The Intersection

Sizzling in LA

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[From Sizzle: No caption needed.]

On Saturday night, along with Molly and two friends, I attended the opening of Sizzle at the Fairfax theater here in Los Angeles. The movie was airing at Outfest, a gay and lesbian film festival, and the woman introducing the film remarked on its pioneering attempt to find shared ground between the environmental and gay communities–to, in short, bring concern about global warming to a broader audience.

There were some 200 people in attendance, along with the entire cast and a few personages from the film–Dr. Naomi Oreskes of the University of California-San Diego and Dr. George Chillingarian of USC (of whom more in a minute)–and, finally, fellow ScienceBlogger and Sizzle fan Jennifer Jacquet.

Overall, at the screening I continued to feel struck by the incredible gap that exists between most ScienceBloggers, and most others, in terms of their responses to this film. Whereas many ScienceBloggers either didn’t like Sizzle or didn’t appear to get it, the audience in LA laughed at all the right moments, laughed repeatedly throughout, and generally seemed to be having a grand old time. Similarly, although I get the impression that many ScienceBloggers aren’t particularly entertained by Randy Olson’s mother, Muffy Moose, the audience loved her. Just as it loved Mitch, and Brian, and especially Marion, the film’s trouble-making cameraman.


At the end of the screening came a question and answer session, one in which virtually no one got up to leave; instead, the entire audience stayed and listened intently and energetically. And as for questions: None of the sorts of concerns that have been raised here on the blogs seemed to come up. For example, nobody asked the black or gay cast members whether they were perpetuating stereotypes of themselves through comedy–although the audience laughed loudly and knowingly when Randy Olson explained the negative response to the film here on ScienceBlogs and remarked, “lots of the scientists don’t quite get it.”

One interesting incident that I can report to you: “Dr. Chill” apparently stormed out of the film in mid-screen. Randy Olson conveys that according to two observers:

…he was smiling all through his segment, smiling with the skeptics in DC, laughed out loud at the NRDC woman, but then he and his buddy started shaking their heads in the New Orleans footage, then he made a major scene of shuffling his papers when he got up and stormed out.

Huh. We may or may not hear more about this.

In any event, various ScienceBloggers have of course been peeved at me for my post last week emphasizing the contrast between how many of them have reacted to Sizzle and how other audiences have reacted to it–and for suggesting the former ought to be more like the latter. But now that I’ve been to see Sizzle in the theater with a few hundred other folks who enjoyed it, I’m more struck by this phenomenon than ever. There really appear to be two cultures here–with different sets of assumptions and thus, different responses to stimuli.

I knew that by pointing out and criticizing this obvious perception gap, I’d be starting trouble. But if I’ve persisted in doing so anyway, it’s for at least one very deep-seated reason: I grow increasingly tired of all the negativity, nastiness, and hypercritical behavior on ScienceBlogs–and the response to this film, in my view, epitomizes that.

After all, here we have an innovative attempt, by a scientist-filmmaker who is one of us and part of our community, to reach new demographics with information about one of our recurrent and core topics–global warming. In short, Sizzle represents the kind of effort that we ought to be promoting vigorously, selflessly, and with enthusiasm–especially given the lack of much available funding for this kind of experiment in Hollywood from major studios.

Yet instead, what I see is far too much negativity, far too much criticism, directed at a film that is funny and damn good and ultimately very profound–all of which the audience in LA clearly appreciated. So why can’t we?

But even if you don’t agree with me about these observations, I will stand on this point: Randy Olson has the right idea. He’s trying, as best he can, to get beyond our relatively narrow community with a message about science. He’s trying to reach new audiences, new demographics–new souls. It’s really too bad that in order to do that, he can’t also bring this community along with him–but that instead, he’ll apparently have to leave some of it behind.

Comments

  1. #1 Kate
    July 22, 2008

    But is Randy “intemperate” or in breach? Maybe we should get Sizzle reviewed by the UK Office of Communications for a more colourful perspective.

  2. #2 Hank
    July 22, 2008

    “You don’t get it” is a terribly lazy defense when faced with criticism. Did you go see expelled? Allegedly the audiences on those screenings showed enthusiasm as well.

  3. #3 cg
    July 22, 2008

    Hi Chris,

    I haven’t seen the film, but I am interested in it, especially given the spirited discussion going on scienceblogs. There’s something that I don’t understand about it, though, and haven’t been able to pick up from reading about it. Is the film supposed to be pro-science or at least build some understanding about (or fear of) global warming? How can a film be pro-science if one of the main themes is that scientists are unable to communicate?

    It sounds as if the film states that scientists cannot communicate with the public – if you want the general public to believe what scientists say, how does it help to undercut their standing as communicators?

  4. #4 Aaron Golas
    July 22, 2008

    So once again, it’s a case of “These people liked it, so you should like it, too!”

    … although the audience laughed loudly and knowingly when Randy Olson explained the negative response to the film here on ScienceBlogs and remarked, “lots of the scientists don’t quite get it.”

