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March 08 2013


How the transit of Venus changed cinematography

Colin Martin, contributor

What better place to view a film about the transit of Venus than an 18th-century observatory? A once-in-a-lifetime experience, the opportunity for us to watch the planet traverse the face of the sun in June last year was the last this century and will not recur until 2117.

To mark the occasion, Modern Art Oxford and the University of Oxford commissioned Turner prizewinning artist Simon Starling to film the transit. The 35-millimetre film that Starling shot in Hawaii and Tahiti, Black Drop, is now being shown in the Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford, which was built shortly after the first global scientific effort to record the transit.

Starling’s film is being screened in the elegant Observing Room, which housed optical telescopes to investigate the night skies until the observatory closed in 1934. Conditions are chilly beneath its lofty dome in winter, even with the room’s four full-height triple windows shuttered, but it provides an evocative setting for Starling’s beguiling film, which includes images of 18th and 19th-century transits that occurred during the heyday of the observatory.

Black Drop takes its title from an optical phenomenon that occurs at a critical point during the transit of Venus, when the silhouetted planet is about to touch the sun’s edge - known as its limb - during the ingress and egress of the planet’s transit. At these points the planet appears to distort and elongate. This phenomenon foiled 18th-century observers’ attempts to collect accurate data on the exact time that the planet touched the sun’s limb, which was vital for enabling astronomers to refine their measurement of the mean Earth-sun distance - the astronomical unit. Among many disappointing failures was that of mariner James Cook and his ship’s astronomer Charles Green in 1769, who recorded very different timings for the crucial moments of contact between Venus and the sun’s limb. They did, however, publish their drawings of the black drop phenomenon in 1771.

In 1874, in order to overcome human error in collecting data during transits, the astronomer Pierre Jules César Janssen developed a "revolver photographique", which he used to take repeated exposures of the 1874 transit of Venus. Unfortunately, the telescope to which Janssen’s chronophotographic device (combining chronometry and photography) was attached was misaligned, leaving half of Venus out of the image. But the revolver photographique had considerable impact on the subsequent development of cinema. This historical link between astronomy and cinema inspired Starling to shoot Black Drop using 35-millimetre film stock, which is being displaced by digital film-making. "Given that no one can predict what technology might be available to record the next transit in 2117, I wanted to 'bracket' my film historically between the introduction of Janssen’s revolver and the demise of 35-millimetre film," he said.

Though much of Starling’s film is comprised of stills, it also includes moving images. Some of these are tracking shots of overlapping historical astronomical drawings and charts pinned onto display panels, but there is also footage of southern-hemisphere observatories and nocturnal skies, and waves washing onto Pacific beaches - signifying the historic importance of Pacific vantage points in observing transits of Venus. Starling evokes extra layers of meaning with footage of the 35-millimetre film being cut and spliced to make the final version. Shots of the editing desks from above show whirring spools of film that resemble miniature solar systems; trembling lengths of 35-millimetre film resemble the wind-blown palm trees of historic vantage points.

Black Drop is an engaging documentary, in which Starling considers astronomers’ historic interest in the transit of Venus, and their endeavours to improve the accuracy of their observations, from the viewpoint of an artist interested in the history of the development of cinema.

The Black Drop film installation runs until 24 March at the Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford, and will be recreated at Modern Art Oxford from 23 August to 8 September. Black Drop has also been published in book form.

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March 23 2012


Joe Davis: The mad scientist of MIT?

Phil McKenna, contributor

1st-pic-HEJDstill#2.jpg(Image: Heaven + Earth + Joe Davis)

Thirty years ago Joe Davis, a peg-legged artist and motorcycle mechanic from Mississippi, walked into MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies demanding to speak with the director. Forty-five minutes later - after trashing a receptionist’s desk and fending off the police - Davis left with a six-month academic appointment. It ultimately lasted more than a decade.

In Heaven + Earth + Joe Davis director Peter Sasowsky takes viewers on an exhilarating, entertaining, and thought provoking ride deep into the complicated mind of the artist and “mad scientist”.

Before seeing the film, I had the unforgettable and fascinating experience of meeting Davis in person at a bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Much to the benefit of the film, Sasowsky had a similar encounter. So intrigued was he by Davis, that he spent a decade filming the enigmatic man on travels throughout North America and Europe. The end result is a biopic enriched with archival footage of Davis’s early years as well as interviews with family, friends, and the scientists and artists who come closest to being counted among his peers.

So who is Joe Davis? Early in the documentary we hear from a former molecular anthropologist at Harvard University who posits that he is either a genius or the most brilliant con artist that ever lived. Sasowsky lets us draw our own conclusions - and mine is that limiting him to one or the other would do Davis a disservice.

A case in point featured in the film: Davis reasons that bacteria engage in activity that produce audible frequencies but we don’t know what they sound like because no one has bothered to listen. He then invents a laser-powered optical microscope. Pointing his microscope at brine shrimp and paramecium he realizes you can easily tell them apart by the sounds they make, in the same way you could differentiate sheep from cows by listening to their vocalizations.

2nd-pic-HEJDstill#4.jpg(Image: Heaven + Earth + Joe Davis)

So far so good, but who cares? In the next scene we find Davis demonstrating his optical microscope at an exhibition in Lisbon, Portugal. Only this time he has convinced a striking young woman to let him cover her in nothing but honey and gold dust - presumably for her own protection. Then he uses his optical microscope to project the sound of her heartbeat and respiration to a rapt audience (it’s clear the sounds of brine shrimp and paramecium were not the day’s main draw.)

