Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Nonviolent Heroes and the Failure of the Christian Imagination

Last year I went to a conference on “Faith, Film, and Philosophy” at Gonzaga University. I gave a paper on what Batman Begins can tell us about the nature of fear and the relationship between justice and revenge. (One of these days, I will post my thoughts about that film.)

One of the keynote speakers was my good friend Ralph Winter, producer of (among other things) the X-Men movies. He gave his standard lecture about advice on being a Christian in Hollywood. His two main points were: (1) Focus on quality filmmaking, not propaganda, (2) Don’t be afraid of dark subject matter since real life isn’t always G-rated.

Now, I don't deny that this is good advice. And I'm not criticizing my friend Ralph. But I do think Christians should be beyond this advice now. People have been saying this same stuff since the 1980s. The problem for Christian filmmakers today is no longer quality. Many of the student films I see at Biola University, Azusa Pacific University, and other Christian film programs are of a very high technical quality. The problem now is what kind of film do you make after you master the craft of filmmaking? Likewise with Ralph's second point. The problem is not being willing to show the darkness. Christian kids these days are really into that. (The class I taught on horror film at Biola was very popular.) The problem is how do you show the darkness truthfully and not just make the world look like a sick place beyond redemption?

The other keynote speaker at the Gonzaga conference was Thomas Hibbs, a philosopher from Baylor University. I highly recommend to you Hibbs’s book Shows about Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from the Exorcist to Seinfeld. (A really nice interview with Hibbs can be found here. I am currently reading his follow-up Arts of Darkness: American Noir and the Quest for Redemption. I'll let you know how it is.) Hibbs argues that recent films have tended to “aestheticize evil”, making it look interesting if not necessarily attractive. He gives examples like The Exorcist, and The Silence of the Lambs. But, drawing on Hannah Arendt's idea of “the banality of evil”, Hibbs argues that these films misrepresent evil. Moreover, he argues that one reason this has happened is that our culture has lost the ability to make goodness interesting and attractive. Think about how much more interesting Batman is than Superman or Han Solo than Luke Skywalker.

I think this phenomenon is partly because, as Ralph Winter points out, real life heroes are not always perfect. But it is also because, as Thomas Hibbs points out, Christians have demonstrated a failure of imagination. We don’t know how to make goodness seem attractive.

This is related to a question Christian media scholar Bill Romanowski poses regarding The Passion of the Christ: “Why did the director have Jesus stand up to invite more scourging by the Roman soldiers? Is this historically accurate, a reflection of Gibson’s theology, or does it disclose a contemporary attitude?” (Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Pop Culture, rev. ed. p. 100). Romanowksi never comes right out and says it, but I think he is suggesting that this is a manifestation of Mel Gibson’s image of masculinity and heroism (compare Braveheart), an image formed more by macho American action movies than by scripture.

This line of thinking led me to ask my students at Biola, what would a truly Christian hero look like? How could you represent a hero with specifically Christian virtues of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? In the context of Amerian cinema, would such a person be a hero or a wuss? Attractive or boring?

Hibbs is right: there has been a failure of Christian imagination. We have failed to imagine truly Christian heroes. The most Christlike movie heroes I can think of are actually Hindus and Buddhists: Think the title character in Gandhi, Li Mu Bai in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke. I might also mention Xander from the finale to Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Six, and the title character from MacGyver. All of these heroes use intellect and compassion to disarm their enemies nonviolently and then either reconcile with them or at least bring them to (nonlethal) justice.

Can you think of any other examples? The Biola students hated this question and refused to participate in my discussion. Part of the problem was that I assumed that a Christian hero would be a pacifist. Having been indoctrinated into right-wing politics at their Orange County evangelical churches, the Biola students rebelled at my suggestion that Jesus wouldn't support war or killing, even in self-defense. (Somewhat shockingly, when I confronted them with Scriptural evidence of times when Jesus refused to use violence to protect himself from attackers, the students actually argued that we are not supposed to imitate Christ!) But surely we can all agree that peaceful resolution to conflict is better than violent resolution. So even if one wants to defend the just war theory point that Jesus could condone violence under certain circumstances, the fact remains that we need to do serious thought about how to make a movie about peace seem "cool".

And it is not just the question of heroes. The challenge of the Christian imagination arises in any number of cinematic genres: What would it look like to make a comedy that is not dehumanizing (i.e., that never asks us to laugh at someone's misfortune)? What would a romance look like that doesn't trivialize sex or reinforce repressive gender roles? What would an action movie look like that doesn't aestheticize or otherwise glorify violence? What would a "message movie" look like that respects its audience's intelligence and ethical autonomy (i.e., is not manipulative propaganda)? If there are no answers to these questions, I think we should conclude that Hollywood filmmaking and Christianity are incompatible. But I don't believe that. I trust that great Christian artists can solve these problems, if only they would bother to take theses issues seriously.

So let's engage our Christian imaginations, starting with the concept of a hero. How could we portray a hero who is both genuinely Christian and cinematically attractive? Any ideas?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

“What does it matter? All is grace.”

The opening image of Diary of a Country Priest (Bresson, 1951) is of the eponymous diary. The book opens and we see a black ink blot that resembles a Jackson Pollock painting. This sheet is moved to reveal the words of the diary. The abstract “painting” turns out to be a blot sheet inserted between wet pages to keep the ink from bleeding onto other pages. But the accumulated image created by the words of the diary is an image of chaos and disorder. We see and hear the Priest writing the film’s first lines: “I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong in writing down daily, with absolute frankness, the simplest and most insightful secrets of a life actually lacking any trace of mystery.” The Priest sees his life as insignificant, just another accumulation of events that, when seen over time, only amount to a disordered ink blot. This theme of disorder returns when the priest’s friend Torcy says the job of a priest is to create order: “Keep order all day long, knowing full well disorder will win out tomorrow, because in this sorry world, the night undoes the work of the day.”

The theme of struggling for Justice and order recurs throughout the film. One of the Priest’s first duties is the funeral of a townswoman. Her husband says it is “only just” that he be allowed to bury his wife for free even though everyone is required to pay the same funeral fee. The Doctor says “I’m not one to go around babbling about justice. I don’t expect it for myself. From whom should I ask it? I don’t believe in God.” After the Doctor commits suicide, the Priest wonders about the state of his soul, and Torcy replies “God is the only judge. Dr. Delbende was a just man, and God is the judge of the just.” Chantal comes to him in anger about her father’s adulterous affair with her Governess and says “You know quite well all I ask is justice.” The Countess thinks God’s allowing her son to die was “unjust”.

But the Priest sees himself as a bad priest, unable to create the meaningful order he is called to. In the next scene after Torcy tells the Priest to create order, the Priest says “the simplest tasks are by no means the easiest”. The Priest is constantly criticizing himself for not praying enough, but Torcy tells him “you have the spirit of prayer”. What could this mean?

The Priest’s defining characteristic seems to be the stomach illness that will develop into terminal cancer by the end of the film. The illness prevents him from eating anything but bread and wine, leaving him weak and making the townspeople think he is a drunk. The doctor tells him his stomach problem is the result of his alcoholic mother drinking too much while she was pregnant. Clearly the illness is a metaphor for original sin, passed down from parent to child. And the only solution to the suffering caused by sin is the bread and wine of the Eucharist. But this is something the world will not understand: they will only see the Church as a bunch of hypocritical sinners, rather than a group of sin-sick pilgrims in search of the only medicine that can help them.

