Film Analysis: Oppenheimer

Along with critic Brody (of New Yorker Magazine) I agree that initial critique of this movie must recognize that it is extremely flat; factually flat. (He compares it to the History Channel.) Driven or enticed by having watched the movie, I have since gone through most of the six hundred pages of the book American Prometheus. The book itself is factually accurate ( I believe) and offers numerous interesting and telling anecdotes, and this movie then directly includes many of these same telling anecdotes now made more vivid/cinematic. The book has, certainly, some included interpretation, such as that Bohr and Oppenheimer had an interest in openness and world cooperation as means to put the atomic genie back in the bottle, or else that it was narrowly political machination which ended Oppenheimer’s government-advisory status, etc., but other that a short preface, the book does not strike me as being ideological. The individual reader may pull the mosaic of facts together into sound interpretation via active use of thinking and evaluation. But don’t we require more from an ambitious director; more than a fact movie. Where is the auteur contribution here! I have been driven to read the book and now have formed my own (very worthwhile) assessments of Oppenheimer, etc., but these derive from the book, not the movie. At best, the movie set a problem or task for me.

But then, also, I would make the following logical claims:.

1. We (Americans) yet are unable to honestly evaluate this one American, Oppenheimer.

2. We cannot do this till we achieve a more balanced comprehension of the larger significance of a first nuclear fission bomb made possible by scientists.

3. We cannot evaluate 2. till we achieve a sane/appropriate evaluation of the relation between science (as in physics) and the political realm.

To evaluate this important person we must work through 2 and 3 first, because Oppenheimer’s life was immediately connected to both.

And we cannot expect Oppenheimer to do this for us in some symbolic manner. As I saw in a late sit-down interview Oppenheimer gave (see Youtube) to a CBS reporter, to the end of his life he was not “repentant” about manufacture of the first bomb, nor of decision to use a bomb in Hiroshima. He had been convinced, as government official/advisor himself, by the arguments of a US general…. This late news clip shows the man in question as being a thoughtful and careful and theoretical sort of person, and someone who had answered 2 and 3 for himself. Via philosophical consideration. Example for us, not ready-made ideological solution.

I believe that I have solved this movie puzzle. It is in fact a fact-movie but the individual viewer is capable, with some difficult (extra-movie) work, of pulling the facts together in order to answer the three questions above. Toward this very objective the movie provides helpful warning about three doorways, three fatal rabbit holes which one must avoid else one will not succeed. These three dangers might be highlighted in neon as being I. Politics. II. Religion. III. Science.

I. Senator McCarthy’s opinion was that this scientist was un-American because although he made fission work, he had tried to impede the fusion project. This is political nonsense. Drinking too much water can kill you. Too much of anything is self defeating. The same with politics–(as I have previously blogged my opinion that this is an obsession and a disease at present in the West). Thus the courtroom/hearings scenes in this movie interweave to demonstrate that the political in itself is a dead end. Oppenheimer is run out of D.C. by a vehement political adversary, but this adversary is himself subverted politically–by the testimony of a certain doctor. (A solipsistic casting decision merely, or does this indicate a warning about the most dangerous of the rabbit holes: politicization.) This is where liberal assumptions, on my view and perhaps on this director’s view, go wrong most dangerously and most often at present…. Politicians (and film directors who hope to raise millions from Hollywood) value deniability; scientists and ordinary people do not. [Institutionalized scientists may also try to claim deniability…]

II. Why connect the Hindu religious quote about “I am become the Destroyer…” with an x-rated scene? This is a monkey wrench. As I referred to this religious quote recently when blogging about the possibility that scientific study of viri may have led to Covid lab-escape–thus requiring religious re-consideration of human capacities… I myself believe that getting “out of“ science and politics is the only way also in which we may hope to “comprehend” new fundamental issues as brought about for humans by increased scientific capability. (See sex transition, climate change, AI). But in this movie we are shown the Sanskrit text. Religious dogma (or pacifist morality per se) is a rabbit hole; an interest in reading Sanskrit or French poetry, etc., with Mr. Oppenheimer, would be a helpful door leading to other doors…(Is this not why Oppenheimer turned out to be a capable administrator–because he was not as one dimensional as most of the other scientists..?)

III. I found the Einstein character in this movie to be goofy. We all know that this person was a genius. And he is given a line which almost seems thematic: If you submit to this security-clearance trial they will just take advantage of you, and even among friends you will loose respect… But here, whether suggested in the movie or not, I find a more profound theme. As recognized VIP Einstein wrote his letters to the US President, and Einstein became, later in life, a US citizen. But Oppenheimer, acquainted with Europe and European languages, was always a US citizen. At first only a science geek, in mid life he added administrative skills and political interest to his resume–as director of Los Alamos, a small city with a very unique purpose. Then for a handful of years after the end of WWII, political-type responsibilities or duties became so important to him that he lost interest in being a physics professor! At this juncture Oppenheimer was not naive. He was aware that he had certain views increasingly in the minority, but was aware also of political realities and of his own influence…. So why is the goofy Einstein more honored as scientist than Oppenheimer who as brilliant American scientist was active (for four years) AS CITIZEN in trying to shape government atomic energy policy? Isn’t Oppenheimer the patriotic AMERICAN exemplar here even if his specific policy ideas did not prevail?

What happens in the scene in the Oval Office? Oppenheimer meets the President. I would describe this as a theoretically-inclined scientist-advisor meeting two pragmatoids. Awkward silence. This is presented from Oppenheimer’s perspective. He himself must initiate but these two greater persons are not interested in nor capable of (–it seems) theoretical discussion. The words spoken about blood on the hands, cry-baby, might suggest that Oppenheimer is politically naive. But perhaps his own private takeaway-lesson is that his hosts are the theoretically naive–and likely will remain so…

Oppenheimer fails to achieve American respect because, after all, he remains theoretically inclined. To paraphrase J. S. Mill, what the pragmatic individual cannot see the value of is the (real) value of the theoretical. Questions 2 and 3 cannot be answered via facts or via pragmatism. They are philosophical and theoretical type questions posed by the growing influence of Science.

American society has fixed upon certain bad knee-jerk solutions here; ideological. One practical approach hopes to avoid suchlike questions. All that matters is that we have more and bigger weapons than any foreign adversary. We lead. The other practical and dangerous ideological approach is favored, it seems to me, by most “liberals.” Science must lead. Just as Religion once stood over society proffering its moral directives, so science-loving people seem to expect that Science of itself can now take on the same role: provide fundamental social norms…

Modern science is a universal and cumulative sort of knowledge. Having an international agency in control of all Uranium would mean certain countries with Uranium deposits must give up sovereignty over these areas. But what about Plutonium? Openness and universal cooperation are values inherent in the science enterprise, and may well be beneficial as shared intra-national norms, but are also an always inadequate, I would insist…. Physicists at that time knew that it would not take very long for Soviet scientist to match Western nuclear results. If Nazi mania or Soviet ideology (combined with their science and technology…) were a very immediate danger in the past, how is science ALONE now, in the West, Science presumably in charge––how is this not possibly the same sort of danger to mankind?? Our intentions are pure. But Oppenheimer recognized and stated a more sane perspective: As physicists, we have no more specific prestige towards answering these big question than other government or economic persons have…

Why no differing views allowed on longterm vaccine safety, the origin of Covid, the best approach to climate change, the desirability of relativizing gender as social norm…? Western Science, it appears quite clearly to me, has already become ideological–in temper at least. Totalitarian. It displays not a theoretical but rather a pragmatic attitude. Scientific “ideas” can certainly be used for mere political effect just as hundreds of scientists were once collected and used by the US government to build a few atomic bombs.

Science and Politics are distinct and separate philosophically speaking. Inherently, they are not connected. Too many smart or educated people, it seems to me, are working with faulty notions here. They have fallen simultaneously into the Politics and into the Science rabbit holes; they dangerously misconstrue both of these important realms. An unusual quantum dual-stupidity in a Quantum Age.

Oppenheimer envisioned a worldwide entity being given limited sovereign rights to control nuclear weaponry. I myself have been shocked in recent years by the failed technocratic mindset of the Word Health Organization.

The one viable alternative I see to the to the increasing influence of Science in the world is smart democratic citizenry–just as this would be the only way to reign-in Economic entities with too much power. Not representative democracy but socially-aware citizenry. And here Oppenheimer might agree with me… The only way to a smarter citizenry (which is dire necessity–) is with a more theoretical citizenry who have overcome the evil limitations of pragmatism. We must do better than the Chinese Communists. Mao’s favorite saying was: Seek the truth among facts. We need, we all need to be able to go beyond the facts and arrive at quality theoretical interpretations.

pk 7/23

An extended book review: Overdosed America, John Abramson, M.D. (Harper Perennial) 2004

I started this book, and even with all of the detail included about drug testing, I found it so readable that I soon read to the end. A smart doctor who has some extra training in drug test design is so disturbed by the latest experimental results as presented in the top medical journals that he decides to quit his two decades of family practice and investigate… With chapters covering a half dozen of the biggest selling drugs of recent times–demonstrating how these drugs each have become big medicine via false and inadequate “science,” Dr. Abramson makes a very good case. The drug testing system presently in operation is seriously broken. This capable and sensible doctor has since gone on to gain additional legal know-how as well, by being a drug-test expert at courtroom trials, and has recently written a second book.

But has his careful and personal crusade made a dent in the ongoing status quo? Not at all. Medicine, as we are all aware, is still a huge industry. Recent cover articles in Economist magazine describe the new obesity pills which will cost $10,000 per person per year. The people working at the Economist are not above giving advice to governments, but they don’t deign to involve themselves with the social and lifestyle niceties of modern obesity causes. Their articles about the new obesity technology is all favorable–these new pills are a good thing for the whole world. And then a cover article also on (what I will call for the sake of simplicity) sex-change medical technology as given to children. Here the Economist magazine might seem to go out on a limb, suggesting that the USA ought to ease off on its advocacy of such, since various European countries have come to more guarded conclusions about long term effects of “gender affirming” therapy. But the Economist is not so brave, actually, as if to claim to possess some sort of ethical basis for their advice given to the USA. No. They base their thinking solely on science. ( Just as with that more successful science, economics, one must always base everything on what is already known…) Psycho-medical studies are not yet conclusive about the general benefit of sex-change affirmation for children, even as various of the most prestigious of medical bodies in the USA have already given their approval to such. So the Economist magazine urges caution.

But since Dr. Abramson has already convinced me, a thinking layman, via his book of twenty years ago, that the defensive line of the Medical-Journals-of-import has already been breached, then the science here is already (likely) seriously corrupted and the knowledge war is already lost. These journals are arbiters of what is best practice, what is proper science. If the journals cannot avoid vapid and money-motivated and over-stated and misleading (medical-science) study-results then who can? In effect, if Medicine (or Economics) has already become an Establishment primarily looking out for its own continuation and growth, then how can anyone trust their “science” results. How trust a social science which has become self-serving…!

“The greatest distinguishing characteristic of primary care medicine—family medicine, general pediatrics, and general internal medicine—is that the subject of care is the person, not a particular disease, not a specific body part, and not just a physical body. Though metaphysics is not a frequent topic of conversation in primary care training programs, all good primary care doctors know that their first responsibility is the ongoing care of the person.”

The above is a quote from Overdosed America, and demonstrates that Dr. Abramson has a sane and very well balanced awareness of the position of “science” within medical practice. But his primary objective in writing this book, certainly as he himself sees this, would be to restore the integrity of medical “knowledge.” To get business and advertising out of medical science and out of the proof-testing of new drugs or techniques. Tests must be properly designed and implemented and then the resulting data accurately analyzed and explained. RCT is the gold standard. No intrusive bias shall be allowed. Etc.

So what can be wrong or lacking in this sincere and very intelligent effort to reform medicine? As I mentioned, I read the book whole, and after reading, and being in agreement with everything presented, I also see, or I claim to be able to see–a fundamental and extremely important inadequacy. This word see, here, means that I do not need to think about this. This thing is obvious–to me at least. But I expect that very few educated and/or science-friendly persons will be able to “see” what I see here. (I will use the words gold and metaphysics as used in the paragraphs just above, to explicate my insight and concern.)

Dr. Abramson, (along with most doctors and social scientists) believes in a (so called) gold standard. This is the problem. The randomized controlled test, the RCT, if this is the best that we can do in the social sciences, then this is the best we can do. But I object to the word gold. Truth is golden. Truth belongs in our golden collective temple. The Webb telescope, and just because it does not have any pragmatic benefit such as a new fruit punch concentrate, may also enter our temple precincts. And pure scientists, these persons are builders of a portion of our golden temple, (and genuine “professionals” such as doctors who value persons over medical know-how, such-like persons are allowed to be officiants in our golden temple). But engineers, or “scientists” who deny the distinction I am making, these all are worker-ants merely. At the same level as farmers and auto mechanics. [I am quite serious about this. Those who work for money and those strictly dedicated to something higher; truth versus technique.]

Theoretical knowledge and technical knowledge. How nature itself works and how to do something or make something.

This important distinction arrived as gift of the ancient Greeks. And is implied necessarily, I believe, within our distinctive Western regard for Truth. We deny this distinction to our own peril. Truth can be ultimate, but only if it is unsullied by practicality.

And thus, in a discipline such as medicine which spans the knowledge spectrum from physiology to uncertain new techniques to fix human disease, it behoves the doctor to clearly recognize this twofold difference, and ideally, become skilled at the practical side by developing judgement exactly here, where knowledge is sketchy.

Dr. Abramson is certainly conscientious, but in the quotation above, he is looking for metaphysics in the wrong place. It is specifically medical “knowledge” which requires a metaphysical approach so as to distinguish its various kinds. Being metaphysical about the people side of medicine is not going to help–if this is, as I claim, a knowledge problem.

Thus to be rhetorical, I myself believe that in fact there is very little that is golden in the ongoing social sciences as science. Social science knowledge I see as mostly a partial and confused and limited sort of knowledge, no matter how many RCT experiments have been performed. This seems to me to be a metaphysical truth, almost a metaphysical fact about the social sciences (even if few if any science-proponents may be willing to countenance such). And because what the social sciences present as knowledge is almost always quite limited, partial, therefore we must introduce partial knowledge from other realms into any discussion of human and social topics. Psychology experiment suggests this; literature might suggest this. We continue the discussion…

But in the present situation, there is no such “moderation” in the way that medical knowledge or social-science knowledge is presented. All is presented as gold. All of this golden knowledge being established by gold-standard testing.

Which reminds me of another modern criterion. Papal infallibility. The Catholic Church is worried that modern science and modern skepticism and relativism are eroding religious belief, and so they promote this new definition. The Papacy, when it chooses, cannot in fact be wrong about Christian faith and morals.

But returning to the topic of modern (social) science as enterprise, the psychology behind such-like excessive knowledge claims, such refusal to deny the existence of less honorable or less certain knowledge–may as well be described, in my view, as science-fundamentalism. The analogy here with religious knowledge seems to me to be tight.

