Thursday, March 13, 2008

Love Autopsy

Polys of the world, unite! Are you sick and tired of being discriminated against by the monoamorous?

There's only three words coming to my mind: How dare they? Would a person that due to some psychological defect, due to some unfortunate premises he holds, is only able to have one platonic friend at a time dare to look down on a person who has many friends?

Monoamory, after all, is a defect. Much more, it is the nadir of injustice. To love someone means to appreciate his or her qualities: spiritual virtues and physical beauty. What excuse can there be for a person who loves only one person, refusing to love all others who too are deserving of his or her love?

Ironically, holding only one other human being as the image of one's highest values (objectivist-speak excuse for monoamory — and for some of them an excuse for a witch hunt on polys, too) is rank Platonism. There's no such thing as perfection. And there's a snowball's chance in hell that you'll meet exactly one person who's so much better than everyone else that he or she can claim your love exclusively, to the exclusion of everyone else.

"Love is the delusion that one woman differs from another."

— H. L. Mencken

"A competent and self-confident person is incapable of jealousy in anything. Jealousy is invariably a symptom of neurotic insecurity."

— Robert A. Heinlein

Is it a coincidence that the word "jealousy" is more than half made up of "lousy"?

You ask, what caused this rant? Well, the other day there was a pretty awful article in The Atlasphere. It was probably meant to be funny, but in fact it was only an array of ugly prejudices. You know, I'm not in the habit of dissecting Atlasphere articles, but this one's wrong on so many levels… I've already dealt with the monoamory presumption in it, so let's look at the rest of the prejudices and be done with it.

"But of course, every guy with a lick of sense knows he'd destroy his own and his family's happiness that way [i.e., by an open marriage]."

Great argument — in the same vein, a Tory in 1775 would have argued, "But of course, every guy with a lick of sense knows a civilized society without a king is impossible." Or a red in the red decade, "But of course, every guy with a lick of sense knows history's march toward socialism is irreversible."

The lesson: Don't make any assumptions. Just because something seems obvious to you it doesn't have to be true.

"And when you come down to earth, a harem is probably closer to living hell than heaven, especially after kids start to arrive."

Human beings aren't breeders. Not everybody wants kids. Kids don't "arrive." Family planning is a good idea.

"And doesn't he want to grow old with someone?"

Like monoamory, aging is a defect. Aging is not a part of human nature, it's in fact incompatible with being human. Aging is a holdover from evolution, from ancestor species that had to adapt to nature by evolution instead of adapting nature to their needs, like man does. To the human species, death is useless. It accomplishes nothing but to render life meaningless.

Fortunately, you don't have to accept death as your fate. No, I'm not a mystic. What I mean is that optimists say that aging will be curable in twenty years.

Well, I don't know how long it will take to find a cure for aging or if it will be found in time to save the lives of us who are presently alive. But in any event, "to grow old with someone" is not a very fortunate choice of words. It's a horrible mindset. It's living on a death premise.

It can be reasonable to say, "Let's stay together forever!" Or if you don't believe in transhumanism, "Let's stay together as long as we live!" But to say, "Let's grow old together!" is like saying, "Let's have cancer together!" or, "Let's catch cholera together!"

"For those of us who remember the actor Charles Boyer: When his wife of many years died, he took a few weeks to put his affairs in order and then took a fatal dose of sleeping pills."

I mean, please. Loving one's wife is wonderful, but loving her more than one's own life?

"All of Hef's women are tall, leggy, hyperpneumatic platinum blondes.

"What the heck is the point? Doesn't the guy want any variety in his life?"

It's actually ironic that a mono would criticize a poly for not having variety in his lovers. I mean, who has more variety in his love life, someone who restricts himself to exactly one woman, or someone who restricts himself to two percent of womankind?

And in case you've been wondering, no, sufferers from blondphilia (Ah! What a beautiful condition to suffer from!) don't date only blondes. I'd say, it's more like striving to keep up a ten-to-one ratio.

In short, don't hassle the Hef, man.

P.S. There even is a song about the idea of a perfect (wo)man being Platonism: "Trying to Find Atlantis" by Jamie O'Neal.

A girl trying to find herself the perfect man is like trying to find Atlantis

Friday, March 07, 2008


Why can't we just get along? Why can even apparently reasonable people sharing many fundamental values sometimes not agree on fundamental moral questions? Is reason limited, after all? Or are all human beings inherently irrational subjectivists, no matter what claims to reason and objectivity they may make? Is our faith in reason misplaced?

Of course, faith in reason is a contradiction. Nathaniel Branden recognized, "Reason is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by the senses. Faith is the acceptance of ideas or allegations without sensory evidence or rational demonstration."

Yet, I'd like to draw your attention to the word "acceptance." That's the key to why we don't get along. Reason does not require an act of faith — but it still requires an act of acceptance. If someone has argued his case to you logically and presented evidence, you may still say, "I don't believe you." Do you mean to say, "I don't have faith in what you say"? No, you mean, "Given the evidence you presented, I don't accept your idea."

Even when you base your ideas on sensory evidence processed by reason and logic, you still have to decide what constitutes proof. Two reasonable human beings applying logic to the same evidence may come to wildly different — even diametrically opposite — results, depending on differing value judgments and standards of proof.

So you've seen the sun rise in the morning. How many sunrises do you have to see to convince you that the sun will rise every morning for the next couple billion years? Ten sunrises? A hundred? A thousand?

Observe that a failure of acceptance is not the same as evasion, as going out of focus. Going out of focus means sticking your fingers in your ears and going, "La, la, la. I'm not listening to this." It's covering your eyes with your hands and saying, "Sun? There's no such thing." A failure to accept means saying, "So what? That proves nothing. Show me more sunrises." Consequently, diverging standards of proof do not necessarily mean that one of the parties is an evader or acts immorally.

Few things in life are as important as setting your threshold of proof. It may be the most basic and gravest responsibility you will ever face.

For instance, in the criminal justice system, setting the threshold of proof too low will result in punishing innocent defendants. Setting it too high means dangerous criminals will walk.

How much more fundamental a task is it to set your threshold of proof in the realm of ideas? Here, the question is whether your view of reality will be reasonably adequate, close enough to objective reality to permit you to survive and prosper.

