Sunday, December 28, 2008

Heroism in a bottle

It's been a good Sunday for me. Blogging and football. I saw my hometown team the Indianapolis Colts shut out the Tennessee Titans lead largely by their back-up quarterback Jim Sorgi who is usually as "adequate." I also caught the end of a the Tampa Bay/Oakland game where a team who had a bad season and nothing to gain from winning ended the other's play-off dreams by just going for it.


But there was one game today that caught my attention more so than any others. Miami Dolphins against the New York Jets. There were some x-factors which both did and didn't come into play but essentially you had two teams from two different divisions who each had their own divisional playoff position on the line. But beyond that there was a personal angle.


Chad Pennington was the quarterback for the Jets for a number of years but in the pre-season the team was given the opportunity to pick up a veteran who'd just had a season better than anyone his age had any right to in the person of Brett Favre who returned from an extremely short retirement. Due to salary cap regulations and some other factors that meant Pennington was expendable.
The previous season however was not so kind to the Miami Dolphins who had a record of 1-15, a record so dismal the only team to ever sport a worse record is this years winless Detroit Lions. In the off season a major rebuilding would be required, the final piece of the puzzle was in the form of the recently released Chad Pennington.
The season opener for these two teams was against each other, and ironically the regular season ends this way as well. The Dolphins of course got off to a slow start losing the season opener and a number of early games. Meanwhile the Favre lead Jets had a great deal of early success. But as the season wore on things began to change.
Favre had always been known as a big yardage passer and in fact he holds a number of NFL career records He holds a number of NFL records including: most career touchdown passes (463), most career passing yards (64,707), most career pass completions (5,682), most career pass attempts (9,209), most career interceptions thrown (305). That last one is the one which made the difference however, since his later games this season were marked by numerous interceptions.
Meanwhile Pennington was known as a very conservative player, he didn't always go for big yardage every time out but by the beginning of this season he was the most accurate passer in the league and this season didn't change this fact. That coupled with a hungry Dolphins desperate to shake the label of "worst team" and one of the most innovative offenses in the league built around techniques like running wildcat plays where the runningback takes the snap rather than the quarterback lead to a huge turnaround. The team went from 1-15 to 11-5 in one season.
This brings me back to today's game. Ending the season like it started with the playoffs on the line. For their first meeting the Dolphins came up short but now the Dolphins knew what they were doing and Favre was showing his age. It was a tense game where the lead changed hands a few times but the Dolphins made the playoffs and even though they were already out due to another team winning the Jets were not.

After the win there was the characteristic excessive humbleness but you could tell it was an emotional moment for Pennington. He proved his old team made a mistake letting him go and to paraphrase his own words he filled a gap in a hungry team dying for some leadership.

Moments like this show you why sports are so important in our society. It's very rare that we really give ourselves permission to see people as heroes. In fiction it's often limited to highly unrealistic fantasy which often gets dismissed. In real life where standard morality applies the people that are presented as heroes just don't inspire admiration, charity workers, social activists.

There's just something so clean and right about admiring an athlete. These are people who work harder than most of us can imagine to do something that most of them love doing and they're payed exceptionally well for it. And the whole idea of what sports are is a thing of beauty. You're creating situations for the sole purpose of having heroes rise out of them. Whether it's the Miami Dolphins coming back from a terrible season or last year's New England Patriots striving for perfection there are just so many clean moral situations where greatness can arise from and so many ways to hope for it.

Granted there's a bit of ugliness to it as well, I hate to use the term but towards the end of last season tall poppy syndrome seemed to take effect on the Patriots. And it continued this year when their star quarterback Tom Brady was injured in the first drive of the first game of the season.

But you're never going to tell me something that lets people become this open of hero worshipers is a bad thing. Sports involve humanity at it's best both on the field and in the stands. People capable of amazing feats of physical prowess and even more amazingly people capable of admiring this.

Small Personal Announcement

I like doing discussions on aesthetics especially when applied to literary arts but a lot of those discussions don't really have a lot to do with heroism. So I decided to start another blog up strictly for those discussions and it's located @ http://storyasamachine.blogspot.com.

I'm not going to go into a lot of detail here because it's off topic and that's the whole reason I started a new blog. But if such discussions are up your alley check out Dissecting the Machine.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Is it really "The Best Frackin Show On Television"?




New Cylons (above and above right) versus Old Cylons (above left) - you be the judge!


Well, in my opinion, Battlestar Galactica, the "re-imagined" series which began in 2004, is at least one of the best shows ever to appear on television. We've come a long way from the campy, original Star Wars era Battlestar with Lorne Greene, Dirk Benedict and Richard Hatch (who is the only one of the original series cast to make it to the new series in a very different role). I don't know if even my comic book expert fellow contributors will remember the Battlestar Galactica comic books Marvel put out in the late 1970's, but the otherwise unusual name/title Battlestar Galactica had enough promotional force behind it to have managed to resurrect itself almost thirty years later. And this is a resurrection worthy of creator Glenn Larson's Latter Day Saint's faith: a true comeback infinitely superior to its predecessor. During it's first season, the re-imagined Battlestar earned the praise from Rolling Stone magazine which I quote in the title above.

After eating up some holiday time avoiding family members I want nothing to do with, I went back and reviewed the first season of the revived series and I have to say for the most part I agree with Rolling Stone magazine's evaluation. This show is compelling on several levels, not the least of which is the entirely believable society which is created (and almost completely destroyed) for the show, the characters who inhabit this society and their frailty and their complexity. The space flight sequences are so far removed from campiness and so close to Newtonian physics believability it's easily the most realistic 'feeling' science fiction show I've ever watched. The deep, rich history and background given both to the many different 'human' cultures of the 'twelve colonies' and the mechanical/maniacal/trying-to-be-better-than human cylons is captivating. The sign of any good television show is how well it can draw you in to the world it creates, and Battlestar does that in spades.

I have a number of episode holes to fill in, which I hope to do while continuing to practice 'family avoidance' this holiday season, but from what I've observed this show deserves all the praise it has earned. I'm looking forward to the start of Battlestar's final season which is set to begin in January, and am curious how they are going to reconcile the strong individualism and skepticism depicted in the series with the hints of cyclical fatalism expressed by certain of the more 'mystical' characters. One other aspect I like about the 'mysticism' of Galactica is the possible scientific explanation for all of it, something I enjoyed about many of the versions of Star Trek. I'm looking forward to the very serious questions about identity posed at the end of the last season being resolved as well.

