Adventures in Ethics and Science

Movie Review: Sizzle.

Randy Olson’s newest film, Sizzle, bears the subtitle, “a global warming comedy”. To my mind, it delivered neither the laughs nor the engagement with the issue of global warming that it promised. Maybe this is just a sign that I fall outside the bounds of Olson’s intended audience, but perhaps the biggest question this movie left me with was who precisely Olson is trying to reach with Sizzle.

The film starts out presenting itself almost as Olson’s own follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth; Olson notes that he liked Al Gore’s movie a lot but wondered where all the scientists were. He determined, we are told, to make a global warming documentary that talked directly to the scientists and put their message front and center.

But something’s wrong with this picture. Wasn’t the point of Olson’s last documentary, Flock of Dodos, that scientists are woefully inadequate at communicating their message to the general public? Did Randy Olson not see Randy Olson’s last film?

At this point, the viewer is supposed to catch on to the fact that Sizzle is intended as a “mockumentary”. However, it’s not at all clear who Olson intends as the target or targets of the mockery:

  • The pair playing Mitch and Brian, the funders of the movie, a well-to-do same-sex couple in Malibu who feel “upset about global warming, but don’t know why we’re upset”?
  • The camera man and sound man, two African American men in hip hop gear driving a Hummer to the interviews, which the camera man keeps interrupting at least in part because of his reflexive suspicion of the the scientists being interviewed?
  • The Hollywood movie industry, including selfish celebrities and dismissive agents?
  • The scientists (who, despite the fact that they are the main interviewees pursued by Olson’s crew, never feel like main characters in this film)?
  • The public (which also does not feel like a main character in the movie)?
  • Randy Olson himself, a filmmaker unwilling to listen to his crew and frustrated that some of his intended “good guys” perform worse on camera than his designated “bad guys”?

As a movie-goer, I can handle complexity, but I expect something like coherence. My attempts to discern just who is being critiqued (and for what) here put me in mind of Julia Sweeny‘s observations with respect to Jesus trying to teach his followers with parables: “This isn’t working. They’re not getting it!” Even if this approach to making Sizzle seemed promising to someone, I’m not getting it! (And I went back and watched it several times to try and find what there might be to get!)

Mitch and Brian, Olson’s funders, want to make an important film but “keep it fun”. Speaking to Olson on the balcony of The Enchanted Sea Cottage, a property that looks like it might have a significant environmental impact, they ask Olson (as a scientist) how much longer it will be before the ocean disappears — after all, they’ve read that higher temperatures will mean more evaporation, with the water vapor turning to clouds. It’s true that Mitch and Brian do not come off as super well educated, but they do appear to be trying to get good information to understand the situation. Olson, in responding to them, doesn’t display a whole lot of interest in meeting them where they are to educate them.

For all the flakiness (and worship of basic-cable celebrities) built into these characters, Mitch and Brian don’t strike me as hopeless cases. But Olson seems to dismiss them early on as anything but a source of money, and to comment on their “strangeness”. Showing up to a research institute wearing “party shirts” is strange? Has Olson not noticed the peculiar sartorial choices working scientists conceal beneath lab coats? Or by “strange” does Olson really mean “gay”? The characters of Mitch and Brian are certainly endowed with mannerisms and behaviors that tread dangerously close to stereotypes of homosexuals that Hollywood moved beyond at least a decade ago.

Also in the “uncomfortable stereotypes” territory are Marion and Antwon, the African American camera man and sound man who Mitch and Brian bring to the project (owing to the fact that Marion and Antwon were able to save Mitch and Brian from harm at the hands of gangsters as they made their last movie by giving the gangsters some pot). Marion especially is portrayed as being very focused on having the right ride (the aforementioned Hummer) and the right hip hop gear, but not at all focused on arriving punctually for the film’s call times.

Marion shows as little regard for Olson’s pre-planned interview questions as he does for the clock, interrupting the interviews with scientists and spokespeople to ask his own questions. Worse, Marion’s intruding comments and questions end up siding with the “wrong” scientists (the climate change skeptics) and challenging the scientists Olson takes to be on the side of truth. Although Marion might be “coming from a place of wanting to learn,” he seems at least as driven by the personality of the interviewees and his affinity for a message that better fits his own experience and common sense.

If the character of Marion is supposed to be a critique of a certain sort of information consumer, the Olson character doesn’t give us much to work with in answering his doubts. Nor do the filmmakers give us — their audience — much material to let us evaluate whether it is Marion who is off base or the scientists who are (either because they’re ineffective communicators of truths or panderers delivering a pleasing message that Marion wants to hear).

With whom are the viewers supposed to identify here, and why? What’s the larger point of all this?

Surely there must have been a point intended that went beyond “Randy Olson can come off as kind of a jerk, and he’s not so great at coming up with engaging questions to ask scientists in a documentary aimed at a general audience.”

