Archive for the Science Category

Abbot and Costello Go To Earth

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Painting, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , on November 12, 2016 by dcairns

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ARRIVAL is a thing of beauty. If you’re in need of a shot of hope, a movie that acknowledge’s humanity’s gross collective stupidity while holding out some possibility for improvement, it may do you some good.

Dennis Villeneuve makes beautiful images, perhaps tending to exploit shallow focus a little TOO much, but in doing so he uses it in unexpected ways, sometimes throwing the whole subject of the shot into an artful blur. Tricks with gravity also allow images to be inverted or tilted ninety degrees, calling to mind the “familiar object photographed from an unusual angle” round of questions from Ask the Family. Add smoke and other atmospheric effects, and a lot of discordant yet eerily beautiful music — including the de rigeur terror honks heard in nearly every large-scale sci-fi/psychological horror film in recent years. (I think David Lynch may have invented the terror honk as a film music device, in WILD AT HEART. Would be interested in earlier examples.)

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We know how good Amy Adams is. Here she seizes the opportunity of playing a character freaked out and terrified for the whole movie. While Sandra Bullock in GRAVITY is specifically frightened of the exact situations she’s faced with (already nervous about being in space, she has to face cosmic debris, oxygen starvation, the absence of George Clooney), Adams seems generally nervous and lacking in confidence. Part of the job of a good dramatic screenwriter is to use situations to test character — so it’s often a good idea to put the worst possible character in the situation, forcing them to tackle their weaknesses and uncover their strengths. Or you can find the worst possible situation for an otherwise capable character, as with Indiana Jones and his fear of snakes. It gets more subtle when the lines are blurred ~

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Adams plays a linguist called in to help translate the speech of a race of visiting aliens, the heptapods (we meet two, nicknamed Abbot & Costello). She’s an awesomely skilled linguist, faced with a problem nobody has ever had to tackle before. The aliens have two distinct languages, one for speech (various echoing rumbles and clicks and digitial didgeridoo drones) and one for writing (forms resembling a cross between a Rorschach test and a coffee cup stain). She also has to deal with politicians and the military, who don’t understand the task she has been set, or anything else, really. One can imagine her role played with a lot of acidity and aggression, because she has to deal with fools, and at times it’s even written that way, but by playing this woman as a character for whom that doesn’t come easily, Adams raises the stakes and makes everything more interesting. That’s what you want from an actor.

Also Jeremy Renner and Forrest Whitaker, very good.

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Abbot and Costello are admirable too. Convincingly alien and strange, combining qualities of squids and hands, they are never not alarming. I wasn’t so keen on the spaceships — they are unusual and odd, and reveal different qualities from different angles, but are somehow not awe-inspiring. It’s a difficult brief. The huge craft of INDEPENDENCE DAY were impressive (in a terrible film) because they filled the sky. These long, bean-like things, which turn out to be scooped almost hollow at the back, don’t have any menacing weight. Their defiance of gravity puts me in mind of Magritte’s wondrous painting The Castle of the Pyrenees, but they’re not bulky enough so they crucially lack the sense of heft defied.

Is this a golden age of science fiction dawning? This one is clever. It feels very rewatchable, too. See it big.

 

 

Werner Herzog Eats His Sandwich

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , on October 14, 2016 by dcairns

“I never dream. Or very rarely; once a year, perhaps. And then it is always EXTREMELY BANAL. For instance, I am eating a sandwich.”

“That’s a good dream.”

The first speaker is Werner Herzog, the second is his interviewer, the filmmaker Richard Ayoade. Their conversation in London was being beamed around by satellite so I was able to see it in Glasgow at the building site formerly known as the Glasgow Film Theatre. A vivid illustration of connectivity, the subject of Herzog’s new documentary, LO AND BEHOLD: REVERIES OF THE CONNECTED WORLD.

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This one’s about the internet. We get a little history, engagingly told, and we get some speculation (what if solar flares caused the web to go down? what will the internet’s contribution be to life on Mars?) and we get to meet some people who have had interesting, tragic problems. One family was attacked by strangers who posted accident scene photographs of their dead daughter/sister. “I think the internet is evil. I think it’s the Antichrist,” says the mother. Werner doesn’t question her judgement.

Nor does he question the people who have moved into the shade of a radar telescope to find relief from their supposed wi-fi allergy. All internet and mobile phone signals are blocked in this area. I’m very sympathetic to these people, though I believe their symptoms are psychosomatic: their suffering is certainly real. So I wasn’t too bothered by the fact that Herzog doesn’t explore the validity of their claims and just lets them state their beliefs.

The one Herzog doc I didn’t like was WILD BLUE YONDER, which used NASA footage within a fictional framework. Herzog’s vision of sci-fi turned out to be pure pulp, and his grasp of science seemingly pathetic. There was a lack of curiosity about his making-shit-up approach which really annoyed me. And yet, he’s wonderfully curious and open in most of his films. Science is probably not his subject — we get to see a very complicated equation being sketched on a blackboard, but we are given no clue as to its significance. Herzog prefers mystery to explanation. But by focussing mainly on human consequences of science, he makes something very compelling and credible.

