Word of the Day: Agnotology
Agnotology (n.): The study of culturally induced ignorance or doubt.
I came across it in Michael Hiltzik's article about Robert Proctor, “Cultural production of ignorance provides rich field for study,” in The LA Times.
Proctor's field of research has taken him from the Nazis to Big Tobacco to Climate-change deniers to ACA opponents. I like this quote:
Early in his career ... he asked an advisor if Nazi science was an appropriate topic of research. “Of course,” he was told. “Nonsense is nonsense, but the history of nonsense is scholarship.” As part of his scholarship, Proctor says he “watches Fox News all the time.”
The big questions, for our Age of Misinformation, are at the end:
Given the torrent of misinformation washing about the public space and the multiplicity of pathways for its distribution, is there any hope for beating back the tide? Agnotologists are divided. “I don't see any easy out,” says UCLA's Wise. “All of the forces are on the side of undermining public trust in science.”
But Proctor has hope. “My whole career is devoted to pushing back,” he told me. “There is opportunity to expose these things through good journalism, good pedagogy, good scholarship. You need an educated populace.”
The effort needs to begin at a young age, he says. “You really need to be teaching third-, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-graders that some people lie. And why do they lie? Because some people are greedy.”
The History of Nonsense, Chapter 1,472.
Movie Review: Mr. Peabody & Sherman (2014)
It’s an odd experience seeing a movie written by someone you know. It’s even odder when it’s “Mr. Peabody & Sherman,” the animated Dreamworks feature based upon the 1960s Jay Ward cartoon about a supersmart dog (Mr. Peabody) and his adopted boy (Sherman), who have adventures traveling through time.
Odder still? I see the connection between my old friend and the cartoon dog.
By his teenage years, Craig Wright was more or less orphaned, so he lived with the families of friends during high school. He’s an autodidact who barely touched college but is one of the most well-read people I know. (See here, here and here.) He’s a successful playwright (“Orange Flower Water,” “Grace,” and “The Pavilion,” which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize), a musician (The Tropicals), a TV writer (“Six Feet Under,” “Lost,” “Dirty Sexy Money”). He’s also a father. The great relationship of his life, at least during the time I knew him, was with his son.
In the film, Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell) is a dog who never gets adopted because he’s interested in higher pursuits. Later in life, after much acclaim (Nobel prizes, etc.), he creates his own family by adopting a boy, Sherman (Max Charles), whom he raises. It’s the great relationship of his life.
There’s a nice scene near the end of the movie when Sherman, ridiculed by his peers as a dog since he’s being raised by one, finally owns up to it. He shouts, “I’m a dog, too!” Famous figures from history join in: George Washington, King Tut, Agamemnon. It’s a “Spartacus” moment, punctuated by Spartacus himself, who adds, enthusiastically but unhelpfully, “I’m Spartacus!”
But this is what I was thinking throughout the movie: Craig, you’re a dog, too.
The intellectual as hero
The Jay Ward cartoons of the 1960s—“Rocky and Bullwinkle,” “Dudley Do-Right,” et al.—were smarter and more pun-filled than their contemporaries, and you can say the same about this adaptation of “Mr. Peabody.” Its time-travel framework gives its creators an opportunity for a history lesson—albeit within the typical movie roller-coaster ride—and Craig and director Rob Minkoff don’t waste it.
We go to 1789 and the French Revolution, 1332 B.C. and King Tut, 1508 and the Italian Renaissance. We travel all the way back to the battle of Troy. We find out the reason Mona Lisa smiles, how Van Gogh came up with “Starry Night,” and why Marie Antoinette says “Let them eat cake.” It’s not really sugar-coated history, either. We get very specific instructions on mummification, for example. One of my favorite moments is Sherman’s first day of school when the teacher explains who George Washington was and what he chopped down, and Sherman, ever enthusiastic, pipes up that the cherry-tree story is apocryphal, created by subsequent generations to teach children a reductive lesson about telling the truth. Sherman actually says “apocryphal.” In a kid’s movie. I love that.
Pop culture tends to malign intellectuals but Mr. Peabody remains a hero here, while intellectual pursuits remain something worth doing and history something worth knowing. Yes, we get a mix of high and low culture, but even when it’s funny it’s generally smart—as when George Washington, back in his own time, impresses the ladies with his face on the $1 bill ... until Ben Franklin shows up with a $100.
