Archive for February, 2011

Oscars Update

Posted on February 21st, 2011 in At the cinema | No Comments »

Four more Best Picture nominees under my belt since I last posted. Here are my capsule reviews in the order of my viewing…

Winter’s Bone
A film which entirely passed me by until it suddenly started showing up at the top of critics’ top ten lists at the end of 2010, this is based on a novel which I was equally unfamiliar with. It’s the simple story, almost thin, of a young woman in the Ozark Mountains, living in fairly desperate poverty and struggling to raise her younger brother and sister. As the movie opens, her meth-cooking father has skipped bail and if she cannot present him at the courthouse (alive or dead) she will forfeit the shack which is the only home she has. The rest of the movie is her struggle to find him, while most in the community would rather she left well enough alone. Cold, spare and featuring strong performances from Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes (both nominated), this benefits hugely from the novelty of the environment and for telling its potentially melodramatic story in an admirably simple way. But just as this approach avoids undue hysteria, it also means that the film as a whole feels like it never quite gets cooking. Add a couple of (presumably deliberate) loose ends, and the impression I get is of a slight lack of conviction, although I was entirely gripped while it was on.

The Kids Are All Right
When this was over, my first thought was “was that really one of the ten best films of 2010?”. And I guess the answer is it probably was one of the best soapy family melodramas of 2010, but I think a movie of that type probably has to do a little more to earn a Best Picture Nomination – such is the “inflation” caused by nominating ten films instead of five; this film would never have got a nomination two years ago. Not that there’s much wrong with. The “two moms” scenario is treated in a suitably matter-of-fact fashion, Julianne Moore is very good (as usual), Annette Bening is not quite as good (as usual), the kids are neither too wooden nor too winsome, Mark Ruffalo is on good form, and the story is well put-together. But once it gets going, its entirely unsurprising, with the plot unfolding in the most straightforward and obvious way possible. But where Winter’s Bone has the novelty of its setting and the urgency of its situation to elevate it, the slender storyline is a much bigger problem in this generally rather cosy, familiar setting. While the sober treatment of its lesbian lead characters is admirable, I can’t help thinking that their presence has earned this movie brownie points which it doesn’t really deserve.

127 Hours
In  his very entertaining book, Which Lie Did I Tell, William Goldman recounts one of the (many) reasons why the movie he wrote about killer lions, The Ghost and the Darkness is fatally compromised. In the true story, the white hunter waits up a tree for days, gun in hand, for the moment that his prey finally presents himself. Goldman is simultaneously in awe at this man’s courage and fortitude, but despairs that this waiting game is entirely uncinematic. But Goldman is a talented hack and Danny Boyle is a genuis, for Boyle has made that film and it’s a triumph. Anyone else would have delayed the moment when Ralston is trapped in the canyon or included frequent cut-aways and flashbacks (as Ralston himself did in the book he wrote about his ordeal) in order to have something to shoot and some structure for the narrative. Boyle and co-writer Simon Beaufoy, spend less than 15 minutes with Ralston unencumbered before the terrible accident occurs which leaves him a prisoner for five days. For most of its running time, therefore, this is Boyle’s camera and James Franco’s face and very little else, but the ordeal is brilliantly realised. As Ralston goes through disbelief, resignation, fear, determination, self-mockery, hallucination and finally auto-amputation to free himself, Boyle and Franco bring it all vividly to life. Just as a “heavy” director like David Fincher was the right choice to add power and weight to the otherwise trivial Mark Zuckerburg story, so it needed a “light” director like Boyle to nimbly add zip and fizz and kinetic drive to this entirely static storyline. Little moments of irony are handled with grace and aplomb – Ralston leaving behind his Swiss Army Knife, Boyle’s camera favouring Franco’s right arm as he shakes hands with two cute hikers before his accident, the battery on his camcorder slowly draining away – and the final redemptive scenes are meaningful without being corny or melodramatic. Ralston isn’t a different person after his ordeal, he’s just come to see a bit more clearly who he is and what living a life means. Yes, the amputation is hard to watch (and listen to – the sound effects are the worst part) but looking away would hardly be the point. This is a masterclass in movie-making and probably my favourite film of the year. It’s a crime Danny Boyle isn’t nominated for Best Director, but having won two years ago for Slumdog I imagine he’s not too bothered.