There is a short paragraph or two in the Bible, in the book of Revelations, about Jesus having a thousand-year reign on earth. What does this mean. (We cannot quite be sure…) When does this happen? This short section, I agree, must have some meaning. But to insist on one interpretation here, my interpretation, as being all important, this would be a narrow-minded and anti-intellectual and unhealthy and religious fundamentalism.

The fundamentalism of both the science-partisan and the religionist is psychologically rewarding (because I see myself alone here as being intimate with the truth…). And it may function as a successful advertising method (because I claim publicly that no alternative can even exist). And fundamentalism may promote feelings of comfort (because with its anti-intellectual stance, it allows no metaphysical adjustment of any of my truth-claims in relation to other truth-claims). And the only available antidote for fundamentalism as (self-serving) distortion of knowledge is: Philosophy.

Only philosophical re-consideration, only more philosophical thinking, only more mental work at a broader level, is capable of adjusting and re-positioning lesser and greater and varied types of knowledge. Thus Dr. Abramson does not intend to be fundamentalist, but he shares the general attitude within the medical enterprise that Science is one thing. All science is the same. It is all golden. Is this not a science-fundamentalism?

But do we really NEED philosophy. I expect that most scientists, most science loving persons, and most Christians as well, would answer, no. But let’s take an excursion from our main topic.

We have DOA, AWOL, and now DEI. This is a department set up within an organization which aims to promote diversity, equity and inclusivity within that same organization.

But if, I ask, the leaders within such organizations are genuinely mature persons with mature values, will they not already promote such: I am your leader; I value these things, and therefore I wish my hiring department and my company ethos to follow my advocacy here. Why this artificial approach: We need to set up a department…

It strikes me offhand [and I have not at all researched the DEI phenomenon nor thought about it carefully–] but it strikes me that diversity and inclusivity are primary philosophical virtues. They belong to Philosophy. They define philosophy. Without these, philosophy cannot exist.

The primary impulse in philosophy is to refuse to leave anything out, to include everything. A wish to do such is the primary love and the primary difficulty. I will keep the door open to consideration of whatever I am not already familiar with, and then include consideration of that also. All alternate opinions shall remain possible, at least, for me. Knowledge is always more than the knowledge I have already achieved.

Thus the philosophical person tends to welcome a more diverse world, and is habitually inclusivistic. But this happens only because this same person practices philosophical consideration. To try to arrive at these two “virtues” apart from individual philosophical contemplation, such seems to me artificial in the extreme, and not possible. I doubt whether these virtues can be artificially induced.

Society in general may be too lazy to do the mental work which is needed for genuine philosophical virtue, but is there any substitute? A patient may be given intravenous nutrients, for a while, but the normal source of necessary nutrients for human beings is a functioning digestive system. Is philosophy not also necessary, analogously, should a society wish to achieve the two virtues named… Can DEI departments provide an adequate fix for the anti-philosophical society? –We don’t really need philosophy because we already have DEI!

Can one love diversity in the abstract unless one is an artist, a multicultural sort of person who has significant life-experience of more than one culture, or else a Buddhist monk? Or can inclusivity as an ideal be imagined concretely, as if characterizing an actual and specific group of persons? No.

All actual groups, (except human nature) are exclusive–except perhaps the group containing all groupies. If you agree to the idea of inclusivity and therefore possess this virtue, then you are welcomed into the inclusivity group. But otherwise not…

As alternative to such a social-science-associated humanism, I advocate a philosophical (and democratic) humanism as providing the universal group which each and every person is already included in, whether or not they make use of the capacity to think. Philosophy rather, offers the only universally inclusive group.

But the individual intellectual must be given minimal respect by a democratic society. Society asks us to respect all individuals who are in the LGBTQ grouping. But do the individuals in this grouping accept allies: LGBTQ+Intellectuals?Shall the Individual philosophical Intellectual receive a minimal social respect also–from persons in this grouping. (Perhaps only from those who already consider a rational humanism to be of fundamental importance.)

Many religious people do not respect the Intellectual, Freemarketeers have their own view of what rationality means, while science people will believe that they can come up with their own notion of human nature–via science. I have criticized the first two previously. This book review criticizes the inadequacies of social science, medical science, and science-people.

But back to the book, Overdosed America. Chapter 5 is an especially interesting saga, as Mr. Abramson calls this sequence of events, and I recommend that people might read the chapter. I was not previously aware of female HRT, hormone replacement therapy, though I had become acquainted with the word osteoporosis. But as the author narrates, in 1942 the FDA approved Premarin (i.e. estrogen) as treatment for women with extreme menopause discomfort. In 1962 Dr. Robert Wilson had his study (304 women taking estrogen) published in JAMA, demonstrating that estrogen helps to prevent breast and genital cancer. He publishes at the time a book, Feminine Forever, and writes in an article a decade later that estrogen promotes feminine beauty, etc. Dr. Wilson’s son later states that his father was motivated not by outside money, but by a desire to benefit women–because Dr. Wilson’s own mother was something of an ornery “witch” in her old age. Dr. Wilson presumed that estrogen replacement treatment would be helpful.

From 1966-75 Premarin was one of the most prescribed and sold of drugs in the United States. By the time some better “science” caught up with this project, after the year 2000, twenty million American women had been on HRT. Dr. Abramson then calculates that 100,000 of these patients may have developed breast cancer as a result. This calculation is based on later studies showing that if HRT has benefits in some areas, it may increase other dangers–such as breast cancer.

Two medical studies in 1975 point out a positive relation to cancer, and sale of Premarin falls to one half by 1980. But then the osteoporosis-disease scare and a large Nurses Study (later shown to have some problems…) boost the prescription of HRT back up to earlier popularity levels. The author notes that “It is amazing that before 1998, not one of the claims supporting the benefits of HRT had been substantiated by large RCTs.”

Dr. Abramson was shocked as a result of his ability to analyze medical testing–shocked at the inadequate quality of the testing. To me rather, this whole testing business in medicine as documented in this one chapter seems silly.

In my inexpert opinion, doctors need to develop some more appropriate ongoing skepticism with regard to ALL such medical-test results. Quoting the author again (and circa 1992) : The prestigious American College of Physicians issued guidelines to practicing physicians recommending that “all women . . . should consider preventive hormone therapy,” and that 10 to 20 years of therapy were recommended for “maximum benefit.” The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology also recommended that all postmenopausal women, barring a medical contraindication like breast cancer, should take HRT for life.

How much harm has such advice caused? How accurate is the author’s estimate of 100,000 unnecessary breast cancer complications? Perhaps significant and serious, but I lack statistical sophistication in these areas. I rely rather on common sense and philosophy. And suggest here that philosophy in the long run is actually what is most important.

From the Economist magazine I mentioned two new medical technologies: sex-change via hormones and surgery, and weight reduction via hormone blocking medication. [The President, a leader also of one of the Parties, has also been pushing the first of these for children, children who are not old enough to vote, to buy alcohol, to get married, or to be certified in gun safety in those states which have such certification.] But how shall SOCIETY at large consider the benefit or harm of such new medical technology WITHOUT free and philosophical debate??

I am not an anti-Science fundamentalist. The present world we live in is greatly shaped by science and technology. How can the intelligent individual not be interested in learning as much science as they may? But science of itself cannot provide answer to social issues. And since I am a supporter of science as enterprise I may also be a critic of science. And my main point is that the activity of science itself can in fact become distorted and corrupted, as with medical testing influenced by money motive. And in such a situation, the only way for science to heal itself is by getting out of science, by going metaphysically beyond science.

Science does not determine what is reasonable, or what reason means. Philosophical reason rather, because it is outside of science, and larger than science, can diagnose what is wrong within science, and so provide a path to improvement. My carefully considered diagnosis is that medical science and social science at present suffer from a serious case of science-fundamentalism, which most likely was transmitted to science-people either from religious fundamentalism or from economic fundamentalism. Or perhaps from both.

pk April 2023

Movie analysis: Tar

Reading a couple reviews before and five reviews after viewing the movie itself, I was shocked by the degree to which intelligent critics seem to be able to see only the personal or psychological. I find this film to be an ambitious and enjoyable and very well made mild SOCIAL satire. Not a satire of modern social PC, (though that does instigate some sort of scandal which brings about a major plot turn and our conductor-protagonist being fired), nor satire against the modern classical music business as establishment… but rather directed towards something more important–the role of long-form serious music in modern and democratic America, and easily also, the meagre status and role of other fine arts in present-day US society.

Symphony music is certainly one of the more successfully established among miscellaneous fine arts in present democratic society. Institutions require a flow of money and provide stability, and artists do appreciate both of these. There exist no professional poets… So the target, the antagonist of the film, the villain, is larger, stronger. If someone such as this famous conductor at the top of the culture-professional pyramid is so easily disposed of, yes, this does show that society can be fickle, but more importantly, shows that society’s valuation of music as culture is inadequate, is very shallow.

The more important point is not that our important people need to be pure and holy and conscientious, but that we must first be sure that we have some actual culture worth protecting…

In point of fact, prestige operates in two directions. For example, I once met the movie star X and they said to me, XX. (Why don’t I respect X enough to avoid gossiping about him/her?) Within this film, we don’t know whether Krista was used in some degree or whether Krista actually was unbalanced; whether the conductor’s immediate assistant was “promised” more, earlier on, or whether she is simply infatuated and passive in relation to the very capable lesbian conductor Lydia.

We are shown in this movie none of the center of the scandal but can easily fill in the details. She meets with her board of directors and seems careless. But is this criminal? She cares little for the disadvantaged daughter as neighbor, nor for the sickly mother, but the family puts the daughter in an institution–demonstrating that they are more cruel than our self-absorbed protagonist. Wouldn’t renting next door to such a famous person be a positive selling point, even if the music from next door occasionally can be a nuisance?

We know that our protagonist’s marked-up working score has been lifted or is misplaced. We are given a scene which dramatizes the break as accomplished-fact between star conductor and orchestra. Tar walks out during a concert performance to claim that she deserves to complete from this podium what she planned and rehearsed for. Is this scene real, or is it only presentation of her side?

That is, the antagonism in this film is not against social fad of the moment, nor gossip, nor symphony as organization but exists between this conductor’s desires (as far as these are healthy…) versus the evil of general social indifference and/or incompetence. She is a leader, after all, and what her job is, is to deliver music-culture to society.

The final scenes are auteur prerogative. The writer-director chooses, after all, who this character will be. And the final scenes allow us to see that Tar does have a genuine desire (for music as art) which sustains her. She was not “in it” just for the success, the social achievement, the perks, the power. She enjoys Leonard Bernstein’s popularization on early TV.

But to use a phrase from a very negative review by Richard Brody in the New Yorker… there may be a “regressive aesthetics” operative in modern democratic society. Critic Brody blames this film for both regressive ideas and regressive aesthetics. But if this is a carefully made and mild social satire, as I believe, then using a hot social trend, PC worry about sex and power–to draw an audience towards the SOCIAL as topic–this is entirely fitting in my opinion.

The regressive aesthetics, or the outdated and priestly social attitude as I might try to rephrase it, is that while we are democratic as society, we put conductors at the top. In earlier centuries talented musicians were glad to get a conducting position–so that they could write music and become even more famous. Famous usually as composers rather than conductors or performers.

Our protagonist during her masterclass says that the conductor had best be sure, ahead of time, that the automobile has an engine. Else you can move your arms all you want and the car still won’t go very far. And to extend the metaphor, what the classical music establishment needs most is shiny new cars, and WITH ENGINE. Most symphony content is not recent but bequeathed to us from earlier centuries by white European male composers. But is it not the car that actually matters most, not the performer or the conductor? If only females are allowed to be symphony conductors, will that help? No. The content is unchanged. Or if only the compositions of BIPOC composers are allowed, will that improve the situation? Not unless these composers all know how to make shiny new cars WITH ENGINE.

watercolor:Paul Kragt

Lydia’s attention, as directed to young and attractive females as depicted in the film, this seemed to me almost mindless, un-conscious, as if she was on a confused auto-pilot mode. Is this a muse problem? Lydia Tar is also a composer. But the problem must be larger. The problem must be located in our present society, not in the would-be artist.

I would try to phrase this by saying that our democratic society does not realize that it gets what it wants. It is not self-aware. If a significant number of this American populace want and respect and demand and are ready to compensate artists as composers–then they will get socially-exciting symphonic art-content. Genuine public demand for culture will draw out genuine new culture content. And if the democratic populace want other things then they will get their way–they will get those other things. (And I would suggest that the director, Todd Field, might share my vaguely suggested solution via those primally-dressed Indonesian audience members attending a music premiere in the last scenes.)

But as we all know, or should know, step number one in solving any problem is to recognize that a problem does exist. This is why satire is useful and also necessary. And on this score, the director, all unintended, may have caught a few fish along the way. Directors do not wish to be misunderstood, but societies, too, can get stuck on autopilot, quite unaware of where conventionalized norms are taking them. And thus I myself would insist that something is wrong with the modern aesthetic, our conventional and social approach to art. The heroic or priestly approach may have been fine for other times but these times require a different understanding. This seems to me at least to be the positive point in the movie’s mild satire. Somehow, we must obtain this.

Tar cannot become a heroic-victim of PC forces because she may in fact be guilty of various personal abuses or indiscretions. Nor is classical music the culprit. We, we who care about genuine fine arts, should all be appreciative that classical music (as successful establishment of some sort) is holding the fort, so to speak, against general forces of barbarism and dissolution.

Berlin during certain decades may have been a culture capital, and may have the buildings to prove it, but some of its old buildings have not been maintained. The DG label with its attractive gold-yellow logo is, after all, an auxiliary industry. The primary industry should be creative. And the New Yorker magazine claims to inform residents of what is noteworthy, but did they slip up when they gave Tar their imprimatur? New York City may be a hub for music, but at present, is it actually an international cultural capital for serious music? Should one of the populous Asian cities threaten to become a Culture Capital–that would be a scary movie!

I can imagine three constituencies that might dislike mild satire about the problem of music-art, or about the place of arts within society:

Those who are strictly unaware of art and/or care not for it. “Where is the conflict or drama in this movie…?”

Those who closely identify with fine arts as successful workers or patrons: “I tend to avoid satire directed toward what I value most, unless of course it is very well done…”

Those who believe that society is almost perfect already. Utopia is just over that hill, and if we implement these two things, we will be there. We certainly don’t need any social criticism or satire at this moment.

But certainly, the general movie viewer as outsider (to classical music as establishment) will be persuaded by watching this movie that Tar is very good at her job, that is, she is very competent. If all conductors were as good as Tar, classical music would improve. A little bit. (Most symphony conductors and performers are already talented, and conscientious.) But that leaves a larger social problem, doesn’t it? –The production of new and shiny automobiles– Why are we unable to set up such an industry?

