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

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Secular Films with Religious Meaning: Film as a Potentially Deep Medium

A film need not be explicitly religious to proffer spiritual meaning. In fact, gritty stories that wrestle with thorny problems that people have faced or may face in everyday life can be more gripping even theologically than stories based on religious idealism, such as The Greatest Story Ever Told and The Ten Commandments.  

Tuesday, December 20, 2016


If a picture is worth a thousand words, then how many words are moving pictures worth? Add in a script and you have actual words—potentially quite substantive words—grounding all that pictorial worth. Moving pictures, or movies for short, are capable of conveying substantial meaning to audiences. In the case of the film, Snowden (2016), the meaning is heavy in political theory. In particular, democratic theory. The film’s value lies in depicting how far short the U.S. Government has slipped from the theory, and, indeed, the People to which that government is in theory accountable.

Secrecy is synonymous with security, Corbin O’Brian, an instructor at the CIA, tells Snowden. To inform even Congress is tantamount to the intel getting to America’s enemies. Lest it be assumed that the secret FISA court is a viable fallback democratic check on the CIA and NSA, Gabriel Sol informs Snowden that the court is merely a rubber-stamp. This view is confirmed when Corbin confirms to Snowden that Jennifer, Snowden’s girlfriend, is not sleeping with anyone else. The extent to which the CIA could spy on American citizens is presented best through image rather than word, as Gabriel shows Snowden (and the viewer) how much information can be gleamed on a person by looking at emails, Facebook pages, and even webcams presumably turned off. The extent to which the CIA was spying on Americans is shown by Snowden himself as he moves a laptop cursor from country to country on a map. The number of emails, etc. captured does not match with the countries thought to be America’s enemies. Interestingly, the Japanese government refuses to spy on their own people for the CIA, saying that doing so would be illegal. Tellingly, the CIA went around the Japanese government and collected emails, Facebook pages, and other material on Japanese citizens. The lack of limitation is the motif that best describes American intelligence, and yet how very stupid it is to presume that no accountability is somehow ok in a democratic republic.
A video of President Obama referring dismissively to Snowden as just some 28-year-old hacker puts the president firmly on the side of the CIA and NSA. That the man who campaigned on “real change” would end up defending a corrupt old guard is a sad commentary that is only implicit in the film. The president’s arrogance is more apparent. That the DNC under Obama would unfairly favor Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in the selection of the party’s nominee for president in 2016 can be seen as an extension of Obama defending the corrupt CIA and NSA.
Edward Snowden is left with the heavy duty of acting on behalf of the American people. They should know what is going on so they can decide whether the security interest trumps civil liberties as much as the People’s agents in the executive branch conveniently assume. An expose on CBS’s 60 Minutes, shown in part in the film, tells the viewer that working internally—being a whistleblower—is a recipe only for retaliation, so acting on behalf of the American People—trying to reach them—must be done outside of the government. In no way does acting on this duty constitute espionage; rather, the CIA and NSA are depicted in the film as being guilty of breaking the law in spying on untainted American citizens. By implication, the judges sitting on the FISA court must have been similarly guilty, in so far as they acted as a rubber-stamp resulting in Americans being spied on by their own government without any reason of suspicion to justify the permission of the secret court.
In the end, the film depicts the terrible power in the establishment, as well as how distant it is from the popular sovereign, the People. In terms of democratic theory, the agents are not well controlled by the principals. That is to say, the agency costs are high in the American republic. Historically, the American founders even in the Constitutional Convention in 1787 would have bristled at the CIA’s power depicted in the film. Surely those men would label such a government as a tyrant operating at the expense of liberty—ironically to safeguard what little is left. The purpose of the CIA and NSA is the true irony in the film, which succeeds in holding up an uncomfortable mirror both to the governors and the governed in the United States. In writing essays, I attempt a similar role, and in so doing I’m sure I have just lost some liberty in terms of privacy, since this essay is full of keywords—hardly the least of which is liberty, as from unreasonable searches.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Aimee & Jaguar

