Monday, April 14, 2008

[Xanga] Little Miss Sunshine

So, I watched Little Miss Sunshine last night at a friend's room, and I came away with mixed feelings. Best foot forward: it was rather well-shot, and the characters were interesting. I particularly thought Steve Carell was an intriguing casting choice, setting off the rest of the ensemble in a rather fine way.

However, I found the movie overall depressing. Not necessarily in a bad way (in the sense that it made for rather "good art"), but in the sense that the philosophy behind the movie was very empty. In the crucial finale scene (complete with choreographed/spontaneous dancing, the music of the late Rick James, and family bonding), characters found new self-awareness and even a measure of happiness, but with no foundation or grounds for the guarantee of its future continuance. Of course, this may just be a reflection of my general pessimism regarding human nature, but I felt as though the characters, though individually interesting, grew very little with regards to themselves. Charmingly two-dimensional they may have been, but two-dimensional they remained. Though less explicitly authorial, I was left with the same feeling made explicit at the end of The Graduate: the characters ride away, quaintly melancholic music swells, and their futures are left to the imagination of the viewer. In the latter movie, this is made obvious by a director's trick: rather than calling "cut!" at the end of the taping, he left cameras rolling, taping several seconds of awkward smiles and sighs which remain uncut in the final footage. But in LMS, that feeling is subtle, infusing the entire movie: it is an aftertaste, sitting on the palate but somehow still unexpected. Not that I'm saying the director didn't intend for us to have such a feeling; simply that he communicated it carefully and even, perhaps, subliminally.

And this feeling of irresolution, of oscillating expectations, confounds me. Not that I don't understand it; no, I understand it all-too-well. Rather, it denies my definition and expectations of art. This is more or less an obvious outgrowth of my Christian beliefs, but the fact of the matter is that I desire - and believe to have found - a firm hope for the future, in salvation granted in Christ. This transforms my life from one which is lived in uncertainty, to one which is lived certainly and with security. I understand how a desolate future suits itself better to the expectations of this world. My disconnect with the filmmakers' intent comes at a fundamental level, at the level of my not having any expectations of or in this world, but yet every positive expectation of the future. My future well-being is assured; to grant a movie's characters any less than this is not only contextually disheartening, but rings false to me, or at-least incomplete.

In general, this is my gripe with recent movies such as Napoleon Dynamite, Punch-Drunk Love (which I actually do rather enjoy), Garden State, Eternal Sunshine..., and the like. Mainstream indie movies (can such an oxymoronic creature even exist?), where soft twee-pop and ostentatiously independent music skitters and crawls around the edges of the viewer's frame of reference, where characters come to a Kierkegaardian revelation of existential angst and boredom... and continue on in the manner in which they came. Speak all you want of cinema verite and its ramifications, but I see no joy in this.

When experiencing art, I find the highest and keenest thrills to be communicated through a careful mixture of the real and ideal. I want to be connected to the art, to experience it not as an outside observer, but as a participant. Realism in art grants this: Tolkien's lengthy descriptions and pages-long histories immerse (to a level that Robert Jordan strives in vain to reach), rather than confound. Middle-Earth is fantastical, but its inhabitants, its geography, its specifics, are familiar.
The ideal plays as much a critical role, though, in my enjoyment of art. Merely representing life on the silver screen is not sufficient to enthrall: depicting a world, no matter how fantastical or improbable, devoid of the ideal, is mere documentarianism. Art requires more: We hope to reach beyond, to see things hinted-at in the world of experience. Art is the Platonic fire, the illumination in the cave of experience that grants us our only knowledge of the Forms. By reducing art to a verisimilitude, we willingly restrict ourselves.

My qualms with LMS, ultimately, reduce to a theological concern. Art must reflect God, and not man, or else we are merely representing to ourselves a facsimile of the already "dim mirror" of earthly experience. Our lives are imbued with hope and power, not because we are human, but precisely because we are not. The verisimilitude that movies such as LMS offers us grant us a fine portrayal of human nature, but they do no more; they are like a half-silvered mirror, reflecting our human qualities and letting loose that divine quality, that "image of God," that gives us the desire to see our lives from an external perspective. Making utterly realistic movies, devoid of idealism, is flat narcissism; making purely ideal movies, on the other hand, is disjunct from our experiences of that which is. In order to satisfy our soul's contrary desire of realistic hope, we must look through the lens of real experience at the glimmer of yet-unexperienced truth.

[Xanga] A confusing case of transworld identity

Abstract: In the interests of questioning transworld identity, I outline a case of a possible world in which I, as an embryo, split into two and was born as identical twins.

I propose the following case as one where theories of transworld identity may run into complications or, in a best case, fail to explain the case adequately. I do not vouch for this case's novelty (as I have not reviewed the pertinent literature), nor its usefulness, nor the validity of my scientific description of the "facts":

Imagine a possible world where every physical fact up to one week beyond my conception is identical to the real world. However, at exactly one week after my conception, the embryo divides into two, and, instead of me being born, my mother bears identical twins. I further suppose that both twins grow to maturity, and each is genetically identical (or close enough that dissimilarities do not matter). With which twin (or both, or neither) do I have identity?

