The latest incarnation (I chose that word advisedly!) of the Jurassic Park franchise has been breaking box-office records and garnering mixed reviews from the critics. On the positive side the film is regarded as scary, entertaining, and a bit comedic at times (isn’t that what most movies are supposed to be?). On the negative side the plot is described as rather ‘thin’, the human characters two-dimensional, and the scientific content (prehistoric animals) unreliable, inaccurate, or lacking entirely in credibility.
Within the paleontological community, there have been a few voices criticising the appearance of some of the CGI dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures. For example, the velociraptor is too large, and they do not show the raptors with feathers or at least a ‘shaggy’ filamentous covering. Their hands and claws are also not articulated correctly. The mosasaur is too big (not strictly true, as some mosasaur fossils are very large!), and the pterosaurs are seen eating the wrong sorts of organisms altogether! Quite a few of these technical criticisms reflect the fact that paleontological research has made advances in the two decades and more since the first Jurassic Park movie appeared on our screens.
So, why are the ‘dinosaurs’ so inaccurate? I listened with considerable interest to an interview in the run-up to the launch of the movie, by a friend and colleague Jack Horner (a genuine dinosaur palaeontologist from the Museum of the Rockies in Montana who acted as an advisor to the Jurassic World production team). In the face of these criticisms his basic point was that Jurassic World was entertainment and in the final analysis it was “… just a movie”. It was never intended to be a documentary about the scientific basis of our understanding of prehistoric life. Of course he was able to advise the animators on the most likely posture and style of movement displayed by the CGI movie stars so that they look as life-like as possible. Jack was naturally concerned about the absence of filaments and/or feathers on some of the dinosaurs, but from an editorial perspective there was an over-riding need to maintain some continuity in appearance of the animals seen by audiences in previous movies: the raptors had to look like the raptors of the original Jurassic Park. And that simple and essentially pragmatic acceptance (the need for continuity) underplates the awful dilemma faced by any ‘expert/consultant’ hired by the production team of a multimillion dollar enterprise such as Jurassic World.
The priorities of the movie makers with regard to narrative and appearance will always outweigh the science-based accuracy desired by the advisor. In such circumstances, commercial ‘reality’ always trumps scientific realism. All any advisor can hope for is that the film makers don’t take too many liberties with the animals and how they are portrayed (thereby avoiding some of the scorn of peers) and that there might be some financial benefit from any success at the box-office that can result in genuine paleontological research as a very desirable spin-off. Even small amounts of money (by movie-industry standards) can be enormously beneficial for real scientific research programmes. So are there any other benefits that accrue from movies about dinosaurs?
There is little doubt that the first Jurassic Park had a beneficial impact on the public interest in dinosaurs. I went to see that film and still remember the thrill of that first glimpse of the incredibly realistic CGI brachiosaur browsing on a tree. I was mightily impressed (even if I didn’t like the way it reared up on this hind legs!). Children and students were inspired by such visions and wanted to know more, museums were inundated with visitors and the challenge was to use the interest to tell visitors more about the scientific study of such ancient creatures. Michael Crichton’s original plot-line of Jurassic Park linked the then comparatively new biotechnological developments (DNA amplification using PCR) with the neat twist of being able to extract dinosaur blood cells (and of course DNA) preserved in the stomachs of blood-sucking insects. Believe it or not, the publicity surrounding that film actually facilitated a number of lines of research into biomolecule preservation in ancient fossil animals. This research was not motivated by the prospect of bringing dinosaurs back to life, but as a chance to investigate the evidence of some biomolecules (or fragments thereof) being preserved in fossils that were 10s of millions of years old (if the conditions of preservation were just right). Counter to the scientific expectation of the time (biomolecules could not possibly survive for millions of years) some remnants have indeed been found.
But where are we now, I wonder? Jurassic World seems to me to represent a progressive and I believe unavoidable drift toward entertainment at the expense of scientific credibility. We are now in the realm of the imaginary dinosaur (prehistoric monster) funfair disaster movie and lightweight morality tale. At best it perhaps conjures up that old aphorism about our tampering with ecology (our biosphere) at our peril. Beyond that, palaeontologists should either stay at home or do like everyone else: switch off brain, sit back with a bag of popcorn, and enjoy the show. As Jack Horner said: “it’s just a movie”!
