Recent notes (what I’ve read & seen)

September 16th, 2014

My most recent culture-vulturing:

Closer Than Ever” at New Rep. “Songs by Maltby & Shire” translates to “ballads for the middle-aged and middle-class,” but the sometimes dated numbers are given heartfelt and witty treatment by this excellent cast. A cast which includes … Science-Entertainment Quotient: Surprisingly high for a musical! Local actor Brian Richard Robinson, one of the two men in the four-person cast, “is a graduate of Tufts University School of Medicine, and currently works at a Cambridge-based biotechnology company.” (I tried to talk to Dr. Robinson at the opening-night reception but he was busy being asked how he remembers all those lines, so I made myself scarce.) Also, one of the numbers–”The Bear, the Hamster, the Hamster, and the Mole,” about the advantages of reproduction without romance, was staged as a TED talk.


Photo by Andrew Brilliant

Ravenous.” Ain’t no party like a Donner party, ’cause a Donner party don’t stop. Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle are cannibals in the old West–one unwilling, one gleefully triumphant. More satirical than graphic, although definitely very creepy. Science-Entertainment Quotient: Idiosyncratic. The Ig Nobel opera this year, “What’s Eating You?” is all about the food chain and, on some level, the idea that wisdom resides in accepting the fact that we must all eat and be eaten. I watched “Ravenous” after our rehearsal last weekend and found it relevant and inspiring … but clearly, this was me.

The Secret Place by Tana French. The hothouse atmosphere of an elite girls’ school and the 24-hour timeline (with flashbacks, of course), combine to make a claustrophobic psychological mystery. The portrayal of how young women police themselves and each other was especially compelling. Science-Entertainment Quotient: Nugatory, thanks to a credulous portrayal of teenage telekinesis which adds nothing to the plot or characterization.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. I’d last been there when I was eight, and yes, it was just as impressive to me today. And surprisingly redemptive. Like a lot of us, I’ve been reading and watching and thinking too much, much too much, lately, about humanity at its worst. The Smithsonians remind you of humanity at its best: curious, questing, ingenious. Science-Entertainment Quotient: Off the charts! The Hall of Human Origins was my favorite. Look at these gorgeous reconstructed faces of early humans!


Does the top right one look like Mandy Patinkin in “Homeland” to anyone else?

You can’t fake faces or physics

September 4th, 2014

Wired is doing a fascinating series on science and cinema. I can tell already that one of the major themes of this blog will be, “Science makes explicit what art has always known.” The Wired series brings filmmakers and scientists together to see where their knowledge overlaps.

The first piece is about visual processing, which is much more interesting than I thought it would be when I started grad school. “Seeing” is not a passive experience:

While film makers intuitively understand things about visual perception and attention, scientists are trying to understand these things at a more mechanistic level, Smith said. He and other scientists want to know, for example, how the brain constructs a fluid perception of the visual world. “Visual perception feels like a continuous stream, but it’s not,” he said. What actually happens is that we look at one thing at a time, taking in a bit of information here, then moving our eyes to take in a bit of information over there. Then, somehow, amazingly, our brain stitches all those bits together to create a seamless experience.

In filmmaking terms, this means that your audience aren’t mere receptacles, but are co-creators of the art, actively–if unconsciously–ignoring this stimulus and paying extra attention to that one to make sense of the flickering images before them:

“We’re constantly calculating where we think the audience’s eye is going to be, and how to attract it to that area and prioritize within a shot what you can fake,” Favreau said. “The best visual effects tool is the brains of the audience,” he said. “They will stitch things together so they make sense.”

What you can’t fake, Favreau said, are faces and physics. Favreau is working now on an adaptation of The Jungle Book, and he says almost everything is CGI except the faces. Faces are just too hard to fake convincingly, he said, even with sophisticated motion capture systems designed to capture every eye blink and facial twitch.

“It’s the same with physics,” Favreau said. In the Iron Man 2 ccene, his special effects team created replicas of Formula 1 cars with the same weight and dimensions as the real thing and launched them with hydraulics or air ramps to create the flying, cartwheeling spectacle you see onscreen. “You get a tremendous amount of randomness in the way these things bounce and tumble and roll as they hit the ground and interact with each other, and that creates a sense of reality,” Favreau said.

I don’t know what “no CGI faces” really means. If Favreau is implying that Caesar and Rocket are anything other than wonderful to look at, he’s out of his mind. But the human brain does have a particular capacity to recognize faces–a face isn’t just any old arrangement of meat, it’s very special to us. And humans also have an innate grasp of physical realities. If I threw a ball high in the air for my dog, and he didn’t see where it landed, he would keep staring up in the sky for as long as I would let him. A dog’s brain doesn’t automatically know that what goes up will always come down. A human’s brain does know that, and if something onscreen behaves in an impossible fashion, it will pull our focus.

