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Movie Notes: Arbitrage

Arbitrage (2012)

Directed by Nicholas Jarecki. With Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Roth defines ‘arbitrage’ as “authoritative decision or exercise of judgment” and applied to finances as “the simultaneous purchase and sale of the same securities, commodities, or foreign exchange in different markets to profit from unequal prices.” Writer/director Nicholas Jarecki plays on both concepts in his intriguing film about deception, power, and money. Brilliantly acted by Richard Gere in perhaps his best film since Primal Fear, Robert Miller is, in a way, an archetype of the Western male ego. We build complex social, political, and economic structures and then, once fully enmeshed in them, use that fact to excuse going deeper in. While most of us can’t relate to Miller’s situation directly, what struck me as I watched was how relatable he actually is. He’s certainly dysfunctional Jarecki pulls off making him human . . . all too human. That, itself, is striking. Why is he dysfunctional? What makes him who he is? If his story is so ‘human’ as Jarecki appears to want to make us believe, why is dysfunction the norm?

And what do we do about it? The narrative that humanity needs to be redeemed seems circular: humanity needs to be redeemed because it’s dysfunctional, but it’s dysfunctional just because it needs redemption. We can accept that it needs to be redeemed but we also seem just to accept that it never will be—a conclusion we don’t, and probably can’t, accept. That’s the rub. But there’s another interesting option: we need a new narrative for understanding what normative is so less of us are dysfunctional and then how we order a functional society around that narrative.

Thurber is surely right that "Human Dignity has gleamed only now and then and here and there, in lonely splendor, throughout the ages, a hope of the better men, never an achievement of the majority." Jarecki’s fine film illustrates just this. I acknowledge they’re right. The question that keeps coming to the fore is “Why?”

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Movie Notes: Independence Day

Independence Day (1996)

Directed by Roland Emmerich. With Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Mary McDonnell.

Okay, it's campy, scientifically ridiculous, predictable, and somewhat poorly acted. But it's a hell of a lot of fun. The special effects are great and Goldblum and Smith carry the cast with their over-the-top engagement in this humans vs. aliens standoff. Me, my daughter, and the cat loved it.

Spoiler: the humans win.

Movie Notes: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Directed by Michel Gondry. With Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Tom Wilkinson, Gerry Robert Byrne.

Eternal Sunshine is a penetrating film about love, loss and rediscovery. It isolates the best and worst about love and attempts to show us that we should embrace both if we want to cherish the most magical parts of life and use the ugly to amplify the beautiful. Writer Charlie Kaufman is genius at allowing his characters to be real and in Eternal Sunshine, Carrey and Winslet take this permission seriously. Drama takes on a uniquely authentic flavor even through the necessarily exaggerated portrayal of genuinely human moments. Like many of his movies, Kaufman explores his themes by leveraging the uniquely creative elements of film. Unlike live performance, film gives the artist an unlimited canvas to play with time, perspective, emotion, and depth and Kaufman uses these elements to their fullest.

Kaufman’s characters are vulnerable, imperfect, wickedly funny, heroic at times and horrific in others. They are who we are and Kaufman is brilliant at helping us relate to them with all their flaws and virtues. This film evoked in me what Sam Keen calls a “fire in the belly”—that emotion that is characterized by a longing to be more than we are—or perhaps its more accurate to say to be the best of who we are. We do this partly by acknowledging the aspects of our personality we despise which ultimately neuters them.

There’s a lot to say about the details of this film but perhaps the biggest takeaway is this: there is no perfect in life or in others so remember the best of the past but, most important, live each moment to the fullest. In the end, that’s all we really ever have.

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Movie Notes: The Cabin in the Woods

The Cabin in the Woods (2011)

Directed by Drew Goddard. With Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz.

I don’t think of myself as a horror movie fan. Okay I like Hitchcock and King films and early Shyamalan movies. And The Others is a Halloween favorite. But these are less about horror for horror’s sake and more about the horror that has its source in rare—or at least hidden—aspects of the human condition. Still, I like to watch something creepy on Halloween. This year my wife suggested we watch a classic slasher flick like Friday the 13th (the “creepy day” mismatch notwithstanding). I avoid slasher films even more than modern horror movies (Hot Fuzz is a notable exception) so I demurred. We ended up with The Cabin in the Woods. So glad we didn’t pick a slasher film.

The Cabin in the Woods has more blood per square inch of celluloid than any movie I’ve seen--fanboys of the genre, don’t snicker. At one point, it would have be easier to find a location in the scene that WASN’T crimson. The movie has its moments of creep and tromps out every monster, ghoul, and specter known to horror films--from zombies to a merman. But this isn’t a slasher film. It’s a meta-narrative about slasher films that attempts to unearth a couple of key insights about humanity. Its excesses are laughable and it was in the excess that I started to realize what was going on.

