Archive for the Science Category

From a clear blue sky

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Science with tags , , , , , on January 20, 2017 by dcairns

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Joe Adamson’s book Tex Avery King of Cartoons is a majestic summation of the work of a great artist — a filmmaker whose cartoons express a coherent and unique view of life and the universe just as Keaton’s or Chaplin’s films do. This book should be in every school. And it should certainly be in print, which it ain’t, though you can get second-hand copies for a reasonable price.

I can’t add anything much to Adamson’s account of Avery’s 1949 classic BAD LUCK BLACKIE except better stills — I haven’t seen the 1975 edition of his tome but the 1985 one is alas illustrated with fuzzy b&w frame enlargements that capture nothing of the vivid colouring and intensity of an MGM toon.

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Plot summary — a nasty bulldog is persecuting a cute white kitten. Adamson points out that this is a unique sequence in cartooning, since it’s so mean and unevenly matched. Avery didn’t usually go for cuteness, and here he uses it as a weapon against the audience, making us uncomfortable whenever he forces laughs from us with outrageous gags whose subject is the mistreatment of a blameless and defenceless infant.

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Help arrives in the form of the title character, who presents his business card and says he can deliver instant bad luck to an enemy. Despite the business card and the air of a sharp freelancer offering a service, no money changes hands — it’s hard to see how the kitten could have paid, and to raise the question of financial reward might evoke the spectre of the protection racket (Blackie has the rasping, plebeian tones common to many Avery characters, and could be mistaken for a gangster. Don Bluth, maker of saccharine and inferior animated features, couldn’t bear those voices).

What happens next is peculiar. Whenever Blackie is summoned by a blast on a whistle, he crosses the evil dog’s path and some stray object, a flower-pot, say, will fall on the dog’s head. Instant bad luck. Avery described the cartoon to Adamson before the latter had been able to seen it, and he asked, reasonably enough, where the falling objects were falling FROM. “Avery’s answer was a small stammer and a vigorous waving of the hand, as if I had asked the most irrelevant question in the world. Which, in a sense, I had.”

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As the cartoon develops, the falling objects become more varied and, by some inscrutable but easily accepted logic, more dangerous. The dog is beaned by a horseshoe, then another, then another, then another, then flattened by a confused looking horse which drops from above without explanation. A cascade of bricks, a refrigerator, a piano, all drop without visible source or reason, seemingly teleported from the Twilight Zone into the perfect midair spot to do the most damage to their target below.

What fascinates me most, as it did Adamson, is the plot’s final twist. Blackie gets painted white and loses his power. The bulldog snatches the whistle from him and blows on it to prove its impotence. So the kitten paints himself black and crosses the dog’s path. A falling object stuns the dog, who swallows the whistle.

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Now the dog gets hiccups, and each involuntary contraction of his diaphragm causes the ingested whistle to let loose a shrill blast. By some strange simplification of the rules previously established, the whistle now causes objects to fall from the sky, with no crossing of the path required by anyone. It’s as if God or Fate of whoever is in charge of dropping things on dogs has developed a Pavlovian reflex response to the sound of a whistle anywhere near this dog. “And then, with a hiccup-tweet-THUD, there’s a rapid culmination of all the operating threads, as fate becomes more vindictive, more absurd, and more resourceful all at once, smashing the dog with a steamroller, a passenger plane, a Greyhound bus, and, as a coup de grace, the S.S. Arizona.” As the celestial brickbats enlarge, the dog diminishes on the horizon (little black dot visible above Greyhound bus, below).

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I think rapidity is key here. A set of clearly understood rules has suddenly been reduced in complexity so that an initial cause leads to a final effect with all the essential in-between steps inexplicably omitted. In a weird way it reminds me of the ending of Cronenberg’s THE FLY. The movie has established that when two creatures go into a telepod together, molecularly disassembled, transmitted and reconstructed in another telepod, they get genetically spliced together. This causes, for some reason that doesn’t really hold up if you think about it, the larger of the two organisms to slowly mutate into a cross between each passenger.

