Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Science Fiction Meltdown: The Adjustment Bureau - An Exercise in Form Expansion

Ha! I just discovered this post saved as a pretty much finished draft. It was actually written a year ago, shortly after Scarlett was born. She is now one.

So here is the article of a year ago:
Well, the wait for my daughter is over! Scarlett Estelle was born on Saturday the 16th and takes her loads of dark curly hair from me! I'm glad she's here, it has been unsettling to wait, knowing that our lives were about to change with a second child. And since she was 5 days late, all my wife's dinner plans were used up and all the freezer meals she had prepared for after the baby were mighty tempting. Anyway, Scarlett is such a cutey and I'm so glad that she's here!

I have to admit that I have been reading A LOT of science fiction this summer.(N.B. - I have read a lot summer 2012 as well.) Practically gobbling it up non-stop. Highlights have included Michael Morcock's "Dancers at the End of Time" trilogy (the ultra-decadent but naive inhabitants of the End of Time have a run in with 19th century morals in the form of a time-traveling housewife), Cordwainer Smith's masterpiece novel "Norstrillia" (about the most beautiful woman that ever lived and the boy who bought the earth), and Vernor Vinge's "A Fire Upon the Deep", its 30,000 years earlier prequel "A Deepness in the Sky" (epic galactic fiction in every way - Vinge coined the influential term "Technological Singularity" which is a topic worth looking up if you've never heard of it). I've long been a sci-fi buff, and long since progressed from the Star Wars books of my preteen years to heavier, more sophisticated fare. One of the formative experiences of my book-reading youth was an encounter with "Rossum's Universal Robots" the original Czech play which actually coined the word "robot". Other early experiences were Asimov's robot stories, which happened to coin the term "robotics".
There is something deeply satisfying about a good science fiction book, which seems to feed me almost as much as a good piece of music. Fresh ideas, paradigm shifts, invigorating views of mankind crossing the thresholds of the future. This summer I've thought more about that correlation and even turned my latest reading towards reading about the writing of science fiction. I've noticed a number of parallels between the way I conceive of music and the way a good story is told. In fact, I've written a couple short stories this summer and been working on an outline of a novel set several hundred years in the future. All this has me in an interesting line of thinking lately, that is influencing my music. Allow me to share an example from this weekend!

I've been wanting to watch the new movie "The Adjustment Bureau" for some time now, so when we were stuck in the hospital waiting to be able to come home with Scarlett I went and picked it up. It is the 10th movie made from a story by obscure and literally visionary(slash delusional?) sci-fi author Philip K. Dick. Others include "Blade Runner" based on "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep", and "Next", "Minority Report", "Paycheck" etc. Too bad Dick was relatively obscure in his lifetime! "The Adjustment Bureau" is an expansion of the short story "The Adjustment Team" from 1954. Watching the movie this weekend and then reading the short story today had my mind thinking about the careful process of expansion/alteration which made the movie successful. Warning: plot spoilers ahead, so either watch the movie or don't be upset.

"The Adjustment Team" is a rather typical short story from those early "golden" days of science fiction. It is a story with an idea. Notice the period - early sci-fi  stories tended to have trouble being much else than an idea. Some fantastic 'what-if' - such as a base on mars or human-like robots or nuclear-warfare mutated babies formed the basis of each story, and the stories usually remained short because, frankly, most sci-fi authors of the time didn't have the writing chops to flesh out such imaginings into a full story. Now over half a century later, science fiction (at least the good, literary stuff) contemplates much deeper issues than a single idea. The 'what if' ideas tend to be buried deeper into the story, rather than being the 'gosh-wow' climax of the plot. For example, in Vinge's "A Fire Upon the Deep" one of the major premises is that there are different 'zones' in the galaxy, which determine how fast ships can travel and how much technology can advance in that zone. But the plot is something much more character driven and takes the reader on a galaxy-spanning quest to stop an ancient technological evil consuming even the most powerful and god-like alien races in the galaxy. The gosh-wow idea behind "The Adjustment Team" is 'what if there were an organization who monitored the human race and subtly, secretly interfered with things for the good of mankind?"

