Monday, July 30, 2007

Is there a hotel in the world large enough to host our social conventions?

Let me first say that I am writing this only after at least a minute of internal debate over whether to sit down and write, or sit down and rewatch an excellent movie I saw this weekend. (In case you think watching movies is all I do, let me assure you that it is not: I suddenly realized this past week that I seem to have acquired a life, or at least borrowed one for the time being. Last week I was pretty much just home for sleeping, and not much else.) The movie is called Primer and, had it been made this year, it would have caused no end of embarassment for the three big "thirds" of the summer blockbuster season because, though produced at .003% of the budget of just one of them, it had me more fascinated and entertained than all three of them put together. It's a sci-fi movie about time travel, but to tell you more about the plot would be unfair (and impossible to explain), so I'll just tell you that I thoroughly recommend it.

Someone once said — actually, I'm sure it's been said far more than once — that 87.2% of all statistics are made up. I have to say, I feel the same way about our so-called rules of polite society. Somebody said to me tonight, "The reason nobody comes by your house unannounced is that most people think it's rude." That struck me as one of the most ridiculous ideas I had ever heard, so I started trying to figure out why.

Moral acts are moral because they are moral (that goes back to the earlier discussion about actions being judged according to the standard God established). Immoral acts are immoral because they are not moral — that is, they do not meet the standard of morality. However, there is no moral standard anywhere that is violated when someone chews with their mouth open. There is no universal standard that defines what politeness is. It's just that someone, somewhere, at some point in time decided it was unpleasant to look at, so people shouldn't do it. (I'm not saying I disagree.) Here's my assertion (and belief): polite acts are polite because someone — or a majority of someones — simply thinks they'll enjoy their life more if it's done that way; impolite acts are impolite only because someone gets annoyed or offended.

Knowing now that that is my assertion, maybe you can see why I think the social convention (which is all politeness is) of not visiting someone unannounced is so ridiculous. Someone, somewhere, at some point in time decides that a friend visiting them without sending an engraved notification first is inconvenient or undesired, and suddenly it's faux pas to knock on a door. I mean, I can understand if you'd rather not have people walking into your house without asking permission first — missed your cue. What you were supposed to do was wave your index finger triumphantly (but politely) in the air and cry out, "Aha!!!" because I was subscribing to a social convention. And you would have been right. I do quite often expect others to adhere to social conventions, and I have to ask myself why. Why do I expect people to knock before entering my apartment? My best guess is that it allows me to think of this space as mine, as being under my authority, that I am self-governing within it, and that I reign supreme over its borders. Given that none of those things are really true, I can't really justify my adherence to even that social convention (though that doesn't make me any more comfortable with the idea of its violation). Where does it stop?

I think it stops when we establish a right perspective on our relationships with each other, and begin living according to those principles instead. Rules like "call before trying to visit me" serve only to give us the illusion of "control" over our own lives while simultaneously isolating us from others. Why do we willingly subscribe to social conventions that require us to trade fellowship for privacy and so-called self-determination? I have more thoughts on this than I can write down at the moment. Even as I participate in it, I think it's utterly ridiculous.

[All that being said, I want to briefly address the idea of respect, and why I mostly ignored it as part of this discourse. Some people will say that we behave politely because it demonstrates respect for ourselves and for the people we are interacting with. Even if I ignore the fact that that is a recursive argument, I still have to ask: how can doing something rude be disrespectful if it's not already considered rude? The fact that the desire to show respect is a motivation for behaving politely has no bearing on why we consider certain behaviors rude. All that being said, I certainly intend to avoid treating people in a manner they perceive as disrespectful, while reminding myself of the true motivations of my expectations of others.]

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Total Destruction

Movies are kind of my thing, in case you hadn't noticed. A few weeks ago, a friend of mine pointed out to me the widely-held notion that nearly all of the world's most devastating problems can be solved by blowing something up, or that blowing something up should at least be on the list of things to try first. We proceeded to list all the movies we can think of that adhere to this doctrine (you shouldn't read anything into the fact that I own most of these movies):

  • Armageddon (giant asteroid approaching the Earth, blown up by nuclear bombs)
  • The Core (the Earth's core has stopped spinning, blown up by nuclear bombs)
  • Deep Impact (giant asteroid approaching the Earth, blown up by nuclear bombs)
  • Independence Day (aliens invading the Earth, blown up by nuclear bombs)
  • Paycheck (machine forsees Armageddon, blown up Hindenburg-style)
  • Reign of Fire (dragons invading the Earth, various sizes of bombs utilized with varying degrees of success)
  • Stargate (aliens threatening the Earth, blown up by nuclear bombs)
  • Sunshine (the Sun is burning out, blown up by nuclear bombs)
  • War of the Worlds (aliens invading the Earth, various sizes of bombs utilized with varying degrees of success)
  • ....

The list goes on and on. (Feel free to suggest additions in the comments.) Reacting to the increasing severity of the various dilemmas the Earth has subjected to — first aliens, then asteroids, then the core stops spinning, then the sun dies — my friend came up with the obvious next step: head on collision with another planet. The irony? It's already been done. (Or very nearly so, anyway.) Upon hearing that When Worlds Collide was made in 1951, he sadly concluded that there are no original ideas left. Need more proof? They're attempting to remake it. As a consolation, I rented it and we watched it this week.

