Monday, June 15, 2009

Tales of Man-Bots and Cookie Monsters

First unveiled at the 1964 World's Fair as the prime attraction of the General Electric Pavilion, Walt Disney's Carousel of Progress used a new song by the Sherman Brothers entitled There's A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow as its transition between each scene depicting a decade of American life.

Disney loved innovation and, because of his extensive use of audio-animatronics and anthropomorphism in his stage and film productions, he would probably have been thrilled by some of our recent scientific advancements. In 1996, through a process known as nuclear transfer (cloning), Dolly the sheep became the first mammal to be cloned from an adult somatic cell. In 2004, a Texas woman paid $50,000 to Genetic Savings & Clone to reproduce her pet cat.

As geneticists have made greater progress in unraveling the mysteries of DNA, experiments in transgenesis and genetically modified organisms (GMO) have found new and effective uses for the fluorescence found in certain species of jellyfish. In 2006, researchers at the National Taiwan University succeeded in creating three little pigs that glowed a bright neon green. By tinkering with genes that manage protein fluorescence, scientists in South Korea have managed to breed white Turkish Angora cats that can glow red under an ultraviolet light. GloFish are genetically modified fish that glow in the dark.

Walt Disney's idyllic vision of the future probably didn't include the kind of corporate greed that has been rampant on Wall Street or the ruthless style of media manipulation revealed in Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott's 2003 documentary, The Corporation.

Whenever bioethics clash with corporate greed, lawsuits are bound to ensue. Monsanto's determination to own the genetic code to all seeds used in agriculture (documented in The Future of Food) has been a continuous source of scientific and bioethical controversy. Myriad Genetics (which claims to own the patent on two genes related to breast and ovarian cancer) was recently sued by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of several cancer patients. Curiously, the right-to-lifers who went berserk during the Terry Schiavo shitstorm, have continuously questioned the benefits of stem cell research and feel totally justified in bombing abortion clinics do not seem to get quite as agitated about genetic modification when there is a profit to be made.

With megacorporations working hard to silence critics and documentarians, the best way to highlight corporate malfeasance with regard to bioethics may actually be through fiction and satire. ABC's brilliant new comedy, Better Off Ted, takes place in the offices of a company that will do anything for a profit. As the head of research and engineering for Veridian Dynamics, Ted is constantly confronted by situations wherein a corporation is trying to justify any possible means to a profitable end.

Ted's boss, Veronica (portrayed with an icy deadpan by Portia de Rossi), has no morals and will do absolutely anything to make her way up the corporate ladder. Veronica is also brilliantly fluent in corporate speak. In one episode, when it is revealed that the new light sensors which have been placed throughout Veridian's corporate headquarters as a cost-cutting device do not recognize black people, she stresses that the company is not discriminating against blacks -- it is simply ignoring them. You can hear her voice in this brilliant clip devised shortly after Fox News refused to air one of President Obama's press conferences.

If asked to identify my favorite two films from the 2009 San Francisco International Film Festival, I would quickly point to two movies that dealt with the conflict of interest between corporate greed and bioethics. One approached the subject with a stark elegance that was, in some ways, necessitated by a small budget. The other went straight for toilet humor in a wicked and hilarious romp that combined literary animation with new life forms and male pregnancy. Neither film should be missed!

* * * * * * * *
The first science fiction film ever produced was based in part on Jules Verne's 1865 novel, From The Earth To The Moon. Created by French filmmaker George Melies (who pioneered the cinematic stop trick), 1902's Le Voyage dans La Lune is remarkable today not only for its fanciful approach to space travel but also for its naive charm.

Since then, there have been all kinds of movies involving adventures in outer space (ranging from Ron Howard's inspiring Apollo 13 to Mel Brooks' raucous Spaceballs). Some features, like Disney's Wall-E, have a whimsical touch while others, like 1998's Armageddon, boast the kind of testosterone-driven scripts that unabashedly deliver such cheesy lines as "My wife is up on that spaceship and she'd damned well better come home safe!"

With an overwhelming reliance on special effects, violent explosions, and "good versus evil" scenarios, many space adventures are aimed at a young male demographic that likes to blow things up. However, the more cerebral efforts -- like Stanley Kubrick's 1968 breakthrough (2001: A Space Odyssey), Stephen Spielberg's unforgettable Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and Robert Zemeckis' thrilling Contact (1997) -- push hard against the limits of our knowledge by daring viewers to stretch their imaginations to the point where they might actually embrace the unthinkable.

Moon, a brilliant new film by Duncan Jones, is a formidable new entry into the elite ranks of intelligent space films. Set in the future -- when the moon's surface is being mined for Helium-3, a precious gas that has been able to solve earth's energy crisis -- Moon takes us where no man has gone: to a lonely lunar station where everyone knows your name. The problem is that no one really knows its owner's darkest secret. The movie's tag line ("The last place you would ever expect to find yourself") contains the key to unlocking the film's perverse mystery. As producer Trudie Styler notes:
"Duncan came to me with the screenplay of Moon, the story of which he had conceived and then co-written with Nathan Parker. It was pitched as a science fiction film which, to me, often signals a rather masculine preoccupation with special effects. However, I soon realized that this was a different kind of sci-fi. Psychological drama drives the narrative of this movie, which I think is hugely appealing to a female audience. If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, they can have a meeting of minds watching Moon. Duncan's vision has made this possible. His ease with the camera and his intelligent direction of the actors has brought an independent sci-fi film to life. Few people would relish producing a science fiction film on a budget of only $5 million, but that's what I love -- the challenge of telling a story with the resources available."
In the film, Lunar Industries (the company mining the moon's surface) operates on a set of ethics that would make the management of Veridian Dynamics proud. Why? Helium-3 is a light, nonradioactive isotope of the element helium needed for nuclear fusion. As a byproduct of tritium decay, it accumulates in nuclear weapons. Although required for use in nuclear fusion, Helium-3 is extremely rare on earth. A single ton of Helium-3 could supply 10 million households with all the power they need for an entire year. According to Professor Jerry Kulcincski of the University of Wisconsin:
"This material, at several billion dollars per ton, is what makes [space travel] all worthwhile. There is nothing that we know of in the solar system that is worth going out to get and bring back to the earth other than Helium-3."
In Moon, Kubrick's HAL 9000 has evolved into GERTY, a computer (voiced by Kevin Spacey) whose artificial intelligence lies at the heart of the moon mining operation. GERTY keeps the remote moon station ticking and looks after the lone astronaut who lives there. To describe Sam Rockwell's powerfully masculine performance as "multi-faceted" or "giving his character a chance to confront himself" might reveal the film's core secret -- a powerful plot twist which is, I think, far more provocative than what led to all the buzz about M. Night Shyamalan's 1999 hit film, The Sixth Sense.

