Monday, July 27, 2009


The Day the Argument Stood Still

Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum are in Time humping their book Unscientific America (nothing wrong with that -- good ol' American free enterprise) when they just about ended any chance I'll like the thing.

Part of your book talks about the depiction of "mad scientists" in Hollywood films. Do you think film and television producers can realistically portray scientists considering they have to sometimes use stereotypes or exaggeration to get people to watch what they produce?

I don't think that we can demand incredibly high levels of fidelity to what scientists actually do. What I think we can shoot for is positive role model figures who are scientists. That's what really leaves audiences with a positive outlook on the scientific world is if the smart character is actually heroic for being smart. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, Jennifer Connelly is a scientist. It definitely cuts against stereotypes in a lot of ways. First of all, she's a woman and not an old man. She's not nerdy. She's a hero.

Who? I remember Professor Barnhardt. He might have been old and nerdy but he was someone a pre-teenager could look up to. I remember the brave Helen Benson, who was a hero. Mostly, I remember an antiwar, anti-nuclear-weapons message that was pretty gutsy in the paranoiac America of the early 1950s.

Oh! ... Mooney and Kirshenbaum are talking about an incoherent remake of a minor classic starring a third-rate actor and carrying no discernible message other than "special effects are fun." And they are touting it for no better reason than it has up-to-date stereotypes rather than the ones that seem as creaky as the original black and white film and primitive special effects. If we can't even demand thoughtful film making, can we hope to encourage a thoughtful appreciation of science?

If this is the best we can do, we'd better hope Gort isn't still in orbit.

Klaatu barada nikto!

I think the black-and-white original was the best in terms of being a more intelligent story.

The more recent one was good fun but chiefly notable for using a 3-D system based, I think, on glasses with polarizing lenses which is a vast improvement over the old anaglyph system of red and green filters. It really is quite impressive.

As for the portrayal of scientists, the 1970's BBC TV show Doomwatch did quite a good job and the early forensic science shows like CSI were okay before they got carried away with their own glamour and the science got silly.
Argh! I'm confusing The Day The Earth Stood Still with Journey To The Center Of The Earth. Next thing you know I'll be writing a book about accommodationism. (It'll probably turn out to be a hotel guide)
I would say the last man on earth was an increadible moovie and pracically all of it was acted by this amazing actor vicent price who was trying to find the cure for an illness and was also a lonesome sad guy cause that illness had killed all his familly and people from the planet.
Re thoughtful filmmaking, it seems to me that Unscientific America is about reaching the general public.

If I want to know what movie is a blockbuster, I ask my teenage son what he paid to watch. Generally speaking when he laid down his cold, hard allowance money, it was for the opposite of a thoughtful film, and generally speaking it was also a blockbuster, money-wise.

Obviously I am going by the 'teenage son' rule of Hollywood success, but since he has such an excellent track record of picking blockbusters I don't think we have much evidence that the general public supports thoughtful filmmaking.

It's also interesting how different people perceive movies. Re gutsy messages, Gort struck me as bad news, kind of like an abusive alcoholic parent that all the kids realize they must tiptoe around and behave well around for fear he will blow. But maybe I am indulging in presentism.

However if humanity's only hope of avoiding self destruction is to have the threat of something else aiming a gun at it, well, then maybe we ought to go back to that ol' time religion, with the threat of eternal hellfire to make us behave.
P.S. I watched the original of 'The Day the Earth Stood Still' and did not watch the remake.

I'm afraid since Bill and Ted, I can't watch Keanu Reeves and take him as anyone other than Ted.
Oh, I agree that Klaatu's galactic society's idea of mutual protection was draconian and hardly to be applauded. But it was, in a way, what the US was proposing to do at the time -- with itself in the role of Gort -- if they could just beat those nasty commies. Still, the suggestion that we should doubt our own committment to the welfare of the people of the world and the rightness of maintaining the nuclear foundation of our world power was pretty radical for the day.
Did you really mean to use the word "humping" The _Compact Oxford English Dictionary of Current English _ gives three definitions for hump: "verb 1 informal lift or carry with difficulty. 2 make hump-shaped. 3 vulgar slang have sexual intercourse with." If your use of the word is intentional, then you must be using it in the sense of "lift or carry with difficulty."

Are Mooney and Kirshenbaum really suggesting that people can learn about scientists and science from Hollywood films? Incredible.
Did you really mean to use the word "humping" ...

Yes, though I doubt you'll find the usage in any dictionary. Promotion of one's books, ideas, etc. has much in common with attempts to achieve sexual gratification from them. There is probably also a connotation of difficulty achieving the end as well. It is a fairly common usage in my neck of the woods (the environs of New York City).

Are Mooney and Kirshenbaum really suggesting that people can learn about scientists and science from Hollywood films?

I gather (though I haven't read the book) that it is more like scientists are supposed to promote their work the way movie stars sell their latest movie ... or somethin' ...
John Pieret: "I gather (though I haven't read the book) that it is more like scientists are supposed to promote their work the way movie stars sell their latest movie"

No, that isn't it. Their idea is that while we can't count on Hollywood to get scientific details right, Hollywood can be pressured, cajoled, or whatnot into presenting more positive images of scientists.
I really do have to find a "being facetious" emoticon.

Going by my light reading of their blog, they do seem to be pushing the idea of better science "commiunication" as a solution to the poor public understanding of science and the overt hostility some part of the public has towards some science. The problem is that scientists themselves seem to be held in high regard.

Quite apart from the fact that hollywood has almost from the very beginning recognized the mad scientist as a great villain and ain't about to give it up, I can't see how giving a more positive image of scientists in movies will improve their standing when it is among the highest already.
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