Thursday, May 4, 2023

Read the Room: A Mantra for Moral Hacks

When Barry Humphries died last month, the ABC kicked off the 7pm news with his obituary. It was a generally fitting tribute. Nevertheless, I braced myself for the part where it would be made clear that as illustrious as the decedent’s achievements had been, a couple of things he said late in his life did not meet the exacting moral standards of the national broadcaster. 

The reprimand was duly delivered at the obituary’s end, courtesy of a young comedian who gravely told the camera that it was a pity that Humphries, in his declining years, “lost his ability to read the room.” 

What exactly does it mean to “read the room”? People seem to think it’s an awfully clever thing to say. And they’re beginning to aim this directive not just at public figures like Humphries, but at the rest of us too. We’re all expected to read the room now. So how do we go about doing it? ...[read more

Heartburn at 40

Last October, the Daily Mail ran a story with this lengthy yet cryptic headline: “When Harry Met Salad! Olivia Wilde LEANS INTO bombshell revelations about collapse of her relationship by sharing vinaigrette recipe from Nora Ephron’s book about divorce from cheating ex-husband.” 

There was a lot happening in that headline. To make sense of it, and to get every nuance of the Harry-met-salad joke, you had to be familiar with a backstory that spanned four decades and involved five different celebrities, living and dead. 

The backstory was this ... [read more

Alone Australia

In 1848, an unfortunate American named Phineas Gage had a nasty accident while overseeing the construction of a railroad in Vermont. Gage was packing explosive into a rock with a pointed metre-long rod called a tamping iron when a stray spark caused the charge to blow prematurely. Shooting out of the rock like a javelin fired by a rocket launcher, the rod speared into Gage’s face, passed through the left frontal lobe of his brain, flew out the top of his skull, and landed point-first in the earth 25 metres away. 

Gage survived the accident, but his personality was drastically altered by the damage to his frontal lobe. This was a stroke of luck for the era’s brain scientists. Long before the days of fMRI, Gage’s injury offered valuable information about which parts of the brain did what. It would have been grossly unethical for medical researchers to obtain this information by ramming a metal rod through somebody’s head. But since that had happened to Gage already, scientists made the most of his misfortune ... [read more]

Cocaine Bear

This seems to be a season for films with bluntly informative titles – titles that tell you precisely what you’ll be getting for the price of your ticket. At one end of the spectrum of respectability you have Sarah Polley’s Women Talking, a solid contender for this year’s Best Picture Oscars. 

At the other end of the spectrum you have Cocaine Bear. Released too late to be eligible for this year’s Oscars, Cocaine Bear isn’t the kind of movie that people give awards to anyway. On the other hand, the film deserves high praise for delivering, riotously, on the promise of its title. It’s everything you could wish for in a movie about a giant bear that goes on a killing rampage after snorting a ton of cocaine ... [read more]