Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Tale of Two Movies

I recently watched two movies in close succession, The Life Before Her Eyes, and Forgiving the Franklins. Both had religious and afterlife overtones, but one was disappointing and the other was not.

The Life Before Her Eyes started out as a great secular drama, and then took a left turn into spookytown. SPOILER ALERT. I can’t talk about this film without ruining the “surprise” ending. Since for me, the “surprise” ending ruined the film, I think this is only fair.

Uma Thurman does a brilliant job playing Diana McFee, a woman who is tormented by a moment in her past. She has survived a Columbine-like school massacre 15 years in the past, but her best friend Maureen did not. As the movie switches us back and forth from present to past, we see the relationship develop between two improbable friends. One is a “good girl”, and the other, Thurman’s younger self, is one of those classic, wild, rule-breaking “troubled” teens. We are also given glimpses, a-la-Catch 22, of a repeating and slowly unfolding fatal moment. The girls happen to be alone in the Woman’s Room when the shooting rampage takes place. The shooter bursts in. The girls predictably ask not to be killed, and the killer presents them with a moral dilemma. He informs them that he will only shoot one of them, but they must decide which one it is to be. The tension mounts as the scene develops. We are given ample opportunity to conjecture on just what went down that this woman blames herself for. We wonder when or if she will come out the other side. I wanted her to find peace, and stop blaming herself for being a kid put in an impossible situation by a maniac, whose fault the outcome truly is. Instead, the author takes us to spookytown. It seems that what we have been watching this whole time is an unsatisfying fantasy of what Thurman’s life would have been had she not decided to take several bullets for her sweet innocent friend.

Suddenly, what we have here is a Redemption Story. Diana, we are told, “deserves” life less than her goody-two-shoes friend, and this is her one chance to do something noble. This is apparent because Diana has had premarital teen sex, a serious no-no in teen flicks, and also an abortion as a result. These themes are introduced late in the film, so we are not supposed to feel sympathetic toward this character. Diana’s daughter is in fact, a name on one of those anti-abortion demonstration crosses on the parochial school lawn. The biggest problem of course, is this act of grand nobility coming out of a school shooting spree. To understand what’s so very wrong with this, read Wonder Bread, a review by Melvin Jules Bukiet of a similarly-themed stories that he labels “Brooklyn Books of Wonder” (BBoWs).

From the end of his essay:

Coddled and cosseted, they’re the first generation of novelists who grew up reading the young-adult pap that they’ve now regurgitated with a deconstructive gloss learned in college. Of course, such aspirations require equivalently high subject matter. Hence the BBoWs’s mock encounter with enormity. Still, they have no teeth. They’re sheep in wolves’ clothing who manage to write about bad things and make you feel good.

So what’s so terribly wrong with all this? BBoWs are benign and smart and claim important antecedents (Krauss’s pantheon, Auster’s nods to Borges and Calvino, Foer’s echoes of Günter Grass before the latter’s recent . . . um . . . awkwardness), and some are stunning prose stylists (Eggers and Chabon and Krauss) who clearly have literary talent to spare. That’s precisely why their books are more insidious than simpler genre novels wherein people manage to triumph over trauma.

In fact, trauma’s never overcome. That’s what defines it. Your father is dead, or your mother, and so are most of the Jews of Europe, and the World Trade Center’s gone, and racism prevails, and sex murders occur. What is, is. The real is the true, and anything that suggests otherwise, no matter how artfully constructed, is a violation of human experience.”

I can’t say it any better, “a violation of human experience.” There is no nobility or redemption to be found in a school shooting. It’s a senseless act of madness. I was so looking forward to a Joseph Heller ending, seeing as how they so boldly lifted one of his literary techniques.

Forgiving the Franklins, on the other hand, starts out in a very religious small town, and almost immediately jumps into spookytown. The Franklins, with the exception of one daughter, are exempted from Original Sin while in a coma. The rest of the action follows, and raises interesting questions about modern Christian beliefs. I will not spoil this movie. Go rent it, or see it if you haven’t. I think you’ll agree that the movie uses symbolism and belief as a vehicle for exploration in a manner that makes it an excellent story and a solid literary effort, even if you don’t agree with the message.

