A Dwarf Fortress inspired cartoon
A Dwarf Fortress inspired cartoon
The World According to Wes
“So Scheherazade began.”
It took me a while to realise that ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’[2, 3, 8, 21, 26] is the second most beautiful movie I have ever watched. The movie is not a comedy, not a murder mystery, neither is it a parody nor an allusive historical fiction rather it is a tragedy and a recollection of the best years of Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham/Tony Revolori) when he found love with Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), and later ownership of the hotel, wealth and fame. In his progressing years, he tried to find the remnants of the past and tender memories of Agatha, and though he owned the hotel, but he preferred stay in his old and cramped lobby boy’s quarters. It is both a reflection and a satire on life, existence and the very humane wish to strive for love and fulfilment. The greatest play is not on the screen but in the audience’s mind — everyone will miss someone and that wonderful time which life miserly never yielded again.
Much in the spirit of a picture book, the characters and their gimmick interleaved with cheesy humour and decorated with an assortment of pastel shades, the movie left me in melancholy. Weeks after watching it, I would suddenly find a quiet moment contemplating the destiny of Zero Moustafa and my eyes would get moist. That is the power Wes Anderson had over me, he could tap into my subconsciousness and trigger an emotional response for an event that happened more than a fortnight ago.
Anderson’s cinematic style[1, 17,41,51] has found both critical acclaim and recognition which includes the BAFTA and the Writers Guild of America awards. What immediately struck me is that while his movies are beautifully shot and broadly character driven they look synthetic and staged. Most directors, even those working in the sci-fi and fantasy domain attempt to make their sets and characters believable, as though those worlds and their inhabitants are an extension of our own mundane reality. Such as Doctor Strange’s travails across the different universes is delivered with a very strong mettle and moral attributes of the character. But in sheer contrast Anderson makes even the real look very unnatural as though they are preplanned assortment of moving diorama — akin to theatre than a movie. For example the car chases both in the ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’ and ‘The French Dispatch’ look very campy, preplanned and laced with satire. Anderson places you inside a storybook — many a times very literally.
The sets and costumes are diligently overdone, the exaggeration in the moustache and the hairdo, the very obvious villainous ardour to typify devilish intent, thick rimmed glasses to suggest the bookish-nerd, the bold and the daring use of colours, absurd themes which are meant to look real, the blatant contradictions in the characters and the dead-pan which underscores deep philosophy makes an Anderson cuisine on the screen a sinful delight for the movie buff.
The meta nature of his movies is further conveyed through books, news-columns, travelogues, diary noting, interviews, newspaper articles, telegrams etc in tandem with gossip, unreliable information and hearsay. All of which works on multiple levels and helps trigger the audience’s imagination. For example, ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ opens at the Old Lutz Cemetery in the 1980s where a young girl has the book bearing the same name in her hands and is looking up at the tombstone of the author and then it shifts to a narration of the story by the author as was told to him by Zero Moustafa many years ago in the 1960s. The happenings of Zero’s youth in 1930s, told by an ageing author and portrayed on the screen after the author’s death and the demolition of the very hotel which is the setting for the story puts a timeline of about a century between the actual events and it’s depiction on the screen. What the audience watches is clouded by the double narrative and the clout of a century — and, therefore as a fair criticism nothing really happened as is being shown, or bluntly putting it — nothing happened! Rather, the director has moulded together oodles of inspiration, large ounces of imagination, tall tales and other such gibberish to synthesise a story — after all, that is what stories are! Similarly, ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ is also a book — the movie is shown to be derived from it. ‘The French Dispatch’ is an assortment of magazine article presented as an anthology, and the first of the three stories — ‘Concrete Masterpiece’ is a recollection narrated (and then put to paper) by J.K.L Berensen, a conceited art editor who in a way is telling the story of her own life, and therefore this is another double narrative with a history of at least fifty years, and it can well be synthetic — or, powered more by imagination than facts & figures. Likewise, ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ also has a narrator. Therefore, storytelling becomes the essential basis for all his movies, and narration is central to his style [9, 17, 43].
Anderson revels in the artificiality of a movie, the world is a stage, a movie — even more so. Naturalism is of course a lie and by setting up overambitious, colourful and detailed props and starring them with Tintinesque mannerisms straddles the thin-line between truth and falsity, and reenforces the ingrained disingenuousness of movies — everyone knows it’s not real and Anderson doesn’t care.
One of Anderson’s most iconic foray into anti-naturalism is the narration in ‘The Darjeeling Limited’ where a phone call at the narrator’s end interrupts the narration.
Though it may not be entirely correct to brand Anderson’s movies as work of imagination as it is heavily reliant on human expressions and emotions, however the setting and the execution often dovetails a lack of naturalism.
The eye for detail is appealing with well designed and curated inputs, and much at the same time irritating since it is overdone, but Anderson grows on you and by the time you watch his third movie you are rather expecting every single piece of detailing to work out its magic. His characteristic stye is long takes with theatrical blocking. His cinematography further employs bold use of colours, overplaying of the costumes, the make-up and the character ornamentation, strong adherence to symmetry and planimetric composition.
Music design is broadly conservative and adheres to the settings often tagging to the folksy. At various times he has used particular song or music piece to pair up with a character or an event, a juxtaposition of the two to bring forth further nuances of both the character and the story. ‘Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’ has various natural sounds such as those of whales and dolphins which help both the setting and the story. In ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ Anderson has paired up Margot Tenenbaums’ backstory to the song ‘Judy is a Punk’ by The Ramones, which points to Margot being a smoker and living a bohemian lifestyle. Anderson uses the song ‘Queen Bitch’ by David Bowie in the last scene of ‘Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’ as Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) walks out of the theatre with a kid on his back. The song is a brooding closure to the movie leaving the audience to look back and assimilate what the movie was.
The scenic palettes made up of complementary colours and blends with the story through the nuances of colour psychology[4, 9, 11, 26, 27]. Colours in his movies work as a narrative device, the brown and yellow pastel shades underscores the whole of ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ and in ‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’ the blues and the the reds soon becomes synonymous to Steve Zissou, his team and his story. In a similar manner, the hotel in ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ in its heydays in 1930s is shown in vibrant hues of red and purples and emphasises its regality, in 1980s the colour pallet is low saturated greens and oranges conveying how it has lost out on its grandeur.
Symmetry and mirroring to balance similar forms on both sides of the screen is a signature Anderson style across all his movies. Another one is planimetric composition[12,13] where the camera is placed 90 degrees perpendicular to the subject such that elements in the foreground and the background seem to form a flat plane on the screen, this is accompanied with long tracking shots . Art historian Heinrich Wölfflin had named this as planar or planimetric composition suggesting to the rectangular geometry typical in these shots [33, 34]. David Bordwell, renowned American film theorist and movie historian opines that such a flat composition comes across as unreal and constructed. In climax sequences Anderson uses such planimetric compositions in quick angular successions in 90 degrees, Bordwell calls this trolley movement fixed to the four fixed points in a compass as compass-point editing.
Another of his style is playing with the aspect ratio and interleaving between black-n-white and colour to suit to the history of the story and also to reflect the mood and the temper[8,27]. For example, in the ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’ — the movie starts in the 1980s has an aspect ratio at 1.85:1, for the 1960s parts of the movie the aspect ratio is the Anamorphic at 2.35:1 and for 1930s parts of the movie the aspect ratio is the Academy at 1.37:1. Similarly, the ‘French Dispatch’ is mostly shot in black-n-white with colour broadly used for present day happenings, Anderson mostly uses 1.37:1 aspect ratio, but 2.39:1 Anamorphic is used minimally to produce a dynamic look and add emphasis.
Broadly adhering to old ways of making movies with hardly any computer generated graphics he is known to work with detailed storyboards, and he avoids aggressive editing. Some of his shots are structured on a sudden change in the story, for example opening of a tent in ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ and quick strike of lightning in both ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ and ‘The French Dispatch’. Shakey camera shots which are not edited out rather retained to mark his signature style of anti-naturalism. In all his movies there are scenes which are genuinely emotional and the artificiality and anti-naturalism falls off revealing the true nature of the character over a monologue such as the internal monologues and reflections of Steve Zizou in ‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.’ It maybe worth noting that in such monologues the characters comes very close to breaking the proverbial fifth wall, but never really doing it. Another vanguard of his editing is that many a times a dialogue is extended over a number of scenes.
