Monday, December 22, 2008

Bolt's Lessons in Metaphysics


As you may know from a previous post: for Thanksgiving I visited my wife’s family in Deatsville, Alabama. Our time there is always both very refreshing and fun. Melissa’s sister has five children, and the energy level, as you can imagine, is pretty high. Before meeting the Morton family, I was not the biggest fan of kids, but in College, while courting Melissa, we spent a number of weekends in the company of her sister’s family (then with only 3-4 kids), and I realized then that family life did not have to be a risk to be avoided, but could be, when done right, an absolute joy.

On this particular Thanksgiving, the Phillips, Morton and Seeuws clans ventured to see Bolt in 3D. It is probably the first 3D movie I have seen since The Muppets in 3-D at MGM when I was a kid. Were I writing a review right now, I would call Bolt formulaic, but not wholly disappointing. It has its moments-one of them being a phenomenally directed and animated opening action sequence, which along with the Ti-Lung escape scene and the bridge battle from Kung Fu Panda, makes me think that today’s live action directors should start looking to animated films to re-learn how to shoot and direct action sequences. The current verite shooting and Bourne-inspired editing makes action sequences often close to unwatchable or gives the director a way to imply action without ever showing it (maybe it’s cheaper).

The rest of the movie strives to make you care about Bolt’s relationship with his owner, but it gets much too precious and succumbs to numerous cases of insider idea trading (having been directed by Pixar’s John Lasseter): Bolt’s belief that he is a superdog is analogous to Buzz’s assurance that he is a space ranger, Mittens’ emotional damage due to being abandoned runs parallel to Jesse’s in Toy Story 2, and Bolt must make a cross country odyssey akin to Marlin’s in Finding Nemo (the comic-relief that had been supplied by the idiosyncratic Dory is replaced by a Jack Black-inspired hamster named Rhino).

Whether it has merit as a piece of art or entertainment, for me Bolt was worth it for one shot near the film’s end. Let me give a brief summary that sets up that shot. The film’s basic plot is that Bolt believes he is in a world very much like Inspector Gadget’s and must save his girl Penny with his superdog powers. He escapes from the TV studio thinking Penny has been kidnapped, but through an unplanned series of events ends up on the other side of the country, finds a cat he believes to be a villain who has been party to Penny’s kidnapping, and forces her to join him. With all his talk of superpowers, she thinks he is insane until they meet Rhino, a TV-groomed hamster that believes Bolt is a real superdog. When she learns that Rhino has seen Bolt on TV, she realizes Bolt is not crazy, but has been tricked into believing the lie that he has superpowers. She convinces Bolt that he is not super.

The shot that caught my attention happens just before the climax when a fire has broken out in the movie studio, and Penny’s life is in danger. In this shot, Bolt, Mittens and Rhino are rushing towards the burning building to save the day, and it was in that moment that the nature of each character jumped out at me:

1. Rhino-the true believer, who never stops believing the myth that Bolt has powers, but interprets every situation, no matter how contradictory, as proof of the myth.

He runs toward the conflict having been inspired to bravery by Bolt’s TV exploits, his confidence boosted by his belief in Bolt’s powers.

2. Bolt-the ex-believer, jaded by his discovery that his belief is in a fictional myth, but retains optimism that life interpreted through the myth can be worth living.

He runs toward the conflict out of love for Penny, and having been saved earlier by Rhino, has a newfound faith in the possibility of being a hero, even without real, working powers.

3. Mittens-the skeptic, who not only disbelieves the myth, but questions its ability to inform life in any way. Nonetheless, she wants to believe in human love, and having seen evidence of Penny’s love for Bolt and having been rescued by Bolt in real life, has renewed hope that maybe there is more to life than hunger and mere subsistence.

She runs toward the conflict in the hope that human love may, in fact, be real, but has no pretensions that they will succeed because of a TV show’s inspiration.

Okay, so I know that some may be thinking that I am reading way too much into this, but it’s all there, and that one shot made me ask a number of questions (Keep in mind that I consider myself a Christian through and through. These are honest questions, though, that I think we all must wrestle with if we are to seek truth and know what we really believe):

Is faith simply pragmatic?
Is it useful only insofar that it inspires the “Rhinos” of the world to hope in something more than a mundane existence, and when the trial comes, to be able to deal with it, having a rock-solid faith in something bigger than themselves? So Rhino can rush into battle believing all will be well because Bolt is with him, and Christians could face lions because Jesus was with them. Of course, the implication is that there is nothing true about the object of one’s faith. The only truth is that faith, no matter its object, is the real catalyst for hope and the ability to overcome obstacles.

Are these myths necessary to live a full life?
Without faith in something bigger, and having been burned by life, Mittens settles for a nihilistic view of the world, content at one point to accept a box for a home and a lifetime supply of Las Vegas garbage for food. Obviously, a skeptic would have every right to feel offended by such a portrayal of their worldview just as much as a Christian would of the above. But again, I’m not worried so much about hurting either or both of our feelings, but I’m interested in taking these questions and their implications seriously.

Is some element of skepticism in our myths necessary to live a full life?
While Mittens is guilty of staving off hope of the higher levels of Maslowe’s hierarchy, Bolt is guilty of treating the little things with contempt. He spurns his chew toy so he can zealously guard Penny with his every waking breath. He never learns the simple pleasures of playing the cute puppy or hanging his head out of a moving vehicle. His certainty in the myth’s validity and dedication to its message robs him of a full life. In this way he possibly could be likened to any number of movements ranging from monasticism to Platonic dualism.


