Lab Coats in Hollywood

By Wheeler Winston Dixon.

Scientists and mathematicians will never understand artists, and vice versa. This was brought home to me forcefully by David A. Kirby’s book, Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011), which traces the checkered history of math and science experts in the history of film, and seems to express astonishment that cold hard facts are often bent in the service of cinematic expression, and even offers “flow charts” depicting the “schematic of the science consultant’s process” in filmmaking (11). Often, it seems to Kirby that filmmakers ignore scientific realities to the detriment of the films they’re making, and at other times, he seems almost astonished that the labor of science and math advisors is reduced to what he terms a “cinematically manageable narrative.”

But what’s most surprising is that the entire book is written at high school level, with almost no comprehension of nuance, much less concepts of surrealism, or any flexibility in the creation of a film. I was even more surprised to discover that the book was designated as “one of the top 10 books of 2011” by the journal Physics World, with which I admit I am completely unfamiliar, but which I am sure – and I’m not being even faintly sarcastic here – is a highly reputable journal within the field.

As a scientific text, and a window into the ways in which those in the sciences view cinema and the related arts, Lab Coats in Hollywood is a fascinating document. But as an examination of the relation between math, science, and the artistic impulse in cinema, it remains outside looking in, not really sure of what it sees.

What’s missing here is any real comprehension of the creative act – the scientists are called upon to provide data, background information, serve as hand doubles in such films as A Beautiful Mind (69), or fill up the blackboard in Professor Jacob Barnhardt’s study in The Day The Earth Stood Still with problems in celestial mechanics (81), and they do what’s asked of them, ably and well – but they seem to have no understanding of how the artists involved in making any of the films use this material to create a compelling fictional narrative. In addition, any aspect of cinema theory – no matter how rudimentary – is entirely missing from the text, which ultimately seems a rather mystified and deeply linear narrative. It’s as if Kirby is saying, in effect “these filmmakers ask us to provide us with information or services, and we do so, but we really don’t understand what happens after that.”

Then again, I readily admit that I don’t know anything about celestial mechanics, jet propulsion, higher mathematics, biology, or medicine. So I guess I look back across the divide with the same lack of comprehension. And to be fair, Kirby more or less acknowledges that he doesn’t really understand how filmmakers think, or why they make the creative jumps that they do, although he feels a certain kinship to Stanley Kubrick’s work – arguably the coldest, most clinical major filmmaker of the 20th century – especially on 2001, and offers throughout the book a nice selection of stills and behind the scenes photographs from a wide variety of films.

Lab Coats in Hollywood isn’t a bad book by any means, but it is – at least for me – a really astonishing one. Kirby has no idea that such a thing as film theory – Marxist, Lacanian, Baudrillardian, Semiotic, Feminist, you name it – exists, or what it might explain about the films and their various narrative and thematic concerns, and if he did, one gets the distinct sense that he would dismiss anything that conflicted with scientific fact. There’s just no crossover here; it’s as if the entire creative process in film remains a mystery to Kirby, and the best he can do is document that he, and his colleagues, have participated in it, but after that he seems lost. The book thus becomes a recitation of facts and events, but when it comes to insight into the juncture of the creative process between film and the sciences – nada.

So the next time you have to suffer through yet another Power Point demonstration during a math or science lecture – “there’s no power, and what’s the point; now I’m saying this, and now you can see a slide with the same words I’m speaking, with a pie chart or bar graph added” – remember that for some people, if it isn’t quantifiable, it can’t be apprehended. And, of course, for those of us for whom science and math remain equally impenetrable, it works the other way around; we just don’t get it. But Lab Coats in Hollywood is ample proof that on the other side of the fence, the same thing is manifestly true. It would be nice to see someone who is equally conversant in both film and celestial mechanics, for example, tackle this theme, but for now, we’ll just have to wait.

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the author, most recently, of Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood, (Rutgers University Press, 2012).

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