We get great groanworthy puns (valedogtorian; queen of denial; and when Mr. Peabody suggests Mr. Antoinette should have delivered an edict to the poor, he adds, “But you can’t have your cake and edict, too”). We also get laugh-out loud moments, as when Peabody forbids Sherman, safely ensconced in Agamemnon’s huge arms, from fighting in the Trojan War. Sherman, p.o.’ed, is communicating through Agamemnon, so when Peabody reminds Sherman he’s a boy, just seven years old, Sherman whispers in Agamemnon’s ear, who announces, in a boyish whine, “... and a half!”
Voicework helps. Among the cameos: Patrick Warburton as Agamemnon, Stanley Tucci as Leonardo da Vinci, and Mel Brooks as Albert Einstein, who is admonished on the streets of New York, “Hey Einstein, look where you’re going!” and responds, a la Ratso Rizzo, “I’m walkin’ here!”
From Intolerance to tolerance
The story begins with a silent-movie trope. At school, Sherman is bullied by mean-girl Penny (Ariel Winter), and winds up biting her arm, so the moral authorities, in the person of Ms. Grunion (Allison Janney), threaten to take Sherman away from Mr. Peabody. At the same time, Peabody arranges a dinner/détente with Penny’s parents (Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann), at which Penny convinces Sherman to use Mr. Peabody’s time-travel machine, the WABAC, and ... yadda yadda. Generally, Penny gets in trouble and they pull her out of it. A minor subplot involves Penny pushing Sherman to do the grown-up things Peabody forbids—such as steering Da Vinci’s flying machine—skills that will come in handy in the final act.
The ending is sweet.
As in the beginning, Peabody drives Sherman to school on his scooter. As in the beginning, they exchange good-byes, but reversed: each says what the other said earlier. Then Peabody, who’s been narrating at various points, turns to the camera and gives us the final pun: “No doubt about it,” he says, “every dog should have a boy.”
Wait. Every dog should have a boy? Rather than “its day”? That’s not much of a pun.
And it’s not meant to be. It’s meant to be advice to all of us in the audience. From one dog to another.
Consider Yourself ... Well-Reviewed!
Jordan Muschler (front) as the Artful Dodger, with Justin Dekker as Fagain, in the Prior Lake Players' production of “Oliver!”
My nephew Jordan Muschler, a one-time reviewer on this site, has burst onto the stage yet again. Last October he played Gavrouche in the Bloomington Civic Theater's production of “Les Misérables.” Now he's the Artful Dodger in the Prior Lake Players' production of “Oliver!” It's actually a family affair. My nephew Ryan and brother Eric are in the production as well.
A review recently went up at The Prior Lake Monitor site, including this:
Jordan Muschler did a superb job playing the part of the Artful Dodger and had the cockney accent down perfectly.
Thank god. The rest of us in the family are a bit Seinfeldy in that regard.
Secrets to Their Success: Tactical Self-Delusion
I'm reading Garson Kanin's memoir, “Hollywood,” which is fast becoming one of my favorite insider memoirs of the movie business, and the first chapter is all about how Kanin came west in the late 1930s at the behest of producer Samuel Goldwyn, and how Kanin kept pushing to become a director even though Goldwyn didn't want him to become one. It became a big battle between the two. It raged. Everything about Goldwyn raged. He was a major asshole but with personality.
Eventually Kanin freed himself from Goldwyn's contract and his clutches to direct “A Man to Remember,” a B picture for RKO that did well at the box office. Shortly thereafter, Kanin ran into Goldwyn at a party, and the great man was enthusiastic. He called him a double-crossing little SOB, but then asked, quietly and sincerely, “Why didn't you ever tell me you wanted to be a director?” It's a laugh-out-loud moment.
Later, Kanin has a conversation with director William Wyler about it. “How do you explain it?” Kanin asked. Wyler replied:
Well, I’ll tell you. He believes with all his heart that you spent a year at his studio and never mentioned the subject of directing. He believes it because he has to. He’s convinced himself that’s the truth, because—don’t you see?—if he admits to anybody or to himself that there you were, under contract to him, begging him every minute for a chance to direct, with him turning you down, then you go out and become a successful director for another studio, he’s made a blunder. He’s used bad judgment, so rather than admit this, he convinces himself you never mentioned it. That's his mentality. I think it may be one of the main reasons for his success. To himself, he's never wrong.
See also: Donald Rumsfeld; Dick Cheney.
I did a few of these “How to Get Ahead” posts in the past, but let them lapse. No more. They're a good antidote to the All-American, FOX-News notion that if you just work hard enough you'll be a millionaire; and that if you're not a millionaire you just didn't work hard enough.
Other paths to success?
Goldwyn: never wrong.
The Dumbest Thing Said at CPAC?
