The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. -- F. Scott Fitzgerald
Earlier this month I went to Manhattan and sat in a room with luminaries such as Dr. James Watson (Nobel Laureate for the discovery of DNA's helical structure), Brian Greene (author of The Elegant Universe and a bold proponent of superstring theory), David Rambo (playwright and writer/producer for TV's hit franchise C.S.I.) and many other figures from the science and the arts.
This is the Sloan Summit, which every three years gathers winners of screenwriting, playwriting, and filmmaking awards from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. That organization's purpose: to further the understanding and advancement of science in the arts. I'm there because a screenplay I wrote, a Florida-set eco-thriller called Blackwater, received a Sloan fellowship in 2002.
Though the conversations are wide-ranging, often we find ourselves talking about the dismal state of science education in America. Our concern is echoed in a Congressionally-requested report from the National Academies, an organization of independent agencies that advises the government on scientific, engineering, and medical issues. This sobering report concludes that a massive federal effort is necessary for America to maintain its technological and economic edge.
How bad are things right now? Each year, the U.S. is losing tens of thousands of high-tech jobs to other countries. In 2004, U.S. universities graduated about 70,000 engineers. Meanwhile, India produced 350,000, and China churned out 600,000.
The National Academies isn't recommending we focus our efforts at the graduate school level. Instead, it states that fostering new scientists and engineers must begin at the kindergarten level, and it recommends a structure in which we can do just that.
Why have the numbers of our scientists fallen so sharply? At the Sloan Summit, the conversation keeps going back to the same point: in their zeal to literally interpret every word of Biblical scripture, Fundamentalist Christians are exacting a serious toll on the intellectual health of America.
Watson, frail in his nineties but mentally sharp as a tack, derides the Bush White House's antagonism towards science, particularly those researchers bearing data that refutes the government's environmental policies.
One is reminded of the countless Pentagon and Dept. of Defense members who in 2002 warned that (1) Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, (2) Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and in no way posed any threat to the U.S., and (3) any invasion and occupation of Iraq would require far greater military resources than the White House claimed.
We have a White House that refuses to face facts. It has faith in itself, even when the facts speak otherwise. That's the dangerous thing about idealogues: they are monomaniacal, delusional, and they'll drag everyone down with them. But here's the great and hopeful thing about facts: they have a tendency to make themselves known, no matter who is denying them. The truth will almost always set itself free.
"Someone should ask the president if he believes the world is 6,000 years old," Watson wryly suggests. Everybody nods, grinning, because we know full well Bush's answer will be: Well, yeah, golly-dang, it's in the Scripture, ain't it?
Well, maybe, but there are a lot of scientific impossibilities in any holy text. Then again, we're talking about a leader who advocates the teaching of non-science in science classrooms.
(I know Bush is a reformed alcoholic, but I do wonder what he thinks about a good beer commercial when he sees it.)
LIONS AND TIGERS AND VAMPIRES, OH MY! Does it sound like the Sloan Summit was a Christian-bashing event? Nothing could be further from the truth. Many of these scientists are deeply spiritual people. Studying the universe through science doesn't weaken their faith. For many of them, it strengthens their beliefs, and gives them the vision to imagine just how great God must be.
Americans are welcome to believe in God, or Buddha, or Coyote, or yes, even the Flying Spaghetti Monster. And nobody is denying any of the truths to which these religions lay claim. Evolution can co-exist comfortably with all walks of faith. There well may be a God, a Christ, a Buddha, a Coyote, and maybe all these heavenly incarnations are just shards of glass in a larger lens whose vision we cannot yet comprehend.
But no religious believer of any faith can claim hard, irrefutable scientific evidence to back up their beliefs. Nor should they want to. Faith is just that: faith. And articles of faith are by nature spiritual, of another realm. "Certitude is a spiritual danger," warns the Very Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III, Dean of Washington National Cathedral, in a recent sermon. "If we claim to know God’s ways
without question, we limit God to the shape of our own minds."
We're at a crossroads. If we turn away from scientific reasoning and give in to superstition (which seeks to literalize that which is beyond the literal), we succumb to visionary blindness. We will stave off that which feeds the very soul of Mankind, and our road will be a torturous one.