I recommend jumping into Battlestar Galactica if you haven't already. Especially if you have some 'down time' over this holiday end of the year break.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Ode to Christmas Heroes: Washington Crossing the Delaware



To commemorate the Christmas day soldiers of the American Revolution, a sonnet that was written in 1936 by David Shulman. 

Dedicated to the brave men and women serving on this day.

A hard, howling, tossing water scene.
Strong tide was washing hero clean.
"How cold!" Weather stings as in anger.
O Silent night shows war ace danger!

The cold waters swashing on in rage.
Redcoats warn slow his hint engage.
When star general's action wish'd "Go!"
He saw his ragged continentals row.

Ah, he stands - sailor crew went going.
And so this general watches rowing.
He hastens - winter again grows cold.
A wet crew gain Hessian stronghold.

George can't lose war with's hand in;
He's astern - so go alight, crew, and win!


An Ode to Christmas Special Heroes

 Saving Christmas from Scrooges, Grinches, and Riley.



Friday, December 19, 2008

Roger Bissell: "Be Your Own Hero"


 Musician and psychologist Roger Bissell has an essay entitled "Be Your Own Hero," which I originally read on the Rebirth of Reason forum. It's a good read. You can read it in full here. 


 The theme of the essay revolves around gender relations, and how women traditionally see men as "my hero," and are let-down when their "knight in shining armor "fails to arrive." Here are some of the tasty bits to chew on:

 
When Objectivist women express their disappointment and/or anger that the Objectivist men of their acquaintance are not being heroes (“where are the heroes?”)...[t]hey are judging those men for not “coming through for them” as champions and defenders – and thus revealing instead their sexism, male chauvinism, insensitivity, etc. 

I think the antidote for this is a good dose of Kahlil Gibran (“I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, nor you to mine” – or those approximate words.)  

That’s a lesson we should all take to heart. Be your own hero, and stop expecting others to do the job of defending you and championing your values. And above all, stop berating them because they haven’t picked up the yoke on your behalf. 

If someone actually does ride in on a white horse and kills a dragon or two for you, by all means express your gratitude. But also be prudent enough to regard him with a cocked eyebrow and a mind focused on discerning an important factor: did he defend you as part of his wider self-interest, or was it part of a felt obligation to “save” you?  


This part is probably my favorite:

But a real hero doesn’t want a simpering, clinging little weakling draping herself on him or throwing herself at his feet. He wants a real heroine, a woman of achievement and character, who yet swoons with anticipated ecstasy at the sight of a metaphysically potent male. Now, that’s a victory for a man, to have that kind of effect on that great a woman!  

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

"Heroes" Finale:Back with a Purpose











"And everything under the sun is in tune/
but the sun is eclipsed by the moon."
-"Eclipse" by Pink Floyd

So last night, HEROES wrapped up the latest chapter, "Villains," and very well, I should add. I (like ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY) noted the lack of direction and purpose after the first season as well as many missteps and plotholes. But after last night, and the preview for the next chapter, I think the show will find its feet again. And yes, Sylar is back to being one of the scariest villains ever!

 But Sylar is not the biggest threat to our heroes, rather, it is their own moral uncertainty and lack of a realistic morality; which is well-dramatized by the constant "switching" of sides: Monhinder, Sylar, and Peter Petrelli (especially the later, who destroys the formula to prevent Nathan from creating new "heroes," only to inject himself with it at the end.) In fact, Sylar, as he points out, is not the most monstrous threat: it is the dark side of the heroes themselves. Sylar acts as a Jungian "shadow" to the hero's dark side, and the "eclipse" is more than a plot device, it is a metaphor best expressed with a line from Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon: "Everything under the sun is in tune/but the sun is eclipsed by the moon."

 We see how characters as innocent have the potential and capacity for evil. In keeping with the current theme of examining "flawed" and "tragic" heroes, this episode was very timely. Mohinder's closing monologue sums everything up nicely:

 
There is good, and there is evil; right and wrong... heroes... and villains...and if we're blessed with wisdom, then there are glimpses between the cracks of each where light streams through. We wait in silence for these times, when sense can be made...when meaningless existence comes into focus...and our purpose presents itself. And if we have the strength to be honest, then what we find there, staring back at us, is our own reflection, bearing witness to the duality of life. And each one of us is capable of both the dark and the light, of good and evil...of either, of all...and destiny, while marching ever in our direction, can be rerouted by the choices we make...by the love we hold onto, and the promises we keep..."

 I'd like to add a personal note here. I've written elsewhere on Jung's hero cycle in relation to Ayn Rand's concept of heroism. I've since distance myself from that work, as I don't think the tragic aspects of the hero cycle are directly applicable to what Rand meant. But I've come to learn something; even if a hero is not destined to become the shadow, the very thing one sets out to defend against, is it still a possibility. One doesn't denigrate the  idea of heroism by pointing out the possiblity that heroes are not infallible, and can, in fact, become the villain. (Even Rand acknowledged this via the character of Robert Stadler in ATLAS SHRUGGED.) The difference between the Jungian "hero cycle" and Rand's view is that heroism, as the creation and defense of a moral path, requires choice, and constant vigilance, and Mohinder's monologue captures that perfectly. Sylar's mistake is that of the antihero, that heroes are impossible because we are all monsters inside. Heroism is not a one-time achievement that excuses a hero from future transgressions;  it requires a constant, consistent dedication to one's moral values. A hero need not be infallible, or omniscient, a hero can make mistakes. But what separates a hero from a villain is the willingness to own those mistakes and atone when necessary. 

 But back to the show, next season, renewed with the sense of purpose Mohinder spoke of, presents a new challenge for the heroes: Nathan's presentation to a certain recently elected president to "apprehend" these "heroes." (Which is funny, considering a recent story about Obama's favorite heroes being Spiderman and Conan the Barbarian.) Nathan now sees them as a "threat"  because of their abilities. This rings familiar (X-men: Days of Future Past), but to an Objectivist, this has the added familiarity of the plots of THE FOUNTAINHEAD and ATLAS SHRUGGED, where those who work for the "greater good" intend to shackle those with ability. (This also is a key point of Kurt Vonneget's Harrison Bergeron.