Featured image credit: “Velociraptor” by sgtfury. Public domain via Pixabay.
Disgusting or delighting, exciting or boring, sensual or expected, no matter what you think about it, 50 Shades of Grey is certainly not a movie that passes by without leaving a mark on your skin. Based on E.L. James’ novel (honestly, somehow even more breathtaking than the movie), it tells the story of the complicated relationship between the dominant multi-millionaire Christian Grey, and the newly graduated, inexperienced, and shy, Ana Steele. Christian leads Ana towards his sensuous and deviant world (though, who really does take the lead is unclear), made of ropes, riding crops, chains, and strict rules. Since the first time I saw the movie, and when I read the book, I could not help but think about the sense of touch, the main object of my scientific research into the neurocognitive mechanisms of human perception, emotions, and desires. After all, isn’t the novel about the sensual power of touch? How arousing can a light touch on the neck be? A kiss to the hair? And what about the constriction of rope around your wrists? I was reflecting about where this incredible power comes from, and here my research can help.
We now know that human bodies have a privileged path to pleasure, one that passes through the sense of touch: CT fibers. These neural fibers conduct information to the brain from the non-glabrous areas of the body (from those body parts with hairs) and are activated by a caress like stimulus. They must signal comfort and pleasure to our brain, which reacts accordingly. This system is probably an inheritance from our monkey-like ancestors, social animals that used to groom one another, also as a way to set their reciprocal status (dominance) within the group. However, touch is much more than that; it also contributes to the release of hormones, oxytocin in particular, the bonding (or cuddle, as popularly defined) hormone. From a scientific point of view, touch actually sets the pace of a relationship, as there is evidence regarding the presence of a strong correlation between the level of blood oxytocin, the amount of touch within a couple, and the quality of their relationship as rated by the couple.
The two main characters in the novel seem to be attracted towards one another by a magnetic force, which pushes their bodies towards unexplored limits. Another important function of touch is actually to set the limits of our body, to define what is ‘us’ and what is not. Not surprisingly, in the last few years, discussion on the neural substrates of ‘body ownership’ has become very popular among cognitive neuroscientists. That is, how our brains can define which body parts do and don’t belong to us. “Where our touch begins, so do we,” I often tell my students at university, and when someone touches us, we lose a bit of this limit; we become part of the other person.
Undeniably, the novel is also about the relationship between dominance and submission; about the question of who is really in charge. However, what really is the difference between these two aspects? Isn’t the sense of touch the real leader in this situation too? Who can touch? When? How? Where? We can watch and hear, but we cannot touch someone without consent. In the author’s second novel, 50 Shades Darker, the ‘untouchable’ Christian asks Ana to use a red lipstick to draw on his chest a map of body areas that she is allowed to touch and areas that are off-limits. Again I’m led to wonder, is touch really that powerful? Scientific research provides a positive answer to this question. Touch has been shown to affect people’s compliance towards a request, their willingness to give more, and their desire to please someone. A number of researchers have shown that people are much more willing to say yes to a request if they are touched first.
Finally, 50Shades of Grey is also about the boundaries between pleasure and pain. Many people may wonder why some individuals are willing to receive corporal punishments by someone they love (and even take pleasure from it). More generally, how can a ‘spank’ be perceived as pleasant? The answer to these kind of questions certainly has much to do with the ‘reward neural circuits’, buried in some of the deepest and evolutionarily oldest parts of our brain. No one would perceive pain as pleasant when out of the right context. Just as other sensations, pain is a creation of the brain; as a colleague of mine is often heard saying: ‘no brain, no pain’, and I’m inclined to agree. Many stimulations in the brain interact to determine the perception of pain, and touch certainly takes an important role in this modulation of sensations. Sensual touch is a strong reward, and the brain can lead you everywhere in order to get its reward. Even pain under these conditions can become pleasant.
