Cosmos (TV series, 1980)

Growing up, I never saw Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (PBS, 1980).  So, I’ve just been watching it (and reading the book) and pondering its approach and contributions to the popularization of science.  I’m doing this partly to help myself think about the implications of “public science” for “public musicology.”  It doesn’t surprise me that in 1994 Sagan (1934-96) won the National Academy of Sciences’ Public Welfare Medal (its highest honour), while simultaneously being denied membership in the Academy.  Numerous scientists didn’t like his media activities, in the same way that many of my fellow musicologists aren’t going to like my ventures into books for non-academic presses, self-published e-books for the public, and a collaborative community website for music history & culture.

The parts of Cosmos I like the best are the historical ones about the ancient Greeks and Ionians (the size of the Earth, the library at Alexandria, the scientific method), Kepler (elliptical orbits), Champollion (the Rosetta Stone), and so on.  On the other hand, there is surprisingly little in the 13-part series about Copernicus, Newton, and even Einstein.  Sagan and the other creators of Cosmos probably concluded that certain figures had already been covered at least adequately in such other places as high school and college textbooks.  I also like the 1990-92 updates included in the 2000 DVD edition.  For example, through updates of red-shift research, physicists have (since 1980) been able to model that the galaxies emanate outwards in a sort of plume shape (and, yes, thus away from each other at varying speeds) from a single point.  On the other hand, I have mixed feelings about the DVD edition having made obvious changes to the images of the 11th episode in order to add such things as 1990s’ computers, the World Wide Web, and so on.

Cosmos gets rather more into science-fiction towards the end, with the second-last (12th) episode a bit of a subtle plug for Sagan’s movie screenplay (1979) and eventual novel (1985) Contact, which was later revived as a major motion-picture (starring Jodie Foster) released in 1997.  Also, although it is not at all surprising for something from 1980, the last episode is quite pessimistically “cold war”-oriented.  For example, the last lines of a hypothetical, future Encyclopaedia Galactica entry about the Earth read:  “Communications Interrupted:  Neutron and Gamma Ray Doses approach lethality for dominant organisms.”  If the series had been done thirty years later, they probably would have spun those aspects to be more about such ecological and sociopolitical issues as global warming, natural disasters, the excess uses of energy, oil spills, controversies over acquiring and delivering energy, and rogue nuclear states.  However, the series (even the pessimism) holds up very well.  The last episode has the great line (still VERY applicable today):  “We accepted the products of science; we rejected its methods.”

I’m not a physicist, but it seems to me that everything we can model from the most distant galaxies happened billions of years ago.  So, what if everything that far away has already either turned into black holes (as happens with the largest stars) or (as might happen with neutron/pulsar systems and even white-dwarf systems, like ours will be) been sucked into their gravitational fields?  Maybe everything eventually disappears:  black holes into other black holes, probably, and perhaps even everything reaches a balance and the whole universe reverse big-bangs almost instantly!  Either way, the 4th-dimension (space-time, the best three-dimensional analogy for which has been that it’s “curved”) connects everything back to the singularity.  Done and done (closed universe).

Now, to music, since I am a musicologist!  It should be said that the credits of the series don’t list any of its specific items of music.  However, even on a cursory first pass, it is clear that Cosmos uses such accompanying music as recent electronic instrumental music, especially by Vangelis (such as from his 1975-76 albums, Heaven and Hell and Albedo 0.39), but also an electronic adaptation of Bach by Isao Tomita and several other pieces.  It also uses such classical works as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Holst’s “Mars” from The Planets, Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries,” Rimsky-Korsakov, Mozart, Bach, Pachelbel’s “Canon,” Vivaldi’s “Spring” from The Four Seasons, and early music and world music (for far away times and places, but Earth-bound ones).