Cinema critics and ardent fans have pointed out that in ‘The French Dispatch’ Anderson synchronised very precise movement to connect with the rhythm of a scene — much like that of the audience of a tennis match whose heads keep moving left-and-right.
Nearly all of Wes Anderson’s characters are motivated from real life and curated to perfection. Rushmore was very nearly a replay of his (and Owen Wilson’s) experience in high school. ‘Fantastic Mr.Fox’ was adapted from a children’s book of the same name by celebrated British novelist, short-story writer and poet Roald Dahl which Anderson had read as a kid. Steve Zizou is both a parody and a homage to Jacques Cousteau and also a loose corollary to Captain Ahab of Moby Dick. The Grand Budapest Hotel is based on the works of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig[3, 30]. French Dispatch is inspired from the New Yorker magazine and the writings of its various iconic reporters. Moses Rosenthaler’s art is drawn from the abstract art of Anderson’s friend and Tilda Swinton’s partner Sandro Klopp. J.K.L. Berensen is based on historian Rosamund Bernier. Roebuck Wright, the food writer is loosely inspired from James Baldwin, American activist and author. Similarly, Żubrówka the the fictional country where the Grand Budapest Hotel is set was named after a brand of flavoured Polish vodka, and the setting for the town was inspired from the city of Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic. The set for the hotel was Gorlitzer Warenhaus, a 1912 department store in Görlitz at the German-Poland border. Similarly, Pfund’s Molkerei, a 19th century dairy store at Dresden led to Mendl’s confectionary. And, in some contrast, ‘The Darjeeling Limited’ which is the story of three brothers travelling on a train was also shot on a train journey across India, as it is in the movie. For his second stop-motion movie, ‘Isle of Dogs’, Anderson found inspiration in Japanese woodblock prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige, and for dust clouds his team used cotton wool in homage to Looney Tunes cartoons. In ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’, Richie Tenenbaum has the likeness of Björn Borg.
Anderson has often borrowed from other iconic directors, namely Hitchcock, Spielburg, Kurosawa, Miyazaki etc.. In ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’, the scene where Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum) is trailed and later murdered by J.G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe) is motivated from Hitchcock’s ‘Torn Curtain’ where Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) is being trailed by Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling). Similarly, the plot and characters of ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ bears a lot in common with Orson Welles’ 1942 movie, ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’. Truffaut’s ‘The 400 Blows’ had a big influence on ‘Rushmore’. ‘The Darjeeling Express’ used music from films by Satyajit Ray and Merchant Ivory, and Anderson has admitted to the influence of Satyajit Ray on his India centric movie.
Anderson tends to work in close knit with a team of actors which continue to return to his successive movies[32, 36, 37], namely Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray[16, 36], Adrien Brody, Léa Seydoux, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Anjelica Huston, Jason Schwartzman, Tony Revolori, Saorise Ronan etc. Bill Murray has worked with Anderson ten times and Owen Wilson is his childhood friend and collaborator. In near parallel, the writers Noah Baumbach, Roman Coppola, and Hugo Guinness have been closely associated with him for years. He prefers calm and relaxing environments where the cast and crew can live over a period of the shoot, and no one needs to commute — much like a summer camp or a boarding school. For example, for the full duration of shooting ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ his entire team stayed at a small hotel in Görlitz, Germany, and the vocals for ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ was not recorded at a studio but rather at George Clooney’s Lake Como villa.
The story being told to the audience is a sham, and the greater meaning lies in introspection. ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’ is not about finding the murderers of Madame D. and the hidden will, the whirlwind of underwater adventures and the deep sea monster are at best a scenic deviation from the introspection and tender experiences of Steve Zizou in the movie, the Rosenthaler’s story in ‘The French Dispatch’ is not about the abstract concrete paintings but rather about the isolation, pain and dejection that he went through in life. In perspective, the overflowing set designs, overdone costumes, excessive ornamentation and scenic palettes tends to cover for articulate, intelligent and sensitive characters in pain and dilemma. The candy coloured world outside is in sharp contrast with the jaded, discoloured, joyless and ashen worlds inside the characters.
Five plot-points which guides nearly all of his movies are, (a) Blatant opposites and contradictions galore — Anderson’s characters wallow in paradoxes, and the apparent humour is often a result of it[5, 46]. For example, Gustav H. (Ralph Fiennes) is a first class concierge who has an eye-out for human emotions and expressions and is also well versed with notional courtesy and also a dab of philosophy, but lands up into fist fights with the security/army on the train and later is put in jail where his greatest concern is that he is smelling bad. Similarly, Steve Zissou is an world renowned explorer and is revered as an exponent of documentary movies on the underwater flora and fauna, but he lacks in humanly values and virtues of caring and love — his estranged son finds him out and later dies trying to save his life, his wife leaves him, he is rude, offensive and belittling when talking to common people, kids and fellow team mates. By the end of the movie, he is a changed man who not only spares the sea monster, but finds connections with the kids and other such admirers. Another stark opposite is that adults tend to behave as kids and kids tend to behave as adults. An example is the behaviour of Royal Tenenbaum in the later part of the movie when he rides carousel and other such amusement rides, and in contrast is Commissaire’s son Gigi in the last story of ‘The French Dispatch’ who is kidnapped and behaves more as an adult than as a child. (b) Someone dies— All of the plots have one or more deaths around which the stories are woven. In ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’, Royal dies in the end, in ‘Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’ Steve’s estranged son Ned Plimpton/Kingsley Zissou (Owen Wilson) dies, in ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ Madame D. dies early in the story and later Gustav H. and Agatha die, and in ‘The French Dispatch’ Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), the editor of the magazine ‘The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun’ dies. The tragedy of death and its psychological implications for the rest of the characters is used by Anderson as a counterpoint in all his movies. (c) Love conquers all — Just like all good fictions love finds a special place in Anderson’s movies. Love underscores all his characters, be it Rosenthaler in love with Simone, Madame D. in love with Gustav H., Steve Zissou’s affection for his estranged son etc. are the points of strength in the pastel coloured ephemeral worlds of Anderson’s movies. (d) Loneliness, pain and melancholy is omnipresent in everyone’s life — pain and melancholy and the efforts to hide them in shroud of charade is a theme very often visited by Anderson. Nearly all his lead characters tend to smile, and put up a charade trying stave off such weak lingerings. And, (e) Child-like-innocence — Just the way Picasso’s paintings echoes the innocent painting styles akin to a child, Anderson’s movies tap into a very child-like innocence. From trying to grasp the world through the eyes of Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) or the employment of Zero Moustafa as a lobby boy or the poorly placed childish tantrums of Steve Zissou, Anderson’s characters are a scenic equivalent of Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development.
Due to the meta-nature and the over-pretentious meticulousness, Wes Anderson inherently becomes a character in all his movies — through whose eyes and ears we the audience are watching the movies. This resonates with some of the best storytellers over the ages, viz. Scheherazade from the Arabian Nights, Brothers Grimm of Grimm’s Fairytales, Miguel de Cervantes, Charles Dickens, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Haruki Murakami etc. and it livens up as a new genre of film making.
Anderson is unique — the sweet vitriolic humour with bold show of pastels and characters in pain and discomfort trying very hard to cover their tears and anguish coupled with quirks of storytelling are the hallmarks of his direction[5, 9, 40].
To sum it up, a Wes Anderson movie is an experience where in the most childish manner Anderson carves deep into your heart to leave you with reflections to last for the next few months if not years.
PS: Anderson’s next movie is ‘Asteroid City’ and stars Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Bryan Cranston, Jeff Goldblum, Adrien Brody and of course Bill Murray!
