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Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists and Cinema

by David A. Kirby
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2011
264 pp., illus. 74 b/w. Trade, $27.95.
ISBN: 978-0-262-01478-6

From IBM to MGM: Cinema at the Dawn of the Digital Age

by Andrew Utterson
BFI, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke UK and New York City, 2011
192 pp., illus. 52 b/w.  Trade, $95.00; paper, $34.95.
ISBN 978-1-84457-324-0; ISBN 978-1-84457-323-3.

Reviewed by Mike Leggett
University of Technology Sydney


These two Cinema titles have intriguing areas of overlap; the first examines how science in general including computing is represented within the dream machine; and the second, how computers are both represented and used for the manufacture of predominantly popular entertainment. They both contain the tensions and anxieties of the areas of focus and in the approach taken to communicating such issues to a reading audience.

Lab Coats in Hollywood initially captured my attention - Was this a long overdue analysis of the part played by chemists in the perfection of the image on the silver screen? (Or as one chemist has put it, "The alchemist makes entertainment out of silver!") However no, this is another story, slotting into the media studies shelf and examining the vicissitudes of the representation of science, aided and abetted by scientists cloaked as consultants.
The iconic, the indexical, and the symbolic are not to be found here as the author, instead, using mostly field research into the protagonists activities, deconstructs what is 'real' about both the subtle and the bombastic presence of scientists in front of and behind the camera. The mission for engaging with Hollywood is clearly stated: “Any time a scientist discusses or portrays, scientific information, it is an act of persuasive communication and as such it can have an impact on scientific practice.”

Practice here means ability to practice not methodology. The ethics of idea placement are not so much discussed as instanced within recent cinema history. When science teams promote their projects in the public eye through exposure in the cinema, they gain advantage with politicians and investors and, thus, funding outcomes. Though Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) established the idea of PanAm as an airline of the future, it made no difference to their eventual demise but helped enormously to emphasis the corporate success enjoyed by NASA in the promotional stakes at the point of landing a man on the moon. Production anecdotes abound, for the most part, recalling events in scripting, pre-production, and the studio floor, including moments in front of the camera as a line of dialogue is finalised. Amongst the more engaging nuggets, NASA spacesuit engineers learned a lot from film production designers engaged in inventing the look and feel of the actors' costumes, their style and appearance, the very definitions of the dream factories' appeal. Product designers' theories of form-into-function, for all the engineers’ pioneering attitudes, lay well outside their remit for inventing cutting edge space travel. The science accuracy in Deep Impact (1998) was apparently good enough for the name to be used by NASA for an actual funded research mission completed in 2005 related to the film's theme. The author's background as an evolutionary biologist shines through during many visits in his account to the set and the events behind the makings of the Jurassic Park series (1993 onwards).

In From IBM to MGM: Cinema at the Dawn of the Digital Age Utterson's account of IBM's and NASA's involvement with Kubrick's 2001 are based on careful reading of the literature, (and thereby a very complete Bibliography), and the ramifications of the film's messages viewed from theoretical perspectives developed over the years since its making in the mid-1960s; Kubrick posed some anxieties of the time about the computer and the musings of Marvin Minsky on Artificial Intelligence. The author, thereby, advances to discussions on evolutionary and ecological trajectories posed by less visible systems and not simply lumps of interface hardware decorating the sets. On this basis Utterson's preference is to discuss the latter sections of the film, (using earlier discussions of Godard's 1965 Alphaville from which to launch them), rather than the opening sections where the credibility of 'folk science' is in play at the core of the audience experience.

He also gives voice to non-mainstream artists and the considerable experimentation taking place without significant budgets, often in collaboration with scientists working in commercial and government laboratories; outcomes ranged from abstract cinema to complex installations searching for expanded forms and interactivity, bringing us to contemporary thoughts about 'future cinema'.

“Cinemas power as a virtual witnessing technology” is the term applied to the cinematic experience of being immersed in the images and the information contained in features such as The Day After Tomorrow (2003). Kirby reports that it was the subject of audience studies to understand what kind of communication occurs when a topic like global warming is discussed on the big screen. Contrary to the studio approach of sneak previews and market research, this contemporary approach employed ethnographic methodologies to gather data sets useful for a range of purposes, such as determining if public attitudes to climate change are affected. Though the studies provided conflicting evidence, the film was promoted by Green groups and, later, shots from it were used in Al Gore's, An Inconvenient Truth (2006); actuality and simulation are interchangeable when it comes to contemporary anxieties colliding with the physical world.

Kirby's book is no carefully prepared and arid academic tome. In fact, it is the only one of the titles listed by LDR to garner a one-paragraph review, with cover image, in the Sydney Morning Herald weekend edition. The author is credentialed on the staff of the Centre for History of Science, Technology and Media at the University of Manchester. The film buff will enjoy this immersion in Hollywood gossip, and it will be useful in the media studies classroom as a means of combining an understanding of pervasive stereotypes with the attractive and fashionable wackiness of much of the Hollywood entertainment masquerading as, or straining to become informed scientific discourse.

For those pursuing a critical approach to cinema and with some interest in the continuing theoretical discourse, Utterson's book employs Conclusions at the end of each chapter and a final chapter so named, (also with a Conclusion), to assist the reader with navigating 'this particular cartography,' bringing focus for some to the historical discussions that precede. (Focusing on the grey 8pt typeface is a greater challenge in an otherwise well laid out book.) References to the futurist Marshall McLuhan throughout should for many rehabilitate him as 'the man of integral awareness', graphically showing the way with the image of Noah's Ark, the vessel adopted by Utterson to 'illuminate the screen culture' of today as it sails into tomorrow.

Last Updated 4 June 2011

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