Some of the music comes back too often (especially Vangelis’s mellow “Alpha” and “Heaven and Hell” excerpts) and some choices are too obvious (e.g., the “Martian” Holst).  However, there is also a much bigger problem in the idea that European 18th, 19th, and early-20th century classical or “art” music and 1970s’ pseudo-classical instrumental music is the “big music” most suitable to accompany “big questions” about the universe.  It’s not surprising that the series was made and developed in the late-1970s, just after the era in which Leonard Bernstein’s public lectures about classical music (1973) became well-known on TV, video, and in book form.  I wonder what choices the creators of Cosmos would have made if the series had appeared in 2010, instead of 1980?

A re-boot of the series is underway for 2014, to be hosted by science populist Neil deGrasse Tyson and co-written with Sagan’s two co-writers.  So, it will be interesting to see how the new, internet-age series compares to the original one.

Silver Linings Playbook (movie, 2012) & the Oscars

Silver Linings Playbook (as a story, anyhow) is not really in the same league as some of the other 2012 Best Picture nominations—especially Beasts of the Southern Wild, Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, and Life of Pi.  However, I am impressed that somebody found Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone, The Hunger Games, etc.) a reasonable transition-from-teen-star to interesting-young-woman project.  I hope no-one got too much money casting the also-excellent Julia Stiles as Lawrence’s older sister, though, because I thought of Stiles the very first time I saw Lawrence (in Winter’s Bone).

In addition:  People, you should watch the actual movies, not the damn Oscars show!  In the 4-6 hours you’ll waste on that broadcast and surrounding filler (not to mention the extended water-cooler chit-chat time on Monday), you could have watched 2 or 3 of the actual movies.  I still have Les Misérables and Amour to watch, and, as I don’t have TV, I’ll instead be watching those two movies tomorrow evening.

Nine contenders is too many!  As a Canadian, I find Argo deeply flawed and misleading, I didn’t find Django Unchained to be nearly as good as Tarantino’s last movie (Inglourious Basterds), and so on.  So, there probably should have been more like six (possibly even only five) nominees.

Life of Pi (movie, 2012)

I guess I’m OK with the fact that they made a movie of Life of Pi, because at least it didn’t suddenly end at page 115 and get divided into three movies over 2.67 (or 3.14) years. I hope more people read Yann Martel’s book now, though, because it’s really pretty amazing.

Arguably, Ang Lee’s movie (scripted by David Magee) crosses the line into visually taking sides too much vis-à-vis the mystery of the “religion/imagination vs. reality/science” conundrum that I take to be the main point of this particular, peculiar survival story. I was also amazed that Gérard Depardieu got such prominent billing, given that he only spends about two minutes on-screen as “himself,” followed shortly thereafter for an additional five or six minutes “as a hyena.”

I’m going to have to go over the movie again to assess Mychael Danna’s award-winning, heavily world-music-influenced score.

“Come on, Children” (teen documentary, 1973)

I just watched Allan King’s sublimely weird documentary Come on, Children (1973), which includes young Alex Zivojinovich (i.e., Alex Lifeson, Rush’s guitarist) living in a rural Ontario farm house with nine other teenagers for ten weeks. It’s the winter of 1971, and Alex turned 17 the previous summer and became father to the first of his two sons, Justin, in October of 1970. He did not go back to finish high school (grade 12) during the 1970-71 school year and also seemed to be split up temporarily from his girlfriend Charlene: Justin’s mother, then apparently living on welfare. (Alex and Charlene did end up together, though, getting married in 1975.)

The movie is like “reality TV” (but 35 years ahead of time), because there are actually almost no interview elements in it at all! The part of it I had seen before (excerpted in the 2010 documentary, Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage) features a family-visit day, during which Alex argues with his parents, etc. about his decision not to go back to finish high school the following year, as he doesn’t plan on going to university. He mentions that the band (never named, I think) will be able to make $240 ($80 each) per gig starting that fall.  Dissertation aside: By the fall of 1971, the band members (which didn’t include Neil Peart until the summer of 1974) would all be 18 and thus able to play in bars, because the drinking age in Ontario was set to be lowered to 18 in the summer of 1971 (it would later be raised to 19).

