And we thought “The Unborn” was bad

So after much anticipation dread, Jon and I finally watched Expelled. I definitely thought about liveblogging it, but honestly, it’s been done better by other people already. I have nothing new to add. It’s exactly as bad as you’ve been told, if not a little worse, and I’m glad that I’ve read the accounts of the interviewees beforehand. I’m also glad that I had the lie-correction subtitles open on my computer (haven’t quite figured out how to get them onto a copy of the disc yet).

The whole film is an exercise in dishonesty, logical fallacies, projection, and the celebration of ignorance. The only time evidence was ever mentioned was in how the “Darwinists” are “distorting” it; there’s no discussion of evidence for ID (or why that would even be a concern), nor is there any real discussion of the typical Creationist talking points against the fossil record, radiometric dating, and so forth. There’s a concerted effort to avoid talking about evidence at all, which I imagine is because even considering it causes the film’s thesis to fall apart.

The movie, as you know, posits a conspiracy–explicitly including “The Academy,” “Watchdog Groups,” “The Media,” and “The Courts”–which is keeping people from even asking the relevant questions about Design and campaigning to keep these crusading Intelligent Design advocates out of the system. It goes against all our American values of freedom and democracy, but the conspiracy goes beyond America. It’s a global confederation that controls science and is against religion, even though ID isn’t actually religious. This conspiracy is massively well-funded and powerful, though prominent scientists, thinkers, and politicians all over the world are questioning the Darwinist dogma. The whole concept is ridiculous–who makes up this conspiracy? How efficient must it be that it can operate so broadly and so powerfully when it seemingly requires its entire contingency to be atheists? Somehow, the tiny number of scientifically-minded atheists is able to subjugate and persecute the vast billions of religious people. It’s global apartheid! And somehow, this massive global conspiracy can’t stop this movie (or the books involved, or the interviews with scientists) from being produced; somehow, this conspiracy doesn’t see the value in pandering to those religious billions. How much more funding would be available if the Big Science conspirators were investigating Creationist and Biblical principles?

The interviews themselves may be the most painful bit of the film. I’ve never seen such dishonest questioning tactics and interviews so shallow due to editing tricks. The questions are frequently leading or loaded, often non sequitur, and repetitive–dear FSM, are they repetitive. Michael Shermer noted in his review that Stein asked him the same question a dozen different ways, clearly fishing for some particular response. This is blatantly obvious in his interview with Dawkins, where he asks “do you believe in God” in at least a dozen different and increasingly frustrating ways. I can only imagine how this might have influenced Dawkins’ other comments; if someone’s being that intentionally obtuse and thick-headed, I can imagine it might lead to some bristling and irritation.

The film is awful in every measurement. It makes Michael Moore’s worst offenses look positively fair by comparison, and I’m pretty sure it invents new ways to be dishonest.

One of the worst things, though, is that the movie really confirmed a lot of my suspicions and misgivings regarding Religulous. Aside from the dishonesty in setting up the interviews, the shallow interviews (largely due to butcher-quality editing), the unnecessary stock footage, the largely out-of-place tone shift toward the end, all echo the tactics used in Expelled. Religulous is still the much better film on all those issues (far fewer digressions into stock footage, the interviews and thoughtful threads are more deeply explored, the leading questions were more clearly attempts to elicit humor rather than objectionable statements), and wins out by virtue of not exploiting the Holocaust to make an invalid point. Even so, I really wish that the comparison of tactics wasn’t so easy and so apt.

So, um, yeah. It’s not an experience I’d recommend. If you’re going to watch it, do it when there’s no chance that you’ll wake sleeping people by screaming at the TV, move any desks and hard furniture out of range of your forehead, and remember the buddy system. Good luck.

Religulousness

Simba, you have forgotten me...I saw “Religulous” two Saturdays ago, and I’m just now getting to writing about it. I really ought to tighten up this whole blogging thing. Anyway, on with my brief review.

I went into the film not entirely sure what to expect. I’ll say straight off that I don’t particularly care for Bill Maher, and he’s not the first person (or even really in the top ten people) I’d want to see making a film criticizing the ridiculousness of religion. I’d really prefer someone who wasn’t hopped up on their own brand of crazy whacknut woo, someone who didn’t constantly walk the golden mean fallacy of agnosticism and proclaim that it made him better than either side, pointing out religion’s follies from a position of reason and evidence rather than from a position of not accepting the germ theory of medicine.

But, you know, I liked “Politically Incorrect” back in the day, so it’s not as though my feelings about Maher are entirely negative.