True Grit
Another inhospitable environment film, this one set in the old west. I’m a big Coen Brothers fan, but not a big western fan, so I read the Charles Portis novel and watched the John Wayne film in preparation for this one. Comparing the two earlier works, it’s very easy to see that the novel is about Mattie Ross, the young girl who hires a US Marshal to bring her father’s killer to justice. The Henry Hathaway movie is about the legend that his John Wayne, however, and so dispenses with the narration from the older Mattie as well as providing a suitably valedictory ending which also left the door open for a sequel. The Coens restore Mattie’s narration and the book’s more downbeat ending, but in many other ways this is a less faithful version of the novel, restructuring Mattie’s business deals both with the man who sold her father his horses and with Marshal Rooster Cogburn himself, and removing Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon) from much of the action, where both book and Wayne movie have the three protagonists as a team for most of the middle of the movie. However, in its staging and performances, the new movie generally improves on the old – better paced, more textured, free of the Coen’s excesses, but full of their care and attention to detail, it’s a very, very solid piece of work. Hailee Steinfeld improves in almost every way on Kim Darby’s version of Mattie Ross, as does Matt Damon on singer Glen Campbell’s version of La Boeuf even though the character is somewhat sidelined. And if Jeff Bridges isn’t quite the legend that Duke Wayne was, he certainly brings his character acting chops with him – somehow managing to look even older and fatter that Wayne, despite being two years younger (he was 60 when he shot it, but the novel describes a 40 year old man, not in good shape, admittedly). A very, very good movie, then rather than an extraordinary one, and if not quite up there with Fargo or Lebowski, certainly in the top half of the Coen canon.

Do ghosts exist?

Posted on February 14th, 2011 in Science, Skepticism | 11 Comments »

I’ve been playing around with Quora recently, which is a new social website revolving around questions and answers. Since some of the questions posed are contentious, it’s possible to get into some quite fun debates on there, although the system of voting and thanking generally means that sane, well-reasoned and well-evidenced answers rise to the top.

In a recent exchange, I ended up posting a very long comment which the Quora software mangled somewhat when I pasted it from Word. I’ve therefore reproduced it here, with a few snippets of the earlier conversation for context. You can see the whole saga, complete with any future additions, here.

Zoletta Cherrystone
I have had more than one ‘ghost’ experience, and completely believe in the spiritual world. I believe this without doubt, because of what I’ve witnessed with my own eyes.

Tom Salinsky
I’ve seen plenty of things with my own eyes which were later proved not to be the case. You’ve never seen an optical illusion before? First-hand testimony is a very poor way to establish objective truths about the world.

Well, Tom, I don’t think there’s a test to prove that pretty much all of us can ‘feel’ when a person is standing behind us, but we all know we can.

I said, earlier, that I’ve had more than one ‘ghost’ experience. It was a huge understatement. I’ve had dozens, from early childhood until the present. Things that simply have no other explanation, and some of which are too connected with a dead relative to dismiss.

An optical illusion is not going to explain away a light switch snapping (I say snapping because this was a very old one, and hard to maneuver) into the off position. Or a book physically being placed in a peculiar way in a room other then where you left it just as you fell asleep with no one else in the house with you. Or hearing your name being spoken aloud in a new house when you’re in it entirely alone, accompanied by other instances of objects being slammed down at key moments (no vibrations, no way for these items to casually fall on their own) and then to make phone calls and find out that the previous owner experienced all the same.

“Am I a man dreaming I’m a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming I’m a man?”

With all the paranormal investigators out there recording voices, snapping photos, and catching things on tape, that’s about as much ‘proof’ that anybody is ever going to get, yet still it is dismissed.

So my question to you now becomes this: What is required to ‘prove’ this phenomena?

This is going to be far too long, but here goes…

ZC: Well, Tom, I don’t think there’s a test to prove that pretty much all of us can ‘feel’ when a person is standing behind us, but we all know we can.

TS: This shows a distinct lack of imagination. Can you really not conceive of a way to test this hypothesis? Here’s one. Blindfold a series of subjects and deafen them by playing white noise in their ears (since this is not a test of one’s ability to see or hear people). According to a predetermined, but random sequence, have people either stand behind them or not, and have the subject indicate when they feel a presence. If they are right much more often than chance would suggest then there is a real ability here. BUT UNTIL A TEST LIKE THIS IS DONE, we can’t say for sure that such a phenomenon exists. Personal testimony is not enough. Confirmation bias will ensure that we remember only those occasions when we ‘feel’ someone behind us and are correct. (I do not give an opinion as to whether this ability is real or not.)

