Archives For Cinema

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No robots were involved in the writing of this column.

That’s not to say that robots aren’t writing a considerable amount of what you might come across today on the internet.

A recent article, entitled “Robots Wrote this Story,” describes how “in 2013, AI-powered journalism was in its infancy . . . [but today it] identifies the relevant data, matches it with the corresponding phrases in the template, merges them, and then publishes different versions across different platforms.”

The various artificial intelligences writing the news for us have interesting names. Among them are Wibbitz (USA Today), News Tracer (Reuters), Buzzbot (open source), and Heliograf (Washington Post). Rumors are that Skynet may be on the horizon.

A Washington Post reporter optimistically says, “We’re naturally wary about any technology that could replace human beings. But this technology seems to have taken over only some of the grunt work.”

So far.

Lewis certainly wasn’t overly impressed by the robot in a classic science fiction film released in 1956.

Before leaving home [for a trip to Northern Ireland] I saw the film of The Forbidden Planet, a post-civilisation version of the Tempest with a Robot for Caliban . . . The contrast between the magnificent technical power and the deplorable level of ethics and imagination in the story was what struck me most.*

Count me as a member of C.S. Lewis’ camp. He possessed little to no fear of robots. He was far more suspicious about a future shaped by the devotees of scientism.

Scientism is that warped theory that, in the words of one Professor of Biological Sciences, surrenders to the “temptation to overreach.”

When I decided on a scientific career, one of the things that appealed to me about science was the modesty of its practitioners. The typical scientist seemed to be a person who knew one small corner of the natural world and knew it very well, better than most other human beings living and better even than most who had ever lived.

But outside of their circumscribed areas of expertise, scientists would hesitate to express an authoritative opinion. This attitude was attractive precisely because it stood in sharp contrast to the arrogance of the philosophers of the positivist tradition, who claimed for science and its practitioners a broad authority with which many practicing scientists themselves were uncomfortable. (Emphasis added.)

Scientism, not robotics, is clearly the danger. However . . . what if the disciples of scientism intend to use robots to further their misanthropic plans?

I suspect taking over our news sources may only be the first stage of the robot blueprint for humanity’s future ruin.

Where are we prepared to draw the line in terms of robots displacing humanity. Apparently, not even in the realm of spiritual matters and worship. I have previously written about a curious, presumably docile, robot. It is, in fact, a Buddhist monk, and presumably a moderately successful evangelist.

A Greater Danger

A futuristic threat that once fell in the domain of science fiction has become science fact. Scientific American has reported that “some of the brightest minds in science and tech think we need a plan to keep humans safe from supersmart machines.”

C.S. Lewis identified a much more ominous alternative than robots seeking to lord it over humans. Lewis worried about the danger of human beings devolving into robots. Well, not robots per se, but beings who have suppressed the qualities that make us who we are, and forfeited our humanity.

The Jewish and Christian scriptures describe an event that must have stunned the angels in heaven. God deigned to create humanity, men and women, in his own image.

It is precisely when we choose to disobey God’s leading, and further distort that divine image, that we become less human.

When I was a child, I wondered why God would create people capable of disobedience. Not only capable but, as the Lord knew in his omniscience, beings who would disobey him. To a more mature mind, the answer seems obvious. No automaton, guided by its programming, can truly love. Lewis explores this dilemma in Mere Christianity.

God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go either wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong; I cannot.

If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.

A world of automata—of creatures that worked like machines—would hardly be worth creating.

The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they must be free.

Of course, God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently He thought it worth the risk. . . .

If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will—that is, for making a live world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings—then we may take it it is worth paying.

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* The Forbidden Planet received an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects. It is also received the honor of being selected to be preserved for posterity by America’s National Film Preservation Board.

Along with its literary influence, highly influential special effects and visual style, the film also pushed the boundaries of cinematic science fiction. For the first time, all action happened intergalatically (not on Earth) and humans are depicted as space travelers, regularly jetting off to the far reaches of the cosmos. Additionally, Forbidden Planet is remembered for its innovative score—or lack thereof. No music exists on the film’s soundtrack; instead, all ambient sounds are “electronic tonalities.”

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oz-lionFew people know this peculiar fact about The Wizard of Oz. And this oddity shares an interesting link to one of C.S. Lewis’ most familiar novels.

