1491 – Worlds of Ursula K. LeGuin (2018)

a documentary by Arwen Curry

Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin is a feature documentary exploring the remarkable life and legacy of the late feminist author Ursula K. Le Guin. Best known for groundbreaking science fiction and fantasy works such as A Wizard of Earthsea, The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Dispossessed, Le Guin defiantly held her ground on the margin of “respectable” literature until the sheer excellence of her work, at long last, forced the mainstream to embrace fantastic literature. Her fascinating story has never before been captured on film.

Produced with Le Guin’s participation over the course of a decade, Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin is a journey through the writer’s career and her worlds, both real and fantastic. Viewers will join the writer on an intimate journey of self-discovery as she comes into her own as a major feminist author, opening new doors for the imagination and inspiring generations of women and other marginalized writers along the way. The film features stunning animation and reflections by literary luminaries including Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, David Mitchell, Michael Chabon, and more.

Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin was created with the generous support of the National Endowment for the Humanities, California Humanities, the Berkeley Film Foundation etc (description taken from the original website of the documentary)

The documentary is truly one of the best I have seen dedicated to an author, the more to such an incredible and inspiring one such as Ursula K LeGuin. Take some time to explore her website https://www.ursulakleguin.com/

One of the best documentaries about Sci-Fi indeed and one to carefully and attentively thread along and listen to one of its most cherished authors. It wanders elegantly from personal life, the landscapes that shaped her novels, the childhood memories, her rise and response in Sci-fi fandom and canon, her relation, acknowledgment and understanding of the first nation people genocide in the Americas and in particular her knowledge of indigenous peoples of California.

It also combines some really great animation work that blends in very well with her world building. There are in fact very few movies based on her actual work.

To her previous mentioned works I would like to add The Lathe of Heaven about dreaming and the universe (also a movie) and the wonderful short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. Also mentioned in the documentary is her 1985 experimental work Always Returning Home written and situated in the Napa Valley, a speculative anthropology works and tapes made by a future ethnographer and anthropologist Pandora with the rituals, the musical instruments, chants and language of a post-apocalyptic people named the Kesh, a sort of anarcho-primitivist tribe that combines elements of hunterer-gatherers, agricultural and industrial civilization while rejecting city building.

1489 – Flight of Dragons (1982)

Flight of Dragons was a Japanese-US co-production 982 long feature animated fantasy film produced and directed by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, Jr. (of The Hobbit and other 70s 80s animations).

There is a deeply personal connection with this animation and its cheesy song bring back dead media memories. This being one of the illegal VHS tapes I watched as an enthralled kid with Andrei Ciubotaru my high school friend (artist and art teacher now) and few others in 80s Romania. Pirated VHS where the only way to get such material, or via neighboring countries TV station depending where you were (Serbia, Hungary or in my case Bulgaria). Most of these VHS were dubbed by one single person – film critic Irina Nistor who did voices for all characters and for hundreds if not thousands tapes. This one was a rare EN copy.

Apart from being a childhood artefact it still stands the test of time for me. It is one of the great animations of the 80s and has this strange bizarre effect of mediated arrival via a winded move; a hybrid of US based D & D material content drawn by the top of the art blooming Japanese anime industry of the times.

It is also interesting in other regards. It is a animation based on a speculative evolution book from 1979 by Peter Dickinson with the same name, inspired itself by the speculative biology theories developed inside the Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K LeGuin (1968-2001), who I didn’t know much about at the time.

It is a sort of scientific explanation (or pseudo-scientific, take it how you want) that naturalizes these mythical monsters – the dragons. All those probable explanation of the dragon physiology, metabolism and chemical peculiarities (such as the hydrochloric acid thesis) from the movie are all present in this earlier book. The impetus to rationalize or to give scientific importance to various legendary, fables or superstitions may seem naive or misleading but I think there is great merit to that. Not only does it blur otherwise highly patrolled borders around what is a proper object of science but it also shows the deep interplay btw science, occultism, alchemy and Enlightenment. It also show that fictions have becoming shaping forces on their own, no matter if false of true, they are living their imprint on the world we live in. There is also the point of the peculiar history of the history science itself, especially the Scientific Revolution in its hermetic or esoteric threads. Thinking here of Frances Yates books in particular but also about the admirable work done by Erik Davis in his new book High Weirdness and at https://techgnosis.com/ in widening and following a fertile mutual interplay. A particularity of the animation is its emphasis on magic rather than religion or even sorcery.

