My Favorite Characters Hate Themselves

Recently I did a little writing exercise. I thought about my favorite characters from movies and television and drafted up a few paragraphs on each. I focused on their strengths, weaknesses, and the various inner conflicts that give them depth. Now it seems like the most obvious thing in the world, but once I had it all on the page, I realized that all my favorite characters are highly self-destructive.

Okay, so maybe they don’t hate themselves, but they all have internal compulsions that drive them in conflicting directions. They do things they know they shouldn’t; a dark side compels them, and they seem to have little or no control over that darkness. Even as they do their best to be good, they are subconsciously their own worst enemy.

Don Draper is a perfect example of a great, three-dimensional character. He is a brilliant ad man because he quickly knows what people want, what drives them to act, and he plays on their primal urges. But when it comes to Don’s own urges and wants, he seems oblivious, and so he treads upon himself with profligate sex and alcoholism, trying to fill a gulf of want, but wearing himself down until he can’t find his talent.

One of my favorite movie characters is Dignan from Bottle Rocket. Owen Wilson’s wannabe career criminal has an infectious enthusiasm that is so innocent and childlike he draws otherwise upstanding people into poorly considered criminal schemes. He’s a terrible criminal and realistically has no hope of fulfilling his dreams, but his wide-eyed charisma makes it hard for people to say no, or to be honest with him about his ridiculous plans. Dignan doesn’t hate himself, but if he ever faces the reality of his decisions, he might.

Conflict is necessary; without it, there cannot be a story. But most characters lack that subconscious self-loathing that dominates my list of favorites. (I’m not sure what that says about me.) Generally the more divided a character is, the more rich their internal struggle. It’s easy to say that The Dude from The Big Lebowski is self destructive since he’s so generally sloppy, but he is just too easygoing to hate himself, and his character isn’t as rich or compelling as Dignan in the same measure that Lebowski is less tragic.

Think about Breaking Bad’s Walter White, True Detective’s Rust Cohle, Bill Murray from Groundhog Day or Ghostbusters or Scrooged or Lost In Translation, Eddy from Hurlyburly, Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul from The Conversation or “Popeye” Doyle from The French Connection, Jake LaMotta from Raging Bull, Humbert Humbert from Lolita, Romeo, Hamlet, Dracula.

These characters are some of my favorites. Their internal tensions drive the respective plots forward with an sharp edge. The problems generated by these inner conflicts give me a thrill because I sense that I’m not just watching an external narrative advance step by step; I’m seeing an existential crisis in action. I get the sense these characters sometimes wonder, “How can I be this way?”

Even when the plot doesn’t have to move forward, great inner conflicts lead to memorable characters. Sam Malone from Cheers is a recovering alcoholic, a washed up baseball player who, since he knows nothing else, buys a bar and works his days away with his ex-coach, nailing as many ladies as possible. Diane Chambers, a self-styled intellectual and scholar, takes a job as a barmaid and cannot resist Sam’s charm. To my mind, this is one of the best premises ever for a sitcom.

I resonate with these characters. I feel quickly and deeply invested. I want these characters to struggle with themselves and I usually want to see their better natures win in the end. We all have inner conflicts, and we generally see ourselves as the heroes of our own stories. A well-crafted character should gradually invite us to project our conflicts, to see ourselves in the character’s skin (to some extent) and reciprocally, to share in their emotions.

And the best characters aren’t necessarily revealed right away. Sometimes it can take multiple viewings or readings to tease apart the antipodal motivations, to really get inside a character’s head and start to understand those primal urges that drive him or her. A great character should be rich enough with content that they can surprise us, but once we get inside their heads, it should all make perfect sense.

My favorite character ever might be the darkest of all: Laura Palmer. Her death at the beginning of Twin Peaks marks the beginning of our discovery. In 30 episodes we never properly meet her, but we learn so much of her inner conflicts we can infer depths to her that most characters cannot touch. And when we finally meet her in the movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, we get a touching and disturbing portrait of struggle between light and darkness. Laura is a heroine who still resonates with culture today, echoing all over the media landscape in shows like The Killing.

Truly great characters live forever.

Dry Sci-Fi

These past few weeks I’ve been frustrated with science fiction movies. There is no shortage of new ones, but almost none grab my attention. Why would I go to the theater for Transcendence when I didn’t even go see The Matrix? Neither trailer grabbed me. Integrating consciousness with a machine isn’t new, and I’m guessing that’s what Transcendence is about. When I saw The Matrix eventually, I was satisfied that it was basically Star Wars meets Lawnmower Man meets Tron meets church, and I saw all that when I was young.

