The Grand Unified Theory of Howard Bloom


Not your ordinary publicist.

(2019) Documentary (1091Howard Bloom, Lashette Williams, Jeff Bridges, Joan Jett, Kenny Laguna, Ted Coons, Kyle McLaughlin, David Sloan Williams, Sruan Pal Singh, Amir Saddiqui. Directed by Charlie Hoxie

 

We are generally so caught up in our own lives that we really only comprehend the things that are an immediate part of those lives – the need to provide shelter, food and the basics, the relationships we are in, the news of the day and whatever drama is playing out in our lives or in social media.

It takes a good deal of discipline to look away from the minutiae of our lives and to concentrate on the bigger picture. The questions that are most important – who are we, what is our place in the universe, how do we interact with the universe, why must we die – we rarely have time to address those  issues and even if we do, we rarely have the knowledge or intellect required to address those questions intelligently.

Howard Bloom sees things differently. In the 70s and 80s, he was a publicist in the music business, with a client list that included Michael Jackson, Prince, Styx, ZZ Top, Joan Jett, Run-DMC, Billy Joel and AC/DC, among many others. He was considered the best in the business at what he did. He had a company that was making money hand over fist and he hung out with the elite of pop music. That all ended in 1988 when he contracted Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, an insidious disease that left him bedridden for more than a decade, barely able to tolerate human company.

Bloom combated his disease with his intellect. If he couldn’t move, he could think. He began to find things that improved his situation little by little, medications and exercise. Gradually, he was able to bring himself to a semblance of a normal life through rigid self-discipline and keeping to a routine. His wife may have divorced him but he found solace in looking outward at the cosmos. He began writing books on various aspects of the human condition, including creation, Islamic fundamentalism, and the colonization of space. His world began to expand from the four walls of his bedroom in a Brooklyn brownstone to the limits of the universe itself.

This documentary is a look at the now 74-year-old author (as of the filming of the documentary) and he has an interesting, quirky nature with vocal patterns that remind me of Jeff Goldblum. He also has a sonorous voice, not unlike another famous Howard, DJ Howard Stern. He has interesting stories to tell, and a unique viewpoint. He shoots from the hip and if that at times can be grating (at one point he likens graduate school as an “Auschwitz of the mind”), but he is also capable of some really interesting concepts (“Maybe we’re not alive to achieve goals; maybe we’re alive to just pursue them”).

We don’t get a lot of information about what is in Howard’s grand theory; we know that he has compiled thousands of pages of documents detailing his thoughts. He is also concerned about his own mortality, and is anxious that his work be preserved and has engaged a friend, Dubai gym owner Amir Saddiqui, to execute his will when he passes. Howard is nothing if not eclectic in the composition of his inner circle.

Mostly, we hear Howard talking about Howard and even though the film is barely over an hour in length, it does start to sound a bit like an ego trip gone digital after awhile. I don’t believe that’s necessarily what he was aiming for but I think he is really using this as a means to steer people towards his books of which there are seven currently. He comes off as pretty likable (and he does admit to wanting to be liked, which seems to me to be a fairly common attitude for us primates with delusions of grandeur) and he definitely likes dogs and often stops to hug them while out and about. That’s my kind of guy, for certain.

REASONS TO SEE: Some of the concepts are fascinating.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit too much Howard, not enough Grand Theory.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bloom contracted Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in 1988. He didn’t leave his apartment again until 2000.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Brief History of Time
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Into the Inferno


Volcanology is a hot job these days.

Volcanology is a hot job these days.

(2016) Documentary (Netflix) Werner Herzog, Clive Oppenheimer, Maurice Krafft, Katia Krafft, Tim D. White, Adam Bobette, James Hammond, Kampiro Kayrento, Sarmin, Mael Moses, William McIntosh, Han Myong Il, Sri Sumarti, Kwon Sung An, Yonatan Sahle, Yun Yong Gun, Isaac Wan. Directed by Werner Herzog

 

There are few spectacles of nature more awe-inspiring and more terrifying than a volcanic eruption. They are primordial events, part of the continuing growth of our planet. Without them, our planet would be desolate. They are part of what enables life on Earth. It is a powerful reminder of how the Earth created; there are those who believe that volcanoes are the fingers of God.

