Saturday, December 20, 2014


In his review of a documentary about famed physicist Stephen Hawking, film critic Stanley Kauffmann addressed the ever-expanding distance between the knowledge of laymen like himself and people like Hawking: "Bernard Shaw says somewhere that there is a law of the conservation of credulity. At one time, people believed that a million angels could dance on the head of a pin. We scoff at them, yet we believe that the Sun is 93 million miles from the Earth. Most of us have as much reason of our own to believe one proposition as the other: We take the word of experts."(1)

Here is what Shaw said:

"I have pointed out on a former occasion that there is just as much evidence for a law of the Conservation of Credulity as of the Conservation of Energy.  When we refuse to believe in the miracles of religion for no better reason fundamentally than that we are no longer in the humor for them we refill our minds with the miracles of science, most of which the authors of the Bible would have refused to believe.  The humans who have lost their simple childish faith in a flat earth and in Joshua's feat of stopping the sun until he had finished his battle with the Amalekites, find no difficulty in swallowing an expanding boomerang universe."(2)

The intellect of Stephen Hawking is dauntingly bigger than the average person's, but I think that Kauffmann was being coy. He was perfectly capable of understanding the fact of the distance from the Earth to the Sun from an explanation of how hundreds of years of observation allowed us to measure the distance. If the Greek mathematician Eratosthenes was able to look down a well and extrapolate from the reflection in the water a remarkably exact measure of the circumference of the earth, then certainly Eratosthenes's method can be repeated and his findings confirmed. The same certainly cannot be said of belief in divine beings and miraculous events.(3)

But Kauffmann's point brings up a much broader issue. To what extent should we take the word of experts, and to what extent is this a kind of cop out? In another article from The New Republic, art critic Jed Perl wrote:

"I don't know enough. When a discussion about classical music demands even a rudimentary understanding of music theory, I am lost. And I lack the skills necessary to follow even a moderately demanding newspaper or magazine account of developments in science . . . I wish this were otherwise. I doubt there is much I can do about it. But there is one thing that consoles me. I know there are people who know about these things - who can speak about classical music in technical terms who can make judgements about the latest developments in microbiology or astrophysics . . . And I do not need to understand exactly what they are saying or thinking to know that it matters."

Perl goes on to criticize the current condition of the media, which seems to cater and contribute to the general shallowness of contemporary culture. "When did people become so unwilling to get in a little over their heads?" he asks. And he concludes that "It is always good to be reminded that I don't know enough." But isn't it also frustrating and disappointing? 

It was said of Leonardo da Vinci that he came closer than any other human being to knowing almost everything that his age had to know. Obviously, to Leonardo da Vinci, knowing everything - or as much as it was possible to know in the 16th century - was paramount. In 2014, such comprehensive knowledge is no longer within reach for a single human being. Our greatest polyglots can only glimpse the totality of the knowledge of our age. And yet this should neither trouble nor surprise us. There are people who are experts in their various fields whom we can consult when there is something we need to know about physics or music or mathematics or history. But, unlike religious mystics or mullahs or bishops, we don't have to simply take our experts' word for it. 

What Bernard Shaw said was placed comfortably into the mouth of a fictional character. Ordinary people can't be expected to understand the most complex theories of advanced physics, but they can understand it, if they wished, by educating themselves. It is quite true that "we take the word of experts" when it comes to knowledge as refined as Hawking's, but the fact that the "experts" became so knowledgeable from years of concentrated study in their fields demonstrates to us laymen that such knowledge as they possess is quantifiable and attainable. People wanting answers to the Big Questions never get the answers they wanted from science because it either simply can't answer them or wasn't designed to do so. Many people, though not nearly the majority that one might expect, now reject such religious notions as angels, without necessarily rejecting notions of the divine. But we no longer have to take the word of experts. If the distance from earth to the sun is 93 million miles (which really isn't very far), all one has to do to verify it is read about how people - not all of them astronomers (4) - arrived at that figure.

(1) "State of Mind," The New Republic, 28 September 1992.
(2) George Bernard Shaw, "The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles: A Vision of Judgment."
(3) Eratosthenes was also said to have measured the distance of the earth to the sun.

(4) In 1769, while in Tahiti, Captain James Cook saw the planet Venus cross the face of the sun through a telescope (see photo).

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Dive In

This past week or so, when yet another monstrous typhoon, Hagupit (aka Ruby) - not quite as powerful as Haiyan (aka Yolanda) of late last year - came ashore very near where I live here in the Visayas Region of the Philippines, killing a number of people and threatening to kill everyone else, I realized that living in this country is rather like an old joke that I know. The joke goes something like this (and I've added some embellishments of my own):

A young man dies suddenly of a massive coronary, and before he knows what has happened he finds himself at the entrance to Hell where he is greeted by none other than Sam Kinison. Kinison tells him, "It is my unfortunate duty to inform you that you are DEAD!!! and that you're in HELL!!!"  

Frightened, the young man cries out, "Oh my God! What did I do?" Kinison answers, "It doesn't matter. But, cheer up, there's more than one hell to choose from!" And he shows the young man three versions of hell. 

He looks through a window at Hell Version 101. It's the old vision of hell from the painting by Hieronymus Bosch, with everything burning in eternal flames and people roasting on spits. Then he looks through a second window at Hell Version 2.0. It's even worse than the old hell, with people being perpetually pursued by terrifying creatures that are always trying to devour them.

When the young man looks through the third window, all he sees are laughing naked people with full wine glasses in their hands up to their waists in liquid excrement. This is Hell Version 3.2.1 and the young man tells Kinison that he chooses this one. With a flash, the young man is naked, standing up to his waist in liquid excrement. But there's an enternally full glass of wine in his hand and he's just starting to get used to the stink, joining in the general conviviality, when a booming voice is heard, saying: 


Monday, December 8, 2014

A Rock and a Hard Place

Chris Rock is a very successful black comedian. He's hosted some of the biggest award shows, like the Oscars. Bob Hope and Johnny Carson used to host the Oscars. Chris Rock may not be the equal of either of them, but he has something that neither Hope nor Carson had - quasi-seriousness. "Quasi" because no matter how serious Rock tries to be, his comedic credentials both prevent and protect him from being wholly serious or being taken quite seriously.

He's a funny guy. Get him on the subject of race and he can be bitingly funny - as funny, in his own way, as Richard Pryor. But there was an edge to Pryor's humor that Rock's lacks. Pryor made us laugh at things like race without trivializing them or diminishing their force in people's lives. He contributed something to the discussion of race by pointing out its rock-bottom absurdities. He made us laugh at racism and softened its blows. His target was racism itself.

Chris Rock targets racists, not racism. He makes us laugh at one another, not at what afflicts us. Some of what he says is controversial, but he is immune from prosecution because, no matter how closely he comes to seriousness, he's a comedian. Pryor was a satirist.

People who are interested in Rock's opinions about race get plenty to contemplate from him. But he can be terribly glib at times. When the DNC was on the verge of nominating either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton as their presidential candidate in 2008, he remarked on SNL that Obama was preferable to Hillary because black men have suffered more than women throughout history. (I presume that he includes black women in his calculation.) The history of man's inhumanity to man has had only one constant: man's inhumanity to woman. The suffering of black men is a brief episode in comparison. Pointing this out to Rock would probably be pointless.

Not to be countermanded, Rock had something to say recently about the police killings of blacks and the failure of the justice system to bring charges against their killers. "When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress," he told Time Magazine's Frank Rich, "it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before."

Wow. There are no race relations? Really? What about Rock's humor, which has a lot to do with race? Can't white people relate to it, or are they closed off from ever really getting it by the color - or lack thereof - of their skin? Is there no humanity common to everyone, or is humanity (like the humanity that it took to create the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, to end slavery in America) forever limited by race? Would Martin Luther King have agreed with Rock? Many of King's most effective tactics in fighting against racism were borrowed from Gandhi. Would Gandhi have agreed with Rock's remarks? If there are no race relations, then what are all the white protesters across America doing in the streets?

I get Rock's point that it's white people who have had to progress over the centuries, not blacks. It was whites who had to get used to the idea that blacks were their equals before progress could be made. But didn't Chris Rock once point out something else to us? In a concert of more than a decade ago, he made these controversial remarks:

"Who is more racist - white people or black people? Black people! Because black people hate black people, too!" 

Certainly the self-image of black people has improved since the times when they were deemed sub-human or second-class citizens? Wouldn't this account for the black self-hatred we encounter in Rock's performances?

Or was Chris Rock just trying to be funny?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

One Trick Python

About a decade ago, when I loaded my DVD player with the Criterion edition of Marcel Carne's classic film The Children of Paradise, I was surprised to see that it was introduced by Terry Gilliam. I know Gilliam's work well, ever since Monty Python, but I wondered what on earth Criterion thought would qualify him to introduce a French film from 1945. The introduction itself is innocuous enough (only five minutes long), and at least Gilliam doesn't try to misrepresent the film. But then it hit me. Gilliam spoke about how the film is "poetic" and "like a dream" and how it depicts a world that never existed and how that kind of filmmaking is banished from today's cinemas. "Watching it," he says, "I'm amazed at how much I've stolen from it." Gilliam was chosen, apparently, because he makes the same kind of film of which The Children of Paradise is an optimum example.

Gilliam is what I would call a "one hit wonder." In the music industry, the term refers to a band or a singer that enjoys one unprecedented commercial success, only to sink back into obscurity for the remainder of their career. Gilliam has, in fact, enjoyed intermittent success throughout his forty year career as a filmmaker, but he has always seemed to me to be making the same film over and over again.

He was "the American" member of Monty Python's Flying Circus, contributing small, intermittently funny, animated films to their shows on the BBC. When the show went off the air in 1977, Gilliam persuaded Michael Palin to play the lead in his first feature film, Jabberwocky, which, like Monty Python and the Holy Grail (which he co-directed with Terry Jones) presented a refreshingly inconoclastic view of medieval England, along with an insistent fascination with scatology. In one scene, Dennis (Palin) woos Griselda whilst his prospective father-in-law is defecating loudly into the river from a nearby window. If Gilliam's intention was to show the dirty, smelly underside of our fantasies of Camelot, he succeeded to a fault.

But the film that really got Gilliam going was Time Bandits, about a boy whose overactive imagination launches him into real adventures with historical figures like Napoleon (Ian Holm) and Agamemnon (Sean Connery), accompanied by a band of annoying dwarves. For some reason, dwarves appear again and again in Gilliam's films, along with an overriding theme: that dreams and fantasies are more real and more important and that altered states of consciousness are more conducive to living happily and healthily than living soberly and sensibly in the factual universe.

This is certainly a valid jumping off point for an artist - as long as his fantasies have a beauty and logic all their own. For example, H.G. Wells wrote a beautiful story called "The Door in the Wall," about a man who confesses to an old friend that he is haunted by an experience from his childhood in which he got lost in the streets of London and went through a green door in a white wall. Once inside, he found himself in a fantastical garden, with tame leopards and a beautiful woman who sat him down and showed him the pages of a book that were alive and that told the story of his finding the door in the wall and what he found inside. But when he insisted that the woman show him the last page he suddenly found himself back outside on the street. All through the rest of his life, he tries to find that white wall and green door. And he catches sight of it at various moments, but he never stops to explore it further, and regrets it all his life.(1)

Gilliam seems to have found his door in the wall and has taken up residence there. He has set himself up as The Doorman in the Wall. But the manner in which Gilliam chooses to show us his private garden with its babbling madmen, smart ass dwarfs and animatronic monsters is feeble and - by now - grown hopelessly repetitive. Brazil, 12 Monkeys, The Fisher King, The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen, all put forward the very same thesis and are all wheezily representative of Gilliam's penchant for repeating himself. Worse, most of them are contaminated by his bizarre obsessions with little people and lunatics.

I thought that Brazil, which so many have called "Orwellian," was fumbling in conception and execution. The famous story of the producer's reluctance to release the film and Gilliam taking out a full-page ad in Variety exhorting him to release it is justly famous and just another sad illustration of filmmakers' subjection to the whims of the "suits."

I found The Fisher King insufferable, with characters either contemptible or pitiable. I would've walked out on it if I hadn't been in the theater with friends. Jeff Bridges' character was such an asshole that his redemption was an altogether moot problem for me. And casting Robin Williams as someone unhinged was simply asking for trouble. Gilliam's "message" - that we all need to question our standards of sanity and commit acts of misbehavior, like going nude in Central Park (at night, of course) - is simply preposterous.

12 Monkeys was supposedly inspired by Chris Marker's short sci-fi film Ja Jetee. If Marker's film, made up entirely of still photos, was bad enough, Gilliam's extension of its ideas seemed immeasurably worse. Trying to blur the lines between sanity and insanity - even in the context of a work of art (which 12 Monkeys assuredly is not) is an enormous mistake. Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest played the same stupid card - that our looney bins are populated with the wrong people. Playing with the concept of an unreliable narrator is fine if you're Kazuo Ishiguro or Ian McEwan. This was the same problem with so much of Brazil - trying to figure out what is real and what is delusional fantasy. And when you can't decide who is crazy and who is sane, you end up thinking that no one is entirely in charge of his senses.

On the day I saw The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen, I won a big jackpot in a Reno casino. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. The character Baron Munchhausen was a legendary liar, despite Gilliam's attempt to transform him into a great truth-teller. The significance of the character derives from the curious extent to which people were prepared to believe in his lies. I could say almost as much of Gilliam. 

I didn't see Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, simply because it was one of many films that make it conveniently unnecessary to see. I disliked it in advance.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was the last film of Heath Ledger, who died before all his scenes were finished shooting. Ledger's death left Gilliam's film in limbo, but with so much money and time already expended on the project, Gilliam decided to finish it with other actors standing in for Ledger, as a kind of tribute to him. Bunuel did kind of the same thing in his last film, That Obscure Object of Desire. When the actress who played Conchita quit, or was otherwise indisposed, Bunuel suggested to his producer that, instead of reshooting the film with another actress (which wasn't feasible), they should simply finish the film with a second actress without explanation. Critics concluded that the surrealist Bunuel was having yet another joke on them.

If Gilliam's Parnassus weren't such a mess - with several different planes of time and place being hopelessly (or purposely) jumbled - his tribute to Ledger would've been endearing. Instead, it comes off as desperate and opportunistic. I'm not sure what role the film's insurers played in the completion of the film, but I think Gilliam should've shelved the project, as he did later when another leading actor was physically unable to continue.     

The Brothers Grimm was, we're told, taken away from Gilliam and finished without his approval. I may sound naive, but artistic control is something that every director should have, and the fact that, even after more than thirty years as a filmmaker, Gilliam isn't afforded approval of the final cut simply demonstrates how much power the money men still wield. While some of the CGI effects in The Brothers Grimm are interesting, the portrayal of the brothers as traveling charlatans ridding people of fake witches and goblins, only to see them confronted with a genuine witch (played by a bewitching Monica Bellucci) is sheer nonsense.

I am probably one of the few people who was glad that Gilliam's production of Don Quixote was brought to an end by the accidental incapacitating injury of Jean Rochefort, the marvelous actor whom Gilliam had cast as the Don. I'm happy that Rochefort's injuries weren't permanent, but I'm also pleased that the project was permanently shelved. Given Gilliam's proclivities, I seriously doubt that his interpretation of Cervantes's picaresque novel would've contributed anything new. The latest news, however, indicates that a new production of Gilliam's script may be in development.(2)

Gilliam, now 74, is still working. I suppose it's a good thing that he hasn't grown so accustomed to the luxe lifestyle of a successful filmmaker that he succumbed to the apparently overwhelming temptation to sell out and direct X-Men or Avengers sequelae. I just wish he would stop insisting that I'd be happier if only I ignored science and spent all my time searching for the secret door that leads me into my own fateful fantasy world.

