Archive for Film

The Dark Knight: Why So Existential?

Posted in Alan More, Batman, Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne, Christopher Nolan, comic books, Dark Knight, Dark Knight Rises, DC Comics, Entertainment, Ethics, Existentialism, Film, Frank Miller, Gotham, graphic literature, graphic novels, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Knight of Faith, Literature, Morality, Nietzsche, nihilism, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy, Pop Cultural Musings, Psychology, superheroes, teleological suspension of the ethical, The Dark Knight Returns, The Joker, The Killing Joke, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on July 12, 2012 by Uroboros

Four years after first seeing The Dark Knight, I still marvel at how Christopher Nolan managed to sneak so much thought-provoking material into such an action-packed Hollywood flick—how, amidst all the clever heists, over-the-top chase sequences, and ear-popping explosions, this sleek auteur didn’t shy away from post 9/11 political commentary; he neither neglected the psycho-social dimensions of the characters, nor waved his hand at the existential implications of the film’s wildly suspenseful dilemmas. Like no other filmmaker before him, Nolan and his co-writers, Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer, respect the literary depth of the comic source material. They see, and unapologetically embrace, the existential potency at the heart of the Batman mythos.

Influenced by the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard, existentialism focuses on the individual’s struggle to find meaning in the modern world, one increasingly devoid of traditional notions of order and authority and constantly threatened by the specter of post-Darwinian nihilism. Existentialists argue that the cosmos doesn’t have a clear, predetermined plan. There’s not even an essential ‘human nature’ to help guide us through life’s obstacle course. There is only the purpose we create through our choices, and we can’t know with absolute, God-like certainty whether we’ve made the right ones. Rational debate and scientific research can help, but ultimately such truths, being contingent upon the evidence we have at the time, are provisional and may be revised in the future. Free will, an existentialist is likely to argue, is predicated on a state of inescapable doubt.

Kierkegaard, a 19th century Protestant theologian, coped by imagining a kind of philosophical hero tailor made for an uncertain reality. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard describes the ‘Knight of Faith.’ Exemplified by the biblical patriarch Abraham, a Knight of Faith doesn’t tremble at life’s uncertainties or delude himself about its fundamental absurdities. He embraces them as a call to adventure, a test of one’s commitment to his or her most cherished beliefs.

Kierkegaard’s paragon of faith resembles the Dark Knight in several key ways. Existential quests begin with absurd events that defy easy explanation and haunt our thoughts long after they’ve passed. For Bruce Wayne, of course, it’s his parents’ senseless murder. At eight years old, the orphaned Bruce inherits a fortune but is robbed of one of life’s true treasures: the sense of security that comes from belonging to a loving family. He spends the rest of his adolescence struggling to overcome grief, terror, and rage–the deafening psychological echo of the gun shots fired in Crime Alley on that fateful night.

Existentialists are quick to point out that we don’t choose to exist (our parents do that for us), but at some point, we do get the chance to take the reins and make decisions that shape our destinies. As Bruce matures, he refuses to become a helpless slave to his emotions. In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, he says, “We must believe that our private demons can be defeated.” His parents’ murder teaches him that “the world only makes sense when you force it to.” Instead of becoming fatalistic, Bruce takes up the cape and cowl in pursuit of something that will bring meaning back to his life: a sense of justice.

The choice of the bat totem isn’t arbitrary. It symbolizes Bruce’s mastery of the fear and rage that threaten to turn him into the very criminals he’s battling against. In Nolan’s Batman Begins, Alfred, Bruce’s butler, asks him about his preoccupation with bats. “They frighten me,” Bruce replies, “and it’s time my enemies share my dread.” Batman takes on Gotham’s underworld and tries to rectify the forces that victimize people. This is how Bruce atones for the loss of his parents, who used their wealth and power to make Gotham a safer city.

