1973 - when I started asking questions, like, "Why are we all dressed so funny?"

Monday, July 09, 2018

Finding "Equilibrium"


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Equilibrium, Dir. Kurt Wimmer, 2002

Not a Matrix knock-off

Despite the obvious marketing pitch, this film shares almost nothing in common with The Matrix. That doesn't make for a deeply original film regarding source material, but it is still original in the way it plays with the dystopian genre and pay homage to many classics in the literary canon.

All totalitarian systems promise to eliminate a serious problem, whether it be the oppression unleashed by the greedy capitalists in Marxism or the elevation of Nation or People in fascism. The lesson of history is that these "solutions" always and everywhere bring their own brutalizing consequences. 

The new world order that emerges from the ashes of World War III is Libria. The leader of this Calm New World is named "Father" whose politburo is the Tetragrammaton Council. For Jews and Christians the Tetragrammaton -- YHWH -- is the four letters in Hebrew that denote the divine name, but this unheavenly Father seeks humanity's abasement, not their good. 

Society's new configuration is justified by appeal to solving the root causes of war: hate, envy, rage. The method is found in Prozium, a drug which gives everyone a kind of creepy affect of total calm. Neither happy nor sad, merely robotic. Naturally, the elimination of negative emotions lead to the suppression of the good ones such as love and empathy or for an appreciation of beauty. 

Emotions thus become identified as the great defect (some would say our Sin) but better living through chemistry takes away all the bad. Also taken away is a rationale for living. This bit of dialogue captures well the Faustian bargain:
Mary (Emily Watson): Let me ask you something. [Grabs his hand] Why are you alive?
John Preston (Christian Bale): [Breaks free] I'm alive... I live... to safeguard the continuity of this great society. To serve Libria.
Mary: It's circular. You exist to continue your existence. What's the point?
John Preston: What's the point of your existence?
Mary: To feel. 'Cause you've never done it, you can never know it. But it's as vital as breath. And without it, without love, without anger, without sorrow, breath is just a clock... ticking.
Mary (Emily Watson) surnamed O'Brien in what can only be a nod to George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four) may have a rather impoverished view of life's horizon's but compared to the cold logic of Libria's powers-that-be, her desire grasps for the infinite.

The Grammaton Cleric John Preston will soon be aiding the "sense-offenders" who deliberately stay off their meds to enjoy things such as literature, poetry and art. He is not the only one of the enforcers of the status quo who begins to question. His partner Partridge (Sean Bean) has been off his meds for some time but raises John's suspicions early on in the film when he snags a collection of Yeats' poems and implies that perhaps their work is not as blameless as it seems.

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Being a good (that is, fully-medicated) Cleric enables John Preston to kill his partner without blinking. But accidentally skipping a dose of Prozium gives him the opportunity to feel the sheer awfulness of that act and recall his previous blithe acceptance of his wife's arrest and execution for similar "sense-crimes." His lapse from his meds opens up a new world and he begins questioning the system he serves.

Besides the aforementioned Orwell classic, there is also a bit of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 inasmuch as the preferred method of destruction for books, art and music is a flamethrower. The "Mona Lisa" is consigned to the flames without a flicker of regret.

Aldous Huxley's Brave New World is only slightly present but in an important premise of the film: drugs can form the very foundation of order in society (in BNW Soma serves to flatten the occasional hiccup that the genetically predetermined people experience in their suppressed but still-human consciousness; in Equilibrium drugs are THE solution, not eugenics).

Like good B-movies of old, the good guys win and the evil system is taken down. They may not live happily ever after but they'll face their future in a human way.

Best dialogue: "It is not the message; it is our obedience to it..."

Worth watching and serves as an invitation to deeper and more compelling works by Huxley, Orwell, Bradbury and others.











Sunday, June 24, 2018

Total Recall, Total Dud



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Dudley Done Wrong

Total Recall 2070. Directed by Art Monterastelli, performances by Michael Easton, Karl Pruner, and      Cynthia Preston, Alliance Atlantis, 1999

Stylized and cribbed from Blade Runner down to the Asian style among the denizens of an unnamed city, a synth-pop knock-off of Vangelis and a purposeless "Gaff" (James Edward Olmos) clone, Total Recall 2070 also steals the basic plot of a most excellent movie. This is not that movie.