Filmmaking has changed greatly since 1939 when Dorothy first tapped together her ruby slippers. One of those modifications involves the treatment of animals.

Some of us are old enough to remember the initial appearance of the disclaimers: “No animals were injured in the making of this film.” Those announcements disappeared long ago, as people have long supposed the humane treatment of animals required.

As far as I know, no one has alleged the mistreatment of animals in The Wizard of Oz. But the odd fact mentioned above refers to one of the costumes worn by a major character in the film.

Bert Lahr played the Cowardly Lion, who continued acting until he died during the filming of The Night They Raided Minsky’s in 1968. Fortunately, he was in his prime while traipsing across Oz, because his costume weighed at least sixty pounds.

Apparently the costume designer was going for accuracy—in the case of the Cowardly Lion, if not for the citizens of Munchkinland. He opted for using an actual lion pelt. At least two, in fact, since there was a least one backup.

Cinema memorabilia often provides unbelievable dividends. MGM sold the primary costume in 1970 for a mere $2,400. In 2005, after some restoration by a taxidermist, the costume sold for $826,000. Nine years later, in 2014, it became the highest valued male performer’s costume, selling for $3,100,000.

It is quite fitting that Leo the Lion is the mascot for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studio. While there have been seven “Leos” since 1916, it is doubtful that any of them contributed their hide to costuming the Cowardly Lion.

What Has Oz to do with Narnia?

Oz and Narnia resemble one another in the obvious sense that both are fantasy lands. I’m ill-equipped to compare the two beyond that, having no desire to read about the former. Here you’ll find an interesting article that offers some insights into the realm of the Wizard. The literary critics of The Telegraph offer the following contrast.

Even so, [Oz is] a strangely amorphous creation, originally reached by cyclone but in later books by shipwreck (twice), by earthquake and by simply getting lost. As a fantasy land, it has none of the depth or authority of Tolkien’s Middle Earth nor even the physicality of CS Lewis’s Narnia.

Reaching back to the turn of the millennia, you might enjoy reading “Oz vs. Narnia.” Comparing the promotion of the two realms on their respective hundredth and fiftieth anniversaries, the author finds Narnia’s treatment by HarperCollins wanting.

But however much the tribute to Oz exceeds the tribute to Narnia in sumptuousness, it can’t disguise the superiority of Lewis’ book. As a child, I loved Oz’s endless cavalcade of strange creatures and, especially, John R. Neil’s trippy art nouveau illustrations and extravagant marginalia; I still like the books today. But the first time I read “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” in second grade, I knew that I’d stumbled into a whole new league.

A Tale of Two Lions

The odd overlap in the two stories is not due to the prominent presence of lions in each world. The Cowardly Lion and Aslan have nothing in common, save perhaps, compassion for others.

But the real life costume of Oz’s lion does relate directly to one of Lewis’ most amazing fictional creations.

In the final Chronicle, The Last Battle, we find many people are led astray by a false prophet. There is a liar masquerading as the true king. The horror that he is able to mislead so many vulnerable souls is magnified by the fact that he too wears an obvious costume—the pelt of a lion.

Lewis’ account of the deception is skillful. One of the most brilliant aspects is that the “king” himself (a donkey) is actually tricked into playing the role by the true deceiver (an ape).

“All the same, Shift,” said Puzzle [the donkey], “even if the skin only belonged to a dumb, wild lion, oughtn’t we to give it a decent burial? I mean, aren’t all lions rather— well, rather solemn? Because of you know Who. Don’t you see?”

“Don’t you start getting ideas into your head, Puzzle,” said Shift. “Because, you know, thinking isn’t your strong point. We’ll make this skin into a fine warm winter coat for you.”

“Oh, I don’t think I’d like that,” said the Donkey. “It would look—I mean, the other Beasts might think—that is to say, I shouldn’t feel—”

“What are you talking about?” said Shift, scratching himself the wrong way up as Apes do.

“I don’t think it would be respectful to the Great Lion, to Aslan himself, if an ass like me went about dressed up in a lion-skin,” said Puzzle. “Now don’t stand arguing, please,” said Shift.

“What does an ass like you know about things of that sort? You know you’re no good at thinking, Puzzle, so why don’t you let me do your thinking for you?”

