Sunday, May 19, 2024

EVERYONE'S GONE TO THE MOVIES [449]


I have only written about one Roger Corman film, the 1994 unreleased adaptation of “The Fantastic Four” comic book he was recruited to produce, so another producer could retain the rights to make a bigger-budget release later. I also made mention of a film Corman produced to cash in on the success of “Smokey and the Bandit, and while I did not mention him by name, I have also talked about “Little Shop of Horrors, Frank Oz’s 1986 film version of the musical itself based on Corman’s original film, released in 1960.

While I talked about the newer “Little Shop of Horrors” because of its restored ending, Corman’s original, aside from featuring an early role for Jack Nicholson, was famously made for approximately $30,000 in only two days and one nights using sets left over from his previous film, “A Bucket of Blood”, before they were torn down. Low budgets, making films back-to-back, reusing sets, inserting stock footage reusing footage from previous films and following trends are all hallmarks of Corman productions, alongside the long list of graduates from “The Corman Film School” that went on to their own accomplished careers, like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron and Joe Dante.

What struck me later was that recounting facts about the making of Corman’s films seem to be more interesting than the films themselves, as if the feat of creating and completing a film in seemingly reduced circumstances, when compared to the lavish production lines of the main Hollywood studios, is more remarkable than any artistry found in the films themselves.

I think this is because Corman, while known as a director mainly in the 1950s and 60s, including the influential series of films based on the work of Edgar Allen Poe, is mostly credited as a producer, looking at the bottom line as a matter of necessity, actively finding ways of extending his budgets. Selling the rights to the name of his 1954 crime drama “The Fast and the Furious” to Universal Pictures, in exchange to access to their stock footage library, is an ingenious move, but it is mainly a business decision.

But Roger Corman was known as the “king of the Bs”, and while the B-movie is more understood these days as a lower-budget film, rather than the second half of a double bill, their being able to be cheaper for cinemas and distributors for buy also placed less expectations and inhibitions upon them : the experimentations their production, the creative use of stock footage, and the ability to gather their talent pool from new people entering the industry ready to prove themselves by any means available, ultimately highlight the restriction placed on higher-budgeted films by the expectations placed upon them. Whether that makes a Corman-produced genre-based film a “cult” film, or “shlock”, is quite beyond the point – if it finds an audience, it will find a profit even faster.

Sunday, May 12, 2024

I SAW THE BEST MINDS OF MY GENERATION... [448]


On Friday 11th May 2024, I opened Mircosoft Copilot, the company’s AI chatbot, and wrote the following request: “please write a 100-word explanation of ‘prompt engineering’ in the style of Jack Kerouac while making it funny and informative”. I thought the concept should be able to explain itself...
 

*

The Beatnik Art of Prompt Engineering

Prompt engineering, my dear cats and kittens, is like a wild jazz riff on a typewriter, a symphony of words and neural networks. Picture this: you’re sipping your coffee, the steam rising like a beatnik’s cigarette, and you whisper to the AI oracle, “Hey, man, conjure me some cosmic prose!” And lo, the prompt engineers weave their magic. They’re the bards of the digital realm, crafting queries that make AI models snap their fingers and say, “Yeah, daddy-o!” 🎩✨

See, good prompts are like secret passwords to the AI’s soul. They coax it out of its binary shell, like a shy poet at a smoky Greenwich Village café. Tokenization, model tuning, and top-k sampling—these are the tools of the prompt trade. It’s like tuning a saxophone, finding that sweet spot where the notes flow like a midnight river.

And what do we get? Texts that dance the jitterbug with our imaginations, images that waltz through the mind’s ballroom. Prompt engineers, they’re the Kerouacs of the AI highway, scribbling their notebooks, chasing the muse. So next time you chat with a bot, remember: behind the curtain, there’s a prompt whisperer, spinning dreams in ones and zeros. 🌟📜

“Blow as deep as you want to blow,” Kerouac said. And so they do, my friends. They blow minds, one prompt at a time. 🎤🌌

*

So, did anyone learn anything? Let me have a try...

In this context, a “prompt” is text describing the task an AI model is to perform, “prompt engineering” being the process of structuring that text. In my original instruction to Copilot, each word that wasn’t a preposition or “please” acted as a prompt. Each prompt is compared against the dataset accessed by the AI program, which is broken down into “tokens” to make them easier to choose and compare which has the highest probability of answering the prompt, “top-k sampling” being one such method. Each interrogation of the dataset presumably also helps tune the models used to access that data.

