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

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Gandhi: A Film that Teaches

Film is indeed an art form, but the medium can also function as a teacher in how it conveys values and wisdom. Both of these features of film are salient in Gandhi (1982), whose director, Richard Attenborough, says in his audio commentary that the film has done much keep Gandhi’s philosophy alive in the world. In using the film’s star protagonist to explain what is behind his approach, viewers become, in effect, students. The strength of film here lies in its use of both audio and visual means to engrave the lessons in memories. In Gandhi, the main concept to be explained and illustrated is nonviolent active non-cooperation or defiance of unjust laws or regimes.


In a speech to his fellow Indians, Gandhi declares, “We must defy the British.” The crowd erupts. “Not with violence,” he explains, that will inflame their will, but with a firmness that will open their eyes.” He then advocates burning clothes manufactured in Britain. “If you are left with one piece of homespun, then wear it with dignity!” Active, nonviolent defiance strengthens self-esteem. The strategy also has a strength that counters the force of the unjust.

For example, guards at the Salt Works hit the Indians protesting the British monopoly on salt. As the unarmed Indians walk row by row into the guards, wood swiftly comes down on heads, shoulders, and backs. “Women carried the wounded and broken bodies from the road, an American reporter reads into a phone, “until they dropped from exhaustion. But still, it went on and on.” Then, crucially, he reaches the essential point. “Whatever moral ascendancy the West held was lost here today. India is free, for she has taken all that steel and cruelty can give and she has neither cringed nor retreated.” In the voluntary taking on of suffering is a kind of invisible force that confronts the aggressors with their sense of being good rather than evil. In other words, the suffering is like a mirror making the dark side of the human psyche inexorably transparent. Not even a tyrant can put down such a squalid self-image. The image is also likely broadcasted to third parties and even the world at large, likely resulting in the very human sentiment of disapprobation, which Hume calls the moral sense. The culprits may find themselves cornered, psychologically and perhaps even politically and economically.

“I think our resistance must be active and provocative,” Gandhi tells the Congress Party leaders meeting in Jinah’s living room to strategize. “Where there’s injustice, I always believed in fighting,” Gandhi states at another point in the film. “The question is, do you fight to change things or to punish? For myself, I’ve found we’re all such sinners, we should leave punishment to God. And, if we really want to change things, there are better ways of doing things than derailing trains or slashing someone with a sword.” Nonviolent non-cooperation is geared to changing the unjust by forcing them to confront themselves.

“I wish to embarrass all those who wish to treat us as slaves. All of them,” Gandhi tells the Congress Party leaders at Jinah’s house. He then illustrates his point. Specifically, he asks the servant for the tray of tea and starts to serve “I want to change their minds, not kill them for weaknesses we all possess.” He then suggests a day of prayer and fasting, which of course would have the same impact as a general strike. The prayer and fasting are oriented to confronting a person’s own demons, while the societal discomfort draws attention to the demons plaguing the oppressors who are living comfortably while exploiting the Indians. Awareness is the first step on the road to change.

“What about very powerful tyrants like Hitler? Do you really believe you could use nonviolence against Hitler?” a photographer from Life magazine asks Gandhi in a later scene. “Not without defeats and great pain,” he replies. “But are there no defeats in [World War II]? No pain? What you cannot do is accept injustice from Hitler or from anyone. You must make the injustice visible; be prepared to die like a soldier to do so.” The strength in active nonviolent defiance is subtle, unlike that of a club or gun; the impact on the oppressor psyche is reflected in the excessive measures that it takes in reaction.

For example, Gandhi remarks at one point that “Marshal law [in Bengal] only shows how desperate the British are.” Surely some kind of force had provoked the desperation that the British rulers could not shake. The strength of Gandhi is essentially the innate ability of any human being to make force a confrontation within another person between a self-image, which can be so convenient to the self, and the demons that inhabit every person.

More broadly than in nonviolent civil disobedience, the demons plaguing another person’s soul can both be made more transparent and exculpated by means of restorative suffering. While Gandhi is on a hunger-strike to end Muslim-Hindu violence in the newly independent India, a violent Hindu man approaches Gandhi and tosses some bread on the old man’s chest.

“Here! Eat! I’m going to hell, but not with your death on my soul.” Unlike the typical oppressor, the man is already aware of his demons.

“Only God decides who goes to hell,” Gandhi retorts.

“I killed a child,” the man explains. “I smashed his head against a wall.”

“Why?”

“The Muslims killed my son! My boy.”

