Archives for category: Film

spoiler alert!

In the movie Black Panther, we are introduced to a superheroic country hidden in the snowy mountains of Africa — this is very much an H. Rider Haggard/Edgar Rice Burroughs sort of utopia. The country, called Wakanda, is technologically advanced and has been for eons, but has kept out of world affairs on the grounds that its treasure, a philosopher’s lode of a supermetal, if transported out of the region, would destabilize the world and ruin the country. So it is isolationist. Yet technocratic.

Now, much has been made of the movie’s racial politics, and it has been lauded — and prodded into the limelight — for its social justice-y elements. But what struck me about the movie was that the baseline mythos could best be described as “Wakandan exceptionalism” of an almost Trumpian sort. The antagonist of the film is a bitter, resentful African-American criminal bent on world revolution (with a special attention paid on killing “oppressors”). In fact, he talks like a “Black Panther” of days of yore (racial solidarity, revolution) and it is he who must be destroyed so the country can grow into its new role as world benefactor. So the moral arc of the story is from isolationist exceptionalism to globalist benefactor — essentially moving from Trumpism back to standard-brand 20th century American globalism, where foreign aid is parlayed as the prime diplomatic value, above revolution, militarism and trade — the latter not even getting any mention. The real-world “Black Panther” type must be put down so the mythic “Black Panther” may triumph.

There is nothing radical here. It is essentially a JFK “liberal” movie.

It also contains a quite a bit of tribalistic mysticism, and rituals of a primitive, ooga-booga type. Rather embarrassing. We are really not far from Hollywood Tarzan tropes here.

As a Marvel movie, it is of course expertly made, a technical marvel; and if, like me, you enjoy watching scantily clad bald black women kicking ass, you will find some thrills. Andy Serkis has a fun role as a mad Russian criminal mastermind.

I saw it in Astoria, Oregon, in a theater half-filled with white Americans … and no one else. (Astoria has a sizable Mexican population, but is otherwise lily-white.) I did not feel a whole lot of excitement coming from the audience — not like in the Iron Man and Captain America flicks — but no hatred, either. I have no idea how it fares elsewhere, but in this neck of the woods it does not appear to be a hit.

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N.B. The popular meme of Wakandan exceptionalism being “alt-right” is accurate, for the most part, insofar as the country is portrayed at the beginning of the movie. It is 4C6A88CB-B755-4E6B-815C-786D49F5BA10also not inaccurate to describe the country at the end of the movie, though the kingdom’s new “black man’s burden” policy would surely undermine the stalwart atavisms of its traditionalist nationalism. As with most comic-book world-building scenarios, it does not bear close examination — just as the amazon-warrior theme does not. And alt-right dreamers might note that American exceptionalism came from open borders and trade — not anything like Wakandan autarky. There is a disturbing cargo cult element to much current political fantasizing. The wealth redistributed by any real or fantasied State entity has to come from somewhere. In Black Panther, it came from outer space and lies in the ground in the form of a metal that the Wakandans mine.

I forget the name of the metal, but it is really just a McGuffin, as in the goofy, embarrassing “unobtainium” of the horrible science fiction film Atavism, I mean Avatar. I could look up the name of this fantasy material, but memory tells me that it starts with a “v,” so I just think of it as “virkkalanium.”

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Philosophy and Christianity have been mostly at loggerheads from the beginning . . . of Christianity.

My side is with philosophy. No doubt about that. But having watched God’s Not Dead for the first time tonight, I have to say that I am not exactly on that proselytizing film’s critics’ side. The movie is not as bad as most critics make out. It is well acted, tightly plotted and edited, artfully framed with incidental music, and contains several juicy, fun scenes.

At base, God’s Not Dead is about a philosophical argument. Kevin Sorbo plays an atheist philosophy professor who professes atheism but engages in almost no philosophical argumentation.

I would like to say this makes the film horribly unrealistic, but I have heard stories about such abominations in colleges. Sorbo’s Prof. Radisson is a terrible teacher, and there is little evidence demonstrating his expertise in his subject. Surely most philosophers would leap at a student’s interest in a subject dealt with in many different ways during the course of philosophy. Instead, Radisson tries to skip the theology section of his philosophy course by demanding that each student sign a piece of paper saying “God is dead.”

An absurd approach to teaching, and no way to cover philosophy, which began, after all, as the critique of both religion and common sense.

But it does not really seem too far out of the stream of bad teaching in America.

His foil is our hero, a young Christian student who stands up for God in class.

Philosophers who like movies might want to contrast it with Agora, a film set in late antiquity Egypt starring Rachel Weisz as the neo-Platonist philosopher Hypatia.

Whereas God’s Not Dead is fiction, with a shaggy god ending, Agora retells a historical tale. Fictionalized, of course.

In Agora, as in history, a  mob of Christians kills the philosopher.

In God’s Not Dead, the filmmaker kills off the atheist professor . . . fictionally, giving him a deathbed conversion to boot.

This is how Christianity has progressed: from lying about and killing a philosopher to discrediting a philosophical position by “killing off” the vexatious representative character.

