“Hidden Figures” and Attaining One’s Fullest Stature


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This small movie about three black women 60 years ago has turned out to be one of the biggest hits of the year, and it’s clear why – it’s got the American Dream all over it.  Not the commonly mocked Dream about two cars in every suburban garage, but the original one, the powerful one that James Truslow Adams wrote about in 1931 :

But there has been also the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

These women – the mathematician Katherine Johnson, the manager Dorothy Vaughn, and the engineer Mary Jackson – had lots to contribute to NASA in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but no one paid any attention to them.  They were the wrong color and the wrong gender.  They were kept off in their own building, given menial tasks, and forced to use separate bathrooms and even separate coffee pots.

But the US was losing the space race.   It had been working on orbital rockets as a part of the International Geophysical Year, but was beaten to first orbit by Sputnik in 1957.   Its own counter, the Vanguard TV3, then blew up on the pad two months later.  Explorer 1 did launch successfully another two months later, but Sputnik was six times larger than it, and big enough to carry an atomic bomb.

That was scary enough to finally start breaking down the color bar.   Johnson was brought in to do orbital re-entry calculations, including those for John Glenn’s first flight, and later Apollo.  Vaughn learned to program the new IBMs that were replacing the hand calculators, and got her black female staff to switch to programming too.   Jackson was allowed to get an engineering degree, and did a lot of work on supersonic aerodynamics.

They all ended up with solid careers.   They weren’t superstars, but  they did really well in both real life and in this portrayal.

The timeline in the movie is compressed.   All three of them had been at NACA for a long time – Johnson since 1953, Vaughn since 1943, and Jackson in 1951 – so they were not new hires after Sputnik as the movie implied.   When NACA became NASA in 1958, it was officially desegregated.  That’s when the West Computing Unit, where the women did hand calculations, was distributed among other departments, not in 1961 before Glenn’s flight.   This is ordinary dramatic license, though, and not crucial to the theme.

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Apparently President Kennedy wanted NASA to be a showplace for integration.   That story is described in  We Could Not Fail – the First African Americans in the Space Program, by Richard Paul and Steven Moss.  It tells the stories of ten African American men at NASA facilities in the Deep South: Huntsville Alabama, Georgia, and Cape Canaveral.   This was tough for NASA because there weren’t many qualified AAs to begin with, and fewer still wanted to work down there.

Oddly enough, the ex-Nazi Wernher von Braun took a big role in integrating Huntsville.  He helped black colleges write grant proposals, encouraged contractors to be equal opportunity employers, and set up summer programs for black youth.  A lot of the German engineers frequented black jazz clubs, to the locals’ astonishment.  In this movie Kevin Costner is the fictional white manager who integrates Langley, but von Braun actually did that for Huntsville.

Anyway, one of the nice things about the movie from a women-in-STEM point of view is that the women here are not nerdy loners.   They are part of a strong (and really well-dressed!) church community.   The one who makes the greatest contribution, the mathematician Katherine Johnson, is actually a widow with three daughters who finds love and re-marries at age 41.   She’s not a nun devoting her life to science.   When Vaughn learns how to program in FORTRAN, she promptly starts teaching it to all her staff, hoping to keep them all together as electronic computers replace human ones.  The engineer Jackson is lively and playful, especially when played by the dancer and singer Janelle Monae.

Compare this to the inventor Joy Mangano in Joy, who has to fight her hostile family and indifferent business partners for everything she achieves.   She’s portrayed as a Rand-ian heroine who triumphs through individual willpower.   Yet at the end she’s an ice queen living in a mansion full of glitzy Trump-ish decor, while these women are playing with their kids, singing in the choir, and doing great work for the nation.   I know which ones I’d rather have as role models!