Indeed, it isn’t that the scientists themselves come across as boring. Rather, they are burdened with Olson’s dull questions, the talking-head framing of the interviews, and Olson’s lifeless response shots. The “three simple little questions” Olson asks each interviewee (“1. Do you think the planet has warmed substantially in the past hundred years? 2. Do you think humans have played a major role in that warming? 3. Do you think humans can do something to stop it or reverse it?”) are not the most surprising or riveting — and especially for the third question, he fails to draw out the scientists as to concrete things that people, including the audience, might do. If you came to Sizzle hoping for practical information with which to battle climate change, you will walk away disappointed.

The deck is, of course, stacked against the scientists by the filmmakers. While the scientists concerned with global warming are filmed in their natural (academic) setting, the global warming skeptics are shown with more background context and personality. And should we be surprised that scientists who are used to being spokespeople at think tanks are good at speaking to non-scientists? But even the scientists who are intended to come off badly here, like the Natural Resources Defense Council director of federal communications (who is unwilling to speak quantitatively without her notes in front of her) don’t come off as badly as the character of the filmmaker who seems not to have sent his questions to the interviewees ahead of time.

Marion’s mid-interview interruptions are clearly intended as a plot device in Sizzle, but what is this device meant to accomplish? If Marion is meant to be the viewer’s proxy, it is bothersome that his particular counterexamples and doubts go largely unanswered in this film. (It’s also interesting that he has such a large pool of current events factoids on which to draw — snow in Johannesburg, warming on Mars, etc.). On the other hand, that Marion seems to be judging the credibility of the scientists on the basis of how cool they seem or of how closely their message tracks what Marion wants to hear makes him seem shallow, lazy, and dumb.

Is Randy Olson telling his audience he sees them as shallow, lazy, and dumb? I’m sure that will help him get his point across … if we manage to figure out what that point is supposed to be.

Still, identifying with the Randy Olson character is a much less attractive option. Rather than engaging Marion on any of the points he’s raised, he disciplines him. Is it that Olson doesn’t have the rebuttal facts available? Or does he have them but not feel it’s worth sharing them with his crew? Are they not part of his target demographic? We can’t even tell who the fictional Randy Olson’s intended audience is supposed to be.

After a nightmare sequence that seems to be meant as the film’s turning point (although it is followed by at least two more scenes that might also have been meant to be the turning point), Olson has a heart-to-heart with Antwon in which he says the film he’s trying to make is a film about the truth — trying to get to the bottom of the the truth when different experts draw different interpretations and conclusions from the same data. However, it’s hard to reconcile this stated aim with Sizzle as it exists. Olson doesn’t offer viewers a strategy to get to the truth, a route for the lay person to weigh the expertise and credibility of the people making competing claims. How can you tell who’s making stuff up and telling you a good story? How can you recognize the person who’s giving you the unvarnished facts as she sees them? Sizzle raises these questions but never answers them. Moreover, the quest for truth is complicated when Olson cites the scientists’ blind obsession with truth as a handicap, pointing the viewer to see his last film to get support for this claim.

Is Olson offering the viewer a reason to care what the truth is (even if he’s not offering any special insight into how to tell truth from distortion)? Eventually, but it comes so late in the film that the viewer may no longer care what Randy Olson’s point was in the first place.

If part of the point of this film is to convey a lesson in effective communication with non-scientists, then the Randy Olson character in Sizzle must be intended as the “don’t” picture. This character, after all, turns up at a production meeting advocating that their documentary lean heavily on PowerPoint and data. Later, while editing the raw footage, Antwon points out to the Olson character that the interviewed scientists sounded like scientists when answering Olson’s questions but sounded like real people when answering Marion’s. Antwon, in other words, gets something that hapless scientist Randy Olson needs to learn.

This harks back to an earlier argument between Brian and Mitch about which of the two is a bad communicator. At the heart of that squabble was the question of what counts as success in communication. Is the proof in whether the message gets presented to its intended recipient, or in whether it gets results?

For what results does the real Randy Olson hope from this film? What is he trying to communicate to whomever his audience is supposed to be? Is there a global warming debate or not? If so, is it about what’s happening, what can or should be done about it, or what global warming means for normal people?

The filmmakers’ trip to New Orleans to survey the post-Katrina devastation suggests that the latter answer is the communicative goal. But while the survivor interviews and the footage of wreckage is moving, the tangle of issues at play here — including crumbling infrastructure, race, and class — seems to diffuse the focus on global warming and thus the urgency for addressing it. Some of the survivors interviewed in New Orleans say themselves that they have bigger and more immediate fish to fry than global warming … but the folks who don’t need to worry as much about the next meal or the next paycheck likely won’t be as hard hit by the next catastrophic consequence of global warming, either. (Indeed, in his closing voice over, Olson states that the jury is still out on what global warming means for hurricanes, which seems to undercut the inclusions of the Katrina-aftermath footage in this film.)

Who is supposed to get this message? What are they supposed to do?

All this is not to say that there weren’t enjoyable moments in this film. The interviews in New Orleans were heart-wrenching. The interview with historian of science Naomi Oreskes was entertaining and informative. The underwater footage of polar bears at the San Diego Zoo was beautiful. There were even a few laughs at the scene in which the crew brainstormed a title for their documentary.

