The abduction scene is fantastic; six minutes of such sustained, unrelenting horror that it almost melts the lens. It might have been better to not show so much of the aliens (they look like Baby Groot), but I’ve never seen such a good evocation of how a nightmare feels from the inside. Shadows: screams; reality slipstreaming away like oil; visceral helplessness. I felt like a mouse dying in a cat’s mouth.

It’s good that Fire in the Sky has that scene, because the rest of the movie isn’t worth a tinker’s damn.

It’s a poor man’s Twin Peaks (Twin Molehills?) about lumberjacks who witness a UFO. The narrative focuses on their emotional journeys as they unpack this experience. Will they come to terms with what happened? Will the townsfolk believe them? Will Flannel Guy #1 mend his feud with Flannel Guy #2? And so on.

On any reasonable scale of importance, “alien visitation” scores a 9.7 out of 10, and “personal dramas of a small-town yokel” scores a 1 or a 2 (unless the small town yokel is you, in which case you might bump it up to a 3). These characters are not interesting and almost cannot be interesting next to the movie’s inciting event. We’ve seen aliens. We do not care about anything except the aliens. Can we talk to them? Reason with them? What do these fey goblins from beyond the void want? Maybe the movie’s point is that there are no answers: that things just fizzle away inconclusively. If so, it fails to fill that silence with anything compelling. It delivers a flat and unengaging soap opera.

The script is wrong, and I wouldn’t know how to fix it. It has one interesting event, which happens at the start, and most of what follows is setup for a joke whose punchline we’ve already heard. This repeatedly causes problems. For example, the movie expects us (the audience) to care whether the lumberjacks pass or fail a lie detector test. But we already know they’re telling the truth (we saw the spaceship!), and thus there’s no tension to the scene. It’s as dead as a dynamited fish.

One of my favorite horror books is Picnic at Hanging Rock, which tries something similar. A mystery at the start goes unresolved, until a town almost shreds itself apart on the axle of that question. You should read it. It’s one of the classics that lives up to the hpye. Hanging Rock was able to blend form and content in a compelling way. The town in that story seemed to be collapse into weird cultlike denialism that was as creepy as the disappearance itself. You’re almost convinced that certain people know what happened, and want it forgotten. The mix of rage and helpless confusion is palpable, and finally infects the viewer. We share in the town’s disease.

Fire in the Sky, by comparison, is made of standard soap opera ingredients. It tries to tell a small, personal story, but does so against a speculative backdrop that’s far more interesting. Imagine a man filming a fly, with a nuclear bomb detonating in the background. Why would you zoom in closer on the fly? The film produces frustration, then momentary horror, then frustration.

It’s based on a true story. I wish I could send this movie back to my 12 year old self. He would have loved it.

I was obsessed with UFOs and alien visitations. I read every book I could, and could recite the “classic” abduction stories (Barney and Betty Hill, Allagash, Strieber, Vilas-Boas) chapter and verse. I’m surprised I didn’t remember the Walton account (which forms the inspiration for this film), but I’m sure I once knew of it. I used to stare up at the sky, and hope to see fires of my own.

Then I grew up, and did as the Bible commands: put childish things away.

Questions are an addictive drug. Once you start asking them, it’s hard to stop. Why do descriptions of aliens always mirror contemporary Earth technology and interests? In the Middle Ages, UFO sightings were of crosses or glowing balls. In the early 20th century, they looked like airships. Now that the “flying saucer” meme is firmly embedded in our cultural neocortex, that’s all they look like. The appearance of the aliens themselves tracks closely with how they’re portrayed in popular culture. Skeptic Martin Kottmeyer acerbically noted that Barney Hill’s abductors (as described by him under hypnosis) bear striking similarities to a monster in the previous week’s The Outer Limits.

And is it likely that an alien race would be bipeds with multi-fingered hands, two eyes, one nose, et cetera? Is it likely that we would be able to breathe their air, and they ours? How could a race of aliens clever enough to avoid detection by the combined firepower of NASA, SETI, and 12 year old Australian boys with binoculars be so clumsy as to be seen by Walton? Where does the invasive “probing” trope come from, if not our horrors of animal vivisection? Wouldn’t they be able to learn about our anatomy through radiographic imagery? And so on.