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Galen Erso Was a Zek


So there really was an empire that would coerce technicals into building doomsday weapons.   Just as Orson Krennic threatened Galen Erso into working on the Death Star, the Soviet Union rounded up engineers and scientists in the 1930s into the sharaska system.  This was a branch of the Gulag Archipelago where they treated the inmates fairly well, but they were prison camps nonetheless.   The captives were called zeks, which was originally an acronym for the prisoners who worked on the White Sea Canal.  Using prisoners made it easier to keep things secret, and easier to force leading people to work on what Stalin wanted. Sergey Korolyov, founder of the Soviet space program, was one, as was Leon Theremin, of the eponymous musical instrument.  So was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who wrote about it in The First Circle (1968).

As far as I know, no zek ever committed the serious sabotage of a Soviet project that Erso did to the Death Star.  However, there was a case of serious disinformation that disrupted Soviet tech – The Farewell Dossier.   A Soviet spy grew disillusioned with the system in 1980, and gave to a Western friend a list of embassy attachés who were engaged in industrial espionage .   The list got back to the CIA, who promptly fed those people a series of stolen plans, all with some secret flaw.  It’s said that this caused a 3-kiloton gas pipeline explosion in 1982, one that was visible from space, and led the Soviets down a dead-end with regard to their version of the Space Shuttle.

The equivalent of the Rogue One plot would be if a zek put a fatal flaw in a nuclear-tipped ICBM.   Those can actually do the kind of city-destroying damage shown in the movie.  They can’t destroy planets like the Death Star, but that’s actually impossible for anything short of a black hole.   A bug that screwed up the bomb’s trigger when it got close to its target might be subtle enough to not be detected during reviews.  Let’s be grateful no one has ever had to find out!

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“Joy” – anti-STEM for Women

joy posterThe recent movie “Joy” should have been a dream project for those trying to recruit women into science and engineering.   It tells the largely accurate story of Joy Mangano, a quite successful inventor who made it in spite of skepticism and difficult personal circumstances.  She has created a series of useful household products, starting with the Miracle Mop in 1990, and going on to luggage, odor neutralizers, shoes, and reading glasses.  These are excellent and handy innovations, of far more direct utility than most high-tech inventions.  It stars one of the country’s leading actresses, Jennifer Lawrence, and was directed by the highly regarded David O. Russell, who has made critical hits such as “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle”.   Yet the movie itself stresses that Mangano did not succeed because of hard work and ingenuity, but because of her looks.   To be exact, she succeeded because of the sales persona she was able to project on the QVC home shopping cable channel.   That’s hardly the message the recruiters want!

To start with, the actual Joy is TV-level attractive:


Screenshot from this 1996 QVC commercial, Mangano on right

Here she is with Lawrence and co-star Bradley Cooper, still looking great at more than twice Lawrence’s age:


Lawrence (27), Mangano (59), and Cooper at the Joy premier

When ordinary people stand next to actors they tend to look like hobbits, but Mangano is holding her own.   That’s what led QVC to take a chance on her in 1990.  Sure, the product looked handy and had a profitable markup, but the main thing was to have a personable and attractive presenter.

In the movie Mangano had completely failed in trying to introduce the Miracle Mop on her own.  She hawked it outside supermarkets, she pushed it on local stores, and went to trade shows.  She even gave some to QVC for their staff to sell.   Nothing worked.  It was only when she herself was able to pitch it that it took off, and that was largely because she had more of a housewife appearance than the heavily-made-up and be-jeweled presenters.  That success led her on to still more ideas, until by the end of the movie she’s living in a mansion and able to sponsor other rising young female inventors.

But what if you don’t look like that?   What if you’re plump and have hair that sticks out and bad skin?   That’s what I looked like as a kid, but it didn’t matter because I was a guy.  It shouldn’t matter if you’re a bright and creative girl, but this movie says it does.

Now, it shouldn’t be a surprise that filmmakers stress the value of looks, of image, of persona.  That’s their trade.   But the trade of technicals is finding out what’s true and what’s useful.  It won’t encourage women into the field if they’re told that they have to be beautiful as well.