Do we have a regressive social aesthetic? Are we stuck with certain antiquated ideas about where art comes from? Yes. Traditional, priestly, heroic, half-democratic. Old and conventional notions and assumptions will, I believe, hang around for a long time, half a millennium even, till replaced by a BETTER and viable theory. This is a belief problem, as in religious belief and as in (general) social belief.

And here (if I may speculate) Bach, prolific composer, had available certain approaches which modern man is missing out on. Not the merely-religious and therefore partial democracy of Luther, nor the fact that Bach could compose religious music which was used, but social intent and social connection. Baroque music had, it seems to me, an integral connection with its present-day society.

Properly speaking, an ordinary and social connection. Composer and larger community were on speaking terms. The community waits on the composer to say something; the composer is quite acquainted with where the community is at… and whether reinforcing norms or disturbing norms to suggest improved social norms–in either case he/she must direct a beneficial musical message specifically to a particular larger group.

If this higher level art-conversation works, then composer and performers are in fact an elite, an educational elite–within a democratic society. Do democratic educators already know everything? Does democratic society already know everything? No. So elitism is not bad.

Competence creates elites. Not everyone is so capable. But in a democracy perhaps, any or all claims to competence must be available for re-assessment, re-appraisal. And this would include the claims of the evaluators: film critics, magazines, CD labels. Over-establishment of gatekeepers or would-be gatekeepers must be harmful within a democracy. And in my own diction, for example, the words expert or expertise raise my automatic suspicion. These are dangerous words. Show me!

But elitism established, this may be bad for a democracy.

But are institutions bad within the democratic context. No. Fine art institutions are helpful. But art museums, for example, can’t in any manner guarantee that there will be any genuine new art in the future to add to their collections. I consider that we correctly recognize that only creative individuals and groups of creative theatre, movie, symphony artist-individuals can create.

But creativity must not be relegated exclusively to a special class, a priestly class, so as to isolate it. The dumb democratic public must be aware enough of creativity so that they can recognize it and enjoy it. And the providers must not come to think that they are priestly, a special class.

I would like to try to relate Luther and tradition to my recently published Kindle religious commentary on the theology of Paul… but this is, after all, a movie review. Sometimes long-form communication is best, and sometimes it isn’t.

But I remember that Tar liked to use the word robot. I would guess that a majority of citizens in the US of A would claim that they are NOT constrained by inadequate ideas. We are free. Our (conventional) social assumptions do not restrain us. Robots are trying to program us to buy what is similar to previous purchases, but we can handle that. If the miscellaneous fine arts are not comfortable in present-day American society, well, that is their problem. And that word, aesthetic, doesn’t really mean anything. We are not slaves to some old or outdated aesthetic!!

PK Feb 2023

Loved (1997)

A film review

Seeing a video clip this week of Sean Penn donate his Oscar statue to Ukraine in order to promote the war cause there, I did some web research and remembered that I had seen what would have been the premiere of a movie, Loved (1997) at the Seattle Film Festival. I wrote a three sentence review at that time, but at present cannot remember any other details of the movie other than the dark swimming pool motif and the fact that it was about borderline mental illness. I do remember quite particularly that I had used the word “clinical” in a complimentary manner in order to characterize the acting of Robin Wright. Viewing the movie again, I write a longer review. (try Amazon Freevee to see the movie for free)

Art movies, which I prefer, need not have a happy or simple plot resolution. I myself do not wish for the William Hurt lawyer-character to end up with the female protagonist here, because at the close of the movie the female character is still not OK. Does she still prefer to stay in the water? He reaches to help her out of the water. Maybe they get together? I view this as a symbolic closure only. A female protagonist with psychological intensity still recognizes a need for the male… This at least is certainly sane.

There is earlier talk of her having been a competitive swimmer, but injured. I take this as background BS, objective noise. Supposed objective factual background sets up a subjective primary psychological study as foreground. The protagonist does not want to swim, she wishes to stay underwater with her psychological illness, schizophrenia or a cinematic substitute, love-intensity obsession-sickness–because it seems more worthwhile to be seeking at this level than to return to the superficiality of ordinary life.

Thus while the mode of cinematic presentation is realistic, I suggest that the best way to respect this movie and its themes is to see the movie as pre-eminently from within the point of view of a person who is psychologically abnormal, that is, mentally, not quite well.

(Of course there are bad “art movies,” but once I find enough good in an art movie, enough to say that is worth viewing, I want to find the positive interpretation that will support that value and effort.) The best positive theme, then, of this movie, is that mental illness may be a drive/effort toward something deeper and better. The initial clip of a man on the hill (Sean Penn) who is against all fences and boundaries, this is a male whose mental issues have become disabling. “No boundaries” may be sage advice of some kind, but the Jungian psychologist will also say that this is how psychological entrapment occurs–being careless about travel into the subconsciousness. The protagonist, a female, is able to operate somewhat normally in the normal world, but is certainly also “caught” by a specific something under water.

I offer two observations to support this primarily psychological interpretation of this movie.

One: Because all of this is from the protagonist’s point of view, as I suggest, from her psychological observation, when the camera turns to her, to Robin Wright, she does not need to emote. She need not externalize or offer, as actor, any emotion.

The (female) writer knew this actress and wrote the script with her in mind as protagonist. And so for an actress to maintain this sort of psychological-world-centrality without break, without slip or lapse, this needs to be recognized as an acting tour de force. And perhaps the strongest dimension of this movie! Since this is her psychology which is being shown externally, why need she emote?

(If the protagonist gives any visual indication that she knows she is actor-protagonist in process of acting, this psychological world collapses.)

Two: This all is certainly a view from the feminine perspective. This is a feminine-sympatica world. The three male characters who are included are each sensitive, caring, emotional. They are able to relate. But the directorial intention is not to promote the feminine world, nor to offer a specific feminine sort of mental sickness, but simply to present this person, the protagonist–as feminine. This is her world.

As well, the mode of communication always is feminine. No verbal confrontation or missed communication. The family members of course are well acquainted, but in other scenes, as with the lawyer, there are long conversational intervals. And when the other person finally answers, there is always complete inter-comprehension; no partial or missed meanings.

Subsequent to her courtroom testimony the protagonist will be leaving, flying out on Christmas day. Each and all of the females, sisters or mother, come to express their care and emotion. But do they wait for the response of Hedda? No. As Hedda observes this to actualize, these females only wish to express how caring they are, without seeing her, Hedda, as important! Also, snce the viewer knows that we must be soon approaching the end of this movie, we are looking for change and improvement in the main character. She must arrive at a new place… Not remain the same. But at best we see the faint beginnings only of change. (And thus the ending must remain very ambiguous. Viewers who are brave and hopeful will be hoping this turns out in a positive direction…)

Hedda has tears both in the dark courtroom lobby scene, and at leave-taking on Christmas eve. If these family members had observed any significant change at all, healing, in Hedda, on Christmas Eve, they would adjust their own attitudes toward her at this juncture. But there is no such modification. Family as usual…

Erin Dignam is apparently here a first time director and writer, but this would be the second most valuable dimension of the movie–that a director is smart enough to successfully push cinema in this way, that is, to allow a good actor to become psychological pivot and center. And to then to maintain this strictly psychological-realistic actor’s world via careful and cinematic focus. As if this is naturalistic presentation–all of it!! The courtroom scenes, for example, are not really legal but are psychological. And interesting. Is this “realistic” in any strict sense…no.

So I found the meeting between male defendant and female victim-protagonist in the dark late-night courtroom lobby as arranged by the compassionate prosecutor W. Hurt to be formulaic. A psychological resolution only. The male-lover admits he does not care so much about children, therefore the protagonist is able, finally, to dismiss him as inferior. She herself has not qualified in any manner, the genuine determination of her own love… The loud semi-religious music indicates that she has experienced some sort of new religious awareness, but if I am correct in saying that almost all of this movie is psychological rather than strictly naturalistic, then this dark lobby scene may as well be the protagonist giving to us her honest portrayal of her own psychological and (more strictly speaking) imagined resolution of something… But we cannot be specific about what that content is because it is psychological, of course, and this, after all, is only a movie. (Doesn’t meaning require thinking plus psychological content, but here we would be limited to a psychological perspective–within the psyche and looking out.)

Hedda rings up the lawyer because she does not yet wish to go home. So with the gulls flying in the background over the estuary, this seems to be a conversation about meaning. But here and in the long final scene in the layer’s home it is Hedda who is pushing, who is playing psychologist, while the lawyer is befuddled. The meaning or lack of meaning here is not hers, but his. But does this not suggest that she is gradually getting better if she is requiring/demanding normalcy from someone else?

Why does the William Hurt character have so many interesting trinkets in his home? He is not only a good layer and counselor but a person of taste. But is not out to collect trinkets and toys before he dies. He is obviously one of that small percentage of persons remaining on the West Coast of America who are searchers–still looking for the meaning of life. And this would be why our protagonist can trust him enough to allow herself the opportunity and space within which to move along to a better place psychologically.

He is not counselor but fellow searcher. Thus whatever the factual content, the true facts behind their interaction, these latter scenes between Hedda and lawyer may as well also be her own imagined re-presentation of such a relationship as offered to a public. She says thank-you twice. He says thank-You from behind the fish tank. (Thank you for this cinematic depiction of mental illness…) Then when he reciprocates by showing up at the outdoor pool late on Christmas Eve, she shakes his hand as a third thank-you. But not as counselor nor as helper.



Movie review: 1921

More of a memento than a movie, this two hour presentation yet shows the director’s discipline in maintaining a lyrical mode throughout, avoiding any easy or quick detours into politics, history, or even plot and character development. Here are a handful of individuals simply hoping that their country should be able to enjoy the simple things of ordinary and personal life–as with a main character who climbs out upon a residential roof to greet with enjoyment the brief reddish tints of dawn. And if this same Shanghai roofscape in the early morning reminds one of a Paris cityscape this may be deliberate.

A later scene has Mao looking in through the metal gate at a lively party of caucasians celebrating French national-independence day in the French quarter of the city, a celebration which includes fireworks, and this provokes in Mao internal discomfort and agitation. (Where is our national day celebration?) As he walks in quick and agitated thought, the camera moves horizontally with him through the Shanghai streets, then also running through a wood as he remembers running (momentarily) to avoid his father’s discipline. But the movement, thus, is not a matter of drama or suspense, whether something will happen or not, but of being caught up in a lyrical, idyllic something else.

Similarly, at an early meetup around a mid-size table, in the next room one of the wives is cleaning vegetables, and at a later meeting a woman delivers to the table a large plate of bright red fresh-cut watermelon slices for the plotters to enjoy. (If there is any pun on the Chinese word for watermelon, this doesn’t interfere with the already established and lyrical mood.)

The last frame of the movie is dedication to the (present) anniversary, not to the founding itself of the party now one hundred years old. (But perhaps to the Chinese mind, an historical event and the anniversary of an institution 100 years later may not be such different (or separate) things… Institutions of themselves are the things most significant within history!?)

But for the internet addicted, one hundred years, this is still a very long time. But certainly within China itself, there is no need to re-enact any such almost lost or forgotten historical event such as this. Party membership in this same party is now ninety million rather than a dozen, (–a crowed party!), and the present-day effects of Party directed government are unavoidable, ever-present, in present-day China. So the attitude would be: I will show you the mood since you already know the history as such. And this might almost work for a non-Chinese audience as well, except that it is too light, too insubstantial. The specific Chinese motive or content in this movie seems to me (as non Chinese) minimal. From small beginnings, great things are possible, but how? Non-Chinese also wish to be able to enjoy the fresh early morning air of the city, whether Chinese city or non-Chinese city. But how?

A visual after effect, for me, of original viewing of this movie, was the clean Chinese-style clothing. But if this is to operate as an indicator of Chinese culture then there has been a diminishment in culture from a hundred years ago. Tennis shoes and t-shirts have replaced those clean male garments with the cloth buttons… But of course wardrobe is thematic here, it contributes to a cinematic theme, an interpretation, which is a lyrical take on the founding of a party with political aims or ambitions. Clothes cannot explicate where culture comes from, or what promotes culture…

There is a brief scene in which the hand-operated press printing propaganda posters must be stopped. A correction is necessary. The phrase “ordinary people” must be substituted for another common set of Chinese characters meaning “people.” Or another dance-choreographed street scene shown from high above: All the strikers are in white clothing with red flags. They remain motionless while one individual moves through the crowd to climb up upon a truck to proclaim that the factory management has given in to the demands of the the strikers, the workers! This movie thus is in favor of ordinary people, in favor of workers, and (no surprise here, also in favor of–) modern China, a China which began (as history now recognizes) via the efforts of a very few self-aware and dedicated individuals. But serious discussion of Marxism, or serious discussion of the degree to which a Communist Party does or does not move forward, promote, the live and actual culture of any one people or society, for such perhaps we cannot look to movies, but rather articles or books written by persons living in Chinese or non-Chinese cities, written by Chinese or non-Chinese persons…

(The movie does have a scene also in which a scholar is distressed because his books are being burned in a bonfire by French authorities; another scene in which a French officer insults a book with socialist content. And “socialist” ideas and activists were in fact carefully watched and monitored by governments in Europe and Czarist Russia beginning already from the early 1800’s, just as the mere word “socialism” remains an unacceptable and even a “dirty” word within American discussion.)

