Adapting Ender’s Game

Ender's GameEnder’s Game strikes me as a good example of the pros and cons of adapting novels for the screen. In a novel, psychological complexity is on full display and the internal life of the protagonist generally occupies our attention. Movies are visual and aural, so they are more spectacular, but movies can only show us so much psychology. This is why most adaptations miss the mark.

The book Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is a beautiful, insightful science fiction novel in which a young cadet comes to terms with his destiny as humanity’s savior in a war against a powerful alien race. His training, begun from a very early age, is emotionally ruthless and isolating, and our hero is deprived of an outlet for his gentle nature. Instead, all his hours are occupied by the schemes of Colonel Graff, whose job it is to hone Ender Wiggin into a mercilessness, strategic genius, even as Ender struggles against bullying and the playground politics of his fellow cadets.

The “plot”, the external actions taken, the strange environments, and the other characters are in the novel totally subservient to Ender’s emotional journey. It’s this journey that makes the novel great, and these elements are the most difficult to translate to the screen. For one thing, Ender’s sustaining love for his sister and the fear he has of his brother are almost completely cut from the film simply to accommodate a normal run-time for a blockbuster.

Much of the emotional nuance also has to be cropped from the screenplay for time, so what remains are the larger emotional notes, the most obvious conflicts with the least subtlety. All the minor wins and losses Ender experiences in the novel must be swept under the rug, and only when they’ve cut that content and finished the screenplay do they begin looking for an actor to portray what’s left.

Actors have a tall order when it comes to adapting literature. They bring their own experiences to bear when they read a screenplay, and do what they can to express their roles. But they can’t really compete with our imagination, which in a novel fills the ambiguous details and idealizes characters and action. Asa Butterfield played Ender and did a fine job, though I felt none of the deep empathy that I felt with the character in the novel.

But movies do have their own weaponry that novels cannot touch. Where the movie really delivers is in its special effects. Unlike reading the novel, watching Ender’s Game is a treat because we actually get to see the amazing sets, the charismatic faces of Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley, and the slow ballet of a zero gravity practice chamber. We get to experience it empirically. The novel describes these elements very well, but it’s a different experience altogether to engage your eyes and ears, visual and auditory cortices with the crafts of Hollywood.

Unfortunately, what I loved most about the book, what I thought truly made it a great one, didn’t make it into the movie. The novel was fairly inspiring while the movie was merely entertaining. I wasn’t surprised by this, as I can probably count on one hand the number of film adaptations that stand up to their prose counterparts.

Rated R – For Ridiculous

The MPAA movie rating system really baffles me. I’ve always found it totally amazing that The Blues Brothers (1980) is rated R. A few swear words, an N-bomb (spoken by Cab Calloway), and some mild blasphemy must be the reason for the rating since the mild violence is comedic and there is no other questionable content. Are these really the ideas we need to protect young people against?

Compared to the average R-rated comedy these days (think The Hangover or The Wolf of Wall Street), Blues Brothers is mild in the extreme. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has the same rating and features several gut wrenching rape and torture scenes. The MPAA, the supposed moral authority on these matters, feel the content of Dragon Tattoo is just as risky for young viewers as The Blues Brothers.

What’s more confusing is that in the U.S. a child can see an R-rated movie as long as he or she is accompanied by a parent or guardian. An 18 year old can take his 12 year old brother to see most horror movies. It’s only when you get into the NC-17 rating that these supposedly condemnable contents are truly off-limits to younger minds. That is, younger minds without internet access.

Because a child is accompanied by a guardian, he or she must be psychologically sophisticated enough to separate fact from fiction and come away from the movie unscathed. Or do they think that guardian will tell them exactly when to avert their eyes and plug their ears? Or do they think the contents of a movie like Saw couldn’t really be damaging to a child? No more damaging than The Blues Brothers, I suppose.

I don’t think the MPAA should try harder to keep kids out of the theaters. I agree with them that the onus should be on the parents, but those parents will be able to do a much better job when the ratings make consistent sense.

Now everybody go watch The Blues Brothers.