While Bruce embraces conventional philanthropy, too, his fractured psyche craves a more concrete way of pursuing his goals. Batman turns fear and grief into an existential weapon, stalking the shadowy space between institutional order and criminal chaos, placing himself beyond the law, but not above it. It’s a place of paradox and uncertainty—a place also explored by Kierkeggard’s Knight of Faith. Through what Kierkegaard calls the ‘teleological suspension of the ethical,‘ the Knight Faith doesn’t have to limit his passion for moral order to conventional understandings, which are always temporal and flawed. Likewise, Bruce never lets the letter of the law get in the way of preserving its spirit, especially when the institutions charged with protecting us are so corrupt. That’s why he feels compelled to dress up as a bat and “strike fear in the hearts of those who prey upon the fearful.” It’s a leap of faith that, to others, looks irrational and absurd, but, according to Kierkegaard, that’s a risk the Knight of Faith has to be willing to take, and Bruce/Batman does, using all of his physical and mental abilities toward his teleological end.

A superhero’s greatness, however, depends on the nature of the nemeses who stand in his or her way, and arguably there’s no better rogue in any graphic lit gallery than the Joker. His relationship with Batman is a yin-yang of stark existential contrasts. For example, while Batman struggles to create order, Joker revels in disorder. Where Bruce’s world revolves around his parents’ murder, the Joker’s past, prior to the chemical bath that hideously deformed him, is ill-defined. In Alan More’s The Killing Joke, the Clown Prince quips, “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.” In Nolan’s The Dark Knight, each time the Joker explains how he got his scars, he puts a different spin on the story.

These dichotomous hero-villain origins reflect the diametrically-opposed nature of their subsequent crusades. Born of a singular act of random violence, Bruce channels his passions and focuses on a clear, if ultimately unachievable, goal: a war on crime itself in order to create a safer, more just society. The Joker, on the other hand, lives to create total chaos and debilitating fear. In the spirit of his ‘multiple choice’ origins, he is an advocate for meaninglessness, a champion of the purely arbitrary.

The Joker mocks Batman’s attempt to protect Gotham’s citizenry. In The Killing Joke, he claims the average man is “nature’s mistake.” With an air of dark, Nietzschean glee, he argues that it takes a “deformed set of values” and a “clubfooted social conscience” to pretend that life is anything but “mad, random, and pointless.” This was the point of his ‘social experiment’ in The Dark Knight. The Joker puts seemingly ‘good’ Gothamites in a situation where the corrosive power of fear would erode their consciences and reveal what lies beneath: a horde of primitive, selfish little ids only pretending to be civilized folk governed by high-minded morals. To him, the Dark Knight’s quest is the ultimate absurdity because life itself is just one big cosmic joke: “Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for,” he says in The Killing Joke, “it’s all a monstrous, demented gag.”

This contrast is part of what makes the Batman mythos one of the most profound in all of graphic literature. It speaks to the fundamental things we cherish and fear. The philosopher Heidegger says we are ‘thrown’ into existence, and once we wake up to the reality of our predicament, the rest is up to us. The true challenge is to face one’s fears and be an authentic person. As for the anxiety and dread of being a self-conscious creature, it’s the price of free will, and the suffering that comes with it is what makes the pursuit of happiness worth the effort—it’s the dark background against which moments of illumination stand out in joyous relief, the bitter seasoning that makes little successes along the way taste so sweet.

Batman and Joker represent divergent paths in the struggle. There’s Bruce’s effort to accept his past and prevail, not in spite of his suffering, but because of it. He chooses to make it meaningful. Then there’s The Joker’s quest, which starts with the question: “Why so serious?” and ends in chaos. He embodies the nihilistic suspicions that haunt anyone trying to lead a sensible, purpose-driven life. Batman overcomes these suspicions and commits himself to a worthy cause—even if it requires a seemingly absurd leap of faith in order to sustain it. Nolan brilliantly captured this yin-yang dialectic in The Dark Knight, and I never get tired of watching the interplay of all those wonderful ideas.

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The Promethean Urge

Posted in Entertainment, Ethics, Film, Forbidden Fruit, God, Literature, Morality, Mythology, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Pop Cultural Musings, Prometheus, Religion, Ridley Scott, Science, Science fiction, Technology with tags , , , on June 10, 2012 by Uroboros

When Prometheus steals fire from Zeus and gives it to man, his punishment is to be bound to a mountaintop for all eternity. Each day, an eagle eats his liver. Each night, the wounds heals, and the next day the torture begins again. The idea of breaking through boundaries is the key to the enduring power of the Promethean myth. Humans can’t help being curious about what’s really ‘out there’ beyond the veil of appearance—can’t help being tempted by the fruit of knowledge that grows there and the power it bestows.

