Archive for Movies

More on MacGuffins

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2011 by telescoper

I’m very pressed for time this week¬† so I thought I’d cheat by resurrecting and updating an old post from way back when I had just started blogging, about three years ago.¬† I thought of doing this because I just came across a Youtube clip of the late great Alfred Hitchcock, which you’ll now find in the post. I’ve also made a couple of minor editorial changes, but basically it’s a recycled piece and you should therefore read it for environmental reasons.

–0–

Unpick the plot of any thriller or suspense movie and the chances are that somewhere within it you will find lurking at least one MacGuffin. This might be a tangible thing, such the eponymous sculpture of a Falcon in the archetypal noir classic The Maltese Falcon or it may be rather nebulous, like the “top secret plans” in Hitchcock’s The Thirty Nine Steps. Its true character may be never fully revealed, such as in the case of the glowing contents of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction , which is a classic example of the “undisclosed object” type of MacGuffin. Or it may be scarily obvious, like a doomsday machine or some other “Big Dumb Object” you might find in a science fiction thriller. It may even not be a real thing at all. It could be an event or an idea or even something that doesn’t exist in any real sense at all, such the fictitious decoy character George Kaplan in North by Northwest.

Whatever it is or is not, the MacGuffin is responsible for kick-starting the plot. It makes the characters embark upon the course of action they take as the tale begins to unfold. This plot device was particularly beloved by Alfred Hitchcock (who was responsible for introducing the word to the film industry). Hitchcock was however always at pains to ensure that the MacGuffin never played as an important a role in the mind of the audience as it did for the protagonists. As the plot twists and turns – as it usually does in such films – and its own momentum carries the story forward, the importance of the MacGuffin tends to fade, and by the end we have often forgotten all about it. Hitchcock’s movies rarely bother to explain their MacGuffin(s) in much detail and they often confuse the issue even further by mixing genuine MacGuffins with mere red herrings.

Here is the man himself explaining the concept at the beginning of this clip. (The rest of the interview is also enjoyable, convering such diverse topics as laxatives, ravens and nudity..)

North by North West is a fine example of a multi-MacGuffin movie. The centre of its convoluted plot involves espionage and the smuggling of what is only cursorily described as “government secrets”. But although this is behind the whole story, it is the emerging romance, accidental betrayal and frantic rescue involving the lead characters played by Cary Grant and Eve Marie Saint that really engages the characters and the audience as the film gathers pace. The MacGuffin is a trigger, but it soon fades into the background as other factors take over.

There’s nothing particular new about the idea of a MacGuffin. I suppose the ultimate example is the Holy Grail in the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and, much more recently, the Da Vinci Code. The original Grail itself is basically a peg on which to hang a series of otherwise disconnected stories. It is barely mentioned once each individual story has started and, of course, is never found.

Physicists are fond of describing things as “The Holy Grail” of their subject, such as the Higgs Boson or gravitational waves. This always seemed to me to be an unfortunate description, as the Grail quest consumed a huge amount of resources in a predictably fruitless hunt for something whose significance could be seen to be dubious at the outset.The MacGuffin Effect nevertheless continues to reveal itself in science, although in different forms to those found in Hollywood.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), switched on to the accompaniment of great fanfares a few years ago, provides a nice example of how the MacGuffin actually works pretty much backwards in the world of Big Science. To the public, the LHC was built to detect the Higgs Boson, a hypothetical beastie introduced to account for the masses of other particles. If it exists the high-energy collisions engineered by LHC should reveal its presence. The Higgs Boson is thus the LHC’s own MacGuffin. Or at least it would be if it were really the reason why LHC has been built. In fact there are dozens of experiments at CERN and many of them have very different motivations from the quest for the Higgs, such as evidence for supersymmetry.

Particle physicists are not daft, however, and they have realised that the public and, perhaps more importantly, government funding agencies need to have a really big hook to hang such a big bag of money on. Hence the emergence of the Higgs as a sort of master MacGuffin, concocted specifically for public consumption, which is much more effective politically than the plethora of mini-MacGuffins which, to be honest, would be a fairer description of the real state of affairs.

Even this MacGuffin has its problems, though. The Higgs mechanism is notoriously difficult to explain to the public, so some have resorted to a less specific but more misleading version: “The Big Bang”. As I’ve already griped, the LHC will never generate energies anything like the Big Bang did, so I don’t have any time for the language of the “Big Bang Machine”, even as a MacGuffin.