Science fiction may seem the ripest genre for the film industry, as special effects now allow for so much that would have previously been impossible. But far out gadgets and alien planets have never been the pull for me; they are eye candy, the stuff of trailers. What draws me into science fiction are ideas that excite me because I’ve never thought of them before.

These ideas should form a world that I can recognize, though it is different from the world I occupy. That world should give rise to characters I can relate to, but who are different from the people I know. And these characters should guide me through that world and show me something meaningful. I should come away from a great science fiction story questioning the established models of my own world. In short, my mind should be blown.

Great sci-fi is tough because a lot of great ideas have already been taken. 2001: A Space Odyssey came out in 1968 and remains the all-time champion. The absorbing world of Bladerunner was created in 1982, and in 2009 new 3D technology and a $250M budget didn’t bring Avatar even close. Alien and Terminator were solid, but didn’t blow my mind.

Are we running out of good ideas? No. There are more ideas out there than ever, and new ideas come from novel combinations of previous ideas. Inspiration shows us ideas from a new angle. Primer, Children of Men, Moon and Upstream Color are all great modern sci-fi movies that got me excited about the genre again despite the fatuous Hollywood remake of Solaris. Looper was pretty decent too.

But no matter how enthused I get about sci-fi, there’s still something that turns me off from going to the theater for blockbusters like District 9 (which I eventually saw and did not enjoy) or Gravity or Oblivion or Transcendence. Maybe it’s the trailers that turn me off, or the word of mouth, or maybe it’s the audacity of studios putting hundreds of millions of dollars into old, mediocre ideas, but I have no desire to encourage them by seeing their movies at the theater.

I must be missing some gems, so if anybody out there wants to enlighten me, leave me a list of your favorites in the comments.

Jodorowsky’s Dune

Jodorowsky's DuneIn 1974, the new guru of psychedelic underground cinema Alejandro Jodorowsky tried to make a sprawling, trippy adaptation of the science fiction novel Dune by Frank Herbert. The adaptation was never made, but fortunately for us the new documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune gives us the next best thing: an impassioned blow for blow of the creative process by the man himself.

Jodorowsky sells this movie with his magnetic personality, and turns what is essentially a documentary of talking heads and still images into a spiritual quest to transcend the material plane. He explains that he wanted Dune to give audiences an LSD experience without taking any drugs. He wanted this movie to be a prophet, a psychopomp, and a god. He explains it all with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, and he is completely serious.

His mission was to assemble a group of spiritual warriors to make the film, and Jodorowsky brims with enthusiasm as he explains how he assembled his team: writer Dan O’Bannon (Alien, Total Recall, Prometheus); artists Moebeus, Chris Foss and H.R. Giger; Orson Welles; Salvador Dali; Mick Jagger, Pink Floyd, and Jodorowsky’s own son Brontis, who underwent two years of extensive spiritual and martial arts training for the role of Paul Atreides.

Bound up in a massive, glossy tome are drawings for every character, costume and set illustrations in detail, the full script, and the entire storyboard sketched by Moebius of over 3000 windows. Very few copies were made of the book, and Michel Seydoux, Dune’s intended producer, sent the coveted items to film studios as a selling tool.

The lore of this film is massive, inspired, star-studded, and ultra-ambitious. For this documentary, essentially a eulogy for a dead project, I couldn’t ask for better subject matter. But anyone familiar with film production knows that the process is a series of compromises, and often where the ambition is largest, the pressures of the industry weigh the most.

Jodorowsky is a visionary, and nobody has ever made anything quite like his movies. Particularly impressive are the mystical spaghetti western El Topo and the psychedelic film par excellence The Holy Mountain. But re-watching these films (as I sometimes do) reveals slight cracks in the technical edifice, imperfections in the execution, minutely skewed camera angles, dated special effects, and some grating sound design. Jodorowsky is a master, but inspiration and vision are his strongest suits. With studio money and input, I question whether the final product would have satisfied his vision.

As it turns out, Hollywood was afraid of Jodorowsky and no studios were willing to furnish the $15M budget. Watching the expressions of the artists interviewed in Jodorowsky’s Dune, I was impressed by the expansive feeling of “what might have been,” a sentiment shared by everyone so greatly it seemed like a bittersweet triumph that Dune became a legend instead of a film (disregarding David Lynch’s version).

