Tuesday, April 26, 2016

My Log 514 April 26 2016: Interesting films on two subjects of controversy among scientists: Experimenter, and Red Lights, both available on Netflix

English: Winona Ryder at the Marc Jacobs Show ...
Winona Ryder, 2008. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Starved prisoners, nearly dead from h...
 Starved prisoners, nearly dead from hunger, pose in concentration camp in Ebensee, Austria. The camp was reputedly used for "scientific" experiments.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The junta members.
The Greek junta members. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This week I have come across two interesting films, on subjects only rarely discussed, from Netflix.

One is calledExperimenter, and it deals with the real-life experiments conducted by a social psychologist Stanley Milgrim from 1961 on, which have been handed down to history as the “obedience experiments”; the second film, also deals with a persistent question, that is, as to whether psychics are real or phony, and is  called Red Lights. Of the two the film on Milgrim and his experiments is a very successful film, using an interesting technique for information dispersal; whereas the second film, for some reason, falls apart in the middle, its conclusion ruining the clarity of the conclusions it had reached by halfway through.
Stanley Milgrim, author of the "obedience experiments"

Of course, these are not the first films and media presentations on either of these subjects. I remember from several years ago a most interesting TV programme made by the Swedish network, which investigated how the Greek colonels, when they were in power, found the torturers they used on left-wing dissenters. The programme  showed that they first recruited men of limited education, usually from fairly remote villages, so that they had little experience of the wider world.. They then, by the use of perverted, and brutal,  military discipline, emptied the minds of these men of all their preconceptions, all their original beliefs about good and evil. And lastly, they filled the resulting vacuum, again with a pitiless, brutal programme of indoctrination, with information which persuaded them that Communists were evil, and should be destroyed. Ipso facto, a torturer in waiting, ready and willing to destroy anyone put before them as a Communist, or as someone opposing the junta’s wishes. The highlight of the film was that it sought out men who had ben tortured, and put them together to discuss the event with the men who had tortured them, producing a fascinating and rarely observed disquisition.
Stanley Milgrim, apparently, was the Jewish son of an eastern European couple who came from a family some of whose members were survivors of Nazi concentration camps. As a child he expressed a determination to defend his people, and later he wrote (I quote from Wikipedia): "I should have been born into the German-speaking Jewish community of Prague in 1922 and died in a gas chamber some 20 years later. How I came to be born in the Bronx Hospital, I’ll never quite understand.” He became an assistant professor of social psychology, first at Yale, later at Harvard, and finally at the City of New York University graduate Centre. He died young, at 51, after his fifth heart attack.
This feature film, in which Milgrim is beautifully played by Peter Sarsgard, and his wife played with understated tension by Winona Ryder, plunges almost immediately into the most notorious of Milgrim’s experiments in which the introduces a man whom the has convinced to take part in an experiment that will aid scientific research. The man is placed before a machine capable of delivering a shock, and is invited first of all to administer himself a slight shock.He is given a list of nouns, each one attached to a descriptive adjective, which the is commanded to read into a microphone to deliver to a second man in a neighbouring room who is required to read back to him each noun, and to attach it to the required adjective he has just heard.  Failure to produce the correct adjective will result in the delivery of a shock, and with each failure, the shock will be increased. What happens is that after a few failures, the recipient begins to exclaim at the severity of the shocks, to ask them to stop,  and finally to declare that he is no longer taking part in the experiment. Man number one is usually alarmed at this reaction, but the moderator when the is appealed to says, “Continue. You must continue, you have undertaken to continue” in an authoritative voice. The man usually continues, reluctantly disregarding the pain of the recipient of the shocks he is administering.  The trick is that, except for the first self-administered shock, no shocks have been delivered. Milgrim found, after repeating the experiment with different people, countless times, that an average of 61 per cent of the subjects continued to the end, disregarding the recipient’s pitiful cries for help. More importantly, Milgrim says that in all of the many repetitions of the experiment, not one person, not one, even among those who withdrew from the experiment, bothered to go into the neighbouring room to check on the condition of the man who had apparently been receiving severe shocks.
These experiments, when finally revealed in a scholarly journal, aroused a violent controversy among psychologists and other scientists. Many felt the experiments were unethical, and therefore unsupportable. Others, in later years, have felt that since the recipient was acting, most of the so-called deliverers of the shocks probably sensed there was something unauthentic about the experiment. But for the most part, the experiments have become an established part of  basic social psychological assumptions because of the light they throw on the tendency among people to obey authority, and therefore, they throw light on the Nazi followers, and on people who, in other times and other countries have performed the most horrendous bestialities at the command of their masters,
Not surprisingly, this film received extremely favourable reviews from the critics.
The second film Red Lights deals with a subject that has always interested me for two reasons. First, Harry Houdini, one of the most famous magicians of all time, hired a woman to investigate the claims of psychic mediums, and after investigating 3,000 of them, failed to find one who was genuine. In other words, their so-called contacts with the dead and departed were the result of trickery. Secondly, I once interviewed a music hall performer who, by using sleight-of-hand tricks at which he was almost incredibly skilful, pretended to his audience to be a mind-reader. In his dressing room he demonstrated how he performed the  slight-of-hand feats, which, he said, confirmed  that there is no such thing as mind-reading.
This film, directed by Rodrigo Cortes, in a Spanish-American co-production, starred Sigourney Weaver as a  convincing professor whose obsession in life was to unmask the utterly fraudulent claims made for paranormal powers by so many psychics. Assisted by an enthusiastic assistant played by Cillian Murphy, her team successfully unmasked pretenders to  paranormal powers, and the film was going along interestingly until the Weaver character died unexpectedly and in rather strange circumstances. Thereafter the script fell apart as the assistant wandered through abandoned hallways looking for evidence that a blind psychic played by Robert de Niro, embarked on a comeback after years of retirement, was not lurking around ready to play tricks on him. The Weaver character had evidently confronted this man years before, and had received some sort of experience that warned her off ever touching him again. But her assistant had no such compunction, and pursued him to the point that ---   having been severely beaten by someone, apparently employed by the De Niro character   --- he sufficiently recovers to unmask the psychic’s blindness as a pretence…. Unfortunately, in a denouement  that entirely baffled me, the assistant revealed that he himself had had psychic powers all along. Not surprisingly, this film received devastating reviews, and was also a box office failure.
Incidentally, apparently one reason Houdini became convinced of the phoniness of the claims to psychic power, was that when his mother died, Arthur Conon Doyle’s wife, a practising medium, offered to contact his mother for him. She specialized in writing the messages she received, and his mother apparently began her message with a Christian cross, and wrote 15 pages all in perfect English. Houdini said he was Jewish, his mother barely knew any English, and she would never have begun a message to wish him a Merry Christmas. Ipso facto….

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