A Tough Mix – Art & Skepticism

There has been a lot of excitement around Skeptic North this past week or so, and my life was so full I missed the bulk of it. In addition to being a skeptic — which is only a vocation for a scant few — I am an artist. A film-maker, slightly less generally speaking, and within that I do many different things specifically.

Over the past five years I’ve been working on the biggest project I’ve ever tackled. A feature length film. In that time it has in many ways come to define who I am, and there is great irony in that. The film is a comedic re-telling of Moby Dick in a modern context with Lake Okanagan’s Ogopogo in place of the great white whale. At times I myself have felt like Ahab, shaking my fist at the thundering heavens and cursing a god I don’t believe in, while trying to reel this beast in. And ‘Beast’ this film is — it’s even in the title — The Beast of Bottomless Lake. It has taken so much of my time and effort and become so much a part of my own identity that for over a year now not a day goes by that someone doesn’t ask me how the movie is coming. I actually feel a bit guilty about being tired of answering the question, but the message is clear, people’s image of me is inextricable from the monster project… whether I like it or not.

This is all very present in my mind right now — we finished the sound mix of the film this week, and that pretty much means that we are done. When people ask how it’s coming, I no longer have to answer “slowly, we’re nearly finished doing ‘X’”; and when they follow up with “I can hardly wait to see it” I can no longer jokingly respond “yeah, me too!” When it gets down to brass tacks I am no longer making a film, I have made one.

As a skeptic though, I have a new challenge ahead of me. As I indicated above, the film is about a man searching for Canada’s Loch Ness — the Ogopogo. And like it’s literary inspiration, our beast is full of metaphor, but it doesn’t change the simple fact that I — a skeptic — have made a movie about some of the lowest hanging fruit on the skeptical tree of knowledge. Every day that passes, the less likely it seems that the crypto-zoological wonder-twins — Sasquatch and it’s brethren; Nessie and it’s ilk — will ever be proven to exist. We are filling more and more space on the big blue marble and there is still no credible evidence. It is technically impossible to prove a negative, but c’mon…. haven’t you got better things to do?

The pursuit of a mythical lake monster is hardly the only non-skeptical element to the movie, but to reveal more would be to give spoilers. The point being that, despite presenting some scattered bits of good science and logic (Eg. The notion that you can’t prove a negative, is fleetingly pointed out in one scene.) when it comes down to it, The Beast of Bottomless Lake is NOT a skeptical movie. Facing my skeptical peers with that knowledge was something that I was, quite frankly, petrified about. I hoped that they — and by ‘they’, I mean you — would be more interested in the general topic than the specific handling of it, but I had no way of really knowing. So at TAM7, I answered that question. I brought a late rough cut of the film with me and on Thursday night, before the conference was really in full-swing, I hosted a test-screening in (of all places) room 2012. (Indeed I met a number of Skeptic North bloggers at that screening.)

When they handed me my room key, I honestly thought it was a
practical joke that got played on all first time TAMers.

I won’t presume to put words in anyone’s mouths, but even with un-mixed sound, temporary music and half-finished effects, the feeling I got walking away from that screening was that I passed. Which is not to say that I didn’t have questions to respond to. And I know that I will continue to have to respond to the questions of fellow skeptics wondering why I couldn’t produce something that better presented critical thinking. The short — and perhaps a bit impertinent answer is “It’s fiction. You don’t think the galaxy was really saved by a half-trained whiny schmuck with a laser-sword and and overdose of a ‘magic virus’ from his half-robot Dad and his prune-faced boss, do you?” No, I didn’t think so. But you loved that movie. (Okay, perhaps I’m projecting a bit — that was the film that made me want to make movies.)

In search of a better — or at least less ‘in your face’ — answer I went last week to go and see a lecture by William B. Davis, hosted by the local CFI.

If you don’t know, or perhaps forgot, Bill Davis was an unknown Vancouver actor who took a role in a TV pilot where he was little more than a glorified background extra. He played a senior FBI agent who stands in the corner of a room smoking a cigarette in a scene. One thing led to another and the show became must-see TV for the mid-90s, and his enigmatic walk-on performance became the iconic villain known to X-philes as “Cancer Man.”

Bill Davis is also a skeptic. He puts “atheist” first in his head, but the latter led to the former. Recently he has begun taking on (in a friendly sense) Richard Dawkins’ insistence that The X-Files is decidedly NOT a skeptical show — or more to the point, that it is indeed bad for skepticism. It’s not really my place to pull a thunder heist of the material Mr. Davis seems to be presenting on occasions other than this (though as a micro-review, I hope that later presentations are more focussed and conclusive). What I can do is report on what I walked away with after reading between the lines, and where that leaves me…

Essentially, in the world of the X-Files, alien abductions, spiritual haunting and global conspiracies (amongst other things that are demonstrably poppycock as they appear in our world) DO exist, and the facts supporting them surface regularly. Indeed it is Scully, not Mulder, who is the fool because it is she who continues to disbelieve in the face of over-whelming evidence. In other words, there is critical thinking going on in the context of their own fictional world. (Though in the spirit of the opposed viewpoints of the main characters, one must then also accept that one of them — Scully — is engaged in poor critical thinking.)

Dissatisfying answer?
Yeah. Me too.
So when it came time for questions I raised my hand. “I am also an artist who is finding that I am becoming identified by work I’m involved in that is questionable in a skeptical sense. So I’m wondering, how, when challenged on such ground you defend yourself in pithy terms?”
“That’s difficult…. I don’t.”
Are you wishing I’d just stopped at the first dissatisfying answer? Are you thinking all of a sudden that in light of other good answers “It’s fiction!” isn’t as seemingly rude as it seemed before? Do you have a better suggestion — keeping in mind that the genie is out of the bottle and the film cannot be un-made?

Post Script

I should add that I do intend to keep creating work that maintains a patina of credulity — I do believe in story-telling first. But I will also aim to make art which is has better science behind it, (indeed, I’m taking a break from doing so right now in order to write this) and try to make the most of resources like the Science & Entertainment Exchange wherever possible.

- Kennedy

Comments are closed.

  • Kennedy Goodkey

    Kennedy is a film-maker and skeptic. As a skeptic his primary interests are in the communication and advocacy of skeptical and science issues, specifically calling attention to the idea that the standard practice of “playing nice with others” is not always the best approach, and definitely must be explored and refined as a tactic to be leveraged to best effect.