Archive for Film

Transient or Resident?

Posted in Dante, Hell, Review with tags , on December 21, 2009 by S.A.

As he is guided by Virgil through the first several circles of the Inferno, Dante suffers from occasional fainting spells. The grisly, unwholesome sights of various torments, and the frightful denizens of the place, stress him so much that he is wont to swoon and stumble. He eventually becomes more accustomed to it, but his reactions always seem over-the-top, as it is clear that he is never really in danger of becoming a permanent resident in Hell. His trip was ordained by Heaven. He is on a fact-finding mission. We know that everything will work out for him in the end: the third and final act of the Divine Comedy is the Paradiso, after all.

In contrast, we don’t know what ever really becomes of another Dante-like character at the heart of a similar tale – a cinematic odyssey through a different kind of Hell, Barton Fink (1991). This terribly underappreciated film from the peerless Coen brothers, more than any other in their wide-ranging canon, is one that rewards multiple viewings, leaves nagging, tantalizing questions for the viewer to contemplate long after, and is rich with interpretation possibilities. It is also a hilarious dark comedy with fine performances from John Turturro, John Goodman, and Judy Davis, among others. That there are subtle parallels to David Lynch’s Eraserhead is just the first of many clues that there are multiple levels of meaning to the story.

Like Dante, Barton Fink is a writer. In the early 1940s, having won overnight acclaim for one of his plays on Broadway, his agent persuades him to take a screen-writing assignment and journey to the antipodal point furthest from his high-brow New York world: the Hollywood of B-movies. At face value, it seems to be the perfect assignment, for Barton, growing up on the Lower East Side, considers himself a champion of the Common Man: an artist that will paint on the largest possible canvas the hopes and dreams of the everyday, average American. And where better to do so but the burgeoning new home to a new industry that can bring Art to Everyone, not just the few that frequent the theater districts?

But Barton has a lot to learn about the Common Man, and about himself, and it becomes clear early on that these lessons will come as he embarks on a descending trek into a virtual Hell. He is going through Hell because he is too self-absorbed to realize that the understands as little about the Common Man as do the Lady Higgenbottoms and Nigel Grinch-Gibbonses of the world, and as a result develops the worst possible case of writer’s block. His attempts patronize the rabble fall flat, and his desire to “elevate” their concerns elicits resentment and confusion. The unwashed masses want to be entertained by men in tights wrestling with each other, it turns out – not a man wrestling with his soul.

Dante had Virgil, his literary hero and inspiration, to guide him on his famous trek. The equivalent role in Barton Fink is shared by two different characters: The everyman, insurance salesman Charlie Meadows, who represents the ostensible kind of role-model that Fink celebrates, and the washed-up alcoholic novelist-turned screenwriter William Mayhew (who is an avatar of William Faulkner) that he considers to be the finest writer of his generation. Mayhew has preceded Fink in the attempt to use his formidable literary skills to cash in at the cinema box office. But his predilection for “idiot man-child” characters, among others, has made him as poor a fit in Hollywood as Barton is, and he responds to his failure with drinking. Meadows, the non-intellectual doppelganger to Fink and Mayhew, not only uses liquor as an escape, but has another hobby which I will not give away here.

If Meadows and Mayhew function as a composite Virgil, then most the remaining cast can all be seen to have allegorical connections to the various denizens of Dante’s Hell. There’s The Lovers, Paulo and Francesca, in the room next to him at the Hotel Earle, the lustful couple never seen but often heard moaning. There’s a number of sinners that Dante would categorize as The Violent, from the wrestler (“I will destroy him!”) to fist-fighting servicemen at a dance. There’s the Incontinent in the form of Mayhew (“sorry about the odor”) and his secretary, the strange, heavenly painting of his dream woman (Beatrice) that ever haunts Fink, and the imps and devils that appear as bellhops and cops. He is prodded and poked by a demonic mosquito that inexplicably inhabits his bizarre room. There’s Satan himself, the movie mogul behind the huge desk. There are tantalizing biblical references and dramatic visual clues that suggest the structure of the Inferno, such as when the camera takes us plunging down into filthy sink drain, or down into the dark depths of the funnel-shaped bell of a trumpet.

Is it real or just a fantasy? One memorable image is the wallpaper that adorns Barton’s prison-like hotel room. It often comes peeling off the walls with a slick, clammy sound. On a repeat viewing I realized that the film’s opening credits appear against a backdrop of this wallpaper, including the text that indicates the scene is set in New York City. The wallpaper is in New York, not the Hollywood hotel. It is a subtle pointer that the entire experience is probably all in Barton’s head, a head that is utterly inward looking and wrapped up with The Life of The Mind. And once he’s reached the depths of Hell, and the walls of his hotel literally erupt into flames, Charlie Meadows, aka Common Man, tells him, “You think your life is Hell? You’re just a tourist. I live here.”

