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Archive for December, 2010

I’m often cagey about taking stock of accomplishments—mostly because mine are, shall we say, modest in scope—but this has been a rough year for a lot of people and it’s important to recognize good stuff when it happens. In this case, I want to share a few cinematic gems that my employer, Films for the Humanities & Sciences, began distributing in 2010. I should say that these are my personal favorites, rather than official selections made by the company, and they’ve stayed with me for a wide range of reasons, not because of any strict criteria. I must also applaud the efforts of our Acquisitions department, which excels at tracking down and signing up material of the highest quality.

The Last Truck documents the final months of a GM plant in Moraine, Ohio, and features several workers who vividly describe the fear and turmoil they’re experiencing. Readers might consider the following comparison a stretch, but the film reminded me of Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach—a story of looming finality and the smaller human narratives taking place within it. Since I’m working on that topic elsewhere (and because our entertainment landscape is currently subjected to a glut of post-apocalyptic tales) I won’t push the association here, but I suggest thinking twice before writing it off.

On the other hand, The Sugar Babies should put things in perspective for any American overly worried about socioeconomic collapse. It’s the story of Haitian children struggling to survive in the cane fields of the Dominican Republic, and I’m not sure what it will do first—piss you off or break your heart. For these kids, the apocalypse has already happened, and I mean that seriously. Conditions may have improved (that is, what amounts to slavery may have been mitigated) since the film was produced, but one is nevertheless reminded that the most vulnerable among us have a right, yes, a right, to protection.

But I will try to lighten up. Literally. Liquid Stone follows efforts to complete Barcelona’s spectacular cathedral, La Sagrada Familia, according to the intentions of its designer, Antonio Gaudi. Gaudi was known as “God’s architect” and anyone who watches the film will understand why. In fact, the church was recently consecrated by the Pope—way to go, Pope!—but it is also worth invoking Gaudi’s statement that the structure “is made by the people and is mirrored in them. It is a work that is in the hands of God and the will of the people.” So, with all due respect to the Pope, let’s hear it for the people!

A few others… Voices in Black and White, a three-part series, was filmed a few years ago but contains so many great interviews with Southern writers, from Alice Walker to Walker Percy, that it deserves infinite life. Radio Revolution deftly examines the impact of RFE broadcasts on Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime and the lengths to which his cronies went to suppress U.S.-backed radio in Romania. Last but certainly not least, there’s a BBC production of Hamlet that I particularly admire—for its edgy performances, its innovative textual rearrangements, and its visual commentary on the perils of a surveillance state.

Thanks for reading. May your 2011 be filled with more nourishment for the heart and mind.

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NASA recently promised to upend my notions of life beyond Earth, so today I timed my lunch break with the space agency’s announcement of its new biochemistry discovery. Now I feel bad. I was getting frustrated with my kids and their pre-nap shenanigans, which almost made me miss the 2 p.m. press conference. If I had known how painfully bloviated the lead scientist’s account was going to be, I would have been more patient with my young-uns and waited for Wikipedia to explain it all.

The finding itself is pretty cool—life, it seems, can exist in environments far more toxic or inhospitable to us than we realized. But I found myself longing for a spokesperson who didn’t know that much about microbiology, so that only the main points or the most necessary details could be passed on to us. In truth, I followed most of what was said, but it wasn’t said well, and that bugs me.

Fortunately, CNN had a follow-up interview session that included my old boss, Bill Nye the Science Guy. (Technically, my boss was another Bill—Bill Sleeth, the show’s very talented production designer, but now I’m getting off track.) In contrast to the luminaries NASA had placed before the cameras, Mr. Nye excelled in his job of summarizing the discovery and making it, God forbid, interesting to viewers. I only wish Fox News, which also carried the press conference, had included an explanatory follow-up as well. Here I must admit that I occasionally shuttle back and forth between CNN and Fox, to observe differences in their coverage. These differences can be subtle or blatant. In today’s case, I never saw the Fox anchor going out of her way to berate modern science, but she did smirk her way through much of NASA’s presentation, and I can imagine those smirks being echoed by every pundit and plebian who would banish Darwin, SETI, and the Big Bang theory from public discourse.

In the past, I’ve lamented what appears in America to be an explosion of science popularization and a shrinking of actual science activity. That fear is still with me, but today’s studies in verboseness reminded me that science, like any other field, needs good communicators. So if you’ve made a discovery that will cause a huge paradigm shift and you’re going on TV to publicize it yourself—I say go for it. Just make sure you teach as well as you do.

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