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.

Monday, July 14, 2014

MemeThink 202: Hobby Lobby Edition

MemeThink 101 offered a perspective on the frustrating trend of using memes to talk about serious cultural issues, in particular same-sex marriage. This follow-up post will address the recent Hobby Lobby ruling as seen from the perspective of the MemeThink.


Does anyone actually believe this meme represents reality? In the eyes of the Supreme Court, women are persons, corporations are an association of citizens and/or persons  (it's a centuries old "legal fiction"),* and unborn babies are not persons.  In the eyes of Hobby Lobby, unborn babies and women are persons and corporations are an association of citizens who have constitutional rights. Who exactly is undecided about whether or not a woman is a person?

Everybody in the discussion thinks a woman is a person. Not everyone agrees, however, on 1) whether or not the baby is a person and 2) if an abortion actually results from the contraception in question. Justice Samuel Alito noted that “federal regulations, which define pregnancy as beginning at implantation, do not so classify them.” Many pro-life advocates (including the owners of Hobby Lobby) believe that life begins at fertilization.  If that's true, the baby is a person from the moment of fertilization and thus deserves the protections granted to other persons.

It's not like one side has science as the other does not. Everyone is looking at the same evidence while disagreeing about the moment life begins - which is a legitimate and significant question. Doctors, biologists, philosophers and theologians all have something to say that's worth hearing.  If Hobby Lobby errs, it is on the side of caution (and with more medical support than you might think).

Friday, July 4, 2014

True Detective

"Touch darkness and darkness touches you back."

"Matthew Coniglio's Georgia home held a trove of child pornography, more than 50,000 images and videos stored on laptops, external hard drives and thumb drives. Among the stash, hidden in a bedside table turned around to conceal the doors, authorities made an even more horrifying discovery: 56 8-millimeter cassette tapes they say show him raping and molesting girls. All were unconscious, apparently drugged, FBI Special Agent William Kirkconnell, who viewed the tapes, told The Associated Press. Some were so incapacitated they were snoring. The camera was always turned off before they awoke."   -The NY Daily News
I read this story in my local paper two days after I finished watching Season One of True Detective. If you've seen the show, this news story probably sounds eerily familiar. There are monsters among us. It's not a pleasant thought. If you are looking for a fictional story to help you come to grips with that kind of horror in the world around us, True Detective will do just that.

Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Eric "Marty" Hart (Woody Harrelson) are assigned to investigate a horrific murder. They discover it is just one soul-searing link in a chain of evil formed by dozens of victims, many of whom are very young. Unfortunately, even those whose cause is just cannot escape the stain of that kind of sin. They must subject themselves to the hell of seeing and documenting horrors that should never see the light of day.There is a price to be paid for even knowing about this kind of corruption. No matter what Rust and Marty were when they first became detectives, they are both damaged goods now.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Maleficent: A Fairy Tale for Our Times

The new version of Sleeping Beauty showcases something Disney has been good at for a long time: offering a story that reflect the times. Maleficent is not meant to be a prequel, sequel, or addendum to the 1950's tale of Beauty. It's a new twist on an old story that Disney had already altered from its original version. If you think Disney's earlier portrayal of Maleficent should be set in stone, you won't like this movie. If you approach it with the idea that fairy tales are a flexible vehicle for insight into the human condition, you will probably like this movie quite a bit. It's not a perfect story, but it offers a surprisingly moving narrative that intersects with real life more than you might expect.
A young lady wakes up after falling asleep in the arms of a man who says he loves her. He drugs her and violates her by taking something precious. He then abandons her, brags about his conquest, and turns his back on her despoiled life. 
In the aftermath of her abandonment, she chooses to embrace revenge, hate, and a lust for power. Joy becomes bitterness; warmth and laughter becomes cold cynicism. She builds walls around her heart and her kindgom so no one can and hurt her again. She begins to use others for her selfish purposes. And when the opportunity for revenge presents itself, the girl who once loved to help is the first in line to harm.
If you have not heard this story before, you’re not listening, and I'm not talking about Maleficent's updated story. It’s happening around us all the time. Lest you think I am reading too much into this, Angelina Jolie noted: "The core of [the movie] is abuse, and how the abused have a choice of abusing others or overcoming...What could make a woman become so dark? To lose all sense of her maternity, her womanhood, and her softness?"