Aimee & Jaguar (1999) is a film based on a true story centering on Felice, a Jewish woman who lived in Berlin until 1944 and belonged to an underground lesbian, anti-Nazi (spying) organization. To be a Jewish lesbian in Nazi Germany cannot have been an easy life, with possible catastrophe just around the corner on any given day.  In the film, Felice becomes romantically involved with Lilly, a mother of four and wife to a Nazi solder who is fighting at the eastern front. The film is essentially a love story between the two women. I want to draw out some of the ethical issues raised in the film—with the love story serving as my critique of two ethical theories—utilitarianism and duty-based ethics—that are implied in the film.  

Bentham’s ethical theory of utilitarianism has for its goal the greatest good, which is maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, for the greatest number of people. In terms of distribution, the principle can justify allocating a lot of money to some groups—whose individuals can be expected to get a lot of pleasure out of the funds—while depriving other groups of any money because they would not get a lot of pleasure out of even the limited funds. Invest in pleasure where most of it is likely to result. It is the consequence, rather than the means, that is important.
Under such a lopsided distribution as making what money there is available to non-Jewish Germans, the notion of declining marginal utility means that a lot more money would have to be added to the rich Germans to give pleasure equal to that which would come from giving the impoverished groups even just a little money. The utility of 1 DM, for instance, after getting 99 DM is less than the utility after getting 2 DM. This point is illustrated in the film.
In one scene, a fur-wearing, wealthy German woman, sensing that Felice and her three friends, Ilse, Lotte, and Klara, in the bathroom are hungry, and Jewish, sells them food-stamps for nothing less than 200 marks—an extravagant sum judging from the reaction of the three Jews. Based on declining marginal utility, it would take such a sum of money for the pleasure obtained by the rich woman to equal the pleasure from the mere food-stamps accruing to the four Jews. Hence, the exploitation.
The utilitarian distribution cutting off some people or entire groups from funds needed for daily sustenance can be extended to include outright extermination. In Nazi Germany, exterminated groups included the Communists, homosexuals, and Jews. Felice and her three friends were on the losing end in at least two of the three. It is ethically problematic that Bentham’s theory could be used in such a way to justify investing only in people who are most able to be happy (feel pleasure), whether from inner constitution or by external circumstance. Maximizing the pleasure in a society overall is an aim that can justify means that can easily be viewed as unethical. In fact, the resulting pleasure overall, as it is distributed in society (i.e., unequally) can be viewed as unethical. Fortunately, we can turn to Kant to make up for Bentham’s lapses.  
In contrast to Bentham’s theory, Immanuel Kant held that people have a duty to treat other rational beings not merely as means, but also as ends in themselves. Reason, by which we assign value to things (and people) is itself of absolute value, and so rational beings should not be treated merely as means, but are worthy by virtue of having reasoning capability of being treated as ends in themselves. This version of Kant’s Categorical Imperative is similar to the Golden Rule in Christianity (Kant was Christian). For the Nazi leaders to treat groups of people as means only to a Nazi vision of society and race would be for Kant, unethical.
Yet is it reasoning that gives humanity its absolute value? In the film, Felice refuses to go with her friends on a train to safety in Switzerland because she loves Aimee and thus wants to stay with her; the decision taken is not rational, for Felice must know that she could have gone and returned after the fall of the Third Reich; she must also have known that she would probably not survive for long, even if the days of Nazi Germany were obviously limited. “A catastrophe,” Aimee’s mother says when she learns, after Felice has returned from the train station, that she is not only her daughter’s girlfriend, but also Jewish. In such a context, how much value can we put on Felice’s love for Aimee? It seems to me that reason cannot assign value to such an object of such power, so such value must be undefined, and thus absolute. Means and even lofty ends that slight the human natural ability to love face an uphill fight in claims to being ethical rather than unethical.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Inferno: A Sequel that Goes Up in Flames

With the allure of additional profits to be had, Hollywood has been all too willing to torch high-quality brands as if with perfect impunity. A case in point is the film, Inferno, which followed The De Vinci Code and Angels & Demons in the Robert Langdon film series spanning ten years (2006-2016) based on novels by Dan Brown.

