In the latest installment of the Terminator franchise, one of the more effective scenes involves a character beginning to question exactly what he is: man or machine? It’s an oft-repeated theme in modern sci-fi films, from the stubborn denial and eventual morose resignation of the replicant Rachel in Blade Runner (and of Deckard in the director’s cut) to the revelation of the fabled “Final Five” cylons in the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series. At times, our collective pop culture imagination revels in the possibilities of augmenting our humanity with technology, as it did in the classic 70s TV series The Six-Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman. At the opposite extreme is the dystopian view of The Matrix, wherein humanity is reduced to nothing more than a biological power plant. Whether we’re talking about genetically and biologically engineered machines or humans who have been enhanced with technological wonders, the line we fear to cross is the one where we become, as Ben Kenobi described Darth Vader in Star Wars, “more machine now than man; twisted and evil.”
For those who follow me on Twitter and Facebook, you know that in recent weeks, my family has been dealing with the sudden loss of my father-in-law. The last time I lost someone this close to me was when my grandfather passed away when I was a freshman in college. Our current situation only serves to remind me how much technology has changed our daily lives in the last 21 years.
Two decades ago, I spent a fall Saturday morning out with friends exploring a series of bluffs, overhangs and caverns in rural Tuscaloosa county. (The Tide must’ve been off that week or playing an away game. Otherwise, I would’ve been firmly planted amidst the throng in Bryant-Denny Stadium.) When I got back to my dorm, the phone rang almost immediately. It was my father. “Where have you been?” He didn’t sound irritated, but uncharacteristically broken. He told me my maternal grandfather had died that morning, and he was on his way to come get me. Although I had my own car, he didn’t want me to drive four hours on the old country roads of west Alabama while dealing with my grief.
Unlike today, he couldn’t reach me sooner, because none but the wealthy (or the faux riche) had cell phones. (I recall complaining to my then girlfriend about how everyone with phone in their car made sure to hold it with their left hand when talking — so everyone outside the car could see it.) My father’s call was typical of how everyone in the extended family learned of my grandfather’s death; through a daisy chain of phone calls from one family member to another. I’m sure that in the early 20th century, there were some old timers who found it sacrilege to share such painful and personal information via the “talking telegraph.” But until recently, attaching ourselves to an analog voice network was the best way to share any news — no matter how small — with a select audience.
When my wife’s father passed away, I hesitated briefly before posting about his death on both my Twitter and Facebook accounts. “Is this really appropriate?” I wondered. I knew there were some family members who would log onto Facebook, expecting to update everyone on which microwave lunch was on tap for that day, to look at their friends’ photo albums of yard weeds or to take a quiz that finally answers that burning question “which Major Dad character are you?” Instead, they would find themselves confronted by the dark specter of human mortality and the loss of a beloved family member.
The fact remains I can keep up with many of these same family members more easily through online means than via telephone. In fact, for most of them, I have neither telephone numbers nor e-mail addresses. So the question of appropriateness is moot when you realize the best way to spread news to our families and friends is in the cloud. I did try to reach a half-dozen of the closest family members via phone. I only got through to two. The others in that group learned the news from their siblings or children… who learned it from Facebook.
A New York Times article from 1960 is thought to be the first printed reference to the term cyborg. (That is, according to Wikipedia, that all-knowing and ever-so-reliable font of digital information.) The article states that…
“a cyborg is essentially a man-machine system in which the control mechanisms of the human portion are modified externally by drugs or regulatory devices so that the being can live in an environment different from the normal one. “
Based on that earliest definition, simply relying upon the internet to spread information, much in the same way early generations of man relied upon carrier pigeons or smoke signals, does not constitute a cyborg. But what happens when our emotional responses become inextricably entangled with technology? It’s exactly this type of “man-machine system” that inspired the writing of this post.
You see, since my father-in-law died, we’ve been through all of the usual funereal business that should’ve driven home the reality of his death. My wife went the funeral home to view her father’s body prior to him being prepped for the visitation. We saw him again at the visitation and the funeral. For some reason, though, those experiences weren’t sufficient to convince us, emotionally at least, of the reality of his death. (It should be noted that, as followers of Christ, we believed his body to be merely an empty vessel at that point and that his spirit had moved on. As to where his spirit went, I’ll save a theological discussion of the concepts of sleep, heaven and the New Earth for another day… when I understand them myself.) Though my wife could view his lifeless body many times and remain strong, she couldn’t bring herself to delete his contact info from her mobile phone. THAT made it too real for her.
