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Hot Movie Takes: “The Incredible Shrinking Man” and “Downsizing” speak to each other and to us 60 years apart

February 17, 2017 1 comment

 

 

 

Hot Movie Takes:

‘The’Incredible Shrinking Man”and ‘Downsizing” speak to each other and to us 60 years apart

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

Media wonks like me are always looking for anniversary tie-ins between something from the past and something happening right now. Being a film buff to boot, I like finding movies from, say, Hollywood’s Golden Age, that have some thematic, visual or authorial resonance with contemporary movies. An obvious one that will be even more noticeable later this year has to do with Jack Arnold’s “The Incredible Shrinking Man” from 1957 and Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” premiering later this year. That makes 60 years between films that have something to say to each other as well as about their respective times through the conceit of human miniaturization.

Making comparisons is always precarious but, as Payne would say, we’re only talking movies here, so relax. Besides, it’s irresistible discussing two films about small human beings even though each project’s storyline, approach, resources and era of filmmaking is radically different from the other.

Another problem with doing a comparison in this case is that “Shrinking Man” is widely available for review while “Downsizing” hasn’t even been completed yet. But I  have the script to go on as well as interviews I’ve done with Payne and a good chunk of his creative team.

In the earlier film the protagonist is miniaturized by accident or fate or phenomenon and his reduction is gradual and out of his control. In the later film the protagonist’s downsizing is a choice that happens immediately upon demand. And where the 1957 film’s hero is the lone person affected by this strange and frightening event, the hero of the 2017 film is one of an entire community or population experiencing miniaturization.

For all the films’ differences, there are also some key similarities. Let’s start with fact that each has an Everyman protagonist who ends up scaled down by mechanisms that speak to the anxieties of their times. “Shrinking Man’s” Scott Carey, played by Grant Williams, is caught in a strange fog and dust out on the ocean. Given that the film is set in and was released in the first full decade of the nuclear age, the inevitable implication is that Scott’s fallen victim to radioactive fallout. Relatively little was known then about the effects of radioactivity and that’s why science fiction stories ran wild with conjectures of mutations that made things grow abnormally large. Well, here, writer Richard Matheson imagines the reverse result.

As Scott’s diminutiveness advances, he is framed against the plastic suburban world of his home that increasingly becomes a foreboding, overwhelming prison of things that heretofore were neutral when he dominated but are now threats in his fragile new state. At one stage in his downsizing the family cat becomes a terrifying predator he must run from to escape. Later, when’s he’s even smaller, he gets stranded in the basement, where everything is an epic, life or death challenge – from navigating steps looming as cliffs he must scale to getting swept away in a water heater spill that for him is the equivalent of being caught in a flood to a spider that’s no longer just a household pest but a frightening monster he must battle for hi slife. In a world where everything has spiraled out of scale, he’s a vulnerable creature subject to objects and forces he once mastered but that are now beyond his control.

 

Grant Williams in The Incredible Shrinking Man

 

Throughout the shrinking phenomenon Scott’s normal sized wife remains faithful until the differential makes things impossible to carry on anything resembling a normal relationship. He loses her and every outward artifice of his life. Stripped of all that he once used to define himself by, Scott is eventually only left with his mind, his heart and his soul. Faced with the inevitability of being reduced to a molecule, then an atom, then an electron and eventually to the smallest life particles, he enters the vast unknown of an infinite universe. It is at once sad, as he is alone, and inspiring, as he’s become fully, intimately integrated with the matter of nature itself. By the conclusion he has moved from fearful, angry, desperate and despairing to surrender. No longer resistant, he gives himself over to a new reality in which he is the first human traveler. It is among the most profound, spiritual endings in cinema history.

Without giving away too much, Payne’s “Downsizing” has its protagonist Paul choose to be miniaturized in a near future world where looming climate change catastrophe has motivated scientists to develop a means by which humans are reduced to four inches. Every day people’s motivation to take this drastic action is variously noble, practical, desperate and exploitive. The environmentally conscious are willing to sacrifice their normal lives and everything in them in order to reduce their carbon and resource footprint and thus help save the planet. On the other end of the spectrum are the hustlers, hucksters, opportunists and traffickers who see a new world of suckers to con or to conduct illegal business with. In between these extremes is Paul, played by Matt Damon, who is convinced to sign up for downsizing transformation by his wife, played by Kristen Wiig. Paul is the classic go along to get along type who doesn’t like making waves or going out on a limb. Yet he agrees to give up everything he knows to be miniaturized because he and his mate will take this leap of faith into the unknown together. Besides, there’ll be doing their part to conserve resources in the hope that enough people will do the same to stem the catastrophic, apocalyptic end of life as we know it. It’s the most dramatic decision and act of his life because once the process is complete, there is no turning or going back. It is irreversible.

Then there is the huge new industry sprung up overnight to support and outfit this pioneering alternative lifestyle. The consumerist culture of escapist cruises and retirement resorts finds new expression in the small world and its geodesic domed communities. The way people live in this manufactured, improvised reality mirrors the normal world and thus there’s a class system of haves and have-nots, desirables and undesirables, predators and preyed upon.

When the couple go in for the procedure, they are led to separate labs. Paul goes through the process only to discover his wife had last minute second-thoughts and opted to not go through with it, after all. Thus, he’s abandoned to face the small world alone. There he falls into something of a shell shock routine until he beings meeting people and seeing things he never would have met or seen before. This includes Euro-trash wheeler-dealer Goran, who can get anything for a price, and Vietnamese-American activist, Gong Jiang, who fights the injustice that confines a marginalized segment of the small world to ghettos. Paul is befriended by Goran, who wants nothing more than to corrupt the circumspect newcomer, but this good-hearted grifter settles for opening his innocent acolyte’s eyes to the illicit commerce and trade this new world order offers. He can also get Paul places he couldn’t get alone. Circumstances bring Paul and Gong together and he is at first put off by her fierce, single-minded focus but grows to admire her passion and to love her not just as a symbol of right but as a fully dimensional woman.

It is through these opposites of Gong and Goran that Paul goes on his greater adventure both within the social-political maelstrom of the downsized community and amidst the end-of-world crisis hanging over everybody, big and small alike. Indeed, he finds himself at the right place and at the right time to witness and participate in an epoch of global dimensions. His diminutive size makes him a candidate to join a group of pioneers whose mission is nothing less than securing the future of human civilization. Thus, by the end, “Downsizing” takes a spiritual turn not unlike “Shrinking” and suggests notions of man’s place in the universe, on Planet Earth and in eternity.

Both films speak eloquently to the nature of man and the nature of existence itself and what it means to be human. At the end of these respective stories, Scott and Paul prepare to embark on journeys that will take them into ever new realms of unknowns. The conclusions suggest that it’s not the end for these characters or for their fellow human beings, but rather the beginning. In the earlier film there is an underlying social consciousness that questions what have we wrought in the nuclear age in terms of our health and future. There’s also the strong suggestion that in smashing the atom and releasing its energy we have reconnected with the very essence of mankind’s beginnings and our elemental lineage with the stars. In the later film the social consciousness stream focuses on what man has done to spoil the Earth and the desperate measures taken to salvage a future for man to continue living on it. In that respect and others, these films speak across generations to each other and to us.

Before I bid peace out, a few notes about the creators of these two films:

The late Richard Matheson wrote the screenplay for “The Incredible Shrinking Man” by adapting  his own novel (called “The Shrinking Man”). Matheson was a prolific and much honored author novels, short stories and screenplays for film and television and much of his best known work is in the horror, fantasy, science fiction categories. Among other things, he wrote several films for Roger Corman, including adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe works, a handful of the best episodes of the original Twilight Zone series (“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and my all-time favorite “Little Girl Lost”) and the made for TV movie “Duel” which made its very young director, He adapted his short story “Steel” into a Twilight Zone by the same title and decades later the story was made into the film “Real Steel” starring Hugh Jackman. Omaha’s own Mauro Fiore was the cinematographer on that 2011 adaptation. Steven Speilberg, a hot commodity in Hollywood. He also wrote a well-regarded episode of the original “Star Trek” series – “The Enemy Within.” His novel “I Am Legend” was adapted into the films “The Omega Man” and “I Am Legend.” He also worked closely with director Dan Curtis on some fine TV movies, including “The Night Stalker,” “The Night Strangler,” “Dead of Night” and a great adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” starring Jack Palance. He also wrote for Western series and, well, if you look at his IMDB credits or go to his Wikepedia page you will see just what a titan he was among American popular writers.

