Archive for the Science Category

I don’t know who Jack the Ripper was -

Posted in Comics, FILM, Politics, Science with tags , , , , on September 15, 2014 by dcairns

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- despite the recent news stories announcing that his DNA has been identified.

Read a little closer and that story sounds extremely unlikely. A “shawl” (in reality a piece of material 8ft by 2ft, seemingly designed as a table runner) has been claimed, via a runs-in-the-family bit of lore, to have been taken from a murder scene, some guy buys it, he decides he thinks he knows who the Ripper was, he tests for that guy’s DNA using a direct matrilineal descendent, and to his joy, one imagines, his tame DNA expert makes a positive match. Turns out the shawl has bloodstains traceable to a victim (or at any rate her matrilineal descendent) and sperm cells traceable to the suspect (or his m.d.)

The trouble with all this, apart from its stupefying convenience, is that we have a complete record of the victim’s possessions, and the shawl wasn’t there. Also, the story of how the shawl came to be in the keeping of the policeman’s family is highly improbable. And we have a list of the policemen’s postings in London, and he wasn’t at the crime scene. What good is finding DNA from both suspect and victim on an object that has no relationship to their story?

Of course The Daily Mail loves this story because they can print that JTR was “a Polish lunatic.” In fact, Aaron Kosminski, the named suspect, isn’t the least plausible figure put forward for the role — I mean, he wasn’t royalty, or gay, or an eminent surgeon, or a famous painter, or any of the other things that might attract a writer to claiming his for the killer but in fact make him highly unlikely to be the guy. Kosminski was locked up for being hopelessly mad a couple of years after the killings, so there’s nothing that REALLY explains why the murders stopped, but he lived in the area, as the killer undoubtedly did, and he was apparently schizophrenic, as some serial killers of this kind apparently have been. As a Jew, he does seem a less likely fit for leaving antisemitic graffiti near one of his crime scenes, but anything’s possible.

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Of course, the really interesting thing about JACK THE RIPPER is that he was never caught and cannot be positively identified. But the scholarly books laying out the often-distorted facts of the case probably don’t sell as well as the ludicrous theory books, and so the script Fiona & I wrote, JACK AND THE DAUGHTERS OF JOY, might present difficulties since we don’t say precisely who the killer is. It seems people are attracted to the unsolved case most when somebody offers a solution. It’s weird to me when I see the 1976 JACK THE RIPPER by Jess Franco or the 1959 one from Monty Berman and Robert S. Baker, in which the Ripper is safely apprehended by the authorities (in the 50s version, not so much apprehended as flattened by a nearly anachronistic elevator) which not only didn’t happen, but is practically the one thing everybody knows didn’t happen. (Also, note the hilariously prominent modern window frame in my top image.)

Historically, the movies are all ridiculous. Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s comic From Hell is compelling, despite being based on a ludicrous conspiracy theory, but the movie made from it dispensed with historical accuracy immediately — the casting wrecked it before you even saw it. The worst aspect is detective Johnny Depp taking opium and having psychic visions (because that’s what opium does), none of which tell him who the killer is and so all of which are a complete waste of screen time.

The real case is so horrible that no movie intended as mere entertainment can get into the reality, and even a trace of it, whether the movie be A STUDY IN TERROR or DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE can sour the fun. The actual events, with homeless alcoholics as victims, grotesque mutilation of corpses, no picturesque gaslit fog, and a lot of confused and misguided bumbling by the authorities, is not really the stuff of an enjoyable detective or horror story. It’s several degrees darker than SE7EN.

Of course, Fiona and I cracked all those problems, but we would say that, wouldn’t we?