Likewise, she admitted that the hardest aspect of his death for her to grasp was the impossibility of simply picking up the phone to call him. For me, the realities hit hard and fast every time I type something about his death. Needless to say, writing this has been difficult. We have also discussed some of the things we’ll miss most about him, including watching Alabama football games on TV with him and his annoying PC service calls to our house. No matter how many times we told him “if you were using a Mac, we could help you,” he kept trying. Salesmen. Gotta love their persistence.
The need to perceive reality through the lens of technological advances is not new in my life. As a professional director and amateur photographer, no family vacation, birthday party or holiday is fully “experienced” unless I view it through the literal lens of some form of camera. In fact, one of my methods of dealing with the grief of our recent loss has been to immerse myself in still photography (and then upload those photos into the cloud, of course.) The few times I have attempted to go “lensless” on a vacation, I felt as if the experience were somehow hollow and meaningless, more fleeting than vapor. Memory is certainly a factor in that perception. I literally can’t remember those moments as vividly if viewed au naturale. And it doesn’t matter if I review the photos later; it’s as if the simple act of using a camera to capture those moments embeds the memories more deeply. Review them over and over again, and they become indelible.
I have innumerable memories of my childhood prior to age four, but I realized sometime ago that many of those are not memories of the events themselves, but memories of watching home movies of those events on my dad’s old 8mm projector. There was a time when I could recall the phone numbers of all my friends and family right off the top of my head. These days, I can only remember a handful. Why should I? They’re all right there in my contacts list on the computer and my phone.
If our emotional responses and our memories become so completely interwoven with technology, does that constitute cyborg? Going back to the Times’ definition, the creation of a “man-machine system” isn’t enough. That system must exist to help the being “live in an environment different than the normal one.” Do our current technological addictions fit the bill? I’m not sure they help us to live in our physical environment any better. In fact, one could argue that, with type II diabetes and obesity on the rise, technological advances have only served to make us less suited to the physical world we inhabit. However, what we have created is a an alternate “environment” comprised entirely of information. That environment governs almost every aspect of our daily lives in developed nations, from the creation and acquisition of wealth to controlling the flow of our food supply. One shudders to think what might happen if all the doomsayers are right about Y2K. Oh, wait…
The movie site Slashfilm recently spurred an online discussion inspired by the lackluster performance of Terminator: Salvation regarding whether the conceit of man-versus-scary-machine is no longer scary. There are many interesting (and some puerile) opinions on both sides of the argument. Personally, I believe the question itself to be self-reflexive: the very conversation itself could never have taken place if not for extremely powerful computers instantaneously connecting users from around the world, creating a man-machine system as it were. We’re no longer scared of machines, because our relationship with them is growing increasingly symbiotic. Perhaps the half of the man-machine system we should fear most is man.
To wit, one final note: last year I was in the Birmingham airport headed who knows where. As I was passing through security I noticed a young man, probably no more than 25, who had been pulled aside by TSA agents for a more thorough screening. They weren’t searching his bags for tweezers or saline solution. They were asking him to remove his leg for a closer inspection. Based upon his age and appearance, I surmised that he had most likely lost his biological leg in war. The artificial leg was one of those really high tech, articulated jobs. Though he handled it with good humor, I was incensed. Here’s a kid who gave up a piece of his humanity ostensibly to protect our country against terrorism, and the bureaucratic drones of the TSA were treating him as if he were a terrorist himself. (These are the same geniuses who totally missed a Gerber multi-tool I had left in my camera bag a few months earlier.) So I ask you, who was more machine: the forgiving young man with the robotic leg, or the security worker who blindly followed protocol (programming) without using any wisdom or discretion?
I’m heading out the door in a few minutes to take the kids to see Pixar’s latest opus, Up. We had planned to see it in 3D, but when we checked the ticket prices, we learned that 3D costs an extra $3 per ticket. Recession, people! Somehow, I can’t bring myself to spend $11 each on a matinee. So 2D will be just fine. If the tech is anything like my first experience with digital 3D, I’m not sure it’s exactly a value-added bonus:
The following originally appeared as blog entry on my personal blog, then as a column in Coastal Homes and Lifestyles and now I’m posting it again. Reduce, re-use, recycle!