The Flight of Dragons could not be more actual than nowdays in an age where flat earthers and hollow earthers and neo-barbarians co-exist with Netflix and where fictions and in particular, seemingly fringe creepy pasta fictions have definitely a life of their own. When the fringe is center stage, one is now aware both of the magical powers of science and of the “meme magic” (the infamous #memewarfare or CCRU hyperstitions), and more disturbingly of the big exploitable reservoirs and operational powers of online and offline hate. Otherwise it is an early example of D & D and plays on the fact that it is all a big animated board game. This fact reappears several time during the movie. Once played by the former scientist P. Dickinson and game board designer that actually plays the movie characters in a pawn shop setting were with the owner trying to get him to invest in his new gaming enterprise. Another time it is Ommadon himself, the dark wizzard that uses it as surveillance technology, like Sauron, monitoring the various characters in their moves towards his domain. It is never clear who is playing who and who is being written by whom – as much as thethe animated character Dickinson seems to be precisely the author f thethe dragon speculative evolution book.

I will focus on a few incredible moments from this animation. The first is the setting of a (board game) meeting of the ruling multicultural wizzards and their panic response; Carlinus the Green Wizzard (power of life, growth, everything green), Solaris the Blue Wizzard (sea, heavens) and Golden Wizard Lo Tae Zhao(ether, light) and Ommadon (black magic and evil) to discuss the need to protect and basically make invisible the magical realm. It is basically deterritorialization and reterritorialization in action. In particular this disenchantment manifests itself in an eco-primitivist context, the water wheels of particular nasty bunch of humans (looking more like goblins) kills a swan that is revived by Carolinus. To be honest I also get the slight feel of a sort of white collar vs working class polluters going on, but it is just me maybe. The aim is to protect this fantasy world from (guess what) Entzauberung aka the encroaching rationalism of Science and Technology that starts to limit, actively debunk and eliminate magic.

Here something happens that sort breaks the magic alliance – Ommadon is pretty sure that the palliative, pacifist and protectionist methods of the three other wizzards are doomed in the face of relentless progress. Here he exhibits a ruthless proto- accelerationist plan: to turn humans against themselves, to use hate, and the vicious destructive power of machinery to annihilate forests and thus human life support systems as such. Also capital in the form of accumulation and greed seems to be part of Ommadon’s answer to the challenge posed by progress to magic.

At the face of these, the three ‘good’ wizards resort to an apparently self-defeating tactic, they recruit a human from the future. It is probably exactly the opposite as the first Terminator. But then the anachronism works, not only does a Yank at King Arthur’s court miraculously solve medieval problems but he is actually more susceptible to the charm or lost magic, more retro, more into princesses like Melisande and unreal dragons. We could go endlessly on, with the end fact being that the modern skeptic is somehow enchanted with (also very modern) love in the end- the most powerful of magic that keeps him connected with the magic realms. There is a bit of Luceafarul material in there too. They bring somebody disenchanted with science and the dryness of it all – an escapist but with a science background to smuggle him to their world and make him start a quest against Ommadon. This is indeed the fulcrum of their argument – that he can be re-enchanted by what just seem his to own game creations which are in fact somehow ‘real’ and consequaential, make him part of an existing fragile world that needs his help.

