Gathering The Past In 'Obselidia'

In this film by writer and director Diane Bell, a movie projectionist and a librarian documenting the obsolete grapple with themes of love and extinction in the shadow of climate change. Bell previews her film, which won the Alfred P. Sloan award at this year's Sundance.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. Later in the hour we'll be talking about the Hubble Space Telescope. But first, dust off that old VCR, pull out that Polaroid camera - for a look at obsolescence and how the things that we once valued eventually go the way of the dinosaur.

Maybe it was your first record player or the typewriter you typed your term papers on still got one of those. Where are those things now, in the attic, or maybe in a landfill? As the world turns faster and faster, why do we no longer care for those things we used to so value? Are we losing things that can't be replaced? Those themes of value, obsolescence and loss are explored in a new movie called "Obselidia."

Along the way, the film looks at global warming and asks if the Earth is doomed to end as dry and as deserted as Death Valley.

Joining me now to talk more about "Obselidia" is the writer and director, Diane Bell. Her film won the Alfred P. Sloan Award at the Sundance Film Festival this year. In full disclosure, Sloan is also an underwriter of SCIENCE FRIDAY.

You can see a trailer of her film at www.sciencefriday.com. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Ms. DIANE BELL (Writer, Director, "Obselidia"): Hi there. Thanks so much for having me.

FLATOW: Tell us about - how would you sum up this film in a nutshell?

Ms. BELL: Oh, gosh, that's hard to do. I guess it's a film about I can't do it. How do I sum it up in a nutshell?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, let me describe it for you and ask a couple of questions.

Ms. BELL: Okay, thank you.

FLATOW: The main character is George. He calls himself the last encyclopedia salesman, right? He's one to use a typewriter, and he's collecting obsolete things.

Ms. BELL: Correct, and he sort of thinks everything good in the world is disappearing, and he's on a quest to record the good things and save them before they're gone.

FLATOW: And he actually thinks that one thing that's disappearing as obsolete is love.

Ms. BELL: He does believe that love is obsolete.

FLATOW: Wow.

Ms. BELL: But then he meets a beautiful cinema projectionist and goes on a journey to Death Valley and discovers otherwise.

FLATOW: Now, that's - one of the interesting parts of the film is how you wove in a couple of different themes, and one is that the person they're visiting in Death Valley is a scientist who believes in global warming and that the Earth is doomed and there's nothing we can do about it.

Ms. BELL: Yes. I was inspired by James Lovelock for that character, and I had just read that book, "The Revenge of Gaia," which scared the life out of me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BELL: And so I just wanted to explore that idea. You know, like what if he's right? What if we really are doomed?

FLATOW: Yeah, and you go right into it. I mean, the character does say without reservation that this is going to happen, and you may as well just enjoy it while it - before it all happens, before it's all gone.

Ms. BELL: Absolutely, which is actually something that James Lovelock said, and it disturbed me immensely, and I thought what if he's right, you know? And maybe he's not. I'm not a scientist, so I don't have the answer to that, you know, but I think it's something worth thinking about because we stand to lose a lot.

FLATOW: Do you think that other generations felt this way, that as they got older, the things they value aren't valued by younger generations?

Ms. BELL: I think, like, every generation feels that, but I think right now the rate of change is so immense that people in their 20s are feeling that, and I do think that's something new. You know, I don't...

FLATOW: You mean that you could be nostalgic when you're you haven't lived. You haven't had a life yet.

Ms. BELL: Yeah, absolutely. No, but I mean, you know, these kids today, they look at my iPod, they go that's a dinosaur, I can't believe you're using that. It was cutting edge five years ago. It's crazy.

FLATOW: Wow. So did this natural combination of the idea about collecting old, obsolete devices meld with the idea that the Earth is going away? I mean, how did you arrive at connecting the two ideas?

Ms. BELL: You know, it seems to me like they are intrinsically connected. The climate-change issue does seem to me to be connected to our sort of rapacious consumerism just now, and I do think we need to slow down. We can't keep consuming at this rate. Do we really need to throw away things and replace them with something new?

FLATOW: And are you hopeful that we can do this?

Ms. BELL: I think you know I am. If you've seen the film, you know I am, and someone has said to me it's the first feel-good environmental disaster movie. You know, I think that's fair. I'm like it's a save-the-world love story, but there is definitely hope.

FLATOW: I know it's at the Tribeca Film Festival. Are there other places that people can see it?

Ms. BELL: The movie will - I'm sure will be getting a theatrical release later this year. The best way to stay in touch is through the Facebook page. It's so funny, isn't it, that the movie is about these little technologies, and, you know, we're using to Facebook to stay in touch with everyone.

FLATOW: I mentioned Tribeca. It's actually Sundance that it's at, correct?

Ms. BELL: Yes, it played at Sundance. We are here in Tribeca right now to receive another award from the Sloan Foundation, which is amazing, which is towards our distribution costs.

FLATOW: And how does a small film we face this all the time because we talk to theater producers, movie-makers with small films like yours, and we wonder whatever happens to them. You know, they get play. They have great reception, then it's so hard for them to get any legs to stay alive.

Ms. BELL: It's a real challenge, but you know, this is, like, it's so wonderful to be able to talk to you today and your listeners, you know, because it's all about finding ways to bring it to the audience.

We actually showed the film in Washington, D.C. at a screening hosted by the National Academy of Sciences. So we're getting a lot of help to bring it to the audiences who are really, you know, who do definitely appreciate this kind of film.

FLATOW: Do you consider this a work of art with science in it, or is it a science-related film with art?

Ms. BELL: You know, when I was making this, and when I wrote it, I never even thought about the science part. I just you know, I was just thinking about the world we're living in.

So it never even crossed my mind that, you know, like this (unintelligible) division between science and art. I think, like, if you're thinking about our world today, you can't really avoid science, you know? It certainly wasn't, though, my intention to make a science movie.

FLATOW: That's interesting about not being able to avoid science when you talk about other subjects.

Ms. BELL: You know, I actually studied philosophy, and I sort of think, you know, until very recently in our history, they were the same. Science and arts were part of the same thing.

FLATOW: Wow, and so this was a natural outcome, then, of thinking about it.

Ms. BELL: Yes, absolutely.

FLATOW: And the actors are terrific. I don't know where you found them, but...

Ms. BELL: Thank you. Well, the lead actress is actually one of my best friends - from Scotland. So that was easy. And the lead actor, Michael Piccirilli, is my husband met him on the street in Los Angeles. So it was a very difficult casting, you know, casting session. No, we just you know, we cast people that we loved.

FLATOW: Yeah, and you certainly saved some money.

Ms. BELL: Yeah, but they're perfect for it, and so many people say, oh, they're so refreshing. I mean, Gaynor Howe and Michael Piccirilli, who are the lead actors, just make amazing performances in the film. Everyone says that, you know?

FLATOW: It is a very good film. It's a great little film, and I hope everybody can see it.

Ms. BELL: Thank you.

FLATOW: And good luck to you, Diane.

Ms. BELL: Thank you so much.

FLATOW: Diane Bell, who is the writer and the director of the film "Obselidia," talking with us today in New York.

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