Hawking Up Hairballs

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Grizzly Man

A few weeks ago, I watched Grizzly Man, a prize-winning documentary by the German filmmaker Werner Herzog. It tells the story of Timothy Treadwell, an environmental activist who lived among the grizzlies of Alaska for thirteen summers. Late in that thirteenth summer, he and his girlfriend were killed and eaten by one of the grizzlies.

At the time that I saw the movie, I told a friend of mine that I felt Herzog could make a documentary about almost anything and make it interesting. Since then I have been thinking about that. Just what is it that Herzog did that made Grizzly Man so compelling? Well, for one thing, he’s a great filmmaker and he knows how to make a movie, but there’s more to it than that, for Herzog lets you get to know Treadwell in the same way that you would get to know anyone. He shows you how the man presented himself to the world, then digs deeper and a deeper into who Treadway really was until, by the film’s end, we have a much more complicated understanding of the man.

At the beginning of the documentary, Herzog explains in a voiceover that he gave Treadwell a camera with which to film himself in Alaska. The result was more than 100 hours of footage, and that is the source of the on-site shots in the film. Herzog includes some selections from Treadwell at the beginning of the movie, giving us a picture of an environmentalist with a pretty romantic and unrealistic attitude toward the bears and what they might do.

Many Alaskans, including the native Inuits, thought that Treadwell crossed an invisible line, and that he got too close to the animals. Herzog even interviews one man who said that Treadwell got what he deserved. Herzog films the man standing on the flight line of a small Alaskan airport. The camera angle is the same throughout the interview, showing the man from about the chest up. Throughout he has on a pair of dark sunglasses, so you can’t see his eyes. That was a great touch in my opinion.

As the movie goes on, it becomes apparent that Treadwell was a man who craved celebrity and that, by spending his summers among the grizzlies, he found that celebrity. In one sense, he was exploiting the animals for his own personal satisfaction. He said that he spent his summers among them to draw attention to the killing of the grizzlies and the destruction of their habitats. However, he spent those summers camping out in a national park where the bears were protected. Those particular animals were in no danger.

On the other hand, Treadwell was a very effective fundraiser and a dynamic spokesman for the environmental movement. He was apparently particularly good with kids and, though he died in his mid-forties, the grizzlies might fairly be said to have saved his life. As Treadwell himself acknowledges in the film, before he discovered the bears, he was an alcoholic who lived a life of boozing and brawling. His concern for the animals brought him out of all that. As I said earlier, it’s a more complicated portrait than it first appeared, and Herzog handles like the master that he is.

My favorite Herzog documentary is the one that he did about Klaus Kinski. Talk about wild. It’s a must see. The English title is My Best Fiend. That’s a terrible title. In German it’s Mein liebster Feind. In the first place the German word “feind” doesn’t mean “fiend”. It means “enemy”. The best translation of the title would be My Most Beloved Enemy. That expresses the sort of love-hate relationship portrayed in the documentary.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Against Gravity

Against Gravity by Farnoosh Moshiri is a disappointing novel. It starts out so well. Madison Kirby is living in a rundown garage apartment in Houston, Texas. He is dying of AIDS, and conceives an affection for a neighbor, Roya Saarabi, an Iranian immigrant. Madison wants her to marry him, so that he doesn’t have to live out his last days alone. The trouble is that he’s a madman, who doesn’t know how to form a relationship, and his odd behavior puts Roya off.

Madison is seeing a counselor by the name of Rico Cardinal at a nearby social agency. When Madison observes Rico and Roya eating together at a restaurant, he realizes that they have begun dating, and he interprets this as a betrayal. He resolves to kill Roya in revenge.

The book is roughly divided into three parts, each the story of one of the three main characters. The first story is Madison’s, the second Roya’s, and the third Rico’s. It is the first story that ends with Madison’s homicidal decision. In the second, Roya relates the story of how she escaped from Iran. It’s a dull narrative, one of those that tends to go: this happened, then this happened, then this happened, etc. Yawn.

