Monday, March 11, 2013

'We didn't need dialogue...we had faces!'

"The Uncanny Valley" sprang to life by way of a magazine cover:

In a 2010 article, Forbes speculated that it wouldn't be too long before Hollywood began making new movies with old movie stars - dead movie stars, that is. Not too long after that, a tabloid story had George Lucas buying the rights to certain dead movie star's images in order to use them, via computer animation. Though this story came to nothing, there is still some buzz, every now and then, about seeing a "new" Humphrey Bogart movie, or a "new" Marilyn Monroe movie. Think about it - take an existing actor, superimpose the older actor's face onto the new, tinker with the voice, and suddenly, you can see what happened to Marilyn after "Some Like It Hot."

Of course, there are questions of taste to consider. But I was immediately struck by the image, and by the idea. Anybody who got my last novel, "Brilliant Disguises," knows how important the image of the face was in that book. This time, I was carried away by several ideas - for example, Hollywood replacing someone's natural face with the one it thinks you would rather see. It's the sort of thing Nora Desmond would understand:

Another, more obvious idea, is resurrection. This is the best Hollywood can do - a computer generated image, brought back to life, just on the slim hope you can relive a thrill, just for an instant. 

So my novel would be about an imaginary actor from the past, brought back to life, my only little version of "Frankenstein." But what to base him on? The Humphrey Bogart image obviously stuck with me, as did the role he was playing when he wore that famous white evening coat - Rick Blaine in "Casablanca." Umberto Eco observed that Casablanca does an almost mystical job of mixing a host of screen cliches into something fresh and totally captivating. But my story couldn't be about a Bogart character. Instead, I mixed in a little of that 50s icon who in many ways has been overshadowed by the intervening years - James Dean.

Like him, my character Buck Trapp would only make a handful of films - just enough to gain a cult following, and only enough so that a whole mythology might attach itself to him without any regard for who and what he actually was. Buck Trapp would encounter many of the 50s Hollywood benchmarks - westerns, religious epics, noir mysteries, even foreign films - and he would die violently, and all too soon.

But what to call his film? "The Uncanny Valley" is the name for a psychological phenomenon, the switch in your brain that tells you something that is supposed to look lifelike is not real. For any work of fiction to succeed, it must trigger the brain's "willing suspension of disbelief" - even though you know you're looking a series of still images projected on a screen, and you know those images are actors playing parts, you are willing to be lied to, on several levels, to be entertained. In the case of computer generated images though, especially those involving the human face, the closer an image gets to a real face, the harder it is to trick the brain into accepting it as "real." The Uncanny Valley is the distance between reality and fantasy, an expanse which seems small but can be vast. It also sounds like a mystery...

But "The Uncanny Valley" may also be the distance between the reality we perceive in our lives, and what others experience. We are often the poorest judges of who we are, where we're going, and what we're doing. Like many - too many - entertainers before him, Buck Trapp loses control of his life, forgetting the lessons he learned in a life before he was transformed into an idol unworthy of worship.

It is only when a present day actor, Newman Self, is asked to star in a sequel to Buck Trapp's greatest role that he tries to unlock the mystery of the earlier star's life, and learns what he lost. Resurrection, as the world practices it, is never permanent. But the journey to the land of the dead and back is always with us in life and literature, which is why there's a little bit of Orpheus thrown in our journey, mixed with bits from Mozart, and that other Resurrection which continues to dog our steps. And our movie is a little mixture of "Casablanca," "Gone With the Wind," and "Citizen Kane" thrown in for good measure.

And besides, who doesn't like the movies? The show's about to start...

To read an excerpt, click here. To order a copy, click here.

Buy my book, "Brilliant Disguises," for .99 cents here. Available in all e-formats.
Buy my book, "The Uncanny Valley," for $5.99 here. Available in all e-formats.

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