Anyway, “Religulous” tries very hard, but it’s not clear on what it’s trying to do. The filmmakers really seemed to be torn between two competing and more or less mutually exclusive ideas. On one hand, as the title, advertising campaign, and majority of the movie would have you believe, the film is about the ridiculous excesses, hypocrisy, and absurdity of religion and religious belief. To that end, Maher interviews the patrons of a trailer park chapel, an ex-gay minister, an ex-Jew for Jesus, Ken Ham, a pot preacher, the clientele and staff of the Holy Land Experience amusement park, and various others. On the other hand, the speech Maher gives at the beginning of the film and the last twenty minutes or so of the movie would have you beleive that it’s about the serious dangers presented by religion and fanatical belief, and the need for reason and reasonable leaders. To this end, he mostly interviews Muslims.

The problem with this is that his serious points are undermined by the amount of time and effort he spends talking with and mocking the ridiculous bits. Every scene with the pot preacher (for instance) already feels like a waste of celluloid, since I don’t think the guy said more than two lines in the whole thing, and that feeling is compounded by Maher’s vaguely apocalyptic rhetoric at the end. The result is a feeling that either Maher has trivialized the grave problems he describes, or that he has largely attacked softball targets rather than the fearsome ones he later decries. In any case, it doesn’t quite feel like he’s made his point about the dangers of religion; he’s made the religious out to be kooks rather than psychos.

Moreover, the interviews are heavily and obviously edited. I sincerely hope that unedited interviews are among the special features on the DVD, because it’d be interesting to see what people actually had to say, for better or worse. It’s also clear that Maher tried to steer many of the interviews toward more fertile comedic ground (such as his repeated attempts to gay-bait the ex-gay pastor), which makes him look more than a little juvenile. Besides that, there are lots of jump-cuts to bits of stock footage or other footage, which resonated unfortunately with everything I’ve heard about “Expelled“. On the other hand, I’m reasonably certain that he uses some of the same clips that “The God Who Wasn’t There” and the “Bullshit” episode on the Bible used, so he manages to create those associations as well.

Despite his fence-sitting agnostic position, Maher’s biases are pretty well evident. It’s clear throughout that he’s willing to give Jesus a lot more benefit of the doubt than Islam. He repeatedly talks about what a nice guy Jesus was, and how he’d obviously be against so much of what goes on in his name, particularly violence. He thanks the trucker churchgoers for being Christ-like, as opposed to just Christian. To be fair, his position is pretty common; back when I was a fence-sitting agnostic, I believed basically the same thing. Heck, my novel treats Jesus as a really nice guy whose good intentions just get twisted all out of whack. It’s easy to watch “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “The Last Temptation of Christ” and so forth and come away with the idea that Jesus was the nicest of guys with the best of intentions, and that all the bad bits of Christianity come from people failing to understand his lessons or twisting the church to their personal or political gain.

Like most easy things, that’s a vast oversimplification of the situation. Going by the four gospel accounts of Jesus–assuming they can even be reconciled into a single coherent person–he was moody, arrogant, and occasionally violent, he openly played favorites and admittedly didn’t want his message to be easily understood, he had a tendency to mix good and bad advice in equal measure, and he promoted a theology that ultimately was significantly more morally corrupt than what prevailed in Judaism at the time. Sure, you can cherry-pick details to make him look like the bees’ knees, but there’s no better rationale to do that than to pick the details that make him look like an unstable sociopath. And certainly the modern church picks and chooses which bits of his advice to follow or ignore, but I can’t see how following everything would improve the situation whatsoever.

Which boils down, to me, to making Maher look like he hasn’t done the research. It wouldn’t be so bad, except that most of the time when Christians say or do something outrageously offensive, Maher comments about how Jesus wouldn’t approve. Then, when Muslims later say something moderate and open-minded or peaceful, we get a jump-cut to an IED exploding or Osama bin Laden speaking. The whole point of sitting on the fence is that you don’t pick sides, but Bill’s sticking out so far into the anti-Islamic yard that he might as well be a plastic flamingo.

Which ultimately undermines the later shots that try to compare bin Laden with Pat Robertson and his ilk. Sure, the comparison is easy to make, but Robertson barely appeared in the film before that. The tactic would have been much more effective if he’d pulled the “let’s contrast their words’ with extremists'” trick on Christians and Jews, rather than just Muslims. Of course, it’d still be a fallacy to ignore that there are differences between moderates and extremists, but at least it’d be a consistently-applied fallacy.

There’s one thing I wish I could remember in greater detail: Maher’s interview with Francis Collins. That’s one I would really like to see uncut, not only because it was more intelligent than most of the softball interviews, but because Collins said something in it that made me sit up and say “you know, he’s right.” When you make Francis Collins look good in a debate about religion–especially right after he’s revealed his profound ignorance by saying that the gospels were written by eyewitnesses, I think you’re probably doing something wrong.

