WTF do they know?

“As Deepak Chopra taught us, quantum physics means anything can happen at any time for no reason.”
– Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth

My fiancee and I watched What the Bleep Do We Know? Why? Because it was there. By reputation it is a terrible new-age movie that claims to be about science. The film makers attempt to explain quantum mechanics and neurochemistry, in the service of a general squishy feel-good message similar to “The Secret” implying that if you send positive energy to the universe, good things will happen to you.

Some of the movie kind of, sort of, almost conveys some important ideas of science successfully. They describe the double slit experiment; they take a stab at chaos theory, in which small random interactions affect macroscopic objects. They also, unfortunately, attempt to have a plot. I want to focus in on that, since it doesn’t seem to be discussed in many reviews.

Early in the movie they introduce a lady who is a deaf magazine photographer. She is portrayed as a severe grouch, so I pegged what this character was for right away. “Aha,” I said. “I’ll bet this character is going to be initially skeptical of whatever claims the movie is trying to make, and then she will be won over in the end.”

It’s a lazy technique that yields a required character in many styles of evangelistic tract: the converted skeptic proxy. It operates under the same principle as the old “I used to be an atheist” claim. The message is: “This character is you, skeptic. She has been where you’ve been, and she was convinced. If you are reasonable like her, you will be convinced too.”

I say it’s a lazy technique because the writers are not attempting to win you over through the legitimate strength of their arguments; instead, they want to lower your defenses by getting you to identify with their position. Last week on the show I mentioned that it’s like a car salesman telling you “I’ve driven every car, and this one’s the best.” Oh, okay! No need for me to do my own comparison shopping then. This salesman seems like a reasonable and completely unbiased chap. (Analogy gratefully borrowed from Slacktivist — Thanks, Fred!)

So yes, this lady does not believe in quantum mechanics or love or happiness, and sure enough, her life suffers for it. And when I say “suffers” I mean she appears to be experiencing a buffet table’s worth of unintentionally hilarious mental disorders. She screams “I hate you!!!” at herself in the mirror. She suffers Vietnam-like flashbacks to her past bad relationship when a guy starts coming on to her. Later, while drunk, she starts to hallucinate her mental hangups as tiny computer animated blobby monsters. You see, reasonable people don’t disagree with the movie’s thesis. Only sad, sad individuals with massive emotional baggage. You aren’t that kind of person, are you? I sure hope not! Now, about that car I’d like to sell you…

The first sign that this movie was going to infuriate me came when one of the Very Serious Narrators explained with a straight face how the minds of Native Americans operated when the Europeans arrived to conquer them. It turns out that they couldn’t see the ships coming. I don’t mean they were distracted and didn’t happen to notice them. In a dramatic reenactment, the tribe’s shaman was staring directly at the approaching ships, and he literally could not see anything. You see, explains the Very Serious Narrator, these massive ships were so far outside the normal day to day experience for these natives, that their minds refused to process them. Eventually, the shaman points out the ripples on the water, and as everyone tries to figure out what’s causing them, POOF — suddenly there is the ship, plainly visible to all, thanks to the magic of camera tricks.

This is, of course, straight out of Douglas Adams.

“Can you see,” said Ford patiently, “the SEP?”

“I thought you said that was somebody else’s problem.”

“That’s right.”

Arthur nodded slowly, carefully and with an air of immense stupidity.

“And I want to know,” said Ford, “if you can see it.”

“You do?”

“Yes.”

“What,” said Arthur, “does it look like?”

“Well, how should I know, you fool?” shouted Ford. “If you can see it, you tell me.”

Arthur experienced that dull throbbing sensation just behind the temples which was a hallmark of so many of his conversations with Ford. His brain lurked like a frightened puppy in its kennel. Ford took him by the arm.

“An SEP,” he said, “is something that we can’t see, or don’t see, or our brain doesn’t let us see, because we think that it’s somebody else’s problem. That’s what SEP means. Somebody Else’s Problem. The brain just edits it out, it’s like a blind spot. If you look at it directly you won’t see it unless you know precisely what it is. Your only hope is to catch it by surprise out of the corner of your eye.”

There is, of course, a subtle difference between that scene and this one: Douglas Adams was deliberately writing comedy.

So naturally, while we were heckling this movie, the question that immediately came to mind was: “How The Bleep™ do they know that?” I mean, it’s not like you can go back and question the natives about their experiences. They didn’t leave a lot of written material about it either; and even if they did, how would you really know that the ships were actually invisible to them, and the shaman wasn’t just covering his ass out of embarrassment?

This is a place where we can ask the film makers, because the question is right there on the official What The Bleep™ web site. You’re going to think I’m making this up but I’m not, so prepare to be astounded.


My mother is stuck on the question of where the information on Columbus and the Native Americans came from. She can’t seem to get past the part where the shaman ‘showed’ them the ships, and then they were able to see them. Where did this story come from?
Thanks,
Amy Proctor

[Good question, exactly what I was thinking. Thanks, Amy!]

The story of the Native American’s inability to see the clipper ships from Europe has two aspects to it: physiological and anecdotal.

[Ummm... evasive. Bad start.]

Any journalist is familiar with the phenomenon of asking three different people to relate the “facts” at an accident scene, only to receive three different versions of the “facts.”

