“Red Lights” (2012), and more on belief

Gonna be a long one, so buckle in. The first part of this post will be a review of a film about skepticism and paranormal research. The second part will be a rant, because shit. I mean, in a good way. Good shit. Interesting shit. But shit.

It’s all related, though. The movie and the rant, anyway. Maybe other stuff too. Like, circle of life, and whatnot. Shut up.

Proving yet again that big names do not a good movie make, Red Lights is about science and psychic powers and I guess also Robert De Niro. This film isn’t horror by any definition. It’s not frightening and doesn’t really try to be, with one or two very minor exceptions. It does, however, toy with concepts that are often construed as frightening–the usual slew of supernatural stuff, with a specifically parapsychological slant (telepathy, clairvoyance, etc.). It feels like a half-formed blockbuster: it’s polished and highly produced, but also strangely slapdash and incomplete, as if somebody took a James Cameron or Steven Spielberg summer action movie and chopped out about 25% of it, leaving just enough gaps to confuse the audience and ruin any chances of caring about the characters.

The premise is thus: Sigourney Weaver and Cillian Murphy are physicists who apparently have nothing better to do than drive around debunking supposed paranormal phenomena (and their characters wonder aloud why they get no funding from the university–hah!). It emerges that Weaver’s got a son in a coma, and she is obsessed with paranormal stuff because of an encounter with Robert De Niro‘s character (a psychic) decades previously, where he sort of guessed that someone close to her had died and momentarily made Weaver doubt her own beliefs or some stupid shit. I don’t know.

So Weaver is the intrepid leader. Murphy hooks up with that lesser Olsen I mentioned in a previous post (she’s popping up everywhere for some stupid reason), who is an undergraduate in a class he TAs for (he’s apparently got a PhD, but remains as Weaver’s research assistant, or… something…? Cabana boy?). The three of them get involved with De Niro again, who has come out of retirement to do some random psychic stuff on TV or something. I have no idea.

De Niro is the big bad guy with (supposed) psychic powers and everybody is in awe of him, while Murphy and Weaver are out to debunk him like he’s never been debunked before. That’s pretty much it. That’s the conflict. Once that’s established, the rest of the movie is spent trying to prevent a parapsychologist played by Toby Jones from publishing the results of a study which apparently proves that De Niro is in fact a psychic.

That’s right. The whole movie is, essentially, about a stupid conflict between two groups of petulant scientists over whose irrelevant theories get to be published in some academic journal nobody will ever read.

“Red Lights” is a weak title. It should have been called “JSTOR: The Scholaring,” and the DVD cover should have a picture of Carl Sagan and Aristotle swordfighting on a cliff with dragons in the background.

The thing is, in fairness, I should probably watch this again. I was grading homework assignments and watching it more or less simultaneously, and I probably missed some things I shouldn’t have. But the OTHER thing is, I don’t WANT to watch it again.

As is usually the case, it’s not entirely bad. There are actually a few very interesting things here, both in terms of supernatural belief stuff, and also in terms of academia, including a scene where Cillian Murphy manhandles Toby Jones and demands Jones use his “over-subsidized brain” to get Murphy into an experiment.

I can confirm that this kind of thing happens all the time. Just the other day I got called into the dean’s office because I shook an accounting TA down for his lunch money.

Gotta say, though, Jones’ character is the director of a parapsychology lab, while Murphy’s is a physicist– and I can’t imagine a universe where a fringe discipline like parapsychology has more funding than physics.

The acting is  decent, particularly from the star cast members (and there are a bunch of them)–though I have to say, I think Robert De Niro has been phoning it in for several decades now. I hear the guy can act, but can’t think of a single time I’ve seen him do it.

For physicists, Murphy and Weaver sure don’t seem to be doing anything remotely physicsy. Also, the idea of there being this much intrigue surrounding the publication of a stupid journal article makes me feel almost like I’m in the wrong field. If shit was like this, I’d be prolific. 

So, as you may have gathered, this is not really a good movie. Actually, it’s a pretty bad one. The plot is nonsensical and low-stakes, the score is stupid and distracting, and a number of scenes toward the end don’t make any sense at all (the porcelain-shattering bathroom fight scene, for instance; or the awful “code-breaking” scene). It had a bunch of big names in it, but that only heightened the sense of disappointment. I’d avoid it, unless you’ve got a dissertation to write–in which case, it’s worth a few laughs. 73/100.

Okay, so much for the review. Now for the rant.