And that is all Dante was. A tourist. And like Barton, he was probably too self-absorbed and privileged, to realize that Hell existed all around him on earth, in the lives of the average person mired in a world of superstition and ignorance.

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Collision

Posted in Atheism, Misc, Religion with tags , , on October 22, 2009 by S.A.

Below are some excerpts from an essay by Pastor Douglas Wilson, as part of the promotional material for a new film that he made together with Christopher Hitchens, called Collision. It looks like a very interesting idea for a film, by the way, as it chronicles a series of debates between christian Wilson and atheist Hitchens. Unfortunately, based on the poor quality of Wilson’s arguments as sampled in the essay, it looks as though the theist side might be rather poorly represented. I also saw an online clip from the film that features him talking to a group of rather inarticulate college students that apparently were members of a campus atheism club. I hope more of the film features legitimate interlocutors for him.

In addition to the quoted excerpts from his article, I’ve added some of my thoughts. Wilson makes a number of facile arguments that have will provide a certain emotion compulsion to some people, and they warrant being corrected.

From the perspective of a Christian, the refusal of an atheist to be a Christian is dismaying, but it is at least intelligible. But what is really disconcerting is the failure of atheists to be atheists. That is the thing that cries out for further exploration.

What does it mean to be an atheist? It is a definition of negation. It says little about what you do believe. It merely means that there is one kind of thing that you do not believe in, namely, an Omnipotent, Omnipresent, All-Powerful Being Outside of Time that Somehow Created Everything. That is all. To say that most atheists somehow fail to be atheists is a bit odd, because it can only mean that the ostensible atheist really does believe in “God.” Is this what Wilson is trying to say? It turns out, no. He is rather setting up a strawman to represent all atheists, which he’ll then try to knock down.

The atheistic worldview is nothing if not inherently reductionistic, whether this is admitted or not.

First of all, there is not a single cut-and-dried “atheistic worldview” any more than a lack of belief in goblins constitutes some kind of worldview. One could, by definition, be an atheist and believe that we exist in some kind of computer simulation devised up by alien minds, for example. Some atheists as Buddhists, and others (myself included) are pantheists.

Second, the only reductionism that Wilson might be able to speak of, in trying to globally assign all atheists to a particular philosophy, is the reductionism that lies at the heart of the scientific method. As a matter of investigative routine, we usually start with more complex phenomena, and, to understand and explain them, break them down into simpler bits. For example, to understand how some mental or nervous process occurs, physically, we need to understand how the nervous system is formed, which means understanding neurons and their electrochemistry, which requires cellular biology, which leads us to organic chemistry, which leads us to molecules, and atoms, and electrons and quarks. To approach it any other way would be impractical. But, having used this method to unravel how the parts fit together, it hardly follows that “that is all there is” –  because the universe doesn’t necessarily function in a top-down, the-whole-is-the-sum-of-its-parts way, but more probably in a bottom-up mode, where emergent complex behavior can and does arise. It is a Fallacy of Composition to assert that because the subatomic components of brains follow certain rules (or exhibit certain random behaviors) that complex structures built from them are merely agglomerations of them with no additional properties or meaning.

Everything that happens is a chance-driven rattle-jattle jumble in the great concourse of atoms that we call time. Time and chance acting on matter have brought about, in equally aimless fashion, the 1927 New York Yankees, yesterday’s foam on a New Jersey beach, Princess Di, [etc…]

What does he mean by “chance-driven rattle-jattle jumble”, do you suppose? I’m a physicist by education, and an atheist by choice, and I certainly do not regard “everything that happens” in the facile terms that Wilson patronizingly uses here. The tacit implication is the simpleminded one, that if the Universe was not planned by the kind of god he has in mind, then everything is happenstance randomness. This is a false either-or dichotomy.

What I do know is that we have luckily become smart enough to develop a pretty effective method to study the world around us, and to understand that nature consists of a number of different kinds of particles that behave in consistent ways, with a certain degree of randomness sprinkled in. The result is a tremendous amount of both order and diversity, seeming chaos amidst rigorous structure. And given enough time and space, it isn’t surprising, really, that from such a bedground could arise self-replicating molecules and self-replicating cells acting under external pressures that force them to continually improve and diversify, with the end result of the highly goal-directed, emergent activity of life.

The problem is that this atheistic assumption does the very same thing to the atheist’s case for atheism. The atheist gives us an account of all things which makes it impossible for us to believe that any account of all things could possibly be true.

