Courage in the Face of Despair

 

When all seems lost, we’re left with little to hold onto. Whether we’re faced with dilemmas in romance, finances, vocation or health, we can easily become despondent when the problems appear overwhelming with no way out. At times like this, we have to grasp for anything that will help anchor us in the face of such despair, as seen in the new Norwegian domestic drama, “Hope” (“Håp”) (web site, trailer).

The holidays are supposed to be a time of hope, joy, and fellowship with family and friends. And most of us look to that time of year to see those aspirations fulfilled. However, when an unexpected crisis intrudes, it can send shockwaves through the celebration, affecting all involved. So it is for the blended family of long-time partners Anja (Andrea Bræin Hovig) and Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård).

When Anja begins having recurring headaches and vision problems, she visits her doctor (Kristin Voss Hestvold), who orders tests that, regrettably, come with a devastating diagnosis. From all indications, Anja appears to have developed a malignant, incurable brain tumor, one that metastasized from the lung cancer she was treated for (and thought cured) a year earlier. And, given her physician’s preliminary prognosis, she has little time left – not the kind of news one wants to receive at any time, but especially during the Christmas season.

Despite having been together for many years, long-estranged couple Anja (Andrea Bræin Hovig, left) and Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård, right) are drawn together to face a dramatic health crisis in writer-director Maria Sødahl’s latest, “Hope” (“Håp”). Photo by Manuel Claro, courtesy of KimStim.

Needless to say, Anja is distraught, as is Tomas, but not necessarily for the reasons one might think. Even though the couple has been together for many years and are bonded as the biological parents of three of the blended family’s six children (Elli Rhiannon Müller Osbourne, Daniel Storm Forthun Sandbye, Alfred Vatne Brean), a pronounced distance has been opening up between them for quite a long time. As a talented choreographer, Anja has established a noteworthy reputation for herself, having recently put on her first international production in Amsterdam. Tomas, meanwhile, has built a notable track record as a theatrical producer, with works staged all over Europe, a slate of projects that has kept him on the road and away from his native Oslo much of the time. Their careers have thus come first, leading to a marked detachment between them.

Given this growing separation between them, Anja can’t help but wonder how that will figure into the new crisis they now face. Will Tomas be there for her? What’s more, considering how things have been going, does she even want him there for her if his heart’s not in it? The last thing she wants to deal with is some semblance of forced, guilt-driven pity on his part.

Tomas, by contrast, realizes that he hasn’t always been as supportive as he could have been, letting work take precedence over his relationship. But now, as an awareness of what he’s about to lose sets in, he begins to feel a sense of regret, both for his failings as a devoted partner and for past infidelities. He thus sees this development as an opportunity to try and make up for oversights – that is, if she’ll let him. That’s perhaps most challenging when he suggests that they take the one step that they’ve been putting off during their time together – getting married.

Perhaps Anja’s biggest concern is how to broach the news of her illness with the family, especially during what is supposed to be the most festive time of the year. She wrestles with how to address the subject, torn between shielding the children’s feelings and being able to unburden herself of a secret that she has increasing difficulty containing. And, as much as she would rather not admit it, she also struggles with guilt over the varying degree of concern she holds for her own children compared to her three stepchildren from Tomas’s former marriage (Steinar Klouman Hallert, Eirik Hallert, Dina Enoksen Elvehaug). She clearly has a preference for comforting her own offspring, despite the undeniable care she feels for the others. How can she be expected to resolve circumstances like this with so much else that’s going on?

Having just received a terminal cancer diagnosis, middle-aged mother Anja (Andrea Bræin Hovig, center) tries to keep a happy face on a family holiday celebration in the new domestic drama, “Hope” (“Håp”), available for online streaming. Photo by Manuel Claro, courtesy of KimStim.

And then there’s her declining health, something she obviously can’t escape. She struggles with the side effects of her new medication (most notably insomnia and intense nervousness), her growing anxiety about the severity of her condition as the reality sinks in, and the inconsistent treatment she receives from a bureaucratic health care system that subjects her to ever more tests and sometimes leaves her in limbo as she awaits word on what comes next. This, combined with all of the other challenges she’s facing, leave her with a plate full of worry and uncertainty at a time when it’s unclear how much time she has left and what that time will be like. Under conditions like this, it’s hard to have any hope, but sometimes that’s all we’ve got.

Situations such as this are often characterized as being those where everyone involved hopes for the best but prepares for the worst. That can be a rather tall order to satisfy, given the disparate nature of the possible outcomes that could result. Accommodating such extremes calls for thinking outside the box, given that what could eventually happen goes beyond the range of expectations typically associated with most health-related matters. Indeed, extreme outcomes call for extreme measures to deal with them.