Without giving too much away, a hero emerges who plays the role of the fool – a pot-smoking jester who should be the first to be taken out. One of the insights lands about mid-film when an observer notes that all the weed the hero smokes makes him impervious to the mind-control techniques of the film’s main antagonists. There’s an insight here that I believe I could only really understand after having spent much of my adult life working for a large corporation trying to maintain a standard-issue bourgeois lifestyle. What an insight.

The role free will (or lack thereof) plays in determining our fate is the second observation the film seeks to make I think. The characters are archetypes and they are supposed to act a certain way which leads them to a certain fate. Do they play their role according to the script they’ve been given and does this help or hurt them? Again, the hero, because his mind has been opened, is the only one willing not to accept what he’s being given. We’re meant to believe that his addiction makes him the least free. The film plays with this idea and turns it on its head.

The film is fun, scary at times, plays around with surface sexuality as films like these tend to do, but also surprisingly—albeit briefly—it's insightful about some relatively important things. This is not a classic by any means. But it was a good meta-slasher, slasher film for Halloween 2012.

I'll also add that film critic Roger Ebert’s review nails the essence of the motivation behind the film I think and it’s worth reading.

Movie Notes: The Avengers

The Avengers (2012)

Directed by Joss Whedon. With Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner.

Eight point five. I came to The Avengers with high expectations. I’m not a comic book aficionado but have thoroughly enjoyed the recent spate of high-quality “hero” movies. The Dark Knight is at the top of my list of favorite action flicks and movies like R.E.D. and Kick-Ass are on our quarterly watch list and are thoroughly entertaining. The Avengers, I thought, had neither the soul of the Nolan films or the heart of analogue films like the wonderful Iron Man movies.

Sure, there’s a lot of CGI-fueled action, hot women in tight pants, popular actors having a lot of fun, and even a Stan Lee cameo for the true believers. But the film is manipulative in all the wrong ways. There are petty fights that enable the filmmakers to show us invincible superheroes beating the hell out of each other (if they can’t get hurt, why, exactly, do they fight?), enough drama to make the Kardashians blush, and a plot line that roughly follows the path of a sine wave. And then there’s the acting.

Heath Ledger set the benchmark for the modern villain in super hero movies. His portrayal of The Joker goes beyond playing a part to somehow bringing the character to life (and, no doubt, contributes to the notion that Chris Nolan is one of the great popular directors of our time). Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of Loki as the arch-villain (and sub-par direction by Joss Whedon) is a shadow in comparison. His character is a cartoon playing a comic book character. He doesn’t get under the skin like Ledger managed to do, rather, he irritates it. By the third act I found myself involuntarily thinking, “Die already!”

Having said all this, it seems that it actually is a great movie and that I must not be the right demographic. As of this writing, The Avengers has grossed over 1.4 billion dollars just at the box office. Oh and 8.5, in case you were wondering, is not my rating. It is the IMDB rating—the movie sits at number 101 on their top 250. One of life’s little imponderables I guess.

Movie Notes: Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Directed by Wes Anderson. With Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis, Bill Murray.

We stumbled upon Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom tonight by pure happenstance. We always expect the unexpected with Anderson’s films. The Royal Tenenbaums, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Rushmore top my favorite movie list because they look at the world sideways and through the bizarre, show us what we’re missing in the routine. Moonrise Kingdom uses this formula to unearth some wonderful insights into something as routine as human love.

Anderson’s films have a primitive quality to them. The setups and cinematography remind me of the three minute action adventure films my brother and I used to make with my dad’s 8mm camera when we were 12. This type of movie making can’t rely on polished effects or complex plot lines to carry them. You show the viewer just what you see through the lens and that alone must communicate all the depth you intend. Opposite the lens in Moonrise Kingdom are two awkward, quirky 12 year olds who clearly were put on this planet to be with each other and seek to fulfill that destiny with uninhibited passion. In the process, they challenge us to do the same and help us realize how settling for less makes us fools.

Even more instructive is the juxtaposition of the kid’s uninhibited love and their adventure of an open future rife with possibility against the ennui the parents have settled into. We pity the parents and find it ugly and regrettable and at the same time we’re envious of what the kids have found and of their ability to pursue it with reckless abandon.

I expected my mid-40s to be a time in life where my circumstances and worldview would be pretty stable and comfortably predictable but, thankfully, just the opposite has happened. The world just seems to be opening up in ways I could not possibly have anticipated. Moonrise Kingdom is a searing reminder of just how intoxicating this ought to be.

This movie features a brilliant screenplay, wonderful acting, a great score and beautiful cinematography.