The Blues Brothers

Suspension Of Disbelief

In 1989, an uptight schmuck named Richard and his terminally unserious buddy Larry found a $2 million accounting mistake at the insurance firm they worked at and, seeing it as an opportunity to brownnose up the corporate ladder, took it upon themselves to point it out to their boss, Bernie, who was so impressed with their insight he invited the both of them to his Hampton Island beach house for a weekend of number crunching and partying in off-hours, which struck both Richard and Larry as a huge opportunity—Richard might finally make enough money to move out of his parent’s place and Larry, who wore sunglasses around his chin dangling from one ear because that’s what a party animal he was, would finally get the weekend of R & R he felt he deserved—however since Bernie is in fact embezzling the money he decides to do what most filthy rich tycoons would do and puts a contract out on his employees, and he’s taken off guard when the mobster he hired, whose wife Bernie was sleeping with, decides to kill Bernie instead, which puts a damper on the weekend’s party since Richard and Larry arrive just in time to find Bernie’s body, comically laid out with a smirk on his face, and despite all reason they decide not to call the cops and to instead try to “figure out what to do”, at which point a roaming group arrive and our heroes find themselves in the midst of a party where all the guests, presumably because they are very superficial, don’t notice the corpse grinning on the couch, so Richard and Larry first try to “roll with it”, pretending nothing is amiss even after the night passes without anyone realizing what’s going on, so Larry decides to string up this carcass like a marionette so he can wave casually at passersby and play a one-sided game of Monopoly™ while drinking all Bernie’s champagne and hitting on the babes, and all the while Richard doesn’t call the cops because he’s distracted by a very 80’s-looking girl (so much so he forgets or neglects his and Larry’s reprehensible behavior and the fact that now they’ve been carting around their dead boss, with no plan whatsoever, for more than a day, dropping him haphazardly, vacuuming beach sand from his face, letting the mobster’s wife have her way with him, Bernie, a dead man) and by this point they’re in so deep they don’t realize they’ve become side-targets of the contract killer, who looks like a long-haired Joe Flaherty and has a tickle trunk full of improbable costumes, and who, seeing Bernie supposedly alive and well on the beach (vis-à-vis the puppet show, the posthumous smirk and rigid, upright posture) decides to go back and finish the job, and meanwhile Bernie, who is still dead, has successfully haggled the price of his Porsche up $15000 from the previous bid and has somehow staved off any of the bodily rot and voiding of bowels so common in these situations, even maintaining well-coiffed hair and a ruddy complexion despite being mishandled by Larry and Richard who seem to want to keep the charade up so they can drink booze and get laid, which actually seems like it might happen for Richard with the typical 80’s girl, and by the time the contract killer finds Bernie again, he (the killer) thinks he’s going crazy and drops all subtlety and shoots Bernie several times through the chest in front of Larry, Richard, and Richard’s love interest, sending them running for a hiding spot until Larry gymnastically wraps the killer up in a phone cord in one smooth, spiraling move to be held until the police arrive who rightly charge the killer for murder and set our heroes (I include the love interest in this group at this point) free to lounge on a beach and enjoy their good fortune until Bernie, whose body had been gathered up by medics and rolled in a gurney into an ambulance that drives off only to hit a bump, opening the rear doors and sending the gurney carrying Bernie down the boardwalk only to land right behind our heroes who run away screaming before a small child finds the unfortunate corpse and buries it in the sand.

Weekend At Bernie’s was a box office hit that prompted a sequel in which voodoo is used to reanimate Bernie for continued hijinks.

Weekend At Bernie's

The True Detective Finale [SPOILERS]

[WARNING: This is not a show you want spoiled for you.]

Easily the hottest new television show this season is HBO’s True Detective. Social media sites have been crackling with theories, projections, analyses, breakdowns, synopses, praise, criticism, and so forth, and speculation on season two is in full swing as we speak.

The build up to the final episode, fueled by social media, was intense and exciting, and the scope and depth of the show made it impossible to forecast what direction the finale would take. Now that it has has come and gone, I find myself feeling a bit deflated. All that hype sweetens the anticipation but contributes to disappointment later; with so much chatter and speculation, it’s easy to feel let down, to be critical and cynical.

True Detective was easily the best show I’ve seen this year. From the start, the show was an example of visual storytelling at its finest. McConaughey and Harrelson gave truly impressive performances, the writing and directing were riveting, the cinematography was beautiful, and the show seemed to open into the mysterious worlds of psychosis and even the supernatural. This stuff is right in my wheelhouse.

The build up to the finale was intense. There were so many questions that needed answers: Who or what is the green-eared spaghetti monster? Has Cohle lost it completely? Has Hart made up his might to end Cohle? With such a network of horror out there in the Bayou, can Hart and Cohle even make a difference?

I thought the finale was great. The bad guy was thoroughly twisted, the chase and showdown made my heart thump in my ears, the denouement was touching and solidified McConaughey as the best performance of the year (as if anyone had any doubt), the detective work was engaging, and the dialogue was sharp and memorable.

So why do I feel let down? It might just be because it’s over (a 2-hour special might have been nice), or it might be because the wild twists I imagined would happen might have been more mind-blowing. Should they have let the bottom drop out and reached into the supernatural abyss of Chtulu? To be sure, a CGI demon would have been stupid, would have short-circuited the whole series. Yet somehow Cohle’s “vortex of chaos” hallucination worked perfectly.

Sure, I would have loved to learn more about the occult ethos, sure I would have loved it if the ending involved Maggie, the daughter, or that cellphone-selling rocket that Marty…did things to. Sure I would have been okay with one or both of the main characters dying, and of course I would have loved some sort of bizarre black magic showdown, but what would I be willing to trade away from the finale as shot to accommodate these speculations?

A dip into the supernatural would have been a mistake. True Detective is not Twin Peaks. The latter wove the supernatural or dream elements into the fabric of the show from the start, which allowed them to knock the roof off in the mind-blowing finale. But True Detective was always about real people chasing real people who may or may not be insane.

A wider focus on the evil underground network of child abusers might have meant a less penetrating look into our main characters. To delve into the occult rituals and sacrifices might have been delicious, but those details would never be the focus in a police investigation. There is only so much narrative, and I think Nic Pizzolatto made strong decisions throughout.

The one decision I immediately questioned—something that usually rubs me the wrong way in detective shows—is that the final episode showed us Errol’s world, even showed us three or four of his personalities without any detective work. The infraction here being that, in a detective show, the audience should learn about the bad guy at the same pace as the detectives. But if Pizzolatto had shown only what the detectives saw, the finale would have been 45 minutes of detective work and then a five minutes showdown. The audience wouldn’t have tasted Errol’s mania, which drives the anticipation through that beautiful Heart Of Darkness chase scene.

We can all nitpick from our couches, but here’s the thing: I don’t know what would have made True Detective better. What are your opinions?

Killing Them Softly

In the opening moments of Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, we are swept toward an arched tunnel, paper debris blowing by on the far side, and provided we hear the audio, we know this isn’t just an ordinary movie. The soundtrack buffets us about with fragments of George W. Bush speaking about the global financial crisis. Isn’t this supposed to be a gangster movie?