Second spoiler moment and one of my favorites is the final confrontation, where everything seems lost and all the various allies (a wolf, a knight, archer, dwarf etc) are being killed by the evil dragon Bryagh in a desperate final battle. In the end only Peter, the nerd, geek and scientist faces the immensely more-than-human inhuman Ommadon that aims to squash all opposition. Here comes science into play – as counter spell against the evil black magic. Astronomy, particle physics and Einsteinian relativity theory formulas are being deployed and invoked exactly like magical spells, as ways to mercilessly dispel and even mock the darkest of the darkest magic. In the effect, while actually accomplishing what the good wizzards feared most, they also show the peculiar new magic of science that is as deeply operational as magic is supposed to have been even more so.

Lastly, not to be ignored is the fact that Peter’s mind is being transferred into the body of a dragon. In the beginning he is just cosplaying a young knight in a quest, then things go terribly wrong (or perfect depending on who is who). I consider this one of the greatest episodes in any speculative fiction – be it film, books or animation. It posits the fact that there is some mutual discomfort, that his mind and all its knowledge is not just being uploaded into another imaginary body. It does not even matter if it is an imaginary body or not, and this is the high speculative tenor of it. This body is actually quite substantial, it does work – it is a fire breathing, gas belching, flying dragon by the name of Gorbash. Gorbash is not gone, he actually sleeps inside the same head. You will have to discover the details of this unwanted body swap. This is a great experiment in dragon embodiment. It is not enough to write, to think and love dragons, one should also feel dragon, one should also switch places with them and see things from their perspective.

Suffice to say that Peter is thus forced to explore ‘scientifically’ the peculiarities of his new (actually Gorbash’s) body. This has all sorts of unintended consequences, including how the others perceive him, befriend him or not or how he learns from the old dragon to be a dragon or the fact that he has still to master and practice his fire metabolism and hone his flying skills. Being a brainy does not help in this case, his geeky mind is still actually relatively harmless in the most terrifying body of all. He is basically almost learning like a person who had a stroke – how to move, what and when to eat, and how know it’d strengths amd weaknesses, how to handle the various compartments of his body.

1487 – kurzgesagt – In A Nutshell: Why Blue Whales Don’t Get Cancer – Peto’s Paradox (2020)

kurzegsagt (In a Nutshell in German) started as a collaboration btw German ZDF and ARD broadcasters 10 minute or more popularization animations using Illustrator and After Effects.

Be it philosophy, biology, cosmos or Fermi’s Paradox/Big Filters, lots of grand Sci-Fi ideas… or Ant Mega Colonies – their incredibly mindfuck, cartoonish, eye-catchy, poppy, gamified, infotainment, kawaii aesthetics, fast-paced & up-to-date style never gets in the way of explanatory powa, complexity or tackling speculative heavy duty topics. Their’s is a constant wobble of smiley faced cosmic pessimism. One of my favorite YouTube Channels (rapidly to become yours too I bet) although (BIG WARNING) must be said that most biomedical videos are supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation which should keep us vigilant. Sadly a lot of technological biomedical and epidemiologic knowledge is being funneled or sponsored and influenced by philanthropocapitalists.

Here is the original in German (DE)

And here is the English Youtube version (EN)

“Videos explaining things with optimistic nihilism.

We are a small team who want to make science look beautiful. Because it is beautiful. Currently we make one animation video per month. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook to get notified when a new one comes out. (YouTube Channel description)

1472 – Our Secret Universe: The Hidden Life of the Cell (documentary 2012)

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timespace coordinates: cytoplasm at nonhuman temporal scales

Director and Producer: Mike Davis

Concept art: Tory Miles

Duration: 57 minutes

A documentary made for BBC Two in 2012 exploring the inner world of the human cellular structure via the narrative of a viral infection from within the world of a single cell.

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virus penetrating cell wall

UPS: Probably this documentary will be regarded as a total highlight of scientific motion graphics animation for some time to come. As of now, BBC Four was still screening it in 2019, a basic item in their science arsenal (already feeling infected by the militaristic jargon used throughout the production – but i will stop here with that).