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“The Martian” – One of Us in Peril

“The Martian” is right over the plate for technicals.    It has one of us as a protagonist, and is all about our favorite virtues: wit and determination.  Matt Damon’s character doesn’t just roll over and die the way any normal person would – he survives via ingenuity and doggedness.  This is just what we look for in ourselves and our colleagues.   Does this problem look impossible?   Then you haven’t thought of it the right way, try this.  Does it look like it’ll take impossibly long?   Drive through it until it’s done.   You need both qualities to actually accomplish things.

He also doesn’t get all grim and stoic the way a military hero would; he still cracks jokes about bad food and bad music.  His comrades in orbit are the same, as are his colleagues on earth.  Likewise he doesn’t get all awe-struck at the beautiful landscapes of Mars the way an artistic hero would; he just worries about how he’s going to drive through all this hilly scenery.   That was clearer in the book than in the movie.  Its author, Andy Weir, barely describes the planet itself, while Ridley Scott, a director known for his eye, fills the screen with gorgeous views:


A geologist would be surprised to find layered sedimentary rock formations on the nearly water-less Mars, but of technical quibbling there can be no end.

What’s also unusual about the movie is that it has no villains.   No one here enjoys or exploits other people’s suffering.  Villainy is a standard part of drama but not actually common in real life.  It’s particularly uncommon in technical fields, where everyone really has to cooperate to succeed.  That may be why tech dramas are uncommon.   It’s harder to tell stories when the antagonist is uncaring Nature rather a person.

The only character here who even has a negative vibe is the NASA administrator played by Jeff Daniels.  I must admit to some sympathy with him.  He is rightly skeptical of this extremely risky effort to save one guy.   The rest of the Ares crew could easily have been lost as well.  Even though it did turn out well, it ruined the Ares craft itself, and thus set back the whole program by years.   Or maybe not – leaving an astronaut to die when there was even a small chance of saving him might also have done in the program in the eyes of the public.

Anyway, “The Martian” is working a trope that goes back to the very first novel, “Robinson Crusoe”, of the lone person against the non-human world.  This story has to work hard to isolate him – in reality comm gear would be everywhere – but that’s crucial to the force of the plot.  It’s also crucial that he eventually returns to society, since that’s where hominids belong.  As in the similar “Robinson Crusoe on Mars”, as in “Gravity”, he ultimately has to come home.   This movie and novel are a brilliant update of the old theme.


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Movie Inventors (1) – Oddballs

Movies are the most technically advanced art form, so it’s no surprise that a lot of movie people are inventors.  Unlike the Beautiful Inventors, Political Inventors, and Criminal Inventors that I described in earlier posts, their main business is deeply embedded in technology.   There are a lot of people to describe here, so let me break this post into several parts.  In this first one let me list some surprising people who got patents, and in later ones I’ll describe some people who made quite substantial advances, like Kevin Costner and Bing Crosby.

So here’s a list of movie people, what they’re known for, and what US patents they’ve been granted:

Herbert “Zeppo” Marx – the fourth, straight-man Marx brother – 3473526 “Cardiac pulse-rate monitor” (1969)

Patent US3473526 Cardiac pulse-rate monitor Herbert Marx

This is a watch that can set off an alarm if one’s pulse rate gets too high.  Marx was 66 when he filed for this, and apparently a smoker since he died of lung cancer a few years later, so heart problems were probably on his mind.   He had run a manufacturing company, Marman Products, ever since the late 30s, when he left his more famous brothers behind, and it did very well selling a novel kind of clamp used for fuel lines.  His older brother Gummo, who was never in the act, also had a patent for a laundry box that used less cardboard than the standard design.

Steve McQueen – laconic action star and race-car driver – D219584 “Improved Bucket Seat” (1970)


It’s hard to tell what’s novel about this, but as a design patent instead of a patent patent, it doesn’t have to be.   Maybe this just fit him better than ordinary bucket seats.

