Archive for the Science Category

Web of Love

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 4, 2013 by dcairns

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Vincente Minnelli’s film THE COBWEB is the kind of thing we could only watch on one of Fiona’s good days. It’s too emotionally fraught to watch when you’re depressed, and even when viewed on a reasonably good evening (Fiona’s depression usually lifts slightly in the latter part of the day, a process known as diurnal variation) Fiona got a little cross with it — “Why is nobody in this hospital showing any signs of mental illness?”

(Still, Minnelli musicals and melodramas are fine to watch in a low mood. It’s the comedies you have to watch out for — the man had a genius for creating oppressive, nightmarish moods using humorous scenarios — the domestic sado-neurotic maelstrom that is THE LONG, LONG TRAILER could cause a vulnerable person to crawl out of their skin.)

Like most films set in psych wards, the cast is divided between picturesque extras who shuffle or stand frozen in corridors, suggesting complete mental alienation by means of pantomime, and characters who suffer life traumas and present symptoms of deep unhappiness and a tendency to fly off the handle, but nothing much in the way of mental illness.

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The main exception is the rather brilliant casting of Oscar Levant, a real-life neurotic (“There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line”) who movingly suggests the struggle of an intelligent man to comport himself with dignity while he feels himself disintegrating within. The character’s habit of offering cigarettes to head shrink Richard Widmark is a pathetic and touching sign of his need to appear in control and useful. He’ll break your heart.

THE COBWEB shares a star (Charles Boyer) and a message with Gregory La Cava’s PRIVATE WORLDS — a rather commendable view that sanity and insanity are points on a spectrum rather than polar opposites. In both films the staff of a psychiatric hospital and their spouses are shown as being just about as unstable and neurotic as the patients. La Cava had been treated for alcoholism and Minnelli had until recently been married to Judy Garland, so both could claim some familiarity with troubled states of mind. But their movies ignore clinical reality, real-life methods of treatment, and mostly their characters suffer not from mental disease but from melodramatic versions of ordinary unhappiness.

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Chief among these is John Kerr, very effective in a low-charisma, understated way. His character is bright, discontented, and prone to flying off the handle — like a Nick Ray adolescent rather than a mental patient. He’s well-written enough and well-observed enough (screenplay by John Paxton with an assist by original novelist William Gibson — no, not that one) to tie the film’s various strands together. The all-star cast around him works well too. Lauren Bacall is particularly charming, even when hanging around in the far background of long takes (getting in shape for her Lars Von Trier movies) and Lillian Gish is particularly strong as an administrator who’s been in her job so long she’s forgotten what the hospital exists for. With the striking name of Vicky Inch, she’s a pugnacious little gnome dominating every frame she appears in. And making every frame she’s in more beautiful.

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Also, Gloria Grahame does a lot of good and important work with her breasts.

Minnelli’s framing and colour sense is so exquisite, and the script so satisfying (it’s kind of a network narrative like SOME CAME RUNNING, but so tightly knotted together you don’t notice), that the lack of a realistic story world doesn’t matter too much. There’s even room for a reading which sees the institution as a metaphor for America, which the movie endorses with a line about “giving it back to the Indians,” if self-governance among the patients doesn’t work. (SHOCK CORRIDOR would be a pathetic film if it were really about mental illness — instead it’s about political illness in the body politic, with America portrayed as a hospital that makes you crazy.) And in the plotline, which is mainly about (no kidding) the selection of drapes for the hospital library, it could stand as the middle film in Minnelli’s film-making series — THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL shows how neurotic film art is, feeding on the quirks and weaknesses of the cast and crew — the later TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN begins with a movie star getting out of one asylum and plunging into the madhouse of the movie set — in THE COBWEB, a group of twisted, tortured and ill-matched people come together and try to create order, balance, beauty.

