Category Archives: Movies

Faith and Darkness: Thoughts on Black Death

black-death-posterA few weeks ago I found myself hunting for material to watch as I eagerly awaited the Season 5 premier of Game of Thrones. I was trolling the free catalog on Amazon Prime as one does on a Tuesday night when I stumbled across the 2010 film Black Death. Now, this movie came out a little less than a year before season 1 of Game of Thrones (April 2011 vs June 2010 for Black Death) but stars a couple GoT all stars in Sean Bean (Ned Stark) and Carice van Houten (Melisandre) which certainly caught my eye along with Eddie Redmayne who I personally really enjoy. Tie that to the fact that it was a medieval fantasy movie, and it certainly felt like I had the perfect stop gap to occupy my time before the new season of GoT. What I got, however, was even better than I could have expected.

I expected an action packed swords and sorcery hack and slash thriller, but what I got was a hauntingly dark look into the human psyche and the concept of (specifically but not exclusively Christian) faith which I somehow enjoyed. The film opens in the full heat of the Black Death’s reign of terror over Medieval Europe. Our protagonist is Osmund (Redmayne), a young monk serving in a monastery overlooking a plague ridden English town. Osmund, although he is a monk, has not been fully faithful to his divine vows as he is clearly in love with a woman, Averill, for whom he steals food and whom he encourages to flee the town (in spite of their mutual affection) in order to survive the plague in the remote forest outside of town. She reluctantly agrees to go but only after telling Osmund (who has refused to go with her) that she will wait for him for 2 weeks in the forest. Osmund, in turn, prays to God for a sign of what he should do… stay in the monastery and remain loyal to his vows, or follow his hearth and flee with Averill. His prayers are seemingly answered when Ulric (Sean Bean), a Nobleman sent by the Bishop to persecute a necromancer in a nearby town who has apparently subdued the Plague through the power of Satan. Ulric requires a holy man who can lead his expedition through the very forest where Osmund has just sent Averill into hiding so the party can reach this town in a marsh on the other side of the forest.

Believing he has received the sign from God which he prayed for, Osmund quickly agrees to accompany Ulric, even against the wishes of his Abbot.

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On the way to this village, however, Osmund leads the party to the place where he was to reunite with Averill, only to discover that she has apparently been murdered by bandits. Moreover, these same bandits soon ambush Osmund and the party, and one of Ulric’s men is killed in the ensuing combat. Ulric is furious to find out Osmund’s initial intentions for joining them, and even more wroth that Osmund’s selfishness cost him one of his Holy Warriors. Nevertheless, the party, including a now distraught Osmund, continues on with their original mission to persecute the satanic necromancer.

Eventually they reach their destination and discover that the village in the marsh which they have been sent to find appears no different than any other village across the English countryside with 2 exceptions: the Plague has not yet reached them, and their Chapel is abandoned and hasn’t been used in years. Ulric decides that the party should lay low and stay in town for the night until they can discover where the necromancer is hiding. That night Ulric and the other Holy Warriors are drugged while Osmund is lured off by the town’s matriarch Langiva (van Houten). Langiva leads Osmund into the forest where she and her followers are conducting a ceremony to raise someone from the dead.

black death raise dead

But it isn’t just anyone, it is Averill. Osmund flees in terror after watching Averill rise from the grave, knowing now that Langiva is the necromancer they have come to kill. Osmund, Ulric, and the others are all captured, tortured, and ordered to give up their faith, declare that God is dead, or be brutally murdered by Langiva and her followers. However, Langiva hasn’t completely given up on Osmund yet. She desperately wants to convince a Holy man to give up his faith, and as such has Osmund meat up with the now resurrected Averill. Osmund, however, seeing that her body lives while her soul is trapped in purgatory, decides to kill Averill in order to free her from the pagans and die himself with his fellow Christians.

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While Ulric is being tortured, however, it is revealed that he himself already has the plague, and the entire town is now at risk of infection. In the chaos that ensues following this reveal the other Holy Warriors break free and ultimately Osmund, and one other warrior (Wolfstan) are able to escape, but not before Langiva reveals to Osmund that everything she did was a sham. She is not a sorceress, but rather simply drugged Averill and gave her the antidote in order to trick the townsfolk and Osmund into thinking she had raised Averill from the dead. Osmund, then, murdered a living and healthy Averill. Upon realizing this he becomes distraught, allows Langiva to escape, and his forcibly dragged out of the town to safety by Wolfstan.

What was so spectacularly interesting to me about this movie, then, is the questions it asks about faith (specifically pertaining to Christianity in the Middle Ages, but also being applicable to the concepts of faith and belief at large). It is faith in God which initially separates Osmund and Averill, and which ultimately results in Osmund murdering his beloved. It is faith in God that drives Ulric on his quest for the Bishop . And it is faith in the false sorceress Langiva and her power to drive away the Plague that drives the people of the village to murder for her and serve her.

In this sense, then, belief and faith are incredibly powerful things which can ultimately result in a great deal of harm. The Black Death was described as many things in the Middle Ages: God’s Wrath for human sin, the Devil’s Work running rampant among mankind, or even the work of individual human witches doing Satan’s work among mankind when in fact it was simply a disease spread by nature. However, belief and fear drove the people of Europe to lash out at themselves (in the form of the flagellants pictured in the film) or one another as we see when Ulric’s party encounters a group of townsfolk burning a suspected witch. In the case of this second scenario Osmund begs Ulric to help the girl as she is clearly innocent, and in the end Ulric gives her the only help he can. He kills her so that she doesn’t need to suffer by being burnt at the stake. The townsfolk’s belief in her guilt is too strong for her to be saved regardless of her guilt or innocence.

