"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Inside Job

Documentaries can admittedly be rather boring, particularly if technical details comprise most of the content. This applies also to a film of historical fiction based on true events, such as The Challenger Disaster (2019), which focuses so much on technical details (albeit set in arguments) that the narrative itself may not be strong enough to hold an audience's attention or interest. In contrast, the documentary, Inside Job (2010), provides such alluring "inside the beltway" (i.e., known only to U.S. Government insiders and their outside partners) information that the details themselves can capture and hold interest.  

The full essay is at "President Obama and Goldman Sachs."

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Mary Poppins Returns

Films are commonly known to have two or three dimensions in terms of perspective. Animated films were for decades in the twentieth century in two dimensions—a flat story-world—until the advent of animated films made to show depth, hence three dimensions. Still another, third or fourth respectively, dimension is the element of time in the story-world. Literally, as the still frames are moved one to the next, changes can be perceived in the story-world; you won’t see any change by looking at a frame. Then we get to the dimensions that extend outside of the story-world. One possible dimension is how the narrative or the story-world in a film relates to the book upon which the particular film is based. This dimension becomes visible in terms of meaning particularly when similarities exist, but differences too can prompt attention the dimension itself. In this essay, I discuss another dimension that involves the content in a film but extends out into the world of the audience. When made manifest, this dimension can carry significant meaning for the audience, for this dimension involves both a society’s “social reality” and what is shown in a film.

Mary Poppins Returns (2018) hit the screens 44 years after Mary Poppins (1964). In that span of time, a lot can change societally, and this includes the inevitable loss of seasoned actors. An actor in his or her prime in 1964 may not have been alive in 2018. David Tominson, who had played George Banks in Mary Poppins, died in 2000. When Mary Poppins Returns was filmed, Julie Andrews, Glynis Jones, and Dick Van Dyke were all alive, but aged. Glynis Jones and Dick Van Dyke were in their 90’s. While Andrews could not have played Mary Poppins again, as the good witch stays perpetually young, she could have played the flower woman, who is played by Angela Lansbury. Whereas Andrews was in her early 80’s during filming, Lansbury was about a decade older. Unknown health issues, however, may have played their own role.

Dick Van Dyke as Mr. Dawes, Sr.
Dick Van Dyke as Bert
Dick Van Dyke as Mr. Dawes, Jr.

Dick Van Dyke is where the “actor” dimension really kicks in. He played both Bert, the chimney sweeper, and Mr. Dawes, Sr., the head of the bank, in Mary Poppins, and played Mr. Dawes, Jr., head of the bank, in Mary Poppins Returns. Van Dyke plays both Dawes when those characters are very old, though only in the case of Dawes, Jr. is Van Dyke himself old (early 90’s). That the actor was that old and could still dance (although a stunt-double probably made the run up on the desk) was astonishing in itself, which in turn could be sufficient to get the attention of audiences on the actor. Besides that he is in two films made 44 years apart, the nonagenarian is dancing in both! What tremendous bookends for a wonderful career. Moreover, this perspective can link together such different periods in society (or such different societies) and in one’s own life for the audience members who were old enough to remember the first film in the 1960’s and 1970’s. 

Mr. Dawes, Jr.(left) and Sr. (right), played by Dick Van Dyke. He was 92 and 38 during the respective filming.

Dawes senior and junior look so much alike that it is as if age finally allowed Van Dyke to play the same character, albeit in much heavier “aging” make-up the first time. Obviously, a character who is very old in the first movie cannot be alive in a story in which George Banks’ son and daughter are grown adults, the son with three kids. The senior/junior thing makes this correction, though this point was lost on me while watching the second film. To me, an actor who was young in the 1960’s could be fit age-wise to play virtually the very same old character 44 years later. In the field of acting, this is significant, especially given the dancing.
The dimension itself is the link between the two Dawes characters and the actor, Dick Van Dyke. His story, in other words, becomes salient so his acting out Dawes Jr. in Mary Poppins Returns goes beyond the film itself, including its narrative and story-world, to the world lived out by the audience. For people who had been aware of Van Dyke’s career, the point at which the actor could, as an old man himself, still act and dance in his nineties, and, relatedly, be age-fitting to the character can hold great meaning beyond that in the narrative concerning that character.
Interestingly, the serious message that Dawes Jr. gives the Banks family is delivered as if it were the main point of the film. Namely, if a person is prudent, such as in deciding when very young to deposit even just some coins rather than spend them, the person will be rewarded greatly decades later. In the story, this is a lesson not only for Michael and Jane Banks, but also Michael’s three kids. Such a down-to-earth leitmotif is at odds with all the flying in the air and, moreover, the alternative “thesis” contender: that even the impossible can be possible as evinced by Mary Poppins’ magic. For the magic of compounding interest wherein money seems to grow is not magic at all, but, rather, a manifestation of the time-value of money: that a coin today is worth more than one tomorrow because you can only spend the former today.

Monday, April 29, 2019

A Star Is Born

The film, A Star Is Born (2018), has the narrative structure chiefly of two intersecting character arcs. They are multi-level in the sense that both interior emotional states and exterior vocational popularity change for both Jackson and Ally. Each of them must deal with feelings of insecurity at some point and both are singers. The antagonist is interesting as well, as it is a character that plays a small but decisive role in how the narrative ends.