Devising the means for addressing these circumstances requires us to conceive such measures using all of the wherewithal at our disposal. But bringing them into being calls for more than just designing what we need; it also necessitates believing in the ability to do so. That’s where thinking outside the box comes into play in this scenario. It applies to everyone involved, too – the doctors providing care, Tomas as a compassionate and sincere caregiver, Anja as the patient seeking the means for healing her circumstances, and Anja’s family and friends as providers of loving support. What’s more, all of the potential survivors in this situation must prepare for what might happen if Anja should succumb to her illness, as the nature of their lives would be radically shifted in her absence. It would seem everyone has his or her work cut out for them.

This health care crisis is further complicated by the ancillary circumstances associated with it, namely, the emotional meltdown going on between Anja and Tomas. While that situation has been unfolding for some time, its severity has certainly been exacerbated by this latest development. The timetable for the couple achieving closure has suddenly drastically shrunk, and, if they hope to reach resolution, they’ll need to move fast – and at a time when their plates have suddenly been loaded up with much more than they’ve previously had to contend with. What’s more, the weight of emotions involved in this has also swelled dramatically in light of the magnitude of the circumstances now prevailing. In many ways, Anja and Tomas are being asked to multi-task their efforts at coming up with solutions for dealing with all of the various conditions they now face. Their work is about to go into overdrive.

At a loving but tense family meeting, terminal cancer patient Anja (Andrea Bræin Hovig, center) breaks the distressing news to her three children and three stepchildren in “Hope” (“Håp”). Photo by Manuel Claro, courtesy of KimStim.

To their benefit, Anja and Tomas have ample support available to them. This truly is a collaborative endeavor, with each participant playing a vital role. By focusing their attention on their respective obligations in this scenario, they have a greater chance of bringing into being what’s required to make this situation work out for the best. For example, the team of doctors (Per Gørvell, Hala Dakhil, Jacob Berg Thomassen) can play their part by devising the most efficacious treatment plan for their patient. Anja can best help her cause by focusing on healing, in all its forms, a lead that Tomas should follow, too. And the couple’s children, as well as good friends like Vera (Gjertrud L. Jynge), Arthur (Alexander Mørk Eidem) and Frans (Johannes Joner), can most effectively aid Anja by sending her warm, supportive vibes for her recovery. In collaborations like this, individuals might not always believe they’re making meaningful contributions, because their input might seem small and insignificant. However, when all of that input is combined, it creates a powerful force, one capable of working wonders greater than any of them can fathom by themselves. And that’s what fuels hope.

Still, even when armed with an optimistic outlook, the parties involved in a scenario like this must maintain a realistic perspective as well. Even if one is able to “fix” a dire situation, there’s no guarantee that the solution will be permanent. Of course, even if the repair is only fleeting, that’s still something to be proud of. Successes may flicker out of existence as quickly as the glimmer of a firefly, but they nevertheless embody the brilliance of creating wonder, even if only temporarily. It’s in those momentary instances when we see the power of manifestation revealed, and that’s something we should never lose sight of. The point of power is in the present moment, and we must remember that, whether we’re seeking to create something as simple as an evening meal or as grand as a cure for a terminal illness. And that, too, should give us hope that what we seek can indeed be made possible, no matter how enduring or transitory it might be.

Despite many trying years together, Anja (Andrea Bræin Hovig, left) and Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård, right) try to determine what kind of future they might have together under highly uncertain circumstances in the engaging new drama, “Hope” (“Håp”). Photo by Agnete Brun, courtesy of KimStim.

A crisis can change a relationship overnight, as is the case for the couple depicted here. The ordeal offers them an opportunity for reconciliation and redemption, but, most of all, it affords the possibility for the rebirth of much-needed hope. In this case, it’s a difficult process, full of revelations, the surfacing of brutal honesty and the rekindling of romantic feelings that have long been sidelined by other priorities, but it somehow finds a way. Norwegian writer-director Maria Sødahl’s third feature explores what this couple undergoes when faced with such trying circumstances, a story effectively brought to life by the film’s insightful screenplay and the fine performances of Hovig and Skarsgård. While the picture can be a heartbreaking watch, it also illustrates that, when there’s life, there’s hope, a sentiment aptly and succinctly reflected in this offering’s simple but appropriate title. The film is available in limited theatrical screenings and for streaming online.

