Thursday, February 23, 2017

Lights Dim on Reality in the Cinema: Part II

This is Part II of “Lights Dim on Reality in the Cinema ” from February 22, about the reviews of several movies in Movies and the Meaning of Life, edited by Kimberly A. Blessing and Paul Tudico (302 pp., including the Index). I chose not to create a longish column about all 19 essays by the university professors about these films.  In this column I will cite just a handful of those movies and touch on their contents and what the writers said about them.

To iterate, all the essays (written by college professors) are written from a Marxist, Critical Theory or Deconstructionist standpoint. As I noted in Part I, these essays, if they are Marxist – and Marxist interpretations of any realm of art, in the printed word, in the visual arts or sculpture, or in film are written from a “sociological” point of view, as opposed to an objective, rational one – they’re automatically suspect because they are root, branch, and twig divorced from an objective, rational perspective. In short, reality is a creation of the mind, and reality can be anything one wishes to make of it, governed by one’s own personal experiences and subjective prejudices. Critical Theory and Deconstruction both work to unplug one’s mind from reality, and lure one into a critic’s universe via the hypnotic appeal of a degree holder’s “authority.”

The essays in Movies attempt to answer the questions:

What is reality and how can I know it? (Contact, The Truman Show, Waking Life)
How can I find my true identity? (Boys Don’t Cry, Being John Mallkovich, Fight Club, Memento)
What’s the significance of my interactions with others? (Chasing Amy, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Shadowlands)
How ought I to live my life? (Groundhog Day, Minority Report, Pleasantville, Pulp Fiction, Spider-Man 1 & 2)

I say attempt to answer the questions, but instead they crash into rational epistemology and metaphysics, or rather create the disastrous centrifugal force of the out-of-control the merry-go-round at the end of “Strangers on a Train.”

The professors provide brief teasers of concrete actions in each film, and then extrapolate them into their own exercises in creating (not recreating; art being the selective recreation of reality as defined by Ayn Rand; Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments. Man’s profound need of art lies in the fact that his cognitive faculty is conceptual, i.e., that he acquires knowledge by means of abstractions, and needs the power to bring his widest metaphysical abstractions into his immediate, perceptual awareness . . .) the reality of each film’s philosophical or moral meaning. The essayists’ exercises in interpreting the “meaning of life” in any of the discussed films typically go beyond any definition of rational observation; we are only presented with their unsupportable assertions.

In Contact (1997), a science fiction film about an alleged alien message that enables Jodie Foster’s character to travel to another galaxy, we are not sure if she actually took the trip or if the alien signals were fabricated by the multi-billionaire character played by John Hurt (and what would his purpose be in staging a large scale hoax? This issue is never raised in the essay). In the end she is not sure what happened, or saw, or did, and neither are we. Everything she experienced is dubious. She winds up doubting what she saw and felt, and becomes as  skeptical as her Congressional interrogators.

Though Ellie [Jodie Foster] has faith in her own experience, she tempers it with a healthy dose of doubt. [p. 29]

The authors of the essay “Our Place in the Cosmos: Faith and Belief in Contact,” write approvingly – nay, ecstatically – of this species of agnosticism.

This film, as well as the other films discussed by the professors, is not one that would inspire one to fight for one’s values, it would never serve as relief from contemporary vulgarity and cultural relativism, or cause one to go through life with confidence and an upraised head.

About art, Rand wrote:

[Man] acquires knowledge by means of abstractions, and needs the power to bring his widest metaphysical abstractions into his immediate, perceptual awareness.  Art fulfills this need: by means of a selective re-creation, it concretizes man’s fundamental view of himself and of existence. It tells man, in effect, which aspects of his experience are to be regarded as essential, significant, important. In this sense, art teaches man how to use his consciousness. It conditions or stylizes man’s consciousness by conveying to him a certain way of looking at existence.

Clearly, the producers and directors of Contact did not consciously subscribe to this or any other philosophy; Hollywood directors are not intellectuals but practitioners of received wisdom. This is my own conclusion from having seen the film; it is not derived from the conclusions of the essay’s authors. And I doubt it was the film’s makers’ purpose to consciously legitimatize skepticism or to hove to Kant’s poisonous philosophy that one can’t know anything because one’s senses are haywire or inherently flawed. They are merely the rudderless products of the culture that elevates the notions of subjectivism and the relativity of knowledge and moral certainty.

Next up for discussion is The Truman Show, which I’ve seen, about a man whose whole life is an elaborate live action reality TV/soap opera focused on a mediocrity who finally realizes that he’s been the dupe of a particularly cruel joke. His town, wife, friends and so  on are all “fake” or counterfeit.