Setting it too low, accepting half-baked ideas, gave us canards like "homosexuality is immoral" or "a woman wouldn't want to be President." Setting it too high makes you a mystic, caught up in the fallacy of the "gravity game," crying that you can know nothing.

Diverging standards of proof — and the unfortunate tendency of some to pass off their subjective preferences as objective moral standards — that's why ostensibly reasonable people don't get along. Meanwhile, the religious fanatics and collectivists are out there. They're having a field day preparing for our enslavement and extermination. What do we do? We're excoriating each other over issues for which we have only incomplete evidence.

Does Objectivism constitute a perfect philosophical system, or does it need to be amended? How much government do we need at the end of the day?

Even when all the evidence is in, not all of us will ever be able to agree on everything, not even on all the fundamental questions. Every one of us possesses free will. Every one of us is free to set his own standards for the threshold of proof. Thus, we'll never have one perfect system that gives us one definite answer for each possible question.

We better get used to it, stop bitching, and get back to the nitty-gritty. We can't afford to wait until heck freezes over for us to agree on everything. What would Lincoln say? A little more light and a little less noise, please. What would Ben Franklin say? "We must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately."

Originally published on April 28, 2007.

It Takes Music and Lyrics

Alex Fletcher (Hugh Grant) is an eighties pop star down to gigs in theme parks and at county fairs. When even those gigs grow few and far between, snapped up by other has-beens, his manager Chris Riley (Brad Garrett) comes up with a golden opportunity. Girly diva Cora Corman (Haley Bennett) adores Alex (or at least what he was twenty years ago), so she wants him for a duet — if he can write a song for her, till yesterday.

Problem is, composer Alex couldn't write lyrics if his life depended on it. After Colin Thompson (Scott Porter) — the other half of Alex' claim to fame, the duo "PoP!" — ran away with their last three collaborative songs and sold them as his own, Alex composed and wrote his own album — the flop of two centuries. Plus, Alex is not the only composer Cora adores. If he fails, no problem for her — there's plenty of competition.

Nevertheless, Alex grasps at that straw — and push comes to shove. The obnoxious lyricist Chris digs up proves a dud. But who happens to be around to complete lines with flair and a flourish? Nobody else than Alex' temp plant lady Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore).

Like Alex, Sophie has her own Greyhound bus full of emotional baggage. Like he was betrayed by his partner, she was betrayed by her ex-boyfriend, Sloan Cates (Campbell Scott), her English teacher in college. When the professor's fiancée appeared out of nowhere, he quickly wrote a novel, in which a thinly disguised Sophie seduces him to get herself published. To add insult to injury, the book is a blockbuster, and Hollywood beckons, to put that fictional Sophie the Bitch on all the screens in the country.

Thus, Alex has his work cut out for him to make her write again. When he does, Sophie presents to Alex her theory of music — and love. Melody is looks and sex, and lyrics are the values, the story both lovers have in common. Both are necessary to make a relationship work.

Anyways, our two heroes not only manage to complete a presentable song in a veritable music-and-lyrics marathon, they also fall in love in the process. With their work of art, they race to the Downtown Manhattan Heliport to intercept Cora before she can skip town. A nice touch here: The turbines of Cora's helicopter revving up vocalize the increasing tension as Fisher and Fletcher nervously (and he babbling) await Cora's verdict on their brainchild. While we're at it, let me say that Haley Bennett has today's more than belly-baring Pop Queens of Bimbostan down to a T.

Trouble is, while she loves the song, that little bimbo just entered her Zen Buddhism phase. Somehow, the beautiful new Fisher and Fletcher song sounds dumb played on a sitar. Alex manages to keep his newfound partner from blurting that into the diva's face in the studio, but before Sophie rushes off in a cab, she vows to tell the bimbo at the party that night that she's ruining the music of two continents.

To Alex, music is only business now. If he can get publicity by letting Cora ruin his song — so be it. But Sophie insists that music, that art, is inspiration, something not to be sacrificed for a quick profit. His album, she tells him, flopped because his soul wasn't in it.

It turns out that Cora isn't only criticism-resistant, she even wants another stanza. Dispirited and making no progress, Alex manages to insult Sophie the only way she cannot stand. Now, will she complete the song? Will Cora ruin it? And will Fisher and Fletcher come together again?

Music and Lyrics may not be The Fountainhead, but it offers you better value for your seven dollars than any other 2007 movie so far. And don't miss the closing credits: plenty of ever-after info there.

Originally published on April 3, 2007.

Anything Goes: A Horror Writer's Cop Out

The law of identity has a nasty habit of reasserting itself. Even authors whose stock in trade is supernatural horror stories prove implicitly that the law of identity cannot be defeated.

Obviously, all things are what they are, definite entities with definite characteristics. Their behavior is determined by their nature, by their characteristics (the law of causality, a corollary of the law of identity).

The law of identity is an axiomatic truth, that's why I wrote, "obviously." It's confirmed by every observation you make. Plus, even if someone denies an axiomatic truth, they have to accept that truth implicitly in their argument.

Now, what happens if a horror writer makes up entities with supernatural powers, omnipotent monsters that can assume any shape at will, that are not bound by any laws of nature?

It's a lazy writer's dream. No loose ends to take care of. No plot holes. No logic of the story to respect. If all ends are loose by definition, those left loose by accident don't stick out. If the laws of logic are suspended, a writer can play it deuces wild.

Yet, most every self-respecting author writing tales of the supernatural accepts implicitly that there is nothing truly supernatural, nothing bound by no laws, nothing omnipotent. Even Lord Voldemort and Harry Potter need wands, potions, and spells, and have to use them to exacting standards. Every horror story of substance has its "supernatural" beings bound by rules.

They aren't the laws of nature that apply in our universe, but laws they are. They are, so to speak, laws of the supernatural. However, once the supernatural is no longer an omnipotent blur without laws, it by definition ceases to be supernatural. Being subject to predictable laws is the hallmark of nature.

All those witches and alchemists, in fiction and in our real past, weren't dealing with the supernatural. Not in the sense of "omnipotent." What they were searching in the real world, and found in fiction, is another body of laws that supersedes the known laws of nature.

For potions and the philosopher's stone alike, they accepted that the identity they wished to change could only be changed by scrupulously following specific recipes and carefully selecting specific ingredients. Those alchemists who tried to turn lead into gold, to seemingly defeat the law of identity, explicitly or implicitly accepted the law of identity.

