Hidden Fences

An actor once told me, “There are two kinds of movies out there. The kind that tells people what they want to hear, and the kind that tells them what they need to know.”

Hidden Figures, the story of black women working at NASA at the beginning of the space program, is by all definitions, a crowd pleaser. We have our plucky heroines, who struggle against stiffer odds than they should have to, and succeed nonetheless. Their work sent John Glenn into orbit, and paved the way for the intrepid astronauts flying to the Moon, and then, low Earth orbit, all these years later.

The title, of course, comes from the fact that the work of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson has never been lauded as much as that of their white male colleagues.

But as I walked out of the theater, it seemed like part of the story was missing. Our heroines had proven their worth many times over. They had won the respect of their colleagues. Heck, Kevin Costner even invited Ms. Johnson into Mission Control for John Glenn’s launch.

So why had their contributions not been publicized?

I’m sure there’s more detail about all this in the book, written by Margot Lee Shetterly. Movies often just don’t have time. And besides, what we really want to hear is how these women overcame the odds and helped get America in space.

Historical movies always have to take liberties with the truth to tell their stories. Some more than others. Timelines are compressed, and characters composited. Real life is much more complicated and rarely follows a neat three–act structure.

But Dexter Thomas at VICE criticizes two of the film’s storylines which attempt to tell people what they want to hear.

The first is a subplot about Ms. Johnson having to use a colored women’s bathroom half a mile away from where she works. Later, Kevin Costner’s boss takes a crow bar to the sign above the offending bathroom, and assures the assembled staffers that “We all pee the same color.”

This didn’t actually happen– Ms. Johnson says she whichever bathroom was most convenient, and no one stopped her. This, to me, is forgivable, since it highlights some of the indignities created by Jim Crow laws in the South that might not have been apparent to people who weren’t affected by them.

But I see a missed opportunity at the end of the film, when Costner invites Ms. Johnson into Mission Control. This also didn’t happen, although John Glenn did ask for her to check the IBM’s calculations for his trajectory.

Consider: Katherine Johnson has solved her most difficult problem; cleared the last hurdle. What more potent visual metaphor for what actually happened to these women than for her to be locked out of the room where it happens at the most important moment.

It would suck, for us, the audience, definitely. I was reminded of Contact, when Jodie Foster’s character is told she can’t ride on the alien ship that’s only been built because of her work.[1] And of course, that wasn’t the end of the movie.

It’s a tricky thing, making the audience upset at what happens in the story, and not at the movie itself. Many people wouldn’t like it. I don’t know that we get catharsis from downer endings, as Aristotle insists.

But perhaps by tearing down the myth of history as an unending march of progress, that we’re a little better off at the end than we were at the beginning, we can reveal the barriers that these women

  1. [1] Then again, as she says, “They should have sent a poet.”
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The Solar Storm That Almost Started World War III

Check out this episode I wrote for SciShow Space!

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And Now, a Flagrant Disregard for Morals and Decency

Old movies have a reputation for being kid friendly, no matter what they’re about. They don’t have any nudity, bad language, or disrespect for authority figures.

This is largely because of the Motion Picture Production Code (or Hays Code), a “voluntary” set of rules the Hollywood studios agreed to abide by, so as not to upset the delicate sensibilities of upstanding American citizens. From the mid 1930s to the 1960s, almost every movie released in the U.S. had to have code approval.[1]

But as with all censorship guidelines suggestion systems, people would try to find a way to get around the rules. Sex and violence sell movie tickets, and if that’s what people really wanted, Hollywood was more than happy to provide it.

1941-lady-eveEnter The Lady Eve, a screwball comedy from 1941. Barbara Stanwyck and her card shark father, Charles Coburn, endeavor to swindle rich beer magnate Henry Fonda out of his family fortune. Hijinks, hilarity, and unintentional romances ensue.

The film is not especially subtle about what’s going on– only someone who has no idea how adult relationships work could miss it, and then they probably wouldn’t enjoy the movie much.

Yet the film always wants to have a plausible deniability. We don’t see Barbara and Henry sleep together, but one night they’re kissing, and the next shot is the bow of the cruise ship plowing through the ocean. So… you know.