Last night, Savannah and I went to see the new Disney flick, “Chicken Little.” The film was showing on the only screen in Alabama to feature the new REAL D digital 3D technology. Gone are the blue and red paper glasses of the past. Instead, we received plastic glasses with polarized lenses. The glasses were modeled to duplicate the look of the glasses the titular chicken sports in the film. This means that even the most beautiful people in the crowd looked like complete dorks. Film truly is a democratic medium. In order to achieve the 3D effect, the polarizing lenses resolve a dual image coming from the new digital projector. I haven’t found out much more than that about how it works, but I’ll be looking into it after last night. You’ll see why soon enough.
We got there early to snag some primo seats — right in the middle, as far back from the screen as the screen is wide. (That’s the secret formula to the best seats in the house. Keep it between us.) There we sat — the two of us and four other early birds. We had our dorky plastic glasses and our snacks, and we were just waiting for the film to start. A twitchy-looking manager entered and asked that we all leave the theatre while his crew re-cleaned it. We had seen a couple of theatre drones in there doing a half-assed cleaning job when we arrived. I thought that was just the way they cleaned theatres these days. But now they were telling us they needed to clean again. Wow! Real customer service. Way to go, Manager Man!
The six of us gathered up our five-gallon buckets of soda, our bushel bags of popcorn and brick-sized boxes of candy — all puchased with 6 months, no interest financing — and headed out to form what would become a substantial line. As more and more people arrived, a sense of suspicion began to grow amongst the “Linies.” (That’s the term the popular media used to describe us. We prefer “Liners.”) “I wonder what this is all about,” said one. “I thought it was to get the glasses, but the glasses are right there in that box,” another noted. I decided to add a little dash of intrigue for the newbies. “The six of use all in there and they kicked us out.” The collective gasp from the Liners nearly sucked all the air out of the building, like the sudden pressure drop inside a hurricane.
Then a bunch of theatre goons walked past with about a half dozen stantions — you know, those pole thingies used for roping off areas. “They’re blocking us out.” “I heard somebody say something about reserved seating.” “No, it’s about the 3D. It doesn’t work if you sit too close.” I didn’t buy that. Why would any exhibitor spend a quarter million dollars leasing a new projector and screen only to sell LESS tickets? Of course that would explain the additional $1.50 charge on our tickets.
As more and more new recruits joined us veteran liners, I noticed a few impatient tweens edging their way in front of us. Now, I like kids as much as the next guy… as long as they’re my kids. If your kids get between me and the seats I’ve chosen using my special theatre calculus… Well, they better be insured.
Heir Manager returned to let us six orginal seat squatters back in. The unity of the Liners was broken. It was now a matter of Haves and Have-nots. We have been in the theatre already. The rest of you have not. Indeed that theatre was remarkably cleaner — not a single kernel of corn and only the lightest touch of stickiness to the floor, and that only for the sake of nostalgia. And, to my chagrine, the wing sections down front were roped off. I was at least partially wrong; I admit it. (Don’t get used to it.) Savannah and I grabbed our original seats and settled in for some three-dimensional, digital wizardry.
The place filled up pretty quickly with couples, families and a few brave souls who obviously lost a poker bet and were forced to bring a whole cadre of kids. And we all divorced ourselves from our shame and enthusiastically donned our dorky chicken glasses. Then the Manager-nator returned, looking even twitchier than before. He welcomed us to the theatre and the first-ever Disney 3D blah, blah, blah.
Then the evening took a turn for the surreal. “You’ll want to keep your glasses on the whole time, during the previews and through the entire film.” Interesting. Maybe it takes a little while for the 3D effect to kick in — a warmup period for your eyes and brain. Le Managére continued, “Because if you take the glasses off during the movie, it could make you sick.” Huh? “The way the picture comes out, it kind of sends like signals that scramble your brain.” What the? The unity of the Liners was back. “We’ve had a couple of kids… toss their popcorn today.” Great. Somehow, I missed the part about the vomit-inducing, brain-scrambling signals in the ads for the movie. (And yes, he literally said “toss their popcorn.”)
