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.

Free Debate

Last year I read Free Will by Sam Harris. The book impressed me as a concise demolition of folk psychology’s casual (lazy) assumptions about free will, written with straightforward language and a direct approach. I had a few issues with the book, and as an exercise wrote a “Devil’s Advocate” critique in which I used the last vestiges of the dualism I inherited from growing up with church and Catholic school.

Shortly after I read Free Will, I read Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett. The latter struck me as beautifully written, philosophically and scientifically strong, and it razed my already crumbling Cartesian Theater. I remember thinking distinctly that I’d like to read Dennett’s take on Harris’ book, as Free Will openly challenges Dennett’s stance on the issue.

Monday I was happily informed through social media that this has happened. Sam Harris has posted Dennett’s rebuttal here. The rebuttal is a bit long, a bit thorough, and, to my thinking, imperfect, but I highly recommend both Free Will and Dennett’s take on it. Because what’s more fun than sitting at home reading philosophy?

Why should you read Harris’ opinion that free will is an illusion, then read Dennett’s opinion that Harris is wrong? It might seem a bit of a waste on the surface; if neither has the whole answer, what do we gain from these essays? We get a glimpse into a dialogue between two intelligent minds, and dialogue is the reason books like Free Will should be written in the first place.

Newton’s theories of space and time held sway for a couple hundred years until they were shown to be wrong by Einstein. But there could have been no “Einstein” if not for the foundations laid by Newton. Without Newton’s boldness, his willingness to put opinion to paper and publish it, science might have remained a stagnant morass of religious dogma and superstition. Even as Einstein was proving those theories wrong, he was standing on Newton’s shoulders (and the shoulders of many more recent scientists and philosophers).

“[A}ny hypothesis, however absurd, may be useful in science, if it enables a discoverer to conceive things in a new way; but … when it has served this purpose by luck, it is likely to become an obstacle to further advance.” – Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy

It takes guts to point out what you think are mistakes and sloppy thinking in the work of a professional, especially one that is a friend. But Dennett speaks his mind and isn’t worried about Harris’ feelings because this is what intellectual adults do. They make rational arguments, arguments that come from science and sound philosophy. They are not arguing emotionally, and you can be sure since Harris posted the rebuttal on his own website that he respects the man behind it and thinks the rebuttal worthy of our time, even if it is expressly intent on showing Harris is wrong.

Why does this behavior seem strange to me? Because so many outspoken debaters fail at it. Deepak Chopra, for example, debates publicly about God but quickly gets emotional and degrades himself by hurling ad hominem attacks, like this muddled thing he co-authored about Sam Harris. This confused article says nothing of significance, continually attacks Harris, and yet is couched as a sort of moral high road for sloppy thinkers who hold onto beliefs despite evidence.

Some scientific figures like Richard Dawkins think some debates can be a bad idea. Dawkins posted this article on his website admonishing Bill Nye the Science Guy for debating evolution with Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum (what items this “museum” contains, I do not know). Dawkins thinks these debates give undo credence to propositions that are not falsifiable and lack real evidence.

But this free will debate is completely justified, and I’m excited to read Harris’ response. Dialogues like these enrich our understanding, and though Harris and Dennett share many beliefs, they are two very distinct minds with distinct styles of argument. Neither is liable to make a proposition without either empirical evidence or a strong philosophical argument.

I don’t think this dialogue will resolve the issue once and for all. Certainly neither side will convince everyone in the world if scientists can’t even convince creationists of evolution. But if the debate causes us to question our own beliefs, maybe even shed some of our lazy assumptions, it will have done the us good.

True Detective

HBO’s new drama True Detective has a lot going for it, and it feels strangely familiar at times. It is a gritty procedural with complex characters and gratuitous nudity, nothing new for the network, but there is an edgy new darkness brooding around all the things that make this familiar as a cop show.

Like the dark woods surrounding Twin Peaks or the irrepressible Seattle drizzle in The Killing, the landscape of True Detective is haunted with secrets. From a seedy truck stop teeming with hookers to a grimy trailer park, also teeming with hookers, to a burned out church on a desolate farm with no hookers but a frightening smudge drawing and a portentous flock of birds, episode two (“Seeing Things”) smothered us with the underbelly of Louisiana.

Like all truly great cop shows, when we explore the territory we really explore the characters. Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey have dug right in from the start as two deeply conflicted detectives with opposing philosophies. McConaughey’s Rust Cohle seems like a brilliant, existential isolate while we get the sense that Harrelson’s Martin Hart would be lost without his family, even if he doesn’t act like it.

We start with an occult murder and our leading man has lingering drug issues from his time as an undercover narc. I expect to explore some exciting, strange psychological territory here. We don’t need to believe in black magic; it’s enough that someone does. That is scary. And I get the sense Cohle knows a thing or two about this type of behavior already.

Only two episodes in and I already feel like Sunday is too far away.

