Right in Time: Nolan, Time, and Dramatic Tension

Stories have to be interesting. It can be any of a million things that draws us in and keeps us there, but there does have to be something. For action movies, it can be something as basic and primal as “will the hero survive?” People tend to be interested in not dying, and if someone is likable, we tend to be interested in their not dying too. But sometimes storytellers have something a little different in mind.

I went to see Dunkirk on opening weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it. Christopher Nolan has always struck me as a guy who would be invested in the mythos of World War II, and I was very happy when I first saw the trailer. I came out of the theater even happier. As someone else said somewhere else, this is the movie Nolan was born to make.

Anyone familiar with the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the movie’s promotional material, is aware that the story is not going to be about defeating the Nazis in battle. The only victory we would see in this movie would be mere survival. That gave me a bit of pause, as I’ve always thought of Nolan as something more than a pessimist, and this sounded like it could be my great disappointment.

I was very pleased to be wrong. Within the first few minutes we are presented with three different perspectives, each of which is taking place across a different timeline, and will interweave to tell the story. One is that of a soldier on the ground, escaping Nazi gunfire, realizing that his safe haven is surrounded and pressed up against the ocean, and that there is little to no hope of escape. This starts several days before the evacuation. A second perspective is that of civilians taking their boat to Dunkirk on the day of the evacuation, rather than simply giving it up to the Navy as they had been told. Two of the three-man crew are too young to be soldiers. The third perspective is that of several pilots patrolling the skies in the hours just prior to the evacuation, including everyone’s favorite actor, the upper half of ­­­Tom Hardy’s face.

At first I took these three timelines as a mere novelty, just something Nolan likes to do. Partway through the movie, however, something happened that led me to rethink Nolan’s use of time, not just in Dunkirk, but in his entire body of work. Spoilers ahead.

At one point in the soldier-on-the-ground’s story, he joins up with the tattered remains of a Highland regiment. They are walking across the sand towards an abandoned boat that had been beached at high tide. They are far from the rest of the Allied soldiers, and once they are all inside, trying to determine if the thing will float, Germans begin using the hull for target practice. It is determined that the boat will float despite leaks, but they may have to get rid of some weight. One of the companions our POV soldier has picked up turns out to be a Frenchman who is trying to escape with the British soldiers, and the Highlanders debate getting rid of him so the boat will float.

Now in an ordinary telling, the source of dramatic tension, the thing that keeps us interested, is the question of survival. Will the boat float in the first place, and will the tide come in before the target-practicing Germans either kill off the people inside the boat on accident, or fill it so full of holes in the first place that it can no longer float? Nolan has already added a moral dimension to the Highlanders’ behavior, but we don’t even know if their decision here will make a difference in the larger question of survival.

But then we switch perspectives. Our pilot in the air is trying to protect a fleeing ship from German bombers. As he approaches, we a second boat nearby. It is the blue boat from the beach. It has tipped over and begun to sink, but there are men in the water fleeing from it to the ship our pilot is protecting. We know that they made it off the beach—the Germans did not kill everyone off or fill it so full of holes it would not float. They are halfway across the channel. They survived.

This shifts the source of dramatic tension. When we return to that timeline, we are no longer asking if they will survive, but what they will do to survive. Will they sacrifice the life of the frightened Frenchman to save their own, or will they leave Dunkirk as defenders of the weak? The source of dramatic tension is now the ethics of the situation. Through the use of his mixed-up timelines, Nolan has shifted our attention from the physical danger of the situation to the moral dangers and the character of these soldiers.

Someone else somewhere else said that Nolan is very interested in time. As I thought about this sequence from Dunkirk, and reflected on the other Nolan movies I’ve seen, I realized that this is only half true. Nolan is certainly interested in treating time in unusual ways in his stories, but I’m not sure that’s the focus of the stories themselves so much as it is a tool he is particularly adept at using. For Nolan, non-linear storytelling is a way of drawing attention to moral dilemmas rather than mere questions of survival.

After Dunkirk, two more examples come to mind. The first is Batman Begins. I recently got a pretty solid deal on twenty DVD’s, and this was on my list. It had been several years since I had watched it, and I never really appreciated it as much as the other two movies in the series, or the rest of Nolan’s work. This time I realized why.

The superhero genre is a staple of American pop culture, but for most of its history, especially in the 90’s, it has been targeted at children. These are people with silly names in unlikely costumes who fight improbable villains in defense of mythical cities. We don’t watch them for their realism, but for the very operatic strangeness that makes them so attractive to children. Given this, we expect the story to draw dramatic tension from the larger-than-life character of the villain and his insane schemes, or from the incredible powers of the superhero and the impossible odds he must overcome. If there is some deeper lesson to be learned, we expect it to be tied pretty closely to our hero’s gimmicks—Captain America tells us something about patriotism, Hulk about anger, the X-Men about being different, and Batman about nobless oblige or the social benefits of a healthy population of winged rodents.

Batman Begins is not interested in more gimmicky or straightforward lessons, and even less interested in being zany and larger-than-life. The man under the cowl is not George Clooney. And that’s why the first half of the movie does something very Christopher Nolan: it messes with the timelines.

Now, this is not Dunkirk. There very clearly a primary timeline, and the secondary timeline is easily labeled as a series of flashbacks, most of them more or less explicitly memories that Bruce is meditating on for pretty straightforward reasons. He has been living as a criminal, trying to understand their mindset, and he has been taken in by a shadowy organization that promises to teach him how to make criminals pay for what they do to society. Naturally, he thinks about the points in his life where he learned fear, where he saw what crime did, where he thirsted for vengeance, and where he learned that vengeance may not be enough.

