“The Martian”

I saw “The Martian” last night. I won’t do any plot spoilers, but it was pretty great, overall. A sufficiently faithful adaptation of the book that I was pleased. The overall theme -that reason is man’s means of survival- was translated to the movie fairly well.

They cut out some sub-plots that I would have liked to see, but I understand that has to be done in the interests of time. They also made a reference to religion -the rocket launch scene- that wasn’t in the original book (as best I can recall), but the book is such a powerful statement about the power of human reason that I’m sure the Hollywood PR people were nervous about how that would go over in middle America.

The other thing that really annoys me is how Hollywood has treated this movie. It got some sort of award for “Best Comedy”, which I think is a total back-handed compliment. The movie and the book definitely do have humor in them. You often laugh with the main character as he uses his reasoning skills to solve problems, but to describe the movie as a comedy is a slight on the part of the Hollywood elite in my opinion. It makes it clear in my mind that people in Hollywood don’t just have a left-wing bias, they have an “anti-man” bias. This translates into an anti-reason bias -because they don’t believe man is efficacious and capable of solving problems through the use of his reason. (This is also why Hollywood is so left wing -they think we need a nanny-state to take care of us.) They hate those who want to live life as men, they hate the faculty that is man’s means of survival -his reason, and they hate success. As a result, the movie is not fully “real” or “dramatic” to the Hollywood elite. In their minds, the idea that anybody could use their reason to promote their own individual survival is not fully real -hence the “comedy” label.

Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus”

I saw “Prometheus” the other night and I thought it was mostly terrible. What exactly was supposed to be the theme or the moral of the movie? That aliens created us and then, for some inexplicable reason, they later wanted to destroy us with biological weapons, but for some reason they don’t know how to drive a spaceship or use proper containment for their biological weapons?

The theme couldn’t even be about the evils of technology or human fallibility -which is a common sci-fi theme- since human beings didn’t create Frankenstein’s monster. We were Frankenstein’s monster. It looked like someone wanted to tie it in to the search for meaning and purpose in life via religion, but that mostly just seemed like a fig leaf for the fact that the movie really didn’t have a point.

Leaving aside the fact that there seemed to be no philosophic or moral point to the movie, the plot was terrible. Characters would simply come into a scene and “declare” some conclusion that they had drawn. But, the movie never showed the evidence from which they had drawn this conclusion in sufficient detail to make it realistic, nor did the characters explain how they could have possibly reached that conclusion. For instance, at one point, the ship’s captain comes in and just announces to the main female character that the planet is a biological weapon’s depot. How did he draw that conclusion? From the fact that there were some cylinders with black ooze that seemed to turn into various strange creatures? It’s like he said: “All men are mortal…..Therefore Socrates is mortal” (Where the hell is the middle term connecting the major premise to the conclusion?)

People’s purpose’s seemed totally cryptic and were never explained. Why did the android infect the female lead’s love interest with a bio-weapon? In the original “Aliens” movie, the “evil corporate guy” wanted to infect Ripley with the Alien as an easy way to take it back to Earth and study it. But here, the old dude controlling the android wasn’t out for profit. He just wanted to find the aliens that created us to ask why they created us. So why infect anybody? Just to be evil? Seems rather melodramatic to me. The only good thing about “Prometheus” was the special effects. But, frankly, I would take a movie with bad special effects over one that was so devoid of a good plot, theme, or characters with believable motivations.

Chasing Amy (1997)

I watched “Chasing Amy” again this weekend, and I’ve finally decided why I like this movie. It presents the complicated issues of human sexuality in a way that most other movies and literature tend to shy away from. By unflinchingly delving into the world of ménage à trois, “Chasing Amy” is able to discuss, in a completely secular manner, the merits and demerits of non–monogamous sex, and whether it will actually make you happy in the long-run.