The film begins with Jackson as a popular, albeit drunken singer. He spots Ally both for her singing ability and in terms of romantic interest. He is very self-confident as he pursues her, whereas she feels insecure as a singer and song-writer and is shy with Jackson romantically. He is successful, whereas she is an unknown singing in a drag club. He provides her with an entry to become a star by coaxing her to sing a duet with him in one of his concerts. The experience leaves her with more confidence both in regard to singing publically and reciprocating romantically. Her arc is in motion.
Meanwhile, Jackson’s arc is in decline in that his drinking and drug-use are getting worse, as is his relationship with his older brother and manager, Bobby, who quits working as Jackson’s “errand boy” after Jackson hits him because he had windmills put on their deceased father’s land in Arizona. As the film shifts to Ally’s singing, the attention to Jackson’s diminishes. When Jackson drunkenly follows Ally on stage at the Grammys as she accepts the award for Best New Singer, the difference in the trajectories of the two character arcs could not be more explicit. She has gained interest into the singing elite, whereas he has reached bottom in his alcoholism and drug-addiction. Her lack of confidence is gone not only in singing, but, interestingly, also in terms of her relationship with Jackson. Even as he is falling on the stage, she claims him as her man. His self-confidence is gone. He goes off for two months of rehab, during which he is not sure that Ally would have him back (she assures him he can come home). Back at home, no hint of his ongoing singing career is given; in contrast, her concert venue is very large. He is emotionally vulnerable; she is now running the relationship. The two character arcs have crossed each other both in terms of vocational success and emotional security. Just in terms of the transfer in whose music is foremost, even financially, the intersection can be understood as being difficult for the relationship. The shift in power, both from the shift in singing success and in emotional security, certainly puts pressure on the couple. 
As for how the narrative ends, it is important to bring in the matter of the antagonist. To claim that the alcoholism and drug-addiction were both antagonists is to conflate antagonist with obstacle. Certainly an antagonist presents obstacles for a protagonist, but the character to character relation is lost if an antagonist can be generalized to impersonal obstacles even in the story-world itself, as is, “The fire is the antagonist.” In this film, Rez, Ally’s manager, is the clever antagonist. Knowing that Ally wants to take the post-rehab Jackson along in her upcoming European tour, Rez speaks to Jackson without Ally knowing. Rez plays on Jackson’s insecurity by blaming Jackson for having almost derailed Ally’s singing career. Rez also tells the alcoholic that he would relapse, and when he does, he would sink Ally’s career so he should be nowhere near her, especially on her tour. During Rehab, Jackson has expressed to Ally his sorrow for having gotten in the way of her acceptance speech at the Grammy’s, so it follows that he would take his own life rather than risk hurting her career, as she loves him so much. In putting this guilt-trip on a vulnerable Jackson, Rez is the film’s antagonist. He is a sly one, as neither Bobby nor Ally can know who (and what) triggered Jackson. Ally presumably continues with Rez, not knowing what he has done to her late husband. In the end, the film can perhaps be said to be about the limits of justice in the human condition. In other words, sometimes the bad guys get away with it.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray, a Gothic and philosophical novel written by Oscar Wilde, was first published in 1890. The first motion picture, taking the same title, came out in 1945. Relative to The Secret of Dorian Gray (1970), the initial adaptation of the book can seem quite restrained, or Victorian, even though the novel had been controversial in its day. The 1970 film is awash in the sexual revolution, and is thus also affected by its times. The next film adaptation, Dorian Gray (2009), goes back to a classy nineteenth-century Dorian. The emphasis is on sexual immorality, albeit different than in the sexual revolution in the next century. The film largely departs from the plethora of religious symbolism and language in the 1945 film, though unlike in the 1970 film, a spiritual realm is not presumed to be an antiquated notion. Instead, the 2009 film substitutes supernaturalism for religion, especially in the climax.