Indeed, the film seems to see the priest’s suffering as a sign of his closeness to God. After he receives the anonymous letter telling him to resign from the parish, the Priest stays up all night trying unsuccessfully to pray. He finally concludes “God has left me. Of this I am sure.” And the next scene reports “an incredible improvement in my health”. But the very next scene is the Doctor’s suicide. In response the Priest says “I have never suffered so much and likely never will again, even when I die.” The Priest’s emotional distress is presumably because he himself had considered suicide and the Doctor had told him “You and Torcy and I are of the same race, an odd race. … The race that holds on.” If the Doctor could not hold on, how could he? At the Doctor’s funeral, Torcy told him that the Doctor had “lost his faith, and couldn’t get over not believing”. It is this connection between himself and the Doctor that leads the Priest to suffer. But it is at this point the Priest says he realized he “had not lost my faith”. Apparently, the evidence of his faith and God’s presence is his suffering.

Later he has an epiphany when Torcy again discusses with him what it means to be a priest (or to have a “vocation”): “If you can’t pray, just repeat the words! Listen, I don’t think I’ve been wrong about you. Try to answer this. I’ve thought a lot about vocation. We’ve all received the calling, only not in the same way. And to simplify things, I try to put each of us in his place – in the Gospels. In short, I think – or I imagine – if our soul could drag this wretched body of ours back up that slope of 2,000 years, it would lead it straight to the very place where – ” He breaks off because the Priest is crying. The Priest tells us “The truth is that I always return to the olive grove [i.e., to the Garden of Gethsemane where Christ suffered his most emotional anguish while waiting to be crucified.] It was a very familiar and natural movement for my soul. I’d never realized it until that moment. Suddenly Our Lord had shown me grace and reveled through my old master’s lips that nothing would tear me from my chosen place in eternity. I was a prisoner of the Holy Agony”.

Note that the film’s first shot of the Priest is of his wiping his face (a sign of his physical frailty) and film shot immediately cuts to a shot of the Priest looking through the bars of a metal fence as if he were in prison, thereby establishing the metaphor of his suffering as prison. But note also that the Priest sees “prisoner” here is a good thing, something which keeps him from leaving God. His suffering is the evidence of God’s presence, not God’s absence. His suffering is a symbol of Christ’s suffering: by living, whether he prays or not, he is “repeating the words” of the Gospel. His life of suffering is itself his prayer.

He comes close to this insight earlier in the film when he counsels the Countess to “resign” herself to life’s suffering. The Countess is the first to bring up resignation. She says she is “resigned” to her husband’s infidelities. The Priest tells her it is wrong to send Chantal away, but the Countess doesn’t care about right and wrong: “God took my son from me. What more can he do to me? I no longer fear him.” The Priest replies that God only took her son “for a time” but that her “the coldness of your heart may keep him from you forever.” The Priest implies that the Countess loved her son too much and is allowing his death to come between her and God and hence will ultimately come between her and her son in the afterlife. She wonders how love can be bad, how it could ever separate anyone. Love “has it order, its law” that God himself is subject to since it is God’s nature to love.

Next the Priest points out sin’s ability to bring disorder into the world: “No one knows what can become of an evil thought in the long run. Our hidden faults poison the air others breathe. … I believe if God gave us a clear idea of how closely we are bound to each other in good and evil, we truly could not live.” She asks what is “this hidden sin?” and he replies “You must resign yourself. Open your heart”, implying that her sin is the desire to create order and justice. Rather than getting angry about the evil and disorder in the world, she must resign herself to it. She says, recalling the Doctor’s suicide, she is already resigned; otherwise she would have killed herself. He replies, “That’s not the resignation I meant.” What he wants is her to admit that she hates God for not bringing about what she sees as justice. As soon as she does this, he says “Now at last you are face-to-face. He and you. … You must yield to him unconditionally. … Say: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” She says can’t say this, because it would be allowing her son to be dead. But he replies, “The kingdom whose coming you have just wished for is yours and his”, recalling his earlier claim that “there isn’t one kingdom for the living and one for the dead. There is only the kingdom of God, and we are within it”.

Note that the Priest ends up doing exactly the opposite of what Torcy had originally said a priest’s job is: rather than bringing order into the Countess’s life, he gets her to give up the illusory desire for order. She says “an hour ago, my life seemed to me in order, each thing in its place. You have left nothing standing.” He replies “Give it to God just as it is.” When she objects that she is too proud, he says “Give him your pride along with everything else”, recalling his earlier claim that “to die is difficult, especially for the proud”. Eventually she is able to give up her hatred over he son, symbolized by throwing his picture into the fire. As she writes in her letter to the Priest, “I didn’t believe resignation was possible, and in fact it’s not resignation that has come over me. I’m not resigned – I’m happy. I desire nothing.” By giving up her desire for order in the world, she is able to find happiness, a kind of spiritual order within the external disorder. And this leads immediately to her death due to a heart problem, a metaphorical death to this world in order to achieve life in the next.

Later we find out that Chantal had spied on this conversation. But, while she had experienced the very same scene as the Priest, she had interpreted it very differently than the Priest did. When Torcy repeats Chantal’s claim that the Priest had “blackmailed” the Countess with eternal damnation, the Priest says “that’s your version of what happened. I could tell a different one.” Note that had earlier told the Canon (the Count’s Uncle, also a priest) “I don’t see how there could be any report of such a conversation”, suggesting that the truth is ineffable and any account would only be an interpretation.

It is this idea of alternate narratives that is the key to the opening shot of the ink blot sheet. The Priest does indeed share the same motto as the doctor: “face up to it”. But where the Doctor faced up to the disorder of life and interpreted it as a reason to commit suicide, the Priest faced up to the disorder of life and interpreted it as “grace”, the chance to live in “the Holy Agony”. So the Priest does have “the spirit of prayer” but that is because by resigning himself to a life of suffering, he turns his life into a prayer: the re-incarnation Christ’s passion. This is what it truly means to be a priest: to mediate the suffering of Christ to the world and vice versa. The Priest is right that “our hidden faults poison the air others breathe”, but he is also right that “we are bound to each other” in both “good and evil”. Hence the hidden virtue of our suffering purifies the air others breathe.

But this “war” (as Torcy calls it at the Doctor’s funeral), is a mystical and hidden war that requires proper interpretation to be revealed. The last shot of the film is a shadow of a cross that is meant to recall the opening shot of the ink blot. When looking at the diary and its account of the events of the Priest’s life, we might see the very same events as the image of disorder or we might see them as a reflection of Christ’s Holy Agony. The difference is whether we can achieve resignation and the desire for God’s kingdom to come. The film’s last line ought to be our response to the evil, disorder, and suffering in the world: “What does it matter? All is grace”.

Monday, May 26, 2008

"I Can Save You!"

The Feminarian's comments on my post about I Am Legend made me realize that I glossed over an ambiguity in the end of the movie. Just before writing my post, I had read the review from The Journal of Religion and Film. According to that review, it was the 1971 film version The Omega Man which first transformed the novel's protagonist Robert Neville into a Christ-figure by locating the cure in his blood and then having him sacrifice himself. I was thinking of that point when I emphasized the new film's treatment of Neville as a kind of messiah. As The Feminarian pointed out, this led me to forget the fact that it is the female zombie's blood which contains the life-giving cure in the recent version. Nevertheless, it remains true that Neville originally developed the cure by mixing his own blood with lab rats and only later injecting it into the female zombie.

