The New Yorker


"Alien: Covenant" Bursts with Pomposity

The New Yorker

Ridley Scott's extraterrestrial adventure "Alien: Covenant" is deadly serious about matters that he takes deadly seriously, and the only things that he derides with any irony--muffled and sardonic though it may be--are the movie's snippets of art greater than his own, by artists greater than himself--starting with Richard Wagner, whose "Entry of the Gods into Valhalla" is heard in the first and last scene. There are seven years left in the voyage, during which its crew and more than two thousand colonists--plus another thousand human embryos--are lodged in locked pods, asleep in an unaging suspended animation, as the ship is supervised by the android Walter (Fassbender), who is David's double but with an American accent. There, in isolation with Karine (Carmen Ejogo), Oram's wife, and another crew member, Maggie Faris (Amy Seimetz), his back bursts open and he gives birth to a slimy, boneless xenomorph. Scott's David is a stereotypical movie Nazi, from the air of refinement and the insinuating sexuality to the British accent; for that matter, with a tiny twist involving his misidentification of a poet, he's a walking reference to a Nazi villain in "Schindler's List."


A Brilliant Return for a Talking Heads Album

The New Yorker

Byrne and the other Talking Heads--the guitarist and keyboardist Jerry Harrison, the bassist Tina Weymouth, the drummer Chris Frantz--had spent several weeks jamming in recording studios, swapping instruments and bringing in other musicians, such as the guitarist Adrian Belew, who had played with David Bowie and Frank Zappa. The questions nearly broke up the band--and when Weymouth and Frantz's side project, Tom Tom Club, caught on with black listeners (more than "Remain in Light" did), it was seen by some people as sweet revenge. Thirty-seven years after Hendryx sang "Houses in Motion" in Central Park with Talking Heads, she sang it with Kidjo, and the sight and sound of these two women passing the lyrics back and forth gave fresh meaning to the notion of call and response--suggesting that this notion, better than the language of identity or influence, expresses the way musicians respond to the call of songs from other ages and other cultures, making their responses into calls to other musicians going forward. It was a one-world moment, and yet just as often Kidjo's band re-rooted Talking Heads songs in American vernacular music.


A Generational Shift in Independent Filmmaking, at the 2017 Maryland Film Festival

The New Yorker

She looks at Nessa and Blaise with an urgent intimacy that often bypasses facial expressions to isolate aspects of the body--including facial features, hand gestures, postures, or even tools and articles of clothing--that transmit emotions without declaring them. Sylvio works as a bill collector, making phone calls by way of a voice-generating computer on which he types, but he dreams of a career as a performer--as a puppeteer--and at home he performs with a bald-headed, mustachioed, middle-class-Everyman hand puppet and records his performances on video for his own pleasure. Where that older generation had the benefit of a shared sense of mission that was reflected in a shared sense of style, younger filmmakers following in their wake are venturing out alone and starting more tentatively--with short films--before hazarding a feature. The seeming family resemblance of the last decade's worth of innovative independent filmmaking--founded largely on improvisation based on situations close to the filmmakers' own and using performers they find in their own circles--is somewhat deceptive.


Seeing with Your Tongue

The New Yorker

Seated off to one side, with a slim gray plastic band wrapped around his brow, Erik Weihenmayer was warming up, too--by reading flash cards. The camera feed is reduced in resolution to a grid of four hundred gray-scale pixels, transmitted to his tongue via a corresponding grid of four hundred tiny electrodes on the lollipop. Bach-y-Rita had already begun tinkering with devices that substituted tactile sensation for vision, but, encouraged by this personal evidence of the brain's ability to adapt to loss, he completed his first prototype in 1969. The pins vibrated intensely for dark pixels and stayed still for light ones, enabling users to feel the picture pulsing on their backs.