Is faith unquestioned dangerous?
When the trio arrives at the movie studio, Rhino sees an actor dressed as a henchman and proceeds to attack him. He spews forth the most violent content in the film, saying that he is going to rip out the guy’s pancreas and beat his spleen with it (or something to that effect). It’s funny, not just because of Mark Walton’s voice-acting, but because from the perspective of the human he’s attacking, the hamster is just chirping sweetly. Now this would not be funny if Rhino were a real person because in that case he would be a terrorist-blindly attacking amother person based on a misconception because he has bought into his myth without questioning the effects of that decision.

Okay, I realize that we’ve already covered a mammoth amount of philosophical ground in a matter of a page and a half, being that we started with a kids’ 3d movie, and now we are talking about the nature of faith and its effect on life, and that being the case, I’m probably threatening some readers’ suspension of disbelief in my premise more than the film did when it asked us to believe a hamster in a ball could keep up with a truck traveling full speed for hours on an empty country road, but please bear with me.

So where do we go from here in this discussion on myths? We can take the skeptics’ route of the likes of Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris and Dennett, who would most likely take the pre-doubt Bolt and the crusading terrorist hamster as enough proof to discredit the value of myths in toto, or we could take the route of a believer in one particular myth who would not let the fact that Bolt’s myth is proved false place a death knell on the possibility that there is another myth out there that is real, or we could take the route of the pluralist who would assume that all myths, like Bolt’s, are not accurate depictions of reality (whether physical or metaphysical), but in moderation can teach life lessons.

So where do you find yourself?

Being a Christian, of course, I would be in the second category, but these are some big questions demanding some serious thought, and I, for one, plan on thinking through these questions honestly. I’m afraid that too often, we do not analyze the sources of our behavior very honestly. I sometimes wonder if I am doing certain things because I profess Christ or for some other reason entirely. I am sure that some atheists are guilty of the same thing. My question is this: is the worldview we espouse really the ground for the way we live? Or are we drawing from other philosophical wells without realizing it? I am not advocating a pragmatism, but honesty. The question for Bolt or any of us should not just be, “Does this myth, even if it is a lie, help me live life better?” but “If this myth I believe is a lie, then is what it deems ‘good’ actually ‘good,’ and if it is, how can I determine the true source of this good, so I can be sure that my worldview and my practice align?”

Chew on that for a while, and get back to me. I’ve got some ruminating to do myself.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Stirring up the Pot

A friend of mine referred me to a talk that Kate Lynch gave from a church in Orlando. He said it made some people walk out, so my interest was piqued.

She definitely threw some instigating statements out there. I'll need to do a bit more research myself, but I'm afraid that she succumbs to quite a few historical glosses, and the entire message is rife with generalizations. However, if you are a Christian who is involved in politics in any way at all (e.g., voting), you need to listen to this podcast and weigh her words carefully. It gets pretty incendiary, not because she is bombastic in her presentation, but because she, like many in our day, is calling for a radical reformation of the Christian's interaction with the broader culture.

Once again I will cite D. A. Carson's book Christ and Culture Revisited, a gift given to me by Mr. Brian Metz, which I just now finished, because Carson is able to deal with these issues with much more precision than Lynch was in her short talk.

I wouldn't say I'd agree with all of her conclusions, but here are some points she makes that bear some consideration...

She points out that while Rome was not foreign to such atrocities as slavery and child molestation, you never find Paul writing letters to the editor about these rank injustices. In fact, she quotes 1 Cor. 5:12, which gives a quite different perspective on a Christian's role in confronting culture.

She also has some pretty pointed objections towards our stance on abortion: why should we be saying anything about it UNLESS we are willing to adopt the baby? While even this argument might not stand to reason, the real question is, does it stand to Scripture? This is where Carson's assessment comes in real handy. If, as Christians, individually, we want to fight abortion politically, and we have a rational, moral and reasonable reason for doing so, then great. The problem comes when the Church as Church starts heralding from the mountaintops and radio waves that this is the Biblical way to deal with abortion. The Church as Church needs to be sure that ALL we do is lining up with a biblical approach. If God so wills, I will be starting a whole debate and dialogue on this very subject, but for now, suffice it to say, we Christians must let the Bible inform this hot-button issue, and while I believe we are right to question abortion as a fundamental human right, we may be wrong in some of our attempts to fight it.

That being said, I find it ironic that Lynch does not seem to recognize that in her hastening to distance Christianity from politics, she makes the oh-so-trendy oversight that the lack of politics she espouses sometimes sounds quite a bit like liberal politics. Remember when she pointed out that Paul never questioned Rome's treatment of slavery? In her critique of the Church's handling of the gay marriage issue (while I agree with her to some degree), she says that while she can't see Christ picketing gay marriage, she states (this may be a word or two off-I was scribbling on a receipt in my car-don't drive near me when I'm listening to controversial topics while driving), "I can see Christ saying, 'Why is the government telling you what marriage is?" I can see Christ fighting for the basic rights of people as human beings-to visit someone in the hospital or to get health care coverage."

So Christ and Paul aren't political enough to fight for the fundamental freedom of slaves or the human rights of children being raped, but Jesus would have no problem fighting for the rights of gays to get married? I'm afraid you'd be pretty hard-pressed to make that point scripturally. Sure we have the story of Jesus letting the woman caught adultery get away with her life, but that's a far cry for fighting for someone-anyone-gay, straight, hermaphroditic, or abused-who is not getting visitation rights or health care. It's not that Jesus doesn't care; it's that He knew that this world's systems would always devolve into gross inequalities, no matter how good the initial intent was. He stated quite explicitly that His kingdom was not of this world. Now, allow me to clarify that I do not think this means that Christians should refuse to engage in confronting social injustices, but we do so out of a love for the people that is informed by God's Spirit, not out of the belief that we can form a utopia here-whether that be a liberal utopia (Brave New World) or a conservative one (1984). So I agree with Lynch when she says that Jesus refused political power, but that refusal cuts both ways (for a more in-depth understanding of my thoughts of Jesus' relationship to politics check here).