Nothing lasts forever. Or, as the Buddhists might put it, there is impermanence in everything. But, for every moment of existence, there is an inherent viability in what manifests in that point of power, one marked by an intrinsic beauty of its own. It can occur at any time, too, even when the likelihood of successful materialization seems less probable. However, as long as hope remains, coupled with the faith we place in it, there’s no telling what might arise. And the possibility of that is worth pinning that hope on – especially when one considers the alternative.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Movies for May!

With theaters now open in most areas and streaming services working overtime, movie fans now have more viewing options – and viewing venues – than they have had in a while. Find out more this Thursday, May 27, on the latest edition of The Good Media Network’s Frankiesense & More video podcast with yours truly and special guest host Danielle Findlay. Tune in at 1 pm ET on Facebook Live for a lively discussion of new releases worth seeing. And, if you don’t see the broadcast live, catch it later on demand!

Facing Our Personal Truths

 

Blissful ignorance may pacify us when the truth seems to be too painful to face. But is it a suitable solution for the long term? When we see what we’re missing out on, can we realistically keep up a front pretending that what’s absent from our lives isn’t all that important? So it is for a sexually confused young man as he struggles to find himself and grow comfortable with his true nature in the rapid-fire role-switching comedy, “Straight Up” (web site, trailer).

Todd (James Sweeney) is having some troubles sorting out his life. The twenty-something Angelino computer coder and house sitter is pervasively dissatisfied with his circumstances, and he’s not exactly sure what to do about it. The loquacious, fast-talking, persnickety, hyperactive critic of virtually every aspect of daily living is beset by a host of OCD-driven neuroses that constantly leave him feeling unsettled, unsure of himself and unclear about what his future holds. And, to top it all off, he’s quite obviously gay, something that troubles him deeply, his relentless OCD tics having caused him to become uncomfortable with many aspects of the gay male lifestyle, from its cultural trappings to the mechanics of its sexual components.

To address these issues, Todd regularly sees a counselor, Dr. Larson (Tracie Thoms), to help him sort out these matters, with somewhat mixed results. He also occasionally socializes with his friends Jerry (Brendan Scannell) and Meg (Dana Drori), his only close companions, who often serve as confidantes and sounding boards for his troubles. Once in a while he also begrudgingly visits his wealthy, somewhat eccentric, highly opinionated parents, Topanga (Betsy Brandt) and Wallace (Randall Park), who generously foot the bill for his therapy sessions. Beyond that, however, Todd is a loner who seems most comfortable when in his own company, despite the fact that loneliness nearly always sets in if he adheres to that routine too rigorously.

The unlikely relationship between a single woman, Rory (Katie Findlay, right), and a gay man who suspects he might be a latent heterosexual, Todd (James Sweeney, left), leads to interesting developments in the role-switching comedy, “Straight Up.” Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing.

While visiting with Jerry and Meg over coffee one day, Todd makes an important announcement. After having given his circumstances much thought, and considering his ongoing hesitancy to embrace the gay lifestyle, he proposes the notion that perhaps his rampant discomfort is driven by the fact that he’s really a latent heterosexual at heart. Jerry, who is himself gay, and Meg, who has a bevy of gay male friends, are more than a little skeptical. They want to be supportive of their friend, but they politely scoff at this idea, trying to convince Todd that he’s deluding himself and that he should discuss his idle speculation with Dr. Larson. But Todd counters that, since he’s never dabbled in the courting rituals of the straight world, maybe he has yet to discover something about himself that he’s never had the opportunity to explore. And, with that realization (or is it rationalization?), he decides to give heterosexuality a whirl to see where it takes him.

Todd soon takes his first tentative steps toward this goal by paying a visit to a dance club frequented by single women, an adventure that doesn’t go well, especially when they introduce him to their gay male friends. And, when he does meet women who are interested in him, the experiences don’t turn out as hoped for; in fact, they only serve to reinforce some of his neuroses about the mechanics of sex, driving him even further away from pursuing episodes of intimacy.

Not long thereafter, however, circumstances take a dramatic turn. Through a chance encounter in a library, Todd meets Rory (Katie Findlay), an aspiring actress who’s having little success advancing her career and is forced into taking unsatisfying jobs just to keep a roof over her head. This lack of success is driven in large part by her quirky persona, one that turns off directors during auditions and casting calls (not to mention those employers who hire her for those stop-gap money-making gigs). And, as a Tinsel Town transplant who has few friends and almost no regular professional colleagues, she’s by herself a lot.

