Thursday, January 31, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

When you're about to make a trip to an exotic place that you’ve never been to before, your mind is spellbound and lays out a scenario that's a little bit like a fairytale. Then when you arrive at that place, the mind quickly encapsulates it and creates an indelible imprint, a roadmap made up of familiar associations from your own past. That’s a little bit what the experience of seeing Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is like. Hannah Arendt famously coined the term the “banality of evil,” in her classic Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Zero Dark Thirty is the banality of good and evil. One can’t help comparing Zero Dark Thirty to classics of political cinema like Z, The Conformist or the film whose cinema verite style it most imitates, The Battle of Algiers, but Zero Dark Thirty falls neither into the categories of fiction like The Conformist, nor cinema verite (which uses non actors to enhance reality) like Battle of Algiers nor obviously, on the other end of the spectrum, documentary--though both its heroine, Maya’s (Jessica Chastain), unshakeable faith in her mission does recall the role Jodie Foster played in Contact, while curiously the analysis of photos recalls another cinema classic about discovering a murderer in a haystack, Antonioni’s Blow-Up. Still there are two looming issues at the center of the controversy around the film: the morality of using torture and its efficacy. A third issue relates to the whether the filmmakers did enough due diligence in description of techniques like waterboarding. Was it a cup of water or a jug of water that was used? To recall another film classic, Zero Dark Thirty is Dirty Harry on the stage of world history. When does the punishment fit the crime? When do the means justify the ends? Osama Bin Laden was killed and the order came right from the top. But are we ever justified in abrogating human rights? While Zero Dark Thirty isn’t journalism, it’s an odd hybrid of fact and fiction that succeeds in creating the feeling of what it might like to enter the world that we read about in the headlines. The figures are not larger than life. They do heroic things without seeming likes heroes and when the helicopters drop down into the compound to execute a piece of history, you feel like you're there and just like the soldiers on screen, just want to get out alive.

In Praise of Imperfection

Photo: Presidenza della Repubblica Italiana
In his obit of Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini (“Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, Nobel Winner, Dies at 103,” NYT, 12/30/12) Benedict Carey quotes the following passage from her autobiography, In Praise of Imperfection: My Life and Work: “It is imperfection—not perfection—that is the end result of the program written into that formidably complex engine that is the human brain and of the influences exerted upon us by the environment and whoever takes care of us during the long years of our physical, psychological and intellectual development.” In his obit Carey describes how Levi-Montalcini “began studying chicken embryos in the bedroom of her house in Turin, Italy, during World War II.” Dr. Levi-Montalcini’s great contribution lay in her discovery with Stanley Cohen of NGF or nerve growth factor and as Carey points out their work “altered the study of cell growth and development."Those who believe in God often point to the order of the universe to prove that everything is there for a purpose. Scientists who argue for the existence of God often underscore the miraculous connections that exist in say mathematics to argue for the fact that there must be a higher form of intelligence who possesses a divine storyboard, sketchpad or architectural plan by which the complexity of nature unfolds. Levi-Montalcini was obviously an over-determinist more impressed by the disorder of the natural world. If she did believe in a God who created the world in his or her image, it probably would have been an imperfect God who was actually more like man.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Atheists of the World Unite!