 The Beauty Of Wes Anderson https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NloLrrGO__k
 The Grand Budapest Hotel — Video essay by Matt Zoller Seitz — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rpPrYlsxjtE
 The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) — Movies with Mikey — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LdMIkzzj3_g
 Color Theory and Wes Anderson’s Style — Sad Characters in a Colorful World — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dtLBMBs_S9E
 Wes Anderson : Breaking Formality | Deconstructing Funny — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5G_sn4OINJg
 The Meticulously Charming World of The Grand Budapest Hotel — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AVp12Ytt4fA
 The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) — Movies with Mikey — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LdMIkzzj3_g
 The Grand Budapest Hotel | Visual Analysis — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pyHqCJEIjc
 The Wes Anderson Style Explained — The Complete Director’s Guide to Wes Anderson’s Aesthetic — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q45m7RYy7-4
 The Darjeeling Limited: How Brothers Communicate — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kOzJcb1BLvM
 Wes Anderson / Color — https://vimeo.com/182987900
 Wes Anderson // Centered — https://vimeo.com/89302848
 Wes Anderson // From Above — https://vimeo.com/35870502
 Wes Anderson Interview | Masterclass on Filmmaking — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tMOq7jeC6Yk
 Wes Anderson Explains How to Write & Direct Movies | The Director’s Chair — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sdt0oam6O1o
 Bill Murray Gives Wes Anderson An ‘Automatic Yes’ When He Calls His 1–800 Number | Sunday TODAY — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PdYQal4puZ0
 Why Do Wes Anderson Movies Look Like That? — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ba3c9KEuQ4A
 Wes Anderson: in a world of his own by Tom Lamont. Published in https://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/feb/23/wes-anderson-grand-budapest-hotel-director
 Framing, Color, and Music in Wes Anderson’s Films by C. Diamond. Published in https://digistarsworkshop.com/framing-color-and-music-in-wes-andersons-films/
 The Opposite of Naturalism Is Truth by Paul Constant. Published in https://www.thestranger.com/seattle/the-opposite-of-naturalism-is-truth/Content?oid=19530666
 Edelstein: Wes Anderson Moves Out of the Dollhouse With The Grand Budapest Hotel by David Edelstein. Published in https://www.vulture.com/2014/02/movie-review-grand-budapest-hotel.html
 Wes Anderson Style Guide: Visuals and Storytelling by Charles Haine. Published in https://nofilmschool.com/style-in-wes-anderson-movies
 The Making of The French Dispatch, As Seen by Artist Sandro Kopp by Miss Rosen. Published in https://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/13679/the-making-of-the-french-dispatch-as-seen-by-artist-sandro-kopp
 Why I love … Max Fischer’s school plays in Rushmore by Andrew Pulver. Published in https://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2013/sep/26/rushmore-max-fischer-school-plays-why-i-love
 The Problem with “The French Dispatch” by Rachel Lapides. Published in https://swarthmorephoenix.com/2022/02/03/the-problem-with-the-french-dispatch/
 In Praise of Wes Anderson’s Finest Film: The Grand Budapest Hotel by Lucas Mann. Published in https://lithub.com/in-praise-of-wes-andersons-finest-film-the-grand-budapest-hotel/
 Art of the Cut: Wes Anderson’s Latest Tableau, “The French Dispatch” by Steve Hullfish. Published in https://blog.frame.io/2021/11/03/art-of-the-cut-andy-weisblum-wes-anderson-the-french-dispatch/
 Oscars: See How an Old Department Store Became a ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’ by Sharon Swart. Published in https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-news/oscars-see-how-an-old-755366/
 These “Grand Budapest Hotel” Filming Locations Make for Great Home Decor Inspo by Sara Rodriguez. Published in https://www.housebeautiful.com/lifestyle/g32451695/the-grand-budapest-hotel-filming-locations-decor/
 ‘I stole from Stefan Zweig’: Wes Anderson on the author who inspired his latest movie The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson’s interview with George Prochnik. Published in https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/10684250/I-stole-from-Stefan-Zweig-Wes-Anderson-on-the-author-who-inspired-his-latest-movie.html
 Lea Seydoux ‘didn’t know about nudity’ when taking on The French Dispatch role by Kim Novak. Published in https://metro.co.uk/2021/10/26/lea-seydoux-didnt-know-about-nudity-when-taking-on-french-dispatch-15487165/
 In the company of Wes Anderson by Melena Ryzik. Published in https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/22/movies/the-french-dispatch-wes-anderson.html
 Shot-consciousness by Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell. Published in http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2007/01/16/shot-consciousness/
 The Grand Budapest Hotel: Wes Anderson takes the 4:3 challenge by Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell. Published in http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2014/03/26/the-grand-budapest-hotel-wes-anderson-takes-the-43-challenge/
 The Real-Life Artists Behind ‘The French Dispatch’ Share What It Was Like to Paint for Exacting Auteur Wes Anderson by Sarah Cascone. Published in https://news.artnet.com/art-world/wes-anderson-french-dispatch-artists-2030232
 One Actor Wes Anderson Has Used 10 Times In His Movies by Jordan Williams. Published in https://screenrant.com/wes-anderson-bill-murray-movies-how-many/
 Wes Anderson: Master of Escapist Indie Films by Kanika Talwar. Published in https://www.thelexingtonline.com/blog/2020/4/18/wes-anderson-master-of-symmetrical-escapist-indie-films
 How to Tell a Story with Music: A Look At Wes Anderson’s Famous Scores. Published in https://musicbed.com/blog/music/how-to-tell-a-story-with-music-a-look-at-wes-andersons-famous-scores
 The first is ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ by Guillermo del Toro
 Anderson’s style is unique, still a parallel can be drawn with South Korean movie director Bong Joon-ho. His movie, ‘Parasite’ won the 2019 Palme d’Or at Cannes and swept the 92nd Academy Awards in 2020.
 Some movie critics and movie historians relate Anderson to the adjective of ‘auteur’
 The tombstone of the author’s bust marks him as a national treasure and it is adorned with keys in keychains suggesting to the iconic and overflowing success for the novel, ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel.’
 Anderson’s narrators are broadly grounded in reality, and he has never used the ‘God’s eye POV’ narration.
 ‘The French Dispatch’ is very French — ‘The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun’ is an inspiration from the NewYorker magazine. The movie is a celebration of reporters, editors etc. and also French values and traits — art, revolution/liberty and food. Rosenthaler’s story corresponds to an epithet of modern art, the movement which traces its roots to France. Zeffirelli’s revolution is a dog-earing to the May68 unrest in France, and stresses on the ideals of individualism and liberty — often at the cost of common sense. Roebuck Wright’s story has cartoon sequences which are reminiscent of Hergé’s Tintin and skirting references to both homosexuality (Roebuck’s imprisonment) and food (chef Lt. Nescaffier).
 Anderson calls this as The Fellini School (Fantasy) vs. The Rossellini School (Neorealism) argument.
 Luís Azevedo, video essayist and movie critic contends that Anderson’s humour is due to disruption of the character. viz. a calm, composed, courteous and cultured Gustav H. gets abusive when in anguish and in desperation.
 Ennui-sur-Blasé — The four stories of ‘The French Dispatch’ are set in the French this fictional town, a literal translation of the name is ‘boredom on jaded’
 Zero Moustafa — The name Zero, is probably an afterthought for the nameless author (and Wes Anderson). Zero is null — which is exactly the status of Zero Moustafa, and despite being wealthy and owning the hotel he cannot find his love Agatha, and is trying to live out his life juggling through her memories.
 Critics point out that Anderson adheres to the Peter Pan syndrome where in nearly all his movies the story is told from the perspective of young adults.
 Actor Jeffrey Wright compares it to ‘kind of traveling circus that Wes is the ringmaster of’
 Matt Zoller Seitz is a movie and TV author and well known Wes Anderson scholar.
The Mayers at 37
It was a sunny September afternoon and Gertrude sat on the park bench. Knitting kept her busy. She was making a sweater for her husband Julius and planned to give it to him by early November. Being married to a coach driver had its advantages and also disadvantages, and a tough winter was one of the latter.
“Hello there! you have started knitting a sweater. Is it for Julius?” It was Ingrid. Ingrid was her neighbor and a very good friend.
Gertrude smiled in acknowledgment.
“Try these,” Ingrid opened the lid of her box and offered cookies to Gertrude. They smelled fresh. Gertrude took a cookie and bit into it. “Mmm… a generous offering of raisins and cashew nuts,” Ingrid smiled at the compliment.
“Gert, have you noticed something odd about the Mayers?” Ingrid asked.
“Odd! As in? As far as I can recall, I have not seen them at the church for about a month, maybe? Why what is it?” Gertrude replied.
“It is… that, Mr. Mayer is hardly seen around and his wife will avoid eye contact or a conversation with just about anybody. Last week Max had to deliver a registered letter from their son’s company office in Paris and Max needed a signature. Hey, do you think I should add a flavor next time, a dab of chocolate?” Ingrid asked.
