Atlas Shrugged: Part 1

I'm about to click on the first half of Atlas Shrugged in Netflix.  I don't know how long I'm going to make it into this movie, from what I've seen in commercials it looks like it's going to be unforgivably preachy.  But I'm also curious. It starts following a train in 2016, so, there's an optimistic view of the future of government oppression -- more public transportation.  We're out of gas and oil, so the trains are apparently a last resort.  But I'm betting the message of this movie isn't going to be "Trains are awesome."  In fact, one ends up derailing, apparently, right at the beginning because the tracks aren't maintained.

I was under the impression that the plot of this movie was supposed to be about government incompetence, but what it looks like is everyone-incompetence.  It's corporations responsible for the poorly maintained railroads.

It looks like the hero of this movie is a woman who proudly doesn't care about people, and the bad guy -- at least, the first bad guy we see -- is an executive who tries to avoid servicing monopolies and puts effort into areas outside his own backyard.  Pointedly, Miss Taggart, the heroic sociopath, is saving the day by going to a metallurgist who faces widespread criticism for his awful metal, who himself throws away appointment requests with people in a position to evaluate his work, on the basis that she studied engineering in college and is therefore qualified to decide that the metal is secretly perfect.

Reardon, the metal salesman, heroically squeezes as much money from her crisis as possible, and she explains that she doesn't have any emotions again.  He also heroically forgets his wedding anniversary.  He had already bought her a gift, though.  To celebrate the fact that he has a contract for his country.

I've gotten pretty sick of this, so I've decided to skip ahead.  I'm watching a YouTube video of a reading of the section of Atlas Shrugged everyone talks about -- the John Galt rant.

So... The point of this rant sounds like "Some of the rich people are the lynch-pins of the whole civilization, and without them everything falls apart."  And they're "On strike."

This ten-minute video cuts off in a way that suggests to me that it's not the whole rant.  But, if I may attempt to summarize:

(a.)  Popular morality is inherently destructive to civilization.  (b.)  The main premise of popular morality is 'people should be nice to each other, to the exclusion of themselves.'  (c.)  The alternative to popular morality is being rational, and (d.)  Rationality is inherently anti-kindness-to-others.

This argument sounds good, because all of its premises are really close to reasonable premises.  For example, take these alternate terms:  (a.) There are systems of morality that are destructive to civilization, (b.) One of the flaws these systems feature is an impulse of self-destruction in pursuit of others' welfare, (c.) We must therefore evaluate our moral systems through rational methods, and (d.) Reason doesn't come pre-loaded with any moral answers.

The conclusion of the first set of premises is "Everyone should be super-selfish, but think more than two hours into the future while doing so."  The doctrine of rational self-interest that is the main pillar of Ayn Rand's Objectivism.  The problem with that conclusion is that it argues there is a predetermined moral premise, that one should maximize one's material self-interest as determined by a zero-sum accounting of all the stuff that happens to exist at the time you're thinking this through.

The sort of similar, but much less overreaching, conclusion of the second set of premises is "A moral system that (a.) is interested in maximizing well-being for people, and (b.) is applicable to any given person who wants to pursue morality, should not have an actively negative effect on the well-being of its practitioners."  This doesn't fall into the same hole as the rational self-interest argument does, because it leaves the moral assumptions as they are -- assumptions that are outside the realm of reason -- but it doesn't therefore conclude "Thinking about morality is nonsense and no-one should do it."

Rand conflates acting against one's self-interest and acting in a way that serves the interests of anyone else.  It's obviously not inherently true, and fortunately it's also not true in real life, that there's nothing people can do that can improve both their own lives and the lives of other people.

I'd like to make it clear here, before I post this, that my point is that Ayn Rand is wrong; not that the inverse of Ayn Rand's philosophy is right, or that the philosophies she was arguing against are right.

So, this got away a little bit from watching part 1 of Atlas Shrugged.  But that movie kind of made me feel nauseous.  So, there's that.

Seven Psychopaths is an awesome movie

There are many ways in which Seven Psychopaths is problematic.  But in most of those ways, the movie is also a direct attack on those problematic qualities in mainstream movies. (It would be difficult to have any sort of discussion about this movie without significant spoilers, so I'm not going to bother trying.)

For example, there are barely any women in the movie.  They pretty much all die violent deaths.  None of them have a particularly strong active role in the plot, nor are shown onscreen exercising any sort of agency.

When Hans calls Marty out on that point -- Marty being the writer working on the screenplay of the movie "Seven Psychopaths" -- Marty says something like "Life is hard on women."  He's being obviously dismissive, and Hans is obviously unsatisfied.  The audience, I think, is expected to be in on the point that mainstream media's treatment of women can't be called feminist or progressive just because screenwriters and directors say stuff like "Women are trivialized and objectified -- just like in real life!  And that's awful," in interviews when they get called out on it.

The TVTropes article on Seven Psychopaths contains the bullet point: "Lampshade Hanging: Everwhere once they head out into the desert."  Translated: "T.X. Watson loves this movie once they head out into the desert."

Billy is pretty obviously psychotic from pretty early on, though that mightn't have been very clear if it hadn't been for the title.  But the reveal, when it becomes obvious to Marty that he's a psychopath, was incredible.  "Do not burn neighbor's flag."  Cut to neighbor's flag, burnt almost entirely off.

I love Billy's character -- I think it's a great depiction of what life is like for most psychopaths.  He wants to fit in.  He wants to be able to live in normal life, with friends, and peace, and comfort.  But he can't, because there just isn't that thing in him that compels him to act against his own, immediate interests.  He doesn't have any empathy.

So he tries to reason his way around it:  "People have a right to fly a flag."  But reason is just barely good enough to get him to behave mildly normally in public.  He makes it obvious that reason alone isn't a substitute for a moral sense -- he can't stop himself acting in his own shallowest, most immediate interest if he's doing anything else at all.  If he's choosing not to do something because he's reasoned that it's wrong, that has to be his activity.  Sitting down, looking out the window, actively, constantly choosing not to burn down his neighbor's flag.

It's obvious that psychopathy isn't a two-way street here.  Billy can't empathize with the audience.  He can care what we think of him, and he can work to earn the perception he wants people to have.  But he can't ever actually see himself the way we see him.

But we can empathize with Billy, and we do.  We empathize with all the psychopaths, because often as hard for a non-psychopathic person to not care as it is for Billy to not burn his neighbor's flag.

So, yeah.  I recommend this movie. Its reflections on media, on psychopathy, on the nature of character flaws, are all compelling and engrossing.  I kinda think I want to own this one.

Looper: a review

Joseph Gordon Levitt plays a young Bruce Willis in this wacky sci-fi adventure.  Also -- while I was in the movie theater, there was an earthquake that I mistook for quality special effects.  So, it was pretty engrossing.  Everything else is spoilers, and, therefore, below the fold.