But that’s interesting. In the past, I was always annoyed because it seemed to take forever for the story to go anywhere. But that’s because I expected a very different story than Nolan wanted to tell. He wasn’t worried about the existential threat against Batman or against Gotham. Survival was not the point. He was interested in justice. Why do people commit crimes? How do they get away with it? Who deserves justice? What does justice look like? Who is entitled to mete out justice? What methods should they use? The series of flashbacks combined with Bruce’s training by the League of Shadows does not draw attention to any particular villainous threat, but does ask us to look at these themes. By combining past events who outcome is already known with a present which does not noticeably advance for quite some time, Nolan shifts the dramatic tension to the ethical dilemmas Bruce faces, rather than threats to his city.

The third place I see Nolan using complex timelines to draw our attention away from mere survival and towards moral dilemmas is in Memento. This may seem a far more obvious example to those familiar with the movie. For those who are not, this is how the movie works: there are two timelines, one in black and white, and one in color. We switch back and forth between them. One is working backwards from end of the story being told, and one forward from its beginning. The two timelines will meet in the middle, and our climax will be the transition from one to the other.

The very structure of this plot looks like a test case for the interwoven timelines of Dunkirk or the extensive use of flashbacks in the first half of Batman Begins. We know early on who will live and who will die. We find out far more quickly than our protagonist exactly who can be trusted and who cannot. We know where the story is going. What we don’t know is why the protagonist has made the decisions he has. We don’t understand the moral landscape. By the time we reach the end of the movie, we understand the protagonist’s motivations and the motivations of the other characters, but our knowledge of whether he survives or not has not changed. Survival was never the point—the moral landscape was.

Now I am sure that Christopher Nolan is interested in time for other reasons. It is also without a doubt true that he is good at creating threats to the survival of his heroes, and having them confront these threats in interesting ways. He is certainly a good action director, and he is also a bit of nerd when it comes to thinking about time.

But I believe this is an established pattern that Christopher Nolan has. He uses nonlinear storytelling as a tool to draw our attention from more basic threats to survival and towards moral dilemmas. Realizing this not only opens up new dimensions in Nolan’s work, but leads to the consideration of non-linear storytelling more generally. How do other writers and directors use it? What are they drawing attention to? What potential sources of dramatic tension are they defusing?

For me, this is one more good reason to be interested not only in stories, but storytelling.

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The Mummy (2017)

The new Mummy has less to do with the Brendan Fraser Mummy than it does with Universal’s new attempt to dredge up its old monster movies and weave them together into a new “Dark Universe.” With that in mind, one might it expect it to bear some resemblance to the original Mummy movie, from back in the Universal monster golden age. Not so much.

While those born in the first half of the twentieth century filled their nightmares with Frankenstein and the Wolfman, I filled my young head with another terrifying revenant: the Latin language. Lucky for me, that’s exactly where this movie begins.

It’s A.D. 1127 and what looks like a bunch of Templars are droning out a dark and mysterious chant deep under the surface of Rome, as they bury their comrade with an ominously blood-red gem. At least, I’m sure that was the intended mood and effect. All I heard was “panem nostrum quotidianem, da nobis hodie,” and just about burst out laughing. Their “ominous chant” was the Lord’s Prayer, which I’m pretty sure most Latin students start chanting in the third grade.

That set the tone for the whole movie. Folks, this is a Tom Cruise flick, where he does the airplane thing he did in the last Tom Cruise flick. The trailers tried so hard to make that epic, and so hard to impress you with—wait for it—a girl Mummy. Also, there was voiceover from Russell Crowe, and Paint it Black was playing, so it was pretty much designed to draw audiences in the cheapest way possible. I went in expecting a flat, poorly made flick that would basically serve no purpose beyond fueling my popcorn addiction.

Well, this was no Wonder Woman, but I was pleasantly surprised.

This movie deserves to be rifftraxed, and not because it’s that bad, but because that’s how seriously it takes itself. Like its flawless namesake, the “present” timeline starts out with our hero and his sidekick in the Middle Eastern desert facing down gunfire from the locals. The sidekick, though, is no Benny. He honestly belongs in a comedy movie set on a beach somewhere. He reminds me of Owen Wilson in the Shanghai Noon movies, or Steve Zahn in Sahara. He exists for witty banter and to show us how reckless Tom Cruise is—until he goes Obi Wan in the most hilarious way possible. I’ll let you figure what that means.

Tom Cruise, by the way, is a guy that always gets my views, but more out of sympathy and nostalgia than anything else. He’s kind of a nut, but he’s also Ethan Hunt, and Mission: Impossible was my kind of movie back in the day. Anyways, he plays the same Tom Cruise he plays in every other Tom Cruise movie, but the writers actually gave him enough character to make this Tom Cruise seriously flawed and kind of sleazy, and definitely in need of a redemption arc, which the movie is certainly ready to provide. Like Brendan Fraser’s O’Connell, this is a hero frequently played for laughs, though the humor is somewhat more adult, seeing as it’s largely based on an undead Egyptian princess wanting to turn him into her lover from beyond the grave.

The other half of the adult humor and of the redemption arc is, for me, the most disappointing character in the movie—the Hollywood-pretty archeologist “Jenny.” That’s about all there is to her character. I don’t know why Cruise has a crush on her, but he does, and that factors into the redemption arc. It also factors into the unexpected moment where Jenny is told to run. I immediately thought of Forrest Gump, because, like I said, this movie deserves a rifftrax.

