Director Rian Johnson has given us two films so far; Brick (2005) and The Brothers Bloom (2008). Looper will be his third film.
Saturday, June 30, 2012
Tuesday, June 26, 2012
Email has killed the art of letters. In olden days, the thinkers within a civilization were so interesting and thoughtful that we have found it worth publishing books that consisted entirely of nothing but their correspondence. That’s over with. Can you imagine a book full of the emails and text messages of a modern day celebrity, politician or author? Nope. Dispute whatever you wish, but you can't dispute that our communication with one another has dumbed down at an incredibly rapid pace. Over half of our “friendships” are now on Facebook. And while Facebook amazingly and incredibly gives us the ability to “stay in contact” with our friends who live all over the planet, it has also screwed the quality of our communication with one another. They say you should choose quality over quantity. The internet strongly disagrees.
My interest in this topic is on the level of being interested in a disaster like the sinking of the Titanic. I've become convinced that every time you watch one single episode of a reality TV show, hundreds of your brain cells have just been murdered (and the number of reality TV show episodes being watched, every day, by Americans, is still growing exponentially). I’ve started exploring this subject because when I read good writers I realize that my modern vocabulary has been woefully limited. The rapid rise of social media over the last decade or two has, somehow, decreased our vocabulary. The ability to express what we feel and think has been shoved into the molds of typically catchy little phrases.
As we have been Twittering away at our streams of consciousness, our streams of consciousness have shrunk to very thin slices that have been increasingly and easily disturbed or influenced by the trendy, the sensational or the polarized. They say that neanderthals communicated with each other, millions of years ago, through sublingual grunts and mewlings. This is now the sort of language that we text to each other over the cell phone.
Mankind is currently engaged in the process of rewiring its brain to that of a whole collection of short-attention spanned, unquestioning, easily led, easily offended, easily bored, sensitive sensation seeking, emotional high addicts who have been brain-washed into thinking that they are supposed to “kill time” and to “rest” their minds at the end of each day. We’ve been taught that there is an ever increasing blob of benefits that we deserve and advantages to which we are entitled. We’ve been instructed that we have self-identities to nurture, self-esteem to protect, and self-actualization to wean. We’ve been influenced into becoming non-thinkers. Thinking is too hard, or at the very least, a necessary drudgery into which we have to force ourselves during hours of work or school (if we’re unlucky enough to actually have work or school that requires the act of thinking).
Today, attempting to discuss anything of depth or meaning is, more often than not, either (a) a social faux pas of the bad-mannered conversationalist, (b) a “conversation” killer by the fanatically minded, or (c) a bore. This is the way we think now. This is the society in which we live. This is how we are encouraged to relate to each other.
In every historical age, different generations are faced with unique historical problems. In our own “Postmodern” Digitized age, we have been given a unique problem of our own. The problem is this: More significantly than ever before in the history of mankind, the ways that we think and the things that we value - how we understand everything from our physical health to our personal relationships to our spiritual meaning - are all being shaped and molded by outside forces that are not immediately apparent to us. The speed with which technology has expanded and permeated every single little detail of our lives has overtaken our understanding of what our use of technology is doing to us. Our attitudes, beliefs, and choices - even our capacity for thought - is being fashioned by the culture in which we live and by the entertainment with which we occupy our time. Most of us have not consciously chosen for this to happen to us. But it is happening all the same.
Social-networking, for all its benefits, encourages the daily concerns of youth culture. The ability to connect 24/7 with one's peers raises the interests of the majority of one's peers to a far more intense level of focus. The end result is a superficiality and shallowness that has only become possible by technology's prioritizing our socialization by popularity defined and measured by mouse-clicks. Modern pop culture is now ruled by the hand-held device. The events in your life are being tagged and recorded in minute-by-minute electronic scrolls. We don't go out into nature and get away from it all, instead, we go out into nature and digitally update the rest of the world that we are, in fact, out doing a nature thing (and then we go back and check our updates to see if anyone else "likes" what we are doing).
In the last five decades or so, we created the very idea of a "teenager." We distinguished the adolescent from the adult. We distinguished adolescent activity and entertainment from grown-up activity and entertainment. Then we made the concerns of adolescents the concerns of adults. Now all of us are stuck with the brains and entertainment of teenagers. What shall we do next? All we have to do now is encourage the creation of the idea of a "tween." We can then distinguish the tween from the teenager. Then we can distinguish tween activity and entertainment from teenage activity and entertainment. And then ...
If you have any taste in music at all, then there is some music on, oh say, the radio, that you avoid listening to. When you drive somewhere, just listen to the popular music pounding (or whining) out of the cars next to you. Something is wrong. I often find that popular music sounds just like this:
This is not the sort of music that is going to encourage, refresh, revitalize or inspire you. This is the sort of music that is most popular.
It is not difficult to reach the conclusion that we now live in the age of the mental laxative. A topic of conversation at a social event, a youtube video, a TV show episode, a flurry of never ending text messages, a music video, a news story from either CNN or Fox News, a tweet, a pop song, a speech by a politician ... all these things are often the intellectual equivalent of diluting the mind like a laxative pill is designed to dilute other things. The end result is never very pleasant.
But I'm not interested in just making curmudgeonly rants that accomplish nothing. The subject of how technology and entertainment shapes the way that we think and limits our capacity for imagination is a subject that often ignored thinkers and scholars have been pursuing for decades. Questions are being raised that we have barely ever bothered with. One of the most comprehensive recent books on the subject was written by Nicholas Carr called The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. One of the advantages to being a self-conscious being is that one can even study how what we do forms our own brains. Short-attention spans or shallow thinking are not the result of personal taste or personality. They are the result of cultivated habit and practice.