There was a lot in this movie to talk about.  First of all:  It was sad.  Oh my crap, it was so freaking sad.  Everything about this movie was sad. No one in this movie isn't living in poverty, misery or paranoia.  Even the douchiest, most awful character, Kid Blue, is just pathetically heartbreaking to watch.  Both times it looked like he died -- the time he just got shot, and the time he got blasted off a jet bike, I was thankful -- because it was obvious he wasn't going to make anything better for himself.  He was just going to keep making things worse for his boss, disappointing him more deeply and spiraling into deeper misery.

Seth -- watching Old Seth get dragged back in by incrementally worsening threats -- was sickening.  At first, it was just horrifyingly painful to watch that man suffer continual existential assault on his body.  Then I realized that I wanted them to finish killing him before he got there, because if he makes it that means Seth has to live long enough to be that person.  30 years, that poor kid has to suffer before they find him and send him back.  It occurs to me now, he might have run back not just because he wanted them to stop, but because they were deepening with each violation of Seth's body his lifelong desire to keep living.  By the time he made it to the door and got shot, he probably wanted it.

I really thought, when I saw the commercials for this movie, that Joe and himself were going to work together to save their life.  It was obvious pretty quickly that wasn't going to happen, but I was still hoping, for a long time.  It hurt more every scene to see old Joe committing those unthinkable acts out of a desperate desire to save his wife's life.

Then there's the kid.  Cid.  Cid is a stupidly powerful telekinetic, and (at least in his childhood) his morality is incredibly harsh: "She should die, because she's a liar."  As much as I wanted everything to be better for the people in this movie -- I wanted young Joe to get to stay with Sara and help raise Cid into a better kid, or I wanted old Joe to finish the job, so that the monster the kid would turn into never happened, I wanted anything to happen that would make the horribleness go away (and, thankfully, something did).

More than anything else, though, I wanted Cid to get a free ride at a Liberal Arts school when he's old enough to go to college.  Louder than any other thought in my head, I couldn't stop thinking, This is what a liberal arts degree is for.  Anyone with this much power needs a more sophisticated view of right and wrong.  Anyone with this much power needs to practice empathy, embrace ambiguity and grow comfortable with parallel competing narratives.


Then, of course, there's the incredibly obvious, and maybe even intentional, metaphorical point of the movie: debt. Loopers are kids in a shitty position, who need money to get some security.  They take the money from whoever will give it to them, promise to pay it back some time in the future -- that future them isn't really them, anyway.  That's someone else's problem.  They spend that money poorly, but they have a lot of it, and they get to live and party and all they have to do is occasionally participate in perpetuating a horrible, violent, and ultimately self-destructive industry.

Living in the shitty economy I live in, I can imagine being a Looper.  Especially if I didn't have a therapist, or a prescription -- how deep would I have to hit in depression before I'd be thrilled for the chance to cut my future down to 30 years, and make that 30 years comfortable and well-funded?  Because I'm pretty sure I've been that deep before.  I just didn't happen to know any mob bosses at the time.

Like I said, everything about this movie is sad.

High Fidelity (movie)

After I reblogged a couple of gifs from High Fidelity on Tumblr yesterday, my partner insisted we watch the movie.  I eagerly agreed, because I've wanted to get around to seeing it for a long time.

I reblogged the images because I think they reflect truths, and I felt like there was a lot of true stuff in High Fidelity.  There was also a lot of bollocks, but I don't think it really romanticizes Rob's intermittent misogyny and horribleness -- though I can see the validity of the opposite interpretation.

I thought a lot about a quote I read this weekend while I was watching the movie.  It's from The Iron Dragon's Daughter, which I haven't read.  It was quoted in the Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature.

We are all of us living stories that on some deep level give us satisfaction.  If we are unhappy with our stories, that is not enough to free us from them.

Knowing you're living a miserable narrative doesn't mean you can break out of that miserable narrative.  (This paragraph broken because it contains spoilers, below the fold.)

But Rob seems to manage just that in this movie, ultimately inverting all of his prejudices.  The punk kids are good musicians, he stays with his girlfriend (and proposes to her) because they're both too exhausted to keep trying to look for anything better, he doesn't chase the girl who works for the magazine and his friend is a fantastic singer.

More about Batman

I watched the Dark Knight Rises again tonight.  Since I just wrote about xenophobia in my last post, I feel obliged to start with the point that I do realize the plots of the Batman films have not been super progressive, and it's not hard to argue that Batman is an avatar for White Man's Burden. But I noticed a new theme in the whole Batman trilogy that I hadn't picked up on before: much of the conflict, the way it starts and the way it worsens, stems from a failure on the characters' parts to imagine their enemies complexly.

The League of Shadows imagines everyone in Gotham as complicit in the guilt of the city's criminals. The police repeatedly dismiss the criminals at hand to focus on their previous obsession -- Batman, the mob, the Joker.

Batman misreads the Joker, and it restrains his ability to effectively fight him.  Even Alfred, usually the best at pointing out the clearest course of action, burns Rachel's letter assuming he knows what's best for Bruce, and comes to regret it.

I will explore this more later. For now, it's almost midnight, so I am going to bed.

About the ads before the movie I just watched

I just saw the Dark Knight Rises (again) and I have a bit to say about that, which will come in the next post.  But first, I want to talk about some of the commercials that were on beforehand. The first one was for the second season of a TV show, called Homeland.  The premise of the show seems to be that there's a US senator (or something) who went into politics because, when he was a prisoner of war in Iraq, he got turned into a sleeper agent.

I'm not going to deny the existence of people who pursue politics for subversive reasons. But the premise of this show seems aggressively Islamaphobic. Worse, because it looks like a really good show -- good actors, complex psychology, all that fun stuff. But it hangs its plot on pumping up xenophobia and racism.

The second one is a remake of Red Dawn. I never saw the original of this movie, but as I understand it, the Russians conquer America but then a bunch of small-town jocks fight them off.  The trailer for the remake was unclear, but I wouldn't be surprised if the bad guys in this version turn out to be Muslims.

Watching the trailers before the movie, it felt like Hollywood had cut a deal with the Republican party: you break the internet so we can extort our customers, and we'll drum up another decade of post-9/11 Jingoist racism.

There were also some good trailers, though.  Killing Them Softly looks super-violent, but not the especially toxic kind that dehumanizes the victims.  And, apparently, Christopher Nolan is working with 300 and Watchmen director Zac Snyder to create next year's Superman movie, Man Of Steel.  So, that's awesome.

Some thoughts on Batman

I'm watching the Nolan Batman movies again today.  I'm about halfway through The Dark Knight, and since I don't have much of an internet connection to surf for topics,  I'm going to talk about that. I like Batman, but it's difficult to like it without some internal conflict. Every major character in Nolan's Batman believes that there's something wrong with Gotham, or the world. And every one of them take it upon themselves to fix it -- without the consent of the rest of the world.

Okay, except Bane. And that's a pretty glaring criticism of the idea.  Then again, he attacks the rights and freedoms of some people at the expense of others.

So, what's the message?  A bunch of people try to take the world into their own hands. And that's bad. But Batman tales it into his hands to fix things, and put control back into the government's and police's hands, and that's good.