“The signals can affect your brain kind of like an epileptic seizure.” Okay, the gloves were off. It was us versus them now, and we weren’t going along willingly with these Shadow Government operatives and their Mickey Mouse mind-control conspiracy — at least not without some free popcorn or something. “But it’s not a seizure.” Oh, okay. Whew. It’s like a seizure, but not an actual seizure. What a relief. Roll the movie, then Über Manager.
So the lights dipped low and the trailers started. The first screen that came up was a graphic that told us to take off our glasses for the previews. Now what? Who do I trust; the Mysterious Managismo or the team of Disney flunkies who hastily put together this art card? Playing it safe, I told Savannah to keep her glasses on, thinking her the more likely to urp because of the alien brain waves. I alternated between glasses and no glasses — not because I was testing the differing physiological effects on my system, but because I couldn’t make up my mind.
I don’t know if it was from watching the 2D trailers with glasses on or from the effects of the 3D imaging, but for the entire film I had a the taste of metal under my tongue and a mild nausea. Yeah, this is going to revive the box office from its recent doldrums: the threat of seizures and the sensation of having just eaten an aluminum can. Brilliant!
As for the film itself, I’d give it two out of five stantions. This is not only Disney’s first digital 3D film, it’s also their first 3D digitally animated film. (Talk about a marketing nightmare.) In their infinite wisdom, the brains at Disney sold all of their traditional 2D animation stations (and canned a bunch of animators) to replace them with 3D systems. Their logic is that films like Shrek and the Pixar ouvre are successful because they are animated in three dimensions. Note to Disney: It’s the stories. The Pixar films could have been hand drawn on bar napkins, and they’d still be better than Chicken Run, because they’re well written. And they don’t give you seizures!
The Orlando Sentinel reports that ESPN (A Disney-owned company) will open a research lab at Disney’s Wide World of Sports with the aim of creating new sports broadcasting technologies. The cynic in me fears that we’ll see virtual ads placed on the jerseys of every college football player on the field, but I’ll reserve judgment. Now, if they’ll just find a way to project the yellow first-down line when you’re actually in the stadium…
From the Library of Congress Flickr page: “‘Migrant Mother’ is part of a landmark photo documentary project based in the U.S. Resettlement Administration, the Farm Security Administration (FSA), and later the Office of War Information (OWI). The most active years were 1935-1943, and the collection was transferred to the Library of Congress in 1944.”
The following story was published in the 1st quarter 2008 issue of Coastal Homes & Lifestyles.
When he leans forward, a hint of mischief in his eyes, one can’t help but be drawn in. He laces his stories with an amazing level of detail without ever getting mired in tedium. His descriptions paint as compelling a picture as any committed to canvas by the Great Masters, and his pauses are as carefully and effectively placed as rests in the symphonies of Beethoven or Bach. Such is his mastery of the medium that the listener laughs when he wants them to laugh, cries when he wants them to cry. One would be forgiven if they tried to respond, forgetting that the speaker is present only through the magic of cinema. It’s a testament to the masterful storytelling of Duke Bardwell in the upcoming documentary “Bayou Country.”
I feel that I know Duke Bardwell as well as if I had spent days on end with him, listening to him recount the highs and lows of his musical career. Yet, I have only met him on a handful of occasions. For most of the time I’ve spent with him, we have been separated both by time and the glass of a video screen. For nearly two years, while laboring with director Kris Wheeler to mould 40 years of plot into a compelling film, I’ve been privileged to study Bardwell his every mannerism, the timbre of his voice, the lines of his face. I’ve listened to him unspool his yarns countless times, yet they never grow old.
“Bayou Country” details the divergent paths of Bardwell and his song of the same title. Bardwell and guitarist Trevor Veitch penned the tune in 1969, when the two were backing iconic folk revivalist Tom Rush. As Veitch tells it, they were staying in a sleazy New York City hotel watching the moon landing and wrote “Bayou Country” because there was nothing else to do. In today’s politics, there is a new buzzword: change agent. That is exactly what “Bayou Country” became for Bardwell. When his life needed it most, that song offered him redemption in a most unexpected way. Behold the power of a song.
During the Renaissance, Italian artists embraced exotic pigments from the world over, but for the most important subject, the human face, they relied on terra verte pigment mined locally from the hillsides around Verona. Bardwell’s approach to songwriting employs a similar approach, as evidenced in “Bayou Country.” While verses that recount the political strife of the late ‘60s cement the song firmly in a specific place and time, it is the lyrics rooted in Bardwell’s Louisiana upbringing that give the song an ageless appeal. The song’s unnamed protagonist, who bears some resemblance to Bardwell, is richly layered with the local color of the bayou, rendering him with a timeless beauty worthy of Leonardo and Michelangelo.