The second story looks at what happens in people’s brains when they watch movies. Certain types of movies can totally synch up the audiences’ brains. Scans show that the same areas in almost everyone’s brains lights up at pretty much the same time:

“They do look very similar, but it’d be more surprising if they didn’t,” said Handel, who earned a PhD in neuroscience at New York University before getting into movies. “If you’re watching a movie, that’s your entire sensorium and your feelings.” If people’s brains were out of synch during a movie, Handel suggested, that might be a bad sign that their minds were wandering. One person might be thinking about the call they need to make, while another contemplates making a popcorn run.

Think about that the next time you’re at a movie! You and all your fellow audience members sitting in isolated silence, while your brains ebb and flow like a team of Esther Williams swim-dancers.


Your brain on film.

Hangout of the “Planet of the Apes”

July 17th, 2014

Earlier this week I did a video broadcast with PeaceBang and NYT religion reporter Michael Paulson about religion themes in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” which Mr. Improbable and I saw this weekend. Boy, the reading glasses were a mistake! But I had never done a Google hangout before, and wanted to keep an eye on the proceedings. We do give away most of the plot–elements that aren’t implicitly contained in the title, that is–so watch with caution.

More discussion after the jump

Click to continue reading "Hangout of the “Planet of the Apes”"

Little Spa of Horrors does it again

September 14th, 2011

I’ve written before about how my gym — my wonderful, body-accepting, diverse, empowering women’s only gym — has a tendency to show inappropriate movies, like “Life is Beautiful” or “127 Hours.”

They outdid themselves this morning with a 1997 made-for-television movie called “… First Do No Harm,” starring Meryl Streep as the mother of a boy with severe epilepsy who is being failed by the medical establishment, as incarnated in Allison Janney. Meryl rages, Meryl begs for the experimental drugs, Allison deep-freezes, Meryl’s boy screams and convulses and goes into iatrogenic fits of rage and punches his father in the mouth. When the boy’s violence and the doctor’s remoteness hit a simultaneous peak, she can’t be reached to authorize a sedative while he goes on a self- and other-harming binge through the pediatric ward. A nurse (played by an African-American actress who clearly specializes in wrangling hysterical white people) has to put the boy in a cage while he shrieks and cries, “Mommy! Take me out of here!” and Meryl suffers.

And this was after the scene where Meryl and her weathered but handsome working-class husband had to explain to the two older and non-neurologically-compromised children why the bank just called and what “foreclosure” means.

When the nurse was caging the screaming child and firmly ordering Meryl to leave him and go home, the woman on the elliptical next to me started slowing down. I took my earbuds out and nodded to the screen and said, “This is awful!” She took her earbuds out and said, in a shaking voice, “My son just started school this year. I hate dropping him off.”

I handed her a fashion magazine and suggested she look at that instead. Maybe they’re designed to make you hate your body, but that’s got to be better than seeing your worst maternal nightmares dramatized by the most intense actresses of your generation, right?

Of apes and Alzheimer’s

August 8th, 2011

Mr. Improbable and I saw “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” last night, and enjoyed it greatly. For one thing, it does a marvelous job of allowing viewers to fulfill their fantasies of what they would do if they had the strength and flexibility of a chimpanzee. If you’ve ever daydreamed during a staff meeting of leaping aboard the conference table, ululating, pounding your chest, crashing through the windows and heading for the hills — and I know I’m not the only one, people — this is your movie.

It’s also, once you get past the science fiction and special effects, a fairly poignant look at life in the sandwich generation. The human protagonist, biochemist Will Rodman (yes, I know) lives with his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father. When Will’s research on a cure for Alzheimer’s is halted, he winds up adopting a baby chimp from the drug trials.

Of course, it’s Will’s experiments that ultimately lead to the rise of the apes (as well as the most hilariously blunt and effective elevator pitch in the history of venture capital, when Will, riding the lift with his boss, announces, “I injected my father with it. It works.”). But Will, despite the phallic determination of his name, is no ego-driven mad scientist. He is motivated by love more than money, power, or even knowledge: he wants his beloved father, a classical pianist and Shakespeare scholar, back. And he wants to protect his adopted “child,” Caesar. In the meantime, it would be nice if he could get his boss off his back, and find time to romance his live-in girlfriend.