“You can add a little vanilla, just a little. I am not sure about the chocolate” was the advice from Gertrude.
“Okay … a little vanilla,” Ingrid remarked and then continued her story.
“… so, Max needed a signature and he knocked on the Mayers’ door and Mr. Mayer opened it. Good heavens! He looked pale as if he hasn’t had a meal in days and his eyes had gone deep into their sockets with dark patches beneath them. The apartment smelled bad, it was some chemical, maybe some medicine. Mr. Mayer quickly signed for the letter and avoided any pleasantries.”
“What do you think is it? Someone sick in their family? I haven’t seen their son in a long time. He works for a medicine company in Paris, doesn’t he?” Gertrude recollected her thoughts.
“Not sure, but it is not fever, headache, consumption, or typhoid. Has some evil spirit descended on them?” Ingrid said.
“Inga, now that I recall, three weeks ago, the husband, the wife, and their daughter Emilia had taken Julius’ coach to the district hospital,” Gertrude said.
“… and, they have also employed Judith. Judith doesn’t have a very spotless record as a housemaid. Maybe she came at a cheaper pay than most of the rest. Not many would wish to employ her.” Inga added.
“Should we talk of this matter to Father Francis? If we need an exorcism to be performed?” Ingrid asked.
Gertrude squinted her eyes, turned her head at an awkward angle, and said, “No Inga, that is not a good idea. We are not sure what it is and we should wait until Mr. Mayer’s son Michael comes back to town.”
“You think there are no evil spirits in play here?” Ingrid asked as she offered more cookies to Gertrude.
“I am not sure. What if their son has lost his job and they are now not able to make ends meet? Maybe one of them has some severe illness like tuberculosis or some exotic variant of yellow fever or skin disease and that is psychologically draining them? Or who knows, some anti-semitic propaganda has threatened them. Bad things tend to happen to good people” Gertrude said and took another cookie from Ingrid’s box.
“Or Gert, keeping it simple let us say that their son, Michael has turned into an insect and is spewing off obnoxious fluid and this is why everyone is behaving weird and their house smells sick” Ingrid’s poor humor lit up the moment and Gertrude spat out bits of the cookie she was munching on, as laughter took over her jawline.
“Just imagine, a hard outer shell, squiggly hairy legs, and he can climb onto the walls and the roof, all he asks for is sugary things to eat. Can exorcism even work for such ailments?” Ingrid sketched the vivid imagery to stamp in the lurid humor.
“Inga! Come on, how can someone turn into an insect? And, next you will tell me that he was working on some new drug and tested in on himself. A corollary to Frankenstein!” Gertrude said as she continued to laugh.
Ingrid battered her eyes and in a very animated manner and pointed her finger to the bed of flowers “There you are … hello, Michael.”
“… you may just happen to find Michael flying over the flowers. Or, would you prefer him as a giant bug, as an abomination?” Ingrid bubbled with enthusiasm. What a tall story she had just conceived.
“Come on Inga, enough of this Faustian misadventure,” Gertrude said, still smirking.
“Gert! Oh, Gert! If Michael has indeed become an insect then his life would have changed. Bugs have multiple eyes, and they can feel differently than us. For all I guess, he would have stopped speaking in German and would be speaking a buggy language” At that, both Ingrid and Gertrude laughed again, in chorus, louder than the previous occasion.
The warm sun was gone and not long, Gertrude and Ingrid went back to their homes.
15 November, the feast of Leopold. It is an annual festivity across Austria and the lower Rhine valley – a heralding of winter and a mini Christmas about a month prior to it.
Father Francis greeted the townsfolk and started his address. “Leopold or as he has come to be known – Leopold the Good was born into the richness and could have become the Holy Roman Emperor, but he declined this honor because his destiny was in serving the masses. The virgin mother came to him, and that motivated him to build the Klosterneuburg monastery and later the monasteries at Heiligenkreuz, Kleinmariazell, and Seitenstetten. He declined to the crown as he had a greater destiny to fulfill.”
Both Gertrude and Ingrid were seated at the third row with their husbands by their side. The two pairs were separated by six seats. The door to the abbey slowly opened, and Mrs. Mayer walked inside. She was late by about five minutes. The two friends shared a quick glance. They had not seen Mrs. Mayer for weeks together and now suddenly here she is.
Father Francis continued, “Of course, times are different. Man has been argumentative and he has dared to query the good Lord’s creation. As if mere pondering is enough to know this universe. And, what have they discovered? Our understanding is insufficient if not just incomplete. The newest research suggests a lack of definitive results. We can never be sure of our reality and our existence, and therefore the universe – isn’t that the truest manifestation of God’s will? Man fails, God doesn’t.”
Mrs. Mayer had seated herself three rows away from the last seated person. The good deeds of Leopold were hardly on the minds of Gertrude, Ingrid, or even Mrs. Mayer, but they all pretended to listen to Father Francis.
“My questions can never be fully answered, but it should help you to grow more sympathy and find the happiness in giving. Today we have been able to raise enough to provide an ounce of happiness for thirty-four lesser-privileged families, and they will join us for the traditional roast goose meal later today.” Father Francis ended his speech.
As most of the crowd made their way to the dining hall outside the abbey and across the garden, Mrs. Mayer went straight to Father Francis and seemed to seek his advice.
Later at the dining hall, Ingrid and Gertrude were seated side by side accompanied by their husbands. Ingrid lowered her voice and asked Gertrude, “What do you guess she was asking?” Gertrude gritted her teeth and made a fake smile and said, “Not now Inga. Let us spare the gossip … for now.”
The roast goose was the specialty for the occasion and it had been served with lettuce, a sprinkling of pepper, and a dab of lemon. Ingrid took a bite of her meal and again turned to Gertrude, “… you can try to talk to her and I will ask Father Francis, suits you? Gertrude nodded and in a hushed voice replied, “Don’t offend him.”
“Please enjoy the good day and the good meal our Lord has provided and don’t forget that our Christmas dinner is on 17 December” Father Anderson addressed to everyone from the center of the hall.
As per the plan, Ingrid went to have a word with Father Francis, and Gertrude was on Mrs. Mayer duty.
Ingrid had raised a good deal for the church and had also contributed man-hours to the church’s kitchen, and was always on the good books of Father Francis.
“Father, it was a wonderful dinner,” Ingrid said as she approached his desk.
“It is your effort, and those of your sisters who helped at the kitchen, and the goodwill of the people and the wishes of our dear Lord.” Father Francis replied.
“I was very happy to find everyone in here. The Webers are hardly there for Sunday church, but they are here today, enjoying a meal with us, and it is wonderful to see Mrs. Mayer.” Ingrid very well knew that she would not achieve much with a direct query, so this was her best shot at making an indirect query.
Father Francis encouragingly nodded and smiled. Ingrid knew that her best plans had failed her.
“Hello, Mrs. Mayer. How was the meal?” Gertrude tried hard not to overdo the socializing. Mrs. Mayer was not really a part of her social circle and other than the rare ‘hello’ or a nod and a smile nothing had really ever happened between the two of them. Mrs. Mayer replied with a nod and a courtesy smile.
“It is not often that we see you…” Gertrude spoke but was interrupted by Mrs. Mayer.
“It is my son, Michael. He is not well. And, if you can please excuse me.” Mrs. Mayer was not drawn into the conversation and walked away towards the exit.
“By the way Gertrude, there is something stuck in your hair,” Mrs. Mayer said as she walked away.
Gertrude quickly ran her fingers through her hair and discovered a piece of paper. She opened it up to find a detailed note, written in ink and styled in calligraphy.
‘Each universe exists in isolation. Each has its own timeline. In times of conflict, if matter from one universe has moved over to another universe then the conflicting worlds will be unsettled for a while. Sentient beings will be chosen to overcome this glitch in an attempt to bring these worlds to normal functioning. In the final outcome, either all of the conflicting universes are destroyed to form energy, or alternatively, the glitch will be overcome and the direction of flow of time and the direction of flow of disorder restored. If you are reading this, then you are a chosen one, and please carry on with life as it is. It will be more rewarding if you try to keep calm, cheerful, and in good health. Do not attempt to convince or influence anybody with this information. We do not have more than 63 days to save the universe.‘
Gertrude did not understand anything of the note, but she kept it in her overcoat pocket. Maybe it was a page torn out of a play or a book, which got stuck into her hair. Or, some silly prank by someone.