I know very little about this subject, so I am currently engaged in building a bookshelf devoted to it. The number of thinkers who are studying what is happening to us is impressive. It is high time that we started paying attention to their questions. Much of what they have to say is ignored or dismissively criticized, but it shouldn't be. They are explaining the problem of what is being lost. And within their explanations, whether you fully agree with them or not, is a perception that we may need to guide us as the rest of the world keeps hurtling down the never-ending path of technological progress.
Thus, below is a series of excerpts from a unique collection of books that ought to make your reading lists:
Richard Hofstadter writes in Anti-Intellectualism In American Life (1962) -
“The case against intellect is founded upon a set of fictional and wholly abstract antagonisms. Intellect is pitted against feeling, on the ground that it is somehow inconsistent with warm emotion. It is pitted against character, because it is widely believed that intellect stands for mere cleverness, which transmutes easily into the sly or the diabolical. It is pitted against practicality, since theory is held to be opposed to practice, and the ‘purely’ theoretical mind is so much disesteemed. It is pitted against democracy, since intellect is felt to be a form of distinction taht defies egalitarianism. Once the validity of these antagonisms is accepted, then the case for intellect ... is lost.
... Of course the fundamental fallacy in these fictional antagonisms is that they are based not upon an effort to see out the actual limits of intellect in human life but rather upon a simplified divorce of intellect from all the other human qualities with which it may be combined ... It would be pointless to accept the form in which the challenge is put and attempt to make a defense of intellect as against emotion or character or practicality. Intellect needs to be understood not as some kind of a claim against the other human excellences for which a fatally high price has to be paid, but rather as a complement to them without which they cannot be fully consummated ... Posed in these rather general terms, this fact may seem obvious; but historically it has been obvious to all too few; and the purpose of this book is to trace some of the social movements in our history in which intellect has been dissevered from its co-ordinate place among the human virtues and assigned the position of a special kind of vice.” pgs. 45-47
Marshall McLuhan writes in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964) -
“In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium - that is, of any extension of ourselves - result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology. Thus, with automation, for example, the new patterns of human association tend to eliminate jobs, it is true. That is the negative result. Positively, automation creates roles for people, which is to say depth of involvement in their work and human association that our preceding mechanical technology had destroyed. Many people would be disposed to say that it was not the machine, but what one did with the machine, that was its meaning or message. In terms of the ways in which the machine altered our relations to one another and to ourselves, it mattered not in the least whether it turned out cornflakes or Cadillacs. The restructuring of human work and association was shaped by the technique of fragmentation that is the essence of machine technology. The essence of automation technology is the opposite. It is integral and decentralist in depth, just as the machine was fragmentary, centralist, and superficial in its patterning of human relationships ...
“Scholars today are acutely aware of a discrepancy between their ways of treating subjects and the subject itself. Scriptural scholars of both the Old and New Testaments frequently say that while their treatment must be linear, the subject is not. The subject treats of the relations between God and man, and between God and the world, and of the relations between man and his neighbor - all these subsist together, and act and react upon one another at the same time. The Hebrew and Eastern mode of thought tackles problem and resolution, at the outset of a discussion, in a way typical of oral societies in general. The entire message is then traced and retraced, again and again, on the rounds of a concentric spiral with seeming redundancy. One can stop anywhere after the first few sentences and have the full message, if one is prepared to "dig" it. This kind of plan seems to have inspired Frank Lloyd Wright in designing the Guggenheim Art Gallery on a spiral, concentric basis. It is a redundant form inevitable to the electric age, in which the concentric pattern is imposed by the instant quality, and overlay in depth, of electric speed. But the concentric with its endless intersection of planes is necessary for insight. In fact, it is the technique of insight, and as such is necessary for media study, since no medium has its meaning or existence alone, but only in constant interplay with other media.
“The new electric structuring and configuring of life more and more encounters the old lineal and fragmentary procedures and tools of analysis from the mechanical age. More and more we turn from the content of messages to study total effect. Kenneth Boulding put this matter in The Image by saying, "The meaning of a message is the change which it produces in the image." Concern with effect rather than meaning is a basic change of our electric time, for effect involves the total situation, and not a single level of information movement ...”
Jerry Mander writes in Four Arguments For The Elimination of Television (1978) -
“We have all had the experience of reading a paragraph only to realize that we had not absorbed any of it. This requires going over the paragraph a second time, deliberately giving it conscious effort. It is only with conscious effort and direct participation at one’s own speed that words gain any meaning to a reader.
Images require nothing of the sort. They only require that your eyes be open. The images enter you and are recorded in memory whether you think about them or not. They pour into you like fluid into a container. You are the container. The television is the pourer.
In the end, the viewer is little more than a vessel of reception, and television itself is less a communications or educational medium, as we have wished to think of it, than an instrument that plants images in the unconscious realms of the mind. We become affixed to the changing images, but as it is impossible to do anything about them as they enter us, we merely give ourselves over to them. It is total involvement on the one hand - complete immersion in the image stream - and total unconscious detachment on the other hand - no cognition, no discernment, no notations upon the experience one is having.” (pg. 204)
Neil Postman writes in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) -
“Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.’ In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure ... This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.” (pgs. xix-xx)
Neil Postman writes in Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992) -
“Surrounding every technology are institutions whose organization - not to mention their reason for being - reflects the world-view promoted by the technology. Therefore, when an old technology is assaulted by a new one, institutions are threatened. When institutions are threatened, a culture finds itself in crisis. This is serious business, which is why we learn nothing when educators ask, Will students learn mathematics better by computers than by textbooks? Or when businessmen ask, Through which medium can we sell more products? Or when preachers ask, Can we reach more people through television than through radio? Or when politicians ask, How effective are messages sent through different media? Such questions have an immediate, practical value to those who ask them, but they are diversionary. They direct our attention away from the serious social, intellectual, and institutional crises that new media foster.