    Oh, yeah, perpetuate the stereotype of scientists as cold and humorless. How in the nine hells is that supposed to help “our side”?

    Randy Olson has the right idea. He’s trying, as best he can, to get beyond our relatively narrow community with a message about science.

    Really? That’s funny, I thought this was supposed to be a film directed at scientists and science-communicators to tell them how to approach people, not a film for regular folks to tell them about the science behind global warming. That was the excuse for snubbing those who wanted to see more data in the movie, right?

    I can’t say anything about the film for myself, because I haven’t seen it. And at this rate, I doubt I will.

  5. #5 bioephemera
    July 22, 2008

    You really, honestly think this film is “profound,” Chris? Then go right on promoting it, and good luck to you. But I don’t think so, and I’m not going to say a work of art is high-quality simply because I applaud the creator’s good intentions.

    Intentions do not a great work of art make. And if that attitude makes me “peeved,” so be it. . .

  6. #6 PhysioProf
    July 22, 2008

    So why can’t we?

    Because some of us think the film is not funny, is not “pro-science”, and basically sucks shit. Why are you having so much trouble wrapping your mind around that?

    Science is about reality, not wishful thinking. Does it really surprise you that scientists who think a movie sucks are gonna be honest about it, rather than keeping silent–or even lying–so that the maker of the movie can “bring this community along with him”?

    Sorry the “Sizzle” astroturfing scheme didn’t work out, but such is life.

  7. #7 Coturnix
    July 22, 2008

    No, the main point of the film is that scientists ARE good communicators, especially when there is no professional journalist standing in the way….

  8. #8 bsci
    July 22, 2008

    Chris. I respect what you try to do even if I disagree with some of your conclusions, but you are becoming a parody of yourself.
    THIS IS A MOVIE. Some people like movies and some people don’t. If you think these were critical reviews, ask some of the writers to send you samples of their reviews of research articles. Even the most negative reviews were constructive criticism about what can be done better.

    There aren’t two cultures. There are many cultures. Some people will see the movie and love it, some won’t like it, and some won’t even both going. This is not a revolutionary concept. If you want to decrease negativity around here, stop trying to say there is one right way and one wrong way, people will stop trying to tell you that you are right or wrong and will be more willing to have a mature discussion.

    Speaking of constructive discussions, many of the critiques focused on the confusion of the message of the movie. You stayed for the questions. What message did the questioners seem to be getting from the movie? Did it seem like they were going home with new knowledge or did they just enjoy it as a comedy?

  9. #9 DrugMonkey
    July 22, 2008

    For example, nobody asked the black or gay cast members whether they were perpetuating stereotypes of themselves through comedy–

    soo, given that you know this has come up…why didn’t you ask holmes? you know, as our Sb representative on the spot and all….

    although the audience laughed loudly and knowingly when Randy Olson explained the negative response to the film here on ScienceBlogs and remarked, “lots of the scientists don’t quite get it.”

    you were looking around and counting heads were you? because (even leaving side the issue of selecting subgroups) according to the Sb review box score, it would take only a slight tip in the pro-Sizzle direction to have an audience that ‘laughed loudly and knowingly’, i.e., without every single member expressing the phenotype…

    Look, I didn’t review this movie, don’t really have a dog in the hunt and am generally sympathetic to the scientists-need-to-communicate dealio. Your tone of “if you don’t agree then you are in error” about a work of art though? c’mon. not passing the smell test here.

  10. #10 John Lynch
    July 22, 2008

    So what “information” is he trying to reach the “new demographic” with? It’s not information about AGW. Hell, when I said that the movie failed as a documentary (i.e. information transferring entity) I was slapped down and told it wasn’t a documentary but a “mockumentary”.

    Olsen’s failure to convince people who are already on his side is indicative of something. Perhaps he is not the great communicator you and others seems to think he is.

  11. #11 Zuska
    July 22, 2008

    Whereas many ScienceBloggers either didn’t like Sizzle or didn’t appear to get it…

    Chris, several of the reviews I read spoke of blatant and offensive gay and black stereotyping in the film. Which seems like good enough reason to me not to like it. You seem to be willing to just overlook the presence of this stereotyping in your promotion of this film and that is disturbing to me. You are unwilling to even consider that other sciencebloggers may legitimately object to the film on the grounds of what they see as blatant stereotyping, which could certainly ruin an otherwise well done film. As I pointed out in a comment on anther post of yours, just having a film submitted to a gay and lesbian film festival does not mean it is going to be free of gay stereotypes.

  12. #12 Orac
    July 22, 2008

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Answering criticism with the whine that the critics “just don’t get it” is, with only rare exceptions, an exceedingly lame way to respond. I doubt this is one of the exceptions.

  13. #13 jon
    July 22, 2008

    Chris,

    I notice you mention that the audience laughed, and that they stayed for the Q&A, but you don’t mention the sorts of questions they asked.