Obviously, a comparison between real and fictional characters wearing lion skins can only go so far. Still, I assume some readers will find the use of a lion’s pelt to camouflage a completely different species, to be a rather peculiar parallel between Oz and Narnia.

Words of Death

April 10, 2014 — 11 Comments

joseyOne of the cinema’s most powerful scenes occurs in a film many might disregard due to its genre. In “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” a man trying to rebuild his war-shattered life, rides out to face a Comanche chieftain.

Josey: You be Ten Bears?

Ten Bears: I am Ten Bears.

Josey: I’m Josey Wales.

Ten Bears: I have heard. You’re the Gray Rider. You would not make peace with the Blue Coats. You may go in peace.

Josey: I reckon not. Got nowhere to go.

Ten Bears: Then you will die.

Josey: I came here to die with you. Or, live with you. Dying ain’t so hard for men like you and me, it’s living that’s hard; when all you ever cared about has been butchered or raped. Governments don’t live together, people live together. With governments you don’t always get a fair word or a fair fight. Well I’ve come here to give you either one, or get either one from you. I came here like this so you’ll know my word of death is true. And that my word of life is then true. The bear lives here, the wolf, the antelope, the Comanche. And so will we. Now, we’ll only hunt what we need to live on, same as the Comanche does. And every spring when the grass turns green and the Comanche moves north, he can rest here in peace, butcher some of our cattle and jerk beef for the journey. The sign of the Comanche, that will be on our lodge. That’s my word of life.

Ten Bears: And your word of death?

Josey: It’s here in my pistols, there in your rifles . . . I’m here for either one.

Ten Bears: These things you say we will have, we already have.

Josey: That’s true. I ain’t promising you nothing extra. I’m just giving you life and you’re giving me life. And I’m saying that men can live together without butchering one another.

Ten Bears: It’s sad that governments are chiefed by the double-tongues. There is iron in your word of death for all Comanche to see. And so there is iron in your word of life. No signed paper can hold the iron, it must come from men. The word of Ten Bears carries the same iron of life and death. It is good that warriors such as we meet in the struggle of life . . . or death. It shall be life.

This conversation has always caused me to stop and think—even as I typed it out now. It contains many profound thoughts about honesty, commitment, respect and even peace. Most captivating to my thoughts, though, is the contrast between words of death and words of life.

“There is iron in your word of death . . . And so, there is iron in your word of life.”

People say all sorts of things, often without much regard as to whether or not they are true. They often speak without thinking about the words before they leave their lips. Most daily conversation is superficial, and immediately forgotten.

That changes, when we speak of death. Sure, comedians joke about it, but when people discuss actual death—often in the wake of someone’s passing—our words become more measured, our tempo slows, and we more consciously ponder what we are saying.

I recall a conversation with a fellow chaplain who described his father’s dying. He contracted a terminal disease, which would take some time to extinguish his life, and he told his children: “As you have grown up, I’ve done my best to teach you how to live. Now I will do my best to teach you how to die.”

It doesn’t require faith in God to die with dignity, but those of us who know the resurrected Jesus, face death with a confidence that death does not have the final word.

The truly wise live all of their days in the knowledge that we all will someday (barring the parousia) experience physical death. In light of that, our words should not be careless, or even frivolous. That’s true for our life words, as well as our death words.

By this I do not mean that we should not play with language or engage in humor. After all, humor is inarguably one of God’s most precious gifts to us. Nor should we allow the cloud of death that hangs over all mortal flesh rob us of the many joys life brings.

C.S. Lewis would have understood the essence of the conversation quoted above. (The movie was made thirteen years after his own death.) When grieving the death of his wife, Lewis wrote:

You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it? . . . Only a real risk tests the reality of a belief. (A Grief Observed).

What I am trying to capture is more than simply the notion that our words of life, our day to day conversations, should be just as sincere and thoughtful as our words of death. It’s more in line with what Lewis was referring to. That our words, thoughts, and hopes have been tested and proven true . . . because they are based not on the fancy of the moment, but on the final, concluding whole of the testimony of our lives.

In other words, it is precisely because one’s word of death (ultimate, naked honesty) is true, that you can trust their word of life.

That’s a message that echoes both the sound of a hammer driving nails on a Judean hill, and a heavy stone rolling away from the entrance to a sealed tomb, two days later.