Christie Brinkley – model and actress – 4,998,883 “Educational Toy” (1991)

Educational Toy - Christie Brinkley

The idea here is to build up letters using varying-shaped magnetic strips, each of which has a colored dot for a code.  The colors act as an extra mnemonic.   This seems harder than just drawing letters directly, but perhaps it’s better for children before they develop fine motor control.  She filed for this when her first daughter was 4 and she was married to Billy Joel.

Gary Burghoff – actor in “M.A.S.H.” – 5,235,774 “Enhanced fish attractor device” (1993)

US5235774 - Enhanced fish attractor device - Gary Burghoff

This is a float with lights and sound generators that holds a cage full of bait below it.  It was sold as “Chum Magic” for a while, but looks on the complicated side.  Burghoff also received design patents for a fishing rod and handle for lifting toilet seats.  He left the role of Radar O’Reilly in M.A.S.H. in 1977, and had a tough time finding work thereafter.  Yet he seems to have enjoyed fishing, and has also been a jazz drummer and a wildlife painter.  As a stamp collector he was a spokesman for the USPS.   That’s not bad for a guy with only one good role.

Richard Dreyfuss – actor in “American Graffiti” and “Jaws” –7,601,904  “Interactive tool and appertaining method for creating a graphical music display” (2009)

US7601904 - Interactive tool and appertaining method for creating a graph - Richard Dreyfuss et al

This represents musical notes as graphical blobs whose size, shape, and color correspond to the pitch and loudness envelope of the notes themselves.   Dreyfuss doesn’t appear to be musical, but perhaps his two co-inventors are.  He filed this at a down time in his performing career when he was also between marriages.

Steven Spielberg – the world’s leading movie director –  8091028 “Method and Apparatus for Annotating a Line-Based Document” (2012)


This lets one add links between an audio file and the lines in a screenplay, which sounds quite handy for structuring the music in a movie.   In Spielberg’s acceptance speech for the Thalberg Award at the Oscars in 1987 he talked about how screenplays were the foundation of everything else in a movie.  No wonder, then, that he wanted to tie all the audio to individual lines.  I don’t know if Spielberg uses storyboards to compose shots, but that would be a logical extension.


Like almost all patents, none of these sound like they’re worth much.  Still, it takes significant effort to get a patent, and these inventors took time from their busy schedules to do it.  Their movie works might be forgotten, but the USPTO will remember them.

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“Sully” As a Good Omen


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I remember something about the crash of US 1540 that Clint Eastwood apparently doesn’t.   The crash happened in January 2009, just at the end of a very bad decade for the United States.  After the tech bubble, 9/11, two lost wars, Katrina, and the housing implosion, the country had been hammered.  It seemed that no one in the US could do anything right.

Then Chesley Sullenberger pulls off a miraculous water landing on the Hudson.  After geese take out both the engines, he makes the correct decision in a few seconds to ditch in the river instead of trying for a nearby airport.  That could have killed everyone on the plane and hundreds more on the ground.  He brings the plane in at just the right angle.  Too high and the tail tears off and the plane sinks instantly.    Too low and it nosedives into the river, killing everyone in front.  Of the 21 passenger aircraft water landings listed in Wikipedia, only 6 were without major injury.

He lands it without a scratch.  Then the cabin crew gets everyone to clear out of the plane in minutes, even though one of them had a bad cut on her leg.  No one panics and refuses to move, no one screams hysterically, no one holds up the whole process to get their own stuff.  He himself checks that no one is left behind and is the last one, exactly what a captain is supposed to do.

Then boats converge on the plane from all over the Hudson.   Everyone is out of the icy water is less than half an hour.  None of the boats lose time asking for permission, none of them consult with insurers on liability, and  none of them collide with each other.   Everyone immediately gets blankets and hot drinks.   Some even went back to LaGuardia to catch another flight.