Sound familiar? Will is pressed from every direction, and criticized no matter what he does. Look at James Franco’s face when the home-health aide angrily tells him his father should be in a facility. When the veterinarian points out that Caesar won’t stay a juvenile forever. He knows. He is doing his damnedest as a caretaker, and he knows he is failing. He’s not the son, the father, the lover, the scientist he wants to be. Every choice entails a sacrifice — not only the big choices, like “do I inject my father with the experimental drug,” but the little ones, like “do I look my lover in the eye when she is talking, or do I scan the room to make sure Dad and Caesar aren’t in trouble?” And he makes wrong choices, and decisions with all kinds of unintended consequences.

And he loses his father anyway, despite his best efforts, like all of us do.

And his “child” gets involved with drugs, and radical politics, and finds a group of friends that Will can’t relate to. Maybe it was his fault for being too involved with his father, and his career. Maybe it was inevitable.

We do our best for those we love, and we pray to God that our best efforts won’t somehow make things dreadfully, dreadfully worse.

And we hope we’re praying to a God who looks like us.

Beginnings and endings

May 11th, 2011

Roger Ebert Jim Emerson has a brilliant post up here about what conventions signal to us that a story (particularly, a movie) is beginning or ending.* Particularly, he’s interested in asking what ending conventions small children would inherently understand, prompted by this blog post.

I’m loving Dr. Bordwell’s post, which begins with this anecdote:

I was watching “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” some years ago with a friend’s three-year-old daughter. Molly hadn’t seen the movie before, and she watched it in a fascinated silence. At the end, Snow White and the prince leave the dwarfs and ride off into the distance.

At this point Molly cried, “More!”

This surprised me. How could she know, on her first pass, that the story was ending?

My dissertation was on the psychology of narrative. That’s an awfully broad topic, ranging from how people tell stories of their own lives to how they understand genre conventions used in filmmaking, playwriting, and other narrative arts. As I was just starting to play with these ideas, one of my biggest “aha” moments came at a showing of “The Mummy.” (Some of my smartest ideas are inspired by some of my stupidest experiences.) The audience was extremely diverse in age, ethnicity, and apparent social class. Halfway through the movie the projectionist switched a reel. And at the exact same moment, everyone in the audience registered that the story had stopped making sense. There wasn’t an obvious visual cue; one scene cut to another as might happen ordinarily. It was the story that stopped working, and everyone knew it. You almost never see an entire roomful of people “get it” at the same moment. Certainly “If X then Y” logic never works that way. But story logic … story logic is different.

*Commenter Unmana points out that this is Jim Emerson, not Roger Ebert. Apologies and thanks!

Best movie title ever

February 7th, 2011

Redundancy Theater Playhouse presents:

From the director of “Tortured to Agony” and “Murdered to Death.”

Out of Egypt

February 1st, 2011

As I mentioned, one of my cousins and his wife are living in Cairo. They’re out safely now. Two of his brothers, in particular, were helpful in getting them out and finding places for them to stay. The rest of the siblings (there are a lot of cousins from that family) helped pass news along through Facebook. It was both touching and impressive to watch all of this play out online — the next time I’m confronted by Facebook haters, this story will be Exhibit A for why the technology can an exceptionally good way to keep in touch. The story also reminded me, in a smaller though infinitely more immediate way, of a post I wrote back in 2007, after I’d watched “Hotel Rwanda.” I said, in part,

One thing that has stuck with me since seeing the movie, however, is that Paul Rusesabagina, the movie’s hero, who in the movie and in life managed to save some twelve hundred Tutsis and moderate Hutus from slaughter–was able to do this, in large part, because he had good manners. Mr. Rusesabagina is no action hero, and no idealist, either. He is a man who knows how to finesse a situation. How to figure out quickly what motivates people, and use that knowledge to negotiate with them. How to bank favors against an uncertain future. How to restrain himself in the face of provocation. How to maintain dignity and grace, and extend that possibility to others.

Most of us, I hope, will never be faced with a crisis the likes of which Mr. Rusesabagina faced. But what he did should help us remember that the small skills of manners, self-restraint, intuition, empathy are not frills, moral accessories, to be put on when we are feeling the luxuries of time and emotional energy. They are essential tools that can save lives, literally and figuratively.

Non-gory Halloween movies

October 29th, 2010

Here’s a question to start off the weekend: What are some good movies in the spirit of Halloween — existentially disturbing, playfully gruesome, liminal, gothic, circus-like — that are not upsettingly bloody or gory? I don’t mind that sort of thing, myself, but it’s not the preferred flavor for many folks, no matter what time of year it is. I’m thinking of movies that can be enjoyed by adults, though they don’t necessarily have to be for adults.

A few that come to mind …
“Never Let Me Go,” which is currently in theaters and is not the vampire one, that’s “Let Me In,” not to be confused with “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “The Rent Is Too Damn High.” “Never Let Me Go” is utterly harmless on the surface and devastating to think about.