[Yeah, people have bad memories. So... you're saying that the cars are invisible to some of them? Let's skip past this, seems pretty empty.]

Pattern recognition depends on familiarity. An example of this is experiments done by Colin Blakemore and G.F. Cooper in the 1960s…

[Blah, blah, blah, not answering the question. Skipping...]

I have personally experienced this
as a truth, raising two wolves from 6 week-old pups. Frankly, I thought the male had brain damage. For months he never looked at me directly

[WHAT THE BLEEP™ HAS ANY OF THIS GOT TO DO WITH HOW YOU KNEW ABOUT THE INDIANS???]

Now for the more anecdotal origins of the story,

[Oh good, FINALLY they're going to answer the damn question.]

which Candace Pert refers to as “A wonderful story I believe is true…”

[Aw, crap.]

Co-writer and producer Betsy Chasse says, “Other scientists related the same story to us.” And, apparently, there are references to the tale in an historical document made by an early missionary in the South Americas. This document, unfortunately, has not yet been found.

So now you know as much as we do about the origins of the tale!

[Are you bleeping kidding me?]

So that’s it, right there, in their own words. The story is made up. They have a flimsy tale, told twelfth hand, and they have no source for it whatsoever. But they decided to treat it as fact in the movie in service of their point.

Elsewhere in the movie, they use more Very Serious Narrators to great effect, in one case citing the works of one Dr. Masaru Emoto, whose experiments in the exciting field of writing words on glasses of water have revealed that water can read and respond to English phrases by forming crystals that are “beautiful” or “ugly,” depending on the sentiment behind the words. This is explained via an intellectual sounding museum tour guide, while soft classical music plays. That’s how you know it’s gotta be true.

In case you haven’t got the point, someone bonks you over the head with it: “Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? If thoughts can do that to water, imagine what they can do to us.” And then that phrase returns through echoey aural flashbacks about five more times throughout the movie, as our deaf photographer skeptic proxy is sitting around wallowing in her own inadequacy and thinking about what a shallow, emotionless bitch she’s been.

One of the worst scientific atrocities the movie commits is constantly confusing “subatomic particles” with “mental processes.” Heck, they both involve little tiny things, and all little tiny things are the basically same, right? So they’ll say something true (“The state of an electron changes when you observe it!”) and something else true but completely unrelated (“Your brain is made of neurons!”) and then they’ll draw a nonsensical parallel from it, sounding superficially plausible but abandoning any pretense of anything you could actually research or falsify (“Therefore, if you imagine something existing, on some level it really does exist!”)

The woman’s story has a happy ending, of course: She scribbles little hearts all over her body with a sharpie, causing an instant attitude adjustment. People who knew her when she was one of those horrible skeptics come away reeling in shock because she was nice to them for a change. Or perhaps, based on her newly acquired facial expression of pure bliss, she is just intensely stoned.

The Very Serious People who explain things throughout the movie are a mish-mash of folks who are often bearded and are never identified until the credits are rolling. Some of them appear to be actual experts in real scientific fields, which explains why the movie occasionally manages to briefly make sense before cutting away from those people. Of course, the most sensible of the scientists is David Albert, who publicly disassociated himself from the film, saying:

“I am, indeed, profoundly unsympathetic to attempts at linking quantum mechanics with consciousness. Moreover, I explained all that, at great length, on camera, to the producers of the film …Had I known that I would have been so radically misrepresented in the movie, I would certainly not have agreed to be filmed.”

And then, of course, there’s Ramtha.

Apparently this is common knowledge among aficionados of crackpottery, but I honestly had no idea that there was a sixty-something year old middle American lady who, since the late seventies, has been going around claiming to channel a 35,000 year old warrior from Atlantis. I found this out on the internet in between my first and second sittings (what, you think I could watch this drivel in one go??). Before I knew who she was, all I could think about her was: “Who is this ridiculous lady and why are they expecting me to take the stuff that’s coming out of her mouth seriously?” After I learned more about her, my reaction was more like “OH GOD, OH GOD, THAT STUPID ACCENT, MAKE IT STOP.” I guess my brain filtered out the crummy accent that she was putting on before, because it was outside of my normal experience and so I could not hear it. (“I thought you said that was somebody else’s problem!”)

Anyway, like Stephen Colbert, apparently Ramtha only speaks to the cameras “in character,” which is why she is credited at the last minute, not as “JZ Knight,” but as: “Ramtha, Master Teacher – Ramtha School of Enlightenment. Channeled by JZ Knight”. Woohoo! Who needs scientific credibility when you have a Master Teacher at your disposal?

It was a terrible, terrible movie. Not terrible like a hilarious Mystery Science Theater target. Terrible like “If you locked prisoners in a room and forced them to watch this movie, you would be violating the ‘cruel and unusual’ clause.”

Scientist portrayal in Avatar

I’ve seen Avatar twice now. I already reviewed it on my personal blog. I didn’t love it exactly, but I had to see it a second time because, despite its flaws, I knew my seven year old would think it was awesome. He did.

However, I do want to add one quick thing about it. In the past, I’ve complained often about the way movies portray scientists as closed minded eggheads who don’t understand the way the world really works, and skeptics are regarded as blind fools who wouldn’t recognize evidence that’s whacking them over the head with a cricket bat. For more of this discussion, see the Atheist Experience archive, episode #530 about “Skeptical straw men in fiction.”