To add some complications to this account, what if I were to also imagine the following: The real-world me has an interest in martial arts, hip-hop music, and is a Christian. One of the possible-world twins, A, loves martial arts, but has no interest in rap music whatsoever. The other twin, B, could care less for martial arts, but is an avid listener of hip-hop music. One, both, or neither of them is a Christian (depending on whichever gives the most interesting account). With which twin (or both/neither) do I identify?

[Xanga] The uses of the first person possessive: a note to avert systematic error

I would simply like to note that in the English language - and many other languages, I believe, though English (and perhaps Mandarin, on a good day) is the only language with which I have sufficient fluency - the first-person possessive has three uses: two specific and one vague. Actually, this is misleading. I would rather say that the first-person possessive has two specific uses, and we sometimes mix up the two specific uses and then proceed to use this conflated definition in a vague sense, hoping that the vagueness of our utilization will camoflauge our error.

The first case is that of the individual possessing something: this is the case in which I may accurately say "my hat," or "my chair," or "my computer." In this case, the relationship is one of simple possession: I am in an ownership relationship with the hat, chair, computer. The description of "hat" as "mine" is of unilateral ownership, and it runs vertically from me to the hat. This is, I feel, the common-sense or "folk" use of the word: ask someone to explain what "mine" means, and the description would likely be along the lines of, "owned by me" or "belonging to me."

The second case is that of something possessing an individual: this is the case in which I may accurately call someone "my boss," or a knight might have addressed King Arthur as "my lord," or the pious man addresses God as "My God." This use is less obvious, I feel, as it is a possessive only inasmuch as it is a descriptor of a relationship: when addressing King Arthur as "my liege," the knight is not saying that Arthur is a lord who belongs to him. As far as I can make sense of this descriptor (and, not trained as a linguist or a philosopher of religion, that may not be very far), it is possessive of the relationship between the knight and Arthur. Arthur is the lord of this knight, but that does not mean that Arthur is of this knight. Rather, the lordship relationship is one in which Arthur and the knight both participate, and insofar as this is true, the lorded-over/lord relationship is possessed by the knight, which allows him to address Arthur as "my lord." (I'm not particularly certain about this analysis of the use, but it is incidental to my point.)

The confusion of usage occurs in gray areas as follows: "My country," "my school," "my household." In these cases, there is no immediate understanding as to which of the above two relationships the first-person possessive pronoun refers to. In the case of "my country," does the descriptor imply that the individual owns this country? Perhaps it is contextual to the country - is it a democracy or dictatorship? Or perhaps the individual's political philosophy is relevant: does he, as Hobbes seems to in his Leviathan, view the government as existing contingent on his empowerment of it? But I disagree that this usage stands apart from the first and second cases. Rather, the vagueness in ascribing it to either the first or second type usage is drawn from vagueness in the individual's understanding of his relation to the country. I suppose that I am viewing this third case as subordinate to the first two: it stands on its own not because it is separate from the first two, but because, independent of context, it is both one and the other. Within context, of course, these statements may make perfect sense. If a dictator rules his country with an iron fist, of course his declaration of "this is MY country!" is a first-case usage. And a statesman who views his leadership of the country as mandated and empowered by the will of the people will of course say "this is my country!" with a usage of the second type. A politician uncertain of the source of his power and of his political philosophy will of course use the phrase, "this is my country," in a vague sense, meaning neither the first nor the second case: vagueness creeps into his speech not because the word is being used in a special way, but because it is being used in both ways.

Finally, I would note: I said, in the third paragraph above, that the pious man addressing God as "My God" addresses Him (and properly so) with a possessive of the second case: that of lorded-over/lordship. I feel that the systematic error associated with such uses as "my wife" is to also be zealously avoided in such an address of God. With overtly dominant descriptors of God such as "My Lord," it is not easy to forget His position of lordship over creation and the individual. However, Christianity, in particular, approaches God as a being, and not a title. The Greeks, Mayans, Hindus, and many other religions use "god" as a title for a being with a proper name (from Zeus to Quetzalcoatl to Ishvara); the Christian religion has no such title-relationship. Rather, "God" is our only "god," and thus, I fear, we easily forget that in such a title there is an inherently dominant quality to His character. It is not difficult to fall into a systematic error of addressing God with a possessive of the first case, or even, I propose, to consciously address God with a possessive of the second case but subtly and subconsciously begin to view one's relationship with Him as having qualities of the first-case possessive. We must be ever vigilant that our address of God as "my Lord" does not begin to slide into the third case, where our understanding of the relationship with Him grows vague and poorly-defined.

As a believer, one's view of God, and one's address of Him as "My God," must thus consciously be kept as an possessive descriptor of the second case, and not of the first: as akin to "My Lord," or "my boss," and not in the same usage as "my cup," "my home," or "my genie."