Elephant Walk film review: Prescient movie that forewarned about Ceylon’s crowded, troubled future?

Elephant Walk: Another century, another island - but casting its shadow on us?

How can anyone review a film made nearly six decades ago — especially if its first release took place even before I was born? Well, there is only one way to find out – by just doing it.

I’ve just done it with Elephant Walk (103 mins, colour), released by Paramount Pictures in April 1954 — a dozen years before I was born on the same island (then Ceylon, now Sri Lanka) where the movie was set and filmed. In fact, this was among several that were shot on location in Ceylon in the 1950s when Hollywood studios ‘discovered’ the island as an exotic, relatively inexpensive and hassle-free location. But this is the only one whose story is actually set in Ceylon.

Elephant Walk was directed by William Dieterle, and based on the 1948 novel with the same title, written by “Robert Standish” — actually the pseudonym of English novelist Digby George Gerahty (1898-1981). It starred Elizabeth Taylor, Dana Andrews, Peter Finch and Abraham Sofaer.

One benefit of reviewing a film so long after its original release is that it allows the benefit of hindsight and perspective. I have exploited this to the full in my review cum op ed essay, titled Elephant Walk revisited: Mixing Tea, Jumbos and Monsoons, just published on Groundviews.org.

Here’s an excerpt:

“The movie has been remarkably prescient on several fronts, which can only be appreciated now — in another century, and on a wholly different island. A key theme of the movie was the human-elephant conflict, but passing references to social exclusion and rampant poverty in post-independent Ceylon are also of much interest.

“I doubt if Paramount’s writers were intentionally making any social commentary. One of the studio’s co-founders, Samuel Goldwyn, had famously cautioned against it. When asked about movies with a “message” some years earlier, he had replied, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.”

“Nevertheless, the movie (and perhaps the book on which it is based, which I haven’t read) was contrasting the British planters’ opulent lifestyle with the forced austerity in post-War Britain. Even more striking is the poverty and squalor among the hundreds of resident workers whose sweat, toil — and occasional tears — ensured that the ‘cups that cheer’ were always brimming.”

Read the full review:
Elephant Walk revisited: Mixing Tea, Jumbos and Monsoons, on Groundviews.org

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Thor, Superman and Arthur C Clarke’s Third Law: Technology or Magic?

Thor: Another spectacular moving image creation from Marvel

Last evening, I wanted an escape from reality. So I walked into a local cinema with two friends and watched Thor – the latest cinematic production from Marvel Comics.

It’s another superhero spectacle, with lots of special effects and great fireworks. Not entirely plausible in the universe as we know it, but hey – we enter cinema halls willing to suspend disbelief. As C S Lewis was fond of saying, the only people really against escapism are…jailers!

Thor even has some reasonable acting and occasionally enjoyable dialogue. Half way into the story, I was pleasantly surprised to see Natalie Portman’s character quote Arthur C Clarke’s Third Law (of prediction): “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

Then I realised how much the story depends on this ‘Law’ to make it plausible. Returning home, I asked my resident magician Google for some insights, and she found others have already noted this.

On Discovery magazine’s blog, Kyle Munkittrick has an interesting post titled Thor Pays Tribute to Arthur C. Clarke’s Rule About Magic and Technology. He says:

“…the Marvel universe is internally consistent… Clarke’s rule of magical tech helps create some of that consistency. I both love and loathe Clarke for that statement. Love because it strikes at the heart of what technology is: a way for humans to do things previously believed not just implausible, but impossible. Loathe because it creates an infinite caveat for lazy authors and screenwriters. It seems like anytime some preposterous technology is injected into a narrative either as a McGuffin or a deus ex machina, that damn quotation from Clarke gets trotted out as the defense.”

He adds: “Thor does not pull a George Lucas and attempt to over-science the magical elements. Thor is not superhuman because he has some Norse equivalent of midichlorians. He is superhuman because he is magical. Sure, that magic is allegedly based in technology, but technology so incredibly advanced, we can’t distinguish it from magic. That lack of distinguishability is the indicator of just how advanced the Asgardians actually are. It’s also what let’s us enjoy the movie for what it is.” Read the full post.