When we part the veil and peer into the other side, though, are we gazing at something we were meant to see, or at a realm that is beyond human capacities and thus dangerous to behold? Quite often, people think ‘God’ is on the other side—that ‘He’ has drawn the line, and it is out of pride that we want to trespass and set up camp in ‘His’ space. As sinful, broken creatures, we simply don’t know when to quit. A human is, by definition, the kind of being who won’t, or possibly can’t, accept limitations on its nature. Since we were made in God’s image, we are invariably tempted to become what we behold that mirror image to be.

A survey of human history reveals that, despite our reservations, we have been playing ‘God’ right from the beginning. Restless creatures that we are, humans have always been asking questions, testing possibilities, and putting answers into practice. If we didn’t continually test the bounds and explore ‘God’s territory,’ we’d still be hunting and gathering—we’d still be following and praying to animals. Because we’ve indulged our Promethean urge, however, most humans don’t worship animals anymore. We keep them as pets. We clone them. With the power of genetics, we’re remaking life itself in our image. Modern civilization has re-framed the boundaries of its looking glass and is both enamored and terrified by what it sees. Undeniably, science and technology have enriched our lives—enhancing our ability to alleviate suffering, to travel previously unthinkable distances, and communicate with each other on a global scale—but we can also annihilate ourselves with the push of a button. We can create tools of mass salvation and destruction. The sci-fi authors and filmmakers I admire most tend to imply that the sin isn’t necessarily in wanting to explore unknown territories. Hubris isn’t an epistemological issue. It’s a moral one. The sin is in running away from the implications of what you find. It’s in disowning what you create in the process. Humanity does have to accept at least one limitation: we can’t have the fruit of forbidden knowledge and eat it too.

2003’s Hulk Revisited: Time for a Fresh Look.

Posted in Ang Lee, Avengers, Batman, Christopher Nolan, Entertainment, Father Son, Film, Frankenstein, Freud, Horror, Id, Joss Whedon, Literature, Mark Ruffalo, Marvel Comics, Mary Shelley, Monster, Oedipal, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Pop Cultural Musings, Psychology, Repression, Science fiction, The Hulk with tags , , , , on May 4, 2012 by Uroboros

It’s a notorious film in the Marvel cannon—so vilified that a decade removed and we’re already two regenerations—from Edward Norton to Mark Ruffalo—away from it. But it’s time to re-think this weird and wonderful take on the ultimate embodiment of unleashed id.

Ang Lee's Hulk: Worth another look?

Ang Lee’s Hulk: Worth another look?

I’ll up the ante: it’s the most thought-provoking movie to come from the Marvel Universe yet (though, I’ll grant you, not as entertaining as Iron Man). It’s the closest Marvel has come, in terms of literary depth and psychological complexity, to Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Yeah, I just said that. Indulge my ‘apology’ for this heretical position. First, Ang Lee and his screenwriters, two years before Nolan went there, were the first to build a psychoanalytical foundation for their origin story. Second, Lee understood, with gamma-ray-like precision, that Hulk is not only a Freudian tale, but a Frankensteinian one two.

The key here is ‘regeneration.’ Plastered over and over in the title sequence, Hulk milks the term for all its Freudian implications. If you’ll recall, (the oversimplified version of) Freud’s argument about human nature is that a child’s aggressive instincts are invariably repressed by his or her parents, who shape and mold the child in their own image. They imprint their preoccupations and anxieties onto the child’s psyche, creating a neurotic version of themselves. We are haunted, Freud argues, by the hangups are parents instilled in us. Whether we like it or not, we are just as much their psychological replicants as we are their genetic ones, and the more we deny this, the more we make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Bruce Banner, Freudian timebomb

The connections to Hulk are clear. Bruce’s father, a passionate geneticist with something of a temper, is obsessed with the power of biological regeneration, so much so he’s willing to experiment on himself. David Banner alters his own DNA in the process and passes the mutation onto his son. But that’s only part of the equation: the really trauma was when David, while in the throes of a murderous rage toward his son, killed his wife. Young Bruce saw it all—a memory too traumatic for his consciousness to bear. As an adult, Bruce is a beaker full of scientific passion mixed with repressed trauma. The sins of the father are visited on the son, a thousand-fold. Freud’s argument is echoed here: repression always regenerates, and, left unchecked, the tragic cycle kicks into high gear. Bruce has an extraordinary mind, his father tells him. His thirst for knowledge assures he’ll overstep his bounds and unleash the beast within. Bruce’s fate is to Hulk-out.