The Sloan Summit screened a short film that chillingly dramatized this point, an accomplished period piece called The Last Vampire. In this harrowing story, a 13th-century European village finds itself ravaged by the Black Plague. These poor souls don't have the scientific understanding to deal with such a germ-born catastrophe, and in their desperation they turn to a scapegoat: a man suffering from the rare genetic condition known as porphyria, whose ghastly symptoms are misinterpreted as vampirism.
The town leaders cry out: Yea, surely the doings of this Satanic creature have caused all this suffering! In a cathartic rage, the "vampire" is crucified, and the town stands proudly in the righteous knowledge that they have purged the evil from their world.
Meanwhile, the virulent Black Plague swirls silently in their lungs and veins, waiting to drop them all.
We've been at this point before. And in many ways, here we are again.
If we choose Enlightenment, the path may still be difficult. Even if we start tackling global warming now, it may be decades before we see any measurable correction of the environmental damage we've done so far. If we somehow start funding science education tomorrow morning, it will take a generation or two before we increase our ranks of scientists, doctors, and engineers. But it's far better to walk a dangerous path with open eyes than to stumble about blindly, praying for comfort and shelter from the darkness itself.
Either you think, or else others have to think for you and take power from you, pervert and discipline your natural tastes, civilize and sterilize you. - F. Scott Fitzgerald
Having never read or seen Sarah Schulman's work, I cannot say anything about her qualities as a writer. But judging from her insufferable profile in the NYT, she clearly needs to get the fuck over herself:
"I thought that the world would evolve in such a way that people would
appreciate the boldness of my content, and be able to see clearly my
scope of craft and palette. I really never thought that having
integrity about the content and perspective of my work would keep
people from being able to accept what a good writer I am. My deepest,
most optimistic hope is that we are finally at a place where this
recognition can happen."
Someone please tell me this is a carefully-orchestrated act designed to illuminate and parody the ever-popular tortured artiste effect.
Actually, it's a bit more complicated than that because, back in 1925, Creationists didn't hide behind another name. Say what you will about the misguided William Jennings Bryan, but at least he openly admitted his fundamentalist Christian stance instead of concealing it behind vague pseudo-scientific terminology like Intelligent Design.
Now, I don't advocate violence of any sort (bad monkey!), but using humor to skewer an opponent can achieve magnificent results -- just ask Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, or read The Onion'sstory on a bold new theory known as Intelligent Falling. So it is in non-serious, Puck-ish, Mark Twainian spirit that I point you to this satirical take on how one could conceivably assault ID proponents and get away with it: if they truly believe their own flawed logic, they can't prosecute you!
More on this debate next week, when I tell you what I learned recently from sitting in a room with a Nobel Laureate, a TV crime writer, and Eddie Izzard, among others.
As George Clooney’s new film Good Night, and Good Luck reminds us, journalists have a sacred duty to report the truth, no matter the danger to themselves, and whether or not the public wants to hear it.
After 9/11, our national media became willing lapdogs for political and corporate interests. Americans cowered in fear, George Bush received the highest approval ratings of any president, and instead of asking hard questions, practitioners of the First Amendment timidly recited talking points from the White House.
That’s why it doesn’t matter that the NYT’s Judith Miller recently did jail time in defense of journalistic principles. Her biased, deeply flawed reporting on non-existent WMDs helped rally this nation into an unjust war. In the rush to invade Iraq, legions of neo-cons silenced war opponents by screaming: Hey, even the lib'rul old Gray Lady herself knows Saddam's gonna attack us with nukes!
Despite grumblings from her open-eyed co-workers, Miller’s editors and publisher refuse to fully address their journalistic transgressions. And while Miller admirably served jail-time rather than reveal sources in the investigation into the unmasking of CIA agent Valerie Plame, she is at best a morally-compromised martyr who cannot admit the truth even to herself.
Two months ago, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina provided a sobering wake-up call for both the media and the public. As our clueless president praised the unqualified, out-of-touch head of FEMA – “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job!” – the media (including, most unexpectedly, the right-wing puppets at Fox News) told a vastly different story. A major American city and its people were dying on a scale never before seen, and help was nowhere to be found. Four years after a devastating terrorist attack, our federal response agencies were paralyzed, despite the billions of tax dollars funding them, and despite the 9/11 Commission's clear guidelines on future federal disaster reponse.
Is it any wonder President Bush's approval ratings are at their lowest point ever? The horrible truths about our nation's direction are now so large that even the media cannot ignore them. Most Americans now believe that things have to change, even if there is no clear agreement on what those changes might involve.
