Mad, Bad and Dangerous?: The Scientist and the Cinema

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9781861892850: Mad, Bad and Dangerous?: The Scientist and the Cinema

From Victor Frankenstein to Dr. Moreau to Doc Brown in Back to the Future, the scientist has been a puzzling, fascinating, and threatening presence in popular culture. From films we have learned that scientists are either evil maniacal geniuses or bumbling saviors of society. Mad, Bad and Dangerous? puts this dichotomy to the test, offering a wholly engaging yet not uncritical history of the cinematic portrayal of scientists.

Christopher Frayling traces the genealogy of the scientist in film, showing how the scientist has often embodied the predominant anxieties of a particular historical moment. The fear of nuclear holocaust in the 1950s gave rise to a rash of radioactive-mutant horror movies, while the possible dangers of cloning and biotechnology in the 1990s manifested themselves in Jurassic Park. During these eras, the scientist's actions have been viewed through a lens of fascination and fear. In the past few decades, with increased public awareness of environmental issues and of the impact of technology on nature, the scientist has been transformed once again—into a villainous agent of money-hungry corporate powers. Mad, Bad and Dangerous? also examines biographical depictions of actual scientists, illuminating how they are often portrayed as social misfits willing to sacrifice everything to the interests of science.

Drawing on such classic and familiar films as Frankenstein, Metropolis, and The Wizard of Oz, Frayling brings social and film history together to paint a much larger picture of the evolving value of science and technology to society. A fascinating study of American culture and film, Mad, Bad and Dangerous? resurrects the scientists of late night movies and drive-in theaters and gives them new life as cultural talismans.

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About the Author:

Christopher Frayling is rector of the Royal College of Art, London, chairman of the Arts Council of England, and the author of Spaghetti Westerns and Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula, among others.

From Publishers Weekly:

Frayling (Vampyres), chairman of the Arts Council of England, goes beyond horror films like Frankenstein and The Island of Dr. Moreau to survey Hollywood's scientist-as-savior films of the 1930s and '40s (Madame Curie), lesser-known British "boffin" films of the '40s and '50s (The Dam Busters) and films of space exploration (1902's Voyage to the Moon). His extensive study, which occasionally sidetracks into books, comics and television, charts the evolving public perceptions of scientists. His conclusions are occasionally surprising: Rotwang in Metropolis is "the most influential scientist in the history of cinema"—a prototype who contributed the iconography of white lab coat, unruly hair and physical disability (a damaged hand); at the same time, Frayling shows how the appearance of celebrity scientists like Einstein and Stephen Hawking reinforced that imagery. An examination of students' artistic depictions of scientists will probably appeal mainly to scholars, and the overlong treatment of Wernher von Braun, whose appearances on a series of 1950s specials about space exploration, has a detectable British resentment of the German's history with the Nazis and his rehabilitation as a U.S. space program hero. But given Hollywood's abiding interest in sci-fi, this is a timely and insightful book. (Nov.)
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