Reviews

God, the Universe, & Everything (1988)

Alas, most of the science discussed here could be explained by an average high school physics teacher.


God, the Universe, & Everything Else

Distributor: Kulture
Cast: Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, Arthur C. Clarke
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 1988
US DVD Release Date: 2007-02-27

The idea behind God, the Universe, and Everything Else is fantastic: assemble a few great scientific minds and let them chat about cosmology, the origin of the universe, the unified theory, and that sort of thing. Each of these men -- Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, and Arthur C. Clarke -- have made enormous contributions to various fields, primarily physics, astronomy, mathematics, and speculative fiction. The results come up drastically short of the possibilities, largely through the conversation's brevity and superficial engagement.

Starting with its poor video quality, the DVD does nothing to hide its low-budget production. We're given no special features, no notes, and, for that, matter, not even an introduction of what's going on (Hawking, Clarke, and host Magnus Magnusson are in a room in England, joined by video by Sagan from Cornell University, but we have no idea what this production is for). The object of the meeting, if not explicit, quickly becomes apparent. These brilliant minds will put science into layman's terms.

That objective, of course, is a bit of a waste, as most of the science discussed here could be explained by an average high school physics teacher. The three men do speak clearly, elucidating difficult concepts (as Sagan says, "Intuition is not adequate to the task" of cosmology) in accessible language, but the restrictions of such a context can only chafe. Occasionally the theorists do stray into more advanced areas, such as Hawking's description of imaginary time, but they're never given enough time to fully develop a point in these areas.

Originally appearing in 1988, the film also suffers from its datedness. The science remains accurate enough, but it does miss important developments. The group discusses what we might learn from the future launch of the Hubble telescope, for example. Without recent knowledge of Mars, the trio's discussions of the planet and its possible colonization lacks currency. Magnusson also spends as much time talking about Hawking's speaking device as he does anything else in the film. Twenty years ago, this computerized mechanism might have been a compelling topic -- especially as Hawking had only lost his voice several years earlier -- but at this point, nearly everyone who would be drawn to this DVD knows how Hawking communicates aurally.

The time-lapse might hit Clarke the hardest. He's set up with a charmingly antiquated computer, which he uses to show the Mandelbrot set. Rather than delving into science, the segment's more likely to simply produce nostalgia for an era when the Apple IIe was a powerhouse. The scene is even more flummoxing because no one explains the relevance of Clarke's demonstration. The images demonstrated by the Mandelbrot set are lovely, but specifically dated in a cultural sense, and Clarke fails to connect the work to the larger discussion, in part because it has none. (For the record, the set is a particular fractal that became popular leading up to that time. Fractals are often connected to self-repeating geometric shapes, and can aid examination or theorizing on an infinitesimal scale).

Given the disc's title, the three men have surprisingly little to say on the subject of God. The meeting point of physics and theology can be a fascinating area, but with the group essentially in agreement, the discussion just serves to fill time. Sagan, mentioning Einstein and Spinoza, says that God is possibly definable as "the sum total of the laws of the universe", and that's the sort of "mind of God" that Hawking described in his then-new A Brief History of Time. The pithy segment on religion and science feels as if the topic was raised only to cover a comment made in the book, and to fill out the enormity of the short film's range (in case "the universe and everything else" didn't cover all bases).

Like the rest of the film, though, the segment offers too little insight and too much conformity of thought (the only disagreement occurs over a discussion of extraterrestrial life). With such a strong lineup, the DVD becomes even more of a disappointment because the thwarted potential is always apparent. With so much good, accessible science available on video, even considering the potential "historically relevant" factor of its gathered participants, it's hard to understand why this production has been given a new release.

Carl Sagan

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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