My best guess at how Batman could possibly be right is pragmatism.  Almost all the bad guys have some grand philosophy that they strive to defend above all other things.  The only exceptions to that are the mob, who are interested in selfish gain, and Batman, who is interested in the wellbeing of the people of Gotham.  The moral of Nolan's Batman films might be "People come first."

Then again, there are other arguments. I read one article which defended the position that The Dark Knight is a defense of the Patriot Act.

The trouble with stories is, you don't like characters based on their objective decency. You either like who the writer wants you to like, or you don't buy the story.  I like Batman, and that makes it very difficult to figure out if I agree with him.

The Dark Knight Rises: Initial Thoughts

Okay, so I caved.  I couldn't wait until Tuesday, so I re-arranged my Friday to make room for a matinee showing.  Short version of the review: it's amazing, a brilliant end to an excellent trilogy.  Nolan took the best of the superhero genre, and made it into a set of films that are better than any other superhero films yet produced.[1. I haven't seen the new Spiderman yet.  Just saying.] Everything that follows is going to contain spoilers, below the fold.

I want to talk about the movie in a few different contexts, and I think it's best if I break them up into separate categories.

The political implications

Yes, I am one of those people who think that Nolan's Batman movies can be read as allegory for our times.  Certainly not only as allegory, but I do think the perspective is valid.  Nolan at least used the political and cultural fears of our time to drive the characterization of his villains.

Broadly speaking, the center of Nolan's Batman narrative is: everyone agrees that the world is awful.  Gotham is a scar for the human race. It's a wretched hive of scum and villainy.  People who live there are not very nice.

The good guys are the guys who believe there's a glimmer of hope among the horror.  They believe that the system works, in theory, and good people can pull it together for the good of humankind.

The bad guys aren't the corrupt, the mobsters and criminals, though.  The bad guys are the people who think things have gone so far bad that everything should be scrapped -- that civilization needs to be wiped clean, and if there's anyone left at all, those people will have the chance -- only a chance -- to build a world that's better.

But everyone's lost faith in the system.  The Dark Knight Rises makes that clear when Gordon takes a stand for lying to the people in order to get farther along, about how the rules can become shackles.  But those transgressions are all made in the hopes of restoring the functionality of the system.

The bad guys of the new film -- Bane and Catwoman -- represent two different levels of desire for collapse.  Catwoman has a fine-tuned sense of injustice, but all she wants is redistribution of wealth, and leniency for the survival-crimes of the poor, rather than our present state -- special increased consequences for them.

Bane, on the other hand, has completely abandoned belief in the existing system.  He wants to tear it down to its very core, a complete wiping clean.

Bane's prison is a vivid metaphor for this kind of belief -- Gotham is the prison, and the glimmer of hope just serves to make it more miserable.  No one has ever gotten out.

Except one child, born in the pit, born of extraordinary parents but orphaned by violence.

That escape, that struggle, represents hope.  Gotham's orphan who crawled out of the pit is an avatar for faith in humanity's decency.

Nolan and the Batman mythos

My favorite Batman book is Neil Gaiman's "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?"  -- in it, Neil postulates how the Batman story ends.  If you haven't read it, this section contains spoilers.

The ending Neil imagines is Batman's funeral, and all his friends and villains show up.  Each one tells a different story.  The story of how they were responsible for Batman's death.  In it, the story of Batman is portrayed as dark, warm, campy, psychologically weird, every way Batman's story has been told.

Batman never dies old.  He never retires, never fights cancer or drifts off in his sleep.  Batman only ever dies because if you're Batman, eventually, one night, something goes wrong.  And in "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader," every time, Batman is reborn.  Because the reward for having been Batman is, you get to keep being Batman.  And every time, you get those few years of happiness, growing up with your parents.

That's why I couldn't stop myself crying when Nolan's Batman manually flew a nuclear reactor off the coast to save Gotham from its explosion.

But Nolan didn't end up going that way with it. After a heart-wrenching montage of Bruce Wayne's affairs being wrapped up, inconsistencies start popping up.  And at the end, we see Alfred, looking across the restaurant in a cafe in France, seeing Bruce Wayne. Happy.  No longer haunted.

And he ended up with Catwoman.

The answers Nolan gave at the end of his movies are all the right ones.  They're also answers that he could only give because he refused to leave his series open to continuation.  He told the Batman story he wanted to tell -- a route I hope other Superhero franchises follow, letting the brilliant artists in their fields have their own crack at the whole thing, separate from the great intertwining canon.

A note on the Colorado shootings

I don't know what to say about this, but I feel compelled to.  The story of Nolan's Batman trilogy is a story of faith in humanity rewarded. That faith requires not that everyone be good, but that the good outweigh the bad, and that we let the bad plant the seeds for good.

My deepest sympathies are with the victims and their families, by which I mean everyone in the theater.  I hope that we as a country and as a fan community are able to pull together and honor the memory of those who died, and the humanity of those who still suffer, as best we can.

I trust that humankind is better than the man with the guns last night.  I hope that's what shines through.

The Great Gatsby: in theaters Christmas 2012

(via SourceFed) The trailer for the Great Gatsby movie, scheduled for Christmas of 2012, just came out, and it looks amazing.

I didn't know this movie was being made, but I'm already excited.  Leonardo DiCaprio seems to me a brilliant casting for the role of Gatsby, and while I haven't actually seen any of Baz Luhrmann's movies, but I am aware of their style and tone, which is perfect for The Great Gatsby.

I'm also really looking forward to what this movie could be.  I mean, they could totally ████ it up, but in our current political and economic climate the story of The Great Gatsby has a lot to offer.  It's a celebrated and well-known story that casts radical inequality as a bad thing, and the book certainly doesn't gloss over that.  I hope the movie doesn't, either.

But it also carries another important lesson[1. Well, actually, it carries loads of other important lessons.] -- that wealth doesn't mean happiness.  When I read The Great Gatsby, it leads me to empathize with the super-rich and famous, not in the sense that it makes me okay with their richness, but that it makes me want to rescue them from the radical inequality of the system we live in.

After a certain point, more money doesn't mean more happiness, and there's no point at which money can make up for alienation and disillusionment.

Great art has the power to change the national conversation, and if this movie does what I think it has the potential to do, it could re-frame our cultural discussion about wealth inequality, so it's not about stopping the bad guys from making everyone poor, but about working together to help everyone reach a position where it's possible to pursue happiness -- which, again, is not the same thing as money.

On a semi-related note, I really hope John Green comments on this soon.

The Avengers, philosophy, and the narrative of our time

I saw The Avengers on Saturday night, and I was impressed.  SourceFed has a video on the newsier aspects of the release, so I'm not going to cover that, except to say that this is the most successful, and arguably the best, comic movie yet. (More on that later.) What I want to talk about is the basic cultural premise:  extraordinary individuals as individually responsible for massive world events.