The premise is simple: goons knock over a poker game, scapegoating the owner of the card room, a mafioso crook (Ray Liotta) who has already once stolen from his own establishment. When the higher-ups learn about the crime, they send in heavy Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to dole out justice.

The goons ( and ) own the first third of this movie. Their performances and dialogue are hilarious and fresh in a way I haven’t seen since Sexy Beast. When the reckoning comes, it brings along stars Richard Jenkins and James Gandolfini, the latter playing a divorced, alcoholic train wreck who gets a disproportionate amount of screen time because his performance is so desperate and sad.

These unique characters elaborate what should be a simple revenge tale. A heavy dose of gruesome violence also helps. From the moment the poker game is held up, the look on Liotta’s face says at all. He knows justice is coming. And even though he isn’t guilty this time, he’ll pay the price dearly because in this world perception matters more than bare facts. Even while pleading for clemency, he is beaten so severely it made me queasy.

A laundry list of plot points cannot do Killing Them Softly justice. Right from the opening, basically narrating the action, the global financial crisis unfolds through bold sound design. Voices come at us from all over, Bush Jr., John McCain and then-senator Barack Obama front and center. Dominik dwells on Obama as he ramps up his rhetoric and we almost hear the subtext of hope and change in his voice. Can we survive this disaster? Yes, we can, but what will we be like when we come out on the other side?

As the reverberations of the financial crisis spread, we can’t avoid acknowledging that the disasters in America and in the film were caused by criminal gamblers, the most ruthless of which will come out of it unscathed after the industry undergoes a good bloodletting. We sometimes want to turn down the dial on all the allegorical exposition, but Dominik makes strong choices throughout this film, nudging us into sympathy with Cogan’s final edict, a response to Barack Obama on a barroom television:

“This guy wants to tell me we’re living in a community? Don’t make me laugh. I’m living in America, and in America you’re on your own. America’s not a country. It’s just a business. Now fuckin’ pay me.”

Not subtle, but classy. Just like this movie.

 

Free Will: A Devil’s Advocacy

Here are some thoughts on Sam Harris’ Free Will that weren’t in my review. I hope you get a kick out of them.

Much of the strength of Harris’ argument rests on the weak shoulders of the concept of free will, which is vague, flimsy, and usually inadequate. The popular concept of free will, in this sense, is similar to the popular concept of God, which is often argued over but rarely defined. His point, briefly, is that we all inherit accidental conditions when we’re born and throughout our lives that define the range of our experience and reactions. We have no control over these conditions and therefore our will can never be truly “free”.

What Harris does best is to present an argument to the popular, “common sense” assumptions about free will (much like he does with God in this “debate” with a confused Deepak Chopra). Harris’ argument constantly pleads for a causal look at physical phenomena and evidence-based conclusions. He shows over and over again that there is no real evidence to support free will.

Some of the semantic elements of his presentation did not sit right with me, however, so I’ll outline a few of these issues as I see them. I welcome comments and opinions, as I am nothing like an authority on any of these issues. If it’s a bit fragmented, that’s because I agreed with most of what he said, and only took issue here and there.

“Free will is an illusion.”

Rather than open with a working definition of free will—which would put people on the same page immediately, even if it were a weak definition—Harris says that free will IS an illusion. This is his thesis statement. But the “Is”, in this case, as in all subject-predicate propositions, over-extends its authority. When we say what something is, what exactly do we mean?

I can predicate all I want, but my statements will never cover all the facts of reality. I can talk about some fundamental, permanent property in an object, and I can make a definitive judgment about objects—say, “the grass is green”—but my judgment doesn’t close the issue altogether and won’t necessarily be true under all conditions (green grass viewed under a red light appears black).

How do I know what something is? I look, or in the case of a priori phenomena, I intuit and reason. I can sense features of the object of inquiry, but I can never know everything about it. Better I should declare my judgment in terms of my frame of reference. The subject-predicate “is” misleads because it unconsciously assumes ultimate, objective authority and falls prey to misguided is/is-not dual logic.

If I translate his “is” claim with this in mind, it becomes “free will appears as an illusion to me.” This simple and honest change of wording strips his argument of its tone of authority. The “to me” implies his epistemology (i.e. free will appears as an illusion according to principles 1, 2, 3, etc.). We shouldn’t speak authoritatively about facts as though they exist alone in a vacuum. I prefer arguments that avoid claiming what something “is” and instead describe the world as it actually works, through verbs expressing process-transactions with an observer.

“There are no self-sustained facts, floating in nonentity.” – Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality

The other issue I have with his claim is this: labeling a persistent fact “an illusion” doesn’t make the illusion go away. Even if we wholeheartedly buy Harris’ argument, we still feel free to make the choices presented to us. Calling free will an illusion doesn’t diminish the fact that I make conscious decisions that affect my future. The term “illusion” is not so firm a concept that Average Joe can’t easily misapply it. People will continue to live just as they did before, even if they adjust their assumptions about how much freedom is actually involved.

Hindus believe that the phenomenological world is an illusion, that our senses obscure true divine reality. But Hindus still live with the phenomenological world of sense every day. We can reason away sensations as merely neurological events, but this does little to take us out of the experience of that illusion. I find this thought echoing in my head when Harris writes, “[e]ither our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them” because a similar line of reasoning likely led the Hindus to develop their metaphysics of karma.

Epistemology

On this issue I am confused, and I would be happy if someone would clear things up for me. If I accept that physics can explain everything that exists, then material facts must be responsible for false beliefs. If I believe trolls control reality through magic, this belief is explained as an outcome of weird biology or neurochemical activity (psychosis, bad drugs, etc.). So the physical facts of my brain are responsible for my subjective misreading of the world around me. This underlines the importance of communicating my judgments in terms of my own frames of reference (i.e. “I am going under the Great Bridge when I die, according to my beliefs, because I paid the toll and the trolls have chosen me.”).

