Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Brief History of Time

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray and DVD, Release Date April 15, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

(This review is being posted in conjunction with The Criterion Collection's releases of Errol Morris's "Gates of Heaven/Vernon, Florida" (on one disc) and "The Thin Blue Line.")

Errol Morris's documentaries often take viewers on a tour of the mental landscapes of his subjects. Gazing directly at his interviewees (early in his career by putting his head right next to the camera lens; later via his all-seeing Interrotron), Morris probes for access to a guarded interior state and then renders it in an audiovisual medium that can only record exteriors.

For a filmmaker irresistibly attracted to eccentrics, this process usually involves mapping out the delusions by which his subjects have made sense of their lives and justified their decisions. In “Mr. Death” (1999), Fred Leuchter believes his work designing electric chairs qualifies him as a scientist and investigator capable of debunking certain Holocaust claims. More recently in “The Unknown Known” (2013), Donald Rumsfeld rationalizes a history of failed policies by proudly redefining words to mean whatever he wants or, more accurately, needs them to mean; history and memory are so much more pleasantly malleable that way. These surveys of faulty belief systems are always riveting, but seldom uplifting. People do the damndest things for the damndest reasons.

“A Brief History of Time” (1991) is therefore a rarity in Morris's oeuvre, an exploration of an imaginary space that provides cause to celebrate rather than to recoil in horror or to sigh in resigned despair. Leuchter was (perhaps) a truth-seeker who didn't own a bullshit detector while Rumsfeld simply wrote a memo reclassifying the scent of his shit as honeysuckle, but with Dr. Stephen Hawking, Morris finally found a kindred spirit, a man of reason devoted to discovering reality rather than folding it origami-like into whatever shape he finds most convenient.

Like all theoretical physicists, Hawking opens with a joke: “What came first? The chicken or the egg.” (See, the joke is that a super-genius type guy would say something like that.) Morris responds with a giant image of a blank-eyed chicken backed by a starry night sky that vanishes somewhere just shy of infinity. Though the documentary is an adaptation of Hawking's best-selling book on cosmology, it announces from the start that it is not going to be a sober science lesson. We will learn about black holes and their event horizons, entropy, the Big Bang and the Big Crunch, and, of course, time (both real and imaginary).. but only a brief history of each. The documentary is less than ninety minutes long and the universe is somewhat older.

Instead the film concerns itself with the portrait of (I'm sorry, it simply must be said) a beautiful mind. Against Hawking's initial protests about the autobiographical slant, the portrait begins in childhood. Friends describe the Hawking family as both brilliant and eccentric with young Stephen being the most outgoing and “normal” of the bunch. Hawking's mother Isobel, however, seems perfectly normal as she gushes about her baby boy though “gushing” is perhaps the wrong term for a reserved and dignified British woman with a modest sense of perspective on genius: “Sometimes (Stephen) probably talks nonsense, but don't we all?”

Hawking was a brilliant but lazy student who spent more time at Oxford chugging six-packs than doing homework. Jealous classmates, now admiring but still jealous adults, testify to his ability to solve complex problems alone in an hour that they had failed to answer in teams working for weeks. So he coasted, because he could. During college, Hawking also attempted to hide growing motor skill problems from friends and family, but in 1963 at the age of 21 he was diagnosed with ALS and given less than three years to live. In his recounting, the impending death sentence finally gave him a reason to focus.

That focus helped to produce some of the 20th century's great cosmological breakthroughs, including Hawking's pioneering work on black holes and what would come to be called Hawking radiation (roughly, a quantum “loophole” through which some particles can escape the inescapable gravity of a black hole). And, just as importantly, Hawking would become the world's most widely-recognized scientist since Albert Einstein, his iconic status enabling him to perform a genuine miracle: getting people excited about science. "A Brief History of Time" camped out on the bestseller list for years.

Morris is interested in the fame that accompanied Hawking's disability, but he's more intrigued by the way Hawking has adapted to it. Though Hawking has greatly outlived his dire prognosis, his body continued to deteriorate over the years. In 1985, a tracheostomy ended his ability to speak; by the time of the film he is completely wheelchair bound and capable of only the most limited voluntary movement. Hawking can still blink and also controls a hand clicker that interfaces with a computer program that enables him to speak through an electronic voice synthesizer (said program was a godsend at the time, but looks antiquated and downright mundane twenty years later).