The fact that this movie was nominated for an Oscar for "Best Cinematography, Color" (it also won one for Best Special Effects) speaks volumes and is part of the reason why I can't bring myself to critique anything about it: it's easy to laugh when a scientist proclaims the impossibility of a ship leaving the Earth and landing on another planet until you remember that, at that time, no one had. I expected to enjoy the movie just as much as any other old sci-fi movie, Swiss plot (cheesy, with holes), wooden dialogue and all; however, I was surprised to find that it had some very interesting theological parallels.

At the beginning of the movie, a star and its orbiting planet have been discovered approaching Earth. In less than a year the planet will pass close by Earth causing massive devastation, and then, days later, Earth will be completely consumed by the star. The scientists who discovers this attempts to warn the world. Some of his fellow scientists agree with his findings; however, many, experts in the laws of physics, fail to correctly interpret the signs of the time and attempt to discredit him. Undaunted, a community forms (along with others across the world) to prepare for the coming destruction, with the hope of starting a new life on the new world that is coming. I wish I could remember the exact quotes, but when a detractor scoffs, "You really believe you can reach this new world?" the scientist answers, "We hope to God that we can." The new world does indeed come, and a small group leave Earth (on a rocket) and land on the new world. And then the sun comes and destroys the old world by fire... (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

So, cheesily entertaining (and possibly interesting) sci-fi, or just more proof that there is nothing new under the sun? It's a little of both for me, but you can check it out and decide for yourself.

[On a somewhat related topic, Sunshine, mentioned earlier in this post and also in this previous one, will be released in theaters tomorrow. As I wrote before, I was cautiously interested. Even so, Fox Searchlight threw me a curve this week (most would call what I am about to say spoilers, so consider yourself warned): they have apparently abandoned any and all attempts to advertise the plot, let alone conceal it, because they put out an ad with the tag line, "No one survives." In case that wasn't clear enough, they followed it with a list of all the cast members who die and a link to clips of the death scenes on the movie's official website. All I have to say is, "Hrrmmm..."]


Saturday, July 7, 2007

Lessons Learned

Things I have learned in the past couple of weeks:
  1. If the "Almost Heaven" ranch was appropriately named, then Heaven is just a little better than an old rusted-out barn. (Or, phrased another way: if you are going to make celestial claims, gild your barn.)
  2. Friendship is way beyond Hope; in fact, it's just down the road from Social Hill. (Those crazy Arkansites and their town-naming flair...)
  3. The world doesn't end if I get up before 5 AM twice in one week.
  4. Something about Bluebeard (or Blackbeard?) the pirate that I have already forgotten (I was distracted by high-altitude putt-putt and 100% humidity at the time).
  5. Dispensationalism is, in fact, not a career path involving vending machines.
  6. It is possible for a security keypad to short out and start conducting electricity through all the metal in a door, including the handle.
  7. Persuant to #6: I now know what it feels like to receive a mild-to-moderate electric shock. (My arm is still tingling.)
  8. Persuant to #7: Multiple times.
  9. I am an idiot.

I blame #8 on #3, in the hope of negating #9. Call me an optimist.


Friday, July 6, 2007

CGI vs. CGI (Or, Dueling Directors)

I confess: I may have a problem. Twice this week I have driven twenty miles to see a movie on one of the only five digital screens in the metroplex area. In my defense, however, these two movies are by their very nature the epitomy of digital cinema. The first, Transformers, the huge special effects action movie directed by Michael Bay; and the second, Ratatouille, the latest Pixar CGI animated movie, directed by Brad Bird.

Of course, it wasn't a fair match from the start. Michael Bay's pedigree includes such great filmic triumphs as Armageddon, The Rock, Bad Boys (I and II), Pearl Harbor, and The Island. On the other hand, Brad Bird is one of my favorite directors (in animation, there is no one better), who has created actual classics, in The Iron Giant and The Incredibles.

It says a lot that a word has been coined specifically to describe Michael Bay's directiorial style: Bayhem. He creates fantastic, hard-hitting action sequences; as far as pure adrenaline-rushes, there are few better than Bay. One of the things I have actually liked about his style (this may sound like a back-handed compliment; perhaps it is) is his use of sound effects. He very effectively uses sound to convey a convincing sense of mass in his digital creations (for instance, the big steel barbell that goes bouncing down the highway in The Island, or the giant robots in Transformers), something that other filmmakers lack. Unfortunately he almost universally lacks the same convincing realism in his character and story development, and that's where his movies fall apart for me. The CGI in Transformers is among the best I have seen, virtually flawless in both the characters themselves and their integration into the scenes, and the action scenes are intense and exciting. What is strange about the movie though is that his simple drama scenes also feel rapid-fire, fast-paced and intense; it has the odd effect of diminishing the impact of the action sequences. It's a very exciting movie; on the other hand, the story doesn't so much flow as tumble to its unfortunately inevitable conclusion and that, to me, is a flaw. Another flaw of note: for what most will perceive as a movie directed at children, there is a surprising amount of blatant crudeness and intense violence.

Brad Bird, on the other hand: The Iron Giant succeeded where virtually all other children's movies (though granted, I wouldn't recommend the movie for young children) have failed, by creating an honestly and realistically characterized little boy in an equally emotionally resonant story; The Incredibles, likewise, was flashy and exciting without sacrificing engaging characters. To call Ratatouille a visual feast would be to make an egregious pun; unfortunately, there is no other way to describe it: the animation is exquisite. Fortunately, the story and the storytelling hold up their end as well. Bird manages to make the animation serve his story rather than overpower it, and (surprisingly, but rightly) glosses over some plot points that might have distracted, in order to remain focused on the relationships in his story. I am only mildly surprised to say that Ratatouille is the best movie I have seen this year.

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