The parts of the movie involving Alex that I hadn’t seen before have him being relatively “grown up” compared to some of the others (cooking, making the others clean up, not really being into drugs that much anymore, I think, and so on) and having a bit of a fling with one of the girls in the group. Musically, he plays bluesy acoustic guitar (sometimes along with one or more of the other three musicians in the group, such as on John Hamilton’s performance “Mr. Bojangles”), or–more to the point–doing loud and distorted Jimi Hendrix-like instrumental electric guitar solos (including a BAD attempt at “The Star-Spangled Banner”) or blues-rock Clapton/Cream-like improvisations, etc.

The movie’s worth a look, too, for the relative freedom re teenage drinking (sometimes to excess), smoking (Alex included), drugs (pot, hash, LSD, speed, and even heroin), etc. in that period. Alex is very tame in those regards (only one of the ten abstains completely), although it could have just been edited to look that way.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

I just saw the new, David-Fincher-directed “Hollywood” adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s book, Män som hatar kvinnor (Men Who Hate Women, which is a much more apt title than the English version: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). [No plot spoiler follows!] I didn’t find Lisbeth Salander (by American actress Rooney Mara) to be all that different from in the 2009 Swedish version (by Swedish actress Noomi Rapace), mostly because her troubled, hacker-investigator character is so vividly present in the “Millennium Trilogy” books themselves. I personally find Daniel Craig rather “beefcake-y” to be playing mild-mannered Swedish journalist Mikael Blomkvist, so Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist (from the first adaptation) makes way more sense to me. The primary settings remain in Sweden, but almost all of the characters speak in English, despite the fact that a fair bit of the background audio and images are in Swedish, so it is by no means obvious that English would REALLY be spoken. Both versions deviate from the book in several ways, and sometimes the same ways. The synth- and effects-heavy score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross works pretty well. It makes the most sense for Lisbeth’s “indie” (pierced, inked, etc.) aesthetic and “odd” mental state and for the quick-cuts that happen in the first half of the film–before she and Mikael start working together.

“Black Swan” (movie, 2010)

I like Darren Aronofsky’s movies, including pi, Requiem for a Dream, and even his relatively obscure “flop,” The Fountain. The Wrestler was a much more mainstream type of thing.

Black Swan strikes an effective middle-ground between arty and commercial. Natalie Portman is quite good with the material, including channeling her actual childhood ballet experience.  However, the character goes quite easily off the deep end, with “body”-obsessed fantasies, etc. (including what her rival, played by Mila Kunis, calls a “lesbo wet dream”) that seem inspired by David Cronenberg’s more bizarre things of the 1980s, but without the movie really ever providing an explanation (other than the character having an unpleasant mother, played by Barbara Hershey) for why or how she may be mentally ill in the first place.

I actually thought that the director’s space- and time-shifting meditation on life and love, The Fountain, was great, even though it failed commercially and had a very difficult production life (e.g., a drastically-slashed budget and Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz replacing Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett).

“The Social Network” (2010)

I like good movies much better than I like Facebook, even a good movie about Facebook. Even if only 20% of The Social Network is “true” (and it’s probably more like 60%), Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker are still grade-A douche-bags. I liked screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s comment to Stephen Colbert last evening that he doesn’t use Facebook and would rather call someone about having just had a great cupcake. Good one!

The movie was competently directed by David Fincher (Seven, The Game, Fight Club, Panic Room, Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, etc.), but despite its hi-tech sheen and recent setting, it’s really just an old-fashioned morality tale about greed and selling out your friends. (See one theater over for Wall Street 2.)

The Social Network covers the early years of Facebook (2003-04) extremely well, as adapted by Sorkin from Ben Mezrich’s nonfiction novel The Accidental Billionaires (2009). The soundtrack is suitably hi-tech and somewhat coldly electronic, by Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and Atticus Ross.

Facebook is NOT web 2.0: it is, at best, web 1.5. In a related matter, people who don’t want to hear about cupcakes (or somebody making lasagna for dinner, painting their bedroom, or becoming single) should check out the professional career-networking website LinkedIn.