There are plenty of movies about love and romance, but they tend to treat the sex act as a “black box”, with little discussion. So, for instance, the “love scene” in a non-porno will tend to go something like: “He said: ‘Darling I love you and I must have you!’ then he grabbed her and pulled her close. She could feel his pulsing manhood through her thin cotton sundress, and she groaned. ‘Oh, my love, take me!’ He threw her to the bed…”, and then the scene will end, or it will cut to a post-coital cigarette. Any later discussion of the sex act by the characters will then be in euphemistic terms, and will be incidental to the love and romance aspects of the relationship, which is emphasized over the sex. (Not that love and romance aren’t important, but they aren’t the whole picture when it comes to a normal relationship between a man and a woman.)

“Chasing Amy” isn’t any more explicit when it comes to the sex scenes, but the entire movie is basically about sex and sexuality. A lot of the dialogue winds up being about sex. The main conflict after Holden and Alyssa get together is Holden’s inability to deal with Alyssa’s unorthodox sexual past. In the end, Alyssa basically says that her sexual history led her to the conclusion that a “vanilla” monogamous relationship with Holden was ideal. At some point she says something to the effect of “I found you, and I was finally satiated,” and that she never found what she was looking for outside of monogamy.

The Movie “Agora”

Agora makes some fairly easy observations about the nature of faith and how it necessarily leads to force, and usually outright violence, but that is not what I want to focus on here. I think that an even greater truth is revealed by this great movie. It is an exploration of the nature of evil men, and how they survive and thrive with the assistance of good people. Just so that the reader is clear, when I say “good”, I mean that the ultimate standard of the good is man’s life. That which promotes his life is good. Furthermore, all things created by men should be judged by this standard, if living is one’s goal. An automobile is good if it serves the purpose of transportation of human beings in the most efficient manner possible. A house is good if it serves the purpose of habitation. A philosophy is good if it serves the purpose of guiding human beings in living their lives. Similarly, all men should be judged by this standard. A man is good if he strives to produce the values necessary for living. (For more detail about life as the ultimate standard of value, consult the works of Ayn Rand.)

The movie is set near the end of the Roman Empire. Christianity is on the cusp of becoming the dominant philosophy of the time, and society and government is disintegrating. In Alexandria, the pagans and a few Christians still continue to study the works of the Ancient Greek philosophers and scientists. Hypatia is a female natural philosopher teaching the ideas of Ptolemy: that the Earth is the center of the universe, and that the Sun and the Planets revolve around the Earth in complicated epicycles. (This notion was later enshrined by the Catholic Church and it wasn’t seriously challenged until the 1500’s.) At the beginning of the movie, Hypatia is a believer in the Ptolemeic system, but, throughout the movie, she begins to doubt this system of planetary motion, and even conducts scientific experiments to test some of the objections that are raised against the modern, heliocentric view of the solar system.

There are two major plot threads running through the movie, and Hypatia’s struggles to understand the nature of our solar system is one of them. In and of itself, this plot thread would have made an excellent movie. The author of the script goes even deeper than this, however, by skillfully interweaving another thread into the plot. This second thread involves the struggle between the remaining secular elements in Ancient Alexandrian society, and an increasingly dominant, and emboldened religious group. The secularists are represented by Hypatia, the natural philosopher, and her student and suitor, Orestes. At the beginning of the movie, Orestes is still her student, and he rather casually notes that the planetary system proposed by Ptolomy seems rather silly. It is this initial criticism of Ptolomy by Orestes that plants the seed of doubt in Hypatia’s mind, and leads her to begin rethinking the entire system of planetary motion.

The men of pure faith are represented in the movie by two characters: Ammonius, who is a classic “rabble rouser” and street thug, prone to acts of violence, and Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria, who is motivated by power-lust. However, the movie makes it clear that by themselves, Ammonius and Cyril would not have been able to unleash the death and destruction that they bring. Better men like Orestes choose to compromise with them out of political and social expediency over the years, and thereby lend them an aura of social and political respectability, which eventually results in the best person being held in subjugation by the worst people, with the worst possible result.

Since it is historical fiction set prior to the fall of the Roman Empire, and the advent of one of the darkest periods in human history, one should not expect a happy ending in Agora. But, bad things happen to good people in (good) fiction for a reason, and it is very important that the reasons in Agora be understood by all of us.

