Monday, December 1, 2014

"National Gallery" Documentary - Pictures of an Exhibition

I didn't know quite what to expect when I went to see “National Gallery,” a documentary about the British National Gallery, the other night. I knew that its runtime was three hours and wondered what kind of approach would be able to carry a film about an art museum for that long. Talking heads wouldn’t do. And a conventional BBC-like treatment I thought would come off feeling like an extended art history class.

"National Gallery" does succeed, in spite of its length, and one thing that makes it so successful is allowing the people of the National Gallery - the docents, the experts in art restoration, and museum officials - to tell us about the museum in their own words, while speaking to their usual audiences: grade school classes, museum patrons, and fellow museum bureaucrats assembled around a backroom conference table. When the filmmakers do resort to talking heads, they use the clever device of filming other filmmakers doing interviews with museum staff.

As I watched “National Gallery," I began to see a structure in the way the elements of the documentary were being assembled. The backroom meetings are the dull underpainting for the picture that the director, Frederick Wiseman, paints for his film. Restorers, woodworkers and cabinetmakers, as well as docents and instructors, form other layers of the composition. And a layer of human faces is built up over the course of the film, each face applied like a brushstroke by the camera as it flits back and forth between the pallet of faces in the pictures hanging on the walls and the pallet of the faces in the crowd examining them. All without commentary or narration.

What a fitting approach to a documentary about an art museum, not as a classroom lecture, but as a painting in its own right. “National Gallery” allows us to contemplate the museum, much as we would a work of art.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Luc Besson's "Lucy" - Girl Gone Transhuman

Avast, there be spoilers here!

How often does an actor, other than Morgan Freeman, get an opportunity to play God twice in one year? In the new sci-fi action-thriller “Lucy,” Scarlett Johansson takes another at bat at being a near deity. Her first try was as an OS, an artificial intelligence who was the disembodied paramore of Joaquin Phoenix in the movie “Her” released last fall. This time around the fully-bodied Johansson (thank God for that) plays the Lucy of the film’s title.

When we first meet her, Lucy is a party-girl living an apparently carefree life in Taiwan. That is until her low-life boyfriend handcuffs her to a briefcase loaded with a new recreational superdrug CPH4 and, without her knowledge, dispatches her into the lions’ den of a murderous, transnational Korean nacro-gang headed by Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi). Mr. Jang, it turns out, has designs on Lucy’s body, not in the usual way, but as a covert system to deliver CPH4 to one of a number of far-flung distribution points on the globe.

Not surprisingly, things don't go as either Mr. Jang or Lucy expect, and soon CPH4 leaking into Lucy’s abdominal cavity begins to work its chemical magic on her brain. After crawling around on the ceiling in a frenzy in a scene reminiscent of the “Exorcist,” a frightened, whimpering Lucy calms down considerably and, realizing that her survival depends on her recovering the rest of Mr. Jang’s CPH4, sets out on a bloody journey that includes sticking it to Mr. Jang in more ways than one.

This all could be a nice premise for a well-conceived science-fiction action-thriller, which “Lucy” is not. Instead, the writer-director Luc Besson imbeds this good idea in a lot of sciencey drivel and tries to anchor Lucy’s transformation from human to more-than-human in a relationship that develops between her and researcher and neuroscience god, Professor Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman).

We are introduced to Professor Norman when he stands before a rapt assembly of neuroscientists lecturing them about the factoid that humans are at the pinnacle of biological evolution, since they alone have been able to tap into as much as 10% of their mental capacity.  (The percent-of-our-brains trope is put to much better use in Albert Brooks’ “Defending Your Life.”) Not content with sharing just that piece of misinformation, Norman goes on to ponder the wondrous (and impossible) things that may come when we progress as a species to using a larger and larger fraction of the neurons we have squirming around in our noggins.

It’s hard to say what’s more disturbing in these scenes, the continued propagation of this silly and unfounded 10% myth about the human brain, or the repeated cuts to Professor Norman’s slavish audience, hanging on his every word as though they were his winged-monkey minion waiting for a command to do his bidding.

My gripe here is not with suspension of disbelief. As I've discussed in another blog post, all sorts of silly ideas can be employed effectively as premises to set science-fiction stories into motion. But, like good supporting actors, these counterfactual elements should introduce themselves early in the performance and then step out of the limelight to give the principal performers plenty of room. Instead, in “Lucy” the percent-of-our-brains canard insists on hanging around near center stage. We get hit over the head with it time and time again as Mr. Besson reminds us exactly where Lucy is in her brain-fraction progression, ticking off the percentages like some sort of thermometer in a public television fundraising drive.