This has been a major way that humans view civilization's progress and change, and it's called the Great Man theory of history.[1. John Green concisely explains some of the problems with this view of history at 2m32s in Crash Course World History #8]  It's easy to look through history and find people who seem like superheroes -- Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, Joan of Arc, and so on.  The idea of superheroes bears a superficial relationship to Nietzsche's idea of the Übermensch, and in some cases dips close to actually reflecting it.

I believe that the reason The Avengers was so successful, the reason superhero movies have been getting as much traction as they have been, is that our culture desperately wants to believe this story.  We want to believe that a few extraordinary people can save us from the uncertain future, and from the individual supervillains we believe are out there.

What we're looking for

We want extraordinary people watching over us, partly because we can see the vast size of the problems we face, and we know that most of us have no hope of comprehending them, never mind solving them.  The economy is a good example:  almost no one understands what went wrong in the past ten years, and almost no one understands how to fix it.

There are two ways to have hope in that situation.

Some people reached for a heroic concept:  the libertarian view that, if we make the market free, it will save us all.  I think this is the wrong way to go, because it's not believing we can conquer huge problems, it's believing the problems we face are small.

Others (like me) reached for a hero.  We hoped to find someone better than us, better suited to the job, with an incorruptible spirit against insurmountable odds, who we could trust to save us from an enemy we could never hope to fight.  I think that's how a lot of people saw, and a reasonable number still see, President Obama.[2. I'm definitely voting for Obama come the next election, but I've grown cynical lately about the kind of belief in heroes that I'm writing about.]

What we're afraid of

I'm happy to admit that I don't like blaming things on 9/11.  There are few phrases I've found more annoying in the last ten years than "9/11 changed EVERYTHING."  But I have to grudgingly admit that it did change some things about our culture.

The premise of a supervillain, a superpowered individual who causes massive damage with minimal resources, was kind of absurd in the '90s.  Intuitively, it made sense that the amount of damage one could cause was proportional to the resources one had access to.  But it happened in real life, and suddenly bad guys like the Joker are a lot easier to believe.

I mentioned the economy and the future above, as well.  I could add technology to that list -- things we don't understand, that our lives[3. That is, our lifestyles in the modern world.] depend on.  I don't think there are many people who believe that Loki and an army of aliens are a serious threat.  But we have no way of knowing what the threats that are coming look like.  We just know we're going to need some yet-unknown fraction of uniquely talented people to face them.

The narrative of our time

I don't happen to believe that superheroes are going to save us all.  I believe the progression of history is far more affected by factors that superheroes can't control than it is by the interventions of "Great Men."  But we do need superheroes for some stuff.  There's a broken economy to deal with.  Global climate change.  Wars, corruption, censorship and the terrifyingly inscrutable future.

These are problems individuals can't solve, if our representatives and our geniuses aren't working to solve them.  It may not be solely down to the individual heroes, but when the population believes their representatives can save the world, we will hold them accountable.  We will find people who can do the work that needs to be done, and we will be paying attention when they fail.

There are also the social issues that we need heroes for.  Racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on.  In this category, The Avengers is pretty weak.  Great Man theory is pretty intrinsically sexist, and this movie doesn't do a lot to contradict that.  It doesn't even pass the Bechdel test, which is a shame because there were three named female characters, and I'm not actually sure they were ever even in the same room.  I don't believe there was any implication that homosexuality even exists in the Marvel film universe.

Problems with the Hero model

I said at the start that The Avengers is arguably the best comic movie yet.  I'm not sure about whether that's a good thing.  It bolsters a worldview that our society desperately wants right now, but I'm uncertain whether it's the worldview we need to get us through the hard times ahead.

Heroes have served us well in the past, but they've also presented some pretty big problems.  The Avengers doesn't shy away from that fact -- not many people in power are thrilled about the idea of trusting the fate of the world to a handful of volatile, impulsive "freaks."  And one person's superhero is usually another's supervillain.[4. Insert Godwin's Law here.]  In the case of comic book heroes, we're generally talking about the triumph of one philosophy over another by violence.

I mentioned its lack of progressive values, too.  A return to the "old-fashioned," like Captain America's uniform, implies steps backwards for a lot of people.


I've got my hopes, and my concerns, about the future of society, but I'm not disappointed that the blockbusters of our generation are optimistic.  Also:  I can't wait to see what The Dark Knight Rises will be like.


Philosophy through Film: Fight Club

I’m taking a class this semester called Philosophy through Film, and one of the assignments is to write a journal entry for each movie we watch.  My previous entries are on Harold and Maude, I <3 Huckabees, Donnie DarkoBeing John MalkovichEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,  MementoPulp FictionOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s NestGroundhog Day,  Crimes and Misdemeanors, and the Matrix.  I’ve also written an extracurricular post on The Hunger Games. Starting note:  It's 11:20 PM, and I totally forgot to start this post before now.  So it may be a bit rushed.  But the class is nearly over, and I intend to write my final on Fight Club, so I'll post that when I've written it.

The Tyler Durden theory of Qualia

""How much can you know about yourself, if you've never been in a fight?  I don't want to die without any scars." (Quoted to the best of my memory.)

Tyler Durden's philosophy seems to center around the premise that quality of life is validated by real experiences -- real pain, being in fights, chemical burns, "Hitting bottom."  He and the narrator mock advertisement style physical fitness, he gives out homework assignments to the members of fight club, and he threatens people's lives to make them appreciate their own lives more.

I think the most interesting thing about this perspective is that he clearly believes that these experiences can be manufactured. He's never been in a fight that naturally occurred, but it's good enough, to him, to ask a friend to punch him in the face.  When he gives the narrator a chemical burn, it's a manufactured event, an attempt to simulate the experience of "the worst pain of your life."  And when he does "Human sacrifices," he doesn't even bring a loaded gun.

Tyler Durden seems to think that you build character by achieving a collection of emotional experiences, which I think is an implicit defense of a belief in qualia.  There's something fundamental, in his mind, about being in a fight, about destroying corporate art, about threatening someone's life or being so threatened.  And the way he goes about creating those experiences for people suggests that he thinks there's a sort of constellation of qualia, merit badges of the soul, that  are necessary to achieve goals, such as "Hitting bottom."

There are two branches off of that point I want to pursue:

A.) Fight Clubs are the Boy Scouts of Nihilism

I put it that way because it sounds nice, but I'm not actually certain what they're doing is nihilistic. Tyler Durden's premise seems to be that we live in a violent and unpleasant world, in a society designed to keep down the majority of people.  His end game is to build up the people he leads into people with the character to stand up and survive the hands they've been dealt.

But in the more immediate structure of Fight Club, it is nihilism.  He demands of his members that they build up their skills of apathy, hardening themselves to the realities of abandonment and inequality, and try to "Hit bottom."  It's like becoming an Eagle Scout.

B.) Can you get the effects of Fight Club by watching the movie?

If Tyler Durden is right about experience -- that you need to experience certain things to know deep truths about yourself, but that those truths can be approximated through simulated experience -- can you get it from watching a movie?