Atlas Shrugged Movie, Part I (With some plot spoilers)

I think that I read that Ayn Rand simply wanted to use an “Atlas Shrugged” movie as a vehicle to advertise the novel. In other words, I think that her standard for a successful Atlas Shrugged movie was whether it would encourage people to read the novel –people who otherwise might not be aware of Atlas. I am probably not the best person to ask about whether the movie version has achieved that purpose, as I am so blatantly “partisan” when it comes to Ayn Rand and her philosophy. I am so devotedly in the “Ayn Rand camp”, that I cannot easily tell whether someone who is not already a fan will see the movie and get anything out of it -other than some of the more superficial political themes of “capitalism good, government regulations bad”- much less, go out and read the novel. I hope that someone is tracking sales of Ayn Rand’s novel, and that they will publish some sort of report or paper showing whether sales of the novel increased after the movie came out today. This would seem to be the best indicator of whether the movie is successful, by the definition described above.

With that said, I have to say, as a fan, I enjoyed the movie. I deliberately kept my expectations low. I knew it had a low budget, and that the actors and directors were relatively new to movies. I am no expert when it comes to directing or acting, I mostly look for good plot, theme and characters in a movie, but I thought that the actors and director were quite successful in making me forget that I was watching a movie, and at mentally “putting me in the moment”. I actually think that using unknown actors was better than using “big name” actors could have eclipsed the movie itself in viewer’s minds.

As a fan, I enjoyed seeing how the creators of the film chose to portray the movie, how close its plotline was to the novel, and what the actors looked like for each of the characters. As far as the look of the actors went, I thought they did a pretty good job. (Keep in mind as I write all of this, that I haven’t read Atlas Shrugged in a number of years, so I may be remembering things in the novel wrong.) I liked how the actress, Taylor Schilling, played Dagny Taggart. I think that she seemed to “get” Dagny’s character pretty well. (Or, at least, the way she saw Dagny was close to how I saw Dagny.) She mostly portrayed Dagny as a woman successfully working in a “man’s world”, but the movie character doesn’t try to pretend like she is a man, and maintains a lady-like poise. I think this is close to the novel version. I also liked how actor Graham Beckel, who played Ellis Wyatt, portrayed that character. As I recall Ellis did not “suffer fools gladly”, and the actor definitely gave you the feeling he wasn’t to be trifled with. But, that said, I always thought Ellis Wyatt was younger, thinner, and better looking –I know that’s somewhat superficial of me, and that’s why I can’t complain too much on that count. (I also would think that Ellis Wyatt would have more of a sort of quiet, “simmering rage” towards the collectivists, and wouldn’t resort to actually yelling, which occurred in the movie at one point.) Just so that it’s clear that I’m not totally superficial, I was glad that they didn’t portray all of the “bad guys” in the movie as physically unattractive. James Taggart was played by an actor who is physically good looking. The actress who played Lillian Reardon is also an attractive person. I think that it is a common mistake, even amongst fans of Ayn Rand, to think that good people are all physically beautiful, and bad people are all physically ugly. Since genetics, not choice, plays a large roll in your body type, especially when you are under about age 40, I regard this as a mistake.