I don’t believe the internet is the Antichrist. My experiences on it have been mainly very nice, but I acknowledge the existence of what the movie terms “The Dark Side.” The internet, like Soylent Green, is made of people. It’s an environment where your virtual actions can seem to be consequence-free, so to some extent it encourages people to unleash their worst possible traits. There’s some good discussion in the film about what kind of oversight we would ideally want on the internet — not too much, not too little. But short of pursuing a North Korean policy, control of any kind seems hard to achieve.

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Good discussion after the film, led by Ayoade — refreshingly, there were plenty of questions not just about the issues raised, but about Herzog’s filmi-making choices — staging, framing, interaction with subjects. When Elon Musk talks about trips to Mars, Herzog breaks in with “I volunteer. I will go. One way.” To Ayoade, he explained why this interjection was necessary: Musk is very shy. After Herzog’s expostulation, he opened up.

Werner Herzog: a people person.

Hide in Plain Sight

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , on September 23, 2016 by dcairns

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The Glass Pearls, a novel by Emeric Pressburger (right), has been republished for the first time since 1966, under the Faber Finds imprint.

The great screenwriter had continued to work in pictures sporadically since the break-up of the Archers — he worked pseudonymously on the screenplays of OPERATION CROSSBOW in 1965 — the kind of efficient, gung-ho war drama which had sadly ended his collaboration with Michael Powell — and THEY’RE A WEIRD MOB for Powell, unofficially, in 1966.  His novel The Miracle of St Anthony’s Lane was filmed as MIRACLE IN SOHO and Killing a Mouse on Sunday, a more ambitious work, was adapted by Fred Zinnemann as BEHOLD A PALE HORSE (which is worth seeing).

This third book — the excellent introduction by Caitlin McDonald mysteriously refers to it as his second — is striking particularly because it is so uncinematic. The tale of a Nazi doctor who performed brain surgery of death camp inmates and is now hiding out in (moderately) swinging London, compels more for the protagonist’s thoughts than for his actions. If presented on the screen, what we would see is a worried-looking piano tuner going about his business and hesitantly wooing a younger woman.

It’s the internal angst of the character which compels one’s interest. The reviews I had seen focussed on Pressburger’s remarkable feat of making his Nazi doctor an at-times-sympathetic hero. I appreciated his craftsmanship and his moral imagination in doing so, but the trick is fairly simple: if you create a credible character with a clear problem, and show him taking understandable steps to deal with the problem, the audience is compelled to take interest in proportion to the difficulty of the problem rather than the worth of the problem-solver. What’s most impressive is that Pressburger could bring himself to go there. All through the war his “propaganda” films were attacked for not being propagandistic enough, for giving too much credit to the enemy, and here her is, years after the war, willing himself to engage with the struggles of a war criminal to evade justice. That must have been tough.

But despite the morally complex effects of engaging with “Karl Braun’s” difficulties, he is not a sympathetic character per se — justifying his medical crimes by arguing that they were for the good of humanity, he has nevertheless destroyed his notes in order to make good his escape — or so he believes. He’s totally unrepentant, and his religious beliefs consist of imagining a God as cold-blooded and “rational” as himself, who will be sure to judge him kindly.

For movie fans, the most appealing elements are the little anecdotes spun by the protagonist, “proof” of his fictional past as an anti-Nazi photographer who escaped Germany for Paris in the ’30s. These tales may even be drawn from Pressburger’s own experience, since he briefly dallied in the City of Light before England, Korda, Powell and Fate beckoned. But of course the author of THE RED SHOES could equally well have invented them from whole cloth. Each story is a perfect pearl of experience, whether true or false. They FEEL true.

The other cinematic connection is the relationship of this book, despised or ignored by the British press when first published, with Powell and Leo Marks’ PEEPING TOM. Both deal with German immigrants in London (Powell’s film is a little strange here since the character was never written as German, and we see film of him growing up in England). One is a photographer, one claims to be one. Both pursue a chaste relationship with a girl who doesn’t suspect their dark secrets. False name Karl Braun and real name Carl Boehm.

In a way, the book is about memory, the subject of the Nazi doctor’s research. Pressburger had looked into brain surgery when writing A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, so it surprised me that he didn’t include the remarkable fact that the brain can be operated on while the patient is conscious. The brain, which processes sensation, feels none of its own, and so with a local anesthetic you can have the too of your head taken off and doctors can give your neurons little electric shocks to see what happens.

Pressburger’s doctor has been laboriously opening his patient’s heads, removing pieces of grey matter, and then repairing the patient and interrogating them to establish the effect on their memories. Horrible, but reality provides an even worse and more dramatic possible approach.

Strong as it is, the novel’s horror is almost upstaged by the preface by Pressburger’s grandson, producer Kevin MacDonald. He relates that when Alzheimer’s claimed Pressburger’s own memories, he became terrified of imaginary Nazis coming for him, and even fought the ambulance crew who came for him, believing he was being taken to the camps. It’s a cliché that memory plays tricks on us. Memory does not mean us well. Memory, perhaps, is a Nazi doctor.