In Roya’s story we are told that Madison didn’t succeed in killing her. That’s right, we’re told, and from right out of the blue. It isn’t until the end of Rico’s story that a homeless and now utterly insane Madison emerges to accidently kill a secondary character, Bobby Palomo, while trying to revenge himself upon Roya. We are supposed to empathize with this Palomo, but I didn’t. He had befriended Roya’s twelve-year-old daughter, Tala. Unbeknownst to Roya, Palomo has been teaching Tala how to shoot a pistol. He is suicidal and, as it turns out, he intends to trick Tala into killing him because he doesn’t have the courage to do it himself. Fortunately for Tala, she fails and Palomo’s head is only grazed by the bullet. Palomo subsequently disappears, only to return later. He is reconciled with Roya and Tala, and becomes something like a member of the family. It is then, in Rico’s story, that we learn that Palomo is killed when Madison is trying to shoot Roya.

I don’t buy it. If I was in Roya’s shoes, I might forgive Palomo, but I sure as hell wouldn’t welcome him back into my life or that of Tala’s. As a reader, I also felt that Moshiri betrayed my dramatic expectations. When I learned that Madison intended to kill Roya, I was expecting some sort of resolution, but I was denied that. In itself, that was a disappointment but then I learn that Madison tried to kill her after all, but shot Palomo by mistake. That hews close to a deus ex machina.

There’s something else that struck me. The two male characters, Madison and Rico, are the more interesting, and they are much more fleshed out than Roya, though it is Roya whose history most closely approximates that of Moshiri herself. (Approximates, but not all that closely, as Moshiri points out in an interview appended to the book for the paperback edition.) Perhaps Moshiri was too close to the character, but this just serves to further undermine the novel, since Roya is the center about which the novel revolves.

I bought Against Gravity on impulse at Barnes and Noble. It’s the third straight disappointing work of fiction that I have so purchased. I guess it’s about time that I learn my lesson.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Abandoned Books

Once I start a book, I generally read it all the way through to the end, even if I don’t like it. Of late though, I seem to have less patience with the books I choose, and in the last few weeks I’ve abandoned two of them.

The first was The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris. There was much that I agreed with early on in the book, namely his critique of religion. As he says, “...the doctrines of modern religions are no more tenable than those which, for lack of adherents, were cast upon the scrap heap of mythology millennia ago; for there is no more evidence to justify a belief in the literal existence of Yahweh and Satan than there was to keep Zeus perched upon his mountain throne or Poseidon churning up the seas.”

I’m also with Harris one-hundred percent when he maintains that religions are inherently intolerant. He argues that so-called religious moderates are merely those who have made peace with secularism by betraying certain tenets of their faith. As he puts it, “By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally.”

Like Harris, I believe that religious adherents should be treated like Holocaust deniers. Not that they should be jailed like the denier Harris in Austria. That is a violation of free speech, but people of reason should exercise their own right of free speech in attacking the irrational beliefs and pretensions of religionists. The Jews aren’t and never have been God’s chosen people. Jesus Christ was not the son of God and, if he really did die on a cross, it was because he ran afoul of the Jewish and Roman authorities. He died for no one’s sins, except perhaps his own. Likewise, Mohammed was not God’s prophet, nor was Joseph Smith, nor anyone else. All such beliefs are nonsense.

Harris tends to bracket religions as ideological systems, abstracting them from their sociological and historical contexts. As a result, he’s particularly hard on Islam which he sees as an inherently violent and warlike religion. For example, he says that “...the Muslims hate the West in the very terms of their faith and that the Koran mandates such hatred.” He goes on to quote a few more passages supporting his point and maintains that the West has no choice but to intervene in those countries where there is a significant Islamic fundamentalist presence. As he puts it, “Given that even failed states now possess potentially disruptive technology, we can no longer afford to live side by side with malign dictatorships or with the armies of ignorance massing across the oceans...the transition from tyranny to liberalism is unlikely to be accomplished by plebiscite. It seems all but certain that some form of benign dictatorship will generally be necessary to bridge the gap. But benignity is the key - and if it cannot emerge from within a state, it must be imposed from without...While this may seem an exceedingly arrogant doctrine to espouse, it appears we have no alternatives.” Hence, he supports the thrust of US efforts in places like Iraq.

I have to part ways with Harris there. We differ in assigning cause and effect. Harris contends that the Islamic countries of the Middle East are a threat to the rest of the world because of the prevalence of a fundamentalism that espouses jihad. I tend to believe that popularity of jihadism is an effect, not a cause, though it may be self-reinforcing once it reaches a certain level of prominence.

All religions have fundamentalist traditions that preach death to unbelievers. Harris himself quotes a passage from Deuteronomy that mandates the stoning of those who fall away from the belief in God and return to worshiping so-called false idols. The question that needs to be asked is why these fundamentalist sects rise to prominence in certain nations at certain times. The answer is because they suit the historical circumstance. Since the advent of the Crusades, the West has been trying to impose its will upon the Middle East. With the discovery of oil there and the growth of our dependence on it, the need to impose our will on the Middle East has become a real imperative. I can’t think of a country of the Middle East that has not had a government imposed on it by the West. In all too many cases, these governments have been brutal dictatorships that fiercely oppressed their own populations while protecting and advancing the interests of Western governments and big businesses. This has understandably led to outrage and anger among those populations. Islamic fundamentalism has risen to prominence because it gives an ideological framework to their frustrations.

It is not enough to argue against the irrational beliefs that lead young Islamic militants to blow themselves up in crowded, public places, nor can we expect to impose a supposedly benign dictatorship upon their countries until they accept liberal democracy. The disaster in Iraq should be an adequate demonstration of that. No, we also need to relieve the oppression of the people among whom these beliefs find their adherents. That applies to the US as well as to the Middle East. As the more and more good, stable jobs are destroyed in this country and the economic fortunes of American families continue to decline, it just may happen that Christian fundamentalism will grow even stronger here than it already is, though that’s something I hope that I never see.

The other book I abandoned was Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions by Lisa Randall. It was a combination of boredom and irritation that led me to the decision. The boredom came from the very nature of the book. I like to read these popular accounts of physics and its most recent developments. However, this book, like so many others, spends over half of its pages recounting the rise of relativity, quantum theory, the so-called Standard Model, and so on. I don’t know how many times I’ve read about these topics and I don’t need to go through it again. The trouble is that she interspersed just enough new material in those early chapters that I couldn’t just skip them, so I gave up.

Randall is a theoretical physicist and she irritated me as so many physicists do when they write these kinds of books. The trouble with most of them is that they are naive realists. Since they tend to pooh-pooh philosophy and have never read Kant, they think that the human perceptual apparatus is like a movie camera, recording what’s “really” out there with some inevitable distortion here and there. They don’t seem to realize that our perceptual apparatus participates in creating reality. Hence, when quantum mechanics says that you can’t know the position or momentum of a particle until you measure it, and that you fix it when you do measure it, they find it mysterious. The fact is that it makes perfect sense if one realizes that we participate in creating reality, something which is not apparent to us except at the extremes of very small size or very large energies.

Like so many physicists, and mathematicians as well, Randall is also a Platonist. By that I mean that she believes that the mathematical constructs that are required to explain the world have a real existence. For example, physicists now believe that it is necessary to posit spatial dimensions beyond the normal three in order to explain certain subatomic phenomena. These dimensions are rolled up into small spheres so they are not apparent to us, or so say the theorists. I’m afraid that I must disagree. Just because a mathematical model which posits the existence of these dimensions is necessary to explain certain phenomena, doesn’t mean that all of the elements of the model represent things that actually exist. Those extra dimensions are mathematical constructs and nothing more. There is a long philosophical tradition that stands in opposition to Platonism called nominalism, and it’s a nominalist position that I’m holding here. Neither Platonism nor nominalism can be proved to be true, though many prominent philosophers have tried in both cases. However, in the case of modern physics, Platonism leads one to espouse some truly nonsensical ideas like the existence of multiple universes or the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.