There was Ingrid, Gertrude had found her.
“Inga, it is their son, he is not well. I was not entirely wrong …” Gertrude said.
“Oh I see, Gert, I am not over-thinking … but,” Ingrid said.
“… what is on your mind?” Gertrude asked.
“Tell me, why would the Mayers visit the city hospital? and why employ Judith all of a sudden? why does their house reeks of weird smell?” Ingrid remarked.
“Oh come on, don’t overanalyze. Their son is not well.” Gertrude replied.
“Maybe they are finding it difficult to make ends meet. They did try renting out a part of their house, that has not gone very well. The lodgers complained of lack of cleanliness and hygiene and have left.” Ingrid replied.
“… least they had a good day today on the day of the feast. And, your crazy hypothesis is nothing more than silly banter …” Gertrude said.
Instead of laughing, Ingrid looked pensive and slowly said, “You know Gert, today when I went to meet Father Francis. I saw a sheet of paper on his desk which had two short passages written down…”
“… and? what were those passages?” Gertrude asked.
“The first one from Job 13:28 – ‘While I am decaying like a rotten thing, Like a garment that is moth-eaten.‘ and the next one, from Exodus 10:4 – ‘For if you refuse to let My people go, behold, tomorrow I will bring locusts into your territory.‘ I am not sure about the intent, but the insect reference stuck out for me at least.” Ingrid replied.
“It is just coincidence… leave it Inga” Gertrude replied.
“If an alien creature from another universe who looks like an insect has arrived here and taken the place of Michael. What then?” Ingrid said as she looked straight at Gertrude with questioning eyes.
It was a split second – Gertrude felt the proverbial jigsaw completing. She did not even know what to reply and for a short second she felt everything had come to a seething halt, it was an instance of pure blankness – her mind had stopped processing information out of the sheer horror of walking towards the apparent truth which defied any semblance of logic. Was she indeed the chosen one?
“… and there is my lovely wife.” It was Julius.
” Today I have been asked a number of times about this beautiful sweater, and I have told everyone that I married an angel – too bad she doesn’t have wings,” Julius said with a smile on his lips.
“… and Inga, let me steal my wife away from you” and both Julius and Ingrid exchanged a quick smile.
As Julius brought her back home, Gertrude kept thinking that what had happened at the feast was for real or just a dizzying nightmare. Will she wake up the next moment? If Julius had not arrived in the nick of time, then she may have just fainted and fallen down.
“Gert, what is wrong? are you okay?” the faint calls from Julius echoed in her mind. She looked away and said, “… need to sleep, I feel exhausted”
She slept like a log until the early rays of dawn peeked into her bed and woke her up. As she came to, for a moment she thanked the good lord that she wasn’t a monstrosity. Not an abomination, not an alien insect. She stood up and walked towards the window, the morning fog of winter wrapped up the quiet neighborhood in a cocoon. There, across the park, is the third house. Whatever is happening there.
She went out of the bedroom to the living room and sat down on the couch. Her mind once again trailed to the happenings of the day before, what had happened? was she indeed the chosen one? An actor? what is she meant to do? … and what has happened to Ingrid, why this constant chant about insects? Is Father Francis a party to this?
She saw her cello lying in a corner, and started playing it. She soon realized that she was least worried about the notes or the correctness of the scale, but rather she kept playing to keep her thoughts at bay.
A cello player, early in the morning – that soon woke up Julius. “Are you feeling any better? it is 6:30 in the morning” Julius asked.
“Yes, much better. I was exhausted” Gertrude replied.
“The cello should cheer you up. I will prepare breakfast.” Julius said.
As Julius turned towards the kitchen a cockroach crossed his path. Julius chased it and stomped it with his foot.
“There, nasty bug… you know Gert, a few days ago a scientist had boarded my coach. He told me that these buggers have been on the planet for at least 200 million years. The dinosaurs went extinct, but not them. They are very resilient, and may well outlive us human beings. That guy also thought that cockroach is an alien breed, different from anything else on earth.” Julius said and entered the kitchen.
Gertrude had paused playing the cello. Another insect reference, it could not be a coincidence. The universe was unfurling its true colors through various of its actors. She sat and tried to calm herself – why so many insect references? Should she meet Mrs. Mayer? Should she speak of these weird occurrences to Julius or to Father Francis? She might be taken for a raving lunatic. She thought over everything and decide to let things pass and carry on with life.
11:30 AM, Gertrude had walked out to the park about forty yards from her house to enjoy the few meager hours of sunshine in a day. It was not long before Ingrid came out to join her.
“Hey Gert, are you all right? Yesterday you seemed fatigued.” Ingrid remarked.
“I am good,” Gertrude said, avoiding eye contact.
“You know Gert. I am not sure what it is, but last Sunday at the church as I was saying my prayers. A little note fell out from my bible and it said that there is more than just this universe … and that …”
“Inga, I am not feeling so well. If you don’t mind can you leave me alone? Preferably leave me alone until… say, I don’t know, six … seven weeks maybe. I need some peace of mind.” Gertrude interrupted her in a mild yet revolting voice.
“Get well soon Gert, wish you well” Ingrid replied and slowly walked away to her house.
Gertrude came back to her house too and made sure her door was bolted and locked. And then she went to her bedroom. Overcoat left pocket – but, there was no note. It had vanished.
2:00 PM, a knock on the door. Gertrude opened the door, it was Mrs. Mayer.
“Gertrude, I am sorry for how I behaved yesterday. My social skills seem to have betrayed me.”
“Oh, please come in Mrs. Mayer” Gertrude welcomed her inside her house. At the back of her mind, she knew that this is another part of the story the universe was conjuring up.
Mrs. Mayer sat on the couch and soon spotted Gertrude’s cello by the wall.
“When I was about your age, I used to sing for the choir but playing musical instruments was never my thing,” Mrs. Mayer said, trying to lighten up a dull moment and attempting to make conversation.
“How about tea. I can serve it with vanilla cakes?” Gertrude asked.
“No, just sit with me. A short conversation will help me.” Mrs. Mayer said as she gestured to Gertrude to sit, and then softly patted her shoulders.
“It is about my son, Michael. He is not well. An official from the company came to give us the bad news, that was about two months ago. It is some new medical condition. The doctor tested his blood and called it, ‘cimex infection’, they have put him on a special diet.” Mrs. Mayer paused for a moment.
Gertrude knew bits and pieces of Latin and ‘cimex’ had immediately appealed to her, and she ran the translation in her head one more time, cimex – bed bugs and related insects. She wished to ask Mrs. Mayer whether it is an insect bite, or an infection carried over by bugs, but she stopped herself, and muttered to herself in her head, “keep calm.”
“He will get better. Why don’t you get him here? The fresh air of the countryside may help him.” Gertrude said in an effort to comfort Mrs.Mayer.
“I can only hope this cimex is no epidemic, and… He is in a suburb of Paris. Cannot get him here. He needs special medication.” Mrs. Mayer was coming across in shards of singular sentences, and erratic thought patterns than well-formed paragraphs.
“But, Gertrude nothing really can be done. It is the cycle of destiny. His body has already changed, and his consciousness is on its way out to another world. It is contamination, contamination of the universe …. probably I do not make much sense, and I should not be ….” Mrs. Mayer quickly realized her disconnected blabbering and she stood up.
“Gertrude, once again I am sorry for yesterday. I need to be going. Please pray for my son. I wish you and Julius well.” Mrs. Mayer said and added in a courtesy smile.
Gertrude knew what was happening and she showed Mrs.Mayer out to the door and added in a word of the good lord, “Have faith in the all mighty” to which Mrs. Mayer kept silent.
The shortest day, longest night – 21 December in Gertrude’s part of the world meant that darkness descending as early as 3:00 PM.
Over the last six weeks, she had vowed to overcome the weird happenings in the neighborhood and she had preferred to focus on reading Goethe’s poetry and playing the cello. Sometimes she would be muttering to herself, “carry on with life!” She had hardly seen Ingrid and other than sitting by the doorstep of her house for a few minutes to rake in the warmth of the sun every day, she had hardly ventured outside. The weather was somewhere between glum and ho-hum, and not at all promising. A few times the chill had brought in snow. She looked forward to Christmas. Julius had got her a Christmas tree and she was planning on decorating it – starting today.
