Archive for Ben Goldacre

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 —


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).


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.


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.

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.