Presumably, it would be in line with the beliefs of a writer who cared about meaningful change that, if you do need to experience certain events in order to comprehend the associated truths, that you can experience those events vicariously through fiction.  Maybe even a watered-down version of the same effect would be possible.  (If that's the case, in fact, then it makes sense for movies like Fight Club to be so over-the-top, in order to get through the correct amount of nihilism and self-awareness.)

That raises interesting questions about the realness of simulated experience, though.  As far as the qualia argument goes, if there's such a thing as the qualia 'red,' and you only ever see it on a TV screen, you've still seen it, and would still have therefore perceived that qualia.  So if there's a qualia for enlightenment through violence, Fight Club would go a long way towards fulfilling those requirements without actually requiring any fighting.

Philosophy through Film: Harold and Maude

I’m taking a class this semester called Philosophy through Film, and one of the assignments is to write a journal entry for each movie we watch.  My previous entries are on Being John MalkovichEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,  MementoPulp FictionOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s NestGroundhog Day,  Crimes and Misdemeanors, and the Matrix.  I’ve also written an extracurricular post on The Hunger Games. Maude's Morality

The first thing I have to say about this film is that I disagree with Maude's moral claims.  She takes it upon herself to teach others moral lessons through her criminal actions, but those actions largely overlap with her own personal aesthetic taste and pragmatic needs.  Just because her own views are life-affirming and naturalistic doesn't mean that they take precedence over other people's.  Her methodology implies that anyone would have the right to impose their own personal morality on the world around them.  If this is true, then I prefer to live in a world where things like property ownership are respected, and hope that morality is imposed on her.

Missing Kafka

Apart from that, I do think that the real world would have imposed an institutional morality on Maude significantly prior to the events of the film.  I think it's optimistic about her success in avoiding consequences for her actions to the point of being a plot hole.


Both Harold and Maude use their somewhat extreme worldviews to hide from their own pain.  Neither seem to have integrated the reality of their suffering and angst into their worldview, and as a result neither has a complete experience of life.

Philosophy through Film: I

I <3 Huckabees: incompleteness There's a lot to talk about, philosophically, in I <3 Huckabees, and I can't say any element stuck out to me as most noteworthy.  But I was very interested in the fact taht nearly every character was presented as having a philosophical view that was in some way clearly narrowed by their own biases.

The possible exception to that is Albert, who in the end comes to a philosophy based on the fusion of the detectives' perspective and Caterine's.  But even in that case, the philosophy he arrives at is based on the presumption that he'll lose his ability to retain his detached and enlightened perspective.

Overall, the film seemed to imply that no one can have a complete life-philosophy that accounts for all the realities of the human experience.  It will either be too nihilistic or too optimistic, too materialist or too detached, and in every case shaped by one's past relationships and experiences in such a way as to warp it.

Caterine and the detectives' extremist philosophies are accounted for by their past relationship with each other.  Tommy's reaction against materialist culture has its roots in 9/11, and even then, he focuses narrowly on one specific world problem rather than addressing the whole picture of human suffering (which would, itself, still be incomplete.)  Brad seems to be reacting to his brother, and Albert's angst stems from childhood neglect.

The wounds left by human drama in the lives of each of the characters warp their ability to perceive the full spectrum of human experience.

A short note on incorrectness

I don't know whether this was intentional or not, but Bernard, when he's arguing with Tommy about the connection/alienation between particles and cracks in the universe, he says that every atom in our bodies was forged in the furnace of the sun.  That's not correct -- the atoms that make up everything on/in earth were forged in the furnace of stars that had exploded long, long before the earth and the sun were formed.

In the same sense that every philosophy is necessarily incomplete, if that was intentional it seems also to imply that a functional though incomplete philosophy can stem from functional but incorrect information.

Philosophy through Film: Donnie Darko

I’m taking a class this semester called Philosophy through Film, and one of the assignments is to write a journal entry for each movie we watch.  My previous entries are on Being John MalkovichEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,  MementoPulp FictionOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s NestGroundhog Day,  Crimes and Misdemeanors, and the Matrix.  I've also written an extracurricular post on The Hunger Games. We watched the Director's Cut edition of Donnie Darko in class, so I will be discussing the content in that cut.  If you've only seen the theatrical release cut, I may be talking about stuff that makes even less sense than the movie did.

Purpose in Donnie Darko

I'll start by offering my usual dismissal of metaphysical claims in Donnie Darko:  all films have the same metaphysics, everything in the universe is governed by the will of the cast and crew.  But apart from that, the film does have interesting things to say about humans' relationship to metaphysics.

Donnie is a teenager, tormented either by a huge burden placed on him by a quirk of spacetime, or by his own psychological problems.  He's faced with deep angst in his pursuit of a grounding principle -- some basic truth on which he can build his decisionmaking.

While pursuing this basic truth, he generally puts off decisionmaking until he's nudged towards an immediate course of action by the forces around him.  His indecision leaves him easily manipulated by Frank, who offers him a few ideas on how to behave, and by the visible manifestations of fate that suggest paths for him when the plot has no other reason to get him where it needs him.  (I think this is justified, if he is actually living in a bubble universe that's trying to reconcile itself to the continuity of reality, so I'm not criticizing the plot when I point out that the fate-paths bring him places he has no other reason to go.)

Ultimately he finds his purpose, his grounding principle, in Gretchen -- his desire to give her a life, in exchange for his own.  In this sense, I think the film hits the nail on the head -- searching abstracts about free will and determinism, looking for God or comfort in the face of death, seem like promising paths, but just become more discouraging the deeper you look.  For a solid first principle, relationships with other people work much better.

Philosophy through Film sidebar: The Hunger Games

I’m taking a class this semester called Philosophy through Film, and one of the assignments is to write a journal entry for each movie we watch.  My previous entries are on Being John MalkovichEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,  MementoPulp FictionOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s NestGroundhog Day,  Crimes and Misdemeanors, and the Matrix. The Hunger Games is not a part of my Philosophy through Film curriculum, but I think it has a lot of philosophically resonant themes, especially re: politics.

My post about Uganda and the Sudan is being delayed until tomorrow, because my mind is slightly buzzing with a different idea and I've put it off till 11:30 trying to switch gears, to no avail.

I wasn't assigned the Hunger Games for my Philosophy through Film class, but I wanted to talk a little bit about it -- specifically, about the two ways I can see interpreting the relationship between the Capitol and the Districts, and the society I live in today -- lower middle class in early 21st century America.

We Are The Capitol

In a recent HanksChannel video (embed below) called The Metaphorical Implications, he argues that modern American society is, to a lesser extent, more like the Capitol than the Districts.  Especially when considering District 12, this is definitely a solid case.  As he said, Katniss Everdeen is not the sort of person with high speed internet.

We Are the Inner Districts

Personally, though, I prefer a slightly variant view.  I think it's not quite dead-on to say that the United States is a proxy for the capitol.  I think it makes more sense to say the 1% -- or, if not the 1%, the Charming Aristocracy -- are the capitol, while middle and lower class America, the 99%, are the inner districts.