But atheism, of course, is not an attempt to “give an account of all things.” Moreover, the lack of positive belief in an untestable conjecture in no way invalidates our ability to make meaningful observations and draw conclusions about the world that have predictive and explanatory merit.

Educated persons generally understand that there are fundamental limits to our knowledge, at least at this time, and probably forever. We know from both physics and mathematics that the world is far more complex than would allow us to account for everything. There are forbidden questions in quantum mechanics. We understand that there are no mathematical systems that are both complete and consistent. There are metaphysical question that lie outside the purview of our tools, that certainly seem valid enough, but which answers likely do not exist for (e.g., “why is there a Universe at all, instead of just nothing?”)

I do not know any atheists that actually think that any worldview delivers “an account of all things.” Most of us are well aware of the difficulties of finite minds that make mistakes grappling with a complex world, and would not be so brash as to think we have it all figured out, or ever will. But the one idea that all atheists share is that facile, wishful-thinking-based explanations that appeal to our vanities, fears, and emotions, and which do not have any kind of empirical support but are rather correlated with whichever ancient myth our particular ancestors might have invented, don’t deserve serious consideration as being factually true.

Nor does atheism allow us to have any fixed ethical standard, or the possibility of beauty.

These are the kinds of comments from certain kinds of theists that truly are offensive. They’d deny a sense of morality and aesthetics to all manner of good people that lived rich lives without theism. (And it is the atheist they they turn around and label “arrogant”!)

What most atheists (but not all – go talk to any Ayn Rand fan or Objectivist and you’ll see) would probably agree with is the idea that there is no universal standard of ethics or beauty that is somehow established as empirical law, in the way that gravitation, for example, is. This isn’t a terribly difficult idea to grasp, given the centuries of human history that would tend to confirm it. But with the either-or fallacious thinking of Wilson and his ilk, we are presented with an implicit choice of “either you have fixed, eternal standards of ethics/aesthetics, or you have absolutely nothing.” There is no entertaining the notion that these concepts could indeed come from human minds, yet be no less valuable or profound for it. In fact, they might even be moreso.

And not content to let sleeping dogs lie, reason also brings us the inexorable consequences of atheism, which includes the unpalatable but necessary conclusion that random neuron firings do not amount to any “truth” that corresponds to anything outside our heads.

There is nothing in the rejection of an unsupported conjecture about a Superbeing that in turn entails that the human mind cannot ascertain knowledge of what is going on outside it, through a meticulous, self-correcting process of observation, test, corroboration, and repetition. Wilson’s suggestion is absolutely absurd. And yes, our statements of truth in science come with error bars, because the relentless complexity of the world necessitates that we quantify and account for the ways in which our work can go wrong. Not only are the patterns of neuron firings not random, the results of clear and structured thinking do indeed correspond to the world about us. Sometimes what it ends up telling us isn’t exactly what we’d like to hear, in our vanity – for science has removed us from the center of the universe and has, in some sense, made us another twig on a vast phylogenic tree of life. I’d guess that the accompanying humility does not sit well with the likes of the Pastor Wilson, who divides the possibilities into two cases: “God’s special creature” or “meaningless automata” with no other possibilities.

Now obviously, [Christianity] is a message that can be believed or disbelieved. But the reason for mentioning it here includes the important point that such a set of convictions makes it possible for us to believe that reason can be trusted, that goodness does not change with the evolutionary times, and that beauty is grounded in the very heart of God. Someone who believes these things doesn’t believe that we are just fizzing.

Translation: Since it is all too difficult and demeaning to think that we (and our emotions) have a natural origin, let’s have a “God” to explain why and how we are just so damn special. So we can feel better about ourselves. If our imaginations are not up to the task of seeing how a naturalistic cosmos might produce self-aware beings with cognition that can in turn act upon the canvas that they slowly sprang up from, then we’ll just call the process “divine” and be done with it. It is the Argument From Personal Incredulity again, and here it is no more persuasive than when it is more commonly used by biology-ignoramuses when they think they have made an argument by stating “but I can’t see how we could have evolved!”

You can deny that this God exists, of course, and you can throw the whole cosmos into that pan of reduction sauce. And you can keep the heat on by publishing one atheist missive after another. But what you should not be allowed to do is cook the whole thing bone dry and call the crust on the bottom an example of the numinous or transcendent. Calling it that provides us with no reason to believe it — and numerous reasons not to.

The “numinous and transcendent” can describe emotional responses to the world around one. That anyone can react positively and with genuine feeling to the ineffable sublimity of nature without thinking there is some Magical Being Behind It All, is apparently offensive to Wilson. Well, his views are even more offensive to those of us about the globe, stretching far back in time, that have lived and loved and wondered every bit as much as this pompous pastor may have, but without the Sky-Father explanation to fall back on.