Gosh, I’ve been negative so far. I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like the film; there were lots of parts that I really enjoyed. There’s an extended segment toward the beginning where Maher is exploring his own history with religion, going so far as to bring his mother and sister in as interviewees. The segment is personal and intriguing, and feels overall very genuine. His speeches at the beginning and end, despite the jarring inconsistency with the tone of the rest of the film, are very well-written and well-delivered, and really communicate the urgency of the problems. He manages to pick a pretty good crop of interviewees overall. It was neat to see Tal Bachman skewer the Mormon church (sadly, he didn’t go after Joan of Arc or Aphrodite); former Vatican astronomer Jerry George Coyne and the radical priest outside the Vatican (who I believe was once on the cover of Newsweek) both provided nice examples of religionists who weren’t nutty in quite the same way as the rest of the crowd.

In many ways, “Religulous” would seem like a much better movie if it didn’t invite itself so readily to comparison with other recent religion-critical movies. It lacks the tight focus of “Flock of Dodos;” it lacks the personal narrative that served as the core and guiding premise of “The God Who Wasn’t There,” despite including something similar toward the beginning (which was necessarily abandoned for the last two-thirds of the film–Maher’s Catholic/Jewish history didn’t exactly lead into ex-Gay ministries and Muslim extremists); it was missing the matter-of-fact horror of “Jesus Camp,” though it had the frequent-shots-in-a-car direction down; and it didn’t have the calm, honest intellectual dignity of “Root of All Evil,” which I think was the biggest strike against it.

If I had to boil it down to my overall feeling, it was like an extra-long episode of “Bullshit.” There’s the same clear biases, the same lack of much in-depth coverage, a similar kind of humor, and the same tendency to think that maybe they’ve picked easier targets than they should have. It’s a decent movie, just as “Bullshit” is a decent show, but nothing about “Religulous” feels particularly well-done or original. It’s a shame, too, because I think it would have been a much better movie, one that stood out a little farther from its peers, if it had stuck to mocking the ridiculousness and excesses of religion.

Define “Success”

Apparently, Expelled was a success at the box office this weekend. At least, that’s what Randy Olson and Chris Mooney say. Ed Brayton tells a different story. It seems that no one has a clear idea of what “success” means.

On one hand, it opened at 9th place over the weekend, and that $3.5 million weekend makes it number 8 on the list of top grossing political documentaries of all time. Not too shabby for a film plagued by plagiarism and unlicensed music.

On the other hand, it opened far beneath films that have been out for multiple weeks, like “Horton Hears a Who” and “Nim’s Island.” Hell, even “Prom Night” did better. Take a quick look at the other films on that list of top grossing political documentaries; it’s just above a movie that opened in one theater, and just below one that opened in two. Granted, these numbers reflect the per-theater income, but when a movie opening in over a thousand theaters can’t do better per theater than one that opened in two, that seems to be saying something. Moreover, $3.5 million might cover the cost of the film itself, but certainly not the publicity and the “we’ll pay you to go” campaign they had with religious schools. Even the producers’ own gauge for success (apparently 2 million tickets sold) was missed by a wide margin.

Before Expelled came out, people were comparing it to “The Passion of the Christ” (and its $83.8 million opening weekend). The same marketing firm worked on both, and the marketing directly to churches and friendly audiences was certainly similar. When I first started hearing these comparisons, I immediately thought of another recent movie that was repeatedly compared to “The Passion”: “The Nativity Story.” “Nativity” couldn’t move the churchgoers into the seats, and is widely considered a flop.

“The Nativity Story” made $8 million in its opening weekend.

Now, why is a movie marketed toward much the same audience, in much the same way, which made over twice as much, considered a flop, while ScienceBloggers are conceding defeat to the success juggernaut that is Expelled? Is it just because it’s a documentary? Is that what sets the “incredible success” bar so low?

Expelled certainly did better than I’d hoped, but I’m more than a little disheartened to see folks like Olson and Mooney essentially conceding defeat at this point. Instead of calling for people to make responses, and lauding the creationists for their superior framing and marketing abilities, and criticizing the scientific community for not doing enough, why not fucking do something about it? What purpose does it serve for a scientist to say “Meet Ben Stein, the New Spokesman for the Field of Evolution”? What kind of framing is that?

And what is the expected scientific response supposed to be? An equally high-budget movie responding to their claims as if they’re claims that deserve a response? Yeah, that’s good framing, letting your opponents determine the terms of the debate. A direct-to-DVD release explaining all the problems? How well do the anti-Michael Moore direct-to-DVD flicks do compared to the Michael Moore films? Why is it that the people who claim to be trying to improve scientific communication are the ones falling over themselves to declare victory for the other side?

I’ll be curious to see how “successful” Expelled is in the coming weeks, as the initial church-rush dies down.

Question Authority!

This is made of win. Be sure to read the comments, too.

