SoundCloud: https://soundcloud.com/theanthropocenereviewed/episode-13-velociraptors-and-harvey
Previous: Episode 12: Indianapolis and Love at First Sight
Next: Episode 14: The Hall of Presidents and New Partner

Categories

Statistics

View count:4,925
Likes:0
Dislikes:0
Comments:5
Duration:20:37
Uploaded:2019-02-28
Last sync:2019-07-19 11:40
John Green reviews velociraptors and the 1950 film Harvey.

Hello and welcome to the Anthropocene Reviewed, a podcast where we review different facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale. I’m John Green, and today I’ll be reviewing velociraptors and the 1950 American film Harvey.

But let’s begin with velociraptors, which were not particularly famous dinosaurs until 1990, when Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park was published. The novel, about a theme park containing dinosaurs created from cloned DNA samples, became a runaway bestseller. And then, three years later, Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation brought the novel’s dinosaurs to awe-inspiring life with computer generated animations the likes of which moviegoers had never seen before. Even twenty-five years later, Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs still look astonishingly lifelike, including the velociraptors, which are portrayed as scaly creatures, about six feet in height, from present-day Montana. 

Chrichton’s velociraptors are the kind of scary, intimidating animal you might want to name, say, a professional sports franchise after, and indeed when the National Basketball Association expanded into Canada in 1995, Toronto chose as its team name the Raptors. Today, the velociraptor stands alongside T. Rex and stegosaurus as among the best-known dinosaurs, even though the actual creatures that lived in the late Cretaceous period some seventy million years ago have very little in common with the velociraptors of our contemporary imagination.


For starters, velociraptors did not live in what is now Montana; they lived in what is now Mongolia and China. While they were smart for dinosaurs, they were not smarter than dolphins or whales; they were probably closer to chickens or possums. Also, they were not six-feet tall; they were about the size of a turkey, but with a tail that could stretch for over a meter. They weighed less than fifteen kilograms, so it’s difficult to imagine one killing a human. In fact, they were probably mostly scavengers, eating meat from already dead carcasses.

A famous fossil discovered in 1971 in Mongolia preserved a velociraptor locked in battle with a pig-sized dinosaur called protoceratops. The velociraptor appears to have had one of its sickle-shaped claws embedded in the neck of the protoceratops, which was biting down on the velociraptor’s arm when they were both suddenly buried in sand, perhaps due to a collapsing sand dune. At any rate, because of this fossil we can be reasonably sure that velociraptors did hunt, but we don’t know how often, or whether they hunted in packs.

Also, velociraptors were not scaly but feathered. We know this because researchers found quill knobs on a velociraptor’s forearm in 2007, but even in Crichton’s day, most researchers thought velociraptors and other members of the dromaeosaurid family were feathered. Although velociraptors are not believed to have flown, their ancestors probably did. Mark Norrell of the American Museum of Natural History put it this way: “The more we learn about these animals the more we find out that there is basically no difference between birds and their closely related dinosaur ancestors like velociraptor. Both have wishbones, brooded their nests, possess hollow bones, and were covered in feathers. If animals like velociraptor were alive today, our first impression would be that they were just very unusual looking birds.” As a paleontologist recently pointed out to me, if you ever see at picture of a large bird without feathers, your first thought will be, “Huh. Look at that. A dinosaur.” I don’t recommend looking at pictures of birds without feathers, by the way. Pretty disturbing stuff.

Crichton based his velociraptors on a different dinosaur, the Deinonychus, which did live in present-day Montana and was the approximate size and shape of Jurassic Park’s velociraptors, although Deinonychus was also feathered, and, you know, not smart enough to open doors or whatever. Crichton took the name velociraptor because he thought it was “more dramatic,” which presumably is also why the theme park is called Jurassic Park in the book, even though most of the dinosaurs in the park did not live in the Jurassic Age, which ended 145 million years ago, but instead in the Cretaceous Age, which ended 65 million years ago with the extinction event that resulted in the disappearance of around three-quarters of all plant and animal species on Earth, including all large species of what we now consider dinosaurs.

As with so many things, the way we think about velociraptors says more about us than it does about them—ultimately Jurassic Park is about humans who cannot resist the urge to do what is possible, even if the creatures we resurrect end up killing us. It’s a story of unintended consequences, and those consequences could not arrive in the form of, like, knee-high carnivorous turkeys.