Science is a semantic activity first and foremost; although it aims at objectivity, empirical testing should always refer to the observer applying tests to the facts at hand (i.e. “Under these conditions, I noticed X.”). The more observers corroborate a fact, the higher the probability that the next observer will see the same thing and further corroborate the observation. By this, the scientific method, we approach facts and laws. But the point here is that experience is the only measure of reality. We can say nothing meaningful about an unobserved world, and if we do we are confusing inference for fact. Free Will takes advantage of this tactic, frequently using absolute, objective language when it is not possible to have absolute, objective knowledge. His use of absolute language is obviously a linguistic dilemma. It doesn’t mean that I disagree with the spirit of his argument.

I will quote him as an example: “Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors.” Remove superlatives from this sentence. “Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of some of the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need some control over those factors.” Well, we are aware of some of the factors, and we do have some control, so the statement simply begs the definition of “free”. In this case, “free” doesn’t mean “completely free”, but there is wiggle room for free will if we admit that we have some freedom in our conscious actions.

I’d like to return to my question: are thoughts and semantics purely material? Can the various levels of abstraction, the nuance and individuality of human brains and nervous systems be completely accounted for with only empirical evidence? I don’t think so. If you take strict material determinism as your view, you do not have the empirical evidence to claim that all of human experience can be explained by physics, even if it really, really seems that way.

There seems to be some missing explanation, some mystery that translates these so-called simple neuronal firings into complex visible, audible, tactile experiences that we can actually think about in infinite (indefinite) degrees of abstraction. It’s easy to say, “Thought A is caused by the firing of neuron X,” but a thought has a subjective, omni-valent presentation to it and a neuronal firing does not. How consciousness translates neuronal firings into experience seems mostly mysterious to me.

We can measure the brain activity of someone who is meditating or sleeping or doing a puzzle or looking at a red Chevy Nova. We can get reams of data, collated and colour-coded, and that makes us think we have the facts. But try going the other way here. Try looking at brain activity on the page and tell me exactly what it is like to live in that brain, complete with all itinerant facts, all the memories of each element of the event, the fantasies the person calls up consciously and unconsciously because of personal, historical correspondences, etc. It’s impossible. Numbers and data are not experience itself. Math and science are only models of experience. They are usually more correct models than primitive superstitions, sure, but still only models.

If beliefs have a material basis, the materialist says his nervous system and brain is more correct than a faith-based person’s nervous system. But both generate models for consideration. New and different models help guide us toward understanding reality as long as we eventually eliminate the false models. There will always be new models of reality because models reflect our collective subjectivity, which evolves and reacts to environmental conditions. To ossify any one model into dogma is to insist on an end to our development in understanding reality.

The Neuroscience of Consciousness

Harris refers several times to the fact that brain scans reveal activity significantly sooner than a person feels he has made a decision. “These findings are difficult to reconcile with the sense that we are the conscious authors of our actions.” But is it possible that the complexity of the brain and nervous system, with our conscious and unconscious abstractions on multiple levels, simply takes longer to register cogently in consciousness than it does to register on an EEG? We don’t know of a more complex machine than the brain/CNS. Since all signals travel at finite speeds, might the time delay be explained by the abstract processing and reprocessing, the neuronal and physiological feedback loops we perform unconsciously to fit events into our worldviews?

He notes that seemingly random neuronal firing originating in the brain has been observed. But how do we know something is random? We call a signal random if it doesn’t follow our idea of patterned stimulus (in this case, it doesn’t fit our ideas of material determinism). Of course, what appears random may in fact be purposeful and not random at all. Pi, for instance, looks like a completely random string of numbers (3.141592654…), but we know it isn’t random. It signifies a concrete relation.

If I were to argue for the existence of a soul, I might argue this so-called random firing is not random at all, but direct material evidence of the soul’s activity. The neural action rises from unknown causes in a manner that material determinism can’t explain. Of course if I were to make this argument, I would be stepping outside of the materialist paradigm. Naturally, using a complete unknown as “proof” for anything is totally backwards…but weirder arguments have been made (by Deepak Chopra).

Since it would be impossible to trace all the contributing factors in any decision, many human activities must seem on paper to be randomly generated (from a window of possibilities, tendencies, etc.). If there was an immaterial soul and free will, it would be immeasurable and we could only detect its impulses after the impulse worked through the nervous system and was processed on different levels of abstraction, so the conscious mind might be the last to know of the soul’s impetus.

Freedom

While Harris can safely kill the concept of “freedom” in any argument for free will, he concedes that we do have will and we do make conscious decisions that affect our futures. Our apparent “freedom” falls within a bracket of possibilities. But with intellectual and/or spiritual growth, we continually understand more of our unconscious tendencies and open the window of possible outcomes, thereby increasing our freedom.

“Willpower is itself a biological phenomenon. You can change your life, and yourself, through effort and discipline—but you have whatever capacity for effort and discipline you have in this moment, and not a scintilla more (or less).”

Even arguing against free will, Harris believes willpower exists and is effective. Rather than thinking about humanity as a purely clockwork organism, he grants that our wills are unique to us and we do have a measure of control over our own lives.