In another sexually charged example of performance art Davis sets out to correct what he feels is a case of censorship in scientists’ efforts to communicate with extraterrestrials. He explains that researchers have sent images of an anatomically correct man into outer space but the image they sent of a woman lacked genitalia. To right this wrong, Davis transmitted the sound of vaginal contractions of ballet dancers to several nearby stars. The audio recording was beamed from MIT’s Millstone Hill radar for several minutes before the United States Air Force shut him down.

Apart from art bordering on the perverse, Davis has invented a bacterially-grown radio and a frog-leg powered airplane. He developed supercode, a silent or bio-chemically inert genetic code to embed Greek poetry into the DNA of white-eyed flies and the image of the Milky Way into the ear of a mouse.

In 2008 Davis received a Rockefeller New Media Fellowship for a lightning powered laser beam that, according to him, could save the planet from incoming asteroids. He has taught at MIT and the Rhode Island School of Design. He currently holds the position of Artist/Researcher in the laboratory of George Church, a renowned geneticist at Harvard Medical School.

Yet for all his unbridled imagination and accomplishments, Davis has very real-world problems. His MIT and Harvard affiliations are unpaid positions and his uncompromising approach to art has repercussions. He is routinely evicted from apartments, has trouble keeping lab space, and is still, to some extent, kept at arms length by both the art and scientific communities that he straddles.

In this masterfully crafted film, Sasowsky rightfully doesn’t shy from showing all aspects of Davis’s unique story. The end result left this reviewer rooting for the artist at every turn. Here's hoping Heaven+Earth + Joe Davis gives its star his due.

Heaven + Earth + Joe Davis is showing at several festivals in the coming year.

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March 22 2012


Visual illusions that change how you think

Cormac Sheridan, contributor

1st-pic-colourwheelsimage1.jpg(Image: Cleary & Connolly)

Halfway through a visit to Hall of Mirrors, Anne Cleary's and Denis Connolly's newly opened show at the Farmleigh Gallery in Dublin, I'm suddenly reminded of comedian Harry Worth's signature optical prank that opened every episode of his legendary sitcom series. On one level it seems like a pretty feeble and inadequate response to what is a sophisticated, scientific exploration of visual perception. Yet Hall of Mirrors shares some of Worth's playful humour. It also serves as a reminder of the simple brain-tickling pleasures of experiencing visual distortion.

The Paris-based Irish couple has, with the help of researchers at the Clarity Centre for Web Sensor Technologies at Dublin City University and at the Laboratoire Psychologie de la Perception at Université Paris Descartes, created a series of live and recorded 2D and 3D video installations that illustrate the complex interplay between vision perception, movement and time. Sally Duensing at King's College London and Patrick Cavanagh of Harvard University also contributed to the development of the project.

The duo has explicitly avoided creating a series of optical tricks that can be triggered simply by viewers waving their hands in front of a camera. While a certain amount of handwaving can be (and, in my case, was) indulged in, their intention was to probe more deeply than that into how we see the world.

In Dutch Wax, a large projected black and white image of a human face appears to be in colour when viewed immediately after seeing a colour-saturated image first. But it only works if you stare at the same spot - as soon as you move your eyes the effect disappears. This, Connolly tells me, is a demonstration of microsaccades, which are tiny involuntary movements of the eyes that play a role in colour perception. Without them, our colour-sensing photoreceptors become fatigued and our perception of colour fades out.

Playing around with binocular vision, Lough in a Box is a version of an installation at Lough Lannagh, near Castlebar, in County Mayo, called On Sight. It divides eight different films shot at the lake into pairs that are viewed through a binocular viewer, so your left and right eyes are seeing a different film shot at precisely the same location - in precisely the same frame. The trick creates disconcerting transitions. First the left eye dominates and one film is perceived. Then the right eye takes over and you're looking at the other film, before you achieve a binocular combination of the two. In one instance, this conjured up the surreal spectacle of a teddybears' picnic happening in parallel with a group of men who appear to be about to load a large ornamental swan onto a truck.

2nd-pic-joining-the-dots.jpg(Image: Cleary & Connolly)

Dot Universe, on the other hand, plays on Swedish psychologist Gunnar Johansson's seminal research on the perception of biological motion in the 1970s. Johansson demonstrated that an array of just thirteen dots, positioned at the body's cardinal points, is sufficient to create the illusion of a moving human figure. Cleary and Connolly re-created that effect but then jumbled up the results to create what resembles a dynamic, shape-changing constellation that moves with a pleasing, loose-limbed elasticity. A version of this work, Joining the Dots,
has already been installed in Tralee, County Kerry. As Connolly notes, it demonstrates "the refusal of the mind to accept abstraction". Even when an image appears to be formless or random, we're constantly looking for patterns or shapes that we can interpret and render into meaning.

Sometimes it is harder to understand what you’re looking at though. Look Both Ways is a 'timeslice' video inspired by an early photograph by French photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue, in which the rear wheel of a racing car appears to tilt forward, while, in the background, the watching spectators and static telegraph poles appear to tilt in the opposite direction. The photographer was also moving in an adjacent car, albeit at a slower speed. That, combined with a slow shutter speed, the large format of the camera and the photographer's panning movement created the distortion. "For us, that expresses movement in a certain way," says Cleary. "We'd like to do that with video."

The result, which is part of a public art project for the Railway Procurement Agency to mark an extension to Dublin's Luas lightrail system, is strange. The split-screen video of a train journey seen from two perspectives, in which one frame seems to unspool from or merge into another, was difficult to decipher. The confusion is all part of the fun - seeing, in this instance, does not necessarily mean believing.

Hall of Mirrors runs at the Farmleigh Gallery in Dublin, Ireland, until 22 July and will then tour nationwide.

