Friday, March 26, 2010

Movies: Iffy pop?

Digitally-empowered fandom favors the group. Author and journalist Caleb Crain once described the rise to dominance of a mode of reading that he dubbed "groupiness." In the context of groupiness, readers approach works not for entertainment or information, but rather for the purpose of belonging to the network of communities that will grow up around such works. The consequence is that art becomes something that exists mainly to be discussed. It's primary function is to be talked about. It's a milieu in which a book gets read because the reader knows an important TV adaptation of it is coming out and they don't want to be left out of the water-color talk about the televised version.

(Crain and others go on to argue that this has imposed a specific, mass cult, one-sized fits all style on art. I don't know that I buy that. Cults and congeal around just about anything. Few authors get the kind of groupiness going that Robert Bolano does, and you'd have to work extra hard to prove he panders to his audience.)

One of the stranger effects of the culture of groupiness is that, on occasion, the chatter is genuinely more interesting than the object being discussed. For example, the utterly forgettable Captivity will be justly remembered not for anything within the film itself, but for its cultural position as the straw that broke the torture porn subgenre's back. Critical reaction to that film actually became the most important and interesting thing about it.

On a similar note, the 2009 remake of Last House on the Left might be better remembered not for anything director Dennis Iliadis or producers Wes Craven and Sean Cunningham put up on screen, but rather as a trench in the generational conflict between Gen X horror fans and their vastly more numerous Millennial replacements. The film, with a little assist by a dismissive review by Roger Ebert, became a touchstone for older critics who bemoaned the state of modern horror. Kids these days, they aren't creative, they don't know their history, they just want mindless violence. No respect, I tell you. Meanwhile the vast horde of the young answered with votes: On imdb, you'll notice that the remake actually scores higher than the original.

As far as controversies go, the generational conflict was the biggest, but hardly the most interesting. The remake, from both a technical and narrative standpoint, is simply a stronger film. Krug and his gang go from comic book baddies to something more like the highway men of the source material. The transformation of the film's lead family is more gradual, desperate, and genuine. The role of the daughter is bulked up and she becomes heroic in her desperate struggle to survive rather then a semi-disposable casus belli. The conflict between Krug and his own son is emphasized, bringing the tribal conflict aspect to the fore. One famous online essay suggests that the original Left carried traces of the original folk tale's conflict between Christian and Jewish identities in the Dark Ages - but this strikes me as a misrepresentation of the cultural context of the original story. The conflict in Europe's northern countries was not over converting Jews (a nearly insignificant demographic in the north), but rather a conflict over converting pre-Christian pagan cultures. The heart of the tale was about what happens when you ask Norsemen to turn the other cheek. The new film captures this sense of subsurface, reluctant, unavoidable barbarism better than the old one did. Finally, while the film lost its vibrant low-fi look, it is gracefully shot and achieves moments real visual power. The new kids were right.

The more interesting controversy was the bizarre undercard battle about whether or not your head would explode if it was put in a doorless microwave. I kid you not.

The "money shot" of the flick depicts the embattled patriarch of the Collingwood clan delivering death to Krug through the overly elaborate process of surgically rendering him paralyzed from the neck down and then sticking his noggin in a microwave oven that's had it's door broken away. It is, admittedly, the goofiest part of the new film. A self-conscious nod to the McGuyver-ish trap making of the parents in the original, it is uncharacteristic of the remake's Collingwood and feels like an add on. That said, would a dude's head actually explode?

Sadly, this is a proposition I can't test directly. Not because I don't want to, but rather because I do not own a microwave oven. Faced with that limitation, we'll have to just reason our way through this.

Here's your standard microwave oven set up.

Simplified, a microwave's magnetron (which should be a transforming robot, but isn't) takes high voltage electricity from your wall and makes microwave radiation. The use of the word "radiation" summons up visions of nuclear radiation, but you're conceptually closer to the heart of the matter if you think of the magnetron as a radio wave broadcaster; the magnetron sends out radio waves at a frequency of 2450 megahertz. The specifics don't matter so much as the fact that these waves can't pass through the body of the oven and they are absorbed by fats, water, and sugar. The process of absorbing this energy excites the molecules and causes them to move, This, in turn, causes friction. That, in turn, causes heat. This is why plastic won't heat up in your microwave, but a potato or a small cat will. (When you warm up leftovers and your Tupperware container is hot to the touch, it's because the food inside was heated up and this, in turn, heated up the Tupperware. The microwaves bounced off the container itself.)