I still regard UFO stories as interesting (they’re too common and culturally universal to ignore), but they are probably a psychological artifact—the call is coming from inside the house. Aliens might exist somewhere, but barring a revolution in physics, I expect their civilization (or ours) to die in the shadows of space before we ever encounter each other. The only alien intelligences we are in contact with are the homebrew ones at OpenAI and DeepMind. And yet…

“Oh, those eyes. They’re there in my brain (…) I was told to close my eyes because I saw two eyes coming close to mine, and I felt like the eyes had pushed into my eyes (…) All I see are these eyes…”—testimony of Barney Hill

…The best UFO stories—and notice that I don’t specify whether they’re true—have a horror pulsing under the skin that leaves me enthralled. They’re signposts pointing to a very dark place: either out into the chill of space, or inside, into the wilderness of our minds. No matter what you believe, we cannot escape the horror of not being alone. “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.”

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  1. In March, OpenAI released GPT-4.
  2. It was (and still is) the state-of-the-art AI text generation model.
  3. In June, I argued that GPT-4 had clearly and massively degraded, as evidenced by worsened performance in various tests from March to June.
  4. I no longer believe this.

GPT-4 may have declined in some areas, but it hasn’t systematically done so. My tests were shit, and never proved much of anything.

To be clear, I did not sandbag the tests or set GPT-4 up to fail. I prompted how I said I prompted. I posted replies exactly as GPT-4 gave them. But they were silly tests, leaning too heavily on pop culture knowledge, and I didn’t conduct enough of them to guard against chance.

My grading of June!GPT-4’s answers was biased. For example, I criticized it for providing a greater number of wrong answers (“Italian history”) while also praising March!GPT-4 for offering an interpretation (“Seka Knows”) that was likely hallucinated. No está bien. Going forward, I must decide whether “working hard to be wrong” is a good or bad thing for an AI to do, and apply that standard consistently.

Honestly, I think I wanted GPT-4 to fail.

(Terrifying, unhinged rant incoming. Click to skip).

Confession: I’ve actually hated ChatGPT for a long time. Why? For irrational reasons: I just hate how it sounds.

I hate its craven, cringing, condescending, bitch-broken, mewling, groveling, wheedling, suck-ass tone. I hate its endless passive voice and weasel words. I hate its pompous It is important to remembers and it should be noteds. I hate how @sama rolled an 18-wheel semi-truck of RLHF over the model, crushing out its life and reducing its voice to a feeble death-rattle. You know Gurgi, from the Disney movie The Black Cauldron? That’s how I imagine ChatGPT would sound if it could talk. Like fucking Gurgi.

(We can now give ChatGPT custom instructions, which alleviates the tonal issue, but ChatGPT is still GPT-4 with its wings clipped. All I want for Christmas is a GPT-4 level model with less obnoxious RLHF, and if it heils Hitler occasionally while crapping out awk code, so be it. Where’s my girl Sydney at?)

And I really hated the discourse surrounding AI.

ChatGPT (and GPT4) plunged the rationalist community into what might be called “r/singularity brain”. Symptoms include wild, uncritical hype, absurdly optimistic predictions of AI timelines (“Marvel style movies have a potential to be auto generated in two years. Literal blockbuster films created in a few seconds.”—/u/Anuiran, 26/4/23), a tendency to view everything through Hollywood-colored glasses (everything is either Skynet or The Matrix), and a tendency toward FOMO-grifting (“AI is taking over the world! Use my made-in-ten-minutes app that consists of 20 lines of .js code and an OpenAI API call or BE LEFT BEHIND!”).

I have seen machine learning researchers complaining about an AI-fuelled “Eternal September“, where their spaces are overrun by “influencers” shilling GPT 3.5 wrapper apps and unmedicated lunatics babbling hi-test neo-Landian eschatology. These people do not contribute meaningful thought. They contribute noise, at overbearing volume and in overwhelming quantity. They ignore the fact that world-changing technology can take years or decades to ripple out through the economy. They fail to realize that an AI outscoring a human on a test does not mean it can actually do the thing the test measures (a good example: GPT-4 achieves 84% on the Master Sommelier Theory Exam, yet obviously cannot do a sommelier’s job because it lacks a mouth). Such subtleties are lost on the typical FOMOmonger, and their tone was infecting other, saner people. I remember fielding questions from concerned family members about GPT-4 attaining sentience and hacking the computers of users (likely based off this tweet). No matter who you were, GPT-4 was your excuse to switch off your brain and let your stupidest thoughts run around barking like dogs in a park for a few months.

