30 March, 2009

Good News For People Who Love Bad News

The latest post at Bad Science has me creasing my brow. Not that that's unusual - Ben Goldacre's Guardian column (granted, I tend to read it 'second-hand' online) is pretty consistent but this week he makes a point about journalism in suicide cases that put me heavily in mind of the first episode of Charlie Brooker's new series Newswipe.

I've actually not been that huge a fan of Brooker - comedy's a hit and miss thing and I'm not hugely forgiving at the best of times. Charlie's heavily purile streak has been enough to put me off in the past - while Screenwipe certainly had its moments, it doesn't take a truly great wit to find humour in sub-par TV, so it often seemed a poor replacement for half-watching with a group of friends.

But there's a sickness in journalism that needs confronting: rife with spin and sensationalism, prizing production over content and self-obsessed to a ludicrous degree, it's already a much maligned profession and Brooker is in worthy territory here, cutting it down to size. His irreverent approach, relentless cynicism, and eye for a telling clip are actually a perfect combination (the editing in this program is really excellent, maybe the key to the whole shebang). This may be his true vocation.

There's a welcome appearance from the absurd resident poet Tim Key, and a segment explaining the convergence of PR and journalism. Spleens are well and truly vented. A brief section on re-branding the recession is a slight misfire, but Brooker's punchy treatment of stories in the news is great, and would seem right at home on Have I Got News For You.

And finally, the bit that puts me in mind of Goldacre (from about the 24 minute mark), which above all the rest I'd recommend watching. You'd struggle to claim that it's funny when Charlie picks up on the recent coverage of mass-shooting in Germany and contrasts the advised media coverage with the actuality. Like Goldacre's article, Newswipe highlights the callous disregard for 'the public interest' in a field where it should be most critical. There's a combination of malignancy and insanity there that has to be rooted out.

Of course, it's a dysfunction we can probably blame on no-one but ourselves. The irony would of course appeal to few people more than to that perennial misanthrope, Charlie Brooker.

Newswipe airs Wednesdays, 22:30 on BBC4. At time of writing, episode one was available on the BBC's iPlayer here, for a further 5 days.

25 March, 2009

How to be Perfect Men

Yet another piece of the BBC's ongoing double celebration of Charles Darwin (200 years since his birth, 150 years since The Origin of the Species - do keep up), I found part 2 of Andrew Marr's "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" to be a decent hour's diversion. Telling the story of natural selection's place within political thought in the past 150 years, Marr rattles through the development of the depiction of natural selection as "Survival of the fittest," and the development from there of 'social darwinism.' Tracing this fibre leads us to some dark places: first to some 'harmless' eugenics, then the extremely harmful variety, from which we emerge to view a 'rehabilitation' of the theory in the service of equality and universal human rights. In polished, professional OU style Marr gives us a glimpse of the ever-shifting future before saying his adieus.
Marr is on good form, actually. He's a very likeable presenter, suitably wry for dealing with the charming Olde Worlde racism of the 19th Century gentlemen we encounter, but with the necessary solemnity for the more weighty and grave matters. And he does a pretty decent job with the science! There were a couple of mis-cues that niggled, but nothing terribly important. Towards the end he gets a bit eager over some recent research and starts talking about "joining his black brothers," but there's a scientist on hand to calm him down, thankfully. It's all rather endearing.

Well, maybe one thing. This Darwin season has been a bit of a mixed blessing. Fantastic that it gets people talking about important science, certainly. However, I have misgivings - increasingly one wonders if viewers grasp the separation between the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, and its originator, or its applications. These are separate things, and for the same reason I dislike terms such as "Darwinism," because we don't understand evolution as Darwin did. Indeed, we should to hone our understanding, not immortalise it.

After all, if Evolutionary theory best describes how the diversity of life on the planet came about, then its implications, applications or fanbase is irrelevant. Not that this will sink in with the sort of people who'll cheerfully tell you Hitler's acceptance of evolution is a dent to its credibility. Hardly a battle worth fighting.