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.

Drink It In

If I expect a good cup of coffee in the morning, I go to bed excited for it. Everything about coffee appeals to me. The aroma of coffee is one of the most compelling I can think of, and the flavour of a really good cup lives up to that aroma. So for years it has boggle my mind that most people tend to drink coffee like this:

Tall French Roast

Congratulations, you have successfully robbed yourself of half the pleasure of coffee. It isn’t a fluke that when we raise a glass for a drink, our noses are in that glass. That’s just good evolution. If all you want is the caffeine, you can get that in a pill. Likewise, drinking beer out of a bottle is only a good idea if you don’t want to fully taste it.

Our senses are not as cleanly delineated as our language implies. The sense of taste is an overall impression made up of multiple brain processes. The taste from the taste buds is part of that impression, but the olfactory receptors play a vital role as well. Similarly, when we listen to music, the bass drum thumping in our chest and the vibrations through the bottoms of our feet contribute strongly to the experience.

This is why you cannot beat live music. To be inside a physical environment tailored for live music, to hear the music loudly, to feel the music and to see it performed in front of you – this is to experience music fully. The more nerve centers we can engage, the more sense data our brains have to build up our experience.

So-called holy sites can really evoke sacred feelings in people because these places are full of sights, smells, sounds, textures, and all the other sensory paraphernalia correlated to holiness. In places like these, brains simply have more to work with, more “food for thought” that can be used to build up a holy experience.

Of course it also helps to pay attention. Our senses and brains have evolved to extract meaningful data from a noisy environment. You can be inside that concert hall–band wailing away, laser light show twirling all around you–and remain totally oblivious because you are watching a YouTube video on your phone. And with all that noise in your environment, how deeply can you expect to be engaged by that YouTube video?

Mindfulness exercises teach us to connect with experience, to tone down distraction and stay present with the task at hand. Whatever we turn our attention to has the potential to completely fulfill our experience. A fully engaged experience doesn’t want for anything; the more fully we are engaged, the further we must be from worry, depression, and pain.

You can make an exercise in mindfulness out of your morning cup of coffee. It might change your life. Turn all your senses to your task, and drink it in – with the lid off.

Whole Foods Coffee

P.S. These days I roast my coffee from green beans on my stove, then grind the beans into a French press with filtered water I’ve heated to just shy of boiling. It makes for a great cup, but it takes time. Obviously this can only be worth my while if I know I’ll have the time to relax and enjoy the drink fully. You may wonder how much time I spend on coffee. The answer is…don’t worry about it.

Journals, Art, Journeys

When I was young my oldest brother Jeff showed me what an amusing pastime it was to keep a journal. I’ve found this essential. Without keeping a record of the day’s events, we forget most of the coincidences, oddities, and revelations of our lives. Even when we remember the facts of our experience, it’s impossible to recapture the exact feel of events. Most of my life I’ve kept some kind of book on the go, whether it’s just funny lines or ideas or scenes from movies I’d like to see.

It seems important because of this main fact: memories are not real. When you think about an event in your past, (spoiler alert) your brain does not magically go into the past. Our brains attempt to reconstruct our reactions to that experience, but our brains are different now, so the reconstruction is imperfect. Plus, memories can be bent and changed.

Regular journal entries give us a window into our state of mind at the time. This is crucial if you want to understand your life as a journey or narrative, or if you want some sort of proof that you’re getting closer to your goals or developing intellectually.

The same can be said, on the macroscopic scale, of art and science in culture. Art expresses the zeitgeist while science improves our understanding of each moment. We could never have had The Wire without ancient Greek literature, and we could never have invented smartphones without first understanding how radio waves work. This only works when people write it down.

Occasionally an artist makes a conscious effort to draw our attention to cultural development by retelling ancient, fundamentally human stories with current language and culture. The best example is Ulysses by James Joyce. The story is not about a guy named Ulysses in ancient Ithaca, but a man named Leopold Bloom in 20th century Dublin. The title and structure of the novel showcase thousands of years of human values in flux.

“This race and this country and this life produced me…I shall express myself as I am” – James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

It can be great to read old, embarrassing journal entries because it means you’ve grown. Without writing it down we have no proof. And without a record it’s sometimes impossible to understand how we could have believed the crazy notions we’ve outgrown. This blog is likely full of ideas I’ve outgrown. I’m fine with that. Years from now I’ll be glad I was observant, honest in my assessments, and most importantly, that I wrote it down.

 

P.S. There will be no blog post next week because I will be busy eating food. Happy Holidays everyone.

Coherence

My 9000-word short story “Coherence” has been published in a new anthology from Dreamscape Press®. Nuclear Town U.S.A. is an anthology of post-apocalyptic speculative fiction now available at Amazon.com.