The Religion and Film review argues that turning Neville into a Christ-figure is odd since the point of the original novel is that Neville is in fact unknowingly evil and is destroying innocent lives in search of an unnecessary "cure". I noted clues to this theme in the new movie -- clues made explicit in the DVD's alternate ending. Here I want to argue that the fact that the cure is ultimately found in the zombie's blood, complicates the Religion and Film analysis. It seems that the new movie is not necessarily, as the review argues, moving further in the direction of making Neville into a Christ-figure; rather, the new movie (even in the theatrical version reviewed by Religion and Film) may in fact be moving back toward the ambiguity of the original novel.

There are, then, a number of ways of reading the film: (1) As in the Religion and Film review, Neville may be read as a Christ-figure who sacrifices himself in the fight against evil and in whose blood the source of life is found; (2) Alternatively, Neville may be read as an anti-Christ who is himself evil and the zombie woman is the Christ-figure who suffers unjust torture, "dies" and is "resurrected" (after the first, failed cure treatment), and in whose blood the cure is found; (3) Or perhaps the point is that the cure for evil is ultimately found when Neville's blood is mixed with the zombie blood, suggesting, as in my original analysis, that God is found in our relationship with others.

My preferred reading is (3). What is interesting is that, in the theatrical version, Neville doesn't realize the importance of learning to live in peace with the zombies -- he simply blows himself up, taking as many of them with him as possible. If, as I suggested in my original post, we are to take the film as some sort of statement about the war on terror, the implication becomes that America's insistence on seeing the entire Arab world as "evil" and in need of a western imposed "cure" is the moral equivalent of a suicide bombing. Neville is a self-proclaimed Messiah, shouting at his enemies, "I can save you!" and wondering why they continue to try to kill him. Perhaps the movie wants us to see George W. Bush in Neville's role.

Or am I completely off? Any additional ideas on how to read this movie?

Sunday, May 25, 2008

"Go, Speed, Go!"

Last night I saw a misunderstood cinematic masterpiece: Speed Racer (The Wachowski Brothers, 2008). It's gotten really bad reviews, but I had more fun at Speed Racer than I have had in years.

In the opening sequence, the filmmakers teach us how to watch this movie. We see the young Speed Racer daydreaming in school about race car driving, but his imagination is represented as an image of himself among his own childlike drawings of cars: Speed is inside a cartoon. And that sums up the movie. It's a cartoon with live action people inside it. (There is a similar sequence later with Speed's little brother Spritle imagining himself inside the cartoon he is watching on TV.)

As a cartoon, then, many of the criticisms of Speed Racer miss the mark. I don't even bother to take seriously the complaints of old people who got a headache from the movie or thought it was edited too fast. People said the same things about Star Wars 30 years ago, and now that movie actually seems pretty slow! It seems like a better criticism that the movie's philosophy (the same kind of anti-corporate neo-Marxism as discussed in my post on The Matrix) is simplistic and obvious. But once you realize that Speed Racer is a cartoon, this criticism evaporates. You don't watch a 30s screwball comedy and complain that there is not enough kung-fu in it; and you don't watch a cartoon and complain that its characters and message are too black-and-white (or in primary colors, as it were). I actually found the moral clarity of the movie refreshing. Exposing us to moral ambiguity is an important function of art, but we do need heroic role-models, too.

So Speed Racer is doing the same sort of thing The Matrix was doing. But whereas The Matrix was a live action version of anime movies directed at an older teen audience (most notably Ghost in the Shell), Speed Racer is the kind of cartoon we watched in elementary school (a point that's hard to miss with all of Spritle's talk of "cooties"). I've heard Speed Racer compared to movies like Dick Tracy and Sin City, (neither of which, by the way, are nearly as cinematically creative and interesting as Ang Lee's Hulk -- another misunderstood masterpiece -- which recreates not only the look of a comic book but also the experience of reading one), but those comparisons seem wrong. Both of those movies were based on print comics while The Matrix and Speed Racer are based on animation. (It is significant that the opening sequence of Speed Racer has the young Speed drawing his own flip book animation. It is in that cartoon that he imagines himself. Later, the walls of the Grand Prix race track are decorated with zebra images which seem to be animated when seen from the drivers' perspective. This is an homage to a 19th Century animation device called a zoetrope.)

In some respects, Speed Racer is doing the same sort of thing attempted by the recent Disney musical Enchanted (Lima, 2007) -- but without the irony. I actually found Enchanted unwatchable. Playful intertextuality is one thing, but Enchanted was just too cynical for my taste. The film assumed that we wouldn't be able to enjoy an old-school fairy tale cartoon without a heaping helping of cinematic deconstruction. I realize that the movie was ultimately trying to help us get back the childlike innocence that allowed us to love the original Disney princess cartoons, but its mode of referencing earlier movies was too ironic and made it impossible to take the movie seriously. Indeed, that's exactly the problem: it didn't take itself seriously enough. The problem is not that it was a comedy; the problem is that, in Disney terms, Enchanted didn't "believe in itself" -- so how could I believe in it? I don't need to be winked at in order to enjoy fairy-tale romance.

Contrast Enchanted with postmodern satires like Scream and Starship Troopers which manage to work both as a spoof of a particular genre as well as an actual example of that genre. (Shrek might fit in this category, too.) In other words, Scream is a spoof of a horror movie while at the same time, still being a horror movie -- as opposed to Scary Movie which is just a spoof. This is a fine line to walk, and how exactly these movies pulled off this cinematic miracle is unclear to me. What is clear is that Enchanted didn't know the same trick.

There are, however, other recent movies which do manage to succeed in the way Speed Racer does. Consider Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! and Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill movies. These movies speak in a different voice than the postmodern satires like Scream and Starship Troopers. Instead of spoofs, here we have hyper-real "movie movies" as Tarantino calls them -- taking stuff that "only happens in the movies" and then turning it up to 11. These movies reference earlier movie clichés and (especially in Tarantino's hands) even deconstruct them, but they manage to do this lovingly and without "winking" and so without the irony of a spoof -- irony which in the case of Enchanted ends up draining the magic from a genre we loved as kids (and, indeed, still love). An older movie that also succeeds along these lines is The Coen Brothers' The Hudsucker Proxy, but, of course, the godfather of this style is George Lucas whose Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark first showed us how it is done. Not every movie should be like this. But, boy, are these movies fun when done right.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

"Light up the darkness."

I am Legend (Lawrence, 2007) finally made its way to the top of my Netflix queue this week. I didn't really care if I ever saw it, but my wife thought it sounded good. Ironically (or maybe due to our various levels of expectation), she ended up thinking it was really boring and too slow, and I ended up thinking it wasn't too bad.

I liked the slow, quiet parts of the film that explored the psychology of Will Smith's character Robert Neville. I haven't read the original novel, and I haven't seen the Charleton Heston version The Omega Man (Sagal, 1971), so I couldn't be disappointed in how unfaithful the film was to the earlier versions. And, sure, the special effects are bad and the zombies look like computer generated cartoon characters, but that kind of thing doesn't bother me. I'm more interested in story, character, and theme. So I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the film was about one of my philosophical interests: the problem of evil. Unfortunately, I'm not sure the movie has much to say of philosophical interest.