Movie Notes: The Lincoln Lawyer

The Lincoln Lawyer (2011)   

Directed by Brad Furman. With Matthew McConaughey, Marisa Tomei, Ryan Phillippe, William H. Macy.

The Lincoln Lawyer is an intriguing thriller about a cocky young defense attorney (Mick Haller played perfectly by Matthew McConaughey) who prides himself on racking up acquittals for seemingly indefensible clients. Admittedly there are formulaic elements throughout the film. For example, Haller is separated from a prosecutor yet they remained linked by shared custody of a young daughter which creates a well-worn tension and plot devices. But the movie works because it doesn’t overplay its hand. It tells an engrossing story that is well-paced and one that has a true-to-life feel to it. It’s dramatic for sure but in all the right ways.

All the principal and secondary actors and actresses are pitch-perfect. I’ve read a lot of criticisms of McConaughey but I’ve always liked his movies. He’s passionate and has a commanding screen presence. He really shows his talent in this film and it is, I think, one of his best. William H. Macy, a favorite of mine, does a fine job in his secondary role as does Tomei who still has all the charm so appealing in My Cousin Vinnie with a maturity that betrays her almost 30 years as an actress. Bryan Cranston as the ornery detective, Michael Pena as the misunderstood inmate, John Leguizamo as the bail bondsman and even Shea Whigham as the “snitch” all do a stellar job in their supporting roles. Watching these actors and actresses do their thing is worth the price of admission.

The primary philosophical interest comes just at the story arc as Haller is struggling with his role as a defense attorney. In crisis, all the years of suppressing what he knows to be true comes to the surface and he has to deal with the work he does for what it really is. Despondent, he says to his ex who has once again (we imagine) put him to bed because he was too drunk to it himself, “Maggie, you know what I used to be afraid of Maggie? That I wouldn't recognize innocence. That it would be right there in front of me and I just wouldn't see it. I'm not talking about guilty or not guilty; just, just innocence. Know what I'm afraid of now? Evil. Pure Evil.” It lands as too much melodrama but just barely. Even so, the line helps the story move into it’s final act and defines the tension the main character has to deal with.

Interestingly, in an age when moral ambiguity in film is the norm (even our heroes are not really all that heroic), the movie does attempt to draw sharp lines between heroes and villains. It also attempts to show how the law (or the practice thereof) isn’t always the best device to make that distinction.

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To God, I’m the Loyal Opposition

pebblesThe modern atheist movement is getting organized and aggressive (for those who hadn’t noticed). It’s starting to build a focal point around a common message centered on reason, social justice, community, and poking at the worst forms of religious fundamentalism whenever and wherever possible. Heroes are emerging and they’re repeating common messages and creating catch phrases and rallying cries. While there’s much to appreciate about some of the culture impact of the movement, it’s the last activity in my list above that has the potential to cause the most problems. I’ve read many psychologists that warn about focusing too much on a person or a group you hate because in doing so you risk becoming just like them. I think some modern atheists may be falling prey to this problem.

I suppose there are good reasons for this type of “mirroring.” To stand up to a bully, it’s sometimes necessary to become bully-like. Many atheists, sick of being bowled over by their religiously fundamentalist antagonists, have gotten downright fundamentalist themselves.  Even casual observers see this in political sparring matches all the time. Candidate Smith throws mud, candidate Jones must throw more mud or lose by omission. Perhaps it’s the only way to fight some battles.

But I think some atheists are becoming the very type of thinkers—or at the very least, adopting too much of the rhetoric—they despise. Richard Carrier, an historian who has been doing some solid scholarly work, has made somewhat of a name for himself among activist atheists. He recently wrote a blog post describing what he calls “New Atheism +” in which he tries to define a sort of manifesto for real new atheists who apparently want to distance themselves from apparent new atheists as well as any other irrational group out there. Fair enough. The modern atheism movement has a lot of steam behind it and leaders in the movement are working to ensure it becomes and stays mainstream and grows. Religion has it’s creeds and doctrines that provide it with psychological substance and something around which a community can hang their hat. Denominations have been good for religious propagation (we all need a tribe to be a part of) and probably will be good for atheism too.