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March 19 2012


A romantic comedy of environmental folly

Sara Reardon, reporter

1st-pic-rexfeatures_1667577h.jpg(Image: CBS/Everett/Rex Features)

If you were an environmental research scientist, what would you do if you were handed an unlimited budget out of the blue? Using it to destroy an entire ecosystem, introduce an invasive species into a hostile environment and create a recreation park for one man would probably not top your list. But that’s the premise of the new romantic comedy Salmon Fishing in the Yemen which provides food for thought behind the shimmering romance.

Fred Jones (Ewan McGregor) is a fish scientist working for the UK government who receives a strange email from investment banker Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt). A Yemeni sheikh (Amr Waked) wants to commission Jones to install a river in the Yemen desert and introduce Scottish salmon into it - so the sheikh can fly fish in his backyard.

Jones immediately turns him down, saying simply that the desert is too hot and, oh, it has no water. But he’s too late: the prime minister’s overzealous press secretary (Kristin Scott Thomas), hungry for a Middle East story with a positive spin, spots the proposal and turns it into a flagship project for British science. With his job in jeopardy and with his marriage on its last legs, Jones takes a leap of faith and commits to the project and the pretty investment banker.

Despite the magnitude of the undertaking, there’s little science to be seen here. At the start, Jones gives Chetwode-Talbot a sarcastic markerboard lecture of the project’s many hurdles: engineering the dam to trap water from freshwater aquifers uncovered while drilling, oxygenating the water to the right temperature for North Atlantic salmon, transporting 10,000 salmon across three time zones in giant holding tanks, and convincing the farm-bred creatures to swim up river and spawn - all of which, he assures her, will result in a river full of belly-up fish.

The next we see, though, the two are walking along the side of a canyon in Yemen, hair blowing in the desert wind as they gape at the massive scale of the project magicked into existence behind them. Of course, it would tax the audience of a movie billed as a rom-com to tolerate an hour-long lecture on aquaculture. The satirical 2010 book by Paul Torday, on which the movie is based, leaves more room to expose the details. But when Jones, with his $50 million budget, hires the engineering team who built the notorious Three Gorges Dam in China to set up shop in the Yemen, one wonders how they pulled it off - or managed to get so far in spite of the same controversies.

2nd-pic-rexfeatures_1667577c.jpg(Image: CBS/Everett/Rex Features)

Even with the romantic focus, the movie delves into some real issues about the short-sightedness of environmental projects forced on communities, however beautiful and peaceful those projects may initially seem. Jones’ boss at Defra, tasked with collecting 10,000 native salmon from Scotland’s rivers, suddenly finds his picture splashed across the cover of every fishing enthusiast magazine in the U.K., denouncing him as “the salmon snatcher.”

The idea goes down no better in Yemen. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that the idea of putting a river in the desert doesn’t thrill the sheikh’s neighbours, who object to his hubris. After tragedy strikes, Jones has a brilliant thought: “Next time, we’ll engage the local community, make it their project and not just ours!” he exclaims, eyes shining with long-overdue enlightenment.

Though the metaphors are a bit laboured at times, it’s a sweet, lightly funny movie overall, and it’s always nice to see a scientist in a non-evil role. A very human scientist too: money, love, and the sheikh’s seductive talk of faith are enough to convince Jones to put aside his better scientific judgement and take on a project that, even the sheikh later laments was intended “to glorify God, but now I fear it was to glorify man.” It certainly doesn’t glorify the poor salmon.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is currently showing in cinemas throughout the US. It opens in the UK on 20 April.

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February 29 2012


Children tell their story of Fukushima

Tiffany O’Callaghan, CultureLab editor


(Image: Children of the Tsunami was produced by Renegade Pictures for the BBC)

It has been nearly a year since a megaquake sent a devastating tsunami surging over eastern Japan and set in motion the explosion of nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. As the 11 March anniversary approaches, it will undoubtedly be a time to reflect on the compound tragedies that befell the Japanese. But of the many voices to weigh in on the legacy of the disasters in coming weeks, it is unlikely many will belong to children.

Award-winning film-maker Dan Reed isn’t content with that. Eager to tell the story of the tsunami and subsequent nuclear fallout from a fresh perspective, he decided to lower his camera a little. His new documentary, Children of the Tsunami, lets the little ones whose lives were forever altered by last year’s events tell their own stories. Gesturing with a downturned palm, Reed explains, “I hope you feel it’s a film that’s down here with the kids, rather than up here with the adults.”

Though the film relies on the perspective of children, the result is far from childish. Shots of children speaking directly to the camera are interspersed with footage of their devastated schools, of parents searching for their classmates’ remains, of the sloshing tide. In this excellent and moving film, the children’s tales cut through the complex narrative and lay bare the struggle and bewilderment of those still caught in the aftermath.


(Image: Children of the Tsunami was produced by Renegade Pictures for the BBC)

We meet 10-year-old twins Fuka and Soma, whose school, Okawa Primary, was located just 4 kilometres from the coast. After the earthquake, their mother rushed to pick them up and take them to higher ground at home. Most of the other children waited on low ground until the tsunami enveloped the school and claimed their lives. Her hair pulled back by a ribbon, 10-year-old Fuka looks into the camera, often biting her lip. She remembers that it was her best friend’s birthday, how she never got to give her a gift.

Later, Reed includes footage from a hearing in which the lone surviving teacher at Okawa Primary attempts to explain what went wrong to a room of angry and heartbroken parents. One man stands, clutching his daughter’s shoe. “This is all that is left!” he shouts. Just behind the school building there is a green hillside, which stood untouched above the suffocating sludge.