If you are interested in dialoguing on any of the above, I would love to hear your thoughts...provided you take the time to listen to the podcast below. I'm kind of tired of people, even smart people, commenting without having dealt with the source material. So please refrain from commenting until you've listened. If any of the above debate seems important than carve out a few minutes of your morning drive from music or talk radio and get back to me. I would like to hear your informed thoughts.

The talk can be heard here(The message is the Kate Lynch podcast from 11/30/08)

Also available at Itunes-just search Status Podcast, and look for message 8 by Kate Lynch from 11/30/08.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Homeschool Logic



I just returned from visiting one of my favorite places, Deatsville, AL. Sounds odd, I guess, but my wife's sister Candi lives there, and we have so much fun visiting with them and the rest of her family.

Candi and her husband Kevin have five kids who are all home-schooled (hence the video above). Rachael, their oldest daughter just went through a book called The Fallacy Detective, which goes through a list of the most prominent logical fallacies. Though it is not perfect, it is very approachable since it was written for kids. I must admit that I have never taken a course in logic, so this book was a good refresher on the fallacies with which I was familiar, and a good intro to those I had never encountered or had forgotten.

It was written by former home-schooled Christians, so if you are not of that persuasion then you obviously won't agree with some of their motivations, but hopefully we can all agree that fallacies, no matter the creed, color or stripe of those that wield them, are annoying and distracting at best and dangerous at worst.

After getting through the first half of the book I decided to start analyzing news sources, opinion pieces, etc. with an eye to discover the fallacies to which the various sources succumb.

The writers of the Fallacy Detective began doing the same thing during the campaign, analyzing the claims of political ads run by both the McCain and Obama camps. Check it out: Fallacies From Obama and McCain

With this in mind, I will be posting a series of blogs in which I cover a specific logical fallacy and provide examples of the fallacy as they are used in contemporary sources.

Another good fallacy primer from someone on the other end of the philosophical spectrum can be found in a 2 part podcast series entitled "A Magical Journey thrhough the Land of Logical Fallacies" from Brian Dunning's Skeptoid Podcast available here:

Part 1
Part 2

Dunning also includes a short synopsis of each of the fallacies in text form in the above links if you don't have time to listen to the podcasts.

So brush up on your fallacy familiarity and get ready to hunt for some manipulative rhetoric!

Monday, November 03, 2008

My Vote Goes To...

I decided to go through the sample ballot and give my takes on a few of the items and candidates up for vote, and now, just a few hours before it's too late I'm posting them for your last minute consideration. A bit too late to carry on any constructive dialogue I know, but putting this down has at least been good in that has helped me to better collect my thoughts (keep in mind that for some of you, these thoughts will not apply, being that the amendments are to Florida's Constitution, and local candidates for Bay County).

President:

My thoughts-

I'm tired of these two parties. I have refused to vote for either being that I am quite disgusted by all the bloated rhetoric pouring from the true believers on both sides. I don't want to be pigeon-holed into being a true believer for one side or the other.

Until now I was all but sure I would cast my vote as "None of the Above." I had looked into the Independent candidates available and found that even they seemed to be more led by the opinions of their niche group instead of critically examining issues to come to their own conclusions.

But just last week I was introduced to Jonathan Allen, a self-described "Non-Partisan Independent."
While his website has a cheesy name (http://www.heartquake08.com/), his description of the issues cuts through the issues with a clarity and integrity I have not found in the other candidates. Candidates today, even those who may in fact be good people and could make great public servants, still opt to brand themselves as if they were celebrities or pop stars with one-word designations ("Maverick") or one-word stances ("Change"). These decisions seem necessary evils to the candidates in our post-tv world, but necessary evils beget necessary evils (i.e., having to pick between two poor presidential candidates). In voting for people who embrace the devolved system we validate the system. I won't keep casting my vote for this system that dilutes reasoned argument and honest debate.

I understand that in order for candidates to make themselves appealing to a broad spectrum of people some amount of populist presentation is necessary, but the type of campaigning that happens today is demeaning and devoid of almost any traces of reasoned substance.

So I'm breaking from the "lesser of two evils" fallacy and voting my conscience from now on. I'd encourage you to do the same. The two party system may be a reality, but these two have more than worn out their welcome.

My Vote:

Jonathan Allen


Amendment 1-

Amendment 1 will remove the following clause from the Florida State Constitution:

"except that the ownership, inheritance, disposition and possession of real property by aliens ineligible for citizenship may be regulated or prohibited by law."

The Amendment would therefore ensure that immigrants ineligible for citizenship can still own property.

My vote:

No- because I am not a big fan of rewarding people who break rules. To me it seems akin to coming up with an amendment that says, "Drivers of motorcycles do not have to pay fines for speeding. It is more difficult, due to the lightness of these vehicles and the propensity they have for speeding, to remain under the legal limit, so their operators should not be required to abide by the same rules that apply to operators of cars."

Amendment 2

Official Text: "This amendment protects marriage as the legal union of only one man and one woman as husband and wife and provides that no other legal union that is treated as marriage or the substantial equivalent thereof shall be valid or recognized."

Arguments for:
You have pastors who don't want to be sued because they won't preside over homosexual marriages. This is not together an unlikely occurrence, and while people keep insisting that the point of separation of church and state is that religion should stay out of politics, actually the contrary is true. The point of the "wall" (never alluded to in the Constitution by the way; the only reference we have of said wall was in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association) was to keep government out of religion-to keep Congress from establishing any one religion as the only safe religion to believe or practice (contra Muslim nations or Socialist nations who have bans on other religions' deep-seated practices). So, in this case, since "Marriage" is primarily the business of the church, some pastors worry that the government will be stepping in and telling the church they have to oversee homosexual marriages even if it is against their beliefs, which would be a violation of separation.

