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Thursday 27 October 2011

We Need to Talk About Kevin, Film directed by Lynne Ramsay, 10 out of 10

In his recent book, which appeared in the US under the title “The Science of Evil” (UK title Zero Degrees of Empathy), the British neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen reports on results of his research on the brain. His empirical studies identified an “empathy-circuit” in the brain. Empathy is the ability to put oneself into the position of an other and sense what he feels. Studies on psychopaths, who have committed heinous crimes, show that their empathy circuits are absent or do not functio properly. They do not feel empathy with other people. Baron-Cohen finds zero degrees on his scale of empathy a more useful concept than the commonly used term evil. The lack of empathy could also occur temporarily, i.e. while in a rage. Moreover it could be focused on some people while empathy is shown towards others. Baron-Cohen's research points to a possible genetic component as the cause, but the evidence was as yet insufficient to draw the conclusion that there are identifiable groups of genes leading to absence of empathy, what we commonly call evil. Not everyone whose empathy circuit is disturbed turns into an evil criminal, though. Baron-Cohen is convinced that nurture can do a lot to mitigate nature.

We Need to Talk About Kevin, the film based on the book of the same name by the female writer Lionel Shriver. It is perhaps the ultimate nightmare of every educated, intelligent, no non-nonsense mother brilliantly captured on celluloid.

Eva (Tilda Swinton) lives on her own in a small very modest home. She is subjected to the furtive, hostile looks of her neighbours. Her house and car are doused in red paint every day. As the story moves between present and past we find out what the circumstances were that have led to the situation in which Eva finds herself.

A modern and rather independent woman working as a well known travel-writer she meets Franklin. They marry and have a son, Kevin. Kevin is more than a handful to his mother from the beginning. A crybaby who drives his mother to distraction. Even as a small child he is highly manipulative. From the youngest age he devotes his energy to probe the areas where he can provoke and hurt his mother. This also involves manipulating his father, his doctors and others with his charm and intelligence. The cruel psychological war he has unleashed on his mother escalates as he grows into a teenager.

Eva won't be defeated. She does not break down, stands up to Kevin and has another child. A less strong person would have broken down, sent him away or left, particularly since her husband is of no help to her in raising their son. There are moments when Eva loses it, but Kevin is not interested in the final victory. He wants the thrill of the escalating war on his mother, the one worthy target of his manipulative narcissistic obsession. How far will Kevin go in order to provoke his mother to give up on him?

Lynne Ramsay's script (written with Rory Kinnear) and outstanding direction tells this compelling tale brilliantly. Tilda Swinton's perfo
rmance is among the best of 2011. Ezra Miller as the teenage Kevin is magnetic and the chemistry between Swinton and Miller makes the film a candidate for many prizes. This film is not advised for couples thinking of starting a family, though.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

The Theatre of Life: Quasicrystals, the True Story of a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, starring Dan Shechtman, Professor of Applied Material Sciences at the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa

April 8, 1982. Dan Shechtman is a young Israeli materials scientist on a one year sabbatical in the United States. He experiments with heating up metal compounds and cooling them down quickly. An area of the resulting cooled-down mass looks different from the rest. Dan examines it under the electron microscope. What he sees at the atomic level is a structure that contradicts everything that has been taught on the subject. And so he doubts his findings. He writes in his notebook in Hebrew “Ayn Chayah Kazo”: A beast like this does not exist. He carefully checks his experiments and his method. Finally, he concludes that as a result of his findings, chapter 1 of all the basic text-books on the structure of matter will have to be rewritten.

At the time of Dan Shechtman's discovery, the mainstream of scientists works with X-rays to examine molecular structures. And using X-ray technology the results Dan saw under the electron-microscope cannot immediately be confirmed. Rather than question the paradigm, which has prevailed in their field since 1912, Dan's colleagues decide to disbelieve and even ridicule him as a charlatan. The head of Shechtman's research group, a personal friend, gives him a copy of a beginners' textbook and tells him to read it carefully. When Shechtman persists, he is fired from his research group as his boss and former friend does not want to risk the research group being exposed to the worldwide ridicule of other scientists in the field.

