TCS Daily


Warming Chic

By Sallie Baliunas - March 27, 2002 12:00 AM

The sweet anticipatory adrenaline that escalated before the Academy Awards is fading, and the sincere black Chanel gown will be cleaned to return to its quiet security at the back of the closet. Black, as the timeless color of an after-five dress, keeps its sovereignty through the decades, no matter the style of the moment.

Despite that, this spring the chattering cant urges women to run breathless to possess an all white wardrobe. The reason for hotness for white? Vogue and W forecast:

"Maybe it's the threat of global warming..."

To its credit, that fashion industry statement recognizes that the global warming has not yet appeared. Nor had haute couture at the Academy Awards gone for the global warming marketing pitch.

Modern kulturekampf fashionably blames science for many societal and personal ills. That's too bad; science, and its technological advances in energy access, have improved the human condition by extending longevity, saving millions of babies from ever-present and now-preventable infectious diseases, and yes, mending the environment. Science, with its undemocratic attention to accuracy, has been wresting the sentence of early death and disfiguring disease from nature.

How culturally interesting then, when in the pre-Oscar haze, one movie critic argued in USA Today for A Beautiful Mind as the Best Film winner. However, the critic then down-ticked the prediction because "the accuracy of Mind has been called into question." Yet Mind did win Best Film.

One thing not to expect from major films is accuracy (after all, films are pillars of the entertainment industry). While accuracy is admirable, the cardinal role of a movie is to be a financial success. Capitalism rules - films that moviegoers are willing to pay for are what studios chase. Studios forecast audience and cultural tastes, then back the production of those guesses with hard-won funds. The idea is to have the investment succeed, and return a profit.

Owing partly to Mind's technical excellence, a broad segment of moviegoers learned of mathematician John Nash, who won the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economics for his founding ideas in game theory.

A simple phrase for an important concept, game theory - and Nash's Equilibrium - improved understanding of economics and is used widely today. To play successfully a game like poker or chess requires strategy, besides knowledge of human nature. Less trivially than for parlor games, interactions between nations or competing companies can be studied in terms of game theory. Nash discovered basic mathematical concepts that help to see the sphere of human decisions in non-cooperative situations (e.g., without a contract to specify outcomes). Mind and its success were subject to the laws of game theory, whether the studio and movie audience knew it or not.

Another major factor in the success of Mind is the incredible story of Nash, who was attacked by paranoid schizophrenia. Mind becomes a didactic drama for informing viewers about a bitter brain disorder. Moreover, viewers willingly paid for that education.

Still, the USA Today movie critic worried about the movie's accuracy. Inaccuracy need not flaw an outstanding, even winning, film, even one that is largely based on reality. A movie tells a story within the constraints of its vehicle, often with many viewpoints involved - for example, production, directing, acting, lensing and editing. Through the decades, sterling films have been lauded with words like 'epic', 'sprawling', 'witty' (usually paired with cynical), 'consuming', 'riveting', 'stunning', 'premier', 'masterpiece', 'spectacular', 'wonderful', 'lavish', 'showy'. These words do not reflect accuracy, but rather authenticity.

Lord of the Rings is a more extreme example of excellence despite inaccuracy. Viewers comprehend in the film's first moments the jarred reality resting on the odd disproportion of Frodo's oversized bare feet. But the viewer experience throughout the story is authentic. The Rings realm is faithful to self-consistency, but not ordinary human four-dimensional space-time. An intelligent audience seeks authenticity rather than accuracy. Mind is much closer to reality than Rings, and while Mind may not be accurate, it is accurate enough, and entirely authentic.

Through the decades, Best Film award winners have been inaccurate, but wholly authentic. All about Eve (1950) wrecks psychological manipulation on the viewer, in witty (and cynical) dialogue that unfolds fraudulent but credible events. Amadeus inverts accuracy - Antonio Salieri and Mozart were congenial colleagues -- yet successfully delivers a modern story from familiar historical characters. Gone with the Wind (1939), Ben Hur (1959) and Casablanca (1943) invent characters that react authentically to their culture and the historical events rained on them.

A deliberate accuracy impels Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey - not a Best Film winner but a seminal cultural statement. With Arthur C. Clark tugging him, Kubrick portrays humankind as physically, emotionally and intellectually evolving within a bewilderingly expansive, ancient cosmos brimming with unimaginably advanced intelligent beings. One type of intelligence we may inadvertently create could come from silicon-chip technology - once humankind grasps the meaning of intelligence. Man in the 2001 universe is coarse, error-prone, infantile and overwhelmed - yet of inestimable value in the cosmic perspective. We are the heroes of 2001,, despite and because of our humanity.

Nash's autobiographical statement on the Nobel Foundation's website reveals a poignancy about the brain's conflict between seeking reality and human suitability for the quest:

So at the present time I seem to be thinking rationally again in the style that is characteristic of many scientists. However this is not entirely a matter of joy as if someone returned from physical disability to good physical health. One aspect of this is that rationality of thought imposes a limit on a person's concept of his relation to the cosmos.

New ideas in science often seem irrational, contra common sense or even mad. Nash wonders about wooden rational thinking. The scientific method is unconcerned with the origin of a new hypothesis - the only limit imposed on a hypothesis is that it be testable. If a hypothesis successfully survives experimental testing and describes the existing body of reliable measurements, the hypothesis graduates to the status of theory, rules and laws of the physical universe, which scientists assume are ultimately reasonable (but perhaps not rational).

Fashion and other human endeavors waver, but not the rules of science. The nascent ideas that rise to testable hypotheses are wrought of the same dream stuff as couture. But science is the only tool for separating reality from fiction.

So phooey on wearing white for the risk of global warming. I'll wear the fashionably unfashionable noir, as Hollywood does, as a symbol of accuracy.
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