ZC: An optical illusion is not going to explain away a light switch snapping (I say snapping because this was a very old one, and hard to maneuver) into the off position… etc

TS: All of these are artifacts – events in the past for which the only evidence is your testimony, which may or may not be distorted by time, the limitations of your senses and your desire to believe in the existence of spirits. But you don’t get to jump from “I have no explanation for the movement of this light switch / book / strange noise / falling objects, and BECAUSE I HAVE NO EXPLANATION IT THEREFORE MUST BE A GHOST.” You are just substituting one unknown for another. I submit that all of these phenomena, even if they could be definitely established as real (which at the present time, they cannot) could be equally well “explained” by aliens, Jesus, elves, fairies or any other fantasies you choose to invent. Finding out objective truths about the world is not done by identifying apparently anomalous events and then announcing that your predetermined idea is “the only explanation”.

ZC: With all the paranormal investigators out there recording voices, snapping photos, and catching things on tape, that’s about as much ‘proof’ that anybody is ever going to get, yet still it is dismissed.

TS: But not dismissed without reason. Dismissed because the supposed evidence is so weak. “Ghost” photos are routinely analysed and shown to have mundane explanations, but even when no mundane explanation presents itself, my argument above still applies. What you call “ghost”, I call “alien”, and someone else calls “Jesus” and so on, depending on taste, upbringing, bias and so on – depending in no way on the phenomenon itself.

Recording voices is a particularly clear example. So-called EVP (electronic voice phenomena) are generally agreed to be artifacts of recording devices with automatic gain control, coupled with the human brain’s automatic pattern-detecting habits. The former is a matter of electronics. If you have a device which records more when the environment is quiet, it will record more NOISE. Then, a person hoping to hear particular words or phrases will manage to pick them out of that noise. You rubbish my showing how your subjective experiences may be unreliable with reference to optical illusions, but this is an auditory illusion. The phenomenon is known as pareidolia – people finding patterns in randomness – and it explains why people believe they see Jesus in a piece of burnt toast, faces on the surface of the moon and hear voices in static.

Here’s a great example of how easy it is to hear words that aren’t really there – once you know what it is you are supposed to be hearing.

Skeptic and magician Derren Brown was confronted with a devotee of EVP who swore that when he asked questions of spirits, they obediently provided meaningful answers which were recorded during silences on his Dictaphone. When Derren went recording with him and was given the opportunity to ask a question himself, he said “If there really is a spirit there, confirm your presence by remaining silent once I’ve finished speaking.” On playing back the tape, the usual roar of static was heard – exactly as one would expect if the phenomenon was entirely due to automatic gain (and subsequent pareidolia). Exactly the opposite behaviour of the previously always-obliging phantoms.

ZC: So my question to you now becomes this: What is required to ‘prove’ this phenomena?

TS: Just the same as to prove any phenomena. At a minimum: the result must be repeatable (which your accounts of magic light switches and falling objects are not, unless you propose to take me to a haunted house – a proposition I would relish); and it must have a low probability of happening by chance (which is not true of EVP). I have yet to see a piece of evidence for ghosts which would even meet these two criteria, but notice that these are necessary but not sufficient to establish that a particular phenomenon or effect is real. And even if the reality of an effect is established, this doe not in turn immediately allow us to conclude that the cause is a departed spirit. Once again, you only get to jump straight from “unexplained” to “ghosts” by CHOOSING ghosts, not by making a genuine discovery about the world.

The magician and escapologist Harry Houdini devoted many of his later years to exposing the mechanisms used by fraudulent psychics, but nevertheless he hoped against hope that the stories they told were true and that he could be reunited with his beloved mother. Before he died, he arranged with his wife that she should hold a séance every Halloween after his death. He also gave her a secret phrase known only to the two of them. Houdini’s codeword reproduced by a psychic after his passing would have been marvellously strong evidence for the existence of life after death. Sadly, after ten attempts and no appearances by Houdini’s spirit, his wife abandoned the task.

Of course, the real reason that most people don’t believe in ghosts is not because the evidence is so flimsy (although it is). It’s because there is no plausible mechanism which could possibly exist to preserve the personality after death. Every single experiment ever done on the subject shows us that the personality and memories are generated by the brain. After death, that pattern of neurons is destroyed and no possible way exists for that pattern to be preserved, with no power being fed in to the system and with no physical substrate on which the pattern could be recorded.

But I don’t even ask for scientific plausibility. Let’s start with one repeatable, low-probability event, the experiment designed in such a way as to rule out conscious or unconscious fraud. If we discover a genuine phenomenon, then we can start theorising about possible causes.

See, I said this would be too long.