And it really does. There is a deliberate and direct allusion to this video, played totally straight. Ish.

But all this humor is only oddly out of place because the movie is so often kind of dark. Cruise’s character is seriously flawed, and we’re not a third of the way through the movie before he is dead. Then, in a moment that should have been accompanied by pop-goes-the-weasel music, and was in my theater, he returns to life. But the lingering implication the whole time is that if the Mummy is put down, he’s going to be dead again. He wants redemption, and there’s a time limit to it.

The darkness lies in other areas as well. There is betrayal and implied horrific torture by people that are sort of the good guys. Things go badly wrong towards the finale, and Cruise’s redemption may be farther away than he anticipated. Also, a baby is murdered just off-screen in flashbacks. Twice. And this is referred to multiple times throughout.

So the humor and the darkness play against each other oddly, and so does the cast. If Tom Cruise were the only big star here, this might be a cheap studio action flick. But Tom Cruise gets played off Russell Crowe, whose role forces him to be far zanier than I expected. These two get stuck in a room together several times, but in one scene it’s just them, and it’s like a battle of the stars. They play off each other in very distinctive ways, chew up scenery, and that alone was worth the price of admission.

But the real surprise was Sofia Nutella Boutella as Amunet. I was expecting the role to give her far less acting and far more sauntering down exploding London streets. Turns out her face is a window into a dark universe inhabited by the Platonic forms of bitterness, anger, sorrow, and vengeance. In the Brendan Fraser Mummy, Imhotep was intimidating because he was taller than you and had supernatural powers. In this one, it’s because she radiates all sorts of emotions that boil down to “I am sorry, but you are very dead.” It was very appropriately haunting.

In the midst of the darkness, the humor, and the heavyweight acting, the themes of this one are also a bit more hefty than I expected. They really are worried about death, and about redemption. Neither is as much of a driving force of the movie as I would like—it really is an action flick. But it’s there.

And that really sums it up. This is a movie that is not grand, not a classic. But it really does try. It has a lot of character, a very distinct flavor that makes you want to like it. It’s hilarious, and occasionally moving, and pretty darn coherent up until the climax. Even after that, it stumbles into a recovery that made me genuinely look forward to future Dark Universe movies. If you’ve got money to burn and evening to waste, this is not a bad place to waste it.

Unless, of course, you haven’t seen Wonder Woman yet, and could be watching that. In which case, that’s clearly what you need to be doing.

Wonder Woman

I saw Wonder Woman last night. After @jenningsaxfl voiced his disappointment, and @GKRaptorton said this was as expected, I rose to its defense. They asked for a review. Here it is, relatively spoiler-free, and short. By my standards.

 

I went into Wonder Woman expecting two things: feminism and cheap action thrills.

Given the superhero in question, and the current cultural climate, I expected Wonder Woman to be a story about girl power and the flaws inherent in mankind (males), who would of course have been ruining the world in the absence of sensible warrior-queen leadership. That’s not what I got at all.

This is not to say WW is not feminist in the sense of being something else. How could an Amazon heroine be anything but? It’s simply that the movie is just not that concerned with those themes. Instead, the differences between a woman-only and a male-dominated society is mostly played for laughs as Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor and Gal Gadot’s Diana get to know one another in the context of their two subsequent fish-out-of-water experiences. Even when she proved more capable in combat than any of the men in the “world of men,” it was not used to make a point about women being equally capable, but just like another super-powered human in a world of mere mortals.

So the first thing I began to notice was the degree to which it wasn’t feminist. The second was the way it played to my Mummy-loving heart.

A bit of context: I realize The Mummy is not the best film ever created, and it’s certainly not deep, but it’s easily one of my favorite. I’m a big fan of exploring strange worlds, of high adventure with a competent crew of odd individuals, played as much for self-deprecating humor as it is for the thrill of chase scenes and shootouts. I haven’t seen a lot that hits those notes and does it well since The Mummy. It’s kind of my gold standard for this sort of thing, I’d given up expecting something in the twenty-teens to give me that.

Wonder Woman did. Themyscira was a strange, interesting place. The architecture was very Greek, and the climate was very Mediterranean, which I suppose was to be expected, but it felt like somebody actually enjoyed creating that world. The Amazons have a weird semi-mythic, semi-scifi flair to their civilization, besides the weirdness of being women-only, that made it absolutely fascinating to try and figure out.

Then you throw in Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor. In many ways, he’s just the Chris Pine we’re used to. But Chris Pine is exactly the sort of heroic yet self-deprecatingly humorous presence that can capture something like what Brendan Fraser did in The Mummy. He goes through his fish-out-of-water tale, which I find to be pretty fresh. It doesn’t go for a lot of obvious jokes, and the ones it goes for are played pretty well.

Now Diana is really interesting to me. She’s got this thirst to see combat and to be a hero that I can very much relate to, having, y’know, been a kid once. What’s interesting is the way that’s played as maybe unhealthy, but more importantly, naïve. This kid does not understand what war is. She does not know what it means, what it costs, the ugliness of death and destruction, the darkness in humanity it exposes. She has never seen the darkness of humanity. She naively believes that all war can be ascribed to the influence of Ares, and that when he is killed, war will end. She believes mankind is basically good.

Now I don’t want to go into detail, but this is the heart of the movie. It’s not about girl power, though there are powerful girls. It’s not about dudes being sleezeballs. It’s about the darkness in humanity, the sin nature, and Diana’s coming to grips with its existence. It’s not played how you might expect—she doesn’t lose her ideals the moment she hears about dead civilians, or the first time she sees cowardly generals, or the first time she’s exposed to the horrors of WWI’s trench warfare and killing technology. Remember, she has Ares to blame for that. Or so she thinks.