But this doesn’t add up to a coherent film.

It almost makes you think that the dismissive studio folks portrayed at the beginning of the film knew what they were doing when they turned down Randy Olson’s pitch.

Comments

  1. #1 J-Dog
    July 15, 2008

    Thank you Dr. Freeride for seeing the film and taking the time to review it. (And it looks like you even had to see some parts more than once – ugh!)

    Why does Randy Olson hate scientists so much?

  2. #2 JSinger
    July 15, 2008

    However, it’s not at all clear who Olson intends as the target or targets of the mockery…My attempts to discern just who is being critiqued (and for what)

    The movie may well be as unfunny as you make it sound, but you seem to view “humor” as something only to be applied earnestly in support of a particular point. That’s, if anything, antithetical to humor as most of us understand it.

    Those billboards claiming that dragging bottled water from Fiji to the US is environmentally beneficial are preposterous; as is Leonardo DiCaprio bragging about sometimes forgoing private jets, as is Rush Limbaugh pretending he understands anything about climatology, as is the guy from NASA announcing that God will punish the people who corrected his math. There’s plenty of mockery to go around.

  3. #3 Janet D. Stemwedel
    July 15, 2008

    The movie may well be as unfunny as you make it sound, but you seem to view “humor” as something only to be applied earnestly in support of a particular point.

    In general, this is not my stand on humor (and those who know me in real life will testify that I get the giggles at some very silly and pointless instances of humor). But when the DVD box claims that the (purportedly) funny movie within is also a documentary, then I expect that there’s a point that is discernible by the viewer. If the humor is not deployed in the service of that point, it should at least not get in the way of it.

    And it looks like you even had to see some parts more than once

    I watched the whole thing — all the way through — seven times (the first on the day I received the DVD in the mail, the seventh yesterday right before I wrote my final review).

    I take my responsibilities to you all seriously!

  4. #4 Der Bruno Stroszek
    July 16, 2008

    The more of these reviews I read, the more I’m starting to come to two conclusions:

    1) The ‘authored documentary’, as invented by Ross McEwlee and practiced by Michael Moore, Nick Broomfield, Morgan Spurlock and Jon Ronson, should not be considered an excuse to just make things up. I realise that when a director appears in front of his own camera there is a strong temptation to play up to it, and that Randy has deliberately made the ‘making-of’ portions as a staged comedy, but there’s enough misinformation on global warming out there already. Even though, by all accounts, Randy doesn’t tamper with the interviews he gets, I think that this staging really undermines the credibility of the filmmakers.

    2) The film seems fixated on portraying scientists as elitist, arrogant and dismissive of ordinary people. In A Flock of Dodos this was sort of defensible because it was the conclusion Randy drew from his material. Having Randy deliberately play the part of a “hapless scientist” strikes me as forcing this theme. More importantly, I think it’s only a small minority of people who think that scientists are inherently evil and deceptive, and they won’t listen no matter what we say. I think that participating in too many “framing” debates can leave a person with a false sense that the general public is violently and irrationally anti-scientific, whereas the majority of people with doubts about global warming are just uncertain about things and want some straight answers.

  5. #5 PuckishOne
    July 16, 2008

    I think that participating in too many “framing” debates can leave a person with a false sense that the general public is violently and irrationally anti-scientific, whereas the majority of people with doubts about global warming are just uncertain about things and want some straight answers.

    This hits the nail on the head for me. I am an interested non-scientist who wants to figure out which experts du jour are saying what and where I should go with that information. And if the “framing” advocates can’t reach me (they have failed miserably in that respect if the Mooney and Nisbet blogs here are representative) how can they hope to reach the people who need the information but may be less interested?

    The film seems fixated on portraying scientists as elitist, arrogant and dismissive of ordinary people.

    This is another common theme among the “framers.” I occasionally wonder if this isn’t like that little kid who gets kicked out of the club and then goes around telling everyone how lousy the club is and how much he wouldn’t want to be in it. It’s also an insult to scientists like Dr. Free-Ride and others who are clearly none of the above and manange to stay connected to the “other parts of American culture.”

  6. #6 MH
    July 17, 2008
    The film seems fixated on portraying scientists as elitist, arrogant and dismissive of ordinary people.

    This is another common theme among the “framers.” I occasionally wonder if this isn’t like that little kid who gets kicked out of the club and then goes around telling everyone how lousy the club is and how much he wouldn’t want to be in it. It’s also an insult to scientists like Dr. Free-Ride and others who are clearly none of the above and manange to stay connected to the “other parts of American culture.”

    I think it’s also a little bit like marketing people trying to sell a product (in this case “Framing”) by concocting a problem: scientists are clueless when it comes to communication, so we need The Framers.

    The problem is that the Framers have demonstrated that they are actually rather poor at communication, and they are reluctant to explore possibilities that don’t paint scientists as bad communicators (for example, that the problem is the media and science journalism). Which leaves one to conclude that they are just not very good academics (or marketing men).

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