For the first time in years, all these Americans did the right thing.   It wasn’t just one expert like Sullenberger; it was a lot of ordinary people.   Sullenberger and his co-pilot Jeffrey Stiles really did show extraordinary skill, but for the rest it was a matter of being sensible and cooperative.

What Eastwood doesn’t mention is that one of the prime causes for the dysfunction of the 2000s, the George W. Bush administration, had just been decisively defeated.    The country was turning around.  No one knew if Obama could fix the mess that Bush left him, but people were hoping for change.

And that change happened!   The US got out of the losing wars it was in, avoided major natural disasters, and pulled out of the worst recession since the 1930s.   Unemployment was cut in half, the stock market went up 50%, and 20 million more people have health insurance.  The worst thing that has happened are the steady stream of mass shootings, and the responsibility for those is diffuse.

Clint Eastwood is a Republican, so it’s not surprising that he doesn’t mention this.   It’s also unsurprising that the drama in the movie comes from Sullenberger getting grilled by FAA officials in the accident investigation.   How dare those government bureaucrats try to enforce safety regulations.  Worse still are those who think that calculated decisions, like those from the computer simulations, are better than the instincts of grizzled warriors.   Sullenberger might just as well have been relying on the Force.  In fact, he was greatly helped by the autopilot of his A320, which can be programmed to do a constant glide angle.

Still, Eastwood conveys the terror and heroism of the story well.  It really was a harbinger of better times to come.   Let’s hope that looking back on it now isn’t a sign of doom ahead.

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The Force Puts Me To Sleep

Even thirty years ago when I saw “Return of the Jedi” I thought “This concept is played out”.   Yet another Death Star?   Yet more walker battles?   Endless scenes of hapless guys in useless white armor getting zapped?   Another light saber battle over an abyss?   What’s with the Empire and safety railings anyway?

But Hollywood looked at that and thought “Let’s not mess with success.”  So now in “The Force Awakens” we have still another Death Star, another cantina, another young person with lost parents, another wizened old sage, lots more dogfights in space, another father-son conflict, and another dramatic climax over an abyss.   Landspeeders!   A cute robot!   A hideous overlord!  Desert dune scenes!   It’s nearly a shot-for-shot remake.

A New Hope vs The Force Awakens

Parallel in every graphic element

I can appreciate this.  Innovation is expensive, and prone to failure.   Once you make something work, stop screwing with it.   Look at Lucas’ own attempts to broaden the world of Star Wars in the prequels.  He tried to bring in actual politics, actual romance, and to show that Star Wars existed in a wider world.   There were lots of other Jedi, of many races, and lots of planets that cared nothing for the trials of the Skywalker family.  He put in a huge amount of visual invention in the prequels too, much more than is seen in this movie.  The visual invention was mainly snazzy new spaceships, and his politics and romance weren’t all that good, but at least he was trying.

Well, forget that.   After spending $4B for the rights to Star Wars, Disney wasn’t going to take any chances.   They decided to give the fans exactly what they said they wanted.   And they were right!    It looks like they’ll make half that on this first movie alone, and there are lots more to come.

They did make some cosmetic changes.   In 2015 you can’t have all the characters be white, and almost all be male.    Even the First Order now has female officers, although British accents are still signs of villainy.   They’ll probably evolve things slowly over the next several movies.   Even the die-hard fans won’t put up with too many more clones.

But it’s mainly the same old, same old.   This has been an awful year for original science fiction and fantasy movies.   “Tomorrowland” was a disaster in spite of having great people behind it.  I really didn’t care for “Ex Machina” as an AI story, especially compared to “Her”, but maybe it works as a parable of gender relations.   A parable, maybe, for someone who has been through a such bitter divorce that they think robots become real women when they learn how to lie.  “Jupiter Ascending”, “Vice” and “Chappie” got drubbed critically, and I passed too because life is short.  These failures and the huge financial success of this Star Wars reboot means that we’ll see even fewer original stories in the future.