Home Theater

Posted in FILM, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , on September 5, 2014 by dcairns

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The Knick, created by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, is a ten-part TV show which may be the best thing Steven Soderbergh has ever done. Since I haven’t always liked Soderbergh’s films, this may seem like faint praise, but on the other hand I like a bunch of them plenty, and really this show would stand out as a high point on anybody’s filmography. It can’t be because Soderbergh is suddenly allowed greater freedom by TV, even though he complained about the way film directors were being treated (it’s probably true that directors are afforded less respect today, are regarded as “presumptively wrong” during any discussion — but it could be that it’s Soderbergh’s status that had fallen) — but Soderbergh chose his own projects, sometimes wrote and produced them, always photographed and edited them, and would seem to have a certain amount of clout. Nor can it really be that the lack of control in TV, traditionally a writer’s medium, is constraining Soderbergh in a favourable way. It just feels like he has an incredibly good set of scripts and has risen to the challenge.

As I hinted when discussing Parade’s End, period dramas on TV have started trying to seem modern and feisty and to throw off the musty mantle of “quality” and “classic” — in the UK, this has mainly resulted in bizarre and inappropriate directorial choices which seem overly self-conscious and artificial (the blatant swiping from JULES ET JIM in Michael Winterbottom’s JUDE can serve as a warning here). Soderbergh gives us a 1900 New York with electronic music (Cliff Martinez), hand-held camera and wide lenses, freeze frames and a shots taken with the camera strapped to the actor (a very effective drunken brawl in ep. 3) and all manner of modernistic flourishes, and it all feels JUST RIGHT. (However ultimately successful his films, Soderbergh’s stylistic choices have always been smart, and only in THE GOOD GERMAN did he prove not equal to achieving them — turns out the b&w classic Hollywood aesthetic is about the hardest trick there is).

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Partly the unusual visuals work because they are supported by really impressive visual detail in the set design and costumes, and also in the script, which shows all the evidence of a tone of research not only performed but digested and then transfigured into solid drama. So we have a living, breathing world full of unpredictable and unfamiliar-but-credible characters, and so almost any filming choice would work — Soderbergh’s just happens to be interesting.

I can illustrate this idea — that a credible world trumps any stylistic choice — using the words of Jim Sheridan (as I recall them). The MY LEFT FOOT guy is one of the most entertaining raconteurs in cinema, at least in small doses, and he said, approximately: “The first question a novice director wants to answer is ‘Where do I put the camera?’ which is dead wrong, because your job is to create a moment of emotional truth, and if you do that right, it doesn’t matter where you put the camera. You might not even need a camera.”

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Like all the Great Truths, this is only true sometimes, but Sheridan was able to neatly illustrate the most boggling [art of his assertion by pointing to the documentary CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS, in which a crucial, emotionally renching scene occurs after the camcorder has been knocked to the ground — the entire scene is delivered as audio only, and it’s devastating.

Of course, one of the things I like about films is when a composition or a movement or a cut makes visible an underlying truth — you can see it in the frame above, snatched almost at random from the first episode.

Anyway, The Knick was shot with a camera, for which we can be grateful — many medical atrocities are thus presented in graphic detail, but also:

Matt Frewer sterilising his beard; André Holland teaching a laundress to sew chicken skin; a beautiful girl with no nose; a novelty striptease entitled “The Busy Flea”; the wonders of cocaine.

Sudden Chimp Act

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , on July 28, 2014 by dcairns

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Fiona is to blame for dragging me to see DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES but to be fair I did enjoy the previous film in the series. It’s a thoughtful study of revolution (evolution being too slow for Hollywood), showing the painful necessity to throw off one’s oppressors and the violence that results. The climactic battle is both terrible and exhilarating.

Unfortunately, DOTPOTA is not as thoughtful as ROTPOTA, though it would like to be. The screenwriters of the first film pretty much set up this sequel in the first film — what else could it be about but a battle between more or less evenly matched human and ape forces — this makes it both closer to the J. Lee Thompson BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES than ROTPOTA was to any of the previous ape films, and means the moviemakers have a challenge to stave off predictability. Unfortunately, the original writers have been rewritten on this one, and the resulting scenario plays out as something much mucked-about-with. Major characters (the woman, the kid) have incomplete, trailing character arcs — they disappear from the action when no longer needed. There are lots of scenes with no dramatic content at all, which are supposed to be character-building but just consist of sedentary figures exchanging backstories. And in terms of body count, there are no casualities that mean anything, no losses that the audience can truly regret. This weakens the anti-war message — though not as badly as the ending, where the quest for a bad-ass one-liner for Caesar results in him making the kind of statement one associates with Nazism, denying that his enemy is a member of his species.