One thing that Avatar really has going for it is that the scientist characters were clearly right. The military wanted to charge in with guns blazing; the scientists just wanted to study the planet’s ecosystem and establish diplomatic relations. The scientists emphatically were not egotists filled with hubris who were tampering with forces of nature they did not understand. And when they talked nerd talk, it’s presented as charming. They got geeked out and excited about the stuff they were seeing, and this was treated with affection for new discoveries. When Grace visits a new part of the world in order to try to treat her serious wounds, the first thing she says is “I have to take some samples!”

So the movie itself was thoroughly implausible all the way through, and the political aspects were annoyingly oversimplified. But treating scientists as real good guys and giving them believable reactions counts for something in my book.

Fireproof

Here’s another Kirk Cameron movie that I’ll never have to watch now. Thanks, Everything Else Atheist!

After a heroic rescue and doctor drama, Cameron’s at home again, on the Internet looking at boats, an established hobby. An ad pops up – “wanna see? Click here!” Adblock plus and firefox will take care of that little annoyance, I tell you. I think it leads to porn, but since they dance around it and never say the word porn, it’s a bit hard to tell. Maybe the sexy girl in the photo wants to show him her enormous Jenga collection, maybe it’s a rickroll. We will never know, because he flips out, gets up and emotionally beats himself for thinking about clicking on that link. With the help of the advice book, he decides not only to not click the link, but to take his computer outside and destroy it with a baseball bat.

Honestly… who among us has psychological problems that can’t be solved with a simple baseball bat?

Batman Begins, Gotham and Gomorrah: (Shows #556 & 562)

I have gotten repeated requests to provide some sort of summary on this two-part program. I’ve been slow to provide it, because, frankly, it’s a lot of material. But here goes:

This show was billed as “How Batman Begins is based on the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah.” However, it is fairer to say it shares many commonalities with the tale. I have nothing from the writers of this film indicating they intended a modern retelling of the tale—but a modern retelling of the tale it is, intentional or not.

Background on Sodom and Gomorrah:
The myth of Sodom’s and Gomorrah’s destruction is found in Genesis, chapters 18 and 19. It is a simple plot. God comes down to meet his loyal subject Abraham. God shares his plans to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. He has heard reports that the cities are—well, actually I’m not sure what he’s heard specifically. What the cities are guilty of is never clearly revealed. Basically, He’s heard that they’ve been very, very naughty. And he plans to investigate the allegations, after which, he’ll know for sure if what he’s heard is true.

God never states that he has any intention of destroying the cities, but Abraham gets that impression, and Yahweh doesn’t dispute him. Abraham has a history of unquestioning obedience to Yahweh (look up “Abraham and Isaac”). But here, the same man who would have murdered his own son as a human sacrifice to God points out that god’s plan could be considered unjust. Abraham’s plea amounts to the idea that there must be good people in the city, and that god, righteous as he is, would never kill good people in his lust for vengeance against those who are, for whatever reason, judged to be wicked. Abraham, being for a moment almost a humanist, tries to reason with Yahweh to save the cities by appealing to His pride and reputation (it should stand out that he doesn’t attempt an appeal to Yahweh’s compassion), “Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked…Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

In what is perhaps the most famous aspect of the story, Abraham bargains with god to spare the cities for the sake the righteous. Yahweh says he will spare them if he can find 10 such people. Later, the cities are destroyed without any confirmation whatsoever in the story of how many “righteous people” were found. Actually, there’s no account of any attempt at investigation on Yahweh’s part to try to determine the number of “righteous people” in the cities. We go straight from the scene where God tells Abraham he’ll spare the city for 10 righteous people, to a new scene where two angels (who had accompanied Yahweh during his visit to Abraham’s) are imploring Lot and his family to leave the doomed locales. Lot is Abraham’s nephew, who lives in the area. So, without any recorded tally of righteous people, the cities are marked for destruction.

If I assume, as most Christians do, there were less than 10 righteous people in the cities, it still appears that, like the myth of The Flood, children don’t count. There is no indication in the myth that any children were spared, pitied, or even considered for the briefest moment.

We’re left to guess what the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah might have been and to guess how many righteous people Yahweh was ultimately willing to destroy for the sake of vengeance. But that’s the tale in a nutshell.

The Characters of the Bible Story:
Yahweh (and his angels): Powerful, supernatural being bent on the vengeful destruction of the cities after judging them wicked beyond salvation. Spiritual “father” to Abraham.

Abraham: Loyal follower of Yahweh who tries to intervene to save the cities for the sake of the righteous.

Lot: Abraham’s nephew who lives in the area.

The Wicked: They make a brief appearance as a mob who mean to inflict harm on Lot’s angel guests.

The Righteous: Never make an appearance. In some sense Lot and some of his family may be part of this group.

The Storyteller: The Hebrew adherent who puts forward the story and creates the other characters in conjunction with the spiritual beliefs of the religious institution of which he is a part.

The Characters of the Film:
Batman Begins has pretty much the same roster.