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Moreover, the faith of the marsh villagers drives them commit horrible crimes against Christians because they believe that she keeps them safe from the plague and even raises them from the dead. In the end, however, she reveals herself to be a deceiver who acts how she does for no reason other than her own lust for power. That is what is truly horrifying about her. She merely does what she does out of a hatred for the society around her and her own desire to control others. And even some of her followers simply follow her only because “she is pretty” and “she is there” when God remains intangible and distant. It is much easier to have faith in someone who is right in front of you and employs trickery than something ethereal.

The truth about the plague free town was simply that the marsh surrounding it kept plague carrying fleas from entering the village. It was not Langiva who kept the pestilence away just like it wasn’t witches who caused it. Nature was guilty in both respects, and humans simply took advantage of the situation and ran away with matters to create something evil out of it. Faith drove them to horrible ends. Indeed, even Ulric’s final act of sacrifice becomes confused between good and evil. Ulric exhibits blind faith that his side is right throughout the movie even though his wife and child were killed by the the Plague. In the end he agrees to act as a time bomb sent by the Bishop to destroy this supposedly demonic and Godless town by carrying the Plague across their protective marsh in his own diseased body.

Buboes, caused by the Plauge, commonly formed under the armpits so seeing them there when Ulric reveals that he has the Plague is no surprise, but in a twist that was certainly no accident, the bleeding buboes end up resembling the wounds, inflicted by a Roman spear, on the day of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion which pierced the His sides.

Ulric Christ

This immediately solidifies Ulric’s own role as a Christ figure and martyr willing to die for his faith. However, in the end all he has really done is bring death to a group of people formerly spared from its ravages. It is true that this town gave up their Christianity and were deceived by an evil woman, but Ulric’s actions, though driven by faith in God, may have resulted in the murder of them all. The film implies that human actions are simply left up to chance, and that faith, though powerful, is more often than not simply misplaced and a dangerous tool abused by those in positions of power, be they a bishop or a supposed sorceress.

What the film does so spectacularly is make the viewer suspend reason and believe in magic for a short period of time before bringing reality crashing down over your head and make you feel foolish for getting as caught up in your belief as the characters in the film do in theirs. Anyone with a casual knowledge of the story of The Black Death in Medieval Europe is aware that the people of the day tied the pestilence closely to their religion, murdering innocent girls as witches out of fear of the spreading disease. As such the viewer initially enters into this film fully prepared to be skeptical of all things religious, magical, and faith oriented. As the film drags on, however, you eventually buy into the magic of the world and the power of the Devil vs. God on Earth as we witness the Dead rise or faith in God prevail, only to have your belief ripped away at the end as you come to your senses are realize that these are just people doing what people do to one another. Judge, persecute, murder. Faith can quickly become corrupted one someone craving power such as Langiva becomes involved, and the fate or happenstance of natural life can quickly be manipulated to one’s favor.

In the end only two members of Ulric’s party survive; Osmund and Wolfsan.

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Moreover, their losses are not justified as they even failed in their mission to apprehend the necromancer. Langiva escapes, and instead Wolfstan captures Langiva’s main henchman Hob, and brings him back to the bishop so he can claim his reward. In this final act we can finally see the human side of logic and reason take root in the events we have just witnessed. Two faiths came to clash, and neither came out victorious. Instead humans brought destruction upon one another and in the the last man standing covers up the disaster with a lie to gain his Earthy rewards out of an event which turned into a religious travesty.  In the end Osmund loses everything he once loved, including his faith when trying to remain true to his beliefs. Misplaced faith can easily lead one astray and create havoc and destruction, and if one isn’t careful faith can become hate, and overcome reason. The time of the Black Death was an era of rampant hate and fear when faith comforted some and drove others to anger, but th emost important thing to remember is that in the end nature and fortune often act out of randomness without any calculated plans. Somethings things just happen, and there is no reason, and to try to create justifications can create far more harm than good.

How We Fight: Thoughts from The Imitation Game

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The Imitation Game is a spectacular movie which is good for far more reasons than I am going to outline in this blog. However, because the movie has already been out for a couple months, and because I feel people would be bored reading any hhypotheticalsynopsis I would write, I’m going to focus on one narrow question / thesis that rose to the front of my mind while I was watching the film. Before we start, however, I just wanna say HIGH HOOOOOOOOOOOOO SPOILERSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!

So stop reading if you want to see the movie unspoiled. Thanks! And now, Preview time!

But anyway, The Imitation Game is a film adaptation of Andrew Hodges’ 1983 biography Alan Turing: The Enigma. And just as that title hints, this story is filled with layer upon layer of information, questions, postulations, and thought provoking threads. The movie captures all of this wonderfully, but unfortunately for me that means there is far too much material to write about. Instead, I’m going to focus on one issue that felt particularly poignant from the film; the idea of what makes a soldier.

Now, I suppose I don’t necessarily mean a soldier. I guess I just mean someone working for the betterment of their nation in the most dire circumstances states are ever put into: war. The Second World War is often portrayed as a conflict encapsulating both the best (gung ho marine battle cries and Rosie the Riveter) and the worst (Facism run rampant) of patriotism. Nationalism was at its peak, and everyone seemed to want to help their country however they could.

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But as much as propaganda artists in all countries wanted to convince their people that all jobs were created equal (success on the home front is just as important as the boys in the trenches!) that wasn’t necessarily true. All efforts were definitely necessary in concert for ultimate success, certain jobs definitely deserved prioritization in terms of importance and level of impact. However, it may not necessarily be visible from the surface which jobs are prioritized over others.