The film also looks at the fear of radiation exposure among former residents of what is now the exclusion zone - a 20-kilometre-radius zone around the Fukushima Daiichi plant. We meet 10-year-old Ayaka, whose gap-toothed grin belies last year’s troubles. Her grandfather was lost in the tsunami, and now she attends a school on the periphery of the exclusion zone, donning a hat and protective mask to go outside. At home, her dad uses a handheld Geiger counter to measure radiation levels, telling his daughter levels are too high wherever there is grass and limiting her play to a square of asphalt by their temporary home. No one knows when, or if, people from the exclusion zone will be allowed to go back to their homes.

Reed spent 13 weeks in Japan working on the film, and much of that time was devoted to recruiting children to speak on camera about their experience. After a short while, he homed in on children between 7 and 10 years old because, he says, after that age, “you could almost identify the month in which they would cease to be children and start to be young adults”.

Perhaps the child who best captures this uneasy transition is the chubby-cheeked 10-year-old boy Riku (above). He notes that adults are allowed a short trip back into the exclusion zone to collect belongings, though they have to don protective suits. The reason children can’t enter, Riku says, is simply because they don’t make those special suits in kids’ sizes.

Yet even as he offers this explanation, you can see a glimmer of knowledge in his eyes - as though he knows that this version obscures the truth.

Children of the Tsunami was written, directed and produced by Dan Reed for Renegade Pictures and the BBC. It will be broadcast in the UK on BBC2 at 9 pm on Thursday 1 March, on 5 March on ARD in Germany and on 11 March on VPRO in Holland, DR in Denmark, ABC in Australia, CBC in Canada and SVT in Sweden.

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February 10 2012


Dangerous ideas on screen

Liz Else, associate editor

rexfeatures_1503128ab.jpg(Image: Sony Pics/Everett/Rex Features)

A Dangerous Method, the latest film from director David Cronenberg, explores the complex relationship between two men who helped shape 20th century thinking: Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender).

The tangle and later clash between Freud and Jung is ironically interwoven with the stories of Jung’s relationships with the underrated women in his life: a Russian Jew called Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), Jung’s patient, lover and subsequently a well respected analyst in her own right; and Emma Jung (Sarah Gadon), the rich but understandably insecure wife who must endure both the great man’s angst and his affairs.

The fifth player, fellow psychiatrist Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel) is the man Freud originally wanted to succeed him. A libertine who believes that monogamy should be subverted, Freud sends Gross to Jung to be treated for his drug addiction - and he encourages Jung to become Spielrein’s lover, thereby violating the doctor-patient relationship.

In many ways, the film is a well-made hybrid of ideas movie, masterly costume drama, and, frankly with Knightley onboard and some spanking sex, a touch of S&M soap.

But the real danger in this drama lies in the fact that it is a story about real people, two of whom had a defining effect on the 20th century and beyond.

The film is based both on the play The Talking Cure by British playwright Christopher Hampton, and the 1994 non-fiction book, A Most Dangerous Method, by John Kerr. The book charts the course of the development of the theory of psychoanalysis, through the letters and writing of Freud and Jung. It also, for the first time, explained the role played by Spielrein, whose arrival in 1904 at Zurich’s Burghölzli hospital where Jung worked is the opening shot of the movie.

So the film - as well as works it is based on - are purveyors of ideas that neuroscience and cognitive science are revealing to be wrong. And we are already finding it hard to dig ourselves out from under the weight of Freud’s ideas about the unconscious, id, ego and dreams - or to slough off Jung’s notions of, among other things, the collective unconscious (while apologising for his anti-Semitism).

Since the so-called Freud Wars of the 1980s and 90s, which debated the Viennese psychoanalyst's reputation, scholarship and impact on the 20th century, critics ranging from J. Allan Hobson to neuroscientist Eric Kandel have been at pains to point out that Freud‘s aims may have been scientific, but his methods definitely weren’t.

Freud set out with the vision of developing a neurobiological view of how the brain worked, but when the limited knowledge of the 1890s made this impossible, he abandoned the idea.

Frank Cioffi, a professor of philosophy at the University of Essex, argued that Freud’s writings had more in common with Renaissance poetry and the mystical parts of the Bible than with scientific research. Freud, he wrote, first had inspiration and insights, then voiced them through the stories of his patients - whether they reflected their real stories or not.

Jung, too, clearly had scientific aspirations. But despite his eventual status as founder of analytical psychology, he ended up wandering far from standard science, making strange excursions into arcane areas such as occultism, alchemy and astrology. Just before the first World War, Jung set out on what he was to describe as his “confrontation with the unconscious", and documented the awful dreams and visions that were tormenting him. He eventually recopied it all, using a gothic script, into a single big, red, leather journal, complete with fancy borders and paintings.

Lost for years, The Red Book: Liber Novus caused a literary sensation in 2009 when it was reissued. As its editor, Sonu Shamdasani, a specialist in the history of Jung at University College London explained at the time, the work “offers us an important insight into a time before the intellectual divide between art and psychology made such a work of inner exploration, of psychology-as-literature (and maybe even as art), less thinkable”.

Cronenberg is known as the master of “body horror”, exploiting our fear of bodily transformation and infection, and cleverly showing how the psychological ends up inextricably interwoven with the physical. He has a long history of exploring psychological and scientific themes in his films: scientists have modified human bodies (Shivers, Rabid), created inner chaos (The Brood, Scanners), and terminally altered themselves through experimentation (The Fly, Dead Ringers). And since about 1990, his films have been more overtly psychological, sometimes exploring the nature of subjective and objective realities (eXistenZ, M. Butterfly, Spider, Crash). Personally I love his films, and would insist some solar powered method of watching them all were I ever to be exiled to a desert island.