In this movie, self-aware androids want more time to -- have memories -- and thus snatch a Rekall Corp. scientist but are thwarted by our hero, David "I Kid You Not" Hume (Michael Easton) who must have been a stunt double for David Duchovny at some point in his career. The androids are sneaky and end up grabbing the Mars-bound scientist in order to hold onto their precious yet fake memories and feelings.

Meanwhile a youngster who is a mind-reader (this is the future and radiation does great things in the future) and most excellent video game player is kidnapped from two distraught foreigners with the surname of Bimboo or Sordoo or Sodoor or somesuch. This sad couple mistakenly thought they went for a nice trip to the Galapagos Islands but really had a mind-job done on them by Rekall (or someone pretending to be a Rekall rep) and had their kid snatched along with any memory of even ever having a kid. What a nasty corporation!

No new ground is covered in the pilot but there are no less than three zingers that will give viewers a chuckle and/or a deep sigh:

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1. After our protagonist, good cop, Officer Hume loses his partner in a gun-battle with androids, he gets a new partner with the personality of Lieutenant Commander Data from Star Trek the Next Generation but has no clue that this cop is - gasp! - an android. I'm a complete space cadet and it was clear to me from the first scene with Mr. Roboto and his "Caesar" haircut that this was a tin man. Remember, Hume's whole professional life revolves around paying attention to what's going on.

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2. Much ado is made of the lethality of a 12mm pistol that Officer Hume has snatched from the scene of his partner's murder, but when he deploys the weapon he is (a) unable to hit the back side of a barn with it, and (b) when he randomly does hit his target, the victim dies no more surely or not than the bodies that seem to fall everywhere from ray guns in the hands of most everyone. 

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3. Hume's highly principled and loyal wife, Olivia, is often on the verge of getting really, really mad with David but she always falls back and melts in his arms, and supports all of his crazy antics in the end such as going to Mars with his robotic Lurch-like partner.

This one was bad. Unfortunately is was not bad enough to be bad like Sharknado. I give it two out of five velotaxis. 

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Plots for and against America

Topical Review

Roth, Philip. The Plot Against America. Vintage International, 2004.

Roth's novel demonstrates the resiliency of the American republic and the inherent decency of "average" Americans, Gentile and Jew alike. It also raises troubling questions for what "best for America" means on the global stage. This tension between pragmatism and ideals is shot through the novel but it is also found in the appended 9/11 (1941!) speech by Charles Lindbergh to an a gathering of America-Firsters. Lindbergh notes that the push for war is backed by three groups: "the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration" (Roth 386).  

At the level of facticity, Lindbergh's claim was certainly true: all three favored military action by the U.S. against the fascists. But it also true that it was deeply naive to think that the USA could be a kind of super-Switzerland that could avoid worldly entanglements outside our borders and shores.

Were the world compartmentalizable to the degree that the America-Firsters envisioned, Lindbergh's splendid isolation could make some sense (political, if not moral). But here Lindbergh suffered from a kind of temporary blindness: his underestimation of the totalitarian threat and its voracious appetite. It is now unimaginable to think that the Axis Powers would have simply stopped at a certain point and "left well enough alone." But Lindbergh's blindness was temporary: after the attack on Pearl Harbor he fully supported the war effort and actively trained pilots and personally participated in combat operations in the South Pacific.

When push came to shove, we could all be Americans: Jew and Gentile, Democrat and Republican, Catholic and Protestant. Yet it is by a slender thread that we have remained one. "Could," not "always will." There is no guarantee in the future that our better angels will succeed. Roth's book illustrates this truth in ways winsome and evocative. 

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Of Nazis and Grace - Adam's Apples, Part I (2005)


Of Nazis and Grace – Adam's Apples

Danish director Anders Thomas Jensen's Adam's Apples probably could not have succeeded with admittedly talented directors such as Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers (even though Jensen seems at times to be channeling their respective muses). 

Adam Pedersen (Ulrich Thomsen) is a neo-Nazi released from prison to a Lutheran parish serving both as a small community of faith and halfway house. His tattoos, demeanor, and especially his framed picture of Adolf Hitler demonstrate to the world that this “egg-head” (the derisive term applied to him by the gas station-robbing-Saudi, Khalid) has no use for Jesus, Jews or Muslims. Adam wants to finish his sentence with as little bother as possible so he can get back to the various sorts of business that European skinheads presumably attend to.

