Monsters University

When I declared that I was going to the cinema to watch Monsters University, one of my Twitter followers (‘followers’ seems such a dispassionate word, but anything else seems over-familiar) asked if I could share what I thought about it. Compared to Monsters, Inc. that is, not as a stand alone film.

Unbeknown to Gee of Twitter, being asked for my opinion on things tends to trigger a long spiralling descent into cortex-twisting worry; what if I say something is really good and the other person hates it and thinks I’m a complete blundering quarterwit? In recent years, I’ve tried to avoid revealing my personal opinion on things by hiding behind statistics and adopting a mantra that ‘popular art criticism is too subjective to be truly useful’.

There is also the problem that I have fairly ‘idiosyncratic’ taste. I enjoy the music of U2, Manic Street Preachers and Shed Seven wholeheartedly and without irony. During my brief spells writing music reviews for two music websites, I found my writing straying further and further away from a position of stating outright whether I felt an album was actually any good, in favour of taking a more objective approach. All anyone can genuinely impart as a critic is whether they liked something or not, not whether it’s ‘good’ or not, and personally I don’t think personal opinion amounts to much. One person’s cult film is another’s box office flop after all.

As it was, all I could do was watch Pixar’s latest offering with an open mind. I haven’t seen the original film in years, despite enjoying it, so being able to form a comparison would be harder still.

The premise of the film is simple enough; a prequel to 2001’s Monster’s Inc., it tells the story of how Sully (John Goodman) and Mike (Billy Crystal) first met, as majors in Scaring at Monsters University. If you haven’t seen the original film, the franchise takes place primarily in a parallel dimension inhabited entirely by monsters. Dependent on ‘scream energy’ for power, they harvest this by crossing through inter-dimensional portals (manifesting as bedroom and closet doors) into our world to terrify young children, becoming the ‘monster under the bed’ of legend.

Monsters University perhaps does fall short of what its predecessor achieved. Visually, it’s an incredible film; the sandbox of the university, a perfectly realised facsimile of a US Ivy League college campus, is rendered magnificently by Pixar’s new global illumination technology. One scene, set in winter, has the sort of flat, diffused and washed out winter sunlight you would expect to see in real life. It suggests that if nothing else, Pixar’s visuals have new levels to reach yet.

All the other Pixar mainstays are present; a Newman (Randy) provides the music. The slapstick physicality, witty dialogue and character development arcs are all there, but perhaps the university theme isn’t as universal as the first film’s meditation on ‘monsters in the closet’, although it is true that in the 12 years since Monsters, Inc. was released, many of its target audience will have reached college age themselves, and like Andy from Toy Story, gone onto their own adventures in further education.

However, for many Americans and non-Americans alike, the notion of US college life, with its frat houses and Greek societies and sports stadia that are bigger than their professional league equivalents remains a somewhat alien concept, experienced by the vast majority of people only through exposure to American film. Pixar’s greatest works are those that appear to tap into a commonality of its audience, things we all experienced as children and can still appreciate as adults. What if our toys came to life when we left the room? What if there were monsters in the closet? I don’t think Monsters University can achieve this; the university theme is just a little too niche. However, the boarding school setting didn’t appear to do the Harry Potter series any harm…

So Monsters University; it’s not Pixar at their best, and it’s not quite as good as Monsters, Inc., but it’s still an enjoyable and well-crafted film.

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Taking the Piss

Okay, before we start, I have to point out that there may be spoilers in this post relating to the film Gattaca, so if you haven’t seen it and you want to, you have been warned.

“Right handed men don’t hold it in their left.”

 

Gattaca, a late 90s film allegory about discrimination, remains one of my two favourite films, to this day (the other is the Shawshank Redemption). It’s a fable about the indefatigability of the human spirit, and our ability to overcome apparently insurmountable odds. For those that haven’t seen it (and I recommend you do), and are unconcerned by spoilers, the film chronicles the life of Vincent Freeman, a young man born in a United States of the near future. A natural birth in an era of increasing genetic engineering, Vincent is prognosed with a potentially fatal heart condition, and given a life expectancy of 30 years.

In this future society, employers discriminate against those individuals with substandard DNA, such as Vincent. His goal of becoming an astronaut is little more than a pipe dream, until he assumes the identity of a paralysed Olympic swimmer, Jerome. Jerome donates genetic material to help Vincent to secure a position as a navigator within the space agency, as well as to bypass the daily biometric testing all employees are subject to.