The job in question here, as you probably guessed, is the work of Alan Turing and his team of code-breakers. Cracking the Enigma code was perhaps the most influential act committed by the allies during the entire Second World War. It doesn’t always feel this way on the surface, however, when other young men a literally giving their lives for their country and men like Turning were working safely and quietly far away from German bombs and Allied battlefronts. In fact one of the characters Peter, a young math prodigy working on Turing’s team, expresses regret that his work seems so futile while his brothers and cousins are actually fighting in the war. In the end, however, the work done by Turing’s team cracking the Enigma code was one of the greatest achievements to come out of the war, and had long lasting repercussions leading into modern day (the invention of computers).

Enigma Machine

Enigma Machine

Eventually Turing, his team, and his machine crack the Enigma Code, opening the way for the Allies to win the greatest conflict ever fought. It comes with a price, however, as the team learns when it becomes apparent to them that they cannot use their new-found knowledge to immediately begin thwarting German plans, as this would tip the Germans off to the fact that the British had cracked the code. Were the Germans to get wise they could simply devise a new code and Turing’s team would be back to square zero. Instead they must decide how to strategically deploy their new information in such a way that the Germans never suspect they have cracked the code.

War is an inherently inhuman thing in spite of how easily human nature can be oriented toward it. This fact is even more true today than it was during the Second World War when one considers the widespread use of computers and machines in modern warfare. The greatest tragedy that comes out of any war is invariably the massive loss of life, but what Imitation Game elucidates so fascinatingly is that one can crunch the numbers and calculate the requisite loss of life which is both necessary to win the war, while simultaneously being acceptable to the people on the home front.

It really is just a numbers game. There are thresholds that can or can not be exceeded and algorithms to determine how many unlucky individuals can and should be lost when compared to the reward to be gained. What The Imitation Game teaches us, however, is that no human mind is capable of handling this information on its own. Alan Turing’s code breaking machine eventually succeeds Machines can provide us with the requisite mental distance necessary for us to rationalize the decisions which result in the unavoidable loss of life which comes with warfare.

Turing Machine

Turing Machine

War doesn’t make sense. It never makes sense. People aren’t supposed to die young because they speak a different language or worship a different god. Any yet humans have embraced warfare since the dawn of civilization. No one every really understands it, but the still follow through. Ultimately, no one ever will understand it, because the human mind will never be able to fully comprehend or justify the requisite sacrifice.

The very first attack Turing’s team learns about is a German U Boat raid on a convoy carrying food to Britain. Moreover, it just so happens that Peter, the young math prodigy on Turing’s team, knows one of the crew members on this convoy. It is his brother. He wants to save his brother’s life, and indeed has the power at his fingertips. But Turing and his team will not let Peter save his brother. They inform Peter that is is for the greater good that his brother must die, and he must choose not to save him. I don’t believe any brother could ever fully rationalize this choice or justify it by his own moral standards, regardless of the fact that Peter was ultimately forced to go along with Turing and the others. In the end Peter’s brother does die and the Turing team invents a new system by which the British government can determine which attacks can profitably be stopped, and which must be allowed to succeed. A process Turing calls “his bloody calculus.”

The time honored cliche is that no human should have the power to play God. No one has the right to do so or the ability to think rationally enough to make the “correct” decisions. It is only fitting then that Turning, a man derided by his compatriots as being more machine than human, is the one to stop the team from acting on their human emotions (to save Peter’s brother or to save every life they possible can with their new-found knowledge of the Enigma Code) and instead break down the science of war into logical components. Moreover, the task was even beyond Turing himself. His “machine-like” nature provided him with the clarity of mind necessary to see that no human should make these decisions and as such he provided the groundwork for a machine which could do it for us; the computer.

In the end, however, computers can only tell us how to conduct war. They can crunch various variables to determine the value to be gained through conflict. But they cannot and do not make the final decision. Humans and society still determine what a life is worth, and whether they think someone’s life should be taken away. It is humans who are judgmental and emotional, not computers. And it is humanity who still have to make the decisions to go to war, and to violently end lives. To murder and to kill. The computers just make it efficient.

 

Interstellar Aspirations

Space is pretty frickin’ cool. At least in my opinion. Space can represent so many things, ranging from the blank slate of the unknown to the infinite depths of what could be. As far as imagination and story telling are concerned I’m not sure there’s a better place to feed one’s creativity than looking up at a night’s sky. Hell, the Greeks were doing in thousands of years ago and we’re still telling their stories today.

No matter how many movies, TV shows, books, comics, or Orchestral Suites we create with Space as a primary actor, our desire for more content is never really sated.

Moreover, we used to take these creative dreams and imagination, and convert it into reality. Once upon a time, we dreamed big and achieved goals beyond the wildest dreams of our ancestors.

Modern times, however, have shown that however much our creative minds crave a look at the wider universe, our logical minds have less interest. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar attempts to reconcile our new-found love for the “real space” drama and our real world disinterest in space travel. Before we go on, however, I would be remiss if I didn’t say SPOILERS!!!!!!!!!!!! SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS!!!!!!!!!! ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO FEAR FRUMIOUS BANDERSNATCHES, JABBORWOCKS, AND SPOILERS!!!!