But as a work of art, A Dangerous Method does signal a break with his previous work - and form. I am troubled by the question of whether it is fair to expect a film maker to grapple with the scientific provenance and current status of ideas he choses to turn into a narrative. Either way, there are risks.

Meanwhile the work of rethinking the true legacies of Freud and Jung continues apace. And the most dangerous method of all will be working out how to honestly tackle the mess of half-truth and egotism surrounding the two men - and see what it is left.

A Dangerous Method opens today at cinemas throughout the UK.

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February 08 2012


Big Miracle: Drew Barrymore saves whales trapped in ice

Casey Rentz, contributor

rexfeatures_1564289n.jpg(Image: Universal/Everett/Rex Features)

In the tradition of empathy evoking mammal movies like Free Willy and more recently Dolphin Tale, Big Miracle is the story of humans getting sentimental about stranded grey whales and undertaking monumental efforts to save them. It’s heart-warming, harrowing and a bit more of a grown-up movie than its predecessors. But, somehow, it doesn’t deliver the same take-away satisfaction.

The year was 1988 and the California grey whale had made such a comeback it had been bumped off the endangered species list. The place was Barrow, Alaska and the surrounding desolate expanse of icy wilderness. In the film, a local boy called Nathan (Ahmaogak Sweeney) and his twenty-something TV producer friend, Adam Carlson (John Krasinski), are out messing around on the ice. After following some strange sounds, the duo stumble upon three California grey whales - an adult female, adult male, and toddler male - stuck in an ice hole, only five metres in diameter. The water around the whales had frozen rapidly, and now 8 kilometres of ice barred them from swimming out to the open sea.

Whales getting stuck in ice is no great mystery. To keep away from killer whales and other predators, California grey whales spend most of their lives in shallow waters, no deeper than their 16-metre length. Inuit people do find grey whales stuck in the ice in Northern Alaska, and sometimes end up killing them for food (though they aren't a traditional food source).

In this particular instance, however, publicity played a major part in what happened next. The TV producer’s footage of the trapped gray whales, taking turns surfacing in an unnatural, projectile-like way, made it to NBC national news, and people everywhere started latching on to the story. As in real life, in the film reporters flock from all over the “lower 48” to document the rescue efforts, starring local Greenpeace activist Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore). Many pitched in because it was great PR: an oil-drilling magnate named J.W. McGraw (Ted Danson) offered his hover barge for making a path through the ice, the coast guard helped, the locals broke out their chainsaws to cut through the ice, and President Reagan negotiated the final whale-saving move. In the movie, the struggle was not so much about doing good for grey whales, as it was about the human capacity to empathise with animals.

Empathy is a fundamental mammalian emotion, as biologist Frans de Waal argues in his book The Age of Empathy. It comes from our need to take care of our young for an elongated period of time, compared to other types of animals. At a particularly reflective moment in Big Miracle, Adam turns to Rachel and asks, “Why do we care?” She replies, “Even though they are big and powerful, they’re vulnerable, too…They know what’s going on. They’re scared.”

It may be that humans look at other mammals like whales and dogs as if they are children - helpless in many tasks (like using tools) that we consider routine, but capable of suffering. In the midst of the final Big Miracle rescue, all kinds of people peer down the ice hole, worried and eventually frantic. It’s no wonder that commercials for conservation groups focus on images of plighted animals.

Whether or how whales actually experience suffering is another matter entirely, and scientists don’t yet have the answer. According to recent research, they have spindle neurons, which some scientists think belong to the cognitive elite like humans, chimpanzees, and dolphins.

At the end of Big Miracle, we learn the spoils of the whale-freeing publicity frenzy: the membership to Greenpeace doubled in the years following. Rachel (based on real-life activist Cindy Lowry) certainly got what she wanted out of the efforts. But, for everyone else, there’s no telling how quickly the empathy wore off.

The same goes for movie-viewers. Big Miracle made me laugh and cry, but as I walked out of the theatre, I couldn’t help but think that the $1 million price tag of Operation Breakthrough, as it was called, could have been spent in a better way. Dolphin Tale resulted in new technologies and prosthetics that are still useful today. In Free Willy, the boy’s heart-melting vigilante-ism didn’t cost a thing, (even if scientists debate whether freeing Willy was indeed the best thing for him). Operation Breakthrough’s $1 million could have bought a lot in technology for improving the lives of all grey whales, as some scientists criticised at the time, but that’s not the way it went down.

Still, raising awareness for the whales has some value, and is not a bad consolation prize.

Big Miracle is currently showing in cinemas throughout the US. It opens in the UK on 10 February.

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February 07 2012


Space junk makes an impact at the IMAX

Lisa Grossman, physical sciences and space reporter

SPJK_3D_OneSheet_FM3.jpg(Image: Space Junk3D, LLC)

Earlier this year, the International Space Station had to fire its thrusters to dodge a potentially dangerous collision with a piece of debris from a dead satellite. The shrapnel was one of around 3,000 pieces blasted into the space station’s orbit when China deliberately blew its Fengyun 1C satellite to smithereens 5 years ago.

That was just the latest narrowly averted disaster due to space junk - the cloud of abandoned rocket stages and other space age flotsam that enshrouds the Earth. The new IMAX film Space Junk 3D makes the sobering case that humans have polluted not just the planet, but up to thousands of kilometres above its surface as well.

The film follows Don Kessler, retired head of NASA's Orbital Debris Program Office and "father of space junk", who was one of the first to warn of the dangers of space junk. Until the 1970s, most scientists ascribed to the "big sky" theory - basically that space is so huge, there's no way we'll ever fill it up.