Studying volcanoes is dangerous work, but it is necessary to understand the forces that shape our world. Volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer met filmmaker Herzog nine years ago when Herzog was filming Encounters at the End of the World and Oppenheimer was studying Antarctic volcanic activity for Cambridge where he continues to work. The two became friends and the partnership between them is well-defined; Oppenheimer acts as an interlocutor as he explains the concepts and science behind volcanology as well as the history of volcanic eruptions and their effect on primitive and modern cultures.

The search takes Herzog and Oppenheimer from the Vanuatu Islands to Indonesia to Iceland and eventually, to North Korea of all places where the communist regime and the dictators who rule it have created a kind of mythology behind Mount Paektu that ties the power of Kim Il-Sung and his successors to the mighty volcano. It is in many ways the most disturbing segment as well as the most amusing.

Throughout there is amazing video footage (some of it shot with drones) of erupting volcanoes; pyroclastic clouds tumble down mountainsides, destroying anything and everything in their path, including the volcanologists who are studying them. This was the fate of the French husband-wife team of Maurice and Katia Krafft who got some of the most amazing footage of magma and lava generally by getting much closer than most of their colleagues would dare to go.

But this isn’t just a film about erupting volcanoes. That’s not Herzog’s style. He’s more of a Michael Moore kind of filmmaker; he inserts himself into the story and acts in  many ways as our avatar. This is not just learning about volcanoes, it’s about Herzog learning about volcanoes and their cultural significance. It’s about learning how the violence of volcanic eruption is one of the cornerstones of life. It is also about obsession as nearly all of Herzog’s films are; the volcanologists are obsessive about their field of study, risking life and limb for it and sometimes, dying for it. Herzog identifies with these people; nearly all of his films both narrative and documentary has some sort of obsession at its center. One can hardly blame him; obsessives make for compelling subjects.

I have to admit that I found more majesty in the images than in the context. While generally I concur that ideas are more important than visuals, here the visuals are so awe-inspiring as to render the ideas almost meaningless. When confronted by a river of flowing molten rock, of plumes of superheated gasses roaring down a hill at hundreds of miles an hour, raging at more than 1700 degrees Fahrenheit, everything else shrinks in significance. Volcanoes are living examples of the power of creation. It just doesn’t get any more primal than that.

REASONS TO GO: The images of volcanic eruption are absolutely breathtaking. Clearly there is an affection and reverence for those who study volcanoes as well as the volcanoes themselves.
REASONS TO STAY: Herzog has a tendency to jump around subject matter a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES:  There are adult themes and some graphic images of volcanic eruptions.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the third film about volcanoes that Herzog has directed.- Salt and Fire and La Soufriere.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/27/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dante’s Peak
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Jackie

Creation (2009)


Creation

Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany pray for bigger audiences on cable.

(2009) Historical Drama (Newmarket) Paul Bettany, Jennifer Connelly, Jeremy Northam, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch, Martha West, Jim Carter, Zak Davies, Freya Parks, Robert Glenister, Bill Paterson, Harrison Sansostri, Ellie Haddington. Directed by Jon Amiel

There is little doubt that one of the most important – and controversial – scientific findings ever is Charles Darwin’s theory of Evolution. It called into question some of the most deeply-held tenets of the Bible – the story of creation – and put in a rational, logical sense of reason into a subject that had always been to that time more faith-related. Putting pen to paper and telling the world of his ideas would take an enormous toll on Darwin the man.