We've got a lot more luxury.  We build the more important technologies, and we've got much better odds of winning a lifetime of riches and rewards, if we're "careers," by pursuing the modern American dream of some extraordinary achievement of public notoriety that pays off the rest of your life, the way a lot of us imagine actors and musicians have it.

More directly, games like Survivor provide an opportunity for a collection of 99%ers to compete with each other in an environment for which they are ill-suited, for a chance at a massive reward.  I think it's resonant that the second book makes the point that [SPOILER FOR THE SECOND BOOK] many of the victors are used literally as prostitutes in order to maintain their blessed status.

Obviously, as Hank points out, the allegorical Capitol is not as bad as the one in the book, and I don't think we in America, for the most part, have it as bad as even the innermost districts.


I don't think one of these views is right, and the other is wrong.  I think that looking at them both provides us (especially relatively poor Americans, but relatively rich world citizens) a lot of opportunity for refining our sense of where we fit in among the people of the world, and whether the way we fit in is fair -- and provides some pretty clear answers of the sorts of things we should be less okay with, and whose side we should be on when it comes down to seeking change.

Philosophy through Film: Being John Malkovich

I’m taking a class this semester called Philosophy through Film, and one of the assignments is to write a journal entry for each movie we watch.  My previous entries are on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,  MementoPulp FictionOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s NestGroundhog Day,  Crimes and Misdemeanors, and the Matrix.

that is clearly a metaphysical speculation, and like most metaphysical speculations has very little reference at all to the actual facts of real life, as we know them.

Gwendolen, The Importance of Being Earnest

Being John Malkovich and Identity

This film presents a metaphysical theory about the relationship between the mind and the body, but (as I discussed in my Pulp Fiction entry) I find metaphysics inherently banal, especially so in film.

What I'm more interested in is the authenticity of the characters' reactions to experiencing a different body.  The film certainly provides a lot of explicit statements and cues that the physical form of a person or thing is not necessarily reflective of the way that person or thing feels about itself.

Craig is a dramatic puppeteer, who sets himself up on street corners and puts on elaborate dramas.  Lotte takes care of animals professionally, but her go-to doctor is an allergist -- obviously, her body isn't suited to her chosen profession.  They both find themselves on a floor that's half the size they are, where the standard of comprehensibility of speech is set by the apparently partially deaf receptionist.

Everyone in this movie is chronically out of context.  Except, arguably, Maxine, for whom no context is ever provided.

The movie definitely suggests the possibility that a body can be wrong for a person.  Lotte is obviously uncomfortable in her body.  Even before the portal, she has allergies.  Craig builds his profession around trying to occupy other bodies.  The implication seems to be that these characters want for their bodies to be disposable -- and in the film, they are.

Notably, they all want Malkovich for different reasons.  Craig wants him for his fame.  Lotte wants him for his biological form.  Lester wants him for his potential to be immortal, and Maxine wants him (insofar as she wants a relationship with him) to exploit Malkovich's status and qualities as proxies in her relationships with Craig and Lotte.

Philosophy through Film: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

I’m taking a class this semester called Philosophy through Film, and one of the assignments is to write a journal entry for each movie we watch.  My previous entries are on MementoPulp FictionOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s NestGroundhog Day,  Crimes and Misdemeanors, and the Matrix. Eternal Sunshine and The Self

I've written before that I'm skeptical about the real existence of a meaningful 'self'.  From my entry on Memento:

...[consciousness is a] flickering electrical state hallucinating continuity.  That is, the space of a synapse is the amount of time in which one is a singular person, and the person who started typing this word is long dead by the time I will have finished writing this sentence.

I don't think there's any non-arbitrary way of deciding what a coherent self is, so I don't think there's a case to be made that the memory wiping procedure in Eternal Sunshine can qualify as any sort of corruption of, or damage to, that self.

What I mean to say by this is that there's no grounds for arguing that the procedure is morally wrong a priori.

That said, I think Eternal Sunshine raises a lot of the reasons that having a concept of self is useful, even if it's arbitrary.  And the convenient thing about a utilitarian argument for a concept of selfhood is that the stuff you need it to do provides the answers for where to draw the arbitrary lines.

The characters in Eternal Sunshine make decisions about whether or not to carve out chunks of their personal history in relation to their ability to function as human beings in the contexts they choose.  From there, it's a simple matter of quoting Nietzsche -- "What does not kill me makes me stronger" -- to demonstrate the folly of the attempt.

That's glib, though, and there are a lot of situations where an experience could make a person undeniably less strong.  PTSD is that by definition.  But the spirit of the Nietzsche quote applies, in my opinion, to the cases we see in the film.

Eternal Sunshine and moral goals

Failing to erase their memories would have forced Clementine and Joel to face painful truths about themselves in order to be able to move on from the relationship.  I have little doubt that it would have caused both of them to grow as people, but they would have suffered during the process, and might not necessarily be as happy in that future as they are in a future where they repeat the fresh months of their relationship until they die.

In that sense, Eternal Sunshine places at odds the goals of personal happiness, and societal cohesion; individualism and collectivism.  By a collectivist moral standpoint, their decisions to wipe their own memory is definitely morally wrong.

But even within the individualist position, they're still failing to explore themselves deeply and fully.  Most philosophers argue that that's a form of moral failure.

Eternal Sunshine and medical ethics

I think the procedure featured in Eternal Sunshine has a lot of parallels to other controversial medical procedures.  You could argue that it's treated at times metaphorically similarly to abortion and euthanasia, and although obviously neither works as a perfect metaphor in the film, reflecting on those real procedures does ground the argument about the legitimacy of Lacuna's procedure in a less frivolous-sounding debate.

Lacuna does relatively little screening and almost no psychological prep for the procedure.  They're fairly indiscreet about how they maintain confidentiality, and they obviously cultivate an atmosphere of low professionalism.  (Mierzwiak performs the procedure on Mary after they'd had an affair, Patrick steals a patient's underwear, and all three of the employees drink their patients' booze while operating brain-altering machinery.

I think the best case for a moral issue in this movie is for the incredibly lax regulation on Lacuna's medical practice.

Philosophy through Film: Memento

I’m taking a class this semester called Philosophy through Film, and one of the assignments is to write a journal entry for each movie we watch.  My previous entries are on Pulp FictionOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s NestGroundhog Day,  Crimes and Misdemeanors, and the Matrix. Memento, Meaning, and one's present self

From the reading:

The more serious problem for Leonard is that his meaning in life is not based on a goal that he has chosen for himself, but is rather derived from a purpose or goal that he has inherited, or that has been implanted in him, from a previous self.  Leonard's problem--and by implication, our own problem--is not just that a person has a limited time within which to pursue the projects that give meaning to one's life.  The deeper problem is that the projects that give meaning to one's life never really seem to be chosen bythe person's onw (present) self, but are always inherited from another (previous) self.

Is it just me, or does anyone else read this argument as an implication that a bucket list is an attack on meaning in life?