Moments of awkward discomfort aren’t uncommon for aspiring actress Rory (Katie Findlay, left) and “latent heterosexual” Todd (James Sweeney, right) in the quirky comedy, “Straight Up,” available for online streaming. Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing.

That changes when Rory meets Todd. In many regards, the eccentricities that characterize Rory’s personality, but that also tend to isolate her, are carbon copies of Todd’s traits. They begin incessantly chattering away with one another almost from the moment they meet, completing one another’s sentences and seamlessly conversing about an array of obscure, esoteric and intellectual topics. In short, they’re a perfect match for one another, even when it comes to their preference for companionship over sexual interaction.

Before long, Todd and Rory are an item, even if they bring new meaning to the notion of “odd couple.” Needless to say, this development baffles Jerry, Meg and Dr. Larson while delighting Topanga and Wallace. They move in together and appear blissfully happy – or is it blissfully ignorant?

As time passes and Todd and Rory begin to talk themselves out, the growth of their relationship begins to stall. Their attempts at exploring new horizons, such as the once-avoided sexual components, don’t go well, either. And, when situations arise where the true nature of Todd’s sexual orientation get put to the test, they cause stress for both partners. Quarrels ensue, and Rory begins questioning their future. Are they indeed a couple or just two people playing house? Is there enough to maintain this connection going forward, or will Todd and Rory have to address some difficult decisions and adjustments? What’s more, if changes become necessary, what would that do to each of them as individuals? Much is at stake, and it’s unclear how that will play out or what the consequences will be.

Todd (James Sweeney, left), a single twenty-something unsure of his sexuality, has his orientation put to the test when confronted by his gay friend, Jerry (Brendan Scannell, right), in “Straight Up.” Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing.

Facing the truth is sometimes difficult. We may not like what we see, and we might go out of our way to dodge it, perhaps even devising elaborate justifications for such avoidance. In the short term, these rationalizations might even work. But, over time, stifling the truth often grows considerably more difficult, its containment proving to be increasingly problematic as it seeks to escape. That’s particularly true when matters of a highly personal nature, like sexuality, are involved. They simply hit too close to home to be ignored.

So why does this occur? It has to do with the strength of the underlying beliefs driving such considerations. Those beliefs struggle to find expression, because they reflect the nature of our true selves, and, eventually, they almost always will. The power of these resources is so significant that they seek to surface no matter what stands in their way, even less formidable notions – those that are rationalized into being but don’t inherently ring true.

Such are the circumstances that Todd finds himself up against. Despite his reservations about some of the particulars of the gay male lifestyle, it’s still quite a stretch to believe that he can truthfully think of himself as a latent heterosexual. Some justifications just don’t hold water, and this one is quite a glaring example. Even though he may have convinced himself that this is indeed his story, the intents required for manifesting such an outcome just don’t have sufficient weight behind them to make that outcome stick. And, deep down, he knows that, too.

A similar argument can be made where Rory is concerned. Even though she may have convinced herself that a relationship with Todd would ultimately be satisfying, she’s put on blinders to what she truly wants. A partnership based on witty repartee and intellectual discourse may be satisfying for a while, but it can only go so far. Sooner or later the truth will kick in (often in the form of unleashed pent-up hormones), but, no matter what form it takes, it will eventually emerge, and there’s no holding it back.

In both of the foregoing cases, the need to satisfy the expression of one’s personal integrity is what’s at stake. This is a measure of our true, inner selves, and it seeks reflection in our existence. Trying to prevent this ultimately proves to be an almost impossible task; in fact, if pushed too hard, such intentional squelching can have devastating effects. Is this really what any of us wants for our lives?

The world gets turned upside-down for a pair of quirky Angelinos, Rory (Katie Findlay, left) and Todd (James Sweeney, right), when they experiment with an alternate form of dating in writer-actor-director James Sweeney’s second feature, “Straight Up.” Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing.

Experimenting with alternative lifestyles, as Todd and Rory do, could be considered admirable in some regards. But, when we can see that such experiments aren’t working, it’s time to abandon them in favor of what really needs to surface. To be sure, the truth can be painful, and the emergence of certain aspects of it can be difficult to deal with. However, when we consider the benefits that are being held back, is it worth constraining them for whatever drawbacks might accompany them? As many find out after the fact, the perceived hindrances are frequently disproportionately overblown in our minds, giving us pause to consider why we hesitated in letting the truth come forth in the first place.