This movie is too simple (it seems to me) to be considered an “ordinary” or conventional-type movie. But it does have value as a sort of cinematic mood piece. By carefully keeping to self-chosen limitations, it offers an interesting and consistent take on an important year, actually not a year but events within that that year, events which continue to have significant influence within one very large nation of Asia.

pk (August, 2021)

Book Review: The Master and His Emissary (McGilchrist, 2009)

This very interesting book is a screed, a 400 page complaint that the West has worked itself into a box, into its own dark corner, by adopting an ever more rationalistic, manipulative, conceptual-only approach to the World at large. And as such I myself am in quite definite agreement with the gist of such social criticism. As part-time artist and liberal arts advocate and perennial student this is exactly where my preferences already incline.
But while the usual screed might complain about politics or religion, this screed offers itself as being a few chapters on neuropsychology and then a few chapters of what might be called “art” criticism throughout Western Civilization. The unifying theme of this book is the right hemisphere of the human brain as rightful lord and manager (of the brain as a whole..) and the increasingly dire need to restore a better “balance” (in the West at least) between the different types of things that the two separate brain hemispheres perform for us as human beings . And while finding the psychology very readable and interesting, and the art criticism worth attending to...(and I myself would claim to be a good art critic in a few regions of fine art also, as is this author…) I yet experienced a squeamish, seasick feeling when reading though some of the last half of the book. As philosophy major (it must be) I am not at all comfortable moving from good art critique directly into bad metaphysical opinion without opportunity to pause and re-adjust in between. Thus I do also find almost all of this book philosophically or metaphysically faulty, deficient, even dangerous. Worth reading as description of human brain hemisphere differentiation, as art criticism and as social criticism–but not to be taken as more than this. A strange if interesting book.
In his preface the author demonstrates that he is quite aware of what he is at least hoping for at a more philosophical level. Freud, he suggests, would not be a science theory because those ideas are not falsifiable; Freud rather is a sort of philosophy which one can take or leave. (Apparently the author means by this to say that “philosophy” is a sort of mesh of ideas; whatever meaning is captured is not necessarily ultimate and/or unique.) Darwin’s ideas regarding Evolution he then notes are hypothesis, but not established as such by prediction and experiment. Established rather because the hypothesis fits numerous other observations, and because some observations only fit Evolution as theory. Finally he mentions that the brain-hemisphere-theory as presented in this book is like Evolution rather than Freud in its being science which can be supported or falsified by observation. (My paraphrase here would suggest that the author believes that, if widely accepted, this brain hemisphere hypothesis might bring about a paradigm shift in biology-psychology, a significant expansion of what is taken to be within the purview of these sciences, in effect, a better science of psychology as well as one that is not stuck in left-brain rationalism.)
Birds use one eye to keep track of the beetle they are about to eat, and simultaneously use the other eye to look out for competitors or predators within the surrounding environment. This differentiation in use of brain hemispheres persists right through to the social mammals, where the right hemisphere is somewhat larger, heavier than the left, etc, (page33). And the enlarged frontal cortex, this must give humans a further ability to distance themselves, in effect to become self aware. But these two biologically based general modes of apprehension or attention which develop, these are not in strict cooperation. They will work together but they also act to inhibit each other, and since each of these two sides drive towards different things or objectives, they are always in competition. But the right side, McGilchrist concludes via survey of a vast amount of neurological and clinical literature–(and counter to present psychological consensus)–the right hemisphere must be/ should be understood to be master.
There is a right-left-right progression to all apprehension (apprehension here being my non-technical word..) The right takes in the whole of the visual world, the left may process this info but then must always return precessed info to the boss, the ultimate arbiter of significance. “In short the left hemisphere takes a local short-term view, whereas the right hemisphere sees the bigger picture.” (P43) ”Anything that requires indirect interpretation, which is not explicit or literal, that in other words requires contextual understanding, depends on the right…”(p47) While language depends on the left (the right being without language and unable to articulate…) the author (whose first higher education major was in fact literature) claims metaphor, all capacity for metaphorical understanding, for the master, the right.
There are 535 footnotes given within chapter two, a chapter which describes the disparate functioning of the two brain hemispheres, and you might guess that I have not read through even one of these 535 clinical studies, neurological experiments or psychological conclusions. How dare I characterize the book as a whole as being a screed, an opinion piece, when these first few chapters are obviously chock-full a generous helping of genuine science result! Well, just as the author insists that there must be a master hemisphere, allow me to make the attempt to defend my “screed” characterization by pulling rank myself, or at leas trying to go up a level to get a better perspective.
Using phrases quoted above, Mr. McGilchrist–(and talking about the physical brain)–says that the right sees the bigger picture; That contextual understanding which goes beyond the literal or explicit requires the right. And so from a position just slightly above I note that this is a social scientist making well supported claims about philosophical-type thinking as being allied to the right side of the physical brain. And while this same claim of itself may be both true and interesting, in this case this item of science-knowledge adds nothing at all to my own grasp or awareness of what a more philosophical, contextual understanding actually is, what seeing the bigger picture actually means. I obtain such understanding, I would insist, only by way of my own psyche; I think about something and then catch myself thinking, and/or I deliberately try to take in more things, attempt to enlarge by degree the scope of my philosophical gaze… As I have just demonstrated by observing the competent social scientist busy at work in writing a book and arguing to a general audience for the right hemisphere as being the only hemisphere capable of wider perspectives.
In my opinion, social science of and by itself simply has no capacity to (definitively/ultimately) define important words such as understanding, worldview. These words/concepts must always originate elsewhere… As I have argued in other webpage content, social science “knowledge” regarding human beings and human society–all such offered “knowledge” is immediately subject to ordinary-person philosophical evaluation and approval in a way in which biological and chemical knowledge is not. What force or inertia or cells are is a result of experiment and natural science. There terms are not debatable. But culture, anger, law, art, piety, intelligence–such words cannot be owned by anyone. There must always be available to public tussle and debate even if psychology or religion may present their own knowledge via a specified employment of such terms. To repeat, no one can own the ultimate definition of such terms: This I expect is a rule which Philosophy as benevolent moderator imposes.
Evolution is new term and a paradigm, a perspective spanning a vast amount of time, all species, all living cells. All came from one first cell; this, in effect, is the image. The human species is one of those species among others, but Evolution is an image of the whole package, all of life. But suggesting that dual-hemisphere-form not only illuminates but explains in a deeper philosophical sense what different kinds of thinking and awareness actually are–this would be a concept and paradigm specific only to humans: we think and apprehend like this BECAUSE we have the two sides plus the frontal lobe additions. The author claims that we can (or ought as well to be able to) go from physical form and operation onwards to explanation and explication of functionality, to understanding of our different modes of human apprehending and thinking. This author claims that the brain gives structure to the mind. And I myself would deny that any such explication which begins with the physical, even a simple and obvious differentiation between physical hemispheres, that this can or will contribute to significant understanding in the best and proper sense of that word, understanding, of what mind is, of what thinking consciousness is… I suppose that in this stance I come off as being some sort of rationalist in that I ultimately depend upon both my individual psyche and individual thinking–(with or without concepts)… But what can be/would be the alternative to the thinking individual as ultimate authority. The modern Western intellectual at this point will maintain an implicit faith in science. Science is able to explain cells now, and down the line it will be able to explain everything about human society, human beings, clans, emotion, fine art, modes of thinking. My opinion though would be that the ideas which we accept, the knowledge which we aceed to with regard to human beings and human society, this must rely primarily on sources other than scientific methodology. We ought not wait for, we cannot depend upon science for social knowledge…
The conscious-self (as I take it) is located further down the brainstem and isn’t exactly owned by either the master or the emissary, nor does it jump back and forth between hemispheres. I would then use the word mode, different modes of attention and of thinking depend on different sides of the brain. Thus asomatognosia (see page 68) is always the result of right hemisphere damage, never left. Fine. In this situation the healthy left does not recognize a limb, an arm as being its own. And this proves that whole-body awareness is exclusive prerogative of the right hemisphere. But does this not prove less than this. The ego plus the left are trying to “cope” for a lack of information from the right. The left does not get upset and bothered when the doctor holds up the limp arm and asks who it belongs to. The self simply cannot recognize it any longer as its own since contact/awareness with this limb has been lost. Conversely–in a similar example which I cannot now locate of I believe a similar case of damage to the right–the ego plus the left now in charge (because the right is damaged), this person becomes selfish and upset, thus supposedly proving that the left is emissary, trapped within its smaller range of access. The right doesn’t get upset in this same manner when the left is not operating. But to this I offer the (contrived) counter-interpretation: does this not prove merely that in this configuration of circumstances, the left is upset and should very well be upset–it has lost significant overall functioning because of problems on the right. The left knows at least this much… and thus doesn’t this prove that the left is in fact closer to the genuine self and ought to be recognized as master hemisphere. The right perhaps can proceed with its animal consciousness and with less overt distress (after damage to the left) because the right is less (specifically) human…
I myself have no problem with the notion of modes of awareness, memory, thinking, these modes being generally located and operative within different brain hemispheres–though we also recognize that things can move around, so to speak. (I write left-handed but play games right handed.) And being an artistically inclined English speaking Western Caucasian, I have no problem with advice that individually and socially we must move towards the right–hemisphere. As Ian ticks off the right hemisphere qualities I say: Yes, Yes, Yes, and then I say No, Impossible. This is absurd and ludicrous. All of the good things are going to one side–and now we should also recognize this one side as the Master. Bow down. Is this a new religion or is it psychology?
I prefer Jung. For Jung the ego-self is limited and needs to improve by growing towards a larger (nebulous) Self which is admittedly sparsely apprehended or defined. But this allows for the reality of religion; Such a psychology is not materialistic. But it would seem to me that in guise of encouraging us toward a better direction (–and thank you for that) Mr. McGilchrist is too much of the scientist still trapped within the very confines of the restrictive science he is hoping to escape. Baring a paradigm-miracle which spreads widely like a religious awakening through large portions of the the social-scientist population, how is more science going to release us from overly-restrictive present-day science norms. By failing to achieve an adequate philosophical remove here, are you not as neurologist projecting back into the various observations–you own wishes for improvement–just as other neurologists may be projecting back into the “data” their more pro-establishment desires to not change, to continue to see things as we are most accustomed to seeing them…
Let me insert two personal examples. Firstly, (after two decades of my life lived in the East) and living at present in China, I mention in Chinese that I am an artist–or might wish to be such. But there is consternation over my use of this Chines term. This word, I am told, is only for well established and well known persons. Only these are artists. I must only describe myself with another phrase, as a worker in arts.
Well, every society, after educating its children for eighteen years into certain norms, will favor the existence of gatekeepers. Don’t allow any and every person who claims to be a artist, who has something new, to disturb the populace, to undermine the present culture. I understand this. The really great artists are few. But in this personal example it is the right-hemisphere culture rather than left-hemisphere Western rationalism that strikes me as being excessively restrictive. The Doctor in this book hopes for the the right hemisphere to be Master, but I can testify that even in Eastern societies (which the author and I myself believe–incline to the the right, p.452) even here, I can testify, an Eastern society will be dragging around a truckload of problems specific to right-brain preferences.
Jung’s psychology seems properly universal while this book is not. That is, I have no problem saying that we need to beware of getting stuck in any one rut, any one set of related modes. A psychology which doesn’t pre-judge which modes are best or most important but encourages balanced and competitive development–this would be an exciting psychology that I can believe in.
As a quick second personal observation, when Covid hit in China the army medics were sent in and patients were put on respirator machines as well as blood enrichment machines and each given a (personalized) soup of Chinese medical herbs. I have myself seen in a number of Chinese hospitals the co-existing Chinese and Western pharmacy in the same hospital. Two separate departments, two approaches to fixing sick people. And since (apart from gossip about a possible antiviral now effective against Covid…) we know that there are no attack-the-virus medicines within Western medicine, the Chinese mode seem eminently rational to me in this situation. Western medicine is aware also that serious problems occur when the body overreacts to a virus intrusion. Chinese medicine should be superior at this juncture in moderating and encouraging the body’s natural defense mechanism, the mechanism which ultimately in each individual either wins or doesn’t win the battle.
I am not interested in medicine here, but in attitudes. I expect 95% of Western doctors or Med school professors will refuse the “eminently rational” point which I just made, which was that in virus infection, a systematic approach quite outside the western mode might be better. No; all must submit to Western Medical Science. Anything new must prove itself on our terms else we will not look at it; even consider it. The point being, I guess, that the larger problem to be solved here is institutional and not just conceptual. It is not just a matter of science and science-knowledge but science as social establishment. Is it not social science as social-establishment-wannabe that is the more significant issue? Does physics have this entanglement problem with society? No. Social science would like to become an institution of influence within society, but of course, existing societies also already have their own ideas about how to define terms, social terms.
In my most recent blog on this website I suggested that the traditional BA degree ought to require each student to take science, fine art, history, literature, some social science. This will require more than four years. Five or more. And this may seem somewhat silly as suggestion. Who can hope to master all of these fields. But implicit in this suggestions are two elements which I will argue here are more feasible as means to solve the present malaise–means more practical than all of this reviewed book’s psychology-as-science. Implicit first is the philosophical ideal that one cannot be master till one takes account of everything else, gives everything its individual due. And second, if there is, as there seems to be at present, a primary knowledge field, natural science, this does not mean that various other fields are not “knowledge” also. History, religion, fine arts, literature and yes the social sciences hope to supply “knowledge” of various sorts also. (We haven’t specified what levels or degrees of knowledge might mean, natural science v. other areas of knowledge, but may we be allowed to leave that aside in order to emphasize that various other claimants to knowledge need not ape natural science in order to be accepted as knowledge. There are, as psychologists tell us, various modes of knowledge, of human apprehension.) And thus this simple and silly ideal could, it seems to me, change the world if implemented.
Plato was first to arrive at the public debate, and set the rules well: One: this is individual debate; Group and authority appeals are not allowed. Two: This is not a beauty contest but a contest of words and ideas. (As I explain in a review of the the Republic and its last chapters which review is also on this website, banishing the artists is a humorous way of asserting that in the field of strict debate, art must not try to claim that its modes are superior to intellectual discourse. Three: I would suggest that Plato insists that the “forms” of good, justice, unity, number, etc., are “eternal” for two reasons. These are the things which all societies must come to some mutual agreement upon. As such they are not to be treated as being merely conventional; they must not be reduced to calculation or social exigency or denuded of significance. Justice is not just a word. They must remain beyond greedy human machination. And the second reason Plato insists on talking about “eternal” entities is to say that religion does not have a monopoly in talking about supra-natural items; But neither may religion be excluded from the humane philosophical debate. Philosophy shares some territory with religion and at the same instance allows it to the debate. These are the rules it seems to me that have beens so effective in shaping the West and allowing the development (first in the West) of modern science, natural science.
Religion is not happy about its knowledge having lost prestige vis a vis science, but what can it do? The humanities may try to suck-up to science… But the major present-day issue has to do, does it not, with those would be sciences, the so called social sciences. Can a humanism, an agreed upon set of ideas about man and society be built up from biology, evolution theory and the social sciences. I don’t believe so. My prescription for healing of this Western disease is simply this: All of the sciences must find their place in a larger (Plato moderated or philosophical common sense moderated) circle. This larger circle, this larger humanism, is what the doctor in this book seems to be looking for. But his medicine is all wrong.
PKragt (May 30, 2021)

The Morning Show (a first season review)
[This will be an extended review (8 pages) and related commentary..]

What is wrong with this expensive effort? After seeing the first three episodes I was quite excited. Smart certainly, great actors, super lighting and interiors, so so many interesting directions this could take… I was just slightly bothered by the busy confusion. I read reviews from Variety and Roger Ebert which were not favorable. I myself never watch television-type fare but consider myself a good film reviewer, a good judge of content. I could not believe that with such smarts, such talent, such energy this train was not worth taking. I decided to watch to the end, all ten episodes. But those two reviewers could see after watching three episodes that this train would never arrive. And now I am disappointed. I noticed that the public gave the tenth episode very high marks. My hopes revived. But were soon dashed. Perhaps my motivation now is contrition. I have spent some few additional hours thinking and now writing about what went wrong with this Apple series, and thinking as well about what is wrong with the film/tv industry. I am doing penance for those few wasted hours, and warning others…

This series is a terrible mess because it has no central guiding creative-artistic core; no over-riding intelligence, no maturity, no theme, no point. Someone apparently thought that the bank is open, they want a second season no matter what, so we can wait till the second season to figure out what the artistic/directorial point-of-view will be. Fix the lack of main idea in the second season!