The movie sets up the problem in its starkest form. When he finally meets another human survivor, Anna, who claims to have been led to him by God, Neville responds by rehearsing the havoc wreaked by the zombie-creating Krippen Virus: "Let me tell you about your 'God's plan'. Six billion people on Earth when the infection hit. KV had a ninety-percent kill rate, that's five point four billion people dead. Crashed and bled out. Dead. Less than one-percent immunity. That left twelve million healthy people, like you, me, and Ethan. The other five hundred and eighty-eight million turned into your dark seekers, and then they got hungry and they killed and fed on everybody. Everybody! Every single person that you or I has ever known is dead! Dead! There is no God!"

Anna wants to take Neville to a colony of survivors, but Neville doesn't believe there is any such colony. Not only is there no God, there are no other humans: we are utterly alone in the universe. But at the climax of the film, Neville does indeed hear the voice of God telling him to sacrifice himself to save the world. He becomes so obvious a Christ-figure that it is literally his blood which will provide the cure to the virus. Then Anna takes the cure to the colony of survivors, giving them hope for the future.

So what's the point? Is it simply that we should not give up hope? That we should have a kind of blind faith that there is a God, that God has a plan, and that we are not alone? Whatever the message of the movie is, it seems to be summed up by Neville's speech about reggae musician Bob Marley: "He had this idea. It was kind of a virologist idea. He believed that you could cure racism and hate — literally cure it, by injecting music and love into people's lives. One day he was scheduled to perform at a peace rally, gunmen came to his house and shot him down. Two days later, he walked out on that stage and sang. Somebody asked him 'why' he said: 'The people that are trying to make this world worse are not taking a day off — how can I? — Light up the darkness." Again, the point seems to be that we should keep the faith and continue to fight the good fight in spite of the fact that, to all appearances, we are making no difference. It's a rather traditional theodicy.

Note the line about "the people that are tyring to make this world worse". Combined with the fact that this movie takes place in New York City which Neville refers to as "ground zero", this seems to be a reference to the war on terror. Interestingly, there may be a critique here of the Bush administration's characterization of the terrorists as people who "hate freedom" and want to destroy civilization. When Neville kidnaps a female zombie to use as a guinea pig for his anti-virus research, a male zombie risks his life to save the female. Neville rather obtusely interprets the event this way: "Behavioral note - an infected male exposed himself to sunlight today. Now it's possible decreased brain function or growing scarcity of food is causing them to ignore their basic survival instincts. Social de-evolution appears complete. Typical human behavior is now entirely absent." Of course, what's really going on is that the zombies are not entirely inhuman monsters but have genuine love for one another. (This theme is made explicit in the alternate ending to the film, available on the DVD's bonus disc.)

At another point, Neville refers to the fact that the zombie virus was a product of human technological experimentation gone wrong: "God didn't do this, we did." This line serves both to reinforce the traditional theodicy (by presenting evil is a result entirely of human sin and free will) as well as to suggest again a liberal viewpoint on terrorism (by implying that terrorism was in fact cultivated by America unjust foreign policies and cultural imperialism).

Whichever interpretation we emphasize (whether the reading of Neville as a Christ-figure battling absolutely evil zombies or the reading according to which both sides are morally ambiguous), the point seems to be the same: God is found in our relationships with others. It is when Neville is absolutely alone that he falls into despair about the death of God. But when he meets Anna, he learns again to hear God's voice (significantly, through a memory of his daughter's voice). And what is God's voice telling us? In the words of Neville's daily radio broadcast, "You are not alone. There is hope." In the words of Bob Marley, we can "light up the darkness" by spreading human love like a virus.

As an answer to the problem of evil, it's not terribly deep or original. But it's not entirely wrong, either.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Just For Fun: Derrickson's Remakes

Mentioning Scott Derrickson's The Exorcism of Emily Rose in yesterday's post reminded me of a humorous idea I had the first time I saw the movie. It occurred to me that Scott Derrickson is remaking the great theological movies as horror movies.

Scott's USC master's thesis Love in the Ruins (1995) was fairly obviously a remake a Wings of Desire (1987) except with demons whispering despair into people's ears instead of angels whispering hope. Less obviously, his first feature film, the direct-to-video Hellraiser: Inferno (2000) was a remake of Bad Lieutenant (1992). Both films are about corrupt, drug-addicted, women-abusing, cops whose investigation of a disturbingly evil crime forces them to face their own evil -- except that in Scott's film, the cop ends up haunted by demons and damned to Hell rather than receiving the moment of redemptive grace which the original film's protagonist experiences. Finally, Scott's first major studio release The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) was a remake of Breaking the Waves (1996). Both films are Kierkegaardian fables about a devout and innocent young woman who may or may not have heard God's voice telling her to sacrifice her own life in order to participate in humanity's redemption through suffering -- except Scott's version has (what else?) demons.

I can't wait to see what he'll do with his upcoming remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (due Christmas 2008). Maybe, since this movie is already a remake, it will break the pattern. Or maybe Scott will find a way to secretly make it a remake of The Seventh Seal (1957). Or, since the theological films he borrows from are usually only about 8-9 years old at the time of his remake, and since The Day the Earth Stood Still will star Keanu Reeves, maybe Scott's subtext this time will be . . . The Matrix (1999)???

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Symbolism of Evil

Recently there were two movies made based on the life of Anneliese Michel, a German college student from the 1970s who claimed to be possessed by a demon. My fellow Biola University alum Scott Derrickson updated the story to 2000s era America in his horror genre film The Exorcism of Emily Rose (Derrickson, 2005). German filmmaker Hans-Christian Schmid made a more straightforward dramatic biography of Anneliese in Requiem (Schmid, 2006). The result was a far more subtle and interesting film. (Sorry, Scott!)

Derrickson’s movie is set up as a courtroom investigation which asks us to decide whether we think Emily is really possessed or not. Requiem is not interested in that question. In fact the film seems to assume that the girl (in this version called Michaela) is not really possessed. Indeed, it seems to assume that she knows she’s not really possessed. Instead, the film asks us why, if she knows she is simply sick and not really possessed, she would go along with her mother and priest’s exorcism scheme? The answer the film suggests is that she wants to recontextualize the meaning of her suffering. If she is simply sick, then her suffering is random and meaningless; but if she is possessed, then she is a martyr.

Once Michaela interprets her own life through the lens of St. Catherine, her own favorite saint, she is able to accept her suffering with peace. Prior to this, she is “ashamed” of her illness, and wants to be a normal kid. The “voices” she hears are her mother’s voices telling her she is a “slut” and that she is not capable of going to college. But when she first attempts to interpret these feelings as demonic possession, her liberal priest tells her that the Devil is only a symbol and recommends she seek medical attention. Then, when, the stress of school almost prevents Michaela from completing the first semester, and her boyfriend wonders if maybe college is not the best place for her, she realizes her mother will be proven right. She begins to give herself over to her symptoms in order to press the possession interpretation, and to show that it is not her weakness that is preventing her success but the Devil. Hence the movie suggests one use of the symbolism of evil is to allow us to create a meaningful narrative out of our suffering.

Note that on this interpretation the film is not necessarily arguing the liberal point that the Devil is just a symbol. The film’s view that Michaela is using the Devil as a symbol is compatible with the conservative Christian view that the Devil is also literally real and can possess other people. More likely, however, the film is making a post-liberal point: it is the Devil oppressing Michaela – in the form of her mother’s criticism (and to a lesser degree in the form of her physical handicap). In other words the Devil is a symbol, but the Devil is not just a symbol, because symbols have their own kind of reality and so no symbol is just a symbol.

Question: I haven't read Paul Ricoeur's The Symbolism of Evil, but from what I understand my reading of Requiem is similar to the kind of thing Ricoeur is doing in that book. Does anybody out there have any insight on this?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

"We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are."