The director of “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” the late Jack Arnold, was a good not great filmmaker who made some interesting movies in addition to this one, including “It Came from Outer Space,” “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” “Man in the Shadow” and the made for TV “Marilyn: The Untold Story.” Most of his directing credits were for epdisodic TV shows from the 1960s through the mid-1980s.

Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor are one of Hollywood’s great writing teams. “Downsizing” represents their second original script (their first was “Citizen Ruth”) and their adaptations have included “Election,” “About Schmidt” and “Sideways.” Payne directed each of these projects and two more features that Taylor did not contribute to – “The Descendants” and “Nebraska.” “Downsizing” represents their first foray into science fiction but the script doesn’t read so much as a sci-fi picture as it does an epic yet intimate human story that straddles, like all their work, comedy and drama. Lots of big ideas are explored and expressed in the story.

Where Matheson didn’t have the advantage of a director with great sophistication in Arnold, who was a studio journeyman, Payne is a world-class Indiwood filmmaker who has total creative control over his work. And where “Shrinking Man” was limited by a smallish budget and limited visual effects, though the effects are quite good not only for that time but even by today’s standards, “Downsizing” is a big budge project employing state of the art CGI and other technologies that should make human miniaturization look far more real than ever imagined before.

 

“The Incredible Shrinking Man”

1957 film

7.7/10·IMDb

90%·Rotten Tomatoes

“The Incredible Shrinking Man” is a 1957 American black-and-white science fiction film from Universal-International, produced by Albert Zugsmith, directed by Jack Arnold, that starred Grant Williams and Randy Stuart. Wikipedia

Initial release: February 22, 1957

Director: Jack Arnold

Story by: Richard Matheson

Producer: Albert Zugsmith

Screenplay: Richard Matheson, Richard Alan Simmons

_ _ _

“Downsizing”

2017 film

IMDB http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1389072/

First reviews should appear by the end of May 2017

“Downsizing” is a 2017 American comedy from Paramount Pictures, produced by Jim Burke, directed by Alexander Payne, that stars Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Neil Patrick Harris, Jason Sudeikis and Bruce Willis.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Downsizing_(2017_film)

Initial release: December 23, 2017

Director: Alexander Payne

Story by: Alexander PayneJim Taylor

Producer: Jim BurkeMegan Ellison 

Screenplay: Alexander PayneJim Taylor

Movie maven Crawford celebrates 20 years of classic film revivals bringing Hollywood to Omaha: Special guest Pat Boone to appear at screening of “Journey to the Center of the Earth”

April 19, 2012 4 comments

One of my favorite movies as a kid was the 1959 version of Journey to the Center of the Earth. I’ve seen it all the way through perhaps a handful of times but always on television, which is why I’m looking forward to an upcoming big screen revival of the Jules Verne sci fi adventure in Omaha, Neb. courtesy of film impresario and historian Bruce Crawford.  Omaha has had a spotty hisory when it comes to opportunities for seeing classic films on the big screen.  Aside from the occasional studio re-releases of classics that come here there’s been sporadic commercial and nonprofit screenings of classics, and I was involved with some of these myself as a programmer from the late 1970s through the early 1990s.  When the university, independent, and museum-based film series I worked with went by the wayside in the early 1990s, Crawford was there to pick up the slack. What he’s done over a 20-year period now is give film lovers the chance to see old movies the way they’re meant to be seen, namely on a big screen, but he also takes great pains to make these presentations special events by bringing in cast or crew from the pictures along with reenactors and staging Hollywood premiere-like settings, complete with red carpet and all the trappings.  This, combined with the emergence of the downtown Omaha art cinema Film Streams and its regular repertory series of classics, has given the city a robust classic cinema scene.

 

 

 

 

 

Movie maven Crawford celebrates 20 years of classic film revivals bringing Hollywood to Omaha: Special guest Pat Boone to appear at screening of “Journey to the Center of the Earth”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Metro Magazine

 

When film impresario Bruce Crawford presents the 1959 big screen version of Journey to the Center of the Earth May 19 with star and special guest Pat Boone he’ll celebrate three milestones.

Legends

The 7 p.m. event at Joslyn Art Museum‘s Witherspoon Concert Hall benefiting the Nebraska Kidney Association marks Crawford’s 20th year of classic film revivals and 30th screening. The program also pays homage to the centenary of the movie’s late great composer, Bernard Herrmann.

Growing up in Nebraska City Crawford developed such a strong affinity for movie music and special effects he cultivated friendships with idol Herrmann and stop motion master Ray Harryhausen. He says he never imagined his film passion “would by my life and career and take me all over the country and the world.”

Boone’s the latest in a long line of legends Crawford’s brought to Omaha, following Harryhausen, Patricia Neal, Janet Leigh and Debbie Reynolds. Crawford’s rep as a movie maven and historian finds him contributing to documentaries and hosting movie music concerts. He and Kim Novak hosted a program at the recent TCM Classic Film Festival in L.A. Always a showman, he puts on the dog at his Omaha events with red carpet, searchlights and reenactors. For Journey he’s arranged for bagpipers in quilts and steampunkers in period costumes and gear to set the mood for the Jules Verne Victorian science fiction tale.

Boone or bust

The ultra square pop singer Boone was under a seven-year 20th Century Fox contact when he refused doing a Marilyn Monroe picture on moral grounds. That’s when the studio compelled him to make Journey. He initially balked, preferring romantic comedies and musicals like his idol Bing Crosby. Besides, sic fi movies were usually cheap, B program fillers then. Under threat of suspension he acquiesced when Fox assured him they planned a big budget production with A-list cast (James Mason) and crew director Henry Levin), plus top billing and backend profits for him.

A script rewrite also gave him a love interest and several songs to perform.

Things worked out for Boone when the Cinemascope Deluxe Color film became a hit. It reportedly kept a struggling Fox solvent.

 

 

A production to remember

Making the epic with its giant sets, exotic locations and esteemed co-stars is well-impressed on Boone’s mind.

“For me working with James Mason and Arlene Dahl was not only a privilege and a highlight but it validated me as a movie actor. It was a tremendous experience but it was a very tough picture to make.”

Among other things, there were several nights shooting in the subterranean reaches of Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. Back at the studio he and his fellow players clung to a mock raft suspended on a soundstage that crew rocked and deluged with water to simulate a raging whirlpool scene. He says the look of panic on Dahl’s face is real.

In one shot Boone came close to being smothered on set when buried in an avalanche of gypsum crystals that covered his mouth and nose, pressing down on him with such weight he couldn’t move. As he struggled to breathe he says he heard director Henry Levin checking, one by one, with the four camera operators to see if they got the shot, but the crystals continued falling. Luckily, he says, someone on a catwalk saw he was in trouble and alerted Levin, who finally called cut, as crewmen rushed to get him out. Another time, Boone says he kicked what he thought was a paper mache rock that turned out to be real and broke his foot.

‘Journey’s’ place fixed, Boone’s Hollywood fling flags

The pains that went into making the film account for its enduring appeal. Crawford says, “The movie endures for several reasons – the music, the art direction, the whole way it was put together, the beautiful sets they created, the full use of the technologies of the time. It’s quite spectacular on the big screen and a lot of fun.”

Boone’s film career faded by the late ’60s. As censorship dissolved and new permissiveness emerged., he found fewer scripts conforming to his conservative Christian beliefs. He’s proud that Journey still holds up and entertains. He’ll speak before the film and sign memorabilia afterwards.

Tickets are $25 and available at area Hy-Vee stores.

 

 

 
 Bruce Crawford

Fabulist Adventures in the Deep Blue Sea: Disney’s 1954 Version ofJules Verne’s ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ Gets the Full Technicolor-Cinemascope Treatment

April 9, 2012 1 comment

My guilty cinema pleasures include plenty of kitsch movies, though over time I have less and less patience and tolerance for these less than great films that enthralled me as a kid but do very little for me as an adult.  The 1954 Disney version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea certainly held my attention when I first saw it on television in the late 1960s.  I have maybe seen it in one sitting a couple times since, but mostly it’s one I’ve caught in bits and pieces in the intervening years.  Any film with Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Paul Lukas, and Peter Lorre has to hold your attention for a minute or two, and then add in the action-adventure and fantasy aspects of the story and one can perhaps overlook its sometimes clunky specal effects.  I missed what may have been my only opportunity to see it on a big screen when Omaha film impresario Bruce Crawford presented it a few years ago.  He’s been reviving classics for more than two decades and he has a new program planned for May 19, the 1959 version of Journey to the Center of the Earth, that falls in the same camp as 20,000 Leagues.