Graphic from

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Magical Thinking

In response to vjack’s post, “Promoting Reason and Critical Thinking” over at Atheist Revolution, I thought I would give it a shot. What better way than to talk about the opposite? Magical thinking is what makes religion the opiate of the masses. It is the core of misdirection and the black heart of those empty promises of wish-fulfillment that gives the pathological lies of religion such broad appeal. Magical thinking is strenuously promoted by a wide variety of self-interested parties because it makes people easier to control and manipulate. Magical thinking can be used to create mental shortcuts, broad and faulty associations, and stimulus-response triggers in those being manipulated. Among other things, it’s an engine of prejudice.

From Wikipedia:

“According to Frazer,[1] magical thinking depends on two laws: the law of similarity (an effect resembles its cause), and the law of contagion (things which were once in physical contact maintain a connection even after physical contact has been broken). These two laws govern the operation of what Frazer called "sympathetic magic", the idea that the manipulation of effigies or similar symbols or tokens can cause changes to occur in the thing the symbol represented. Typical examples of sympathetic magic include the use of voodoo dolls, and the fetishization of cargo cults. Others have described these two laws as examples of "analogical reasoning" (rather than logical reasoning). Magical thinking is a common phase in child development. From the age of a toddler to early school age children will often link the outside world with their internal consciousness, e.g. "It is raining because I am sad".”

I think there is something deeper going on. I doubt I’m the first to say this, but the reference is lost in a lifetime of reading. I think magical thinking was actually a survival skill in the early days of human development. Consider the world as it existed in pre-Bronze age civilizations. Lightning is magic. In order for lightning not to be magic, one must have an understanding of electricity, and static electricity, and electrical induction, and weather. One can pick up an electrical charge from rubbing animal fur, but in order to understand its nature requires the use of storage batteries and copper wire, or reasonable facsimile. This is why understanding the nature of lightning had to wait for the 18th Century. The hardware was not available to design the experiment. So what choice does a human mind have in a situation like that? The brain can obsess on its lack of understanding and/or remain bewildered. This state of mind often leads to indecision and immobility. The alternative is to chalk it up to magic, or some action of some anthropomorphized version of natural forces, and move on. As has often been pointed out, this is an explanation that is a non-explanation, but it serves as a frame of reference and allows one to stop thinking about it and act. That said actions might be wholly unproductive or cause the unnecessary sacrifice of virgins is only material in the long run. Short-term, “problem solved!” We still indulge in systems like this today when we use burial rituals to bury the emotional trauma of loss and move on.

Also from Wikipedia:

“Magical thinking is often intensified in mental illnesses such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), clinical depression or schizotypal personality disorder.[citation needed] In each it can take a different form peculiar to the particular illness. In OCD, it is often used in ritual fashion to ameliorate the dread and risk of various dangerous possibilities, regardless of whether it has real effects on the object of fear. It contributes more to peace of mind, in that the person now feels they can engage in a risky activity more safely.

This is not unlike magical thinking in non-afflicted individuals; lucky garments and activities are common in the sports world. It begins to interfere with life when those activities deemed risky are routine and everyday, such as meeting others, using a public toilet, crossing a busy intersection, or eating. It is important to note, however, that not all people with OCD engage in a strict form of magical thinking, as many are fully conscious that the rationalizations with which they justify their obsessions or compulsions to themselves and others are not 'reasonable' in an ordinary sense of that word.

There is a correlation between psychosis and magical thinking. It has been found that those who scored highest on magical thinking showed a predisposition to psychosis (Eckblad & Chapman, 1983). Research has also shown that paranormal beliefs, including magical thinking, are correlated with people experiencing psychosis from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (e.g., Thalbourne and French, 1995).”

So what does this say about the rest of us? The ones who don’t cross the line into mental illness but show these same tendencies? To me, it says we are hard-wired to believe in some confluence between our lives and statistical probability called “luck”. It says there is a built-in short cut in our thinking that takes over in the face of contradictory information, or when we lack sufficient data. It tells me that there is a good reason that ignorance is extolled as a virtue by those that use this built-in system in others for their own financial gain. This is the system, and the social mechanisms in place to exploit it, that one must compete against when advocating rational thinking.