Monthly Archives: June 2012

Truly, Madly, Deeply

Truly Madly Deeply, the first movie directed by Anthony Minghella (The English Patient), is one of my favorite films. I wrote an article about it which you can read here:



Leaders and Tricksters

I’ve watched all the movies in the “Avengers” series so far. I never read the comics, so I’m coming to this ‘verse without any idea of what the canon is, and I can’t judge the films on that basis. I also had some trouble with most of the films devoted to establishing each individual character–precisely because most of the screen time went to that goal, and the final climactic fight was the same in each one: they all almost died fighting a bigger, stronger version of themselves that lacked their moral sense or ability to love. Okay, I get it, the hero fights out of love, and love always trumps ego or the urge to power.

But now that I’ve seen the first film where they are all together, I see why they did it. Each Avenger has now been established in our minds as a true hero (still would like to see Black Widow’s backstory as I’m betting the heroine’s journey was very different), and so Whedon got to move on and play with other themes.

The one that spoke to me on my first viewing was the process by which the team comes together and gets in line behind the Captain as their natural leader, and I’ve written about that in “Son of Cool,” below. But on my second viewing, I was struck by the contrast between Stark and Loki.

They are both classic Trickster figures. (Captain Jack Sparrow of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is another). You never know where they stand or where you stand with them. Sometimes they seem noble and loving–and they’re very attractive when they are–and then the switch flips and they’re ruthless and self-serving. They’re master manipulators, because they get people, especially all the shadow stuff we like to think we’ve hidden so well no one knows about it.

(Casting Robert Downey Jr. as Stark was sheer genuis. RDj lived for a long time in the shadow world of addiction, but he made it back out. He plays the irresponsible, thoughtless side of Stark and the hero-Stark with equal conviction.)

Whenever you have a “double” character in a story, Marie-Louise von Franz says, one of two things is going on. The first is that an out-of-date image of an archetype is being contrasted with the new image that’s trying to come into being. I think of the groundbreaking TV series “Will and Grace” which featured several gay characters. One of the recurring characters was the old idea of the flaming, limp-wristed, lisping, sardonic gay man. But the main gay character behaved pretty much like a straight guy; he was just attracted to men, not women. This show expressed the emerging idea in our culture that the old stereotype is wrong, that gays are not that different.

The other possibility is that the doubled characters represent the dark and the light side of the archetype; the shadow or unconscious side vs. the conscious, rational side. That’s what Loki and Stark are. Loki is so unconscious of his own motivations that he’s insane; as Dr. Banner observes, “the guy’s mind is like a bag of cats.” But Stark is super-aware. He picks up on everything around him, even the subtlest, most peripheral things like what’s on the screens in front of all the people in the control room (“That guy’s playing Galaga. Thought we wouldn’t notice. We did.”).

Throughout most of the film, he uses his Trickster skills to manipulate those who need a nudge towards accepting and taking on their proper role in the team. He suggests to Banner that instead of running from his own shadow side (the Hulk), Banner should embrace it as a positive thing and learn how to use it. Carl Jung would applaud. He constantly challenges Captain America, forcing that hero to snap out of his funk over waking up in a world 70 years past the one he knew and get with the program. He stops Thor from taking his own approach to solving the problem and brings him in line with the rest of the team. And when the team is ready, he almost formally turns over leadership to the Captain, telling him “Call it, Cap.” And the Cap does. 

Stark knows that he’s not a leader. He’s a loner who “doesn’t play well with others.” A leader is someone people instinctively look to for guidance and obey. But he’s perfect as the power behind the throne. The Captain relies not only on his superstrength but his moral strength to get others to obey him; in a telling scene, when a pilot protests as the Avengers commandeer his plane, the Cap says “son . . . just don’t” and the pilot gives way. But sometimes that’s not enough; sometimes people need to be brought to the right point first, and that’s the role Stark happily takes on.

This is where Loki goes wrong. He thinks he can be the leader, but he doesn’t have the moral center for the job. He’s insanely jealous of how much others love Thor, the heir to the throne back on their own world; he doesn’t get it that the love is mutual, that Thor loves the people just as much. He doesn’t get that in the end, it’s love that makes people follow someone, and he refuses to accept that his own proper role would be as Thor’s Prime Minister, the power behind the throne. So he tries to make the people of Earth bow to him through fear instead. Coulson warns him that it won’t work; Stark spells out to him exactly why he will fail; but Loki will not listen and cannot understand. He has to have it literally beaten into him; when he shouts at the Hulk “I am a god!”, the Hulk grabs him and beats him into the ground, then mutters “puny god.”

