Hunting for Hedonia (2019)

I am a luddite by nature, so the ethical and hypothetical questions raised in the documentary Hunting for Hedonia make me absolutely terrified of the future. That’s not exactly what I expected from the film, since so much of its subject is rooted in the past. The central topic of this documentary is research in the field of Deep Brain Stimulation – wherein the physical pleasure centers of the human brain are activated by electric pulses via surgically inserted wires. It’s a technology that was first developed in 1950s New Orleans by Dr. Robert Heath of Tulane University. Seeking to depopulate the grim mental institutions of the era that treated patients like prisoners, Heath and his team experimented with this radical technology to cure the most hopeless cases of clinical depression and put an end to the practice of lobotomy. Their success led to more exploratory applications of the tech that immediately crossed major ethical boundaries and retroactively damaged the reputation of the research among their peers. Now, modern neurosurgeons are rediscovering the benefits of DBS independently of Heath’s forgotten, discredited research and finding entirely new, complexly fucked up ways to abuse the tech – hinting at a terrifying near-future we’re somewhat helpless to avoid.

The horror and the wonder of DBS is that it really works. Patients suffering from extreme, incurable cases of suicidal depression, addiction, OCD, and Parkinson’s have had their lives saved by this experimental frontier of neuromodulation. This combination of psychology & neuroscience that engages the physical location of pleasure in the brain (Hedonia) has produced unignorable results in patents who have been failed by medication & talk therapy in the past. That doesn’t mean DBS is a perfect, foolproof science, though. Side effects in “cured” patients have included unexpected increase in rage & loss of impulse control, suggesting that these neurosurgeons are tapping into capabilities of the brain that we don’t yet fully understand. That’s where the terrifying vision of our near-future abuses of DBS come in, as excited, capitalistic interest in the re-emerging field is getting ahead of the technology’s currently limited applications. There’s money to be made in being able to alter the functions of the human brain – cosmetically, recreationally, militaristically, and so on – that raise dangerous ethical questions not yet fully ironed out by its application in the medical field, where it’s actually warranted. The scary thing is that these boundaries have already been crossed in the past, as Heath & crew contributed to nefarious DBS applications like participation in MK Ultra & gay conversion “therapy” (read: abuse) and yet no one seems to have learned from their unforgivable mistakes.

As a documentary, Hunting for Hedonia is most valuable for its ability to explain the full scope of DBS’s history in concise layman’s terms. It covers the horrific past of its abuse, the promising present of its success in the therapy field, and the terrifying future of its rapid, unavoidable escalation in a modern capitalist paradigm. Considering its detached narration from the expertly icy Tilda Swinton and its innocuous score, I don’t think the film necessarily leans into the eeriness of its subject in a flashy or deliberate way. If anything, it often plays like a well-behaved, informative BBC documentary instead of a work of art. Still, I was thoroughly creeped out by its subject’s ethical implications for our insidiously techy future, to the point where its 1950s lab footage & Rotoscope animations felt like vintage sci-fi horror from the drive-in era. That feeling of unease was only amplified by catching a screening of the film at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival, where local neurosurgeons familiar with Dr. Heath’s research were muttering to each other about what a genius he was before the lights went down. I felt like running around the theater shouting “Don’t you see what he’s done?! Stop before it’s too late! Soylent Green is people!” in protest. Then again, DBS has obviously already helped people in desperate need and my luddite skepticism of its grim implications for the future are so far hypothetical in nature. That screening felt like an ethical Litmus test, and it’s unclear to me which side of the divide failed it.

-Brandon Ledet

Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge (2017)

I’m gradually warming up to the idea that the biopic as a genre is being reinvigorated by recent formal experiments. Besides stray outliers like Ed Wood & Kinsey, I’ve never especially cared about the traditional biopic as a storytelling medium, but there have been a few recent releases that have shaken up my prejudice against the genre’s tendency for birth-to-death, Wikipedia-synopsis biography. Last year’s woefully overlooked Tom of Finland was a lyrical, playful experiment in time & tone. The oil painting-animated Loving Vincent adapted the genre to an entirely new visual medium. Straight Outta Compton was a glorious indulgence in highly stylized spectacle. Love & Mercy recalled the experimental casting of past biopic works like Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There. It’s unclear exactly where the recent French production Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge falls within this trend. Covering only the perilous five-year span between the infamous scientist’s two Nobel Prize wins, Marie Curie isn’t exactly the birth-to-death, Wikipedia-in-motion biopic cliché we’ve been trained to expect. However, it does feel line an adaptation of a singular subsection of the historical figure’s Wikipedia page: Scandals.

Opening the film with Marie Curie’s first Nobel Prize in 1903 is a convenient way of introducing the audience to the bullet points of her legacy. It’s announced up front that she’s the first woman to ever earn the prize, thanks to her discovery of & experiments with radium in tandem with her lab partner/husband. The earliest crisis in the film is in the ways this sudden fame & attention distract from the couple’s radiation research, which is essentially aimed to cure cancer. Things get much more complicated from there when the husband dies in a freak carriage accident and his absence puts the research project in peril. For the first half of the film, Marie Curie struggles to establish her right to be included & respected in a male-dominated, stubborn scientific community that sees radium research as a fad & her deceased husband as the true genius in the family. The second half of the film is concerned with a different matter entirely: Curie’s evolving love life. After proving herself worthy among her colleagues, she finds her research at risk again because of a love affair she sparks with a married man, a scandal that’s gleefully eaten up by newspaper gossip columns. The movie is unsure which Marie Curie it’s more interested in, the scientific mind or the scandalous sexual being, and feels clearly bifurcated in that uncertainty.

There’s nothing revelatory in the suggestion that sexual scandal is more inherently cinematic than scientific research, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that The Courage of Knowledge would get distracted by Marie Curie’s highly publicized adultery. Indeed, most of the fun to be had with this film is in its tabloid-friendly back half: Albert Einstein shamelessly flirting with Curie, her married lover referring to her as “my beaming radium queen,” his wife pulling a knife on her and calling her “a laboratory rat.” It’s exciting stuff. It’s also more than a little insulting to the legacy of a scientist who the movie wants you to know was the first person to earn two Nobel Prizes and still the only woman to ever do so. In a way, that exact unease is the film’s contribution to the evolution of the modern biopic. Its flowing transitions between scenes and occasional stylistic flourishes (like backwards rain) recall the art direction of a music video, but not enough to feel like any kind of unique breakthrough in form. The film is most remarkable in its willingness to avoid a traditional birth-to-death biopic narrative to instead focus on a steamy, scandalous romance that almost derailed its historical subject’s legacy.

There’s nothing wrong with an occasional trashy period piece romance and I enjoyed the movie as such. I don’t know how helpful that indulgence is in reshaping the art of the biopic, though. It’s also questionable in its level of professional respect it affords one of history’s most notable female scientists. Maybe, in this case, a more traditional Wikipedia-in-motion biography where the affair were a mere footnote would have been the more tasteful, appropriate route, but the film is still enjoyable all the same.

-Brandon Ledet