There aren't too many whistleblowers in space. But this one has uncovered a jaw-dropping act of corporate malfeasance which was, no doubt, carefully engineered by Lunar Industries' legal staff. While one cannot laud Nathan Parker's screenplay for its sparkling dialogue, the way he has brought Duncan Jones' story to life demonstrates a sparse elegance and rare intelligence in his approach to structuring a very lean -- and mean -- science fiction thriller. The writing, pacing, and clinically detailed direction of Moon (coupled with Gary Shaw's superb cinematography) make this a must-see film for science fiction fans as well as general audiences. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
While I'm curious to see how the right-to-life crowd reacts to Moon, I have no doubt that religious conservatives will be mortally offended and utterly enraged by David Russo's deliciously disrespectful, impudently iconoclastic, and intoxicatingly inappropriate new feature, The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle. Russo's background includes 10 years in janitorial work, where he once found a miscarriage in a women's toilet. He is also the founding artistic director of Greenstage (Seattle's Shakespeare in the Parks theater company). As the filmmaker notes:
"The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle was extremely challenging to get made due to the perceived toilet humor in the script. But in the words of a janitor in the film, when asked about his janitorial-themed artwork, he replies, 'Yes, there’s toilet humor, but there’s also toilet sadness, toilet triumph, toilet a lot of things because I’m a janitor and this is my world.' I can’t defend my movie any better than that."
Filmmaker David Russo

The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle's
opening credits follow a bottle that contains a written message as it bobs in the ocean and eventually finds its way to shore. Standing nearby, eating a banana as he clutches his copy of the Holy Bible is Dory (Marshall Allman), a young and faith-filled computer nerd who likes to refer to himself as "The Datameister." No sooner does Dory reach for the bottle than he falls headfirst into the cold waters of Puget Sound. Retrieving the message, he unravels a piece of paper and is confronted by two words: "FUCK YOU!"

From that moment on, Dory's life goes hilariously downhill. Returning to his office cubicle, he must listen to a bubble-brained colleague merrily chirping nonsense into her cell phone. Dory finally loses it, takes drastic action, and quits his job. As he leaves the building, a colleague gives him a referral to a company that might be hiring.

Spiffy Jiffy is not what anyone would call a high-tech operation. Nor does it really rely on computer expertise. Owned by a mysterious cross-dressing Persian Gulf war veteran with a heavy dope-smoking habit, its employees are mostly angry, disenfranchised young people who thrive on whatever perks they can scrounge from the garbage pails they empty during their shift. Their supervisor, O.C. (the hilarious Vince Vieluf), is a janitorial rebel/wannabe artist with a Dane Cook-style chip on his shoulder. "You don't need band practice to play the fuckin' wind chimes!" he explains.

O.C. has developed a crush on a shapely blonde executive (Natasha Lyonne) who works for a market research company and has invited Dory to bring some of his friends to a focus group. Why? Tracy's firm is test marketing a new type of cookie that has been chemically engineered to taste oven fresh and give people huge bursts of energy and a feeling of warm-all-over satisfaction.

Although women seem to be immune to the addictive power of these cookies, the men who eat them suffer bizarre hallucinations and disturbing mood swings. Realizing that the cookies she has left in the conference room each night have become a big hit with the building's clueless janitorial staff, Tracy decides to use Spiffy Jiffy's motley crew of counter-culture employees as guinea pigs (including two janitors named Ethyl and Methyl, who indulge in passionate nightly fuck-a-thons atop an elegant corporate conference table).

It doesn't take long for Dory to stumble upon a bright blue, placenta-like mess in a toilet that he must clean up. Although he thinks he sees something moving, he's not quite sure what he has witnessed. But when Dory himself ends up having cramps in the shower as he hallucinates various type styles, words, and fonts washing all over his body as they head toward the drain, he looks down to discover that he has shat out another blue mess containing a tiny-winged creature that almost resembles a flying fish. When the mysterious clump of blue tissue slips down the drain before he can catch it, Dory becomes convinced that sinister forces are at play.

The challenge, of course, is for Dory's rowdy crew to capture the next mysterious blue birth on camera so that they can cash in on the kind of money and tabloid fame that is sure to follow. But with a group of feverishly confused male potheads (one of whom might be destined to deliver the next alien life form), any concerns about what could happen if the shit hits the fan take on a new and toxic urgency.

In an interview with IndieWire, Russo confessed that "Finding funding among generally anal retentive people for a film that derives its power from the opposite tendency was a feature film worth of comedy in and of itself. Finding distribution is shaping up to be equally hilarious." Here's the trailer: