Hawking Up Hairballs

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Two Wonderful Performances

Acting on stage is a much different than acting in film. Since one must project to the audience, it's all about voice and big gestures on the stage. In film, though voice and delivery of lines are important, I believe that it's the small gestures and facial expressions that distinguish the great actors. It is through the changes in these gestures and expressions that one reads the thoughts that are going through the character's mind. Unfortunately, most of the actors that are inflicted upon us are one-dimensional. An expression is set and it remains the same until the moment has passed. Thank goodness, there are some truly acccomplished actors and, thanks to my Netflix subscription, I've recently enjoyed two wonderful performances.

The first was by Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves. I doubt that I would ever have seen the movie without Netflix. They have this system where you rate the movies that you have watched. They match your ratings with those of other members and suggest movies that you might like. Breaking the Waves was one of them. At first I didn't think that I would like it. It was completely shot with handheld cameras and ambient light. That was initially distracting but, after the first ten minutes or so, I got used to it, and it worked surprisingly well. It's chief virtue was in making the actors look less like beautiful celebrities and more like ordinary folk.

In Breaking the Waves, Emily Watson plays a woman who comes to believe that God will cure her paralyzed and dying husband if she sleeps with other men. Watson is wonderful in the lead. She has beautiful eyes and she uses them well, communicating so many subtle emotions with facial gestures. One scene particularly impressed me. Watson has just gotten married. She's in the restroom with her husband at the marriage party. She's never had a man, and she insists that her husband take her right there. A number of different expressions come over her face as he does so and, though she doesn't say so, you can read a multitude of thoughts and emotions on her faces. I wanted to get up off of the couch and clap, but one of my cats was sleeping in my lap. Can't disturb the cat when it's sleeping.

Watson has said that it was a difficult role because the character was something of a clown and a saint at the same time, but Watson proved herself up to the task, and that's the point of the movie. Here's this simple soul, who is more than a little mad, who becomes a whore to save her husband's life and, at the the end of the movie, you realize that she just might be something of a saint. It's the best film that I've watched since City of God.

The second performance that impressed me was by Scarlett Johansson in The Girl With The Pearl Earring. This film is based upon the novel by Tracy Chevalier, which is a story about how the eponymous painting by Vermeer might have come about. Johansson is just wonderful in the movie. I know, adjectives like "wonderful" aren't very descriptive, but it's hard not to enthuse in discussing Johansson's performance. She becomes the character right down to the smallest detail, and she uses her facial expressions to such wonderful effect. Colin Firth plays opposite her as Vermeer, the prototypical brooding artist, and that's how he understands his character. There are no nuances to his performance at all, and he comes off looking bad in his scenes with Johansson. There are many moments where they exchange these lingering looks. Whenever they do so, Firth's face remains set in the same expression while Johansson's runs through three or four subtle changes. You can virtually read what's going on in her character's mind. It's unfortunate that the movie isn't better, but it's good enough and worth watching just to see Johansson's performance.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Adios, Billmon

Billmon is gone for good. He will apparently blog no more, so I'm removing his link.

The God Delusion

Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion left me with mixed feelings. He makes some great points, but he can be awfully smug at times and his reasoning is sloppy in places. That said though, it's a worthwhile read.

The first thing to realize is that, when Dawkins' espouses atheism, he is not denying that there is a spiritual dimension to life. That's an important point, and one that believers often overlook or refuse to accept. In the beginning of The God Delusion, Dawkins makes this clear and, when he denies the existence of a God, he's referring to the personal God that intervenes in the world, the sort of God envisioned in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. He doesn't even believe that Buddhism is a religion. He thinks that it is a code of behavior. To his mind, pantheism is "sex-up" atheism, and deism is atheism for those who are not willing to take that last step and abandon God. I have no quarrel with any of this. It makes eminent good sense to me.