     “A creative change of inputs to the system—learning new skills, forming new relationships, adopting new habits of attention—may radically form one’s life.               Becoming sensitive to the background causes of one’s thoughts and feelings can—paradoxically—allow for greater creative control over one’s life. It is one thing to bicker with your wife because you are in a bad mood; it is another to realize that your mood and behavior have been caused by low blood sugar. This understanding reveals you to be a biochemical puppet, of course, but it also allows you to grab hold of one of your strings: A bit of food may be all that your personality requires. Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings can allow us to steer a more intelligent course through our lives (while knowing, of course, that we are ultimately being steered).”

So Harris’ argument hasn’t damaged our humanity, it has just given us an honest look at what we mean when we say we are free. We definitely are not completely free, and there is no conceivable behavior we can adopt to prove we are free from background causes.

He is a neuroscientist, and his arguments imply material determinism, as when he says, “if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: There is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently…” So although he seems to write as though agnostic about the existence of a soul, Free Will is in fact an argument against the soul. This hidden message shouldn’t surprise anyone, as he is the founder of Project Reason, and their modus operandi is to spread science and secular values to the world.

Free Will is a fine piece of work and I recommend it. It does away with a shabby, ill-defined concept in favor of evidence-based conclusions. It might seem a colder way to look at the world, but feeling cold or feeling warm and fuzzy doesn’t change the facts of reality. Nor does his work strip us of spirituality. I am eager to read Harris’ upcoming book, Waking Up: Science, Skepticism, Spirituality, due in 2014.

Free Will by Sam Harris

A little while ago I wrote a review of Free Will by Sam Harris. The review, in which I speak very highly of the book, was aimed at the casual reader, someone who might pick it up out of sheer curiosity, so I avoided some of the semantic and epistemic issues that rubbed me the wrong way. Here is the review, as written. Next week I will post some of the problems I had with the book. These problems didn’t make it into the review because I doubt they will bother the average reader and reflect my own distinct brand of nitpicking.

Article first published as Book Review: Free Will by Sam Harris on Blogcritics.

Free Will by Sam Harris

By now we’ve all noticed the campaign of scientific materialists to discredit religion in the hope that a saner, more scientific society will prevail. This future society, it is hoped, will base decisions on empirically verifiable facts and not superstition. Among those leading the campaign for atheism are Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Bill Maher, Ricky Gervais, and the co-founder of Project Reason, philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris.

Harris’ position is very clear: he believes that physics explains all phenomena and therefore our so-called free will is actually an illusion. Because the decisions we make arise out of our current conditions, and those conditions are the result of innumerable physical influences (brain structure, weather, etc.), our decisions are simply the outcome of a specific organism (us) going through a specific physical history (everything that formed us).

Looking back at any action, it is easy to feel as though we could have done things differently. But we cannot prove this. To say we could have acted differently is to suppose that at least some condition at the time of our decision would have been different. If not for the particular conditions influencing us, why did we decide as we did?

Free Will acknowledges the psychological fact that we all feel we are in control of our decisions. This is, in reality, one of the very few arguments for free will. So Harris asks us to look into the causes of our future decisions. We can tell a story about what influences us and how we will likely act, but this story covers very few of the innumerable factors that actually move us to one action over another. When we finally make a decision and exercise our will, we cannot say the impetus lies solely with our conscious “I.”

The conscious “I,” Harris argues, is a simply a function of human organisms. Consciousness is necessary to sort priorities and make decisions, but no supernatural agency is needed to justify this; it is simply an adaptive biological function. Willpower, he claims, is one factor of our consciousness, and we can never truly know why we choose to do one thing over another.

With Harris’ position, there is no need to invent supernatural explanations for any of the facts. God and the soul are comforting fictions but cannot maintain in a society that bases its decisions on empirical data.

This book should be fairly convincing to anyone with an open mind. I empathize with the frustration that theists must feel at the disrespect with which many writers and celebrities criticize religion. But Harris is not belligerent at all. His writing is clear, cogent, and makes no unnecessary detours to put down any creed. He instead prefers a straightforward approach, written in firm language.

Far from abstract verbalism, Free Will discusses the practical issues of morality, politics, and justice without yanking the rug out from under them. From Harris’ position justice must still be served, but our inclinations to hate criminals must be reassessed as we realize these criminals aren’t in complete control, but are the unlucky outcomes of bad genes, bad environments, or other maladaptive conditions. The elimination of free will in no way leads to the decay of morality.

What really impresses me about Free Will is the logical, masterful way in which he unfolds his thesis. Many times I finished one chapter with specific questions, only to find those exact questions tackled in the next chapter. Whether the reader is convinced or not, the execution of this little book is far superior to most on the subject.

Pynchon News Is Good News

Shortly after it was released, Thomas Pynchon’s Against The Day was gifted to me and quickly became one of my favorite novels of all time. This novel is a monster. And because it’s so huge, and his previous novel Mason & Dixon came a decade prior, and it was also huge, and Pynchon is getting on in years, I had this impression it might be his last book.

Fortunately I was wrong and he quickly tossed off Inherent Vice, a hilarious detective novel set at the end of the hippy era. Supposedly, Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie adaptation of Inherent Vice is filming now with rumors of a ensemble cast full of stars. But what’s even more exciting is that Pynchon has a new novel coming out later this year. The novel is called Bleeding Edge and it is set in New York between the collapse of the dot-com bubble and September 11, 2001.

Read the first page of Bleeding Edge here.

I’ve read just about everything Pynchon has written, and his longer novels are my favorite. I particularly love Gravity’s Rainbow and Against The Day because there is so much going on in them, so many different angles to the narratives, and so many different ways to read them, that every person who reads the novel comes out of it with a different experience.

A while ago I picked one angle and wrote a review of Gravity’s Rainbow.

Article first published as Book Review: Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon on Blogcritics.