Of course, there are those who worry that if we don't put up a barrier now that the U. S. will continue to slide into a laxity of moral standards. They also argue that if homosexuals are granted the right to marry, then they may be granted the right to adopt, which is not something many Christians (including myself) think is a good idea.

Arguments against: Some fear that the amendment will damage existing rights for heterosexual and homosexual couples who, under common law, are grandfathered in with a status similar to marriage. They fear that these couples will be unfairly persecuted. The proponents of the amendment have tried to assure everyone that this is a single subject amendment that will not affect the rights of couples who are not married, but enjoy some of the government/social benefits associated with marriage.

My thoughts:
Honestly, I think the "single subject" argument seems a bit disingenuous. Read the last part of the amendment again:
"that no other legal union that is treated as marriage or the substantial equivalent thereof shall be valid or recognized." (emphasis mine).

That to me seems like a power play. The words "valid or recognized" seem to overreach the goal of being an amendment that simply defines marriage in order to keep the state our of church business.

My other problems:

1. Christianity, the belief system to which I wholeheartedly ascribe, was born and nurtured as a minority belief. It grew and thrived under persecution, only policing itself of theological and moral aberration, never bothering to petition Rome to change policy or legislate morality. Now, I would not go so far to say that this means we Christians should go all laissez faire on politics, but I do think we need to be careful not to put ourselves in the position of "the man" except when absolutely necessary. Once "the man" (Constantine) established Christianity as the state religion, Christianity began drifting into a thousand year wilderness where the kingdom of heaven, which Jesus so prominently pushed, took a back seat to other concerns.

Let's imagine that the government starts "persecuting" (I'm using that word Veeeerrrry loosely-in the John T. Scopes sense) Christian pastors for refusing to recognize homosexual marriages. What's the worst that happens? Taxation? A slap on the wrist? Prison? Horror of horrors! "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven"- Jesus, Matthew 5:10.

Furthermore, if morality were really the chief concern with this amendment then maybe we would not be opposed to a few amendments like these:

"Divorce shall not be permitted for any cause, except for the cause of infidelity. Anyone, especially Christians, who divorce and then remarry will not have a union that is in any way valid or recognized."

Actually that would align much more closely with scripture than the current amendment in question, but, you see, this one is a bit too close to home, being that the divorce rate in the church mirrors the secular divorce rate. As Paul has it:
"I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people-not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. 'Expel the wicked man from among you.'"

I don't know at what point we in the American Church thought it necessary to become "Team Evangelical: Morality Police."

So in case I have not made myself clear enough-

My vote:
No

Amendment 6
"Provides for assessment based upon use of land used predominantly for commercial fishing purposes; land used for vessel launches into waters that are navigable and accessible to the public; marinas and drystacks that are open to the public; and water-dependent marine manufacturing facilities, commercial fishing facilities, and marine vessel construction and repair facilities and their support activities, subject to conditions, limitations, and reasonable definitions specified by general law."

My vote: Yes. It seems that this will help prevent appraisers from cheating commercial fisherman who own waterfront property. It will not allow the appraiser to assess the property based on what it could be. If, for instance, an appraiser realizes this land would be worth so much more if it were used for the foundation of a condo, then they could inflate the land's worth and tax the owners out of it. Now we just need an amendment that would protect waterfront homeowners.

Amendments 3,4, and 8

My take: Not voting. I can only handle so much legalese. If in doubt when it comes to amendments, either don't vote, or vote no.

State Attourney

Info:
Hess' speech to Bay County Association of Realtors: http://www.vimeo.com/1915706

Meadows' speech to Bay County Association of Realtors: http://www.vimeo.com/1921016

I have not done adequate research to disprove the allegations against either man, so I'm having to go on very little here. I needed to do much more research to be sure, but all I can safely go on are the above videos because I at least get to hear their plans and thoughts in their own words without interruption every 80 seconds from a talking head.

It bothers me that Hess tries to throw in a little plug for Church at the end. It sounded so contrived, as if he were trying to convince himself he really cares because he knows his Bible-belt constituents want to hear it. I'm sick of being pandered to. It seemed to me Meadows spoke more to the issues at hand and gave a better defense for his past performance than Hess did on offense.

My vote:
Meadows

County Commission:

Candidates:

Mike Nelson, Sharon Sheffield, William Fisher

I listened to the Rapline edition featuring the three candidates: http://www.gulfcoast.edu/wkgc/archives.htm

My vote:

Mike Nelson. Fisher was anti-airport. I'm for it. Sharon Sheffield tended to talk in circles and didn't seem to make any substantive points.

Congressional Candidates: District 2

Boyd vs. Mulligan.

My vote:
Mulligan. Boyd's not bad, but at this point, because I know another party gaining footing against the two lemming parties is impossible, the next best thing is to stagger the parties (kudos to Brad Woodrum for giving me this idea). It's just about sure in my mind that Obama will win, and because Dems control almost everything else, might as well off-set the house a bit more to ensure the Democrats don't go too crazy with their majority.

Superintendent of Schools:

Steve George, Bill Husfelt, James McCalister

Steve George misspelled "morale" twice in his ad in The News Herald. To me that represents automatic dq for superintendent of schools.

I have nothing against McCalister, but Husfelt was one of our Assistant Principals when I was at Bay, and I remember him being one of our best. Plus, he's done a fantastic job at Mosley, so I he gets my vote.