The Hulk represents the instinctive self. Our instinct isn’t to follow the person who despises and threatens us; we follow the person who respects us and who we can respect. When Bruce Banner first meets Captain America, the Captain treats him with respect and makes it clear that he does not fear the Hulk; when he later orders the Hulk to do something, the Hulk obeys. Stark also makes it clear from the start that he actually likes the “rage monster” Banner can become, so it is no surprise when the Hulk saves his life later on.

Like all archetypes, the Trickster in its essence is a neutral energy with a positive and a negative aspect. In The Avengers, we see both aspects at work.


Snow White and the Huntsman

This film is a mess. It’s very pretty to look at, with lots of fantastic landscapes as well as pretty people. (I personally could look at both Charlize Theron and Chris Hemsworth all day long and not be bored.) But it doesn’t know where it’s going or what it is trying to say. So it wanders around from place to place. And each place it gets to, you think “oh, okay, now I know what’s going on.” But within a few minutes the movie gives up on that slant and wanders off somewhere else.

It more or less follows the basic “Snow White”‘ story for most of the movie. But after Snow White eats the poisoned apple and dies and gets brought back by a kiss, she suddenly turns into Henry V. She gives a stirring eve-of-battle speech to the troops and leads an attack on the evil queen’s castle, using the amazing swordfighting skills she apparently downloaded from the Matrix while she was in a coma. Or maybe she taught them to herself while locked in a dungeon all those years, like Fiona in Shrek and Rapunzel in Tangled.

I don’t have a problem with girls teaching themselves how to be warriors on the sly while society thinks they’re safely constrained. Nor do I have a problem with turning a passive heroine into a real one. Where this movie fell down for the final, fatal time for me was the character of the evil queen.

Myths about heroes often have an evil woman/witch/female monster that needs to be destroyed: the Wendol mother in Beowulf, the Medusa that Perseus defeats, Shelob in The Lord of the Rings, etc. Folk and fairy tales are full of evil stepmothers who are the villains in many a Disney tale. But if you take a closer look at the stories women write, the devouring female  doesn’t show up. When a heroine goes out on her own and meets up with the witch in the forest, she ends up learning from her and leaving with gifts.  The evil queen is a male problem.

The villain that most heroines have to battle is society’s idea of what a woman can be. Yes, there are often women who perpetuate that for other women, like the Mean Girls in high school. But they are not the cause of the problem, and defeating them doesn’t fix anything.

The film comes close to recognizing this when it shows us that the reason the queen went bad in the first place is because society taught her that she only had value as long as she was young and beautiful; that men would only use her and then toss her aside. She got angry about this, as women do, and then she set out to make sure it would never happen again. And yes, she got kinda twisted and went about it the wrong way and caused a lot of trouble. Women do, when they’re not allowed to be themselves.

So the climax of the film didn’t work for me. Ninja Snow White kills the queen and becomes queen herself. But she doesn’t look happy about it. That may have been because Kristen Stewart has only one expression, but I had to wonder if, as the character, she was thinking “yeah, it’s good now, but I’m still young & pretty. What happens when I’m not?” The film has no answer.

Serendipity, Zemblanity, and Dr. Sheldon Cooper

A wise gentleman of my acquaintance told me the other day that I am a “serendipite, as opposed to someone devoted to ‘zemblanity’ who, as William Boyd put it in his novel Armadillo, spends their time making ‘unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries occurring by design’.”

The word serendipity comes to us from Voltaire, who called Sri Lanka “Serendip” in his novel Zadig. In science, it means how the factor of luck or happenstance can affect discoveries (like the famous story of the bread mold spores that accidentally contaminated a petrie dish containing a culture of staphyloccocus bacteria and killed the bacteria, leading to the discovery of penicillin).

Pasteur said that “luck favors the prepared mind,” meaning that serendipity can only occur when one is able and willing to notice it. The social sciences, according to Robert Merton, rely heavily on serendipity, which he defines as “the fairly common experience of observing an unanticipated, anomalous and strategic datum which becomes the occasion for developing a new theory or for extending an existing theory.”