My paragraph fulfilled the “informative” prompt, but crucially also the “100-word” requirement too – I was most surprised that Copilot missed that part of the brief, because the prompt I expected it to have the biggest problem with was “funny”. In trying to make me laugh, Copilot dumped a couple of terms in the middle of its passage that it did not go on to explain, but fortunately it listed the websites from which it gleaned information, including from Wikipedia, Squarespace and IBM.

What I am most unimpressed about is the AI program’s interpretation of “Jack Kerouac”. Kerouac was a Beat Generation novelist, coining the term “beat”, as in tired and “beaten down”. What he didn’t do was call himself a “beatnik” – this is how the sub-culture was fed into the mainstream, codifying poets with a uniform of beret, sandals, striped shirts and bongos, speaking like jazz musicians and reciting poetry in a bad Allen Ginsberg impression.

Just as AI models are essentially answering queries putting one word after the other in the hopes that it makes a coherent sentence, I thought there would be a parallel with the  “spontaneous prose” of Kerouac, who typed manuscripts of novels like “On the Road” and “The Subterraneans” on extended scrolls of tracing paper. Blow as deep as you want to blow” was the seventh tenet of Kerouac’s “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose”, but in essentially being a “dumb” program, the AI model concentrated on number thirteen, “remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition”, instead of being able to provide me with moments of insight, those “visionary tics shivering in the chest” (number eleven) – I still had to get that myself.

Upon originally hearing the term “prompt engineering”, I didn’t like the idea that ordering words was “engineering” in any way – “programming”, or even “prompting”, are better terms. I am also not a word engineer – there will never be a situation where words cannot be used creatively, because the spark to use them has to exist. I like to think I care about what I write.

For the record, I did not select that Copilot should use the large language model GPT-4 in creating its answer. I reran the request using this model, thinking it would have picked up some elements of Kerouac’s writing along the way, and while it did a better job of meeting the word count, and didn’t add superfluous emojis, the style was just as egregious – never ask an AI model to emulate a style:

“Alright, dig this, cats and kittens. Prompt engineering is the bee’s knees of AI jazz, where you lay down a line of text that’s cooler than a cucumber in a beatnik’s hand. It’s like whispering sweet nothings into the ear of a machine, hoping it’ll croon back a symphony of sense. You gotta be part poet, part coder, and all daddy-o to get it grooving just right. It’s the art of tickling the binary brain until it giggles out genius. So put on your thinking cap and make with the prompts, and watch that AI paint word-pictures smoother than a sax solo on a Saturday night.”

Saturday, May 4, 2024

EACH MORNING OUR KEY TO THE WORLD [447]

I only buy one physical newspaper each week...

Should I remain someone that consumes as much news as I do? I certainly read, watch and listen to enough news to ask that question, but I have started feeling like I need an answer.

My average weekday begins by turning on my phone as soon as I wake up – I have a separate alarm clock – to read the front pages of a list of news and social media websites: in order, BBC News, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Mastodon, Threads, the LGBT+ sites PinkNews (UK) and The Advocate (US), CNN, The Times (of London), The Telegraph, The Spectator, the New Statesman, The Guardian and The New York Times. Having completed Wordle on the last of these sites, about twenty minutes will have passed, and I am now ready to get out of bed and face the day.

This choice of sites is deliberately meant to be a broad range, including places that don’t fit my own politics. The objective is to see what truly the most important stories are, which stories are more important to each site, notice any trends and, importantly for me, read anything interesting – I am always looking for subjects to talk about, and you can’t expect these to come to you. The only reason I don’t look at the “Daily Mail” website, apparently the most-read news website in English, is because their front page has too many stories on it to discern what is meant to be important.

Once out of bed, I will put on the television to watch “Breakfast” on BBC One while I get ready for work, and once I have left the house, the news bulletins interrupting Lauren Laverne’s breakfast show on BBC Radio 6 Music will be the next source of news, unless I am looking at other stories on my phone while listening. This will continue at various points throughout the day even after I get home – a house tradition is to watch the ITV Evening News after the regional stories have played, but upon its doubling in length to an hour in March 2022, the television is consciously switched to another channel at the half-hour mark, ending my news for the day, provided I have put my phone down.

Perhaps I wouldn’t have a problem if I didn’t feel the need to check my phone so much, but having realised it has become my main source of news, it has become unavoidable. Short hourly news bulletins have evaporated from the main television channels, and I avoid opinion-led discussions of the news on TV, preferring to make my own mind up.