While particle physicists might pretend to be doing cosmology, we astrophysicists have to contend with MacGuffins of our own. One of the most important discoveries we have made about the Universe in the last decade is that its expansion seems to be accelerating. Since gravity usually tugs on things and makes them slow down, the only explanation that we’ve thought of for this perverse situation is that there is something out there in empty space that pushes rather than pulls. This has various possible names, but Dark Energy is probably the most popular, adding an appropriately noirish edge to this particular MacGuffin. It has even taken over in prominence from its much older relative, Dark Matter, although that one is still very much around.

We have very little idea what Dark Energy is, where it comes from, or how it relates to other forms of energy we are more familiar with, so observational astronomers have jumped in with various grandiose strategies to find out more about it. This has spawned a booming industry in surveys of the distant Universe (such as the Dark Energy Survey) all aimed ostensibly at unravelling the mystery of the Dark Energy. It seems that to get any funding at all for cosmology these days you have to sprinkle the phrase “Dark Energy” liberally throughout your grant applications.

The old-fashioned “observational” way of doing astronomy – by looking at things hard enough until something exciting appears (which it does with surprising regularity) – has been replaced by a more “experimental” approach, more like that of the LHC. We can no longer do deep surveys of galaxies to find out what’s out there. We have to do it “to constrain models of Dark Energy”. This is just one example of the not necessarily positive influence that particle physics has had on astronomy in recent times and it has been criticised very forcefully by Simon White.

Whatever the motivation for doing these projects now, they will undoubtedly lead to new discoveries. But my own view is that there will never be a solution of the Dark Energy problem until it is understood much better at a conceptual level, and that will probably mean major revisions of our theories of both gravity and matter. I venture to speculate that in twenty years or so people will look back on the obsession with Dark Energy with some amusement, as our theoretical language will have moved on sufficiently to make it seem irrelevant.

But that’s how it goes with MacGuffins. Even the Maltese Falcon turned out to be a fake in the end.

Physics Noir

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on December 2, 2008 by telescoper

Last week, while I was indisposed with the ‘flu and faced with the imminent danger of having to watch daytime TV, I suddenly remembered that I had bought a boxed set of classic Film Noir on DVD and had only watched one or two of the films. I took the opportunity to watch the whole lot, and very enjoyable it was too. I’ve always been a big fan of this type of film, starting with the glorious Maltese Falcon (which has featured in a previous post of mine) and the classic Double Indemnity. There are probably hundreds of films belonging to this genre and, if the selection I watched last week is anything to go by then they are decidedly variable in quality. Among them, though, was one I had never seen before – Out of the Past – which I think is a masterpiece, containing all the quintessential elements of film noir and many unique features of its own.

It’s difficult to define exactly what turns a film noir, but there are some common characteristics. First the male lead protagonist is far from the dashing romantic character portrayed in mainstream Hollywood fare. Often a troubled and dysfunctional character, cynical and hard-bitten, distrustful and alienated, the classic noir anti-hero is often a private investigator or in any case a loner who lives in a moral vacuum. To counterpoint this, the female lead is usually a femme fatale, glamorous but duplicitous, sexy and dangerous, manipulative and assertive. There are definitely shades of Macbeth in that the female lead is usually a more compelling and impressive personality than the supposed hero. The inversion of stereotypical roles also serves to hold a “dark mirror” up to society, an effect which other elements of these films also strive to achieve.

The plots usually deal with the seedy side of human life: crime, betrayal, jealousy and revenge, much of it sexually motivated. Narrative strategies involve repeated use of flashbacks, first-person voiceovers, dream-like sequences, and unresolved episodes that emphasize the overall lack of moral direction. The photography is dominated by high contrast lights surrounding the protagonists with dark, threatening shadows while odd angles and unbalanced framing produce unstable, disorienting images. The chiaroscuro lighting makes even mundane encounters seem charged with danger or erotic suspense.

di6

This is a still from Double Indemnity which shows a number of trademark features. The shadows cast by venetian blinds on the wall, the cigarette being smoked by Barbara Stanwyck and the curious construction of the mise en scene are all very characteristic of the style. What is even more wonderful about this particular shot however is the way the shadow of Fred McMurray’s character enters the scene before he does. The Barbara Stanwyck character is just about to shoot him with a pearl-handled revolver so this image suggests that he is already on his way to the underworld.