 The heroes will now face a new challenge. So far, it's been "save the cheerleader, save the world." Now it could be: "Save the world? Better save yourself!"

You'll Never Run out of John G's


Chris Nolan's breakthrough film Memento was an excellent piece of work. It told a story using a complex reverse chronology to mimic the effect of not being able to create new memories. But that's a discussion I may later make elsewhere.

What I'm focused on today is the premise of the movie. As usual I'm diving right into the spoilers so if you want to avoid that stop reading now. The basic premise of the story is that Leonard Shelby kills his best friend "Teddy" based on a series of notes which he left for himself which implicate Teddy as the man who raped and murdered his wife and gave him the injury that cost him his memory.

Over the course of the film we find out that this is not the case. Teddy is really Officer John Edward Gammell who worked the case of Leonard's wife's murder. He gave Leonard the file on the break in and he's helped him every step of the way in tracking down his wife's killer and getting some lethal revenge... countless times.

The real story was that the man who did it was named John G---. Later on Leonard revises his notes to remind him that it may in fact be James G. So presumably very shortly after Leonard's wife's death they tracked John G down and Leonard killed him. Leonard's world has become focused on notes (the important ones in the form of tattoos) and Polaroids to tell him who his friends are, who his enemies are and the facts as they stand at any point in time. After getting his revenge "Teddy" took a photo of Leonard with a joyful look on his face pointing to a blank spot on his chest which he states is for him to some day get a tattoo that says "I did it."

Teddy apparently thought this would snap Leonard's memory back into shape and he'd remember his revenge. Leonard however did not, so Teddy helped Leonard start the search for the man he already killed all over again.

This would likely go on forever if not for an instance that happens at the end/beginning of the film. Teddy leads Leonard to another routine "revenge," but Leonard discovers something isn't right. Teddy tries to deny this when Leonard confronts him on it but eventually gives in, as he probably has numerous times.

Teddy justifies his actions by the fact that the quest for revenge gives Leonard's life purpose. Teddy doesn't see why Leonard is bothered by it since he doesn't have to live with the memories of what he's done while Teddy does. The process has become so routine Teddy's even found a way to make money off each revenge to ease his conscious. He reminds Leonard that this quest can go on forever giving his life purpose. "You'll never run out of John G's." At this point Teddy admits that they're so plentiful that he actually is a John G.

Leonard is forced to make a decision. Keep up a quest that he's already completed to give his life the appearance of a purpose and meaning, or make Teddy "his John G." By doing the latter he would be permanently breaking the cycle, bring Teddy to justice for all the "John G's" who maybe didn't deserve to die. After doing so he'd have to try to find a new purpose in his life even though that may be an impossibility.
You think I just want another puzzle to solve? Another John G to look for?
You're a John G. So you can be my John G. Do I lie to myself to be happy? In
your case, Teddy, yes, I will.

Leonard decides to make Teddy "his John G." He also finally seems ready to get that last tattoo. I think this is an important lesson that many people never learn. People spend their lives searching out "John G's" and forget that there was ever supposed to be any other purpose to their life. Maybe it's time to get that last tattoo and move on. The quest can be something that's hard to resist but maybe it's just an endless cycle that never leads to an actual goal.

Monday, December 15, 2008

When does a hero stop being one?


I'm going to start this off by saying that I swear that I have nothing against Will Smith. He has a great range that can handle action, comedy and drama. I've been vastly entertained by a number of his films and I've really liked a number of his performances. But this is going to be the second time I've written about one of his films and I have some pretty bad things to say about it.

The Book I am Legend is one of both the most frequently adapted and influential books in the sci-fi and horror genres. Notable adaptations have been "The Last Man on Earth" and "Omega Man." Some people even say it's the grandfather of the "zombie/living dead" sub-genre of horror. The basic premise of the story is that a disease that turns people into monsters (usually either vampires or zombies) goes airborne and most of the human race is infected with one character the last normal human in New york. That part never changes from adaptation to adaptation.

The Smith version of 2007 is no exception to this. To be honest the set up of the film and actually most of it are quite good, it just falls apart in the third act. It features and update on the science of the story. The idea is that Smith's character is Robert Neville, a genetic researcher who works on a team that alters a common virus into a cure for cancer. The problem is that it has the eventual side effect of turning people into monsters and it is highly contagious.

This adds to the drama since Neville's immunity is a genuine curse. He knows he is responsible for the wreckage around him, but he is also the only person capable of stopping it.

He is left alone in the city with only the dog he wanted to leave with his family until he could rejoin them. Since the family died in the evacuation procedure and the dog is not only the last thing to remind him of them but his last living companion he values the dog more than anything.

He builds a life around routine. Seeking out food, training to seek it out. Going to a video store where he's placed mannequins whom he pretends are real people to keep up the practice of social interaction. He watches a different movie every night and constantly replays old news broadcasts in the morning. And he dedicates a portion of every day to trying to find a cure for the disease he created. Any time a cure seems promising in animal tests he seeks out an infected human to experiment on.

This last fact creates the most promising continuing storyline in the movie which is destroyed in act three. He captures a female and prepares to take her back to his lab, but a male monster takes exception to this and chases him out into the sunlight (which is deadly to his kind). And over to course of the next several scenes sets a number of rather intelligent traps that should be impossible to a mindless brute. In one such trap he manages to infect Neville's dog which leads to a heartbreaking scene where Neville lovingly holds his dog up until the second that the infection takes effect at which point he ruthlessly kills the dog.

This is where the film breaks down. He decides to take on the monsters as a way of "going down fighting" but really it's intended to be suicide. At which point he's saved by a very religious woman and her son (who have lost none of the social skills that are dead in Neville) who hold out hope of one last camp of survivors.

This stupid woman doesn't use any of the safety precautions developed by Neville allows his home to be seiged by monsters, lead by the one holding a personal grudge. Then (miraculously) at the last minute it turns out Neville actually cured the disease and the mother and son get to go to this nice camp of survivors with a cure. Meanwhile Neville is dead and "he's a legend" for curing the disease he created.