Local journalism has its duties, too. The beleaguered LA Times is too often the lapdog of the entertainment industry. Its film critics are toothless, it runs endless profiles of rich moguls' mansions, and its Puritanical editorial board believes the long-established Fair Use right makes you and me criminals for taping TV shows or downloading legally-purchased songs onto our iPod. This week, however, the Times is doing one thing right.
LA Times columnist Steve Lopez has been writing about the city’s 90,000 homeless people for years now. He's given us deeply personal accounts of people who, for various reasons, find themselves without job or shelter. He's also shown the larger context of this problem, including its roots in the 1980s when the Reagan administration instituted deep cuts in social programs for the mentally ill.
Lopez is out there talking to these poor souls, watching them live and die. Some are there by choice, but most are victims of crippling diseases, mental disorders, and substance abuse. They've fallen through a safety net torn ragged by budget cuts and social indifference. Lopez also profiles the brave police, medics, and other officials trying desperately to deal with the problem.
In today’s entry, Lopez accompanies a shell-shocked Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on a late-night tour down Skid Row, where amputee war veterans haul themselves around in rickety wheelchairs, heroin addicts shoot up openly on the street, and crack dealers hide drugs in the diapers of their crying babies. All in full view of their city’s mayor.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen Villaraigosa speechless,” writes Lopez.
I’m speechless, too. I’ve been downtown many times for its cultural offerings. When you shrug off homeless beggars on your way to a $25 theater seat, you can't escape the guilt. Should I take my theater and museum money and just hand it out instead? Would that make me feel less guilty? And, more importantly, would that really help in the big picture? I’ve never seen this city's homeless problem presented in a context I could grasp, until this week.
America cannot address its problems unless its citizens recognize what those are problems are. Journalism has a civic duty not to shareholders, advertisers, or political cronies, but to American citizens, first and foremost. Thanks to Lopez and the LA Times, we now have a disturbing, heartbreaking snapshot of the city's homeless issue.
And the solution to this issue will come from the citizens who fund this government and elect its officials. So now we must ask ourselves: Just what are we going to do about it?
There are lots of great ideas for pumpkin-carving this Halloween. If you're looking for something different, start out by perusing the killer samples at Curse of the Zombie Pumpkins.
Do subscribe and support them if you desire. But having carved a few of these patterns over the years, I can safely say that it's not hard to make your own stencil just from studying the preview images.
For beginners, I suggest buying two or more pumpkins, just for backup.
Have I mentioned that if other holidays offically sanctioned the carving of gourds into ghoulish shapes, that I'd happily support them? As it stands, Halloween is and always has been my favorite holiday.
In lieu of flowers and applause, Pinter requests that the world observe one extended moment of awkward silence, followed by a short but intense conversation about very small things that really signifies very large things.
Finally, a Nobel winner about which I can say: Aw, man, I been readin' his stuff for years! (And by the way, ye Nobellions, I'm still waiting patiently for Polish visionary Stanislaw Lem to get his justly-deserved Nobel.)
Pinter becomes one of only 10 playwrights to achieve this distinction, joining luminaries such as Samuel Beckett, Luigi Pirandello, and Eugene O'Neill.
Pinter's unnerving brand of absurdism smolders on stage, and although he claims that his characters are truly found only in their silence, his dialogue glows on the page. Unlike Beckett, whose style often mystifies rather than clarifies, Pinter's work is instantly cerebral and accessible. Whenever I feel like I can't write a play, I read some Pinter and my dead dramatic cortex flares black to life.
The academy said: "Pinter restored theater to its basic elements: an enclosed space and unpredictable dialogue where people are at the mercy of each other and pretense crumbles."
And if there's one Pinter production I wish I could've seen, it's the 1961 production of The Caretaker starring Donald Pleasance, Robert Shaw, and Alan Bates. Just the thought of those three actors sharing the stage, dramatizing Pinter's enclosed world, gives me the chills.
You see a lot of celebrities in LA. That can be cool, but I'm really uncomfortable approaching anyone to say I'm a fan of their work.
Standing in line at my neighborhood post office, who do I spy before me but a dead man: Shepherd Book from Serenity and Firefly. We know him better as Ron Glass, and he's got a wonderful career that stretches back decades to sitcoms like Barney Miller.