In recent posts, I've been exploring films that generate in their views a kind of self-deception. Today, I want to discuss a film that doesn't necessary trick us in this way, but rather explicitly addresses the issue of self-deception: Christopher Nolan's Memento (1999).

In Memento (as I'm sure you remember), Leonard Shelby has this "condition" called anterograde memory loss in which he can't make new memories. (It's the same problem Drew Barrymore has in 50 First dates, a "less depressing" movie as one of my students pointed out to me, but also a less philosophically interesting film as I pointed out to him.) I find it interesting, that whenever Leonard talks about his memory problems, he refers to it as a "condition". I'm sure its a sign of nothing so much as my own insanity, but when I hear the term "condition", I can't help but think of the philosophical concept of "the human condition".

Leonard has the words "Remember Sammy Jankis" tattooed on the back of his hand. Leonard says he tells people about Sammy "to help them understand. Sammy's story helps me understand my own situation." In the last lines of the film, Leonard claims, "We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are.” In his essay in Movies and the Meaning of Life, Michael Baur argues that Memento is one of the mirrors that can remind us who we are. Just as Sammy's condition is Leonard's condition, so Leonard's condition is our condition. Baur convincingly reads the film as an exploration of the problem of personal identity, in particular giving a Heideggerian critique of Locke's memory theory of identity. I highly recommend Baur's essay. Movies and the Meaning of Life is one of the best anthologies of film-philosophy out there, and Baur's essay is one of the best in the book. I don't wish to challenge his reading. But I do want to add an additional reading. I propose that Memento can also be read as an exploration of what Lyotard called "the postmodern condition". (Again, it's probably just my own insanity, but I can't help hearing a verbal connection between the names Leonard and Lyotard.)

Jamie Smith
has already explored some of Memento's connections to postmodern philosophy in his book Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, but he focused specificaly on themes from Derrida. I'd like to take a more general approach to postmodernism, borrowing a familiar narrative about modernity as the quest for certainty and postmodernity as the acceptance of human finitude. On this narrative, see the work of Richard Rorty, Stephen Toulmin, Nancey Murphy, et al.

(By the way, Smith's Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? should be read by everyone interested in the future of the church. His discussions of postmodern philosophy are basic, but his application of postmodernism to the emerging church is brilliant. He shows why a truly postmodern church needs more than just candles, ambient music, and video screens -- it needs traditional liturgy, the lectionary, spiritual disciplines, etc. Too many of my friends in the Episcopal strand of the emerging church movement are giving up these things in favor of worship practices that are basically just Gen X versions of old-school modernist "seeker sensitive" churches. Smith is right that a truly postmodern church will need to recover its Catholicity. Anyway, back to Memento....)

Let's start at the beginning -- which, in Memento is actually the end. The first image in the film is a polaroid photograph. But the shot is played in reverse so that the image gradually fades away before being reinserted into the camera. I take this shot to be a summary of the entire film. One of Leonard's tattoos reads "Buy film. Camera doesn't lie. Notes can be lost." In one scene, Leonard tells Teddy: “Facts, not memories. That's how you investigate. … Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They're just an interpretation, they're not a record, and they're irrelevant if you have the facts.” So I take Leonard's polaroids as a symbol of objective evidence -- he thinks of them as pure, uninterpreted access to the Truth. But the film gradually undermines this view.

On this reading, the opening shot of the fading photograph symbolizes the loss of objective evidence: the postmodern condition as the awareness that all facts are mediated by the perspective one brings to them.

If Leonard's photographs suggest a modernist desire for objective evidence, perhaps we can read Leonard's memory problem as another symptom of modernity: the loss of tradition. Modernity, especially in its radical Enlightenment form, was the rejection of the authority of tradition in favor of, as Kant put it, "daring to know" for oneself. (Hence the Protestant Reformation.) Leonard's condition requires us to "learn to trust your handwriting. ... You have to be wary of other people writing stuff for you that is not going to make sense or is gonna lead you astray." Hence modernity involves radical individualism and autonomy.

Moreover, as Leonard says, in a world without memory, "You really need a system if you're going to make it work", recalling the desire of early modernists like Descartes and Francis Bacon to find the proper scientific and philosophical "method" by which to generate a perfect system of knowledge. Descartes's version of the method involved radical doubt, questioning anything that couldn't be proven with certainty. What he found using this method was that the only indubitable foundation of knowledge is one's own consciousness: "I think, therefore I am." (On this point, consider how much of the dialogue in Memento is Leonard's subjective thoughts in voiceover.)

The problem then becomes how to build a bridge from the subjective to the objective, to prove that as Leonard puts it at the end of the film, "a world outside my own mind." But Memento, following postmodern philosophy, argues that this is impossible. The problem is not just that it is impossible to overcome Cartesian skepticism about the external world, but that there is no such thing as "the" external world. Reality is not "given" to us, but must be interpreted by the knower.

The structure of the film reveals this fact to us. We are shown a scene and then are shown what happened just before that and then what happened just before that, etc. With each scene we are "thrown" (as Heidegger might put it) into the middle of an event and forced to interpret what's going on along with Leonard: "Ok, what am I doing? I'm chasing this guy. ... No, he's chasing me!" But with each new scene we are forced to reinterpret the previous scenes -- every interpretation is revisable, and certainty is impossible.

The most obvious example of this is the scene where Natalie manipulates Leonard. First we see Natalie crying and telling Leonard that a guy named Dodd has beaten her up and Leonard agrees to go "get rid of" Dodd for her. Then we see what took place just before this: Natalie provokes Leonard into beating her up. She takes all the pens with her and leaves the room so that Leonard can't write down what happens. Then when he forgets what he has done, she returns and pretends to cry, etc. What we took to be self-evident, unmediated observation of the scene has been shown to be just one interpretation.

The point is not that there is no such thing as truth (as some modernist philosophers claim postmodernists believe). Clearly, not all interpretations are equally good. But what we need if we are to make better interpretations is context. Leonard points out that, “If people scratch their nose a lot experts will tell you they’re lying. It really means they’re nervous. People get nervous for all kinds of reasons. It’s all about context.” The problem is that without memory, we have no context: “How am I supposed to heal if I can't feel time?”

The first line of the film is "So, where are you?" and the last line is "Now, where was I?" In order to understand who we are, we need to know where we are, how we got here, and where we're going. In other words, we need to be able to tie our present to a past and a future: we need to reconnect to traditional narratives (without necessarily turning them into what Lyotard calls "metanarratives").

As Teddy tells Leonard says, "You should start investigating yourself". In a world without memory, “You don’t know who you are" or "what you’ve become”. Without a narrative context in which to interpret our lives, we are left with no "meaning" of life. But in modernity we have rejected all traditional narratives. The only way to give our lives meaning is through self-deception, creating a narrative and then pretending it is simply a self-evident uninterpreted fact and not a narrative (a process Lyotard describes in The Postmodern Condition).

This is exactly what Leonard does. He gives himself "a reason to make [life in his condition] work" -- revenge. But at the end of the film, we realize that Leonard's revenge-narrative is based on a self-deception. Leonard spoke more than he realized when he said "Sammy's story helps me understand my own situation." It turns out that Sammy's story is Leonard's own situation. And hence as Leonard says of Sammy, "His condition was psychological not physical." In other words, Leonard is repressing his memory due to psychological trauma -- he doesn't actually have brain damage.