Fate or God or the Devil intervene with Adam's simple plan and he soon finds himself on a kind of quest to destroy the faith of the ultra-optimistic pastor, Ivan (Mads Mikkelsen). For Ivan, the glass is not merely half-full, but brimming over. Every difficulty and misfortune is shown in an impossibly positive light: the drunken Gunnar (Nicolas Bro) is “a reformed alcoholic,” Khalid no longer robs gas stations although he still does, and Ivan's son who is bound to a wheel-chair with palsy is constantly active and playing in the yard. Adam sees this obvious disconnect between what Ivan sees and what really exists and it enrages him.

There is a subtle irony here as the Nazis were famous (or infamous) for their inability to see the humanity of their victims even when face-to-face with them or as their remains fell like snow from the crematoria.

Nevertheless, Adam makes it his mission to destroy Ivan. The method seems to be suggested by the Devil who is off-stage throughout the film but quite active. The method is one familiar to readers of the New Testament: Adam will use the, word of God to tempt Ivan to give up his faith. On several occassions the Bible which Ivan has given Adam falls open to the Book of Job. Adam finally takes Lucifer's none too subtle suggestion to read Job and from this Old Testament tale of loss and temptation Adam cobbles a plan to bring down Ivan. 

The plan is startlingly simple: to convince Ivan that all of his misfortunes are the fault not of the Devil but of God Himself “who hates you.” Adams relentlessness finally breaks Adam who begins bleeding from his ears and falls into a coma. If only to avoid a charge of homicide, Adam takes Ivan to the local medical clinic. Ivan recovers from the physical trauma but the spiritual damage is infinitely great: Ivan has completely lost his faith in God and suddenly has no use for the image of God either. And he has a meddlesome brain tumor to contend with, which is on the verge of killing him.

Ivan's change is so radical that it deeply disturbs Adam. He sees that Gunnar and Khalid – whom he has no use for according to the tenets of Nazism for one is a useless drunkard and complete moral degenerate, and the other a subhuman “Paki” Muslim – are distraught and disoriented. His plan has worked too well: he sought to teach Ivan a lesson but suddenly Adam finds his own world is being destroyed as well. Ivan's faith was not reasonable but it was the bedrock of a community of misfits. A community in which Adam too was accepted and loved.

Deciding that he might as well bake the cake that was his community service project, Adam heads to the scorched apple tree that was struck by lightning. He and Khalid attempt to salvage enough apples for a modest pie. Just then Adam's old pals arrive and unleash a train of insults at Adam and question why he would be in the presence of a “sand nigger.” Khalid, who we learned earlier in the film is a decent marksman has no patience with this racists and the gang leaves wounded and angry and humiliated. Later Ivan confronts the same group of neo-Nazis who are causing a ruckus. He says he doesn't care who they kill as long as they give him peace and quiet. In a struggle for one of the Nazi's pistols, Ivan takes a bullet through the eye.

As a result, Ivan does not die but the pistol round instead removes the tumor completely. They don't ALL live happily ever after: the cynical Doctor Kohlberg (who egged-on the egghead Adam to mock Ivan's faith) finds himself leaving his practice at the hospital. He raves:

I am a man of science, I believe in numbers and charts. Goddamnit, I wanna go someplace, where people die when they are sick, and don't sit in the yard eating cowboy toast when they have been shot through the head.

This is not film that helps one understand the relationship between faith and reason, but it does illustrate that God can take our worst intentions and motives, and transform them into something beautiful. If this Adam can become a new Adam, why not us?

Sunday, August 28, 2016

I'm a Simpleton. Are You a Simpleton?

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In Walter Miller's tale, A Canticle for Leibowitz, there is a "great simplification" unleashed after a nuclear holocaust akin to Pol Pot's attack on the learned in Cambodia but world-wide in scope.

As I set sail for the year 1493 (that would be Chapter 2 in James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me), I feared I was headed for one of Miller's (in)famous Simple Towns where learning has stopped and simple explanations reign. In this I was disappointed that this was the case, but not surprised.

What was surprising was reading Loewen's unconscious mimicking of a the worst approaches to any subject: simplification to the point of distortion. One would think that Loewen would be astute enough to remove the lumber from his own self before railing against the textbooks but it was not to be.

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The big question for people like Loewen who congratulate themselves for happening to have been born after the unenlightened hordes who proceeded them is along these lines: So, are you suggesting that it would be better that you did not exist? According to your narrative, the world would have been better off if Columbus never set sail and history did not unfold as it did. Had it not, I dare say that none of us would be here opining about the crimes of others that we distance ourselves from.