In a film that also depicts (fairly realistically) a Muslim father who disowns and throws out of his house a daughter who converts to Christianity, I would say that this is a kind of progress.

Still, the attack upon reason goes on. In real life, a number of years ago, Christians got their hands on senescent atheist philosopher Antony Flew, cajoling him into a half-assed repudiation of some of his previous positions. The devil takes the hindmost; Christians pick off the weakest.

Most critics of GND hated it, saying it was too simplistic and tendentious. Objectively, that is true. But we are talking movies here. Simple-minded and tendentious is the new style, no? That’s what all political movies are, basically. Michael Moore, anyone?

It is not as if today’s highly politicized ideological culture is better when it comes to politics. It is not.

For my part, the biggest disappointment in the film is not the convenient death of the professor. It is the ending at a Christian Rock concert. If I wanted to disprove the existence of God, I might point to Christian Rock as all the proof I need. God cannot even make a miracle of converting young people to like great music. Instead, they adopt CR as a smoker switches to vaping. The drug is there. It is just a new delivery system.

This man, The Amazing Atheist, asks the question: should we boycott the upcoming Ender’s Game flick because the author of the original, eponymous book “is a douchebag.” (And worse: “fucking pussy.”) How is Orson Scott Card a “douchebag” etc.? By opposing gay marriage, by being a social ultraconservative, and by saying extreme things in defense of same . . . but most particularly for his back-pedaling regarding his most outrageous statements, in fear of the threatened boycott.

Now, I don’t agree with Card. I find the disjunct between his sometimes brilliant and humanistic science fiction and his crackpot conservatism puzzling, to say the list. But if I boycotted movies because of the “douchebaggery” of the films’ creators, I wouldn’t get to see many movies. Surely, “douchebaggery” is not limited in our culture to Orson Scott Card, homophobes, or the far right.

Oh, and by the way, this video presenter uses a lot of vulgar language, most of it unnecessary and none of it amazing. He shouldn’t call himself The Amazing Atheist. How about “The Fucking Anti-Faithist”? You know, to forestall “douchebag” charges.

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Last night I served as projectionist, at the local park, for a showing of the documentary Bully. Sponsored by a local abuse shelter, the event was pitched to the local school. No teacher or administrator showed up. Perhaps they’ve seen the movie, and they know how badly teachers and administrators of public schools look.

How bad? Like priests of the Catholic Church, too many whom have been raping boys or covering up for same. For millennia, it turns out.

OK, perhaps not that bad. More like typical government functionaries, witless authorities unable to do their jobs.

I highly recommend the movie, which proceeds without narrator. The interviewed subjects can and do speak for themselves. We witness actual bullying in progress, on school buses, at bus stops; we hear numerous accounts of bullying — and not just by kids: in one account, a whole community of adults turn on a girl for “coming out” as a lesbian.

We see community meetings and candlelight vigils for the suicides of the bullied. And there was much talk about “speaking out.”

But two words are not mentioned in the film, by anybody: justice and manners.

Bullying is wrong on several levels. Were children instructed in and held to standards of justice — or even of decent manners — bullying would be taboo, and the encouragement to “speak out” (not “snitch”) would work itself naturally into the everyday talk and badinage of children.

But children have little instruction in what justice is. We had little of it when I was in school. And now “justice” seems dominated by institutions, not persons. That is, when we think of justice we think of police and lawyers and social programs. We don’t think of the rules of behavior and of standing up for what’s right on a personal level.

And yet it is at the personal level that each person must engage with the concept of justice. For justice is a virtue. Contrary to John Rawls and the mavens of modern pseudo-liberalism, it is not primarily a feature of institutions. It is a practice. It relies on choice and habit. It demands impartiality of a kind, and the abandonment of some personal gain to obtain the mutual gain of social co-operation. And it demands the control of emotions, too.

In the signage at the presentation of the film, I saw another virtue mentioned: empathy. Empathy’s important, and it is indeed something that can be conjured up by a movie such as Bully. But empathy is not justice. Empathy is the imagined “point of view” of the other, and a positive solidarity of emotions with that conjured point of view. It is absolutely essential to social life, as explained and explored in Adam Smith’s A Theory of Moral Sentiments and Herbert Spencer’s Principles of Ethics. But justice is a step up from empathy. it is a step up in rationality. And it is necessary to stop bullying, as it is to stopping the cycles of violence outside of schools and childish tribalism.

So, too, is manners. Actually, manners might be seen as “justice” without the sanction of law, nuanced by custom. Public schools in America, in the 20th century, lost track of justice and manners. No wonder. They were taken over by psychologists and administrators and set adrift from traditional moorings. They found no new moorings — at least, none that were adequate.

I think that, while it might be possible to reintroduce ethics and manners into public schools, we’re likely to see little improvement. The institutions have become hidebound. Better, I think, to introduce competition into education at the k-12 level, let different organizations of pedagogues compete for parental patronage. And let respect for others, and standards of decency and justice come into play at a fundamental level.

The level of choice.

Since writing the above, a few hours ago, I see a conceptual mistake. I’ll correct this tomorrow.

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No! No! No!