Noir settings are almost exclusively urban: the resulting iconography consists of images of dark night-time cities with rain-soaked streets reflecting dazzling neon lights that intrude into the picture and fracture the composition. Interiors are almost always cramped and claustrophobic: dingy hotel rooms, night clubs or even the backs of taxi cabs. The dark outside world presses in on the characters and is full of danger. Soundtracks often include jazz in the bebop style from the late 1940s or early 1950s, with its jagged melodic lines and stuttering rythms, emphasizing the psychological instability displayed by the characters and settings.

The protagonists are trapped, perhaps just by mischance, in an alienating lonely world, usually a night-time city, where they are constantly in danger for their lives. The chaotic, random violence of this world gives rise to feelings of persecution and paranoia and a sense that life is absurd, meaningless, without order or purpose, and governed by contingency rather than design.

Much has been written about the origins of Film Noir, but it does seem clear to me that, although it is essentially an American style, it owes many of its roots to European existentialism, a point further reinforced by the fact that many great movie directors of the noir period (including the great Billy Wilder, who directed Double Indemnity) were in fact European emigres.

Anyway, I digress. What I wanted to say really was that during the course of watching all these wonderful films from a bygone age it struck me how much the language and iconography of modern cosmology shares this existentialist heritage. Our new standard cosmological model is full of references to the “dark” sector (dark matter and dark energy) which dominates the energy budget of the Universe, but which not just invisible but also unfathomable. The cosmos is lit by garish starlight from small islands of luminosity embedded in this sea of darkness. Long chains of bright galaxies stretch across space like rows of streetlights whose glare fractures and disturbs the celestial dark. We cling to a precarious existence on a tiny rock that is surrounded by danger. Even the stuff from which our atoms are made is completely overshadowed by alien matter. The universe is oblivious to us and we are irrelevant to it.

But it’s not only the surface imagery of cosmology that resembles that of a noir movie. The exisentialist trend runs deep. Cosmology seems to be abandoning the idea that there is a design behind it all. The idea that there is a single explanatory principle “a theory of everything” that accounts for why our Universe is the way it is and why life is possible within it, is losing ground to the idea that there is a multiverse in which all possible laws of nature are realised; we just live in a place where life happens to be possible. I’m not at all convinced that it is a good route for science to follow, but many cosmologists seem to be accepting this kind of thing as the best we will ever do to explain the Universe.

But if the idea of a world without meaning fills you with existential angst, then don’t worry about it. At least there are plenty of good films to watch.

The MacGuffin Factor

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on September 22, 2008 by telescoper

Unpick the plot of any thriller or suspense movie and the chances are that somewhere within it you will find lurking at least one MacGuffin. This might be a tangible thing, such the eponymous sculpture of a Falcon in the archetypal noir classic The Maltese Falcon or it may be rather nebulous, like the “top secret plans” in Hitchcock’s The Thirty Nine Steps. Its true character may be never fully revealed, such as in the case of the glowing contents of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction , which is a classic example of the “undisclosed object” type of MacGuffin. Or it may be scarily obvious, like a doomsday machine or some other “Big Dumb Object” you might find in a science fiction thriller. It may even not be a real thing at all. It could be an event or an idea or even something that doesn’t exist in any real sense at all, such the fictitious decoy character George Kaplan in North by Northwest.

Whatever it is or is not, the MacGuffin is responsible for kick-starting the plot. It makes the characters embark upon the course of action they take as the tale begins to unfold. This plot device was particularly beloved by Alfred Hitchcock (who was responsible for introducing the word to the film industry). Hitchcock was however always at pains to ensure that the MacGuffin never played as an important a role in the mind of the audience as it did for the protagonists. As the plot twists and turns – as it usually does in such films – and its own momentum carries the story forward, the importance of the MacGuffin tends to fade, and by the end we have often forgotten all about it. Hitchcock’s movies rarely bother to explain their MacGuffin(s) in much detail and they often confuse the issue even further by mixing genuine MacGuffins with mere red herrings.

North by North West is a fine example of a multi-MacGuffin movie. The centre of its convoluted plot involves espionage and the smuggling of what is only cursorily described as “government secrets”. But although this is behind the whole story, it is the emerging romance, accidental betrayal and frantic rescue involving the lead characters played by Cary Grant and Eve Marie Saint that really engages the characters and the audience as the film gathers pace. The MacGuffin is a trigger, but it soon fades into the background as other factors take over.

