Sunday, March 16, 2008

OmegaCon Pictures and Comments, Day Two and Movie Review: Yesterday Was a Lie

The next "big event" for the morning was a 30-minute session with Peter Mayhew talking and answering questions about his experiences with Star Wars. I took a couple pictures of the crowd because it was instructive. This was one event in one track at this convention, and they probably had around 200 people in the room. My last space advocacy con had 200 people at the whole event.

Tiny horns seemed to be a "costume" of choice among the otherwise-normally dressed.

This kid put a lot of work into his costume. A shame I couldn't keep my camera steady. Thus my career as a writer, not a photographer.

Another costume too real for its own good. SF author Mike Resnick didn't understand why so many people were trying to imitate/live in George Lucas's world ("which is not science fiction," he was quick to add) "when there are so many other worlds they could create on their own...but then I wasn't [part of] a generation raised on television."

The gentleman in the wheelchair was named Lightning Bear ("I'm a Native American, in case you didn't know"). Apparently, he had a couple of extra roles as a Storm Trooper in the original Star Wars and a Scout Trooper in Return of the Jedi. Both of these men looked a little worn out to be doing the convention thing. Mr. Mayhew, who is a very tall (7'4" in his youth), hobbled in on a cane and just had that "God, will you people stop making me go to these things?" expression that you see on the Trek actors occasionally. I have a lot of notes written during his talk, but only a few one-liners stuck out as being worth sharing:

  • "I keep getting taken for Howard Stern, for some reason."

  • "I used to be 7'4". You shrink."

  • "Most of our lunches [during the making of Star Wars] were liquid."

  • "I was told [on the Endor set] not to go off set in costume. That was apparently Bigfoot country."

On my way upstairs to the Hard Science track (the track I was assigned to), I heard the following comment in the elevator: "They're just geeks. All they know how to do is costume and play video games." I was tempted to respond, but why bother?

As I was eating lunch, I saw this trio of little 'uns practicing some sort of Riverdance routine in the lobby. They were quite good, from what I could see of their practice. I missed the actual performance. C'est la vie.

The image below is a nice shot of the Sheraton atrium. Being somewhat acrophobic, I was quite happy that my session was only one flight up. The fourth floor also provided some good bird's-eye views of the various alien life forms. Vader's 501st Stormtrooper Legion, Alabama Garrison, was there in force, along with several other creatures that you had to catch quickly, if at all.

Prior to my first panel, "Flying Cars and Ray Guns: Where the Hell Are They?" The track chair, Travis Taylor, and a couple of scientists (Dr. David Finkelstein and Dr. Perry Gerakines, below) got into a rather vigorous debate about the nature and purpose of quantum mechanics.

No one was rude, but you could tell that this was still contentious territory among scientists. I confess to being less well-educated than I should be about such things. Most of us are acquainted with "classical physics," which deals with issues like gravity and motion, which can be seen with the human eye. However, when you get down to the atomic level, there's a whole new level of events going on that is not nearly so neatly explained or described. Indeed, the nature of the discussion between Taylor and the other two panelists was on whether quantum mechanics was used to describe or explain phenomena at the atomic level. The argument was largely semantic to me, and the three men seemed to agree on some interpretations of QM, but applications were hazy, and issues like string theory, which is seemingly elegant, but untestable. Despite the rather esoteric nature of the discussion, the room was mostly full (50 people). More than half of those folks cleared out when it came time for my panel, which was irritating but beyond my control, unless I barred the door.

For my session, Dr. Finkelstein left, I took a chair, Perry remained, and Dr. Laura Edwards, a nanotechnologist joined as well. One thing about panel sessions is that they go very quickly. No formal presentations, just a bunch of folks sitting at a table in front of the room. We introduce ourselves, have some discussions about our opinions of the subject, and then kick it out to the audience for any questions, which leads to more questions. I'm not sure how much folks got out of this session. There was a similar discussion on Friday on the ability of SF to predict the future. My personal view, which I naturally shared with the group, is that SF is much better at predicting technological and sociological changes. For example, SF easily predicted the development of rockets, but missed the invention of the transistor. An early work by Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward, predicted powered flight, but it was via zeppelin, not heavier-than-air craft, and women in his imagined future were still not allowed to vote. Et cetera. Fun discussion, at any rate, though as the only non-scientist on the panel, I was definitely in over my head when they started talking about specific applications of this or that. My fault for getting degrees in English and jobs in marketing.

After the panel, I wandered back to the literary track, where a trio of writers I hadn't heard of before--Haley Elizabeth Garwood, Joy Ward, and Louise Marley--talked about writing "across genres." One of the more useful items in this discussion was on the content of a query letter:

  • Here's my [story] setup

  • Here's my character

  • Here's their problem

  • Here's what happens in the first 50 pages that will hook you

I'll get more into lessons learned after I get through the daily summaries, but there was some really good stuff in this session that I took to heart as a writer. Looking back, I probably should've made a better effort to attend some more of the sessions on writing. I was very diligent about attending the sessions on the business angles of things, but someone less so about mechanics; and those, after all, are what have kept me from writing sellable SF. Fortunately, I'm a) a reasonably decent nonfiction writer, and b) very persistent. (In fact, an editor in another track quoted Calvin Coolidge on persistence, a lesson I've definitely taken to heart:

Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan 'Press On' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.

One of the funnier lines from the bridging genres session was, "If you want to start a fight at a romance convention, tell someone they wrote a 'bodice ripper'."