Photo of Susan Jacoby by B.D. Engler
“Atheists of the world unite,” is the message Susan Jacoby conveys in a Sunday Times Review piece (“The Blessings of Atheism," NYT, 1/5/13). “It is primarily in the face of suffering…that I am forcefully reminded of what atheism has to offer…I do not have to ask, as all people of faith must, why an all-powerful, all-good God allows such things to happen. It is a positive blessing, not a negation of belief, to be free of what is known as the theodicy problem.” Howard Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People was a bestselling book that dealt with a similar problem and came to a different conclusion. Writing from personal experience, the author, a rabbi, dealt with how he maintained his faith in God after his son died from progeria, a condition which produces premature aging. Kushner went on to deal with similar issues in a later volume, When All You've Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough. What is interesting in Jacoby’s piece is that she invokes Robert Green Ingersoll, a famous l9th century agnostic and freethinker who was much beloved by Walt Whitman and who Whitman once described as being Leaves of Grass. The picture Jacoby draws of the agnostic or the atheist is not the cynic, empiricist and victim of the kind of "disenchantment" that Max Weber would later describe as limiting natural human impulse towards finding metaphysical connections between things. Jacoby attempts to bring atheism and agnosticism out of the closet so that its followers can be encouraged to congregate and provide each other with the kind of solace that Ingersoll did in his many graveside eulogies. “We need to demonstrate that atheism is rooted in empathy as well as intellect,” Jacoby writes. “And although atheism is not a religion, we need community-based outreach programs so that our activists will be a recognizable to their neighbors as the clergy.”

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Woody Allen’s Hypochondria

photo: George Biard
Is Woody Allen, Moliere’s Malade imaginaire? Moliere, who was the greatest comic genius of all time, probably could never have thought up a character like Woody Allen. In a Times op-ed piece (“Hypochondria: An Inside Look,” NYT, 1/12/13) Allen, however, attempts to debunk his reputation for being a hypochondriac on the basis that his “maladies are real.” “What distinguishes my hysteria is that at the appearance of the mildest symptom, say chapped lips, I instantly leap to the conclusion that the chapped lips indicate a brain tumor. In once instance I though it was Mad Cow.” Allen terms himself an “alarmist" and further comments that “incidentally this relentless preoccupation with health has made me quite the amateur medical expert.” What has always made Allen’s humor so forceful is that he does for urban neurotics what Chekhov did for the penurious rural aristocracy who could only dream of going to Moscow. Allen’s image of himself is something we recognize in friends and relatives who spend a little too much time on WebMD, who seek out specialists the way the Knights of the Round Table sought The Holy Grail and who parentalize anyone with an MD. But the dichotomy Allen tries to draw is really more of a euphemism. An alarmist of the kind Allen describes is a hypochondriac albeit of a less egregious kind, if we accept’s definition of hypochondria as “an excessive preoccupation with and worry about one’s health” Call it what you will, what alarmists and hypochondriacs really have in common is hope. They are like romantics who are more in love with what isn’t than what is. It might be argued that the hypochondriac’s worst fear is not detecting a symptom, but having it explained away as something harmless. At this point, the drama is gone. There is nothing to look forward to. All he or she can hope for is a new symptom to arise. To Moscow!

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Suit

We had Gogol’s The Overcoat and now we have Can Themba, Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney’s Simon’s The Suit, directed by Peter Brook, Marie-Helene Estienne and Franck Krawczyk at BAM. The comparisons are hard to ignore. In the classic Gogol short story a civil servant named Akaky Akakievich has his hard won overcoat stolen. In the current production, The Suit is the iconic object and its fate is personification. Philemon (William Nadylam), a South African lawyer in Sophiatown outside of Johannesberg, can neither forget nor forgive after he learns of his wife Matlida’s (Nonhlanhla Kheswa) infidelity and the suit, left behind in haste, becomes a permanent if unwanted member of the household— Matilda's Scarlet Letter. Philemon also recalls Orpheus since he loses his love when he can’t help looking back--in this case at her deed. The Suit is a chamber musical, a piece of folk theater that relates a parable about lovers who become emblematic figures, their individual fates mirroring the condition of blacks in South Africa during Apartheid. Philemon is content with the existence he leads and yet Matilda is not willing to accept and her tragedy is the fate of the dreamer who's unwilling to accept her present world. The oddity of the play and the current production is the equation of sexual and political liberation. Is Matilda’s punishment tantamount to political repression? Adultery may be the expression of the desire for a better life, but it’s unwieldy when it becomes a symbol for the kind of freedom the play alludes to.