Buy: The Cobweb (Remaster)

Worst Case

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2013 by dcairns

Before Fiona decided to write about SIDE EFFECTS, I had written my own piece, covering some similar ground. In the spirit of waste-not-want-not, I present it here. Due to the nature of the film, it is hard to write about meaningfully without spoilers, so those still considering seeing it probably shouldn’t read the following –

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So, SIDE EFFECTS is announced at Steven Soderbergh’s last theatrical feature, and yes, he will be missed. Fiona and I went because of a keen personal interest in what we took to be the subject matter, but the film’s big plot twist, about which much more later (and those thinking of seeing the movie, who have not yet done so, should avoid this whole article like the plague, or the latest Uwe Boll movie) reveals that the subject of the movie is not what it seemed to be.

I’ve just read Bad Pharma, by doctor and journalist Ben Goldacre, which is an impassioned takedown of the way the pharmaceutical industry conspires to prevent doctors and patients from knowing the true effects of the medication available to them. Opinions are bought up, dissenting voices are intimidated and silenced, and we the public, by buying marked-up drugs, pay for the advertising campaigns which mislead us (and the big companies spend far more on ads than they do on r&d).

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All of which seeps nicely into the first act of Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns’ film. In addition, the treatment of mental illness is impressively restrained and sensitive, and the filmmaking typically assured. Rooney Mara evokes the deadening low-affect despair of depression without overplaying it, or boring the audience, or sleepwalking through the role like Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf, say.

Then comes the killing. At this point it becomes quite clear that, in addition to throwing in topical bits like the insider trading that landed Channing Tatum’s character in prison and triggered Mara’s depression, the movie is going to push things towards a kind of melodrama. A crisp, shiny, chilly melodrama, but still a worst-case version of its scenario that pushes events further than they would be likely to go in a typical case. This seems a shame: the film has already shown the ability to find dramatic interest and value in plausible, low-key situations that brim over with natural emotion. But by taking things to such an extreme the film does not lose the ability to make meaningful comment on medicine and mental illness and society and the law. It’s the next plot twist that rules out meaningful comment, as the film stops being about mental illness altogether, and becomes about killer lesbians. From KEANE to BASIC INSTINCT in one reveal.

Soderbergh himself disagrees with me, as you’d expect ~

“So I think Scott’s great idea was to use psychopharmacology in the same way that “Double Indemnity” uses the insurance business. That then becomes the Trojan horse to hide a thriller in. He’s very good at that, at identifying sticky ideas and then stuffing them with other things that make them more, that make them not completely disposable when you leave the theater.”

And he could argue that, since here I am discussing the issues raised in the first half of the film, he’s right — the movie does raise these issues in such a way that we do at least remember them. But rather than taking them to a meaningful conclusion, the movie veers off into thriller territory — Soderbergh cited FATAL ATTRACTION as an influence — so that the questions of depression and treatment become just a smokescreen. nobody’s really mentally ill in the film, and nobody really suffers side effects from their treatment, so it can’t say anything about that. The only issue that remains relevant in part two is insider trading, and that’s tied up in a conspiracy that’s so unlikely you can’t really take it seriously. I mean, it works fine as a wacky plot twist, it just doesn’t have any real-world implications because, although technically it’s all within the range of the possible, it’s not something anyone would ever DO.

The point about the Trojan Horse was it was an innocent-looking wooden horse, but the contents were armed to the teeth. Soderbergh’s film is more like a pack of Greek soldiers which charges on then cracks open to reveal an inert and trivial sculpted stallion.

A woman I met at some social function once asked me over the sausage and mash if I could name a film featuring lesbians in major roles where they didn’t murder somebody or get murdered themselves. My mind went blank. It’s still blank. There are things like GO FISH, for sure, but it’s hard to think of anything in the mainstream which doesn’t marry same-sex female inclinations to homicide, not usually to make any deliberate point but as a function of plot. OK, thrillers tend to swarm with killers and victims, so you could argue that it would be over-optimistic to expect them to buck this stereotype, but consider –

If BASIC INSTINCT ended a couple of shots earlier, the killer would be a straight woman, not a bisexual.