But beyond the confrontation with what a Christian would call sin nature, there is the question of what to do about that. Wonder Woman has godlike powers, and the nature of the story allows her to do things for humanity no one else can. When she finally does realize what humans are, she has to decide what to do about it. That’s where this movie gets even more theological.

Now I’m going to back away from spoilers. I also got pretty deep into the themes of the movie, which really come out in the latter half, even if the groundwork is well-laid for it early on.

The first half consists of a lot more Mummy-style high adventure. London is as strange and foreign a world as Themyscira, and Diana has her own fish-out-of-water story to go through. There’s a ragtag band of scoundrels to be assembled, including a Scottish sniper with PTSD, an American Indian smuggler, and a lovable Middle-Eastern rogue who is the Lando of this feature, but with Benny from The Mummy’s hat. This movie’s got fights in alleys, sneaking into fancy German castles and scary German munitions factories, undercover dances at galas, aerial combat, ridiculous low-tier villains, a respectable boss, explosions, good fight choreography—it’s just a fantastic adventure.

But there’s one last element I want to mention, and that’s the romance. I kind of expected there to very pointedly not be one, because Diana’s a strong, independent woman who don’t need no man. That’s not what happened. Nor is there some sort of role reversal where instead of the girl always being the damsel, the guy is always being the damsel. Nor is she put off by his having her back in battle. She respects it and thanks him for it.

This is actually a love story, absent of any tortured gender politics that might have been inserted. There is some mild battle-of-the-sexes stuff, but it’s in the context of two people who fall in love in a very traditional way, with very traditional iconography. And it’s not shallow, either. There’s humor to cultural gap between them, but there’s also a lot of humanity to her soon-to-be-crushed idealism and his deeply scarred knowledge of the horrors of war and of human nature, but his willingness to keep fighting despite that. They have a common mission, not just in the literal movie sense, but in the sense of the kind of people they are. They are, dare I say it, helpers meet for each other. A complementary pair. And it’s moving, and tender, and also features mad suicidal dashes through no-man’s land. I like it.

So there you have it. This movie was far less political and far deeper than I expected. It was also a lively adventure in strange places with fun characters, theologically interesting, and rounded out with a dash of good old-fashioned romance. It is what Marvel wishes it could be, and what I never thought DC would become. Thanks to this movie, I am actually going to walk into Justice League with a smile on my face.

And if that doesn’t tell you something, I don’t know what will.

Scratching in the Dirt

The Sage

An old man is riding through the mountains, plodding his was slowly towards the western frontier. Behind him he leaves the luxurious life of the capital, of walking the halls of power, head held high as others bow before him. By the standards of the world, he had reason to be proud. He was a wise man, a cunning counselor, trusted by the rulers of that age. But he is going to the frontier, and has no intention of coming back.

He reaches the last outpost of civilization just as the sun is setting. It is manned by a single, lonely border guard. There are no threats in this direction, no reason for armed camps or grand fortresses. Just wilderness. So the man at the edge of the world is glad when he sees the man coming from its center, and invites him to stay the night.

Over the course of a humble meal and quiet conversation, the guard comes to recognize the stranger’s immense wisdom, as many others have before. He is amazed at the man’s experience, the great things he has seen, the noble people he has known. He goes to sleep that night puzzled, wondering who this stranger might be.

The next morning, as the old wanderer saddles up and prepares to ride away into the unknown west, it dawns upon the border guard who this man is. Finally recognizing this famed councilor of powerful men, this noble sage who moves in the circles of the great, he asks the man one favor before he departs. Would he leave the world with a summary of his teaching?

Smiling, the old man dismounts and picks up a stick laying nearby. Over the next several hours, he scratches out in the dirt a text of poetic simplicity, of refined elegance and deepest wisdom. Having finished, he bows to the humble border guard, and crosses the frontier, never to be heard from again.

The Tao

This world-weary sage was one Laozi or Lao Tsu—that is, Master Lao. If he did indeed exist, he lived in the sixth century before Christ, at about the same time the prophet Daniel was carried off to Babylon. That work he scratched into the ground by the border was the great Chinese classic, the Tao Te Ching, also Romanized as Doadejing. In it, Laozi outlines his philosophy in 81 beautiful, poetic verses, each about the length of a Biblical Psalm.

This philosophy was centered around a single, all-important concept: the Tao. “Tao” literally means “way,” as in a road or path. It can often be found on Hong Kong street signs with no deeper meaning than that. But as a philosophical term, it is much more significant. The Tao is the way the whole cosmos works together, united in a single transcendent plan or system which is greater than any of the individual parts. It is the principle which underlies the behavior of everything in the universe, animate or inanimate, from rain on the mountains, to the flight of the sparrow or the life cycle of a butterfly, to the rise and fall of kingdoms. Not one grain of sand escapes its purpose, and no galaxy is beyond its reach. The Tao encompasses everything.

Attached to this view of the universe in an implicit system of morality, something like natural law in the West. If the universe has its own way, its own set of behavior, men often have a set of intentions contrary to it. We do not pay attention to the way the world is meant to work—the cycles of nature or human behavior, the way apparent opposites work together, or the laws of cause and effect which everything must obey. We have desires, and we rush towards them blindly, fumbling along, disrupting the natural way of things.

Instead, Laozi advocates the principle of wu wei, or sometimes wei wu wei. The English is roughly “action without action.” That is, as things which exist within the Tao, we are assuredly meant to act. However, it is better to act in a way consistent with nature, aware of its underlying principles, rather than fighting against it. Thus we go with the flow of the Tao—we take action, but that action comes from outside us. It is actionless action.

The Disciple

In outlining this philosophy, the Tao Te Ching became a cornerstone of Chinese and East Asian intellectual history. It is something like what Plato’s Republic is to the West, though centuries older. One rough contemporary of Plato, however, was Loazi’s disciple, Zhuangzi.

Zhuangzi—sometimes Romanized as Chuang Tsu, with the second element meaning “Master”—was also a government official, though a minor one. By this time in Chinese history, philosophy had become somewhat more developed, and there were many competing schools. Zhuangzi became a follower of Laozi’s teachings, and authored his own classic as a reflection on these same truths. That classic is often simply called by his name—Zhuangzi.

The Zhuangzi is not a collection of poetic musings, like the Tao Te Ching, but of short stories and anecdotes. These fables are designed to provoke philosophical reflection, asking the reader to consider how limited the merely human perspective is, and how vast the universe. It is the whole Tao we should consider, not merely our own perspective. Of course, many will find this difficult, and it may be that we can only live according to the Tao through some unconscious process or practice, rather than through any apparently easy, conscious effort.

Perhaps it was inevitable than anyone elaborating on Laozi’s philosophy should come across as more skeptical than the original verses. They are a meditation on the Tao itself, while the Zhuangzi often asks us to ponder our own relationship to it. Because that relationship is troubled by human folly, and has to overcome the obstacles of our limited human perspective, the stories can often come across a bit pessimistic. Becoming one with the Tao seems desirable in the Tao Te Ching, and here it appears difficult.

The Zhuangzi also poses more straightforward philosophical problems than its more poetic predecessor. Among them are the famous Butterfly Dream, in which we asked to question how we can distinguish the real world from the dream world—or if there is in fact any difference at all. Where Laozi’s work might find some parallels with Western Stoics, Zhuangzi’s might be more at home with postmodern philosophers.

Five Pecks of Rice

For centuries, Taoism was purely philosophical. It attracted people who, like the founder of the school, sought to escape the troubled world of civilized society to become solitary hermits, at one with nature. Furthermore, its lassaiz-faire, anarchist political tendencies did not exactly promote state sponsorship, or popularity among people who wanted to advance in society. For some time, it seemed merely like an esoteric doctrine suitable only for intellectuals with little ambition. That changed in the second century after Christ.

China’s ancient western frontier lay in the provinces of Sichuan and Shaanxi—the former famous in the United States for restaurants bearing its older Romanization, Szechuan. This was mountainous territory, filled with strange and standoffish hill-folk, with centers civilization concentrated in the fertile river valleys. In troubled times, the more heavily populated provinces of eastern China often turned against each other, and the western frontiers were left to fend for themselves.

The Han dynasty, often considered a golden age, had begun two centuries before Christ and was coming to a slow, painful end two centuries after Him. Palace officials began to interfere in imperial decision-making, there were coups to be fought off, and regional rebellions began disrupting formerly smooth administration of the provinces.

Zhang Daoling lived in this twilight era of the Han dynasty. He had grown up reading Taoist works, and received the best education of his day. He was asked repeatedly to serve as a professor in an imperial college, and even as tutor to the Emperor himself. He refused, preferring his life of seclusion and study. This study included a new element in Taoist philosophy—seeking longevity through practices inspired by Taoist wisdom.

In AD 142, Zhang Daoling declared that Laozi had appeared to him in a vision. This phase of world history would soon be ending, he said, to be replaced by another. Those who wished to survive in the next age must separate themselves from the corruption of their times, and join him in pursuing a Taoist path to holiness. This became known as the Way of the Celestial Masters, and it was popular throughout Sichuan and Shaanxi. A firm commitment was expected of new converts, as seen by the requirement that each prospective adherent donate five pecks of rice to the cause.

Though it may be easy to doubt his followers’ claims that he became an immortal, Zhang Daoling certainly lived to an old age. When he died, first his son and then his grandson succeeded him as head of the movement. His grandson, Zhang Lu, was sent by the Han emperor to quell a rebellion in the west. He obeyed, but upon his victory, he established a new state in the Hanzhong valley as a haven for those who followed the Way of the Celestial Masters. This became known as the Five Pecks of Rice Rebellion.

This new state, with its devotion to Zhang Daoling’s apocalyptic version of Taoism, seemed to prosper for a time. Each citizen’s name and their stage in the progress towards holiness was recorded. It was understood that those who had progressed to a higher stage could command divine generals in the spiritual war against demonic forces. Lawbreakers were not punished by ordinary means, but expected to confess their crimes, and were told to seek penance through solitary meditation or do good deeds on behalf of the community. What had once seemed an esoteric philosophy had, with the addition of other elements, become the religious and political philosophy by which the community lived.

In the meantime, the Han dynasty had dissolved into three warring kingdoms, each with their own claimant for the imperial throne. This period would last for less than a century, but the epic nature of the events which shaped it have turned the era into a common setting for tales of romance and high adventure in eastern Asian storytelling.

One of the three rulers, a man named Cao Cao, attacked Zhang Lu, driving him from his kingdom. Cornered in eastern Sichuan, Zhang Lu surrendered. After a brief quarter century of independence, Hanzhong was reincorporated into the mainstream of Chinese civilization.