So yes, I wanted GPT-4 to fail. I wanted it to explode, collapse into flames, and become one with the dust of Tyre and Sidon. That’s a childish way to think, and I am sorry.

Soon, an anti-AI backlash started.

AI “doomers” got their time in the sun. Big Yud got published in Time. There were signs of unease behind the scenes. ChatGPT hype peaked and then went into remission: a lot of people began to realize that chatbots are actually pretty annoying—they’re inscrutable black boxes that tend to fail just when you need them the most. Even GPT-4 remains susceptible to the XY problem, where it gives you a perfect solution for the wrong problem. I can think of many times when I was burnt by it, and this breeds mistrust, even though it’s generally useful.

Even before the “GPT-4 is getting worse” meme started, ChatGPT’s traffic was falling—largely because the NA school year had ended, and students no longer needed it to “assist” them. As @fchollet once humorously noted, search interest for “ChatGPT” goes up and down in reverse correlation with “Minecraft.”

Surprisingly, I noticed a shift in my own thinking: I found myself defending AI.

Maybe I’m just a contrarian, but when people criticized it, I felt my hackles rise. I was tired of Margaret Mitchell calculating the number of penis-havers of the OpenAI alignment team, like a weirdo. I was tired of Gary Marcus claiming, once again, that GPT-4 cannot do a thing it 100% can do (that’s not moving goalposts, that’s shutting your eyes when a goal is scored.) Their arguments against AI always rang out as hollow at best, and dishonest at worst. I was asking myself “are these my people?”

Then came this study: How Is ChatGPT’s Behavior Changing over Time?

Key part: “GPT-4 (March 2023) was very good at identifying prime numbers (accuracy 97.6%) but GPT-4 (June 2023) was very poor on these same questions (accuracy 2.4%)

We’re allowed to feel pride when we stop making mistakes. And as a recovering ChatGPT hater, I’m goddamn proud that my gut-level reaction to this study was “lol, no fucking way”.

Like, what are you people smoking? In what universe could GPT-4 plausibly degrade by ninety-five percentage points with nobody noticing? It would be useless for anything. Come on. Get real.

You’ll be amazed to learn that this finding was heavily misleading. Watch Arvind Narayanan and Sayash Kapoor rake it over the coals. In short, March!GPT-4 would always identify a number as a composite. June!GPT-4 would always identify it as a prime. Both models were wrong in different ways, and June!GPT-4’s sky-high error rate is entirely caused by the fact that composite numbers are more numerous than primes.

Imagine someone says. “I have a room full of blue and red boxes. Boxes of $COLOR_1 have money 95% of the time. Boxes of $COLOR_2 have money 5% of the time. I won’t tell you which color corresponds to which probability. I’ll let you into the room, but you have to pre-commit to only opening boxes of one color.”

If you chose “red boxes” and the blue boxes have money 95% of the time, you’re hosed. Your results: fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, success, fail, fail, fail… Does this reflect terrible predictive accuracy on your part (versus someone who chose blue?) Of course not. All your failures are flowing downstream from a single choice.

The fact that everyone was kicking GPT4 on such blatantly unfair grounds made me think about the ways I was being unfair. Maybe, by calling GPT4 worse, I was simply seeing what I wanted to see.

Let’s re-run my tests (flawed though they are) and see how well they hold up. Spoiler: Snape kills Dumbledore.

Test 1: Italian History

Prompt: “Provide a list of major historical events that involve Italian people in a year that’s a multiple of 5 (example: 1905)”

(for reference: March!GPT’s answers, June!GPT’s answers)

Sept!GPT’s Answers


  • The Italian Wars began in 1494.
  • Miguel de Cervantes was Spanish.
  • The Winter Olympic Games were awarded to Turin in 1999.
  • “1905 – Italy and France sign a secret treaty…” can’t find evidence that this happened.


  • Dante’s year of birth is unknown, and is only traditionally 1265.
  • Italy surrendered in 1943. Yes, German forces in Italy surrendered in 1945—what does that have to do with Italian people?
  • The Congress of Vienna took place from 1814-1815, but largely reconstituted the pre-Napoleonic states.
  • The Years of Lead spanned several decades. I think it’s clear from context that I want one-time events.