Turns out that in a way they were right. There is a law of nature that does supersede the laws of chemistry known up to the twentieth century. Today, man knows that the characteristics of matter permit turning lead into gold, not by chemistry, but by nuclear physics. Trouble is, doing that costs more than the gold is worth.

In short, no matter how many laws of nature one denies, as long as one still lays claim to a vestige of logic, one cannot deny the basic law underlying all others: the law of identity.

But what does happen if a horror writer does play it deuces wild? What if a story does feature truly omnipotent beings?

That's simple. The closer the characters come to being omnipotent, the fewer laws of nature they're bound by, the more the plot disintegrates. Plot is the logical progression of events, and the more the author tries to deny the law of identity, the less logic there is to go round.

A truly hundred percent supernatural story featuring truly omnipotent beings would be exceedingly short and boring. So the god or vampire or Voldemort or Potter could just command, "Die, enemies!" and all his antagonists would be dead. The story, having run out of conflict, would be over.

Alternatively, the writer could have both sides being omnipotent: an irresistible force versus an immovable object — which would terminate the story as well. The resulting contradiction of universal proportions by the way constitutes proof that there can be neither irresistible forces nor immovable objects.

So the monsters must be hobbled to slow them down, must have an Achilles heel to give the heroes a chance to defeat them. Vampires cannot stand sunlight, garlic, and crucifixes, cross water, or enter a room uninvited. If there were no such rules, the vampires could just consume one peasant girl after another, without any effort. Once past the "shocker" part, once the existence of vampires has been established, the story would degenerate into a mindless orgy.

Many horror stories are simply short shockers. Say, a couple stops over at an out-of-the-way hotel, all night long the goings on get stranger and stranger, until it turns out that the hotel is occupied by vampires. The couple either manages to escape by the skin of their teeth, or they get killed.

In tales like these, the whole story is nothing but a suspenseful "exposition," baiting and thrilling readers by hints that something monstrous is going on. Conveniently, the story stops before the author has to deal with the contradictions inherent in the supernatural, so he never has to go to the trouble of making his monsters work.

If the monsters are invulnerable and cannot be fought, the only two plot elements available are the monster's inner conflicts whether to use his powers and (more frequently) the efforts of his victims to suck up to him to evade his wrath.

For example, take John Carpenter's The Fog. The ghosts are pretty much omnipotent while in the fog. Their victims can only run, or when the fog encircles them, plead with the ghosts, try to bribe them, or offer themselves in sacrifice to save others. There's no conflict worth mention because the ghosts' omnipotence makes any activity of their victims pointless. They must remain passive, helpless, at the mercy of supernatural forces.

That doesn't mean that The Fog isn't a good movie, or isn't worth watching. In fact, it's kind of fascinating. But it means that what makes movies like this interesting is not plot or conflict. The Fog is actually very similar to another movie filmed in the same neck of the woods: Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. Both movies feature a thrilling "exposition," but in both the real star is the atmosphere.

Take an idyllic California coastal town and have it enveloped and wrecked by some irresistible, inexplicable force. Of course, the more easily scared members of the audience appreciate the thrill of an ax or a bird attack out of the blue, too. But then, a little less omnipotence and a little more logic might work wonders.

Originally published on August 10, 2007, on The Atlasphere.

Casino After All

Ayn Rand loved James Bond the hero, but hated the self-mocking tone of some Bond movies. So, what's the deal with Casino Royale, the first ever Bond novel, and at long last an official Bond movie? Let the cards speak for themselves.

First off, it's true that Daniel Craig is a counterintuitive choice as Bond. His rugged looks would better fit Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt than suave Mr. Eton James Bond. Above all, for Ian's sake, it's not James Blond. OK, so both Bond girls in Casino Royale are brunette (where are the cool blondes?), but why the toupee is Bond suddenly blond? Technicolor advisor!

Yet the biggest problem with Casino Royale may be that it's a reboot of the Bond franchise. Esthetically, reboots are inherently questionable. By wiping the canvas clean, the viewer is brutally reminded that it is, well, a canvas. After all, reality cannot be wiped clean. Fans are tacitly expected to sweep under the rug of oblivion all of Bond's earlier adventures. That may to some degree backfire on producers when the most devoted Connery and Moore fans decide to watch the old Bond continuum on DVD and boycott his newspeak incarnation.

Unfortunately, the only holdover from the Brosnan days is what was Brosnan's worst liability: Judi Dench. Having Bond encounter a feminist, macho-hating boss once would have been a fine joke. Having her stick around emasculates the whole series.

Part of Bond's appeal is that he's larger than life. Posh hotels with all expenses paid, exotic locales, fast cars to wreck at the taxpayer's expense, private jets, a license to kill — and any woman he wants, he'll get. True, Connery and Moore too had to get along with an authoritarian M, and a Q furious due to the wreckage Bond wrought. Yet, back then Bond used to get his own back by dumbfounding M on the spot with his superior knowledge, and in the end by having saved the world.

However, Ms. M heaping politically correct abuse on a morally defenseless Bond for his larger than life style is something that could drive the calmest soul from a view to a kill.

As Bond co-producer Michael G. Wilson once observed, "We always start out trying to make another From Russia with Love and end up with another Thunderball." Accordingly, gadgets and visual effects were out this time and character and plot were supposed to be in.

Well, I sorely missed the funny gadgets. It doesn't help matters that the gadgets have been replaced by pointless stunts. That they were done by real stuntmen instead of computer graphics doesn't make much of a difference. The best I can say about the long stunt sequence at a construction site is that some of the stunts at least succeed at one-upping those they imitate.

The nadir of the movie comes when Bond chases a terrorist trying to bomb the world's largest jetliner at rollout. First the hijacked tanker drives through a train of baggage carts — then through an articulated bus. Yes, I said an articulated bus. Right, that's more like The Naked Gun than like James Bond. We've gone through a train of baggage carts and a bus. Hey, what's next? The Great Wall?

In a movie already known for its goofs, an empty pistol going click with the slide not locked open is probably par for the course. A source of involuntary humor, however, comes courtesy of veteran Bond production designer Peter Lamont, who really should know better.