When I did further research I found that this was the biggest diversion from the plot of the original novel. This comforted me greatly. In the novel what happens is that the lead character learns that the monsters are redeveloping their humanity even though they still fear light and have a number of monstrous characteristics. They are rebuilding society. He is the last of his kind and at one point zombies and vampires were a legend, and now the lone man who kills without mercy who doesn't fear the sun is a legend.

This particular theme was picked up in some of the later George Romero "of the Dead" movies in the character of Bub from Day of the Dead. Bub was a zombie who was relearning the fundamentals of communication and to think past his next (unnecessary) meal of a living human. He even goes as far in the end of the film as using a gun to avenge the man he thought of as a father. This is taken even further with the character "Big Daddy" in Land of the Dead who breaks up the monotony of reliving a false version of his living routine to finally acknowledge the fact that he and all of his people are in fact not what they once were and need to find a new way of "living" their new lives.

As I said this idea is started and later abandoned in the 2007 film. The lead monster seems to take the kidnapping of one of his people personally. It almost even seems like he's reacting the way a person would if their spouse was arbitrarily kidnapped.

The film dropped the ball by refusing to discuss the idea of what happens when the actions that one takes which would once have been heroic become something evil. Like how you'd be tempted to stop a teenager from taking their life because they cannot handle the first break up of their young life but would you feel the same towards someone who is old, whose best days are behind them and is suffering constantly from a terminal illness. Or think of the possibility of supporting a political party that once supported freedom but now supports statism and coercion.

I'm not saying that the entire world is in such a degree of flux that changes in context are so frequent and drastic that they can never be discovered. What I am saying is that it is important to constantly study one's context so that you don't just settle into a habit and maintain the belief that "if it was good before it always will be."

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Heroism Within the Enemy's Morality

In his essay "The Philosophic Foundations of Heroism," Andrew Bernstein makes the case that the primary component of heroism is "moral stature":

An uncompromising commitment to morality is the foundation of heroism. Although the point can be stated simply—the hero is a "good guy"—its reasons are philosophical and apply to all instances of the concept.
I strongly agree with Bernstein, but would like to pose a question I did not find within the essay. How do we put into context the enemy, if they are following their own "moral" system? For Objectivists, such as Bernstein (and myself), the answer is simple: some systems of morality are anything but. But this is a bit glib, and should be answered in full. I would also submit that the word "protagonist" can be used to describe a "hero" among the enemy, but again, I don't want to oversimplify.

Under the strict etymological sense, a hero is a “defender/protector.” But that becomes a floating abstraction, because it doesn’t say WHAT is being defended or protected. That is why a Hitler or Stalin or bin Laden can be heroes in the service of evil ends, but villains to the opposition. But, since men are not omniscient, it is possible for a hero to follow a flawed moral system, at least for a time, though it will require evasion. But this is why we have the concept of tragic heroes, or flawed heroes. Ayn Rand’s depiction of Andre Taganova in We the Living would be an example here. I have to wonder if Bernstein’s definition of hero would allow for a broad survey of heroes that would include less-than-desirable characters. If they are not moral in the Objectivist sense, they can still be considered “protagonists” from the view of their moral system.

To really get at this answer, we have to look at the moral system in question. Is it a matter of "competing moral systems?" Is a matter of the good versus the better? This can be a possibility, which is the underpinning of the idea of competition in Ayn Rand's view of capitalism. (There is a touch of this in Landon's post on The Prestige, where he asks the question "when is the price of greatness too much?".) There is also the issue of "bad versus bad," i.e., gang warfare, etc. Often, both sides of the war will see themselves as "the good guy," and many may rationalize their beliefs, and honestly believe they are in the right. The extreme version of this would be the war between Russia and Germany during World War II; both Hitler and Stalin saw themselves as heroes of their respective moral systems.

(Indeed, while most "villains" are drawn to be "evil world conquerors," that is a depiction from the hero's point-of-view. Better-drawn characters like Magneto from the X-Men are more realistic in the depiction of such villains, often having a legitimate complaint. In Magneto's case, he is a "mutant" allegory, a mix of a Jewish holocaust survivor and Malcolm X, both who would have a legitimate right for retribution against the Germans and the racist policies of America at the time, yet become, in their "solution," a mirror of the very thing they sought to fight.)

Now this leads us to the question of whether or not a bin Laden or Hitler can be considered heroes. These types of “heroes” do not, in fact, create, they destroy; their “moral systems” are based on inversions of life. However, is one is speaking broadly, and does not define morality, it is possible to thing of them as “heroes,” but again, only as long as evasion is in force.

But there is another issue here, an argument from "authority" or "consensus." The danger is in defining morality not by what is right for life based on the requirements of reality, but in appealing to who or how many people define something as moral, without looking at whether or not it truly IS moral. "50 million Elvis fans can't be wrong," as the saying goes.) But just because someone claims a moral stance, doesn't mean they are. To define what makes a moral system is beyond the scope of this one post, but in a nutshell, it depends on one's values. If one values life and creation, heroic standards will flow from that. If one is a complete nihilist, the opposite will flow. However, it's not often so clear-cut in real-life examples, with the possibility of error and evasion coming into play. This is not to say there are no absolutes, but that people often mix them into grays, resulting in "gray heroes."

(Another comic book example: Eddie Brock, aka VENOM, of the Spiderman series: Brock is a reporter who justifies his acts under the label of "victim," claiming that Spiderman stole his "innocence." It is clear, however, [except to Spiderman, apparently, who all too often accepts unearned guilt from his enemies] that Brock is guilty of evasion and avoiding responsibilty for his own actions, which is why he is the "black-suited" inversion of Spiderman, a "shadow" in the Jungian sense.)

With that said, I think it becomes clear: broadly speaking, a hero is a defender of a particular value system. That hero can be mistaken in his chosen values, due to error or evasion. He will be seen, however, as a hero by the proponents of that value system, making him the protagonist, and anyone who opposes him as the antagonist. Bernstein (and Rand) go the extra step in defining what a hero is for a morality of "living on Earth," by addressing the relation of creation to heroism. The question is, what value system do YOU support, and what embodies a hero in your eyes? And how do you deal with contradictions, and disputes among men?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Is it really worth it?
