Regarding the salient element of religion in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), the film goes back and forth between ancient paganism and Christianity. The tension between the two goes through the film. Basel remarks refer to the gods, which immediately disassociates the story world from the monotheistic religions. The gods, he says, give us good looks even though we suffer from them. Henry disagrees, quipping, “There is only one thing in the world worth having and that is youth.” Not yet realizing the power through the painting on aging, Basil vaguely intuits a transcendent aspect of the painting in remarking, “There’s something I can’t quite understand—something mystic about it.” As he is working on a sketch of the cat already pictured in the painting, he adds, “It seems as if a power outside of myself was guiding my hand. It’s as if the painting has a life of its own, independent of me.” Later in the film, Basil tells Dorian, “Perhaps you’ve seen the same mysterious quality in it. Have you noticed something curious in the painting? Something that at first did not strike you but that subsequently revealed itself suddenly?” Dorian replies, “I saw something curious about the painting. You’re right; there can be something fatal about a portrait.”
Because the transcendent lies beyond the limits of human cognition, perception, and feeling according to pseudo-Dionysius (St. Denis) and others in the Middle Ages, a portal itself can be expected to have a vague mysterious quality. In his text, The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto ascribes mysterium to the holy. In antiquity, the term simply meant “unknown.” It is fitting that a way to transcendence would also have the air of the unknown.
Unless anyone misses the connection between the mystical quality and the cat in the film, Dorian is shown posing next to a statue of the cat. Between them, Dorian and Henry make the connection explicit. For the first time, Dorian is conscious of his youth, and that he would someday lose it “If it were that I would stay young and the picture would grow old,” he wishes. Henry cautions him, “You wouldn’t express your wish in the presence of that cat; it is one of the 73 great gods of Egypt and perfectly capable of granting your wish.” A relationship exists between Dorian and the cat through the medium of the painting. This is the transcendent axis that runs through the film. The statue of the cat is also involved, as Sybil remarks while she is at Dorian’s house, “It’s that cat; I thought I saw its eyes move.” Dorian replies, “Perhaps you did. . . . It is one of the 73 great gods of Egypt.” He then reads a passage to her: “Hideous cat . . . you make me what I would not be. You make my creed a barren sham. You wake foul dreams of sensual life.” This gives us an indication of how the transcendent relationship would affect Dorian. The reference to the creed suggests Christianity, which Dorian will abandon in favor of sensual pleasures.  “What a strange poem,” Sybil remarks, “Who wrote it?” Dorian answers, “Oscar Wilde.” Wilde himself cast aside Victorian moral norms and laws to pursue sexual pleasure wherever it would lead him. In contrast to Wilde’s pleasures, Dorian’s, such as sex and drugs, are deemphasized in this film, whereas his harm to other people, such as breaking Sybil’s heart and killing Basel, are highlighted especially in how they change the painting.
The pleasure obtained from harm is arguably worse morally than that which experienced sensuously, especially in ancient paganism wherein morality is not as tied to religion as in the Abrahamic faiths, which risk obfuscating morality and theology. Yet Christianity is again implied when Dorian states his wish: “More than a painting, it is part of myself. . . . If only the picture would change and I would stay the same. For that I would give everything. . . . I would give my soul for that.” To lose one’s soul is typically related to the devil, as in to the case of Faust, who makes a pact with the devil to regain youth. Dorian may be an incarnation of the Foust character, though in this film at least without the devil character. Henry brings us back to the basis in ancient Egyptian polytheism, saying of the gods’ perspective of humans: “They worship us and keep bothering us to do something for them.” Interestingly, Henry’s version of pleasure is sensual nonetheless. “Pleasure is nature’s sign of approval,” he states. “When we are good, we are not always happy.” Dorian is admittedly affected by Henry’s philosophy, though notice sensuous pleasure follows from hurting Sybil. After she flunks the test that Dorian had gotten from Henry (i.e., she stays at Dorian’s house), Dorian tells her, “Now you are nothing to me. Henceforth I shall live for pleasure. I’ve been living a life of illusion.” This illusion is that happiness can come from being faithful even though it involves resisting sexual temptations.  The picture changes in that “a touch of cruelty” can be seen in the mouth. The cruelty refers back to hurting Sybil rather than living for sensual pleasure. In other words, the painting shows Dorian’s bad conscience from harming other people. When Henry tells Dorian of Sybil’s suicide, Henry observes, “She killed herself for love.” Dorian reacts with, That’s not my fault! He has an air of indifference toward his bad conscience. Sensual pleasure is merely a byproduct; Dorian says, “I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions; I want to use them, enjoy them.” Again distancing the film from Abrahamic morality, Basil gives Dorian a book on the Buddha, which Dorian predictably dismisses—but he is not now turning against his creed, at least explicitly, and yet he is. He has a moralistic faith (i.e., Christianity) and yet the transcendent basis in this film is an ancient Egyptian god that presumably wants Dorian to keep the pact rather than behave morally.
The narrator then invokes Christianity implicitly as Dorian hides the painting. “He would have eternal youth while the portrait bore the burden of his shame. He was caught in an evil destiny.” That is, destroying the painting would break this destiny off by his death; he had said it is “a part of me.” As if recalling the worst sin according to Augustine, the narrator says, “Prideful individualism is a work of evil.” Here, selfishness is evil. Admittedly, both harm to others and unrestrained sensuous pleasure can be byproducts of the evil vice of selfishness. When Dorian shows Basil the painting, which is now in color, the narrator says, “It was as if some moral leprosy were eating the painting away.” Immorality is thus evil, presumably even when no one is getting hurt.
Even Basil’s view of the painting has changed from mysterious to monstrous, from a sense of a transcendent element to something supernatural. The starkness of the latter typically dwarfs any subtle mysteriousness that is also a quality of transcendence itself. In contrast, monstrous points to something in our realm. Looking at the painting, Basil declares, “This is monstrous, beyond nature, beyond reason.” Basil is conflating supernatural with the transcendent—a category mistake perhaps arising out of Deism—namely, that God not only set up nature’s laws but also intervenes outside of them. Is such intervention supernatural in that it is an alternative to the natural sciences? If so, the domains of science and religion blend so much that category mistakes can be made—one example being that Zeus is present when a storm has lightening. If the domain of religion is unique, and thus qualitatively different than science, then just because a phenomenon does not fit within known science does not mean that the phenomenon is religious in nature. In The Sixth Sense (1999) and The Others (2001), for example, the paranormal is not associated with anything religious.
The use of the supernatural (or paranormal) as a litmus test or even as proof that a spiritual realm really exists involves a category mistake; rather than being the standard, the basis ought to be tossed out; the transcendent is wholly other and is thus not within our cognitive or perceptual grasp. Even trying to grasp revelation is like looking through a smoke-stained dark window, according to Augustine. Hence belief rather than knowledge is as far as we can go in trying to cognitively penetrate anything transcendent. Hence we yearn for transcendence, as in striving for communion with God. Whereas the transcending experience of yearning can be known in as much as it is in our realm, attributes of the divine object, which lies beyond our reach (i.e., is transcendent) can only be believed through faith. Even our collective imagination, which has come to inexorably fit the validity of religion through the gates of supernaturalism, draws on stuff in our realm rather than anything beyond the limits of cognition, perception, and sensibility.
Nevertheless, Dorian comes to view the monstrous painting in Christian terms by invoking Oscar Wilde’s poem. “The painting has destroyed me,” Dorian states, “Each of us has heaven and hell inside.” Basil does not miss a beat, replying, “The prayer of your pride was answered; perhaps a prayer of repentance would be too.” Basil’s book on the Buddha is nowhere to be seen! The story has gone far from the original amoral paganism of an ancient Egyptian cat-god to the morally and soteriologically redemptive god-man of Christianity.
The story ends with the theme of redemption. When Dorian destroys the painting, he dies. Is he redeemed or did he pay the price for having sold his soul by having a short life—albeit a short, constantly youthful life? A Christian preacher says, “What shall it profit a man if he should gain the whole world but lose his soul? . . . The soul is a terrible reality. It can be bought and sold. It can be poisoned or made perfect. . . . The wretched creature whose soul is filled with vile thoughts and foul deeds must dwell in darkness. Even though he walks under the noonday sun, he carries his own vile dung around with him.” The soul, it turns out, is capable of transcendence, and can therefore be heaven or hell.  A bad conscience has its own weight, which eventually catches up with and drags down Dorian. Vile thoughts and foul deeds can pertain both to engaging in sensual pleasures and making a deal with the devil. The derived pleasure can be outweighed by a bad conscience. Dorian tells Henry, “I would do anything if I could change and get older like other people.” Once again, the narrator supplies a Christian interpretation: “A life of humility and denial, he would restore the painting, but it would tire of him.” Dorian asks God for forgiveness, the portrait breaks, and he looks old. The ending shot is of Wilde’s poem, propped up in front of the statue of the cat. The poem in part: “I sent my soul through the Invisible, my soul returned to me. And answered:  I myself am Heaven and Hell.” So the film ends with this curious mixing of ancient Egyptian religion and moralistic, Victorian, Christianity. Perhaps the tight morality of Victorian times—Wilde having published the story first in 1890—had an influence on the story itself and even on the 1945 film version. on the 1945 film version.