Allowing self-delusion to persist carries a cost, given that our existence consists of outcomes distorted from what was intended. That’s evident in what happens when we assume that our rationalizations will materialize as hoped for. The pain of these unintended side effects is often worse than what can happen when we allow the discomfort of what was holding us back to manifest. And sometimes the effects aren’t limited just to us; it might well have an impact on others. In those cases, we have to ask ourselves, is that really fair? The irresponsibility associated with that – even if not overtly intended – is palpable nevertheless, and sometimes making up for it can be difficult if not impossible.

Still, all need not be lost, either, if we act in all earnestness. Redemption and forgiveness are possible. The trick is to know when to shift our intents, doing so in time and contrition, to evoke the necessary changes to move forward. Can it be achieved? It depends on our willingness to act accordingly and to see brought into being what should have happened in the first place.

Living our lives as we were meant to is sometimes challenging in unusual ways. Such is the premise of writer-actor-director James Sweeney’s hilarious role-switching farce. Even though the film was released about a year ago, it recently garnered attention as an Independent Spirit Award nominee for best first screenplay, and it’s an excellent viewing option for the upcoming Gay Pride month. This modern-day throwback to the rapid-fire screwball comedies of the past is a refreshing change from many of the other contenders that try but fail to lay claim to this storied cinematic tradition. While it’s a little hard to fathom that any real life individuals could flawlessly deliver unrehearsed, content-rich, machine gun-paced lines with the ease that these protagonists do, their dialogue is nevertheless smartly peppered with witty, side-splitting observations (as well as a few one-liners that don’t quite stick their landings), making for generally good fun under highly unexpected circumstances. The pacing moves so quickly that viewers may be left a little exhausted by film’s end, but, in light of the funny yet thoughtful message this release serves up about being oneself, that’s easily overlooked. This one will definitely tickle the funny bone in big ways more than a few times. The film is available for streaming online.

Sensitive viewers should be cautioned, however, that “Straight Up” may not be for you. The language is often quite explicit, especially when it comes to matters of a sexual nature. Some may also find that the characterizations are somewhat stereotyped at times. In light of that, this could be an offering on which you might want to take a pass. However, if taken in the light of what this film is seeking to say, you might wish to give it a look in the spirit of its message.

Stepping forward to accept ourselves when we know there are challenges to be overcome may not be the easiest course to follow. However, when we realistically assess the pros and cons, we might well discover that we’ve overestimated some aspects and underestimated others, and that evaluation may prompt us to pursue a different path., one better suited our needs, our lives, our futures and the fulfillment of our personal truths. No lie. Straight up.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Probing the Brain, Consciousness and Reality 

Unlocking the mystery of existence is an exacting, enigmatic, and, at times, exasperating study that often leaves us with more questions than answers (especially when any answers we find lead to more questions). Many of us don’t even know where to begin our investigations, either, though, over time, we’ve come to find that our brains and/or consciousness generally provide good starting points. But, even if we make any progress in these areas, we usually discover that the process is bigger and more complicated than we ever imagined, as a visionary scientist and his team of associates found out for themselves in the captivating new documentary, “In Silico” (web site, trailer).

The brain is a truly remarkable phenomenon of nature. But how much do we really know about how it was created and how it functions? We’ve been able to identify which areas of the brain deal with particular kinds of bodily and consciousness functions, but what sparks this extraordinary organ into action, creating the various manifestations that result? And how did it come into being in the first place?

Filmmaker Noah Hutton, a longtime student of neuroscience, always wondered about these questions and wanted to make a movie about the subject. He eventually found his inspiration after seeing a TED Talk in 2009 given by visionary Israeli scientist Dr. Henry Markram of the Swiss research institute l’École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). After years of investigating brain architecture, Markram’s studies took a drastic turn, addressing questions of how and why the brain works as it does. In particular, he was curious about why the behavior exhibited by his young autistic son, Kai, differed so markedly from those unafflicted by that condition. What was causing his brain to operate so differently from everyone else? Indeed, what triggers in Kai’s head were prompting his neurons to fire in ways unlike the rest of us?

As Markram pondered these questions, he wasn’t necessarily looking for a cure for autism but for an understanding of the way that brain comes up with its signals and how they are then transmitted to produce the various behaviors that they’re intended to yield. To grasp this, Markram believed he could uncover the answers by constructing a computer model that would mimic the functioning of a brain, providing insight into how specific behaviors resulted from various kinds of triggering inputs. He would begin by creating a simulation of a rodent’s brain as a stepping stone to doing the same later for more advanced animals, like man. This represented quite an audacious undertaking, but Markram was convinced he could achieve his primary objective in 10 years. And that’s when an impressionable and fascinated Hutton signed on to document the progress of the project.