Right now I can safely say that Christopher Nolan is my favorite director working today. I've already written about my love for his Batman films and his 2001 film Memento is one of my all time favorites. But its another of his films I want to discuss here.

Nolan's 2006 film the Prestige is a film centered on the questions "What does it take to be truly great?" and "Is that price worth it?" If you haven't seen the film I'm going to be discussing a number of spoilers so feel free to stop reading here. The idea behind the title of the film is stated in the opening monologue:

Every magic trick consists of three parts or acts.

The first part is called the pledge the magician shows you something ordinary, a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it, to see that it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course it probably isn't.

The second act is called the turn. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret, but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't want to know. You want to be fooled.

But you wouldn't clap yet, because making something disappear isn't enough. You have to bring it back. that's why every magic trick has a third act. The hardest part, the part we call "the Prestige."
A number of people think the theme of the film is contained in the opening monologue. The only response I have to that is the film's opening and oft-repeated line "Are you watching closely?"

The film focuses on a feud between "two" rival magicians working in Victorian era London, Robert Angier and "Alfred" Borden. Angier is the consummate showman who knows how to sell the most pedestrian tricks to an audience like they're the greatest in history. Meanwhile Borden's technique is much more raw and basic but his tricks are innovative and he's a natural magician who spends countless hours perfecting his craft and studying that of others.

The feud is sparked while the two work as audience plants for a successful magician. They tie the binding knots on the "beautiful magician's assistant" (who happens to be Angier's wife) for the Chinese water escape trick. Borden gets dressed down for doing weak wrist knots that won't hold on the crane that hoists the woman into the tank of water. Borden suggests using a different stronger knot for the trick but the Ingeniur (person who designs the illusions and manages their function) tells him that this different knot can't be slipped underwater and is too dangerous. The next time he does this trick the young woman dies.

Before this however you're treated to a few scenes that give you insight to the heart of Borden. Angier and he attend a performance of an old cripple doing the Chinese bowl trick. Angier is dumbstruck but Borden instantly realizes the secret. The magician acts like a feeble old cripple every time he's seen in public but as Angier points out you need to be extremely strong to pull off the simple secret of this trick.

Because Borden guessed the secret he earned some stage time with another famous magician. The magician performs a trick involving a vanishing birdcage with the bird still in it. A young child in the crowd cries that the bird was just killed, everyone tries to comfort him, even pointing out that he brought the bird back. Borden tries to personally comfort the boy showing him the bird. The boy responds by asking about the bird's "brother" at which point Borden can only point out how perceptive the boy before he goes to dispose of the "prestiged" bird and uncollapse and clean the cage it died in.

This inspires Borden to tell the boy the most important idea in his world.

"Never show anyone. They'll beg you and flatter you for the secret but as soon as you give it up, you'll be nothing to them. The secret impresses no one, the trick you use it for is everything."


Are you watching closely?

During the course of the film Borden proceeds to marry the aunt of this young boy and have a child with her. He also proceeds to start off on his own magical career working only with an ingenieur/bodyguard/personal assistant named Fallon. It's almost ruined early on when Angier decides to take his revenge on on Borden by volunteering to assist with a bullet catch so he can use his background to turn the simple trick deadly dangerous. Fallon, rushes in to save Borden, but not before a bullet takes two of Borden's fingers.

In the meantime Angier starts his career, hiring a beautiful assistant as the feud continues to escalate. But what prompts the next escalation is purely professional. Borden always spoke of a trick he designed that would shock the world and Angier notices how great it is instantly even if the audience doesn't. It's called the transported man and it involves Borden going from one closed cabinet to another accross a crowded stage in the time it takes for a rubber ball to bounce the distance.

Cutter tells Angier that it must be done with a double but Angier refuses to believe that it can be something so simple. Angier proceeds to steal the trick and use it to achieve a great deal of success until Borden comes to claim what is his and humiliates and injures Angier to advertise his improved version of the trick which now features Angier's former assistant who finally taught Borden showmanship, and whom he falls in love with.

This leads Angier to his last act of desperation. Angier travels to america based on a tip from Borden's on his method. He seeks out Nikola Tesla to build him a machine "like the one he built for Borden." Tesla tells Angier that he never built such a device for Borden but he would be willing to do so. Though Tesla, weary from his own feud with Edison, that the price of obsession is never worth it, Angier responds that if he knows about the nature of obsession he should know better than to try to warn him.

The final act of the film shows the nasty conclusion of the feud but more importantly it shows you how seriously Borden and Angier took their work. Early in the film Cutter says:

"They're magicians. Showmen men who live by dressing up plain and sometimes brutal truths, to amaze, to shock."


This is proven to be the sad truth in the final act. Angier obtains his machine from Tesla and proceeds to use it to create a final trick "The Real Transported Man." The machine however does not teleport whatever is placed within it. It creates a duplicate of it. Angier takes advantage of this to set a final trap for "Alfred" Borden. Every night Angier's duplicate takes the bow that he never could before because "no one cares about the man in the box." And each night the original Angier becomes the man in the box, setting a water tank like the one which killed his wife under his trap door to serve as a new watery grave each evening.

While that single outburst is shocking, "Alfred" Borden's is a bit more haunting. His total dedication to his secrets winds up costing him everything. He loses his wife and his assistant/mistress, he nearly loses his daughter and "part of him" even loses his life. Cutter was right. "Alfred" Borden was really Albert and Fredrick Borden. Two men sharing one life, trading off on taking the bows and hiding in the background as Fallon. Each man living half a life in their dedication to their work at the cost of everything else.

Like almost all of Nolan's films he doesn't leave you with any easy answers. Both men gave everything for their work, but in the end was it really worth it. I've spent a lot of time thinking of exactly that haunted by this film and the things it forced me to confront about my values and what they could actually mean, and above all if they really are worth it. The quest for greatness is simple, but it was never easy.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Weight of heroic skill

David Morrell the author of First Blood works a day job as a Lit professor. There are countless little nuances in the book and its obvious that each was placed with expert skill. The film based on the novel, while being strong in and of itself, can't be said to have quite the same level of literary care. There is however one scene which I think had to be intentional.