Shechtman manages to convince a colleague in Israel, that his stunning results are real. The colleague develops a theory framework based on the experimental results. But a paper they submit for publication in the field of Physics is rejected by the editors. The explanation given for the rejection is that Dan's discovery is of no interest to physicists. But he does not give up and slowly manages to convince a few more scientists and after four years of struggle, a scientific journal in the field of materials science publishes a paper co-written with colleagues that describes his findings.

Despite this publication, Linus Pauling, a scientist with the rare distinction of having won two Nobel Prizes in two different fields (Chemistry and Peace), continues to ridicule Dan Shechtman's work until his death in 1994. (Perhaps the 3 Lenin Prizes Pauling received in the 1960s from the Soviet Government disposed him to being somewhat dogmatic.)

But Dan Shechtman and the growing number of scientists who support his position does not give up and finally there is a paradigm shift in the theory on the structure of matter. Dan Shechtman's findings have entered the mainstream.

For those of us who believed that, in the natural sciences, excommunication and ridicule were tools of the established religious power against the advance of science, the true story of the structure of quasicrystals which plays in the 1980s will come as a shock. Human nature apparently does not need religious dogma to stay closed-minded. Scientists can be blacklisted by the community of scientists i.e. “excommunicated”, when they dare to challenge conventional wisdom and existing paradigms.

Luckily for Dan Shechtman, he lives in an open and democratic society. So no legal code in Israel and the rest of the West threatens his life as a result of his challenge to existing scientific authorities. Moreover, it does not take the several centuries it took the findings of Galileo and Kepler to overcome the paradigms and dogmas of their era.

It is interesting to speculate whether it was coincidence that Dan Shechtman has spent his academic career in Israel, where he is Distinguished Professor at the Technion, Institute of Technology in Haifa. It is also here that he initially found support for publishing his findings from a colleague. There are few other countries where people are willing to be persistent in the face of hostility and threats of exclusion from the scientific, cultural and political sphere not only by their enemies, but by their erstwhile colleagues and friends. There is ample evidence that the spirit shown by Shechtman, who is also one of the pioneers in Israel for teaching budding scientists entrepreneurship may be more pervasive in Israel than in other Western democracies. Numerous examples are found in the stories of Israeli High Tech Enterprises as told by Douglas and Helen Davis in their 2009 study of the Israeli high technology sector “Israel in the World”.

Meanwhile, Dan Shechtman's discovery of quasicrystals has given rise to a whole new field of cross-disciplinary science. Quasicrystals can today be found in many applications such as in surgical instruments and as a protective cover against extreme temperatures on turbine blades.

The Swedish Nobel Prize Committee for Chemistry 2011 deserves high praise for its choice of Nobel Laureate and the reasoning behind it. The message to young scientists is: build on the body of existing knowledge of your field but dare to challenge its fundamental principles, you may live to enjoy the fruit of your courage and conviction. The message to confirmed scientists is: listen carefully when a young colleague questions a paradigm with which you have worked successfully during your professional life.

But there may be a wider lesson to be learnt that is applicable to European academic and political institutions: listen carefully to voices from other confirmed democratic open societies which challenge your political and social paradigms; consider carefully whether these paradigms may need shifting, too.

European attitudes towards Israeli academics, artists and politicians who take a view different from the prevailing conventional wisdom may just be a place to start implementing such an attitude. No boycotts, no divestment, no sanctions but an open and frank dialogue which includes listening to uncomfortable views that challenge old paradigms is the right way forward.

To find out watch Dan Shechtman tell his own story here.

And watch the video of the announcement of the 2011 Nobel prize for Chemistry here.