Really, even what we do know, or think we know, about dinosaurs is endlessly shaped by assumptions and presuppositions, some of which will eventually prove incorrect. In ancient China, dinosaur fossils were believed to be dragon bones. In 1676, the first dinosaur bone to be described by European scientists, a piece of thigh bone from a Megalosaurus, was believed to have come from the kind of giants described in the Bible; that bone, incidentally, was named Scrotum Humanum, which is a reasonable description of its approximate shape.

The Tyrannosaurus Rex wasn’t named until 1905. The first velociraptor fossil was discovered in 1924. Scientists have been debating for over a century whether the long-necked brontosaurus of the Jurassic Age even existed or is just a misidentified Apatosaurus. The brontosaurus was real in the late 19th century, only to become a fiction for much of the 20th, only to become real again in the last few years. History is new. And prehistory is newer. And paleontology is newer still.

The weird thing about velociraptors is that even though I know they were basically flightless predatory birds not much larger or smarter than a swan, I still can’t help but see them as bipedal, featherless lizards of human height when I imagine them. Knowing the facts doesn’t really help me picture the truth. That’s the wonder and terror of computer generated images for me—if they look real, my brain isn’t nearly sophisticated enough to understand that still they aren’t real.

Like the velociraptor, I have a large brain for my geologic age, but maybe not a large enough one to survive effectively in the world where I find myself. My eyes still believe what they see, long after visual information stopped being reliable. I give velociraptors two and a half stars.

After the break we’ll turn our attention to Harvey, but first ...

[Ad break]

The movie Harvey stars Jimmy Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd, an alcoholic whose best friend is a six foot three and a half inch tall invisible white rabbit named Harvey. The film, based on Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name, was an immediate critical and commercial success when it was released in 1950.

But my story of Harvey begins in the early winter of 2001, shortly after I suffered what used to be known as a nervous breakdown. I was working for Booklist Magazine at the time, and living on the near north side of Chicago in a small apartment that I had until recently shared with a woman I’d thought I would marry. At the time, I believed that our breakup had caused my depression, but now I see that my depression at least in part caused the breakup. Regardless, I was alone, in what had been our apartment, surrounded by what had been our things, trying to take care of what had been our cat.

It was at once utterly boring and absolutely excruciating. The psychic pain overwhelmed me, consuming my thoughts so thoroughly that I no longer had any thoughts, only pain. Susan Sontag wrote that depression is melancholy minus its charms.

I had become for some reason unable to eat food, so instead I was drinking two two-liter bottles of Sprite per day, which is approximately the right number of calories to consume but not an ideal nutrition strategy. Every day, I would come home from work and lie on the peeling linoleum floor of what had been our kitchen, and I would look at the green parabolic rectangle of the kitchen window through the Sprite bottle, and I would look at the bubbles inside that bottle clinging to the bottom, trying to hold on, but inevitably floating up to the top, and I would think about how I couldn’t think. All I wanted was to be separated from the pain, to be free from it.

Eventually, a day came when I could not pick myself up off that linoleum floor, and I spent a very long Sunday thinking about all the ways that the situation might resolve itself, and then that evening, thank God, I called my parents, and, thank God, they answered.

My parents are busy people with demanding lives. And they were at my apartment within twelve hours of that phone call.

A plan formed quickly. I would leave my job, go home to Florida, get into daily counseling or possibly inpatient treatment. They packed up my apartment—there wasn’t much left. My ex-girlfriend kindly agreed to take the cat. The only thing left was to quit my job. I loved working at Booklist and I loved my coworkers, but I also knew that my life was in danger. I tearfully told my supervisor that I was quitting, and he told me to talk to the magazine’s publisher, Bill Ott.

I always thought of Bill as a character out of a noir mystery novel. His incisive wit is both thrilling and intimidating. When I went into his office, he was surrounded by proof pages of the magazine and he didn’t look up until I closed the door. I told him that something was wrong with my head, that I hadn’t eaten solid food in a couple weeks, and that I was quitting to move home to Florida with my parents. He was silent for a long time after I finished. Bill is a master of pauses. And then at last he said, “Ah, why don’t you just go home for a few weeks and see how you feel.” And I said, “But you’ll need someone to do my job,” and he paused for a long time again and then said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, kid, but I think we’ll get by.”