The plot is simple: A mysterious Clerk goes into Ed Fletcher's yard unseen, and convinces Ed's dog that it must give a bark at exactly 8:15. This will set of a chain of events leading to Ed's arriving at work much earlier than usual, so that a scheduled 'adjustment of sector T137' can go down at the site of his workplace. However, the Clerk nods off just before the appointed time, and the dog barks a minute late. This results in an insurance salesman delaying Ed so that he is very late for work. Upon arriving at work, he finds that everyone and everything is gray and frozen, and turns to dust at the touch. A band of men dressed in white robes chases him with hoses and other equipment, but he escapes to his wife's work and tells her the whole story over lunch. She doesn't believe him and takes him back to work. Going to explain his lateness to his upset boss, he notices that a dozen things have subtly changed in the office, from the arrangement and type of furniture to the age and appearance of his boss. Fleeing again, he is suddenly lifted up, up into the sky in a phone booth, where he has an encounter with 'the Old Man' who explains to him that they were making an adjustment in his boss's behavior that would lead, through a series of events, to a lessening of Soviet-west tensions. Promising never to tell anyone, he is returned to his home. As his wife begins to question suspiciously about where he was all day instead of work, the dog barks and a vacuum salesman distracts her. Ed lifts up his eyes and offers gratitude for the help.

Let's break down this plot into a few essential parts:

  • The non-normal introduced - with the interaction between the Clerk and the dog. This tells the reader: this will be an unusual story.
  • The normal reestablished, sort of - the homey scene of Ed being delayed for work is tinged by what we already know about the mysterious meaning of the dog's late bark.
  • The non-normal powerfully takes over - Ed's discovery of the 'de-energized' building introduces the first big chills of 'what is going on?'
  • The coping and doubting- After the non-normal takes over, the character has some gut reactions, in this case Ed runs away and tells his wife. Her loving rationality forces him to wonder if he's lost it. This typifies responses to the unusual - flight and disbelief.
  • The climactic reveal - it turns out the the Adjustment team had alarmingly altered his workplace and that a god-like 'Old Man' is pulling the strings.
  • The resolution- of sorts - Ed resolves to keep things hushed and receives some timely help from the Team as they distract his wife from wondering too much about what happened.

The film "The Adjustment Bureau" turns this simple tale of a man's terrible experience one day into a full length movie spanning years. It does so in three main ways: it introduces a secondary (but pivotal) love story plot arc, it takes away Ed's 1950s compliance to authority and makes him David Norris, rogue would-be senator from New York, and finally, the movie introduces a handful of related but new 'what ifs' to the story that help explain how the Bureau could keep track of everybody. This includes the 'doors' which matter so much in the movie.
At this point, you should read the synopsis of the movie on Wikipedia, if you haven't seen it.

The movie begins without an immediate hint of the 'non-normal' as it introduces David's failing political campaign for senator. On election night, only a hint of the out-of-the ordinary is introduced, as several Bureau agents discuss the 'big night' ahead and hint at a 'tiredness even a vacation can't help'. That night David meets Elise, who influences him to go off the cuff in his speech, which is well received and prepares him as the frontrunner in the next election. (Later it is learned that the Bureau organized their meeting to this end, but does not want them to have a lasting relationship.) The action that follows essentially contains the bones of the original short-story.Bureau agent Harry fails to delay David's arrival at work, causing him to re-meet Elise and get her number, and to interrupt the Bureau in the process of altering things at his workplace. The agents pursue him, able to walk in one door and out another door in a different location, closer to where he is running. Taken to a warehouse, David learns that he has created enough ripples in the Plan that the Bureau can't simply fix him, but will have let him go on. They tell him it is not part of the Plan to be with Elise and that he must never tell anyone about the Bureau or his whole mind will be erased. At this point, Ed of the short story basically threw up his hands and said, "ok!" But the movie has set up a larger stage of action through the love story. It also helps that David is only confronted by a Bureau agent, rather than by "the Chairman" or "the Old Man". The stage is now set in the movie for the bulk of the action, all stemming from this initial set-up, and set three years in the future. David and Elise meet again by chance, and he, determined to keep them together, creates so many 'ripples' in the plan that the Bureau is forced to confront David with the truth (or one version of it): if he stays with Elise, her future as one of the greatest dancers/choreographers ever will be ruined, as will his destiny to someday become the U.S. President. Loving her too much to ruin her dreams, David backs off. 11 months later he learns of Elise's pending wedding, and realizes that he cannot let go of her, Plan or no. With the help of a sympathetic Bureau agent, David is able to travel through the doors across New York and escape the pursuit of the Bureau, find Elise and explain everything, and go with her to attempt to confront the Chairman of the Bureau. Seemingly trapped at the last minute, Harry arrives to call off the rest of the Bureau and announce that the plan has changed so that David and Elise can be together, hinting that the real reason for the plan is so that people like David and Elise can assert their free will for good, preparing mankind to do without the Adjustment Bureau. (Also hinting that Harry, or somebody else they have previously met, is 'The Chairman', but never explicitly revealing who)