Like Father, Like Son

Which feeds into the second point, Lee’s other stroke of genius is making Hulk a thoroughly Frankensteinian story. By invoking Shelley’s 19C masterpiece, Lee forgoes the usual Jekyll-Hyde spin and goes right back to the original sci-fi template. The key ingredient is the father-son dynamic. Frankenstein is essentially a story of strained familial relationships played against a science fiction/gothic horror backdrop. In the novel, Victor initially blames his fascination with reanimation science on his father. Apparently, Frankenstein Sr. didn’t properly steer Young Victor away from the alchemical texts which galvanized his imagination and led him astray. So much for home-schooling.

Victor turns out to be an even worse paternal figure to his artificial offspring, the Creature/Monster. Victor’s refusal to accept responsibility for his creation not only costs him his life, it leads to the violent deaths of everyone he loves. A slight oversight on the part of the father feeds the self-absorption of an insensitive son, who in turn fathers a wretched, demonic being. The cycle evokes Greek tragedy, the logistics are the birth of science fiction.

Betty, Beauty calms the Beast

Hulk expands this dynamic to superheroic proportions and adds a twist. “A physical wound is finite,” Betty tells Bruce, “but with emotions, what’s to say it won’t go on and on and start a chain reaction.” The Hulk is a reaction to the buried rage implanted by Bruce’s father, the child of his mind. Bruce is not Mr. Hyde, who is what humans become when our socialization is stripped away. He’s the outcome of his father’s Faustian desire to harness and manipulate ‘the essence of things.’ Frankenstein’s Creature suffers because his father wants nothing to do with him. Bruce’s problem is that his father won’t leave him alone. He wants to ‘harvest’ the results of his experiment. The truly disturbing part, the really horrific sin visited upon this son, is, in Bruce’s own words, “When it happens, when it comes over me and I totally lose control…I like it.” Frankenstein’s Monster never takes pleasure in his rage, but something in Bruce wants to become the Monster—wants to Hulk-out and wreak havoc on the forces that seek to control him, on those who want to exploit his monstrosity for their own gain. Ultimately this creature wants to kill his creator—to absorb his father’s destructive energy and try to tame it—and the tragic cycle goes on.

I’m just scraping the tip of the thematic iceberg here. The point is that there’s real intellectual depth to Ang Lee’s vision. I’ve heard rumors that, given the positive reaction to Ruffalo’s performance, a post-Avengers regeneration of the Hulk is in the works. My hope is that Marvel will stop leaping away from this version, and fans will stop treating it like a bastard offspring. Sure there are are plenty of reasons to rip on it: 1) The CGI gets cheesy in parts, 2) Josh Lucas’ performance is distracting, 3) there’s always the issue with Hulk’s pants, and 4) I still can’t quite figure out what happens during the climactic battle (I think you have to be high to follow it). In the end, the film’s symbolic reach perhaps exceeds its cinematic grasp. But is that a reason to bury it and pretend it never happened (‘paging Dr. Freud’)? I only wish the comic book crowd will give this flawed masterpiece a second look. It’s my hunch that, given the blockbuster success of Nolan’s erudite interpretation of Batman, we’re finally ready for a more psychoanalytic, literary take on the Hulk.

Isn’t Lee’s film worthy of a fresh look?

More Human Than Human: Blade Runner and the Radical Ethics of A.I.

Posted in A.I., artificial intelligence, Blade Runner, Brain Science, Christianity, Consciousness, Descartes, Entertainment, Ethics, Film, Jesus, Morality, Neurology, Phillip K Dick, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy of Mind, Pop Cultural Musings, Prometheus, Psychology, Religion, Ridley Scott, Science, Science fiction, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on April 27, 2012 by Uroboros

Blade Runner: What makes us human?

Self-consciousness is a secret, or at least its existence is predicated upon one. The privacy of subjective experience has mystified philosophers for centuries and dogged neuroscientists for decades. Science can, in principle, unravel every enigma in the universe, except perhaps for the one that’s happening in your head right now as you see and understand these words. Neurologists can give rich accounts of the visual processing happening in your occipital lobes and locate the cortical regions responsible for parsing the grammar and grasping the concepts. But they can’t objectively identify the ‘you’ part. There’s no neuron for ‘the self.’ No specific neural network which is essentially causing ‘you’ –with all your unique memories, interpretive quirks, and behavioral habits—to read these words have the particular experience you are having.