Similarly, the sexual revelation going on in 1970, when The Secret of Dorian Gray came out, can be seen as a major influence in the film, which is even set in its own contemporary day. In the opening scene, for example, Dorian is with friends in a gay bar watching a drag queen. Dorian and Sybil have sex on the day they meet. Posing for the painting, Dorian has his shirt off, has a loose tie on, and wears rugged jeans. He looks like a male prostitute. What the camera shows is much more revealing than in the 1945 film. After a posing session, Dorian is shown in an outdoor shower; that he is wearing a swimming suit seems foisted on the film by censors. Basil refers to Dorian as being “entirely sensuous,” to which Henry adds, “What is vice anyway—pleasure in chains.” His sister attributes this view to Oscar Wilde. Regarding sex and marriage, Henry recommends, “Ideally, one should enjoy everything and possess nothing.” Yet religion, and specifically Christianity, is not brought in, given the secularity that was gaining ground even in 1970. To be sure, Dorian invokes his soul when he says, “Why should I get old while this [painting] stays young? Why can’t it be the other way around?” . . . “I would give anything to stay like that; I would give my soul to stay like that.” Basil’s reply is more psychological than religious. “You see, I’m right; he is in love with himself.” Narcissism! Even in Dorian’s reply that the painting is “part of me now. I don’t know which part,” the allusion to a mystic element is missing. When Dorian takes a sample of the picture’s paint to a chemist, it is clear that belief in a spiritual world is something of the past. The chemist asks Dorian, “You mean, can the seen world be changed by what used to be called the spiritual world?” I submit that regarding the notion of the spiritual world as being in the past reflects the secular culture that was coming of age when the film was being made.  The only allusion to religion is made by Dorian when an older Henry asks someone, “How does Dorian look so young?” Dorian replies, “You should know that Henry, I sold my soul to the devil; you introduced me to him.” Henry’s philosophy was one of acting on temptations for sensual pleasure.
Whereas allusions to religion are rare, commercialism can clearly be seen in the film, which was made after at least two decades of the commercial hegemony of the U.S. in the world after World War II. For instance, Henry buys the painting for Dorian, observing as if it were a fact, “Painters must be paid.” In the 1945 film, Basil gives Dorian the painting out of friendship. Commercialization, it seems, had made inroads since the end of World War I. Although the dominant theological take on profit-seeking and wealth had long since shifted from anti-wealth to pro-wealth, thus reducing Christianity’s force as a constraint on greed, secularization is a fertile bed for a commercial society.[1]
Both commercialism and secularity privilege the exterior to a person’s interior. In viewing a spiritual world as an antiquated notion, the 1970 film cuts off an interior realm (e.g., the kingdom of God is within). Similarly, in a commercial context, the exchange of money means that how people are inside doesn’t matter. Dorian tells Sybil, “Inside? Who wants to know what filth is inside? Beauty is what we see—nothing else.” Henry will tell a friend, “Today beauty is more important than genius.” What is exterior is more important than what is interior. Also, Dorian gets money for having a picture of his face in a magazine. This holds even in the case of the painting, which represents Dorian as a gigolo. At the very least, Dorian lacks internal substance; he can be regarded as a fucking machine.
It is no accident that the exterior-oriented Dorian socializes with other people who are live on an exterior level. In the film, such people are not only the sexually promiscuous, but also the wealthy of the commercial caste. Dorian tells Sybil that he is going to a party with rich people who may be filthy inside but beautiful on the outside. Wealth, it seems, is a shield. In a secular world, appearance is what matters. Business is discussed at the party. Perhaps commercialization, or an encroaching business culture over society, can act as such a shield. Sybil values what is on the inside of a person, whereas Dorian does not; he intends to please himself by turning outward. This is not to say that he is a business type. As if to distinguish himself from all the business talk, he says, “We rich people don’t care about money.” So it is not greed that Dorian suffers from; his vice is lust.
Dorian tells a woman, “I think, if you want something desperately, it’s worth whatever you’ve got.” Rather than having religious overtones, such as in making a pact with an Egyptian cat-god or the devil, the meaning is sexual. Dorian goes off and kisses (and has sex with?) a younger woman. Later he takes her and friends to Sybil’s performance. Because she is an awful actress, Dorian calls her a bore, slaps her and leaves her on a city bus. The harm element is de-emphasized, while sexuality is anything but. “It’s funny how somethings you once thought were significant are not really at all,” he remarks about his past relationship with Sybil, and then he has sex with Henry’s sister. The de-emphasis on harm is visible in just a very slight change in the painting—just in the expression of the eyes—from having hurt Sybil.  When Henry informs Dorian of Sybil’s suicide, Henry says, “We are responsible for our own lives and nothing else.” Dorian has more sex, and then two women have sex. Dorian swims with topless women, and seduces a newlywed by taking off his clothes. 