Breitbart headline: FRED THOMPSON: CONSERVATIVE FILMS NOT MADE BECAUSE OF HOLLYWOOD 'COCKTAIL CURRENCY'
Repsonse: Right. If only Hollywood made movies starring good guys who use guns to save the world from usually nonwhite bad guys. But that'll never happen.
On second thought: That's not nearly the dumbest thing said at CPAC. Dinesh D'Souza spoke, after all.
Maybe someday we'll be able to see scenes like this on our movie screens. But liberal Hollywood keeps getting in the way.
Breitbart's 2014 Box Office Predictions Obvious, Lack Context
Bretibart says Katniss will rise highest two years in a row. Has that ever happened?
The Breitbart site has given us its 2014 box-office predictions two months into 2014, but what the hell. The first two months are always throat clearing for Hollywood anyway.
Among its predictions?
- “Mark Wahlberg will become the industry's next big action star.”
- “With films 300: Rise of an Empire, Maleficent, Divergent, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Dolphin Tale 2 set to open well, a lot of new talent will be joining current new talent heavyweight Jennifer Lawrence.”
- “Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part One Will Be Year's Biggest Grosser.”
Wow, going out on a limb, BB. My responses:
- Wasn't he 10 years ago?
- New talent? You mean Shailene Woodley from “The Descendants”? Or maybe Sir Ian McKellan from “X-Men”? It would be nice if they named names, as their political ancestors did.
- The sequel to the biggest movie of 2013 will be the biggest movie of 2014? Shocker!
Actually, wait. Maybe that last one is a shocker. Has the same franchise movie ever been the year's biggest movie in back-to-back years?
Here's a list of sequels that were the biggest domestic box-office hits of the year, followed by time removed from predecessors:
- 1980: “The Empire Strikes Back” (Three years after “Star Wars” was 1977's biggest movie)
- 1983: “Return of the Jedi” (Three years after “Empire” was 1980's biggest movie)
- 1991: “Terminator 2” (Seven years after the first movie was the 21st-biggest-hit of 1984)
- 1999: “The Phantom Menace” (16 years after “Jedi” was 1983's biggest movie)
- 2003: “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” (One year after “Two Towers” was the second-biggest movie of 2002)
- 2004: “Shrek 2” (Three years after “Shrek” was the third-biggest grosser of 2001)
- 2005: “Revenge of the Sith” (Three years after “Clones” was the third-biggest movie of 2002)
- 2006: “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest” (Three years after the first “Pirates” was the third-biggest movie of 2003)
- 2007: “Spider-Man 3” (Three years after “Spider-Man 2” was the second-biggest grosser of 2004)
- 2008: “The Dark Knight” (Three years after “Batman Begins” was the eighth-biggest hit of 2005)
- 2010: “Toy Story 3” (Eleven years after “Toy Story 2” was the third-biggest hit of 1999)
- 2011: “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2” (One year after “HPATDH Part 1” was the fifth-biggest grosser of 2010)
- 2013: “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” (One year after “The Hunger Games” was the third-biggest hit of 2012)
Two things you notice about the above: 1) Sequels used to be spaced three years apart and now come more quickly, thanks to CGI; and 2) we're loving our sequels more and more. Or maybe Hollywood's just better at making them. For two decades, in the 1980s and '90s, only four sequels were the year's biggest hit: three “Star Wars” movies and “T2.” But in the last decade? A sequel has been the year's biggest hit every year since 2003 with the exception of 2009 (“Avatar”) and 2012 (“The Avengers”); and you can make an argument for the latter as a sequel.
Anyway, the larger point stands: The Breitbart site seems to be predicting the obvious but is actually predicting something that's never happened. They should have mentioned that in their post.
The above stats are taken from Box Office Mojo, which tracks back only to 1980. Numbers before then are an iffy territory (if they're not now). But if you do go back further, as I did with “The Hollywood Reporter of Box Office Hits,” you'll find one sequel that was the No. 1 box office hit of the year one year removed from its original. “The Bells of St. Mary's,” with Bing Crosby as Father O'Malley, was the No. 1 movie of 1945 the year after “Going My Way,” with Bing Crosby as Father Chuck O'Malley, was the No. 1 movie of 1944.
So it has been done. Once. Seventy years ago.
Breitbart site? It's called research.
Katniss is trying to do what only this man has ever done. But can she sing?
Trailer of the Day: The Last of the Unjust
I could do without the American trailer narration. It's just wrong for this documentary.
Anyone know when it might play Seattle?