I am a fan of The Big Bang Theory, a TV sitcom about four nerdy, brilliant scientists. The most brilliant is a theoretical physicist called Dr. Sheldon Cooper (he never introduces himself without emphasizing the “Doctor,” even though almost all his friends have doctorates too) who also has Asperger’s Syndrome. I think of Sheldon as the ultimate product of the logical positivist outlook in Western science and philosophy, which teaches that only things that can be physically measured, plus the “logical and mathematical treatments of such data, are together the exclusive source of all authentic knowledge.” We know it is “authentic knowledge” when the data can be verified by repeated experiments that always yield the same results.

I have no problem with this theory when it comes to the physical world, to those things that can be measured and described by science. But it falls apart pretty quickly when we come to people. I came to this conclusion when I spent two years reading hundreds of papers on experiments on people done by psychologists and sociologists trying oh so hard to be “scientific” and “rigorous” about their work –I suspect so that they would be taken seriously by people like Dr. Sheldon Cooper. The problem was, almost all their data still turned out to be “anomalous” and “unexpected,” and so they were forced to conclude that they couldn’t conclude anything.

I concluded something else from reading these studies: that the positivist approach is useless for studying people. Oh, you can study the physical bits of people just fine. But when it comes to the mind and human behavior, there are more “outlying” data than data that can be confirmed through experiment. Worse, there are experiences. Ever since people realized that experience can lie — for example, that the sun may look like it goes around the earth, but it’s really the other way around — scientists have been suspicious of it. Experience is “anecdotal evidence” that cannot be verified. Even if a whole lot of other people also had the same experience at the same time, all of them could have been suffering some kind of delusion. A real scientist or positivist will only believe them if a machine was also present and measured it somehow.

But neuroscientists are now having to admit that people base their beliefs and actions on experience. And we don’t remember experiences as they really happened, but by how we felt about them. It’s experience plus our feelings about our experiences that make us who we are. And for most of us, all the logical arguing in the world will not shift us one millimeter from those feelings. But a single experience that contradicts them will change us. Even Dr. Sheldon Cooper got over his illogical phobia of birds, caused by a series of negative experiences as a child, after one positive experience.

And that is why I left the sciences and went to the humanities — a word that Dr. Sheldon Cooper can only pronounce with loathing. The humanities are the opposite of positivism. The humanities embrace and celebrate the anomalous and unexpected. The humanities are the science of being human.

Dr. Sheldon Cooper and I agree that this is not “science” at all. He stops there, as for him there is nothing beyond science. Yet he plays music and loves movies and comic books. Whenever he’s not “doing science” he is, in fact, seeking experiences. He just doesn’t think those experiences are worth studying, because they can’t be studied scientifically. Instead, he is spending his life trying to prove a theory that he’s already convinced is true. The greatest goal he can imagine is “an expected discovery occurring by design.” He is a zemblanite.

But I wonder: the writers of the show are, after all, writers; products of the humanities, artists of the human soul. Will they give Sheldon an experience of serendipity so powerful that even he can’t ignore it?

Son of Cool

I am a big fan of Joss Whedon, the head writer and director of the “Firefly” TV series (damn you Fox for cancelling it!), the “Buffy” franchise, another TV series called “Doll House” (again, Fox be damned for cancelling – have you heard the joke “What do you call a good show on Fox? Cancelled”), and several movies including “Serenity” and now “The Avengers.” He also wrote the screenplay for the first “Toy Story” movie. He’s good.

Joss loves to write stories for an ensemble cast instead of “star vehicles” where one person gets all the glory. This is how the Brits tend to approach TV shows and movies too – everyone in the cast, no matter how small the part, is excellent and memorable. And the whole cast works together. There just doesn’t seem to be a lot of ego involved, but rather a real intent to entertain. Same with Joss’s stuff.

So he was the perfect person for “The Avengers,” which assembles a large cast of characters and builds on a series of movies in which several of those characters were the central figure: “The Hulk,” “Iron Man,” and “Thor.” Now these larger-than-life (literally) characters have to stop hogging center stage and work as a group. And Joss builds that problem right into the movie itself. How do you get a bunch of superheroes who are used to doing everything their way to work as a team instead? It’s a process, and there’s a lot of bickering and outright duelling that goes on for a while, until two things happen: everyone realizes that they are not stronger/faster/better than anyone else in the room, so the one person who is able to command not because he is bigger or stronger, but because he has moral strength and knows the right thing to do, steps in and pulls the group together.

But first they all, individually, have to commit to it, and the process by which they all come to want to be part of the team is also beautifully done. At first, other people try to manipulate them into it, which backfires entirely. They have to come to it for their own reasons, and in time they do.