So, the magnetron makes these waves and they are contained and directed by a wave guide: an empty channel in your oven that directs the flow of the waves. The waves then hit a mode stirrer which scatters them. This is meant to distribute the waves around the oven cavity, so you don't have one intense hot spot right below the wave guide.

This explains how, even with the door off, something in a microwave is going to get zapped. Unlike a conventional oven, a microwave isn't cooking objects by concentrating heat in a closed area. It's bombarding the cooking object with radio waves. The containment helps the process by reflecting stray waves back at the object, but it could be done without any sort of containment.

Without a doubt, Collingwood could cook Krug's head. By jamming the lock of the microwave oven with any ol' object, he could bypass the standard safety features that shut off the magnetron when the oven door opens. Then, placing Krug's head within the oven, our villain would be exposed to the magnetron's waves. These would excite the particles of sugar, water, and fat in his head. Heat would be generated and Krug would cook. The effect would probably slightly diminished because waves that miss Krug's head might bounce off the cavity and escape the oven, but this wouldn't alter the outcome.

But would his head explode?

That's a different matter. Because of the way microwaves cook things, they can sometimes cause a phenomenon called superboiling. When this happens, the liquid in the oven is hot enough to boil, but the lack of gasses in the liquid means that there's no steam or motion happening. You've got a really hot liquid that is just sitting there. This phenomenon is pretty rare because, usually, impurities in the liquids you're cooking (like maybe you're reheating a soup made up of several ingredients of different densities) react to the microwave differently and cause the release of "seed bubbles": gasses that kickstart the standard boiling process.

In a superboiling state, a liquid is basically waiting to explode. Mixing another substance with it or agitating it can cause it to go from a superboiled state to a slightly cooler, but now really active normal boiling state. Though what we're actually seeing is something cooling down to an agitated state, what it looks like is a still, calm liquid suddenly going ape. It looks like an explosion.

In theory, elements within Krug's head could reach a superboiled state and then, because of a shift in his position or a glitch in the power of the oven, go boiling and appear to suddenly explode. But this is extremely unlikely. The human head, like a goat's head stew, is one of those heterogenous environments that would have no problem venting gasses to adjust for boiling. There's a chance that individual elements might react with localized superboiling (his eyes might pop, for example), but this would be a real outside chance. Furthermore, it takes awhile for something to reach a superboiled state. In all likelihood, long before his head blew up, Krug would be dead from the lethal heat the agitated cells in his head were creating.

Preliminary conclusion: Krug would definitely die, but his head wouldn't explode.

And that's my two cents on what was clearly the single most significant film debate of the first decade of the 21st century.


Sasquatchan said...

You also should consider the depth the radio waves will penetrate into the various materials. I've heard it was in the MM range..

Wiki claims ". Depending on water content, the depth of initial heat deposition may be several centimetres or more with microwave ovens...Penetration depth of microwaves is dependent on food composition and the frequency"..

CRwM said...


Another good point.

Ryan said...

I don't think it would have to do with superboiling. It's more a matter of how air-tight is your head; would steam be able to escape faster than it's being generated by the microwave?

CRwM said...


The steam issue and the superboiling issue are actually related. The importance of the superboiling phenom is that it shows us that agitated water does not need, necessarily, to throw off steam. Steam will only be made is there are "seed bubbles," dissolved gasses, in the interaction. Consequence, if you're steaming, you're not likely to explode.

Though, there is the problem of expanding pressure in contained area. In theory, that could "pop" something, but in practice, with meats, the heat break down of the meat means that you're pretty much always in a situation where your creating tons of tiny little openings all over the cooked body.

In biotic materials - like the human head - internal systems regulate the amount of gas within. Inside our heads, for example, our bodies adjust the amount of gas by making smaller and smaller bubbles out of it, until the gas can be dissolved. The upside to this is that our tissues never fill with foam (getting a gas bubble in the wrong part of the body is dangerous, even lethal). The downside is that, in the unlikley even that we get superheated, we risk superboiling because we've dissolved the gas bubbles out of our system.

But, like I said, this is pretty unlikely and you're gonna die just from being cooked long before you're at risk for that.