But the Five Pecks of Rice Movement did not end with the fall of its independent kingdom. Zhang Lu was relocated to Cao Cao’s court in the kingdom of Wei. There he used his authority as a religious leader to reinforce the legitimacy of the kingdom of Wei over the other two kingdoms. His followers spread throughout the realm, and by the time China was reunited under the Jin dynasty, Taoism had become mainstream.

Wisdom of the Ages

Not only had it become mainstream, it had also become explicitly religious. Followers now worshiped Laozi and others who had achieved immortality through Taoist teachings and practices. Zhang Daoling’s emphasis on the pursuit of longevity had also brought it in close proximity to a wide variety of shamanistic sects which promised supernatural powers to those with the right knowledge—or those willing to pay them. Though the Tao Te Ching and the Zhuangzi still formed the center of Taoist teachings, other elements had been introduced which had changed it almost beyond recognition.

One of the central texts that defined Taoism in its new, more religious guise was the I Ching. The I Ching was far older than the Tao Te Ching, its origins shrouded in mystery. On its most basic level, it was a divination manual, telling the reader how to determine the right course of action based on the manipulation of certain mystical symbols. On a deeper level, though, it came to be understood as a complex and symbolical explanation of how the cosmos worked—how heaven was reflected on earth, how the five elements interacted, and how yin and yang could be found in every other operation of the universe.

Incorporating the I Ching into Taoism, along with the worship of a new pantheon of immortals, transformed the abstract philosophy into a full-blown religious tradition, distinct from both Buddhism and Confucianism. Much as Plato’s teachings had begun in pure philosophy and ended by inspiring Gnostic heresies and late antique magical systems, so Laozi’s teaching had become something else entirely.

In this form, however, those teaching had gained a wider appeal, and even official imperial support. Multiple times throughout history, Taoism was considered a leading candidate for becoming the official religion of the Chinese state. It influenced the other two major religious traditions as well, and many minor ones, and it was soon understood that a man could not be truly educated, could not be truly cultured, if he was not familiar with the writings of Laozi and Zhuangzi. Thus, despite undergoing great change, their ideas had become an integral the culture of one of humanity’s greatest civilizations.

A Translator’s Puzzle

Christianity is a proselytizing faith. When the West began interacting with China on a regular basis, it would not be long before missionaries came to translate the Bible into Chinese dialects. This did not begin happening on a large scale until the nineteenth century. When it did, translators were often puzzled by words that had a technical meaning in the original Hebrew or Greek for which there might not be a good equivalent in Chinese. One particular problem was found in the first chapter of the Gospel of John:

“In the beginning was the Word, And the Word was with God, And the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, And without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, And the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, And the darkness does not comprehend it.”

The casual English reader might be struck by the poetry of the passage, without necessarily finding any difficult words. For the translator familiar with the culture of the early Roman Empire, however, it presents quite the puzzle.

The Greek word for “Word” in this passage does not simply mean “a thing you say.” That would be “lexis,” but here the manuscript says “logos.” Logos does mean “word,” but it is also a technical term from Greek philosophy. It means something like “rational order” or “logical principle.” It is the reason the world acts the way it does, the transcendent plan that guides the functioning of all of nature. With the Stoics in particular, it came to be something divine, a sort of pantheistic deity that was the same as nature itself. For them, it was simultaneously the explanation for why the world behaved the way it did, and a moral guide for those living in it. Not long after Christ, drawing on that Stoic tradition, a Jewish philosopher named Philo of Alexandria adapted the logos to his faith. It was the rational principle by which the Biblical God had created the universe.

Confronted with this word, the nineteenth century translators scrambled for something that might have a similar meaning. Clearly a word that just meant “word” would not do. It needed to carry those crucial philosophical connotations which lend John’s words so much weight.. So they chose Tao.

Just like the logos, the Tao was the principle behind all of nature, the thing that explained the way nature behaved. It was the quasi-divine force or plan which directed everything, and which human beings would do well to seek to understand. Though not identical, the two concepts were very clearly similar.

And thus Taoism, Greek philosophy, and the Christian Gospel were united in a single passage of the Chinese Bible: Jesus is the Tao, the Logos. He was in the beginning with God, and was God, and all things were made through him. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men—men who could not comprehend it. Jesus was identified as Laozi’s mysterious Tao, but—perhaps to Zhuangzi’s shock and protest—in human form.

Of course, this does not mean that the translators saw Christianity as just another form of Taoism. The Incarnation alone appears to violate Taoist understandings of reality, as perhaps does the concept of divine revelation in the first place, at least when set against early philosophical Taoism. Furthermore, this single passage in John is qualified by the rest of Scripture, a context which stands apart from, and often perhaps against, much of Taoist tradition. Nevertheless, the way the concepts align, the apparent appropriateness of the word choice, this strange meeting of Eastern and Western concepts—these things are certainly worth thinking about.

The Tao of the Blog

Every so often I have a little crisis trying to figure out what this blog is for. This is not really the place for a serious academic essay, but it’s not the place for mere personal status updates either. I have Facebook for the latter, and am not particularly qualified for the former. If I just want to post links to interesting articles, there’s Twitter. If I had a particular hobby or area of expertise I wanted to share, this might be the place, but I have few which are so readily shareable. What kind of writing does a blog lend itself to?

Blogs do seem well adapted to relatively ephemeral content. A post arises, perhaps it occasions a conversation in the comments, and then it disappears into the archives as other posts arise to take its place. You can search those archives, but people rarely do without good reason.