On the indispensable Internet Movie Database, it says: “This acknowledgement that one man’s science is another man’s magic/faith (with a hat tip to Arthur C. Clarke’s “Third Law”) is just enough to make Marvel’s comic book appropriation of mythology palatable for a mainstream Hollywood audience.”

So Clarke’s Third Law keeps popping up in popular culture, and as Kyle Munkittrick says, it’s so very convenient for script writers! The grandmaster of science fiction has given them a blanket cover to take whatever creative liberties…

And some don’t always acknowledge the source when they take cover in this quote/law. For example, the Third Law was famously uttered by Lex Luthor in Superman Returns (2006) — but without any mention of the source.

At that time, I was working with Sir Arthur as his research assistant, and remember how much the late author was intrigued by this reference. For a brief few seconds, he was (slightly) miffed that there was no attribution — and then he cheered up. He accepted that Clarke’s Three Laws are now out there in popular culture and the public imagination, having assumed a momentum and identity of their own. The product of his fertile mind was roaming free.

Profiles of the Future - 1982 UK edition

It’s about time too. The Three Laws have been in print for nearly half a century, in various forms. The first law was published in an essay titled “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination'” in the timeless Arthur C Clarke non-fiction classic Profiles of the Future: An Enquiry into the Limits of the Possible, 1962. The book itself was a collection of essays exploring the far future, written during the period 1959 – 1961, and originally published in various popular magazines — most notably Playboy, where many Clarke pieces first appeared in the 1950s and 1960s.

The First Law read: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

In the original essay, Sir Arthur actually offered further insights on the threshold of elderly: “Perhaps the adjective ‘elderly’ requires definition. In physics, mathematics and astronautics, it means over thirty; in the other disciplines, senile decay is sometimes postponed to the forties. There are, of course, glorious exceptions; but as every researcher just out of college knows, scientists of over fifty are good for nothing except board meetings, and should at all costs be kept out of the laboratory.”

The Second Law was included as a simple observation in the same essay; its status as Clarke’s Second Law was conferred on it by others. That read: “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”

In an endnote to the ‘Hazards of Prophecy’ chapter (two) in the 1982 revised edition of the book, Sir Arthur wrote: “Originally, I had only one law, but my French editor started numbering them. The Third, which arises from material in this chapter, is perhaps the most interesting (and most widely quoted).”

In fact, this best known Third Law didn’t appear in its currently known form until the 1973 revision of Profiles of the Future. He wanted to round out the number, he said, and added: “Since three laws were sufficient for both the Isaacs — Newton and Asimov — I have decided to stop here. At least for the present…”

The first and second Laws of Clarke are known and cited among scientists and other technical experts. But it’s the Third Law that is the best known among the public: in fact, Wikipedia has compiled a collection of citations in other works.

Profiles of the Future - 1999 Millennium edition

As Sir Arthur’s biographer, Neil McAleer, wrote in the 1992 biography Odyssey: “Profiles of the Future has been, and continues to be, an influential book for all those interested in science, technology and the future. Some thirty years after its original publication, it still stands out from the dozens of less important books that attempted to imitate it.”

Neil quotes Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, as saying how Profiles left a lasting impression on him. Says Roddenberry: “I read Childhood’s End, of course, and was mightily moved by it. And I should say that Profiles of the Future was the next most important Clarke work in my life because a great deal of what I did on Star Trek was guided by that.”

Star Trek: The Original Series debuted on US network television in September 1966. The publication of Profiles, four years earlier, was clearly fortuitous. Star Trek would have been made anyway, without or without Profiles — but the 23rd Century universe might well have been different…

Profiles of the Future was revised by Sir Arthur Clarke on three occasions — in 1973, 1982 and again in 1999. The last revision, where I played a part in assisting the author, came out as the Millennium Edition.

