The demise of the Western?

I recently came across a discussion on the demise of the Western genre. Where did all the great Western novels and movies go?

But has there actually been a demise? For data, I turned to rottentomatoes.com, who have a list of the top 66 Western films, based on movie critic reviews. Their list is headed by The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), High Noon (1952), The Searchers (1956), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), True Grit (2010), The Wild Bunch (1969), A Fistful of Dollars (1964), Unforgiven (1992), and Sweetgrass (2009).

This histogram shows an increasing number of Western films over time:

But this is not the full story. Being based on movie reviews, the list is biased toward recent films, plus some “greats” of the past. In the histogram, colour shows film rating, with dark colours indicating higher ratings. Many of the recent films are clearly mediocre. Plotting the top 20 films tells a clearer story – there are about 2 good Western films each decade (except for the 80’s), with a peak of 8 during the 60’s:

The 60’s peak contains 3 Sergio Leone films, being composed of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), The Wild Bunch (1969), A Fistful of Dollars (1964), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the original True Grit (1969), The Magnificent Seven (1960), and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Perhaps that was a golden age for the genre.


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Aliens: A Study in Leadership

The upcoming World Solar Challenge has turned my mind to teamwork and leadership again – since good leadership is essential to success in that event. James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) is an excellent film for illustrating different leadership styles:

Lieutenant Scott Gorman, the incompetent leader

Lieutenant Gorman (played by William Hope) is completely out of his depth leading the mission in Aliens. Not because of any personal flaws, but simply through inexperience:

Ripley: How many drops is this for you, Lieutenant?
Gorman: Thirty-eight… simulated.
Vasquez: How many combat drops?
Gorman: Uh, two. Including this one.

Unlike incompetent leaders suffering from the Dunning–Kruger effect, however, Gorman is at least aware of his limitations, and of the fact that his lack of experience is a problem – that is why he is nervous. In the film, he was chosen as leader precisely because of his inexperience, in order to facilitate…

Carter J. Burke, the sociopathic leader

Carter J. Burke (played by Paul Reiser) has an immoral hidden agenda. To achieve his ends, he is prepared to lie, to sacrifice the innocent, and to risk the human race itself. Such sociopaths are not unknown in the workplace. Fortunately, in the film, Burke is forestalled by…

Ellen Ripley, the emergent leader

Emergent leaders can be good or bad. When there are rewards to be had, the incompetent and/or sociopathic are often quick to volunteer:

Others refuse the weight of public service;
whereas your people eagerly respond,
even unasked, and shout: I’ll take it on.

(Dante, Purgatorio VI:133–135, tr. Allen Mandelbaum)

Incompetent leaders can turn victory into defeat by persuading an entire team to choose the wrong course of action, or by turning a team into a crowd of uncoordinated individuals. In moments of crisis, however, quietly competent individuals often step forward to fill a leadership vacuum. Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) is one of these good emergent leaders. She has both the technical knowledge and the interpersonal skills needed to turn the survivors into a unified team, fighting against an almost indestructible enemy. Eventually she hands over to…

Corporal Dwayne Hicks, the designated leader

Corporal Hicks (played by Michael Biehn) holds just about the lowest possible military leadership position, but the rules require him to step up when the commissioned officers and more senior NCOs have died. The buck stops with him.

Ripley: Well, I believe Corporal Hicks has authority here.
Burke: Corporal Hicks has…?
Ripley: This operation is under military jurisdiction, and Hicks is next in chain of command. Am I right, Corporal?
Hicks: Yeah… yeah, that’s right.

Hicks reveals his leadership abilities by the way he remains calm in the crisis, by his interactions with others, and by the way he relies on Ripley’s advice.

For a team to achieve success, either the powers that be must designate a competent leader like Hicks, or a competent emergent leader like Ripley must step forward. Otherwise, even though the team may not be eaten alive by hideous aliens with acid for blood, failure is nonetheless assured.