Like glass patterns in a kaleidoscope, vibrant and colorful computer-generated simulations of brain neurons are helping researchers build a model of what makes this remarkable organ such a miracle of nature as explored in the captivating new documentary, “In Silico.” Photo courtesy of Sandbox Films.

Studying brain function from this standpoint was largely uncharted territory. Traditionally, neuroscience had been considered a purely biological undertaking using one of two available investigatory methodologies: in vivo studies, in which nerve cells in living beings were examined (an unacceptable option where human brains were concerned), or in vitro studies, wherein cells were cultured and researched on petri dishes (an inadequate approach for these purposes). Given what Markram was hoping to achieve, he needed a new approach to neuroscientific research, one that examined the principles of biology in a computerized environment, a technique that would come to be known as in silico.

Launching an endeavor like this called for the establishment of a significant infrastructure of its own, both in terms of funding and staffing. Working through the Brain and Mind Institute, an organization founded by Markram at the EPFL, the researcher went on to establish a new investigatory body, the Blue Brain Project, which introduced the digital element of this initiative. (“Blue” in the project’s name refers to “Big Blue” – IBM – the company that created the computer equipment for the venture, much of it based on “Deep Blue,” the supercomputer that took on Russian chess master Garry Kasparov in a match in 1997.) Generous funding was provided by the Swiss government, and a team of collaborators in areas ranging from biology to computer science to ethics was assembled.

In 2013, after several years of work, it became apparent that this initiative was going to be a bigger project than originally thought. To secure additional financial resources, Markram and his team submitted a bid for a €1.3 billion flagship research grant from the European Union. Although considered something of a long shot to win this prestigious endowment, Markram’s new venture – the Human Brain Project (HBP) – was named one of two winners from a pool of six applicants vying for funding. Markram’s compelling case, coupled with a growing interest in brain research studies around the globe at the time, helped secure the award for HBP.

However, even with such generous backing and apparent validation, the study soon came under criticism. Skeptics questioned the viability of the project, a process that was already under way before the awarding of the grant but that gained steam afterward. For example, considering how many different ways that humans behave, would it indeed be possible to identify the brain waves responsible for triggering each of them? Given the breadth of human consciousness and the myriad permutations of its expression, attempting to categorize such a broad range of behaviors based on brain wave functions, they contended, was akin to trying to quantify infinity. Skeptics also questioned what they saw as an unrealistic timetable. Even though the 10-year timeline was reset with the awarding of the 2013 grant, attaining the sought-after goal by 2023, they claimed, seemed woefully inadequate.

Discovering the construction and functioning of neurons is the objective of the Human Brain Project and the Blue Brain Project as depicted in director Noah Hutton’s new documentary, “In Silico,” a film 10 years in the making. Photo courtesy of Sandbox Films.

Before long, even those who had initially enthusiastically supported Markram’s proposal were beginning to pull back, primarily because of this emerging criticism. One of the most vocal skeptics was neuroscientist Zachary Mainen of the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon, Portugal, who contended that Markram was attempting to build a composite working model from individual components whose specific functioning wasn’t completely understood, analogizing the process to assembling a watch from parts that might ultimately resemble a time piece but that would be incapable of telling time. Adding to this, former MIT multi-disciplinary scientist Sebastian Seung speculated that, even if computer-generated brain waves could be created, how could anyone tell if these simulations were right or wrong for what they were supposedly intended to achieve? Could brain waves thought to be associated with the creation of a painting actually result in a finished portrait, or would they manifest something wholly divergent?

Such criticisms put quite a damper on the project. Markram chalked up the disparagements to neuroscientific traditionalists not fully appreciating the value of this new approach to brain research. He was also upset that Hutton had spoken with the critics. And, as time passed, he came under increasing pressure to make concessions on how HBP would proceed, requests that he resisted. As a result, Markram began to be viewed as inflexible, holding fast to aspirations that couldn’t possibly be attained but that he would not let go of. He continued to champion his cause publicly, even beginning work on his own film about the project. As claimed by another of his critics, Christof Koch, president of the Seattle-based Allen Institute for Brain Science, Markram “has two personalities. One is a fantastic, sober scientist…the other is a PR-minded messiah.”

These issues culminated in the publication of an open letter signed by 800 neuroscientists globally, calling for a restructuring of the project. By 2016, Markram had been removed as leader of the initiative he created, and priorities were rearranged. He continued to claim that his goal was achievable, even though he was taken less seriously than before.