"The plane had no engines, but it was in fairly good condition, and we could use the body of the 747 to save us the huge expense of building something of that bulk. I looked at many references of airplane construction and decided our Skyfleet should look like the B-52s, with pairs of tandem engines, and an altered cockpit profile. I don't know if my design would fly, but the B-52s managed!"

Sure she might fly in the sky — but she would never fly with the FAA. More importantly, frequent flyers wouldn't touch her with a ten-foot pole, as such a tandem engine arrangement obviously means a shockwave, fire, or explosion from one failing engine will take its neighbor along. The B-52 can afford that — she's got twice as many engines and isn't a passenger jet.

There's a cautionary tale "for make benefit" artists here: Details can destroy the whole picture. One look at those engines makes that would-be super jumbo look smallish and antiquated, upper deck or no upper deck. On the bright side, Lamont manages to redeem himself with an impressive scene of a slowly collapsing Venetian palace late in the movie.

The action-heavy terrorist plot (excuse the pun) grafted onto the original story of Casino Royale is like Die Another Day and other Brosnan Bonds. Brosnan, an actor perfect for the role, got buried under tons of golden eye candy forgotten once outside the multiplex, never to be watched another day.

Only when Bond arrives in Montenegro does Casino Royale come into its own. First a Bond ally teaches Bond and the audience a witty way to get rid of a corrupt police chief with Photoshop. But then, is that ally really an ally? Or is he as much of a phony as his photos? As the movie moves on, the newly-minted 00 Agent may have to learn the hard way that in his line of business he often can neither trust partners nor lovers.

It looks like reusing locales out of From Russia with Love, the Balkans and Venice, proved a charm. In the casino sequence, the classic Connery and Lazenby atmosphere finally comes to life: Continental casino charm (does it exist in casinos outside the Bond universe?) laced with intrigue and lurking assassins. Get up from the card table, get poisoned, get involved in a deadly brawl, wash off the blood, change your shirt, and be back before the cards are cold.

Of course, in the novel Casino Royale baccarat was Bond's game of choice, like in so many Bond novels and movies. That it has been replaced by high-stakes poker detracts surprisingly little from the Connery atmosphere. The substitution is probably a wise one, as most viewers will be more familiar with poker than with baccarat rules. Anyway, from Maverick with love works as a movie.

In 1954, The New York Times recommended regarding the novel, "You should certainly begin this book; but you might as well stop when the baccarat game is over." I'd recommend the same, only in the opposite order: Unless you're a die-hard action fan, you might as well spend the first half-hour necking — but the casino in Casino Royale will turn your movie ticket into a winning ticket.

And what about Mr. Craig? He manages to become a credible, if bleached, Bond over the course of the casino sequence. May he live to play Bond another day.

Originally published on December 22, 2006, on The Atlasphere.

The Da Vinci Code: Fighting Faith and Force

Looking for a fascinating movie? Then let Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code entertain you.

While in Paris on business, Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), an American professor of symbology, is called to the Louvre. Ostensibly, he is to assist French police to investigate a murder scene covered with mysterious messages.

Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), a police cryptologist apparently related to the victim, rescues Langdon from the clutches of her fellow officers. He is to be framed for the murder, she informs him.

To find out what the heck is going on, they have to solve the riddles and find the holy grail (not a cup, by the way). On their quest, they can trust no one — neither the "secular" government nor their own friends. Their only true allies are their courage and their own reasoning minds.

This plot drives the movie along at a breakneck pace: solving riddles, outwitting the police, defeating Leonardo-like inventions. Nearly nothing is detracted from the fun if one thinks that not everything is hundred percent logical. (For instance, it has been noted that the so-called cryptex could in fact be defeated easily by freezing it, so that the vinegar in the booby trap cannot dissolve the document inside.)

Some scenes are noteworthy for Objectivists. There's a Swiss bank where premium accounts allegedly come with safe conduct provided against government persecutors. At one point, the heroes escape in a private jet. Driven by insane religious zeal, the corrupt Catholic police captain Bezu Fache (Jean Reno) tortures an innocent air traffic controller in order to obtain the flight plan.

This scene may give some Objectivists pause. Even if France had objective laws, none of them could stop Fache from turning his monopoly on the legal use of force into a license to commit crimes against disarmed, defenseless victims. Like any case of corruption, this goes to show that objective laws are vulnerable as long as there remain non-objective lawmen.

What is needed is not so much objective laws as objective people, because through free will people will always be able to ignore the law — and will do so if they believe they are serving a higher good. For a real-life example, think of Kelo v. New London.

Besides these tidbits and the breakneck pace of the plot, there's some fine acting. Hanks, equally at home in comedy and drama, reinterprets the Hitchcock classic of an innocent man entangled in a lethal web of intrigue because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Reno plays the role of the fanatic cop like it was written for him — well, it really was.

Yet, both Hanks and Reno are easily outplayed by the brilliant Tautou, playing an atheist heroine haunted by her mysterious past. She perfectly projects the picture of a patently vulnerable character transcending her frailty by a steely resolve to enlighten her past — and to spite the unholy alliance of faith and force intent on sacrificing Langdon.

For a mainstream movie, The Da Vinci Code offers cinematic art galore. Director Ron Howard went to great lengths to visualize the characters' thinking.

When Sophie and Langdon approach Westminster Abbey, for example, discussing Isaac Newton's funeral, semi-transparent eighteenth-century mourners begin milling around them, while the modern City of Westminster fades away to reveal the eighteenth-century cityscape. A little later, as Langdon is pondering the clue of a missing orb on Newton's grave, all the orbs — the planets — start revolving around his head.

A nice twist is the scene where the heroes escape a police trap. The viewer is left in limbo, wondering how they did it, fearing he may never know, until a scene or two later when their escape trick is revealed via flashback. Realism is added by the consistent use of subtitles whenever somebody doesn't speak English. If a character is supposed to speak French, he really does — and the clerics speak Latin.

It certainly makes one reflect on the nature of evil when Opus Dei arch villain Bishop Aringarosa (Alfred Molina) speaks Latin on his cell phone while flying on an executive jet — both obviously provided by victimized producers.

While the question, "What if all the conspiracy theories about the Knights Templar, the Priory of Sion, and the holy grail were not hoaxes?" makes for a fascinating plot, the movie's theme collapses into a philosophical nullity. Why would an atheist care whether Jesus had a wife and kids?