But certain orbits proved to be more useful for communications and GPS satellites than others, and these paths tend to be shared by the majority of satellites. The useful sections of sky, at least, may not be so big after all.

What’s more, as Kessler pointed out back in the 70s, when two pieces of space debris collide they produce hundreds of smaller pieces of debris. These can cross paths with other pieces of junk and create more fragments, and so on. Because there's typically nothing to pull orbiting space junk down out of the sky, the cloud of debris will only grow.

This doomsday scenario, now called "Kessler syndrome", was brought home in 2009, when a dead Russian satellite collided with a US communications satellite. Around 100,000 pieces from this collision alone are now thought to be scattered throughout low-Earth orbit, within a couple of thousand kilometres of Earth’s surface. In total, there are about 6,000 tonnes of space junk zipping around low-Earth orbit at speeds upwards of 28,000 kilometres per hour - so fast that even a paint chip could do serious damage to the space station.

With 3D visualisations of the swarming clouds of junk, animations of collisions between everything from satellites to galaxies, and footage from Meteor Crater in Arizona, the film gives viewers plenty to lose sleep over.

But it's not all doom and gloom. The final minutes reveal real plans astronomers and space engineers have to clear the litter. Tethers that create drag by interacting with the Earth's magnetic field could be used to pull debris into the Earth's atmosphere to burn up. Or perhaps solar sails, which work by propelling satellites using the pressure of sunlight, could help de-orbit satellites once their working lives are done. One suggestion involves flinging a giant fishing net into space to sweep junk away.

"We can bring back the pristine environment we would like space to be," Kessler said. Here's hoping.

Space Junk 3D will be showing at a number of international science centres and museums on various dates throughout 2012.

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January 18 2012


TimesTalks: Liam Neeson in Conversation

TimesTalks: Liam Neeson in Conversation
The award-winning actor and the director/writer collaborated on The A-Team, and now they have a new film together: The Grey. Hear them discuss the heroic action thriller, which pits man against weather and wolves in the Alaska wilderness.
Date: Tue, 17 Jan 2012 00:00:00 -0800
Location: New York, NY, The TimesCenter, New York Times 'TimesTalks'
Program and discussion: http://fora.tv/2012/01/17/TimesTalks_Liam_Neeson_in_Conversation

January 09 2012


Sherlock Holmes averts world war using mathematics

Jessica Hamzelou, contributor

rexfeatures_1519759h.jpg(Image: Warner Br/Everett/Rex Features )

An evil mastermind is set on bringing about global war. Only one man can stop him: Sherlock Holmes, with the help of  his partner in crime-solving Dr Watson. But in the latest Holmes flick, Sherlock Holmes: A game of shadows,  they don’t just need their trusty revolvers and Holmes’s trademark prescient fight scenes, they also need to grasp some mathematics.

The villain is Holmes’s nemesis,  James Moriarty, a professor of mathematics and all-around evil genius. In the book The Final Problem, he is described by Holmes himself as “a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order.”

But behind the wit of the character in the film lies the mathematical know-how of a team at the University of Oxford. Alain Goriely and Derek Moulton at Oxford’s Mathematical Institute have been hard at work behind the scenes helping to formulate a believable mathematical villain.

Initially, the filmmakers approached the mathematicians to ask them to fill Moriarty’s blackboard with equations. Not only did they have to be real, they had to be historically accurate, based on a 19th-century understanding of the field.

“When we did the equations on the blackboard, [the film-makers] got excited,” says Goriely. “Although they were quite secretive about the story, they told us that Moriarty was a mathematics professor and that they wanted us to help them add more meat to the script, which was a little dumb and mostly incorrect.”

Goriely and Moulton ended up going beyond script-tweaking to develop a secret code from scratch that Moriarty uses in the film to send messages around a Europe on the brink of the war he is conniving.

But how does one get into the mindset of a fictional evil genius from the 19th century? Unfortunately, Arthur Conan Doyle’s books were of limited help, offering sparse details on Moriarty’s interests, Goriely says. “We do know that the character wrote two books - one on binomial theorem and one titled The Dynamics of an Asteroid.”

To create a convincing code, the team started from the binomial theorem. “Binomial theorem is linked to Pascal’s triangle, so we devised a secret code based on that,” says Goriely.

The code is hidden in Moriarty’s red pocketbook, which is filled with numbers. The numbers signal to the reader first which Fibonacci p-code - a way to take digits from Pascal’s triangle - to use. This supplies another list of numbers, which are used to indicate which page, line and words from a book to look up. Goriely reckons his code is spot on for the character. “Moriarty was obsessed with Pascal’s triangle and Fibonacci’s codes,” he says.

The pair also wrote an entire lecture for Moriarty based on his interests in celestial dynamics. “I used elements of maths from celestial mechanics at the end of the 19th century,” says Goriely. “It was a very hot topic at the time.”

The lecture discusses the n-body problem - a mathematical problem that considers how moving celestial bodies interact with each other as a result of their gravitational energy. Moriarty would have likely had a particular interest in the theory, given its potential implications for weaponry, says Goriely. “If you could build a missile and throw it out of the atmosphere, it could re-enter with an asteroid-like impact. It would be brought back by gravitational forces,” he says.

While a disguised Holmes might have been party to the entirety of the lecture, sadly only the smallest of snippets made the final cut for the audience’s edification. And while Holmes’s fleeting glance of Moriarty’s blackboard proved key to his later success in foiling the professor’s evil plans, even the most beady-eyed mathematician watching the film will find such a feat tricky. But perhaps therein lies the attraction of Sherlock Holmes and his amazing powers of deduction.