Help Me Copy Curmudgeon, You Are My Only Hope
I'm reading “Hollywood” by Garson Kanin on my Kindle and came across this spelling error from amazon.com. It's on the Kindle, too, but not in the book. ATTN: Copy Curmudgeon. Not to mention Mr. B:
“Hollywood” is a lot of fun, by the way. Great stories so far on Samuel Goldwyn. He's a major asshole but he's got personality, and, as we've learned, personality goes a long way.
When Modern Celebrity Began
“It seems so strange that so many people would gather at the train to welcome one they had never seen, only in pictures.”
-- Florence Lawrence, “The Biograph Girl,” and the first designated movie star, after she was mobbed by fans at the St. Louis railroad station in March 1910, as reported in Ty Burr's “Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame,” pg. 17. Burr adds: “No one understood what had just happened, least of all the woman at the center of the rapture.” You could say our modern world, with its heavy focus on fame and celebrity, began here.
In Talking Oscars, Breitbart's Big Hollywood Makes Fox News Seem Fair and Balanced
Big Hollywood attributes the Oscar ratings boost to the lack of politics at the event during the Obama years. (Above: First Lady Michelle Obama announces the best picture winner, for “Argo,” in 2013.)
How bad is Breitbart's Big Hollywood site? It makes Fox News look fair and balanced in comparison.
Big Hollywood recently posted an article on the bounce-back ratings for the Academy Awards Sunday night (43 million vs. 32 million in 2008) and attributes it solely to the lack of “boorish, smug, divisive political behavior” from the Hollywood elites during the Obama years. No Michael Moore speeches, no anti-Iraq war speeches, etc. So viewers are tuning in again. “Who would have ever guessed?” John Nolte asks smugly, if not to say divisively, at the end.
The problem? 2008 was also the last year there were five best picture nominees—nominees, by the way, that had long stopped being among the top box-office hits of the year. (See this chart.) That was the whole point of expanding the nominee pool: to get bigger box-office hits among the mix, and thus, hopefully, goose the TV ratings. Do politics, or apolitics, have something to do with the recent ratings boost? Who knows? But for Nolte not to mention the expansion of best picture nominees verges on duplicitous.
The Fox News site, on the other hand, while it gives us a boorish, divisive headline about another Oscar matter (“Academy, Hollywood's failure to recognize 'Lone Survivor' a travesty”), attempts some fair and balanced reporting from James Jay Carafano.
His piece is about how “Lone Survivor,” the Mark Wahlberg/Afghanistan/anti-My Lai picture, garnered no nominations despite some critical and box-office acclaim. Certain right-wing pundits (Sean Hannity) have used this as an example, according to Carafano, of “how liberal Hollywood really hates the military.” Carafano isn't convinced. He brings up “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Hurt Locker,” and echoes the shrug of The National Review's Jonah Goldberg over the controversy.
True, Carafano writes, in over-the-top fashion:
In the annals of American war films, the technical accuracy and realism of this film is unprecedented. In this regard, it is truly a historic cinematic achievement. For Hollywood, not to salute that is a travesty.
But he adds:
That said, it’s simply unfair to label Tinsel Town as a bunch of pathetic pacifists.
(Of course, that's almost like push-journalisim, isn't it? The way that push-polling is about disseminating false facts rather than extracting true information, this could be the same from the journalism side: pretending to be vaguely objective while pushing propaganda points.)
Carafano also gets his numbers wrong.
In the first graf, he compares “Survivor” to “Waterworld,” the 1995 Kevin Costner flick that actually garnered an Oscar nomination (sound editing) even though “Lone Survivor” has none, and even though the Wahlberg flick “also crushed it in ticket sales.”
First, you can create the world's greatest film festival from the movies that never received an Oscar nomination—from 1957 alone: “A Face in the Crowd,” “Paths of Glory” and “Sweet Smell of Success”—so I'd leave that one alone. Second, the numbers are fudged. Yes, “Survivor”'s domestic box office is bigger than “Waterworld” ($123.5 million to $88 million), but when you adjust for inflation “Survivor” is the same while “Waterworld” is on top with $169 million. And that doesn't even take into account international box office, where “Waterworld” grossed $175 million in 1995 (unadjusted) and “Survivor” grossed exactly zero dollars this past year, because it hasn't been released overseas. Will it ever? Who knows? Maybe Universal feels it won't play in Europe. Or Asia. Or anywhere but here. There's a story there.
In the end, the handwringing over “Lone Survivor”'s zero noms is overdone. It's an OK movie but hardly great. For all of these reasons.
“Wait, we didn't make as much as 'Waterworld'?”
Twitter: @ErikLundegaardTweets by @ErikLundegaard