GRAVITY’S RAINBOW by Thomas Pynchon

Dubbed “The most profound and accomplished American novel since the end of World War II” (The New Republic), Gravity’s Rainbow is a massive, freewheeling, paranoid journey through Europe at the tail end of the Second World War. Novelist and esoterica buff Thomas Pynchon is in top form for this, his third novel. A dense, challenging epic, Gravity’s Rainbow is highly rewarding for those with the attention span and patience to take it on.

From the first line we know the concept of The Preterite, or passed-over, is going to be a prominent theme. “A screaming comes across the sky…” A screaming what? The allusion is to a rocket, faster than sound so its target has no way to hear it coming. And the hunt for this preterite rocket, codename “00000″, and its mysterious black device, the S-Gerat, is a loose analogy of our main character, Tyrone Slothrop. In Pynchon’s own post-modern, self-reflexive words, “Some called [Tyrone] a ‘pretext.’ Others felt that he was a genuine, point-for-point microcosm.” (p. 753) This atypical approach to writing defies expectations, assuring Gravity’s Rainbow a prominent place in the history of the novel, even if it is often overlooked.

Pynchon loves to play with the form. The book introduces a madman’s variety of characters in a stunning array of literary styles. Often hilarious, sometimes shocking, Gravity’s Rainbow is no simple story. Perhaps not since Ulysses by James Joyce has an author swung through the canopy of styles so freely, offering up slapstick, scientific realism, hallucinatory stream-of-consciousness and more. The novel slides from one heterodox story to the next, immersing the reader in the chaos spread across Europe by World War II. Some characters hide, some fall in love or dive into obsession to distract from the reality of wartime, while others charge in headfirst, hungry for glory. And all the while, the real question is being asked – why? Why was there a war? Who made the decisions leading up to it, and how was it determined that war is the best option?

Tyrone isn’t introduced until page 61, but even before that we get a sense of his complicated personality. Tyrone has been the subject of bizarre, pseudo-Pavlovian conditioning that somehow leads him to be sexually aroused just before a rocket strike. Stranger yet is that he seems to have subconscious knowledge of exactly where the rocket will hit, though he thinks he’s just following his libido. We begin to understand that Tyrone’s motivations are not wholly his own. Like everyone in the war, Tyrone is deeply affected by a terrifying situation beyond his control. And like the 00000, we sense that he will only become aware of his true role in all this when it’s too late.

Gravity’s Rainbow has been called meta-historical fiction. The historical context of the story is completely true, but Pynchon draws the reader into the mania of the characters, little tangents and cul-de-sacs of fantasy that elevate the story to the realm of mythology. This sounds intellectual and heady, and it is, but the story never feels dry; sex, drugs, love and mystery drive the plot forward with a knowing humor that is both laugh-out-loud and profound.

Following a variety of WWII fringe groups brings the story into even stranger realms. Shadowy organizations like The White Visitation, PISCES, and Operation Black Wing look at the war through lenses of parapsychology and the occult. Delving into Nazi legend, corporate conspiracy, Kabbalah, the elusive Schwarzkommando, ballistic hermeneutics and a unique brand of rocket mysticism, Gravity’s Rainbow offers up a paranoid dream for hippies and soldiers alike. The novel seems to say that some special form of mass insanity must be responsible for something on the magnitude of a World War. What the cause of this insanity is, exactly, is a little more elusive.

Tyrone is an American-born rocket specialist, a guidance man who frequently peeks his head up into the realm of superhero. His irresistible urge toward sex and predilection for drugs find him stumbling into situations oblivious to the big picture, though he often ends up in the right place. When a hashish pickup goes awry Tyrone raids an opera costume trunk and becomes “Rocket Man”, a stylish WWII hero if ever there was one. Tyrone is not a typical hero, just as Gravity’s Rainbow is not a typical novel. Tyrone is both Preterite and Elect. He is a Chosen One, the special subject of strange experiments in behavioral conditioning. But he always manages to stay out of the limelight, passed over at crucial times while danger misses him by a hair. In one of the more brutal scenes in the book, pair of doctors search a spa for Tyrone, who by now is dressed as a giant pig. Through a case of mistaken identity, Tyrone avoids a horrible future that would more than dampen his sex life. Both his preterition and election save him from the worst of the war.

The same goes for the novel. It is a Bible of countercultural intellectualism, an underground epic for dope smokers and mystics that by its undeniable brilliance was awarded a National Book Award. On the other hand Gravity’s Rainbow was passed over for a Pulitzer Prize despite a unilateral vote. The Pulitzer committee decided instead to hand out no prize that year, presumably because of the morally questionable material throughout the book. Despite the real horrors of WWII and the Nazi party, apparently this fiction was too much for the Pulitzer board to handle. A book like this will likely never be given the prestige it deserves because it deals with too many fringe elements in a sympathetic way. Gravity’s Rainbow blurs morality, details too much real-world corruption and power politics, discloses too much about the business of war, GE and IG Farben, looks at behavioral conditioning and fetishism, and all with strong undertones of anarchy. Books like this are almost always passed over by the Establishment.

Gravity’s Rainbow takes place in the tumultuous fallout of war, and much like the victims of a rocket strike, swirls and writhes to recover what has been destroyed. “My mother is the war,” says mathematician Roger Mexico. Drastic times call for drastic measures, and in a war like this one everyone is affected. Everyone reacts in his or her own way to the visible and invisible causes of war. Despite the chaotic and multifaceted paths taken by our heroes, the many become unified in their loves and fears, all raising a glass in song at the absurd, sublime condition of our world. Nothing is the same after the war. And those who make it through the dense prose of Gravity’s Rainbow will remember it as a benchmark novel like no other.