“I know a way out of hell,” Gandhi offers. “Find a child—a child whose mother and father have been killed . . . and raise him as your own. Only be sure he is a Muslim and that you raise him as one.”

The hardened murderer is stunned, and collapses at the foot of Gandhi’s slender bed. The great soul has given the angry sufferer a way to reintegrate his soul that is plagued with pain; in coming to see the Muslim side by raising a Muslim child, the man would come to see the other side in the societal strife and therein create space in his own soul for the otherness of the other in place of the seemingly intractable demons. For being a man of peace, Gandhi does an awful lot of fighting.

Just before Gandhi is assassinated by a fellow Hindu, he tells the photographer from Life that “(t)he only devils in the world are those running around in our own hearts, that that’s where all our battles ought to be fought.” Civic clashes are essentially projections of those which take place in the human mind between contending urges, and ought to be viewed and attacked as such by opening eyes.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Proof

If you are not careful, you could come away from the film, Proof (2005) as a scientist, for the scientific method enjoys a starring role, albeit mostly in subtle undertones rather than in stark instructional flourishes in Technicolor. Essentially, the message is that confirming proof eludes the human mind and its scientific method. Yet interestingly, the film also captures genius, even if its source cannot be proven.


The film centers around Catherine, the daughter (played by Gwyeth Paltrow) of a brilliant math professor, Robert (played by Anthony Hopkins), who went insane and died; the story takes place just after his death. The dramatic tension is both in terms of relationships and questions of fact. Concerning the former, tension is most salient between Catherine and her visiting sister, Claire. Tension also builds between Catherine and her love-interest, Hal. In flashbacks, we feel tension also between Catherine and her father. Last but certainly not least, Catherine herself is riveted with inner tension, which comes to a major decision whether to go to New York to live with Claire taking care of her or to remain in Chicago to pursue Hal and mathematical notoriety and further advancement. In short, Catherine’s inner conflict lies in whether to buy into the paradigm in which she is deemed crazy or the alternative “story line” in which her apparent craziness is actually a natural reaction to having had to deal with her messed up father and sister.

In terms of questions of fact to be resolved, Hal and Claire seek proof establishing the authorship of the breakthrough mathematical proof written in a notebook locked in Robert’s desk. The handwriting seems to be Robert’s, but it is possible that Catherine’s own resembles his as the two worked closely together on mathematics. Also, it is not clear whether Robert was sufficiently sane to reason through such a momentous proof. Proof is therefore paramount, yet as Hal admits, the author cannot be proved. The film ends with him telling Catherine that in going through the mathematical proof together, the most he could do is prove that she could not have written it. This is none other than the scientific method in action!

In science, alternative hypotheses (i.e., propositions) are eliminated. The elimination can be known with certainty—that is, proved to be false. This is all that science portends; it cannot prove the hypothesis that the scientist asserts. In shooting down alternative explanations, the hypothesis is left standing, but this does not prove it. In trying to figure out who ate the cookies left out on a kitchen counter to cool off, we can eliminate the cat, sister Susie, fat brother Scott and even fat brother Jeff. This does not mean that Skip ate the cookies. That Skip has actually lost weight and is athletic would suggest that he is not the culprit, but this too is not proof. It is possible that the dog Skip (named after the brother) jumped up on the counter and chomped up the chocolate mistakenly taking it for another dog’s poop (this does not mean that the brother known as Skip has the same habit!). In short, eliminating alternative suspects does not prove that Skip is the culprit. Even so, science says we can have greater confidence that Skip is our man. Yet is such confidence warranted? We could be overlooking another alternative entirely. Suppose we are completely unaware that a friend occasionally stops by. The only person who knows is the mother, and she isn’t talking. She would gladly let her son Skip take the rap so she could go on leading a double life.

In the film, eliminating possibilities that Catherine could not have written the proof does not mean that she wrote it. It is possible that both she and her father could have written it. Yet the viewer is left with a distinct answer—that Catherine is indeed the author. In fact, we get to see the very instant in which she had the major insight, while she was reaching in her refrigerator. Seeing genius for what it is—a break-through of ideas past those that had been log-jammed or stymied—is perhaps much more revealing, not to mention satisfying, than whether Catherine actually wrote the proof. The flashback itself functions as proof, though even here this devise is shaky due to the salience of mental illness in the film. In other words, the viewer’s assumption that the flashbacks are meant to reveal what actually happened may be faulty, and thus hardly able to support proof. I submit, therefore, that the film is really about how limited the human mind is. Philosophically, the theme is on the epistemological limits of the human brain. We think we know a lot more than we do.