As a consolation prize we see the disparate parts of Dune reflected in a myriad of groundbreaking science fiction works like Alien, Blade Runner, and Contact, and in Jodorowsky’s own comic books. The ideas behind Jodorowsky’s adaptation have resonated strongly through the film world for decades until finally, solve et coagula, we have Jodorowsky’s Dune, a fully entertaining documentary about the passions that drive art.

 

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

Godard Forever

If you’ve ever seen one of those student films where a brooding, turtlenecked doofus reads poetry to his little doll of a girlfriend, rolled your eyes at the black and white pomposity of it all, then yawned twice, hard, because it was so preposterously “artsy,” you probably were watching the influence of Jean Luc Godard watered down through the decades. Open intellectualism like his is rare these days in commercial art, but nobody sane would deny that Godard is a unique and innovative artist whose influence has rippled into the present.

Bald-faced intellectualism might be too tough to stomach these days; generally, Hollywood fears anything too deep because they don’t want to lose their audience. Most of the big blockbusters are aimed at children or adults who don’t want to think while they watch. Fair enough; mindless movies have their place, but a balanced diet of different type of movies is ideal. Unfortunately Hollywood sometimes seems too much like McDonald’s.

It makes perfect sense. If you’re going to put a hundred million dollars into a production, you don’t want people walking out confused and telling their friends it was “pretentious.” Spoon-feed the audience every step of the way, leave no doubt about who the bad guys are or which dashing hero they should root for, and they’ll have more cranial capacity to appreciate those expensive explosions.

But some people back in the sixties (and a few even before that) thought that film as an art form could appeal to a higher brow, people craving intellectual stimulation. In the opening moments of Alphaville, the supercomputer Alpha 60 tells us that sometimes reality is too complex to understand, and that legends, or art, allow fragments of that complexity to travel around the world and connect with human minds.

Alphaville

Alphaville is a classic, pulpy depiction of Logic and Order vs. Art and Love, set in a futuristic world that uses technological and scientific concepts and character archetypes almost thirty years old when Alphaville was made in 1965. What’s that about? Well, it’s worth thinking about. And while the dialogue between these two central counterforces might seem superficial today, the film is just fun to watch. Part of its appeal is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Godard is at his best when he balances philosophy with humour, and Alphaville is a prime example. Masculin Féminin is another. But even at his heaviest, his direction is riveting, the characters think and feel and have passion, and he does it all with inimitable style. Fifty years after his heyday, Godard’s movies still hold sway and I think I know why: someone has to make films to appeal to intellectuals. And no, Inception does not count.

Granted, Godard’s intellectualism isn’t subtle, it isn’t buried within the narrative or eluded to, but slaps you in the face like it’s challenging you to a duel. But certainly conversations about politics or philosophy or love actually do happen in the real world. Why shouldn’t those conversations happen in a movie? Pretension is underrated.

This month the TIFF Bell Lightbox hosts Godard Forever: Part One, a retrospective of his work featuring some of his best features and short films. The theater itself delivers on every level, but seeing classic auteurs like Godard there feels like a special treat. If you are in Toronto in February, think it over.

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.

 

Going Abroad

I recently had to make a tough decision about a very dear item. My Twin Peaks VHS box-set had to go. There is no way I could just throw it out; this is the series that started my high school obsession. It blew my mind and made me realize I wanted to make movies. It also introduced me to worlds I never knew existed.

Fortunately I’ve found the box-set a good home, and I hope the recipient will get from it even a fraction of what I did. I have a lot of history with those tapes. They were my first introduction to the work of David Lynch, who quickly ousted Stanley Kubrick as my favorite director. I think Kubrick is probably the greatest that ever lived, but there’s something mysterious about Lynch that I can’t resist.

I think it was in the biography Lynch on Lynch where he mentioned that Federico Fellini was one of his major influences. The first Fellini movie I watched was . I find it hard to talk about  because it hit me on such a personal level, but suffice it to say that I think it’s one of the most beautiful films ever made. So I lost myself in the Italian auteur’s catalog. This was a breakthrough for me because I don’t believe I had ever seen a foreign film before 8½, or if I had, it wasn’t memorable.

Now I had a taste for it. I was interested to see movies from other cultures, movies from filmmakers who had a different way of life. I quickly realized that the Hollywood system seemed content within a certain set of values, a homogenous morality and thin, nearly meaningless output. So I unconsciously decided to become a film snob. Fortunately, my brother Jay had a copy of Agurre: The Wrath of God.

That stunning, visceral, hallucinatory take on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (the same source material as Apocalypse Now) made me giddy, and Aguirre is still one of my favorites. German master Werner Herzog became my next guru. He is one of the most exciting and prolific filmmakers I know of, even to this day, and the book Herzog on Herzog made me laugh my ass off. His genius is unique.

