(On VHS, December 1999) I have it on good authority that most people who watched Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, then his latter Casino experienced a strong feeling of déjà-vu. For me, it was the reverse: Having first been very impressed by Casino, it seemed like Goodfellas was going over much of the same terrain in pretty much the same fashion. This doesn’t invalidate the worth of the film, which is considerable, but it does diminish its impact. Nonetheless, Goodfellas is a pretty crunchy tale of New York Mafiosos, told in a marvelously enjoyable overlap of narration, quick scenes and sharp vignettes. It meanders after a while, but somehow doesn’t lose interest. A great film, from a great director in great shape.
(In theaters, December 1999) This doesn’t rise much higher than most “stupid comedies” seen lately, but does the job if you’re in the mood for this type of film. Rather sweet-natured despite the constant jabs at almost every “different” group you can think of. Includes the first parodies of The Matrix; two hilarious take-offs on action scenes accompanied by the Propellerheads’ “Spybreak!”. It’s unfortunately easy to see where this comedy could have been improved at the script stage to produce something with a longer video-store shelf-life: Rob Schneider isn’t the best actor for the job (the role would have been ideally suited for the cynical wit of David Spade) and the script is full of missed opportunities and insufficiently defined situations. For instance, Deuce is never clearly established as a genius or and idiot; wouldn’t the movie have been much more fun with a sarcastic, nerdish Deuce Bigalow thrown into the “he-whore” business?
Broadway Books, 1998, 276 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-7679-0240-8
Your reviewer is lucky enough to work as a technical specialist in a unit doing research as to how new ideas and new trends that will shape the way we will work in the future. One of the most fascinating current trends is something called Knowledge Management. It’s based on the idea that low-level white-collar work is becoming increasingly automated (no more typists, no more messengers, etc…) and that what remains is a type of office worker far more concerned with refined knowledge than raw data. Unfortunately, this knowledge, being intangible and formless, defies all previous theories of management.
Knowledge Management might be only a fad (only time will tell), but it is built on solid tendencies. Everywhere we look in this new economic context, it’s obvious that purely intellectual work is accounting for a substantial part of growth. It’s now a cliché that the nerds of yesterday are the drivers of today’s high-tech sector, but these nerds cannot be managed in the same way than the worker class has traditionally been driven.
As far as nerd projects go, you really can’t find better than space exploration. These “rocket scientists” are no ordinary workers, and their bosses must be no ordinary managers. Everyone applauded when NASA landed the Pathfinder/Sojourner probe on Mars on July 4th, 1997. A lot of effort has been expended in sending this little rover a few million kilometers away, and Managing Martians finally tells the pre-glory story from the point of view of the team leader of the Sojourner project, Donna Shirley.
Managing Martians is a book that attempts to do many things at once. It’s an inspirational story of a country girl turned pro scientist. It’s a business book on how to manage knowledge workers. It’s a techno-scientific work of triumph through engineering. And yet, despite its disparate nature, it’s an interesting account on all three viewpoints.
As a biography, it tracks Shirley’s life through the difficult career path of a woman in a male industry. Born in 1941 in a small Oklahoma town, Donna Shirley knew early on that she wouldn’t be just another one of the girls. Developing an early interest in aeronautics, she got her pilot license, went to college, found love, switched majors from engineering to English and found a job as a technical writer at McDonnell Aircraft. After finding out that this wasn’t what she wanted to do with her life, she went back to college, got her engineering degree and ended up at JPL. The rest wasn’t easier, as the whims of space politics decided where she would work.
Are good managers born or raised? Tough to tell, but Shirley’s unconventional career path would later reflect on her management style and though Managing Martians doesn’t claim to be a business book, it’s still a pretty good illustration -through concrete example- of the new challenges of knowledge work. “When managing brilliant, creative people,” she says, “at some point you find it’s impossible to command or control them because you can’t understand what they are doing.” [P.88] The story of Sojourner truly gives a good idea of the realities of space exploration in all its bureaucratic, nitty-gritty details. Not much preaching here, but more than a few examples.
Of course, the book truly shines when considered as the ultimate insider’s account of the whole Pathfinder/Sojourner project. Numerous technical issues are clearly explained and highlighted. Managing Martians succeeds at giving a sense of the quiet techno-heroism that’s the hallmark of most top-notch scientific endeavor. No superheroes, just regular people doing the best job they can. Even Shirley doesn’t try to claim undue applause, deferring often to the members of her team.
Hopefully, many people will read this book and get a sense of what it’s like to “be a rocket scientist.” Others will read it and learn a few things about how to run a high-tech business. Others will just enjoy the inside story of the Sojourner project. But all will get something valuable out of the book.
(On VHS, December 1999) Almost certainly the most technically inept film I’ve ever seen. And, unlike some B-movie reviews, this is no mere hyperbole: Clerks was shot for under $30,000 at the writer/director Kevin Smith’s workplace, financed by his credit cards and starring almost complete non-actors. It’s in grainy black and white film stock, with static camera setups and almost no editing to speak of. And yet… this is one of the funniest, most well-written comedy you’re likely to see in any given year. Raunchy (the film was originally rated NC-17 on subject matter and language alone) but incredibly witty vignettes pepper a film that’s fully a cut over the mindless polished comedies that Hollywood churns out. Give this one a try and don’t be put off by the slow start. And would some Hollywood casting director please hire Marilyn Ghigliotti for another film?