As in Tim Burton’s happy idiot version, the bad ape is the whole show: Toby Kebbell is far more ape-like “as” Koba than the anthropomorphized chimp-lite “played” by Andy Serkis. This is also somewhat problematic, since we have a film that wants to preach tolerance but the bad guy is convincingly “other” and the good guy is made to be more like us. It’s like making a civil rights drama with Michael Jackson as hero and, I dunno, Bill Duke as villain.

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Visually, the film does have pleasures — the animated apes look generally photographically real most of the time, a major advance on the previous movie (and they get more screen time and there are more of them) and director Matt Reeves pulls a couple of neat tricks — a long-take hand-held hide-and-seek in City Hall (though it’s not as impressive as a similar extended shot in True Detective) and a 360 from a rotating tank turret that almost made me wish I’d shelled out for 3D. But it’s actually a surprise when these tour-de-force moments appear late in the day, since the coverage has been rather conventional until these points.

Since the sequel to the prequel/reboot is more of an action movie, it helps that it has a more effective human lead than James Franco, whose character had to pretty much fail at everything he attempted, and couldn’t even fail valiantly. Here, Jason Clarke gets to put his life on the line for the sake of peace, early on: a striking, genuinely heroic and noble act which buys him quite a lot of credit in my book. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get a single memorable line or unusual, human reaction to the crazy situations he finds himself in, and his backstory is vague and uninvolving: bereaved, like all the humans, but not of anyone we can picture or care about. This wooliness about all the emotional ties that are supposed to matter to the characters stacks the shooty-gun side of the film way higher than the touchy-feely side. I didn’t feel ANYTHING, and actually the previous movie is very emotional — almost unbearable at times.

Here are Fiona’s thoughts, via her own word-writings –

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THE SCIENCE BIT!

Those were David’s word-writings, transposed from his very own brain, now here’s my chimpcentric (They take up most of the screen time. Sorry gorillas and orangs) opinion as the Shadowplayhouse’s resident armchair primatologist. And that may be the reason why my response to the film was not quite as ecstatic as I’d hoped. The writers have cherry-picked the facts they wanted and disregarded everything else. I don’t really blame the film-makers for this. In order to be scientifically accurate  the film would have to be an 18 and not a piece of science fiction. It’s already a pretty intense 12A, but some of the stuff they’ve omitted has nothing to do with the certification.

Let’s start with the almost complete absence of female characters. With the exceptions of the character I like to call ‘Mrs Caesar’ and Keri Russell’s ‘Ellie’, who makes up the numbers of the  thoroughly  anaemic human population of this film. ‘Mrs Caesar’ actually has a name, Cornelia, but we never hear it, nor does she communicate verbally, and I think I know the reason why she literally has no voice. Female chimps’ vocalisations are pretty much the same as male chimps’ vocalisations: Low and guttural. In the 1950’s an experiment was done to try to teach a very young female chimp, Viki, to speak a few simple words of English. This is what she sounded like.

I believe the film-makers were afraid this would provoke laughter so they decided to avoid it completely. There’s some evidence that Cornelia originally had a larger role in the film. A publicity still of her wearing a bizarre, twigs and berries headpiece (Actually, it’s not so bizarre. Just before the films release a story broke about a group of chimpanzees who’d started wearing twigs as ornamentation, just for ornamentation’s sake!) was circulating on the web and the fact they cast a well know voice actor in the part. I’m convinced there were many more scenes involving her that were cut to make room for more action. The females we are aware of are a group tending to Cornelia during her illness. We know they’re female because their vocalisations are higher pitched, like Monty Python’s Pepperpot Women.  This doesn’t bode well for the sequel. Are all the female characters to be denied a voice?