What’s missing in all this is the dramatic tension that, by all rights, should be at the core of this story and that is how Lucy’s headlong rush toward mental perfection necessitates the withering away of her emotional self. And, by all rights, Lucy’s anchor in the world of human affairs, should not have been the distant and avuncular Professor Norman, but her flesh-and-blood (and sexy) companion, Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked), the French police inspector, who reluctantly takes up her cause but eventually becomes her committed friend and ally.

The connection between Lucy and Del Rio is suggested when she explains with a kiss why she is keeping him as a companion, even though she has grown so powerful that she doesn't need his help anymore. But, sadly, this relationship is hardly developed, in spite of what appears to be a serviceable chemistry between Johansson and Waked. The result is that a taut and suspenseful film featuring these two characters at its center is saddled with a subplot that, from what I can tell, only serves to bring Morgan Freeman into the picture to underwrite its box-office success.

More disappointing, though, is how poorly Scarlett Johansson is utilized in the title role. Her transition from human to beyond-human happens far too quickly. A brief phone call with her mother early on serves as a requiem for the life that Lucy is leaving behind as she is impelled, like it or not, toward transcendence. What should have been a wrenching and soul-searching second act of the movie is relegated to little more than one scene. And, although Johansson uses the limited time to good effect, it offers her short shrift as far as real acting goes.

So, after a well-executed turn as a helpless and frightened young woman at the beginning of the movie, Johansson takes on the mien of the soulless automaton that Lucy is fated to become. Aloof, with wide eyes and fixed gaze, she marches zombie-like through the remainder of the film toward Lucy's inevitable godhead. There’s not much acting for Johansson to do here.

How this lapse in attention to his main character may have come about is suggested by the “meaning of life” revelation that Lucy delivers just before her apotheosis. As she travels to the distant past and masters the progression time, moving people backward and forward in Times Square at whim, Lucy comes to the realization that time itself is the central element of our reality, whatever that might mean.

The movie's title “Lucy” refers to a hominid ancestor of ours that lived in Africa’s Afar Triangle some 3 million years ago, it also bears resemblance to the director's own name, Luc. Perhaps Besson is reminding us of the power that he has as a writer-director in manipulating the way a film unfolds, rapidly moving his characters backward and forward in time with God-like ease. That’s all well and good, but he should remember that it’s nice to slow down and get to know them better in all the commotion.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Bet that Financed Atlanta's BeltLine Pedestrian-Bicycle Transit Loop

View of construction from the Atlanta BeltLine Eastside Trail (Marc Merlin)
Although Atlanta's BeltLine, a pedestrian-bicycle-transit loop circling Georgia's largest city, was a vision described by Ryan Gravel in his master's thesis while a student in architecture at Georgia Tech in 1999, what made it a reality a dozen years later was some visionary creative financing.

Where would the BeltLine supporters find the money for the project? There was no way on Earth that the City of Atlanta would be able to come up with the billions - yes, billions - of dollars that it would take to make the BeltLine happen. And there was no way in Hell that the State of Georgia - which had never deigned to give Atlanta's struggling transit system MARTA a dime - was going to pitch in to help out.

The solution, called a Tax Allocation District or TAD, involved placing a bet on the BeltLine's success.

The property around the proposed BeltLine route was not being put to much use - which is part of what made Gravel's idea feasible in the first place - and, as a consequence, was not generating much tax revenue. Yet, school systems, among others, had claim to the meager taxes that were being collected.

If the BeltLine turned out to be successful, the property values in its vicinity would increase significantly. No one had claim to the corresponding increase in property tax revenue, at least not yet. The TAD was a way for the BeltLine to stake that claim.

Since the way school systems are funded was implicated in this kind of financing scheme, there were legal hurdles that had to be jumped. It was decided that TADs required an amendment to Georgia's constitution, which in turn required the approval of its citizens in a statewide referendum. TAD supporters were mobilized and the amendment passed, although not by very much.

All it takes is a walk along the Eastside BeltLine Trail today to witness the amount of renovation and new construction completed or in progress to see how handsomely the TAD wager has paid off. It stands as a reminder that all sorts of creativity have to be brought to bear to make visions for large-scale public projects like the BeltLine a reality.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The TV Tower that Saved Atlanta's Freedom Park

This bit of Atlanta history is a departure from my usual blog posts about movies, politics or science.