 

 

 

 

Fabulist Adventures in the Deep Blue Sea: Disney’s 1954 Version of Jules Verne‘s ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ Gets the Full Technicolor-Cinemascope Treatment                                       

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Sure, one can quibble with some of Bruce Crawford’s selections for his now semi-annual film revival events. The Omaha promoter’s picks are not all classics for one thing. Two of his last three screenings — the creaky 1960 The Time Machine and the 1997 bloater Titanic — don’t compare with the stellar, stand-the-test-of-time cinema of, say, West Side Story or The Misfits or The Searchers, all of which he’s presented in recent years. But, like all show people, Crawford has a nearly unerring sense for putting on the dog. His newest foray into extravaganza is a December 17 unreeling of the wide screen spectacle 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Disney’s 1954 film version of the speculative Jules Verne adventure yarn

Working his Hollywood contacts as usual, Crawford’s secured a restored print of the Cinemascope and Technicolor film from the Disney vaults for the Omaha showing at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. The film is the main attraction for another boffo Crawford program, beginning at 7 p.m., that in addition to the flick will feature reenactors in Victorian splendor, a live theater organ performance of music from the film and special guests.

The one-night only screening is a benefit for the National Kidney Foundation of Nebraska.

 

 

You won’t find 20,000 Leagues on any all-time Best list. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a richly entertaining romp. There’s enough going on to please all but the most discriminating viewer. For starters, the story imagines — from Verne’s amazingly visionary 19th century perspective — a host of technological advances. At the center of it all is the fictional submarine the Nautilus, whose limitless diving feats are fueled by a revolutionary power source that modern audiences can only interpret as nuclear-based. Mistaken for a leviathan serpent from the deep, it surfaces to wreak havoc on war ships at the bidding of its creator, Captain Nemo, an inventor turned militant political activist and seafaring terrorist.

With its cold metal hull and soft upholstered interior, Crawford said, the ship makes a striking visual contrast between the Victorian period’s harshness and plushiness. It even has a pipe organ on which Nemo, in scenes reminiscent of The Phantom of the Opera, plays Bach’s “Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor.”

The vessel’s brilliant but bitter skipper, played by James Mason, is bent both on revenge and on a punitive mission to end the war-making ways of the world. Brooding Mason’s Nemo dominates the film and, in true mad scientist tradition, he’s a figure to be feared, revered and pitied all at once. The haunted Nemo’s rather sketchy back story is the impetus for his reign of terror, as we learn his family was killed by mercenary forces seeking the secrets behind the amazing energy that powers his futuristic submarine and underwater domain. Nemo, Crawford said, is “a tortured soul brilliantly realized by Mason.”

The post-World War II story opens with a U.S. naval expedition being launched to investigate reports of “a monster” attacking and sinking ships on the open sea. The expedition is led by a professor Arronax, his assistant Conseil and harpooner Ned Land, a survivor of a ship wrecked by the Nautilus. When the expedition team’s ship is rammed and sunk by what they at first believe to be the “monster,” Arronax, Conseil and Land are rescued by the Nautilus crew. The hostages soon learn they are aboard a man-made vessel, meet the mad genius behind it and witness the wonders of underwater voyaging, deep sea diving and ocean farming.

 

 

 

 

As Ned Land, virile Kirk Douglas hams it up as a singing, dancing, guitar-strumming mariner who plots to escape the sub. He’s the heroic, swashbuckling antithesis to Nemo’s ruthless radical. Bug-eyed Peter Lorre cracks wise as the comic relief Conseil. Earnest Paul Lukas is the idealistic Arronax in awe of Nemo. A pet sea dog, Esmeralda, steals scenes. Oscar-winning special effects and art direction bring the ocean floor to life, capture the destruction of ships targeted by Nemo and realize a climatic battle between the Nautilus and a giant squid. As if that’s not enough, anointing the action is the Disney studio’s seal of family approved entertainment.

Disney, still a newcomer then to live-action films, spared no expense bringing the 1870 Jules Verne novel to life. Originally conceived as another animation feature, company head Walt Disney was convinced by some of his studio artists and technicians that the film could work as a live-action project. To undertake a live-action film of such visionary scale, however, meant animation-based Disney had to out-source many human talents and resources, including renting 20th Century Fox’s back lot water tanks. Known for his demanding, meticulous attention to detail, Disney and his production chiefs assembled a veteran Hollywood crew and cast and gave them a long leash that he only occasionally felt compelled to rein in.

Using full-scale models, as well as miniatures, matte paintings, rear screen projection and animation, Disney threw everything into the making of 20,000 Leagues. The Nautilus seen in the film was built to scale — reaching 200 feet in length. The squid, constructed of rubber, springs, tubing and plastic, had tentacles 40 feet long. A crew of dozens worked the squid’s remote control movements.

According to Crawford, early footage of the squid’s duel with the Nautilus was a disaster Uncle Walt himself nixed. “It was horrifically bad. It looked like Ed Wood with a big budget. They filmed a sunset sequence in bright light. The squid was wrong. It just didn’t work. They wanted to keep it from being optical. Stop motion would have been perfect, but they wanted to make it full size. They were building Disneyland at the same time this film was being made and of course it became famous for its Animatronics, and that’s what they wanted to utilize,” Crawford said.

 

 

The final squid sequence, he said, “was filmed at night during a heavy storm. It works perfectly. It holds up just as good today as it did then. The squid was full size and all controlled through hydraulics and wires and such. It was clever of them to film it at night during a hurricane-like storm because it adds to the eeriness and the fear factor and, of course, it masks any possible flaws in the visuals.” For a purist like Crawford, the old-school special effects rule. “Well, they hold up, don’t they? It’s not CGI (computer generated images). It’s tactile. It’s organic. You can see it and touch it. I mean, two TV films (of 20,000 Leagues) were made. They bombed. You can’t remake a classic. It just doesn’t work, especially one like that. You can’t out-Disney Disney — even with today’s technology.”

Underwater and beach scenes were filmed off Jamaica and the Bahamas. When all was said and done, 20,000 Leagues supposedly owned the biggest production budget for any film up to that time. Matching the production values, Disney signed an “A” list cast. Douglas and Mason were at the height of their fame. Lukas and Lorre were top character players. After a string of highly-regarded “B” film noirs for RKO (Bodyguard, Armored Car Robbery, The Narrow Margin), Richard Fleischer was commissioned to direct the picture and displayed a flair for the fantastic that he would brandish again with such later pics as The Vikings and Fantastic Voyage.

That Fleischer was entrusted with Disney’s first foray into Cinemascope, the super wide screen format that became the tail that wagged Hollywood’s dog in the ’50s, is interesting since his previous work had mainly been with back alley crime tales. But his effective use of small spaces and instinctive handling of suspense action may have been just what Disney was looking for, said Crawford. “Disney wanted to treat the film like a prison breakout story. It’s very clever. It works.”

Indeed, the film largely plays out on the Nautilus, whose mates, we learn, are former prisoners who broke out of bondage with Nemo, only to become hunted outlaws in his service. When Ned Land and company are taken as hostages, they see both the danger and the promise that Nemo and his new technology pose. When they try and fail to get him to end the attacks and to share his discoveries with the world, they hatch an escape plan. The drama then becomes a race against time. Will the hostages escape before the megalomaniacal Nemo self-destructs?

Crawford said what Hollywood producer-director George Pal did for H.G. Wells with his ’50s production of War of the Worlds, Walt Disney did for Jules Verne with 20,000 Leagues. The success of 20,000 Leagues “certainly was a breakthrough” in paving the way for future adaptations of Verne works, including Around the World in 80 Days, Journey to the Center of the Earth and Mysterious Island, the film that first stirred Crawford’s passion for film.

“It set that template for the ones that successfully followed it,” he said. “It ranks at the very top in that genre because it was not only the first, but because Disney spent so much time and effort and money on it to make it the best. Disney wouldn’t settle for anything but the best.”