    The important questions seem to be whether the audience viewed this as a learning experience or a comedy, and whether they were moved away from skepticism regarding climate change.

    And to be honest, given that this was LA, a progressive city in one of the more environmentally-conscious states, the observations of audience response seem not all that meaningful on their own. At least based on what we’ve been told so far.

    As for “funny and damn good”, those are entirely subjective. Asserting that your taste is correct (which implies disagreeing makes one wrong) just pushes people away. It seems..odd at best to find such a statement in a post chastising others for failing to understand effective communication.

  14. #14 dominich
    July 22, 2008

    Now lets see; A film is made, one of the messages of which is that scientists are poor at communicating science to the general public.

    A group made up mostly of professional scientists is asked to review said movie. Other than science, what is the principal common factor between the members of the group? They are all successful science communicators, why else would they be here?

    Why should anyone be surprised that on balance they don’t like the movie when the stereotype intended to represent them is so at variance with their own experience?

    Dissing your audience is never a good frame.

  15. #15 ngong
    July 22, 2008

    Overall, at the screening I continued to feel struck by the incredible gap that exists between most ScienceBloggers, and most others, in terms of their responses to this film.

    Not to play the nitpicky, data-obsessed scientist, but do you feel that the 200 folks at LA’s “Outfest” accurately reflect “most others”?

  16. #16 Tara C. Smith
    July 22, 2008

    Chris, in my review I explained both what I thought Randy did right, and where I thought he got it wrong. On the whole, I thought it was worth watching, but confusing and not humorous. Perhaps I don’t “get it,” even though I mentioned several of the themes in my review but just didn’t think Randy made them work in the movie. Either way, I’m taking the movie home to show to my family in rural Ohio in a few weeks. With that in mind, do you think that the American heartland will have the same reaction as the test audience in L.A.? Just curious how you think it will play there, because I’m guessing it will fall absolutely flat (but hey, I could be proven wrong…)

  17. #17 Screechy Monkey
    July 22, 2008

    Chris, a few questions:

    1. What, in your opinion, is the goal of this film? To educate the public about global warming? To educate scientists about their poor communication skills? Simply to entertain the general public?

    2. Do you believe that a reasonable person could dislike this movie, or is all criticism of it automatically the result of bias, oversensitivity, or a hypercritical nature?

    3. If a reasonable person could dislike the movie, then what should sciencebloggers who disliked it supposed to do? Should they publish a candid review, or lie and say they liked it, or “opt out” of the mass review program and say nothing?

    4. What constitutes “far too much negativity, far too much criticism”?

    5. Should Randy Olsen’s films be reviewed more favorably than another filmmaker’s? If so, why?

    Obviously these aren’t unique concerns of mine; I think they are common questions in the comments and blog reactions to your posts on this subject. If you’ve already addressed some or all of them, I apologize, but I don’t think I’ve seen clear answers.

  18. #18 Darwin's Minion
    July 23, 2008

    Randy Olsen wanted honest opinions. Randy Olsen got honest opinions. If he wanted only positive reviews, he should’ve asked for exactly that. Also, there’s no rule saying that just because somebody is in your ingroup (in this case, ScienceBlogs), you absolutely have to like everything he does. At least not among adults. I fail to see as to why this is some big deal.

    As for all the negative comments on this and the previous “why dontcha like Sizzle?!?” post, well, duh. Maybe that’s because the subtext of those posts smacks a bit too much of “you’re a freak, why can’t you be more like the other, “normal” people?”. Which is not a good communications strategy, especially not with the audience you get around these parts. But then, you probably know that.

  19. #19 Tara C. Smith
    July 23, 2008

    Either way, I’m taking the movie home to show to my family in rural Ohio in a few weeks.

    Nevermind, someone must have complained so we’ve received a reminder that we can’t share the DVD “in any way,” period. So I can’t even screen it for my family, and am therefore left to take Randy’s word that everyone else “gets it” and enjoys the film. Very scientific…

  20. #20 Ian
    July 24, 2008

    1. Upon what basis do you conclude that science bloggers didn’t appear to get it?
    2. My understanding from the reviews is that the New Orleans footage came at the end, not in “mid-screen”, but in your falling over yourself to prove you’re right on the money about this film and everyone who offered constructive criticism couldn’t be more wrong, did you ever consider that “Dr. Chill” may have left at the point he did and in the way he did because the NO footage is the Big Easy Lie – that what happened in NO has nothing whatsoever to do with global warming but everything to do with unpreparedness for a major hurricane, and that in pretending NO is somehow in bed with global warming, Randy Olson was outright lying in a way no different from what Ben Stein did in “Expelled”?
    3. I found your third-from-end paragraph to be as condescending as the film-makers have been over the response at science blogs. Why not ignore what the successful communicators here at sci-blogs are doing – people who are “part of our community” and who are reaching “new demographics with information”, and simply talk down to them and belittle them and their opinions?

    Way to frame it, Chris.