At one point that afternoon I started throwing up—excessive Sprite consumption, maybe—and when I came back to my desk to finish packing up my belongings, there was a note from Bill. I still have it. It reads:

“John, I stopped by to say goodbye. Hope all goes well and you’re back here in two weeks with an appetite that would put a longshoreman to shame. Now more than ever: Watch Harvey. –Bill”

For years, Bill had been bothering me to watch Harvey, and I steadfastly maintained that black-and-white movies were universally terrible, on account of how the special effects quality is poor and nothing ever happens except people talking.

Anyway, I went back to Orlando, where I’d grown up. It felt like such a failure to be there, living with my parents, unable to do much of anything. I felt like I was nothing but a burden. My thoughts whorled and swirled. I couldn’t ever think straight. I couldn’t concentrate enough to read or write. I was in daily therapy, and taking a new medication, but I felt certain it wouldn’t work, because I didn’t think the problem was chemical. I thought the problem was that at my core I was worthless, useless, helpless. I was less and less each day.

One night, my parents and I rented Harvey. Because it was adapted from a play, Harvey is a really talky movie. Most of it takes place in only a few locations—the house Elwood P. Dowd shares with his older sister and his niece, the sanatorium where many believe Elwood belongs on account of having a large invisible white rabbit as a best friend, and the bar where Elwood likes to hang out.

Mary Chase’s dialogue is magnificent throughout the play; Elwood’s soliloquies are just gorgeous. Like, here is how Elwood recounts meeting Harvey: “I’d just put Ed Hickey into a taxi. Ed had been mixing his rye with his gin, and I just felt that he needed conveying. Well, anyway, I was walking down the street and I heard this voice saying, ‘Good evening, Mr. Dowd.’ Well, I turned around and there was this big six-foot rabbit leaning against a lamp-post. Well, I thought nothing of that because when you’ve lived in a town as long as I’ve lived in this one, you get used to the fact that everybody knows your name.”

Or here’s Elwood talking about chatting with strangers at the bar: “They tell me about the big terrible things they’ve done and the wonderful things they’ll do. Their hopes, and their regrets, and their loves, and their hates. All very large, because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar.” Elwood tells his psychiatrist, “I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it.”

Elwood is mentally ill. He’s not much of a contributor to society. It’d be easy to characterize him as worthless, or hopeless. But he’s also extraordinarily kind, even in difficult situations. When his psychiatrist says, “This sister of yours is at the bottom of a conspiracy against you. She’s trying to persuade me to lock you up. Today, she had commitment papers drawn up. She has the power of attorney over you,” Elwood replies, “My sister did all that in one afternoon. That Veta certain is a whirlwind, isn’t she?”

And yet, despite not being a traditional hero of any kind, Elwood is profoundly heroic. At one point, he says, “Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be,’ – she always called me Elwood – ‘In this world, you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.”

In the winter of 2001, there was perhaps no human alive on Earth who needed to hear those words more than I did. I don’t believe in epiphanies. I’ve never had a blinding light awakening that lasted for more than a few days. But I’ll tell you this: I have never felt as hopeless since watching Harvey as I did just before I watched it.

It was probably the therapy and the medication, of course, but Elwood played his part. I hope you never find yourself on the floor of your kitchen. I hope you never cry in front of your boss, desperate with pain. But if you do, I hope they will give you some time off and tell you what Bill told me: Now, more than ever, watch Harvey.

I give Harvey four and a half stars.

Thanks for listening to this episode of The Anthropocene Reviewed, which was written by me and produced by Rosianna Halse Rojas, Stan Muller, and Tony Philips. Hannis Brown composed the music. Joe Plourde is our technical director. Thanks also to my son Henry for suggesting a review of velociraptors. If you’d like to suggest a topic for review, or just say hi, you can email us at anthropocenereviewed at gmail dot com, or find us on twitter or facebook. We’ll be back on the last Thursday of next month with two new reviews. My favorite fact that didn’t make it in to today’s reviews: Harvey was directed by Henry Koster, a Jewish filmmaker who fled his native Berlin in 1934. Koster discovered Abbott and Costello, and directed everyone from Ava Gardner to Marlon Brando. For the last 44 years of his life, he was married to the actress Peggy Moran, who appeared in single every movie Koster made during their marriage, but usually in the form of a statue. Moran’s sculpted face appears in the longest shot in Harvey.

And a special thanks to Bill Ott, who has just retired after more than 30 years at Booklist. Bill is -- dare I say it -- a five star mentor and person and I am so grateful to him.