Ra’s al Ghul: Leader of a powerful organization (that shrouds itself in the trappings of supernatural power) bent on the destruction of the city of Gotham. According to Ra’s, “Gotham’s time has come…the city has become a breeding ground for suffering and injustice. It is beyond saving and must be allowed to die.” He claims the right of judge, jury and executioner. Ra’s is not portrayed as a compassionate humanist. He admits to Bruce openly that he is motivated by “vengeance.” Another clear parallel with Yahweh of the Bible.

It is important to note that while I initially identified Ra’s as correlating to “god” in the story, he actually appears to be the equivalent of the religious leader, who creates the character of god in order to empower his will and justify his actions. If we take the Bible story as fact, then Ra’s is playing the role of god—but the correlation then fails immediately, as Ra’s is not really supernatural, but only a very powerful man who feigns supernatural ability and immortality.

To the Christian viewer, Ra’s would be an imposter god, and, therefore, unjustified in his actions toward Gotham. This would produce a disconnect that would allow a Christian to accept the message of the film as not being critical of his god’s actions in Sodom. In other words, god acted rightly toward Sodom and Gommorah for no other reason than he is god. Ra’s, being a mere mortal, would not be justified in judging or meting out justice upon Gotham in the same way.

If, however, we take the story as a product of Hebrew religious myth from the point of view of a religious storyteller, then Ra’s (with his League of Shadows) correlates to a religious leader (and institution) who produces god to further his own goals. And, in that case the character of god would actually be completely lacking in the film—just as he is lacking in observable existence. All we have of god, then, in the film, are men who use the god concept (specifically the fear of it injected into others) to empower their own actions. So, we have a choice to go with an interpretation that fails to correlate with the Sodom story’s main character (god to man)—or one that successfully correlates (man-made symbol to man-made symbol), but only from an atheistic perspective.

Bruce Wayne: Correlates to Abraham—loyal follower of Ra’s who desires to support the will of Ra’s, until he begins to question the justice and benevolence of Ra’s’ actions and goals. In fact, even the famous Biblical bargaining scene is repeated in the film, as Bruce tries to reason with Ra’s that the city should be spared for the sake of the righteous. The culmination of the exchange is Bruce’s statement to Ra’s that, “Gotham isn’t beyond saving. Give me more time. There are good people here.” It is important to note here as well that Ra’s was ultimately responsible for Thomas Wayne’s death, after which he hand selected Bruce in a “lost” state and mentored him—becoming the father that was lost. Just as Yahweh is a surrogate father-god to Abraham.

Like Abraham, Bruce is not only interested in the welfare of the generic “righteous people,” but also those close to him (Lot and his family). The most celebrated righteous man in Gotham is no longer living. Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s father, appears to be in a blood line of righteous men. His virtues in helping people in the city of Gotham are repeated throughout the film, and even Thomas’ own ancestors are incorporated as good men. Alfred informs Bruce that his “great-great-gra
ndfather was involved in the Underground Railroad, secretly transporting freed slaves to the North.” The Wayne family is a righteous family from a humanitarian perspective.

Humanitarian goals, however, appear to conflict with the vengeance of Ra’s. In talking about his plans to destroy Gotham, he admits to Bruce, “Over the ages our weapons have grown more sophisticated. With Gotham we tried a new one. Economics. But we underestimated certain of Gotham’s citizens—such as your parents. Gunned down by one of the very people they were trying to help. Create enough hunger and everyone becomes a criminal. Their deaths galvanized the city into saving itself, and Gotham has limped on ever since. We are back to finish the job. And this time no misguided idealists will get in the way.”

Alfred and Rachael: Correlate to Lot and his family—those for whom Bruce cares. In general the generic Righteous People are also represented, and we even have an appeal to the idea of considering children among the victims—something sorely lacking in most Biblical destruction myths. There is a repeating character of a small boy who puts in a few cameos throughout the film.

There are other characters that bring hard realism into the film, which is one of the superior features of this film over the past Batman films. Gordon represents the struggle of man within corrupt social infrastructure—similar to Rachael’s character in many ways. His Quixote-style struggle to benefit society while constrained within the layers of a thoroughly corrupt social system is a flagrant anti-vigilante statement. We feel his frustration to the point of wondering at times why he even bothers to continue in his role as an officer of the law. But he still holds out hope—dwindling as it may be—that if a good system isn’t working, right action doesn’t include blowing up a building or killing people. He works as far as he is able, within the system, to correct what is broken and make it function successfully again. But he, alone, or at least disenfranchised from others of the same mind, can have little to no impact. (That is my one plug for the OUT movement.) This is quite contrary to Ra’s’ philosophy, “If someone stands in the way of true justice…you simply walk up behind them and stab them in the heart.”

Fox: Science and technology are represented as being on the side of reason and humanism. Fox is the sci-tech guru, and the film’s icon of calm reason. His character, immersed in science and reason, actually produces the antidote to “fear”—Ra’s’ weapon of choice, produced in mass quantities by his brilliant, but diabolical subordinate, Crane. If Fox is the epitome of calm reason, his opposite, Crane, is no less the epitome of calm insanity.