On one level, Leonard's psychological trauma is the rape of his wife. But on another level, his trauma is nothing less than the problem of evil. (Like Rashomon, discussed in an earlier post.) The injustice he has experienced makes it impossible for him to fit his world into a morally intelligible narrative. The universe just doesn't make sense to him. Life seems meaningless, and so he creates a false sense of justice to give his life purpose and meaning again: "I'm not a killer," Leonard says, "I'm just someone who wanted to make things right."

Note the multiple levels of self-deception here: Leonard is a killer; revenge is not justice; things are not right, but neither are they wrong in the way Leonard thinks they are (his wife wasn't murdered; she died of a semi-intentional insulin overdose); Leonard is now killing relatively innocent people, not trying to "make things right"; etc.

In order to give his life meaning, Leonard needs to find a life-defining project around which to construct his life-narrative. And in a postmodern world without objective evidence, the more resistant to contingency's project, the better. Teddy says Leonard wanted “to create a puzzle you could never solve.” Thus Leonard creates an unsolvable murder mystery for him to investigate and covers up this self-deception with the further self-deception of Sammy Jankis, a fiction in which he hides his own knowledge of the truth.

After telling Leonard that “You don't want the truth. You make up your own truth”, Teddy adds “So you lie to yourself to be happy. There's nothing wrong with that. We all do it.” But if we reject modernity's equation of truth with objectivity and its suspicion of narrative, then Teddy is wrong. We don't have to lie to ourselves to be happy. We can find happiness in life together, connecting our own life-stories to a communal narrative in which we serve as "mirrors" to remind one another who we are, guarding each other from self-absorption, self-deception, and self-destruction.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

"What's this war at the heart of nature?"

Today we watched Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line in my course on the problem of evil in contemporary cinema. One of these day's I'll post my reflections on the film. But for now, I just wanted to list out some of the more interesting lines from the film:
  • What's this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself, the land contend with the sea? ls there an avenging power in nature? Not one power, but two?
  • This great evil. Where does it come from? How'd it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who's doin' this? Who's killin' us? Robbing us of life and light. Mockin' us with the sight of what we might've known. Does our ruin benefit the earth? Does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you, too? Have you passed through this night?
  • Darkness, light. Strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face?
  • Maybe all men got one big soul who everybody's a part of. All faces of the same man. One big self.
  • Who are you to live in all these many forms? You’re death that captures all. You, too, are the source of all that's gonna be born, your glory, mercy, peace, truth. You give calm a spirit, understanding, courage, the contented heart.
  • I remember my mother when she was dyin', looked all shrunk up and gray. I asked her if she was afraid. She just shook her head. I was afraid to touch the death I seen in her. I couldn't find nothin' beautiful or uplifting about her goin' back to God. I heard of people talk about immortality, but I ain't seen it. I wondered how it'd be like when I died, what it'd be like to know this breath now was the last one you was ever gonna draw. I just hope I can meet it the same way she did, with the same... calm. 'Cause that's where it's hidden - the immortality I hadn't seen.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Deconstructing Fight Club

Updated: Be sure to read the comments to this post where I clarify the claims I am making.

I've already written about a couple of movies that seduce us into a kind of self-deception. Rashomon tempts us into reading its ending optimistically, thereby confirming its pessimistic thesis that we often lie to ourselves. (You can read my analysis here.) And The Matrix tempts us into ignoring its Marxist political implications, thereby confirming its thesis that our society is in the thrall of a capitalist ideology. (You can read that argument here.)

Now I want to give a brief argument that Fight Club (Fincher, 1999) does a similar thing: it tempts us into idolizing Tyler Durden as a pumped-up man's man, while simultaneously undercutting traditional masculinity with a pervasive homoerotic subtext. I won't bother to detail the gay imagery and symbolism in the film here. Just take my word for it. (One essay which gives a good catalog of the homoerotic references is Robert Alan Brookey and Robert Westerfelhaus, "Hiding Homoeroticism in Plain View" in Critical Studies in Media Communication, March 2002.)

For now I'm more interested in self-deception. The most interesting scene along these lines is the one where Tyler looks directly into the camera and says, “You're not your job. You're not how much money you have in the bank. You're not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You're not your fucking khakis.” On the surface he is giving a kind of anti-advertisement meant to counter the consumerist messages of the media. But note that the film literally breaks down at this point – the sides of the image warp and we see the sprocket holes.

Here is the scene:

This cinematic device can be read as a simple homage to Bergman's Persona, a film, like Fight Club, about two people with an ambiguous relationship and which also includes a similar scene where the film breaks down. Here is that scene:

But the Bergman reference doesn't entirely make sense. Persona is about the nature of art and the human capacity for communication and other concepts which make sense of Bergman's self-reflexivity. But why is David Fincher revealing the cinematic basis of his film? Why does the film break down at exactly this point in Fight Club? I propose that our attention is being drawn to the fact that we are watching a movie -- a product of the mass media -- at exactly the moment when Tyler is attempting to undermine the influence of the media. Fincher is deconstructing himself. There is another example of this technique when Tyler is getting on a bus and sees a Gucci ad of a naked man and wonders "Is that what a man looks like?" The irony is that Tyler is played by Brad Pitt who has the exact same body as the model in the ad!

Fincher wants us to see that although Tyler is the unnamed narrator's image of an ideal man, that image is something socially constructed by the media. The things Tyler says sound a lot like people such as John Eldredge in his book Wild at Heart (e.g., "God designed men to be dangerous" but our culture teaches us instead "to be a nice guy"). And it is easy to get caught up in Tyler's speeches. But the film subverts itself, pointing out that the message that a "real man" is a macho brute like Mel Gibson (Eldredge argues that Jesus was more like Braveheart's William Wallace than Mother Theresa!) is just another one of the social constructions presented by the mass media.

But we don't notice these acts of self-deconstruction, because we don't want to. In order to realize that the film doesn't think Tyler's brand of machismo is the self-evidently true masculine ideal, you'd have to be able to admit that Fight Club is actually a gay film.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Matrix as Ideology

Trinity: "It's the question that drives us, Neo. It's the question that brought you here. You know the question, just as I did." Neo: "What is the Matrix?"

Professional philosophers have written a whole lot about the movie The Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers, 1999), but have done their best to misunderstand the Matrix as a concept. The movie tells us that the question "What is the Matrix?" is the key question, but philosophers tend to assume the answer to that question is easy: it's a virtual reality computer program which allows us to believe we are living our everyday lives when we are really in a pod hooked up to a computer.

With this answer in hand, philosophers can then turn their essays to discussions of Hilary Putnam's "brain in a vat" scenarios, derived from Descartes's "Evil Demon" hypothesis, which in turn is a relative of Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Then they write all about the epistemology of external world skepticism and about the metaphysics of substance dualism. But in all this they miss the true meaning of the Matrix, a mistake that involves what can only be described as a willful disregard of the things the film says about the Matrix.

The most blatant line philosophers disregard is when Morpheus says, "Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself." This line makes no sense if the Matrix is simply a virtual reality program. Why couldn't Neo be told this fact? And what would it mean to "see" a computer program for yourself? There is something more going on here.

Consider the other things Morpheus says about the Matrix:
  • "The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth. ... [Y]ou are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind."
  • "I'm trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You're the one that has to walk through it."
  • "What is the Matrix? Control. The Matrix is a computer-generated dream world built to turn a human being into this [i.e., a battery]."
  • "The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. When you're inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of people we're trying to save, but until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand that most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system that they will fight to protect it."
The line about the battery is pretty clear: the Matrix is a system that turns human beings into a source of labor for "the machines". That system is capitalism, supported by coroporate interests, religion, and government (i.e, "when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes"). This movie is about Marxism. It's Marism is not even a subtext. It's just text. But we miss it. Why? Because we are in the Matrix.