My vote:
Husfelt

Monday, August 18, 2008

Playing off Political Fear

I’ve been reading Edward Larson’s book A Magnificent Catastrophe, which chronicles the strange, but almost all-too-familiar events that transpired during our country’s first presidential campaign. The main contenders were John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Back then the parties were divided mainly on issues of big government (Adams’ Federalists) versus individual freedom (Jefferson’s Republicans) so the main hot issues weren’t quite the same as we have today, but some of them are pretty close.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the use of rhetoric to advance one candidate over the other. As the U.S. approached the 1800 election, France was going through one of its most turbulent decades. The French Revolution was marked by the people’s attempt to remove all traces of monarchical governance, and as such they received sympathy from Jefferson and the Republicans of his day. When the French Revolution devolved into what most would consider full-fledged anarchy, it provided Federalists with some much needed ammunition to malign the Republican cause, especially, when, in early 1800, Napoleon took advantage of the chaos and declared himself Emperor.

Fisher Ames, a Federalist, wrote that if Jefferson were elected “the people would be crushed, as in France, under tyranny more vindictive, unfeeling, and rapacious than that of Tiberius, Nero or Caligula.” It’s one of those statements loaded with such unfair and bloated rhetoric, it’s hard to know where to start. Let me begin by saying first that I have no real compunction to defend Jefferson. If anything I’d have to agree with many of the then federalists that Jefferson was a bit na├»ve when he defended some of the overt excesses of the French Revolution, because to him, the end (freedom) justified the even the excesses (killing innocent in the streets).

Having conceded that, however, do we find that once Jefferson took office the nation went to hell in a hand basket? Did Americans suffer under tyranny? The short answer is no.

The thing that is so disturbing is that such an educated scholar as Ames could fall to using such manipulative and fallacious rhetoric. Not only did he say that America would be in a worse state than France, but it would be even worse than Rome under Caligula and Nero. This is what English teachers may respectfully call excessive hyperbole, generous preschool teachers call exaggeration, and honest everyday citizens call a bald-faced lie.

I guess I’m bringing this up because in this season, let’s do our best not to let these so-called experts tell us what’s going to happen and not be swayed by bloated rhetoric when we step into the voting booth in November.

Far too many Republicans are worried that if Obama is elected militant Muslims will take over the world, and far too many Democrats are worried that unless a Democrat is elected, we will become the Fourth Reich.

How about we start voting our consciences, instead of voting out of fear of what could happen? Instead of letting this (in most cases) fictitious bogeyman lurking in the future drive us from voting who we really think would be best.

Obama has touted that we need to have not a Red or Blue States of America, but a United States of America. It’s a funny notion being that in the same breath he’ll say we need to pull out of Iraq and fight global warming, which I believe, in spite of the incessant drone of the media, are both blue issues, but I agree with him that this country isn’t supposed to be Red vs. Blue. I think the country would be much better served if we started seriously voting for who we agree with, over who looks presidential or who would make a good buddy, who lost enough weight, or who has the potential to win. Our country would be better served if instead of Red or Blue, we had ten colors to choose from, or none, and just voted.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Stop-Loss


Advocacy films are tough to critique. They can be terribly written, directed and acted, but if they raise awareness for a little known tidbit of tyranny or injustice does that boost their merit? That's the question the recently released Stop-Loss has raised for me.

Its moral and social implications aside, Stop-Loss did not work for me as a piece of art or entertainment. I get the feeling the writers and producers became aware of Stop-Lossing (the act of extending soldiers' active duty without their consent), and decided to get a film out as quickly as possible. The acting is hit-and-miss, and Channing Tatum (of the "Step Up" series of dance films) is just not up to the challenge of this material at this point in his career. He gets a few teary moments right, but his performance seems rushed and forced. It may not all be his fault because the writing just seems to chug along with uninspired lines, resting on cliche and unearned twists to forward the narrative.

The film begins in Iraq with a tense scene at a military checkpoint. The passenger of a fast-approaching vehicle opens fire, and the vehicle speeds off, at which point Sgt. Brandon King (played by Ryan Phillippe) issues the order to give chase. They end up trapped in a narrow alley, and in this, the film's most effective scene, you get a sense for the madness of this kind of war. King comments on this later-that he expected war would be fought in the open against clearly defined bad guys, but it isn't. The war is fought in people's homes, and the enemy could be anyone.

Two soldiers are killed in the battle, and Brandon blames himself for their deaths feeling that he led the men into a trap. He also carries guilt for another split-second decision he made in the heat of battle-the consequences of which are shown later in a flashback scene.

Upon returning home, he decides to retire from active duty and move on with his life. The clerk tells him that he has been stop-lossed, and must report back to Iraq soon. Haunted by guilt and post-traumatic stress, Brandon cannot bear the weight of leadership in the circumstances mentioned above, so he goes AWOL. The movie follows him as he seeks a way out of redeployment.

The problem with this kind of journey is that it is not necessarily good movie material, so writer/director Peirce feels compelled to add twists and turns in order to make it more entertaining. Every bad thing can and does happen- a barroom brawl that comes out of nowehere, a theft that King just happens to notice at the right moment in order to chase down the perpetrators, and the coincidental appearance of a sweater at the bottom of a pool prompting King to think one of his men is drowning. All these events could work, but they are not adequately prepared for. Again it feels like you are watching a first or second draft.

Upon a closer look at the social issue itself, it gets a bit muddy. Soldiers sign an eight year contract. The contract stipulates that the government can, at any time, require their service in a time of war. Stop-Loss, then, is not a backdoor draft, but just the act of holding the soldier to his word. Now, of course, the issue gets muddy in the current situation because of the dubious nature of the Iraq War. It does then bring up a pertinent question: if we are a nation at war, then why aren't there more of us fighting it? The film also has one other thing going for it: MTV films picked up distribution, which means a younger target market. So the film may be effective in making young men and women stop and ask the question, "Should I become a soldier in light of all this?"

Peter Travers said this film was a powderkeg and that the scene at the film's heart, a graveyard fight between Phillippe's character and Channing Tatum's, is effective. While I agree that this film raises some interesting questions, this scene in particular was not convincing in the least and encapsulated my problem with the film as a whole: if you're going to cover a topic you feel strongly about, why not do it justice?