Crane: Supplies mass fear, in the form of a neurotoxin derived from a blue flower, that shrouds and empowers Ra’s. And like any faithful adherent to a religious leader or institution, he operates in his own self-interest—Ra’s’ promise of reward. Ra’s explains to Bruce, “He thought our plan was to hold the city to ransom.” Also, during a discussion with Falcone, Crane makes a statement that is reminiscent of the religious adherent proselytizing or the Old Testament prophet, “I am more than aware that you are not intimidated by me, Mr. Falcone. But you know who I’m working for, and when he gets here…”

It is clearly then a struggle between a group of a humanist mindset and a group using fear and deception (of a false supernature) in order to gain power and wreak indiscriminate vengeance upon a population Ra’s has judged unfit to go on living.

The quotes supporting the use of supernature and fear as weapons against the masses are so thick it’s hard to cull them. But, below, I supply a batch as examples.

On Supernature and Deception (being more than a man in the minds of others):
Ra’s/Ducard: Theatricality and deception are powerful agents. You must become more than just a man in the mind of your opponent.

Ironically, this sentiment is echoed later by Bruce himself as he works out his Batman persona, “Theatricality and deception…are powerful weapons, Alfred.”

Ra’s/Ducard: You know how to disappear. We can teach you to become truly invisible…The ninja understands that invisibility is a matter of patience and agility.

Ra’s/Ducard: …if you make yourself more than just a man—if you devote yourself to an ideal…then you become something else entirely…Legend…

Bruce: People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy. I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man I’m flesh and blood, I can be ignored, destroyed. But as a symbol—as a symbol, I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting…Something elemental, something terrifying.

Finally, in a conversation between Ra’s and Bruce, humanism and reason stand up to supernatural claims to call them out for what they are:

Ra’s/Ducard: But is Ra’s al Ghul immortal? Are his methods supernatural?

Bruce: Or cheap parlor tricks to conceal your true identity, Ra’s?

Not to beat a dead horse, but in claiming the film puts forward a statement about religion, showing the repeated messages to this effect is necessary. In Batman Begins, it is not necessary to search with a fine-toothed comb for clues. It hammers us over the head with blatant and repeated messages throughout. Using the Sodom theme as our guide to the characters, Bruce is little more than a mouthpiece, stating outright that god is a cheap parlor trick—a mask—to conceal the real power of religious authority.

It’s no coincidence that masks play such an overwhelming role in this film. Ra’s hides behind a supernatural façade, but he is none other than Ducard. Crane plays the Scarecrow. And in a confusing string of masks, Bruce hides behind Batman, who hides behind Bruce. The “Bruce” we see dating models and buying expensive things is a front for Batman who is a front for the “real” Bruce. As Rachael points out near the end (talking about Bruce’s face), “This is your mask. Your real face is the one that criminals now fear.” This is interesting because of all the “masks”—Batman appears to be the only one that was “real.”

But clearly Ra’s, the deception of the supernatural “more than a man” mask (god), is used as a front to provide the League of Shadows (religious institutions) with unquestioned power. Unquestioned in the sense that so long as everyone is paid off (with Heaven) or scared (of Hell or social condemnation), nobody dares to question what’s in Falcone’s crates—to use another metaphor from the movie we’ll get to in a bit.

When Bruce stands up to Ra’s, we see humanism and reason confronting superstition, vengeance and fear in a struggle for the population, “I’ll be standing where I belong. Between you and the people of Gotham.”

In another response by Bruce, we hear him say, “This is just the beginning. If they hit the whole city [with Crane’s fear-inducing neurotoxin], there’s nothing to stop Gotham tearing itself apart.” In other words, if everyone is infected with fear, there will be no reasonable perspective left to restore order.

On Fear:
Ra’s/Ducard: …men fear most what they cannot see. You have to become a terrible thought. A wraith. You have to become an idea!

Ra’s/Ducard: Feel terror cloud your senses. Feel its power to distort—to control. And know that this power can be yours.

Ra’s/Ducard: To manipulate the fears in others…you must first master your own.

Rachel gives a potent speech on the paralyzing effect of fear: “As long as he [Falcone] keeps the bad people rich and the good people scared, no one will touch him. Good people like your [Bruce’s] parents, who’ll stand against injustice, they’re gone. What chance does Gotham have when the good people do nothing?”

Falcone sums up his take on fear with this, “…you always fear what you don’t understand.”

Crane illustrates how, rather than paralyzing, fear can also motivate dangerous reactions, “Patients suffering delusional episodes often focus their paranoia—on an external tormentor…” Who could forget the images of 9-11? How long have gays been persecuted in our own society? What was it like a few hundred years ago to be an apostate or a heretic? Irrational and paranoid fear is nearly all that is needed to motivate one group to unfairly, and with real animosity, unleash upon another. As Thomas Wayne explained to Bruce about the bats, “You know why they attacked you, don’t you? They were afraid of you.” He also, reasonably notes that those who would use fear against others must understand fear themselves—that is, be subject to the effects of fear, “All creatures feel fear…especially the scary ones.”

On Compassion:
When Ra’s begins his attack on Gotham, he nonchalantly informs Bruce, “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a city to destroy.”

Ra’s take on compassion clashes noticeably with all of the characters of Reason in the film. Finch, Rachael’s boss, small part that he plays, even understands that addressing wrongdoing should not include disregard for the well being of those who are not to blame. When the investigation threatens to put Rachael in harm’s way, Finch makes it clear, “…as much as I care about getting Falcone, I care more about you.”