Vibrational: Finally a documentary that takes into account the fact that all all molecular parts of the cell (not mentioning the atomic lattices) are under constant vibrational trepidation. Once could build on this vibrational metaphysics at work here at this biochemical molecular level and this movie makes it very clear for the first time. Especially the scenes with the star molecule (a bit too rash hailing it as symbol of the 21st c while it is so mid 20th c!) DNA. In the nucleus scene the details of the DNA helix are phenomenally alive, humming somehow under perpetual quivering. Most DNA up to this 2012 feature is depicted as forever static, chains of billiard balls rotating but never vibrating. Older 3D rederings introduce this assembly line movement and then always rotate along an invisible axis. This time the movement is basically incessant and blurry – showing how impossible it is to actually catch DNA at rest and make it visible for human eyes. This touch of realism makes the whole documentary one of my favorites.

Enough to think that all this prolific activity is going on all the time down there, and that the molecular recyclers, the membrane trafficking, the rotating mitochondrial rechargers or the busy rybosomal reading in and out activity is going all at this very moment, in all creatures and in all cells on this planet.

Most CGI work on biochemical processes is so much a question of promoting biochemical products, an outcome of pharma or big pharma pipelines trying to promote their products. I find it always welcome when a documentary does not function as a simplistic add-on illustration of a pharmaceutical add-on no matter how essential and life saving it actually is. At the same time it is always illuminating to see how such imagery makes the unseen seen and on what type of libraries or imagology it draws on.

The new cellular realism entails various accounts about its own artifice – the ways in which it is slowing down time or processes in order to make them visible, perceptible or even HD. One such process was the movement of cellular carrier (molecular machinery) across long immense scaffolding that spans the whole cytoplasm and support its internal architecture. Movement of 60 steps or so per second was slowed down to human level – at the same time the actual movement itself at normal (normal at the cell level) is blurry, another vibrational process that does transforms the step by step Sisyphus into some Flash – superhero speed.

Somehow these documentaries are the fallout of the molecular revolution which I think is bringing not only the star molecule DNA into the limelight but precisely cellular mechanism and the cell as such as well as the complexity of metabolic pathways that are not always traceble via genes (science of epigenetics or metabolomics).

A few notes on the wonderful work of Tory Miles. According to his website which I encourage you to check, it is his the first show he ever worked on. One more time we realize how important and valuable is the work of an artist (matte painter-concept art-environment art) for the illustration, understanding and making visible the invisible, hidden and out – of – this world landscapes. Goes without saying the role played by motion graphics and gaming. THE HIDDEN LIFE OF THE CELL could be seen as just gamification of biological processes and it still would brake boundaries in scientific illustration and imagining the invisible.

Also big pro for the fact that there has been a big con in choosing(no anthropocentrism intended) simplicity over complexity. Cells are just one direction while viruses and other simple parts went basic. Prions (misfolded proteins) or viruses do not suffer from their simplicity. They infect prosper on the back of growing complexity elsewhere or this is how I understand it. There is no shame in going half dead half alive as viruses manage to stay. You can be at this boundary zone when you are not too simple or not too complex and use this shapeshifting potential. The documentary makes this amply clear.

What he also makes clear from his website is the symbiotic relationship with speculative fiction and speculative biology and SF via other productions, influences and works. I found some on his page some proposals for the Protomolecule presented for the Syfy Channel success series EXPANSE (based on a series of novels by James S. A. Corey). Altough final concept art was done by Canadian studio North Front, it is revelatory in this sense. Would be an interesting exercise to tease out the reciprocal influences of developing the ‘protomolecule’ and the actual epidemiological account of the infection of a cell by an adenovirus featured in The Hidden Life of the Cell. The protomolecule is both cell-generating, viral and of extra terrestrial origins as the fandom wiki explains:

The Protomolecule was created by extra-terrestrials around two billion years in the past, and launched as a one of the Bracewell probe swarm at a trajectories towards the stars harbouring planetary systems having conditions for the emergence and evolution of some molecular replication mechanism.[citation needed] Such replicators could be any powered by energy from chemical bonds, such as life based on carbon, silicon or other elements, and also by any kind of photons also or even radioactivity.

