Friday, December 19, 2014

Movies, Moralism and Books

If the title of this post causes confusion, I will clarify.  I refer to books which are made into movies, by moralists--moralists who depart from the book on which the movie is said to be based, for what they consider to be the good of the audience, or because the book is lacking in some respect which the moralist believes must be corrected in the movie.

Most recently, we see this take place in Peter Jackson's prolonged treatment of a relatively short book by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit.  Compared to The Lord of the Rings which followed it, and which rather obviously addressed good and evil, I've always thought The Hobbit to have been written with no moral point in mind, rather like other classic "children's" works, before we began writing books to teach children what we refrain from teaching them ourselves.  In the film versions, it becomes a kind of morality tale regarding the perils of avarice.

Then there is the insertion of characters and events; something at which Mr. Jackson excels, and indulged in even when filming The Lord of the Rings.  For example, he managed to coax an entire host of Elves to come to the relief of Rohan at Helm's Deep, though no such thing took place in the book.  The chief of this host, who looked disturbingly like Legolas as played by Orlando Bloom, as did the members of the host we could see, announced they came to stand beside Men in the fight against evil.  Most uplifting.  But I wonder whether Jackson unwittingly was suggested all Elves look the same, to him.

This time, though, he inserts as a major character one not mentioned in the book at all, an Elf woman of his own devising.  From what I've read he did this because he thought girls should have as kind of role model someone of their own, though an Elf, slaughtering Orcs and Goblins.  Not content with manufacturing this character, he conjures a romantic relation between her and one of the dwarves, probably to show us that we can all love one another and are all really the same, regardless of our differences.

I find myself wondering what it is that possesses someone making a movie based on a book, to depart from the book radically.  Presumably, the book is being made into a movie because the book is loved and admired, or at least very popular.  Why, then, change the book?

It's possible, of course, that scenes from a book cannot be effectively presented in a movie.  Our technology allows us to do a great deal in movies we couldn't do before, of course.  But even so, sometimes a picture won't do what was done in print.

It's also possible, of course, that a movie may be better than a book by departing from it, at least as far as lesser books are concerned, or that a movie may depart from a book in such a way as to take its place as a uniquely separate work of art.  Stanley Kubrick made a habit of taking books and running with them, in directions the author did not or could not imagine.

Although Kubrick collaborated with Arthur C. Clarke in making 2001:  A Space Odyssey, the movie and the book differ significantly.  There, though, Clarke may have written the book after the movie.  This has never been clear to me.  And Stephen King was appalled to find out what Kubrick had done to The Shining, though frankly I would take the movie over the book any day.  I consider the movie far superior.  As if to prove this to be the case, King made his own movie version of his book, which was uninteresting.  I'm not sure of what Anthony Burgess thought of A Clockwork Orange, but it's justly considered a great movie.

"Better than the book" doesn't work in the case of Mr. Jackson's adaptions of Tolkien, in my opinion, but neither are they such as to be considered unique works in and of themselves, being too derivative except in certain carefully selected ways.  So are others where moralists make movies.  The film version of The Scarlett Letter has Hester running off with Dimmesdale, presumably to live happily ever after.  Disney, of course, annihilated The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with everyone loving and accepting Quasimodo.  Such are perversions of great novels.

One can go on, of course.  But I think it takes an especially arrogant and self-righteous person to radically change a book, "for the better."  Great books should be taken "as is" and with all faults.  They cannot be made "better" and if those making movies seek to accomplish such a thing they should leave well enough alone.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Nothing Worthwhile

Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul of France and later Emperor of the French, and without question a remarkable general and great homme de guerre, had the following to say about torture:  "The barbarous custom of having men beaten who are suspected of having secrets to reveal must be abolished.  It has always been recognized that this way of interrogating men, by putting them to torture, produces nothing worthwhile."

Most would agree that Napoleon was not a terribly squeamish fellow and not one to hesitate to kill vast numbers of men who stood in his way on the battlefield.  He is known to have committed what would today be considered a war crime by ordering the massacre of between 2,000 and 4,000 prisoners of war during the siege of Jaffa.  He was not an especially delicate, namby-pamby, pacifist sort of fellow.  He was ruthless in the pursuit of his goals and in waging war.  He was also, by all accounts, almost frighteningly intelligent.  His assessment of torture as barbarous and worthless thus must be respected, even by the most virulent of our many arm-chair generals.

