I’m a fan of Randy Olson. Don’t get me wrong about that. His Flock of Dodos makes a valuable point about science communication, and goes beyond the trite standard narrative of brilliant scientists battling ignorant creationists. There’s a real problem, and caricature won’t solve it.
Randy set aside his career as an academic marine biologist to become a filmmaker. His decision to pursue a career in science communication is admirable, more scientists should take the time to learn how to communicate effectively and find ways to communicate with a general audience.
That said, I didn’t care for his latest movie. Sizzle, which premiers at the Outfest Gay and Lesbian Film Festival this Saturday, strives to be a mockumentary in the mode of Borat, addressing the topic of climate change.
The film is structured around the process of making a film (warning: spoilers may follow). While the vagaries of filmmaking are undoubtedly fascinating to filmmakers, to the general public, it really doesn’t matter that the people who fund movies tend to be self-absorbed flightly LA types. But a movie about making a movie can certainly be funny; consider Noises Off, or the meta-theatrics of Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. It is no insult to say that Randy is not Tom Stoppard, though.
Randy plays a frustrated filmmaker, constantly bedeviled by his money-men and by the crew they impose on him. He just wants to make a movie about climate change, where he’ll interview scientists and climate change deniers, demonstrating to his audience why deniers are wrong. But his cameraman keeps interrupting the interviews, inserting common misconceptions and forcing the interview away from its stodgy format into a livelier debate.
Yes, we get it, scientists are stodgy, most films about scientists rely on facts and figures and not on human interaction. Is it too much for me to suggest that Randy follow the classic filmmaking advice of showing us instead of telling. If the problem is that filmmakers don’t make movies that bring out the human side of scientists, it might help if Randy would make a movie that found scientists who do communicate well, and then had them communicate clearly about scientists.
The scientists he actually interviewed are lovely people, but are far from the most famous or most effective communicators. By contrast to those 4 mainstream scientists (Richard Somerville, Gerald Meehl, Julia Bovey, Megan Owens), the six deniers he interviews (George Chilingarian, Bill Gray, Fred Singer, Patrick Michaels, Steven Hayward, Mark Morano) are professional communicators, or are known principally for their effectiveness as communicators (and not for their expertise in global climate).
The section of interviews ends with him declaring victory for the scientists, but it isn’t obvious that people who weren’t already convinced that climate change is happening and will be problematic would find that section of the movie convincing.
After the part of the movie about filming the movie comes the part of the movie about making the movie. Randy and his hapless team argue over editing choices and after his mom spends a wild night with the camera crew Randy gets convinced that he ought to loosen up and let the interviews be more fun, rather than obsessing over powerpoint and data. This section isn’t about climate change, it’s about filmmaking, and I’m not sure how interesting it is to people who aren’t involved in science communication in a pretty serious way. He’s not wrong, I just don’t see why, if he thinks climate change movies should be made in a different way, he didn’t just make it that way, rather than telling us how people make them wrong.
The last third of the movie begins when Randy interviews Naomi Oreskes insists that they can’t understand or explain climate change without exploring what happened in New Orleans after Katrina.
And she’s right. There’s no doubt that the time they spend in New Orleans is the best ten minutes of the film. But the connection to climate change is poorly fleshed out. I buy it, but I already thought climate change was a problem. How does that section of the film affect people who thought Dr. Chill made a lot of sense? Will they change their mind about whether climate change is happening because what happened in Katrina? Maybe, but I’m not convinced. If so, why waste so much time on the other stuff and devote only ten minutes to what was undoubtedly the most moving part of the movie?