** out of *****
Rated R for graphic violence and pervasive language.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Expelled


Our youth pastor has been getting promotional info on Ben Stein's Expelled (his new documentary that attempts to show how modern science is acting like a religion in its dogmatic dismissal of Intelligent Design), and whenever a big movie starts targeting churches like that, I get the heebiejeebies.

Before I continue, let me say that I think there is some truth to Stein's claim. I think if scientists did a bit more history homework they'd realize that the church isn't always the ones responsibile for dogmatic support of one side of issues. Science has been guilty of this as well (see the current debate of Neodarwinism vs. Punctuated Equilibrium or the old debate between Edison vs. Tesla, etc.). Nonetheless, just because Stein may have something to this claim, its presentation and the way he's marketing the film give me pause.

Whatever we may think about the movie itself, Mel Gibson employed the same strategy of appealing to churches with The Passion of the Christ to lucrative effect. He made 1000% profit off that film. I'm not necessarily questioning his motives, but the question is-if you market yourself to the choir, what is your aim? Education or ensuring you have an audience? It's a good business move, but is it really a good meanse of raising awareness?

I have not seen a recent "issue" documentary, from Jesus Camp to Inconvenient Truth to even one of the most entertaining films of last year-the King of Kong-that has not succumbed to misrepresentation and manipulation to prove points (except Paper Clips and a very unknown film Dear Francis).

You'd think it would be harder to lie with video than with words in a book, but that is rapidly being proven false. Since Michael Moore purposefully and willfully misrepresented events, people and chronologies in Bowling For Columbine in order to convey his point (whatever it was), so many directors have taken to the documentary as the perfect medium to make money and raise awareness FOR THEIR CAREERS instead of the subject matter they supposedly feel so passionately about.

I actually want to make a documentary myself. I want to call it Schlockumentary: The Art of Using the Truth to Tell Lies.
My aim would be to attack this recent spate of documentaries that have turned the genre into one-sided diatribes that have no honest intent to arrive at truth. Their goal is to be entertaining and to be watched, consequences to fact and truth be damned.

Now it may seem hypocritical for me to talk about making a documentary after decrying it as a medium, but in substance the medium itself is fine when it is not manipulated to meet the expectations of your target audience and molded into a nice Arisotelian plot arc even when the subject takes a dramatic down- turn in real life.

Anyway-Expelled seems to me to be the same animal. I predict that it will only muddy the already murky waters of honest debate over evolution even more. There's good information out there to be had (see Talk Origins for the evolution side, and listen to local Pastor Nic Gibson's phenomenal analysis from a Christian perspective -Click on the two talks on evolution and biblical authority links), and if people want to honestly debate it, maybe we could get somewhere. But I feel that movies like this merely make the dividing lines more pronounced, and even people who know better end up succumbing to name-calling and diatribe as a result.

More Favorites from 2007


Hot Fuzz

While most fans of the Frost, Pegg and Wright triumvirate prefer Shawn of the Dead, I had a lot more fun with this film. While it may not have much to say on a deeper level, the movie was one of my most entertaining movie-going experiences this year.

I’ve heard some critics fault the film because it didn’t fully comment on the action genre in the same way Shawn commented on the zombie genre, but I don’t know if that was the goal with this film. It was a genre-bender: blending action, buddy comedy, slasher and mystery elements.

I could do without the added hiccup twist at the end, but the film’s climax has to be one of the best comic/action moments of recent years, and the film is home to some of the best one-liners of the year.

Oscar worthy? In my opinion it was definitely better than Michael Clayton, but it didn’t deal with the issues ;)


Rescue Dawn

Most critics let this one go upon viewing the seemingly tacked-on and forced conclusion, but this shouldn’t distract from yet another fantastic effort by the underappreciated Bale. This is the second time he has radically altered his appearance to the point of endangering his health, and still, for some reason, the academy thought that George Clooney was more compelling playing a less interesting character this year than the one that got him an Oscar nod for Syriana. Politics pure and simple? That’s the only credible answer I can figure.

In addition to providing Bale with a great part, this film also gave Steve Zahn a chance to go beyond his traditional role as the goofy comic relief for something far deeper. The guy really has talent, and with this role under his belt maybe we’ll get to see him a lot more.

Oscar Worthy? Yes-Christian Bale-Best actor nomination without a doubt. Should he have beaten Daniel Day Lewis? I’ll leave the actors to decide that one. I don’t know; I thought Day Lewis’ Plainview was a bit over the top, but maybe I just didn’t get it.
Best supporting nomination could have gone to Steve Zahn. Should he have gotten it over Javier Bardem? Not a chance.



Amazing Grace

This one was a good education for me on British abolition. I reviewed the film earlier (you can read the original review at Ford's Film Reviews). My enthusiasm for the film has cooled a bit upon reflection (and upon reading some less-than complimentary reviews that brought up some justifiable criticisms). I still stand by the film as a solid representation of one man’s fight against a cruel institution, and as such, it stands in stark relief to the glut of biopics that have little more to say than fame is dangerous.

Oscarworthy? Probably not on any definable level. There’s nothing overt or subtle enough about this film to commend it in such a competitive field.


The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Aside from being a top nominee for the list of longest movie titles in history, this movie created no special stir in critics’ circles this year, garnering lukewarm praise at best. But the critics can have their oilbath with Their Will Be Blood, and I’ll settle for this picture. This isn’t to say this film works better than Blood, but I was much more interested in the characters here by far. Andrew Dominik decided to write his characters as 3 dimensional entities as opposed to one note blood vessel bursting screamers (i.e., PT Anderson’s Plainview and Paul Sunday). Not only does Casey Affleck further his up-and-coming dominance, but the film is filled with first-rate performances. Gary Dillahunt, who stole scenes as Tommy Lee Jones’ plucky sidekick in No Country for Old Men, is just as good here in a vastly different role.