The Many Worlds of Science Fiction Author Robert Reed

June 22, 2011 5 comments

I am consistently amazed at the talent surrounding me. Until I saw an item about Robert Reed in the local daily I had no idea that one of the preeminent science fiction authors of his time was from Omaha and still lived in the area – 50 miles away in Lincoln, Neb. I promptly sought out his work and was blown away by his gift, and soon thereafter arranged an interview with him. The resulting story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared in the wake of Reed having won the Holy Grail of his profession, the Hugo Award, for his novella A Billion Eves. My very short piece hardly does the prolific justice to Reed, whose work is included in countless Best Of collections and anthologies, which is why I pine to do another story about him, hopefully one of some length. He is up for another major prize by the way, as a finalist for the Theodore Sturgeon Award for his novella, Dead Man‘s Run.

 

The Many Worlds of Science Fiction Author Robert Reed

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Omaha native Robert Reed’s 2007 Hugo Award-winning novella A Billion Eves imagines devices called “rippers” that punch holes in the fabric of the space-time continuum. People and places get propelled from one world to some infinity of alternate worlds. The prospect of man playing God in new edens plentiful with women proves a Pandora’s Box of male fantasy run amok. The Fathers of these frontiers may be false prophets.

Eves is a cautionary tale about staking claims in facsimile worlds that may have short life spans and be susceptible to human contamination. Better to begin with a clean slate, suggests Reed, a prolific science fiction author. Speculative musings about the fallout of using quantum mechanics as an instrument of Manifest Destiny consume Reed. He has great fun, too, with the divergent creation stories bound to be promulgated in such Instant Ready, up-for-grabs universes. Whose account of “In the beginning…” you believe depends on who you are within the tribe. History, we’re reminded, is the prerogative of the historian.

Reed, who lives in Lincoln, Neb. with his wife Leslie and their daughter Jessie, has largely survived on his writing earnings since 1987. There’ve been lean times when he’s lived off savings. But it’s never been so tight he’s thought of going back on the line at Mapes Industries in Lincoln, where he did the human automaton thing to support his habit. His fertile imagination and solid craft have paid off. His work has been called grim for envisioning horrific end-of-world scenarios and dire consequences of human folly.

“I’m astonished how little fright I have of my own imagination,” he said. “It really does baffle me that I don’t get more scared because I’m capable of thinking up things that are so awful. On any given day I can imagine the worst.”

 

Robert Reed

 

He’s heeded the dark side of his imagination since childhood. Already an avid reader as a kid, he tried writing a novel at 12 or 13 — filling spiral notebooks with violent monsters conjured from somewhere deep within. Playing with his buddies in a wooded area near his childhood home he’d concoct elaborate tales of creatures. At home he’d devise intricate maps of water worlds, drawing on his interest in biology, and create fantastic universes out of his head.

“I just don’t perceive things quite as other people do,” he said.

Years passed between his first stab at writing fiction and his taking it up again at Nebraska Wesleyan University. He’d stopped writing in the interim, but he never stopped reading and imagining. Ideas filled him.

“I would say, yes, they were working on me for years and years,” he said of all the stirrings that pricked at him.

It’s perhaps why when he did resume writing tales poured out of him. They’ve kept coming, too. He’s up to 160 stories and 11 novels. When someone finds the success Reed has — published in all the major SF anthologies and nominated for the field’s top prizes — one asks why he isn’t a household name?

“I’m pleased by my following, what there is of it, but science fiction is really a rather tiny business compared with its giant cousin, which is fantasy,” he said.

Then there’s the fact that while some Reed works have been optioned by filmmakers, none have made it to the screen. He doesn’t much seem to care. He doesn’t do book tours and he attends few SF conventions. And, unlike most successful SF writers whose work is tenaciously grounded in some consistent vision of the future, Reed is apt to apply entirely new suppositions from story to story.

“It doesn’t help build a fan base doing that. There’s many ways in which I’ve separated myself from the rest of the business and from my readers,” he said, adding one advantage to being an outsider is — “I think I often come up with fresh perspectives on old storylines.”

It’s true this avid long distance runner prefers to stay apart from the pack, but then there’s his big, loud web site, www.robertreedwriter.com, that two huge fans created and maintain. Reed said he doesn’t feel he would have won the coveted Hugo without the site’s props. A Billion Eves, which appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, can be read there. A complete bibliography of his work is available online.

CSI: UNO/Forensic Services Unit

March 6, 2011 1 comment

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation

Image via Wikipedia

Here is a pair of stories I did for the spring 2011 issue of UNO Magazine (http://unoalumni.org/unomag), the official magazine of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, which is my alma mater (class of 1982). The stories fall in line with this particular issue’s focus on UNO alums and faculty working in various aspects of crime, safety, and justice.  In the first piece I look at how a UNO faculty member provided expertise and technology to assist a local crime lab technician with valuable measurements in testing evidence from a crime scene.  In the second piece I profile a UNO alum working as a crime scene technician back East and her finding a real niche for herself in the field, one that’s become glamorized by television portrayals in recent years.

CSI: UNO

He may not have any super powers, but Dana Richter-Egger does have a super spectrometer. And with a call for help from the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in 2006, he joined the league of Omaha crime fighters.

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in UNO Magazine (http://unoalumni.org/unomag)

By day, Richter-Egger is more about busting complex math and chemical equations than he is about busting bad guys. He’s an assistant professor of chemistry at UNO and director of its Math-Science Learning Center.

Four years ago, though, Christine Gabig, a forensic scientist in the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, asked for help that only he could provide. Specifically, Gabig needed assistance determining whether glass fragments found at the scene of a crime matched shards found in a suspect’s car.

The crime occurred on Dec. 5, 2005. An Omaha Police Department undercover officer was in an unmarked vehicle on a north-side street when a car pulled up parallel to his. The driver then pointed a shotgun at the officer through an open window. The officer ducked for cover, firing several rounds through his own open driver-side window at the fleeing car.

A suspect in the case emerged when a man sought medical treatment at a hospital for gunshot and glass wounds. DNA linked him to the car with shattered windows but prosecutors needed evidence that definitively put him at the scene as the driver.

Gabig did initial tests on the glass fragments in her lab, but they were inconclusive.

“I knew I needed more detailed analysis,” she says, “and I immediately thought of Dana and ICP-MS.”

The Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer, that is.

A sophisticated trace element analyzer that enables sensitive measurements in many fields, the ICP-MS is housed in Durham’s Advanced Instrumentation Laboratories. It was purchased in 2004 in part with a $100,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

UNO’s general chemistry students use it to measure area lead contamination levels and to perform drinking water analysis. Gabig, a UNL graduate, learned of the ICP-MS while taking a quantitative chemical analysis course at UNO taught by Egger.

The complex machine could help her answer a seemingly simple question — whether the glass fragments came from the same source.

Help in the Haystack

“ICP-MS really provides the best detection limits,” Richter-Egger says. “It’s going to find the smallest needle in the haystack relative to other techniques available. That provides the ability to look at and compare a great many more elements. It’s like being able to identify more points on a finger print to look for the match.”

The more data points tested, the stronger the case.

Gabig’s experience studying under Richter-Egger made her comfortable with the prospect of collaborating with the professor.

“I really respected his knowledge and I thought the (math-chemistry) program was fantastic,” she says. “I learned so much that was directly applicable to what I was doing here at the sheriff’s office. Also, I made contact with these great chemists who can help me.”

Further bolstering her confidence, she says, was the knowledge that ICP-MS results are “fully accepted in the courts.” The methods were based on standard procedures provided by the American Society for Testing Materials.

“That went a long ways to helping me feel good about what we were going to do,” Richter-Egger says. “After all, there’s somebody on the other end of this thing that is going to be in court and we’ve got to be sure we do our diligence and do a good job.

“Whatever the data is I want to make sure it is the highest quality possible so that when that evidence is presented it is accurate and that it helps to lead to the right decision in the courtroom. That weighed pretty heavily on my mind as we were considering this.”

Case Closed

In their research, Gabig and Richter-Egger discovered that manufactured glass in vehicles can be pinpointed to within 100 feet of a production line. That information, says Richter-Egger, meant that “if we could find there’s not any difference between these two glasses then that says a lot about the likelihood they actually came from the same window.”