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The Funniest Screenwriter of All Time

…  is Woody Allen, according to the Writer’s Guild of America.  They recently polled their members and came out with a list of the 101 Funniest Screenplays. Allen appears on it for 7 movies, more than any other person.  Sounds about right.

A lot of his movies, though, appeared at the end of the list, so maybe they shouldn’t count for as much.  How about if we give a writer a 102 points if they’re #1, 101 points if they’re #2, and all the way down to 1 point if they’re #101?  The spreadsheet is here.  The top writers then look like this:

Writer Number Written Points Screenplays, with the number as the overall rank
Woody Allen 7 257 1. Annie Hall
60. Sleeper
69. Bananas
76. Take the Money and Run
78. Love and Death
81. Manhattan
92. Broadway Danny Rose
Harold Ramis 5 370 3. Groundhog Day
10. National Lampoon’s Animal House
14. Ghostbusters
25. Caddyshack
88. Stripes
Preston Sturges 4 174 32. The Lady Eve
35. Sullivan’s Travels
72. The Palm Beach Story
95. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek
Mel Brooks 3 280 6. Young Frankenstein
8. Blazing Saddles
12. The Producers
John Cleese 3 251 9. Monty Python and the Holy Grail
20. A Fish Called Wanda
26. Monty Python’s Life of Brian
Christopher Guest 3 192 11. This is Spinal Tap
40. Waiting for Guffman
63. Best in Show
John Hughes 3 192 33. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
36. Planes, Trains and Automobiles
45. National Lampoon’s Vacation
Ethan Coen 3 184 13. The Big Lebowski
23. Raising Arizona
86. Fargo
Joel Coen 3 184 13. The Big Lebowski
23. Raising Arizona
86. Fargo
Marshall Brickman 3 164 1. Annie Hall
60. Sleeper
81. Manhattan
Charles Chaplin 3 40 82. Modern Times
90. City Lights
94. The Gold Rush

By this points standard, Harold Ramis is the funniest writer, since his 5 movies are closer to the top of the list.   Mel Brooks also beats out Woody Allen.  On the other hand, this gives John Hughes of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” 192 points, which is way ahead of Charlie Chaplin’s 40, and that’s totally wrong.

That shows one larger problem with the list – the movies are largely from recent decades.  Chaplin’s movies are from the 30s and Hughes’ from the 80s.   Here are the numbers and movies by decade:

Decade Number Movies Screenplays
1920s 2 57. The General, 94. The Gold Rush
1930s 6 17. Duck Soup, 24. Bringing Up Baby, 38. A Night at the Opera, 47. It Happened One Night, 82. Modern Times, 90. City Lights
1940s 7 21. His Girl Friday, 32. The Lady Eve, 35. Sullivan’s Travels, 37. The Philadelphia Story, 72. The Palm Beach Story, 95. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, 97. Arsenic and Old Lace
1950s 2 2. Some Like it Hot, 96. All About Eve
1960s 8 7. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 12. The Producers, 27. The Graduate, 28. The Apartment, 41. The Odd Couple, 62. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, 73. The Pink Panther, 76. Take the Money and Run
1970s 15 1. Annie Hall, 6. Young Frankenstein, 8. Blazing Saddles, 9. Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 10. National Lampoon’s Animal House, 19. The Jerk, 26. Monty Python’s Life of Brian, 48. M*A*S*H, 49. Harold and Maude, 58. What’s Up, Doc?, 60. Sleeper, 66. Being There, 69. Bananas, 78. Love and Death, 81. Manhattan
1980s 29 4. Airplane!, 5. Tootsie, 11. This is Spinal Tap, 14. Ghostbusters, 15. When Harry Met Sally, 20. A Fish Called Wanda, 22. The Princess Bride, 23. Raising Arizona, 25. Caddyshack, 33. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, 33. Trading Places, 36. Planes, Trains and Automobiles, 39. Rushmore, 42. The Naked Gun: From the Files of the Police Squad! , 44. Big, 45. National Lampoon’s Vacation, 46. Midnight Run, 51. Broadcast News, 52. Arthur, 67. Back to the Future, 70. Moonstruck, 74. The Blues Brothers, 75. Coming to America, 79. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, 79. Lost in America, 87. My Favorite Year, 88. Stripes, 89. Beverly Hills Cop, 92. Broadway Danny Rose
1990s 18 3. Groundhog Day, 13. The Big Lebowski, 18. There’s Something About Mary, 40. Waiting for Guffman, 43. Office Space, 53. Four Weddings and a Funeral, 54. Dumb and Dumber, 56. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, 61. Galaxy Quest, 65. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, 71. Clueless, 77. Election, 83. My Cousin Vinny, 86. Fargo, 93. Swingers, 99. Mrs. Doutbtfire, 100. Flirting with Disaster, 101. Shakespeare in Love
2000s 13 29. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, 30. The Hangover, 31. The 40-Year-Old Virgin, 50. Shaun of the Dead, 54. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, 59. Wedding Crashers, 63. Best in Show, 64. Little Miss Sunshine, 68. Superbad, 84. Mean Girls, 85. Meet the Parents, 91. Sideways, 98. The Royal Tenenbaums
2010s 1 16. Bridesmaids