Spoooooooky spooky spooky. Best not be going out without a Vorpol Sword. (Photo Credit: Ethan Miller, Getty Images North America)

Spoooooooky spooky spooky. Best not be going out without a Vorpol Sword. (Photo Credit: Ethan Miller, Getty Images North America)

Nolan’s world in Interstellar is one where food production on Earth, due to a mysterious, nitrogen loving blight, has become so difficult that it has stopped all wars, as humans huddle together in attempts to scrape enough food out of the Earth to survive. Simultaneously, however, the Earth’s soil has been ravaged to the point where it resembles the 1930s Dust Bowl (of Steinbeck Fame) in the United States. Indeed the film opens with a series of documentary style interviews with elderly Americans discussing the state of affairs in the world during their youth, and the viewer is not initially told that this represent the world of Nolan’s future. They could just as easily have been taken from a Dust Bowl documentary.

In this new world science is shunned for the timelessly noble profession of farming. At a parent teacher conference we learn that only the best and brightest students are allowed to enter college and Cooper’s (Matthew McConaughey) elder son, although he receives excellent grades, will not be allowed to continue his education after high school. Rather, society has deemed it more important that he become a farmer.

However, it is important to add that this does not mean scraping lines in the soil through manual labor. Perhaps an ox-drawn plow here or there. No no. Even today Farming has become an astonishing high tech industry. Combines and harvesting equipment represent millions of dollars worth of investments for the modern day farmer, and in Nolan’s future the same can be said. Cooper, for instance, does not even need to man his combines as he has developed computer software allowing them to operate themselves out in the field.

The Wonders of modern agriculture.

The Wonders of modern agriculture.

In spite of this reliance on science and technology which has obviously improved their lives, however, the people of Nolan’s Earth have been driven to such great lengths by their fears of starvation and extinction that they deny the importance of science on a broader scale. Their vision is oppressively terrestrial. They are unable to look up, even for a second, from the dire straights of their own difficult existence in order to imagine something better. To look up to the sky and hope. They no longer care about pushing boundaries, because they are too busy trying to stop the boundaries of their own existence from receding, and grinding them into oblivion.

The people of Nolan’s Earth have ceased to be proactive, and have ceased looking for ways to improve their own existence, in order to devote the entirety of their energy to mere survival in the most basic sense (and with the most basic resource; food). Like farmers have always done, the people of Earth are forced to sit back and rely on Nature’s grace to sustain them. Farmers are useless if the rain doesn’t fall. No matter how noble and vital to the existence of the human race, this remains a dependent action.

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Close enough! Start planting!!

Indeed, a little later in the film the director tries to force the audience to visualize this concept with his shots on screen. The ship in Interstellar rotates in order to create artificial gravity. When the director has his astronauts look out the window and back at Earth, however, we notice that it actually looks as if the craft is stationary and Earth alone is spinning. This simple demonstration of perspective tells the audience how important it is to think beyond the limits of your own immediate vision, as our world is just an incredibly small piece of a much larger picture. When you only view things from your current position, outward, you lose any sense of a wider perspective. And that, unfortunately, is exactly where the people of Nolan’s Earth fall.

The alternative is the pursuit of science. More specifically the science of space travel for this film. Science is proactive. It asks questions, seeks answers, and strives to create new things in the world. Nolan’s Earthlings have abandoned science, both in terms of Theory and Actuality. A Teacher at Cooper’s Parent/Teacher conference tries to explain to him that the moon landings were faked in order to trick the Soviet Union into wasting money trying to develop space travel. [illustrating how Earth has abandoned Theory] This is a story Cooper vehemently denies, owing to the fact that he was an astronaut before “the blight” came. And later on we find that NASA was literally driven underground as people would allegedly not accept the waste of money on space travel when it could be used for food production [illustrating they have attempted to remove the existence of science in practice as well]. The human race has chosen to deny its own history and scientific achievement in order to ensure that nobody was “distracted” from the primary goal of producing food (and waiting to die) and the ensure that nobody wasted time, money, or effort on frivolous things such as space travel.

*actual depiction of NASA Scientists* Better grab an umbrella US Citizenry… your government is evidently makin’ it rain on NASA … dem hoes… oh wait…

A similar (though obviously less hyperbolic) situation faces modern day space programs, at least in America, where large numbers of powerful individuals complain about how much money the US Government wastes on such “frivolous” departments such as NASA, causing their budget to be hacked, slashed, and hacked again until it is barely recognizable. All this while ignoring the fact that, throughout its history, for every dollar the US government has committed to NASA for research and development, it reaps approximately eight dollars in return profits. AN 800% INCREASE?!?!?! WHY THE FUCK DON’T WE FUND THIS?!?! Ignorance handicaps humanity in more ways than the obvious.

NASA lost the capacity to operate manned space flights in 2011, and the bleeding hasn’t stopped yet. People still aren’t satisfied that the space program has been adequately “cut down to size.” After all, the only thing the space program was good for was beating the damn Russkies to the moon, and we already did that. Now, it has been determined that space travel should be the domain of independent, eccentric entrepreneurs. And if those guys aren’t up to the task, then oh well, it wasn’t important anyway. Just let them flounder.

Now, there are still governments out there that ostensibly care about space travel, but I’m not entirely certain how sincere any of it is. American Astronauts now have to travel to the International Space Station on Russian Rockets. I’m not sure if this is because the Russians actually care about space travel or if Putin just gets off on the fact that the nation which beat his beloved USSR in the Space Race, now has to come begging to him for permission to travel to space.

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The Chinese and Indians have space programs, but as is often the case with emerging economies, I’m not sure if they are sincerely interested in space travel or if they simply see it as yet another prestige stepping stone that they must hit in order to be considered one of the big boys on the world stage, and no longer be looked upon as backward nations.