These revisions were not extensive. As the cover blurb of the first revision noted: “Since it (the book) was concerned with ultimate possibilities, and not with achievements to be expected in the near future, even the remarkable events of the last decade have dated it very little.”

The same held for the last revision. But by then, the First Law was updated for Political Correctness:
“When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, (s)he is almost certainly right. When (s)he states that something is impossible, (s)he is very probably wrong.”

Next year, 2012, will mark the 50th anniversary of this future-shaping book’s first publication. Fans of science fiction and science fact should perhaps do something to mark the occasion — and not leave it entirely to the whim and fancy of Hollywood script writers.

Read also:
May 2009 blogpost: Star Trek: Advocating a world of equality, tolerance and compassion

‘The Futurist’ Interview with Sir Arthur C Clarke, published shortly after his death in March 2008

A ‘Greek’ among Geeks and Greens…

Asking questions. Connecting the dots. Explaining matters.

These actions sum up what I have been doing in the spheres of communication and development for over 20 years. They form the cornerstone in my attempts to make sense of our globalised world and heady times.

As a journalist, I was trained to look for what’s New, True and Interesting (‘NTI Test’). Early on, I went beyond just reporting events, and probed the underlying causes and processes. With experience, I can now offer my audiences something more: perspective and seasoned opinion.

I look back (slightly) and look around (a lot) in a half-hour, in-depth TV interview with media researcher/activist and fellow citizen journalist Sanjana Hattotuwa. This was part of The Interview (third series) produced by Young Asia Television, and broadcast on two Sri Lankan TV channels, TNL and ETv on May 8 (with repeats).

Watch the full interview online: Sanjana Hattotuwa talks to Nalaka Gunawardene

Nalaka Gunawardene from Young Asia Television on Vimeo.

I have always worn multiple ‘hats’, and dabbled in multiple pursuits rather than follow narrow paths of enquiry. I see myself continuing to oscillate between the ‘geeks’ and greens, and where possible, bridging their worlds.

I sometimes feel a strange kinship with the ancient Greeks, who first asked some fundamental questions about the universe. They didn’t always get the answers right, and neither do I.

But it’s very important that we question and critique progress – I do so with an open mind, enthusiasm and optimism.

Note: I was also a guest in the first series of this show, in February 2009, which led to this blogpost.

Cooling without warming: Cool Biz for a safer future?

Image courtesy - Paradise Island Resort, Maldives

Paradise, The Maldives. 10 May 2011

I’m sitting in Paradise – and freezing. This isn’t quite what I imagined it to be.

Well, actually I’m attending a serious inter-governmental meeting being held at the Paradise Island Resort and Spa in the Maldives.

The setting is exotic enough – I’m near some of the finest beaches and bluest seas in the world. It’s a cloudy day outside, with tropical sunshine interrupted by occasional showers. We’re just a few hundred kilometres north of the Equator.

But it’s whole different world inside the meeting room. We have no windows and are visually cut off from the scenery. And the air conditioning is too strong. Even the 50 or so people inside the room don’t emit enough body heat to counter the chill spilling out from the ceiling.

Paradise (resort) isn’t alone. Across tropical Asia, our public offices, hotels and shopping malls just love to freeze us out.

This habit has a particular irony at this meeting. Convened by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), it’s discussing how to stay cool without killing the planet.

To be precise, how air conditioning and refrigeration industries can continue their business – and keep cooling people and goods – without damaging the ozone layer or warming the planet.

It’s the semi-annual meeting of government officials from across Asia who help implement the Montreal Protocol to control and phase out several dozen industrial chemicals that damage the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere.

A nitpicker in Paradise? Photo by Darryl D'Monte

Adopted in 1987 and now ratified by 196 countries, it is the world’s most successful environmental treaty. It has reversed a catastrophic loss of ozone high up in the Earth’s atmosphere, and prevented tens of thousands of cases of skin cancer and cataract.