There’s nothing particular new about the idea of a MacGuffin. I suppose the ultimate example is the Holy Grail in the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and, much more recently, the Da Vinci Code. The original Grail itself is basically a peg on which to hang a series of otherwise disconnected stories. It is barely mentioned once each individual story has started and, of course, is never found.

Physicists are fond of describing things as “The Holy Grail” of their subject, such as the Higgs Boson or gravitational waves. This always seemed to me to be an unfortunate description, as the Grail quest consumed a huge amount of resources in a predictably fruitless hunt for something whose significance could be seen to be dubious at the outset.The MacGuffin Effect nevertheless continues to reveal itself in science, although in different forms to those found in Hollywood.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), switched on to the accompaniment of great fanfares last week, provides a nice example of how the MacGuffin actually works pretty much backwards in the world of Big Science. To the public, the LHC was built to detect the Higgs Boson, a hypothetical beastie introduced to account for the masses of other particles. If it exists the high-energy collisions engineered by LHC should reveal its presence. The Higgs Boson is thus the LHC’s own MacGuffin. Or at least it would be if it were really the reason why LHC has been built. In fact there are dozens of experiments at CERN and many of them have very different motivations from the quest for the Higgs.

Particle physicists are not daft, however, and they have realised that the public and, perhaps more importantly government funding agencies, need to have a really big hook to hang such a big bag of money on. Hence the emergence of the Higgs as a sort of master MacGuffin, concocted specifically for public consumption, which is much more effective politically than the plethora of mini-MacGuffins which, to be honest, would be a fairer description of the real state of affairs.

Even this MacGuffin has its problems, though. The Higgs mechanism is notoriously difficult to explain to the public, so some have resorted to a less specific but more misleading version: “The Big Bang”. As I’ve already griped, the LHC will never generate energies anything like the Big Bang did, so I don’t have any time for the language of the “Big Bang Machine”, even as a MacGuffin.

While particle physicists might pretend to be doing cosmology, we astrophysicists have to contend with MacGuffins of our own. One of the most important discoveries we have made about the Universe in the last decade is that its expansion seems to be accelerating. Since gravity usually tugs on things and makes them slow down, the only explanation that we’ve thought of for this perverse situation is that there is something out there in empty space that pushes rather than pulls. This has various possible names, but Dark Energy is probably the most popular, adding an appropriately noirish edge to this particular MacGuffin. It has even taken over in prominence from its much older relative, Dark Matter, although that one is still very much around.

We have very little idea what Dark Energy is, where it comes from, or how it relates to other forms of energy we are more familiar with, so observational astronomers have jumped in with various grandiose strategies to find out more about it. This has spawned a booming industry in survey of the distant Universe (such as the Dark Energy Survey) all aimed ostensibly at unravelling the mystery of the Dark Energy. It seems that to get any funding at all for cosmology these days you have to sprinkle the phrase “Dark Energy” liberally throughout your grant applications.

The old-fashioned “observational” way of doing astronomy – by looking at things hard enough until something exciting appears (which it does with surprising regularity) – has been replaced by a more “experimental” approach, more like that of the LHC. We can no longer do deep surveys of galaxies to find out what’s out there. We have to do it “to constrain models of Dark Energy”. This is just one example of the not necessarily positive influence that particle physics has had on astronomy in recent times and it has been criticised very forcefully by Simon White.

Whatever the motivation for doing these projects now, they will undoubtedly lead to new discoveries. But my own view is that there will never be a solution of the Dark Energy problem until it is understood much better at a conceptual level, and that will probably mean major revisions of our theories of both gravity and matter. I venture to speculate that in twenty years or so people will look back on the obsession with Dark Energy with some amusement, as our theoretical language will have moved on sufficiently to make it seem irrelevant.

But that’s how it goes with MacGuffins. Even the Maltese Falcon turned out to be a fake in the end.

p.s. I heard on Saturday that the LHC is having some problems with its magnets and will actually be off-line for a few months. Last week I heard a particle physicist describing the great switch-on as like “Christmas”. This turns out to have been truer than he can have imagined. Only a week has passed and his most expensive toy is already broken…

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