hermie's toy ideas. Rudolph's father forces him to wear an embarassing prosthesis, and the reindeer coach is completely unable to ignore the nose after Rudolph kicks every other reindeer's ass in the 'Take Off' game.

The Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, the riots at the Chicago convention, even the Prague Spring and the student strikes and riots in Paris in '68, it all makes sense now. Adults in the 60's had a stick up their collective ass, and by God, they had to go down. Too bad things didn't work out better than they did.

In other Christmas viewing we saw the new Christmas Classic that is the Polar Express. It is a spectacle to be sure, and scenes like the one with the ticket that flies out the window but eventually makes it way back on the train make the movie worth watching, and worth looking past the eerie rubber-faced creepiness of a lot of the computer-animated humans (check out the article 'The Undead Zone' for more on the phenomenon, observed by a Japanese roboticist back in 1978. From the article:

In 1978, the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori noticed something interesting: The more humanlike his robots became, the more people were attracted to them, but only up to a point. If an android become too realistic and lifelike, suddenly people were repelled and disgusted.

The problem, Mori realized, is in the nature of how we identify with robots. When an android, such as R2-D2 or C-3PO, barely looks human, we cut it a lot of slack. It seems cute. We don't care that it's only 50 percent humanlike. But when a robot becomes 99 percent lifelike—so close that it's almost realwe focus on the missing 1 percent. We notice the slightly slack skin, the absence of a truly human glitter in the eyes. The once-cute robot now looks like an animated corpse. Our warm feelings, which had been rising the more vivid the robot became, abruptly plunge downward. Mori called this plunge "the Uncanny Valley," the paradoxical point at which a simulation of life becomes so good it's bad.


Anyhow, if that weren't bad enough, the creepy simulation of a human being that is Steven Tyler of Aerosmith appears toward the end of the film as an elf on a unicycle, singing some song about rocking on top of the world, and the moment is such a jarring, whiplash-inducing distillation of repulsive stomach-churning awfulness it somehow manages to ruin the movie utterly. Why oh why is that scene in the movie? It didn't really bother my daughter, though.

Finally this year I finally got to see 'A Christmas Story' from start to finish, which was a mistake. Better to catch the odd 5 minutes here or there, which you can't help doing if you own a TV and aren't afraid to use it. Seeing it from start to finish seems wrong somehow. Also, the movie seems to completely unravel during the last 10 minutes ('and that was the year we discovered Chinese turkey').

Anyhow, Happy Kwanzaa to those of you celebrating that, Happy New Year, so on.

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