At about 4:00 PM there was a knock at the door. It couldn’t be Julius. Gertrude opened the door.
“Hello Ma’am” it was Judith holding on to a large and seemingly heavy sack. Gertrude had hardly known her. Most of the neighborhood tagged her to an advisory – ‘avoid her’.
“Happy holidays Ma’am. I was wondering if you can spare me the garden cart? There is a big load of rubbish and rotten things from the Mayers, need to get them to the woods. What I see, the cart is pretty old and you hardly use it.” Judith asked.
Gertrude looked at the disused cart at the corner of her garden. In her mind she repeated to herself, ‘carry on with life’ – what would she have done if things were not this weird? She would have probably just given away the garden cart, it was rusted and had hardly been used in the last two years.
“What is in the sack?” Gertrude asked.
“Oh well, Ma’am if this was a person then he would not have made it to a Christian grave,” Judith replied.
By now, Gertrude had got used to it, and she looked back at Judith and tried not to be scared by the fleeting moment or its contents. How many actors are there for this play – She, Julius, Ingrid, Father Francis, Mr. Mayer, Mrs. Mayer, Judith … or, alternatively, was she losing her mind?
“… the Mayers… they, cleared up most of their attic and the upper floor. A lot of rotting smelly things …” Judith replied after an uncertain pause.
Gertrude trusted her instincts, pursed her lips and gestured Judith affirmatively and pointed towards the garden cart, and then closed the door. As the door slammed shut, she could hear Judith say, “Thank you, Ma’am.”
Rain in January is disheartening, and wet and moist winter is the worst of any type of winter. It had started drizzling from early morning and the weather in part reflected the somber mood of the people who had collected at the church. The news trickled in five days ago that Michael Mayer is no more and after battling a gruesome strand of a new age infection he had breathed his last in Paris on the 9th of January. He had been put to rest in a burial ground on the outskirts of Paris. Today after about a week, Father Francis had called for communion to share the sorrows of the grieving family.
Gertrude was seated at the last bench along with Julius, she had seen Ingrid and Max. Somehow she had this feeling that the weirdness will end today, it had all started with Michael, and now he is no more. It is difficult to say if Ingrid thought and felt the same, but as these thoughts crossed Gertrude’s mind, Ingrid quickly turned her head and looked back at Gertrude, and nodded her head. Whatever did it mean?
Father Francis was the last one to speak. “Our hearts go out for the grieving family. The burden of a son’s corpse on a father’s shoulder is always very heavy and laden with tears. Mr. Mayer, Mrs. Mayer, and their daughter Emilia will soon be moving to a different residence and we will be missing all of them. I wish all the best to them, and they are always welcome to this house of our Lord. Rest in peace Michael Mayer.”
Father Francis looked up towards the cross and then the statue of Mother Mary. The three Mayers stood up and acknowledged Father Francis and the crowd. Ingrid looked back at Gertrude once again, a smile and a quick squint of the eyes.
All this time Gertrude was concentrating on only one thing, are there any insect references? but destiny had other plans. Nobody even made an oblique reference to insects, neither did she see any scrawling caterpillars, obnoxious cockroaches, buzzing fleas, or venomous mosquitoes.
Everyone stood up to leave. Ingrid approached Gertrude and clasped on to her palm. “Gert, can we be friends again?”
Gertrude smiled, and said “Only if there are no more insect references”
Ingrid smirked,”… didn’t we just save the universe?”
Julius spoke into Gertrude’s ears, “Gert, can we hurry. I have to get to work.” Gertrude nodded her head in response and walked out of the church with Ingrid by her side.
Outside the abbey, in the gardens, there was Mrs. Mayer and she greeted Gertrude and Ingrid with a welcoming smile and hand gesture.
“We did all we could, but clearly there are higher powers at work. This is why we come here to the house of the Almighty to praise him. We are nothing more than dominoes in a greater game. Wherever and in whichever form Michael is, he is my son and I love him. Least I can say, his job in this world was long finished and ….” Mrs. Mayer said.
“It is okay. There are better things to look forward to.” Gertrude said as she took Mrs. Mayer’s palm in her own.
“Yes… yes, of course. And, Gertrude, Ingrid…. it has ended,” Mrs. Mayer pursed her lips and then smiled and left to go towards her husband and daughter.
Ingrid and Gertrude quickly exchanged a glance.
“Didn’t she seem more relieved than in a sorrow,” Ingrid remarked.
“Hey there, Max, Inga … would you like a ride home?” Julius asked.
** END **
Toby was a four-part comic that I had made for my book ‘From AI to Robotics.‘ It is the story of a domestic robot that becomes part of the Walker family and the evolution of robotics and futurism over three decades.
It is also available as a pdf.
The Children of Sybil
“If records are to be believed then the population had grown to eight billion. All type zero. War was inevitable. Sybil has taken the right path, a control on population, a control on resources. Aren’t we all happy? “
— James Callaghan, citizen I/3123
“Last week I had forgotten my husband’s birthday, good Sybil sent me a beep.”
— Ritu Kapoor, citizen I/217
“We always needed someone to see over us as a civilization, as a father keeps his eyes on his son. Else, of course, we will again fight among ourselves as kids… and BOOM”
— Jim Micawber, Technician II at the Purple crossing
“Are we free? Is that your inquiry? Of course, we are. Now that Sybil knows about our future – at least a substantial part of it and she helps us to embrace our destiny.”
— Lenny Negara, News Broadcaster at Downington Station Broadcasts
“Sybil, well… in the earliest versions which were designed by the pioneers she did have a personality but now after three thousand generations she is far more abstract, of course, she doesn’t need a personality, neither any tests to qualify as ‘human like’ or ‘good, evil… blah blah’, she is probably the first and only technological manifestation of the idea of God, only limited by space and time – both of which are finite numbers than infinite as one would expect for God.”
— Ricker Weisz, Director for maintenance and upkeep of critical servers
“God still exists, it is he who made us, we made Sybil.”
— Sunil Joshi, a priest at Swami Narayan temple at 12th cross
“We hardly realize that by conquering space and time, we have won over our nature, our incessant will to quarrel. Just imagine – 2753 standard years without war, famine, or pestilence. Our generation will never know the misery of the pre-Sybil years.”
— Salim Khan, citizen II/14 and social scientist at the Hubar Institute
“We abide by Sybil. We are the children of Sybil. It is just awesome. “
— Tim Stevenson, citizen IV/1173
Oh Goodness! My Whiskers
“There… he tried again, on two limbs but as you can see that his tail got in the way. The poor thing was just fine when he moved on his four limbs but at two it clearly did not give him the best steering of his lower paws and definitely not his tail. A few days ago he had leaped trying to catch a lone pigeon and had continued on his two limbs for a little while. He had missed the pigeon, but he found short-lived stability on two limbs.” I said and then looked at everyone in the audience. Some looked puzzled and others doubtful. I continued with my commentary, ” Life was great but then his Simian master died and he was back on the street digging up rubbish dumps.”
“Are you sure it is where it all begins? Or did you get the wrong primitive feline or maybe the wrong perforation in time?” The emperor said as he scratched his chin.
“Your highness what you see here is from eons ago. When the sophisticated Simians used to be the dominant ones.” I replied.
“What you mean is that this shorter member of our type will be the first one to walk upright and not long the breed of advanced Simians will be wiped out by a pestilence, right?” It was the royal scientist.
“Yes, your nobility the Simians went extinct due to smaller organisms and contamination present in the air…” I said. My beating heart literally insisted, ‘come on you primitive moron, walk upright at least for me, if not for our species.’
“And … these organisms did not harm us – our primitive form?” The emperor asked as various other high-ranking members nodded to his words. Obsequious idiots!
“No, your excellency our body type is very different Felidae-Felidae, not Simian,” I replied.
“According to you, this… shorter one will start walking upright on two paws and that will be the start of our growth and proliferation, we will grow in size and intellect, and gain the ability for abstraction and structured languages, a culture and an ethos – a civilized society as the dominant ones on that planet and later the entire galaxy.” It was the prime minister in his slippery Betelgeusian accent.
