Sunday, February 20, 2005

Best Picture IMHO

David Edelstein, in his Obligatory Oscar Commentary advises:

Give out your own private awards this year, and watch the Oscars for the spectacle of exhibitionists walking the tightrope between humility and grandiosity.

When I emailed that to a friend, he responded by having The Big Lebowski sweep his Josh Awards. I admire the sentiment but think this is playing a bit too fast and loose with the constraints.

I give the 2004 SteelR Awards for Best Picture and Director to Sideways, for several completely idiosyncratic reasons (and emphatically NOT because its banner ads have appeared on every page of the electronic NYT for months).

For one thing, the film provided a rare moment of détente in politically fractious 2004 when conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer devoted an op-ed to recommending it.

For another, it renewed my faith in the possibilities of my white-bread minivan suburb when a guy two rows in front of me guffawed when the wannabe writer protagonist in the film compares his novel to Robbe-Grillet. So there are at least a pair of us refugees from High Modernism out here on the frozen prairie.

But mostly, Sideways wins the coveted SteelR for getting Southern California exactly right. Southern California, as home to the film industry, habitually stands in for all kinds of locales. But the Southland has a distinctive look, and never quite plays other biomes convincingly. When you are familiar with Southern California (I grew up in the real Orange County, which nobody, then or now calls “The O.C.”) the differences are as glaring as they would be if all locations were shot outside of Scottsdale, with saguaro cactus cropping up everywhere from “Alabama” to “Norway”.

But Sideways gets the locales and the details right. It gets “the Beach” right (Santa Monica in the novel, San Diego in the film)—most interactions with your neighbors involve requests to move your car. It gets the freeways right—north on the San Diego has the right view of commercial jets screaming by just overhead, the Oxnard exit is the Oxford exit, Buellton is Buellton. Nobody drives the wrong way across the Bay Bridge, as in The Graduate; nobody flies over freeways that won’t exist for decades, as in The Aviator. For that matter, no one but a Southern Californian would set a film (faithfully) in San Diego. Why would you go to that trouble? Who would know?

Special mention: the Kraft® Catalina dressing on the mother’s dinner table is exactly, hilariously, right.

These careful details might be the work of the DP, or a fanatically precise art director, but I feel confident in conferring my award on the film and its director Alexander Payne. Only Payne could have decided to shoot the comic climax (the return for the wallet) in dawn’s early light. How they managed to get that sequence in a unique light that lasts maybe ten minutes is a mystery to me, and a tour de force worthy of recognition.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Going ape

The grass is greening, the robins are returning, this year’s crop of baseball scandals are breaking out, and the nation’s thoughts turn inevitably to… how and whether to teach evolution in our classrooms.

NPR’s Greg Allen reports on the controversy in Kansas (What IS the matter with Kansas, anyway?) where opponents of science masquerade as advocates of “intelligent design”.

“Science errs by refusing to look beyond natural phenomena to other explanations,” complains William Harris.  Indeed.  That would be because it is science, a discipline which studies and seeks to explain natural phenomena scientifically.  And a public school parent explains that she is “providing her children with religious instruction and doesn’t want to have to correct ideas they learn in science class.”  In other words, literally, my mind is made up, don’t confuse me with facts.

The formidable Renee Montagne tries to resolve the issue by presenting:  a scientist who is also a Christian!  D.C.-based NPR had to look as far as the Smithsonian to find this prize specimen-- astronomer Owen Gingerich. (There are, of course, legions of religious folks who have no problem with the idea that living things evolve.)

Montagne tries to get Gingerich to agree that the big problem with evolution is that “it doesn’t explain everything.” Aspects of the theory remain under investigation, he says, (again, this is the nature of science) but “that’s not grounds for dismissing it.”

So Montagne goes for her trump card. She asks the astronomer, “When you look up at the stars, do you imagine an Intelligent Being, a personage, if you will, being up there in the heavens alongside those stars?”

His answer is respectful, literate and persuading.  It amounts to, “In a word, no.”  But the question sets me thinking.  Suddenly I see a way to save the Hubble telescope, condemned to death by the Bush budget:  we’ll tell them that we’ll aim it into deep space to see if we can capture god as he roams his heavens like Bigfoot. Perfect. Get me Heraldo.

Evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry.  Although there are legitimate scientific debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism of evolution.  It is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for creationist pseudoscience, including but not limited to “intelligent design,” to be introduced into the science curricula of the public schools.
--National Center for Science Education

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Talkin' bout my generation

Chris Suellentrop has a nice précis of the president's Social Secuirty initiative which he characterizes as an invitation to Boomers to "Screw Your Grandchildren."

I will only point out that there is a substantial group of Boomers younger than 55: Those of us born in the 50's and the first couple of years of the 60's.

Always at the tail end of the population bomb, we have been pretty well screwed from Day One.

I started elementary school with 55 kids in my classroom. It wasn't education so much as crowd control. By the time I left college in my biology degree was essentially decorative, but the loans still had to be paid back. (Scientific American once estimated that the 1977 was the graduating year with the worst prospects for scientists/academics.)

In the intervening years I have turned over big chunks of my meager salaries to FICA (Now self-employed, I pay double social security and my tax rate is higher than Dick Cheney's). Still, it does my heart good to think of all the greens fees I have contributed to retired physicians and captains of industry.

I guess The Who knew what they were talking about when they sang, "Hope I die before I get old."