What has Dan Shechtman learnt from his experience of having his findings rejected and ridiculed?

Midnight in Paris, Film, written and directed by Woody Allen, 3* out of 5

If you were given the chance which past epoch would you have liked to have lived in? For Woody Allen and his good looking all American alter-ego Gil, the protagonist of Allen's latest film Midnight in Paris, the answer is clear: the 1920s in Paris.

Gil (Owen Wilson) is a writer who visits Paris in 2010 with Inez, his fiancée and her parents. Gil is a dreamer and romantic whose sympathy for liberal and socialist causes heavily contrasts with his future in-law's neo-conservative outlook. Inez wants Gil to come around to becoming a successful novelist and her trophy-husband. Gil in the meantime has fallen under the spell of Paris, although he only seems to take in the Paris of the past. None of Paris' modern architectural structures seem to gain access to his stream of consciousness as he wanders through its streets. If it is true that we all live our lives to the tunes of an inner sound track, Gil's is 1920s ragtime influenced Jazz. One evening, as Gil strolls through Paris on his own at midnight a limousine passes by and takes him into the international life of 1920s Paris. It is peopled with rich talented more or less idealistic Americans including Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. There are also other international artists on the way to becoming famous such as Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dali, Picasso and the photographer Man Ray. They seem to be spending most of their evenings at elegant parties given by their millionaire admirers or in romantic Paris cafés.

This is archetypal Woody Allen: intellectual, neurotic and mildly amusing, with the odd successful gag and some excellent well known actors and celebrities thrown in. An example of the latter is the current French President's wife Carla Bruni playing a tourist guide, demurely but effectively dealing with a 21st century insufferable American know-it-all pain in the neck.

Midnight in Paris is mildly amusing for people who are knowledgeable about the artistic and intellectual 20th century characters who spent the 1920s in Paris. There is however no bite in the satire The fact that the dreamer is a good looking tall blond man played by Owen Williams rather than someone reminiscent of the neurotic short, middle aged Woody Allen of his earlier films makes the inner logic of the story somewhat incongruent. Nonetheless, the beauty of classical Paris, the quality of the photography and the expectation Woody Allen has about the cultural education of the viewer, flatters the audience and mitigates the disappointment with the lack of bite. For hardened Woody Allen fans of his romantic-neurotic phase, the gentle nostalgia this film evokes outweighs the relative shallowness of its satirical ambition. 

Wednesday 5 October 2011

Drive, Film, written by Hossein Amini, James Sallis, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn; 4* out of 5

A young Hollywood stunt -driver and underpaid car-mechanic moonlights as a getaway driver for robberies. He falls in love with a woman, who is married to a prison-inmate and unwittingly gets on the wrong side of some very nasty people.

If the plot of this action film does not sound very original, that's because it isn't. But don’t let that put you off.

The story is good enough for a stunning and outstanding action-film, because direction, photography and music combine to create a truly beautiful, tense atmosphere that makes the experience of watching Drive memorable.

The deliberate pacing of the camera shots during action sequences and car-chases and the perspective chosen in each shot are masterful. And to put the icing on this cake, there is an extraordinary performance by Ryan Gosling.

He plays his character with an understated determination and a propensity to explode into brutal and relentless but very focused violence. Gosling in his racing-driver's jacket has the charisma and the makings of a James Dean for the 21st century, hopefully with a long and productive career ahead of him. He also seems to have a knack for appearing in high quality films such as one of the best films of 2010, Blue Valentine.

The Danish Director Nicolas Winding Refn, who spent his childhood in New York introduces an unflinching Scandinavian look at social realities and the violent world of organised crime which is reinforced by slowing down the action and taking unusual perspectives. A tense car chase is made even tenser by slow and stationary elements forming part of it. For this film Winding Refn deservedly won the Best Director Award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.

In fact, Refn’s direction and Gosling's performance have lifted this film into a timeless classic of the action genre.