Which is what Agent Coulson, who started out as a minor character in the earlier films, tells the chief manipulator (who happens to be his boss) must happen. I love Agent Coulson, whom Thor calls “Son of Coul” and I spell “Son of Cool.” He is totally cool. In their great wisdom the earlier directors of the other movies (including Kenneth Branagh, who helmed “Thor”) have let this character develop into an important figure. Whedon did something even better: he turned Coulson into the guy who sees into the heart of the issue and so has the power to get people to rethink what they are doing. He even explains to the villain why he will lose; not because of lack of firepower, but because of the hitch in the villain’s own psyche.

Whedon also gives us a glimpse into Coulson’s psyche when we see him interact with Captain America – the guy who becomes the group’s center and leader. Unlike the other superheroes, the Cap is not morally ambiguous. There’s no shades of grey with him; he is a pure soul without ego or secrets. You don’t see a lot of heroes like him in movies these days, and there’s a reason. Cap is from the “greatest generation” that stopped Hitler, but was entombed in ice during WWII and only recently found and thawed out. He stands for all the virtues that we associate with that generation – strength, sureness of purpose, and selfless heroism – without any of the vices we also know they had: he doesn’t drink or smoke, and the farthest he’s gotten with women is a couple of kisses. He is Coulson’s ideal, and there’s a very funny scene where Coulson asks for his autograph and reveals that he has a full set of Captain America trading cards “slightly foxed around the edges” – obviously his most treasured possession.

I’m in awe that Whedon takes the time for this moment in a film where so much is going on and there are so many characters who need to have their turn onscreen. But it isn’t a tangent; it becomes a very important factor in the overall momentum of the film. It is, in a word, brilliant: a shining act of genius. I love this movie because of this one scene. Oh, I was thoroughly entertained by the rest of it, and yes, Whedon does give all the players an “arc” whereby they mature and change into the heroes they have to be. Not to mention lots of fun CGI and explosions and chase scenes and moments where  you are sure the hero must have died, but of course he or she hasn’t (Whedon, bless him, loves women who kick ass, and there are two in this movie), and a most satisfying final showdown with the villain after the team finally coalesces. It would have been a good summer blockbuster movie for that alone. Because of Son of Cool, it’s a great one.


I recently gave a talk on Dante’s Commedia, commonly known as The Divine Comedy. I consider this the greatest poem ever written. Dante was not just a poetic genius who invented an entirely new form of poetry called terza rima, he was a spiritual and psychological genius (the two may be the same). Everything is in this poem. Everything.

With this poem, Dante redefined comedy. Up until then, everyone in the Western world pretty much went with Aristotle’s definition of comedy, which was basically that comedy is a light-hearted work that ends happily. Aristotle thought comedy a “lower” kind of work compared to the great tragic plays and epic and lyric poetry, mostly because the comedies that played in Greece were low-brow stuff, raunchy and clownish with pratfalls and fart jokes – not unlike the comic movies of today made by the likes of Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn and Adam Sandler that appeal primarily to teenage boys through their extensive reliance on toilet humor, naked boobs, and the F-word. If Aristophanes were alive today, he’d be writing for them.

But Dante realized that comedy can be dark, epic, or lyrical too, and that’s exactly how he divided his Comedy. The first section is Dante’s trip through Hell, the Inferno; the second is his climb up the mountain of Purgatory, and in the third he is in the blissful world of Paradise. In so doing he set the bar for subsequent authors and even our current cinema.

Infernal comedy is not funny; it’s gritty, frightening, and involves a journey through a dark landscape with lots of evil people and monsters and dangers that often can only be traversed with some kind of divine aid. Evil is a separate, active force and the people who dwell in this Hell are either in collusion with it or passively acquiescent to it. At the end, while the hero survives, it’s usually at great cost.

The Lord of the Rings has a lot of infernal comedic qualities. Frodo travels through soul-searing landscapes, bearing the soul-searing Ring, in a Quest that everyone believes is going to fail but has to be tried anyway. There’s almost no hope. Frodo does destroy the Ring, but not in the end of his own volition: fate takes a hand at the last second. So his victory is more bitter than sweet, and although he survives and the world is saved, he has lost all his joy. In the end he gets in a boat and sails away to the angelic realm where his only hope of healing lies.