Noticeably absent from Inferno were any traces of theology, which had given the first film such narrative force, are arguably even sustained the second film. On first seeing the title, Inferno, I expected the film to involve the Christian concept of hell (hence Dante’s Inferno). L’Inferno, the 1911 European silent film, for example, is loosely based on Dante’s classic text. The film was an international success, taking in more than $2 million in the U.S. alone.[1] In contrast, the 2016 film received generally negative reviews and did not do well financially in the U.S. Rather than being about hell, or even religion,  Inferno is about climate change and over-population combined with biological warfare. The link to religious symbolism is tenuous at best, so the justification for the protagonist, Robert Langdon, is insufficient.

Film can indeed handle substantive theological issues. Films such as Rosemary’s Baby, Agora, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and The Devil’s are but a few stellar examples—exemplary still because their respective producers did not risk the brands by attempting to squeeze out more profits from a line of diminishing sequels. In contrast, the reputation of The Exorcist was diminished by Exorcist II: The Heretic and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist; both films, justifiably receiving stinging reviews, departed from the original storyline without bothering to be faithful to the original.
Producing sequels until the marginal revenue approaches zero is not a good business model for Hollywood. It is indeed possible for ensuing scripts of sequels to burn, or at least tinge, the original even long after it has been made into a film. Even from a business standpoint, the box-office flop of a sequel can negatively impact sales of the original film because of the hit to its reputation. Contradicting elements of the original story, such as occurred in sequels to The Exorcist, burn holes in the believability of the storyline itself. Was or was not the African boy, Kokumo, possessed by the demon Pazuzu?
In short, too much of a good thing can be counter-productive. If the reputation of a film’s “brand” means anything, it should be protected rather than prostituted out. Rather than pushing for sequel scripts, producers with one hit “under their belt” can better satisfy their economic and personal-brand self-interests by looking for another unique script. In the case of films with a theological dimension, scripts that engage a viewership with substantive problems rather than superficial protagonist-antagonist “drama” are the best bet.  

[1] Antonella Braida, "Dante's Inferno in the 1900s: From Drama to Film." In Antonella Braida, Antonella and Luisa Calé, Dante on View: The Reception of Dante in the Visual and Performing Arts (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2007): 47-49.

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Big Short and Concussion: A System on Sterroids

Watched one after the other or, more realistically, a day or two apart, "The Big Short" and "Concussion" provide an excellent picture of American business and society. As much as the revelations in the films are shocking, I'm more shocked that the American people just take things as they are. "Oh, that's just the way things go in the world," they might say as if this serves as a defense. In other words, we will doubtless get "same old, same old," at the ballot box in November. The disjunction between people's reaction to the substance of the films and the way the people vote is nothing short of astonishing to me. How can people be so shocked at Wall Street and the NFL, and yet continue to vote for the same epigones? We continue to use the same big banks and watch football as if the films were somehow really fictional. I suppose we get what we deserve. 

The key to understanding both films is actually made transparent in another film of the same sort. If you see "Spotlight," pay attention to the chief editor's point that the system, including all the parts..meaning people doing their jobs...was at fault...not just Cardinal Law. Hence, in "The Big Short" and "Concussion," we can reasonably extend the culprits even to the business ethics scholars who said nothing at the societal level about the rating agencies and the conflicts of interests in the big banks, as well as about the NFL. When you have a system wherein everyone is just doing his or her job, and yet is an accomplice, assigning blame to a particular part becomes artificial. It is the system itself--of business, government, and society--that is deeply flawed and thus in need of fundamental change.