A report on the interrogation techniques employed by Central Intelligence Agency has been released, and it is not such as to redound to the credit of that organization.  Regrettably, that organization is closely associated with our Great Republic, and its conduct is taken by many to be the conduct of the United States.  So there has been concern, which is probably well-founded, that it will lead to our nation as being considered something less than the last best hope of the world.  Whether it will result in violence towards U.S. soldiers and citizens remains to be seen, at least at the time this is being written.

The potential for violence is of greater concern, to me, than the potential for disillusionment.  That the CIA engaged in questionable interrogation techniques and even torture in some cases has been strongly suspected by if not known to many for some time now.  Some, unfortunately, even glory in it, or at the least consider it a necessary evil.  I think this is to take an extremely selfish and short-sighted view.  Those who applaud torture are generally those who are unlikely to be tortured.  But as they sow, so shall those who put themselves in danger on their behalf reap.  An enemy who considers himself to be subject to torture by us will be inclined to torture us if they can. 

So the disillusionment of the world with the practices of our City on a Hill in pursuit of information is likely something we are confronted with already.  That such disillusionment will be bolstered or considered supported by this report is not a significant worry.  If violence will result, as it seems many believe will be the case, that is another thing.  It would seem to make more sense to prosecute or punish torturers and abolish torture than to flaunt instances of torture, particularly where violence is likely to result.  And of course flaunting them for political purposes is inappropriate; but I'm not convinced that is what is taking place.

I take it as a given that we should know what is done in our name.  Such knowledge is required for any honest and honorable assessment of our policy and ourselves.  A determined ignorance of such things is sought only by the weak and the callous among us.  If we are going to sanction torture, we should damn well know what torture is rather than seek to wrap ourselves in scented cotton-wool and leave the dirty work and knowledge of it to others.

Most of all, however, we should know that if we sanction torture we must expect that others will torture as well.  We can't pontificate when others engage in it without being hypocrites, and contemptible ones at that.  We should also know, though, that the efficacy of torture has been doubted even by such as the Corsican Ogre. 

Should we accept, without question, the claims of those who torture that the torture was necessary and produced valuable results?   I would say no, if it was accepted even by Napoleon that it was useless.  We should put them to the proof.  And what if the proof is provided?  Is the torture then justified?

The intentional infliction of great pain in the form of torture would not be justified merely by the fact that valuable information is obtained, because torture by others would in that case be justified.   The assessment to be made and the factors to be weighed are not so simple.  We would render ourselves and others subject to torture if we accept such a rationale.  Following orders has also been justified as valuable, because it contributes to order and efficiency, and we've seen the results.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Shakespeare, Genius and Anachronism

When in high school, I wrote a little paper on The Merchant of Venice, something we were required to read (the quality of what we were required to read was uneven, but Shakespeare is generally worth reading).  The question addressed was whether Shakespeare was anti-Semitic.  Motivated, perhaps, by a continuing tendency to provoke, and a certain cynicism, I argued he was indeed an anti-Semite.  My teacher, a kind man, told me I made some good points and gently said he thought I was wrong.

One of my arguments as I recall (it may have been my only argument) was that it was absurd to think that Shakespeare had overcome the overwhelming prejudice of his time and was, in effect, writing a satire about anti-Semitism, because he was Shakespeare.  To me, that was the only basis on which he was--or could be--defended from the charge.  It was to many unthinkable that a genius of his magnitude would succumb to vulgar prejudice.  How could someone who wrote so well of human nature, with such empathy, be in this respect so like the people of his time?

Well, easily enough, I think.  Anti-Semitism seems to be a most peculiar and ubiquitous affectation; an ancient and abiding prejudice.  Genius provides no immunity to it.  We've seen that to be the case by now.  I no longer claim that this play in itself establishes his anti-Semitism, however.  I merely think that he was not necessarily extraordinary in all respects, and that he shared the prejudices of his time, as there is no reason to believe otherwise.  The Merchant of Venice is evidence of that fact but is not conclusive.

Shylock may give the "Hath not a Jew" speech, but in all other respects is a loathsome character, demanding his absurd pound of flesh, hateful of Christians.  He is in many respects a caricature, a stereotype, along the lines of Marlowe's Barabbas (nice naming, Chris).  Shakespeare was a professional playwright; he should be expected to have wanted to please his audience, to sell tickets, at the least.  Granted, the trial portrayed in the play is ludicrous, but his audience would want to see the Jew bested and would have enjoyed him being bested in this fashion.  Shylock loses all, in the end, including his daughter.  He is utterly humiliated.