Brad Pitt’s performance is good on the whole and downright creepy in places. He probably doesn’t get enough credit for his acting. One could contend that he overplays his material sometimes, but he really hits certain moments with his heart, and I find him effective.

I had some problems with the cinematography at times. I could have gone without the repeated blurring of the corners of the frame. I suppose it was there for artistic effect, but I just found it pretentious and distracting. Deakins’ camerawork at other points of the film really is magnificent, however.

The story was engaging, for some reason drawing parallels for me with last year’s Hollywoodland, a film I also recommend. Both are depressing, but they get certain emotions and themes right on the nose. In this film I felt a profound sympathy with te characters. I felt like I could honestly relate to Robert Ford nad his motivations and uncertainties at times. I like movies that act like a mirror, reflecting those inner fears and temptations that I sometimes overlook or am oblivious to. This movie did that for me.

On the Oscar front-the film was up for Best Cinematography, but lost to There Will Be Blood, and justifiably so. There Will Be Blood was filmed with more restraint and precision. It’s too bad that someone like Dillahunt doesn’t even get a second look for supporting actor, even if he only appeared in a few scenes. The guy was fantastic, but that’s how the Oscars go. He’ll win one in a few years for something else as a reward for the street-cred he earned this year, probably for a performance that pales before these.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Best Movies 0f 2007 Continued

Becoming Jane

I’m a male, but I’m not ashamed to say that A & E’s Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite films (if as a miniseries it can be called such) of all time. My mom forced my dad and I to watch it while I was in high school, and while I normally would only remotely tolerate her chick flick choices (usually because I had crushes on the female leads), this classic won me over. I think it was David Bamber (who, incidentally, will be playing Adolf Hitler in Brian Singer’s upcoming Valkyrie, a film about a plot to kill Hitler starring the recently incognito Tom Cruise) and his portrayal of Mr. Collins that hooked me, but ultimately it was Jane Austen’s timeless story that kept me watching.

While Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams took much more artistic leeway in writing Becoming Jane, my wife, an avid reader of Austen’s work and familiar with Austen’s history, gave it a thumbs-up for its faithfulness to the spirit of Austen. We were both pleased with its portrayal of Austen, even if the real Austen wasn’t as eye-catching as Anne Hathaway.

Hathaway did a great job, however; far better than Kiera Knightley did with her giggled-up version of Elizabeth in Joe Wright’s recent adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which in spite of its improvements upon the miniseries in cinematography and historical accuracy, made great departures from the book, and succumbed to Hollywood’s tendency to elevate infatuation and superficial desire over the kind of deep love of character championed by Austen.

Becoming Jane also gave James McAvoy a substantial role that he played straight and likeably. He was fun to watch and did well with the material; I’d much prefer him staying in these roles than his upcoming Wanted with Angelina Jolie (blecchh).

So, on the whole, I found the film entertaining, and I was satisfied with its treatment of love. It depicted love, as it should be, in its highest form of self-sacrifice for others instead of romanticizing the more shallow and fleeting feelings that Hollywood is prone to idealize.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Best Movies of 2007?

After watching the Academy Awards last year (the 2007 awards-that is-honoring movies from 2006), I decided I would come up with my own list for the movies that should win Oscars for 2007. Unfortunately, Panama City is not the best place to play movie critic because our theaters often skip the films that end up being viable Oscar contenders. I was intending on having the list done by Oscar time, but since I had to wait for many titles to come out on DVD, and due to other more pressing matters, I’ve had to postpone my best movie picks of 2007 for quite some time. I’ve decided to post this list one movie at a time, because my discussion of each film has ended up going a little long.

What’s more-this list has undergone some serious changes. What originally began as an Oscar list has now become a list of the movies that have struck me for one reason or another. These are the movies that succeeded in fulfilling their purpose or at least their purpose as I construed it. I don’t subscribe to the theory that movies are supposed to be (or even can be) perfect. Everyone of the films that is mentioned below has its flaws, and, it’s my firm conviction that every film nominated for Best picture Oscars this year had theirs as well. I don’t think of myself as a film snob, and after this year I’m starting to wonder if the “snobs” aren’t a bit influenced by peer pressure and the flood of political opinion, but more on that later. I will be posting the list in descending order, so without further ado, the first film on my list (or last I guess you could say) is:

I am Legend

Before you tune out: I’m not saying this is a perfect film. It’s not even a great film in the grand scheme of things, but for my money, it achieved its goal far better than any other blockbuster this year.

It created a post apocalyptic New York that was truly engrossing, and it gave Will Smith the opportunity to show that, once again, he’s more than just a comedian. He was great, and while the movie went off the rails in the second half and suffered from both a screenplay that required a few more rewrites and ill-conceived CG zombies, the film captured something that’s been sorely lacking in many big budget films: a profound sense of realism (minus the zombies of course).

I was transfixed by the way in which they recreated New York City, which prompted me to again ask myself a question that has bothered me in the past: at what point does a film go beyond creativity into Hollywood gluttony? One scene in I Am Legend may have cost well over $5 million to shoot.

The scenes of an empty and overgrown Times Square boggled my mind and have left me wondering how they did it. I’ve heard that these were shot on a set, and this is what makes me wonder: is this responsible? Doesn’t this seem a bit excessive? Of course I am entirely culpable for this excess because I funded it (after the fact, of course). There is a big push today towards conservation and helping the poor, but isn’t a bit incongruous that so much money is spent on playing pretend? I’m asking these questions because I really don’t know the answers. I’ve always liked watching blockbusters, and I’ve never really thought much about quitting, but sometimes I wonder if the cost for realism may be too great.