Perhaps an analogy here will help to underline the point. In speaking of the meaning of a poem, T.S. Eliot remarked that the chief use of the overt content of poetry is ‘to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a bit of nice meat for the house-dog.’ In other words, in asking their practical questions, educators, entrepreneurs, preachers, and politicians are like the house-dog munching peacefully on the meat while the house is looted. Perhaps some of them know this and do not especially care ... But for the rest of us, it cannot be acceptable to have the house invaded without protest or at least awareness.
What we need to consider about the computer has nothing to do with its efficiency as a teaching tool. We need to know in what ways it is altering our conception of learning, and how, in conjunction with television, it undermines the old idea of school. Who cares how many boxes of cereal can be sold via television? We need to know if television changes our conception of reality, the relationship of the rich to the poor, the idea of happiness itself. A preacher who confines himself to considering how a medium can increase his audience will miss the significant question: In what sense do new media alter what is meant by religion, by church, even by God?” (pgs. 18-19)
Roger Scruton writes in An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture (1998) -
"... we must remember the distinction between fantasy and imagination, and the inherent tendency of the camera to realise what it shows - to present not a world of imagination, but a substitute reality. This is never more obvious than in the case of sex and violence, and is the root cause of the fact that these now dominate the cine screen, and would dominate television too, were it not for the censor. With the aid of the camera you can realise violence or the sexual act completely, and so minister to the fantasy which has sex or violence as its focus. If fantasy breaks through the tissue of the imagination, then the dramatic thought is scattered, and the imginative emotions along with it: drama then sinks into the background, and all that we have is obscenity - human flesh without the soul.
Hence many people are quickly satiated by cinematic representations, and at the same time deeply disturbed and absorbed by features (violence in particular) which, from the dramatic point of view, have little intrinsic meaning. Imagination withers when realisation blooms, and the ethical view of our condition withers along with it. It is a significant fact that most cinema-goers are disposed to see their favourite films only a few times, and that even people whose interest is not in the drama but in the blood, screams, and orgasms have no great interest in revisiting the last occasion of excitement, and will proceed joylessly to the next one without raising the question of the value of what they watch. This contrasts with every other kind of dramatic art - theatre, novel, opera, dramatic poem - in which the perception of beauty brings with it a desire constantly to return to the source, to re-enact in our emotions a drama which never loses its point for us, since it touches the question why we are here.
The desire to make the cinema into an imaginative art form, with the camera and the cutting room as adjuncts to the drama, rather than as short-cuts to the gratification of fantasy, lies behind the great poetic experiments of the black-and-white screen. Names like Eisenstein, Cocteau, Renoir, Bunuel, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Bergman, Truffaut and Fellini remind us of the enormous energy that has been applied to the task of taming the camera, of teaching it to serve the drama rather than to eclipse it. It is significant that the films of those masters are almost never now seen ..." (pgs. 102-103)
Ben Shapiro writes in Porn Generation (2005) -
"In a world where all values are equal, where everything is simply a matter of choice, narcissism rules the day. Our culture has bred hollow young men, obsessed with self-gratification. Young women are told to act like sex objects - and enjoy it. The revisionist historians have effectively labeled obscenity as a right that the Founding Fathers sought to protect. Society told the porn generation that final moral authority rests inside each of us - and in our vanity, we listened.
The mainstream acceptance of pornography has become a social fact. Order a movie. Walk past your local news shop. Log on to the Internet. It's everywhere - in your Blockbuster, your newspaper, your inbox. We've replaced faith and family with a warped image of sex and self-satisfaction that ridicules the concept of purity and mangles the most sacred ideals of matrimony." (pg. 2)
"According to a survey of college students conducted by 'Details' magazine and Random House, 46 percent had had a one-night stand, 43 percent had cheated on a steady partner, 21 percent had tried to get someone drunk or high to get them in bed, and 32 percent had slept with someone knowing they would never call again. On average, respondents had had 6.4 sex partners in their lives; 14 percent had 6-9 sex partners ...
The limitless sexual license of the porn generation is not without consequence. It leads to spiritual desensitization, emotional removal, and lack of commitment. The sad fact is that Tom Wolfe's literary characterization of a young girl, Charlotte Simmons, carries enormous weight because it is so true.
Simmons starts her college experience as a leader, a fighter, a moralist at fictional Dupont University. Early on, she protests the 'live and let live' morality that pervades the university:
'At Dupont ... everybody thinks you're kind of - of - some kind of twisted ... uptight ... pathetic little goody-goody if you haven't had sex. Girls will come right out and ask you - girls you hardly even know. They'll come right out and ask you - in front of other girls - if you're a V.C., a member of the Virgin's Club, and if you're stupid enough to say yes, it's an admission, like you have some sort of terrible character defect ... There's something perverted about that.'
... But Charlotte doesn't cry out to her family for help, and she doesn't extract herself from the moral mire that surrounds her. By the end of the book, she has capitulated to peer pressure, lost her virginity, and given in to the values of her surrounding environment. She has undergone deep depression, and she has emerged a shallower person for her experiences.