I was interested to learn from Matthew H. Bernstein via David Bordwell that Joseph Breen of the Production Code Administration worked with director Preston Sturges and the producers of The Lady Eve to allow some racy material into the film– just nothing too racy. The PCA knew that if audiences didn’t feel like they were getting a little red meat, they’d go looking elsewhere, and the Code would be unenforceable.

This is ultimately what happened, when in the late 1950s and 1960s European films not made in accordance with the Code were released in the U.S. Among them were things like Vittorio De Sica’s raunchy, decadent farce The Bicycle Thieves.[2] They made a lot of money, but Hollywood wasn’t able to follow suit.

To take advantage of changing tastes, the Code was replaced with the movie rating system, which, after some revision, is what we have now. Hollywood is free to make movies with sex, violence, and crime– and they’ll tell you ahead of time so you can be an informed consumer.

Among these movies is The Fast and The Furious franchise, which I sampled this summer, fast_and_the_furious_posteron the recommendation of a friend. What struck me most, especially in the early entries, is that these movies openly endorse criminal activity.

Paul Walker starts out as a cop, infiltrating a street racing gang to find a band of car thieves. When he discovers that his friends are actually the ones stealing the cars, he doesn’t just help them escape the Law, he joins them.

I know Vin Diesel is cool, but really?

The Code, of course, would have had none of this. Crime must never go unpunished. Criminals may look cool, but they always get what they deserve in the end.

Except here. I suppose there are worse things one could steal than high performance luxury cars. Sometimes Walker and Diesel steal from vicious drug lords, so we don’t feel that bad. But still, the take away seems to be that if you can steal cool cars and look good doing it, you can get away with anything.

  1. [1] This doesn’t mean that everything that’s old and in black and white is okay for all ages. Before the Code, you could find many of the things it disapproved of in major Hollywood releases, including women of loose character and criminals who are not punished for their crimes. Unfortunately, if you want to get your rocks off to silent, scratched up smut from the 1920s, you’re out of luck: most of the films from this period have been lost to history.
  2. [2] It’s about a poor Italian man struggling to provide for his family in bombed out post-war Italy.
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You Get What You Deserve

The Brazilian TV series 3% arrived on Netflix with little fanfare in my English-speaking bubble, but I took my electronic overlord’s suggestion and was not disappointed.

The show is very much in the vein of The Hunger Games or Divergent: plucky, sexy young adults take part in a twisted contest run by the grown-ups of a dystopian government. Rebellion and love triangles ensue.

However, I think 3%‘s coming of age contest is a more potent metaphor than The Hunger Games. I never fully bought that the less powerful districts of Panem would participate in the Hunger Games as much as they did.

What’s nice about The Process is that there’s an aspirational quality to it: Most people live in a giant slum, but when they turn 20, anyone can volunteer to go through The Process. screen-shot-2016-12-03-at-14-07-22-e14807957651243% of them will be selected to move to the Offshore, where there’s peace, prosperity, and amazing technology.

But if they’re eliminated, they’re confined to the slum for the rest of their lives.

It’s not about slaughtering their opponents, it’s about proving that they’re worthy of the riches on the Offshore.

Not everyone volunteers for The Process. But those who do are deeply committed to it.

Of course, this is a terrible way to run a society. The Process is cruel and arbitrary. One small mistake can get you eliminated. The requirements to pass are never clear: Is compassion a strength to be rewarded, or a weakness to be punished? Later on, candidates are given their own unique tests, so not everyone has to jump through the same hoops.

Most of the focus is on the candidates, but we also get a very useful look at the agents who run The Process, and how they make up new rules to suit their whims. When the Candidates pass a test as a group, the rules are changed to eliminate more people.

Part of growing up is finding a place for yourself in society. And since few people can just build their own success from scratch, this involves convincing grown ups that you are worthy of their attention. The Process is applying to college, impressing social circles we try to join,  and applying for the jobs that can give us access to peace, prosperity, and amazing technology.

But these Processes are often just as arbitrary and cruel as this dystopian future. And by lauding the 3% who prove themselves worthy, we are saying that everyone else deserves to wallow in slums.