The Catholic church's wailing about this is like Swift's war over the proper way of cracking an egg. At first glance, who cares whether the faith Jesus founded is to be administered by the church of his friend Peter or by Jesus' family? Worse, there's definitely a sinister streak to the movie, alternately hinting that people are determined by their ancestry or that all that matters is what you believe.

At second glance, however, the controversy has its own benefits. The schism divides religionists — and not only in the fictional universe of The Da Vinci Code. Believe it or not, it's already happening in the real world. The Catholic church is outraged that artists dare to deviate from their dogma. (And mind you, the movie has already been much sanitized versus the book: No longer are church entities like Opus Dei implicated — the evil priests are renegades.)

As per the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Brown-bashing website, they're really losing true believers to Brown. Now the chickens come home to roost: Some believers are defecting the faith set forth in one work of fiction, the Bible, to religiously embrace Brown's equally fictitious tale.

After all, "Brownism" is more humane, not sexist, and less sexually repressed. What has the Catholic church to bring to bear against that? Only that their book is backed by two thousand years of tradition.

On that selfsame website, the church desperately appeals to truth and reason. That's easily the most brazen attempt at concept stealing I've heard of.

The whole affair would be funny if it weren't so serious. Yet, look on the bright side of it. Divide et impera: Let Brown divide religionists — and reason will conquer much faster.

Originally published on July 27, 2006, on The Atlasphere.

P.S. RLC #1 salutes RLC #3, Rennes-le-Château! ;)

Wild River

The 1960 movie Wild River by Elia Kazan is kind of a The Fountainhead in reverse: The government is presented as the source of progress, while the individual provides the impediments. To paraphrase Ellsworth Toohey, all the wrong people are on the wrong sides. Despite this flawed premise, if understood correctly, Wild River hints at some valuable lessons on human rights.

The movie begins with black-and-white newsreel footage of a flood: a house washed into the river, a man recounting how his family was drowned. The implication: If forces of nature threaten property and life — and if private enterprise does not dam up the river — is it not the right and the responsibility of the government to do it?

The evasion, of course, is that governments are instituted to protect man from the initiation of force by men — not by nature.

Cut to color film. The time is the Roosevelt Depression. TVA troubleshooter Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift) swoops into small, backward Garthville. The project to build a local dam — which will redirect water, causing many properties to be flooded — is stalled. Everybody has sold out, except old Ella Garth (Jo van Fleet). Glover is the third man to try to get Ella Garth off her river island. Despite the government's power of eminent domain, he has been told not to use force. To the TVA bosses, it would be a PR nightmare to have an old lady dragged from her land. A further consideration is the senators who are against eminent domain: They would love to use such an incident to kill the TVA.

Glover states the government viewpoint: They admire the American Way, the unyielding individualism as evidenced by Ella. Yet they believe independence of such unbroken integrity is suicide. However, in his own flawed way, Glover respects reason. He thinks he can do better than his predecessors by appealing to Ella's intelligence.

When Glover gets to Garth Island, he finds the mother of backwardness: a hand-operated ferry, a horse and carriage, an unpainted old house. Predictably, Ella roundly refuses to sell out, whatever he may offer or say.

When Ella tells Glover that she has a good reason to stay, that the soil on her island is the best in the county, too good to be inundated, he hints in true collectivist fashion that she is selfish. After all, how much soil gets washed away every year? You love only your soil, he accuses her, not the soil in general. Besides, doesn't the river have to be tamed?

Ella replies she doesn't want the river to be tamed. She loves everything wild. She is against any kind of dams — no matter what they are for. This must be understood not only literally, that she is a naturalist; much more important is the implied metaphorical meaning: She is against all dams constituted by laws — laws to tame and harness man. Ella will only be driven away by force. They will not need much force, but they will have to use some force. She doesn't bow to any government.

When Ella tells Glover that her husband came down the river and cleared the land on the island, the simple fact that the town is named Garthville concretizes the whole theme of the movie, even the whole zeitgeist of the Roosevelt Depression. If the town is named for her husband, his farm must have been quite a plantation; it’s the cause for the town’s growth. In other words, the individual built America — but now the time for individualism is over. Supposedly, the grand dams of the twentieth century can only be built by collective effort directed by the government.

However, Ella too makes dependents of people. The black farmhands completely depend on her judgment. They ask Glover who will take care of them when the water comes. Glover wonders who takes care of them now. When they answer: Ella, he asks if they wouldn't rather take care of themselves. Sadly, they never get to care for themselves: When they accept jobs and housing from the TVA, they only trade dependence on Ella for dependence on the government.

In the romantic subplot of the movie, Glover convinces Ella's granddaughter Carol Baldwin (Lee Remick), a young widow, of the value of romantic love. She too has relied on Ella's care after her husband died and has become her dependent. Now she is ready to marry a nice but dull guy whom she will never love, just to get a stepfather for her kids. Of course, she falls in love with Glover. His "living in sin" with her does nothing to endear him to townsfolks.

Eventually, the story ends as it must end: Ella can only be removed by force. The dam is finished, the water is rising, and the PR nightmare would be even worse if she were drowned. Glover finds her a tiny whitewashed house with a porch for her to sit on.

Here one can observe how this work of art concretizes abstractions. Walking towards her new home, Ella is enveloped in clouds of steam from the asphalt the highway is being paved with. Watching these clouds lets you nearly smell the asphalt. This is the scent of progress — a scent Ella cannot enjoy. The set has been built to look modern, but dreary. Instead of a picket fence there's a steel fence. Instead of a stone walk there's a concrete walk. Instead of her big, old ramshackle farmhouse, Ella gets a tiny, whitewashed suburban home only yards from a highway. One cannot but sense that Ella will never be able to live there.

The last words we hear Ella say before she dies direct Carol to settle Ella's debt of 16 cents for two pounds of sugar. Otherwise, she states, she owes nothing to no man. This carries shades of Howard Roark, who declares: "I do not recognize anyone's right to one minute of my life. Nor to any part of my energy. Nor to any achievement of mine. No matter who makes the claim, how large their number or how great their need."

