Sunday, March 07, 2010

Serious, Uncanny, and Psychic: A post for the Oscars

Under normal circumstances it would be difficult to justify a post about the Oscars on a science & religion blog. But this year we have two movies in the best picture category that have themes that intersect with science & religion: A Serious Man and Avatar. I loved A Serious Man - unfortunately, it doesn't have much of a shot to win best picture (see earlier posts: A Serious Man and Physics and Accept the mystery - go see A Serious Man). It still has a decent chance for winning the best original screenplay - though Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds may pick up this one, but that's okay - as that was also brilliant.

To get you into the mood for tonight, here are three items for you:
a) Evolutionary origins of The Uncanny Valley:

This is a fascinating issue. Apparently, you can make a robot that looks realistic (human-like) only upto a point: 95%. If it is more realistic than that then people get creeped out - i.e. a 96% realistic makes it more like a human with something seriously wrong. This is termed as The Uncanny Valley and animators in Hollywood keep this in mind when animating films - or you get boxoffice bombs such as Final Fantasy (too realistic). Listen to the NPR story on this here (about 8 minutes long). As it turns out, monkeys fall into the Uncanny Valley as well:
To test their preference, researchers showed macaque monkeys real pictures, digital caricatures and realistic reconstructions of other monkey faces. To the latter, the macaques repeatedly averted their eyes.

“The visual behavior of the monkeys falls into the uncanny valley just the same as human visual behavior,” wrote Princeton University evolutionary biologists Shawn Steckinfinger and Asif Ghazanfar in a paper published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Many explanations have been suggested for the uncanny valley, which has also been blamed for the box-office failure of movies like Beowulf and Final Fantasy. Perhaps almost-real humans look a bit too much like corpses for our comfort; perhaps they’re so real that they engage our brains’ mate-recognition or disease-avoidance systems, which promptly identify poor partners or sick individuals.

The PNAS results don’t favor any one of these explanations, but do suggest that the uncanny valley has evolutionary origins deep in the primate psyche.

Read the full story here.

b) Some Serious Music:

Everything in a Coen brothers film is finely crafted and there no useless scenes. But their use of music is also extraordinary and they were at their best in A Serious Man (okay - O Brother may be even better). How did the music for the film come about - especially the brilliant use of Jefferson Airplane? Here is an interview with the film's composer, Carter Burwell:

The script had specific musical references: Jefferson Airplane, F Troop, Sidor Belarsky. Belarsky was a Jewish opera singer who also made some Yiddish records, and there's one Yiddish song that [the Coens] just loved. These songs were in the script, and that was basically what I had to go on at first. Joel and Ethan had no suggestion about what the score should be. They just said, "Well, this is what you've got. You've got Jefferson Airplane and F Troop and Sidor Belarsky."

Okay. But here is how the movie's theme of uncertainty between life and death all gets connected:

Before the Coens had even cut more than a reel, they called me to say that they'd like me to start working on a piece of music that comes out of a story told entirely in Yiddish in some unspecified old world and leads right up to the opening bar of Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love." The idea was that during this transition from the shtetl to the Jefferson Airplane, you're traveling through the ear canal of this boy in Hebrew school. It's a dark and mysterious tunnel, and when you finally get to the end it turns out that it's the earpiece of his portable radio through which he's listening to Jefferson Airplane.

That was the first piece of music I wrote for the film. But for me, the film is really about a person who is balanced somewhere between life and death. Throughout the whole movie, death is hovering on the periphery. The metaphor of the movie is the first lecture that the university professor, Larry Gopnik, who is our main character, gives about Schrödinger's cat, which is a thought experiment in which a cat is simultaneously dead and alive. It maintains that situation until you observe it to determine which it is.

I see Larry as being in that situation himself, so the question for me as the composer is what can I do musically to suggest that. I found it was useful to have a motif that would repeat endlessly, to suggest that no matter what goes on in the film, he's not really getting anywhere. He's blocked at every point in his personal, professional, and spiritual life. And there's something about the delicacy of the harp that I think on the one hand seems sympathetic to this character's travails, but on the other hand is a little bit funny, because in fact none of these characters reveals any delicacy whatsoever. In every way, they're indelicate. One thing I enjoy about this harp motif is that it's polyrhythmic: you can count it in three or you can count it in four. I personally enjoy that ambiguity. The piece is so repetitious, and yet you're not sure where the bar lines are, so it's kind of interesting.

Absolutely brilliant! Read the full interview here.

c) Of course, I couldn't leave you without some predictions by Maxine - the psychic, for today's Oscars (a big hat tip to Laura Sizer for this!). Actually, this covers not just the awards but also fashion. But my favorite part of the interview by Movieline:

So let’s start with the big one. You call Inglourious Basterds for Best Picture. Have you seen Inglourious Basterds?
Can we take the recording off for a minute?

Off the record, I haven’t seen any of the movies. So I think that makes them all the more psychic. I wait for everything to come on Home Box and Showtime. I feel terrible.

I can’t put that in the interview? I kind of like that.
You know, you can use whatever you want.

I think it enhances the psychic element.
Thank you, I think so too. So I haven’t seen any of the movies, but these are my picks!

Ha! Hope you are in the mood for the Oscars now.


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