There are thousands of Charlotte Simmonses in the porn generation. When you're surrounded by encouragement leading you toward subjective morality, sexuality and hedonism, when you can't retreat to a safe haven, it's simply easier to capitulate than to fight ..." (pgs. 3-4)
Mark Bauerlein writes in The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future [Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30] (2008) -
“Never have opportunities for education, learning, political action, and cultural activity been greater. All the ingredients for making an informed and intelligent citizen are in place. But it hasn’t happened. Yes, young Americans are energetic, ambitious, enterprising, and good, but their talents and interests and money thrust them not into books and ideas and history and civics, but into a whole other realm and other consciousness. A different social life and a different mental life have formed among them. Technology has bred it, but the result doesn’t tally with the fulsome descriptions of digital empowerment, global awareness, and virtual communities. Instead of opening young American minds to the stores of civilization and science and politics, technology has contracted their horizon to themselves, to the social scene around them. Young people have never been so intensely mindful of and present to one another, so enabled in adolescent contact. Teen images and songs, hot gossip and games, and youth-to-youth communications no longer limited by time or space wrap them up in a generational cocoon reaching all the way into their bedrooms. The autonomy has a cost: the more they attend to themselves, the less they remember the past and envision the future. They have all the advantages of modernity and democracy, but when the gifts of life lead to social joys, not intellectual labor, the minds of the young plateau at age 18. This is happening all around us. The fonts of knowledge are everywhere, but the rising generation is camped in the desert, passing stories, pictures, tunes, and texts back and forth, living off the thrill of peer attention. Meanwhile, their intellects refuse the cultural and civic inheritance that has made us what we are up to now.” (pg. 10)
“In fall 2004, I joined a panel of faculty members at the University of Maryland to discuss, once again, reading trends for young adults and their implications for American culture. Facing about 250 students, I told them the truth, reciting the findings of several knowledge surveys as the inevitable outcome of not reading. Their interests lead them in polar directions, their knowledge running to zero in areas of civics, history, etc., while rising to a panoramic grasp of the lives of celebrities, the lyrics of pop music, and MySpace profiling. They wrinkle their brows if offered a book about Congress, but can’t wait for the next version of Halo. ‘Let’s get specific,’ I goaded. ‘You are six times more likely to know who the latest American Idol is than you are to know who the Speaker of the House is.’ At that point, a voice in the crowd jeered, ‘American Idol is more important!’
She was right. In her world, stars count more than the most powerful world leaders. Knowing the names and ranks of politicians gets her nowhere in her social set, and reading a book about the Roman Empire earns nothing but teasing. More than just dull and nerdish, reading is counterproductive. Time spent reading books takes away from time keeping up with youth vogues, which change every month. To prosper in the hard-and-fast cliques in the schoolyard, the fraternities, and the food court, teens and 20-year-olds must track the latest films, fads, gadgets, YouTube videos, and television shows. They judge one another relentlessly on how they wear their clothes, recite rap lyrics, and flirt. Having career goals may not draw their mockery, but a high school guy found by his buddies reading The Age of Innocence on a summer afternoon never regains his verve, and a girl with Bowling Alone in hand is downright inscrutable ... The momentum of the social scene crushes the budding literary scruples of teens. Anti-book feelings are emboldened, and heavy readers miss out on activities that unify their friends.” (pgs. 42-43)
Susan Jacoby, in The Age of American Unreason (2008), writes -
“During the past four decades, America’s endemic anti-intellectual tendencies have been grievously exacerbated by a new species of semiconscious anti-rationalism, feeding on and fed by an ignorant popular culture of video images and unremitting noise that leaves no room for contemplation or logic. This new form of anti-rationalism, at odds not only with the nation’s heritage of eighteenth-century Enlightenment reason but with modern scientific knowledge, has propelled a surge of anti-intellectualism capable of inflicting vastly greater damage than its historical predecessors inflicted on American culture and politics. Indeed, popular anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism are now synonymous ...” (pg. xii)
“First and foremost among the vectors of anti-intellectualism are the mas media. On the surface, today’s media seem to offer consumers an unprecedented variety of choices - television programs on hundreds of channels; movies; video games; music; and the Internet versions of those products, available in so many portable electronic packages that it is entirely possible to go through an entire day without being deprived for a second of commercial entertainment. And it should not be forgotten that all of the video entertainment is accompanied by a soundtrack, usually in the form of ear-shattering music and special effects that would obviate concentration and reflection even in the absence of visual images. Leaving aside the question of whether it is a good thing to be entertained twenty-four hours a day, the variety of the entertainment, given that all of the media outlets and programming divisions are controlled by a few major corporations, is largely an illusion.
But the absence of genuine choice is a relatively minor factor in the relationship between the mass media and the decline of intellectual life in America. It is not that television, or any of its successors in the world of video, was designed as an enemy of active intellectual endeavor but that the media, while they may not actually be the message, inevitably reshape content to fit a form that subordinates both the spoken and written word to visual images. In doing so, the media restrict their audience’s intellectual parameters not only by providing information in a highly condensed form but by filling time - a huge amount of time - that used to be occupied by engagement with the written word.” (pgs. 10-11)
Lee Siegel writes in Against The Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob (2008) -
"... the Internet's social and psychological nature is the answer to a century of social and psychological change. During that time, the individual was gradually elevated above society. Satisfying our own desires has become more important than balancing our relationships with other people.
The age of Freud, the Existential Self, the Therapeutic Self, the Confessional Self, the Performing Self, the age of the memoir, the Me Generation, the Culture of Narcissism - life has become more mentalized, more inward, more directed toward the gratification of personal desire. The collapse of the family and the preponderance of people living alone are aspects of this trend ... We live more in our own heads than any society has at any time, and for some people now the only reality that exists is the one inside their heads ... The Internet is the first social environment to serve the needs of the isolated, elevated, asocial individual.
... But fundamental questions about the Internet's new conventions almost never get asked. Instead, the public gets panels of like-minded Internet boosters - and investors - outdoing each other in singing the Internet's praises. Anyone who does challenge Internet shibboleths gets called a fuddy-duddy or reactionary. Criticize the Internet and you are accused of criticizing democracy." (pgs. 6-8)
"On the Internet, an impulse is only seconds away from its gratification. Everyone you encounter online is an event in the force field of your impulses. The criterion for judging the worth of someone you engage with online is the degree of his or her availability to your will. As Al Cooper, a psychologist who studies the Internet, puts it: 'There is little difference between thought and Internet-enabled action ... The Internet provides immediate gratification that affects one's ability to inhibit previously managed drives and desires.' In other words, the Internet creates the ideal consumer." (pg. 175)
"Pornography is no more exclusively about sex than the libido is. Pornography reflects a general way of relating to the world. It collapses public and private. It turns quintessential play into a type of labor. Because it involves the most primal appetite, it has a universal appeal and popularity. The consummate vicarious endeavor, it thrives on and guarantees anonymity. Pornography transfigures other people into instruments of your will, and it strips them of their own ego and desire, so that you can mentally manipulate them without fear of rejection or reprisal.