It has been nearly two score years since I first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I read it a second and perhaps a third time, but it could be as long ago as thirty years since I last read the much-loved children’s classic. It is not my favorite work by that author. I prefer the sequel epic The Lord of the Rings, his comic tale Farmer Giles of Ham, and the great short story “Leaf by Niggle.” But I do have very fond memories of reading it, and I looked forward to the film version created under the watchful eye of Peter Jackson.

I saw the movie Saturday night, in 2D. (Lacking two working eyes, I cannot watch 3D movies. Besides, as my friend Mr. Monteith points out, it is always best to wait for a 4D version — that is where they add the plot.) I had been prepared. I understood that the filmmakers had stretched the story, and that it would not be completed with this particular episode.

On the face of it, this is somewhat galling. Jackson had made The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy of movies, and that had made a certain amount of sense. It was presented to the world as a trilogy of books. But taking a shorter, simpler story and stringing it out? Not really necessary.

But he was obviously attempting to make a prequel in the same grand manner as his earlier Tolkien efforts. So stretching it out came naturally. After all, there were a lot of story notions embedded in Tolkien’s extensive notes to the trilogy.

The truth of the situation, though, is this: The Lord of the Rings was not a trilogy (or “triology,” as my cousins and I mispronounced the word back in the days of our youth, by a most rational epenthesis, interpolating “trio” into the word). It was six books crammed into three volumes. And the biggest problem with Peter Jackson’s movies was the writing team’s first major decision, to cut out the bulk of the last book, “The Scouring of the Shire,” and not giving it its own movie. (This would have allowed the third movie to end with the triumphant bowing of all to the hobbits.)

So, as if to balance the radical redaction of LotR, The Hobbit was beefed up.

Still, I have no great complaints about the movie. I enjoyed it. I wish to be counted among the film’s admirers. The Rivendell sequence was a logically developed episode, and the backstory about the bad blood between the lead dwarf, Thorin Oakenshield, and a pale orc conqueror (whose name I forget and who I will not look up), did not strike me as intrusive to the story.

What was intrusive were the battling stone giants, a rock-em-sock-em-robotic pair that seemed merely to add danger and violence to the story prior to the entry into Misty Mountain caves. The amount of improbable physical misadventure was tarted up in the movie, as well, laid on with a trowel. As was the Misty Mountain orc with the goiterish double chin — but at least he was a bit of comic relief.

The best scenes in the movie are at the very end, eagles’ rescue to the contemplation of the destination of the Lonely Mountain; the Riddles in the Dark, with a brilliant Gollum, once again; the droll episode with the trolls; and the party at Bag End.

I understand that I am nearly alone in liking this party sequence. But certainly in conception and nearly in execution, this is a great introduction to the story, and I wish that all the frame story and backstory could have been dropped in favor of extending this episode, for it is pure Tolkien. The party is why some of us took to Tolkien so eagerly. The humor, the nostalgia for peace and safety and security, the intimations of mystery and adventure: these are all here in the story.

And it is here that we are introduced to the young Bilbo Baggins, played by the actor best know for his portrayal of Dr. Watson in the recent British series Sherlock. This is one of the most brilliant bits of casting in recent memory. He is perfect for the role.

We are introduced to the dwarves in this great scene, too. They number twelve amusing (if minor) characters, plus their leader. The most obvious flaw in the movie is that we never really get to know the twelve dwarves very well.

And yet it is with the leader, Thorin Oakenshield, that I have my biggest complaint. He is the only one of the dwarves to look basically like a bearded leading man. He doesn’t have an oversized nose, big ears, funny hair, stocky torso, or any other touch that would indicate he is of a different species from Man.

This bothers me because it suggests a latent racism, or (more properly) speciesism. He is the “heroic” dwarf of the fellowship. But since he looks like human, and not dwarvish, the suggestion is that Men are heroic, Dwarves are not.

There are weird racist subtexts throughout Tolkien’s Middle Earth stories, many of them deriving from Tolkien’s focus on fighting the Pure Evil of Sauron. But perhaps we can overlook all that, just as we overlook Peter Jackson’s repeated images of the Flaming Vagina (the Eye of Sauron in the earlier movies; the eye of Smaug in the current tale).

Thorin is put through a minor arc in this movie. He was a skeptic about Bilbo from the beginning, accepting the hobbit only on Gandalf’s insistence. He is mostly dour throughout, molto serioso. But in the end he . . . hugs the hobbit. Thankfully, there is not as much hugging of hobbits in this movie as there was in the earlier trilogy. Peter Jackson and his cohorts cannot help but impute to Middle Earth culture the habits of today’s scandalous over-huggers.

More grating yet, Thorin shouts Jackson’s favorite cinematic cliché: “No!” Frodo repeated this mantra upon the fall of Gandalf in the mines of Moria, and the dwarf Gimli repeated it a few minutes earlier, upon the discovery of the demise of his kinfolk. I find this annoying because, well, I have never seen it done in real life. It seems like a cinematic tic, to me. I have had any number of bad things happen to me. I did not apostrophize a “No” at the time.

There is only one real justification for shouting “No!” in a Middle Earth tale, and that is if it is in the sentence “No More Trilogies!”