Expelled: No Intelligence Involved

By now you’ve all heard about Ben Stein’s new movie, “Expelled,” which makes the case that “Darwinism” leads inevitably to atheism and the Holocaust and the horrors of Nazism and Stalinism. In addition to this, it claims that professors and teachers are being fired and having their careers sabotaged because of their belief in Intelligent Design.

And, like most of the claims of the ID crowd, it’s all totally unfounded. “Darwinism” didn’t lead to Nazism; there’s nothing Darwinian about Eugenics. Darwin theorized natural selection, Eugenics is artificial selection, the kind of thing that’s been done in animal husbandry and agriculture since the dawn of civilization.

But no one ever said Creationists were honest; quite the opposite in fact. Now it looks like they’ve been plagiarizing their work as well, and they’re complaining that the Googlebomb of “Expelled” is part of some plot to silence them. Silence? Hay you guys, I’m promotering you! After all, you were crowing from the rooftops when PZ’s post about being expelled from “Expelled” was at the top of the Internets! If that’s a victory, then isn’t having the whole scientific blogoverse linking to a post about “Expelled” a good thing? Sure, it’s to a page exposing your lies, bad reviews, and general cock-ups, but any publicity is good publicity, right?

You know, I’ve seen a lot of bad movies in my time. It’s a hobby of mine, and I’ve been doing it for years. I’ve gotten to the point where I can pretty reliably guess when a movie is going to suck. There’s the signs that everyone knows, like if you don’t screen your movie for critics, it’s a good sign that it probably sucks (the new “Prom Night” kept it quiet, and I can’t wait to see that suck-fest!). Then there are other, more subtle signs: like, when you only start running TV ads for your film the week before it opens, it’s probably going to suck (I think “I Know Who Killed Me” followed that model). There’s a corollary to that last one, that when you start running TV and movie ads an excessively long time before the movie is released, it’s probably going to suck (“Godzilla” and “Hulk” stick out in my memory).

Expelled” hits both: they haven’t screened the film for critics, instead going for private screenings packed with friendly, utterly uncritical audiences, and I’ve only seen off-Internet ads for the film in the last three days (one on the USA Network, one in the Chicago Tribune). Purely from the perspective of a connoisseur of terrible films, these are not the signs of a good movie.

Unfortunately, “good movies” and “successful movies” are not always overlapping quantities; garbage like “Meet the Spartans” can look for all the world like a celluloid turd, advertise for a total of eight days, and open without critical inspection, and still make millions of dollars in its opening weekend. “Expelled” has the fact that it’s a documentary going against it; the documentary-going populace and the groups being targeted by this film don’t have a whole lot of overlap–there’s a reason the films responding to Al Gore and Michael Moore go straight to video. If even “The Case for Christ” and “The Secret” went direct-to-DVD, what chance does “Expelled” have?

The people who normally view documentaries recreationally will be watching Morgan Spurlock’s new flick (also debuting this weekend). “Expelled” is trying to tap into the guilt market that “Passion of the Christ” played well to, and “The Nativity Story” didn’t. It’s really a toss-up whether or not that will be successful; do the crowds of churchgoers really care about learning the problems with evolutionists and unemployed academics? Enough to see this opening weekend, rather than on a church basement projector when it comes to DVD?

I’m not going to make any substantive predictions about the financial fate of this factless flop; naturally I hope it bombs like no film has ever bombed before, but I’m cynical enough to realize that that probably won’t happen. I will recommend that no one here actually pay to see this dreck. Despite propagandist claims to the contrary, the ID crowd gets more money than they earn, and there’s no reason to add to it. Instead, why not send a small donation to the NCSE? In the meantime, read all about “Expelled” at the NCSE’s website. I guarantee it’s more informative, more entertaining, and more factual than anything narrated by Ben Stein.

Visualizing Comedy

A particularly vapid troll has been bloviating over at Action Skeptics for some time now, to our collective amusement, annoyance, and frustration. Recently, though, he seems to have paid off. See, he posted a link with the following urgent message:

this is very interesting

MUST CHECK OUT

http://www.imaginify.org/tesseract.gif

(again… make what you will of it)

peace
in the middle east xD

The link was to this image:
WTF?
I looked, and I laughed and laughed and laughed.

But as I tried to make sense of it, I realized how truly profound the image actually was; it’s just that the text is confusing. I’ve cleaned it up and done my best to make the meaning clear:
I am the Necker Cube master!
It all makes sense now! I feel like I am one with the universe.

For those who aren’t quite so trivia-savvy, here’s a list of references (clockwise from top):
beware of minotaur
directional nautilus
lon lon milk
Justice League of America #9
old steve martin gag
complex eyedrocarbon
that thing from pan’s labyrinth
doppler effect