It’s interesting to consider the same novel without so much reference to touch, and even more interestingly, how our lives might be without tactile sensations. How might our relationships be? These thoughts lead me to think about another aspect relevant to my research: human-machine interfaces. Modern technology, if it continues to be effective, will need to use touch, especially in order to reproduce social interactions. Virtual reality in particular will have limited use without the capability to reproduce realistic connections between our bodies and objects, and/or between people’s bodies (being them real on just computer-generated). Here, I have a specific scene from the movie in mind, the one where Christian uses an ice cube to arouse Ana (admittedly a very often-adopted image in fictional erotic scenes). The effect is strong, and its visual impact intuitive. How can technology reproduce something similar? The sensation of wetness on the skin is certainly a very complex one. From a neuroscientific point of view, it requires the activation of at least two classes of receptors: one for temperature; the other for movement over the skin. Without this mixture of neural signals (and the brain’s interpretation of them) we cannot get such a sensation, just as when you do not feel your body wet while lying completely still in a bathtub full of hot water. So how can these sensations be reproduced artificially? Every time I think about these aspects, I can’t help but think about what a huge challenge this is. Will technology ever be able to get even close? Will touch through interfaces become possible between two people separated by miles? I want to be positive, but in order to get there, researchers will need to increase their study into the powerful and still mysterious sense of touch, in all its 50 (and more) shades.
As a neuroscientist, and a man who is hypnotized by the magic behind that sense, I am definitely thrilled about what we will learn in the future regarding the brain mechanisms responsible for tactile sensations!
Since publishing Sorry About That a year ago, I’ve been trying to keep track of apologies in the news. Google sends me a handful of news items every day. Some are curious (“J.K. Rowling issues apology over slain ‘Harry Potter’ character”), some are cute (“Blizzard 2015: Meteorologist apologizes for ‘big forecast miss’”), and some are sad (“An open apology to my kids on the subject of my divorce”).
A good apology meshes moral awareness and social repair work. As your mother probably told you when you were a child, you must say what you did wrong and sincerely express that you are sorry. In the best possible case, you are able to say what will be different in the future and make some restitution or other corrective action. A weak apology often fails to identify the harm done, perhaps because it is too embarrassing to name. Instead of actually apologizing for something, people may just say that they were wrong or that they have regrets—or, if they are really casual about things, offer the phrase, “My bad.” Weak apologies can also suffer from excessive explanation, blame-shifting, and excuses. “I apologize,” someone will say, “but…” How genuine have public apologies come across this year so far? Let’s take a look at some of the noteworthy ones from the first part of 2015.
In January, Fox News found itself apologizing for its reporting on alleged “no-go zones” in England and France, issuing a series of retractions and corrections. Summing it all up, Fox anchor Julie Banderas said, “Over the course of this last week, we have made some regrettable errors on air regarding the Muslim population in Europe.” She catalogued the mistakes and ended by saying, “We deeply regret the errors, and apologize to any and all who may have taken offense, including the people of France and England.”
Also in January, actor Benedict Cumberbatch apologized for using the word “colored” when discussing the opportunities for black actors in the United States and the United Kingdom. Cumberbatch told People magazine,“I offer my sincere apologies. I make no excuse for my being an idiot and know the damage is done. I can only hope this incident will highlight the need for correct usage of terminology that is accurate and inoffensive.” Cumberbatch pointed out that he felt ashamed and foolish and that he “apologize[d] again to anyone who I offended for this thoughtless use of inappropriate language about an issue which affects friends of mine and which I care about deeply.”
Both Fox and Cumberbatch rely on the stock phrasing of apologizing to anyone who was offended, but Cumberbatch does a much better job of indicating his embarrassment and articulating why it was important for him to apologize. Fox, on the other hand, merely regrets the errors without chagrin or reference to what should have been the case journalistically.
February began with another journalistic apology, this one from NBC anchor Brian Williams for misstatements about his involvement in a ground fire incident in Iraq. On his Nightly News broadcast, William said he “made a mistake” in recalling events. “I want to apologize,” he added. “I said I was traveling in an aircraft that was hit by RPG fire. I was instead in a following aircraft.” Williams characterized his remarks as “a bungled attempt” to thank veterans. His statement failed because he was unable to give the transgression any better name than a mistake, resulting in an incomplete, impersonal apology. Williams might have done better by addressing the possibility that self-promotion was a motive rather than honoring veterans, but that would have been a harder statement to make.
