Archive for August 17, 2008

The Brain is Plastic

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2008 by dcairns

Edinburgh Book Festival, which takes over Charlotte Square Gardens and runs concurrently with most of the other Edinburgh festivals, always sounds more exciting to me than it is. When I get there, I’m always reminded that all it is, is a small-ish bookshop, a coffee shop and some tents where talks happen.

Fortunately, we had tickets for a talk, by Dr. Ben Goldacre who writes the Bad Science column for The Guardian newspaper, and now this book. Unfortunately, he missed his train.

So we began with what a lot of people may have seen as the support act, David McFarland, who has a book, Guilty Robots, Happy Dogs: The Question of Alien Minds. He turned out to be a wry and engaging speaker.

Then Goldacre arrived at last, and it was sort of like a lecture by A.J.P. Taylor being interrupted by a set from the Rolling Stones. Goldacre’s charisma and speed of delivery made him an adrenalin jolt after the slow-burn wit of McFarland. Not that he “blew him away”, just that the change of pace was refreshing.

Goldacre writes about how most science stories in the press are completely bogus. Real and interesting and important press releases are ignored while the media goes after fake scare stories, and the Daily Mail pursues its “Sysiphean task of dividing all the objects in the world into those which cause cancer and those which cure cancer.” Goldacre is adept at channelling his outrage at this into humour. He’s also devilishly handsome. Technically a nerd, but if he was cast in a TV show as a nerd you’d just  say, “Ah, they just got a handsome guy and gave him comedy hair.” Fiona has decided to add him to her roster of “husbands”.

Goldacre WAS in fact cast in a BBC3 popular science show, but deliberately scuttled the ship before it aired, because they wanted to not only dumb down and falsify the science, but obliterate the ethics. “I don’t know why they thought *I* was the guy to do that show for them,” he observed. TV science is in as bad a shape as newspaper science, mainly because the majority of TV makers don’t care, it seems to me. They care about having TV careers, whereas, being a doctor, Goldacre doesn’t need to worry about that. Do they care about good television? Perhaps, but only in the sense of that phrase: “Did you see Oliver Reed drunkenly vomiting a chair leg through Clive James’ skull? That was brilliant television.” At some point the idea that television should be a degrading freakshow took hold.

Meanwhile, questions were asked, and Goldacre discussed the giant evils of Big Pharma and the smaller-but-still-giant evils of alternative health scam artists, and harked back to fifty years ago. At this point David McFarland got the biggest laugh of the event:

“Fifty years ago, my father was a doctor. The drugs companies used to send him all these little samples. I asked him what he did with all these little samples. He said, ‘Well, they’re all more or less Vaseline, so I just put ‘em in my hair.’”

After the event we swung by a charity book sale we’d heard about from friend Nicola of the Edinburgh Film Guild (the world’s oldest running Film Society, though I should stress than back in the ’30s they had to get by without Nicola). No film books, but some science ones. I grabbed, and am enjoying, The Brain that Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge. Two Incredible Stories:

Scientist Paul Bach-y-Rita invented a machine in the ’60s that let blind people see. They sat in a chair and operated a huge video camera. The camera was attached to a contraption on their back that stimulated their skin. The little vibrators would wobble away in places on the back corresponding to where the camera image was dark and held still for the light bits. Eventually the patient could “see” the camera image with their back, the way the victim of the torture device in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony can “read” the name of the crime being carved onto his body. But nicer.

“‘Jigamy’? What the hell is ‘jigamy’?”

“That’s my wife! She’s not wearing her glasses. She’s holding a bunch of flowers,” the blind people would say. Only this time, they’d be right.

The same Bach-Y-Rita guy helped out when a woman lost all her sense of balance after an overlong bout of cheap antibiotics. she felt like she was falling, all the time. Even when she did fall down, and was on the floor, she still felt like she was falling. Can you imagine how horrible that must be?

Victims of this disorder are known as wobblers, but you MUSTN’T LAUGH.

Bach-Y-Rita fixed her up with a big sci-fi helmet that could tell which way was up (I’m guessing spirit levels), wired to a patch that sat on her tongue (the tongue is incredibly sensitive because unlike most of the rest of us, it isn’t covered with a layer of dead skin). The tongue pad could be electrically stimulated in different areas, depending on where the patient’s head was. This replaced her faulty inner ear apparatus… with her tongue.

Not only could she now walk about, hop, and dance while wearing this preposterous contraption, but there was a short residual effect when she took it off. When she wore the device longer, the residual effect lasted MUCH longer. After a year of treatment, she is no longer a wobbler.

This is all just from chapter one… the book details how brain function may not be as fixed as has been thought. “The brain is plastic.” 

After the book sale, we dropped by producer Nigel Smith’s for a film meeting — which was really encouraging. A reader had looked over our current project, and loved it. This gave the whole thing a pretty upbeat feel, and we were able to make some positive plans for moving forward. Which reminds me, I have to write some director’s notes for the film.