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And if SIDE EFFECTS were re-cast with Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones in one another’s roles, we’d be spared the revelation that Mara and Zeta-Jones are not only (gasp!) murderers but (double gasp!) gay. And we’d be spared the dodgy image of CJZ being led off in handcuffs with her shirt gaping open. Soderbergh treats that moment with discretion, it’s framed in a non-gloating way, but it feels like a gloating scene (paralleled in his distinguished only by the rather distasteful treatment of Ellen Barkin in OCEAN’S 13).

It didn’t have to be about killer lesbians.

Of course, in objecting to the whole thrust of the film’s second half, I’m essentially complaining that Soderbergh didn’t make the film I’d like to see made. Which is arguably unfair, and I’ll admit that — my screenwriter self should probably stay away from my critic self. But I’d still like to see somebody make that other SIDE EFFECTS, the one which has actual side effects in it.

Star Trek: Into Zero Dark Thirty

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2013 by dcairns

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The new STAR TREK film met with our approval — it’s very silly, on the one hand, and on the other, very neatly worked out. So unlike PROMETHEUS, which is ponderous and nonsensical, and which also flowed in part from the pen of Damon Lindelof. TREK seems aware of its own daftness — the suggestion that a “cold fusion device” is what you use when you want to make things really cold may well have been thrown in just to annoy the kind of people who get annoying by things like that.

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It’s also unexpectedly moving in places, mainly because it concentrates on Spock, and he’s such an intriguing concept for a character. The movie sort of treats him as an Aspergers person. Zachary Quinto is excellent in the role, but Chris Pine’s Kirk delivers a lot of the key scene too. And, in my gruff, manly way, I just love Karl Urban as McCoy.

In this movie Kirk battles Sherlock Holmes and Robocop, which I didn’t know going in.

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I felt Simon Pegg’s Scottish accent had deteriorated a bit since the last film, where he was actually convincing. It’s weird, as I think he has a Scottish wife, and the film’s first assistant director is Tommy Gormley, who has the broadest Glaswegian accent I’ve ever encountered on a living human being. Pegg does throw in some nice bits of observational Scottishness, and I get a warm glow around the cockles, as if they were being beamed up, when I hear somebody use the phrase “hud oan” (translation: “Hold on”) in a Major Motion Picture, but the fact remains he is now a less convincing Scotsman than James Doohan. Which is a bit like being a less convincing echidna than Wallace Beery.

No explanation is given why Peter Weller talks like a cowboy while his daughter, Alice Eve, has a cut-glass English accent. Probably something to do with cold fusion. The show’s other new cast member, Benedict Cumberbatch, is pretty good value, striking dynamic poses and being cold-blooded in a way that’s distinct enough from the Vulcans to register.

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Director JJ Abrams layers on the lens flare as usual, but manages to simulate the confusion of combat without his action sequences degenerating into actual incoherence, which I appreciate. He also does a few of the nice tie-in shots which made MISSION IMPOSSIBLE III quite pleasing in its set-pieces — a crashing craft pulls the camera down to a foreground character, who leads the camera onwards in a kind of relay. In an age when many directors seem unable to conceive of a shot which has more than one thing happening in it, this is refreshing.

On the whole, this is a kind of pumped-up remake of THE WRATH OF KHAN, but some aspects of it actually improve on that movie, so I’ll give it a pass.

It’s always been interesting, the way Star Trek reflects America’s view of itself and the world. In the original series, the Federation represented both a united mankind, and the USA, with the Klingons obviously standing in for the USSR. In this movie, with the Enterprise dispatched to retrieve a terrorist from the Klingon homeworld, they seem to be the Middle East in general and Pakistan in particular. And thus the movie seems to point with hope towards eventual peaceful coexistence with alien empires, while (perhaps, mildly) criticising Obama’s death squad incursion and drones policy.

Oh, there’s also a great segue involving a swearword and a sliding door — the sound effects gag of the season.

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