Also in February, Alex Rodriguez, baseball player for the New York Yankees, issued a short handwritten letter “to the fans” in which he said he took “full responsibility for the mistakes that led to my suspension” and offered “regret that my actions made the situation worse than it needed to be.” He added that “I can only say I’m sorry” and that he was ready to put this behind him and return to baseball. Despite writing out his apology long-hand, A-Rod was unable to convey sincerity since his apology lacked any real reflection and discussion about his suspension, just references to “mistakes” and a “situation.” February was a bad month for apologies.
In March, expelled University of Oklahoma student Levi Pettit, the 20-year-old videotaped leading a racist chant at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, apologized. Pettit began by saying that he was “deeply sorry” for the pain his actions caused. He noted that what he had said in the chant was “mean, hateful, and racist” and that there were “no excuses” for his behavior, adding that he would “be deeply sorry and deeply ashamed of what I have done for the rest of my life” and was committed to being a different person in the future. Pettit’s apology was successful not just because of its naming of what he had done and would do in the future, but because he delivered it together with African American leaders from Oklahoma, showing a willingness not just to apologize publicly, but to face some of those he had harmed by his words and actions.
In April, Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana apologized further for last November’s story “about a University of Virginia student’s account of her alleged gang rape at a campus fraternity house. Dana officially retracted the story, saying “We would like to apologize to our readers and to all of those who were damaged by our story and the ensuing fallout, including members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and UVA administrators and students. Sexual assault is a serious problem on college campuses, and it is important that rape victims feel comfortable stepping forward. It saddens us to think that their willingness to do so might be diminished by our failings.” Dana’s apology, and that of Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the author of the retracted story, didn’t just acknowledge mistakes but also identified that harm caused by their poor reporting—the effect on other and future victims of rape.
May was notable too for an apology that did not come—from the New England Patriots quarterback, Tom Brady. Following the release of the Wells report, which concluded that it was likely that Brady knew that staffers were deflating footballs, the four-time Super Bowl winner merely said, “I don’t have really any reaction,” adding that he had not had time “to digest it fully but when I do I’ll be sure to let you know how I feel about it.” We’ll see what the future brings for Tom Brady.
Then again, we still have six months left in 2015, so we’ll just have to wait and see what the rest of the year brings in the way of good and bad public apologies.
Image Credit: “Sorry” by Alexa Clark. CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr.
Religion has played an increasingly significant part in Season 5 of the HBO series Game of Thrones, with the ‘Faith Militant’ taking over the reins of power at King’s Landing, mostly unopposed. Yet Internet discussions indicate that some viewers have found this storyline unsatisfying, as the Sparrows are depicted as crazed religious fanatics, piously obsessed with driving out vice and immorality from the city. George R. R. Martin has described his inspiration for the Sparrows’ rise to power and reforming zeal as the Protestant Reformation, while also drawing on his own Roman Catholic upbringing, in conceptualizing the broader background of the Faith of the Seven in Westeros. Commentators have suggested that the Sparrows’ storyline might be more compelling if the motivations of the Faith Militant were portrayed more in terms of a grassroots religious revival movement, emerging out of protest against the inequality, violence, and corruption pervading Westeros. Perhaps. But what is also missing – at least in the HBO series (I haven’t read the books) – is any depiction of the Sparrows’ sense of a relationship with God or the divine (specifically here ‘the Seven’) and how this relationship then motivates their actions.