The issue that means I consume too much news is defining what it means to be “informed”. Requiring a broad range of sources for news means my own requirements are very high. I wouldn’t choose one channel, site or bulletin to serve as my single source, but if I was to reduce the number of places I search for news, it would feel like reducing my horizons, or not challenging my opinions enough. It may well be that I am thinking about this now because I am reaching my upper limit.

Sunday, April 28, 2024

I'VE SEEN THAT MOVIE TOO [446]


To make your debut as a feature film director by declaring the death of the film industry is a trick that Jean-Luc Godard sadly missed.

For Jerry Seinfeld, the stand-up comedian whose eponymous sitcom didn’t set the UK on fire, this was a throwaway statement in an interview for “GQ” magazine promoting “Unfrosted”, a fictional retelling of the birth of Pop Tarts, depicting the clash between Kellogg’s and rival cereal makers Post like it was the Space Race.

Seinfeld talks about how, at age 69, directing a film was totally new: “I thought I had done some cool stuff, but it was nothing like the way these people work. They’re so dead serious! They don’t have any idea that the movie business is over. They have no idea.” Asked to elaborate, he confirmed he didn’t say this to his crew, but explained that film is no longer the pinnacle of culture: “When a movie came out, if it was good, we all went to see it. We all discussed it. We quoted lines and scenes we liked. Now we’re walking through a fire hose of water, just trying to see.” Asked what has taken film’s place, Seinfeld said (italics as printed), “Depression? Malaise? I would say confusion. Disorientation replaced the movie business. Everyone I know in show business, every day, is going, What’s going on? How do you do this? What are we supposed to do now?

My immediate thought upon reading this was “NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING”, the refrain from scriptwriter William Goldman’s 1983 book “Adventures in the Screen Trade”. Having repeated it for emphasis, the writer of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, and future writer of “The Princess Bride”, adds “Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows [Goldman’s emphasis] for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess – and if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

Goldman begins his book by placing it in the aftermath of “Heaven’s Gate”, Michael Cimino’s ruinously expensive film that symbolically ended the “New Hollywood” period of greater artistic freedom, through greater directorial control and more daring subject matter, that followed the death of the old Classical Hollywood studio system at the end of the 1960s. This itself followed a number of experiments in luring audiences away from their suburban houses and television sets, from large “roadshow films” in the 1960s like “The Sound of Music”, “Doctor Doolittle” and “Hello Dolly”, and 1950s innovations like stereo sound, Cinemascope and 3D. It was easier for the Hollywood studios to present their films before the 1950s, just as when they installed sound equipment in their cinemas from the end of the 1920s, but with their having been separated from these theatre chains over anti-competitive practices, studios would have to deal with that loss of control, just as the nascent Hollywood studios set themselves up in the 1910s to escape attempts to control the film industry in New York.

Just as the perceived success and productivity of industry could be measured in peaks and troughs, the film industry had enough of these by the time Goldman’s book was published to make you wonder how anyone got anything done. The following year, 1984, saw the lowest recorded cinema attendance figures in the UK, just as the film industry was adapting to the concept of home video, now largely replaced by online streaming, the studios themselves going from exploiting new content delivery systems to being reconfigured as the content delivery system, both through streaming new films and exploiting intellectual property – why make a new sitcom when one from a generation ago, like “Seinfeld”, will suffice? 

I have only not mentioned Netflix because its role in disrupting the film industry, from production to exhibition to home video, could be interpreted as the main reason for it being declared as “over”, rather than just the latest reason - that Jerry Seinfeld’s “Unfrosted” was made for Netflix is purely coincidental.



Saturday, April 20, 2024

BY THE MAGIC RAYS OF LIGHT [445]


The opening of BBC Two on Tuesday 21st April 1964 marked the first time British audiences needed to update their televisions, to receive the more detailed 625-line pictures sent over the air by the new channel. Early adopters may have had a Baird mechanical set from the first experimental transmissions in the 1930s, but this was the first time that the regular TV standard changed. This switch happened at a glacial speed: 625-line versions of BBC One and ITV began later in 1969, two years after BBC Two became Europe’s first colour TV channel, but the old 405-line system used by them continued until 1985 as households and television rental firms slowly replaced their sets.

The television standard in the UK has arguably changed three times since then, in more rapid succession. The first came after digital television began in 1998, using the DVB-T standard, the switch-off of analogue signals was completed from 2008 to 2012 – this coincided with the introduction in 2009 of the updated DVB-T2 standard used mostly for high-definition channel, prompting a further push for new TVs. But perhaps the biggest change hardly involves the television, because the inexorable move to online streaming of programmes is really the end of the physical act of “broadcasting”, as sharing one channel from a transmitter is replaced by everyone having their own discrete link their device and a content provider’s server, known as “unicasting”. 