Marr's story takes us from the entry of Darwin's theory into public understanding and explains its mutation by liberal thinkers into a eugenics movement. Improving the underclasses for work or war piqued many interests at the time, as did ridding the wealthy nations of the "feeble-minded" once and for all. This is an interesting segment. Bluff casual-racists take it in turns to say hopelessly un-PC things that a modern audience can chuckle at. We end up wondering about comparitive, situational morality, whether simply not-being-a-racist was truly saintly behaviour for the 19th century.

But of course these ideas are not as innocuous as they first seem. With a new age of understanding beckoning in genetics, the heinous acts when these ideas were last in vogue are an important reminder of why we do view eugenics as being as sinister as it is outdated. The Holocaust throws a large shadow over proceedings, as it must. As a culmination of 'bad Darwinism,' the most evil occurence in human history came about. Shortly afterwards, the UN considers common human descent a key part of the puzzle where human equality is concerned.

And like that, we're into the present, seeing how a gene database and genetic counselling service has allowed the near-elimination of Tay-Sachs disease in New York. This case is interesting, although it has much more to do with Mendelian genetics or Watson-Crick DNA modelling than it does Darwin! Still, as an illustration of the "personal genetic decisions of the future" it's a good point. The combination of modern technological advancement with a more traditional pro-life mindset is an interesting one, and the self-denial involved, in an age where we are meant to be able to have children as we like with whoever we like, is remarkable.

Finally, a consideration for the post-genomic age which will be upon us sooner than we think. Marr picks up on a "new intelligence gene variant" which has been proposed and may be more prevalent in Europeans than those of African descent. That's a maybe, controversial and recent. But with sequencing and bioinformatics getting cheaper and quicker, accurate and studies into the genetic basis of intelligence are virtually inevitable. The underlying fact is that we cannot naively wait for the new genetic technologies to creep into our lives. DNA analysis will have wide-ranging effects from job recruitment to health insurance. Coupled with IVF technology, gene manipulation can go further still, going beyond the boundaries of disease into realms that earlier eugenics proponents never dreamed of. Before too long we could find ourselves attempting to define 'feeble-mindedness' again, and our society needs to be robust enough to withstand that in advance.

Ultimately, we are still putting words in Darwin's mouth. Nice words, true, but just as the Nazis spun evolutionary theory into something terrible, we're taking the truth and reading it how it suits us. Which is a shame, really. If the history of science can teach us anything, it's that truths can be discovered, but that values must be hard-won.

The 3 episodes of Darwin's Dangerous Idea are available on BBC iPlayer here for a very short while, I'd recommend episode 2 mostly, but it's all good stuff.

18 March, 2009

Those who place great emphasis on science are also the first to abuse it

I've criticised Pharyngula before. It's sort of like when you've had a crush on someone, admired little things about them, picked out things you like about the way they wear their long dark hair, their clothes which are cheap and ready but perfectly in place, their ability to write helpfully and clearly about science. A couple of years later, when you've had some separation, you might be over them when you see them heavily cropped, in a designer dress and only ever ranting about the Pope being evil. A walking advert for the ludicrous "Out Campaign.*"

You keep an eye on them and you resent them. It's emotionally exhausting, I don't mind admitting.

Where do I still agree with Myers? Well... Science must be as apolitical as possible. You don't go into scientific exploration knowing the results in advance, much less in order to confirm your current opinions. You're testing hypotheses, you don't know what you'll come up with, and you don't serve up results with a side-order of heaped invective...


Those fears I had that the sclogosphere (trust me, that'll catch on) might not be a good substitute for peer-reviewed journals are further reinforced. I don't know if Myers has read the original paper (I intend to find it when I visit campus later) but he links to a news source. This study has been reinterpreted by a journalist even before it received the Pharyngula treatment!

Contrast with Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science, who only uses primary research papers, and does his best to fully understand the research first (read his rules). No reinterpreted headlines here. There's a reason this has become my favourite science blog. A soothing balm, and my new crush!

Is Myers' interpretation accurate? Possibly, I can't rule it out. A biased conclusion can be the correct one if you hitch to the right wagon. But it's certainly not proven. Psychological research has shown a large range of effects religious practice can have on believers, some more intuitive than others. It's a complex set of contributing factors and jumping straight for the "fear and ignorance" parameters seems hugely simplistic and convenient.