In a sense, pornography and technology are joined at the hip. They both transform the reality outside your head into means whose sole end is convenience. (Pleasure is convenience as physical sensation.) Technology is a blessing, and a miracle, but it will not lead you to other people as finalities, as ends in themselves existing outside your needs and desires." (pg. 178)
Friday, June 8, 2012
"I have been thinking," said Arthur, "about Might and Right. I don't think things ought to be done because you are able to do them. I think they should be done because you ought to do them ... You see," he said, "Might is not Right. But there is a lot of Might knocking about in this world, and something has to be done about it. It is as if people were half horrible and half nice. Perhaps they are even more than half horrible, and when they are left to themselves they run wild ... Then the horrible side gets uppermost, and there is thieving and rape and plunder and torture. The people become beasts.
"But, you see, Merlyn is helping me to win my two battles so that I can stop this. He wants me to put things right ...
"Now what I have thought," said Arthur, "is this. Why can't you harness Might so that it works for Right? I know it sounds nonsense, but, I mean, you can't just say there is no such thing. The Might is there, in the bad half of people, and you can't neglect it. You can't cut it out, but you might be able to direct it, if you see what I mean, so that it was useful instead of bad."
The audience was interested. They leaned forward to listen, except Merlyn.
"My idea is that if we can win this battle in front of us, and get a firm hold of the country, then I will institute a sort of order of chivalry ... And then I shall make the oath of the order that Might is only to be used for Right. Do you follow? The knights in my order will ride all over the world, still dressed in steel and whacking away with their swords - that will give an outlet for wanting to whack, you understand, an outlet for what Merlyn calls the foxhunting spirit - but they will be bound to strike only on behalf of what is good ... to restore what has been done wrong in the past and to help the oppressed and so forth. Do you see the idea? It will be using the Might instead of fighting against it, and turning a bad thing into a good. There, Merlyn, that is all I can think of. I have thought as hard as I could. I can't do any better. Please say something!"
The magician stood up as straight as a pillar, stretched out his arms in both directions, looked at the ceiling, and said the first few words of the Nune Dimittis.
- from T.H. White, in The Queen of Air and Darkness
Perhaps one of the very most interesting things about the film, Machine Gun Preacher, is how very little attention it has received. With everyone and their moms watching "Kony 2012" on YouTube for the last three months, the film based on Sam Childers is still under the radar for most people. Sam Childers is a Christian missionary in African Sudan. Machine Gun Preacher is a film based on the ongoing life, adventures and mission of Childers, who has been conducting raids against Kony's "Lord's Resistance Army" in order to rescue children from slavery for over a decade. In other words, he's sort of a modern day personification of George Müller, David Livingston, Harriet Tubman and Theodore Dwight Weld combined with a machine gun.
As you'd expect, he has his critics and, therefore, so does this film.
But, to be a critic, you actually do have to actually see the film first - not an easy task to perform.
Now, in my Central Valley town of Modesto, California, there is most often no hope whatsoever of limited release films ever opening here. And, while I've kept my eyes open for theater showtimes in San Francisco, if Machine Gun Preacher ever did open there for a couple days, it must have done so with little to no fanfare. (San Francisco must be the wrong demographic.) So, I was forced to wait for the DVD. On Tuesday, after work, I drove to Walmart to pick up a copy. In the midst of two huge displays, one for the actorless/dialogue-writerless Act of Valor and another for the action blockbuster Safe House DVDs (I even saw one fellow excitedly buying five copies of Act of Valor), there was not a single copy of Machine Gun Preacher to be had. I asked the clerk. After taking an hour to look it up on the computer, he said, "Nope. We don't carry it."
I drove to Target next. It was a poor decision with identical results. I tried Blockbuster after that. No copies of the film, even to rent, at Blockbuster either. The clerk kept telling me that he thought it was a film directed by Robert Rodriguez. Desperate, I tried the local Barnes & Noble. The pretty girl in charge of the Customer Information Desk thought I was making a joke with the film title. When I finally made it to BestBuy, there wasn't a single copy to be found. I was annoyed at the futility of it all but still asked a clerk. He miraculously produced that BestBuy location's sole and only copy (off of a display case sitting on a roller in a remote corner of the store). As far as I can tell, I now own the only DVD copy of this film that exists in my entire city (of, apparently, Philistines). As I purchased the DVD, the BestBuy clerk told me that he heard that it was a really good film like Grindhouse.
The majority of the reviews for Machine Gun Preacher are discouraging, and, I believe, wrong. There a few basic things about this film that most of the reviewers just don't or can't or won't understand.
One of the most common complaints is that the film is too ... well, too preachy. “The early scenes of this sanctimonious, fact-based drama is rough-hewn fun ... But then it gets preachy as Sam finds God ..." complains Joe Neumaier of The New York Daily News dismissively. (Neumaier has been busy giving better film ratings to The Three Stooges and The Hunger Games.) Josh Winning opines in Little White Lies that “As the little bodies begin to pile up, Preacher tumbles into unforgivably preachy territory – replete with scenes of Butler screaming at his church congregation ...” God forbid that a film about a real-life preacher should have any actual preaching in it. No, we wouldn't want that.
I suppose it would be asking too much for the negative critics to not criticize the film for committing complete opposite offenses. Some of the critics say the film's main problem is that it's too confusing, others repeat that its main fault is oversimplification. Roger Moore writes in the Orlando Sentinel, that “the movie has a hero it cannot make its mind up about. And that confusion muddles the movie" while S. Jhoanna Robledo writes for Common Sense Media calls it a “gruesome redemption tale made tedious by oversimplification” and that this is a “movie where there are no shades of gray.” Emanuel Levy accuses the film for being “both morally confused and dramatically incohesive" while Noelle Adams bewails that it's just too “simplistic” and “predictable.”