In my scanning of the credits it seemed like each episode had different writers and different directors, all of whom were quite good. The actors were good; the “production values” were stunning. And all of the above persons certainly appreciate work, whatever work they can get…

Good actors can make almost any fragment of dialog–interesting. But all actors also wish to be part of a meaningful whole rather than just show how well they can perform with a stray bit of dialog. All of the above persons depend on one unifying creative-master-intellect to create and maintain a consistent and singular product. There is no other way. Such creative-masters are certainly rare, but indispensable. In my opinion, nothing good can really come about without them. So why is it so difficult for the industry to cultivate, nourish and properly award (and give authority..) to such persons, or as here with this series–recognize that this element is not an OPTIONAL element!?

This series gets its concept from a book, a novel. I am guessing that the book begins with a male morning show host being fired for predatory sexual conduct, and ends with the network as institution exposed and taken down for being an enabler. Hypothetically, a second book might be written which follows these same characters into another adventure. So why is this same arrangement not workable here? Season one ends with a corporate expose and season two cleans up any loose ends and continues with these same characters.. But while book two may have a very different theme than book one, is it actually possible for season two to go in any new directions if season one had no other identity, no other primary artistic direction than predator-and-enablers-expose. No. It has selected an extremely narrow plot-theme as its central point of view… It no longer imagines what reality might be, it has been taken over by reality. In this case, Me-too as prevalent contemporary political cause and reality.

Book one uses real events as take-off-point for a fictional story; but season one of the TV series fails to establish its own point of view and thus, (in my opinion) in treating a male-predator theme, jumps on a bandwagon that happens to be passing by at the moment, wishing and hoping for the audience to see this as creative.. But this cannot be. This is cheating, aesthetically speaking. And I believe that many ordinary TV viewers will feel and detect this cheating and will be as disappointed as am, though less able to articulate why. This bandwagon is a real bandwagon after all, a real and presently existing social fad/movement. But a TV series is fiction, is not reality. Fiction/art cannot jump on any actual moving bandwagon without ruining the art. Art is more important–

The problem is not the political cause as entity, the problem is expecting that a conventionally popular (political) cause might substitute for creative point-of-view. This series, The Morning Show, largely avoids political advocacy/controversy. Its problem is not political but creative-intellectual. It is captured by narrow convention because it foolishly, STUPIDLY expects that it can neglect directorial point-of-view… and yet handle a hot subject (sex misconduct and institutional enablers) without being taken in, taken over…

Early in the series the fired male host is talking to a friend and says that he would like to tell his own side of the story. He wishes to argue against the MeToo movement! Wow. I had a sudden creative flash. Is this series bold enough to allow such? He is given some good dialog and allowed to come back and argue his side against all those ambitious women who have been trying to seduce him and use him. Not so likely that he will win this argument, but well written, this would be wildly exciting TV. Then a few more facts might come out and the series could still head in its pre-planned predator/enabler direction.

Casting for this series I thought was very sharp–except for this male host/predator. A difficult part to write for, or to dare to act, certainly, but I found this character/role to be more of a plot-pivot than a complete character. Without this role the plot doesn’t move. He is supposedly looked up to by many females, liked by all of the crew, well liked by a large demographic out in TV land, but I found his personality singularly boring. I admit that he is also supposed to be an ordinary-person type of TV host. But as depicted, this character seems to turn to predatory sexual behavior out of sheer boredom, or listening too much to low-life friends…

The scene in which he uses an iron poker to demolish the television in his living room, this is somehow iconic in a way the transcends the series itself. (Television sets just don’t have the voltage that they used to…? Tv is dead, and some day soon we will all be doing the same thing to our own private TV sets?) If a part of this scene is meant to excise his former well-known movie and tv characters, this doesn’t work either. After this fit of physical destruction is over he still seemed to me to be a “cool” personality rather than an angst or pain-driven character. But if he is neither particularly good nor bad, then why should we care.

In a final scene he is seated dejected at a table at home, framed by a wooden architectural arch behind. I was more drawn to the fine architecture than to either empathy or distaste for this character. The architectural interiors in this series are often sumptuous but architecture does not become thematic, so at a climatic and final moment in episode 10 this is not good. No strong theme has been established if I am distracted here by the fine woodwork. This series wants this pivot-character to be a villain but doesn’t want him to look bad!

There is a great deal of religious and sexual profanity throughout much of the ongoing dialog, and no doubt this is realistic with regard to many factories, workplaces or as here, back-stage at a daily network TV preparing to present to the world a happy-dappy superficial (but not profane) TV morning show. Now we know what it is like back there..

But not in the bedroom. I found everything to do with the secondary character Hannah, the entry-level booker, to be unconvincing. She has a long scene in which she apologizes for having neglected a former close friend. She has been too preoccupied with getting along and getting ahead, apparently, in her new job. Then she is in existential depression because she is in Las Vegas to help cover the mass shooting which occurred hours previously. (Las Vegas is known to promote its existentialism, and mindless and pointless mass shootings are certainly depressing…) She remembers her mother’s death… Her new news-host boss meets her, cheers her up, suggests she can make it in the news-TV business. She goes up to his hotel room. As she explains later, overcome with sadness/distress and while she was thinking of her mother he puts his arms around her in a way that felt comforting, paternal, etc. So she doesn’t refuse and things proceed. Well, please, please. This is TV and we can’t be any more explicit or precise than this…

The fact is, is that something sexual did occur during this episode but neither person is (quite exactly) depicted as being the one at fault. (Is this directorial ambiguity or is it incompetence/negligence. I would say the second, but if others do not back me up, some might go on to say, incorrectly that this is directorial genius.)

Hannah has a scene later in which she attempts to confront and condemn the yet more-prestigious-than-her male ex-TV-host, but then he goes on a tirade which doesn’t seem so completely inaccurate. She is not so innocent. She was trying to use him… (Same ambiguity, or negligence…)

But she wishes to retain the innocence which she has lost and as things turn out later, a death caused by drug overdose will provide the tragic shock which ties together the plot pieces and leads to a woman-to-woman rapprochement and truce which then takes down the patriarchal establishment. The powerful institutional sexual-misconduct enablers have been exposed. Bingo.

I do agree that the boss running down from the upper floor to try, unsuccessfully to get into the studio to stop the program–is cute. And early in the series it is shown that these hosts are expected to always stay with a pre-written script, but now, at the climax of the series, both of the hosts are off-script, (wow) and talking in vague terms about sexual misbehavior and enabling which has happened at this very studio. This is being broadcast to all of middle-class America!

If the boss from upstairs kills himself at this point then the institutional theme might have had some gravitas. If he jumps out from an upper floor of the building it would at least have been news. But as it is, the climax is more personal than social. The two conniving co-hosts will work together in recognition of the “sacrifice” it would be, made by one of the secondary characters, an attractive black female.

But this story event, the suicide of an innocent (naive) co-worker on the Morning Show, seems to me to be too much of an artificial Deus-ex-machina excuse. One innocent female must die in order to save the many, in order to allow her depraved co-workers to continue with their worthless lives so that they can continue to produce this happy-dappy and superficial/gossipy Morning Show, as well, of course as expose the male enablers. (God, if asked, might prefer not to have anything to do either way with this story line…)

I allow that my hopes and expectations were all for comic lines of development and comic point of view which might develop with respect to this series. Do you expect tragedy when you hear that show title: The Morning Show? And thus I cannot but see this plot twist as a strange sop thrown out to a religious demographic which is not likely to watch this Apple series anyways. Or more likely, this series does not really want to end in a tragic mode. It likes tragic, it likes comic, it likes epic, it likes political, etc. It still hasn’t decided… Let the people decide. (But when Mao Zedong let the Cultural revolution run its course many, many decent people were destroyed. Thus, chaos is inadequate to the task of intelligent culture creation..)

This tenth episode begins with a written advisory warning about drug addiction. But perhaps this advisory ought to be flagged as a misuse of the advisory system, an attempt to use the advisory system for the sake of plot development and enhancement. An innocent-like character will soon enough die from suicidal drug overdose. But no actual drug use is depicted. Rather, almost all of the “protagonists” in this series turn out, over the course of the ten episodes, to be conniving, backstabbing, non-religious, selfish, cheap, depraved and/or promiscuous–power, money or sex grubbing low-life individuals. In this context, a majority of these episodes could best be prefaced with a Depravity warning:

Most of the characters and situations depicted here involve moral compromise and/or human vice. 
If you are addicted to watching depictions of such depravity
please be aware that you are not alone.
Many American TV viewers are also addicted.
But professional help is available.
Please call this number…
If this series had settled on a loose (comedic) just-keep-the-show-going core sensibility of some sort, then many other temporary (comedic) avenues would become operative. But the series, I expect, wants to be a little more serious, real. There is a basic power and intrigue storyline, but this becomes more and more merely strictly psycho-personal. Fine. But then the network setting just becomes background…

For example, Alex the longtime female host is stressed by impending divorce, and by loosing the favor of her daughter to the estranged husband. She storms into the daughter’s room at an expensive private school with a pizza gift. The two have a heated argument. Alex is so angry that she says she is taking the pizza back for herself and storms out. The scene is well done: a little humor, intensity, pain. But what stuck with me was a piece of the daughter’s dialogue about her father having been successful for having authored two economics books. I want to know more what this young girl is thinking, positive or negative about academia, her own prospects or ambitions with regard to the same, etc. A girl of this age is not likely to be so candid or forthright or settled about the same topic. But what does she think about economics and academia?

So I offer a scene between Alex and husband before talk of divorce: What is that? Its my manuscript for my new book about the Economies of Eastern Europe twenty years after the Soviet… Nn. (Alex is a strong personality and, like an actor, can make you not call her out on her dissimulation even though you know she is not actually reading…) I have a colleague who wrote a book about you industry, big American media. You should talk to him some time. Yeah. Sixty percent of Economics Phds don’t know what they are talking about. We’re the ones who sweat every day to make this business happen.

But the topic of Economics does not go away… Not because it is important as a topic, but because it will provide an interesting and comedic foil to Alex’s obvious self-absorption. Alex herself might even express her own Economic views (free market or else anti free market) but these views would need to be always conventional. She is still just expressing set opinions. Etc.

If the only interest, the primary theme of this series is intense psycho-drama, then the daughter’s mention of an economics book, this was sloppy writing, or momentary humor. But if the psycho-drama is toned way down, then there is place for smart and comedic and quite extensive treatment of many other things.

The Weatherman and girlfriend story is progressing but it is mostly personal. This person takes the weather seriously. Why not get serious with this line. He closes every day with a few poetic sentences. He gives ever expanding naturalist expositions. He starts getting popular nationwide by saying: Now is the the few weeks when the blue-green swallow will be migrating into Tennessee or Oklahoma. If you are outside, look for them. Or, This is the California-pine growth-cycle if there is no wildfire disaster.

Soon, local weather stations give their weather announcers permission to close with similar freedom! I don’t mean on the show, I mean this gets to be an actual fad, and a minor issue for local TV news station management. Comedy can be serious…

In a final scene the color bars come up in the middle of the day on the jumbotron in Times Square, New York. The big boss has managed to make his way to the master control room and to shut down the live broadcast. But color bars are a visual meme with no consequent, no next stage.

I realize now that I failed many, many years ago to make a statement. I was (this is true..) master control operator in central Illinois working for minimum wage, $4.20/hr. I pushed the buttons to select the feed that then went out on air via various PBS broadcast antennas in southern Illinois. (This can be a nerve-wracking job…) In an adjacent booth was the master control for a larger viewership, Peoria Illinois. On Sunday nights after we both had punched up the Lawrence Welk Show, I and my artist friend would have plenty of time to relax and make snide jokes about TV content.

My resume at the time may have used the phrase “educational television.” I knew very well a that this was not a catchy phrase, not a standard job category, but now I realize better, perhaps, what I was trying to say, why I actually kept on making use of such a lame phrase. Reality is the same now as it was then. There are at present millions of iPhones out there begging for video content, there are at present new and upcoming cable/streaming networks fighting to get control of old and mediocre film and video content. Decades after Peoria, it is still the case that without intelligence, without creative intelligence, without an “educational impetus” which I was hoping to be directly involved in, film and video production efforts will produce only trash.

I was not getting any breaks in my efforts to get into the business and to contribute to “educational television.” I should have put up color bars and left twenty minutes early on my last day of work. This would have been my protest statement. People in southern Illinois would have been deprived of their PBS content. I would have returned the two dollars had they complained about it. But I know now that I did in fact correctly sense what is essential, without substitute: the person with creative intelligence. The sad thing is not that I did not get my good breaks, the sad thing is that the “industry” over so many decades does not seem capable of learning anything.

Whether in China or the United States, the assumption would still be that the essential and rare creative person is a product that can be managed, rather than given immediate control and authority over the creative construction itself. But one could argue that this same situation holds in news, education, even entertainment. To over manage or over package will destroy the small number of genuine and “intelligent” producers in each area who are the only ones who can produce new and valuable product. In my point of view, the one-dimensional expert cannot be “intelligent,” only the person who does the constant and difficult work of many-dimensional learning. That is, the one-dimensional journalist, professor, artist has stopped working. Many-dimensional thinking is the hard work, the heavy lifting, and needs to be valued and adequately compensated. The creative-master, this rare person, will be both intelligent and hardworking and always engaged in the more difficult task of multi-dimensionality. Many persons are both intelligent and hardworking and one-dimensional. Where are those few very rare creative people hiding who are so much in demand at present? There must be a few of them out there somewhere. Sweden, Italy, Mars?

pk Sept. 2020

Film review: Ad Astra

Certainly deserves cinematography awards for a consistent and continuing aesthetic “appeal,” and this space-plus-technology image-sensibility has thematic importance and immediate connection with the idealism of the title, but can image be connected with plot? Else the movie is just nice image and inadequate story…

There is enough first-person psychological gobbledygook offered to allow the ambitious movie viewer to re-construct three or four possible psychological sub-plots, but because we are given no “original material” the viewer cannot really know what the father/young-son relation actually was. Un-tethering is not quite Freudian. Institutionalized psychology cannot, of course, be trusted, because normal will be whatever that society/institution decides to call normal. The main character is careful enough, (sincere enough perhaps) not to give the machine reason to doubt his own psychological co-operativeness…

There is a reality-storyline presented with sufficient if tenuous cinematic veracity so as to maintain plausibility and viewer interest: the space-towers on Earth, the moon become commercialized, Mars, the travel to an outer planet. Individual astronauts have become accustomed to such a world/environment.