(On TV, December 1999) An in-your-face comedy about sex, but it’s far, far better than the inanities of Porky, American Pie and other raunchy teen-oriented films. A frank look at the problems of sex (as opposed as to its attractiveness), Chasing Amy mines lesbianism, attraction, jealousy, male and female priorities, love, friendship and naturally presents the whole structure as being insanely unstable. It feels real, but it’s also hilarious… in a cathartic sense. The real strength of the film is the script and the acting, since writer/director Kevin Smith is almost mortally afraid of moving the camera or trying out any fancy cinematographic technique. A shame, because this flat directing actually distracts from the movie itself. (The strongly-directed scenes, like the rainy reunion and the record-shop discussion, stand out almost because of the better-than-static direction) Still, Chasing Amy is more than worth a look. For mature audiences only!
(In theaters, December 1999) A sumptuous, lavishly detailed historical quasi-romance with flashes of comedy, drama and action. Something for everyone, including good performances by Jodie Foster (“an intellectual’s pin-up girl” says one colleague) and Chow Yun-Fat (who here broadens his appeal beyond the tough-guy action roles that have been his trademark for American audiences up to now.) The film does loses its focus midway through and meanders a lot during its final hour. Audiences still get an adequate entertainment and some very pretty scenery.
(On VHS, December 1999) This film never flinches in its treatment of racism. But don’t think that this is another preachy morality tale where all sins are easily redeemed; American History X is far more unsettling. Perhaps its biggest strength is that it doesn’t represent racists as easily dismissed kooks; in the context of the film and the character’s situation, the racist arguments sort of make sense. That’s where the film’s true power lies: In depicting the slow slide, the external factors, the erosion of common sense that can lead anyone into the trap of racial hate. Fortunately, the film is carried through by Edward Norton, who turns in yet another great performance. Though not without flaws (the ending doesn’t make as much sense as it should. Norton’s character’s re-education is sketchy), this is -no mistake about it- an important work. Great, moving film.
Norton, 1997, 480 pages, C$19.99 tpb, ISBN 0-393-31755-2
Regular readers of these reviews have probably notices a personal fondness for books that explain How Things Works. This explains a fascination with hard-Science-Fiction, techno-thrillers, scientific vulgarization and other documentary works. Hard sciences -physics, chemistry, biology, etc.- lend themselves particularly well to vulgarization given that they’re based on a set of fairly common theories and experimental body of proof.
The “softer” sciences -history, sociology, psychology, etc.- are decidedly harder to quantify. Everyone has their own pet theories and the nature itself of social sciences makes it much harder to prove theorems by practical experiment. One of the aims of Jared Diamond’s excessively ambitious Guns, Germs and Steel is to provide a solid foundation for “the future of human history as a science”.
It all starts with a very obvious question: Why was it that Europe conquered North America, and not vice-versa? Most high-school students can probably answer this question by pointing out the technological differences between the two civilizations. But that only brings up another question: Why was there such a significant difference? Was is because of Europe’s more numerous population? And why was that?
Like a patient parent answering the endless “Why” questions of an inquisitive child, Diamond peels away all the layers of questioning until he can start from the very foundations of civilization. And, as he states in his introduction, the answers he brings forth are a conscious attempt to dispel all racial theories of history by highlighting environmental differences. Europeans were not smarter than American-Indians; they just happened to grow up at the right place.
The best parts of Guns, Germs and Steel come early on, as Diamond lucidly explains how, for instance, the presence of large domesticable animals led to the rise of sedentary agriculture, of resistance to disease, of mass production. He explains the mechanisms of technological innovation. He shows that agriculture wasn’t necessarily an “obvious” choice to hunter-gatherers. His chapter on agriculture through enlightened selection (“How to make an Almond”) is, easily, one of the most mind-blowing vulgarization piece I’ve read in a long while. Also be sure to read his lucid explanation of how language is “invented”.
Most of the book is simply that; a whirlwind explanation of 13,000 years of human history. It’s unusually readable for such a scholarly work. This book is going to end up on many college reading lists—indeed, on many general-interest reading lists too.
Still, the book isn’t perfect. The fourth part (“Around the World in Five Chapters”) is crucial to Diamond’s thesis (It’s a set of practical applications to the theoretical instruments developed in the rest of the book) but is of such a specialized interest that it’s a noticeable notch below the interest sustained by the rest of the book. Also, in trying to dispel racial theories of civilization, Diamond doth protest too much, and ends up dangerously close to annoyance in overpraising non-western civilization. Finally -though a careful re-reading of the book might invalidate this criticism- Diamond’s praise of societies where innovation is encouraged (in “Necessity’s Mother”) might run counter to his central thesis of non-racial difference; at some point, equal societies make their choices (eg; democracy/totalitarism) and these choices take the environment out of the equation and brings back the debate on purely social grounds.
Guns, Germs and Steel is a unique book, a ground-breaking study of civilizations as entities that’s nevertheless as compelling as it is thorough. It has already won the Pulitzer prize, has figured prominently on bestseller lists and seems destined to a respected status in both popular and specialized fields. Indeed, its gets top recommendations from this reviewer; read it!