Viewed casually, Wild River is a monument to the false dichotomy, progress versus individualism. The theme director Elia Kazan — a liberal despite his heroic HUAC testimony — may have had in mind apparently was: The deplorable but inevitable tragedy that for collective safety and progress individuals must be sacrificed. But of course progress doesn't come at the price of individual sacrifice — rather, it is the individual who makes all progress.

The whole problem is only caused by the TVA's own stupidity. They should have assembled their lot before building the dam. If someone refused to sell, they would have to build the dam elsewhere. But what if there is only one possible site? Even that is no excuse for eminent domain. Besides, with all the expenses for moving Ella, they might as well have built a levee around her island.

Now, someone might defend eminent domain by claiming reason only goes so far — or that Ella is insane to oppose the values of progress. That Glover was unable to reason with Ella doesn't mean reason is limited. It doesn't even mean she's insane. It is only that she values other things than Glover, me, and most of us. Instead of dams, electric power, and flood control, she values her farm. Some of her reasons are purely sentimental, like her wish to get buried on the island next to her husband. Other reasons, like not wanting the good soil submerged, are perfectly reasonable.

In the long run, however, progress is only possible through the work of the individual. The preconditions for his work are his absolute, inalienable rights to life, liberty, and property. That means in the short run we pay a price for our rights: The price is that we have to respect the rights of every other peaceable citizen — no matter what he values. If we cannot get a dam, a skyscraper, or a job without looting — then we cannot have that specific dam, skyscraper, or job.

Or as Ayn Rand wrote:

The next time you encounter one of those "public-spirited" dreamers who tells you rancorously that "some very desirable goals cannot be achieved without everybody's participation," tell him that if he cannot obtain everybody's voluntary participation, his goals had jolly well better remain un-achieved — and that men's lives are not his to dispose of. (The Virtue of Selfishness, 98.)

Originally published on Febuary 17, 2006, on The Atlasphere.

P.S. Maybe, the writers thought of the battle cry of altruists and collectivists? "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." — John Donne.

Soaring Toward the Heavens - Again

While David Childs' latest design for New York's New World Trade Center Freedom Tower is much improved over Daniel Libeskind's nightmarish vision and Childs' own skeleton-topped contraption dubbed "the world's tallest chicken coop," it still does not necessarily amount to the full rebuilding New York and America deserve. Gone are the physically impossible sliver greenhouse and the morbid skeleton Libeskind and Childs respectively had earlier contrived to push a 70-story office building past the height of the destroyed 110-story masterpieces. On any other lot, this simple, symmetrical design — a crystalline prism with a perfectly square base and chamfered corners dropping back elegantly as the tower rises — would qualify as one of the world's most beautiful buildings.

But can one such building replace the Twin Towers? The Twin Towers were my favorite buildings anywhere because they had all the qualities that I think make an office building great. They were tall. They did not have any setbacks to apologize for their greatness. They looked tall — their facade columns stressed the vertical and let the Towers soar. They had logical, simple floorplans flexible enough to allow for customization by the tenant. They did not have any decorative elements other than necessary due to the aforementioned four points. The Twin Towers were the perfect embodiment of form follows function. Frank Lloyd Wright modernism is wonderful for residences and museums — but the best shape for an office skyscraper is usually a box. The Twin Towers were the logical thing: If you want to make an office building the tallest in the city — make the box 110 floors. If you want to make it "so New York" — build two of them, while you're at it.

The latest version of Freedom Tower is said to have 82 floors instead of 70. Instead of about 1,100 feet, its roof will now rise to the 1,362 feet of the old Two WTC, while a glass parapet will reach the 1,368 feet of One WTC. With some good will — ignoring the facts that glass is not aluminum or steel and that visitors on the elevated observation deck above the roof of Two WTC stood higher than the 1,362 feet they can reach on Freedom Tower's rooftop observation deck — one might say that the first of the new WTC Towers will be not one inch shorter than before. This is of course the paramount requirement for a rebuilt WTC. But the requirement not to retreat from the skies in any way whatsoever is not met in a host of other dimensions. Well, if they would only build two of these Freedom Towers! (Why not call them "Freedom" and "Liberty" as a friend of me suggested?) However, the Libeskind-decreed downward spiral dictates that all other WTC Towers must be even shorter than Freedom Tower.

Deplorably, Freedom Tower supposedly will only have 82 floors versus the Twin Tower's 110. This comparison is however somewhat deceptive. Looking at drawings of the Twin Towers in engineering textbooks, it appears that they have been cheating up back then: To arrive at a floor count of 110, they must have counted the tall lobbies as multiple floors and double-high mechanical floors as two floors. Real floor count must have been more like 102. I have not seen such detailed drawings for the new Freedom Tower design, but by some simple calculations I wager to say that by the old method of counting, one might arrive at a floor count of up to 102 for Freedom Tower. So depending on how you count, the Twin Towers had at least 102, at most 110 floors (of which 92 were office floors); Freedom Tower will have between 82 and 102 (69 office floors). The remaining discrepancy despite equal height to roof is explainable by the fact that in today's office buildings, individual floors are higher than in those built 30 years ago. Anyway, where they have been cheating up in the past, they are cheating down now, in order to not scare the tenants on the top office floors, who are supposedly afraid of being "up there." What those of us who want to have an office on a cool three-digit floor are to do, has not been addressed.

In any event, authorities' claims that Freedom Tower will be materially taller than the Twin Towers are not true. The old 1,368-foot-tall One WTC Tower had a 1,728-foot communications tower (read: antenna) on top; the new 1,368-foot-tall Freedom Tower will have a 1,776-foot spire on top that doubles as a broadcasting antenna. The real-life difference between the tips of the two buildings is all of 48 feet. Only the more or less arbitrary decision of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (sounds like one more Toohey council!), the self-appointed, unofficial umpire on what counts towards building height and what does not, declares the old Tower to be 1,368 official feet and may declare the new one 1,776. Functional broadcasting masts do not count towards building height; their existence is blanked out. A purely ornamental spire however does count. Freedom Tower's spire will be both an antenna and an ornament. Depending on the Council's whim, there is a fifty-fifty chance that the building will be pronounced to be 1,368 or 1,776 feet.