In a telling exchange between Ra’s and Bruce, we see the conflict between vengeance and compassion hightlighted:

Ra’s/Ducard: Your compassion is a weakness your enemies will not share.

Bruce: That’s why it’s so important. It separates us from them.

On Justice vs. Vengeance:
No character in the film disputes the corruption levels of Gotham. The question is only one of how to address the problem in the most appropriate way—through blind vengeance or through reasoned justice combined with compassion? Although this is clearly addressed several times in the dialogue, perhaps the clearest expression is between Bruce and Rachael:

Rachel: You’re not talking about justice. You’re talking about revenge.

Bruce: Sometimes, they’re the same.

Rachel: No, they’re never the same. Justice is about harmony. Revenge is about you making yourself feel better. It’s why we have an impartial system.

Later, Bruce recognizes Rachael’s point, “I was a coward with a gun, and justice is about more than revenge.”

Religious Language and Symbolism:
Other religious language in the film is not to be overlooked, quotes like these pepper the exchanges:

Ra’s/Ducard: When I found you in that jail, you were lost. But I believed in you. I took away your fear, and I showed you a path. You were my greatest student. It should be you standing by my side, saving the world.

Ra’s, posing as Ducard: Ra’s al Ghul rescued us from the darkest corners of our own hearts.

In contrast to the religious ideology of salvation via an external source, Thomas Wayne’s statement, often repeated in the script, is supportive of self-reliance and stands in stark contrast, “why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” Thomas’ other mantra is this: “Don’t be afraid.”

Alfred also asserts self-reliance and the idea that we make our own destinies: “I wouldn’t presume to tell you what to do with your past, sir. Just know that there are those of us who care about what you do with your future.”

Rachael has something to add to the discussion on self-reliance as well, “it’s not who you are underneath…it’s what you do that defines you.”

Even the murderer Joe Chill chimes in with a statement about responsibility for one’s actions, “Sure, I was desperate, like a lot of people back then…but that don’t change what I did.”

Other lines filtered through religion-colored lenses include:

Bruce: You’re not the devil. You’re practice.

Or more on lost states and salvation:

Ra’s/Ducard: …whatever your original intentions…you have become truly lost.

Bruce: And what path can Ra’s al Ghul offer?

Ra’s/Ducard: The path of a man who shares his hatred of evil…and wishes to serve true justice.

There are even a few lines that may strike chords with aficionados of Bible trivia:

When Batman is interrogating Flass, Flass shouts out, “I don’t know! I swear to god!” Batman replies, “Swear to ME!” If this sounds familiar, it should. Hebrews 6:13 states that “When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself.” In light of this passage in Hebrews, asking Flass to swear to Batman, rather than to god, produces a usurpation of the god symbol. With Bruce’s prior statements about creating the Batman symbol, which will follow Ra’s lead of making him “more than a man,” we see him, as a symbol of humanistic compassion and reason, raised to a supreme and unchallenged status—even above god. The dialogue now goes beyond Ra’s as a metaphor for god, to the use of the actual symbol god.

Another cameo religious line comes in toward the end when Bruce tells Ra’s, “let these people go.” This is nearly verbatim of a very famous religious quote from Moses (speaking on behalf of Yahweh) to Pharoah—another situation where an oppressed population required emancipation, and here again, Batman speaks words of his own that are, in Biblical terms, words from a god. Extremely interesting here, too, one minor change in the line is the switch from “my” (showing ownership) to “these” (showing autonomy). Batman demands their release on humanistic authority, respecting the human autonomy of those in danger. His power and will to help them requires no submission or reciprocation on their part. This is a slight, but highly significant difference in the two statements—as Yahweh’s assistance is always provided at a cost.

Perhaps the most clear contrast is a statement that reflects Jesus’ divine identity in the New Testament that he is “The Word,” and, subsequently, the Christian’s claim that they are “spreading The Word.” Ducard explains exactly what “spreading The Word” is really about: “Time to spread the word. And the word is—panic.”

Another interesting use of religious symbolism is found in the “rare, blue flower.” Bruce is told to climb a mountain—but he must carry a “rare, blue flower” with him. Ra’s puts it thus, “If you can carry it to the top of the mountain—you may find what you were looking for in the first place.” A friend who actually mountain climbs pointed out that this was his favorite scene. He went on to explain that the use of the words “if you can” should be a red flag. Climbing the mountain, he pointed out, is the hardship. Carrying a flower with you represents no challenge. So why carry the flower? Simply to show loyalty and obedience to Ra’s’ will. A viewer wrote in to point out that this flower represents “faith,” and that appears to be dead-on. Meanwhile, it is no surprise later in the film to find that this flower, faith, is used to produce a neurotoxin that imparts fear to the entire population when spread by Ra’s (the religious leader) and Crane (his adherent).

Further religious symbolism strikes when we consider that fear is used more than once to rebuff inquiry. As Falcone so clearly explains, “Ignorance is bliss, my friend. Don’t burden yourself with the secrets of scary people.” The writers illustrate his point when they have Finch try to investigate the contents of Falcone’s shipments at the docks. Finch is told by the guards, “Listen, counselor, we don’t wanna know what’s in Mr. Falcone’s crate.” Do not question. Do have faith. Use fear where bribes fail. If push co
mes to shove, get violent. Finch does, in fact, end up dead for his inquiry.