He's just standing there in jeans and a yellow knit shirt, riffing through his mail, waiting for an open window so he can pick up a package. "Excuse me, Mr. Glass?" I began. "I just wanted to say that I'm soglad you're feeling better. The last time I saw you, it looked like your funeral."
He glanced up from his mail with an utterly blank expression, and then broke into a broad, easy smile. "Oh, yes, I'm much better, thank you for saying so."
We chatted briefly about how Shepherd Book could appear in any Serenity sequels (if he's not in the storyline's future, he's always there in its past, hint-hint). But even if the franchise doesn't go any further, Glass is happy the story at least has some closure.
Then the post office attendant called him to the window, and he got his package. But before he left, Glass stopped to thank me again for the compliments, and then went on his merry way.
I don't know Ron Glass the actor at all, but I know this: he's a really nice guy (and tall!) with a smile so big and genuine it'll make you smile just to see it.
The Serenity/Firefly cast bonds right before your eyes. Apparently they're great friends off-screen, as well.
Here are two pictures of that cast that I just love. I think you can see that bond for yourself (click for larger images).
UPDATE: Here's a great story that ran in Sunday's LA Times about the making of Serenity, and how Joss Whedon and his crew managed to make a movie in LA that saved money. In a day when more and more productions are leaving town for cost-savings, it's good to see this kind of effort.
So why do I think it’s the best space opera to come down the pike in years?
Because it righteously exploits the trappings of the genre in a spirited way that George Lucas once understood, and then forgot.
It’s nothing you haven’t seen before. Futuristic space rebels are pursued by an evil empire and assorted space nasties. The spaceship is a creaky old rust-bucket, its crew a bunch of bickering misfits. Adventures ensue. This narrative model stretches back a long way in SF, at least to Eric Frank Russell's stories of the spaceship "Marathon" from the 1940s. It's a template that worked then, entered pop culture in the 1960s with Star Trek, and continues to filter through our mass media in still-recognizable iterations.
So if Serenity is essentially just more of the same, what exactly makes it shine? For starters, it’s got heart, and wit, and killer dialogue. In other words: characterization, an element that all too often sci-fi checks at the door. Serenity features a terrific ensemble cast that connects not just with the audience, but with each other. Finally, here’s a sci-fi extravaganza where the most eye-popping effects come from the actors.
And what actors they are, from Nathan Fillion's grouchy but lovable Han Solo to Summer Glau's waif-like wraith and Alan Tudyk's stalwart sidekick pilot. Serenity builds its world in less than a few minutes and then zooms through several great action sequences. There's a thrilling spaceship battle that puts Industrial Light & Magic to shame (F/X courtesy of Zoic, who worked on Firefly and the new Battlestar Galactica), and a stunning final fight scene that leaves audiences cheering.
And it’s a gorram shame more people aren’t seeing Serenity in theaters. It’ll certainly turn a nice profit overseas, and the DVD sales are gonna explode, but so far its U.S. theater intake has been a disappointment. Still, with a budget of just $39 million (and it's that rare movie that looks like it cost five or six times its paltry price tag), Serenity should make Universal a tidy profit. If we’re really lucky, there’ll be a sequel. Maybe by then, everyone will be on board.
In a bloated year that’s given us stale, lackluster fare such as Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, the last gasp of TV’s wretched Trek-killer Enterprise, and the latest incarnation of yet another Stargate snoozefest … hey, maybe audiences are just too jaded to believe this stuff can ever be any good.
Such malaise is the opposite of “word-of-mouth.” I call it “death-of-soul,” and I fear that audiences just can’t trust Serenity right now. They see the trailers that look like so many other movies. When even the crappiest movies can garner ejaculatory blurbs from suspect critics, it’s hard to focus on Serenity’suniformly rave reviews, even when they come from the New York Times, Wall St. Journal, and just about every other legitimate periodical in the country.
So I can’t blame the audiences completely.
I’ve seen Serenity twice now with large groups of people, most of whom had never seen the cancelled Fox series. And with only one exception out of nearly a dozen, these folks were flat-out floored. (And that one nay-sayer? Trust me, he's weird.)
I’m converting ‘em one by one, damn it. I feel like a Kerry campaign worker driving people to the polls while Swift-boaters attack from all sides, with Fox News screeching that we're wearing Semtex jock straps. It’s hard work, and it may not pay off in the end, but by damn, it feels good while it lasts.