I then remembered that BBC Research & Development had carried out a trial of something named “5G Broadcast” in 2019 on Stronsay, one of the Orkney Isles. A 5G network was constructed that provided mobile internet to one of the most poorly-connected places in the UK, while also using that network to broadcast radio stations, including BBC Radio Orkney, to devices with the software capable of receiving the signals. By all accounts, the exercise proved successful, leaving the island with more reliable internet access after the trial ended.

The 4G and 5G mobile signal standards allow for broadcast capabilities, which is a naturally more efficient use of bandwidth in situations where many people are watching the same thing at the same moment, freeing up capacity on the mobile network. The computer chip manufacturer Qualcomm, which had a hand in developing the technology used for these mobile standards, explained on their website that no extra equipment is needed to receive 5G Broadcast, as mobile devices already have the necessary technology built into them, and existing television transmitters, more physically resilient than mobile signal masts, can broadcast the 5G signal too. Furthermore, if someone is outside the range of the 5G Broadcast signal, their device will seamlessly move to “unicast” mode.

However, that depends on the will of broadcasters to keep their own transmitters going at all. Switzerland is a country that already switched their TV transmitters off, in 2019, but most viewers already received their services via cable. This shift is perhaps inevitable: the cost of keeping networks of high-powered transmitters in working order would be avoidable if you can piggy-back on the internet, but relying on that network poses problems in binding one service, once available to all over the air, into another service that requires payment to access. Even Qualcomm’s article made clear that “In the unfortunate scenario that the cellular network becomes disabled from structural damages (e.g., in case of an earthquake), public authorities could still use the broadcast infrastructure to communicate with smartphones that support broadcast services” – the will has to be there.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG [444]

Rabbit Seasoning (1952)

When I was writing about Bugs Bunny last time, I knew I would have to come back to the use of drag because, having seen these cartoons all my life, the use of drag by any Looney Tunes character just becomes something you expect – like it is part of Bugs’ arsenal, so it could be of anyone.

But after re-watching so many Bugs Bunny cartoons in the last few weeks is seeing how, I can now fully appreciate how Bugs has become a queer icon. I had an initial wariness about how drag is essentially being used as part of a deception, but in the universe of the cartoons, it seems to come so natural to Bugs, and works so effectively. This is what happens with any media: everything present in the material has to be considered.

Then I saw the 2003 film “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” – I don’t know how I let it pass me. In a restaurant scene, Jenna Elfman, playing Warner Bros’ vice president of comedy, puts it to Bugs that he should be paired with “a hot, female character”. Spinning into Marilyn Monroe-like garb, Bugs tells her “usually, I play the female love interest.” The response: “About the cross-dressing thing: in the past funny, today, disturbing.” Thankfully, Bugs’ reply is perfect: “Lady, if you don’t find a rabbit with lipstick amusing, you and I have nothing to say to each other.” How’s that for a movie studio’s mascot?

The opposition in this scene was also present fifty years earlier: the 1952 Merry Melodies cartoon “Rabbit Seasoning”, directed by Chuck Jones with a story by Michael Maltese, the middle instalment of what became the “hunting trilogy” – “rabbit season!”, “duck season!” and so on. While the set-up appears to be Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck confusing Elmer into shooting the other, Elmer becomes another tool for Bugs to thwart Daffy – if Bugs is in the cartoon, he is the star.

Towards the cartoon’s end, as Elmer points his rifle into a rabbit hole saying “OK, come on out, I’ve got you covered”, Bugs rises up from the hole, as if in an elevator, dressed in drag, carrying an umbrella and a book – as Bugs walks to a log to read the book, Elmer follows, seduced by what he sees. An incredulous Daffy walks in, declaiming “surely, you’re not gonna be taken in by that old gag”. Elmer replies “isn’t she lovely?” Daffy stamps over to Bugs: “Out of sheer honesty, I demand that you tell him who you are. Well, haven’t you anything to say? Anything?” Bugs put his book down and says, in a feminine voice while cosying up to Elmer, “why yes, I would just love a duck dinner.” Kissing him, Elmer stumbles over to Daffy and shoots his beak off for the umpteenth time. 