Blogs are also good places for informal musings. This blog in particular does not belong to any company or institution, but to some random guy in East Texas. Many blogs are like that. Thus they are good places for random people to talk about whatever interests them, without necessarily requiring them to stick to a specific topic, or meet academic or professional standards when it comes to things like sources. This is just some guy talking.

But unlike Facebook or Twitter, blogs are both formatted for longer articles and designed to be read by a wider audience. This promotes guys talking at length about what interests them, in a way that might interest casual passersby.

In accordance with the principle of wu wei—at least, as I understand it—it pays to cut with the grain of the medium. The nature of a blog makes it a great place to take something like the Tao Te Ching or the Zhuangzi chapter by chapter and muse out loud about its meaning, its connections to other classic works and to pop culture, and whatever lessons these things might have for those who read them.

I am not an expert on these books. I have never taken a class on them in particular, or on Taoism in general, or even on Eastern religions. But I do enjoy learning about these things, and if my learning can be to the profit of other casual readers who might be interested in the topic, it is well worth the effort to spruce up my musings and publish them on this blog.

So this introduction to Taoism is more than an interesting story, though I hope has been that. It is an invitation. I am going to start working my way through the Tao Te Ching verse by verse, posting my thoughts here. If you are interested, please read along and comment below. Learning works best in community, and I would find it a blessing if my blog could provide a little of that.

Passengers and Hope

I spent the last week in Kansas City, and had the good fortune to see the movie Passengers. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and came out of the theater feeling quite moved. I hardly expected that going in, not being especially taken by the trailers, and having had my expectations lowered by the mixed reviews. Seeing that my experience was so very different than many others’, I felt obligated to offer an explanation for just why I think Passengers was an objectively good movie. And I do think that. In fact, I’m about ready to call it one of my all-time favorites.

Keeping that in mind, this review will be spoilerific. If you have not seen it yet, go do so and come back. If you have, then forge ahead. Even if you aren’t convinced by what I have to say, I trust that some of it will at least serve as fodder for lively conversation.

That said, this monstrosity is about 4500 words long, and divided into four sections: Setting, Story, Characters, and Values. If you decide you want to read it in multiple sittings, try reading the first two and then the second two. Those chunks should be of roughly equal length.

Cheers,

David H.

 

Setting

Passengers is, if nothing else, a beautiful film. It is not set in the splash of stars and colorful planetary close-ups of Star Wars, but the vast emptiness of space as we know it—a realm of mystery, largely untouched by human civilization. That sense of the sheer immensity of the cosmos, the thrilling beauty and monstrous terror of something greater than any human being, is something we return to again and again. Most obviously we see it in the vertigo-inducing space walks, which are far quieter and more contemplative than the trailers we would have us believe. But we also see it in a thousand other places—in glimpses through ever-present windows and transparent roofs, in pools jutting over the emptiness, in losses of gravity that remind us that our presence here is unnatural and tenuously maintained. The atmosphere of a long voyage through the glittering, flaming, beclouded, and empty reaches of space makes the ride worth it.

Setting the voyage aside, the ship itself is a delight. At first it looks like the typical technological wonder of a thousand other utopian visions of the future. That trope starts to break down as we realize that the technology is surprisingly limited. Even before things start breaking down, we meet the computer’s frustrating inability to provide information it was not programmed with. The AI we meet both in Arthur, the robotic barkeep, and elsewhere is amusingly formulaic in its responses. The illusion of personality is not as thin as the old text adventure games, however, but far more familiar. The flaws of this ship are the same flaws we meet in smartphones with Siri and autocorrect—wonderful and useful, but prone to hilarious mistakes.

It’s that touch of the flaw, that consciousness of limitation, that makes the ship endearing. We see it faithfully carrying out its mission to the best of its abilities, but also fumble as it deals with the humanity of its passengers and its own slow breakdown. Over the course of the movie, the starship Avalon becomes as much a character as any of the humans on board.

Story

In the midst of the vast terror of space and the wonders and limitations of the Avalon, Passengers is a story well told. It begins with an accident, and that accident wakes up the first of our major characters—Chris Pratt’s Jim Preston.

Jim has a problem. He has awakened ninety years too soon, and there is no way to go back into hibernation. He will, barring some miracle, die alone on a ship filled with passengers. Luckily, Jim is a mechanical engineer, and he sets about trying to solve this problem. While a solution doesn’t present itself immediately, he is able to significantly improve his life by eating out in all the ship’s restaurants, racking up an enormous debt, and breaking into a high class suite with a basketball court and VR dance arena.

Over the course of his struggles with loneliness and attempt to get back to sleep, we get to know Jim well—from highs of childlike glee reminiscent of Home Alone, to the depths of near suicidal depression, staring into the abyss. We see his remarkable competence when it comes to tinkering with things, as well as his powerlessness when he finally comes to terms with his limitations. This first act of the film is a solid exercise in world and character building, brought to life by a gifted actor born for the lighthearted humor and dramatic intensity of the role.

But as we were all aware going in, this was not a Chris Pratt in space movie, but a Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence in space movie. The way that comes about is unexpected and powerful.

Jim has been alone for a year. (The way this movie marks time, by the way, is effective without being distracting, adding well to the tension and drama.) He looks even more hairy and unhinged than Tom Hanks in Cast Away, the childlike humor Chris Pratt usually brings to a movies meet with depths of loneliness and fear that generate all kinds of pity. And that pity becomes gut-wrenching when we see Jim confronted with an awful choice.

One of the thousands of passengers locked in the hibernation pods is Jennifer Lawrence’s Aurora, the sleeping beauty who captures Jim’s heart. In the depths of his misery, he sees her and begins to wonder what it would be like to have just one friend to mitigate the loneliness, to make the long wait for death on an empty ship more bearable.