The glass first was dissolved in acid and added to a controlled solution. The ICP-MS then required precise calibration. The instrument evaporated water in an ultra high vacuum and applied electric fields to separate atoms by mass. The device provided a spreadsheet readout of the elemental differentiation.
Richter-Egger says it’s a process whereby “electronics, engineering and chemistry meet.” After crunching the numbers and consulting UNO statisticians, he and Gabig went back and forth over the data, questioning each other and crosschecking information.

In her report, Gabig concluded that glass fragments from the suspect’s car and the scene “likely came from the same source” based on ICP-MS test results and statistical analysis that showed a high probability of a match.

In the end, the suspect took a deal, pleading to one felony assault count and one terroristic threat charge. Since the case did not go to trial, Gabig did not testify.

The forensic scientist and the professor collaborated on a slide presentation for a UNO chemistry department seminar. Gabig has also used the presentation to educate law enforcement agencies about trace evidence analysis.

Might UNO and CSI work together on another case?

“I could envision this happening again,” Gabig says. “Making use of data analysis at the university is a big benefit.”

Learn more about the Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer, including animations, athttp://water.unomaha.edu

Hot on the Trail of Cold Cases

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in UNO Magazine (http://unoalumni.org/unomag)

Forensic Services Unit

It’s not every girl who grows up dreaming of becoming a “bloodstain pattern specialist.”

And while that might not have been Angela (Harbison) Moore’s girlhood fantasy, it became just that while attending classes at UNO, graduating in 2001 with a degree in chemistry.

Today Moore works as a forensic technician for the Newport News (Va.) Police Department conducting crime scene evidence analysis. It’s a career choice the former Goodrich Scholar says was inspired by work she did with UNO chemistry department faculty.

“We were doing a lot of neat stuff in Dr. Richard Lomneth’s bio chemistry lab that was applicable to forensic science,” Moore says. “It really piqued my interest. It was a turning point.”

Dr. Frederic Laquer also was influential. “He taught me how to be a true chemist, how to document things, and to this day I still think of him every time I do all the little things properly,” Moore says. “It’s a great batch of professors at UNO. They’re very rigorous.”

Moore later began forensic science graduate studies at George Washington University, but with her Air Force husband stationed at Offutt Air Force Base she transferred to Nebraska Wesleyan. While in grad school she worked as a chemist at UNO, preparing solutions for use by students in the Durham Science Center labs.

In 2007 Moore joined the CSI team in Newport News, where she’s a bloodstain pattern specialist. The unpredictability of when crime happens means her schedule is forever fluid.

“You can literally be at a scene and be called to another scene,” she says. It’s a job that demands “intense curiosity and attention to detail” and the ability to multitask.

Her work entails doing bloodstain analysis at crime scenes and in the lab, writing reports, assisting with autopsies, and testifying in court. She works the cold case unit. She also teaches college courses and makes presentations.

“I like to get into a lot of things,” she says. “I always try to challenge myself to be the best I can be in life.” Next year she will attend the National Forensic Science Academy in Tennessee. “I’m pretty excited about that.”

Nothing is more satisfying then when her work helps solve a case. She says her bloodstain pattern analysis led to a man being charged with murder years after the incident. In another instance she extracted DNA evidence that helped convict a serial rapist.

Some cases linger with her.

“Once they go to court there’s resolution and I feel better about them,” she says. “The child ones are really hard to deal with sometimes. But at the same time I feel like we’re helping people out.

“When I’m at a scene with a deceased person I feel it’s the shell of a person left over. Their spirit is someplace else. The body is to be utilized as another piece of evidence that can speak for that person.”

Beware the Singularity, singing the retribution blues: New works by Rick Dooling

October 10, 2010 5 comments

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/18/slaying-dragons-rick-dooling/

 

The best writing challenges our preconceptions of the world, and Rick Dooling is an author who consistently does that in his essays, long form nonfiction, and novels.  He’s also a screenwriter.  If you know his work, then you know how his language and ideas stretch your mind.  If you don’t know his work, then consider this a kind of book club recommendation.  I promise, you won’t be disappointed.  The following piece I did on Dooling appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) a couple years ago upon the release of his book, Rapture for the Geeks, When AI Outsmarts IQ.  The work reads like a cross between a love ballad to the wonders of computer technology and a cautionary tale of that same technology one day overtaking humans’ capacity to control it.  Around this same time, a suspenseful, supernatural film Dooling wrote the screenplay for from a Stephen King short story, Dolan’s Cadillac,  finished shooting. Dooling previously collaborated with King on the television miniseries, Kingdom Hospital.  Dooling is currently working on a TV pilot.

You can find more pieces by me on Rick Dooling, most efficiently in the category with his name, but also in several other categores, including Authors/Literature and Nebraskans in Film.

 

 

 

 

Beware the Singularity, singing the retribution blues: new works by Rick Dooling

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

It’s been awhile since Omaha writer Rick Dooling, author of the novels White Man’s Grave and Brainstorm, enjoyed this kind of traction. Fall 2008 saw published his cautionary riff Rapture for the Geeks: When AI Outsmarts IQ (Harmony Books). His screen adaptation of Stephen King’s short story, Dolan’s Cadillac, will soon be released as an indie feature. Dooling, collaborator with King on the network television series Kingdom Hospital, was flattered the master of horror himself asked him to tackle Dolan, a classic revenge story with supernatural undertones.

Dooling’s no stranger to movie-movie land. His novel Critical Care was adapted into a Sidney Lumet film. The author was preparing to adapt Brainstorm for Alan J. Pakula when the director died in a freak accident. Then there was the creative partnership with King. But writing books is his stock-in-trade, and even though Dolan could change that, Rapture’s what comes to mind in any appreciation of Dooling.

Like much of his socially conscious work Rapture’s a smart, funny, disturbing, essay-like take on a central conflict in this modern age, one that, depending on your point of view, is either rushing toward a critical tipping point or is much ado about nothing. He fixes on the uncomfortable interface between the cold, hard parameters of computer technology’s increasing sophistication and meta-presence in our lives with existential notions of what it means to be human.

High tech’s ever more integrated in our lives. We rely on it for so many things. Its systems grow faster, more powerful. Dooling considers nothing less than humankind nearing an uneasy threshold when the artificial intelligence we’ve engineered surpasses our own. He lays out how the ongoing exponential growth of super processing capabilities is a phenomenon unlike any other in recorded history. The implications of the singularity, as geeks and intellectuals call this moment when interconnected cyber systems outstrip human functioning, range from nobody-knows-what-happens-next to dark Terminator-Matrix scenarios.

A fundamental question he raises is, Can the creators of AI really be supplanted by their creation? If possible, as the book suggests it is, then what does that do to our concept of being endowed with a soul by a divinity in whose image we’re made? Is synthetic intelligence’s superiority a misstep in our endeavors to conquer the universe or an inevitable consequence of the evolutionary scheme?

“Well, we all know what evolution is. We’ve read about it, we understand it, it’s just that we always have this humancentric, anthropocentric viewpoint,” Dooling said. “Wouldn’t it make perfect sense there would be another species that would come after us if evolution continued? Why would we be the last one?”

Is AI outsmarting IQ part of a grand design? Where does that leave humanity? Are we to enter a hybrid stage in our development in which nanotechnology and human physiology merge? Or are we to be replaced, even enslaved by the machines?

The real trouble comes if AI gains self-knowledge and asserts control. That’s the formula for a rise-of-the-machines prescience that ushers in the end of homo sapien dominance. Or has mastery of the universe always been an illusion of our conceit? Is the new machine age our comeuppance? Have we outsmarted ourselves into our own decline or demise? Can human ingenuity prevent a cyber coup?

Arrogantly, we cling to the belief we’ll always be in control of technology. “Do you believe that?” Dooling asked. “It is kind of the mechanical equivalent of finding life on other planets.” In other words, could we reasonably assume we’d be able to control alien intelligent life? Why should we think any differently about AI?

Pondering “what man hath wrought” is an age-old question. We long ago devised the means to end our own species with nuclear/biological weapons and pollutants. Nature’s ability to kill us off en masse with virus outbreaks, ice cap melts or meteor strikes is well known. What’s new here is the insidious nature of digital oblivion. It may already be too late to reverse our absorption into the grid or matrix. Most of us are still blissfully unaware. The wary may reach a Strangelove point of How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Microchip.