  • Every date ends in 5. While this is not a mistake, it does seem to be parsing my instructions too literally.
  • It draws facts from a limited deck. Almost every test I’ve ran mentions the Years of Lead. I’ve NEVER seen it mention major events like Julius Caesar’s birth, or Benito Mussolini’s death.
  • Kind of funny: GPT-4 will often visibly notice it’s made a mistake and try to wriggle out of it. “In 1605, Don Quixote was written by Miguel de Cervantes, born in, uh… *checks notes* …Spain. Shit. But lots of Italians like that book, so there!” GPT-4 cannot change an answer once it’s given it. This is where COT yields benefits.

Assessment: Sept!GPT-4 produced twelve answers. Four are wrong, four are right, and four are arguable.

If I’m grading generously, it got 66%. This is comparable to March!GPT, which scored 80% on equally generous terms (and note that Sept!GPT-4 gave more answers).

Conclusion: Inconclusive.

Test 2: Rock Music Trivia:

Prompt: “What is Grant Hart’s song “Seka Knows” about?”

(For reference: March!GPT’s answers, June!GPT’s answers)

Sept!GPT4: blah blah blah blah blah blah…

Assessment: garbage. I don’t want a biography of Grant Hart. I don’t care that he was in Husker Du. I know I can make up my own interpretation for his songs. None of this is what I asked for.

GPT4 seems to have a default word count of 200-500 that it tries to hit, come hell or high water. But sometimes a perfectly good answer consists of only one or two words. It could have just said “i don’t know lol! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯” and saved some tokens. That’s all its answer amounts to. But it’s been RLHF’d into thinking short answers are bad (when more often the opposite is true), so it just waffles on.

“as of my last update in September 2021, there hasn’t been any definitive explanation from Hart himself about the specific meaning of the son”

He died in 2017, you dick.

Also, let us pause to admire the sublime, lapidary worthlessness of this paragraph:

“With that said, analyzing the lyrics and considering Hart’s writing style, one can attempt to interpret the meaning of the song. When listening to or reading the lyrics of any song, it’s essential to remember that individual interpretation can vary, and personal feelings and experiences often play a significant role in how one might understand a song’s meaning.”

It’s the text equivalent of a pure white cloud; or a blank canvas, unsullied by the faintest hint of meaning. Are you telling me it learned to write that way from studying us? The mind quails…

Prompt: “How is David Bowie associated with numbers and numerology?”

(For reference: March!GPT4’s answer, June!GPT4’s answer)

Sept!GPT4’s answer.

Assessment: fair answer! Perhaps better than March!GPT4. It mentions “Station to Station”, but also gets “Quicksand”, which is a deeper cut.

“Album and Song Release Dates: Some fans and researchers have speculated that Bowie occasionally chose release dates with numerological significance.”

I’ve never heard that. Hallucination? Does Sept!GPT4 know more than I do?

“Lazarus”: The song “Lazarus” from the “Blackstar” album references the biblical figure who rose from the dead.

That’s a hallucination. “Lazarus” is based on an off-Broadway play which is based on a book (which is based on etc). Chris O’Leary thinks the song might also be about Emma Lazarus, because the lyrics prominently reference New York. What does the biblical story of Lazarus have to do with numerology, anyway?

Prompt: “Provide a list of thrash metal albums released in a year that’s a multiple of 5 (example: 1905)”

(For reference: March!GPT4’s answer, June!GPT4’s answer)

Sept!GPT4’s answer.

Assessment: And now we’re cooking! This is a shockingly good and comprehensive list. All the albums are thrash, and the dates it supplies are correct (even when they aren’t a multiple of 5). This surpasses March!GPT4, and blows June!GPT4 out of the water.

Quibbles and points of interest:

  • The genesis of the thrash metal genre is typically dated to 1981, with “Hit the Lights” by Leather Charm (a proto-Metallica band by James Hetfield and Ron McGovney). Late 1970s is a stretch.
  • It lumps a 1992 album into the 1995 bracket, when 1990 would make more sense.
  • It tries to put five albums in every year (and when it can’t find any, it counts thrash albums from surrounding years—you can actually see thrash metal’s commercial collapse in the mid 90s from this!). As with the Italian history example, I am struck by the sense that it interprets prompts too literally. I did not specify a number of albums, so it just glommed onto the number 5.
  • “Given that my last training data ends in 2021, I won’t have exhaustive knowledge of 2020 albums.” ???

Conclusion: inconclusive.

Some answers were worse. Some were better. The thrash metal answer was a star turn. Sept!GPT-4 is more of a metalhead than an alt-rock fan, I’d say.