Quite a bit of extrapolation from 'what if their was an agency watching and controlling the fate of mankind?', and full of much more compelling characters and action than Dick's original story! To look back on the original plot points of the short story, what the movie adds (besides the love story) is a more sophisticated and in-depth version of the coping - doubting phase. David's sanity isn't in question, because to him the Bureau's power has been proven undeniably; he just can't prove its existence to anyone else, for fear of a 'reset'. Rather, David copes by keeping up the hope that somehow he can be with Elise, and when the chance comes, he works hard to make sure that he doesn't lose her again. It is at this point when another plot point is added, as the non-normal exerts its power - Elise's ankle is sprained by 'coincidence' and the Bureau reveals more of its hand, forcing David to leave her and really break her heart this time. Finally, the most pivotal of additional plot points of all is added to the mix: David decides to rise up to the conflict with the Bureau and change his fate. This is what really makes "The Adjustment Bureau" more than a mere gosh-wow story - The love story sub-plot has given David the motivation to face the conflict, unlike Dick's spineless and compliant Ed. In the end the climax is much higher - not only do we see the inner workings of the Bureau, but we get a larger glimpse of why the Bureau does what it does. And of course we get the satisfaction that David's motivation to conflict, and Elise's choice to forgive David after all the times it seems he's left her, has resulted in them changing their destiny so that they can stay together. Meanwhile, the generally menacing workings and purposes of the Adjustment Bureau remain just as mysterious as Dick's original Adjustment Team.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Summer 2012

This summer has been really great so far. We began the summer with a 5-year anniversary trip to Rocky Point, Mexico. Since then I have focused on composing. Due to the fact that I got so sick during winter semester, there are several projects I am finishing up this summer, including my first orchestral piece, Shadow Etchings. I am also working on a saxophone quartet, a piece for electronics and piano (using Max/MSP and CMix) and another chamber piece for bass clarinet, cello, harp and marimba/percussion.

I've felt very blessed - as I've worked hard to make the best use out of my time, I've seen great progress. I'm confident that everything I'm working on this summer will no doubt be the best work I've done yet!

I've also recently finished a hymn, "Morning Prayer" which I will post soon.

This Sunday through Wednesday I will head up to Snowbird Resort to serve as intern for the Barlow Endowment - I got to do it last year and it was a neat feeling to see so many tens of thousands of dollars be awarded to composers. Hopefully next year I'll have a shot at some funding myself! 

Another big focus of mine has been investigating schools where I will apply for my doctorate this fall, to begin fall 2013. If anyone has any suggestions, I'm all ears! 

One of the most exciting things going on right now is that I am applying for a Fulbright grant to Russia. It has been so fun to be in touch with various Russian organizations...if I get the grant, we'll spend 9 months in Russia for the 2013-2014 school year!

Oh, and I've been working out hard and lost 16 pounds since the above picture was taken in May!