Red Lights basically sucks, but it’s an interesting film for one reason: it highlights the whole science/supernatural thing. I can’t say if it’s an accurate portrayal of parapsychological research or not, but it certainly does foreground the issue of science-vs-belief that is so often at the heart of these things in contemporary discourses on the supernatural. Sigourney Weaver’s character, for instance, opines, “The reason people believe in ghosts is the same as the reason they believe in haunted houses or tunnels of light. Because it would mean that there was something after death.” That’s a highly functionalist attitude, one which rankles me; but Weaver’s physicist character would not be alone in making that kind of claim.

I don’t know enough about parapsychology to comment on it, but I do know that my approach to what folklorists, anthropologists, and other social scientific/humanistic scholars call the supernatural is quite different from the approach of parapsychologists to what they refer to as the paranormal. The main difference, from a methodological standpoint, is that we are concerned with belief, interpretation, cultural significances, traditions; whereas people who study these things “scientifically” are concerned with suggesting that there is a real underlying phenomenon that can be quantified and studied. Of course, we in the ethnographic disciplines are not suggesting that there is no reality to supernatural belief; and I’m sure parapsychologists wouldn’t discount the importance of culture (though I don’t know and can’t presume to speak for them). But in practice, we tend to favor a view of belief as part of larger cultural systems, and we don’t usually concern ourselves with generating “scientific” knowledge (though David Hufford is a rare exception). For this reason I’m somewhat put off by attempts to reduce supernatural belief (or paranormal phenomena, or whatever) to classifiable items that can be recreated in a lab. I’m not sure that doing so, even if it were possible, would be particularly useful.

There’s a scene in Red Lights when Cillian Murphy’s character is teaching an undergraduate physics course, and he states quite matter-of-factly, “Every science has its pseudoscience.” He then goes on to list such “pseudosciences” as homeopathy, acupuncture, and astrology. This pisses me right the hell off. Because I’m an avid Zodiac enthusiast? No, not at all (and I certainly am not). Because it makes far too many assumptions about the production and transmission of knowledge, and what is and is not knowable. For instance, claims like this–by labeling other traditions as “pseudoscience”–assert that those traditions are masquerading as Western science, that they are attempting to validate themselves by adopting the trappings of Western rationalism. Never mind that many such traditions were around long before the development of what would eventually be called scientific method: they clearly model themselves after “real” forms of scientific pursuit and for this reason are reprehensible and dangerous.

Basically the claim is this: “We have the right to decide how you should conceptualize the world, because we have proven the validity of our approach to our own satisfaction.” This claim to power transcends “science” and enters the realm of “religion”–an equally problematic category, to be sure–and that very point is what scientists themselves (I’m looking at you, Richard Dawkins) fail to realize. The belief in transubstantiation, in divine inspiration, in spirit possession–these are all “proven” to the satisfaction of their believers, who experience them directly and don’t require measurements or controls to validate the results. That doesn’t live up to scientific standards, obviously; and that is precisely the point. It’s not scientific. It’s not supposed to be scientific. Why should it be?

I’m not advocating for any belief tradition as such. I’m an agnostic in the truest sense, meaning I am currently “without wisdom” but assume that there is wisdom to be had and hope one day to find some. But to assume that “science” is “real” and try to shoehorn other things into that cosmology is the same fallacy for which we in the US are always happy to mock such groups as Creationists, who do exactly the same thing, only in reverse, when they attempt to fit science into a Christian framework.

Bottom line: worldviews are constructed from many different strands of knowledge. Science is one of these. It constitutes its own belief systems with its own rules, and it is self-sustaining with its proofs and theorems in much the same way that religions sustain themselves by adding particular forms of meaning and validation to the lives of their adherents. As humans we should all be critical of any system of knowledge, whether we define it as “religion” or “science” or “the supernatural.”

This is what bugs me most about parapsychology, which purports to apply scientific methods to areas that don’t necessarily require scientific validation. (It’s not the phenomena themselves that give me pause; it’s the study of them in laboratory conditions.) Again, I know very little about parapsychology as a discipline, so I’ll refrain from saying anything beyond this: science is its own belief system, and applying the rules of one belief system to another is the opposite of a relativistic approach. It is in fact an ethnocentric approach, and for that reason I’m suspicious of it.

I just bought a textbook, The Parapsychology Revolution: A Concise Anthology of Paranormal and Psychical Research, which I’m very eager to read (this is just for fun, not related to my research). I’m kicking around ideas for how a folklorist might approach parapsychology as one of many ways of engaging with the supernatural–like, I’m interested in belief traditions, and parapsychology is unarguably just that. Nothing is really coming to mind just yet, but I’ll keep thinking about it. I have to say, though, if parapsychology as a discipline wants to be taken seriously, they might start by having less New Age-y covers for their textbooks. Seriously.

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