The Matrix is "all around" us, but we don't see it. It is ideology: a system that forms our thinking without our knowing it. It is a system that is enslaving us but which we are willing to die to protect. Our decadent civilization is crumbling right before our eyes, being destroyed by machines of our own creation, but when we look out the window everything looks prosperous. We are blinded by ideology.

The film demonstrates that just as religion is the opiate of the masses (says Marx), so is analytic philosophy. The system wants us to focus on epistemology and metaphysics and to miss the political implications. And that's okay, because we want that, too. Remember that we created the machines in the first place. And now we are under the self-deception that the system does not control us -- a self-deception not unlike the one I discussed in a previous post with regard to Rashomon. And for many of us, we enjoy being under that self-deception because we benefit from it.

It's no accident that the vast majority of philosophy professors are white males (like me). We're the "image translators" mentioned by Cypher. When Neo sees Cypher looking at the familar stream of green numbers, he asks "Do you always look at it encoded?" Cypher responds: "Well, you have to. The image translators work for the construct program." He's talking about us, the professional philosophers. We're supposed to help people see the truth but we secretly work for the Matrix, making sure people get just enough truth to be distracted from overthrowing their oppressors but not enough to realize that they are indeed enslaved. (On this reading, we can now see why most of the members of "the resistance" are minorities -- women and people of color -- except, of course, for Cypher who turns out to be a traitor. The rebels are resisting the agents of "the Man", those Morpheus calls "the gatekeepers" of the Matrix, i.e., those who decide who gets into power.)

If the film is interested in 20th Century philosophy, it is not the "brain in a vat" stuff -- it is in postmodernism. The reason "there is no spoon" is not that the physical world is not real but that when we look at a "spoon" or anything else, our experience is mediated by our society's concepts and ways of "constructing" reality. (Morpheus calls the Matrix a "construct", implying that it needs to be de-constructed.) It is not an accident that the enemies are "machines", symbols of totalizing drive toward technological efficiency exposed by Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition. These machines are the natural result of the Descartes's modern desire for pure, disembodied rationality.

In this way, the film is actually anti-Cartesian, and anti-Platonist. The standard interpretations of The Matrix are completely backwards. It is about rejecting reason in favor of the body. On the way to meet the Oracle, Trinity tells Neo that "the Matrix cannot tell you who you are." He replies, "But an Oracle can?" And she says "That's different." Why? Because the Oracle is a symbol of emotion, intuition, and embodiedness -- she turns out to be an African-American grandmother, baking cookies. (Regarding embodiedness, consider the infamous orgy/rave sequence in the first Matrix sequel.)

It is the machines who are Platonists. Agent Smith says, "I hate this place. This zoo. This prison. This reality, whatever you want to call it. I can't stand it any longer. It's the smell, if there is such a thing. I feel saturated by it. I can taste your stink and every time I do, I fear that I've somehow been infected by it. It's repulsive, isn't it? I must get out of here." Here he uses two metaphors from Plato's Phaedo: the body as a prison and life as a disease.

Agent Smith also says that the first Matrix failed because "Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world." He rejects this interpretation, but I think the film is suggesting that this is actually the truth. A world run by computers cannot give us everything we need to be fully human. This is what Morpheus means when he tells Neo, "You've felt it your entire life. That there's something wrong with the world, you don't know what it is, but it's there. Like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad."

And, according to the film, what we need above all in order to be human is freedom. The main problem with the machines is that they control us and force us to follow their rules. As Mouse says, "To deny our own impulses is to deny the very thing that makes us human." And it is in being human that we will defeat the machines: Morpheus says "their strength and their speed are still based in a world that is built on rules. Because of that, they will never be as strong or as fast as you can be." We, unlike the machines can break the rules of rationality. (The rejection of rules suggests an "anarchist" political theory which connects The Matrix to the Wachowski-scripted V For Vendetta.) Unlike the machines, we humans can live based on instinct and passion. And that is why the power of Trinity's love for Neo can save the day in the end.

But as long as the system can tempt us into seeing The Matrix as an abstract theoretical exercise in metaphysics and epistemology instead of a political statement, we will never be free. ... Or so says The Matrix.

Trinity: "Wake up, Neo. The Matrix has you."

Saturday, May 17, 2008

On Spoilers

I just realized that yesterday I posted a discussion of the ending of Rashomon that could be seen as including "spoilers". It didn't occur to me that anyone would not know the ending to a classic like Rashomon. I mean, would we give a spoiler warning before mentioning that in Citizen Kane, "Rosebud" turns out to be a sled? Or that in Star Wars Darth Vader is Luke's father? This got me thinking about whether it is ever necessary to worry about spoilers.

Consider Romeo and Juliet. Not only do we all know that the two main characters die simply because it is common cultural knowledge, we also know because in the opening scene the Chorus tells us how the play will end. The important thing is that, even though we know Romeo and Juliet will both die, the play still works. There is still drama and even suspense. Every time you watch a well-produced version of the play you think maybe Juliet will wake up in time to stop Romeo's suicide. Of course, she doesn't. And you know she won't. But the play makes you feel as if she might. It works despite your knowledge of the spoilers.

My proposal is this: if a story only works because of a one-time-only shock technique that can be spoiled by knowing too much, then it's not a good story. If a story is capable of being spoiled, it's probably not worth seeing.

Even The Sixth Sense -- one of the most classic "surprise twist endings" of all time -- continues to work after you know the ending. In fact, I think it works better the second time you see it, after you know the twist. (Another classic example is The Crying Game, which I have only seen once, but I suspect it works just as well even after you know that Dil is a man.)

Consider Vertigo. Hitchcock changed the plot structure from the original novel to place the twist a half hour before the ending rather than in the final scene. The studio execs tried to make him change it back, but Hitchcock resisted, realizing that if we know Madeline and Judy are the same person the suspense is more powerful (even on repeat viewings) than the simple surprise of a one-time shock.

Thinking of spoilers reminds me of the line from Memento where Leonard sees his wife reading a beat up book she's read a hundred times before and says "I always thought the pleasure of a book was in wanting to know what happens next." This is, of course, ironic in the context of the film, since the structure of the film is backwards: we see a scene and then we see what happens just before that and then just before that.

So Memento is structured so as the undermine the desire to know what happens next -- instead we want to know what happened before. Thus Memento demonstrates that the true pleasure in a narrative comes from not simply from finding out what comes next but in discovering the connection between what comes next and what came before. But in a well-made movie, there are many more connections than can be seen in one viewing. Even in a murder mystery, it's not just the complex connections between all the clues -- piecing together a plot from the scattered events.

What do you think? Am I wrong? Find me a counter-example -- a masterpiece which can be spoiled by too much prior knowledge.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Rashomon and Other Misunderstood Clichés

Any time I tell people I am interested in philosophy and film, they inevitably say "Oh, like The Matrix?" This cliché even comes from professional philosophers -- The Matrix is at least mentioned in every textbook I know on using film to teach philosophy.