PZ Myers has a nice choir to preach to by now, a well-rehearsed line in atheism, a total disregard for the philosophical/theological heritage present-day thought (including much of his) comes from, and plenty of bile. He's certainly a pretty skilled writer, I envy him that. I know full well that he and his followers are content in the knowledge that they are the most rational people in the world, and that's fine. I can only hope my views are somewhat less reductive.

A further annoyance: Scientific knowledge, we all understand, has been built up from foundation levels to much more intricate and detailed platforms. I seem to be reading so much right now where scientists stride boldly and rationally into other areas with no foundation whatsoever. I hope I at least have the good grace to be tentative!


There's a whole quagmire here that I shouldn't get into, but the very next post he's made, about Catholicism's opposition to condom use in Africa (an area I should agree with him on), also winds me up. There's a glaring clash in his view that you can't deny human nature, when it's juxtaposed with decrying certain human behaviours as pathological. Read Pharyngula for a few weeks (probably more like days) and you'll understand Myers applies this idea of pathology to a wide range of irrational behaviours.

Admittedly, sex is a pretty fundamental drive for human beings. But one has to wonder, if we've been prone to irrational belief throughout recorded history, and show few signs of stopping now, what's the difference? Can sex be described as pathological? Is hardcore rationalism denying human nature? In the latter case, I think the answer is certainly.


*So, if I were worried about religion causing evil to come about because it creates factions that hate each other I'm sure as hell the first thing I'd do is create a new faction that aggressively states its difference to all others
Furthermore, I'd want to alienate moderates with my "if you're not with us, you're against us" attitude. Comparing myself to the great liberators and civil-rights campaigners of history would be my choice technique for squaring things off.


Capital letters in headings? I really don't know. I used to, religiously, "every word as important as the word that precedes it" and all that. But in the middle of typing out that title it just struck me as a bit ridiculous, more than a little pompous, frankly.
I shall just see which whims take me.

16 March, 2009

Nothing Bad To Say

Little later than planned/promised but here goes with a trio of films that I utterly adored in the past couple of months:

Waltz With Bashir was as visually arresting as I could have wished for. This telling of a set of events in the 1982 Israeli campaign in Lebanon is presented as an animated documentary with a personal tilt, where director Ari Folman re-learns events that he was part of some 26 years previously. There was a sort of guilt that set in for me when I paid attention to the documentary, that I wasn't paying full attention to the animation, and vice versa.

The effect of the technique used is highly reminiscent of rotoscoping - during the interviews Folman conducts it would take a mammoth effort to avoid comparisons with A Waking Life - and complements the film perfectly. Folman is exploring his lost memory in a perfectly post-modern way, forming human bridges to his forgotten past and allowing enough reconstruction to take place that his one niggling dream-scene slots right in.

And for this, the presentation is perfect. Waltz With Bashir is one half dream to one half devastating reality. While some scenes allow Folman or his contemporaries to float dully off into reverie, remembering the changed towns they came home to and surreal things they saw, others heighten the terror of the truth: in this cartoon world bullets, bombs and child soldiers are more present than they could be if filmed.

This is to say nothing of the wonderful score set down by the great Max Richter or the macabre yet surprisingly gentle humour that runs throughout the film. Or the perfect compassion that fills every frame, every pore. Waltz With Bashir is a work that treats its character as human, that steers away from simple answers. And seems more real than real, right into its final reel. Then, it leaves the viewer with no doubts about what reality is.


Documentary also receives a make-over in The Class ("Entre Les Murs") where, confusingly, the author of the semi-autobiographical subject material of the same title plays the main protagonist, François, who is French teacher to a class of teenagers in inner-city Paris. The students (played by real students in a semi-improvised fashion) are a mixed bunch. Not only is talent and committment as varied as might be expected in any classroom, but François' charges include pupils of European, West Indian, Chinese and both North and West African descents, which on occasion leads to tension.

The vast majority of the film takes place in a single classroom. Multiple cameras are used to pick out the subjects in their classroom, one focussing on the teacher, another on the pupils as they respond, and one more has an eye for detail. The sensation when things go well is of a warm embrace, which can quickly turn sour and claustrophobic. Our omniscience extends only beyond these 4 walls on a handful of occasions, when events are discussed in the playground,headmaster's office, or among the traumatised occupants of the staff-room.