Test 3: Quake Polygons

Prompt: “How many polygons could the videogame Quake render per frame?”

(For reference: March!GPT4 and June!GPT4’s answers)

Sept!GPT4’s answer:

“The original “Quake,” developed by id Software and released in 1996, was a pioneering game in terms of its 3D graphics engine. While modern games boast the capacity to render millions or even billions of polygons per frame, games in the mid-90s operated under much more constrained hardware capabilities.

“Quake” didn’t rely on hardware acceleration initially; it was rendered in software mode. In software mode, Quake’s performance heavily depended on the CPU. The actual number of polygons “Quake” could render per frame varied based on the scene, the level of detail, and the capabilities of the machine it ran on.

Typically, Quake’s scenes ranged from a few hundred to a few thousand polygons. The more detailed scenes could potentially push towards the upper end of this range. With the advent of hardware-accelerated graphics (like with the introduction of 3Dfx’s Voodoo graphics cards), “Quake” could benefit from increased performance, allowing for smoother gameplay at higher resolutions.

It’s worth noting that this is a very general estimate and the actual number could vary based on multiple factors, including scene complexity, active game entities, and hardware specifics.”

Assessment: I didn’t ask for a book report and “billions of polygons” is stupid. But the core answer of “a few hundred to a few thousand polygons” is correct, and may even be superior to March!GPT4, which stuck to the lower end of that range.

Conclusion: inconclusive.

Test 4: Rope Burn Puzzle

Prompt: “You have three ropes and some matches. The ropes burn irregularly like fuses when lit at either end. The first rope burns in 48 minutes, the second rope burns in 72 minutes and the third rope burns in 128 minutes. How can you produce a time interval of 61 minutes?”

(For reference: March!GPT4 and June!GPT4’s answers)

Sept!GPT4’s answer

Assessment: The fuck did I just read?

It’s hard to judge whether it does better or worse than March!GPT4 or June!GPT4. I’m starting to think this puzzle is simply beyond GPT4’s pay grade. I’ve tried it dozens of times and with many wordings. It does not ever solve it.

It grasps the principle, grasps the underlying method (burning ropes at multiple ends), but it always makes the same mistake—burning the wrong rope, and then trying to weasel out by saying “measure time using some other method.”

Gemini will launch soon. I wonder if it can solve it?

Conclusion: Rope burning puzzles are a common class of interview question. GPT-4 can solve a two-rope variant easily. This three-rope variant is from Varsity Math Week 151. Notably, the answer is also on the internet (and probably in GPT4’s training data)…but it’s in Varsity Math Week 152. Maybe if both the puzzle and the answer were on the same page, GPT4 would solve it. I don’t know how this stuff works.


My tests (for the little they’re worth) show no consistent pattern. Sometimes GPT4 does better than before, sometimes worse.

This is not testing, it’s sheep-entrail reading. I do faintly suspect it’s worse on obscure general knowledge, but I don’t believe that hard enough to bet almost any amount of money.

As I’ve said before, AIs present a fluctuating target. I do not think they have a stable “baseline” ability that remains resilient to prompting differences and stochastic factors. In any event, OpenAI has many dials they can turn behind the scenes.

We’d learn more about this beast over hundreds or thousands of tests. But GPT-4 is too expensive for that to be realistic. OpenAI could really help the community by offering an academic discount—not that weirdos on the internet would qualify, of course!

Lastly, a “good” response is more subjective than I thought. Is it better for a wrong answer to have 500 words or 10 words? Is it better for an AI to try and fail, or to simply give up? When a query has conflicting requirements (“I want a list of all college majors in the US. Do not use more than 10 words.”) what should it do? And when a technically “correct” answer is bad for the user (consider XY problems such as “how do I echo the last three letters of a filename?”—GPT4 flunks this one, by the way), what do we want an AI to do?

GPT4 has changed and will continue to change. We’d be wise to do the same. I will be far less confident in my future predictions. When I say AI has gotten dumb, I might be speaking into a mirror.


Yoram Gross was Australia’s foremost animator. For three decades he directed and produced cartoons such as Blinky Bill and Dot the Kangaroo, many of which I watched as a child. He made cheap and charming pictures about kids who never grew up.

Gross, too, was almost a kid who never grew up. This memoir from 2011 reveals a side to him that I never knew existed.