As for myself, I actually never found The Matrix to be very interesting. I thought it was a whole lot of fun as an action movie, but a bit confused as an exploration of modern epistemology and metaphysics. Ditto with one of professional philosophers' other favorite films Bladerunner: I thought it was a brilliant feat of cinematic style and production design but a rather shallow discussion of artificial intelligence and other problems in the philosophy of mind (such as the problem of other minds).

But then I read Stephen Mulhall's book On Film. (An earlier draft of the section on Bladerunner is available online here. By the way, if you follow the link on Mulhall's name you can see a picture of him in which he looks a little like David Lynch!) Mulhall convincingly argues that Bladerunner is really about Heideggerean anxiety in the face of death. Once pointed out, this reading seems obvious -- how could I have thought it was about the boring old problem of other minds? (Mulhall does discuss skepticism about other minds, but he approaches it not through the classical framework established by Bertrand Russell but through the much more helpful perspective of Stanley Cavell's work on "acknowledgment" of the Other in The Claim of Reason and Pursuits of Happiness, his seminal book about philosophy in classic Hollywood screwball comedies).

I found similar unknown depths in other philosophy class clichés like Rashomon and Crimes and Misdemeanors. And this sent me back to The Matrix to see what else might be found there.

One problem with most philosophical readings of films is that philosophers tend to read their own concerns into the films rather than taking seriously the film's own ideas. Part of the problem here is lack of education in how to "read" of film, but a deeper problem is an overly narrow idea about what counts as a "philosophical" discussion. I hope to discuss the latter issue at some point on this blog. And I'll probably come back to Bladerunner and Crimes and Misdemeanors at some point. But for now let me focus on The Matrix and Rashomon, both of which are usually misread in terms of the standard epistemological problem of skepticism, but are both actually interested in exploring the reasons professional philosophers tend to misread them.

Let's start with Rashomon (Kurosawa, 1950). Through a series of flashbacks, related by a woodcutter and a priest to an unnamed commoner, the film tells the story the murder trial of a bandit accused of killing a samurai in the forest. We see the court testimony of the woodcutter who found the samurai's dead body and reported it to the police, a priest who happened to be walking by the scene, the bandit himself, the samurai's wife, and even the dead samurai himself (whose ghost is channeled by a psychic medium). But each eye-witness gives incompatible versions of the events and we are left with the skeptical conclusion that we can never know what really happened.

In the opening scene the priest says he has “finally lose my faith in the human soul” because of the “horrible” story he has heard -- even more horrible than war, famine, plague, earthquakes, etc. What does he think is so disturbing? The problem seems to be, in part, because we can’t know what really happened in the forest. But why is that so disturbing? Each witness tells the story so as to make themselves look good. But note that the reason we can’t know what happened is not just that the witnesses lied. The problem is that each one experienced the situation differently.

For example, in the bandit's flashback, the sword fight between him and the samurai is typical action movie fare. But in the woodcutter's flashback, it is a more realistic farce with both fighters clearly scared out of their minds and falling all over each other etc. But I don’t think the bandit was lying about how the battle took place: in his own mind it was much more glorious than it was the way the woodcutter saw it. Likewise, despite the fact that the bandit, the samurai, and the wife give three very different versions of the woman’s request that the men fight, these differences could easily be read as different interpretations of the same event. In other words, the point is that we all see the world from our own biased perspective. The problem is that we don't know that we are biased. We think our own perspective is the uninterpreted self-evident truth.

Now the film is usually used in philosophy classes to introduce the problem of relativism: is truth just relative to each individual's perspective? And that is certainly one of the issues in the film. But that is not why the priest is so disturbed in the opening scene. I see the film as not so much an affirmation of epistemological relativism as psychologically-based rejection of Cartesian foundationalism. Remember that Descartes was responding to the post-reformation problem of finding a religiously and politically neutral basis for knowledge. He thought he could base the entire structure of knowledge on the “foundation” of human reason. Remember also that Descartes’s proposal was to prove everything using abstract mathematical and logical Reason since people can’t agree on philosophy, ethics, politics, or religion but but they can agree on math and science.

In my view, Rashomon challenges the possibility of basing knowledge on universal human Reason, not simply because each person reasons from his or her own perspective (though, again, I agree that that is part of the point of the film), but also for the more radical reason that humans are not rational. We repress what we know to be true in order to be happy. In particular we repress our awareness of human depravity. The "horror" that disturbs the priest is the same horror we Joseph Conrad called "the heart of darkness" -- "the horror, the horror" chillingly lamented by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now.

In the first line of the film, the woodcutter says, “I don’t understand.” In the last scene, he clarifies what he means: “I don’t understand my own soul.” The problem isn't that we lie to each other it's that we lie to ourselves. At one point the priest says, “It is because men are weak that they lie, even to themselves.” And when the priest says, “I refuse to believe anyone could be so sinful”, the commoner replies, “But is there anyone who's really good? Maybe goodness is just make-believe. … Man just wants to forget the bad stuff, and believe in the made-up good stuff. It's easier that way.”

Now, here is where things get really interesting -- and here is where professional philosophers focus on epistemology at the expense of psychology. I believe the film is set up to demonstrate the fact of self-deception with its own viewers. The film's ending seduces us into forgetting the dark lessons of the trial.

Most interpreters criticize the film for its apparently overly-optimistic ending: an abandoned baby is found in the ruins where the storytellers are, and when the woodcutter (seemingly) altruistically takes it in, the priest says he has regained his faith in humanity. This seems a suprisingly sentimental ending to a pessimistic film, and most critics see Kurosawa as losing his nerve at the last minute. But I think the point the film is making is the exact opposite of this optimistic reading.

It seems to me that the film includes deliberate hints to undermine this optimism, for it is possible that it was the woodcutter that abandoned the baby in the first place. Consider these usually overlooked details:
  • He already has six children, so it makes sense that he would think he couldn’t take care of another one.
  • He is very protective of the baby when the commoner takes the baby’s kimono.
  • He defends the baby’s parents for going through a lot of trouble to leave an amulet to protect the baby, recalling his original statement to the police in which he says he found an “empty” amulet case.
  • The baby stops crying as soon as the woodcutter takes him.
If I am right, then the woodcutter is not doing something heroic and selfless by taking the baby in. He is only doing his minimal duty to his own child and taking him in due to a guilty conscience. So the priest’s renewed faith in humanity is based on a lie. And if we as the audience share his optimism, we are mistaken, too. Moreover, this unjustified faith in humanity is due to self-deception. All the evidence is there for us to know that the woodcutter is lying, but we choose not to see it since we want to imagine human beings to be good. And when, on repeat viewings we realize that we have been seduced into easy optimism, we realize that the temptation to self-deception is a reality in our own hearts, not a general possibility "out there" in the world.

In this way Rashomon takes us to the core of the problem of evil. Is our belief that the world is meaningfully ordered -- that justice is possible and life is worth living -- simply a form of self-deception? Is faith in goodness, as Woody Allen will argue through the film Crimes and Misdemeanors, a form of blindness to reality?

Thus Rashomon contains within itself the seeds of deconstruction -- not a deconstruction of itself so much as a deconstruction of a standard but superficial reading of the film which demonstrates our unwillingness to face the darkness in our own hearts. It's a whole lot easier to turn the film into an exercise in abstract theoretical concerns. And I think analytic philosophers make a similar mistake with The Matrix which is not really about metaphysics and epistemology but is really about politics. More shockingly, I will argue that The Matrix does not have a Platonist or Gnostic metaphysics but is actually anti-Platonic. But since this post is getting long, I think I'll save that discussion for next time... [You can find my post about The Matrix here.]