As for Hutton, he admits to being torn about how matters ultimately played out. After all, he had just invested 10 years of his life to the making of this documentary. Part of him was still enthralled by the wide-eyed idealism that launched this film project, yet another part had become weighed down by the contentions of the critics (credible though they may have been), a splash of cold water on the enthusiasm he once so heartily embraced. He thus had to reconcile that youthful fervor with the setting in of a discouraging but undeniable reality.

One might find it disillusioning that something so noble and ambitious as this project could get derailed by considerations as comparatively mundane as management and money. However, anything that hypothetically seeks tangible manifestation must contend with the practical matters associated with such implementation. So it was here. But that’s not to say this is the end of it, either. Given the conceptions that the human brain has been able to devise, there’s no telling what else it might accomplish down the road. Sometimes all it takes is asking the right questions or putting forth the right notions to get the ball rolling toward such an eventuality. And, for what it’s worth, Henry Markram may have done just that, even if the current state of the logistics needed to accomplish that haven’t yet evolved to the requisite state.

The beauty and wonder of neurons is surpassed only by the beauty and wonder of the organ of which they’re a part, the human brain, as seen in “In Silico,” now available for online streaming. Photo courtesy of Sandbox Films.

When we embark on a new endeavor, we often start out with boundless enthusiasm and a cheerful bravado. That’s especially true when we launch into new ventures that hold the promise and potential of breaking new ground, leading to revelatory discoveries and exciting, never-before-imagined prospects. But, many times, once we start digging into the nitty gritty aspects of such undertakings, we often run into snags, particularly unanticipated obstacles that slow the process and sidetrack us from our principal objective. We might well become dismayed at having to set aside our primary efforts to address seemingly ordinary considerations. We may be frustrated at having to invest time, energy and other resources on matters we view as trivial or distracting, despite their necessity to the project. And, if we’re not careful, we could become ensnared by these issues, stalling much, if not all, of our forward progress, perhaps even causing us to lose sight of our original goal and becoming distressingly discouraged. Such is what Henry Markram came up against the further he got into his project.

So what’s to be done? That’s not an easy question to answer. Perhaps the best solution is to try to accommodate such considerations up front, at the start of a new undertaking. However, it can be difficult, perhaps even deflating, if we dilute our enthusiasm and divert it into comparatively menial concerns. Who would want to dampen one’s visionary zeal by having to devote time to pondering trivial matters like the fine points of logistical planning, administrative oversight or financial management when potentially exciting, groundbreaking developments await?

Nevertheless, as anyone who has ever undertaken an endeavor like this knows, the devil truly is in the details, and they can’t be ignored, no matter how much we might like to. Which, once again, reminds us of the importance of trying to accommodate such considerations as much as possible from the outset. This can best be accomplished by envisioning what we hope to achieve, preferably in detail, and then formulating intents on how we might accomplish it.

Ironically, the launch of Markram’s venture in many ways mirrors the foundation of this process. He sought to understand how the mechanics of the brain lead to what emerges in our existence (be it our behavior, the products of our vocations and so forth) and then to construct a computer model to simulate the workings of that process. At its core, this project was aimed at advancing our knowledge and understanding of how the ideas that appear in our heads arise in our existence as tangible materializations, perhaps giving us new perspectives on how reality works and a new appreciation of the role of consciousness in the unfolding of this process.

The foregoing illustrates the audacity of Markram’s vision. But, considering how events played out, the boldness of that undertaking was at least partially undercut by the challenges associated with more pedestrian issues. This naturally raises the question, why did this happen?

Dr. Henry Markram, founder of the Human Brain Project, has faced a rollercoaster ride of discoveries and setbacks in his attempt to create a computer-generated model of the brain in director Noah Hutton’s new documentary, “In Silico.” Photo courtesy of Sandbox Films.

Definitive answers on this point may well be elusive. However, in all likelihood, the focus on the project’s primary goal was so strong that the other considerations weren’t factored in as thoroughly as they likely needed to be. In all fairness, it’s unclear whether this was the case. But, from a speculative standpoint, while the project was apparently driven principally by the project’s scientific elements, the other aspects were ultimately just as important, because they supported its unfolding.

Fully formulating the intent mix in any manifestation is crucial to its successful realization. It involves making allowances for all of the factors involved in a fleshed out materialization, including elements that may seem unrelated to its fulfillment. The visibility and presence of these aspects may not be obvious, but, like the framing of a house or the infrastructure of a community, these elements are important parts of the project, providing the necessary foundation to support its existence. Thus it’s critical to consider the interconnection of these components, and the intents that bring them into being, to see how they make up the complete whole.