I’ll shut up now.

Hello, Moto

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2008 by dcairns

Great stuff, this vodka. It gets you drunk, did you know that? Brilliant.

I had recourse to the bottle, left behind by visiting thespians, since Fiona was getting her roots done with our friend Nicola (officially deemed “too disturbing for Channel 4″) and while they were assailing each others’ hair with “colourants” I thought I’d distract myself with what turned out to be a vodka-fuelled triple-bill of MR. MOTO movies.

Peter Lorre starred as Japanese importer/detective Kentaro Moto eight times between 1937 and 1939 (whew!). My discs had a few extras as well so I supplemented my viewing with an interview with Lorre’s stunt double Harvey Parry, and a meditation on the historical significance of the man Moto. The thesis seemed to be that casting the sinister-of-aspect Peter Lorre as Moto was a way of acknowledging the mixed feelings had about the emergence of Japan on the world scene.

Wow, blogging drunk is weirdly EFFORTFUL (hic!).

I think the documentary mouthpieces had it slightly wrong about Moto. One weird thing about the films I saw was that in all three (THINK FAST, MR. MOTO; THANK YOU, MR. MOTO; MR. MOTO’S VACATION) there were Germanic actors playing Russians: Sig Ruman, twice, and Victor Varconi, once. So the suspicion formed that in a strange way, casting Lorre as Japanese was a way of de-Germanising him. The effect of a German playing Japanese, while obviously disturbing by the time of Pearl Harbour (he’s a one-man Axis!), was basically to render the actor and character as an all-purpose exotic. His precise ethnicity is blurred.

(Sig Ruman appears once with beard – prompting loud cries of “Don’t point that beard at me, it might go off!” and references to “Concentration Camp Erhardt” from Nicola and I — and once without, exposing a bare and raddled chin like an old man’s bottom.)

The Ruman chin in all its naked awfulness. Get that thing behind a beard!

My, the films are entertaining, though (and you don’t even need to be drunk). Lorre, slim and rather beautiful, but equipped with jangling European teeth, is elegant and always surprising as Moto. If you can forgive the horrible idea of casting a white man in yellowface, that is. Assisted by Harvey Parry, Moto deploys a peculiar variety of ju-jitsu that frequently culminates in a sock in the jaw or a blast from a small-calibre pistol. Like Sam Spade, Moto follows his own code of honour, which makes him worthy of our respect, and always capable of being surprising. For the first couple of films, the writers definitely play with the idea of Moto as a suspicious character — might he turn out to be the villain? He does not.

That sexy, sexy man.

Lorre adds to Moto’s surprising qualities with his own. His line readings are always unique, seductive, playful, sardonic, melancholic or slightly tipsy, and it’s not always easy to tell which. Plus there are the great luminous eyes, round and wet as soap bubbles. They appear to be enlarged by his glasses, until he takes his specs off and we realise that his particular googliness owes nothing to magnification.

The MOTO films are swift, getting the job done in just over an hour, and follow a harum-scarum, making-it-up-as-they-go-along system of plotting which may well be more carefully worked-out than appears. And they’re decorated with guest stars. The three I saw had John Carradine (being Spanish), Sidney “Satan is his father!” Blackmer (being German), Lionel Atwill (being Atwill) and J. Carroll Naish (not sure what he was trying to be). Also Joseph Schildkraut, a man whose Hollywood career went into mysterious decline after he let it be known that Louis B. Mayer moved his lips while signing his name.

Unlike the CHARLIE CHAN series, also produced by 20th Century Fox and at the same time, Moto’s adventures tend not to be whodunnits, but more generalised capers, filled with action, plots, reverses and disguises. They’re a bit more feverish and non-Cartesian, although just about possible to follow if you haven’t had a skinful. Rather than slowly winding themselves up by way of exposition and scene-setting, they begin in media res, with violent action which won’t be explained for several reels, after an apparently unrelated plot is already in full swing. The Chan films are slightly stiffer, like their middle-aged hero, though occasional propulsive track-ins at dramatic moments, and aberrant moments of comic surrealism, keep them frisky enough.

All three of the films I watched were directed by Norman Foster, who also made JOURNEY INTO FEAR for Orson Welles and Mercury Productions, and Shadowplay favourite KISS THE BLOOD OFF MY HANDS (A.K.A. STEAM THE SEMEN OFF MY SPATS, and BLAST THE LINT OUT MY NAVEL). In interview, stuntman Parry calls Foster “a very serious man”. God, making those films must have been hell for him.

Our hero throws a ship’s steward to his death in a fit of pique.

Years later, a director asked Peter Lorre for a retake. “I only do this shit once,” the actor slurred back.

“Then how did you survive all those MR. MOTO films?”

“Easy. I was on drugs.”

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