This problem is illustrated in debates about artificial intelligence. The goal is to create non-biological sentience with a subjective point-of-view, personal memories, and the ability to make choices. The Turing Test is a method for determining whether a machine is truly intelligent, as opposed to just blindly following a program and reacting algorithmically to stimuli. Basically, if a computer or a robot can convince enough people in a blind test that it is intelligent, then it is. That’s the test. The question is, what kind of behaviors and signs would a machine have to have in order to convince you that it’s self-aware?

Voight-Kampf Test

The 1982 film Blade Runner, based on Phillip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, has a version of this called the Voight-Kampf test. The androids in the story, Nexus-6 Replicants, are so close to humans in appearance and behavior that it takes an intense psychological questionnaire coupled with a scan of retinal and other involuntary responses to determine the difference. A anomalous emotional reaction is symptomatic of artificial, as opposed to natural, intelligence. Rachel, the Tyrell corporation’s most state-of-the-art Replicant, can’t even tell she’s artificial. “How can it not know what it is?” asks Deckard, the bounty hunter charged with ‘retiring’ rogue Replicants. Tyrell says memory implants have given her a sense of self, a personal narrative context through which she views the world. The line between real and artificial humans, therefore, is far from clear. Rachel asks Deckard if he’s ever ‘retired’ a human by mistake. He says he hasn’t, but the fact that Rachel had to ask is telling. Would you want to take this test?

If you think about it, what makes you’re own inner subjectivity provable to others—and their subjectivity provable to you—are the weird kind of quirks, the idiosyncrasies which are unique to you and would be exceedingly difficult for a program to imitate convincingly. This is what philosophers call the problem of other minds. Self-consciousness is the kind of thing which, by its very nature, cannot be turned inside out and objectively verified. This is what Descartes meant by ‘I think, therefore I am.’ Your own mental experience is the only thing in the world you can be sure of. You could, in principle, be deluded about the appearance of the outer world. You think you’re looking at this computer screen, but who do you know you’re not dreaming or hallucinating or are part of Matrix-like simulation? According to Descartes’ premise, even the consciousness of others could be faked, but you cannot doubt the fact that you are thinking right now, because to doubt this proposition is to actually prove it. All we’re left with is our sense of self. We are thinking things.

Fembot Fatale

The Turing Test, however, rips the rug away from this certainty. If the only proof for intelligence is behavior which implies a mindful agent as its  source, are you sure you could prove you’re a mindful, intelligent being to others? Can you really prove it to yourself? Who’s testing who? Who’s fooling who?

The uncanny proposition hinted at in Blade Runner is that you, the protagonist of your own inner narrative, may actually be artificial, too. Like Rachel and the not-so-human-after-all Deckard, you may be an android and not know it. Your neural circuitry may not have evolved by pure accident. The physical substrate supporting your ‘sense of self’ may be the random by-product of natural selection, something that just blooms from the brain, like an oak grows out of an acorn—but ‘the you part’ has to be programmed in. The circuitry is hijacked by a cultural virus called language, and the hardware is transformed in order to house a being that maybe from this planet, but now lives in its own world. Seen this way, the thick walls of the Cartesian self thin out and become permeable—perforated by motivations and powers not your own, but ‘Society’s.’ Seen in this light, it’s not as hard to view yourself as a kind of robot programmed to behave in particular ways in order to serve purposes which are systematically hidden.

This perspective has interesting moral implications. The typical question prompted by A.I. debates is, if we can make a machine that feel and thinks, does it deserve to be treated with the same dignity as flesh and blood human beings? Can a Replicant have rights? I ask my students this question when we read Frankenstein, the first science fiction story. Two hundred years ago, Mary Shelley was already pondering the moral dilemma posed by A.I. Victor Frankenstein’s artificially-intelligent creation becomes a serial-killing monster precisely because his arrogant and myopic creator (the literary critic Harold Bloom famously called Victor a ‘moral idiot’) refuses to treat him with any dignity and respect. He sees his artificial son as a demon, a fiend, a wretch—never as a human being. That’s the tragedy of Shelley’s novel.