From Germany my tastes headed north, to Denmark, when Lars von Trier hypnotized me with The Element of Crime. I really did not connect with all of von Trier’s movies, but he is a magician when he hits, and his recent return to form has me considering, maybe masochistically, of going to see his new film Nymphomaniac.

Near that time my brother showed me Alphaville by Jean Luc Godard. It was funny, it was noir, it was smart, and it was beautiful. Plus, it had Anna Karina. I balanced Godard’s panache with the solemnity of Ingmar Bergman in Sweden. While Masculin Feminin had me giggling, Scenes From A Marriage left me gutted.

But when I caught wind of Andrei Tarkovsky, I started a pilgrimage to Russia starting with the sci-fi classic Solaris. It could easily be argued that Tarkovsky films are boring. He even joked about it himself. But the word boring tends to lose all meaning for me when I get wrapped up in a journey of Tarkovsky’s. Even the bizarre, didactic Stalkera 2 hour, 40 minute sci-fi allegory about transcendence–ranks as one of my favorite films.

Just like that, I had made it from a small logging town in Washington state all the way across Europe. It’s rare that we can trace the cause of our decisions in such clear ways, but I have no doubt that if it wasn’t for that Twin Peaks VHS box-set, I wouldn’t have seen so much of Europe so fast. And now it’s time to move on. After all, the Twin Peaks Blu-ray box-set comes out this year.

The Pareidolia Files

Pareidolia is the psychological tendency we have of finding patterns in randomness or imposing a self-generated meaning to chaotic perceptions. The more complex the signals we receive, the more opportunity we have to bend our interpretations to our own plan. This usually happens unconsciously, but not always.

Millennia ago people looked at stars in the night sky and saw dragons and archers and scales and the pattern in which they appeared might determine a bad day. Later, people would release a flock of birds, and depending on which way they flew, someone might get decapitated. Even today most of us can see a face in the moon. The slippery part is that once some interpretation is communicated, it can confound future perceptions. If I tell you that Apollo is going to ride his fiery chariot across the sky tomorrow morning, you’re more likely to see what I’ve described than if I just let you watch the sunrise without any primer…not literally, of course, but you know what I mean.

Room 237 PosterI was recently entertained by Room 237, a “critical documentary” about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. In the movie, over footage of The Shining and other films, we hear a variety of interpretations about what The Shining really means. Some of these interpretations provoke some thought. Many sound ridiculous. Room 237 is a great look at the phenomenon of pareidolia.

Some of the “evidence” used by these theories are completely hilarious. Continuity errors become clues about The Holocaust; a can of baking soda confirms that The Shining is really about the genocide of American Indians; a child who hasn’t seen the movie draws a picture and quotes one of the lines and the mother seemingly decides her child actually has the ability to “shine” (though presumably she’s been watching the movie dozens or hundreds of times in the next room while the kid is playing, driving it into his subconscious).

It’s good to recognize pareidolia when it happens. Many people develop elaborate gambling systems to beat essentially random outcomes (in roulette, for example). These people waste their time as well as their money. It’s possible to consciously combine some types of qualitative data in unique ways and come up with astonishing, novel ways to think about things. But in truly random data, pareidolia can only mislead us.

There is a related term called Apophenia. It’s tough to find a big difference in the definitions of Apophenia and pareidolia. Both involve finding patterns in chaos. When we look at the etymology of the words, things get interesting, albeit fuzzy.

Pareidolia comes from the Greek word para, meaning “above,” “beyond,” or “beside of,” and eidolon, which means “representation” or “figure.” So you can understand that pareidolia is seeing something beyond what is actually there.

Apophenia, however, is a little different. The Greek prefix apo means “away from”, as in apology, where you distance yourself from previous words (apo = “away from” logo = “words”). But the second part of Apophenia, the phenia, is not so clear. Wikipedia claims it was mistranslated from phrenia, as in schizophrenia, but it is also very close to phany, as in epiphany. Mistake?

How would we know? Either etymological route tells us Apophenia is an experience that is far from that which is shown. On one hand we might find a hidden meaning that is pure confusion. On the other hand, we might find a deeper truth than what is apparent. Well allow me to exercise Apophenia on the chaos of this etymological mess. Apophenia means recognizing patters that others don’t, for better or for worse.

So, after all that, you’re wondering if Room 237 is worth watching. Well, it depends what you want to get out of it, and of course, how you interpret it.