Thursday, September 11, 2014

Game of Thrones and Philosophy: "You Win Or Your Die"

Considering the popularity of the Game of Thrones series, it’s probably worth considering the worldviews and philosophies that emerge throughout the story. Games of Thrones and Philosophy, one of many books in the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series, gives an array of essays that are helpful in at least starting the discussion. (For similar posts, see my reviews on The Hunger Games and Philosophy and The Walking Dead and Philosophy).

The book begins by looking at the game of politics through the eyes of Hobbes and Machiavelli in “Maester Hobbes goes to King’s Landing” (Greg Littmann),“Playing the Game of Thrones: Some Lessons from Machiavelli” (Marcus Schulzke), and “The Death of Lord Stark: The Perils of Idealism” (David Hahn).

Thomas Hobbes, famous for his Leviathan, lived through a real-life version of Game of Thrones when the Stuarts fell to a civil uprising then rose to power again. Hobbes observed that this kind of conflict arose because of three key reasons: greed, self-defense, and glory. These three base drives bring about a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” No one is safe. Even champions like Clegane can be killed by the lowly Samwell Tarleys of the world.

Eventually, people tire of this violent and chaotic “state of nature” and agree to societal rules, willingly giving up some measure of freedom and comfort for the sake of stability. When that happens, someone will need to enforce the rules. This enforcer will be the king, a sovereign power that will keep us from returning to brutish anarchy and to whom everyone must give complete allegiance. This is the Leviathan. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Rebellion, Freedom and Art

From Paul Gregory Alm's "Songs Without Borders" (in the September/October 2014 edition of Touchstone Magazine):

"This is the great irony in the popular art of the last sixty years. Its forms thrive on rebellion and the overturning of conventional limits and expectations and even of morality. Popular art often seeks to break conventional patterns and to ignore what society expects. Singers cry out for personal freedom. Painters disregard normal rules of color and perspective and form in order to transgress a boundary. Writers sketch narratives that investigate the immoral or amoral, or sometimes abandon standard narrative altogether.

But the irony is that for such art to work, in order for it to make a statement, such rules and boundaries and markers have to be in place. If one wishes to deface a wall with graffiti or some other outrageous markings, the wall must be there to be defaced… If one wishes to scale a barbed-wire fence marked "no trespassing" and wave his arms and say, "Look at me," there must be a fence to scale. If one wants to sneer at conventional rules of behavior, there must actually be rules that govern how most people act… 

Those boundaries and rules are increasingly absent in today's society. But without such restrictions, popular music and art more and more become a rebellion in search of something to rebel against." 

I'm not sure I fully agree with the entirety of this author's analysis - surely some conventional patterns and expectations are worth challenging - but I find his broader idea thought-provoking. What happens as the rebellion against all the moral walls created by social, moral and legal boundaries becomes increasingly successful? After all, there is more than one kind of wall. Some keep us prisoner; others keep us safe. We may think we are destroying our captor when we are actually destroying our protector. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Uglies, Pretties and Specials: Scott Westerfield's Brave New YA World

To help us enter into and better understand the entertainment shaping today's youth, I offer my latest review of books effecting a primarily YA audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as look at the worldview in the story.

This review will look at Scott Westerfield’s Uglies, Pretties and Specials. In spite of mixed reviews, the series has consistently been on the New York Times bestseller list with more than 3 million copies sold. Uglies, which was nominated as a Best Book For Young Adults in 2006 by the ALA, has been turned into a mange-style graphic novel and is on the way to the big screen (there have been several false starts so far).

Mr. Westerfield has a B.A. in philosophy, so it's no surprise this book series seeks to dig deeply into culture and humanity.The series isn’t destined to become part of any literary canon, but it offers a YA Brave New World that highlight the dangers of our culture's idolization and seemingly endless pursuit of youth, pleasure and beauty.

In Westerfield’s world, everyone can become beautiful, fixed and enhanced by a pretty invasive surgery that radically changes one's appearance while altering one's brain to bring about obedience. Upon completion, the Pretties enter into a “bubbly” world, a lifestyle that makes the most extravagant Hollywood excesses seem tame. The theory behind this seems to be that people fight each other and pillage the planet because they are unhappy, and they are unhappy because they are ugly and/or poor. The solution must be to make them pretty and rich.

It doesn’t work.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Pixar and Personhood

I don't think it's a secret that media has a tremendous impact on our view of reality. The medium is the message all entertainment contains messages both overt and covert. In many ways, the most impactful messages are the ones the story assumes about the world, not the messages that subtly embellish a clever plot.  Even shows about nothing are about something. 

I recently read an interesting article over at Discover Magazine called "The Hidden Message in Pixars' Films." The author makes an interesting case that Pixar's movies are changing the way the next generation thinks about what it means to be a person - or even what it means to be human:

Popular culture is often dismissed as empty “popcorn” fare. Animated films find themselves doubly-dismissed as “for the kids” and therefore nothing to take too seriously. Pixar has shattered those expectations by producing commercially successful cinematic art about the fishes in our fish tanks and the bugs in our backyards. Pixar films contain a complex, nuanced, philosophical and political essence that, when viewed across the company’s complete corpus, begins to emerge with some clarity. Buried within that constant  and complex goodness is a hidden message...

What if I told you they were preparing us for the future? What if I told you Pixar’s films will affect how we define the rights of millions, perhaps billions, in the coming century? Only by analyzing the collection as a whole can we see the subliminal concept being drilled into our collective mind...

An entire generation has been reared with the subconscious seeds of these ideas planted down deep. As history moves forward and technology with it, these issues will no longer be the imaginings of films and fiction, but of politics and policy. But Pixar has settled the personhood debate before it arrives. By watching our favorite films, we have been taught that being human is not the same as being a person. We have been shown that new persons and forms of personhood can come from anywhere….