Editor’s Note: Netflix has the option of watching 3% in Portuguese with English subtitles, or with dialogue dubbed over in English. While I’ve heard the dubbing praised… I never, ever watch foreign movies/shows with anything other than subtitles. It’s okay. You can read. Subtitles are fine.

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The Star That Trolled Astronomers

It blinks like an alien beacon. It’s in outer space like an alien beacon. But it’s not an alien beacon. Just what is it?

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Texting Revisited

Via Slate.

I was really impressed with this short film directed by Victoria Mapplebeck, about a romantic relationship she revisited after discovering an old Nokia cell phone. (It was one of those 3000 model series that’s indestructible according to the Internet.)

After a brief prologue, most of the story plays out in text messages we read on screen. I was reminded of Tony Zhou’s essay about texting in movies over at Every Frame a Painting, which I wrote about here.

In keeping with the more stylized conventions Tony describes, we don’t have to see the phone’s screen– the messages are presented on screen for us. The images behind them are a literal subtext that fleshes out the story.

Tony suggests that filmmakers ditch the bubbles and fancy fonts for their on screen texts, since they’re the first things to look out of date. Here, Mapplebeck uses a blocky font reminiscent of the low resolution of the 10-year-old Nokia’s screen.

A couple other clues keep things intelligible for the viewer: Victoria’s texts are always on the left side of the screen, her partner’s texts are on the right. (They often sign their names as well, or at least an initial. Whether this is a verbatim transcription or because viewers are morons, I don’t know.)

I also enjoyed the performative aspect of the texts’ presentation. We see Mapplebeck retyping several of her messages, trying to find the right word. With only 160 characters, precision is important.

Check out the short below!

160 Characters from Victoria Mapplebeck on Vimeo.

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The Apollo Program’s Loneliest Astronauts

Ever wonder what Michael Collins and the Command Module Pilots of the Apollo Moon missions did while their colleagues were taking small steps and giant leaps? Find out in this video I wrote for SciShow Space!

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The Truth About the Million-Dollar Space Pen

Check out this video I wrote for SciShow Space! Did NASA really waste a ton of money to make a pen that could write in space? Why not just copy the Soviets, and use pencils?

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It’s Just… Television

Let me say up front that I think Anthony Hopkins is a fantastic actor. I haven’t had a chance to see Westworld, either, so it’s entirely possible I’d think it’s a great show. But I don’t think this scene deserves the praise that the Nerdwriter gives it here:

In a video that is supposed to show the abilities of Hopkins as an actor, I can’t help but wonder what might have been. I’m unable to see the whole scene beyond what’s in the video above, but it doesn’t look like it’s been staged to highlight his talents.

We get a few repeating set ups: close-ups of each character, a perpendicular two shot of the whole table, and some inserts of things in the distance that they’re looking at. There’s little interplay between foreground and background action. Each shot shows us essentially One Important Thing: Hopkins says a line. Sidse Babbett Knudson reacts to it. She stands up and looks off-screen. We see a portion of the landscape that she’s looking at.

The vast majority of television is shot like this. The vast majority of movies are shot like this.

It’s not bad. But it can be limiting.

When an actor is sitting down, half their body (or more) is out of view. But wait! you cry, People sit down all the time!

That they do. Especially in movies and on TV.[1]  How many scenes on Westworld or Game of Thrones or Mad Men or Breaking Bad or The Marvel Cinematic Universe are just conversations with people sitting down?

And almost all of these scenes are shot the same way: Master wide, matching close-ups, inserts as necessary. We don’t see actors perform with their whole bodies, we see a succession of talking heads.

Yes, they are expressive heads. Anthony Hopkins’ face flicks through dozens of emotions in quick succession. But humans are naturally drawn to look at faces. We can notice changes in expression even when the shot isn’t a close up.

As an alternative, I’ll refer you to a scene from There Will Be Blood, as analyzed by David 1609374Bordwell. It plays out in a single wide shot which includes four characters. We can see everything that happens on each of their faces- Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction and the actors’ performances have guided our attention to all the important information.