What defense is there against the effects of fear? Oddly enough, Crane hands us the key, “only the mind can grant you power.”

Ra’s uses Crane to make the blue flower of faith convert to fear, where it is described, in the film, as an honest to goodness mind poison. When Rachael is injected with it, Crane says, “the mind can only take so much.” And Bruce points out later that “she needs the antidote before the damage is permanent.” Could the effects of fear and faith poison the mind so as never to be undone? I certainly hope that’s not the case.

And who should produce the antidote to this mind poisoning fear brought on by faith, but Fox, the icon of reason and science—real inquiry and information. Later, Batman instructs that the antidote (provided by reason) must be administered to the entire population.

Even to the last, the film is a promotion of a humanist perspective. Gordon says to Batman that he never said “thank you.” And Batman replies, “you’ll never have to.”

Reason, humanity and justice serve humanity and require no homage—no money, no bloodletting of animals or of humans, no pledge of loyalty, not even gratitude. They demand no fear. They fear no inquiry. They provide equal support to everyone to pursue happiness and fulfillment in their lives, and they demand nothing in return for what they offer and provide. Perhaps with more works like Batman Begins on the market, more people will begin to consider taking advantage of those offerings?

“Wanted”: In which I take a dumb summer action flick entirely too seriously

I saw “Wanted” over the weekend, and it was more or less what I was expecting: dumb action movie, neato “Matrix”-like special effects, pretentious effort to hammer home some kind of deep pop-philosophical message. Unfortunately, since this is a relatively new movie, I’m frustrated by my desire to talk about the things that bugged me about it. So here I am, blogging it.

So, this post is going to spoil the movie, a lot. If you haven’t seen it yet, and have the intention to, I would strongly recommend that you just stop reading this post, bookmark it, and come back here to discuss when you are finished.

Ready? Spoilers ahead, stop reading now.

Morgan Freeman leads an elite group of super-assassins called “The Fraternity,” which has been operating for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years. Members of the frat are periodically ordered to go kill somebody they never heard of. Most of them have several natural abilities which, for all practical purposes, are magical superpowers. They can slow down time, shoot bullets in such a way as to curve around obstacles, and there are magic hot tubs in the headquarters which can heal all wounds, bruises, and breaks within a matter of hours. And of course, they have the almighty power of Angelina Jolie’s Hotness, which is undoubtedly one of the deadliest forces on the planet.

It is eventually revealed that there is a loom, or a series of looms, which have a mystical hotline to some sort of entity which tells them who to kill. A persistent TCP/IP connection to the gods, if you will, forming a cloth-based internet. The looms weave bits of cloth which, due to imperfection in the threads, contain coded messages in binary form that identify the next target. (We can only assume that the frat has been aware of ASCII for hundreds of years.)

Nobody knows how the powers that be pick the targets; but we are given to understand that they have impeccable judgment about who will soon deserve to die. Angelina Jolie (a.k.a. “Fox”) explains that when she was a kid, a frat assassin failed to kill a target, and that target brutally murdered her father. So trust the loom.

The twist, though… hang on a second…

ONE MORE SPOILER WARNING: If the above description has not already turned you away from the movie, I’m really about to totally reveal major plot details!

The twist is that Morgan Freeman is corrupt and so is the organization. They stopped listening to the loom years ago, and now Freeman picks his own targets to suit profit and convenience motives. Devious! So in the end, the message is “don’t blindly trust authority” — which I approve of.

BUT, even as the plot exposes Morgan Freeman as untrustworthy, it still implies that the magic loom is always right to the end.

Now come on, this is a pretty transparent religious allegory. The loom is the Bible. Morgan Freeman is a fallible priest who reads the Bible and hides the truth from others. You can’t trust human religion, but you sure can trust the messages you hear direct from God. Okay, the analogy is flimsy, and maybe it’s not specifically the Christian religion that is being vindicated. But you know what I’m talking about; lots of people say “I don’t follow organized religion because it’s just man-made. But do believe in God and have a personal relationship” yadda yadda yadda.

Now here’s what I want to know. We’ll take it for granted that we can’t trust Morgan Freeman, because he’s a shifty old bastard anyway. (Although he did play God explicitly, twice.) But even knowing that, what on earth is our justification for trusting the loom? Just because it was right on at least one occasion?

Nobody in the brotherhood seems to know much or care about who the looms are connected to, or the mechanism by which the connection remains secure. What’s to stop Satan, or perhaps Loki, from setting up his own spoofed IP address that leads to a server that he controls? How do we know that the man behind the loom isn’t evil or capricious, or that he doesn’t just possess a wacky sense of humor?

Certainly, like Yahweh, there’s no indication that the God Of The Loom is periodically dropping by to explain himself to each member. So while you can argue that our hero was wrong to trust Morgan Freeman, you can’t really argue that he could have interpreted the message and been confident in the answer. In fact, the only reason he believes the loom is trustworthy at all, is because Fox (Jolie) tells him so by anecdote. Would that be enough evidence for YOU to start killing strangers?