It is as if the film were soft-porn. The character resembles a porn star even as represented in Basil’s painting. In this way, the sexuality in this film differs from how sexuality is portrayed in the 2009 version, which, while it includes orgies, is less driven by sex. Regarding Dorian having sex with married women in the 1970 film, Basil says, “Dorian, there must be some limit; you corrupt and destroy anyone who comes in contact with you.” Unlike in the 1945 film, the harm is a byproduct of Dorian’s unrestrained lust. Even Henry touches Dorian while he is showering. In the next scene, Dorian is checking out gay men. Later in the film, Henry watches Dorian swim naked. Henry’s facial expression is creepy; this is also a way in which this film differs from the next one. Meanwhile, the painting is being affected mostly in the face and fingers—not nearly as dramatically as in the 1945 version in which the painting is in color when seen from the point of view of a character. The message in the 1970 film reflects Oscar Wilde’s own life, wherein sexual wantonness had long-term consequences (i.e., he was imprisoned for homosexual acts with Bosie, and died in middle age from a medical condition due to the imprisonment). In the 1970 film, the pact with the Egyptian cat, or the devil, is absent; instead, social immorality is at the fore. Even in the midst of the sexual revolution, sleeping with married women went too far. 

Sex, with drugs added in, is also salient in Dorian Gray (2009), though not as much as in the 1970 version. The orgies and visit to a whore house do not give Dorian the look of a porn star.  Rather, he is portrayed as enjoying life as a wealth young man. Although the story is set in the nineteenth century, the change reflects both the surge in high-end party drugs and the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s, both of which had had an effect on the world by the time the film was made. In other words, the sexual revolution had long since ended.
Also, more allusions to Christianity suggest that the West was no longer so hostile to religion by 2009, though the religious references are much fewer than in the 1945 film. At one point, Dorian tells Henry, “Perhaps I should nail myself to the devil’s altar.” At the end of the film, Dorian admits to Henry, “I have lived the life you preached.” Yet the very word preached seems an over-reach, as Henry’s philosophy was one of unlimited sensual pleasure, without any transcendent basis. Although the dichotomy of sensual pleasure and having a heart can be taken as having a religious aspect (e.g., God is love), Henry, like the philosopher Nietzsche, who in the last half of the nineteenth century, is oriented to eschewing modern morality.
Henry encourages Dorian to smoke, for instance. Nothing irreligious is inherent in smoking. Regarding the castigation of morality, Henry tells Dorian, “Conscience is just a polite term for coward,” and the “only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.” In his writings, Nietzsche advises overcoming instinctual urges by mastering them. Henry does not mean a religious temptation; in fact, he takes Dorian to be with several prostitutes at once. Unlimited sexual pleasure, rather than harm, is the main antagonist. Sybil’s suicide causes only a cut on a hand in the painting (and a small worm coming out of one eye). Dorian then says, “A toast to intoxication.” Then he has sex with a woman at a party, followed by sex with her mother with the daughter is hiding under the bed. “There are no limits,” Henry says. Then Dorian is with many women. He wants sex with men too. Reckoning all this as evil, Basil tells Dorian, “There is good in your heart; I’ve seen it. You’re not this devil.” Is sexual promiscuity really evil? Immoral? Basil would have an easier argument were he able to point to Dorian stabbing him several times, and yet even such a horrific act translates only to a subtle change in the painting—the mouth having just a few teeth opens a bit! After Dorian kills Basil, we see Dorian at an orgy. Even though murder is worse than attending an orgy, the emphasis of the film is on Dorian’s sexual activity. For instance, after that orgy, we see Dorian at another, this time with violence involved.
Many years later, Henry’s adult daughter, Victoria, speaks with what may be considered religious undertones. Dorian tells her, “Love is an illusion,” to which she later says, “They say you devote yourself to pleasure.” But I know “you do have a heart.” Pleasure is dichotomous with love. Reflecting the interior/exterior dichotomy that is so strong in the 1970 film, Dorian replies, “Perhaps below the surface.” Pleasure, however, is felt inside, just as love is, whereas sexual activity is external. Also, no reference is made to God being love; rather the love is of the romantic type, which can be swayed by lust.
Not even the climax of the film can be taken as distinctly religious unless the supernatural is assumed to be indicative of something religious. Both when Dorian tries to kill Henry and when Dorian stabs the painting, the latter moves and growls. When the painting is being stabbed, the head leaps forward at Dorian, who dies in the fire that Henry started. Although visibly apocalyptic, the climax contains no religious language and no hint of the devil. Rather, the painting itself is portrayed as a supernaturally “living” entity distinct from Dorian. In other words, the 2009 film is a horror rather than a religious film. Rather than a pact with the devil, pleasure without constraints (including conscience) is the problem.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

The President

Religion and political power can be dangerous if combined and aimed at people deemed to be apostate or heretical. In calling for the Crusades, our Roman Catholic popes put their political power behind the theocratic and political goal of taking back Jerusalem and Constantinople/Istanbul “for Christ.” Those popes and the kings and soldiers who went to war with the Muslims there wittingly or unwittingly violated Jesus’s preachment to love rather than fight enemies. Christianity and political power have not mixed well, historically. The U.S. Constitution forbids the federal government and, presumably, the states, to establish or sponsor a religion or even favor one. Theocracies, such as those in the Calvinist colonies in New England (except for Rhode Island, which allowed freedom of religion), would be excluded as a political form for the Union as well as its member-states. Rather than meaning “sub-unit” or “province” as in Normandy in the E.U. state of France, the American Continental Congress has applied “state” in the generic sense of a polity with a yet-to-be-determined political system. Hence while the Articles of Confederation were in force, before the U.S. Constitution, the states could legally form theocracies. The film, The President (2014), is fictional, but this doesn’t stop its portrayal of a toppled president in hiding from looking realistic, given the cases of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The character arc of the president while he is in hiding, or “on the run,” captures a generally unknown way in which Jesus’ preaching on how to enter the unknown Kingdom of God can apply to political power in a good way. This is not to advocate theocracy, however. Rather, individuals who wield power, whether in government or business, can come to see the very nature of power differently and gain new insight into the Kingdom of God preached by Jesus.