There were a couple of scenes in the movie that I was disappointed with, however. Both of these scenes had to do with Reardon’s relationship with Dagny. Once again, keep in mind that I haven’t read the book in some time, and this is just how I recall the novel. As I recall it, Reardon’s feelings towards Dagny were somewhat in conflict initially –or, at least, he didn’t want to acknowledge how he felt about her. He admits at some point in the novel that he fell in love with her from the moment he saw her, and learned that she was the head of Taggart Transcontinental Railroad. (As I recall it, before he knew who she was, he liked how she looked, but then when he learned she was the business woman he had heard about, he wanted to have sex with her on the rails.) However, since Reardon was married, he couldn’t act on his feelings for Dagny. He regarded his marriage as a contract, and Reardon regarded a contract as a promise that he would never willingly break. This leads to the first scene from the movie that was written weakly, and, I think, quite differently from the novel. In the novel, at a party being thrown by Reardon’s wife Lillian, Dagny loudly confronts Lillian after she publicly makes a joke of the bracelet of Reardon metal that Hank gave her as a gift. As I recall it, Dagny loudly calls Lillian a coward, and all eyes at the party turn to watch the two of them. At that point Dagny trades her diamond necklace for the Reardon metal bracelet. Hank then approaches the two of them, criticizes Dagny for her behavior, kisses his wife’s hand, and proceeds to act as a doting husband for the rest of the night. In other words, Reardon takes his wife’s side in the conflict, even though he is secretly in love with Dagny. He does this because he thinks that he has a moral obligation to his wife as her husband, despite the fact that she does nothing but bring misery and unhappiness to his life. In the movie, when this confrontation occurs, everybody keeps dancing, hardly paying the scene any mind, Dagny doesn’t call Lillian a coward, and Hank doesn’t offer any criticism of Dagny. I think part of the reason for this is that they had written the script in such a way that Dagny and Hank were already developing a clear friendship, with some sexual chemistry. So, it wouldn’t make sense, given how they had written the script, to suddenly have Reardon act that cold towards Dagny. In the novel, I think that up to the point of this party scene, Reardon maintained an outward appearance of cool, formal indifference towards Dagny in order to hide his feelings from her. Taking his wife’s side at the party in the novel therefore makes more sense, because he is still trying to maintain the masquerade that he doesn’t love Dagny.

The second scene that I found to be pretty weak was the sex scene between Dagny and Hank. It was way too gentle. As I recall that scene, Hank is pretty rough with Dagny –after securing her verbal permission for sex. I seem to recall that either that scene or a subsequent post-coitus scene in the novel involved Dagny having bruises or blood on her body after a night of manhandling by Reardon. I viewed the nature of their sexual relationship in the novel in this way: Given the fact that Reardon has given in to his desire for Dagny, he feels a certain amount of resentment towards her and himself because he has broken his marriage contract. He therefore feels a certain desire to treat her like she is “cheap” or “sluttish”, and the rough sex is how he attempts to accomplish this. As I recall, after the first time they have sex, he declares that they are both depraved. (Also as I recall, she retorts that she is even more depraved than him because she doesn’t think she’s depraved.) Regardless of whether my interpretation of his motives are correct, Reardon is pretty rough with Dagny, and the movie didn’t follow the novel at all on that point.

With that said, there was another semi-sexual scene in the movie that I liked very much, and I cannot, for the life of me, remember if that was how it happened in the novel. At one point, Dagny goes to her ex-lover, Francisco d’Anconia, who she now despises, and asks him to loan her money to start the John Galt train line. After she sees he isn’t going to loan her the money for “conventional business reasons”, nor out of charity, she tries to use “feminine wiles”, and implies that she will let him sleep with her if he will give her the money. I don’t remember this scene from the novel, but it seemed very “Ayn Rand-esque” to me. (See Rand’s novel “We The Living” for an example of women sleeping with men they consider to be their enemies to save someone they love.) Obviously, I don’t endorse prostitution as a normal career choice for a woman, but its one-time use by a businesswoman in a movie as a way to save her life’s work from destruction by the government is very compelling fiction to me.

The Kite Runner

Thematically, I think this movie was about guilt and atonement. The setting was interesting to me because it portrayed one of the few nations in world history that has been under both collectivism and theocracy -Afghanistan. It shows how the country was utterly destroyed by those two political ideologies. Pay attention to the Afghanistan prior to the Soviet invasion in 1979 and the Afghanistan in 2000, prior to September 11. Although the pre-1979 Afghanistan had its flaws, namely, tribalism and cast-discrimination, it was like a utopia compared to the brutal theocracy of 2000.