“Chances are that he will try to chase a few more birds and finally succeed in walking upright. It is a question of stability vs. desire. I am afraid the time perforation is accurate best only to a limit.” I said and turned around to face the prime minister with a smile as my last attempt at a saving grace.
Then, all of a sudden I saw a few of the faces in the audience go from ‘mildly bored’ to ‘Oh Goodness! My Whiskers’ and I turned to look at the projected vision. There it was, the single greatest sight I had ever seen, a moment of elation, utter magic past the perforation of a million ages, the first of our kind to walk upright with confidence and elan.
Tears rolled down my whiskers as the audience put their paws together and cried out in chorus.
Tales of The Singularity
Pioneers in Artificial Intelligence have suggested that in the near-future synthetic non-biological intelligence will dictate terms to human beings, and the human race may become second-class denizens in a world of their own creation. Human beings vs. Machines has been a recurrent theme in science fiction, and sometimes it has boiled over into the real world, such as Ned Ludd’s rebellion against machines towards the end of the 18th century, and in recent times, concerns against driver-less vehicles.
“The first time I heard of this, I was amused” — Twrtdfle said with a giggle and continued.
“Singularity also happened a long time ago, at the beginning of the universe. Black holes are also singularities. I recently heard that someone took a photograph of a black hole.” — Twrtdfle looked at me with inquiring gestures, I nodded in reply.
“…and when technological growth is beyond the grasp of human beings, it is known as the technological singularity. I have seen all three of them. The first one was spectacular, and the third was boring!”
“It started with the looms, and Ned Ludd and his followers went on a rampage and destroyed everything in their wake, looms mostly. The Luddites became synonymous to technological redundancy. I recall Jeffery and his son Barney from Sheffield, they were petrified to know that looms can be automated, and there was John who used to shave Ned and his rag tag band of revolutionaries. He used to say that in no time shaving will also be done by machines and he and his family will die of starvation. Guess what, three hundred so years later, one of his direct descendant works in the research and analysis division at Gillette. Come on, give me a laugh! robots have not yet taken your job, neither are you turning into a robot like Zhang. Who is Zhang? hmmm…in due time.” Twrtdfle was broadly in a monologue, though answering most of the relevant questions.
“Of course, the loom became the bourgeois symbol of resilience — a totem for the farmers, the fishermen and the miners. We did not have the hammer and sickle — yet. That came later, and, it was not Robert Malthus, Maynard Keynes or Karl Marx but the loom that broke the proverbial camel’s back. But…and before I tell you more about what happens next, keep away from those 12G communication towers. I do not want your brains fried in the middle of my narration. Machines — they can get to you!”
“Right…but it did not stop there. I met Jill at the Wall Street protests of 2011 against the crony capitalists and the banking sector. It was, in fact, a machine vs. man or more accurately machine owners vs. the rest – and, the machine owners won. She had a big banner which said, ‘What happens next? Do I get a bowl of electronic chips for my breakfast?’ Therefore, your kind was aware that the singularity is soon to take place — tomorrow, day-after-tomorrow, day-after-after-tomorrow…or maybe a few years later.”
“It had been predicted long ago. Let me see if I recall that little bit of poetry…”
“Cometh the ones made of steel,
who can outdo the human mind,
not much will they feel,
not much left for us to find” – Twrtdfle recited with gestures and expressions.
“This was by John Von Münchhausen, an early ancestor of the famed Baron Münchhausen. He lived in Northern Italy and attended the University at Avignon along with Nostradamus. This poem is dated around 1530.”
“There you see, the international space station” – Twrtdfle pointed to a corner of the sky, and my eyes did not detect anything other than another patch of blue with a mild covering of white clouds.
“That was also predicted by Münchhausen. ‘The eye in the sky made by both the eagle and the bear’, and I have forgotten the rest of it. Seems I am finally getting old. That reminds me of Iain, gatekeeper at Odeon Cinema, London. He was 73, when I met him in the summer of 2015 as he was shutting down the gates of the cinema hall late at night after the screening of ‘Terminator Genisys’. He felt that it is because of such movies. According to him, it was about mind games – and the movies are cashing in on the idea.”
“From late 20th century, your kind started putting in devices into your own bodies. A pacemaker for a feeble heart, a pulse rate monitor, and other devices to help your well-being. Mobile Telephones were the virtual extension of human beings.”
“Of course, some authors wrote books on the topic, and a few movie-houses made big on this theme, but the singularity did not arrive with bad intent. It actually made a few souls very happy. For example, Carol was sad and recluse, until the singularity came knocking at her doorstep. Right from her childhood, Carol could listen in to the thoughts of other people. However, her superpower was not much of a help to her. Since she could listen to the thoughts of other people, her own social skills were never fully developed — her cognition never needed it, and she came across as though lacking in social acumen. Her parents considered her different from others kids. At an age of five, she was a misfit, an oddity and her parents kept her away from school, confined to her home, and her only peace was while drawing or watching the television.”
“My cousin Fcllnkx was there just outside her window when she drew a banyan tree, and also the next day when she drew a puppy. There are times when I can only wonder about her plight. Just imagine if you knew about every thought of the person next to you? There are nuances and social skills which make all of you socially acceptable, even if not really very likable. But knowing everything is the end of all social activities – no need to talk, no need to write, no need for cordial gestures. And, since she was born with it, she was never able to express her gifts to her parents. She never realized her uniqueness. Her best friends were creatures of pixels on the television screen and pencil sketches she drew on paper, and she never needed to listen in to them as they never had any thoughts. She always used to laugh at Charlie Chaplin. For his comedic performances, she had named him ‘silly man’. Fcllnkx told me, that her favorite movie was, the 1921 classic, ‘The Kid’.”
“The day that machines took over, Carol was watching television and she felt the pixels speak into her mind. And, somewhere in the white noise was Charlie, she could sense him. “Silly man”. She daringly walked to the television and touched the screen. She felt that she is being called into the TV-world of pixels. She started changing into pixels, and soon she was absorbed into the TV world. Fcllnkx was startled to see all of this, he had always known of the TV-world, but turning into pixels to reach that world was a less frequent route taken. A hack my cousin was not aware of.”
“Once inside the TV-world, she found Charlie. He was waiting for her. She smiled and said, “silly man!”. Charlie replied, “Shhh… I am not supposed to talk, I should not have a voice.” She had found a new world, in this world she could not read any minds – as they did not have a mind, and nobody had an ill opinion of her. She was not even supposed to have a voice, but nobody could stop her crackling laughter at Charlie’s antics and other charming absurdities of this new world. Turning into flickering pixels was not bad for Carol, she found the happiness which she would have never found in your world.”
“Technological singularity was not only driven by commercial interests, such as the grand enterprise of self-driving cars and e-governance, there was also a great desire to be like the almighty. Do you know about Vaucanson? Paris? Oh, I see. Vaucanson was a scientist in France, then the monarch was Louis XV. He made early robotic implements. In the summer of 1738, he was in the process of making an automated duck, which could quack and move around. One late afternoon as he was taking a stroll, he was captured by a secret society by the name of, ‘Les Mechanicaux de Paris’. The members of this society called themselves code names such as M-32, M-778, M-123, M-5, and their charismatic president M-33. They were about a thousand-odd – 1331 to be exact. M-33 had a piece of advice for Vaucanson, “Your duck has to mirror metabolic processes of an actual duck so that it becomes an epithet for the future. An example is that man can outdo God. If you are not very interested, we sure have ways to make you more agreeable.” Threatened with life, Vaucanson agreed to their demand. In 1739 he made the duck. It could eat grain, and defecate. Yes, you heard it right – it could defecate. Vaucanson did these two processes by collecting the grains the duck ate in a container located inside the duck, and previously stored duck feces was let out of an orifice located at the bottom end of the duck to make-belief the process of eating and defecating. Vaucanson had saved his life. French statesman and philosopher Voltaire who was said to be a sympathizer for the cause of ‘Les Mechanicaux de Paris’ appreciated the duck as a crowning achievement of the glory of the French.”
“What happened to that secret society? Ahem!…look around, make your own judgment pal. I took you to be an intelligent one.” —Twrtdfle suggestively winked at me.