Shakespeare's defenders do something we lawyers are taught not to do to the law.  That is, to read words into the law that are not in the law, or to treat the language of the law as superfluous.  [Was I a lawyer even in high school, to write such a paper? A sad thought.]  But Shakespeare's defenders are not just indulging in an instance of wildly inappropriate interpretation.  They purport to disregard the text, and the times.  It is an example of the stubborn, unreasoning imposition of a desired attribute onto an admired figure.

We tend to do this sort of thing when it comes to birds of paradise; to heroes.  We makes excuses for them, we make assumptions, regardless of the facts, even in spite of the facts.  This is one of the dangers of having heroes (and we say we have so among us, now).  We stop thinking when we think of them.  We are so invested in their courage, wisdom, genius, that to find fault in them renders us indignant.

Revisionists are rightly viewed with skepticism.  Particularly these days, we're infested with those who delight in finding flaws in those public figures of the present and the past.  We should beware of taking literature literally, certainly, and should avoid making grand inferences from few statements.  But we should also beware of disregarding entire works.  Shakespeare's Merchant contains statements that are not made casually or en passant.  Shakespeare wrote the play to be performed before the people of his time and in the hope it would be popular and make money.  He was not out to teach everybody a lesson in the ill-effects and unreasonableness of a vicious prejudice.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Make the World Go Away

What a song Hank Cochran wrote.  It has been sung by many, perhaps too many, from stars to bands in bars.  Some of these bands no doubt had to put up with annoying listeners like me, who once began to sing "Make the Band go Away" after their version of this sad classic finally reached its conclusion.

But I have no wish to write more of the song, except to note its claim that it was the world which caused the heartache expressed in such a maudlin fashion.  The world did it, not the one with the broken heart.  He should not have....what, exactly?  Succumbed to the charms of the wicked world?

Regardless, I wish the world to go away for different reasons.  I find the world annoying, or rather the people of the world, or most of them.  Those we see and hear about in any case, and their number is growing. 

This makes me sad.  I should not be annoyed.  I strive to walk the Stoic path (has nobody yet written of the tao of Stoicism?), and so should be indifferent of that which is not within the control of my will.  But I find myself irritated by so much of what transpires in the world I see, and sometimes wish that the irritating components of it would kindly go away.  Or unkindly go away, it matters not to me.  At least I'm indifferent to the manner in which it would go away.

We see, and hear, too much of the world and those people who inhabit it these days, as I've noted before in this place.  I've maintained that the deluge of information and opinion we suffer encourages thoughtlessness and thoughtless response to thoughtlessness.  I suppose I'm indulging in that now, thereby proving my point, to me at least.  How does the world annoy me?  Let me count the ways.

The politics of our Glorious Union irritates me tremendously; all aspects of it.  Most recently, I scowl helplessly at the (most recent) calls for impeachment of the President for taking executive action on immigration.  I can't help but wonder at this, given the long history of such action taken by Presidents in the past and given the enormous discretion it seems has been given to the President and the agency by the law and regulations.  There is also, of course, the consideration that the House has refused to legislate, out of what I assume is what it seems primarily motivates our politicians--the desire to be elected and fear of not being reelected.  The seemingly deranged reaction of those opposing the action leads me to wonder, once again, why it is this President provokes such rancor.  More and more it seems to me to be fundamentally irrational, and contemptible.

But unreason is present everywhere, not merely in politics.  It seems we flaunt our unreasonableness around the globe.  Surprisingly, there seems to be a kind of reaction against reason.  We see it and have seen it for some time in the guise of postmodernism, perhaps the most futile of intellectual pretensions.  Futility indeed seems to be what it seeks, everywhere.  At least, it revels in what it conceives to be the futility of everything but postmodernism.  Unfortunately, it provides no hope of anything but futility; it simply claims to provide us with a means to establish that all is futile.

I pause to wonder, though.  Is this my age talking?  Am I becoming, or have I become, an old fogey, like Alan Bloom?  Perhaps.  But what might distinguish me from other old fogies is that I think of reason as a method; I don't think that what was then and is not now is necessarily better than the present.  I don't long for good old days or good old ways.  I don't think the use of reason will result in a return to things as they were.  For the most part I think, and hope, it will not do so. 

But it seems that thinking is something we're not interesting in doing.  Perhaps we never have been.  Perhaps we've always acted on impulse and irrationally, and simply have more opportunity to do so now, in new and different ways, and this is broadcast instantly to the world at large.  It may be that technology has merely enhanced our irrationality, provided a means by which circumstances which previously served to blunt our impulses and stupidity (provided time to think or at least to be less excited).

Certainly, we've found ways to make ourselves appear ridiculous to more and more people.  Also, our sins may be forgiven but if we're not careful they'll live on forever, somewhere on the Internet or some smart phone. 