Suppose it’s Loki. Loki isn’t evil, he’s just sort of “chaotic neutral.” No reason he can’t tell the truth sometimes and lie sometimes, just to maximize his amusement.

Or suppose it’s Faust. This characterization of the devil surely wouldn’t hesitate to pull the wool over the eyes of Fox, leveraging the tragedy of her father’s death to make her believe that it was somehow the fault of not killing enough people. Surely it’s right in character for him to say: “Look here. You want to avenge your father? You can have damn near omnipotent powers. Slow down time… kill people more or less with your mind… instant regeneration. All you have to do is sign right here.”

And that, in a nutshell, is a basic problem with believing anything based on faith. It’s not just fallible human translation that’s the problem. Even if you’re The Real God Of The Loom, and think some people need killin’, why on earth would you choose to communicate through a medium that is so abstruse, and obviously begging to be abused? And if you’re a mortal being ordered to kill somebody by a friggin’ loom, what level of extraordinary proof should you require before you actually accept that you’re being asked to do a good thing?

This is the Euthyphro dilemma writ large. You say you’re good because you’re doing what a god wants? Well, how do you know that the god is good?

A few other random observations in closing:

Those magical hot tubs are awesome. They can apparently bring people back from the brink of death most of the time. (Though, mysteriously, some guy dies dramatically right next to a hot tub and nobody thinks to dump him in there.) I think that if the goal of the Frat is to save the world, they would do a LOT more good by simply releasing the hot tub formula to the world and letting everybody benefit from it. I’m just saying, that seems a little more efficient than picking off bad guys one victim at a time. But no… we have to save it for newbies in training who need to recover because people in our organization like to intentionally beat the stuffing out of them.

Final point, memo to self: If 3 million dollars ever mysteriously appears in my bank account, the very first thing I’m going to do is set up a different account, that no one knows about, in a place with an excellent reputation for security, and transfer all the money out immediately. When somebody can put money in your account, they can also take it back. Duh.

Prince Caspian is Anvilicious

  • Anvilicious, adj:
    In media, the state of conveying a particular message so unsubtly that they may as well etch it onto an anvil and drop it on your head.

Okay, so I’m late in seeing this movie. Ginny and I don’t get out enough.

I always liked the Narnia books, even after I knew that Aslan represented Jesus. As someone who wasn’t terribly absorbed in Christian mythology around age 10, the parallel wasn’t immediately obvious to me at the time, but it seemed undeniable once someone pointed it out to me. Still, I continue to feel that Lewis was a much better fiction author than he was an apologist.

Prince Caspian was never my favorite of the series; in fact it would be fair to say that it’s roughly tied with The Horse and His Boy as my least favorite. IMHO the best of the series, in order, are books 4 (The Silver Chair), 6 (Narnia’s “genesis” story, which further explores the concept of parallel universes), and 3 (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which had some cool random adventurey stuff).

While Caspian wasn’t that great, I don’t remember it being particularly full of religious overtones as compared with many of the other books. I have a theory about this. Some of his own statements notwithstanding, it seems to me that Lewis wrote the first book as a straight-up Christian story. The lion getting killed for another character’s sins and then coming back to life is just way too obvious to overlook. On the other hand, once he had settled into a mythos, Lewis got more comfortable with writing a good story whose characters take on their own life and don’t necessarily have to correspond with Biblical figures.

But that’s not the way the director of the latest movie series saw it. The first movie emphasized the religious overtones, and since there’s not enough of that in the second book, by God he added some.

The white witch, who represents the devil, makes an all new appearance, tempting the main characters with personal glory and stuff. This never happened in the book, given that the witch had been dead for 200 years at this point.

Then at the end of the movie Aslan parts the red sea. I mean, he creates a wall of water to kill the Egyptian — I mean Telmarine soldiers. In the process, the water morphs a giant “river god,” resembling a huge old man with a beard. I couldn’t resist whispering to my wife “Oh finally, God’s here.” I didn’t remember this from the book, but Wikipedia mentions in passing that it’s in there. It seems to get an awful lot more attention in the movie though; it sounds like in the book the river god only shows up to ask Aslan for a favor. In the movie, he wins the fight for them. And seriously, he looks suspiciously like “the” God rather than “a” god.

I don’t mind religious themes in movies, for the most part, as long as it’s a good movie. This particular movie is not a case where less is more, however. Caspian has a lot going for it: pretty good characters and actors, first rate CG effects, some entertaining writing in places. But the movie dragged on way too long for me anyway — and the sad part is, most of the religious anvils are part of the unnecessary dead weight.

I’m convinced that the book is too short to make a faithful movie about. I can even admire some of the creative decisions taken by the team. At least the first half of the book has no action to speak of, since it is a dwarf retelling the backstory for the benefit of the four kids. I actually liked the way the first scene focused on Caspian escaping from guards, and the rest of the first half continually switched perspectives between Caspian and the kids, making all the events concurrent with each other.

But you could have lopped off Tilda Swinton’s scenes reprising the witch, and not only not lost anything, but actually made a lot more sense.

I’m not a direct-translation purist. I’m happy to let movie directors add or chop scenes as they need to make the transition between media formats go smoothly. I’m less than happy about the directors’ effort to shoehorn their own religious messages in there because they don’t trust CS Lewis to beat you over the head with it enough.