Andrew Fletcher, a Scottish writer and politician, is credited with saying, "I said I knew a very wise man [who]... believed if a man were permitted to make all the ballads he need not care who should make the laws of a nation, and we find that most of the ancient legislators thought that they could not well reform the manners of any city without the help of a lyric, and sometimes of a dramatic poet."And a good script writer. 

Please don't misunderstand - I like Pixar's films. The Toy Story series is fantastic; Up starts with some of the most heart-wrenching and beautiful 10 minutes you can find in film; Finding Nemo never gets old; The Incredibles was both entertaining and thoughtful; and Brave - okay, I could have done without Brave.  In general, I think Pixar films have some of the best overtly good messages in the industry.

I'm not even sure I agree with this article's final conclusions. The author may be giving Pixar more power than it's due. Nonetheless, it's a good reminder that those who tell our most winsome and engaging cultural stories  - books, movies, music - are settling our deepest debates in ways we often don't fully appreciate. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Maze Runner: Something WICKED This Way Comes

The Maze Runner took the YA world by storm in 2009, winning the New York State Charlotte Award, the Kentucky Bluegrass Award, the Oregon Reader’s Choice Award the New Hampshire Isinglass Teen Read Award, the Missouri Truman Readers Award, the Illinois Abraham Lincoln Award , the Tennessee Volunteer State Book Award, the Arizona Grand Canyon Reader Award, the Georgia Peach Book Award , and the New Jersey Garden State Book Award.

So, yeah, it's kind of a big deal. Dashner went on to write three more books in the series: The Scorch Trials, The Death Cure, and a prequel called The Kill Order). The previews for the upcoming film look promising, so I suspect it will be a hit as well. However, as much as I enjoyed The Maze Runner (and am looking forward to the movie), I grew increasingly frustrated as I read the remaining books. Please be aware there will be all kinds of spoilers as I offer some thoughts about the series.

The Maze Runner

A boy named Thomas wakes up in a village populated solely by other teenage boys. He doesn't know who or where he is. He learns they all live in the middle of a maze that changes every day. Runners go out every morning attempting to map the maze, then return every night before mechanical monsters kill them (or at least make them wish they were dead). Somehow the maze is important, but no one knows why.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Marvel Comics is on a roll. Guardians of the Galaxy opened with a stunning $94 million dollar weekend, breaking the previous August record for a movie opening. In spite of bewilderment within the entertainment industry leading up to its release (check out Rotten Tomatoes' discussion), critics and audiences have been giving it well-deserved reviews.

It's funny, surprisingly moving at time, and loaded with great special effects. It's not perfect (it's got some crude language, and the scope and severity of the violence was minimized and at times too light-hearted), but as far as summer blockbusters go, it's very good. I was certainly entertained. I was equally challenged by a thought-provoking scene near the end of the movie.

When Peter Quill realizes that he finally has a chance to stop running from hardship and do something truly noble, he tells the other soon-to-be guardians of the galaxy what he has in mind. Rocket soberly summarizes what is painfully clear to all of them:

 “You’re asking us to die.”

As I left the theater, a line from a very different kind of hero kept running through my head: “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship. Don’t get me wrong –  Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t meant to be a spiritual parable. But that unexpected, sobering moment lingers with me.*

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking Trilogy: Knives, Questions, and Monsters of Men

Patrick Ness’s award-winning first book in the Chaos Walking trilogy, The Knife of Never Letting Go, introduced us to a world of war, love, sacrifice and Noise (read my review here). The second book in the series, The Ask and The Answer, won Publisher’s Weekly award for best YA science fiction novel. The conclusion of the trilogy, Monsters of Men, won the 2011 Carnegie Medal and was nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke award for best science fiction novel, an unusual accolade for YA literature. The first two books are already on their way to the big screen under the direction of Robert Zemeckis. 

The knife in The Knife of Never Letting Go symbolized the power our decisions have to altar the
trajectory of our lives for good or evil. In The Ask and the Answer and Monsters of Men, the New World (a colonized planet) is put to the edge of that knife.

After the events in The Knife of Never Letting Go, three separate plot lines emerge: Todd is forced to live with and work for the Mayor when he takes over the wistfully named town of Haven; Viola joins a group of rebels; and the Spackle prepare to take back their planet. To further complicate matters, an advance ship of new settlers has landed, and they have enough firepower to lead one side of this war to victory. Will war truly make monsters of them all? Is there a path to peace, reconciliation, and redemption? And is anyone beyond forgiveness?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has been a commercial success ($73 million the opening weekend) as well as a critical success (91% critics approval at Rotten Tomatoes and 79% at Metacritic). I will leave it to others to highlight the acting, directing, special effects, and overall plot. I am going to focus on why this story resonates with us. 

Think of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as a modern allegory similar to District 9.  D9 used aliens and humans to tell a story about apartheid; Dawn uses apes and humans to tell a story about how fear and hate lead to war (think of the troubles in Northern Ireland, or how  the Arab/Israeli conflict is escalating again as I write this). The story is clearly fiction, but the situations are all too real.*

Everyone had a logical reason for his or her actions. Koba spent his life being tortured by humans. When Caesar tells him he wants to wait for the “human work” to finish (in this case, fixing the dam), Koba points at scars on his body and growls, “Human work.”  Humanity has certainly earned his wrath and distrust.

From the human perspective, the simian flu brought humanity to the edge of extinction. Their fear of the apes is justified as well. One man noted he couldn't look at an ape without getting physically ill. His hatred was illogical, of course. Humans created the virus that the apes spread. But fear and hatred blind people to the truth; the mind will justify what the heart desires.