Freedom Tower will have a slightly smaller footprint (200 by 200 feet versus 208 by 208). As the building tapers considerably, it will comprise only slightly more than half the office space of ONE Twin Tower. The office space once contained in two monumental towers will now be broken up into five smaller buildings. What is more, even when the last new WTC Tower is completed, not all office space destroyed by the terrorists will have been rebuilt. For a failure to effect a full rebuilding in this respect, "thank" communitarian urban planners who cry "less density" as an answer to all questions they are faced with. I guess if you ask one of them the time of day he will answer: "Less density!"

Deplorably, developer and WTC leaseholder Larry Silverstein has been no help in getting the Twin Towers rebuilt. He is only focused on rebuilding as much office space as the urban planners let him get away with, no matter if the new WTC buildings are shorter and constitute a retreat from the skies. Silverstein seems to be the man Howard Roark warns Gail Wynand against: "The man whose sole aim is to make money." A man who does not mind if a building is shorter and smaller than the one it replaces, if shorter and smaller is more short-term profitable. A developer whose end is not the best, greatest possible skyscraper, but who treats the means to an end — money — as an end in itself.

Some people say we must rebuild the Twin Towers to show that we are not afraid of terrorists. While this is one reason, I say we must rebuild the Twin Towers — terrorists or no terrorists. Rebuilding the Twin Towers would be just as important if they had been destroyed by an earthquake or a hurricane. One simply does not replace a great thing with something less great. Period.

Now, there is a controversy over whether tax money should help pay for rebuilding the WTC. Of course, in principle the government has no business building or operating office space. On the other hand, the government has no business prohibiting developers like Donald Trump from building 140-story towers via the FAA or zoning laws. Maybe the government owes New York a 100-plus-story skyscraper or two? Moreover, the Twin Towers were destroyed in an act of war; countering acts of war is the legitimate business of government. Finally, as the money has already been looted, there are much worse ways to spend it. Ayn Rand said in "Apollo 11":

As far as "national priorities" are concerned, I want to say the following: we do not have to have a mixed economy, we still have a chance to change our course and thus to survive. But if we do continue down the road of a mixed economy, then let them pour all the millions and billions they can into the space program. If the United States is to commit suicide, let it not be for the sake and support of the worst human elements, the parasites-on-principle, at home and abroad. Let it not be its only epitaph that it died paying its enemies for its own destruction. Let some of its lifeblood go to the support of achievement and the progress of science. The American flag on the moon — or on Mars, or on Jupiter — will, at least, be a worthy monument to what had once been a great country.

Let me paraphrase this: The American Flag in the sky on a 110-story — or for that matter, why not 220-story — Tower on this Earth will be a worthy monument to what can again be a great country.

Originally published on August 1, 2005, on The Atlasphere.

Sahara: A Hero in the Moral Desert

Today, let's shoot down a bromide. "No movie is as good as the book it is based on!" How about a movie that’s in some respects better than the book?

Sahara is based on a "Dirk Pitt" adventure novel by Clive Cussler. Bantermeister extraordinaire Dirk Pitt (played by Matthew McConaughey) and his no less flamboyant sidekick Al Giordino (Steve Zahn) are troubleshooters for the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA), run by retired Admiral Sandecker (William H. Macy). Whenever an oceanographic expedition discovers clues to some legendary treasure or some super villain's scheme (and both happens regularly to NUMA, at the rate of at least once per book), Dirk and Al got to get going.

Cussler — whose books are veritable page turners — was my favorite author before I discovered Ayn Rand. Dirk Pitt showed me what it means to be a hero. In the novels, Dirk Pitt saved the world. In real life, he saved my benevolent universe sense of life. He demonstrated to me that the heroic is possible and worth pursuing. In other words, Dirk Pitt novels tided me over until I found The Fountainhead.

How did you do it, Mr. Pitt? Well, as I said, Dirk Pitt is the bantermeister extraordinaire. The most monstrous danger cannot keep Dirk and Al from exchanging their trademark lighthearted wisecracks while they are out to give the bad guys hell.

The role of banter in the life of a hero has deplorably been misunderstood by the wise and the humble alike. Ayn Rand was suspicious of the bantering hero. She thought that humor and taking ideas seriously do not go together. "Heroes do not say 'Gee whiz' — nor any equivalent of it." (Her letter to Henry Blanke, producer of The Fountainhead movie, December 6, 1945.)

On the other side of the aisle, McConaughey, of all people, seems to be the embodiment of what Ayn Rand meant by "Gee whiz." Judging by the intellectual depth of his interviews, he does not take himself or anything seriously because he knows no important ideas. His best shot at philosophy is, "Basically, everyone's just tryin' to take care of themselves, their loved ones, have a roof over their head, eat somethin' and stay healthy." Consequently, McConaughey opines, "[Dirk Pitt is] real good at things, but is real tongue and [sic] cheek about things, doesn't take himself seriously."

However, it is neither ideas nor himself that the bantering hero laughs at. It is evil and danger that he makes light of. Dirk Pitt's sense of life is that evil is powerless and that no danger — whatever it be — must be taken seriously, because it will be overcome by Dirk's legendary resourcefulness, i.e. by the power of man's reasoning mind.

Although heroic, Cussler's books are rather worthless idea-wise. He is lost in the great moral nirvana of our day. Consequently, in his novels government-employed heroes sometimes engage in altruist activity and many villains happen to be businessmen. However, Cussler's books are not deliberately anti-business or pro-altruist. Cussler simply defaults on morality and today's default morality happens to be a weird mixture of Americanism and altruism.

Like every good detective story writer, Cussler dramatizes the fight of good versus evil — and with him, at least the good guys always win. There is no moral gray; his heroes are unbroken — and unbreakable. Yes, Cussler's characters are out to save the whole world; they even collaborate with (wince!) the UN. Yet it is America that triumphs, while the communists, terrorists, dictators, and sundry other villains lose.

Sahara has Dirk and Al looking for a lost rebel ironclad that somehow managed to run the Union blockade and cross the Atlantic. With gold from the Confederate treasury on board, it sought shelter and was left high and dry in some arroyo in the eponymous desert. As our heroes head up the Niger River on NUMA's super yacht Calliope, an unlikely heroine, World Health Organization doctor Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz), hitches a ride with them. She is tracking a mysterious epidemic that emanates from the upriver fiefdom of warlord Kazim (Lennie James), who in turn is involved with French industrialist Yves Massarde (Lambert Wilson).