There is direct reference to phage (viral) mechanisms of the protomolecule replicator so there is some inherent virality to the both of them.

Also in relationship with the cellular CGI structures is mentioned the 2007 SF cult movie Sunshine by Danny Boyle. It is both a cosmic horror movie and one that has transformed the mission of reigniting the sun into something else akin to an initiation tale of solar burnout and cvasi-solar cult (also mentioned in recent The Lighthouse hit).

The cellar nucleus has the same dimensions and presence of a galactic core – at the same time is both clarifies how this sort of nucleus-centrism in the BBC documentary coincides neatly with our heliocentric image of a dying sun or a some star at the brink of going nova.

Not to mention the whole general alien aesthetics of this world, indeed we need more documentaries like this. There is the sense of incredible spaciousness, that makes the improbability of it all the more poignant. Everything bumping into each other, everything self organizing and still there is an incredible avalanche of timed effects, shapes and chemical bonds that shape them shape all actions in a bizarre orchestration of larger and larger assemblages. It is outer space and it is not. It is a sort of liquidity and viscous becoming that bathes everything into something almost oceanic and abyssal.

This inner and outer drift is what is the hardest to catch aesthetically I guess, the fact that nothing is really under the control of the central unit – the nucleus even if so much aimed at its inner data base. There is a lot of stuff getting in and out, but also a lot of parts, outside of the cell and inside of the cell that somehow manage to collude and act out outside of direct influence or control. There is no end to the alien realms out there even if most of it is CGI – the most incredible inflamationthing being how one can almost completely bypass new imaging flourescence techniques that are wonderful in themselves. These make at least at larger scale of bacterial and inter-cellular level things more vivid than ever.

DOWNS

Epidemiology & militarism

Throughout the features the cold war neo-Darwinian slang lies heavy. Yes, this is life when infections happen. Yes, we always seem to lack the proper metaphors, the nonhuman turn makes itself least sensible at these invisible, apperceptive levels, but it is most funny and frustrating how unavoidable and pervasive war – and war of all against all gets center stage. Not all scientist in the documentary proffer this dramatic mode of heightened description, but there is most certainly a kind of almost normal happen stance creepy ego shooter battle cry, almost making sure that every anti-body lock-on or surrounding every viral particle is a mine, a weapon, an attack, a deathly struggle. Everything seems to revolve around sacrifice and selfishness.

The pionering work done in immunology by Élie Metchnikoff and others is supported by a vision that had the organism as a living, inner/outer refashioning relation, of innate learning capacities and constantly developing system while in contact with the exterior. His discovery of intra-cellular digestion in flatworm paved the way to discovering phagocytosis, the fact that certain blood cells are actively destroying bacteria won him the Nobel Prize. Even if absent his shadows looms large. His fundamental breakthrough of inflammation as a boundary interaction and a directed action against host invasion by pathogens features large in this documentary. Metchnikoff was a Darwinist and atheist and also an early supporter of the larger role of the microbiome/holobiont and believer in the virtues of probiotics (Bulgarian yogurt) in prolonging life and preventing aging.

Also expect a lot of DNA centrism hailing, as mentioned above. Expect a restricted view focused just the human genome project (or any other species genome), never taking into account the non-human genes and microbial cellular assemblages that we have learned to appreciate only relatively recently.

As usual only the mitochondrial endosymbiosis powerhouse account escapes this war logic as well as the fact that almost all the pieces coexisted and co-evolved since the dawn of time. This ultimately brings home the realization that we are not witnessing just power blocks or absolute contraries at work but also complementary forces, tensions and divergences.

Yes, there is more gripping action and attention when there is talk of war, of conflicts of permanent arms race or egotistic units vying for supremacy. Still there is other ways of avoiding banality, bored viewers or easy simplification. So i wish they would have gotten more inspiration from indie games (not only graphically) but also conceptually, rather than the usual strategy war games.

Other big lack is the CRISPR-Cas9 system (revolution?) and its implications for the evolution of viral or bacterial interactions and evolutionary origins.