A landmark was reached at the end of 2009, when it succeeded in totally phasing out the production and use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) — chemicals that had helped the cooling industries for decades. Now, a bigger challenge remains: removing two other widely used gases known as HCFCs and HFCs.

Both were originally promoted as substitutes for CFCs in the early days of the Protocol. HCFCs are less ozone-damaging than CFCs, while HFCs are fully ozone-safe. However, both have a high global warming potential — up to 1,700 times that of Carbon dioxide — and therefore contribute to climate change.

It was only a few years ago that scientists and officials realized that there was little point in fixing one atmospheric problem if it aggravated another. So in 2007, the Montreal Protocol countries agreed to address the climate impacts of their work.

The Montreal Protocol now encourages the countries to promote the selection of alternatives to HCFCs that minimize environmental impacts, in particular impacts on climate change.

The air conditioning and refrigeration industries are being encouraged to switch from HCFC to substitutes ahead of the global phase-out deadline of 2030. Alternatives — including natural refrigerants such as ammonia, carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons — are entering the market for many applications.

Parallel to this, consumers are being encouraged to opt for newer appliances that are both ozone-safe and climate friendly.

It takes time and effort for this message to spread and take hold. Many users — especially in the developing countries — only consider the purchase price of appliances and not necessarily the long-term energy savings or planetary benefits.

Events like the first Asian Ozone2Climate Roadshow, held in the Maldivian capital Malé from 8 to 12 May 2011, are pushing for this clarity and awareness. It’s still an uphill task: too many people have to be won over on too many appliances using a wide range of chemicals and processes.

And sitting here at my freezing corner of Paradise, I feel we should add another message: conserving energy includes a more rational and sensible use of air conditioning.

Perhaps we should promote and adopt the Japanese practice of Cool Biz.

Introduced by the Japanese Ministry of Environment in the summer of 2005, the idea behind Cool Biz was simple: ensure the thermostat in all air conditioners stayed fixed at 28 degrees Centigrade.

CoolBiz Logo

That’s not exactly a very cool temperature (and certainly no freezing), but not unbearable either.

The Cool Biz dress code advised office workers to starch collars “so they stand up and to wear trousers made from materials that breathe and absorb moisture”. They were encouraged to wear short-sleeved shirts without jackets or ties.

A Cool Koizumi: Leading from the front...

Then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi himself set the tone, wearing informal attire. But then, he was already known for his unorthodox style.

Clothes designers and retailers chipped in, with clothes offering greater comfort at higher temperatures.

Cool Biz changed the Japanese work environment – and fast. I remember walking into a meeting at a government office in Tokyo a few weeks after the idea had been introduced, and finding I was the most formally dressed.

The Japanese like to count things. When the first season of Cool Biz ended, they calculated the countrywide campaign to have saved at least 460,000 tons of Carbon dioxide emissions (by avoided electricity use). That’s about the same emissions from a million Japanese households for a month.

The following year, an even more aggressive Cool Biz campaign helped save an estimated 1.14 million tons of Carbon dioxide – or two and half times more than in the first year.

The idea also traveled beyond Japan. In 2006, the South Korean Ministry of Environment and the British Trade Union Congress both endorsed the idea.

This summer, the seventh since Cool Biz started, there is an added reason for the Japanese to conserve energy. As the Asahi Shimbun reported on 28 April 2011: “In what has been dubbed the ‘power-conserving biz’ campaign, many companies plan to conserve energy during the peak summer period in light of expected power shortages caused by the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.”

Meanwhile, the rest of us freeze-happy tropical Asians can evolve our own Cool Biz practices – we don’t need to wait for governments and industry to launch organized campaigns.

For a start, we – as consumers or patrons – can urge those who maintain public-access buildings to observe voluntary upper limits of cooling. Sensitive thermostats can automatically adjust air conditioner operations when temperatures rise above a pre-determined comfortable level.

It all depends on how many of us pause to think. Of course, we can also continue business as usual – and freeze ourselves today for a warmer tomorrow.

The sun sets in Paradise too - photo by Nalaka Gunawardene