John Rambo is arrested for vagrancy and has his field knife seized by the police. The person whose possesion it is placed in is someone who obviously sees himself as a, for lack of a better term, a bad ass. He takes Rambo's field knife and cuts it effortlessly through a piece of paper, presumably a form or a sheet of note paper. Rambo is at his most powerless at this point, but that cut is representative of what he will spend the next two days doing to every police officer or national guard member who gets in his way.

While the writers of
The Myth of the American Superhero offer great insight and analysis on numerous characters and stories, one place where the book really dropped the ball was on analyzing the character of John Rambo and the film First Blood. Granted, I'm a bit spoiled. The first time I read any analysis was in the Susan Faludi book Stiffed. The woman is nothing if not thorough. She interviewed Morrell, Stallone, and anyone who ever wrote a draft of the First Blood script. She catalogs the changes from book to film, and even discusses the strengths and weaknesses thereof.

In
The Myth of the American Superhero, the authors only cover the film, making no reference to the book. They focus on how Rambo's efficacy in battle was greater than you could expect to see in real life, but what they do not focus on is the downside of this, which is the major focus of the book.

Rambo's combat skill is something great in a battlefield. Being able to assess a situation, catalog all threats/targets and then dispatch each of them with expert skill could save your life in wartime. What happens when you're at a bar and there's an obnoxious guy a few seats down who won't shut up? Or you're at a store, ready to pay and the person in front of you just won't stop chit-chatting with the cashier? Rambo's treatment of local law enforcement and weekend warriors makes sense, just like a tiger getting loose among a class of school children would.

You could say the biggest contribution Stallone made to the mythos of Rambo was the fact that his version has a Herculean level of self control. In the novel his attitude was kill first, ask questions later, if at all. In the film he took out nearly everyone through non-lethal means, in one case going as far as pointing out how easy it would be to kill as a method of ending his situation, but that all he wanted was for his pursuer to "let it go."

The things which make someone capable of feats of heroism often take their toll on a person both in reality and fiction. Rambo's need of self control or the thoughts that haunt a detective like Will Graham in his hunt of serial killers like Hannibal Lector or The Tooth Fairy. or simple social ostracization for saying or doing something which is unpopular but right. Being a hero has a price, and sometimes it is great.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Necessity of Moral Certainty


About a year ago I heard about the Chris Benoit murder suicide. This was kind of hard on me, I followed wrestling but more by all standards up until this event Benoit was nothing short of a Roarkian hero in his field bringing an unmatched skill level and passion to his work. I belonged to a video through mail service at the time and two DVDs were sitting around. Beautiful creatures, a true story of supposed love and murder, and the Mike Hammer film "Kiss Me Deadly."

Needless to say the last thing I wanted to watch was two young girls murdering one of their mothers being portrayed sympathetically. I have to say I really enjoyed Kiss me Deadly. Mike Hammer sticking to his guns no matter what, saving the people close to him, mourning them when he can't and delivering a little lethal justice when necessary. And even taking on a lost cause just because it mattered to him.

I think people tend to forget how important the idea of that really is. Of being certain in one's moral convictions and doing whatever they dictate regardless of the cost. In a world where seemingly every Jason Vorhees and Leatherface has a sob story and every hero has major flaws we forget how much seeing this can mean to a person.

The Thomas Harris Hanibal Lecter series is a great example of this progression. From Silence of the Lambs through Hanibal Rising, Lecter becomes more and more sympathetic each time you see him. There was reasoning behind his kills, he was traumatized by the death of his sister etc.

I'd trade the whole lot for the first Hanibal Lecktor film. Michael Mann's Manhunter is an amazing piece of work. It's beautiful to look at with color, lighting and set/prop design taking an active part in every scene heightening the mood and leading you exactly where the filmmaker wanted you to go.

While I love the look, feel, and sound of this movie, what really draws me in is its moral certainty. Good is good and evil is evil. Everybody is still "human" and complex, but at the end of the story you know you were rooting for the right person to win.

William Peterson's haunted Will Graham is what I loved most about this film. He's haunted by the fact that he's great at catching the most vile men alive, but in doing so he has to learn to think like them and this is not something you want to be capable of or to do for long periods of time.

His unease with the evil with which he must deal is the moral core of the film. He doesn't play games, flirt with or fall in love with Lecter. Dealing with the manipulative bastard is a necessary evil which he only grudgingly does. And even though he'd love give it up to go back to spending time with his family

"I gave it up, until you showed me pictures of two dead families knowing god damn well that I'd imagine families three, four, five and six! Right? Great but don't talk to me about late, pal. I'll tell you when it's too fucking late, until then we go as late as I want to take it!"

And he goes non stop. He falls asleep on a plane looking at crime photos only to be awaken by the horrified screams of a young girl sitting next to him who catches a glimpse of the horror that he has made his business.

This isn't to say that the villains have been made into caricatures. Lecktor is still a human being who even has some of his characteristic wit, but he never charms you into forgetting he's a monster. And the same goes for Francis Dollarhyde, he's still a sad lonely man who part of you just wants to see become happy and find love and friendship, but he's also enough of a monster you know when to cut off your sympathy to him and extend it to his victims.

There's a common misconception that moral certainty means oversimplification. The filmmakers who remade this film obviously belong to this school. Nothing seems to really be stopping Graham from still working in the field of criminal investigation, he's more or less just taken an early retirement. Dollarhyde is almost excessively sympathetic as a mentally ill man who just needs a good dose of Zyprexa and a decent support network. And of course Lecter is his normal charming self, so much so that when he gives Dollarhyde Graham's home address you almost respond with something like "Oh you mischievous little man" as opposed to the complete and utter terror you should.

Say what you will about the original it wasn't afraid to make sure the killers seem like human monsters and heroes are disgusted with them. It never shies away from the fact that to take an innocent life makes you a terrible person and to save one makes you a good person. It's really sad when you reach a point where this is a controversial statement.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Interview with Andrew Bernstein on THE PHILOSOPHICAL BASIS OF HEROISM

 A nice addendum to the Bernstein essay I recently discussed via an online interview: PRODOS SPEAKS WITH DR. ANDREW BERNSTEIN ON HEROISM AND HERO-WORSHIP.