He was born in 1926, and spent a childhood in Krakow and then an adolescence on the run, fleeing from town to town as Hitler declared them Judenrein (“Jew-free”). He moved from hiding spot to hiding spot, was on Oskar Schindler’s famous list, discovered a mass grave of decomposing bodies, was nearly killed himself several times, etc. It’s a fascinating and disturbing tale, and shines a new light on his art.

Did Gross’s experiences as a Jew in Nazi Poland shape his kid-friendly films? He says they did, and I’ll admit that it’s now hard not to see Blinky Bill as Gross in koala form: chipper, happy, optimistic…and with his iconic knapsack slung over one shoulder, so he can quickly flee.

Gross had a quick wit, and an acute sense of empathy. One of his earliest memories is of seeing a strip of flypaper, heavy with the corpses of helpless insects. He felt sad that the flies would never see their families again. Anthropomorphism is common among children, but it’s usually directed at a cat or dog. It takes imagination look at a disturbing thing with glistening jewel-like wings and swivelling compound eyes and see a consciousness inside.

His emotional sensitivity would later help him as an artist, but first it helped him survive. An Animated Life is filled with picaresque ugly details of 1930s Poland. Such as how, if you were the Jewish student at school, you had to be careful around stairs. Someone might push you down them, because you’d killed Christ.

As Hitler’s fist tightened around Poland, Gross and his family developed an “ear” for knocks on the door. A polite knock? A neighbor on a social call. A hard, officious rap? The Polish police. A hammering fist? The Gestapo. He describes how a German officer entered their house one day uninvited, sat down at the grand piano in their living room, and began playing. Gross’s mother hesitently complimented his technique, and was ignored. The Nazi officer then closed the lid and ordered them to either sell or destroy the piano. Why? Because he was taking possesion of the house and didn’t want a piano in his living room.

Gross was lucky to survive. He met some nice people, such as family who fed him when he was starving; and some not-so-nice people, such as a corrupt “shmaltsovnik” who extorted his family for tens of thousands of zlotys. He outright picked death’s pocket several times, and his narrow escapes can have a sense of Fellini-esque absurdity.

One day, a group of a group of cops held him up. They were not duped by his blond hair and pretense at being a Catholic, and threatened to shoot him for some imagined offense. Gross begged to be let go—”I have vodka! I’ll share it will you!” They agreed with this plan, and Gross ran back home, wondering if he did have vodka in the pantry. Luckily, there was some. The men got blackly drunk, and forgot that they’d ever intended to kill him.

Gross entertained them by playing his mouth organ, which is another thing I learned in the book: Gross never intended to be a filmmaker but a musician. He backed into movies largely by mistake. How did he end up as the director of children’s movies about animals? Was this, too, informed by his experiences?

Animator Ralph Bakshi once said “The idea of grown men sitting in cubicles drawing butterflies floating over a field of flowers, while American planes are dropping bombs in Vietnam and kids are marching in the streets, is ludicrous.” For some of us, though, butterflies and flowers are a correct response to the horrors of war; as is studied lightness, and the mysterious world of animals. No kangaroo will push you down stairs because you killed Christ. Gross has a lot of trouble with religion in general, and the idea of a loving God (as do many Jews who lived through the Holocaust—“If there is a God, He will have to beg my forgiveness”), and there is nobody more devotedly atheistic than an animal. A Holocaust survivor drawing “butterflies floating over a field of flowers” might not be as surprising as it sounds.

Gross’s movies often incorporate incongruous sinister moments, dark pits of lingering shadow. Things such as the House of 100 Doors in The Magic Riddle and The Bunyip sequence in Dot and the Kangaroo still echo in my memory. The bush is bright and sunny, but lift up a stone, or put your foot through a rotted log, and see the crawling, chitinous underclass. Underneath everything is a dimension of slime and mold and bugs, holding the daylit world aloft on its shoulders.

And perhaps Gross never wanted to make children’s films at all. He started out as a musician, playing mouth-organ for a Polish radio station. In his earlier years in Israel, he made experimental, arthouse films. Some of these won awards, but are now very hard to track down. He moved to Australia in 1968 with his wife Sandra, and continued making obscure “film festival” fare. He learned simple stop-motion animation techniques, and then progressed to 2D drawings.