I also have to agree with Dawkins when he wonders about why we tend to give religious beliefs such respect. People are perfectly willing to argue and debate the most sensitive of political topics, but a person's religious beliefs are considered out of bounds, even when they are utterly ridiculous. Come on, why are Christians given a pass when they claim that Jesus rose after three days in the grave? That is such utter nonsense, and there is no evidence for it whatsoever. Not only that, the whole notion of accepting things on faith is ridiculous. Here's an example inllustrating the point. Suppose I believed that we are living in an elaborate simulation being run on some supercomputer. The big bang was the moment that the program was started. Evolution is just a reflection of the genetic algorithms that underlie the computer's program. Let's say that I even agree that Christ rose after three days in the grave, but I claim that the reason for that was that the programmers didn't like the way the simulation was going so they intervened. Now suppose I clung to this belief with great fervency, and suppose that I was positively evangelical about spreading my opinions. The fact is that most people would consider me deluded and in need of psychiatric treatment. However, if I held Christian beliefs with equal fervency, there would be no problem, even though there is no more evidence for those beliefs.

One of the most important points that Dawkins makes is that religion is not necessary for morality. Nietzsche said that God is dead so all things are permitted. That's true in a strictly logical sense, and it drives some to hysteria. If people didn't have religion they would rob, rape and kill. The result would be total chaos. Dawkins makes a couple of good points here. In the first place, the evidence is that atheists are no more or less moral than believers. The human race evolved to live in small groupings of a hundred or so. A person who was born into such a community could expect to know and live with those same people for the rest of his life. He couldn't afford to get into their bad graces. A golden-rule ethic naturally evolved. Those who did not live by it would be shunned or even killed.

Nietzsche's comment still needs to be addressed though. When he said that all things are permitted, he didn't mean that they were permitted in fact, but only in the strictly logical sense. The deeper meaning of that statement is that there is no God who can put his imprimatur on our code of behavior. We, as a human community, have to accept full and complete responsibility for our behavior. God, or the Devil, or the Bible told me to do it is not acceptable.

Dawkins makes many other good points that I won't go into. However, there's one thing I'd never thought of. At one point, he wonders why monotheism is preferable to polytheism. In Western cultures, it's simply accepted as fact. The more advanced societies believe in the existence of only one God. The question becomes, why? Polytheism certainly seems to come to us more naturally. Catholicism, which is perhaps the most dominant Christian sect, embraces a de facto polytheism with its devotions to the Virgin Mary and various saints. So why the monotheism? The answer isn't simple and I won't go into it here, but it's something to think about.

One of the big weaknesses of Dawkins' book is his failure to understand the historical, political and sociological dimensions of belief systems. It is his contention that religions have been responsible for most of the great cruelties of the past. There were the Crusades, the Inquisition, Joshua's slaughter of the native inhabitants of Israel, and Islam's depredations during the Middle Ages. Absent religion, Dawkins doesn't believe that these things would have happened. I think that's naive. Political leaders often exploit religion to garner popular support for bloodthirsty projects, and religion should be held culpable for that, but it's naive to think that these projects would disappear if there were no religion. Ambitious political leaders would simply encourage other secular belief systems as Hitler did in Germany and Stalin in Russia. Those two examples pose a problem for Dawkins and he attempts to explain it away by claiming that Hitler and Stalin were actually believers. His arguments don't wash.

Dawkins can also be sloppy when it comes to the philosophical. In my opinion, he bungles his explanations of the flaws in the arguments for the existence of God. Take the ontological argument. In essence, it says that if God is the perfect being, then he must exist because it is more perfect to exist than not to exist. Dawkins says that the flaw in the argument is that there's no reason to believe that it's more perfect to exist, than not to exist. That's off the mark and, if you accept Dawkins' argument, you'll just get caught up in all kinds of word play. The flaw lies in the very conception of existence. As the logicians would say, existence isn't a predicate. In less technical terms, existence isn't a description. You can say that according to your understanding of God, he is all-knowing and all-powerful. Those are descriptions of your God. Existence isn't such a description. It's an assertion and it neither adds to nor subtracts from the concept.