And yet, the thing I find the strangest about most of the negative reviews I read for Machine Gun Preacher was a underlying disapproval of the real-life actions of Sam Childers. Take Henry Fitzherbert of The Daily Express for example. He condemns the film to a "I disliked it" rating of 2 out of 5 stars (Mr. Fitzherbert gave 5 stars to The Dictator and 4 stars to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The reason:
“One minute he’s preaching to his flock in Pennsylvania, the next popping up in the African Bush firing rocket propelled grenades at Joseph Kony’s infamous Lord’s Resistance Army. There’s a certain absurdity, as well as outlandishness, to Childers’ tale that Marc Forster’s film, starring Gerard Butler, never quite shakes off ... The harrowing subject matter, however, deserved and demanded more sophisticated treatment than it gets in this simplistic picture. It never probes the contradiction, for example, in Childers’s violent ways – that in order to save he is prepared to kill.”
In other words, according to Mr. Fitzherbert, Childers' Christianity contradicts his violent tactics used to save children from Kony's army. The film is absurd and contradictory because Sam Childers is absurd and contradictory. This is a sentiment about the film's story that is shared by many.
“People were murdered by the thousands, many more displaced, and the government refused to let humanitarian agencies in with food and medicine. As bad as all that was, it wasn’t the worst thing the Southern Sudanese people had to deal with. In my opinion the worst menace to the people there is a wild dog named Joseph Kony, who heads a rebel group called the Lord’s Resistance Army. These are the maniacs who have devastated Southern Sudan and neighboring Uganda, which is where the LRA originally started and has its base of operations. The fighting goes on along both sides of the border ... Kony and his men raid villages looking for children to capture. They shock and traumatize the kids as soon as possible to frighten them into doing anything they’re told. They sometimes kill their parents in front of them, hacking them to death with machetes or burning them alive. They slice babies out of their mothers bellies and set them on fire. They make the mother watch before raping and killing her. They cut off noses, breasts, ears, lips, or hands, sometimes forcing children to eat the cut-off pieces. They hand an eleven-year-old boy a machete and order him to disembowel his mother. He does it.”
- Sam Childers, Another Man's War, pages 55-57
Michael O’Sullivan (who just gave 3 out of 4 stars to Battleship) of The Washington Post, complains that “The problematic morality of Sam's actions is echoed by the film, which sees things in black and white.” In Mr. O’Sullivan’s opinion, the film “would be a better film if it acknowledged the contradiction inherent in its title” and thus, he condemns Machine Gun Preacher with only a 1 star rating. Josh Bell, of the Las Vegas Weekly, smugly explains how the film is too kind to the real Childers:
“In addition to caring for children rescued from the clutches of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Childers took on the fight himself, leading a makeshift militia of Sudanese soldiers on raids against the LRA with the goal of liberating conscripted child soldiers at any cost. The real Childers preaches vengeance and violence, and while the movie sanitizes his story a bit for mainstream consumption, it holds onto the core might-makes-right message. That’s a little troubling, to say the least ... The whole thing comes off as one long advertisement for Childers’ ministry, which may be doing some good things but is far less righteous than this movie makes it out to be.”
Childers MAY be doing SOME good things? How generous of Mr. Bell to say so. I'm not sure where you have to come from in order to genuinely question the good of, oh say, rescuing and feeding hundreds of children from corrupt genocidal warlords? ... oh, I guess perhaps from Las Vegas. Anyhow, we'll go back to Bell's little quip about the film's “core might-makes-right message” at the very end of this review.
Let's take a look at just two more:
Gary Dowell, for Dark Horizons (and who, in 2011, recommended Paranormal Activity 3 and Scream 4):
“What follows is a questionable form of humanitarianism, as Childers divides his time between preaching and scrounging for donations at home, and rescuing children from horrifically dire situations and gunning down bad guys in Africa ... He's born again, true, but he hasn't changed, he's just found a new outlet for his anger and aggression. The movie shies away from exploring this disconnect in depth, no doubt out of fear of losing audience sympathy for the subject. Unfortunately, the result is a message is too mixed to be effective.”
And Peter Vonder Haar, in the Houston Press, writes:
“Frankly, if Childers' story was simply that of a man who decided to take up arms against African warlords, eschewing the twisted Christian rationalizing on display at every turn, it'd be fine. Hell, a little tweaking and you'd have a remake of Red Scorpion. The problem I (and apparently quite a few other people) have with the guy is exactly the hook that supposedly makes this such a compelling story: his alleged love of the Lord.”
And there you have it. The problem critics have with the film is that it is a story that doesn't explore the contradiction between (a) Childers' Christianity and (b) Childers' use of violence.
Now ... I do not mean to make light of questioning the use of violence or lethal force. War and violence must always be questioned. In fact, I would even argue that it is Christianity that has provided the grounds upon which to most deeply question war and violence in the first place. “Just War” theory, the idea of self-defense and defense of others, has been thoroughly discussed and analyzed by philosophers and theologians since ancient times. No one who was seriously studied Christian theology would treat war and the killing of other human beings as a problem that is easily to be dealt with. But, neither would anyone who has seriously read the oldest of Christian theologians, like St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas, would propose the cliche that Christianity teaches Pacifism. The idea of a “Just War” and the idea of “self-defense or defense of others” originates with Christian theologians.
Those who oppose Christianity cannot have it both ways. They cannot blame Christianity for militant atrocities like the Crusades and then disparage Christianity for it’s supposed Pacifism. Yes, it is true that the Jesus who told his disciples to “turn the other cheek” was the same Jesus who told his disciples that, if they didn’t have any swords, to sell some of their clothing and buy some. To suggest, as many of the reviewers of Machine Gun Preacher are suggesting, that Christianity is opposed to violence of any sort is a pathetic exhibition of ignorance. The Christian theology that preaches self-sacrifice, love, patience, compassion and mercy is the same theology that preaches a love for justice, and a protection and provision for the lost, the hopeless, the oppressed and the innocent. Murder is a sin, but so is the passive act of allowing murder when you have the ability to stop it.