So perhaps it’s a bit strange that this film should fit into a “best of” list if I’m questioning its very existence, but now maybe you get a sense of what this list is about: less about traditional criticism and more about the capacity for the films to arouse discussion and prompt consideration.

As far as the Oscars go, I Am Legend would only have been capable of nomination for the technical awards, and I don’t have enough expertise to make any judgments there.

I enjoyed the film when I first watched it. It provided some of the best scares of the year, and I was, once again, mesmerized by the production value. But it was not until after I had heard others’ criticisms of its plot and the ending that I had to admit the film did not work on the whole. So, it’s not No Country, but I’ll still pick it over The Golden Compass, Pirates 3, Spiderman 3, and (bracing for impact...) The Bourne Ultimatum.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Academic Integrity

I was published last week in our local paper for the first time. The following essay made it in the opinion page of Thursday's News Herald. If you've read my other blog on intelligent design, there's some definite overlap, but I'd like to hear your thoughts.

The evolution debate would greatly benefit if people who put forth their opinions quit using bogus information to justify their position. Those against evolution should therefore:

1-quit using the evolution-is-just-a-theory argument. This has been successfully debunked in the News Herald many times. Evolution is considered a working theory, which, like gravity, has enjoyed widespread acceptance among scientists.
2-Quit using the second law of thermodynamics as an attack. It’s a law of thermodynamics, not a biological law. It may make logical sense as an argument, but it isn’t justification to debunk evolution.

The bulk of this piece will focus on the other side of the debate, however. I've read and heard many pleas for scientific rigor in the science classroom. Nonetheless, I think the other side is so focused on stamping out any vestige of faith from the I.D. or creation side, they have done little to correct misinformation on the evolution side that has found itsway into textbooks.

It is true that bringing God in to answer scientific mysteries is nothing short of metaphysics (or religion), but I feel that popular evolutionary theory has been doing this for over a century: by removing the word “God” and inserting “evolution” or “natural selection” or “punctuated equilibrium” in its place-i.e., replacing theist leaps in logic with materialist leaps in logic. And, yes, I do understand that there is evidence for natural selection and evolution on some level, but much of the accepted understanding of macroevolution and evolutionary theories of origins are so faith-based, I don’t understand how it constitutes science because it’s not testable, provable or falsifiable.

How can I say that evolution is not falsifiable? Because it still chugs along even though quite a number of its holy grail moments have been weighed by years of scientific scrutiny and found wanting. The Miller, Urey experiment is one of those cases. To this day, the experiment is still taught as a proof of evolution (see Glencoe's 2007 High School Biology Textbook at http://glencoe.mcgraw-hill.com/sites/0078695104/student_view0/unit4/chapter14/concepts_in_motion.html), even though for over thirty years scientists have known that the substances used to perform this experiment may not have adequately recreated the earth's ancient atmosphere.

Bill Bryson, in his book A Short History of Nearly Everything, has this to say about it: "Despite half a century of further study, we are no nearer to synthesizing life today than we were in 1953 and much further away from thinking we can. Scientists are now pretty certain that the early atmosphere was nothing like as primed for development as Miller and Urey’s gaseous stew” (287). If we were really concerned about the integrity of the scientific education, why is an experiment known to be inaccurate for over thirty years still taught?

Currently, no one is quite sure how life formed originally, because any experiments are at the very best semi-educated guesses due to the amount of time that has passed. This explains the occurrence of the following kinds of statements whenever origins are addressed in science textbooks:

"What modern cells do scientists believe to be close relatives of the Earth's first cells?" (from Glencoe Biology, Chapter 14 Test Practice, question #7 at http://glencoe.mcgraw-hill.com/sites/0078695104/student_view0/unit4/chapter14/chapter_test_practice-english.html, emphasis mine).

I did a survey of another high school textbook when I was teaching at Arnold High School, and I made the discovery that suppositional words like "believe" and "speculate" appeared much more frequently in the chapters addressing origins and evolution than any other chapters I perused. Granted, my study was not exhaustive, but any time I found those words used in other chapters they were describing old ways of thinking that have since been proven wrong. So scientists believe certain things? That’s great! But according to the logic of those criticizing our School Board for their "bigoted" decision those beliefs should be relegated to religion class.

My point in all this is to ask the question, "Why are we teaching origins at all?" I'm not talking about testable and provable microevolution and adaptation, but macroevolution and the origins of life. Keep teaching the stuff that's verifiable, but if we're going to remove metaphysics from textbooks, can we at least be fair about it?

A good show of faith on the side of those who support the teaching of evolution would be to:

1-Remove those traces of mythology that have worked their way into popular evolutionary theory and have gone unchecked in the school system for over two decades.
2-Quit the lowbrow sucker-punch rhetoric of branding creationists or I. D. proponents as illiterate bigots, and start policing the religious extremism that is being displayed by the supposedly enlightened side.
3-Remove Haeckel's embryos, remove the bogus peppered moth data, and remove the notion that Miller and Urey proved that life did originate without intelligent help. In short, start teaching science again.

Sincerely,
Ford Seeuws

Friday, January 11, 2008

A Thought for the Day

Psalm 87:7b
“All my springs of joy are in you.”

Is this true for me?

In early Biblical life a spring was any source of water that made life possible. The Psalmist brings this physical concept into the realm of the spiritual prompting us to ask ourselves:

“What is the source for my daily life?”
“What am I depending on to get me through another day?”

It may be a dream, some form of entertainment, another person, place or feeling. For me it’s often any one of these things, and most of the time it is some expectation for the near future. I latch onto some upcoming event: the release date of a movie I want to see, a potential swell, time off from work, a date with my wife, or a visit to see family or friends.

We, as citizens in the developed world, and perhaps humans in general, tend to work for the weekend. We’re deriving our motivation from one of these finite sources. So it is here that the Psalmist’s words needle us to ask ourselves: "Am I drawing my joy from the right sources?"