Robot, but doesn’t know it

In Blade Runner,the ‘real’ characters come off as cold and loveless, while the artificial ones turn out to be the most passionate and sympathetic. It’s an interesting inversion which suggests that what really makes us human isn’t something that’s reducible to neural wiring or a genetic coding—it isn’t something that can be measured or tested through retinal scans. Maybe the secret to ‘human nature’ is that it can produce the kind of self-awareness which empowers one to make moral decisions and treat other creatures, human and non-human, with dignity and respect. The radical uncertainty which surrounds selfhood, neurologically speaking, only heightens the ethical imperative. You don’t know the degree of consciousness in others, so why not assume other creatures are as sensitive as you are, and do unto others as you would have them do to you.

In other words, how would Jesus treat a Replicant?

What is a Dystopia?

Posted in Dystopia, Entertainment, Film, Literature, Movies, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Pop Cultural Musings, Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on March 31, 2012 by Uroboros

The Hunger Games phenomenon has people discussing a funky word, dystopia. Filmspotting.com put together a Top Five Dystopian Movies list recently. Their definition allowed 28 Days Later and The Road Warriorto be considered, though.

Dystopias: disorderly or over-orderly?

What? I cry foul. A post-apocalyptic movie isn’t, by definition, dystopian is it?My wife and I have been discussing the defining properties, and I think that being set in a disorderly world doesn’t make a story dystopian.

First it has to be the opposite of ‘utopia’ (which literally means ‘no place’), right? I take a utopia to be a vision of social order that allows human nature to flourish and achieve its full potential. From Plato’s Republic to Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (he coined the word), the point is to imagine a world of perfect justice and virtue and then speculate about the kinds of laws and institutions which would bring them out.

A dystopia, on the other hand, doesn’t suffer from a lack of order, but an overabundance of it. In other words, dystopias imagine a world where laws and institutions bring out the worst of human nature, or snuff it out altogether.

That’s why The Hunger Games, Equlibrium, V for Vendetta, The Matrix, Blade Runner…all the way back to A Clockwork Orange and even further back to Metropolis–these are all dystopias, and 28 Days Later, Terminator, The Road Warrior, etc. are not.

What do you think? Is this a functional definition? A distinction that matters? What’s your list?

Jules Finds God. Vincent Gets Got.

Posted in Christianity, Entertainment, Existentialism, Film, Filmspotting, Hubert Dreyfus, Kiekegaard, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy, Pop Cultural Musings, Psychology, Pulp Fiction, Tarantino, Uncategorized, William James with tags , , , , on March 20, 2012 by Uroboros

Pulp Fiction’s Themes Re-visited

If I had a dime for every time I’ve debated the meaning of that damn briefcase in Pulp Fiction I could buy a round of milkshakes from Jack Rabbit Slim’s.  It’s the mark of a film’s greatness that 18 years later people  are still talking about it. My favorite filmgeek podcast, Filmspotting, recently explored Pulp Fiction’s legacy and re-visited it’s deeper meanings (or lack there of).

Coincidentally, I’ve been reading All Things Shining by philosophers Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelley which briefly touches on the existential themes in Pulp Fiction, too. So, film/philosophy geek that I am, I had to revisit Tarantino’s masterpiece in search of deeper meanings. Every frame of that film is bursting with style, but, as Adam and Josh from Filmspotting ask, does Pulp have any substance? Is there any ‘there’ there?

Dreyfus and Kelley argue there is. They call the ‘hand cannon’ scene a contemporary version of an ‘Odysseus event,’ an incredible experience which forces you to feel either extraordinarily lucky or grateful to a higher power. In Homer’s Odyssey, when a barrage of spearheads miss the mark and Odysseus escapes, he thinks it’s because Athena is looking out for him. When the Jerry-Seinfeld-looking dude charges out of bathroom and unloads point blank on Jules and Vincent, they have irreconcilable interpretations as to what the inexplicably errant shots mean. Take a look: http://youtu.be/anhdphUxNVo

Vincent says they were lucky. Jules says it was divine intervention.