On the question of whether violently fighting for a good cause is contrary to Christian teaching, I’m always reminded of the G.K. Chesterton novel, The Ball and the Cross. In his novel, Chesterton tells the story of a Christian and an Atheist who, after a few insults, decide to fight a duel. All the rest of modern society comes down on them in order to prevent them from fighting. They are interrupted by all types of personifications of various philosophies and religions who each tell them that there is nothing worth fighting for. At one point, they run across a Pacifist and the following excerpt is from when he interrupts them:
... “But you know this is a serious matter,” he said, eyeing Turnbull and MacIan ... “Now, let us put the matter very plainly, and without any romantic nonsense about honour or anything of that sort. Is not bloodshed a great sin?”
“No,” said MacIan, speaking for the first time.
“Well, really, really!” said the peacemaker.
“Murder is a sin,” said the immovable Highlander. “There is no sin of bloodshed."
“Well, we won’t quarrel about a word,” said the other, pleasantly.
“Why on earth not?” said MacIan, with a sudden asperity. “Why shouldn’t we quarrel about a word? What is the good of words if they aren’t important enough to quarrel over? ... Are you going to convey your meaning to me by moving your ears? The Church and the heresies always used to fight about words, because they are the only things worth fighting about. I say that murder is a sin, and bloodshed is not, and that there is as much difference between those words as there is between the word ‘yes’ and the word ‘no’; or rather more difference, for ‘yes’ and ‘no’, at least, belong to the same category. Murder is a spiritual incident. Bloodshed is a physical incident. A surgeon commits bloodshed” ...
“Well, well,” he said, “let us get back to the point. Now Tolstoy has shown that force is no remedy; so you see the position in which I am placed. I am doing my best to stop what I’m sure you won’t mind my calling this really useless violence, this really quite wrong violence of yours ... Tolstoy has shown that violence merely breeds violence in the person towards whom it is used, whereas Love, on the other hand, breeds Love. So you see how I am placed. I am reduced to use Love in order to stop you. I am obliged to use Love.”
He gave to the word an indescribable sound of something hard and heavy, as if he were saying “boots”. Turnbull suddenly gripped his sword and said, shortly, “I see how you are placed quite well, sir. You will not call the police. Mr. MacIan, shall we engage?” MacIan plucked his sword out of the grass.
“I must and will stop this shocking crime,” cried the Tolstoian, crimson in the face. “It is against all modern ideas. It is against the principle of love. How you, sir, who pretend to be a Christian…”
MacIan turned upon him with a white face and bitter lip. “Sir,” he said, “talk about the principle of love as much as you like ... Talk about love, then, till the world is sick of the word. But don’t you talk about Christianity. Don’t you dare to say one word, white or black, about it. Christianity is, as far as you are concerned, a horrible mystery. Keep clear of it, keep silent upon it, as you would upon an abomination. It is a thing that has made men slay and torture each other; and you will never know why. It is a thing that has made men do evil that good might come; and you will never understand the evil, let alone the good. Christianity is a thing that could only make you vomit, till you are other than you are. I would not justify it to you even if I could. Hate it, in God’s name, as Turnbull does, who is a man. It is a monstrous thing, for which men die. And if you will stand here and talk about love for another ten minutes it is very probable that you will see a man die for it” ...
- G.K. Chesterton, The Ball and the Cross
Christianity is not flatly opposed to the fighting of any war. And, just so we are clear, the country of Sudan is in a state of war and it is Joseph Kony who has placed them there.
We have a whole number of cliches and stereotypes about Christianity and violence and war. The film, Machine Gun Preacher, should not be criticized because it smashes these stereotypes. And it contradicts the cliche of how fighting in a war is unChristian because the real life Sam Childers contradicts this cliche. What is, perhaps, most surprising of all is that this is not a film made by any “Christian” film production company. Instead, it was produced by a young, promising, independent and little film company called Mpower Pictures (which has also produced Bella in 2006 and The Stoning of Soraya M. in 2010). The film’s director, Marc Forster, has been quietly building a repertoire of unique and interesting films, including Monster’s Ball (2001), Finding Neverland (2004), Stranger Than Fiction (2006), The Kite Runner (2007) and Quantum of Solace (2008). We have every reason to look forward to his film next year, World War Z.
Unlike most of the other films being released on DVD this month, Machine Gun Preacher also has a significant cast of excellent actors. Scottish Gerard Butler (Dear Frankie, 300, RocknRolla) plays Sam Childers, and arguably does more with this role than he has done in any other film to date. He plays Childers with a menace. Passionate, obsessive, and single-minded, Butler makes Childers intimidating, whether he’s behind the pulpit or simply sitting at the bar having a drink. He brings an intensity to the role - an intensity of a man who is naturally inclined to hurt others around him but who is channeling his energy instead into a worthwhile cause. Critics have been making fun of what they call Butler’s hyper-masculinity. But there are still a few of us who don’t see anything at all wrong with strongly masculine men. Just like anyone else, he is a man who struggles with self-control and with the darker side of his own nature. The best moments of grace in this film involve whenever he restrains himself and actively makes the choice to do something that he knows is both right and against his natural proclivities.
This is the character of Sam Childers in the film - a man with powerful self-destructive tendencies who has forced himself into channeling his passion and intensity into doing good. He’s a character Gerard Butler plays perfectly.