At movie’s end, this hybrid of scientist Seth Brundle and a house fly, known as Brundlefly, attempts to repeat the process with his pregnant girlfriend, so as to become more human — two adults, a foetus and a house fly will make him less Brundle but a lot less fly. However, at the last moment the girlfriend telepod is disconnected (not sure why she needed her own telepod — the fly managed fine) and the computer screen announces that Brundlefly has been fused with… his telepod.

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I read an account of this plot point in, I think, SFX magazine, which claimed that the fusion was with “the organic elements of the pod” — upholstery and stuff, I guess. But upholstery doesn’t have DNA, and so the idea of gene-splicing with it makes no sense. Also, the effect in this case is not a slow mutation but an instant melding of insect-man and machine, to create a hideous, disabled biomechanical nightmare.

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As with Blackie’s apocalyptic whistle, the filmmakers have used the frantic energy of their climax to hotwire the narrative, jumping from original cause to final effect with all the essential in-betweens left out. If we’re engaged in the film, we seem to accept this crazed leaping, though we can certainly analyse it afterwards and see how audaciously illogical it is. Am I saying it’s good or bad? Well, faultless narrative logic that achieved the same effect might be preferable, but I love both BAD LUCK BLACKIE and THE FLY so I guess I’m saying insane leaps of logic are good.

Is that any comfort on this Inauguration Day?

Zoning Out

Posted in FILM, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 10, 2017 by dcairns

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Even though Joseph DR NO Wiseman’s lead character in the Twilight Zone episode One More Pallbearer is called Paul Radin, I could determine no reason why his building is called Radin Blog. (Note: I got it eventually.) I tweeted author Dean Radin, whose book The Conscious Universe is a good eye-opener, to say that it’s a shame he wasn’t writing a blog anymore as I had found the perfect banner for him.

I don’t think I ever want to run out of PG Wodehouse books to read, and in the same way I don’t want to run out of Twilight Zone episodes, although all the same i would hate to check out leaving any of them unenjoyed. This will need careful management.

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One More Pallbearer is Rod Serling in atomic mode (see also: Carol for Another Christmas), which is usually good value, and he has the ideal star. As Dr. No, Wiseman played a scientist with metal hands, having lost his original flesh ones in an atomic experiment. That always struck me as improbable and a bit funny. This one suffers a bit from having no sympathy, really, for any characters, but the double twist at the end is a zinger and a half. Not quite two zingers, but still pretty good.

Kick the Can was remade by Spielberg in TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE and Fiona suggested it might be illuminating to check out the original. It was — where Spielberg’s filmlet was cloying and annoying, the original is beautifully bleak. All the rough edges were smoothed off, and the result bathed in a honey-like amber glow. The old folks’ home where it’s set seems paradisical in the movie, and starkly deadening in the series installment. The ending, in which the inmates rejuvenate and run of into the night, leaving one bereft old skeptic, is stark and strange in the series: we don’t know how these kids will live, where they will go. Serling pops out of the bushes to say they’re in the Twilight Zone, which might as well mean they’re dead. It’s eerie, not reassuring.

In the Spielberg, having enjoyed their moment of second childhood, the oldsters return to their doddering, hip-replaced selves, because the status quo must, apparently be preserved.

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I like Scatman Crothers fine, though as a “magic negro” figure he Uncle Toms it a bit in the Spielberg, encouraged by his director. There’s no such character in the series episode, just an old duffer who HOPES, but does not KNOW, that playing children’s games might cancel out the aging process. I was wracking my brains to identify the actor while I was watching, then realized it was old Ernest Truex, best known as the saccharine would-be poet from HIS GIRL FRIDAY (maybe they hired him to script the Spielberg), and also memorable in Preston Sturges’ CHRISTMAS IN JULY. Turns out he had a huge career, starting in silents, and they even tried him in lead roles during the pre-code era when such things seemed worth attempting. WHISTLING IN THE DARK, which pairs him, improbably, with Una Merkel, is well worth a look.

 

Into The Psyche.