Nuclear Town USA - CoverThis short story is currently my longest, just slightly longer than many publishers’ maximum allowable word count, so I’m glad it found a home. “Coherence” is a story about a scientist who tries to prevent the apocalypse using time travel. Guess what, things don’t work out for him the way he expects. (#conflict)

Shortly after I finished writing the story I read Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke and I found it really strange because all these little, weirdly specific details from my story were in his story. Is it possible that all the books and movies I’ve seen that were inspired by Childhood’s End somehow implied those details to me through context?

How am I supposed to know?

For more scintillating analyses, follow me on Twitter and Google+.

Your Life Is A Lie

It’s great when labels put up good money so bands can make ridiculous videos. Let me direct your attention to “Your Life Is A Lie” by MGMT. Their latest, self-titled album is bizarre, alien-themed, and fan-tastic. The video fits the song – short and sweet like this week’s blog post.

If you liked that, you might like “Cool Song No. 2″. This video is much stranger, pretty violent, ultra-slick, a little disturbing. It looks like it cost a fortune. I’m looking forward to the live show.

 

Memetic Evolution

Most of us have a general sense of how biological evolution works. Simple organisms differentiate, mutate, and replicate. Some new traits prove to be good coping mechanisms and help organisms outlive and proliferate further than those organisms with traits ill fit for the environment. Over millions of years the biological changes that take place are increasingly complex. The survivors win. Their reward is life.

But evolution can explain more than biology. Memetic evolution, for example, happens upon almost identical lines. Simple ideas, the kind that represented simple objects or situations to our unintelligent ancestors, were encoded in spoken and pictorial languages (dubbed “memes” by Richard Dawkins). These ideas are sent from one mind to another, and just like genes, they differentiate, mutate, and replicate into other minds.

Some ideas take hold because they provide a benefit to the organism using them.  An early human who learns how to use a club has an advantage over one who hasn’t learned to use a club. A man who knows how to fashion a sword will do well in a fight against that club-wielding guy. Someone who learns how to string a bow and fire an arrow can stand back in the trees and kill the man with the sword with little risk. And the man who communicates all this information proficiently can show up with a gang of hundreds, each with a homemade bow, and so on, and so on. Now we have nuclear weapons.

As our human powers of rational thinking developed, we had an increasing ability to think abstractly, which had far-reaching benefits. Humanity went from understanding individual problems to understanding types of problems. When we figured out how to handle one type of problem, the individual problems of this type no longer required as much investment in thought. As our knowledge outgrew its abstractions, our memetic evolution accelerated exponentially. In relatively no time, our memetic, semantic, cultural reality was infinitely more complex than our biological reality.

Humanity seems like the only species with the ability to continue abstracting beyond the first few levels. Even when we teach lower primates sign language, we can prove that they think, but they tend not to read Bertrand Russell or discuss the plot of a good sitcom.

Memes replicate as aggressively as possible, just like genes. Particular genes can pass around the entire world, but it takes generations, decades of effort and luck. Ain’t nobody got time for that! By contrast, how many people know about the Sweet Brown meme since it appeared in the world?

As memes mutate and grow more complex, they push the boundaries of the semantic world outward into various specialized niches. This is obvious in our internet-soaked world culture. Nobody can keep up with all the facts of our world. Nobody can even keep track of all the relevant facts to their particular field of specialization at our current rate of memetic growth.

New insights gained from trial and error continue to expand all fields of knowledge. If you can combine ideas into something novel, you have pushed the boundary of our semantic world. Notice how ideas normally don’t just appear out of nowhere? Ideas are almost always build upon the foundations of previous ideas.

So wouldn’t it be great if there were a tool that organized memes into easily understandable fragments, and we could each curate our own stream of information so that the knowledge relevant to our interests could be scanned easily as well as studied for detail? Welcome to the world of Twitter.

Twitter acts as an exploder button for memetic evolution. Think of all the Sweet Brown remixes! But seriously, I want a genetic scientist to have all the specialized knowledge available from around the world so progress can continue. I curate my own feed and my knowledge of worthwhile writing and music and film has increased in a dramatic way. Plus it allows us to stay current, so our cultural developments remain on the cutting edge.

The internet has brought us together in unexpected ways. It’s easy to see how much time is wasted on sites like Twitter and Facebook. But it isn’t like that for everyone. Most of the gene swarm on planet Earth died off before our ancestors replicated successfully. Think of how much of Earth’s matter has been incorporated into our 7 billion neighbours. We give our particular genes a great success rate, so it’s a good thing for them that they made us. As for Twitter, could memetic evolution ask for a better medium of proliferation through human minds?

Memes, like genes, want nothing more than to replicate, and they do so in a very chaotic way until they find a best-fit pattern for the environment. We invented Twitter to share information. But our inventions are always on the shoulders of past ideas. So our semantic, memetic world has guided us to invent Twitter, the ultimate replicator (so far) for memes. Are we in the driver’s seat here, willfully directing memes for further progress, or are we being directed by our memes? And anyway, what’s the difference?