The scientist might be a lone individual I myself believe, but can the astronaut (–or the actor, for that matter) actually be a lone individual? Or, the monk may be alone, but can any wealthy individual actually be alone? One astronaut is alone at the end of an aborted mission, another is alone but only as a rogue adventurer setting out upon a personal or social fixit-mission. It would seem to me that the ultimate task for this protagonist must come after the closing credits, that is, he must continue the task of working to better understand his own society-civilization and its purposes. The loss of his father may compound his psychological musings. He has experienced a not-so-excellent adventure–but the main issue which remains is civilizational, not psychological.

Since the brave father-scientist-astronaut had gone to MIT he should have been capable of finding some way to adjust the position of the stranded craft so that the defective, experimental anti-matter gun would not be pointing back towards earth! This society-civilization does have its ideals, and the father-scientist shares such ideals, but becomes disillusioned. The search for other than human intelligence in the larger universe did not yield any positive result. (Technically speaking, another intelligent entity might be less intelligent than the human species, or more intelligent but not benevolently inclined towards human beings–and so not, in the ultimate analysis, of genuine help to human civilization… But this is being too rationalistic.) We accept the story as it is: This is a pragmatic and scientific civilization which also has its ideals. (–But then, perhaps, a Roman Empire past its prime.)

The son states that he is thrilled by the aesthetic excellence of the images acquired by his father. He is bringing them back for the benefit of other earthlings. But I myself don't recall any film scenes in which our protagonist evidences aesthetic sensibility/regard per se. This protagonist is a carefully ordinary person, though I believe also, serious about the need ultimately to achieve understanding. But not exactly aesthetically inclined.

But the continuous image-aesthetic of the film is so regular as to provide a theme: (Reality itself, the world in which a society exists, may provide more reason for optimism than pragmatists are interested in recognizing. Doesn’t genuine art aim to make some kind of connection with reality/intelligence which is beyond the strictly material?) This film uses imagery and builds a film-world that seems to me regularly positive and attractive rather than ominous, or matter-of-fact. Such positive visual imagery presents the possibility, (the hope), that an intelligent if pragmatic civilization might yet be able to get beyond its own civilizational doldrums, might actually be able to arrive upon better self-understanding, might yet succeed in connecting up with improved civilizational values. But not yet.

pkragt Sept 2019

Book review: Makers and Takers, Foroohar, 2016.

This is a breezy book, and interesting, organized as a “series of (11) stories” about what is wrong with the financial sector in the USA. The author writes clearly and doesn’t water down the criticism in each chapter, but as I said, interesting, but breezy. What make the book weak, it seems to me, is that it is missing two dimensions: a more theoretical discussion, and discussion of US (business) law. But who is qualified for such abstruse talk. But as the author herself argues, all of these subjects ought to become ordinary conversation; Do not allow, she insists… the financial experts to hide behind the smokescreen of superior expertise. So a concluding phrase is also weak: What we need is to reboot the culture of finance. Rebooting a computer, as we all know, is as easy as one button-press, but changing the actual culture of ideas about business and finance in the USA, this will requires better theoretical and legal type arguments to convince the intelligent reader at large..

For example, though I am not an economist, in 2008 I blogged about derivatives, a type of business and insurance contract. If such contracts were illegal a hundred years ago, and only began to became popular in the 1980s, why is there the presumption that these should be liberally allowed rather than legally restricted. Investors, etc, wish to insure and protect there ownership interests in other ownership contracts. But this humongous insurance layer has–it still seems quite obvious to me at least–added a layer of control which benefits only those owners as market players. The author says that half of derivative contracts today fall outside of any legal regulation. Business persons, no surprise, may like these insurance contracts even if they yearly take a few few dollars away from normal profits. But where is such insurance for the individual who wishes to speculate on buying a second house, or on eventual renumeration for fine art or for writing. We all are in the same economy and all speculate in one way or another. Why should only large business entities or large investors be allowed to insure? Because there is money to be made. But as I mentioned above, I still consider this whole derivative contracts business to be the establishment of an undesirable layer and prerogative. Society ultimately pays if there are financial snags, as we have experienced recently.

Or, a quarter of graduate degrees acquired today are MBA type degrees, and more than half of these persons end up working in finance. I can express an opinion here since my age means that I don’t expect to obtain any future job in this finance sector, but isn’t this a clear imbalance of some sort? It is a free country, yes, but why can’t sensible laws be crafted to limit the returns to speculative-arbitrage? This opinion will not make me popular with the many people on their way into finance… but I am theoretically brave.

Should Goldman Sachs be throwing money into commodities and stockpiling tons of Aluminum such that CocaCola and Coors must mount a many-year campaign to alleviate their Al supplies. You can guess what my legal preference will be. The author states that the Federal Reserve can decide what banks are or are not allowed to do. But I still remember Greenspan stating in 2008 or so, that the Fed really has no business worrying about careless and excessive home-loan lending. Apparently the Fed’s primary job of keeping the pedal to the metal requires all of their attention…

Why is the Blackstone Group allowed to become the largest collector of private homes in the USA. Well, this is business. But if the government wishes to establish a measured subsidy/loan provision/insurance for the buyer, of home loans, why should this be so controversial. Primary home ownership is an obvious and locally existential value of some sort. But I remember how irate certain private lenders were in 2008 for being blamed for excessive speculation, securitization and such irresponsibility. How dare Fannie or Freddie force them into such a more speculative money-making arena!

Even mutual funds, it is somewhat humorous, with their seemingly minor management fees, are now recognized on the larger picture as somewhat exploitive for small (or big time) investors, as compared with non-managed index funds. But there are now, also, a lot of such managers making a busy and rewarding living here.

The whole theoretical dogma of maximizing stockholder value, this is not dogma in other countries. Why has such a simpleminded economic idea become standard dogma here in the USA? Could it be because of a lack of theoretical thinking! It would take a better idea or a better group of alternative Aims to replace this economic dogma with something better. Tough work…

My intended audience here has been American. In a socialist-managed country the procedure would be different. Certain persons simply decide (and not quite certain whether such decisions will later be good decisions or bad…) and then implement the economic policy. But in the American democracy it seems to me that the most important step is not to raise topics or issues in an interesting way, but to convince people, to affect their culture, that is, their ideas about how a sensible American economy would benefit everyone. We are all of us aware that medicine and finance are growing and lucrative economic sectors, and why should individuals be hindered from following the lure of lucre. But it seems quite democratic for me to insist that ordinary people are also quite capable of identifying economic excess, and capable of asking that their sensible and improved economic ideas ought to be put into practice. This will require politics, and adjustments to Business and Finance Law. But the first and more important step is the ideas, the more generally prevalent ideas about business and finance arrangements in this country. Such a sensible culture of ideas will then make legislative change possible.

pk(Sept 2019)

Notes towards a better interpretation of Plato’s Republic:

(I make use of books by Annas and Blackburn, but the following explanations are my own efforts after a recent rereading of the Republic.)

The first book of the Republic is similar to other dialogs of Plato in which the character of Socrates merely questions and prods other persons to explain their views. But in the Republic in Books II-X, Socrates will take over and then monopolize the conversation! His conversation partners most often (humorously) seem to to say in effect: Whatever you want Socrates; These are your opinions; You’re in control; That sounds fine. But this leaves some difficult real-time interpretative work for the reader, that is, the need to decide which of these many ideas and arguments expressed by the Socrates character in this long dialog about justice–which of these are good, which are lame, which are humorous, which are simply inadequate, which are authentic? A majority of the opinions/arguments seem to me to be inadequate/incomplete, though most will raise or suggest significant issues. But if the Republic is a large and seemingly loose patchwork, I believe that it is still carefully constructed for overall imaginative effect… else why would we continue to re-read it and repeatedly try to find and extract its main arguments and ideas? Much of its worth must reside, then, in suggestion and implication…

Book I: The scene is a new religious festival at the Athens harbor where a successful foreign businessman insists on befriending Socrates. Socrates asks the man about his retirement, and this person expresses what we might label a complacent-conventional notion of justice: He comes from money, but not too much. He has done OK himself, and so is not financially distressed in his retirement. He can take comfort in the fact that in his business practices he has not exploited or abused anyone; he gave fair return for whatever he was entrusted with. This attitude once expressed allows Socrates to gradually turn the conversation towards consideration of justice in the abstract. What is justice.

Thrasymachus, an intense but cynical youth jumps in with his excited claim that justice, obviously, is whatever one can get away with and still get ahead, socially. Society operates so as to allow the greatest success to those who are not tied down by any silly abstract notions such as justice. Justice is nothing more than social power or success. After Socrates employs some inadequate argument to counter and quiet this cynicism, other members of the audience ask that Socrates do a better job than this. Don’t just say that injustice is bad, don’t just moralize and claim that justice is good and will be rewarded, convince us rather that justice (as individual virtue) is inherently appealing and desirable. This somewhat personalistically-framed challenge, then, is what Socrates accepts as task: not to describe the just society or justice in society, nor only to describe justice as individual virtue. The conventional or moralistic defense of justice is too easy. Please explain the inherent appeal of individual-justice without relying upon conventional or shared social values… (And perhaps we should remember that the excited Thrasymachus does sit quietly enough through all of the succeeding patchwork, sit through a very long and often tedious discussion/monolog until eventual success, it must be, in Book IX and X. And if Thrasymachus can sit through this, how dare the reader complain…) Thus while the word justice necessarily would seem to imply other persons–the task as set here is strictly and ultimately individual: Why should I be just?

Plato’s first ploy (at 369, Book II) is to look at justice as it might be found within a society/city-state rather than in the one individual. And for this he will need to imaginatively construct a theoretical (ideal) society–though as this effort proceeds it should also become obvious to the reader that this hypothetical polis is not actually a very ideal society or state.

Founded on economic need, this city initially needs only four persons: full-time farmer-herder to provide food, full-time house builder and house maintenance person, etc. Then, importers to obtain goods from outside. Then this state will become slightly diseased because it wishes to add cooks, fashion, artist-imitators. Clearly, these persons beginning to enjoy themselves will in addition need a standing army, full time guardians. And since from among these defenders, the guardians, must also come the governors, the education of the guardians will need to be carefully supervised. But in this supervision of the mores and religion to be given to the guardians Plato himself obviously will become very moralistic and conventional in his talk as this proceeds through Books III-IV, developing in effect the image of a narrow-mindedly provincial-pious-conventional (if also moral) sort of city-state of the sort that Athens itself (–temporarily at least–) became when it condemned Socrates to die (not so long ago…)! For example, Plato insists that the children’s stories include no description of heroes afraid, that the religion taught include no appeasement of the Gods, include no description of the Gods doing anything imperfect or human-like. (Plato’s educational-conventional censorship becomes so extreme that he is out to purify the religion itself…! And is this not meant to be humorous?) That is, since Plato is monopolizing this conversation we will need to follow along, but we need not take this theoretical construct, this city-state as being an ultimate ideal, but only as one possible attempt to build a model, in this instance a polis developed via economic and moral-conventional guidelines.

At the close of Book IV Socrates says that his argument is complete, finished. Justice would be the (happy) healthy situation in the individual soul when reason, spirit and appetites are regimented properly, just as in the hypothetical-state, justice may be observed where the three groups of citizens with the morally-educated guardians at the top, each stick to their proper roles. His audience had objected previously that his hierarchal city would not seem to be very enjoyable or appealing to the members in any of its classes, but Socrates insists that he is looking for composite social well-being in this model. At 421, beginning of Book IV, Socrates implies that the moral strictness which he has been promoting may be the best/only way to prevent societal hypocrisy, to prevent citizens from seeming good but not genuinely fulfilling their social role. And in this paragraph he also suggest that he is not aiming for the (perhaps more democratic) situation of “farmers and happy feasters…” That is, while there may be other approaches to imaginatively construct an ideal society, he chooses this approach. It is the whole picture that matters, not whether each and every individuals is happy…

This then is Socrates’ first if also inadequate effort: An ordered city-state, or analogously, the one person–within which the better parts will be in charge.

Socrates is clear that such a situation does not arrive via legal or constitutional means. At 425 and following Plato’s opinion is clearly stated: A better and virtuous society must arrive via education and not via any attempts to shape a society via promulgated law. (And as such this would go against the prevalent sentiment in the United States, and might seem more congenial to Asian civilizations. But as will become apparent later in the Republic, both the unique content as well as the individuality of education will become, for Plato, all-important and essential. The conventional (Asian) approach to education will not achieve what Plato wants… Self-cultivation is a Confucian ideal, but Plato’ emphasis (later in the Republic) on individual aspiration toward acquisition of truth, this will become a Western educational ideal/norm.)

Socrates says that he is finished–but his audience are neither satisfied not inspired. They prod Socrates to go on in more detail about the training-in-common of the male and female guardians… (If Greeks were not ashamed of nude male athletes, they yet found humorous the seriously offered image of male and female guardians training together in the nude.) Elaboration on this topic should be entertaining at least… And Socrates obliges them by launching into an extensive set of arrangements for co-educational training.

Perhaps since equality is already accepted as being a conventional norm, Plato accepts the assumption that a strict gender-equalization will need to be implemented in these arrangements envisioned for the guardians: no marriages, all the children will be raised communally, eugenic encouragement of mating between those with the superior physiques, etc. It may be that the female is by nature the physically weaker sex, but some females, by nature, will be born to have the aptitude and aspiration to become guardians and rulers. I read the context here as humorous, the regulations as preposterous, but the note about gender equality as also genuine. And perhaps all of this extended section we should also read as something of a literary setup: If you enjoyed this idealized construct of a society strictly implementing gender equalization at the highest level, then you might find the next suggestion easier to take: These guardians must become philosophers. There must be method in place to insure that only philosophers are able to become rulers. Philosophers must be kings, kings philosophers.

Solon, Hammurabi, Solomon, the pharaohs, various kings… Few persons will suggest that their king or ruler OUGHT NOT to have practical-political wisdom. But this must be an opportunity Plato has been waiting for, his chance to add to his less than ideal city-state that element which of course, he is actually most interested in… This most important philosophy patch is pasted on at this point, and will be discussed in fairly interesting terms through the next few chapters.

The “guardians” in training to become governors need not just political wisdom but a complete/comprehensive philosophical education. When the primitive economic city needs protection and the guardian group is initially mentioned in Book II, these guardians, Socrates suggests (at 376–) in addition to physical qualities and high spirit, must also have another quality in their soul: the love of wisdom. Then a supporting argument, more or less humorous, is offered: This guardian group will be like watchdogs. But dogs are able to identify which approaching strangers are friends of the household and which strangers are not. Thus, dogs are by nature wise animals; they have both a love of learning and a love of wisdom… Since the guardians already have such inclination towards wisdom, the suggestion later (toward the end of Book V) that they must have a full and complete training towards philosophy, this is not so far-fetched.

But what does philosophy have to do with justice? Much of Book VI seems to offer opinion as to whether society at large ever might care about philosophy. Plato states that philosophy will never be popular, but then seems to say that this is not quite right. Philosophy could become more popular… And certainly this is what Socrates and Plato do initiate in the West: a more self-conscious awareness of the social value of the (philosophical) quest for truth.

