Monday, June 28, 2010

Believing the hype in the Penny Press!

The Penny Press bounced around quite a bit last week on the profundity scale (or rather I did the bouncing, by reading all kinds of stuff), and of course near the low end of that scale is where you’ll always find anything connected with the latest Hollywood micro-phenomenon, pint-sized himbo Taylor Lautner.

In the latest GQ, Mickey Rapkin is given the thankless task of sleepwalking through yet another high-profile interview with this kid, who’s clearly been given a somber talking-to since he nearly outed himself under Neil Strauss’ careful supervision in Rolling Stone. As a result, Rapkin gets absolutely nothing for his trouble except the standard entirely hypocritical “I’m just amazed to be here!” line. At one point Lautner self-servingly exclaims, “Is this really happening? Am I really here?” In response (to us, not to Lautner, who would have burst into tears), Rapkin gets in a good observation:
Those are pretty good questions. He might also ask: What on earth did I do to deserve that $7.5 million contract and the adoration of millions? He’s handsome, yes. But in two Twilight films, Lautner has logged fifty minutes of screen time. Total. In the first movie, he spoke 239 words.

In other words, the hype associated with this tiny little packet of muscle and mindless ambition far, far exceeds any thespian payoff that’s yet happened or is ever likely to happen. Apart from the Twilight saga, Lautner’s next movie is a special effects extravaganza called Stretch Armstrong – but then, Tom Cruise did Legend and still ended up being a gigantic pain in the ass.

And we’re not free of hype even at the opposite end of the profundity scale! In last week’s TLS, Iain McGilchrist turns in a witty, wonderful review of Raymond Tallis’ Michelangelo’s Finger, a popular science book touching on many subjects, mostly related to the particularly human capacity to charge a pointing gesture with meaning. McGilchrist is chugging along just fine until he gets to the subject of non-human animals – one species especially:
Dogs are particularly sensitive to human attention, to the direction of our gaze, and, for example, whether we will be able to see them stealing meat. They make use of a very human feature, the whites of the eyes, thought to have developed precisely because of our sensitivity to gaze direction, a remarkable turn of events that Tallis oddly does not mention. Tallis says dogs don’t – can’t on principle – understand “meant meaning” associated with a sign, the basis of human communication. But the evidence suggests they almost certainly do just that. Without any training, they will fetch things if merely shown a photograph, or presented with a replica, and, of course, they understand the intentional nature of words and commands. Walkies, anyone?

I don’t know what canines McGilchrist has been hanging out with, but if any dog in the history of the world has ever, “without any training,” gone and fetched an item after being shown a photograph of that item, I’ve never met that dog. I doubt even Taylor Lautner could do that, although he probably understands what ‘walkies’ means.


Beepy said...

I come here again after ages and find all you can blog about are magazines. I'll go over to Moving Pictures Trash; maybe he's reviewing the popcorn.

Iain McGilchrist said...

Hi, Steve,
I'm afraid I have only just become aware of your posting about my review of Tallis in the TLS. Thanks for calling it witty and wonderful, but I am afraid you are in for a shock about the dogs that can understand iconic representation without training. Possibly no-one in the world knows more about canine cognition than Juliane Kaminski, who works at Cambridge and at the Max-Planck Institute in Leipzig, and you can find out all about it in her paper in Developmental Science, 2009, entitled 'Domestic dogs comprehend human communication with iconic signs':
Best wishes,
Iain McGilchrist

Steve Donoghue said...

Hello Iain!

That's a fascinating link - thank you! Of course it raises more questions than it answers, and the specter of 'tester aptitude' that SAT tutors in this country so often find in their teenage charges (who learn to excel at standardized tests even though they are, in actuality, dumb as fence posts). I'm much more comfortable tossing this one back to the court of common experience. For instance, have you yourself ever shown one of your dogs a photo of one of their toys only to watch them tear off and retrieve that toy? Regardless of Juliane's test-results, that simply never happens, and it WILL never happen, not in fifty thousand tries. Go ahead and try it! Your dog will either ignore the photo, sniff the photo, or attempt to eat the photo. Your dog will NEVER, not if you try until the trump of doom, look at the photo's CONTENTS, recognize them as a two-dimensional representation of a treasured toy, and then go get the actual toy. I repeat: in the actual course of normal daily events, that will NEVER happen. At the very least, it's something dogs have to be trained to do - which, if true, hardly speaks to their cognition, the little dears!