Gravity’s Rainbow is a novel to be read and re-read, a companion to be studied over a lifetime. Thanks to the grandness of the story, the prodigal complexion of the prose, and Pynchon’s ability to weave minute detail and lofty abstraction into the telling, Gravity’s Rainbow reveals more and more of its secrets with subsequent reads. It grows with the reader, like an old man dispensing wisdom through the years, unafraid to offend or enlighten.

Bottle Rocket

This is my review of Bottle Rocket, the Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Bottle Rocket on Blogcritics.

THE FILM

Bottle RocketBottle Rocket is the debut film from director Wes Anderson and introduces brothers Luke, Owen, and Andrew Wilson. The Blu-ray edition was released by The Criterion Collection in late 2008, fully four years after its release of Anderson’s second film Rushmore. Though less polished and flashy than Anderson’s successive work, Bottle Rocket remains Anderson’s most genuine, warm and sophisticated film. My appreciation for it seems to grow with every viewing thanks to its subtlety. Fortunately it is one of the most re-watchable comedies I have ever seen.

Bottle Rocket is a quietly funny masterpiece. There are no major gags, no crazy set-pieces, and it’s not a jokey movie at all. Its hilarity comes from the depth of its touching characters. A nuanced character study is not usually the most fertile field for comedy, admittedly, and it might take viewers a few watches to appreciate the precision of Anderson and Owen Wilson’s script (and of course Luke and Owen’s performances). But the film’s honesty shines in the hands of Wes Anderson and these talented actors.

James Caan has an good interpretation of the title, as mentioned in the commentary. A bottle rocket is a small explosive. As a kid, you might be excited to light one off, but the explosion is more or less tame and probably won’t get anyone into serious trouble. And that is true of these characters and the movie as a whole. All have a beautiful capacity to dream, but the goals are never as big a spectacle as the enthusiasm. As the film’s biggest dreamer Dignan plans a bookstore heist featuring explosives and a .357 Magnum, he draws himself as the star on the map because in his own mind, he is a star. Naturally he draws the getaway driver Bob as a “zero”.

When Anthony’s enthusiasm ignites Dignan, we want to see his dreams explode into reality. Although he’s not that smart, has skewed morals, and is a terrible criminal mastermind, we want Dignan to succeed because we know how happy it makes him to live out his fantasies. Characters without cynicism are rare these days. Owen Wilson’s enthusiasm is hilarious, but his fragility is heartbreaking. That is the theme of Bottle Rocket. These characters struggle to bring their dreams to life, to have that explosive moment of danger.

These characters are products of an environment that requires no risk. Anthony has retired to a mental hospital for exhaustion despite having never worked a day in his life. Dignan has a criminal mind but uses the money he steals for pinball and fireworks. Bob is well dressed but still lives with his parents, where he grows marijuana plants. Only Mr. Henry (James Caan) seems to be successfully living his dreams. Mr. Henry inspires Dignan to make his mark as a criminal while Anthony’s little sister, the most cynical character in the film, acts as the voice of reason.

Anthony is on the verge of growing up. When he meets Inez, a housekeeper where the gang is laying low, his emotions threaten Dignan’s 75-year plan. But Dignan is an iconic dreamer. Like Henry Hill from Goodfellas, Dignan always wanted to live outside the law. But his dreams take him further from reality; when his big heist falls through he literally seeks escape in a door labeled “No Exit”. His plan of incorporating dynamite, laughing gas, and pole vaulting into crime were never going to happen. His dreams are destined to fail because they are unrealistic. Even still, we get the sense that for Dignan, their attempt, their brief brush with danger, might have been enough. Maybe his dreams were only ever meant to be dreams.

THE DISC

The video, 1080p at 1.85:1, is a nice improvement from standard definition, but the clarity does not blow me away. I am able to make out some nice background action, out-of-focus business I hadn’t noticed before in standard definition. But some noise is there if you look for it, especially in scenes with washed-out, overcast skies. Considering Criterion released Bottle Rocket several years after its first DVD release, I was hoping for a better image.

The making-of documentary, new for Criterion, is an interesting 25-minute retrospective that incorporates the memories of several key players including the three Wilsons, Wes Anderson, James Caan, James L. Brooks, Mark Mothersbaugh and plenty more.

The disc includes a commentary from Anderson and Owen Wilson. Recorded exclusively for Criterion, it’s a nice casual dialogue which starts slow but adds a few nice insights and two likeable opinions. One story told by Anderson fits nicely: a big screening in Santa Monica went brutally, and only one comment card was full of enthusiasm for Bottle Rocket. They kept the card and memorized it for inspiration. Later Anderson coincidentally met the girl who left the card and said, “Here’s our audience. One in five hundred.” Fortunately the careers of the key players following the movie have helped that number significantly.

Deleted scenes are raw and unpolished, but a welcome bonus of somewhat indulgent scenes. Correctly edited out, in my opinion, there are still good laughs and more content for enthusiasts. An anamorphic screen test gives us a taste of what could have been a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and it has promise. Murita Cycles by Barry Braverman is a strangely tangential short film that chronicles the life and junk-hoarding of a bicycle shop owner in Staten Island. Murray fills his shop and house with junk and excuses this with a type of sententious dementia. The short film shows a depressing version of the life of a dreamer and in truth, I would rather not have seen it. Though it was supposedly a heavy influence on Bottle Rocket, the tone is just the opposite.

A photo collection from Laura Wilson is a fine special feature; storyboards are for the completists. A storyboard is a tool and I don’t really get the appeal of looking at them. Yes, they came from Wes Anderson’s own hand, but he certainly didn’t imagine stick figures talking in the final film, and he’s no Picasso. The Shafrazi Lectures, No. 1 is a mildly interesting talk with Tony Shafrazi, an eccentric art dealer, but the feature feels too pointless and egotistical to take seriously, despite being called a “lecture”.