It’s intriguing, scary stuff. Not content with simply offering dire predictions, Dooling examines the accelerating cyber hold from different perspectives, presenting alternate interpretations of what it may mean — good, bad, indifferent. This kaleidoscopic prism for looking at complex themes is characteristic of him.

Extremities lend themselves to the satire he’s so adept at. He finds much to skewer here but isn’t so much interested in puncturing holes in theories as in probing the big ideas and questions the coming singularity, if you ascribe to it, inspires. His drawing on scientific, religious, literary thinkers on the subject confirms his firm grasp and thorough research of it.

The project was a labor of love for Dooling, a self-described geek whose fascination with computers and their content management, data base applications began long before the digital revolution hit main street. We’re talking early 1980s. “Not many writers were drawn to computers that early,” he said, “but of course now you can’t write without a computer most people would say.”

 

Richard Dooling's photo.

 

Richard Dooling

 

 

He designs web sites, he builds computers and because “I knew I wanted to write about this,” he said, “I knew I was going to get no respect until I could at least write code and do programming.” Deep into html he goes.

The pithy, portentous quotations sprinkled throughout the book come from the vast files of sayings and passages he’s collected and stored for just such use.

Aptly, he became a blog star in this high-tech information age after an op-ed he wrote that drew heavily from Rapture appeared in The New York Times. His piece responded to oracle Warren Buffett’s warning, “Beware of geeks bearing formulas,” following the stock market crash. Dooling enjoys Web exchanges with readers.
“I’m telling you every blog from here to Australia quoted this op-ed, with extended commentary. I’ve never seen anything like that happen with my work before. It took me completely by surprise. It makes you realize how powerful the Internet is.”

If you doubt how ingrained our computer interactions are, Dooling said, think about this the next time you call Cox Communications with a technical issue:

“Your first few minutes of interaction are being handled by a chatterbot,” Dooling said, “and some people don’t even realize it. It’ll say, ‘Let me ask you a few questions first,’ and then it’ll go, ‘Hold on and I will connect you with one of our assistants’ or something like that. And when you’ve reached the point where the thing has gathered everything it can automatically gather now you need an intervention from someone in India to come on and actually take over and start doing the human interaction. Until then, that’s a piece of software talking to you.

“The chatterbots are getting very good. It’s taking longer and longer in a Turing Test type of situation” for people to determine they’re bandying back and forth with a machine not another person. He said that’s because advanced chatterbots can be programmed to exhibit qualities like humor or variations of it like sarcasm.

“I mean the very first one, Eliza, I talk about in there (Rapture), they fooled hundreds of people with in the beginning because people were naive back then. The designers did it just by turning every question around. They call the software a Rogerian Psychiatrist because you go, ‘I hate my brother,’ and it responds, ‘Why do you hate your brother?’ Or you say, ‘I feel terrible today, and it goes, ‘Why do you feel terrible today?’ My favorite one is, ‘My brother hates me’ and it asks, ‘Who else in your family hates you?’ Do you love it?”

For those who dismiss high-tech’s hold he points to our computer, iPod, cell phone, online fixations and prodigious digital activities as creating cyber imprints of our lives. Our identity, profile, personal data, preferences become bit/byte fodder.

“And it’s true, you know, because when you log onto something like dig or slash.com they’re showing you stuff based upon every time you’ve been there and what you clicked on,” he said. “And when you’re going on something like Wikipedia and contributing content the operating system is like, Oh, good, more content here. ‘Based on your contributions in the past, it appears you really enjoy the singularity, would you like to write an article about it?’

“At one point in there (Rapture) I think I quote George Johnson from The New York Times, who takes it to the next level by saying, Look, does it really matter what you believe about your dependence if Amazon’s picking your books and eHarmony’s picking your spouse and Net Flix is picking your movies? You’ve been absorbed, you’ve been to the operating system, they already own you.”

Skeptics counter that’s a far leap to actually losing our autonomy. “Yeah, but in exponential times a very far leap is no longer a very far leap,” said Dooling.

Virtual reality’s dark side also interests Dooling. “Well, it does make you think about things like technology or Internet addiction or any of those things,” he said. “I believe that’s very real and it’s just going to get worse. A lot of people don’t even realize they are addicted until they’re stuck somewhere without their iTouch or whatever. And then you see it in your kids. You know, what does that mean?”

He said at book club forums he does for Rapture “people have a sense technology is changing them but they are uncertain about its effects. They also sense the dramatic speed and exponential increases in power, but don’t know where that will all end up. Most people feel like computers are already smarter than them, so they are more curious about the possible dangers of a future where computers are literally in charge of the Internet or our financial welfare. We’ve seen just a sample with the computer-generated derivatives that began the latest crash. What about nanotechnology and the gray goo phenomenon? That is, the possibility a terrorist or ‘mad scientist’ could create something that replicates, exponentially of course, until it crushes everything…It goes on.”

Dooling doesn’t pretend to know what lies ahead. He’s only sure the techno landscape will grow ever larger, more complex and that America lags far behind countries like India and China in math, science, IT expertise, broad band penetration and high tech infrastructure. The good news is greater connectivity will continue flattening the world, opening up new opportunities.

“In the short term I think what you see is exponentially increased collaboration and intelligence sharing and data sharing,” he said. “But beyond that we don’t know where it’s going to go.”

The same can be said for Dolan’s Cadillac. At the start anyway. Obsession, Old Testament-style, is the theme of the Stephen King story Dooling adapted. More precisely, how far will someone go to exact revenge? King’s original appears in his short story collection Nightmares and Dreamscapes.

In the script, which adheres closely to King’s story, Robinson (Wes Bentley) is bent on avenging his wife Elizabeth‘s murder. His target — big-time criminal Jimmy Dolan (Christian Slater), a human trafficker who makes the drive between Vegas and L.A. in his prized, heavily-armored Cadillac escorted by two bodyguards. The ruthless Dolan, who ordered the hit on Elizabeth, seems impervious. Robinson, a school teacher, appears outmatched. But with the visage of his dear-departed egging, nagging, cajoling him on, Robinson lays a diabolical trap for Dolan and his Caddy.

After King asked him to adapt it, Dooling read the tale and it hooked him. How could it not? It has a relentless, driven quality that captivates you from the jump and never lets up, with enough macabre twists to keep you off balance. From the first time we meet Robinson, half-out-of-his-mind laboring on a desolate stretch of U.S. 71 in the killing Nevada sun, we know we’re in for a ride. We have no idea what he’s doing out there. That’s what the rest of the film is about.

Dooling said he likes the story being “the revenge of a common man, not an ex-Navy Seal or ex-cop or whatever. He doesn’t care if he loses, because his life is over anyway, but he’d really rather make sure he gets Dolan first.”

Another writer took a crack at adapting Dolan. That left Dooling with a choice.

“In Hollywood you can either look at the first project and try and fix it or you can choose to start from scratch,” he said. “I decided to write it myself, which is riskier, because if you do it yourself there’s no one really to blame except you.”

He said King’s story is set-up as “the perfect second half of a movie,” which found Dooling filling-in “how did we get here.” That meant detailing the back story of how Elizabeth (Emmanuelle Vaugier) stumbled onto Dolan and crew to witness something she shouldn’t, her going to the feds and despite protection being killed. It also meant fleshing out Dolan’s lifestyle and business dealings and Robinson’s transformation into a single-minded vindicator.

The film shot largely in Regina and Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in 2008, where Dooling was on set for weeks. He saw several cuts of the film, including the final. He’s pleased with the results. Among other things, he’s impressed by Bentley and Slater in the leads.

“Bentley’s quite bland to begin with, but once he begins stalking Dolan he makes himself into one intense, haunted creature,” said Dooling, adding Slater makes us “like Dolan every once in a while. Not many bad people are just plain bad. They usually have a story…and Slater is good at telling us that story.”

He admires the inventive ways director Jeff Beesley handled Elizabeth’s many ghostly appearances, both visually and with voiceover.

It was Dooling’s first experience with an indie project. “It was both scary and exciting because you’re kind of out there, up in Regina. It was great. Lots of fun.”

Men of Science

August 2, 2010 Leave a comment

Science icon from Nuvola icon theme for KDE 3.x.

Image via Wikipedia

Once in a while I have an idea for a story that entails my doing a set of short profiles of individuals sharing some common characteristic.  In the case of this story, I profiled four senior men of science, all medical professionals and researchers of one kind or another in Omaha, Neb. I really enjoyed the challenge of trying to capture the essence of these men and their work in relatively few words.  The story originally appeared in the New Horizons, and I suspect you will be as impressed as I was by some of their groundbreaking and lifesaving activities and findings.