Building at the base of the WSB-TV Tower (Marc Merlin)
Ever wonder what's at the base of the broadcast tower that looms over Freedom Parkway near the Carter Center? Well wonder no more.

Many Atlanta residents who arrived here in the last twenty years or so may not be aware of the critical role that the WSB-TV Tower played in keeping a stretch of interstate highway from taking over the land that The Path and Freedom Park occupy today.

Original plans had called for the complex that includes the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum and the Carter Center (completed in 1986) to connect with the rest of Atlanta by an interstate spur, in part elevated, which was to run to the downtown connector in one direction and to Ponce de Leon Avenue near its intersection with Clifton Road in the other.

WSB TV tower with guy wires (Marc Merlin)
Opposition to the project was fierce - the powers that be wanted to put a freeway through a white neighborhood for a change - but supporters of the Ex-Pres-way, as it came to be called, included both President Carter and his one-time UN-ambassador, Andrew Young, who had served a term as mayor of Atlanta after leaving the Carter administration and was a force in local politics to be reckoned with. After several years of protests and legal challenges, the tide seemed to be turning in favor of the interstate proponents.

Then it occurred to some clever adversary that the guy wires from the WSB-TV broadcast tower would cross over the proposed roadway and that any ice falling from them as a result of winter storms would pose a hazard to the traffic passing below. Addressing this problem frustrated progress on the interstate plan, adding another considerable delay.

By the early 1990s most of the legal obstacles to the original project had been cleared, but its backers realized that time was running short if the city was to be fully prepared to handle the crowds expected for the 1996 Olympic Games. So, believing that any sort of road was better than none, they relented and agreed to an alternate plan, the shorter, street-grade parkway that, along with The Path and Freedom Park, we use and enjoy today.

The seemingly pointless tunnel that bestrides the parkway just south of the Carter Center stands as a reminder of this, the best-known of Atlanta's "freeway revolts," and as an ever-present defender against winter ice falling from the guy wires of the WSB-TV Tower above.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

European Space Agency Goes Green on the Red Planet

ExoRover 'Bryan' shows off his eco-friendly chassis at the unveiling of the new ESA Mars Yard in Stevenage (ESA).
01 April 2014 - Stevenage, UK - The opening of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) “Mars Yard” today was celebrated as an important step by ExoMars, a joint endeavour between the agency and Russia’s Roscosmos, in their effort to send a rover to the Red Planet in 2018. The European Mars rover, also unveiled, is designed to drill beneath the surface of the Red Planet searching for signs of life. It's been dubbed 'Bryan' by its creators - earlier versions were named Bridget and Bruno.

ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration, Colin Paynter, on hand at the Stevenage site of Airbus Defence and Space for the unveiling, also took the occasion to make the announcement that significant components of the European rover would make use of recycled materials. Referring to the dire warnings about climate change announced yesterday by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Mr. Paynter explained, “in light of the urgency for all of us to work diligently toward carbon-reduction goals, ESA has committed to create a rover whose chassis will be constructed largely from cardboard and plywood.” Acknowledging that this would add significantly to the engineering challenges posed by the already technologically daunting mission, Paynter assured the audience saying, “I think our people are up to the task.”

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Censorship of Art Exhibit by President Undermines Kennesaw State's Advances

My friend Ruth Stanford is a professor of sculpture at Georgia State. I'm fairly familiar with her work and even helped her with an installation at the Eyedrum several years back. Because of how much I admire her work, I was shocked to learn that Ruth's contribution to the exhibit inaugurating Kennesaw State University's Zuckerman Museum of Art, opening today, was removed by order of KSU's President Daniel Papp. (See this Atlanta Creative Loafing article for details.)

Image from the installation (courtesy of the artist).
This piece, like many of Ruth's other installations, concerns itself with a setting. In this case it offers a behind the scenes look (in a very real sense of that phrase) at a property acquired as a gift by KSU in 2008 that has a history tainted by racism. Ruth's work is always thoughtful and humane, and this appears to be so here, at least as far as I can tell from the images I have seen of the installation before it was dismantled.

Although President Papp's record indicates that he is an accomplished scholar of international relations and a very capable university administrator, it does not indicate why he would be particularly qualified to curate an art exhibit, even at his "own" museum. And this may in fact be the crux of the matter, that is that Papp somehow sees the Zuckerman as his own museum, and not as a public trust that he happens to oversee. The job of curating this important exhibit had been assigned to Teresa Reeves and Kirstie Tepper, who had themselves solicited Ruth's participation in the inaugural exhibit.