Margaret Atwood, the Prophet of Dystopia

The New Yorker

When Margaret Atwood was in her twenties, an aunt shared with her a family legend about a possible seventeenth-century forebear: Mary Webster, whose neighbors, in the Puritan town of Hadley, Massachusetts, had accused her of witchcraft. "The townspeople didn't like her, so they strung her up," Atwood said recently. "But it was before the age of drop hanging, and she didn't die. She dangled there all night, and in the morning, when they came to cut the body down, she was still alive." Webster became known as Half-Hanged Mary.


Learning Arabic from Egypt's Revolution

The New Yorker

When you move to another country as an adult, the language flows around you like a river. Perhaps a child can immediately abandon himself to the current, but most older people will begin by picking out the words and phrases that seem to matter most, which is what I did after my family moved to Cairo, in October of 2011. It was the first fall after the Arab Spring; Hosni Mubarak, the former President, had been forced to resign the previous February. Every weekday, my wife, Leslie, and I met with a tutor for two hours at a language school called Kalimat, where we studied Egyptian Arabic. At the end of each session, we made a vocabulary list.


Could Ms. Pac-Man Train the Next Generation of Military Drones?

The New Yorker

Thirty-five years ago, while Martin Amis was writing "Money," one of the novels that defined the nineteen-eighties, he admitted to a distracting dalliance with another contemporary icon. "I have spent weeks in a PacMan-fed stupor, unwilling and unable to think about anything else," he wrote in "Invasion of the Space Invaders," his "addict's guide" to the nascent arcade. Amis was not alone in his obsession. The Japanese-made game, in which players guide an auto-munching yellow head through a Daedalian maze, consuming a trail of pellets while fleeing four candy-tone ghosts, earned more than a billion dollars in quarters in its first year, surpassing the highest-grossing "Star Wars" film at the time. Pac-Man towered, Amis wrote, over "a vast garbage dump of rocky romances and wrecked careers."


Silicon Valley's Quest to Live Forever

The New Yorker

" (In the book, the author, Yuval Noah Harari, discusses Google's anti-aging research, and writes that the company "probably won't solve death in time to make Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin immortal.") A few years ago, there was great excitement about telomeres, Liz Blackburn's specialty--DNA buffers that protect the ends of chromosomes just as plastic tips protect the ends of shoelaces. But it turns out that animals with long telomeres, such as lab mice, don't necessarily have long lives--and that telomerase, the enzyme that promotes telomere growth, is also activated in the vast majority of cancer cells. Aubrey de Grey likes to compare the body to a car: a mechanic can fix an engine without necessarily understanding the physics of combustion, and assiduously restored antique cars run just fine.


Daniel Dennett's Science of the Soul

The New Yorker

The physicalists believe, with Dennett, that science can explain consciousness in purely material terms. Rainier, dozens of researchers shared speculative work on honeybee brains, mouse minds, octopus intelligence, avian cognition, and the mental faculties of monkeys and human children. The zombie problem is a conversational vortex among those who study animal minds: the researchers, anticipating the discussion's inexorable transformation into a meditation on "Westworld," clutched their heads and sighed. Animals have fewer mental layers than people--in particular, they lack language, which Dennett believes endows human mental life with its complexity and texture--but this doesn't make them zombies.


Are Liberals on the Wrong Side of History?

The New Yorker

If, by a margin so small that in a voice vote you would have no idea who won, Brexit happens; or if, by a trick of an antique electoral system designed to give country people more power than city people, a Donald Trump is elected, then pluralist constitutional democracy is finished. Everything in modern history, his book suggests, has been inexorably leading up to the conditions of 2017. Mishra's thesis is that our contemporary misery and revanchist nationalism can be traced to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's romantic reaction to Voltaire's Enlightenment--with the Enlightenment itself entirely to blame in letting high-minded disdain for actual human experience leave it open to a romantic reaction. Casting Voltaire as the apostle of fatuous utopian progressivism, Mishra curiously fails to note that he also wrote what remains the most famous of all attacks on fatuous utopian progressivism, "Candide."