As Dreyfus and Kelly point out, Jules and Odysseus both felt a power outside of themselves had gotten involved. Vincent, of course, doesn’t accept the metaphysics. He’s a Han Solo-style skeptical realist: higher powers don’t exist, and the fact that they’re still alive is a fluke. Nobody’s ‘up there’ pulling the strings.

One event. Two different experiences.

This moment mirrors the modern existential concern with subjective freedom, choices, and responsibility. Jules suddenly sees the world in a new light. He decides to leave the business and walk the earth—an inner transformation evident in the new meaning he finds in his (largely made-up) Ezekiel quote. What was once just some cold-blooded shit to say before he popped a cap becomes a formula for how to see himself and his place in the world. He’s finally connected with the spirit of what he’s been saying and now wants to lead a more authentic life. Vincent, on the other hand, rejects the religious interpretation, scoffs at Jules’ plan, and tries to change the subject.

Take a look: http://youtu.be/YujYTVQ4_S0

The debate ends when Vincent goes to the bathroom and the robbery goes down. Afterward, when Jules and Vincent leave the diner, there’s a sense of accomplishment and finality. The two men exit, the movie ends, and we’re left to wonder if Jules will actually retire and pursue his new path. Thanks to the non-linear structure, though, we know what happens to Vincent at least. Accidentally shooting Marvin in the face and the close call with Mia fail to make an impression. It’s almost comical how Vincent refuses to be spooked by all his ‘bad luck.’ The only thing he really agonizes over is whether to have sex with Mia or not, a debate that happens while he’s in the bathroom and not outside preventing Mia from snorting the heroin. Turns out, Vincent is pretty dense. His fate, of course, is to be gunned down by Butch after…emerging from the bathroom.

Coincidence? Is somebody trying to tell us something? Is there a ‘there’ there?

The scenario prompts some intriguing questions: Is the hyper-stylish Pulp Fiction—a brutal, often sadistic film about the apparent morality of immoral men—actually a deeply spiritual story? Is Vincent’s fate a subtle critique of the agnostic/atheist worldview? Setting metaphysical issues aside, is Taratino rewarding Jules’ existential openness while punishing Vincent for his close-mindedness? It’s almost as if Tarantino is daring me to call Pulp Fiction a religious movie.

After all, if we had absolute insight into how the cosmos works, then there would be no room for faith, and we wouldn’t really be free. The choices that matter—the ones which define our identity and imbue our days with meaning—are always made from behind a veil of uncertainty. There’s an inexorable element of risk. Otherwise, we’d just be taking marching orders. We’d be drones. The miracle/fluke dichotomy dramatizes the rare opportunities life offers: the chance to reassess who we are, take a long, hard look in the mirror, and ask, ‘Is something up there sending me a message? Is it time to consider another path?’ That’s the question Vincent should’ve asked himself. Jules asks these questions and gets a clear response.

One event. Two experiences. Two divergent paths.

Of course, you could also say that if Jules hadn’t walked away, he would’ve had Vincent’s back and Butch wouldn’t have killed him. Again, Tarantino leaves it open to interpretation because life itself is an open text, and we have to connect the dots. We may never see the big picture, but we can learn a lot about ourselves from the connections we try to make.

Martin Scorsese and the Trauma Machine

Posted in Dreams, Entertainment, Film, filmmaking, Hugo, Martin Scorsese, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Pop Cultural Musings, psychoanalysis, Uncategorized with tags , , , on March 2, 2012 by Uroboros

Besides being an exceptional bit of cinematic wizardry, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is a real rarity in terms of the spin it puts on its themes. Many modern stories cast a wary eye on technological innovation. Sci-fi novels and films, especially, tend to find humanity’s knack for creating gadgets  and mechanisms to be dehumanizing, if not downright self-destructive. The Terminator and Matrix franchises, for example, paint gloomy pictures about the fate of our reliance on machines. Hugo, however, not only celebrates humanity’s technological prowess but actually argues that, far from dehumanizing us, the gadgets we invent can help us fulfill our potential as human beings.

Hugo Cabaret is the orphaned son of a clockmaker who secretively maintains the clocks at a train station while feverishly trying to fix the automaton his late father salvaged from a museum. The child believes the automaton, which is designed to write, will pen a message from his late father, something which will help Hugo understand his purpose in life. The wish is, of course, fantastical, the product of a child’s vivid imagination, pure make-believe. As unrealistic as it is, though, this dream fuels Hugo, intertwining his destiny with that of the pioneering French filmmaker Georges Melies. In the film, both Hugo and Melies are deeply-wounded and broken creatures, who, through the power of technology, are healed, achieving a wholeness which restores a sense of purpose to their desperate lives. The revitalizing technology, of course, is the film camera.