Hitler Versus C.S. Lewis

December 3, 2013 — 10 Comments

hitler“Meme.” A ubiquitous word among younger generations, but a concept still rather foreign to many who are slightly more “mature.”

The word was introduced by Richard Dawkins in 1976 and means an idea or social behavior that is transmitted by repetition “in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes.” Dawkins echoed the sound of “gene,” using the Greek word mimeisthai (to imitate).

Some memes are quite comical. Other quickly grow wearisome (remember the “dancing baby?”).

One I find particularly creative is a scene of Hitler in his bunker during the final days of the Third Reich. The dialog is in German, and the ingenuity is manifest in all of the hilarious subtitles that people create to coincide with the actions of the characters.

I’m sure there are many tasteless examples (to be avoided), but during the last few years I’ve viewed a couple of dozen and found most quite entertaining.

When I discovered a website that allows you to create your own version, I couldn’t resist. And, of course, I could think of no subject better suited to coinciding with Hitler’s demise than the heroic work of C.S. Lewis. In just a moment I’ll share a link to my film “adaptation.”

Lewis, of course, was a patriot who volunteered for the British army and served on the frontlines. He was seriously wounded. (He was not a Christian at the time.)

During the Second World War, Lewis supported the war effort from home. He provided tremendous encouragement to his countrymen via well-received talks broadcast on BBC. And this is the inspiration for my “take” on the Hitler Bunker meme.

His sequel to The Screwtape Letters, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” mentions the madman by name. Portraying the demons at the banquet as feasting on the souls of the damned, Screwtape complains:

. . . it would be vain to deny that the human souls on whose anguish we have been feasting tonight were of pretty poor quality. Not all the most skilful cookery of our tormentors could make them better than insipid.

Oh to get one’s teeth again into a Farinata, a Henry VIII, or even a Hitler! There was real crackling there; something to crunch; a rage, an egotism, a cruelty only just less robust than our own. It put up a delicious resistance to being devoured.

Curiously, in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Lewis mentioned how Hitler could be viewed in a humorous light.

The mixture of farce and terror would be incredible if we did not remember that boys joked most about flogging under Keate, and men joked most about gallows under the old penal code. It is apparently when terrors are over that they become too terrible to laugh at; while they are regnant they are too terrible to be taken with unrelieved gravity. There is nothing funny about Hitler now.

Lewis’ point, accurate I believe, is that in the terror of the experience itself, humor can provide some relief. Laughing in ridicule at the source of the horror can help to preserve our sanity. Only in the aftermath—once the threat has been dispatched—can we allow the true magnitude of the carnage to be comprehended. And, in that moment, there is nothing at all that is funny.

Of course, years later, when the sights and smells of Dachau are no longer recalled by the living, things shift once again. (Very few of those tragic victims or liberating heroes remain.) When the scarred battlefields have been covered with velvet grass, and it was no longer even “dad’s war,” but now “grandpa’s” or even “great-grandpa’s,” the bitterness has grown stale.

Today, it is natural to scorn and laugh at the tragic dictator who caused so much sorrow. He was a pitiful human being, and without minimizing his crimes, it is fitting that he be ridiculed once again.

History Proves Lewis True

The fact that at a certain point it becomes acceptable to ridicule a monster, is the premise behind the hilarious film “The Producers.” If you’ve never seen it, by all means take a moment to watch the theme song, “Springtime for Hitler.” For a cinematic example of Hitler-ridicule, there may be none finer than that “musical” (overlooking the tasteless burlesque costumes).

Of course, true to Lewis’ maxim, ridicule was also heaped upon the “Bohemian Corporal” during the war itself.

The classic example would be Charlie Chaplin’s celebrated “The Great Dictator.” (In addition to starring in the film, Chaplin wrote, directed and produced the movie. Oh, and he also co-composed the music.) The film was made in 1940, while war already raged, but prior to the entry of the United States.

Chaplin’s movie confirms Lewis’ contention that we should not joke about such matters while the wounds are raw. We learn from Chaplin’s My Autobiography, that in the post-war realization of the depth of Hitler’s evil, he regretted treating him with such levity. “Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator, I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.”

[Best if viewed in the order presented, beginning with the external link to my parody.]

