Monday, June 25, 2007

'Signal' misses target

I do so wish I could say something more positive about 'Signal', a film directed by Simon Tegala. I went with a friend to see it at the Prince Charles Cinema last week where its screening was accompanied by a lived performance of the score and, somewhat disastrously, a discussion with Dr Kevin Rigley, an immunologist who mentored Tegala.

The film, which was three years in the making but lasts just 15 minutes, is set in the British Library's iconic reading room. A cast of four female characters perform in the space -- some collecting parts of puzzles, others striding about or lying on the desks. A sparkly glimmery 'thing' appears which interacts somehow with the characters. Okay, so I didn't understand what was happening while watching the film, so I eagerly looked forward to being enlightened by the discussion. Rigley, who is badly in need of some science communication training, proceeded to give a totally baffling minilecture on how cancer cells recognise 'self' and 'non-self' which seemed to have absolutely nothing to do with what was depicted in the film.

Tegala, prompted by a question from the audience, did eventually explain which cells the 'characters' were meant to represent. The sparkly thing was the antigen or invader and the actresses were all different types of immune cells. Ideally, Rigley would have explained how these cells work in relation to the metaphor of the Reading Room as an organising system.

Tegala wanted to create a film that did not rely on a didactic explanation of the immune system to 'work' as art. I can sympathise with this -- we don't necessarily need everything spelled out for art to be a transformative experience. The problem is that the immune system already abounds with metaphors -- bioinformation, communication, the military metaphor... I was really looking forward to a new system of metaphor being introduced in the film that avoided these cliches and revealed a provocative and novel gaze. But by making our previous frames of reference irrelevant and providing no explanation for the events on screen, the audience was left baffled. It's a question of expectations: the billing promised 'a surreal exploration' -- but the surreal relies on what we know as 'normal' to make sense as a departure from the norm.

I think the film could still work if Tegala is willing to be more upfront about the symbolism. Librarians wear name badges -- it would be a huge help to know what kinds of cells the actors represent from the outset (all we get is a brief glimpse in the credits). In my opinion the musical soundtrack added little to the film. A commentary giving at least an introduction would enhance the narrative intelligibility. Rigley comes across as badly prepared and patronising ('If there's one thing I want you to understand...'). It's not too difficult to explain the rudiments of the immune system to a lay audience in relation to cells depicted in the film. He let down Tegala on the night.

The whole enterprise was clearly well intentioned and I hope it can be rescued. In its current form, though, it sadly seems somewhat pointless.


Anonymous said...

Unbelievable! Was this person at the same screeing! Knowing nothing about Immunology it was clear that the meatphors in the film addressed complex issues that would take a year in lectures to cover. Indeed, the first showing meant very little to me. Not only did I find Dr Rigley to be an excellent communicator, his contribution was very clear and interesting. It made the second showing of the film much clearer.

I am not sure who wrote this review but it smacks of envy and an intellect compromised by ego.

At the after film drinks, it was the general opinion that a very complex suject was dealt with in a novel and thought provoking fashion.

It was not a film made to help students pass a GCSE but to provoke a part of the brain that this reviewer clearly lacks.

Giskin said...

Interesting that you had such a different experience to me. Contrary to your allegations of envy, I don't have an agenda other than to promote medical humanities -- and I am a lecturer in Science Communication (and have a degree in biochemistry). The number of people leaving before the second screening seemed to back my view that most found the film incomprehensible -- indeed, the balance of chat in the foyer afterwards was decidedly uncomplimentary.

Although, of course, the film is not about 'teaching' immunology, I still think it needed to be more self reflexive about the metaphors introduced in relation to those already out there.

I've declared my afilliations and don't post anonymously: do you have any interests to declare in relation to this production?

Anonymous said...

I think both commentators are missing the point here! I enjoyed the evening immensely, and although I could not follow all of the scientific bits, I 'get' the essence of the protrayal of immunology in art form and feel that it was very cleverly done. Clearly a lot of time and effort went into the production.

Dr Rigley may have presented himself as paternalistic - but consider this: the man is not an actor; he is a respected medic and a researcher - to label him paternalistic is simply to reinforce the paternalistic nature of the medical world.

To immerse oneself in the detail and not stand back and simply marvel at the concept, is to do this delightful piece of work a disservice.

As a very wise person once said to me - if you have nothing good to say, don't say anything at all.

Anonymous said...

Indeed a most exciting project, however I believe the result was very
thin scientifically, artistically, and in bringing the two together.

Anonymous said...

I was not at 'Signal' but find the mindset of the first reviewer typical of the academic community, in particular those 'journey men' who have not quite made it. By her own admission she did not stay for the second showing which seems from the comments posted the whole point.