This is just one example of many movies out there where the protagonist has to battle his or her way to an ending that is mostly marked by the fact that everything that needs to be destroyed has been. A lot of war movies end that way, I suppose because that’s what war is, ultimately. We say we fight for freedom, but really, we fight to destroy the thing that threatens freedom. And the cost is always high . . . just not quite as high, we hope, as the cost of not fighting. These days we have a lot of movies about taking on the corporations. Again, not much hope or joy, just a sense of “it has to be done” no matter what the cost, because it will be worse for all if we don’t. Most of our sci-fi movies, which are the way we imagine what the future might be like, are also infernal, which says to me that we don’t have much hope for the future.

But at the same time we make TV shows like Star Trek and Farscape and Doctor Who in which people are generally more ethical and more prone to act out of love and faith in each other, at the same time that they use their wits to solve problems. Or as talk show host Craig Ferguson put it in his tribute to Doctor Who, “it’s all about the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism.”

These shows are examples of purgatorial comedy. In Purgatory there’s hope, but only at the end of a long road of trials where the protagonist has to own up to his or her responsibility for why they are in the situation in the first place. In Dante’s vision, those who are in Hell are there because they never took responsibility for their behavior. Those who make it to Purgatory may have done wrong, but they recognize it and accept that they must do something to make it better. They have to vanquish the evil within themselves. Once they do that, they are able to create a community with others. Usually there’s a marriage, a union of opposites, to mark this ending.

I believe one of the differences at work in our political situation is the difference between people who think we’re in an infernal situation and those who think it’s purgatorial. Do our divisions reveal a split between those who think the answer to destroy all those who oppose one so as to preserve one’s individuality no matter what, or to look within and heal our own evil so we can build a stronger community?

The third kind of comedy is paradisal, in which things are pretty blissful right from the start and stay that way. The wonderful screwball comedies of the 1930s and many Disney movies (although lately, they’re more laced with purgatorial elements) offer this vision. Field of Dreams is a paradisal movie.

We tend to dismiss movies in this category as escapist and “fluff,” but I think they serve a valid purpose. We can never realize a future that we can’t imagine, someone said, and paradisal comedy allows us to imagine a happier future. We see this at work in our society in the New Age folks who are convinced that we’re all evolving to a higher consciousness and the future will be a better place.

Is Fantasy Escapism?

riginally posted 2/28/2008)

Ever since I discovered The Lord of the Rings at the age of 16, I’ve been a fan of science fiction and fantasy. I have four bookshelves in my home office/library, one of which is devoted entirely to those genres.

Many people do not understand this love. The most frequent criticism I hear and read is that such works are “escapism.” Science fiction and fantasy are different from other forms of fiction, it seems, because they are not based on the world we know (although science fiction often predicts our future accurately). The only books worth reading, these people seem to think, are those that reflect back to us the world we live in now. (One noted fantasy author groused that that “the literati” will only read fiction that is “about the college professor who loves the other college professor.”) I have many friends who only read nonfiction and watch documentaries. Some prefer only those works that dwell on the worst aspects of our current world. These are the ones who chide me for indulging in “escapist” literature.

But is this an accurate label? Those who like and those who write science fiction and fantasy often use the label “speculative fiction” instead. The point of these stories, to them, is to ask “what if?” What if, Ursula Le Guin asks in The Left Hand of Darkness, people were hermaphroditic? What if, she asks in The Dispossessed, we lived in a true anarchy? What if, Frank Herbert asks in Dune, there was a revolution against computers and a subsequent movement to train people to use all of their minds’ capacities? What if, asks CJ Cherryh, Edgar Rice Burroughs, CS Lewis, and the creators of Farscape, a single human or small group of humans was suddenly transplanted to an alien world? What if we could travel in time, change the past, read minds, talk to animals, fly without machines?

Alfred Hitchcock said that most stories require what he called the MacGuffin. He defined the MacGuffin as “the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is most always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers.” The MacGuffin itself does not matter; it is the effect it has on the characters that matters: how they react, what they will do because of it.

The what if question is the MacGuffin for science fiction and fantasy. In itself it does not matter; what matters is the implications. The authors of these books write them to explore these implications. What would society be like, what would relationships be like, what kind of religions would we have, how would we govern ourselves, what would we be like if one of the conditions of life we now take for granted was changed? How would we be different?

More importantly, what would remain the same? Our environment, the world around us, is not fixed; it changes, and we often change with it. What about us is innate and unchanging no matter what the world around us is like? What would remain the same even if the outside world was radically changed, even unrecognizable?

The best science fiction and fantasy asks the question “what does it mean to be a human?” It may take us away from the world as it currently is, but it brings us closer to ourselves. This is the opposite of “escapism.”