The criticisms that emerged in the wake of this project’s unfolding illustrated some of the venture’s “underdeveloped” aspects. This occurred not only in the logistical matters, but also in some of the project’s technical considerations. For example, the notion that it might be possible to identify all of the conceivable brain wave patterns responsible for all forms of behavior, creation and other brain-driven activities seems somewhat implausible in light of the breadth of the field of permutations involved and the proposed timetable. Perhaps the research team should have considered pursuing a more modest, more manageable goal instead, one that might have engendered wider support. That, in turn, might have fostered more amenable acceptance in other areas related to the project’s backing and objectives.

As the film observes, the brain is a complex organ that’s not always well understood, and its functioning – particularly how it interfaces with something as intangible as consciousness – is even more enigmatic. And trying to understand the entire range of its operation is nearly impossible given our current level of knowledge. So, if we’re trying to determine how we can get a better handle on this, Hutton suggests, perhaps we should draw from our experiences in studying other elements of human anatomy, such as the heart. He notes that, as our cardiac investigations advanced, we came to amass quite an understanding of the organ’s functioning. With that information in hand, researchers were thus able to identify which qualities were most sought after in the promotion of a healthy, efficiently functioning heart, traits that are integral to the principles underlying modern cardiac care. Hutton says that, if we could comparably narrow the focus for the brain, we might be able to get a better handle on the organ’s functioning and management – or at least a start on that process.

Still, there’s no guarantee that such scaled-back or derivative proposals would work. As Hutton observes at several points in the film, there have been many instances in planetary biological evolution where advances have occurred as a result of “happy accidents,” incidents where unexpected and/or unlikely events have transpired that brought about miraculous new developments, including, apparently, in the structure and operation of the human brain. One might legitimately ask how such seemingly “random” occurrences could produce such results. Perhaps our knowledge and awareness have not advanced to the point where we can understand or appreciate how such phenomena unfold, but that doesn’t mean they can’t evolve further at some point, either. Maybe, if we attempt to intentionally expand our cognition in these areas, the answers will be revealed, and the aforementioned developments won’t be seen as accidents at all.

In reaching that point, though, the process has to start someplace. By opening the door to new possibilities, we have an opportunity to advance our knowledge and understanding, perhaps even to the point where we unlock the mysteries of those happy accidents. Markram’s project could be one of those openings. Even if he didn’t or hasn’t come up with the definitive answers he sought when he launched his venture, that doesn’t mean the endeavor is without merit. He might very well have helped pave an avenue of exploration for subsequent researchers who will eventually come up with workable solutions and meaningful answers. BBP and HBP could be the baby steps that lead us to profound depths of knowledge about the brain and consciousness that aren’t currently known or understood. Should those developments arise, not only will it silence the critics, but it will benefit us all with a greater awareness about our world, ourselves and how our reality comes into being. That’s quite a prospect, even if we can’t or aren’t yet ready to see it.

What we expect to find may not always end up being what we ultimately do find, and so it is with this eminently engaging documentary. What seemingly starts out as a chronicle of mindful scientific exploration takes an unexpected turn as it delves into an analysis of the behind-the-scenes workings of that discourse. Nevertheless, despite such “detours,” the film always comes back to the science that inspired it, presenting an array of highly technical topics in an easily relatable way. At the same time, though, director Hutton’s offering also paints a candid portrait of the highly competitive (and sometimes less than civil) world of bidding for research funding. In addition, the film examines “the big questions” of whether the study of these issues rightfully falls within the scope of science or philosophy (or some combination of the two) and whether such ethereally tricky conundrums can even be quantified or properly evaluated given our current level of knowledge and understanding. Hutton, Markram and other commentators give us all much to think about, and they do so in plainspoken terms, bringing the relevance of these sophisticated scientific subjects down to an everyday level and not letting them linger in the realm of abstract, inaccessible theoretical speculation. The result is an impressive cinematic work, one befitting this ambitious decade-long film project. “In Silico” is available for streaming online through the film’s web site.

While it may be tempting to want to know how all of the foregoing works, perhaps we’re not ready for it yet, which is why the mysteries remain hidden. That’s not to say we won’t be prepared for the answers at some point; with every new discovery, we learn a new piece of the puzzle, ever increasing our understanding and moving us closer to a deeper awareness. Until then, we should enjoy the journey that’s taking us there, relishing the wonders of the brain, consciousness and reality as they are revealed to us. And, for the time being, that gives us plenty to marvel at, showing us just how captivating and fulfilling the study and appreciation of existence can be.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Copyright © 2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.