The supporting cast includes Michelle Monaghan (Gone Baby Gone, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) as Sam’s wife, Lynn Childers. She is a selfless person who encourages Sam when he is discouraged and reprimands him when he does something reprehensible. Throughout the film, her character quite impressively offers Childers an unconditional love even before his conversion/reformation. Monaghan brings a certain innocent but world-weary/wordly-wise quality to the role, a quality she’s been perfecting ever since playing Angie Gennaro.
Michael Shannon (Take Shelter, Boardwalk Empire), one of the rising stars over the last couple years for anyone who gauges pure acting ability, plays Childers’ ex-con friend, Donnie. Shannon, who is no stranger to playing scenery chewing characters who seem to be suppressing inner rage (or mental instability), is just the right sort of person who you would expect could actually be friends with a personality like Childers. While it’s a shame he doesn’t get more screen time, Donnie represents the friends from Childers’ old life that he has built his church with the purpose of reaching. Rough-around-the-edges, criminal pasts, drug addictive behavior - these are the people that Childers' heart goes out to. They can use his help and he only has so much time in the day.
Souléymane Sy Savané (from the astonishingly good Goodbye Solo) is Deng, the freedom-fighter commander who decides that Childers’ determination is exactly the sort of thing the Sudanese Civil War needs. Savané is the strong, silent type in this film, but he gives a reason, for what often just appears to be aloofness to Childers, when he explains that his entire family has been murdered by the genocidal warfare that has engulfed his country.
Inga Wilson (Flipped) also has a few good scenes as Ms. Shields, a doctor/medical relief worker dedicated to serving the Sudanese people. Her character is important and we’ll go back to her in a moment. I’m not willing to just trash her character’s story-arc like many of the other critics of the film seem willing to do.
“The fact is, Sam himself wouldn’t question at all the morality of what he does, because he feels so strongly about what he does, and so backed by God. God talks to him and tells him to do these things. Then when you stand back after the performance and watch the movie, you maybe question, really, how moral is what he does. And I always think it is questionable how he lives his life, how he operates, and how you would class that. Is it mercenary? Is it vigilantism? And yet I find that the argument is very quickly shut down when—as Sam says in the movie, ‘If somebody took your kid, your brother, your sister, and you knew I could get them back, would you care how I did it?’ You look at this orphanage, where almost a thousand kids have been saved and taken away from the Lord’s Resistance Army. Even today, they’re feeding—and have done for the last 20-odd years—1,500 kids a day. You look at those facts and you think, ‘Well, anybody who would be arguing the other way is saying, ‘No, just on a point of morality, I would like to see a thousand kids dead, and 1,500 not being fed every day, and sheltered every day.’’ So that quickly puts an end to it for me.”
- Gerard Butler, AV Club Interview
One of the most thoughtful film reviewers that I have had the pleasure to read, Jeffrey Overstreet, also found the tensions between Christianity and Childers' tactics unsatisfying. He writes for a little website called filmwell:
“...I held on, anticipating an exploration of obvious questions: Should followers of Christ carry heavy artillery? Should missionaries wage war against barbarians while their families suffer from their absence at home? ...We’re given surprisingly little food for thought when it comes to the question of the complicated tensions between Christian faith and violence. At one point, we see an aid worker who questions Childers’ ethics, but then a villain strikes her, silencing both her attempt at diplomacy and the film’s investigation of ethical questions. For all of their bluster, these filmmakers just don’t have the guts to confront such challenges...”
The aid worker Overstreet mentions is Inga Stevens' Ms. Wallace character. She is, without a doubt, one of the most interesting characters in the film, and you quickly believe that everything that she says is worth listening to because of what she does. When she first meets Childers and discovers that he’s is where he is not supposed to be, she tells him that he’s not in a tourist destination. Instead, she says, he is right in the middle of a war zone. “If you stay here, you’re going to get killed.” But Childers does stay there. Or, more accurately, he keeps going back there to set up a lone outpost that even the government tells him is too dangerous.
Ms. Wallace’s comments echo Deng’s comments later. “What are you looking for in this place?” Deng asks him. When Childers tells him that there isn’t anything he’s looking for, Deng smiles and then describes 99% of every Christian “missions” trip consists of. “So ... you get your picture taken? Go back to your life and all this will be stories you will tell to your friends.” These words cut into Childers. That is not the sort of Christian or even the sort of person that he wants to be.
So he builds his orphanage. When the LRA attacks him and burns it down, he builds it again (under the encouragement of his wife), this time with barbed wire perimeters, security cameras, and more armed guards. Childers starts taking in children and protecting and feeding them. He starts working with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. I don’t think the film mentions it, but the SPLA headquarters officially put Childers in charge a small contingent of troops. As a result, whenever they hear that Kony’s Army, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), are raiding a nearby village or transporting kidnaped children, they go out and find them, kill them, and take the children away from them.
“Sam returns to his real life in Pennsylvania, where he has established his own small congregation, urging his followers to support his crusade. His trips to Africa grow longer, his family more distant. Sam's temper flares when one wealthy parishioner tithes less for Africa than Sam expects. Every standard American luxury that Sam worked for now appears self-indulgent and decadent. He can't understand why the whole world doesn't share his fervor. Sam's sermons become bursts of street poetry that garble the standard Sunday pieties. ‘God doesn't want sheep -- he wants wolves’ ... The last scene, an aerial shot that makes Sam a speck on a vast African plain, suggests that Sam is a mad prophet wandering the desert alone. It's a fitting climax for a sharply intelligent, disquieting and ultimately inconclusive commentary on God's will and man's frailties.”
- Colin Covert, The Star Tribune, October 3, 2011
This is still what the real-life Childers is doing today. As you watch this film, you are watching a story about a man who there are pretty good odds will be eventually killed in Sudan while he is doing this. Kony has put out a bounty out for Childers' life. But Childers keeps going back, anyway, over and over again. And he keeps rescuing more kids, feeding more people and providing medical care to people who will otherwise never receive it. It just so happens that Childers says that his Christianity is the reason that he does this.