In the film, the toppled president and his grandchild travel mostly by walking and in the back of a pickup truck (and even horse-led cart) to reach the sea, where someone is presumably to meet them and get them out of the country. By the time the two reached the beach, the United Opposition had a million-dollars bounty on the president’s head, dead or alive. Carelessness on the part of the president led a farmer to discover the president’s true identity; it wasn’t long before the farmer led opposition troops to the “traitor president.” The mob-mentality on the beach would have hanged or beheaded the former president were it not for one of the troops, who warned that killing the old would merely continue the despotic cycle. The United Opposition in turn would torture its way to the false dream of unanimous support from the people, just as the president had. Ending the cycle would be necessary, the soldier told the others, for democracy to have a chance. “Let’s make [the president] a voice for democracy,” the solder urged.  
Unknown to the soldier, the president may have already been convinced of the value of democracy because in fleeing, he had discovered the extent of injury that had been inflicted under his rule. He and his grandchild joined with a group of recent political prisoners who were on their way to their homes—one man after five years of imprisonment. That man, plus one other, both had a still-bloody foot and had to be carried. The president carried one, which is itself indicative that the former president felt some responsibility for the torture.  Power looks different on the ground level. The man being carried by the president said it was a good thing that the torturers had not discovered that he had been part of a group that had killed a brother of the president. At this point, the president weighs whether to throw the man down and kill him, but this could compromise his alias. This is shown to the viewer as an alternative vision of what could be.
Even though the president could have stopped carrying the man (e.g., out of staged tiredness), the president, an old man, astonishingly continues to carry the man who could not walk. Even some sympathy can be read on the president’s face. The image of the impoverished president in rags carrying his now-discovered enemy who had been wounded by the president’s men fits extraordinarily well with Jesus’ teaching to not just turn the other cheek (as when the president learned what the man had done), but also help. Whereas not fighting back tilts the world to one side, willingly coming to the aid of someone who, as in the film, wants to kill you or have you killed, turns the ways of the world upside-down. In this sense, the Kingdom of God is radical; it is so contrary to what people typically do in the world and what even society says is justified (e.g., public legal justice, which resonates with revenge).
It should be no surprise that the dictatorship form of government would be at odds with how Jesus says a person can get into, or, even better, instantiate the Kingdom of God. Facing no earthly constraints, according to Thomas Hobbes, a tynt who dies in office only faces divine judgment. A tyrant anticipating that he or she will hold onto power can feel free to direct severe torture and depriving the people of even sustenance for want of taxes. Those officials implementing such directives really face no choice, for disobedience could easily cost them their respective lives. 
In the film, the movement for democracy is in line with adopting Jesus' suggestions. This may be because such a movement does away with dictatorship. Yet this does not necessarily mean that democracy itself is in line what it takes to instantiate the ways of God to the Christian. 
In Iraq, Abu Ghraib prison was an American detention center for captured Iraqis from 2003 to 2006. Graphic photos depicting guards abusing  detainees were discovered in 2004 and yet the torture went on. 

Ironically using dogs to dehumanize a person. 
Acting contrary to instantiating the Kingdom of God. Justified by following orders?
Is "the ends justify the means" inherently contrary to instantiating the Kingdom of God?

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" (John Acton)
This photo suggests that not every torturer was reluctantly acting on orders. (source: Wired)

The George W. Bush administration's claim that Iraq had been involved in the demise of the World Trade Center in New York did not stand up, so the decision to torture was not justified by the claim. The horrific extent that the torture violated human rights is enough to strike down the thesis that democracy is in line with the Kingdom of God whereas dictatorship is not. Perhaps it can only be said that government officials in a democracy (i.e. with checks and balances) may have more freedom (i.e., without facing death) to refuse to torture and--even more of a stretch--to go on proactively to reduce an enemy's suffering. In other words, perhaps democracy can give enough space for government officials, including soldiers, to act on conscience. Even here, a religion's ethical teachings (i.e., in line with reducing suffering) can be distinguished from dogma, which can be used to legitimate suffering, especially of enemies, political or religious. 

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

To Aaron Swartz, the subject of the documentary, The Internet’s Own Boy (2014), the major concern in his day regarding the internet was not the ability of a person to create a blog or use social media; rather, the problem was in the trend of the power of the gate-keepers, who tell you were on the internet you want to go, concentrating. In other words, the issue concerned what commands our attention. More specifically, who gets access to the ways people find things on the internet. “Now everyone has a license to speak; it’s a question of who gets heard,” he said.  Although he was a computer wiz, he also had political aspirations; both of which were on display as he lobbied against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which was introduced in Congress in October of 2011. Unfortunately, the combination of his computer and political skills got the attention of the FBI, which engaged in a relentless pursuit of him until, under the pressure, he committed suicide at the age of 26. His short life was one of idealism that should not have been squashed by an unstoppable criminal-justice system, especially when influenced by political pressure from corporations and politicians. Lest the overzealousness of law enforcement obscure a vision of Aaron’s idealism, it can be viewed as public access being restored to the public domain in terms of the internet.