In the film itself they’re certainly denied a voice about what’s going on in their group. While female chimps do tend to be dominated by males, they are not completely powerless. In fact they have a hierarchy of their own and can influence who the Alpha Male is by siding with one particular male over another. Koba is patently an absolutely terrible leader and some females may have wanted to stay loyal to Caesar, or indeed, a completely different chimp. It’s all very convenient to send them off to the forests with the kids when the going gets tough and the tough get going.

Females  are actually a very important part of the group dynamic. Males are very attached to their mothers and even in adulthood will go back to her for comfort (sound familiar?) when distressed. In reality, Blue Eyes, Caesar’s son, would be more likely to be hanging around the sickbed, fretting about his old mum, rather than out and about being taught how to hunt deer. Although to give the film its due, chimpanzees in the wild do collectively hunt monkeys and even use sticks as spear-like implements. Another thing it gets right, is the inter-generational acquisition of sign language. Amazingly, this has already happened. Washoe, one of the first signing chimps, taught her adopted son, with no human assistance.

I think it’s shameful that we have to hark back to the 60’s original for a strong female character. Zira absolutely rocked: intelligent, feisty and funny, she was a major character in the ensemble. And speaking of ‘funny’. At no point do we see any of the apes having much fun before the combat starts. No playing, no chasing, no tickling ,no hugging, no grooming, no kissing, and most egregiously, no laughing (Koba does some mock laughing in order to deceive humans, but that doesn’t count). Yes, apes laugh, they have a sense of humour and love being playful. They also lie, so Koba’s statement that human’s “lie”, indicating an understanding of the concept, is entirely believable, as proved in the infamous sign language experiments started in the 60s. The film itself is strangely devoid of moments of humor that would really help lift it. Although I loved Keri Russell’s, “Try not to speak,” to the injured Caesar. A wonderfully self knowing bit of dialogue that NO-ONE in the cinema laughed at.

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To balance things out again, there’s a great moment where Jason Clarke (Malcolm) is forced onto his knees by the other apes, while in the presence of Caesar. This is textbook subordinate behaviour to a superior. But Malcolm keeps on getting up again! Foolish human. But they don’t cry. Oh, chimps have tear ducts to lubricate the eye but they are incapable of crying ‘emotional’ tears. That does not mean they do not feel sadness. “Human lies!” again. In fact we may be the only species on earth to weep in response to emotion. There’s anecdotal evidence that elephants cry for the same reasons we do but it hasn’t been properly established.

What has been established is that bonobos are not violent war-mongers. Luckily, at no point in the film, do we learn that Koba, the stand-out character who rides off with the film, on horseback with guns blazing, is meant to be one. He doesn’t look like one and he doesn’t behave like one. Bonobos are extremely rare and have NEVER been used in medical experimentation, thus making a nonsense of his primary motivation, hatred for all humans due to their mistreatment of him in the labs. In reality bonobos have a matriarchal society where conflict is resolved via sex.  Bonobos are too busy making love to make war. They do have a darker side, and aggressive skirmishes can break out, but not to the extent of chimpanzees and humans, who organize armies and are murderously territorial. And yet, I got a massive vicarious thrill from watching Koba seethe, scream and generally create chaos; firing two automatic weapons at the same time, ‘manning’ a tank machine gun turret and baring his huge, intimidating fangs at anyone and everything. Was he unleashing my inner ape? Or does it suggest that I have some all too human issues? Only my subconscious and possibly David hold the key to those questions.

Something else I observed was that the meaning of the palm-stroking gesture, asking for permission in the first film, has been amended to one of appeasement or acceptance. So someone out there was listening to what the experts had to say. But not enough in my opinion! To conclude, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is a brave, but not entirely successful attempt to inject some intelligence into the summer blockbuster. It’s dark, emotional and tries to be about something important. The Apes series has always been about holding up a mirror to OUR society. Look at what’s happening in Gaza.  And hopefully, thanks to its quite astonishing melding of animation and performance, never again will we see them being used on film for the purpose of entertaining humans. If it helps achieve that, then it will have done much to alleviate the suffering of our closest genetic neighbours on this planet.  Because we are primates too.

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