The likelihood is we're no more stupid (and no smarter) than we have ever been, but our stupidity is less private than it has been in the past.  One would think that would make us long to be less stupid, or at least more careful.  Perhaps it will, in time. 

We can hope that our technology may save us.  Because it emphasizes our faults and failings, it's possible that we'll eventually feel so shamed or disgusted with ourselves that we'll learn to exercise restraint.  Perhaps it will make this world go away by forcing us to think about what we do.

Well, it's good to dream.  But I see another future, one born of our tendency to assign blame to anyone, or anything, but ourselves.  The fear of technology has been with us since at least the last century, what with Heidegger and others whining about what it does to the world and to us.  If we find ourselves so disgusted with what we see and hear, the inclination may be to prevent ourselves from being able to see and hear what disgusts us.  It would be so much easier to regulate media and the Internet than correcting or regulating ourselves  As we have so many times in the past, we may seek to prohibit people from using technology in certain ways, regulating the content of what can be seen or heard or sent or broadcast. 

That would not work of course, but would result in a different world, which we then would wish to go away.

Monday, November 17, 2014

William Gibson and the Creation of Worlds

I'm rereading Neuromancer and am moved to comment on what makes the superior writer of what's called science fiction such a boon to those who love to read.

All know William Gibson as the creator of cyberpunk, the man who named cyberspace, the matrix, who coined so many words and phrases now in common use when the Internet as we know it did not yet exist.  But reading this early work I'm struck by the imposing realness of the world he creates in this novel, and detailed in the subsequent novels Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive.  As far as I'm concerned, our Internet is far less interesting than the artificial reality he described as accessed by his computer cowboys, though it is not (yet?) here in our world.  But the world in which his cowboys lived and, sometimes, thrived, bears considerable resemblance to the one in which we live.

Consider the ubiquity of drugs use in that world, the omnipresence of new and interesting technologies, the significance of money, the grittiness of the urban landscapes in which people live and die, deals are made and information obtained and traded, the twisting of medicine and genetics to doing service in making money and pursuing and exercising power though the enhancement of physical and mental abilities.  The latter may not be here yet, but one feels that it will come; that it must come.

For some reason, when I try to visualize the world that Gibson shows us in these novels, the landscapes we see in the movie Blade Runner always comes to my mind.  That's what I see when the Sprawl or Chiba City are mentioned.  I'm surprised that a movie hasn't been made of Neuromancer.  I would prefer such a movie to the sword and sorcery epics we're being dubiously treated to instead in the form of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones and their imitations.  Odd that we obsess over faux castles and kingdoms, swords and magic; there's something adolescent about it.

Which is not to criticize either Tolkien or George R.R. Martin, both of them being superb creators of worlds themselves.  Other such creators are (or were) Frank Herbert who made the Dune universe, and Philip Jose Farmer for his Riverworld.  C.J. Cherryh has made more than one interesting world, as has Dan Simmons, the maker of Hyperion and the Shrike.  Orson Scott Card, when he is not busy moralizing, has also manufactured fascinating alternate realities.

It is unsurprising that it is in science fiction and fantasy that the worlds are created and live and are experienced.  Nowhere else is the imagination given such free reign; nowhere else is it the case that new and different realities are expected.  But it is the gift of Gibson and others to make these realities simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar.  Outlandish worlds somehow turn out to be uninteresting.  It's impossible to picture oneself in worlds that are entirely unreal, and one must picture oneself somewhere in order for it to hold one's interest and attention; in order for it to be worth the effort of reading or thinking, or dreaming. 

Science fiction is a curious genre, though.  Great science fiction can fascinate in a good way, but science fiction that is not great can fascinate in a bad way.  The many versions of Star Trek and Star Wars are examples of science fiction that is not great.  They are not bad, really, but they are silly.  This may come of the need evidently felt to come up with aliens who always seem to be far too much like human beings, but human beings who are comical or irritating or mystical in one sense or another and used as expositive devices.  We see the results of the fascination with science fiction that is not great in conventions and cosplay, in a devotion to the Klingon language or to The Force, in dreaming one is a Jedi Knight or superhero. 

The worlds of great science fiction are disturbingly real; those of science fiction that is not great are cartoonish.  It's regrettable that the science fiction we see translated into visual media these days is that science fiction which generates cartoon realities, primarily those of the superhero.  This suggests we desire to escape our own world, which is understandable.  But to escape into cartoons is only to escape reality, not to reimagine it and think of it.