Tim Lee, the founder of the internet who notably did not cash out but rather kept the web open, influenced Aaron. Although he bristled at the constraints in working at an internet company, he was also not primarily motivated by money. Instead, he was motivated by fairness as it applies to the public good. Whereas high-tech firms are oriented to their own private good, the public good implies public access—something about which Arron felt strongly. In other words, he detested the privatization of the public internet by private gate-keepers. “The public domain should be free to all, but it is often locked up” by corporations, said Brewster Kahle of The Internet Archive. Aaron’s motivation and activity hinged on the question of how public access could be brought to the public domain. This was “one of the things that got him in so much trouble,” said Kahle.
Pacer, a company that made about $120 million a year charging for access to the public records of courts, caught Aaron’s attention. By law, the courts could charge only what is necessary to run Pacer. As that company was interested in charging “customers” much more, hence narrowing the public’s access, Aaron downloaded 20 million pages of court documents. This was not illegal, and yet the FBI began staking out his parents’ house. Once able to analyze the documents, he discovered “massive privacy violations.” Yet is was the restricted public access, caused by wealth disparity, that really caught his attention. As Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Media asked rhetorically in the film, “The law is the operating system of our democracy and you have to pay to see it?” Put another way, the privatization of the public domain can be viewed as the onslaught of plutocracy, the rule by wealth, over democracy.
Besides access to common law, knowledge is vital to a republic. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson agreed on this point. Aaron looked at the gatekeepers of academic articles—private companies like Jstor—which were charging substantial fees for public access (whereas scholars working for universities could access the articles for free). Such gatekeepers can be distinguished from the journals/publishers of the articles. Although a journal rightfully charges for a copy, if a public library (or government-sponsored university) has purchased one, shouldn’t the public have access to the issue? Should libraries have to pay substantial fees to the gatekeepers?
At MIT, Aaron downloaded articles on Jstor. It is not clear what he would have done with them. He had downloaded databases simply to analyze their content rather than make it public. MIT found his computer in a computer closet and gathered evidence to build a case. At the time, he was working at Harvard. If he didn’t have a status at MIT and thus had to hack into the system, MIT had a case. After all, people should not be allowed to unilaterally plug their laptops directly into computer systems. Even so, that police assaulted him on his way home and that U.S. Secret Service, which under the Patriot’s Act, can investigate “schemes using new technology,” took over smacks as going too far, especially if the police were MIT’s own. This would suggest too much power having been given to the university administration whether by its board or the government of Massachusetts. Having its own police power, a university administration can find itself charged with the taint of abuse of power sans accountability. After all, a university is more like a business than a government, hence democratic safeguards are not necessarily in place.
Looking at Aaron’s downloading itself, Carmen Ortesz of Massachusetts’ district attorney’s office says in the film, “Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data, or dollars.” Aaron’s attorney retorts, He wasn’t stealing; he wasn’t selling what he got or giving it away.” When he had been a student at Stanford, Aaron had downloaded the Westlaw database to find relationships between sponsoring organizations and favorable research results. He didn’t release the documents. So the criminal prosecution of Aaron for downloading Jstor articles was as a commercial violation yet no evidence of motive existed; it could not be assumed that he would sell or otherwise make the articles available to the public. The problem was that he had put his name to a blog post, “Gorilla Manifesto,” in which open access is advocated.
For his part, Aaron points out that sharing knowledge with friends is not stealing; rather, doing so is a moral imperative because corporations act as gatekeepers to make money—essentially clipping away at the public domain. This is none other than “theft of public culture,” he says in the film. It is interesting the police felt the need to assault him and yet the thefts by the powerful gatekeepers were somehow legal. He told his girlfriend, “I’ve been arrested for downloading too many academic journals,” as if acquiring knowledge were a crime worthy of the perpetrator being held in solitary confinement as he was. Even Jstor must have viewed the criminal justice system as going too far, for the company dropped the case, saying it had been the government’s decision to prosecute. In fact, Stephen Jeymann, the politically-aspiring assistant district attorney of Massachusetts who interestingly kept the case for himself, told Aaron that he still could face 35 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million. This raises the ethical question of whether an individual should be made to suffer inordinately to serve as a deterrent.
If the public good is the reason why, then what then of the for-profit companies that were essentially privatizing parts of the public domain? MIT, which had moral authority, was mute when the defense asked for assistance. The university characterized this stance as neutral, but Aaron’s lawyer said it was actually pro-prosecutor.
In the film, David Sirota points to the problem of selective deterrence from political ideology. He points out that the Obama administration did not prosecute the financial institutions and individuals for crimes that led to the financial crisis of 2008, yet while devoting resources to prosecuting selective deterrents, including Aaron’s case. It is no coincidence, Sirota claims, that Obama left office as a billionaire, which he had not been when he was a legislator in Illinois’ government and law instructor at the University of Chicago. I would add that Goldman Sachs’ $1 million contribution to Obama’s ’08 presidential campaign is also relevant. Clearly, Obama’s “Wall Street Government” was doing the bidding of the powerful rather than standing up for public access of knowledge.
Aaron hit his stride in spite of his pending trial when he put his computer skills to use in lobbying against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which initially had many co-sponsors in the U.S. Senate. Specifically, he wrote software making it easier for people to contact Congress. The bill was ostensibly against online piracy of music and movies, but, according to Aaron, the legislation was really about the freedom to connect. A company could cut off a website from the internet or force Google to cut links to the site; a claim of copyright infringement, without due process (i.e., a trial), would be all that would be necessary. In the film, U.S. Senator Wyden of Oregon says the bill poses a threat to freedom of speech and civil liberties. “It makes no sense to destroy the architecture of the internet to combat piracy,” he points out. In a particularly revealing “macro” comment, the senator points to the power of private powers in the American democratic system. “Typically, the legislative fights in Washington are fights between different sets of corporate moneyed interests—all duking it out to pass legislation. The fights that are the closest are when you have one set of corporate interests against another set of corporate interests and they are generally financially matched in campaign contributions and lobbying. The ones that aren’t even fights typically are those where all the money is on one side—all the corporations are on one side—and millions of people are on the other.” In other words, under the rubric of popular sovereignty (i.e., representatives representing their respective constituents as a group), the interests of private concentrations of wealth (i.e., corporations) essentially own the Congress and the White House.
In this case, constituents spoke up and their representatives in Congress noticed. Suddenly all but a few of the myriad co-sponsors (sponsored in turn by powerful private interests) dropped their support. People boycotted GoDaddy for its pro-SOPA support. Obama reversed his support, which interestingly suggests that he had been siding with the corporate interests rather than the People even though he was purportedly for “real change,” including greater democracy. Obama was going after Arron’s community, including not only hackers, but also democracy activists because they are able to make trouble for those who are already in power, corporate and governmentally. Obama’s administration went after Aaron in order to scare as many in his community as possible so they would not make trouble. Secrecy serves those who are already in power. Aaron was a threat because he was working toward open access to the public square even though reasonable people can disagree as to what rightly goes in there. Interestingly, Aaron had warned of the inordinate NSA spying.
SOPA didn’t pass. In fact, it was withdrawn. Aaron’s community won. Interestingly, the federal government charged Aaron with nine additional counts. Eleven of the thirteen total charges were for violating the terms of service of sites. Orin Kerr, a  lawyer, says in the film that such a type of indictment is unfair. Bryan Stevenson of Equal Right Initiative laments the excessiveness that had taken hold in the American criminal-justice system such that by Aaron’s day, “Anything we are angry about instinctively triggers a criminal justice intervention.” Even looking at a security guard the wrong way can trigger his “need” to call the local police, who have come to be prone to “overkill” in over-estimating degrees of threat. The impulse to “observe,” intimidate, threaten, indict, and prosecute has come to be triggered by people who are merely mad at something. The impulse, in other words, had become too sensitive even by Aaron’s time. Unfortunately, countervailing accountability on the occupants of that system has been hard to come by. The People en masse can pressure governments to contain even the passive aggression inflicted on citizens—particularly those who object. Though this is unlikely, considering how much energy it takes to stimulate a large number of people such that their elected representatives take notice. With regard to the People squeezing in where the corporate-governmental axis is dominant (hegemonic), the corporate lobbyists and the beneficiaries of corporate campaign contributions depend on the illusion of public accountability even as publicly they pay homage to the strong American democracy for and by the People. 