The peak decade is the 80s, which may say more about Guild writers being middle-aged Boomers rather than that being a particularly funny time.   The 50s really were a grim era for Hollywood, though, so it’s not surprising that it had only 2.

The poll rules were that the films had to be not first shown on TV, had to be more than 60 minutes long, and had to be in English.  The voters are American writers, so 94 are from the US, and the other 7 from Britain.

There are only 7 women among the 152 writers total: Nora Ephron, Annie Mumolo, Kristen Wiig, Anne Spielberg, Tina Fey, Tania Rose, and Amy Heckerling.   Their movies tend to be more recent, unsurprisingly.  The only black writer appears to be Eddie Murphy.

About 10 of the writers are alumni of Saturday Night Live, and 6 are members of Monty Python.  Over 10% of the funniest screenwriters in English came out of those two operations.

Overall, there are a couple of obvious biases in this list.  Still, this is what the experts in the profession think are the best.  I’ve actually seen most of these, which is not surprising given their reputation, and I can attest that, yes, these are very funny movies.   Work your way through this list and you won’t be disappointed.

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“The Wind Rises”, As Did Japan

Jiro and his A5M

Jiro and his A5M

So why would Hayao Miyazaki, one of Japan’s greatest directors, chose to make his final movie about an obscure aircraft designer?  He has said that “The Wind Rises” will be his last, and he’s already 73.   None of his other movies have been based on real people, so why make one about Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the Zero fighter plane of WW 2?   There are very few movies of any kind about engineers, and this animated one is unique.

It might be just because Miyazaki loves flying. It features in a lot of his movies, especially “Laputa, Castle in the Sky”, which has air pirates and an entire flying island. Flying is an inherently beautiful thing, and his style of cel animation is wonderful at portraying it on film.

But I think something else is going on here.   The Zero was the first Japanese industrial product that was clearly competitive with the West.   In the air battles of 1941 and 1942, it shot down everything that the US and British could put against it.   Compared to the standard US Navy fighter of 1941, the Brewster Buffalo, it was faster (330 mph vs 320), more maneuverable (a rate of climb of 3100 ft/min vs 2440) and had longer range (1900 miles vs 965).

Japan had been trying to catch up ever since the Meiji Restoration.   Once they were forced by Admiral Perry to look beyond their shores, they could see how far behind they had gotten.  Even by the time of this movie, the 1930s, the country still looked pre-industrial.  The movie is filled with pretty scenes of fields and small villages.   At the Mitsubishi aircraft factory where Horikoshi is working, they still haul the planes out to grassy runways with teams of oxen.