You tell me, do those guys look very happy to be there? The dude on the left looks like he's about to puke, and the guy in the middle looks like they just brought him along for the photo op because of his ruggedly square jawline. (Image via http://www.fromquarkstoquasars.com/will-there-be-another-space-race/ )

You tell me, do those guys look very happy to be there? The dude on the left looks like he’s about to puke, and the guy in the middle looks like they just brought him along for the photo op because of his ruggedly square jawline.
(Image via http://www.fromquarkstoquasars.com/will-there-be-another-space-race/ )

Humans (on whole, not just individuals) still care about space travel, but perhaps not sincerely, and maybe we never did. Maybe its just like the Teacher in Interstellar said, and space travel was just another battlefront of the Cold War. People can get behind the race if there is an enemy and jingoism of some sort to hop behind, but they don’t care about the pure scientific good of a thing, so if there’s no enemy, then we might as well scrap the whole plan.

If the Beacons of War ain’t lit, I ain’t got no interest.

That is not wholly surprising, however. There is, after all, a punishingly objective side to science which is incredibly off-putting. The movie itself addresses this when it reveals that Cooper was lied to and the mission he was sent on never had any chance of success. There was no hope of finding a new world that they could bring the surviving members of the human race to. The only objective was to find a new planet to start a colony on and rebuild the human race from scratch with in vitro babies.

Science gets accused of this kind of stuff all the time. That it lacks empathy. And while Interstellar starts an interesting discussion related to this topic on the existence of love and its dual nature rooted in both philosophy and physics (how can we still love someone after they’re dead. The concept ‘love’ travels beyond temporal and Earthly boundaries in defiance of natural laws) there is still credence to the fact that science often feels cold and impersonal. Its no wonder science turns people off in large numbers.

That being said, however, I do think there are plenty of reasons to hope. The situation isn’t all bad by any means. Take video games for instance. There are all sorts of space simulators and space themed games, and there have been for a long time. In more recent times, however, these games have become less about fun and fantasy and more about real science, while remaining “games” nevertheless (and by definition then, being fun). Take, for instance, one current craze within the broader nerd community over the Kerbal Space Program games. These games essentially allow the player to found their own space program and graduate from orbital flight all the way to interplanetary travel. And they focus painstakingly (as much as they can) on the real science behind this stuff rather than simply the “fun” aspects (Flying around in a Tie Fighter, blowing up rebel scum). The fact that this game took off like crazy, and has absolutely bombarded YouTube with Let’s Plays and homemade videos from fans puts an enormous smile on my face. It is incredibly exciting to know how many people find this type of stuff fun and are legitimately interested in it.

What Interstellar does well is follow the formula of a Michael Crichton novel in its relationship with science. It gives you the technical matter in the best way it can while still making the subject material entertaining enough to grab your attention and make you remember the underlying message. There are limits to what the average person (myself definitely included) and humanity in general can grasp when it comes to science, and this fact must be dealt with in film making. The movie itself understands this and even expresses it visually. During the climax of the film, Cooper’s spacecraft is traveling toward Gargantua (a black hole and major plot point in the film), and as it rolls toward it like a limping, broken gear cog to a clock, the audience is reminded of the fragility and impermanence of humanity’s meager scientific machinations in the face of the massive complexity, mystery, and ‘unknown’ of space and the Universe. In the end, however, what will save us, drive us, and push us forward is our curiosity and the use of science to quench this thirst.

In the film, humanity’s saving grace ends up being several gravitational anomalies. It is human curiosity which causes the remnants of NASA (then living underground cuz apparently the world hates them that much in the film) to begin investigating these anomalies, at which point they discover a worm hole which becomes their salvation (it leads directly to 12 potentially habitable worlds). In the end we discover [SPOILER WARNING IF YOU DIDN’T HEAR ME THE FIRST TIME] that the humans of the future put these anomalies in place, meaning it was human curiosity that allowed the human race to discover the life raft they threw down for themselves. Moreover, just as Hathaway’s character discusses how love could transcend time, it appears curiosity has done the same thing here.

If there is one overriding message for me in Interstellar it is that science matters. No matter how frivolous it may seem at first, this curiosity and the scientific structures we build around it are the driving forces of human development, and no matter what  anyone says we cannot abandon them, lest we risk losing ourselves in the process.

Hey, you’re a hero, you know that?: In Defense of Fury

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I went to see Brad Pitt’s World War Two tank drama, Fury, this weekend, in spite of my better judgement. Now, I generally hate to be negative in my writing, and I don’t intend to be fully negative during this article, because Fury did a lot of things right. However, there are several major problems (or at any rate issues that I personally had with the film) that made it somewhat of a painful viewing experience for me. Before we get into it though I just wanna say SPOILERS!!!! SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS!!!!!!!!! So if that kind of thing matters to you, consider yourself warned. Ok.

hbo ww2

First and foremost, I tend to be of the opinion that the WW2 genre has been done to its maximum, both in terms of the amount of content generated, and in the quality of content generated. In regards to the former, one need only consider the fact that this genre is approximately six decades old, and dates back not only to the heyday of John Wayne (not just a star of Cowboy films, but of WW2 movies such as Flying Tigers, Back to Bataan, They Were Expendable, Sands of Iwo Jima, and a myriad of others), but even earlier than that. Moreover (and perhaps more importantly) HBO has dealt with both theaters of the Second World War spectacularly in the form of Band of Brothers (for the European Theater) and The Pacific (for, who woulda thunk it, the Pacific Theater).  So even if people had not yet been exhausted by the sheer volume of WW2 films out there, I figured they had at least finally, (and with finality) scratched their itch for this genre, after HBO’s more realistic and in depth versions of all the major story-lines of the War had been told. (At least I know that’s the reaction a massive History Nerd like myself had). In any event I was of the opinion that the target audience for this film was both sated and satisfied. Clearly I was incorrect (a habit of mine).