The film L’Argent (1983) is about how far people will go to get money (l’argent en francais). One major problem with greed is that people who are enthralled by it will go to virtually any length to get money. Even a religion can unconsciously warped to separate greed from earning and having wealth. Historically, Christian thought on greed and wealth has shifted from anti- to pro-wealth. Whether enabled by their religion or not, greedy people will think nothing of other people being hurt in the process. Hence, greed can be reckoned as selfishness incarnate. To claim that money is God not only puts a lower good above a higher one, but also manifests self-idolatry.

“Well, I’m not waiting around for universal happiness which, believe me, will be boring as hell. I want to be happy now, in my own way. O money, God incarnate, what wouldn’t we do for you?” says Yvon’s prison-roommate. “Given how corrupt the world is,” he continues, “and the impossibility of it changing, they who tell us to obey promise a future happiness.” Is money truly God incarnate? Does it even make sense that that which transcends the limits of human cognition, sensibility, and perception, as St. Denis maintained back in the sixth century, can be incarnate as material things? Is this not an oxymoron? “What wouldn’t we do for you?” follows from money being God incarnate, for no limits exist consistent with following that which is God; everything else is of a lesser priority as only God is sacred. Lastly, would universal happiness really be boring? Compared to a world in which people are rude and aggressive, I would take the inherently satisfying luster of happiness. Perhaps the prisoner likes a world of disagreements and even fighting. In other words, we must consider the source—a prisoner.
How does Yvon come to find himself in prison? He has violently killed a family in order to rob them. A perfect example of the wanton disregard for other people’s welfare in following money as God incarnate.  To the family’s hard-working woman, who is willing to be task-oriented but not inordinate in the pursue of money as criminals are wont to be, Yvon asks, “Why not just throw yourself in the river? Do you expect a miracle?” She replies flatly, “I expect nothing.” Money is not her God incarnate.
The filmmaking reflects the woman’s task-orientation. Conversations are monotone, direct, and purpose-economized without any small talk.  Hence, a lot of silence exists, which gives that film-world a harsh quality. When people interact, they do so like robots. Movements are precise, limited to purposes. The sound also is precise in emphasizing tasks, such as that of closing a door fully. Human beings are purpose-driven, intentional, beings.
After killing all of the family except the woman, Yvon asks her for money. There is none, so he kills her. What wouldn’t he do for money? In a twisted sense, he turns himself in as if redemption were in the confessing. In that story-world, the good lies in confessing rather than not viewing money as God incarnate in the first place. In spite of his confession, he is still legally, moral, and religiously on the hook for having gone too far in killing for money. Confessing is the least that he could do, once having committed such a violent crime. The latent self-idolatry in the selfishness that lies at the root of greed is protected by denial concerning the self-as-god assumption. Similarly, the God-incarnate status of money—that is, God as sourced in our human realm rather than transcendent—blinds Yvon from the fact that he goes too far in the pursuit of money, for it is merely a measure of economic value in our realm.