Archive for the Science Category

Impossible But Necessary

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , on November 10, 2014 by dcairns

inters

“That’s impossible!” “But necessary.” — a very exciting exchange in Christopher & Jonathan Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR.

It reminded me of seeing SON OF PALEFACE as a kid — did I mention this before — a decisive moment in my young life — Bob Hope has to support a jalopy with a missing wheel, holding it up with a lasso rope round the axle WHILE STANDING IN IT as they drive through the prairie. As Roy Rogers rides off to retrieve the rogue wheel, Hope calls after him — “Hurry up, this is impossible!”

I swear, prairie-like vistas opened up for me, universes of possibility. If you can make a joke out of the impossibility of the story your telling, surely you can do anything?

interste

There aren’t jokes of that kind in INTERSTELLAR — in fact, one of the discredited tropes the film insists on using is a comedy relief robot who has been programmed to be funny. Comedy relief characters in general are a discredited trope since nearly everybody is funny sometimes and nobody is always funny — having a wisecracking droid is just inviting me to question why the Nolan gestalt didn’t program some humour into the human characters, even though that wouldn’t quite be fair because if you have Matthew McConaughey you’re going to get a little wit sneaking in somewhere.

So, no world-changing jokes, but plenty of impossibility, which is par for the course in this kind of thing, and there’s arguably nothing sillier than GRAVITY’s inescapable cloud of debris a planet wide, which I forgave fairly readily. This movie didn’t wow me like GRAVITY but it has lots of impressive spectacle, ideas, actors, plot twists…

The impossibility bothers me a bit — intimations of mortality — when we make films about saving the Earth, we seem compelled to make them absurdly unrealistic. I loved WALL-E, but the human race returns from space at the first appearance of a little sprout, which grows in an upturned refrigerator in defiance of all photosynthesis and sense, and somehow the arrival of thousands of fat people is supposed to make things BETTER? I guess that’s covered by a line in INTERSTELLAR about not telling little kids that the world is ending, but I would be more cheered by hopeful fables that have some element of plausibility. The Bokononist subtext of all these reassuring fantasies seems to be that we’re all fucked.

Interstellar-Trailer-2

We didn’t see INTERSTELLAR in IMAX, alas — exchanging the free tickets we got after an interrupted screening of THE BABADOOK, I got us seats near the front because close = big, but Fiona then made me move back a few rows (early screening, lots of spare seats). After DARK KNIGHT RISES I was looking forward to seeing Michael Caine blubbering on a screen the size of a football pitch — when that bottom lip starts to wobble, you really need Sensurround for the full magnitude — but we settled for booming sound — Nolan follows the Kubrick-Cuaron model, no FX in space, but Hans Zimmer booms away to fill most of the silences.It’s one of those scores where you can hear the temp track filtering through, but quite effective.

Interstellar_Movie_-_Official_Trailer_046

Some have suggested that the movie shows that Nolan is not, as has been argued, a cold director — I think it shows that he still has some way to go if he wants to be either Kubrick on the one hand or Spielberg on the other. Teenager Mackenzie Foy deserves a miniature Oscar for providing the film’s emotional core, which has to be passed on, relay-fashion, to a succession of other actors as her character grows up — a trick the movie manages surprisingly well with megawatt starpower casting and flashbacks and… other sequences which prevent us from losing sight of Foy altogether. Weirdly, though, the ending, which should be gigantically moving, is fobbed off onto another character altogether, and then NOT DELIVERED. The big emotional scenes don’t happen. I think the Nolans see this as British restraint, but it feels it’s more a discomfort with demonstrations of emotion — which is odd, since we get some more blubbering from Caine. There are plenty of emotional scenes, but insufficient PAY-OFF to a fantastically powerful and protracted drama about a father separated from his children.

Speaking of explaining things — the movie has a really intriguing start, foregrounding the best actors (though it’s nice when Hathaway and then Damon turn up later — Nolan may have actually noticed that AH was the best thing in his third BATMAN — a breath of lightness amid th suffocating clouds of noxious testosterone and doominess), but once we get to space stuff, the authors have apparently given up on any desire to have exposition emerge dramatically and plausibly. There isn’t too much “as you know” dialogue where one character patiently outlines information already familiar to the other, who inexplicably doesn’t say SHUT UP YOU BORING FOOL — but there is a hell of a lot of “As you should know” dialogue, with astronaut McConaughey, for instance, inquiring what will happen if an airlock malfunctions — I think that would have been covered in basic training. Justifiably reticent to infodump the science around a boardroom table, the writers parcel it out in digestible bundles in order to let you grasp vital facts just as they become relevant to the unfolding events, but it’s hard not to notice that our hero must be a remarkably incurious man to have traveled in space for two years to reach a wormhole without knowing what a wormhole is, and that’s only one of the least egregious examples.

INTERSTELLAR-TRAILER-facebook

But I wouldn’t want to put you off seeing it — it has a giant talking Kit-Kat biscuit, some lovely space visuals and sound, and a bit where MM reaches out to push a button, and we see, reflected in his space helmet visor, his gloved hand apparently reach forth and touch his nose. It’s a lovely, silly moment that seems to happen by accident — Nolan in no way intended this to be funny — a glimpse of goofy natural chaos in an otherwise predetermined game.

 

I don’t know who Jack the Ripper was –

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

vlcsnap-2014-09-15-08h22m05s5

– 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.

vlcsnap-2014-09-15-08h22m43s128

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

vlcsnap-2014-09-05-10h23m34s244

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).

vlcsnap-2014-09-05-10h24m15s183

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.”

vlcsnap-2014-09-05-10h24m03s52

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 540 other followers