This absence of the divine in the portrayal of the Faith Militant maybe reflects the fact that God is something of a taboo in contemporary society, far more so than sex or violence, as sociologist of religion, Linda Woodhead, has commented in her research on religion in modern Britain. But, perhaps surprisingly, God has also been largely missing as an actor in both the sociology and the anthropology of religion. This is in part, as anthropologist Jon Bialecki has noted, due to social scientific disciplinary presumptions of ‘methodological atheism’, which, for the purpose of study, takes religious concepts and figures to be human externalizations, and brackets out the possibility of their having a divine referent. Within the sociology of religion, the study of God and sacred figures as social actors has mostly been avoided, out of concerns that this raises metaphysical questions beyond the empirical limits of the subject. Meanwhile in anthropology, relations with sacred figures have often been constructed as fetishistic in colonial encounters. Thus there has been a tendency in both disciplines to treat deities and sacred figures as projections of human needs, or as epiphenomena of broader social and economic processes, or to ignore questions concerning transcendental orientations altogether. Yet relations with supernatural beings are amenable to social scientific study, since they are always inevitably mediated by actions, symbols, gestures, rituals, and other things we can examine. In fact in recent years, there has been a growing interest among anthropologists in how individuals relate to the divine or transcendental.
This growing body of literature opens up an important direction for work in the broader study of religion, since to really understand the experience of faith means engaging with people’s different forms of sociality with sacred figures. This doesn’t mean entering into theological speculation. Rather, it suggests recognizing that any empirical account of religious lives, concerned with the reality of people’s lived experiences, needs to consider how these relationships with transcendental and sacred figures shape and are shaped by their relationships with other social actors. Also, to explore the material and embodied means by which these relationships are formed and experienced. Understanding the experiences of conservative evangelical Christians, for example, requires attending to their sense of relationship with God. Specifically, how their experience of God as pure coherence can lead them to both desire coherence and to become conscious of forms of subjective fragmentation within themselves, leading them to work to form themselves as oriented towards God and as ‘aliens and strangers’ in the world. This is somewhat different from some charismatic evangelicals’ modes of relationality, in which God is experienced less as a holy ‘Other’ and more as someone ‘who wants to be your friend’ anthropologist Tanya Lurhmann found in her research with the Vineyard movement in Chicago and Northern California.
The Sparrows come across as simplistic stereotypes in Game of Thrones in part because, as viewers, we can’t really understand their motivations, with their relationships with and devotion to the God of Seven bracketed out. Academic portrayals of contemporary religious lifeworlds can also seem flat when they fail to engage with the complex textures of individuals’ experiences of sacred figures in their everyday lives. For example, the ways they experience these characters as making demands of them, offering particular comforts, and exerting pressures on their other social relations. As Robert Orsi argues, many scholars of religion end up feeling somewhat dissatisfied with explanations of religion purely in social terms. This is not because they don’t believe in the value of such analyses, but rather because they fall short of the realness of the phenomena they are attempting to describe in people’s experience. Part of the challenge of the turn towards practice, embodiment and materiality in the sociology of religion is to consider these modes of sociality with sacred figures. A challenge that, as Orsi acknowledges, potentially unsettles established modern binaries of knowing, such as the real and imagined, past and present, and self and other.
Featured image credit: Jonathan Pryce as The High Sparrow, in the HBO series’ Game of Thrones. (c). HBO via Game of Thrones Wiki.
There are many film adaptations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula; many, of course, that are rubbish. If you need fresh blood and your faith restored that there is still life to be drained from the vampire trope, here are ten recommendations for films that rework Stoker’s vampire in innovative and inventive ways.
The story of Dracula on film tends to jump from Murnau’s silent masterpiece, Nosferatu (1920) to the invention of the ‘horror’ film with Todd Browning’s Dracula (1931). Interestingly, Bram Stoker’s widow sued Nosferatu for breach of copyright and set about trying to destroy every print of the film in Europe: lucky for us, she didn’t succeed. Universal at least remembered to pay Florence Stoker for the rights, and safely launched Bela Lugosi in the iconic form of the Count. Amidst all this noise, Dreyer’s wondrous film Vampyr sometimes gets forgotten, and yet it is a delirious, dream-like experience full of striking, unforgettable imagery. Go compare!
Hammer films reinvented itself as a ‘House of Horror’ with this splash of vivid Technicolor gore – shocking riches of gaudy colour in a drab post-war England. Christopher Lee embodies the model of the Count after the war, a relentless menace played off against the febrile and neurotic Van Helsing of Peter Cushing. It feels like an eloquent commentary on England’s decline somehow, full of an odd nostalgia for the life and death struggles of the past.