Angels and (Foolish) Demons

I recently got around to watching the 2009 film Angels and Demons. Like The Da Vinci Code, this is a very silly film, with both the science and the history being wildly wrong. Galileo’s condemned book was widely printed outside Italy, for example. Publishers of the day were too discreet to plaster BANNED IN ITALY! READ IT FOR YOURSELF! on the cover, but the controversy was nevertheless a publisher’s dream. Even today, the house of Elsevier (who originally printed the book) prides itself on the connection (see photo of Elzevir edition by Angelina Ward below). The book has also kept up with the times; it can be read electronically.

Galileo did not, as the film suggests, argue for elliptical planetary orbits. Kepler did that, and failing to believe Kepler was one of Galileo’s biggest mistakes (had he believed Kepler, Galileo knew enough mathematics to see what ellipses and parabolae had in common, and might have gone on to formulate a theory of gravity).

The movie gives the viewer some wonderful images of Rome, but here the facts are wrong too. Raphael was never buried anywhere but in the Pantheon, for example. The book tells us that “Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers glorified the four major rivers of the Old World: The Nile, Ganges, Danube, and Rio Plata” – even though the Río de la Plata is in South America. And the list goes on. Among other things, Bernini did not place the “West Wind” marker on St Peter’s Square, nor is that marker distinct from the other fifteen:

“What’s new, Buenos Aires?
I’m new, I wanna say I’m just a little stuck on you.
You’ll be on me too…
And if ever I go too far,
It’s because of the things you are.
Beautiful town, I love you…
Río de la Plata, Florida, Corrientes, Nueve de Julio,
All I want to know…”
Evita

Possibly Dan Brown did indeed go a little too far here.

Telescope: a short film

Telescope (telescopemovie.com) is a fantastic short film directed by Collin Davis and Matt Litwiller, written by Eric Bodge, and shot by Travis Labella, with production design by Molly Burgess. In the year 2183, when all life on Earth has ceased, an archaeologist takes a telescope aboard a faster-than-light spaceship to see the living planet that once existed.

Take 10 minutes to watch this wonderful short film on Vimeo below!

See Telescope on Vimeo.

The Dish: a movie review


Movie poster

The Dish is a classic Australian comedy from 2000, telling the story of how the CSIRO Parkes Observatory assisted with the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Movie trailer

The film contains some technical errors and oversimplifications, notably inventing some episodes for dramatic effect, cutting the telescope’s staff headcount, and downplaying the role of the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station (which was closed in 1981). However, those simplifications were probably necessary for dramatic reasons (see also CSIRO’s “fact vs fiction” list and history pages). The movie does get across the sense of excitement of the Apollo programme, as well as reminding us what the 60’s were like, and giving a light-hearted view of the cultural differences between Australia and the USA. And, of course, it’s very funny.


PDP-9 at the Monash University Computer Museum

Veteran actor Sam Neill does a great job in the film, as does the rest of the cast. The Dish also has superb props, including authentic vintage technology, such as the DEC PDP-9 shown above. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a 96% rating. It’s certainly worth watching!


The dish is still operating at Parkes (photo: John Sarkissian, CSIRO Parkes Observatory)

Parkes is still very active scientifically; recent papers include “The Parkes Pulsar Timing Array Project” and “Parkes full polarization spectra of OH masers – I. Galactic longitudes 350° through the Galactic Centre to 41°.”

* * * *
The Dish: 4 stars

Powers of Ten: a short review of a short film

This short 1977 film by Charles and Ray Eames has become a classic, as has the 1957 Dutch book by Kees Boeke on which it was based. They have spawned numerous variations and adaptations, including a nice flip-book derived from the Eames film:

Short, sweet, and insightful, these little gems teach both important scientific facts and an appreciation of orders of magnitude.

* * * * *
Powers of Ten: 5 stars

Microcosmos: a brief movie review

Microcosmos – a 1996 film by Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou – is probably my favourite nature documentary. Check out the trailer on YouTube to see why. It’s not an “educational” film. There is no David Attenborough telling the viewer what’s going on (“pour aborder ce monde, on doit savoir faire silence et écouter ses murmuresto observe this world, we must fall silent now, and listen to its murmurs”). Instead, this film offers simple observation of nature as it is, aided by some truly magical macro photography. A classic!


Click image for another review

* * * * *
Microcosmos: 5 stars