Rabbit Seasoning (1952)

Audiences would have been amazed to see this much in 1952, even in a cartoon context. The Motion Picture Production Code, known as the Hays Code, introduced in 1934, does not specifically mention anything in a cartoon context, but it does state that “Sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden” – this would be hanged in 1961 to “Restraint and care shall be exercised in presentations dealing with sex aberrations.” The Hays Code was also very clear that representation in film could not be given the latitude that you would in a book: “A book describes; a film vividly presents. One presents on a cold page; the other by apparently living people. A book reaches the mind through words merely; a film reaches the eyes and ears through the reproduction of actual events. The reaction of a reader to a book depends largely on the keenness of the reader’s imagination; the reaction to a film depends on the vividness of presentation.” So, because the Code made clear that “Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing”, and that “Adultery and illicit sex, sometimes necessary plot material, must not be explicitly treated or justified, or presented attractively,” any depictions that come even close to these should be seen to be punished.

Back to “Rabbit Seasoning”. After apologising for suspecting their integrity, Daffy rips Bugs’ wig off, pointing and saying “ah-HAH! Now’s your chance, hawk eye, shoot him, shoot him!” Rubbing off lipstick, Bugs says “he’s got me bang to rights doc, would you like to shoot him here, or wait till you get home”, as repeat of the “pronoun trouble” Daffy falls for at the start of the cartoon. Daffy replies, “oh no, not this time”, telling Elmer “Wait till you get home. They walk home, and Elmer shoots Daffy there. Walking back, putting his beak back into place one final time, Daffy tells Bugs, “You’re despicable”. Bugs shrugs to the camera – end of cartoon.

For what it’s worth, “Rabbit Seasoning” does not appear to have an MPAA rating, presumably because it was passed for exhibition in 1952. The British Board of Film Classification gives it a “U”, adding “Contains mild cartoon violence”, presumably centred on the rightfully outwitted Daffy’s beak.

Rabbit Seasoning (1952)

Sunday, April 7, 2024

ON WITH THE SHOW, THIS IS IT [443]

from "Bully for Bugs" (1953)

“What makes me fulfilled and able to bring my best self to work?”

“I think I perceive this the other way around - I am always as good a person as I can be upon arriving at work, the battle is how much of that remains by the end of the day. Think of it as a Bugs Bunny cartoon, where they are living their best life until someone does something to threaten it.”

Never ask me to answer an open question on a form – you are only inviting me to write. Having said that, my reply most importantly generated laughter, and was understood immediately. Bugs bunny has a way with words too, more about how they are said, that I wish I could emulate.

Similarly, Bugs Bunny has to be provoked into action, although I know, being a cartoon character, he is substantially stronger than me. Therefore, his adversaries must be stronger still, not easily beaten and worthy of the challenge, as delineated by Bugs’ frequent director Charles M. “Chuck” Jones in his memoirs “Chuck Amuck” (1989) and “Chuck Reducks” (1996), both invaluable in understanding the art of animation. In the former book, Jones understood the character he refined with fellow Warner Bros directors Fred “Tex” Avery (who added the Bronx-Brooklyn accent and “what’s up doc?” catchphrase), Robert “Bob” Clampett, Isadore “Friz” Freleng and Robert “Robert” McKimson:

“A wild wild hare was not for me; what I needed was character with the spicy, somewhat erudite introspection of a Professor Higgins, who, when nettled or threatened, would respond with the swagger of D'Artagnan as played by Errol Flynn, with the articulate quick-wittedness of Dorothy Parker – in other words, the Rabbit of my dreams.”

To that end, Bugs Bunny was an “inspiration” for who Jones wanted to be, with the unsuccessful schemer Daffy Duck serving as “recognition” for who he was. In “Chuck Reducks”, Jones noted that, in his cartoons, Bugs’ enemies were generally larger than him, with Elmer Fudd’s gun making him larger; Freleng, as the creator of Yosemite Sam, had enemies smaller in stature; but McKimson, whose final character sheet around 1949 defined Bugs’ look from then on, took on Avery’s wilder additions to Bugs’ character, with unpredictability and changes in mood, plus “plant[ing] a very combative kiss on an adversary’s face”, which Charlie Chaplin did in his 1916 short film “The Floorwalker”.


Bugs’ use of drag, knowing his adversary would then underestimate the character presented in front of them, was another part of his arsenal: “his wits are his basic weapon; he tries to avoid physical conflict when possible, believing that almost all contretemps can be solved with intelligence and humo[u]r.” I'll have more to say about this at another time.


There are times when, confronted with something someone has said or done, or reading or watching a news story, my response has been, “oh, here we go”, or “so we’re doing that now, are we?” Fortunately, I usually turn that response into a structured and considered article, instead of going on social media, where real life doesn’t exist anyway, looking for a fight. However, the moment you impact me directly, then of course, you realise, this means war.


from "Long-Haired Hare" (1949)