Any reflective and literate society will probably have its individual and relatively isolated sages. These will be given some social respect. But Plato seems to have achieved something more than this with regard to his later Western audiences. What is his argument, and why has it (often) been effective, or at least persuasive?

What I give now will be my take on what may be Plato’s (deservedly, I believe) successful argument here, an argument only implicit in the text–not explicitly stated, and given here according to my own terminology.

I consider that the real perennial scramble for position is not between philosophy and poetry, but between religion and politics. How shall these two essentially different things accommodate and co-exist. Organizing for the sake of ordinary daily necessities versus teaching about whatever larger values and realities there might be which go beyond the daily necessities. These two must be distinguished because the difference is real and significant. This is the human condition, not just my intellectual scheme.

A strict Theocracy or Secularism, if either set out to eliminate the dual-realm issue will be most likely, in my humble opinion, to run into great evil. Better to coordinate as to who gets which territory. But even after amicable agreement, I also believe that there necessarily will remain certain minimal areas of overlap. That is, to attempt to define a just society, for example, without any mention, without any point of connection with “religion” or the supra-social, well, this is probably doomed to partial or more serious failure. And conversely, to try to define a religious life/society without due respect for the other side… A singular entity-plus-value-framework simply cannot control both human realms…

Thus my suggestion towards interpretation of the Republic: Plato says little about government, and he refuses to engage in lawmaking. He might even seems to avoid talking about many people in the abstract, about society as such. The purpose of the model/ideal city-state is to provide an analogy for talking about the structure of the soul of the one individual. But of course, ordinarily justice must include more than the one person. How can he avoid giving a definitive and preliminary social theory… And this would be, in my opinion, because he is exploiting/emphasizing/playing-to the overlap mentioned in the paragraph above.

That is, I would guess that Plato implicitly might agree (in common with Aristotle or other Greek democrats of the time..) that something like a mixed aristocratic-democracy provides the best opportunity for success, the best opportunity for common/social justice to develop and thrive in any polis/state. But if in fact the virtuous and desirable Greek city-state is quite fragile, tenuous, difficult to actualize…, Plato believes he has identified a secret ingredient, has found an all-important antidote which must expedite success.

Plato’s emphasis on ordered parts may be something of a corrective to too much democracy in a democratic polity, but as any reader will recognize, what Plato is most hoping for in the Republic is to sell philosophy. More practice of philosophy among citizens, philosophical governors, and quite theoretically speaking, philosophy (if given respect from both sides..) as functioning to delimit and specify a certain type of state-religion co-existence. Philosophy as a human endeavor exists in the same realm as the state, the polis, ordinary justice. But the kind of philosophy which Plato is advocating, because it makes direct contact with those eternal realities of contemplation, this kind of philosophy shares some territory also with the second realm, with organized or official religion.

The individual citizen which Plato is advocating for would be a philosophical explorer seriously seeking to become more at home among those eternal things, the forms. While this citizen may well be part of a just society, this individual also exists on the border, exists in the overlap with religion.

Because Plato provides this philosophical-individual connection inbetween the realms, his notion of social justice does in fact become (it would seem to me at least…) more complete/persuasive/exciting. Anyone (perhaps) may throw together a definition of justice based upon this or that type of social interconnection, but who else makes the attempt to describe what justice is, by forging an essential connection with realms beyond everyday human society.

But is this religious business legitimate if Plato is arguing as philosopher. Strictly speaking, perhaps not. I would suggest that Book X, for example, can be characterized as being Plato’s “faith.” And why shouldn’t a philosopher be able to have faith also… Prior to the final book Plato’s added “religion” is not explicit, though it may still may pop up… For example, the cave metaphor which begins Book VII is extreme: from shackles in darkness to the colors of our ordinary world. And then this enlightened person is to be forced to return to the cave to help (politically) those still bound in the dark cave! Is this a joke. No one would be willing to return to such deprivation. But as religious-like conversion this metaphor becomes more plausible. Having gained skills of perception one doesn’t loose that (spiritual sort of) ability if one must go back into the dark cave.

After some very long and tedious discussion in Books VIII-IX, the strictly philosophical conclusion of the whole of the patchwork effort seems to come at about 589: (Socrates has been describing how, with all disordered states as well as with the analogously disordered human soul–the results are bad, a mess, chaos and unpleasant, all the baser impulses running free–) But justice is more profitable. When the inner man… “takes charge of the many-headed beast (within),” training the cultivated plants but removing the weeds, and when the rightful inner governor (human reason), “caring for all the (inner) beasts alike will first make them friendly to one another and to himself, and so foster their growth,” then justice will produce some sort of appealing and happy condition within the individual soul. And this result, making individual justice appealing, was the original challenge given to Socrates.

This is a philosophical conclusion even if a little bit of religious language is employed here, about the divine part of human nature being subject or not to the brutish part of human nature… Justice is when the single human soul which has been educated into a good constitution, when this soul is NOT up-ended, not dragged about and enslaved to mean impulses and appetites, not coerced by the many headed monster. And perhaps this is fine as such, but it is still not very exciting. And so Book X would wish to complement this conclusion with enthusiasm of a more religious and personal nature; a faith appeal. And although even here there are a few sections that are somewhat tedious, Book X does work for me.

I read the lengthly discussion about the arts/imitators as simply stating Plato’s claim that philosophical/propositional statement must take priority over whatever claims to truth the artists may make. Or better than this, and following my own suggestion, this is statement of Plato’s faith that the philosophical quest is the higher of the two. He does after all conclude this section by saying that the imitators may plead to be re-admitted to his city, 607d. But the arts promote childish loves, they tend to disturb and distract because they always, of course, employ the senses, imaginative semblance. Intellect aims beyond the sensory, aims for peace and quiet. (Though of course we can also admit that low grade rational effort is responsible for a great deal of rationalistic garbage, obvious to anyone browsing the shelves of any university library!)

Like any good artist, Plato in the last half of Book X then concocts an elaborate mythic story in order to explicate what I am calling his personal faith as philosopher. The warrior Er dies and travels partways into the afterlife before he comes back to life. Having returned, Er is able to give an eyewitness account of the afterworld.

There are judges, there are two openings leading in opposite directions… There is strange Buddhist-like suggestion of transmigration of souls. Lots are cast on the ground (618 ff.) and these are to be associated with various patterns of life. The souls standing around are allowed to choose whether they want wealth, the inhuman powers of the eagle, etc., and then after they forget this choice, each will be born into the kind of life they have chosen. “No divinity shall cast lots for you… The blame is his who chooses.”

Er notes that the soul of Odysseus is present here, and is one of the last to choose his lot. (Odysseus is a fictitious character, not a real person, and Plato has just done a hatchet job on Homer for being prominent among those imitator-artists who are not to be trusted, but this is fine; and humorous by intent it would seem to me..) But this soul, “from memory of its former toils having flung away ambition, went about for a long time in quest of the life of an ordinary citizen who minded his own business.” This time around, Odysseus, with less ambition and perhaps less extensive wandering, and following, no doubt, Plato’s prescriptions for philosophy and a life of virtue within the confines of the ordinary life which he himself has chosen, should make it to heaven. Odysseus was, after all, one of those Greek heroes.

©Pkragt Feb 2019

Movie review: BlackkKlansman

This movie is not at all political, but I approve of its message.

What is it about? It offers a glimpse of Klan culture, and perhaps a glimpse of two Black cultures as well. But this depiction of culture is not very deep. The most telling feature of Klan culture might appear to be regular efforts on the part of minimally educated white men to impress other white men of comparable educational background by means of provocative and/or profane language. But this might also characterize the manner in which the culture of poor black men is often depicted in movies/TV. For good measure, some derogatory language about Jews is included, which attitudes are also Klan attitudes, but Spike Lee seems intent on (accurately, it seems) presenting a Klan boss, the historical David Duke, as a relatively mild mannered and polite person. The TV series CSI NY might successfully encapsulate racial, cultural conflict in its characters or stories; there is very little cultural tension or cultural conflict depicted in this movie.

If not about politics or about black or white culture as such, then is this movie about history? Starting from some basic historical facts involving a Colorado police department and the KuKluxKlan (in the 1970’s) the movie appropriately enough will dramatize and elaborate upon that bare history, and then add some modern as well as ancient historical framing. An elderly character speaks dramatically to a black audience about what he observed as a child. He gives his first-hand account of genuine history, the public lynching of a young black man immediately outside of the courthouse and just after being convicted and sentenced to die for the brutal murder of a white woman, 1916, Waco Texas, population 30,000, 20% black. (As a Wikipedia article mentions, a special article published by the NCAA about this Waco event may have helped to convert the public at large to the evils of lynching, but photographs of the huge Waco crowd present at this event evidence a complicit local populace.) This is the early historical bookend. On the other side is added some movie-adjusted tv and interview footage of a year past, a white supremacist rally and counter-rally at which a protester/bystander was killed.

Do these three historical points hold together as one movie–about history? Not as a movie about history-as-subject nor as historically-astute movie but rather, it seems to me, as message about a lack of adequate sensibility, about something which people are missing–an adequate sense of history. So the movie is an entertaining story which also makes a point about something important which is missing, this historical sensibility? But does the movie itself, does the director himself possess this important, this much needed historical sensibility?

I agree with the truism, whether recent historians generally share it or not, that modern history is difficult if not impossible to write. And this must be because we are still living, personally engaged, in that present. There must be some distance in time before the historical perspective can be achieved. Thus recent news events since they cannot have such perspective, are never really history-as-understood. They are still news. Similarly, in BlackkKlansman, an elderly character describes for an attentive black audience something from his past life. As narrated, this shocking event is not history either (according to my argument) just because it is personal. The needed but missing “sense of history” or historical sensibility, this cannot (in my opinion) be merely personal, local, self-serving.

And then the movie itself, of course, attempts to present an accurate historical view of Colorado Springs in the seventies, with its cars and houses (and maybe even attempts to depict its protagonists as thinking like people of the 1970s). But I expect that Spike will agree that this movie does not very profoundly grasp, historically, what the 1970s was like. Spike, myself, most people lack a healthy, profound historical sensibility.

But I still find the “message” of the movie here. Not by way of the character he plays but (with the help of some information gleaned from Wikipedia) in the actor, in Harry Belafonte himself, black singer with a long and successful career whom I hope and expect is the rare individual who has (or at least wish to use for my example here as someone who possesses) this much needed historical sense or sensibility.

The modern man-in-the-street, black or white, policeman, reporter, politician, filmmaker, film critic wants most to live in the moment; does not have the time or the desire to develop the historical virtue as personal ability. If developing an historical sense is going to slow me down then why should I worry about that. Until I come across a movie re-enactment of a humorous but historical event. Then one’s appreciation and one’s evaluation will be directly proportional to one’s historical sense, or lack thereof.

pk 2018

Movie-review Test: Interstellar (answer 2 of 3)

Though its focus seems to be on a very personal and almost solipsistic plot-line, the primary and lasting appeal of this movie is in the realm of ideas, and in the way in which it depicts a world, or world-view, in which modern science is included within a larger and humanistic (American) culture. Discuss…

Describe in filmic terms the presentation in this movie of the image or notion that the earth is not a suitable home-planet for humankind. Is the filmic image simple, consistent… If ambiguous, what sort of ambiguity is inherent in this notion/image? (Might supra-human energies help humans to fix the planet rather than leave it?)

If, as it seems, it is difficult depict a protagonist in film who is convincing as both a good person and a good scientist, why is this so? Is film too visual to depict science-type thinking; Is genuine science too weighty for a general (American) audience; or Are directors, like everyone else, science-phobic? Why are the only convincingly depicted scientists in this film the two secondary characters who are also bad scientists because they are one-dimensional scientists? Does the female NASA doctor-of-science undergo a conversion to humane-scientist? Does the main character himself undergo any conversion from practical pilot to scientist?

Bonus: Consider as specifically as possible the emotional effect of the father-daughter reunion scene. Is such an effect primarily due to visual, psychological, storyline, thematic, or else other causes?

The Great Gatsby (the movie)

In the novel of the same name we must largely rely upon the observations of a literary narrator, Mr. Nick Carraway, for our apprehensions of this new or natural aristocrat, Mr. Gatsby. We may as well trust this same narrator because, as he claims, he seems to possess a neutral, tolerant, and objective sensibility/personality-somewhat like the modern movie camera. But Nick also states in a couple of extreme phrases that he himself did not like nor exactly trust Gatsby. This phrasing must be Nick's own acknowledgement to the reader that he himslef (loosely speaking) identifies yet as a member of the multi-generational wealth-aristocry, and thus he himself will be genetically predisposed to deny the claims of any and all pretenders. Again, though, that element which essentially motivates Carraway's narrative interest in Gatsby, a certain fascination, is what effectively keeps readers hopeful...
The movie presents an engaging, careful, and interesting psychological transposition of the plot-content of the novel, but at the same time, and because this movie-version is psychological, it also must leave out that most significant (if largely implied) dimension of the novel which I will now label as being sociological. Similarly, if this movie does (and quite convincingly) explain the motivations and motives of a certain Mr. Gatsby, then it must also fail to adequately explain Gatsby as character in the novel, who, it seems to me, must necessarily remain partially inexplicable, and somewhat mysterious and/or mythical. As a respectful (and one might hope ultimately worthwhile as well...) interpretative-transposition of the novel into a different medium, I can admit that this movie works. But with such a positive evaluation we need to keep in mind that the movie may have, it does have, different themes, and is also less ambitious as art than the novel.
Though more indirectly and less emotively than in the novel itself, the movie's narrator, also called Nick, is so deeply affected by the happenings relating to one, Mr. Gatsby, that he requires psychological catharsis; A psychological journal-narrative allows him (and us, via cinema re-creation) to re-experinece this past. He adds the word "great" to the title of his just-finished journal, thus indicting his abiding respect-and at this point as well we might attempt to make the case that the film in various ways does cinematically wish to uphold a more ideal Mr. Gatsby... But it seems to me that because of its chosen psychological mode the movie hardly (that is, less obviously) leaves us with Gatsby as hero. Rather, the Gatsby character becomes unrealistic; the DeCaprio character dies out of touch with the real world... This cannot be heroic!
In the novel's Plaza Hotel scene things do begin to turn against the great Gatsby. Daisy reluctantly states her intention to leave her husband for Gatsby, but then, after some financial insults or insinuations made by her husband, Daisy is soon afterwards definitely inclining towards remaining with her husband-continuing in her present wealth and circumstance. Her reasoning here is not further explicated for our benefit, and readers must (and will) guess at what (sociological it seems to me) forces compelled her in this direction. (Marriage, like wealth-aristocracy, is also an institution...) But in Mr. Luhrmann's movie, this scene comes off as a more explicit and very psychological (if also more democratic) turning point:
Within this scene in the novel, Nick (observant as always) labels Daisy's husband a "prig," and then he also notes for a brief moment that Gatsby may have evidenced on his face a murderous sort of hatred (according to those bits of gossip going around about Gatsby-which Nick himslef doesn't believe...). Then Nick also states that the financial accusations made at this moment against Gatsby were not really so serious... But in the filmic version/transposition Gatsby will blow his aristiocratic cool long enough for all present to see. The DeCaprio character, Gatsby, seemingly commit a very obvious if also plebian mistake; he commits that proverbial flase step; his anger at being insulted seems to expose an essentialy cheap allegiance: Gatsby is not really an aristocrat. And then it is also because of this uncharacteristic anger (within the movie) that we may conclude that Daisy has excuse for rejecting him. Gatsby's demise within the movie begins here, but he himself dosent't seem to see this as clearly as the others characters already do...
Not so long after, in both film and movie, the narrator offers an imaginative re-consruction of Gatsby's last few minutes... as Gatsby is waiting by his swimming pool for a possible call from Daisy:

"I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn't believe it would come and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves..."