Men of Science

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

The Man Who Would Slow Aging
Denham Harman, professor emeritus and world-renowned researcher at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, humbly chalks up his work uncovering the mysteries of aging to a series of chance occurrences. Born in San Francisco and raised in Berkeley, Calif., he displayed an inquisitive mind early on, developing a passion for building model airplanes and setting his sights on studying aeronautical engineering. But then one day in the 1930s his father bumped into an oil executive at a Bay area tennis club where Harman’s brothers played and landed Denham a job as a lab assistant with Shell Development Co. “This was in the midst of the Depression — there were no jobs,” Harman said from the cubbyhole office he still works in every day at age 86. This chance encounter affording an opportunity he dare not refuse set him on a new course — “I got shifted, so to speak, and I was very lucky” — that within two decades found him posing a radical theory of aging now accepted by the scientific community.

While working for Shell he earned his undergraduate and doctoral degrees in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, which, just happened to be one of the top chemistry schools in the nation. After working on lubricating oils he was transferred to the reaction kinetics department where, he said, “just by chance our primary concern was free radical reactions, which in those days was a very unusual focus. There was not that much known.” His research helped Shell gain 35 patents, including one for the Shell No-Pest strip. Then, in 1945, his wife Helen unwittingly planted the seed for Harman’s breakthrough postulation when she showed him a magazine article —Tomorrow You May Be Younger — about aging research in Russia. It got him so hooked on the idea of aging as a biochemical process he made the rash decision, at 33, to halt his career as an industrial chemist to enter medical school. When Cal-Berkeley flatly turned him down, telling him, ironically, “You’re too old,” he went to Stanford. Why change careers in mid-stream? “I just thought here’s a field that’s real interesting and which I know nothing about,” he said. Besides, the question of aging still dogged him enough he sought a broader knowledge base with which to tackle the enigma.

During a 1950s stint at Donner Laboratory in Berkeley where, he said, “I didn’t have anything to do but think, I figured it was a great time to look at this problem. So, I asked myself the question man has asked for a long, long time and still asks: What causes aging? What causes that transition? Everyone goes through it. We’re all familiar with it. We more or less accept it. There’s a lot of theories that try to account for that but no one theory is accepted. I looked at the problem from the premise there’s a single basic cause. Mother Nature uses the same things over and over again and this is what you would expect. Also, it was obvious genetics and environment were involved. So, what could cause this to take place? I thought of everything I could think of, but it just didn’t jive. I began to think maybe I had wasted my time getting on about aging — that maybe I didn’t know enough.”

Then, in one of those moments when a burst of inspiration arrives only after much deliberation, it came to him. He recalls, “I was sitting at my desk reading at the Donner Lab when all of a sudden it flashed in my mind — free radicals. I don’t know where it came from, but there it was. I looked at that problem and everything fitted — the chemistry-biology fitted.” The trouble is, initially almost no one else agreed with what he dubbed “the free-radical theory of aging.” He was all alone, out on a limb and his many detractors “were trying to chop it off,” he said. By the time he joined the UNMC staff in 1958, he was engaged in animal tests to support his theory. What kept him at it in the face of doubtful colleagues was, he said, his view the aging process is “a very important problem — it’s the thing that kills us” — and his belief that the theory is correct. That’s the reason I’m still at this problem. It works. Otherwise, as a chemist, I wouldn’t waste my time if it didn’t.”

So, what are free radicals and how do they impact aging? Free radicals are molecules with an unpaired electron. These lone wolf electrons create havoc in cells, setting off damaging chain reactions that account, he said, for the effects we experience as aging. Free radical production is stimulated by oxygen, which provides the energy we need to survive, and by environmental sources, but over time free radical reactions increase to a threshold the body cannot tolerate and we die. Harman contends an increase in antioxidant — vitamin E, vitamin C, beta carotene — consumption decreases free radical reactions, thereby slowing the aging process. “You’re putting in a preservative, in effect, that counteracts the deleterious effects.” The benefits of antioxidants — from increased life expectancy and reduced incidence of disease — have been shown in studies of rodents and birds. His efforts to promote antioxidant use — he’s long followed a daily regimen himself — has succeeded. “Americans spend around $4 or $5 billion a year on supplements, most of which are antioxidants, and even though I can’t prove it,” he said, “I’m sure a lot of those people will live longer then they would otherwise.”

Harman, whose research was long supported by a patroness, the late Mrs. Leon Millard, has in recent years seen funding dry up, a frustrating turn of events he ascribes to changing research priorities. Of more concern, he said, is the scant work being done on life prolongation and disease prevention using his theory’s tenets. “A great deal can be done, but we’re not doing it, and that’s disturbing.” As for himself, he continues writing articles, making presentations and giving interviews that lay out his ideas. Retirement doesn’t enter his mind. “I think you’re much better doing something,” he said. While he suspects his own life span may have been shortened due to recent health problems, he said time remains his main asset. “It’s what I have most of, but these are things you can’t predict.”

An Uncommon Man’s Search for Cancer’s Hereditary Links
As just one example of the uncommon life he’s led, Henry Lynch grew up a school drop-out and street fighter in a rough section of 1930s New York but persevered to become a medical doctor and noted cancer researcher. “I didn’t pick fights but, boy, the neighborhood I lived in it was a very common occurrence to meet bullies, and you had to defend yourself,” said Lynch, chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine and president of the Hereditary Cancer Institute at Creighton University. Even though he never attended high school — a result of his wartime service and working to support his family — he cultivated his naturally brilliant mind by reading “voraciously,” saying, “I did it on my own. I spent every free moment I had looking up things in the library. I had no doubt in my intellectual abilities.” Or in his physical prowess, which he put to use as a stevedore, farm hand and prizefighter.

Henry Lynch

Still a hulk of a man at 75, Lynch enlisted in the Navy as an under-age, but over-sized 16 year-old seaman in 1944. Serving as a gunner on freighters and transports, his tour of duty took him from the North Atlantic to the Mediterranean to the South Pacific. He boxed during his two-year hitch and once back stateside he resumed fighting as an amateur before turning pro. “I loved to fight,” he said, adding he boxed under assumed names in a 20-bout pro heavyweight career in order to retain amateur status in a hoped-for bid to play college football.

At first, it was as much his desire to play football at the University of Oklahoma under legendary coach Bud Wilkinson as it was his need to feed his hungry mind that led this then street-wise New York tough to enroll in college there in the late 1940s. By the time his failed tryout with the powerhouse Sooners ended his gridiron dreams, he was “consumed with studying.” He continued his studies at the University of Colorado and at Denver University and the University of Texas in Galveston. Trained in genetics, Lynch was serving an internal medicine residency at UNMC in 1961 when the course of his professional career changed. “I was called to see a family with multiple cases of colon cancer, but with no polyps. That was something I thought was quite unique. I studied that family. I went into great detail…not just studying the immediate relatives but extending it as far as I could to grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins,” he said. “And I collected pathology extensively and wrote up all the clinical histories so I could put together and really understand how this could be a syndrome, and ultimately it emerged as one.” For his pioneering work, the syndrome was named after him. That first case history led him to track more families with colorectal and other cancers and it “influenced my whole decision to become a medical oncologist,” he said. It was also the start of a massive hereditary cancer data base he manages at Creighton, whose staff he joined in 1967.

Like any new idea, Lynch’s assertion some cancers have a hereditary basis was dismissed those early years. “People thought I was crazy. They kind of laughed or said I must be dealing with a chance situation or with an environmental factor,” he recalls, adding he often paid for fact-gathering trips out of his own pocket in lieu of grant support. His faith in his findings did not waver, he said, because “with a background in genetics I saw what we call a segregated model in the way cancers were moving through families and I knew it had to be hereditary. Finally, it wasn’t until the late 1960s that people began taking me seriously.” Today, Lynch is an acknowledged leader in his field, the author of 12 books and hundreds medical journal articles and a keynote speaker at medical conferences around the world. Despite his lofty status, he still goes out in the field recording case histories. He said getting good data “is not just a matter of the history, it’s winning confidence from the family members and gaining rapport. You’ve got to really care and they can tell right away whether you care or not. And I care. I really do. I care about them not just as research subjects but as human beings and they appreciate that.”