Fury, however, asserted that it was coming at this much loved genre from a new angle. It would embed the viewer alongside a single tank crew . And although the tank angle has already been spectacularly dealt with in 1970’s Patton, the idea of going in depth into one machine and knowing the guys on a personal level certainly seemed novel enough to me. So even though I was at first disappointed to even see previews for this film, thinking it would involve the same tired story-lines and cliches, I decided to give it a shot. Hell, I even told myself that it was about time for a new WW2 movie. Saving Private Ryan was 16 years old, Letters from Iwo Jima / Flags of Our Fathers were almost a decade old, and even Inglorious Bastards (which can’t really be considered a WW2 film so much as a satire set in the world of the 1940s war years) was 5 years old. It was about time to take this age old genre and see what modern film-making could make of it.

Move your ass over General Patton. Theres a new tank drama in town... this time with 0% less slapping of young soldiers, and 100% more 'splosions!

Move your ass over General Patton. Theres a new tank drama in town… this time with 0% less slapping of young soldiers, and 100% more ‘splosions!

However, more so than a simple retelling of the same story-lines over and over, I think the larger, and more interesting issue dealt with in Fury is the idea of historical hero worship and the distorted realities which those John Wayne movies of old have pushed upon American audiences for decades. In fact, the John Wayne parallels are paramount here. John Wayne is obviously best known for his many staring roles in various Hollywood Westerns. He is the prototypical “White Hat” hero in perhaps the most Black and White genre ever developed. During their heyday, Westerns were the most popular genre around, but they were also among the most formulaic. You had a damsel in distress, a hero who was more purely good than the Archangel Michael, and a bad guy who was like Snidley Whiplash levels of farcical evil. Moreover, the directors blatantly [and visually] told you who was who. Good guys wore white hats. Bad guys wore black hats. And you never really had to pay attention during the gunfight. Now a lot of that changed with movies like Tombstone and the Clint Eastwood ‘Man Without a Name’ movies, but in large part the traditional western / spaghetti western all followed this paradigm.

white hats

So when it came time to churn out WW2 movies, directors simply grafted their new settings and eras on to this already proven and wildly successful archetype. Moreover, it was incredibly easy. Who could be more purely good than an American Marine and who could be more purely evil than Hitler, the Nazi’s, and the goons of the Waffen SS.

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So the general storyline for traditional WW2 films simply piggybacked off the old westerns, even going so far as to use the exact same leading man, The Duke.

duke ww2

You had good guys and bad guys. White Hats (Green Helmets for the GIs) and Black Hats (or Field Grey with those nasty SS lightning bolts). Superheros and Villains. Hell, we even made the war itself into a comic book series which is making a resurgence today!

Yes folks... the very first ever issue of the Captain America comic book series had Captain America punching Hitler right in the mouth, right on the cover! It doesn't get any more black and white than that.

Yes folks… the very first ever issue of the Captain America comic book series had Captain America punching Hitler right in the mouth, right on the cover! It doesn’t get any more black and white than that.

Its very easy to say the Nazis were evil. Hitler was evil. The Holocaust was evil. And by the same token the Japanese and Italians were guilty by association. Fascists, all of’m!! Hang’m up by their bootstraps! Bury them in the sand ‘n’ let the rattlers git’m! Or so the Western narrative would have us demand. However, the more important issue that is so easily and often drowned out here, is the fact that not all Germans were fascists. Not all Italians were Fascists. And literally no one running Japan during WW2 was a Fascist. These are simply blurred and simplified narratives which have been put before the American public and retold for the movie going public time and time again. In pushing these narratives, however, we do ourselves a great disservice which Fury attempts (albeit clumsily) to address.

First and foremost, Fury attacks the narrative of the American Soldier as your prototypical John Wayne “White Hatter.” When we first meet the crew of the tank Fury we are shown how crude and animalistic they are. This, however, can at first be explained by the exigencies of war. This is merely a survival instinct and a necessity. When, however, we are introduced to Norman Ellison, the crew’s replacement machine gunner (and the character through whose eyes the audience are expected to experience these events), we see that they are even cruel to their own kind. At one point Brad Pitt’s character Don, in front of an entire infantry platoon as well as an entire tank squadron (none of whom attempt to stop this), forces Norman to commit a blatant war crime by forcing him to execute a German soldier who has surrendered and is already in captivity. Don, does this to try to “harden” Norman. To ensure that he will “do his duty and kill Nazis” in order to ensure that he does not let the rest of the Fury crew down and get them all killed.

Indeed Shia LaBeouf’s character, Boyd, somewhat of a layman’s priest, warns Norman to prepare himself for such things when he first meets Norman by telling him to wait until he sees what war makes one man do to another man. When we first hear this quote it is much easier to assume he means how a soldier will murder another soldier. Two warriors in ‘lawful’ combat, doing what must be done. This in its own right represents a reprehensible (to a peacetime viewer) enough task, but one which society generally deems justified in the extreme case of war. However, after this scene between Norman and Don, a new interpretation begins to solidify. Instead, it is perhaps not what American soldiers to do German soldiers and vice versa, but could even mean what the Americans do to one another. Don takes it upon himself to obliterate Normans personal morality by forcing him to commit a war crime [and murder], in an attempt to save the lives of his crew, leaving us to wonder whether the ends truly justify the means.