If we interpret our selfhood as being an illusion of continuity between identities segmented on a periodic basis, that seems to me to only add more meaning to a long term goal -- because then, it's a whole horde of people cooperating to help only a handful of instances achieve only moments of transcendent experience, rather than one person selfishly hoarding those experiences for themselves.

In this sense, Leonard's condition only adds more meaning to his accomplishment, by escalating the number of fragmented quasi-people and diminishing each individual instance's capacity to contribute.

Michael Baur goes on in the reading to say:

But how can a person's own life really be meaningful, if such meaning is supposed to be derived from goals that have been dictated by some other (previous) self?  Don't my most cherished goals in life have to be chosen by me (my present self) if they are to have meaning for me (my present self)?

No.  No, no, no, no, no.  This is such an incredibly stupid argument that I don't know where to begin.  Who the hell thinks that meaning ever comes exclusively from one's present self?  Let's take the arguments in turn:

  • Religious meaning:  Life has meaning because of an external god.
  • Community meaning:  Life has meaning because of relationships with other people.
  • Existential meaning:  Life is meaningless, but we can constantly choose to participate in a larger tapestry of meaning.

Then there's arguments about loyalty to one's country.  Love of art or music.  Interactions with nature.  Having children. But nowhere, in any context, is there any case to be made whatsoever that meaning doesn't count if its source is outside one's immediate present conscious experience.


Even the argument that Leonard's immediate experience of killing Jimmy doesn't make the case for meaning coming exclusively from present experience.  Teddy is just making the case that Leonard's immediate experience is meaningless, not that he should derive meaning from the momentary experience of having killed someone, no matter who that person is.

The time-scale of collapsing identity

In the reading, Baur talks a lot about how most people live on a 24-hour cycle of refreshing identity, and Leonard lives on a 10-minute cycle.  I think this delineation is arbitrary.  Personally, my favorite way to describe consciousness is as a flickering electrical state hallucinating continuity.  That is, the space of a synapse is the amount of time in which one is a singular person, and the person who started typing this word is long dead by the time I will have finished writing this sentence.

I do think Leonard's experience is a good way of highlighting the immediacy of that reality, but I think the interpretation that we've got a longer timeframe than him is wrong.  The truth is, simply, that he forgets more than many of us do.  (I think it's kind of funny that this allows him to get a lot more done.  He didn't seem that world-shakingly impressive as an insurance investigator, so it seems his post-incident behavior is not a fraction of his original capacity, but an improvement.)

I think trying to find a way to logically work out, in a non-arbitrary way, a solid footing upon which to build a sense of self, is sort of missing the point.  I meant what I said in the first paragraph of this section:  We are hallucinating continuity.  It's a delusion.  A mis-apprehension of reality.

But there's a value to well-built mis-apprehensions of reality.  We can always drop out of the world, out of sanity, out of perspective and self-comfort, but if we've got a well-developed and pragmatically effective set of arbitrary assumptions to frame our experience in, we can always spring back into the world as we know it and go on living.

(There was a Hume quote I'm certain I remember, but I can't remember in which class I learned it and wasted far too much time already trying to find it online.  It was about how, when the unprovability of causation gets him too depressed, he just goes and drinks and hangs out with his friends.)

The thing is, understanding reality and participating in life aren't necessarily overlapping activities.  You don't have to do them at the same time.  You don't need to grasp the ephemeral nature of conscious experience while navigating an intersection in Boston.  You don't need to wonder about the contribution to your future that your current behavior is having while eating a double-cheeseburger.  (It might be a good idea to do that beforehand.)

But you also don't always have to be navigating intersections and eating double cheeseburgers.  If you're curious, it's not hard to drop out of the world and experience awe and terror at the magnitude of unknowability and the pathetic uselessness of your own tools of perception.  But if you're in the habit of doing that, you should be comfortable with the system of arbitrary assumptions you'll be coming back to when you need to do something that requires accepting the existence of, like, other people and walls and legislation.

Leonard has as little trouble with that as everyone else in the film.  His arbitrary construction of standards with which he interacts with reality are exactly as solid as he needs them to be in order to quickly pull himself out of existential angst when he needs to interact with the world around him.  And it's philosophically interesting, the ways in which other characters try to manipulate him by attempting to break that construct, but nobody in the movie really proposes a meaningfully different mechanism for coping with reality.

Philosophy through Film: Pulp Fiction

I’m taking a class this semester called Philosophy through Film, and one of the assignments is to write a journal entry for each movie we watch.  My previous entries are on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestGroundhog Day,  Crimes and Misdemeanors, and the Matrix. Pulp Fiction, Religion, and God

I want to get this out of the way quickly, because it's what the reading focuses on, and it's obviously a major theme of the film.  I don't think you can safely ignore the theological elements of Pulp Fiction.  It presents a world which appears to have an embedded morality as a natural law.  Transgressions of certain kinds (such as Butch's betrayal of Marsellus Wallace and killing his opponent in the ring)  seem to be naturally enforced (for example, by Butch running into Marsellus in the road.)

That said, I don't find philosophical discussions of God or metaphysics terribly interesting, for the following reasons:

  1. I've never heard of an argument for God, put forward as the solution to any philosophical problem, that actually solves that problem.
  2. Discussing the laws of metaphysics using a movie as a vehicle seems to me to be intrinsically useless:  all movies have the exact same metaphysics -- the supreme power of the actors, production team, director, and writers to make things happen the way they want them to.  It's fun to think about the universe as having a writer, but it's not very useful.
  3. Metaphysics is, by definition, unstudyable.  It refers to things we can't perceive, and operates by rules we can't comprehend.  Furthermore, I don't actually believe there is a reality that's meaningfully distinct from our perception of it, in that our perception is a phenomenon that emerges from actual reality.
  4. If there are metaphysical truths, I think they'd probably govern subatomic particles, and care as little about emergent phenomena like humans as physical truths do.

So, for the purposes of this article, I'm going to assume that events in Pulp Fiction are meaningful, and have metaphorical resonance.  That is, things like the Chopper saying "Grace" and Vincent Vega getting shot with his own gun are significant, and governed by the directly unrelated actions of the people who interact with them.

The Other Article

The reading we were assigned for this movie provided very little in the way of themes I felt I could expand upon, so I decided to look for another one.  The article I found most interesting was: -- it explored the pop culture references in Pulp Fiction, arguing that American culture in the film represented a collapse of tradition and culture, and a disintegration of grounding elements of life.  The characters who most completely escape the world of the film do so by embracing a more resonant connection with humanity outside the pop cultural and meaningless 'now'.

Pulp Fiction and Meaning

I think this was the most interesting angle to explore the film from.  As Conard points out in the Metaphilm article, the characters are obsessed with the right names of things.  The scene near the end, in which Butch insists upon correcting his girlfriend about the chopper, not motorcycle, struck me as particularly odd while I was watching the movie, but it didn't occur to me to read into it.