Eventually, Vincent proves himself physically and mentally capable to join the space mission to Titan, but as he is boarding the spacecraft, he is subjected to one final, ad hoc medical examination by Doctor Lamar, as in the video above. Vincent is naturally left-handed, while Jerome is a righty (it’s implied that left-handedness is seen as undesirable in this world of genetic selection) Doctor Lamar respects and admires Vincent, and keeps his secret. Vincent joins the rest of the crew on the mission.

Gattaca’s allegory (that of the civil rights movement and the ongoing struggle for equality in the 21st century), and its theme (that with hard work, heart and application, ordinary people can achieve anything) are two of the main reasons that the film is one of my favourites. The art direction and the music is fantastic as well. But there’s just one thing that gnaws at me.

Doctor Lamar’s line, set up by writer/director Andrew Niccol to be a big pay off at the climax of the film. Hey, I knew you were faking it all along, but I had to believe in you for the sake of my son. It’s a nice line, delivered well by Xander Berkeley; I’m just not sure how true it is. You see, I’m left-handed, and I hold it in my right. It’s not something I’d be comfortable doing a straw poll on, but I’m willing to wager that most left-handed men do the same.

Like most things in the (real) world, trousers are designed for the right handed majority. Flies (zip or button) open to the right, making it difficult though not impossible to access with the left hand. Once opened, the left hand deals with the underpants while the right hand aims. And repeat in reverse when finished. While I’m predominantly left-sided in general, there are things I do with my right hand, mainly due to years of environmental conditioning. Use tin openers and scissors for example. I suspect that peeing may join that list.

Of course…the TV Tropes website defines ‘fridge brilliance’ as that moment, long after you’ve finished watching a film or TV show or reading a book when a plot point that had previously made no sense at all suddenly becomes crystal clear. It occurred to me this afternoon, after years of being mildly annoyed by the ‘hold it in the left’ line that maybe it made sense for Vincent to do something that would be out of the ordinary. By definition his entire life was dedicated to subverting social mores, breaking through barriers, and basically not doing what the world intended for him to do.

Of course, it could just be that the right-handed Niccol assumed that all lefties hold it in their left…

Onwards, and Upwards

I’ve been trying to write this blog entry for a good eight months now, but every attempt I’ve made has ended with me facing a logical brick wall, with no clue as how to circumvent it or climb over it.

Perhaps I’ve been blinded by science, but if I can’t find some sort of scientific study that backs up what I’m writing, I begin to doubt the veracity of what I’m saying. And so I reluctantly let the unfinished blog fall into the sediment of the drafts folder, and go about trying to think of a different tack.

Perhaps it would help to outline my theory? I suspect that Scottish football fans, and in particular Rangers fans, are overly negative. In fact, they’re so negative that it’s beginning to affect the very fabric of the football in the country. But can I prove that?

During my research, I haven’t been able to find any evidence that Scots are any more pessimistic than any other peoples. Typing ‘Scots Happiness’ into Google returns several news articles on UK-wide polls suggesting that Scots are generally happier with their lot than any other region of the country. This took the wind from my sails a little.

Shortly afterwards, I was browsing a message board dedicated to my favourite band, looking for information about their new album, due to be released later in the years. In a thread dedicated to the new LP, I was struck by how many people seemed to be forming negative views and predictions of what the record would be like, based on the limited news they’d heard. This was interesting; it’s not just Scottish football fans that like to moan about things; music fans from all over the world do the same. So what exactly was going on?

Up until my mid twenties, I was convinced my calling lay in the arts, as a novelist or a photographer or a musician or a film-maker. Since then, I’ve fostered a career in finance while picking up a qualification in Architectural technology with the result being my outlook has become more science based. I have very black and white views about science and the arts; the former is about answers and objectivity and closed answers; the latter is the opposite. I’ve never been particularly artistically talented, and the notion of a ‘correct’ answer appealed, so maybe science was the field for me?

Of course, there’s more to it than that. Science requires subjectivity, lateral thinking, imagination and leaps of faith as much as the arts do. I discovered that when I first started delving into statistics. The notion of using numbers to illustrate patterns in life fascinated me (see craving for correct answers above), but I soon learned that to convert raw data to information we must first process it. And that’s where bias creeps in.