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January 06 2012


Rick Prelinger: Lost Landscapes of San Francisco, 6

Rick Prelinger: Lost Landscapes of San Francisco, 6
Rick Prelinger, a guerrilla archivist who collects the uncollected and makes it accessible, presents the 6th of his annual Lost Landscapes of San Francisco screenings. You'll see an eclectic montage of rediscovered and rarely-seen film clips showing life, landscapes, labor and leisure in a vanished San Francisco as captured by amateurs, newsreel cameramen and studio filmmakers.
Date: Thu, 08 Dec 2011 19:30:00 -0800
Location: San Francisco, California, The Castro Theater, Long Now Foundation
Program and discussion: http://fora.tv/2011/12/08/Rick_Prelinger_Lost_Landscapes_of_San_Francisco_6

December 06 2011


A Conversation with Jeff Bridges

A Conversation with Jeff Bridges
The star of the 2009 film Crazy Heart on creating the character of hard-living country music singer Bad Blake, his career in film, and his experiences in such memorable movies as The Big Lebowski, The Fabulous Baker Boys, and many others. Interviewed by Lynn Hirschberg.

TimesTalks is the New York Times's premier event program featuring intimate discussions with Times journalists and some of today's top talents and thinkers from the fields of film, theater, television, art, politics, media, food and dining, sports and more.
Date: Mon, 10 Jan 2011 02:00:00 -0800
Location: New York, NY, The TimesCenter, New York Times 'TimesTalks'
Program and discussion: http://fora.tv/2011/01/10/A_Conversation_with_Jeff_Bridges

A Conversation with Quentin Tarantino

A Conversation with Quentin Tarantino
Hear Oscar-winning screenwriter, director and actor Quentin Tarantino ("Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction," "Kill Bill," "Grind House") discuss filmmaking, his work and his latest movie, "Inglourious Basterds." Interviewed by New York Times Magazine editor at large Lynn Hirschberg.

TimesTalks is The New York Times's premier event program featuring intimate discussions with Times journalists and some of today's top talents and thinkers from the fields of film, theater, television, art, politics, media, food and dining, sports and more.
Date: Sat, 14 Aug 2010 03:00:00 -0700
Location: New York, NY, The TimesCenter, New York Times 'TimesTalks'
Program and discussion: http://fora.tv/2010/08/14/A_Conversation_with_Quentin_Tarantino

December 02 2011


A Conversation with Bradley Cooper

A Conversation with Bradley Cooper
The actor-producer Bradley Cooper talks with Dave Itzkoff of The New York Times about his work on stage and screen, multiple Hangovers and starring with Robert De Niro in the thriller "Limitless."

TimesTalks is The New York Times's premier event program featuring intimate discussions with Times journalists and some of today's top talents and thinkers from the fields of film, theater, television, art, politics, media, food and dining, sports and more.
Date: Tue, 08 Mar 2011 21:00:00 -0800
Location: New York, NY, The TimesCenter, New York Times 'TimesTalks'
Program and discussion: http://fora.tv/2011/03/08/A_Conversation_with_Bradley_Cooper

A Conversation with Kevin Spacey

A Conversation with Kevin Spacey
The two-time Academy Award-winning actor-director-producer is currently starring as Chuck in "Inseparable" as well as serving as creative director of the Old Vic theater in London.

TimesTalks is The New York Times's premier event program featuring intimate discussions with Times journalists and some of today's top talents and thinkers from the fields of film, theater, television, art, politics, media, food and dining, sports and more.
Date: Thu, 06 Jan 2011 02:00:00 -0800
Location: New York, NY, The TimesCenter, New York Times 'TimesTalks'
Program and discussion: http://fora.tv/2011/01/06/A_Conversation_with_Kevin_Spacey

A Conversation with Julianne Moore

A Conversation with Julianne Moore
The award-winning actress known for her outstanding work in film ("Far From Heaven," "The Hours," "A Single Man") talks about her work and her 2010 movie, the critically acclaimed "The Kids Are All Right."

TimesTalks is The New York Times's premier event program featuring intimate discussions with Times journalists and some of today's top talents and thinkers from the fields of film, theater, television, art, politics, media, food and dining, sports and more.
Date: Mon, 13 Dec 2010 02:00:00 -0800
Location: New York, NY, The TimesCenter, New York Times 'TimesTalks'
Program and discussion: http://fora.tv/2010/12/13/A_Conversation_with_Julianne_Moore

Denzel Washington & Viola Davis

Denzel Washington & Viola Davis
Don't miss this rare opportunity to hear two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington and Academy Award nominee and Tony Award winner Viola Davis discuss their work with New York Times Magazine editor at large, Lynn Hirschberg.

TimesTalks is The New York Times's premier event program featuring intimate discussions with Times journalists and some of today's top talents and thinkers from the fields of film, theater, television, art, politics, media, food and dining, sports and more.
Date: Wed, 31 Mar 2010 03:00:00 -0700
Location: New York, NY, The TimesCenter, New York Times 'TimesTalks'
Program and discussion: http://fora.tv/2010/03/31/Denzel_Washington__Viola_Davis

A Conversation with Natalie Portman

A Conversation with Natalie Portman
The Gotham 2009 Tribute Award winner talks about acting, writing and directing, and producing for three different films back-to-back, including her critically acclaimed performance in Jim Sheridans Brothers. Interviewed by Patrick Healy.

