Speculations

by Joanne McNeil

  • Prompts for Everest Pipkin's tabletop RPG World Ending Game Beyond the Third Act: Everest Pipkin’s Cinema-Inspired Tabletop RPG World Ending Game

    “Endings are very hard,” said Everest Pipkin. “It’s one of the most difficult things about making anything, and only gets harder when you are collaboratively telling a story with lots of people.” Speaking via video chat from their home in southern New Mexico, Pipkin, an artist and game designer, recently released World Ending Game, a tabletop “falling-action game” designed for players to bring existing campaigns to a close. Say you’re part of a weekly group playing Dungeons & Dragons and everyone is ready to move on. Your party can wrap things up and bring your existing characters — the druid,…  Read more

    On Dec 15, 2022
    By on Dec 15, 2022Columns
  • Lillian Schwartz's Pixillation Engineers, Artists, Both? Joanne McNeil on Bell Lab’s Pioneering Ken Knowlton

    “Animated movies are usually made by a slow and complex process involving the coordinated efforts of many artists, draftsmen, photographers and other specialists,” begins a curious instructional film Bell Telephone Laboratories Inc. released in 1964. After asserting that with an “electronic computer,” an animator could bypass “tedious” labor, the opening scroll concludes, “this very film was produced entirely by the process which is about to be described.” What follows is a concise and visually fascinating demonstration of BEFLIX (“Bell Flix”), one of the earliest computer animation techniques. Images in the demo—created with a “mosaic” grid of squares, each programmed to…  Read more

    On Oct 11, 2022
    By on Oct 11, 2022Columns
  • Chris Marker's Second Life island Read Only Memory: Joanne McNeil on Chris Marker’s Immemory Project

    “I’ll find you,” Chris Marker told Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang. The first time they met—New Year’s Day, 1999, at the Café de Flore in Paris—they had no idea what he looked like until he beckoned to them. There weren’t photos of him anywhere; he’d send illustrations of his cat, Guillaume-en-Égypte, if anyone asked for a picture. Krukowski and Yang wished to collaborate on an English language edition of the director’s CD-ROM project, Immemory. He could be difficult to reach but liked musicians and made time for the duo—formerly of Galaxie 500—who have performed as Damon & Naomi since 1991. …  Read more

    On Jul 14, 2022
    By on Jul 14, 2022Columns
  • Science Fiction in a Time of Crisis

    In 1968, Judith Merril and Kate Wilhelm planned to run an advertisement in a science fiction magazine with a list of authors announcing their opposition to the Vietnam War. But when they reached out to fellow members of the Science Fiction Writers of America to add their names, Merril and Wilhelm were shocked. There were significant numbers of vehement pro-war authors in the community, and they also wished to share their views with the science fiction-reading public. When the advertisement ran in Galaxy Science Fiction, it covered two full pages. On the right, the names of authors including Ursula K.…  Read more

    On Apr 14, 2022
    By on Apr 14, 2022Columns
  • The Matrix Resurrections Freedom as a Preset: Joanne McNeil on Metaverses Past and Present

    “What we’re selling is freedom,” says a digital media executive played by Demi Moore, of the promise of virtual worlds in Disclosure (1994). “We offer through technology what religion and revolution have promised but never delivered: freedom from the physical body; freedom from race and gender, from nationality and personality, from place and time.”  Based on a Michael Crichton novel, the movie explores in classic Crichton fashion a theoretically possible but highly unlikely scenario—in this case, a 32-year-old single woman who sexually harasses her married 50-something male subordinate; it is also one of a number of features from the 1990s…  Read more

    On Jan 18, 2022
    By on Jan 18, 2022Columns
  • Twilight of the Robots? Androids in Contemporary Cinema

    In August 2021, Elon Musk announced that his company is prototyping a humanoid robot called the “Tesla Bot.” He shared the stage with an ecstatically dancing figure that was obviously a human in a robot costume. Musk assured the audience that eventually the robot “will be real” and will derive from the AI system used in Tesla vehicles. The cars are already “semi-sentient robots on wheels,” Musk said, in yet another of his grandiose claims intended to disguise their minimal autonomous driving capabilities. It all appeared like a desperate attempt to siphon some of the nervous excitement that Boston Dynamics…  Read more

    On Oct 11, 2021
    By on Oct 11, 2021Columns
  • Dial-up Connections: All About Lily Chou-Chou at 20

    Twenty years after the release of All About Lily Chou-Chou, I can’t think of a film that better depicts what first drew people to the internet, and certainly none that matches its expressive use of content-type header errors. Director Shunji Iwai evokes the gaps and hesitancy in early internet communication through the depiction of character encoding across the screen. Posts on an online forum devoted to Lily Chou-Chou, a mysterious pop singer, first appear in a mojibake jumble of accented Latin characters. We can hear the clack of an old keyboard and another tap to refresh. The BBS code is…  Read more

    On Jul 12, 2021
    By on Jul 12, 2021Columns
  • Meet Your Driver: Film, Gig Workers and Big Tech

    “When you walk into an Amazon fulfillment center, it’s like walking into the Chocolate Factory, and you won a Golden Ticket,” says Janelle, one of the employees featured in videos posted to Amazon’s YouTube page. The introductions share a format, with titles like “Meet Ricardo” and “Meet Ron, military veteran and Amazon Delivery Service Partner.” These documentary-style videos sometimes air as advertisements on streaming services. One of the people interviewed just had a baby. Another narrates in American Sign Language. Janelle talks about providing for her young son. She says he loves packages from “Mommy’s work.” He appears briefly in…  Read more

    On Apr 8, 2021
    By on Apr 8, 2021Columns
  • The Other Horror in Zombie Movies

    The asymmetries of combat in a zombie movie are unlike any other: One must shoot to kill because only one side fights—the other side is merely hungry. The fate of humanity hinges on an efficiently delivered death blow. Characters can outrun the monsters or grab a knife in the kitchen for self-defense. Or, if the movie was made in America, there’s probably a gun. Only one side can handle tools. It is right there on the movie posters in which actors typically appear with their primary weapons. Brad Pitt has an assault rifle on the World War Z (2013) poster,…  Read more

    On Feb 10, 2021
    By on Feb 10, 2021Columns
  • Ballard in the Rear View

    In his autobiography, Miracles of Life, J. G. Ballard reminisces about a derelict casino he came across in his youth. The abandoned building gave him the sense that “reality itself was a stage set that could be dismantled at any moment, and that no matter how magnificent anything appeared, it could be swept aside into the debris of the past.” It is a canny summation of the familiar visuals in his fiction. Ballard was obsessed with facilities like hospitals and airports, places with sterile obstructive architectures and machine-like routines for individuals to perform, and theaters of reality that break down…  Read more

    On Oct 28, 2020
    By on Oct 28, 2020Columns
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