The Automaton

Scorsese revels in the power of cinematic storytelling, championing it as a perfect medium for human beings to express and articulate their dreams. Hugo‘s underlying argument is psychoanalytic. As Freud and Jung theorized, when we dream, whether at night or during the day, we’re experiencing symbolic, coded messages from our own unconscious, a personal repository of repressed fears and unfulfilled wishes for Freud, a collective reservoir of human potential for Jung. In the film, Melies waxes rhapsodic about filmmaking as the stuff of dreams, a means for transforming personal visions into the focal point of collective experience. This is the magical force latent in the film camera, the celluloid balm projected onto the silver screen. Scorsese is unabashed in celebrating the potential therapeutic value inherent in a technology he’s dedicated his life to mastering. The revered auteur was a lonely boy, too, with a vivid imagination and passionate dreams. As a sickly child, he spent many afternoons watching the world from his bedroom window conjuring up personal versions of the stories he experienced at the movie theater down the block. If you’re a fan of his work—of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, etc—then you’ll recognize Hugo as both his most un-Scorsese-like film and his most deeply-personal.

It’s no surprise he revisited Melies’ story, either. Melies didn’t invent filmmaking. The technology had been around for a while. Melies’ great insight was in imagining how movies could be more than mere novelty—more than dropping a nickle into a machine in order to get a spectacular but fleeting thrill. Melies grasped film’s potential for turning the unconscious inside out; when he looked at a camera, he saw a dream machine. If you automatically associate filmmaking with storytelling, then you’re seeing the medium as Melies envisioned it. Through Hugo’s quest, Scorsese offers the audience a wonderfully-mythologized account of the early evolution of film, rendered in lavish light and colors, set in intricately-detailed locales, and framed in eye-popping and content-appropriate 3-D (as opposed to how 3-D tech is used in most films these days, a money-making gimmick tantamount to the Nickelodeonapproach of pre-Melies cinema, i.e. titillating thrills as fleeting and disposable as the plastic glass through which they’re viewed.) Here, technology not only serves Scorsese’s story. It is the story. The narrative focuses on people who are either driven or haunted by dreams, the sting of unfulfilled passions. This duality is captured by the German term for dreaming itself, traumen, which, of course, suggests ‘trauma.’ In other words, dreams are a kind of wound, the expression of something within that needs to be healed. We suffer dreams in the sense of ‘undergoing’ them; they’re spontaneous passions which move us through pain toward pleasure; they’re a renewable energy source for the pursuit of happiness. Hugo reminds us that, far from hindering this pursuit, the technologies we generate along the way can help us achieve our ends.  Machines can actually make us more human.

It’s a strange, unique message. Modern culture’s anxiety about rapid technological progress has grown increasingly gloomy, if not apocalyptic, over the last several decades. As a culture, we do need to tell and retell the Frankensteinian stories about technology run amok. We need to consider the destructive and dehumanizing impact our scientific breakthroughs can have. But, watching Hugo, I was reminded that Frankenstein isn’t the whole story. Hugo envisions another kind of image in the ink blot, one where the automaton’s pen—the cogs and gears, the clicking and winding—doesn’t necessarily spell humanity’s doom. Instead, they help us reconnect the broken parts and revitalize that spark which makes us human: the ability we have to use our imaginations to produce meaning and manufacture happiness long enough to keep the human project itself running.

As Hugo Caberet tells Isabelle:

Everything has a purpose, even machines. Clocks tell the time, trains take you places…Maybe that’s why broken machines make me so sad. They can’t do what they’re meant to do. Maybe it’s the same with people. If you lose your purpose, it’s like you’re broken…Machines never come with any extra parts. They always come with the exact amount they need.

If the world is one big machine, Hugo adds, no one is an extra part. We’re all here for a reason. In an age when people feel trapped in an overly-mechanized culture, it’s refreshing to hear a radically different take on the nature of machines, a more optimistic answer to questions concerning technology and its potentially traumatic impact on human nature.         

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