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 13, 2016 by dcairns

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Dante: The Divine Comedy –  ‘In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death: but, in order to tell of the good that I found there, I must tell of the other things I saw there.’ – Inferno Canto 1: 1-60. The Dark Wood and the Hill.

Sometimes people leave you
Halfway through the wood
Do not let it grieve you
No one leaves for good
You are not alone
No one is alone

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Fiona here.

I was not expecting to become a sobbing mess during Into The Woods.

Truth be told, I am in a very delicate place. The blasted landscape of Grief. My brother died under traumatic circumstances this year and my response was to go into ‘coping/organisational’ mode, then numbness then dissociation. Something had to give eventually and after many months the reality of the situation started to seep into my bones and finally my brain, where it’s presently wreaking havoc in the a form of a PTSD like condition.

Into The Woods is a clever confabulation of classic fairy tales, which hearkens back to their dark origins. The end of the film is a virtual holocaust, with many characters dead and others bereaved.

Fairy tales, the old-fashioned kind, are very potent. They represent the shadowiest recesses of the human mind. Our hopes. Our fears. Everything that makes us human, including unimaginable pain.

Just watching this film version of Sondheim’s and Lapine’s remarkable piece, pierced my very thin defenses and touched the rawest nerves in my being. At this moment, that is perhaps a very easy thing to do. Films can be cathartic and healing in an odd way. Through this film I was able to release some of the pain I’d been holding onto for decades (losing both parents very young), along with my present pain. The old and the present pains are of course connected.

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Here’s a temporary thesis – Good Fairy Tales are about teaching us to deal with loss and impermanence. Bad Fairy Tales are saccharine things full of lies that merely distract and teach us nothing. The Fairy or Folk Tale is of course, closely aligned to dark fantasy writing and horror fiction/movies. Horror is primarily a young person’s genre as the undeniable truth that we will all die has not yet fully penetrated the developing mind. Fairy Tales are created for even younger minds. In Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer prize-winning The Denial Of Death (1973), he outlined the thesis that the human personality is formed around the process of denying death so that we can continue to function. The downside is that this belief obscures self-knowledge and is responsible for much of the evil in the world.

43 years later, The Worm At The Core: On The Role Of Death In Life by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski actually verified this theory using psychological testing (over many, many years). They called it terror management theory.

Let’s go back to my Good/Bad Fairy Tale hypothesis. I think we can now see that MOST Fairy Tales and horror movies, although they include the idea of mortality, also deny it by having characters rise from the dead. How about Snow White and Michael Myers? In fact very few horror movies and film/theatre adaptations of fairy tales deal with bereavement, ageing and death in any meaningful way, apart from possibly Don’t Look Now and Into The Woods, which both riff on Little Red Riding Hood.

TMT combines existential philosophy, anthropology, sociology and psychology and proposes that the avoidance of the idea of death has far-reaching consequences into how we manage our personal lives, our society and more disturbingly, our politics. In fact it penetrates to the very heart of humanity. It has existed since we became self-aware and has molded how we have conducted ourselves through history. It probably led to the invention of spirituality, religion – and art, and has helped us build the world we now inhabit. A sometimes beautiful but mainly monstrous, warring planet overwhelmed  with an obsession with fame, social injustice and unimaginable cruelty towards our fellow kind.

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It’s not all negative however, despite the bleak picture I’ve just painted. We have ART; the desire to represent the world around us and the feelings it provokes. Hense story telling. It’s unclear whether spirituality encouraged story telling or vice versa. At any rate we NEED story telling, much like terror management theory, to navigate our lives. Stories can act as guides. Unfortunately our own lives do not have clear cut beginnings, middles and ends. The narrative can be cut off by sudden death. Most people do not like ambiguous endings. They need resolution. Usually a happy one. Very young minds are very similar to older minds in this regard. What the best Fairy Tales and Into The Woods provides is something different. ‘Good’ wins over ‘evil’, then everything falls apart and becomes as chaotic as the real world itself. Characters have to make tough decisions that don’t chime with their original desires. (‘I wish. I want’) They then have to adapt to an imperfect world. I think this is a good message for children. A good message for all of us.

Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see
And learn