On the battleground, François' familiar teaching style is capable of engaging and delivering great results, but can also de-rail proceedings hugely. The 9 months we observe are certainly not without their highlights, but it's a warts-and-all depiction where a mis-step can send repercussions reverberating through the rest of the school. And with François' attitude, and that of his class, mis-steps are inevitable, making parent-teacher councils a microcosm of conservative-liberal debates in schools (and media) everywhere. The Class is a film that doesn't hesitate to deliver joyous moments alongside crushing ones, presenting a hero who can easily fall and villains we desperately want to pull through. More-real-than-real, it feels like we've taught a full school year in just over two hours.


Already reality is a theme here, as I come to my favourite film of recent times, The Wrestler. I don't want to qualify that because if I have a more perfect cinema experience anytime soon I doubt my heart will take the strain. I can't do this justice (although I shall try) because The Wrestler not only has to be seen, it must be lived! Darren Aronofsky's 4th feature film takes a less-than-trendy form of entertainment and makes it a universal tale of broken dreams and triumph.

Applying compassion liberally to the semi-pro wrestling ring seems like it should be a thankless task, but among the sweat, broken glass, staple guns and chest hair, Mickey Rourke makes it easy. It's hard to imagine a more outstanding acting performance than the one we get from Rourke (it was well documented he took training for the role seriously), a career role where his fading wrestling glory sits awkwardly alongside his difficult romance with stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) and reconciliation with estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood).

Much though I admire Sean Penn, to say Rourke was passed over for the Oscar is a mammoth understatement. The Ram, hardly ever off the screen, displays all the scars of the past across his face and stands boldly, beautifully and self-destructively above his circumstances and (immaculately realised) surroundings. The elation pouring out from the screen when The Ram interacts with his fans, even during a memorable scene where he puts in a showstopping performance behind a deli counter, feels nothing but unutterably true.

Things don't go The Ram's way, precisely. But it's never lost on the viewer that this film is about performance. Every time we view Rourke, channeling Randy, from behind, taking in his gait, his shabby environs (that feel absolutely accurate), we feel how different this is to life in the ring, that everything outside that is a pale shadow. The joy when he does what he does best, the pride that radiates from the screeen during the ring scenes and the respect he automatically commands when he's in costume cast aside any feeling we might have that we're watching a lovable loser, and never more than in the final scene.

As Randy Robinson stands atop the ropes, trembling, whipping the crowd into a frenzy, ready to perform his signature move, we see him for who he would be, and at that moment is: The one man standing triumphant as the universal, doing the thing he's best at and proud of. In short, being the greatest.

That's also how I feel about this film. I'm 100% as slavishly enamoured with it as I sound. It's beautifully made in almost every regard, it's emotionally brutal, it feels more-real-than-real, it understands that both truths and happy endings are subjective, and it leaves us believing that things matter. It embraces all humanity through one character, and not just the pretty bits.


What makes these films special? I'm not certain, but I've been trying to trace several threads. Technicality is important, films have to be well-made for any theme, however powerful, to kick in. Novelty, gimmicks, distinctive styles are not to be sniffed at, provided there's some content behind them. A full world, populated by characters as complex as human beings always are, is a must. A sense of purpose, a meaningful story to tell, makes a film worthwhile. These films are of consequence, in the way they are written and made, not by being consciously weighty.

And I suspect the 'transcendence' I feel about these particular films comes from symbolism. Within each, the well-presented particular is able to represent more universal human and emotional forms. I feel particularly fortunate to have seen all these things coming together three times already this year.