A rare and subversive miracle of a film. Portabella was one of Luis Bunuel’s producers, who had been effectively banned from making films in Spain by the fascist regime. Portabella shot this film on the set of Jess Franco’s film Count Dracula, which stars Christopher Lee. It is a scratchy, over-exposed black and white avant-garde poaching of images from a slick Technicolor pulp. Scenes are played out from Franco’s film, yet Portabella’s camera keeps moving after the action stops, gliding into the wings, revealing the rickety wooden sets, the lights and smoke machines that generate all that fake Gothic atmosphere. We see Lee laughing and joking as he is made up as the Count. It was banned in Spain: everyone understood this Count Dracula to be a portrait of the undead fascist dictator General Franco, who finally died in 1976.
The perennial Pittsburgh outsider George Romero is better known for inventing the modern zombie with Night of the Living Dead (1968), yet his vampire film is a brilliant revision of the whole genre. We are never quite sure if the misfit teenager Martin is actually a vampire, a sexual neurotic, a serial killer, or just a monster created by the cracked religious fantasies of his crazy family. An extraordinary evocation of the collapse of the steel belt in America, too, undeadness a product of post-industrial ruin. After this, it becomes extremely hard to take any Count Dracula seriously, so effectively does it modernize the vampire trope. This is why Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula gets nowhere near this list.
Colombian artist and activist Ospina made a satirical short film called Vampires of Poverty in 1977, a rather heavy-handed satire on documentary-makers and photographers who trade on beautiful images of the urban poor. He took this one step further with the film, Pure Blood, about the abduction and exsanguination of the urban poor by a couple of serial killers. It is uninterested in the rhythms of tension and release typical of genre horror films, and is deliberately slow and alienating: it insists, however, that B-movie vampires can be a resource for political films.
Del Toro went on to become a Hollywood block-buster giant, and his Blade films are amongst the best of their kind. Before that, he made this almost perfect Mexican vampire film, a moving story of the love of a small child for her accidentally vampirized grand-dad, who has discovered a mysterious alchemical device that feeds on blood. There is another great political story here about the vampirism of North America on Latin America, as a super-rich gringo seeks this device that promises eternal life amongst the barrios. Unlike Ospina’s rather serious and laborious film, Cronos has a lightness of touch and a wonderful mordant wit.
The B-movie still gets made and is still the place where startlingly clever ideas can be worked out in low down and dirty narratives a long way from twitchy executives looking at the bottom line. It has a great cast (Willem Defoe, Ethan Hawke) who clearly enjoy their subversive slumming. Daybreakers is set in a future where 95% of the Earth’s population are vampires and the remaining 5% of humans are farmed and commoditized for their blood. Vampirism becomes an allegory of growing inequality: it spoke eloquently to a post-crash world with a sly and cynical wit.
Jarmusch’s ultra-hip, slow and deadpan style is not to everyone’s taste. In this film it fits the languid account of two good-looking vampires living out a privileged but dwindling existence in the ruins of Detroit. Their options diminishing, they eventually travel back to the old world, with the last section set in the winding streets of Tangiers. The locations are used to impressive effect and you’ll either love the erotic languor of Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston or hate it. It seems to announce the exhaustion of the vampire genre, a living on after the end of something. That, of course, is a risky thing to propose…
A spoof ‘reality’ documentary on the flat-share of four vampires in New Zealand, which shows to wonderful comic effect and with a judicious dash of CGI special effects, how the vampire can be reinvented. After the tiresome culture wars between the sparkly vampires of Twilight and the sexy vampires of True Blood, this comedy feels like it has found new avenues of vampire life to exploit.
Stark, high-contrast black and white images reveal the strange and wonderful story of a young woman vampire in contemporary Iran. Maybe don’t try harassing her as she walks home alone at night? Stoker exploited fantasies about the East, the ‘whirlpool’ from which pollution would infect the West. One of the delights of world cinema is to see how the vampire trope is reworked for different cultures and locales, subverting Stoker’s conservative impulses.
Featured image: Chicago Theatre by gautherottiphaine. CC0 via Pixabay.