We can even see Daniel Day-Lewis exchange a glance with his assistant, Ciarán Hinds, while Day-Lewis has his back turned.

Everything culminates in a big, threatening handshake. Because it’s so jarring compared to the rest of the shot, our eyes jump right to it. No need for a big close up.

Don’t believe me? Psychological researcher Tim Smith used eye tracking software to follow where people’s eyes moved as they watched the scene.

There Will Be Blood with gaze locations of 11 viewers from TheDIEMProject on Vimeo.

The Westworld scene has a great climactic image, too: One of Hopkins’ robotic waiters freezes at his direction while filling a wine glasses. The glass over flows, staining the white tablecloth a bloody red.

Except instead of letting this image play out in one shot, highlighting the stillness of the waiter and the spreading stain, we have to cut between two close-ups, an insert of the cup, and the master wide, with all the players of the scene. The wide shot, the only one we really need to sell this moment, is up for just a couple of seconds before we cut to yet another shot.

I realize I must sound like a curmudgeon. Damn teenagers with their loud rock music and movies with too many cuts in them.

But if this is supposed to be the best thing on television, why does it look like everything else?

  1. [1] It’s worth remembering that television was originally a lot like radio, but with pictures.
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The VVicked VVitch of Nevv England

If you’re looking for a creepy movie to give you the vvillies this Hallovveen, might I suggest The VVitch?

It cam out earlier this year, and vvhile critics seemed to like it, a lot of mainstream audiences vveren’t sure vvhat to make of it. The VVitch is a suspenseful horror movie, but takes place in Puritan Massachusetts in the 1600s. People talk in a period appropriate dialect, and practice a version of Christianity that’s probably unfamiliar to Americans today.

VVe like to think of the Puritans as early adopters of the idea of religious freedom in the Nevv VVorld– they left Europe to escape persecution, didn’t they? Of course, the beliefs the Puritans vvanted to practice involved shunning anyone vvho didn’t believe vvhat they did. The VVitch opens vvith a family being exiled from their village because the father, VViliam, played by Ralph Ineson, vvas preaching an interpretation of the Bible that vvas different from the official doctrine.

One of the central themes in any literature about the Puritans is the divide between acting like a good person and actually being a good person. Outwardly, everyone vvanted to thewitch_online_teaser_01_web_largebehave as if they vvere righteous, upstanding members of society. But being believers in predestination– God has chosen vvhether or not you’ll go to heaven before you’re born– Puritans thought that no amount of good vvorks can make you one of the elect vvho vvill be saved.

If you are one of the elect, you’ll act like a good person because God says so. But if you aren’t… you’ll try to act like you are or risk exile or vvorse. Of course, pretty much everyone vvould have felt various temptations toward sin or fallen short of godly behavior in one vvay or another– but to express doubts about yourself vvould paint a target on your back for society’s scorn.

Like the historical Puritans, the characters in The VVitch believe the Devil is very real. Danger, both earthly and supernatural, lurked in the vvoods of seventeenth century Massachusetts. The main plot of the film involves the family trying to protect themselves from a vvitch that lives in the forest by their nevv home. And maybe– just maybe– the eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is involved vvith her as vvell?

As Thomasin suffers from guilt follovving the disappearance of one of her siblings, she has doubts about her ovvn faith. Meanvvhile, strange things keep happening to the other members of her family…

I don’t vvatch a lot of horror movies, not because I’m a covvard, but because I rarely find the premise actually scary. Humans do terrible things to each other on our ovvn, and I don’t think vve need help from supernatural characters. To lay all the blame for a story’s events on a clearly fictional force is to miss the real horrors that go on around us all the time.

The VVitch is an interesting case because the family frets over a Devil and a VVitch that may not be real only to (spoiler alert) have their suspicions confirmed. I think it vvould have been quite scary to see the family brought low just by their paranoid delusions– no supernatural explanation required.

The cast and production design are all great. I’ll give a special shout out to the goat(s?) vvho played Black Phillip– he vvas great. The pacing is a little slovv, and I found some of the vvhispered, accented dialogue hard to understand, but The VVitch pays off if you give it a chance.

Editor’s Note: Yes, autocorrect vvas a pain on this one.

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