The real images of the Second World War are nothing like a dolled up Hollywood film. They're ugly and depressing. No matter what good comes out of conflict, conflict itself can never be called good. (Image via Life Magazine http://life.time.com/history/battle-of-the-bulge-rare-photos-from-hitlers-last-gamble-1944-1945/#end )

The real images of the Second World War are nothing like a dolled up Hollywood film. They’re ugly and depressing. No matter what good comes out of conflict, conflict itself can never be called good. (Image via Life Magazine http://life.time.com/history/battle-of-the-bulge-rare-photos-from-hitlers-last-gamble-1944-1945/#end )

Events, however, don’t stop there. Later on Don and Norman find two German women hiding out in a recently captured town. [Apologies here cuz I’m about to lose my composure because this part of the movie really pissed me off but here goes] The older of the two women has hidden her younger cousin under the bed in hopes of saving her from rape, murder, or any other atrocities occupying soldiers may choose to commit. [I’ll add that these fears were completely justified considering events which transpired in Berlin at the end of the war among others, but I digress]. Don forces the girl to come out of hiding, locks the door…. and the settles everyone down by offering some eggs… What? Ok… so Don brings a nice gift, gives the ladies some cigarettes, and Don, Norman, and the two girls sit down for a nice lunch together. Eventually Norman and Emma (the younger of the two women) begin playing the piano/singing together and Don eventually tells Norman “there’s a perfectly clean girl there and if you don’t take her into that bedroom I will.” Sweet… good job Don… so in addition to ordering Norman to murder a man in cold blood earlier that day he has now ordered him to rape a young girl… WHICH NORMAN PROCEEDS TO DO!!! Also, good to know she’s “CLEAN” aka not full of STDs from potentially being raped by countless soldiers before you… for fuck’s sake… Now, the directors try to sell us on this, and explain it isn’t so bad by having Don say to the older of the two German girls [after she tries to stop Norman from taking her cousin to the bedroom for some fornication funday] “No, let them go, they’re young… and they’re alive”.  So that pissed me off too… she tried to stop it when the young girl clearly didn’t want this and Don wouldn’t let her… awesome… Then once we get into the rape room with Norman and Emma he does some bullshit palm reading stuff to Emma as if the director is trying to tell us “You see… man… woman… German… American… we’re all the same” which would fit in with the overall narrative message I’m trying to elucidate here… but the whole schtick is invalidated by the fact that this is essentially NON CONSENSUAL SEX!!!! AKA RAPE!!!! Shit man….

Who knew that these simple, every day items were the keys to a woman's heart... among other things... I guess I should have been more attentive cuz it says right on the cigarette boxes, in images even the illiterate can read, "This way to the bang train, chap! All aboard!"

Who knew that these simple, every day items were the keys to a woman’s heart… among other things… I guess I should have paid more attentive cuz it says right on the cigarette boxes, in images even the illiterate can understand, “This way to the bang train, chap! All aboard! Leopard print undies, that-a-way!!!”

Ok, so we’re not done yet. After Norman and Emma bang they come back out to the living-room where Don and the other German woman have lunch prepared BUT just then the rest of the Fury crew come in. They’re pissed that Don and Norman left them out of the festivities, and make a mess of things, mentally tormenting the German women, and Norman, as Don tries to simply keep his composure in the face of his men’s animal antics. Moreover, in addition to making complete asses of themselves, they settle down to help themselves to the lunch which has been 98% provided for by the Germans… except … y’know… for Don’s magical eggs… At one point during the lunch, however, “Gordo,” Michael Peña’s character, attempts to explain, both to Norman and the audience, why the 3 other members of the tank crew act like, and perhaps are, unashamed monsters (as opposed to Don who appears to attempt to hide his monstrous nature). He explains that they all hate Norman because he hasn’t had to pay his dues in the war. He hasn’t had to live through the horrors and atrocities of the war like they have. He didn’t have to fight his way through France like they all had to. He explains a little bit about what he and his crew-mates have been through and the audience begins to see how they have all been changed. Moreover, the question comes up, subconsciously perhaps, as to whether or not these men are redeemable human beings, or even human beings at all at this point, or if the war has irreparable damaged them.

The longer you stay alive during war, the more you become corrupted, and the less likely you are to survive in the post war society. With that in mind, then, perhaps it isn’t such a positive quality that Don has gone to such great lengths to ensure his crew’s survival (again, recall that he forced Norman to murder a man in hopes that this would lead to his crew’s continued survival). In truth, perhaps they, and the world at large, would all be better off if Fury’s whole crew were dead at War’s end. Their nation has turned them into very effective killing machines, but there is no guarantee they can ever be turned back into humans when the conflict comes to a close.

So, first and foremost Fury identifies our American “heroes” as perhaps somewhat less than what we have made them out to be. They aren’t quite John Wayne in a White Cowboy hat tramping through the hedgerows of France, and punching Nazi’s in the mouth like Captain America. This is something that I’ve often wanted from my war films, televisions shows, and documentaries. I dislike how everything seems to demonize the enemy without ever taking an objective look at the overall picture of all involved combatants. However, Fury seems to go too far and venture into the grotesque. Their characters become less believable and more like caricatures with every passing atrocity. Perhaps the film’s creators felt this was necessary to “shock” the wider audience into a realization and prevent them from rationalizing the actions of their anti-heroes, but I for one am unconvinced that they needed to go this far in demonizing the Americans.