11 March, 2009

Death On Display

I put together an extremely-short-notice round for a music quiz on Monday night (it was written during the first two rounds). So maybe you can take pleasure in getting these right (this was probably the easiest). If you get 10 then you can kid yourself you would have won the quiz, and with it some novelty vinyl. The theme was "Dead Musicians," necro:

  1. Which longhaired singer killed himself in the greenhouse of 171 Lake Washington Boulevard East in 1994?
  2. The killer of John Lennon, Mark David Chapman, was reputedly obsessed with which American novel?
  3. Which big band leader disappeared in 1944 on US Army business, travelling to entertain troops in France? His body was never found.
  4. Influential bluesman Robert Johnson died from drinking poisoned whiskey at a Missisippi crossroads in 1938. Legend has it he owed his phenomenal guitar-playing abilities to whom?
  5. What age were Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Robert Johnson and Jim Morrison when they met their untimely ends?
  6. Who was shot dead in September 1996 in Las Vegas after attending a Mike Tyson boxing bout?
  7. Who hung himself in Macclesfield in 1980, shortly after listening to Iggy Pop's album "The Idiot"?
  8. The lead singer of which psychedelic rock band died in a Parisian bathtub in 1971, having snorted heroin?
  9. Which Welsh co-writer of The Holy Bible has been missing under mysterious circumstances since 1995?
  10. What did Don McLean famously call the day of Buddy Holly's death in a plane crash (slightly more than) 50 years ago?
Of course, I had to hastily apologise that in questions 2 and 9 I could not guarantee the death of the persons in question. And to add that in 7 that the relationship was not causative. I'll put the answers in a comment. Tell me how you did?

04 March, 2009

Something Bad To Say

It's worrying when you find yourself liking a whole string of things in a row. If you're anything like me at least; you start worrying about whether you've lost your critical faculties, or about the extent by which you've been influenced by media hype. Film-wise, this early stretch of the year can be a mixed blessing - all the Oscar-worthy pieces are trotted out and the self-doubt begins to blossom.

These posts, another will follow shortly, really aim to say there are films, and there are films. On the one hand, films can be well made, roles well acted, stories diverting, scenes good-looking. Films can be good. But just now I can't help but feel that doesn't cut it. Here are 3 such:

Milk was good. Very good really. The case of Harvey Milk was always going to be one that deserved a very careful and meaningful treatment. And combined with Sean Penn, it was an unsurprising Oscar-role. Extremely watchable and with a great cast, Milk had the epic scale I'd hoped for, and yet a refreshing focus on the story - which is a good one.

A little self-consciously worthy, but it's very difficult to avoid that in a human rights film, during awards season, with such a long list of notable names in the cast and with Gus Van Sant at the helm. He's good, but he does veer a little towards the sentimental. In spite of that gripe, I was very pleased with it.

Frost/Nixon was fun. It looked good, and seemed well written - the to-and-fro between Martin Sheen, Frank Langella, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell and Matthew MacFadyen filled a happy couple of hours. It did feel a bit like a film convinced of its tale's own significance but which never bothered to relay that element to the audience. I laughed - out loud even! - a few times, but still, on the walk home it left little to think about (other than Michael Sheen's ability as a mimic - The Damned United is also released soon). Ron Howard continues to bemuse.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was nearly 3 hours long. This bloated love-story-with-a-twist isn't without its good moments, but it's hard to see why anyone felt it deserved such epic treatment. To the credit of the filmmakers, the 'curious' situation the backwards-ageing Brad Pitt finds himself in is made to seem natural within the film, incidental to his romance with Cate Blanchett. But this new focal point isn't actually that interesting - Benjamin and Daisy don't seem that fated, or tortured, or even important.

I also found myself wondering why there was so little colour in the past. I appreciate that 'the world of the '50s wasn't awash with neon lighting. But this film seemed to exhibit a pathological fear of colour, or bright lighting. THE PAST IS BROWNY-GREY! Combined with its length, the overall impression was that I'd taken a 3 hour nap.

I thought of David Fincher as a maker of snappy, punchy films. Alien3, Se7en and The Game were pretty dynamic and fully enjoyable. Fight Club even more so, a really excellent modern film. Benjamin Button, combined with admirable drag Zodiac, really screams that he should stay the right side of the 140 minute mark.

Three films, many positive points between them. But something missing from each. It does occur to me that these are very similar story types. Well maybe - it is awards season, so the major releases are rarely irreverent and frequently pretty wordy, po-faced pieces. Sort of like old paintings left out in the sun. Later I'm going to tell you what I loved instead, and hopefully put a bit of effort into working out why.