Jen said...

Dear Anonymous,

I have no idea about the quality of the production, but surely if your premise is "if you have nothing good to say, don't say anything at all", that should apply to your own comments?

At the very least, couldn't you restrain yourself to judgements about the quality of the production, rather than relying quite so heavily on ad hominem attacks?

Anonymous said...

Dear Jen ... where in my post am I attacking? I merely observe that the first two commentators miss the point - and the first is overly critical for the sake of being critical and elevating their own sense of understanding - which is clearly misaligned.

Anonymous said...

It would seem the art community has been dissed by a lecturer from Imp. I have looked at the bloggs and would say that if the geek did not get the cancer stuff then she should have listened more carefully to the 'there is one thing i want you to understand'. Bless, i guess some folk need to get off by slagging others

Anonymous said...

Is it any wonder that the science and art communities do not mix when a scientist (afterall she has a degree in Biochem) so fundamentally fails to grasp the inspiration of art. No doubt she would have prefered to have a booklet explaining what needs to be discovered. God help science in this country!

Giskin said...

I am bemused the vitriolic reactions to this post. I'm entitled to an opinion, like the rest of you! I did not 'attack the artistic community' -- the overwhelming majority of the postings on this blog are very positive about art/science collaborations. I just didn't feel this one 'worked'.

If the 'artistic community' feels under attack from one negative review and reacts with such hostility, goodness help critical debate in this country.

Anonymous said...

I have to say, reading thru the comments and having had the benefit of attending the film 'Signal' I am not surprised at all by the antagonistic comments posted against the first reviewer. I think she just missed the point of the evening and ended
up reating her own idea of what it should have been about and therefore decided to be critical because it did not match her self fulfilling prophesy.
SIGNAL should stand alone and not require an explanation from Dr Rigley as he himself said at the very start. Signal deals with a variety of complex concepts and it was the intention of Dr Rigley to give some idea of the complexity involved from movimng from scienific data to Tegalas interpretation.
To do this hedecided to give a flavour of the fundamental basis of immunology: Namely self non-self discrimination with a focus on cancer vaccines.
I think what happened here is that the first reviewer was scientifically out of her depth hence her mis quotation of the talk and by her own admission found it baffling.
Her use of language was negative in the extreme and whilst she complains of the vitriol aimed at her she would be well advised to look at her own vitriol written in a hugely patronising fashion. If one is to put their
head above the parapet it is advisable to be sure of the ground they stand on before offering erroneous
advice. In particular it would have been prudent to have stayed for the whole meeting rather then leaving early and bullying an audience to the sound of her voice.
Of course all works need constructive critisism but hopefully from people that are qualified to do so. I think she would be well advised to offer and apology to Tegala for her banal comments.

Anonymous said...

Wow! I guess this debate is a little stoked up. I Read the comments with amusement.

The error for the first poster is not in the critique or for holding a different view to others, it is in the way in which it has been done. Far better to have stayed for the second screening and had a healthy and open critical debate at the event rather than snipe at something she clearly did not understand in this forum. Had she done that, both Tegala and Rigley would have had an opportunity both to explain more fully or rebutt her interpretation. Something that they are unable in this forum to do - as I doubt very much they would become embroiled in such an 'anonymous' debate.

The second error was to make a sweeping assertion that because some people left before the second screening it therefore meant that they too were baffled and disappointed. Where is the 'scientific evidence' to support that hypothesis? Perhaps they understood the film sufficiently the first time - or perhaps they just did not want to sit through the same film twice.

It is bemusing that the poster would accuse Rigley of paternalism - is it not paternalistic to assume you know what others think without asking them?

It would be a shame indeed if this innovative project is remembered by some only for the blog-war that seems to have ensued.

Lauren said...

I was really excited about the screening of Singnal, being a cinema loving arts graduate now studying medicine at QMUL, though overall I found the flyer more promising then the event itself.
Even with a basic understanding of immunology and the cells and processes eluded to in the film, the metaphorical messages seemed to escape me, both before and after Dr Rigley's talk - which, having been lectured on this topic at a similar level as a novice medic, I found fairly incomprehensible by comparison. For these reasons I can quite understand the initial critique of Signal.
However, all this said, I really did like the look and the feel of the film and found the idea behind it an inspiration.

Anonymous said...

This seems to be getting out of all proportion. In the words of Elbert Hubbard, "The man who is anybody and who does anything is surely going to be criticized, vilified, and misunderstood. This is part of the penalty for greatness, and evey man understands, too, that it is no proof of greatness."

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

I though it was brilliant, the doc was inspirational , and anyone who doesn't agree with me is a dobber.