On reflection, the whole film circles questions of truth and meaning obsessively, the characters presenting a universal view that there are right answers, but none able to provide any sort of grounding for what those answers are supposed to be.  After all, is there a meaningful difference between chopper and motorcycle?  And could that difference possibly be important enough to delay running away from LA in order to get it straight?

On giving up

This part isn't about the film.  I've been blogging for the last three days about how much trouble I've been having trying to write about Pulp Fiction.  I do think it's a very philosophical film -- I think there's a solid case to be made that this is the most philosophical film we've watched yet this semester.  But it does sort of carefully avoid ever coming to any clear conclusions, apart from the ubiquity of ambiguity and the struggle people have trying to cope with that ambiguity.

It does seem to be a lot more difficult to write about the films I like than the ones I hate.

Philosophy through Film: One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest

I’m taking a class this semester called Philosophy through Film, and one of the assignments is to write a journal entry for each movie we watch.  My previous entries are on Groundhog Day,  Crimes and Misdemeanors, and the Matrix. First impressions

I don't like what this movie has to say about mental health institutions. Throughout the film, Jack Nicholson's clearly maladjusted character is treated like a breath-of-fresh-air free spirit, which is frustrating because of the damage he so obviously does to the mental health of the patients around him -- provoking them to rebel against their treatment, taking them outside the hospital without supervision, ultimately creating the circumstances that lead one to commit suicide and another to escape the institution.

I don't think that the hospital staff are angels -- I'm not sure there's ever an appropriate situation in which to lobotomize someone, and it certainly wasn't appropriate in Mac's case.  Nurse Ratched repeatedly made the mistake of keeping Mac in the hospital, in which they were ill-equipped to deal with a criminally insane patient, rather than returning him to the prison.  She also threatened to tell Billy's mother about his behavior, at a point when he was in crisis.  Even given the circumstances of her time and resources, those were clearly bad decisions.

But Mac's approach, to treat the other patients as though they're not mentally ill, doesn't work.  I mean, it obviously doesn't work.  If treating people with mental illness as though they were not mentally ill worked, then there wouldn't be mental illness because being outside an institution would solve the problem naturally.

And this is my main problem with the film:  The fact that a mental institution isn't a fun place does not substantiate the implicit claim that being outside the institution would be better.  The characters in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest are mentally ill.  That's a horrible state to be in, and one of the many unpleasant manifestations of the fact that we live in a world that has flaws, in which bad things happen to good people and some people are born with or develop crippling mental disorders that make it difficult or impossible for them to function.

Leaving it alone doesn't help.  And maybe the institution doesn't help cure mental illness (a claim I would contest, in most cases) but it definitely helps minimize the suffering of the patients and the damage they could otherwise do to the people and property around them.

On institutionalizing personality types

One of the major concerns I've heard raised (and, in the past, raised myself) about the mental health system is that it's less about treating illness than it is about artificially manufacturing conformity.  I would absolutely agree that there's a grey area in the broader context of that issue -- I think ritalin is massively overperscribed, for one thing -- but the people in that hospital were not in that grey area.  They all displayed symptoms that merited medical attention.  In Billy's case at least, it was probably saving his life, until Mac's interventions.

The reality is that while there are some things that can be diagnosed as mental illness which amount to descriptions of a personality, all mental illness diagnoses take into account whether the qualities diagnosed interfere with the individual's ability to function, and most mental illnesses present with an aspect of depression.

On depression

I want to take a moment to spell this out, and I'll be touching on it again in a later section of this post.  Depression is not the same thing as sadness.  It's not like feeling under the weather, it's not even like grief.  It's not like anything a person who hasn't experienced mental illness can compare it to.  Depression is a deeply crippling  and painful experience, and a person suffering from it can't just 'suck it up' and get on with life.  It's often chemical, and requires medication to treat.  In one of my favorite talks on the subject (which is not embedded because it's an hour long), JT Eberhard compares it to diabetes -- it isn't something you cure.  People with diabetes always have to take insulin, and people with primarily chemical depression always need to take medication to manage it, or develop other coping strategies that go well beyond everyday living.

On Electroshock therapy

This is one of my favorite videos on mental health.  It's about the use of electroshock therapy to treat depression.  The key message:  It works.  It's not evil, it's not dangerous, the way it's done now it doesn't even hurt.  Like many medical interventions, it has been used poorly in the past, and the value of its use in the film was arguable.  But it is not torture.  It's not comparable to waterbording, or to lobotomy, and vilifying it doesn't help anyone.  It only makes it harder to treat depression effectively.

The conflict between society and personal freedom

Many of the people in the institution in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are there voluntarily.  But Mac's presence, and the presence of other incarcerated patients, does raise the question of personal freedom.  Does a person have the right to be whatever sort of person they want to be, and retain their freedom, too?

Mac was placed both in prison and in the mental institution, and these two locations reflect two different (though not necessarily mutually exclusive or platonically distinct) views towards the treatment of disruptive persons in the context of a society.  They can be removed, indefinitely or for a period of time, as in prison, or they can be institutionalized, with the goal of rehabilitation so they can function in society.

Both of these options ignore the possibility of leaving them free, but that decision is morally questionable.  From a utilitarian perspective, it's certainly better for a dangerous person to be removed than to be left to cause more damage.  From a Kantian perspective, this could constitute treating the person merely as a means to an end, without also treating them as an end unto themselves.

I think the Kantian problem can be solved by rehabilitation, as in mental health facilities.  It's an unfortunate reality that some people are violent, destructive and self-destructive, but these tendencies would make it as difficult to function even in society as it would make it for them to function if removed -- an attempt to rehabilitate them respects their personhood and provides an opportunity for them to maximize their own happiness without infringing upon the safety of their fellow citizens.

On the glorification of mental illness, the vilification of psychiatric medicine, and the failure to imagine others complexly

Ultimately I think the reason films like this work, why people are prepared to accept a story in which mental health professionals are treated like dehumanizing monsters and the mentally ill are treated like victims of society, is because people without experience with mental illness often believe that, deep down, there's not much really wrong with being mentally ill.  They glamorize it,  characterizing schizophrenia or depression as uniquely insightful, or bipolar disorder as an example of stifled creativity.  Or, they characterize the mental illness as not all it's cracked up to be, and insinuate that the patients could basically get over it if they wanted to, and would fit in fine if they had the chance.

And I do think that understanding mental illness is one of the more difficult exercises of empathy in life, and empathy is not a highly practiced skill in our culture.  But that's exactly why we need mental health professionals to treat mental illness, and exactly why laypeople are not equipped to evaluate the effectiveness of those professionals' methods.

A final note on "Chief" Bromden

Whether Bromden was mentally ill in any significant way is debatable, as is whether it was fair to incarcerate him.  But given what we know about him, that he lives a persona of catatonic schizophrenia, the only character he sympathizes with is Mac, a violent, possibly manic convict, and his strategy for dealing with his dissatisfaction with his circumstances is to throw a marble table through a window, I am not at all confident that he was wrongly institutionalized.