As with most Criterion Collection films, this Blu-ray is the current definitive edition on the market. The supplements exclusive to his verison make it a worthwhile purchase. Bottle Rocket is a gem, and in my opinion one of the best comedies of all time. Martin Scorsese thinks so too.

Two Crucial Things “Argo” Missed

I’m a hardened cynic when it comes to the Oscars. My favorite pictures are rarely nominated and I haven’t been impressed by a Best Picture winner since No Country For Old Men in 2007, and before that, Unforgiven (1992). If you think I give the Oscars a cold shoulder just because I’m not part of the fun, please read this article, published in The Atlantic by an Academy member. It’s a side of Oscar night you don’t see on television.

At the time of the Oscar telecast I had seen exactly zero of the Best Picture nominees (though I was fortunate to catch Searching For Sugar Man, which won Best Documentary). Unimpressed with Ben Affleck’s previous efforts, I had no desire to see Argo. But I’m an open minded guy, right? So I challenged myself to watch and enjoy it.

Argo passed the first test. It was watchable. At no point did I want to shut it off and mourn my wasted time. The narrative is effective; I found no terrible plot holes or useless scenes that dragged down the pacing. In fact, if you’re looking for a movie to take up two hours of your life, this one is just fine.

My cynicism isn’t purely negative; it grows from my optimism that the televisual arts can be much more than time filler. And in this sense Argo failed. Here are two crucial elements Argo missed that a great film should have.

Character/character development

Every movie is a world. Rather than passively observing, we rely on characters to act as our surrogates in a journey through this world. The more thoroughly developed a character is, the more we identify with the character and the more immersed we become in the conflicts this fictional world provides the character(s).

In Argo there were no characters that I could discern. Instead of characters we are given a series of characterizations. Characterizations are the superficial elements of characters such as the things they say or wear or own. Because Argo moves the plot forward so mechanically, we never see the characters conflicted to the point where they have to make revealing choices. Instead the characters just do what they do to move the plot forward.

Robert McKee wrote correctly when he pointed out that a choice between good and evil is no choice at all. A good character will choose the good, and an evil character will choose evil, and we learn nothing about either character in this case. True character is revealed in the choices the character makes under pressure. Even more revealing is when a character decides between two goods or two evils.

McKee uses a good example I’ll reiterate. Two people are driving down a highway, one in a clunker and the other in a Ferrari. They come upon a burning bus with people trapped inside. If the guy in the Ferrari stops to help and the other person doesn’t, we’ve learned much more about them than the type of car they drive. If they both stop and try to help, we learn about true character by how they do it. Does one person automatically try to rescue the women before the men? Does one of them reach for the only white person? Does one charge blindly into the fire while the other calls the police? These actions reveal much more than dialogue or fashion.

Ben Affleck’s character has no journey, no character arc through this film. Sure he makes decisions under pressure, but his inner strength or convictions are never threatened. He simply moves the plot forward. We’re told at the beginning of the film that he’s “their best guy,” and he just does the ideal thing in each situation. There are a couple scenes that mention he is estranged from his wife and son, but (spoiler) when he escapes from Iran, his wife simply accepts him back. He does literally nothing to overcome the conflict with his wife (which is meant to show us his character and humanity); it is resolved for him mechanically and for no apparent reason.

Likewise we see no telling decisions made by any of the other characters. In Argo, if a character is meant to be funny, he or she says funny things. If a character is not trusting, he or she argues. We never see characters faced with any meaningful choices, and the characters undergo absolutely no internal change from the beginning to the end of the movie. Thus Argo plays like a soulless, clockwork fiction.

Something More

Now more than ever Industry kills Art. I romanticize a time in history when art was made simply to instill a sense of the sublime and the beautiful, but successful art in our culture must put asses in the seats. In fact, our artistic industries only demand that asses make it into seats. Whether the product is sublime or beautiful or meaningful is completely secondary to the bottom line. Because of this I go to very few theatrical releases.

2001: A Space OdysseyFilms that move me have something extra. Call it an X-factor. A great movie should engage our reason and intuition as well as our emotions, and it should project us toward something more than what is seen and heard. We should come away from a movie still thinking about it, still moved by it, or still involved in its mystery. A perfect film achieves all three. I want a movie to take on an inner life in my psyche that draws me deeper into the spirit of the experience. Otherwise the movie is just a two hour experience like any other. A car ride can take two hours, and it may or may not be enjoyable, but at least it takes me somewhere. I look to art and films in particular to invoke wonder.

Placed next to Lost Highway or 8 1/2 or even Goodfellas, Argo looks about as interesting as a menu. Topical entertainment has its place but it is most effective when it places the particular inside the context of a bigger picture. Why is this topic important for our current marketplace? Yes Iran is in the news, but is that enough? I wonder if people are simply looking for an entertaining confirmation that what they hear in the news is correct (i.e. that Iran is bad). Of course any serious thought on the issue shows it to be much more complicated than that.

A film should have something meaningful to say. You might say that Argo celebrates creative, non-violent problem solving. Okay, fine, but the message starts and ends there. People talked about how smart the sci-fi movie District 9 was because of its parallels to apartheid, but what does the movie actually say about apartheid? It says “Apartheid is bad,” and that’s all. How provocative.

Voting Argo Best Picture is like saying the height of cinematic achievement is that it can make us sit still for two hours without being pissed off. With all that money and talent Hollywood should aim for a little more.