(1) At the end of Wells's tale, the man who relates the story of the door in the wall falls to his death when he mistakes a door cut in some white hoardings hiding a railway shaft for the entryway to his secret garden.  
(2) Literary scholars and critics have been telling us for decades that we are probably wrong to see the old Don as a romantic or pathetic figure. It is probable that Cervantes wanted us to laugh at his depiction of the delusional misadventures of an old fart.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014


Here on my Philippine island, I live in a solid, cinder block house in an outlying barangay of a nearby port town. On either side of my house stand houses made from more traditional materials - a wood-plank house on one side, raised on rotting wood posts a meter or so off the ground, and a grass, or "nipa," shack on the other. Inside each of these houses, an old person lies, slowly dying - a family matriarch in her eighties in the wooden house, and her sixty-ish son-in-law in the grass shack. The son-in-law was taken ill about a year ago, in the middle of the night. He was rushed to the hospital, where the staff did what they could to stabilize him.(1) Because his diagnosis was a probable stroke, his family was advised to take him to Tacloban, the nearest sizeable city, where a catscan could help doctors give him a proper diagnosis. With no money to pay for such a costly procedure, the family brought the old man home. I saw him walking around the next day, physically unchanged except for the absence of the white ballcap he always wore. He had another attack of the same symptoms (incontinence and disorientation) that day, and the family decided to confine him to a room in the grass shack where he continues, I'm told, to steadily decline into dementia.

His wife, the matriarch's daughter, cares for him the best she can. She has become expert at caring for the dying by caring for her invalid mother in the wooden house. The woman, who has been dying for three years, sustained a powerful electric shock that, I was told, knocked her twenty yards through the air. She developed a kind of palsy after that, evident in an uncontrollable trembling of her head, and fell into a slow decline. For more than a year, the only sign of her presence in the old house is her cries of pain, which have grown perceptibly weaker as the months have gone by.

The cries can happen at any time, in the middle of a quiet night or during the day, and they can be heard as much as fifty yards away. Her cries have become so commonplace that they are almost unnoticeable, like the crows of roosters or the barks of dogs. But when children file past the house on their way to school and they hear her cries, sometimes they imitate them, and laugh. I've even seen grown men mock the sound, smiling stupidly. Her family is poor, but surely they have enough money that they can afford to buy generic painkillers for their matriarch.

I saw the recent film 12 Years a Slave a few weeks ago. There is a powerful scene in the film in which the protagonist Solomon Northrup is on the verge of being lynched by three men when they are stopped by a caretaker who works for the owner of the plantation. The three men leave, but instead of untying Solomon's hands and taking the noose from around his neck, he is left dangling precariously, just close enough to the ground to stand on his tiptoes. And he is left there for several minutes while someone fetches the master. Dangling there, half choking, while he struggles to keep his toes on the ground, other slaves emerge from their cabins and begin to go about their work. After a dissolve, children are shown playing. The scene attests to the amount of cruelty that the slaves must have witnessed all their lives, that they can go on with their lives as if it were commonplace for there to be a man close by, slowly strangling at the end of a rope. The scene ends when the master arrives by horse and immediately cuts Solomon down.

I think of that scene every time I hear the old woman next door crying out in pain, and witness the members of her family stroll by her house without paying the slightest attention to her. What suffering and cruelty must these people have known, and grown callous to, during the course of their lives that the cries of an old woman in pain would not inspire them to do something - anything - to make them stop?

(1) I feel compelled to say something about the disastrous healthcare system in the Philippines. By law, as in the U.S., a hospital cannot refuse treatment of a patient if they don't have the money to pay for it. But I've heard of cases, and seen surveillance camera footage, in which security guards have thrown patients and their families out of emergency rooms when their inability to pay becomes evident. In a country where a third of the population lives on $2 a day, a tiny minority have health insurance. The rest have to pay in cash, which they manage to do only by pooling the resources of the entire family. When a patient has to be "confined" (admitted) to a hospital ward, a family member has to stay with them in order to fetch food if and when they need to eat (hospitals don't serve meals), and to accept "receipts" from the nurse for the many charges that the patient's treatment incurs. Meanwhile, the rest of the family scrambles to raise enough money to pay the hospital bill. If, when the patient is ready to be discharged, the family cannot pay the bill in full, the hospital's rules oblige them to keep the patient until they are paid. If the patient dies and the family cannot pay, the patient's corpse is held in the hospital morgue.