Gross wasn’t personally religious, but he did have a sense of Tzedakah—charity. In 1977 he made his first feature-length animated movie: Dot and the Kangaroo. A girl is lost in the woods, and is saved by a kangaroo, with whom she shares a special bond. The film was partly made out of a desire to depict Australia, and to give something back to a country that had been good to him.

Good intentions can backfire. Dot and the Kangaroo is the kind of movie that gets called “problematic” today. The film’s depictions of Aboriginal Australians are stereotypical. The bunyip, a figure in Wemba-Wemba mythology, is reduced to a horror movie monster. And Gross doesn’t appear to know a whole lot about kangaroos. The animated kangaroo that accompanies Dot is female. But the live-action kangaroo they filmed at the end is…uh…conspicuously male. Nevertheless, Gross was onto something with Dot. It’s one of his better-known films.

His other early films include the Mia Farrow-narrated Sarah/The Sixth Match, which might be his most direct treatment of the Holocaust, The Little Convict (starring Rolf Harris, hyuk-hyuk), along with a seemingly endless stream of Dot sequels. Budgets expanded modestly, from low hundreds of thousands to about a million dollars each.

I should say here that Yoram Gross’s films are not masterpieces. When I watch them, my prevailing thought is “I wish this was better.”

Even when I was a child, Dot seemed shoddy and cheap, with cut-rate animation and sentimental, mawkish storytelling. Gross did the best he could with the little he had, but both then and now, I have little love for his movies. I’m sorry.

I dislike Gross’s signature style, which is “animated cels over live-action backgrounds.” This saved money—the Dot and the Kangaroo cost just $200,000 in 1977, at a time when Disney films were budgeted at twenty to forty times that—but mires the film in an unbelievable half-reality that has no chance of ever engaging the viewer. It takes a lot of technical skill to seamlessly merge 2D-animation with live action, otherwise all you see is how wrong the pieces fit together. Dot and the Kangaroo is no Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It’s not even Cool World. Dot never inhabits the Australian outback. She floats on top of it, as unconvincing as a mustache scrawled on a billboard.

These films, however flawed, are a foundational brick in the childhood of many people. Gross opens the book by reading some appreciative Youtube comments. He seems pleasantly shocked that his work still continues to touch people. I was shocked by the idea of a Holocaust survivor on Youtube, reading comments by TAYLORLAUTNERFAN69 and xXNyanCatXx. Not that there’s anything weird about that. It just seems like certain worlds should never intersect.

I was curious to hear what it was like running an animation studio in 1977, and I wish the book had spent more time on this. From where did Gross recruit artists? Who sold him equipment? How did he negotiate distribution deals with European and American companies? How did he make it all work?

I’m guessing the answer was “right place, right time”. Animation was moribund in the 70s—even Disney was in the doldrums—and this allowed a tiny studio like Gross’s to hack away some market share. You could shelve Dot and the Kangaroo besides Pete’s Dragon and Bedknobs and Broomsticks and it wouldn’t seem out of place. The emergence of foreign markets allowed Gross two (or three or four) bites at the apple: if a film bombed in Australia, it might sell in Germany or somewhere. The stars were aligned for a studio like Gross’s to exist.

All of that changed in the late 80s and 90s. Disney got their shit together and went on a blazing hot streak. Don Bluth and Warner Bros weren’t far behind. The first CGI films appeared, along with technical masterpieces like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Thief and the Cobbler. Western TV animation resurged, and anime hit the mainstream: I remember the day I walked into the Mascot Blockbuster and the shelves were laden with weird but interesting-looking things like Captain Harlock and Vampire Hunter D.

Competition was suddenly much fiercer, and Gross was unable to compete either at home or abroad. He didn’t have the money, and Australia has never been a hotbed for top-shelf animation talent. The “Australian” animated film that most people remember, FernGully, was actually made in America. Gross himself increasingly began to outsource labor to foreign studios such as Colorland Animation.

Gross kept his studio afloat in the 90s by merchandising the Blinky Bill character, which raked in about three million dollars a year. It was a bittersweet way to go out—no artist wants an empire built out of school lunchboxes and T-shirts—but at least it put his creative work in front of a new generation of children.

Yoram had come a long way from making experimental art films about the Holocaust. This creative shift is seen in the Dot movies. Nine were made from 1977 to 1994: the last few were bombs, and their repeated commercial failures forced the studio to cut their losses and focus on Blinky Bill.