A Visit to the Cinema

Hitler Versus C.S. Lewis (by Mere Inkling)

Click this link: http://meemsy.com/v/12897

Springtime for Hitler and Germany” from The Producers

Charlie Chaplin’s Version of the German Dictator

The Three Stooges actually beat Chaplin to the screen with their short, “You Nazty Spy!” The sequel, “I’ll Never Heil Again” was released the following year.

A Scene from Nazty Spy

A Brief Clip from I’ll Never Heil Again

And finally, returning full circle to the original meme in which I participated, I was surprised to discover a version of it in which Hitler views the trailer for the 2012 Three Stooges movie. (Apparently, despite their rather disrespectful treatment of him, according to this meme der fuhrer was a fan!) And with that, today’s Hitler cinema will close.

Writing Life Scripts

September 13, 2013 — 9 Comments

ben hurI was shaped by the heroic religious films of the 1950s and 60s. The powerful messages of epic movies like Ben Hur, Quo Vadis and The Robe planted within my young Christian heart an awareness of nobility and radical self-sacrifice.

About twenty years ago, I spent a year doing graduate work in education. One of my Educational Psychology classes was taught by a professor who was a devotee of Transactional Analysis. I don’t recall too much about TA, aside from one of its principles that resonated with me.

It’s a concept called Life Scripts. Without going into great detail, it is an often subconscious notion of how we “think” our lives will or should play out. It’s adjusted throughout our lives, but the basic theme is established when we are quite young.*

A recent article says “script is broadly understood as a series of decisions, formed as coping strategies in childhood, which continue to shape the life course outside of awareness.”**

It was only as an adult that I realized just how significant an impression these virtuous stories made on me. I recalled the countless times I lay in bed at night rehearsing the story of The Robe. I was the unbelieving Roman soldier, converted by the gentle witness of the wrongfully persecuted Christians.*** Ultimately, I took my stand with them, defending them and voluntarily laying down my life for Christ.

That same plot line still echoes through my mind and soul.

I consider myself blessed to have been exposed to such positive influences while my self identity was being shaped. And I pray for children today whose parents allow them to be exposed (at terribly vulnerable ages!) to violent, fearful and morally ambiguous influences.

Those precious minds and hearts are scarred by the vulgarity and immorality that are endemic in modern cinema, television and music. May God have mercy on them.

C.S. Lewis lived during the era when the virtuous dramas such as those named above were at the peak of their influence.

In a diary entry from the mid-1920s, he mentions Quo Vadis in passing. He is describing his weekend schedule.

Saturday 22 April: Got up about 6.30 and did the same jobs as yesterday. Was settled to work by 9.5 o’clock and put in an excellent morning . . . Sheila Gonner—jolly child—came to tea. Dorothy is to come back tomorrow: so we shall no longer be servantless. At her request I lent her my crib to Tacitus’ History for her sister Rose— I wonder what makes her imagine that she would like it? Possibly early Christian novels of the Quo Vadis type. Worked again after tea, and from supper till ten o’clock, finishing Herodotus. The last few pages of the IXth Book I now read for the first time, having got tired of it on my first reading . . .

I find this diary passage intriguing, in the way that Lewis posits a reader’s potential interest in classical literature as arising from their exposure to ancient Rome via contemporary novels. That’s precisely where my own lifelong fascination with the Roman empire was born.

If you’ve never seen these three movies, I commend them to you. I would also encourage you to consider reading one or all of the novels. They are available for free download in various digital formats.

Quo Vadis

Ben Hur

The Robe

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* I’m a pastor and historian, not a psychologist, so I don’t pretend to understand all of the implications. Because of that, I don’t endorse TA as a fully valid theory. What’s more, in our fallen world it’s obvious that many early “life scripts” can be based on wounds inflicted on neglected or abused children. In such cases, particularly where the scripts are destructive, we are not “destined” to live out a tragedy. By the grace of God, even the saddest of stories can be redeemed and “rewritten” into tales of hope and wonder.

** From “Script or Scripture?” by Jo Stuthridge in Life Scripts edited by Richard Erskine (Karnac Books, 2010).

*** It didn’t hurt that the main Christian disciple in the film was the lovely and chaste Diana, played by the British actress Jean Simmons. But that’s another story, and it’s important to note that these life scripts are pre-pubescent creations, so they are motivated by much deeper impulses than hormones. As the previously footnoted quotation referred to them, they are fundamentally “coping strategies” for survival in the calm (or frequently turbulent) world in which children find themselves.