But things are changing.   The men are now wearing suits and ties.   Rackety cars are moving down the streets.  The air itself is in trouble – Horikoshi’s wife Naoko suffers from TB, and cannot stand the polluted air of the cities.  Flying itself gives a freedom to the Japanese that they had never known before.  Horikoshi exemplifies what it took to catch up – he’s a person of Zen-like concentration and utter determination.

It all ends badly, of course.   Naoko risks her health to be near him when he’s doing the flight trials of his first masterpiece, the A5M, but realizes that she is keeping him from work critical to the nation.   She flees back to a sanitarium in the mountains.  Just as the plane has its first spectacular flight, he feels a puff of wind and knows she is gone.  The movie ends at the end of WW 2, with Horikoshi looking out over vast fields of wrecked aircraft and saying “Not one of them came back.”  And it’s true – of the 11,000 Zeros built, only 1 flyable one remains.  His boyhood dreams of freedom and flight ended in ruin for him and his nation.

So this isn’t just a story of an artist who worked in metal and engines instead of animation cels.  It’s not just a tragic love story.  I think it’s also a story of the country itself.   No wonder it was the highest grossing movie in Japan in 2013!


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“Gravity” and Retreating From Space

I was once surfing around the cable channels when I came upon a screen that was almost completely white. Almost, but not quite – slight ripples and whorls were moving slowly across it. There was hardly any sound, just a hiss and occasional beep. It was hypnotic. The patterns were subtle but somehow familiar. I watched for five minutes before a voice came on. “Houston, we’ve finished the check of the unit.” It was a live feed from the Shuttle as it flew over a cloud-covered Earth!

In the spectacular new movie “Gravity”, the Earth is very much a character. There are only two people in it, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, playing astronauts stranded when a disaster destroys their Shuttle, but behind them and always beckoning to them is Earth’s huge and beautiful disk.

Bullock and Clooney repairing the Hubble

It’s home, it’s safety, and it’s other people. The horror in the movie is to be floating in free space, helpless and alone. Beneath you, though, are millions of people. Look, there’s Cairo and the Nile valley. There’s the boot of Italy.  At one point Clooney says “You should see the sun on the Ganges; it’s amazing!”, even though he’s in the most dire of circumstances.

Space, though, is lethal. All of Low Earth Orbit becomes uninhabitable when a cloud of debris from an exploding Russian satellite starts destroying everything else in orbit. This has long been an actual concern. In 1978 NASA scientist Donald Kessler noted that debris from one satellite could create more debris when it hit another, causing a runaway cascade now known as the Kessler Syndrome. Small incidents have already happened. In 2007 the Chinese tested an anti-satellite missile on one of their own satellites, and created 2300 pieces of debris more than an inch across. It damaged the Russian BLITS satellite in 2013. The ISS regularly moves to avoid debris, and its occupants have had to retreat to a relatively safe part of the station, the Soyuz capsule, three times.

So in this movie, the prospect of space is gone.  Nothing can survive up there, manned or not.   There won’t be any more space stations.  The only hope is to get back to Earth as soon as possible.  But that’s OK!  Every frame of this movie says that Earth is where we belong.

That’s not exactly the final frontier!  The moviemakers could have made a point of showing the cleanup, the new missions, the refusal to be beaten by a mere accident.  Not in the 2010s.   People here are retreating from space and not going back, because they don’t belong there.

Now, don’t let this dissuade you from seeing the movie.  It’s gripping and gorgeous, and Bullock turns in the performance of her career.   It was also nice to see people getting a grip and solving problems.  So this parachute harness is stuck?  We’re going out there with a wrench to undo it, in spite of the debris flying by.  It’s also finally a justification for 3D – the way things are floating around immerses you totally in the story.

Yet I found its underlying theme dismaying.   Earth is not our only home, any more than the savanna was.   Most of the Earth is pretty lethal to us naked apes, but that hasn’t stopped us.   I regret seeing this much skill and art devoted to a story of retreat.


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