And so, having promised myself (and the lady herself) that I would do so, I headed for the screening of Yesterday Was a Lie, starring Chase Masterson. One of the reasons I gave this movie a shot, aside from its concept (altered states of reality, SF-film noir) was that James Kerwin, the writer/director, was an astronomy minor, and so knew what he was talking about, at least in theory. Brother, did he ever!

This was a seriously amazing movie. Way too smart for Hollywood, which is probably why it's had a hard time getting into some film festivals. Try this for a multi-layered movie: you've got a black-and-white film noir with dark, brooding cinematography to match anything made "back in the day." You've got a troubled, hard-bitten female detective who's having seriously bad cases of deja vu or disjointed experiences that come out of nowhere. You've got a mysterious man who appears to hold the secrets to all of this. You've got Peter Mayhew as an equally mysterious, dangerous figure. Somewhere in the mix, you've got a love story. And yes, you've got Chase Masterson starring as a lounge singer with many other roles to either help explain things or make them muddier, depending on how you interpret the dialogue. I should stress that this story is set in the present day, but it still has a lot of '40s technological artifacts, like analog telephones, old cars, and snap-brim hats. However, items like computers bring us back to the present. Thus it is what it is: a purposeful homage to film-noir set in the present day. The tone and style might evoke Raymond Chandler or The Third Man, but the story structure is more like something by Alfred Bester. As a piece of science fiction filmmaking, Yesterday Was a Lie is superb.

However, being a relentless critic, there are a couple of things that I didn't like, but they are minor, and one of them eventually corrected themselves. It took awhile to warm up to the lead character actress, Kipleigh Brown, who plays the grumpy, and at times frumpy detective, Hoyle. The '40s fedora and baggy suits don't (shall we say) suit her, but that costume isn't seen after the early part of the film. The whiskey-drinking, cigarette-smoking tough-gal act struck me as a tad ridiculous, but this, too, seems to be shed as the story develops. I asked the director afterward which scenes were shot first, because it seemed as if Brown gradually became more comfortable with the role.

The other challenge of the film is that it is, as I told the director, simply too smart for Hollywood. As a science fiction fan and occasional fan of old movies, I got it. Hell, I loved the concept! However, I might be a very niche audience. You have to be comfortable with nonlinear time-travel stories (which this isn't, really, but it's the closest I can come to explaining it without blowing the whole thing). And the concept is very high, the sort of thing that SF fans read SF for: to expand our minds and horizons. As such, it is entertainment of a specific type for a very specific audience. You either dig it or you don't. (I recall Ms. Masterson saying, "I love you guys!" as the audience debreifed afterward and was getting the whole concept. Apparently a few people had told her or the director, "I don't get it.") I hope like hell someone picks up this film and distributes it because it deserves better treatment than it's received so far.

My second panel was "The Moon, Mars, and Beyond," which featured Travis Taylor (again), Les Johnson (a NASA guy who was there on his own dime and accord), and me. One thing I discovered is that I'm not nearly as glib or smooth about explaining the Ares Project as I'd like to think, as my brain got ahead of my tongue in a few places, but I think I got in all the points I wanted to make (we're not remaking Apollo, we'll be doing things we haven't done before, etc.). Another problem, however, is that the new presentation I was given to use does not play nicely with Microsoft Windows Vista. Something new for the graphics people to work out. The picture below is Travis after a full day of track speaking, the poor guy. We had maybe 15 people in our track after (again) a full-room discussion on nanotechnology. So apparently nanotech is worth 50 people's attention, but the Moon, Mars, and beyond are not. Frustrating, given a conference of 4,000 people.

After finishing up with the second track, I headed for the car so I too could participate in the traditional con silliness. Imagine Indiana Jones if he spent more time teaching and snagging donuts from the teachers' lounge and somewhat less time on the road running from Nazis...

Everything after this is strictly the result of running loose with a camera and some adult beverages. I did restrain myself, as I was staying at the Embassy Suites a few miles away, not at the con hotel. Perhaps that's just as well.

Remember: "Quien no sabe" is Spanish for "He Who Knows Nothing."

Duff Man showed up for a few brews. Oh, yeah!

These two were so much fun, they got their picture taken. The guy was "a reaper," he said, without specifying if he was the head Grim Reaper in Charge (I think I saw him in the OmegaCon Tavern, though). The girl was "an evil fairy." Nice.

Unless I'm out of it completely, I believe this is a grown man dressed up as one of the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers. But then I showed up as Indiana Jones; who the hell am I to talk?

This hallway party called itself "Bedlam." The big gent in the white-and-blue shirt and black cowboy hat was the King of Bedlam, and everyone else was part of the court. When I introduced myself, I was dubbed Court Archaeologist. You just can't get this sort of entertainment at a NASA conference.

The ribbons holding this girl's top on were attached to a set of eight rings pierced into her back. Yee-ow!

I visited the gaming room briefly and caught Darth Maul and this Twi'lek deeply engaged in one of the games.

Much to my dismay, my flash was not cooperating in the Tavern, so this is the only good shot I have from the Masquerade Ball. However, if you look carefully, you can see the Lone Ranger, Wonder Woman, and (best guess) Captain Morgan. Every time he passed by, I wanted to place my foot up on a railing somewhere.

And that, dear reader(s), is what a Saturday night at a science fiction convention looks like. Welcome to my world.

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