This has produced radical changes in Hawking's working methods. Unable to write down lengthy equations or access reading material at will, the undaunted scientist took to thinking primarily in pictorial terms, visualizing complex ideas as graphic representations that he could manipulate at his leisure (his leisure being everyone else's grueling work). Morris does the best he can to depict these images through charts, graphs, and limited use of computer imagery. But, oddly enough, the film most vividly conveys Hawking's mental world by closely observing the physical surface of the man and his machines.

Cinematographer John Bailey, shooting on a tightly-controlled stage (Hawking's office, like almost every set seen in the movie, was recreated at Elstree Studios in London), photographs Hawking and his equipment from a variety of angles: his darting eyes behind thick glasses, his computer terminal as it sifts through multiple word-trees, a close-up of a single tire of his wheelchair, and, most poignantly, Hawking's partial reflection in a tiny screen near his lap. The juxtaposition of these images of stasis with Hawking's electronically-rendered and agile explanation of big, big ideas is sometimes startling and deeply affecting. Not in the sense of tragedy, for this is not a tragic tale, but for the unfathomable vastness of the incongruity between the immobile exterior and the frenetic interior motion in a mind constantly expanding, turning cosmic pirouettes through both real and imaginary time.

It all makes for one heck of an exciting ride, and brain candy of the sweetest flavor. It's just a shame Morris took the title too literally. Where most documentaries feel bloated in the effort to hit the minimum run time for a theatrical release, “A Brief History of Time” is far too brief. Leave 'em wanting more, sure, but Dr. Hawking's just getting started when the credits bring everything to a halt, the Little Crunch that's a big tease. Of course there's still time for a sequel.

First, a note. This dual-format release includes both a single DVD and a single Blu-ray disc. Anticipating a documentary/science-fan audience not too concerned with image quality, Criterion will be releasing “A Brief History of Time” as a single-DVD-only at a substantial discount ($24.95) full retail to the dual-format ($39.95 full retail).

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The 1080p transfer is pretty flawless, and the level of detail in the sets and the close-ups is exceptional. Dr. Hawking's eyes pierce right through you in high-def.

I think the visual design of this film is greatly underappreciated as I briefly discussed above. Having said that, the SD transfer in this dual-format set is also very strong though obviously inferior in image detail. It's a noticeable difference, but not a deal-breaker, so if you're really looking to own this Criterion volume but have a limited budget, you might consider the upcoming DVD-only release.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is as crisp and clean as we've come to expect from Criterion. All dialogue is clearly mixed. I did not have time to mention the score by frequent Morris collaborator Philip Glass, but it's the chief reason for the movie to be presented with a lossless surround track. Morris actually didn't screen the film for Glass, but just gave him snippets of dialogue to serve as inspiration for various compositions. Glass's score is a bit more low-key an unobtrusive than some of his other work for Morris and certainly his work with Godfrey Reggio, but it's still an integral part of the movie and a pleasure to hear on this mix. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Criterion has only included two interviews along with the film, but at least they're interesting ones.
Errol Morris (2013, 34 min.) speaks with affection and humor about his collaboration with Dr. Hawking, a figure he describes as both commanding and a little frightening at first. Morris has always been proud to talk about the considerable invention he employs in his documentaries (something that used to draw controversy from the old guard in the field); as mentioned above, he shot almost everything in a studio with recreated/artificial sets. In addition, (almost?) all of the dialogue was actually recorded from a voice synthesizer they had in the studio. Morris claims they were faithful to Hawking's words except for one small change which Hawking spotted immediately when the film was screened for him. I admit I could listen to Errol Morris talk about documentaries all day long so this was an easy sell for me, but I think it's a great interview.

Cinematographer John Bailey (2013, 12 min.) speaks about his work on the film, and the challenges presented by recreating spaces in the studio.

The insert booklet includes a sharp essay by critic David Sterritt, an excerpt from Hawking's recent book “My Brief History” and a very short excerpt from “A Brief History of Time.”

Film Value:
Morris. Hawking. Two of my favorite artists together. It couldn't miss, and it didn't. I'd have loved an extra in which Hawking and/or other scientists discuss the changes in the field over the past 20+ years, and what hypotheses Hawking has had to reject or revise as a result of new data, but I guess that's what the Internet is for. We do get a couple good interviews and a sharp high-def transfer of this exciting, sometimes inspiring documentary about the real “most interesting man in the world.”

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