The most interesting thing about the professor’s review of the film is information she reveals about René Descartes, the French philosopher who predated Immanuel Kant and his philosophy of phenomenal and noumenal worlds, and that our senses are not trustworthy (in fact, says Kant, your senses are invalid; if you can see, you are blind; only a higher form of “reason” can let you gaze upon “pure” forms of things). Kimberly Blessing writes:

Almost four hundred years before the making of The Truman Show, French Philosopher and mathematician René Descartes (1596-1650) locks himself away in a poêl (that’s French for a stove-heated room) and begins to think. Instead of constructing the world’s largest television studio….Descartes  imagines that the entire world external to him is a grand illusion cooked up by some clever and malicious demon. “I will suppose…some malicious demon of the upmost power and cunning has employed all of his energies in order to deceive me.” Should such a demon exist, even the most simple and universal truths like ‘2+3=  5’ and ‘squares have four sides’ would have to be called into question. By the end of the first six of his six Meditations on First Philosphy, Descartes is forced to conclude that

The sky, the air, the earth, colors, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgment. I shall consider myself as not having hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood or senses, but as falsely believing that I have all those things. [p. 5]

Instead of Kant’s categorical imperatives and transcendental idealism, Descartes got the ball rolling in the attack on man’s mind about the illusionary nature of reality with…a prank-playing demon. Blessing hasn’t much to say about the relationship of these two insane systems of philosophy.

American Beauty is about Lester Burnham, played by Kevin Spacey, a suburban father of one, who realizes that his life and soul are empty. What seems to kick-start this realization is his lusting after a high school cheerleader, a friend of his daughter’s. It is an otherwise slow-moving, episodic dreary slice of naturalisms. But the author of the essay, George T. Hole, “magically” turns an essay about cinematic banalities into numerous references to Plato and his Cave Guardians. You shouldn’t wonder where Descartes and Kant got their blinkered ideas. History Guide presents an encapsulated discussion of Plato’s The Allegory of the Cave:

The Allegory presents, in brief form, most of Plato's major philosophical assumptions: his belief that the world revealed by our senses is not the real world but only a poor copy of it, and that the real world can only be apprehended intellectually; his idea that knowledge cannot be transferred from teacher to student, but rather that education consists in directing student's minds toward what is real and important and allowing them to apprehend it for themselves; his faith that the universe ultimately is good; his conviction that enlightened individuals have an obligation to the rest of society, and that a good society must be one in which the truly wise (the Philosopher-King) are the rulers.

One final observation about all the films discussed in Movies: they are all presented as dense allegories which only the college professors can construe and untangle for the uninitiated, except that all one is left with are mare’s nests of “close readings” and unnamed “signifiers.”. Almost all of the professors have published papers of a similar nature in terms of Critical Theory, Deconstruction, or a combination of them. You end up asking yourself: Where are they getting this stuff?

From the rubbish dump that is contemporary Literary Criticism. To underscore this point, here is an excerpt from Kimberly Blessing’s end of book career synopsis:

Kimberly A. Blessing is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Buffalo State College….Her areas of interest began with Descartes and his “missing ethical theory.” Early in her career, she ambitiously set out to become the expert on all subjects about which Descartes had nothing to say. Unfortunately, nobody seemed interested in anything she had to say about that about which Descartes said nothing. [p. 290]

See what I mean?


Tim C said...

"American Beauty" is a tragically misnamed cinematic barf bag.

It also, at 2h 2m, has about 2 hours of excess material, considering the entire point of the movie can be made with the bit where the kid is filming a swirling piece of trash and calling it beautiful etc, and the rest of it is just variations on that insipid non-theme.

Tim C said...

Not that it deserves such discussion, but I'd say AB is almost deliberate (I hate to give them that much credit) it its utter destruction of any noble ideals (e.g. selfishness). Why do I say this?

Observe that the true hero (or, should have been) of the story is actually the wife. She is the only person in the movie (other than misguided, utterly intellectually disarmed children) who makes any attempt to really better herself, find something else/happiness in life (husband bulking up to look good for his teenage crush, and pursuing career fulfillment in the fast food industry doesn't count, sorry!)(nor does the neighbor's last ditch effort to deal with deeply latent homosexuality). That her attempt is desperate and unsure doesn't lessen the fact that only she is able to admit the marriage and her life aren't doing it. Of course, in the end she gives up - only to have that cruel hopeless thing known as life smack her down. Of course, she'll carry this guilt and "properly" realize that happiness is impossible.

I'm sure there's others, even a couple I've seen but am not remembering offhand, but this is easily one of the worst movies from a philosophical perspective - by this I mean that are trying to make philosophical points, not just (say) empty action flicks - that I'm aware of.

Doug Mayfield said...

Ed. You accurately describe why I intensely dislike many modern films including those which win awards. I gave up on the 'Best Picture' Award when 'No Country for Old Men' won. It was vile as was 'American Beauty'and others from the list of those analysed. The world view of those making decisions in Hollywood is indescribably bad.