Born in Louisiana on the Bayou Manchac, he becomes a world traveler, but he longs for the idyllic life of fais do-dos and Cajun women he left behind amid the Spanish moss and big oak trees. Though the lyrics speak of a longing that is specific to and idealized vision of life in Louisiana, the rich detail and understated emotion tug at the heart of the wayward traveler in everyone. It speaks to the oft-spoken desire of us all to return to an unattainable place—a more innocent past.
Like the hero of a Howard Hawks film, the protagonist owes much of the displeasure in his current situation to a woman. That doesn’t make Bardwell a cynic on the topic of love, however. “You and I,” a song penned as a wedding gift for his sister, reveals the heart of a hopeless romantic. As with “Bayou Country,” the lyrics are dripping with rich Southernisms and water imagery, as evidenced in verses that compare the smoothing effect of a woman’s love on a man’s hardened countenance to the power of a
rushing river: “like running water over stone, you wear away my edges in due time,” he writes.
The power of Bardwell’s storytelling is never more poignant, whether in anecdote or in song, than when he is transparently self-effacing. Throughout “Bayou Country,” the film, Bardwell lays bare his soul on the disappointments of a career spent within an arm’s length of greatness, but always obscured in the shadows of those who would brave the glare of the limelight. The film itself examines the fatal flaws and missed opportunities that resulted in Bardwell walking away from music, seemingly forever, in the mid-1980s.
A cursory viewing of the film would give the impression that his fatal flaw was in addiction and women or, as Bardwell puts it, “drinkin,’ snortin’ and cavortin—heavy in the cavortin’ back then.” A closer viewing, however, reveals those abuses as merely a symptom of a restless spirit and a perpetual dissatisfaction with the status quo. Bardwell himself suggests that these flaws stretch back to his childhood. “I was probably officially A.D.D., only they didn’t have Ritalin back then. You just got your ass whipped, and I got my ass whipped all the time.”
Though Bardwell’s time with Tom Rush was brief, he benefited from the influence of songwriting icons such as Janis Joplin, James Taylor, Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell. The songs he wrote in the months immediately after his dismissal by Rush would find their way into the heart of a new project—a Baton Rouge band called Cold Gritz and the Black-Eyed Peas. Shortly after the band debuted on the Louisiana scene, with their signature swamp funk sound and interracial line-up, they scored an unprecedented record deal with legendary producer Lou Adler. The band, however, imploded before the album could be finished. Only “Bayou Country” was released and remains the band’s sole legacy.
Within a few short years following the break-up of Gritz, Bardwell’s charm and musical prowess earned him a regular gig with old friend Casey Kelly, opening for Loggins and Messina. Those experiences led to an opportunity to play and record with Jose Feliciano. While recording with Feliciano, he got the chance to work with Elvis’ drummer, Ronnie Tutt. The two hit it off, and Tutt invited Bardwell to audition for an opening as Elvis’ bass player. He got the gig. Unfortunately, Bardwell’s time with Elvis was tumultuous, and when the relationship ended, he was left embittered and disheartened.
Duke earned a few more once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, playing with Gene Clark of the Byrds and Emmylou Harris. But after a handful of years trying to achieve success on his own terms, Bardwell walked away from the music business altogether—at least until “Bayou Country” reminded him why he had begun playing music in the first place.
Today, Bardwell plays neither for money nor fame, but for the love of music and the joy of the crowd. The clarity and self-awareness with which he tells his story reveal him to be a man wounded from the journey, certainly, but also redeemed. In addition to running his own small business, he plays on a regular basis with at least four different acts and has created his own line of pepper sauce, “Unca Duke’s Geaux Jus.” Bardwell’s pepper sauce, like his stories and his songs, reveals the character of the man; it is spicy with a hint of sweetness, seductive with a considerable kick, imbued with the flavors of the bayou, and it always leaves you wanting more.
Wayne Franklin is a filmmaker living in Birmingham, Ala. He is a co-producer and editor on the documentary “Bayou Country.”
To view this column as it appeared in the magazine, click here.