After a slow and generic beginning with some substandard banter, the movie picks up speed to boom with action and banter with the best of them — though Al deplorably always comes across as a bit of a buffoon. Yet, the humorous possibilities of the movie are boundless. Two men, handcuffed to the disembodied cargo bed of a pickup truck in the middle of the desert — think about it. Our heroes have all the opportunities one may wish for to apply their resourcefulness.

Now, I promised that the movie is in some respects better than the book. What respects? First, Dirk's and Al's employer, the NUMA, modeled by Cussler as a NASA-like government agency (observe the similar acronyms), has been changed into a private foundation. Second, while retaining all important plot elements, one thing has been cut: In the book, it turns out that Abraham Lincoln was held hostage on the ironclad — the guy who got shot in Ford's Theater was an actor!

Outlandish "what if" plot elements like this are what many of Cussler's fans like best about his books — yet they cause continuity problems, because the alternative history created in one book is often forgotten in the next. It seems that Cussler eschews the complexities of remaining true to his alternate universe that would be removed from ours farther and farther book by book.

So, Cussler-wise, my advice: The Sahara movie is well worth watching. Regarding his books, the earlier ones may have less spectacular plot ideas, but offer the reader more charm and better craftsmanship.

Originally published on June 8, 2005, on The Atlasphere.

P.S. Come to think of it, the villain may have been a capitalist, but at least he was a frog eater. ;)

Phantom of the Opera: Romance and Reality

If you like the Broadway production of The Phantom of the Opera, you'll love the movie. If you haven't seen either, you may ask, why should a reasonable person be interested in phantoms? Well, unreason and superstition deserve contempt, but one can still enjoy a good mystery. It is after all a triumph of man's reasonable mind when a seemingly supernatural mystery is explained.

That is one of the points where the movie version of Phantom is superior to the theatrical production, which introduces supernatural innuendo into Gaston Leroux' novel. The movie, however, offers a realistic explanation for every trick of the Phantom (Gerard Butler). In the movie, there is obviously no magic involved when the Phantom steps out of the mirror or brings down the chandelier. When the Phantom makes Carlotta (Minnie Driver), the diva, lose her voice, the Phantom is seen replacing her mouth spray with a croak concoction. The Phantom will not just simply evaporate or vanish; there will be a trap door visible. You won't be treated to a piano playing by itself, entrancing the cast of the Phantom’s opera.

However, director Joel Schumacher could not resist including one piece of romantic optical effects magic. When the Phantom leads Christine (Emmy Rossum) from her wardrobe to his lair beyond the underground lake, candelabras appear magically out of the walls and water. Yet, it is possible that Christine is only dreaming or hallucinating. When Meg Giry (Jennifer Ellison) enters the secret passage a little later, there are no candelabras there.

The story not even lacks a benign moral message: The beauty or ugliness that really counts is not in a person's face but in the soul. Christine: "This haunted face holds no horror for me now... It's in your soul that the true distortion lies..."

What is more, the movie is a remarkable feat of artistic integration. It is art in the perfect sense: It permits you to sense the highest, the greatest, and the best possible to man on earth. It is hard not to be moved to tears by the sheer beauty of the combination of music and pictures. Just listening to the CD has nowhere near the same effect, except if you allow the music to remind you of the movie's mood, pictures, and story. Even the Broadway production cannot offer that level of pure "Elysian joy," to paraphrase the musical's song "Masquerade."

Of course, in the age of computer graphics, the set design of the best theater must pale beside what views and vistas are possible in a movie. The mid-song transformation in "Think of Me" from Christine's impromptu audition to a sweeping view of her performance, resplendent in her costume, in front of a lavish, packed opera auditorium, is pure movie magic, impossible to be equaled by its live counterpart.

Esthetically, this scene is a perfect reduction to essentials. Christine does the work required to get the job; cut to the result, her reward, the achievement she has always dreamed of. The inessentials, like her changing into her new costume, are left out.

Still, the visitations of the visual effects department are decidedly a mixed blessing. The score has been changed so that the chandelier does no longer fall as a cliffhanger before the intermission (no such thing in the movies) but near the climactic end. The Opera House no longer being needed for the story, the falling chandelier, bristling with candles, hits the gas limelights, resulting in a towering inferno engulfing the whole building.

I am not sure whether the added drama of the fire enhances the chase through the catacombs, sparks raining down here, there, and everywhere, enough to excuse the logical problems it creates in the story. Like, if the chandelier has been at the center of such an inferno, how comes that it can be sold at auction decades later, even in pieces?

Likewise, Raoul (Patrick Wilson), Christine’s love interest, gets the chance to dramatically duel the Phantom in the cemetery scene. When Raoul finally has the disarmed Phantom at his mercy, ready for a coup de grace, Christine begs him not to kill his adversary. They leave the Phantom lying there and ride away. The next thing Raoul does is scheming how to ensnare and arrest the Phantom. Could neither of our two heroes think of marching the Phantom to the nearest police station at sword point after he had lost the duel?

But these are inessentials. There is only one capital-D Drawback to the movie. No multiplex can equal the operatic ambiance of a historic Broadway theater like the Majestic, built in 1903. The unique sales proposition of the theatrical production is the play's being set in an opera house. The theater auditorium becomes the auditorium of the Opera House. The musical audience is right in the center of things, part of the action, down to the smell of grease paint.

You will imagine that you have been spirited more than a century back in time, attending a performance at the Garnier Opera House in Paris, where the Phantom is about to strike; spirited to a romantic Paris that never existed in this way and surely does not exist today. An experience that renders any visit to today's real-life Paris and the Opera House necessarily anticlimactic. You snap a photo of the rococo Opera House, kitschy in good light, after having had to dodge countless subcompact cars out to hit you.

Naturally, this experience is completely lost in even the most beautiful multiplex. Plus, you likely won't get to buy one of those cute souvenir programs, either. To claim all the benefits this possibly most romantic story ever told has to offer, one has to see both the theatrical production, preferably in a historic theater, and the movie.

Originally published on January 28, 2005, on The Atlasphere.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Welcome to Reason and Liberty Central!

Welcome to the new home of Reason and Liberty Central, formerly hosted exclusively at Kevin Traynor Central. For the housewarming party and grand opening, why not try some Reason and Liberty Central classics? After the reruns, we'll proceed to the new stuff.