Loewen would prefer a world where the weak are not trampled on by the strong and that is understandable, but that world does not exist. That does not mean sugar-coating the sins of our fathers, but it does mean recognizing that every group of people has done evil. Do you think the Aztecs would have shied away from slaughtering the Spaniards if they had the means to do so? Does a group of people achieve sinless status simply because they get exploited?

C'mon, virtue does follow simple because one has been victimized. Yes, high school history textbooks over-simplify and are vapid, but great books are not created by simply inverting the historical narrative.

I'm a Simpleton. Are You a Simpleton?

Image result for simpleton

In Walter Miller's tale, A Canticle for Leibowitz, there is a "great simplification" unleashed after a nuclear holocaust akin to Pol Pot's attack on the learned in Cambodia but world-wide in scope.

As I set sail for the year 1493 (that would be Chapter 2 in Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me), I feared I was headed for one of Miller's (in)famous Simple Towns where learning has stopped and simple explanations reign. In this I was disappointed that this was the case, but not surprised.

What was surprising was reading Loewen's unconscious mimicking of a the worst approaches to any subject: simplification to the point of distortion. One would think that Loewen would be astute enough to remove the lumber from his own self before railing against the textbooks but it was not to be.

The big question for people like Loewen who congratulate themselves for happening to have been born after the unenlightened hoardes who proceeded them is along these lines: So, are you suggesting that it would be better that you did not exist? According to your narrative, the world would have been better off if Columbus never set sail and history did not unfold as it did. Had it not, I dare say that none of us would be here opining about the crimes of others that we distance ourselves from.

Loewen would prefer a world where the weak are not trampled on by the strong and that is understandable, but that world does not exist. That does not mean sugar-coating the sins of our fathers, but it does mean recognizing that every group of people have done evil. Do you think the Aztecs would have shied away from slaughtering the Spaniards if they had the means to do so? Does a group of people achieve sinless status simply because they get exploited?

C'mon, virtue does follow simple because one has been victimized. Yes, high school history textbooks over-simplify and are vapid, but great books are not created by simply inverting the historical narrative.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Francis Moment

First Things' R.R. Reno's disdain for Pope Francis is palpable in articles too many to cite. I suppose that what Reno most hates about Francis is what I love best.  Through his papacy Pope Francis lives out the Liberty of a Christian. He's giving the conception of "counting the cost" of following Jesus a new connotation, a new twist. 

Some believe that following Jesus means putting on a public face that does not give undue scandal. This was exemplified for me by some Protestant friends I knew in northeastern Colorado who would travel to the big city in order to have a "Denver Margarita." They knew and believed that alcohol was OK in moderation, but they didn't want to scandalize people who thought alcohol the root of all evil. I only half-jokingly suggested that I was scandalized by their duplicity!

Pope Francis refuses to count the cost in the sense of a politician counting the cost or my friends above. Like the mythical Aslan, he's not necessarily safe but he's good. Safe in our day means predictable, controllable. The freedom that Frances exudes is an opportunity for us to all judge for ourselves. He's calling into question the whole cult of experts. In other words "professional Catholics" like R.R. Reno.

Gatekeepers are neither required nor wanted. This is Francis' genius. He neither requests nor needs permission from you or me to be Pope. He is authentic in this sense: being true to Christ and to himself. 

To my mind he simply building upon the firm foundation set down by Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI. These two were the Great Clarifiers. An analogy: Just as the Second Vatican Council had both dogmatic and pastoral constitutions, so too this small "t" trinity of popes contain both but Francis simply highlights the pastoral. 

When's the doctrines are laid out, it's time to begin living them. What we see in Francis is that there is no "orthodox" or "politically correct" way of living out orthodoxy. Doctrine is not a straitjacket, but it enlarges the soul.  

 Francis' unwillingness to countenance the power of sound bites is not a lack of prudence on his part. It is rather in in an invitation to go beyond the sound bite culture to begin listening once again to the voice of Christ.  The message of Francis to the Catholic intelligentsia may just be talk less, live more.  

All of this takes us back to that "right-winger" Paul VI and what he said about teachers versus witnesses. Our world is filled with so called experts bearing witness to their egos but little else.  No matter how clever it's just not all that attractive. Pope Francis is both a teacher and a witness in exactly the right time and place.