We all process data in different ways, depending on our character, outlook, experience and personal agenda. In a recent training course on risk management, the instructor illustrated this using the example of an officer carrying out a survey on an idea they’ve had. 60% of respondents think it’s a good idea. ‘Excellent’, they think, ‘that’s nearly 2/3rds’. However, a colleague suggests an alternate proposal. A survey is carried out, and 60% of people also think it’s a good idea. The first officer doesn’t like the idea, and dismisses it because ‘60% is little more than a half’. A different example of disingenuous interpretation of data can heard on BBC’s Match of the Day programme on a regular basis; Team A is said to have gone 28 years without beating Team B. However, the two teams have only been in the same division for 2 of those years.

Statistics are being used increasingly often by football teams in the UK to measure player and team performances. Some fans will create their own data and interpretations (soccermetrics), but by and large I think most supporters are suspicious of such metrics. I think football fans base their opinions of their team’s performance on very subjective, instinctive readings on what they see, and this is where bias comes back in. For instance, Ross Perry had the second best goals conceded per games started of all our defenders last season, yet if you tell people that, they stare at you like you’ve suddenly grown a unicorn horn in the middle of your forehead. Of course, it can be argued that soccermetrics aren’t as effective as sabermetrics (because football is more organically organised than baseball I suppose), and they don’t quite tell the whole story. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting contrast.

I used to pride myself on having an excellent memory. Not quite photographic/eidetic, if such things truly exist, but I felt I had a decent recall of my time on Earth. It’s only when reading old blogs and journals that it’s become apparent to me that there are huge swathes of my past that I had simply forgotten. The struggles and frustration I experienced climbing the stairs in work when I had my knee injury, for instance. If I hadn’t recovered that memory, I would have had nothing to compare my new almost unencumbered locomotion against. My lot has improved, but my brain had chosen not to record that pleasurable progress.

Our memories, experiences and opinions are affected by personal bias. Perhaps football fans are doomed to something similar, a psychological phenomenon known as negativity bias. An article in the New York Times quotes Stanford University Professor of Communication Clifford Nass:

“Negative emotions generally involve more thinking, and the information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones, he said. Thus, we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events — and use stronger words to describe them — than happy ones.”

There are many message boards dedicated to discussing events at Rangers (and let’s face it, it’s not been a quiet couple of years), with thousands of threads. It’s my perception (biased or otherwise) that many of these threads end up devolving into arguments between those that feel the club is operating as well as can be expected, and those that firmly believe nigh on everything the club does is wrong in some way.

Is a certain amount of negativity a problem? Probably not. If Professor Nass is correct, then it’s almost unavoidable. But left unchecked, I feel there’s a very good possibility it can start to do some real damage, particularly among football fans. I firmly believe that the current discontent among Rangers support is due to negativity bias, and that it had at least a partial effect on the team’s performances last season.

That sounds ridiculous, I know. But I’ve explained in a previous blog how the home form last season seemed to tail off the longer the season went on, while the away form improved. Is that because our players felt less uncomfortable playing away from Ibrox, where the atmosphere seemed to range from a little flat, to oppressive towards the home team?

You might counter that the fans were uninspired by the football on show. That’s probably true, but it takes us back to perception again. Despite developing my current religious/addictive relationship with my club in the late 80s, I’ve never been a season ticket holder, nor have I attended many games. While that was initially due to financial reasons, I still only go along to a handful of matches a season, chiefly because I begrudge paying between £15 and £25 to watch Scottish football. While I’m trying to avoid negativity towards our national game, the game throughout Europe has become massively over-priced. And let’s be frank, most games of football…well, they’re mainly filler, aren’t they? Highlights are few and far between, and ninety minutes can be easily edited down to five minute packages for Match of the Day or Sportscene.

I’m ready to be pleasantly surprised by the 2013-14 season, but I don’t think the quality of football will be markedly better than it was last season, or how it was under Smith, le Guen or McLeish. And even I find myself romanticising the Advocaat days, when the truth is I only tended to see the highlights of those games as well.

What I do think we can do as a support is give the club something to build on. Yes, we have the right to feel aggrieved if we perceive that our financial stake is not being managed correctly, but at the same time the relationship between a football team and its fans is based on more than just money. If we announce a new fitness coach, let’s not find a spurious negative. If we launch a new kit, let’s not complain about the standard of the photoshoot. If our midfielder plays a pass backwards, let’s not immediately tut and sigh as one. If our young midfielder overhits a cross, let’s try not to heckle him. We’re not going to play like Borussia Dortmund in the lower levels of the Scottish game, but let’s not be so hard on ourselves. Think positively.