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June 16, 2005

Hitting the Lecture Circuit

by Ron Hogan

So Tuesday night I was over at the Explorer's Club to hear ornithologist Tim Gallagher talk about his quest to confirm the survival of the ivory-billed woodpecker, which he's written about in The Grail Bird. The reception before the lecture was packed, and once we all filed into the lecture room, the audience was hooked from the moment Gallagher turned the slide projector on to reveal a gorgeous painting of an adult ivory-billed in flight. For a half hour, he guided us through the bird's 20th-century history--a depressing story of the devastation of acres of Southern bottomland forest by the logging industry and other developers, such that the last recognized sighting of the bird in the United States had been in 1944. Somebody had claimed to see one in 1999, and though there'd be no official confirmation, "I didn't want to give up the dream," Gallagher said.

So when another report came in from Arkansas in January 2004, he went out to investigate and found himself canoeing in the bayou of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge where, eventually, he and his partner saw an ivory-billed fly right in front of them. One of the final slides was of "our fifteen minutes of fame" at the Department of the Interior conference announcing their findings--where, he joked, he felt "like the Mercury astronauts from The Right Stuff" as he fielded questions from eager reporters. He probably got a twinge of that from the battery of questions the Explorers had for him that night, too; I'd guess that the club allowed for about fifteen minutes of non-stop questioning, and it easily could have gone for another fifteen. I'm a few chapters into the book--it's fast reading, but more importantly, it's fun reading. Gallagher brings a very entertaining personality and sense of adventure to his account, and I think any nonfiction fan would get a big kick out of this.

Last night was a completely different sort of lecture, as I caught up to the release party for Alison McMahan's The Films of Tim Burton. She drew a pretty good-sized audience to the second floor of the Strand, which was decorated with a slew of posters from Burton films (all of which would eventually be raffled off) and though I wasn't completely convinced by her theory about Burton as a creator of "pataphysical films," I figure that any book which places great emphasis on Mars Attacks! as the turning point in his oeuvre deserves recognition.

Actually, it's not so much that I don't think Burton made "pataphysical" movies; my point of contention was with her idea that his influence was such that the pataphysical cinema would include The Mummy and The Day After Tomorrow. While those movies do share an emphasis on the use of special effects to create visual spectacle, I'd argue that they lack the fundamental absurdist attitude that defines Burton at his most "pata." Mars Attacks! mocks apocalyptic anxiety, subverting it at every turn, while The Day After Tomorrow embraces that anxiety. If I were to list films which followed in Burton's footsteps, I'd agree with McMahan on Barry Sonnenfeld's Addams Family, but then I'd probably add Rob Minkoff's The Haunted Mansion and Gore Verbinski's Mousehunt. And maybe the 1996 version of Wind in the Willows directed by Terry Jones, but then I love that film on general principle. Hmm...that's a lot of Disney; interesting coincidence? Perhaps I should add Joe Pytka's underappreciated Space Jam to the list...

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