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.


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."


Why Trump Needs an Enemy

The New Yorker

Last week, a senior White House official shared a candid theory with me about why President Donald Trump and his team have been adrift since November: they've yet to adjust to the post-election reality, and they haven't yet learned how to operate without a single, common enemy--Hillary Clinton--to focus on. Incoming Presidents usually trade in some of their political tacticians for experienced Washington hands when they take office, but Trump installed his entire senior campaign leadership into top positions in the White House, a place where few of them have ever worked before. In fact, one of the only senior Trump staffers with previous White House experience is Omarosa Manigault, the reality-star villain from "The Apprentice," who briefly worked in the Clinton White House when she was twenty-three years old. But none of this should come as a surprise," John Feehery, a longtime Republican operative, told me of Trump's press conference.


Christopher Strachey's Nineteen-Fifties Love Machine

The New Yorker

Overwrought love letters began turning up on the notice board at the University of Manchester's computer lab in August, 1953. And the signatory was always the same: "M.U.C.," for the Manchester University computer, a Ferranti Mark 1, the world's first general-purpose and commercially available machine of its kind. Far as computers might advance, this person would claim, "you will never be able to make one to do X"--where "X" meant "be kind, resourceful, beautiful, friendly, have initiative, have a sense of humour, tell right from wrong, make mistakes, fall in love, enjoy strawberries and cream, make some one fall in love with it," and other skills besides. The version of Strachey's love-letter generator that appears in this article is based on the emulator developed by David Link.


Alternate Endings

The New Yorker

Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, young directors who go by the joint film credit Daniels, are known for reality-warped miniatures--short films, music videos, commercials--that are eerie yet playful in mood. Bloch called his software Treehouse and his company Interlude--the name hinting at a cultural gap between video games and movies which he sought to bridge. In Borges's telling, the novel remained a riddle--chaotic, fragmentary, impenetrable--for more than a century, until a British Sinologist deciphered it: the book, he discovered, sought to explore every possible decision that its characters could make, every narrative bifurcation, every parallel time line. Conversely, making choices in a video game often produces emotional withdrawal: players are either acquiring skills or using them reflexively to achieve discrete rewards.