TimesTalks is The New York Times's premier event program featuring intimate discussions with Times journalists and some of today's top talents and thinkers from the fields of film, theater, television, art, politics, media, food and dining, sports and more.
Date: Fri, 08 Jan 2010 21:00:00 -0800
Location: New York, NY, The TimesCenter, New York Times 'TimesTalks'
Program and discussion: http://fora.tv/2010/01/08/A_Conversation_with_Natalie_Portman

A Conversation with Mark Ruffalo

A Conversation with Mark Ruffalo
Don't miss Academy Award- and Tony Award-nominated actor Mark Ruffalo ("The Kids Are All Right"). Hear him discuss his work acting in such films as "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "Shutter Island," and directing, producing and starring in the 2010 film "Sympathy for Delicious," his directorial debut.

TimesTalks is The New York Times's premier event program featuring intimate discussions with Times journalists and some of today's top talents and thinkers from the fields of film, theater, television, art, politics, media, food and dining, sports and more.
Date: Thu, 21 Apr 2011 03:00:00 -0700
Location: New York, NY, The TimesCenter, New York Times 'TimesTalks'
Program and discussion: http://fora.tv/2011/04/21/A_Conversation_with_Mark_Ruffalo

November 01 2011


In Time: Robin Hood in a race against the clock

Sumit Paul-Choudhury, online editor


(Image: Stephen Vaughan/TM and © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.)

Time is money, and how much you're worth - which is also how long you have to live - is written on your arm for everyone to see. Once you've passed your 25th birthday, you'll never look or feel any older - provided you can keep earning time faster than you spend it. If you're a poor kid from a rough part of town, life becomes a constant race against the clock. You never hit the snooze button; you're never late for work; and you never, ever kill time, because that might well kill you.

Every second counts. So what would you do with a century?

That's the premise of In Time, the latest movie from writer-director Andrew Niccol, whose oeuvre includes a number of thoughtful science fiction films, beginning with 1997's Gattaca, set in a world of genetically-modified haves and un-modified have-nots, followed by The Truman Show, which explored the plight of an unwitting reality-TV star, and S1m0ne, which told the story of a digital actor and her Svengali-esque creator.

Like In Time, each of these earlier films uses a deceptively straightforward premise to ask questions about humanity, morality and technology. But while they were closely-observed character dramas, Niccol's new film is much more of a thriller.

Will Salas (Justin Timberlake), eking out a living in the depressed city of Dayton, sticks his neck out for a stranger and finds himself the recipient of an unexpected fortune: but, as you would expect, his sudden wealth attracts unwelcome attention from criminals and cops alike. Both the time-hoarding gangsters known as the Minute Men, and enforcers of the chronological class structure called Timekeepers, are soon on his tail.

The newly flush Will gatecrashes the wealthy "time zone" of New Greenwich, literally putting his life on the line when he bets big in a high-stakes poker game. And when he and poor-little-rich-girl Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried) subsequently go on the lam, they become ticking time-bombs personified, with just hours, then minutes, and finally mere seconds to spare on their clocks. No wonder they run everywhere - although why Sylvia never sports any footwear but ankle-breakingly vertiginous heels remains a mystery.


(Image: Stephen Vaughan/TM and © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.)

But In Time's central metaphor offers more than just the chance to refresh tired action movie tropes. If you’re inclined to see it this way, the equation of time and money offers a powerful way to explore economic issues that would otherwise be anathema to a blockbuster movie, touching on everything from the consequences of economic inequality to the sustainability of perpetual growth. Those who live on the breadline are all but doomed to remain there, even as the rich enjoy lives of privilege paid for with their blood, sweat and tears. (“Survival of the fittest” has its now almost traditional citation as the baddy’s ethos, with poor old Darwin being misrepresented as usual.)

But we should pity the affluent, too, apparently: when nothing but a nasty accident can kill you, your life ends up being very long, but also very boring. "The poor die and the rich don't live," summarises Sylvia, whose centenarian father Philippe - a dead ringer for a certain Old Bullingdonian - has earned millions (of years) by making payday loans to the poor. A brief tryst with Will is enough to make her throw over her pampered existence in favour of an outlaw’s lifestyle, rather as Patty Hearst threw in her lot with the Symbionese Liberation Army, and the two hit the road to on a mission to redistribute her father's wealth.

All told, In Time does a masterful job of dressing up social and economic messages as thrilling spectacle, moving swiftly along from one cracking set piece to another. But while copious verbal and visual puns make its potentially dry subject matter more palatable, I nonetheless found some of it hard to swallow.

It's not much of a stretch to map the plight of Dayton's working stiffs to that of their real-world counterparts: we already know that poverty can kill, even before financial restrictions on healthcare come into the picture. The atemporal setting - in which people drive muscle cars that emit electric whines, but wear cravats and call each other on payphones - adds to the sense that this could very well be a world just next door to our own.

But it rings less true to be told that the one per cent lead terribly dull existences that they'd swap in a heartbeat for the, um, vibrancy of scraping to survive. (Timberlake's performance isn't quite compelling enough to dispel the thought that his real-world fortune would see him right for a good few million years in the world of In Time.) And Will’s Robin Hood act feels a bit too generically “Hollywood” to be intellectually, as well as emotionally, satisfying.


(Image: Stephen Vaughan/TM and © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.)

By the end, I couldn’t help feel that the promise of In Time’s early scenes - notably a brilliantly executed world-building moment in its opening minutes - had dissolved into slick, but relatively generic mush of wish-fulfilment. For those in the #occupy camps looking for a night off, that might make it time well spent. But if you’re hoping for something a little more chewy, you might feel, in the words of my dissatisfied companion, that it’s two hours of your life you’ll never get back.

In Time opens today in the UK. It is currently showing in theatres in the US.

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