Movies To See

“The Devil’s Disciple” – This is actually a play by George Bernard Shaw. I saw the version with Patrick Stewart. Set at the beginning of the American Revolution. My impression of it’s theme is something like: What a rational man will do for love. I base this on the assumption that the reason Dick Dudgeon did what he did was because he loved Judith Anderson, as well as Reverend Anderson. (Otherwise, his action would be totally erratic.) But, you can watch it and decide for yourself.

Compulsion” – Based on a notorious murder in the 1920’s. In real life, Clarence Darrow represented the two well-born, intelligent teenagers that committed the crime. An interesting look at how certain relationships can become so bizarre and out of touch with reality that they end in murder. FYI- I completely disagree with the express message given by the Clarence Darrow character in his closing arguments and after the trial. He claims that if the two young men hadn’t been from wealthy families, they would have merely been given life in prison, like any other person under 21 in the state, but this, coupled with their obvious intelligence, is precisely why they should have been given the death penalty. The pair almost outwitted the authorities, and their intelligence and wealth would mean there was a high probability that they might escape from prison and kill again. Executing them would be the only effective restraint under the circumstances.

Advise and Consent” – An interesting look at the political process. Involves themes of prejudice and hypocrisy.

“The Merchant of Venice”

Back in mid-October, I went to see “Shakespeare In the Park”, here in the Dallas area. They were putting on “The Merchant of Venice”, which I had never seen before, and I didn’t study it in high school, so I knew nothing about the plot.

I always had trouble understanding much of Shakespeare’s dialogue in high school, which made studying it (or pretending to study it) a rather frustrating endeavor. I was therefore curious to see whether I could follow one of his plays, and I thought that seeing “The Merchant of Venice” would be a good test. Rather than trying to understand every single word and every single reference, I found it very helpful to just “get the gist” of every scene, so I was constantly thinking: “Okay what is going on here? What are these people doing, and what is their motivation?” Then, as a scene would end, I would mentally sum up what the scene was about in one or two sentences. This methodology worked quite well, and I was able to follow the plot line.

After about an hour of watching it, I was able to look back over the previous scenes and characters in my mind, and get a good idea of what the over-all message or theme of the story was. For those who haven’t seen or studied it, “The Merchant of Venice” explores issues of keeping promises, obligations, justice, revenge, and mercy. Some of the scenes and situations seemed rather cliché by today’s standards, but they probably were “cutting edge” at the time. For instance, when Portia’s suitors have to choose between three chests, one gold, one silver, and one lead, and only one of them contained her likeness, which was the key to her hand in marriage, I’m sure any modern American is going to say: “I don’t need to hear the riddles, just pick the lead one, because it’s the least obvious.” But, at the time, I’m sure this was a huge surprise to your average 16th Century British person. Also, the portrayal of the character of Shylock seems downright uncouth by today’s standards, especially when you throw in several scenes where Antonio and his companions basically say: “Well, what can you expect from Shylock? He’s a dirty Jew.” But, I took the character of Shylock not primarily as a literary attack on a minority group, but as a member of a persecuted minority group, who may have some legitimate grievances, but who chooses to redress those grievances in an irrational way, probably because he is such a tribal mentality himself that he essentially wants to punish all members of the ethnic majority for the bad acts of a few individuals. I think that this is the basis of his motivation to seek revenge on Antonio by taking his “pound of flesh”, even after he is offered several times what the original loan to Antonio was for. I also found Shylock interesting because his motivation was so opposed to anything rational. At several points others note that a pound of Antonio’s flesh will serve absolutely no useful purpose for Shylock, but he persists in his desire to carve it from Antonio’s body, because I believe he is motivated by a sort of desire to get revenge for his tribe or ethnic group, rather than by self-interest. Shylock is a perfect example of a collectivist of the ethnic or tribal variety. The explicit dialogue of “The Merchant of Venice” would lead one to believe that the overall theme of the story is something like “One must temper justice with (Christian) mercy.”, but, based on the fact that Shylock seems to acknowledge the total irrationality of his desire for his pound of flesh, I see the theme as closer to: “Justice serves man’s life, otherwise it is revenge.”