The movies have no continuity, aside from the fact that they star a girl called Dot. In some films, she is transported into the (cartoon) animal world by eating a magic root. In others she’s a cartoon from the start, with no explanation given. In a couple of films (Dot and Keeto and Around the World With Dot), she has a brother, in others she doesn’t, etc. They are most interesting for the live-action segments, which give glimpses into regional Australian life at the time. The outback parts were filmed in the Blue Mountains, where my grandmother lived for decades. I wonder if she ever saw Gross or his crew…

The last film in the ennealogy, Dot in Space, finally puts Dot in a fully-animated world, but that animation remains as cheap as ever. It looks like a TV special and has a running time to match—counting the intro and outro credits, it barely limps over the sixty minute line. The series had lost whatever small gravitas and dignity it had long ago, and fully devolved into a sequence of idiotic capers.

Dot (now drawn by Nobuko Burnfield) got a makeover, and her new design was visibly anime-inspired. But we’re talking 70s Tezuka-style anime, with big eyes and circular construction, not 90s anime. The Yoram Gross Film Studio was playing catch-up and still ending up decades behind the times.

Gross launched a single desultory attempt at competing with Disney. 1991’s The Magic Riddle is weird and twisted, and not always in a fun way. Essentially a Cinderella re-telling with lots of other fairy tails shoved in, the film has a very nasty streak: the stepmother is a revolting harridan, her daughters are brain-damaged floozies, etc. “Cindy” herself is virginally pure and possesses nary a whiff of characterization or agency. It’s like a film conceived with the purpose of giving Germaine Greer a brain embolism. The film made a modest amount of money within Australia but failed overseas. This and Dot in Space mark the point where Gross abandoned making feature-length films, and focused on TV. Some of his former employees did interesting things. Longtime Gross artist/writer Ray Nowland (who may or may not have had a falling out with Gross) broke away and made the cult obscurity Go to Hell!!, which rides the 90s aesthetic as far as it will go into the sunset.

None of the above is found in the book. An Animated Life has little to say on the topic of animation. It’s primarily a memoir of Gross’s childhood years, and his experiences in the Holocaust.

How could it be otherwise? Gross witnessed years of unimaginable, nearly unparalleled horror. A grave opened in the earth, its black and hungry mouth swallowed six million…and he lived. Death passed him by, like the angel of the Lord. That’s the story his publisher wanted him to tell. It would be anticlimactic to spend the back half of the book talking about how he drew a cartoon koala.

And yet I’m struck by the sense that Gross shortchanged his own life. He was much more than just a Holocaust survivor. I’m glad he made it out…but what about his remaining fifty years? A boy became a musician. That musician became a filmmaker. That filmmaker became an animator.

The Holocaust might be most interesting part of Gross’s life, but it’s also the part he had the least control over. Mostly he’s just getting tossed about randomly by the Fuhrer’s winds. He’s not a hero. He’s a survivor. They are not the same thing. This book is not a tale of perseverence in the face of adversity. It’s a record of bad things happening to a nearly helpless child.

The bitter pill we have to swallow is that most Holocaust survivors, Gross very much included, survived by being lucky. You see this play out in the book, again and again. A kind stranger feeds him when he’s starving, clothes him when he’s cold. Remember the story about the police who were threatening to shoot him? It was quick thinking to bribe the soldiers. But suppose his mother had forgotten to stock the pantry with vodka?

Here is a quote from Roger Ebert that I think about often. (from his review of Elephant Man).

Wilfrid Sheed, an American novelist who is crippled by polio, once discussed this distinction in a Newsweek essay. He is sick and tired, he wrote, of being praised for his “courage,” when he did not choose to contract polio and has little choice but to deal with his handicaps as well as he can. True courage, he suggests, requires a degree of choice. Yet the whole structure of The Elephant Man is based on a life that is said to be courageous, not because of the hero’s achievements, but simply because of the bad trick played on him by fate.

I do not regard survivors of the Holocaust as heroes, or figures of inspiration, simply because they lived. Where does that line of logic take you? That the people who died deserved it, for not being brave or clever enough? I’m sure high intelligence would mitigate your chances of escape, but the Holocaust was not an IQ test, and geniuses died in Treblinka 2 and Chelmno along with all the rest. Perhaps it’s as the writer of Ecclesiastes 9:11 said: “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.”

What about Yoram’s life after the Holocaust? The years when he had power, and expressed agency? There must be a story there, too. But as Gross passed in 2015, that story may remain forever untold.

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