“Nightmare Before Christmas”
“City of Lost Children”

… what else would you recommend, readers? Movies that horrify, enchant, disturb, without graphic violence?

Movies and women’s work

September 5th, 2010

Yes, I know I said I wasn’t going to post, but …

In honor of Labor Day, Salon has a great slideshow of 10 movies “that really understand work.” It’s a great list, but where are the women? Granted, first place goes to Ellen Ripley of “Alien,” but come on; it’s also the only science fiction film on the list, and the role of Ripley was originally written for a man. What about women who are office temps, hotel maids, waitresses, factory workers, stay-at-home mothers, sex workers, soldiers, day care providers, nurses?

What movies would you say get work right, and show women doing it?

Yet more dry, classic comedy

August 19th, 2010

If you’ve been enjoying the Parker and Saki references of late — their succinct wit, their keen social observations — you might also enjoy the classic movie “The Man in the White Suit”:

Alec Guinness delivers one of his most beloved performances in this smart satirical comedy that pits a mild-mannered but single-minded inventor against the forces of Britain’s textile industry. Sidney Stratton (Guinness) is a brilliant if under appreciated research chemist on a quest to bring progress to mankind by inventing a new kind of fabric that never gets dirty and never wears out. When he finally succeeds, he is hailed a genius. But both textile manufacturers and labor unions soon come to realize that his miracle cloth could destroy their industry, and resort to desperate measures to make sure his invention never gets to market.

“Man in the White Suit” is going to kick off Coolidge Corner’s “Science on Screen” series on September 6, and will feature a post-show talkback featuring Mr. Improbable himself. Check out the theater’s description- — they’ve got a great page, including a trailer from the film — and perhaps I’ll see you there, yes?

Escapism

April 6th, 2010

Mr. Improbable and I had a mildly bad day yesterday (no point going into details) and were definitely in the mood for some escapist entertainment last night. We found it on Hulu, in this gloriously overwrought Gothic melodrama based on a Daphne Du Maurier novel:

rachel

My favorite bit of dialogue was:

“You’ve been drinking!”
“Only at the springs of love!”

It makes me really sad that I’ve quit drinking now, because I probably won’t be accused of having been drinking, and I want to, so I can say that.

Which actually, now that I think about it, does get at something. We’ve often talked about the “witty comeback” and its shortcomings.* Well-meaning people don’t deserve to be the recipient of a nasty crack; ill-meaning people ought to be confronted more directly; the generally clueless (non-neurotypical folks, or people from cultures with different privacy/conversational norms) won’t be helped to understand boundaries by a sarcastic comment that may well confuse them more.

But the surreal, as opposed to snarky comeback, can work, if it lets the other person in on the joke. Look at all the beautifully surreal responses my friends’ wonderful relative came up with for the question of how she lost her arm. The surreal response can let the other person know, “Whatever question you just asked me isn’t the story of my life. But I’m comfortable that you asked, and I’m not mad at you. However, I’m not going to talk about it, so let’s change the subject.”

Isn’t the writing process magical? When I started this post I never thought I’d get from “My Cousin Rachel” to the witty-retort topic! How about that.

*If you go back to that post, you’ll notice I never responded to Chris’s criticism. That’s because every time I tried to, I started laughing too hard. I am fairly sure the shades of Dorothy Parker and Oscar Wilde would be on my side on this one.

Celebrity lookalikes, Oscar winners edition

March 12th, 2010

Asner-schmasner, tell me this guy wasn’t the real inspiration for the lead character in Pixar’s “Up”:

upguy

Carl Fredricksen had a way better idea for what to do with his house than refinance his mortgage, though!

realupguy

Quote of the week

January 8th, 2010

Forsooth! Three thousand years of history,
Traditions beauteous from Moses on:
Thou speakest damnèd truth, and speakest well,
I am a man to live in bygone past!

–Sir Walter of Poland, “Two Gentlemen of Lebowski,” by Adam Bertocci.

Other double features

November 9th, 2009

I mentioned below that “Project Grizzly” and “Grizzly Man” would be an excellent double feature, especially if you were in the mood to watch movies about bears and the men who love them too much. What are some good double features you’d recommend for Netflix Night at home?

Mr. Improbable and I once watched “Galaxy Quest” and “Trekkies” back to back, which is a terrific combination: if you haven’t heard of it, “Trekkies” is a documentary about Star Trek fans. (“Galaxy Quest,” of course, is a spoof on Star Trek and Trek fandom.)

“Rushmore” and “Election” came out around the same time, and I saw those as a double feature in the theater: two quirky comedies about high school politics.

The nights are getting longer. Time to curl up on the sofa with a bowl of popcorn or a cup of hot chocolate and watch some flicks. What double features do you like?