Ruth, as is her nature, is taking this turn of events very graciously. I imagine her good will has a lot to do with her concerns for the curators who have worked hard to assemble the exhibit and to her fellow artists whose work is included in it. Oddly, it is this kind of respect the curators that was absent in Dr. Papp's ham-handed decision.

Sadly, when all is said and done, I think that KSU will be the ultimate victim of this affair.

Ruth's installation will no doubt find a new home, although uprooted from its intended setting it will lose some of the power of the message that she had hoped to convey. And Ruth herself will now proudly join the ranks of artists whose works are distinguished because they cause us to think more deeply about things and, as a result, pose a threat to some people.

Kennesaw State University, though, in spite of struggling quite successfully under President Papp's leadership for the last eight years to establish itself as a first-rank center for learning and research, will now still be seen by many as a cultural backwater with a Philistine at its helm. Sometimes the hallmark of true leadership is knowing one's own limitations.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Ham-on-Nye: What we have here is not, at least not entirely, a failure to communicate

I really don't have anything to add to the "who won and who lost" discussion about this week's Ham-on-Nye debate. So here's an analysis, not of the debate itself, but of some of the analysis of the debate, much of which has been laying the blame for the significant public rejection of the theory of evolution here on poor science communication. "Bad Astronomer," Phil Plait's opinion piece on the Slate website is a good example of this kind of criticism.

I would be one of the last people to claim that science communication does not need improvement. Improving science communication is important to me and to the organization I run, the Atlanta Science Tavern. But there's a lot more at issue here than whether the way we go about communicating the science evolution has been good or bad.

From what I've read, public science communication in the U.S. is not all that different from informal science education in much of Europe where evolution is widely accepted. The reality of anthropogenic climate change isn't such a hard-sell in Europe, either. But, interestingly enough, rejection of vaccination as a safe and effective public health measure is commonplace both here and abroad. Vaccination, in particular childhood vaccination, is considered by a large fraction of both populations to be dangerous, in spite of concerted efforts to educate the public to the contrary. The reason this is happening is because the question of vaccination safety and effectiveness has ceased to be a scientific issue in the last dozen years or so and instead has become a political one. This is an important distinction.

Revival meeting during the Second Great Awakening
So we need to appreciate the political dimension of our "evolution problem" in order to address it properly. Rejection of evolution here, much like the denial of climate change, is rooted in our political and cultural history, a history marked by "Great Awakenings" of religious fervor and a stubborn insistence that America is in some respects exceptional and that the rules that apply elsewhere in the world, however rational, do not necessarily apply here.

The implication is that the kind of difficulty that we experience in trying to maintain the integrity of the science curriculum in public schools, has a lot in common with the challenges we face in enacting rational gun control laws or sensible policies that ensure access to necessary health care for all our citizens. Of course, better communication, whether on the theory of evolution or the costs of gun-related crimes and accidents or the benefits of a healthy populace, is an important part of solving these problems. But it is not the entire solution, maybe not even most of it.

So, by all means, let's redouble our efforts to improve science communications. But it is important to keep in mind that the struggle here is primarily political and that it has more to do with values beliefs and less to do with knowledge and understanding.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Holy Order Joins Challenge to Obamacare with an Anatomical Twist

WASHINGTON — A little-known monastic group, the Brothers of the Holy Appendix, has filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case before the Supreme Court in which the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of Roman Catholic nuns, have challenged requirements of the Affordable Care Act which require employers to provide insurance coverage for contraception or face related penalties.

Unlike the Little Sisters, whose reservations extend to the wide variety of safe and effective methods for family planning and for the low-cost reduction of sexually-transmitted diseases, the Brothers' objections are focused narrowly on the fact that the new healthcare law involves them either in the process of providing coverage for appendectomies or in informing a third-party administrator of their decision to opt-out of such coverage.

Citing First Amendment protections, Fr. Cecal Gorgonzola explained, "we consider the appendix a God-given feature of the human anatomy and any tampering with it, much less its removal, constitutes an abomination according to our religious doctrine." He continued, "compelling us to participate, directly or indirectly, in supporting even medically necessary appendectomies is an infringement of our freedom of conscience and freedom of speech and must be resisted."