 I'll direct the traffic to the Prodos site for the full interview, but a couple of notable parts not discussed in the essay:

Prodos: You've used the word 'actualize'. I first encountered that word years ago when reading the literature of the 60's and 70's, like Carl Rogers and all those sort of 'let it all hang out' type of advocates. But you're suggesting a completely different approach. You're saying that actualization is not about just simply 'letting yourself go', it's not about waiting for things to happen to you. You're saying that actualization is something that you can go out and get, go out and grab, go out and achieve yourself.
Andrew Bernstein: Right. The term comes originally from Aristotle, the philosopher.
Prodos: Ah!
Andrew Bernstein: It's all about, as a human being, having a rational faculty, having a mind. If you work hard to develop it - really push yourself to get an education, seek a career in some productive field and also - in the bodily realm - exercise regularly to stay fit and robust - that you can have a life of all round, healthy self-fulfillment. And as you push yourself to succeed in your career and in striving for your own development and your own fulfillment, you have the knowledge that as a very benevolent consequence - as a secondary side issue - that your development as a rational human being will benefit other people as well.

 Another notable bit:
 
 
Prodos: Another question for you Dr Andrew Bernstein. Just as when a great artist portrays a simple piece of fruit in a distinctive, compelling way - so that after we've seen his painting we never look at fruit or color or texture in the same way - I wonder whether appreciating the heroic also, in a way, ESSENTIALIZES our view of our self and of others. That seems to be what's coming through from what you're saying in a way. So my question is really about the parallel between the effect that great art has and the effect of hero worship.
Andrew Bernstein: That's an interesting question. To be perfectly honest with you I haven't considered the question in quite that form before. It's a very good observation you're making. That great art, you used the example of an apple, stylizes something. That is, it stresses the characteristics that make it what it is. And similarly with observing a hero. It helps us pick out (the essentials) - from amongst all the diversity of somebody's life - from all the various incidental details of who your parents were, where you were born, and what color your skin is - trivial things like that - trivial in certain ways at least - because it focuses on the human potential: This is what is possible to man, This is what is possible to the human species. We're not just limited to criminals, dictators and gangsters and drug dealers and drug addicts . . .
  One other note of interest: Bernstein professes ignorance of Jung and Campbell's treatment of the hero:

Prodos: Lovely. Now if you talk to intelligent, educated people today about heroism they'll usually nod knowingly and tell you they've read Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero Of A Thousand Faces, who's written a lot on what he calls 'The Heroic Journey' and all that sort of thing. What's your view of Campbell's ideas Andrew Bernstein? Where do you agree and disagree with him?
Andrew Bernstein: Well to be perfectly honest with you I've never read Campbell (Prodos laughs - surprised and pleased) . . . I've heard the name, I've never read his books so I really have no idea of what his specific thinking on this or any subject is.
Prodos: I suppose there's a reason why you haven't been attracted to his writing?
Andrew Bernstein: Is Campbell particularly religious? I forget.
Prodos: He's a funny mixture because he makes studies of mythological characters and heroes and talks about the usefulness of myth. I think he believes in the 'collective subconscious' and all that sort of thing (Later I remembered that he is an intellectual descendant of Carl Jung - a whopping big Kantian).
Andrew Bernstein: Well the fact that I haven't read Joseph Campbell's books, I didn't mean that as any kind of put down of Joseph Campbell. It's just that there's a lot of people I haven't read.
 I find this personally ironic, in a good way, because of my personal journey through Jung and Campbell in the quest to define Objectivist Heroism. Ironic, because the man who wrote a key essay that eliminates the need for Jung and Campbell professes that they didn't inform him in his work! An O. Henry moment for me...though I wish I had his article a few years ago, would have saved me some grief! Ah well, I guess we all arrive in our own way...:)

Friday, December 5, 2008

Democracy in Nightmare Town

The book "Myth of the American Superhero" is a work which is highly critical of what it sees as over-individualistic forms of heroism, as opposed to what it calls "democratic heroism." Basically it means people coming together discussing problems and then working together to solve them in agreement and compromise.

I suppose this sounds acceptable enough to someone not familiar with principles like "The Virtue of Selfishness." There is a concept that I think deserves some discussion in response to this.

Private investigator turned pioneering crime/noir writer Dashiell Hammett might have something to say on the subject. As his background implies, all of the stories he wrote during the course of his career were either based on events he experienced personally, or on "war stories" shared by his peers.

After getting a number of contradictory offers on a particular case which ultimately lead to the target of investigation (a local labor leader) being murdered one could say Hammett's "sense of life" was irreparably damaged. The result of this event and that damage was the story "Nightmare Town."

It starts with a man driving in from out of town on a bet that he could drive all the way across the desert with nothing to drink but a bottle of bad whisky. What unfolds over the next several pages is a litany of corruption. The problem with this story and any mystery it contains is that there is no way to discover who the singular guilty party is since the entire town consists of nothing but criminals some working in conspiracy, others working cross purposes.

I'd hate to see what democratic heroism would mean in this town. Because you see that's the flaw with democracy. If its a vote among a group of decent virtuous individuals, there's a good chance that the choices that group will make will be good and moral though there is no guarantee. But Hammett's "nightmare town" is more than a fictional device. Throughout history there have been instances of democracy giving power to evil ideas that happened to gain majority approval.

Hitler with his plans outlined clearly in Mein Kampf was given control of the nation of Germany. Socrates was "democratically" sentenced to death. And even in this recent election we've seen instances of rights being voted away.

The reason that democratic heroism is a flawed idea is that the group isn't always right and the fact that it is an idea held by a large group doesn't make it automatically right. The thirty-eight witnesses to the Kitty Genovese murder were not a majority worth following. All the people complicit in the torture and eventual murder of Sylvia Likens based on the prompting of Gertrude Baniszewski were not a moral group worthy of any authority.