The next step, however, is to address our German Black Hatters. The film’s climax comes when Fury, all alone, breaks down along a road behind enemy lines. To make matters worse, Norman discovers that an entire SS Battalion (important because the SS are traditionally considered the baddest of the bad in war films, and indeed they did commit countless atrocities during the war) is on the march on the very road where they find themselves becalmed. Soon the battalion will come upon Fury and her crew if they do not flee. The entire crew decides to stand and fight, giving us some of that old American bravado and a taste of that super soldier that we want to root for in our war films. They all decide they can’t surrender or run away, and that they will instead “take as many of those bastards to the grave with them” as possible. And here the movie does give us a bit of that absurd American super soldier.

Yyyyyooooo Joe!!!

Yyyyyooooo Joe!!!

The entire Battalion is held up all night and morning fighting one tank and 5 crewmen. The Americans kill scores of SS (the elite infantry of the German War Machine) when in reality the Germans could easily have sidestepped the tank, dropped one grenade down the hatch, and killed everyone inside without taking a single casualty… because… y’know… America, Fuck Yeah.

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Moreover, even if the tank crew did end up being made up of Captain America and pals, the Germans would be more likely to have bypassed them entirely, perhaps detaching a small squadron to deal with them, than ever hold up a march to the front lines where, during the closing months of the war, German reinforcements were desperately needed. But whatever. Fuck history and logic, right? This is Hollywood, and we need some ‘splosions!!!

So anyway, our resident cohort of teenage mutant ninja turtles holds off an entire battalion of SS until morning and through the course of the night, all the Americans but Norman are killed (having been told by Don to use the escape hatch under the tank). Now, Don had previously begged Norman not to surrender no matter what, assuming the Germans would torture and kill him anyway (assuming the worst of the enemy) and not wanting a good American soldier (like he believes he has turned Norman into) to disgrace himself with the shame of surrender. However, Norman drops out of the tank, attempts to bury himself in dirt, play dead, and hide, but fails to remain unseen. A young German soldier peers under the tank and Norman puts his hands up in surrender. The German, however, does not even take Norman captive. He simply smiles, lets him live, and moves on with the rest of his battalion. By doing so the young German shows the audience that, yet again, perhaps the Americans were the monsters all along. They chose to stay back to kill dozens of Germans, while this one, good German solider simply moves on once the Americans stop harassing his comrades. So we have our traditional Black Hatters turned into merciful, sensible, good guys. Again reversing the dichotomy of the old Western and War movies.

The larger message here, then, is that perhaps we are all just human, and to demonize the enemy only does more harm to all involved parties. I had plenty of other little problems with the film, but in the end I think the real legacy of Fury will be its attempt not only to humanize the enemy (as movies such as Letters From Iwo Jima did for the Japanese) but also to demonize Americans. Now, in spite of what I said, I don’t believe it ever paints the Americans as wholly evil. Rather it explains that they have been made the way they are by the horrors of war. They are simply victims of the same war as everyone else. I think it would be foolish to think someone could go through events like the Second World War and not become a changed person in some degree or at some point, and from this point of view I agree with the directors. However, I still think they went a bit overboard demonizing the Americans.

Where the film really let me down, however, is in the overly monetized aspects of the film. By this I mean they dolled things up to make the movie look like a more standard action film to ensure that they could sell tickets, DVDs and popcorn, and make some damn money (because that is the whole point here right?). As mentioned, the final battle scene falls prey to the old narrative of Americans as super soldiers and their opponents and bumbling idiots capable only of dying by the hundred in front of a scant few american GI Joe action figures a la Leonidas and his 300 before the mighty armies of King Darius.

This somewhat undermines the primary message of the film by creating the same old American action heroes we are used to. However, in the end one could view this final scene as a re-baptism of sorts. A rebirth for the Fury crew, wherein they are finally redeemed and saved from their monstrous nature by fighting to the death for one another. I just find it sad that their overall message which, although clumsily done, is a good one (Not all Americans were heroes, and not all Germans were villains, and perhaps everyone was just human. Acting the way Humans do in a time of crisis.) was cheapened to sell out for an overblown action sequence. Moreover, I found it frustrating to see a preview for a film (produced by none other than Brad’s wife Angelina Jolie) set in a Japanese POW camp where the Japanese, instead of Germans, are yet again being painted has monsters without hope for redemption. It makes me think that the greater narrative of the Western style War movie never will die out anyway.

That, however, is simply a complaint for another time. For the time being, I think Fury did manage to do something right, by bringing these issues of haphazardly allocated hero worship back into the discussion in a genre which has denied the issue and painted it in one light for so long. The final line of the film belongs to an American medic who finds Norman cowering underneath the tank after American troops have apparently beaten their German counterparts and advanced to the site of Fury’s last stand. The medic pulls Norman out and tries to talk to him, but Norman, obviously in shock, cannot bring himself to respond. After helping Norman over to an ambulance and just before he closes the door, the medic tells him “Hey, you’re a hero, you know that?” perhaps in hopes of cheering him up and snapping him out of his shock. The audience, however, is now left to contemplate exactly what kind of hero Norman (the coward who survived), his dead comrades (monsters through and through), the Germans they slew (SS soldiers), and the German who let Norman live all are. Who are the real heroes? Who are the real villains? There probably aren’t any. No White Hats. No Black Hats. Just humans, animals at their core, trying their best to survive in the face of adversity. Moreover, the real truth is probably that none of this even matters as much as the narrative that will be sent home to the American public in order to ensure that they continue to support the War until its completion. Heroism, perhaps, is only a matter for newspapers, books, films, and propagandists of all types and eras. Perhaps truth has nothing to say here, and perhaps that’s why Hollywood will never stop making John Wayne movies, and the public will never stop paying to see them.