Dawkins can also be smug, and it is irritating. For example, he makes a lot of use of his notion of the meme, and when someone holds a belief that he disagrees with, he often refers to them as infected with the meme. However, he never uses such pejorative terms when referring to beliefs with which he agrees. It is only those who disagree with him who are infected. This smugness doesn't just extend to his criticism of religion. He is also dismissive of those who don't accept his opinion on other scientific matters, like the multiverse and anthropic priniciple of physics. Those two concepts are not universally accepted among physicists and many regard them as nonsense, but Dawkins seems to be of the opinion that only the benighted could disagree.

There is one very controversial statement that Dawkins makes that I wholeheartedly agree with. He says that it is tantamount to abuse to raise a child in a religion. I was brought up as a strict Catholic and, after that experience, I couldn't agree more. I'm not talking about bringing up children with an awareness of religion. Parents could tell their children something like the following. This is what we believe, and here's why. They could go on to explain, but tell the child that he should use his own mind and decide for himself. That's not what Dawkins means about bringing up a child in religion. He is referring to something more like what I went through, where you were required to adopt the religion of your parents, required to participate in services, and required to receive indoctrination into the religion. When it comes to that, I endorse Dawkins' position. It is tantamount to abuse.

Dawkins has come under a lot of criticism, from the expected sources, of course, but also from publications like The New York Review of Books. In the January 11 issue, H. Allen Orr slams the book. Some of the criticisms are deserved, but what really irks Orr is that Dawkins refuses to take religion seriously. Here are a few of his comments. "The most disappointing feature of The God Delusion is Dawkins's failure to engage religious thought in any serious way....You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins's book...no attempt to follow the philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions..." My response to that is, so what? If one is denying the existence of God, what else is there to discuss? All of those sophisticated theological arguments and speculations are only so much nonsense. Orr seems to believe that there are rational reasons to believe. Bullshit. Faith is a variety of superstition and I challenge anyone to show me any significant difference between the two.

Dawkins' book may not be the best one on the subject of atheism versus theism. I've read that Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism is better, and I intend to check it out, but I do think that Dawkins' book is worth the read.

Thursday, January 04, 2007


It looks like Billmon has stopped blogging and closed down his web site. I will miss him. I am not aware of another blogger who more closely mirrored my own opinions on things political. Hoping against hope, I'll leave the link to his site up for a while. Here's a link to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer that speculates on the demise of the site. Billmon article

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


I was watching a movie the other night in which one of the characters said something like this, "You and I are alike. We're both survivors." That made me grit my teeth. Why in the hell should one be proud of being a survivor? There's nothing admirable about that. Survival is a virtue to two kinds of people, slaves and prisoners. Those who live their own lives on their own terms attempt to prevail. Sometimes they fail but, when they do, they pick themselves and try again. Mere survival has nothing to do with it. Mere survival is a life that isn't worth living.

Speaking of survival, I would like to recommend 2182 kHz by David Masiel. It is one helluva a sea tale. The protagonist, Henry Seine, works on the ocean-going tugs that move barges around for the oil companies in Alaska. Those who work up there are rugged and violent people, but the hard life of the tug crewman is the only life they know. However, about halfway through the novel, the oil company closes down the camp that Seine and his fellows have been servicing, so they are faced with the prospect of going south to Seattle and taking positions as ordinary merchant seamen. It's a prospect that none of them are looking forward to, but then Seine hears a distress call on the wavelength reserved for that purpose. He reports it to the Coast Guard, but they can't pick it up, so Seine and a handful of co-workers decided to take a tug and an ice-breaking barge up into the Arctic Circle to rescue the stranded research scientist who made the call.

Some of the characters survive this rescue attempt, and others don't, but 2182 kHz isn't about survival. It's about redemption. Every one of the characters have much to regret. Seine himself was responsible for seriously injuring a man when a practical joke went wrong, and the guilt of it nags at him. Others have worse that they are trying to live down, and all are trying to expunge their guilt by embarking onto the journey into the Arctic Circle. In that sense, the North of Masiel's novel is a purgatory, and he does a wonderful job of rendering it. He apparently worked as a merchant seaman for ten years and it shows. He seems to get the details right.

I've been working up a review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, but I'm having trouble with it. Hopefully I'll finish and post it soon.