Is this personal intrusion upon Gatsby's psychology or does the narrator believe (and accurately) that Gatsby himself recognized that he, Gatsby, must loose, must fail? The novel leaves much of this sort of questioning unanswered and so, ultimately, within the realm of the ambiguous.
There are certainly adequate grounds mentioned within the novel's own text for following a tragic or socially-deterministic interpretation; that is, Fitzgerald offers ammunition to those who want to follow the negative route: money, establishment, whatever, will never allow such a decent character to succeed. They did him in-as they always will. Wealth even has its two-time lackeys to do its bidding. And with its eyeglass-billboard ad the movie seems to prefer such a tack. (Those eyes fixed upon the poor neighborhood will soon be turned around upon the behaviors of a wealthy neighborhood as well...)
But some will still read the novel as giving support to belief that the Gatsby character, though failing with his feminine ideal, Daisy, has not come to the end of his ambitions nor abilities; That he might accommodate this major setback and still go on to act as the natural aristocrat. It was actually just a bit of unnatural or circumstantial bad luck that was his undoing.
pk(September, 2013)

Zero Dark Thirty

As a rule I do not write reviews about movies which I have only seen on TV screen or computer. In the present instance I break my own rule (and then some) by reviewing a movie which I haven’t seen. I am not really so worried about this since I notice via the Metacritic website that quite a few have given it high ratings, and because I have also now read (quite carefully) a few of the more articulate persons who have complained about the torture depicted in the movie. So with the indirect assistance of all of these competent persons I shall attempt to triangulate my attention upon the movie in question and produce if possible an even more insightful review than has been yet offered.

First, I expect and hope that this movie is about lack of intelligence and not just intelligence; that is, it must be not just about the rush to obtain that one item of pragmatic intelligence-where one self-declared enemy of the American State is hiding. In our own Reality as in this movie depiction there is a larger background, and that background is the two (largely self-interested) cultures of the Arab/Islamic Middle East and the English speaking USA. So my first thematic hint is to pay attention to the presentation of languages and to translators/translation in the movie. This interface must at least hint at a lack of intelligence in the non-pragmatic and larger meaning of that word. Lack of intelligence; problems with our supposed intelligence.

Why recently have the CIA’s director, or Senators, etc. not issued statements saying that this movie’s depiction of the role of the one female agent within this larger operation-That this is not historically accurate? (If, as historical, fact one female agent did succeed against the whole of the operational establishment, then twenty years from now this history in the history books will have a semi-mythic quality.) But I expect that as viewers we are smart enough to accept this central female figure as filmmaking choice, that is, sensibly and without making too much fuss we allow ourselves some residual ambiguity as to the ultimate historical significance of this one female agent. One emotional woman succeeds while cooperative and rationalistic pragmatism seems stymied.

Ot first consideration, the torture content and its inclusion as movie content may seem not to be analogous to the freedom which we have just allowed the filmmaker in choice of main character. Torture seems more than a plot point. Torture reflects negatively upon those who engage in it. One criticism, I suppose, of this torture content might be that this dubious activity must not be exaggerated because it will make us, the USA, look bad. But this, the patriotic complaint, is seldom the complaint given (unless by Sen. McCain). Instead, the complaint has been along the lines that if there was torture, we, being honest Americans, we want that torture exposed. But the movie errs in allowing torture to be essential within the plot line of the movie. Torture appears too obviously to be instrumental to pragmatic success. Such a complaint then accepts the success of our mission, but doesn’t want torture to have been (direct) means to that success. The director of such a movie must question torture as acceptable means rather than support torture to any significant degree within their re-created historical-narrative plot-line. Else people will say that torture is OK. Else this would be opposite to the direction towards which we wish society to go, towards which we should be educating people...

For any red-neck there certainly awaits within this movie a hook. But I believe red-neck patriots as well as other Americans will also be quite aware of the possibility of such a hook on their way in to the theatre. I hope to enjoy this depiction of historic American success up on the big screen but I also hope that my feelings in response will be somewhat measured, reasonable, sensible, Triumph, but not too much, else it’s just advertisement. We can guess then, and correctly, that this movie will not promote a too simplistic and purely one-sided patriotism no matter how enjoyable such a presentation could be for an audience. Expecting too much cheerleading our own patriotism will catch us...

But other reactions made to this movie demonstrate another less obvious hook. That juicy thing that looks like an insect floating on the water, the torture issue, is apparently so appealing that certain persons (the factual-rationalisically inclined ?) cannot but swallow it whole. -But to, first complete my larger point: Is not this second hook very similar to the first?

An excessive patriotism will not care about anything else out there, out beyond the borders. But as well, a nation pushed to the extreme of engaging in torture to gain “intelligence” means that other avenues for intelligence gathering must be sharply limited. It suggests national provincialism of some kind. The FBI may wish to torture their recently apprehended mafioso, but they can also quite easily monitor his previous contacts within this country, etc. We, the USA, engage in torture (it must be) because we remain so much in the dark as to what the culture of the Arab Middle East is, how its people think, are thinking. (If we had a network, or if money worked, then we might obtain intelligence like was done in the former East Germany.)

We torture because we are under duress but more importantly simply because we lack other methods. The torture issue then should expose our continued culpability as cultural ignorants. Why then do we understand (in the full meaning of that word-) so little about the culture which Bin Laden, for a while at least, was trying to influence?

In a recent article in the New York Review of Books Mr. Steve Coll claims that Zero Dark Thirty is disturbing and misleading. I appreciate Mr. Coll’s candor in his analysis and I may be setting him up as something of a straw man here in my pseudo-movie-review but I do believe he is one of those persons who have been hooked by this torture issue as topic; hung up on the one issue, caught.

To be strict or fair, in his article he is not reviewing a movie as much as much as he is reviewing the documentary and factual aspects of this same docu-movie, but even here I will stand up for arts prerogatives vis a vis Mr. Coll’s extensive resume in journalistic reporting, editing, and his Middle East experience. The movie does not claim to be the definitive interpretation of this elimination of one nasty terrorist, does it? Of course (as we both agree) these events are only partially digested, assimilated by us, American society, the culture victimized... But why theoretically might movie-art not contribute more towards this effort than journalism itself? I expect that this is what the director/writer are trying to achieve however much or minimally they succeed in their attempt. They are trying to help us interpret and not primarily interested in giving us conventional facts.

The TV-news mode of presentation is a ready means for the varied purposes of the cinematographer in a way that it is not for the playwright. The ordinary person on the street knows that the line between video news and reality is already blurred, and I believe that ordinary viewers of this movie as well, can also note to themselves, should they wish to do so, that torture is not good as means... Why does Mr. Coll nitpick? When will we ever have all the torture facts here, all the actual motivations?

Going out on a limb here... my psychological comment would be that an easy rationalism is as enjoyable as an easy patriotism. Ambiguity is is the more difficult route; either easy simplification is a hook, a distraction, diversion.

Mr. Tarrantino’s recent films may not ultimately contribute so much to our debate about problematic qualities of Nazism, slavery, violence, but I am also quite sure that that is what he would like for audiences to do... to grapple, even if he himself doesn’t solve. But the interpretative question must be whether the director’s cinematic product conduces at least in some small degree to improved awareness. If not, then the movie is at best entertainment, advertisement. Or else, as in recent news, background checks for gun buyers could be a good idea as law. But does this operate now as social excuse? Wouldn’t (if it were possible) awareness, evaluation of our own culture-good and bad-of guns/violence, wouldn’t this be more helpful. How about requiring a background check on American history and culture... But who is capable of such insightful, accurate discussion of one’s own culture? Who would listen to it? Who really understands those persons over there on the other side of the Mediterranean?

In part just because this movie allows the reality of torture to remain problematic I thus note that it probably wishes to deal with Reality rather than simplifying it away. ( To choose this subject matter and then avoid all inclusion of torture would be an even more bizarre alternative.) I give the movie a 7.5 to 9 and if after seeing the movie my evaluation moves outside that range I promise to write a movie-review retraction with full explanation.

I hope that Zero Dark Thirty does deal thematically (and to effect) with my preferred background themes of ignorance, lack of cultural understanding. The background issue even after the elimination of Bin Laden must yet be how the Western and Islamic worlds interact-understand one another. This remains hundreds and hundreds of times bigger as issue-(to phrase it rhetorically)-than whether we are abiding by our own standards of military-espionage interrogation.

Nova: Becoming Human

(three one hour episodes which can be viewed at the Nova website)
Director and writer, Graham Townsley

This is a carefully arranged and interesting overview of the latest scientific ideas about ancient human ancestry, from six million years ago through to Neanderthal remains. As a documentary it includes the now obligatory "dramatic" elements of exerpted sentences from real experts, video recreations of discoveries at the original locations, and also some imaginatively constructed footage of what such human ancestors could have looked like...if captured by the modern video camera. But thankfully it does also include more science content, it seems to me at least, than many other Nova episodes...

As something of a scientific illiterate (and I expect that much of my reading audience may in the same demographic) I remember that my own vague notions about human origins were significantly influenced by the Lucy discovery (1974-Wikipedia) as being a claimed link between early primates and human beings. But any such vague notions which I might have had are now out of date. New discoveries since the 1970’s require a new and better science...

A dogmatist for science might claim that scientific knowledge doesn’t change, that is, it was never wrong, rather, it simply improves. But also quite obviously, when a science is based upon a relatively minimal collection of fossilized skulls, skeletons, and chipped stones, and when a few new fossilized skulls and skeletons are discovered, this new material can change the “science” or the knowledge a great deal. And this is what is happening (or what must now happen) because of discoveries... some of which have been very recently in the news: skulls from Dmanisi Georgia, and the hobbit like remains from Flores, Indonesia found in 2003.

These three Nova episodes descriptively span six million years, but what I found most interesting (and telling, I would hope also) is observing the way in which a science can and must now re-configure itself (that is, the science of paleo-anthropology) just because of such new discoveries. Science, evolution science, is not at all a fixed or unchanging business.

The view now is that there were numerous bi-pedal walking-primates– since some half-dozen or more partial examples of these have been found from approximately 3 million years ago. But these were all relatively short in stature. What induced the need for a taller Homo erectus, such as the almost complete Turkana Boy skeleton (1.5 m years ago) which was discovered just a few years ago? At five foot three inches tall and nine years old (estimated from analysis of its teeth) he would grow to 6’2” or so. It is not difficult to imagine that such tall animals, could have walked out of Africa to Peking or Europe. But wait, the Dmaninsi specimens, dated to 1.8 million years ago, are small of stature. Did the short Homo erectus types from Georgia walk out of Africa also?

The Homo floresiensis remains from Indonesia are even more troubling. Should these actually be entitled to the categorization of the Homo genus if (and this is my uninformed insertion here...) they may have been human-like three-foot-high creatures who made use of stone tools, but perhaps human-like animals evolved from chimps/bonobos rather than the larger primates..? And what then might such a scenario mean.. as myth? When mythic resonances are too bizarre, then “explanations” may not even register...

But the more comprehensive and modern theory in human-origins science takes occasion from the geologic record of 200 thousand years of erratic and quite extreme climate fluctuation in African and the east Africa rift valley region. What prompted bipedal apes during this time period to become human-like tool makers? As Mr. Rick Potts enunciates his major theory just for this show’s video, the climactic up and down would have been mastered by a newer sort of species “adapted to change itself,” i.e., the new Homo erectus, a species able to handle such catastrophic African environmental change.

As bare idea, this of course is certainly quite interesting, but as explanation (as in scientific explanation) this strikes me as as being an explanation which may simply explain too much, that is, an explanation which cannot be genuine. Let me explain.

I made my way some years ago through Alvin Toffler’s book, Future Shock, and this was also a time not too long ago when the future and its changeableness were actually foreboding. Walter Cronkite assured us that we would be OK, but whether we could cope psychologically with technological change was not (–as seems to be now) a forgone assumption.

We are now unafraid of change, unafraid of future technological complexities. But does this suggest that we have necessarily progressed, become more mature as such?

It was something of a truism for Emerson and Thoreau that increased communication would tend to result in less rather than more human diversity of character. If farmer and city-artisan remain separate, they also have disparate life experiences and thus develop different notions of the universe. Where huge numbers of people share the same Facebook or Twitter-type experience their life-experience becomes limited to such a shared and homogeneous similarity; They may become almost one individual living separate lives but within the one shared and artificial world...

It may be flattering to imagine that the ability to adapt to worldwide and instantaneous communication–that this is the sort of skill which explains the essence of humanness. But adaptability may itself be a reductive conformism, and not an explanation for any sort of cognitive breakthrough..

Another modern explanation, the fire theory, fire as catalyst for human social qualities, this seems similarly tenuous and at the same time (and likely unavoidably) grandiose. Again, as idea merely it is fine; but as explanation for eventual human traits it seems to me that it is being asked to carry too much weight. After all, I might prefer (as an artist) the notion that it was the creative and playful impulse from some one early individual playing around with rocks, learning stone sculpture as artistic expression–this was the breakthrough towards humanness. This would mean that the artistic impulse is that trait which is central in any scientific definition of what modern human beings are. I might further suggest that we orient our society towards promoting and paying properly for this most central and original of all human traits. Perhaps I not only developed stone sculpture as art and set us out on the path to humanness, but also passed on the stone-working techniques to my more practical clan fellows.. Art-consciousness is where it all begins...

Could the crossing pattern carved in the South African cave be the work of a budding computer scientist who was trying to conceptualize ON/OFF as the expressive foundation for a language? What do you make of the x shapes carved in the side of the cave?

Unusual discoveries mean that the science is wide open; the science isn’t complete; explanation is required. The dogmatic scientist may say that we know what the conclusion will look like: a genetic and strictly biological descent from primate to modern human. The more sensible humanist (such as myself) would prefer to insist that all of the sciences are contained among the humanities and that there is no one of the humanities (or sciences, for that matter..) capable now or in the near future of definitively and comprehensively declaring what being human means...

paul kragt 9/2011