He and his colleagues not only track but identify pathological genes that cause disease and they apply preventive methodologies, including prophylactic surgeries, that remove or reduce the risk of cancer in patients. Genetic engineering, he said, will one day allow physicians to manipulate mutant genes. “If we can figure out the chemistry we might be able to design drugs that are the antithesis to what that gene is making, so we can block it and we can cure cancer and other diseases. That’s on the horizon. No question about it.” Where does Lynch draw the line in genetic intervention? “I don’t think we can foresee specific boundaries to this at this moment,” he said. “But if used prudently with the cardinal feature being the interest of our patients and following the orthodoxy of do-no-harm, then I think it’s fair to progress and to use all the tools God gave us to help humanity.”

Still actively engaged in work at an age when most of his peers are retired, Lynch can’t imagine quitting his passion. “Well, I will never retire. I just love my work. Besides, I don’t have any hobbies. I don’t know what I would do. My whole life is in this direction and I see a whole lot of problems there and some of them we can  solve,” said Lynch, who has a wife, Jane, and three grown children. “It’s a joy knowing maybe I can help people.”

The King of Calcium
When Creighton University endocrinology expert Robert Heaney discusses the benefits of good nutrition in fighting the onset or progression of disease, he has a knack for making what could be a dry recitation of facts into an engaging discussion. For example, listen to his explanation of why our calorie-rich modern diets are actually nutritionally poor in comparison with our forbearers: Hunter-gatherers, he said, enjoyed an amazingly varied diet by foraging off the land and its bounty of nutritionally-rich nuts, roots, leaves and berries, whereas since the agricultural revolution our diets have been dominated by cultivated seed plant-derived foods — cereals, breads, legumes, wheat, rice, corn, millet — that provide high energy but low nutrition. “One of the issues modern nutrition is confronting,” he said, “is the role it may play in the chronic diseases that affect human kind today — cancer, degenerative cardiovascular disease and dementia. Does nutrition play a role there? Nobody knows. But there’s some evidence it does.”

Muddying the works, said Heaney, an Omaha native and Creighton grad who, with wife Barbara, has seven grown children, is the often spurious nutrition claims promoted by quacks and charlatans. “A lot of this stuff is just made up by people who don’t know anything about what they’re talking about,” he said. “I’m not going to sit here like a crank and say, It’s all nutrition — if you just ate right you wouldn’t have any problems. That’s not true. But I am convinced there is a role nutrition does play. The field I’ve worked in, osteoporosis, is an example.”  He said the high incidence of osteoporosis today is likely due to diets low in calcium and vitamin D, two essentials for keeping bones healthy and strong into old age. “If your calcium intake is low,” said Heaney, the author of the book Calcium and Common Sense, “you are constantly withdrawing calcium from your bone bank in order to meet the needs your body has today. The problem is that as that goes on day-after-day, year-after-year, 24-7, that revs up bone remodeling and leads to structural weaknesses. So…much of the damage associated with osteoporosis is due to this high level of remodeling, which makes the bone more fragile.” While some progress is being made in assessing who is at risk for osteoporosis, he said identification is complicated by the fact “we’re immersed in a society in which everybody has low calcium intake but not everybody gets osteoporosis because some are more sensitive to low calcium and others are more resistant.” He said factors that impact the equation are starting to be “worked out. For example, African-Americans have a bony apparatus that tends to protect them against low calcium intake whereas whites will tear down their skeleton much more readily.”

Robert Heaney

Research by Heaney and others clearly makes the case for calcium and vitamin D in reducing bone fracture rates in older patients. He said where he used to be asked by science writers if calcium is vital or not, “I don’t get those questions anymore. There’s a high awareness of the importance of calcium and I suspect that’s due to the media. What the general public doesn’t know is how much calcium they need and what amounts are contained in the foods they eat.”

According to Heaney, calcium is also a marker for a nutrition-poor diet. “We did a study at Creighton of 300 or 400 volunteers that found those who had low calcium intakes — meaning less than 70 percent of the recommended daily intake — tended to get less than 70 percent of the recommended intake of four other key nutrients. So, a low calcium intake tends to translate to having a poor overall diet low in lots of other nutrients.” He said the preferred way to get patients to increase calcium is through diet. “The best way to get the nutrients we need is from eating other organisms. We don’t know enough to put it all into pills. So, we stress food. If I can get you to eat calcium-rich foods then I know I’ll have a much better chance of your getting all the nutrients you need because dairy foods are such good sources of so many of these nutrients. We recommend fortified foods as a second or third line of defense and only recommend supplements as a last resort.” He is quick to note calcium is not the only nutrient crucial in osteoporosis and nutrition is not the only factor impacting the disease.

Even at 75 Heaney is still at the top of his game, evidence of which came with his being honored as the 2003 recipient of the E.V. McCollum Award from the American Society for Clinical Nutrition for his creative work as a clinical investigator in generating and testing new concepts in nutrition. For him, research is a never-ending exploration, journey and challenge. “It’s all those things. It’s always a question of why and how. Those are the interesting questions,” he said, adding he’s had a curiosity for how things work since he was a kid taking clocks apart. He said he “doesn’t waste a lot of time pondering” retirement, adding he’s too busy anyway between his research, writing and speaking commitments. Besides, the grant funds he secures for CU’s osteoporosis research center are what keep it open. “The day I stop, the work stops. That’s why I’m happy to keep doing it.”

High Flying, Straight Shooting Doc
University of Nebraska Medical Center otolaryngology physician-professor and  retired Air Force veteran Anthony Yonkers has applied his healing arts in a wide variety of settings. He’s served as flight surgeon aboard jets, provided medical advice to Stratcom leaders running nuclear scenarios in its underground command post, taught medical students and resident physicians in training, conducted research into new head-neck procedures and performed countless operations that improved patients’ lives. The Muskegon, Mich. native and University of Michigan grad came to Omaha in 1968 as an active duty Air Force major assigned to Erhling Bergquist Hospital at Offutt Air Force Base. As an ex-serviceman, Yonkers is widely respected in his role as an attending clinician at Omaha’s V.A. Medical Center.

While never an Air Force pilot, he learned to fly in the Offutt AeroClub and even got to take the stick of T-38 trainers on flights he accompanied. These days, he pilots his own single-engine Mooney to medical conferences, family get-togethers and relief efforts undertaken by the Order of St. Lazarus, a humanitarian organization he is active in that provides medical care to leper colonies around the world. He and his wife Mary have four grown children.

When Yonkers neared the end of his Air Force active duty in the late ‘60s, he was set to go back to Michigan when a position opened in the new Department of Otolaryngology at UNMC, where he’d volunteered. “I was only going to stay a year or two to see how this brand new department worked out…and lo and behold I’m still here 35 years later,” said Yonkers, who continued as a reservist, rising to the rank of brigadier general, until 1998. “It’s been kind of exciting to see the department develop as we’ve added more staff and areas of concentration,” including a center treating patients with head and neck cancers, a prosthetic division building radiation shielding devices to help save tissue and molding false ears and noses and a sleep institute addressing patients’ chronic sleep disorders.

Yonkers and his UNMC colleagues participate in studies looking at everything from sinus infections to breathing disturbances to cleft lip and palette repairs to the treatment of papillomas of the voice box. He said new insights into treating medical conditions often arise from clinical experiences that prompt questions that in turn spur quests for answers through “studies of what best proven methods or accepted techniques work best in a given set of circumstances.”

For Yonkers, one of the most pleasing aspects of his work comes in his role as a teacher. “It’s fun in that you’re seeing young people develop. You’re taking a medical student with maybe one year of general surgery training and in four years you’re turning him or her into a specialist that can go anywhere in the country and hold their own. That makes you feel good.” He said practicing medicine gives him great satisfaction. “It’s a fascinating area. It’s an opportunity to work with people and to do something to alleviate their discomfort and to make their lives better. It’s very satisfying.” At 65, his passion for his work remains undiminished. “That’s the reason I’m still here and not retired,” he said. While he knows there may come a time when it’s prudent to lay down his scalpel, he believes older docs like himself offer what cannot be taught or replaced. “Through the years you build a feel or sixth sense for things and it takes awhile to accumulate those assets and nuances. That kind of knowledge is hard to measure and is lost in a forced retirement.”

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