Darwin (Bettany) is a family man, married to first cousin Emma Wedgwood (Connelly) with ten lovely children to keep him busy. One in particular – 10-year-old Anne (West) – is the apple of his eye, an outgoing, inquisitive soul who seems to be the closest to his own heart. However, she contracts a disease (Scarlet Fever or tuberculosis depending on which account you believe) and despite Darwin’s heroic efforts, taking her to the seaside for a “water cure,” little Anne passes away.

This devastates Charles and Emma both. They both cope with their grief in different ways. For Charles, his unanswered entreaties to the Almighty are proof positive that there is no God, for how could a being as advanced and compassionate as all that allow a child to die such a horrible death. For the deeply religious Emma, it only deepens her faith, knowing that her precious child is in the bosom of heaven with the angels.

This causes no little strain on their marriage as you might imagine, and the once-robust Charles is beset by illnesses of the digestion, hallucinations and fatigue. It has been 15 years since his voyage to the Galapagos Islands on the H.M.S. Beagle but he is still having difficulty writing the ground-breaking treatise that would become “On the Origin of Species.” Friends like Thomas Huxley (Jones) and Joseph Hooker (Cumberbatch) urge him to finish his work while the Rev. John Brodie-Innes (Northam), a close friend and confidante of his wife, is troubled by its implications. Huxley, almost gleefully, exclaims “Congratulations sir, you have killed God!” which further troubles Darwin.

He is fully aware of the ramifications of his treatise and even more aware of what it will mean to his wife and his marriage. Emma is terrified that by publishing his work, Charles will be damned to Hell and be separated from her and his children for all eternity.

Of course we know that he did eventually publish his work and that it did create a firestorm of controversy, so the actual publication of the work is not in doubt even if the filmmakers have a tendency to make it a point of suspense. However, it is not so much Darwin’s theories that are on display here (although there are some nice animation sequences used to explain the concepts) so much as Darwin the man.

As such, a heavy burden falls upon Bettany to carry the story and he is more than up to the task. Bettany has impressed me over the years with his ability to take on a wide range of roles, from villain to action hero to mild-mannered academic as he is here. He imbues Darwin with a decency and gentleness that humanizes the nearly-mythological figure who often is castigated for being godless. Darwin was far from godless; he was a believer for at least a portion of his life, but his belief system shifted elsewhere.

Connelly is given the difficult task of taking a rigid and inflexible person and making her likable, but she possesses the skills to accomplish just that. This isn’t a glamorous role and Connelly, who is one of the most beautiful women in the world might have easily passed on something like this, but to her credit took it on and conquered it. Emma can be dogmatic at times, but there is no doubt that she possesses a fierce devotion to husband and family. Despite her misgivings, she comes to understand that if her husband doesn’t publish his work, someone else will eventually reach the same conclusions as he (which Alfred Russel Wallace did – it is a letter from that scientist that eventually prodded Darwin into completing his work) and in the end she supports him.

Amiel directs this at a stately pace and if at times it gets a little bit overly-contemplative, that can be forgiven. This isn’t an action film to say the least, and there are some big concepts involved that deserve some conversation.

It is a testament to how Darwin’s work continues to be a source of controversy to the religious right that the film had difficulty in picking up distribution in America, at last falling to Newmarket which had a hit a few years back with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. This isn’t going to change your mind about religion or evolution but it might give you some insight as to the man who brought evolution into our collective midst, and the personal demons he had to face down in order to do it. This is the kind of solid film that won’t let you down if you choose to rent it for an evening’s viewing.

WHY RENT THIS: A sober and even-keeled examination of Darwin the man. Bettany and Connelly bring humanity to roles that are difficult at best.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overly slow in places.

FAMILY VALUES: The movie deals with grief as well as religious faith, subject matter which might be difficult for younger folk to follow.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a biography of Darwin by noted author Randal Keynes, who is Darwin’s great-great-grandson.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a surprising amount. Several featurettes look into the life and times of Darwin, visit his home (which is a museum today) and participate in the debate that Darwin’s work engendered.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $896,298 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this probably lost a few bucks.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Assassination of a High School President