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Saturday, 22 November 2014

The wrong end of the telescope



There’s no accounting for taste. Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’ has had some mixed reviews, but I really liked it. A recurring theme among critics is that the film is over-sentimental, perhaps even ‘schmaltzy’. It certainly has a big focus on relationships, particularly on the one between Cooper (a star turn by Matthew McConaughey) and his daughter Murphy, played variously by Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain and Ellen Burstyn. But just because something connects on an emotional level doesn’t make it schmaltzy; I get the feeling that some reviewers are uncomfortable with the film’s emotional clout and they deal with that discomfort by pretending to look down their noses at it. Or perhaps they think that a film purporting to have grand ideas about the future of civilization shouldn’t be slumming it in soap opera territory, getting bogged down in all that silly emotional stuff.  

One of the best things about ‘Interstellar’ is that it beats a drum for the indomitability of the human spirit. The bedraggled earth of the near future appears to be stripped of hope, ambition, or any semblance of the pioneering spirit. Cooper rails against this malaise, believing that humankind is (or was) capable of greatness: “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars … now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”
When he gets summoned to meet the teachers at Murphy’s school, we see the contrast between the world that he’s stuck in and the world he’d rather live in. The teachers point out the various ways in which his galactically bright daughter is ‘failing’ in her education; they are particularly concerned about her wasting time on ancient books that don’t adhere to the current intellectual orthodoxies. In this miserable, dust-covered future, where the earth has succumbed to blight and has turned its back on big ideas and big technology, school text books teach that the 1969 moon landings were faked for propaganda purposes. 
As a prissy young teacher, unencumbered by doubt, lectures Cooper about the ‘excess and wastefulness of the 20th century’, the look on his face manages to convey all of the rage, the betrayal, the bewilderment and hurt of a man who still believes passionately in the infinite possibilities of humankind, who believes that “we’ve always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible”.   

I detect echoes of that fictional schoolteacher in the row over Matt Taylor’s ‘sexist’ shirt. The Rosetta mission scientist Taylor is part of a team that managed to send a vehicle on a ten-year journey of four billion miles in order to land on a comet that is hurtling through space at 40,000 mph. You’d think that might have been enough to impress people, but not everyone was happy. Some people chose to focus on the hideous shirt that he wore to a news conference, deeming the bozo scientist to be guilty of sexism.  
The argument, as I understand it, is that girls might somehow be put off science by the shirt’s subliminal message (namely, girls are not welcome in the world of science). Really? Does anyone believe that a bright kid sitting in front of her television, curious and excited about all of this astonishing stuff going on in space, will see a guy in a dodgy shirt and think: “I’m going to sign up for a ‘hair, nails and beauty’ course, because that man’s horrible shirt is telling me that science isn't for females"?  The notion is not only patronising rubbish, it’s insulting to that intelligent and curious little girl (not to mention the women working on the Rosetta mission).  

The evidence indicates that Taylor must be a very clever scientist, but I have no idea what he’s like as a human being. Given the scale of his achievements, I’d prefer not to judge him on one unfortunate item of clothing, but our burgeoning offencerati seem to believe that every aspect of human endeavour, every person doing every activity in every possible location, regardless of context, should be subject to the standards by which we’d judge a junior social worker on a ‘diversity awareness’ training course. The hive mind, alas, is governed by illiberal impulses. Its puritan obsession with minutiae is often not just about a failure to see the bigger picture; it’s about a refusal to acknowledge that a bigger picture exists.

The teacher in ‘Interstellar’ is a fictional character, put in a story to illustrate the idea of a spirit-crushing poverty of aspiration. I don’t know what the excuse is for the folk who, instead of looking up to the stars, are worrying about Matt Taylor’s shirt.

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