Still, how much does the movement have to give up in order to create that “stickiness” I wonder. As I read through Carrier’s manifesto, a particular section caught my attention. Carrier identifies New Atheists + as those who embrace reason. That seems good. He writes, “The skill to think critically, skeptically, and rationally in all areas of life must also be promoted and cultivated.” Right on. But later, when laying out his doctrinal statement, under the heading, “We believe in being reasonable” Carrier explains that this partly means:

We believe in being logical and rational in forming beliefs and opinions. Which means anyone who makes a fallacious argument and, when shown that they have, does not admit it, is not one of us, and is to be marginalized and kicked out, as not part of our movement, and not anyone we any longer wish to deal with. (Emphasis his)

Okay, he’s drawing boundaries and wants to “kick out” anyone who doesn’t adhere to the praxis exemplifying the doctrine. And Carrier even admits, to his credit, that reason needs to be a fundamental doctrine. But I wonder if this is just a bit too fundamentalist. Here’s the problem as I see it. One can make arguments that one thinks are sound. But I think it should be clear to anyone who is an avid observer of human behavior—and I would think particularly to an historian—that the reasonableness of an argument for an individual is not merely a matter of recognizing that the argument is valid according to standard rules of logic. Accepting an argument means the hearer comes to have beliefs not only about the argument’s validity but about the truth value of the premises. And this involves a very complex variety of interrelated and interdependent psychological states including having sufficient access to the stated facts in question, background beliefs, cognitive biases, emotional reactions, and a host of other things. What is clearly reasonable to one person may not be at all reasonable to another even if both hold that no logical fallacy has been committed. The problem then is this: if being reasonable means you only talk to people who share beliefs about the validity of your arguments, then it means nothing at all. If the only people you engage with are those that agree with all arguments you believe are valid, there would be no one to whom you would need to make the arguments!

A friend recently posted an image of the Muppets with a quote from the Jim Henson company stating that they were breaking ties with Chick-Fil-A over their anti-gay policies. In part the quote stated, “The Jim Henson Company has celebrated and embraced diversity and inclusiveness for over fifty years and we have notified Chick-Fil-A that we do not wish to partner with them on any future endeavors.” In short, the Muppets were declaring that they won’t tolerate such intolerance! I responded by asking whether the Muppets themselves were being intolerant by not partnering with a company that held a diverse opinion different from their own. A friend of my friend responded with this: “Nobody said all intolerance is bad. Intolerance for stupid, arbitrary reasons is the problem.” But there’s clearly a problem here. Besides being a completely arbitrary basis for tolerance, if tolerance just means accept ideas we don’t think are stupid, then it means nothing at all (I’ll refrain from calling the criterion “stupid” but you can make your own judgment). Why would we have to “tolerate” sound, reasonable, intelligent ideas?

I think Carrier’s “reasonable” doctrine falls prey to the same type of incoherence. Carrier may believe he has shown Craig’s arguments for the historicity of the resurrection to be fallacious. But Craig clearly doesn’t believe Carrier’s arguments work. Craig believes his arguments are sounds and Carrier’s arguments suffer from some logical or factual problems and should be rejected. So who’s arguments are sound? Many side with Carrier and many others side with Craig. This is the nature of debate and “being reasonable.” If Carrier wants to marginalize and “not deal with” anyone who doesn’t see the soundness of his arguments, he’ll soon be talking only to those who agree with him and that will be then end of “New Atheism +”. If evangelical Christians get anything right, it’s at least the belief that non-believers need to be “evangelized.” Atheists need not only to be dealt with, they need to be brought into the fold though persistent, and, many times, aggressive confrontation.

I fully acknowledge that many conversations need to come to an end. Many so-called discussions are little more than an exchange of declarative statements sandwiched between ad hominems and straw men (and thanks to the internet, we now have unfettered access to all varieties of this type of “conversation”). But we tend to wash our hands of these discussions not because the other person doesn’t agree with our position but because the other person has failed to engage in argument in the first place. I can agree with Carrier that you can’t argue with someone that doesn’t at least attempt to make a reasonable argument. On the other hand, some of the most interesting and enlightening breakthroughs have taken place in the context of decades if not centuries-long debates where opposing sides exchange ideas making the best arguments they know how to make (this is what has been so attractive about philosophy for me). It’s when argument turns to dogmatism and a healthy acknowledgement of one’s intellectual deficiencies turns into a psychological wall of indefeasibility that barriers are, and probably should be, created. As long as someone is willing to admit that they could be wrong and has the patience to slowly chip away at opacity to get more clear on the truth, debate and conversation should continue regardless of how much we may disagree with our interlocutor.

Modern atheism should embrace this intellectual virtue or I fear it will fade away like it’s predecessors—and intellectually, go the way of the dogmatic religious system it’s trying to dismantle.

Edward Feser: There and Back Again

Nice essay by Feser on his journey from Catholicism, to atheism, and back again. Oddly, I found my own philosophical explorations to track along very similar lines but with very different results. His recognition of Searle as one of the better philosophers of mind writing today was very refreshing (mainly because it’s an opinion I share).

Thanks to Dr. Paul Herrick for the pointer.

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