The biggest single fact that the authors of the book ignore is that there is nothing easier than going with a crowd. Even though there are many examples of individual heroes using questionable ethics and tactics the reason this idea is glorified is because that doing this when it is necessary is often the most difficult thing in the world and any person who can do it deserves glorification for the capability of doing so. One person who could've exhibited these traits could've saved the life of Kitty Genovese or Sylvia Likens.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

"What's a Hero?" THE PHILOSOPHICAL FOUNDATIONS OF HEROISM by Andrew Bernstein (continued)

  As discussed in the last post, Bernstein showed the problem of the contemporary views of heroism (mind-body duality), and set out to redefine it. In doing so, he identifies “four components” necessary for heroism:

 



• Moral greatness,

• Ability or prowess,

• Action in the face of opposition,

• Triumph in at least a spiritual, if not physical, form.

  All four components are essential if one is to save the concept of hero without the mind-body dichotomy. (I’ll save the first one for last, because it’s the most important, but also because it’s under this sub-topic that Bernstein’s definition implicitly addresses the problems of the original etymology.)

Ability is important, because

If we lived in a Garden of Eden, in which an omnipotent deity provided all goods and full protection, then no competence on the part of human beings would be required for either the creation of values or their defense. But since metaphysical reality requires that man's values be created and produced, ability—above all, intellectual ability—is crucial to his survival on earth.

Action in the face of opposition:

 …since evil men attempt to enslave the creators and survive as parasites off of their effort, ability—again intellectual ability especially—is required to defend the good against their murderous intentions.

But even in the absence of “evil” men, this component is still necessary, because

 nothing is given to man on earth—struggle is built into the nature of life, and conflict is possible—the hero is the man who lets no obstacle prevent him from pursuing the values he has chosen.

Triumph (in at least a spiritual, if not physical, form): it is not essential that a hero “win,” in the physical sense. This may seem odd at first, but remember, without the mind-body dichotomy, we realize that man is not omniscient or infallible. It would be asking too much to guarantee that a hero is not allowed to fail in his mission. But if he fails, the hero remains a hero “if one remains true in action—come hell or high water—to rational values, if one strives mightily against any and all antagonists, never yielding, never betraying one's soul, pursuing excellence relentlessly, if one embodies all this and never cries for mercy, then one is a hero even though one fails in practical terms.”

Moral Greatness: Bernstein claims that “Of these, the hero's moral stature is unquestionably the most fundamental. An uncompromising commitment to morality is the foundation of heroism. Although the point can be stated simply—the hero is a "good guy"—its reasons are philosophical and apply to all instances of the concept.”

He adds that

The hero is the man dedicated to the creation and/or defense of reality-conforming, life-promoting values. Because of the culture's mind-body split the defender of rational values has very often been recognized whereas their creator has not. But the truth is that the man who creates values is the primary hero; the man who defends the creator from evil is a hero because the creator has made human life possible. This distinction must be made because of irrational philosophy dominating the culture.

  Now, I claimed before that Bernstein does not address the etymological aspect directly, but the passage above indicates that he is aware of it by referencing the idea of the defender. And, again, as I claimed before, Landon and I were debating whether or not the word hero should be replaced to describe Objectivist creators (or creators as heroes in general). But Bernstein approaches the problem by subdividing heroes into primary and secondary heroes.

  When Bernstein writes that “[t] he hero is the man dedicated to the creation and/or defense of reality-conforming, life-promoting values,” he is going beyond the etymology by adding the concept of creation, making that primary and placing the defense of the creation separately.  THIS may seem to be a violation of the etymology (“why does BERNSTEIN get to add to the original definition?). But this is NOT a case of hubris here; matter of fact, Bernstein is addressing and CORRECTING an error in the etymology. HOW? Bernstein, remember, claims that “Because of the culture's mind-body split the defender of rational values has very often been recognized whereas their creator has not.” Now, remember that the Greeks did not value man as creator, but instead, looked to their gods as the source (which is why Prometheus is punished for delivering fire from the gods to man.) Even when men (or women) DO create, they are punished for competing with the gods (such as Arachne’s transformation into a spider by Athena for being a better weaver…talking about “hatred of the good for being good!”).

  But implied in the above is that the act of creation is STILL primary; if men are relegated to the “defense” of creation, it is still CREATION that comes first, even if it’s creation “by the gods.” Only, since the gods are creation of man’s mind, Bernstein, via Rand, rightfully place the act of creation back into the hands of men. So Bernstein rightfully says that “But the truth is that the man who creates values is the primary hero; the man who defends the creator from evil is a hero because the creator has made human life possible.”

So now we have primary and secondary heroes, creators and defenders. But Bernstein adds

 Nevertheless, in fact, both the industrialist who creates a new product and the police officer who rescues him from kidnappers are heroes—and for the same reason: the actions of both exhibit an unswerving loyalty, no matter the opposition, to the values required by human life. This is the indispensable moral pre-requisite of being a hero. Lacking this, one need not apply.

 With that said, Bernstein presents “a fuller understanding” of his original definition:

A hero is an individual of elevated moral stature and superior ability who pursues his goals indefatigably in the face of powerful antagonist(s).

  So now we have a better understanding of what Rand meant by hero, and why her characters are more than just creators, or “someone to look up to.” We also have a better understanding of what sets those heroes apart from her secondary characters. As Bernstein writes:

A hero is related but is not identical to a moral man, to an achiever, to a role model. A moral man is one who possesses an unbreached commitment to reality and who never indulges whims. An achiever is a man who attains ends that are objectively life-promoting, one who fulfills reality-conforming purposes, whether to construct a home, complete an education or find a cure for cancer. A role model is a man who, as a rational achiever, is worthy of emulation. A hero is all of these things and more.”

 With that said, I’d like to clarify the original goal of SUPERHERO BABYLON. So much emphasis has been placed on pointing out the enemies of heroism in the culture at large. But now, with the concept of heroism fully fleshed-out, we’d like to go think that our job is now that much EASIER to promote true heroism wherever it may be found. Landon and I (and our guest contributors) have already pointed to the heroes of the past and present.  But who are tomorrow’s heroes? I’ll give Bernstein the last word on this:

It is not an accident that, historically, most of mankind's heroes have been great warriors. This is so because men have recognized implicitly that there are a special few who take on all comers to achieve their ends. The designation "hero" is a moral approbation reserved for this elite.