“The earliest concepts of technological singularity are about two millennia old. Do you recall the findings of Fydyor Stephanovisky and his team? Oh yes, how can you – that happened in 2043. Stephanovisky and his team found an ancient site in near pristine condition at Baltistan in Kashmir. It is still a surprise that despite the war between India and Pakistan, how did the tanks, the missiles, and the mines spare this site. It was dated to 350 – 300 BC and was settled by the Greek army with which Alexander reached the borders of India. Among the various artifacts was a silver plate which had markings in ancient Hellenic, a rough translation was – ‘We will all become mechanical men in 2300 years’ Prof. Hieronymus Eycke at Dresden claimed a better accuracy for the date of the transformation and suggested it to be on 1st of April 2050. Not only did the ancient civilizations know about technological singularity but this finding fuelled speculations about whether Alexander’s invading army knew about the distant future and therefore was influenced by a higher intelligence. Aliens. This also adds to the debate that how come Alexander never attempted to invade China, and he walked away from the borders of India.”
“China! Oh, have I told you about China? How did the singularity arrive past the Yellow river? It is the story of Xi. He was born in Changzhou and he was in love with robots right from his childhood. When he was 11, he made his first robot using one of the LEGO Robot kits. In the summer of 2034 his college sent him to the international robot competition to Vienna. Xi won the silver medal in his category, narrowly missing out on the gold. My friend Rbvvgpt was one in the audience when Xi was awarded the medal.”
“Then, in the winter of 2037, he started to get the first inkling of some sort of a change happening around him. He no longer needed to debug his robot’s codes. They seemed to self-correct their coding implements. He also saw that nearly all of his robots — from the big ones, such as the RHINO-743H to the smaller ones, such as SQUIGGLY-4.0 had attained self-awareness in energy concerns. Many of them went back to the charging station to charge themselves when the onboard battery went down to about 10%. SQUIGGLY-4.0 sent him a message on his mobile phone, ‘Low power, please plug into a power supply.’ Xi had never programmed them for such behavior and he simply did not know what was happening. He felt he is tired and overworked. He needed a break from his college and his laboratory and a refreshing short trip to the countryside.”
“It was exquisite. Away from the city, blue skies and a whiff of the countryside was a welcome change. No robots, no electronics, and no computer programs. For once, Xi thought that he may become a philosopher, or probably a poet — maybe both, and he laughed at the idea.”
“The next day on his morning jog, he came across a village. Not many, maybe thirty-odd families. A couple of buffalo farms, a cobbler shop, a tailor shop and a bar which also functioned as an inn. Outside of the bar, he saw a beggar sitting on the ground with a bowl in his hands with a few coins in it. He wore a torn and dirty robe. He looked up at Xi as though by instinct than by reflex. “Xi, you have come here to runaway from robots,” the beggar said. Xi looked at the beggar and was shocked to see that his eyes were all white and there was no pupil. He overcame the horror of the ghostly stare and asked back, “Who are you, do I know you?” “Who am I?, Is that your best?” and the beggar laughed out aloud in a gusto. “I am Zhang, and I was a zhiqing in 1963. The General told us, that for a better future we need to work, work very hard. And, I worked for 19 hours a day only on a meal of rice husk. I worked, and worked, and worked until the man inside me died and all that survived still kept working.” Xi felt that either this beggar was drunk or posing to be a cheap mystic. He shrugged his shoulders and took a stride to jog away from the beggar. “No, you are not going anywhere, you are here to listen to us.” Zhang quickly stood up on his legs and grabbed onto Xi’s arm. In utter horror, Xi saw that his palm is made of Titanium. He stared at Zhang, and said, “you…robot.” “
” “Uh-huh…” said Zhang. “I look human, but I am long dead and now I am more robot, call me mechanical man. Only you could have found me — and you did.” Xi had already gone pale. With his heart beating as fast as a bullet he blurted out, “What do you want from me?” “
“Zhang looked around and whistled. From nowhere came more like him. Dressed in rags, eyes with no pupils, some had bowls in their hands, others had walking sticks. They spoke in chorus, “We worked, worked and worked and died, only to continue living as mechanical beings” Zhang said as a few hundred gathered around their leader. “We wish to be human again, we wish to feel hungry, we wish to feel pain, we wish to feel love. Can you do that for us?” Xi stared at the great gathering and reflected at his own limitations — how to make these zombie robots into human beings.”
“Xi felt Zhang’s grip on his arm loosen — he had a choice here, Zhang did not wish to enforce it on him. Xi let go of Zhang’s palm and ran, ran as fast as he could, away from the zombie robots, away from the nightmare. He kept running, through fields of paddy, through marshes, and through more desolate villages. He ran until his legs gave away, and he grabbed onto a branch of a tree and tried to catch his breath. He had arrived at the banks of the Yellow River. He sat down by the riverside and wept, loud howling with alternating sobs at a lower ebb. Guess what, he is still there, crying at the fate of the zombie robots of China.”
“Xi’s was a heartbreaking tale, but there were equally humorous ones. This one happened much earlier than the singularity, but let’s say that it was an alarm bell — a wake-up call. Santiago, Chile – Sophie Castillo was a renowned TV hostess, and her show, ‘Hello, Santiago’ at TPFR TV had the highest ratings across the country, and also in neighboring Argentina. One unfortunate summer day Castillo had a massive heart attack, gasped her last breath, and died on her lawn chair staring at the turquoise sky. The news was privy to a few of her family and her close aides. The TV company was staring at a loss of millions if not billions, and on the suggestion of a wisecrack, replaced her with a life-size humanoid robot that looked like her, spoke like her, and even had a personality like her. The details are still murky. This trick worked well for seven months, and one day this robot fell down the stairs of the TV studio and broke its metallic skull. The next day’s newspaper read, ‘Castillo was a Robot’. This incident led many to believe that we have been invaded by an advanced race of robotic body-snatchers. Channel-62 also got a TV series on this theme, ‘Body-snatchers, Dawn of the Robots’.”
“A similar incidence is of Prof. Nilesh Banerjee at British Columbia, he was also duped by a robot double. He was kidnapped for three days, while a robot gave his lectures on, ‘Socialism and the World of Tomorrow’ at the World Conference on Futurism & Man.”
“You are probably thinking that how come I have not mentioned the large swarm of electronic locusts which invaded Sydney, Australia. Firstly that really had nothing to do with our topic of discussion. Australia was trying to find efficient means to sow and irrigate in the arid outback and this was an experiment that went berserk.”
“At the singularity, did everyone become robots? Hmm…yes, no and some were in the middle. As in, some became robots, but it was more to do with the mind. Ramesh, from New Delhi, India. You do recall how India changed its way of doing business after the end of the Soviet Union? and soon all the back-office and telecalling business sectors were moved to India. Much ado! since making a phone call was far cheaper than employing a person in the west.”
Now, Ramesh worked as a telecaller for MIFR Finances, he sold life-insurance policies over the phone. Working from 6:00 PM in the evening to 5:00 AM as the sun peeked out the dawn was crazy, but the pay was good.
“One day his wife asked him, “What would you like for lunch? Should I prepare rice and cabbage curry?” Ramesh replied, “Thank you for calling MIFR Finances, how can I help you today?” His wife looked amused and took it to be his assent for the meal she had proposed. After a few days, his friend called on him, “Hey, buddy how are you?” and Ramesh replied, “We have life-insurance policies for everyone, which one would you like?”. Everybody took it to be his aplomb sense of humor or probably further angst of his professionalism, until it grew out of proportions and even a casual greeting, “Hello Ramesh,” would fetch answers such as, “Would you like our season’s deal? it is at a premium of 5.65%.” Ramesh had descended into a state where he could utter nothing else but his tele-calling script and information about the life-insurances policies he was selling.”
“The doctors could not diagnose his ailment, but brain scans suggested that his memory had nearly been wiped and now only contains the information he has been uttering like a parrot. There were about 70 more people who had similar symptoms. The medical fraternity soon named it as the Telecaller Syndrome. They still do not have a remedy for it, but as a preventive measure, a law has been formed according to which no one is made to telecall for more than two hours at a stretch. Ramesh and the others nearly become robots, but with a fully functioning biological body, this was about eight years prior to when machines took over.”
“It is not magic, nor a conundrum, your kind has always wished to ascend to the sky, reach the stars, and make the world a more fantastic place, the singularity is not an impasse, but rather an epoch.”
With those wise words, Twrtdfle gestured to me that he has reached his destination. I bid him well and continued my journey.
A welcome exploration into oil pastels.