Of course, Jim knows how indescribably cruel it would be to wake her up. It’s wrong, and he knows it, and he admits as much to Arthur on one of his regular trips to the ship’s bar. But the existential crisis that is his situation has brought him so low that he can’t put the idea out of his mind. He finds recordings of interviews with Aurora, learns about her, learns that she is a writer, and reads some of what she is written. He is captivated by her, and this only adds to the agony of loneliness. Guilt builds as he contemplates doing what he knows he should not, and shame is visible on his face as he finally gives in and wakes Aurora up.

The sequence that follows mirrors the first act in many ways. Aurora goes through many of the same things Jim did, searching for passengers and crew, attempting to break out, accepting her situation, and finally trying to make the most of it. We get to know her in much the same way as we did Jim, but instead of watching her fall into despair, we instead see her fall in love with the last man on earth, narrating the journey as she dictates her next book to a recording to device.

This love story is every bit as funny and charming as you would expect from these two actors, and the effect is only increased by their solitude on the ship. But all the while the knowledge of what Jim has done looms in the background. We know that these happy days cannot last, not once Aurora knows what the man she has come to love did to her.

When she finally does, the effect is devastating. Arthur, misunderstanding the situation, informs her, and she confronts Jim. He does not lie to her. He tells her exactly what he did, and that he knows it was wrong. The next portion of the movie is devoted to Aurora processing that betrayal, rejecting Jim as he tries to make amends, and attempting to find a new way of life on this long, lonely journey towards death.

Throughout the movie, malfunctions have been building in the background. Something is wrong with the ship, and it has only been getting worse. We are reminded of this regularly, but not so that it distracts from Jim and Aurora’s stories. We know it will have to be dealt with, but that’s an issue for later.

It turns out that later happens when Jim and Aurora’s relationship is as dead as can be. A ship malfunction wakes up Lawrence Fishburn’s Gus, a Chief Deck Officer and the only other human we see awake for the majority of the film. His presence serves two purposes: it forces Jim and Aurora to work together to prevent the ship from destroying itself, and gives them a third person to seek companionship and sympathy from, finally exposing Jim’s evil deed to a third party.

The presence of Gus works like the prologue to the final portions of the movie. We quickly learn that his pod’s malfunction has made him fatally ill. Within minutes of appearing on screen, Jim and Aurora have to watch him confront his own mortality and attempt to die with some shred of dignity. As he does die, he leaves Jim and Aurora with a wristband giving them all the access they will need in order to save the ship. He passes, and they launch his body into space in classic naval fashion.

Next Jim and Aurora are confronted with just how critical the problem with the ship is. If they don’t do something immediately, they will be confronted with a disaster that kills every passenger on board. Forced to work together, they track down the source of the problem and do their best to fix it. This leads them to a terrible choice.

In order to fix the ship, Jim has to go out into space and manually open a port, allowing the fiery exhaust of the reactor to vent into deep space. In all likelihood, he will not survive. When the moment of truth comes, Aurora is torn apart by the necessity of killing him. Without him, she will be utterly alone. More than that, despite what Jim did to her, she did once love him, and he is actively proving his love for her. When she discovers that he is still alive, and goes to recover him, she is relieved. The crisis seems to have healed a wound that time never could.

But Jim’s act of self-sacrifice and Aurora’s forgiveness towards him are immediately followed by one final decision that must be made. In the face of survival and the drama of their relationship, the fact that they will die alone before reaching their destination has faded into the background. It is brought abruptly into the foreground by Jim’s discovery that they can go back into hibernation—but only one of them. He offers it to Aurora. For a tense moment, the next scene lets us think that she might have accepted, but then she arrives. She has chosen to stay with Jim.

The final act of the film occurs 88 years later, when the Avalon is within a few months of its destination. The ship’s crew awakes to find a garden growing on one of the decks, an Edenic paradise that Jim and Aurora have crafted over a lifetime together. Aurora narrates, having left behind a record of their story.

This is well-structured storytelling, each act and scene laser-focused on a single purpose, all adding up to a coherent, moving narrative. The setting is wondrous, but the story itself shows fine craftsmanship.

Characters

If a character and a plot are not enough to make a movie good, Passengers rises to the challenge and also offers characters we are willing to spend two years alone in space with.

I have already mentioned Chris Pratt’s childish humor, and the depths of darkness he descends to as Jim. He is moved by sever guilt and shame, and by love as well. But besides these qualities, he is also the consummate tinkerer. Jim is always working on something, whether it’s gaining access to the luxury suite, trying to save the ship, or modifying space roombas. He crafts intricate models and fine jewelry, and expresses a desire to go somewhere where there is still something new to be built. He wants to build a house.

Aurora is just as fascinating a character, experiencing as wide a range of emotions artfully expressed by the talented Jennifer Lawrence. Like Jim, she has deep-seated desires that have shaped her character. She is a talented writer, as was her apparently famous father. He died when she was seventeen, and whatever other family she may have had is never mentioned. She seems to be the archetype of a millennial’s dream: talented, successful, and totally unencumbered by any attachments. She wants to do what no other writer has ever done: voyage to a colony and come back, carrying her story of a new world with her into a future far from the life she has known. This desire to experience adventures like her father, and to be widely read by virtue of her own talent and experience, sets her apart from Jim as a person in her own right—a person whose dreams he has snatched away.

Arthur, the ship’s barkeep and an extension of the Avalon’s personality is, as I indicated earlier, an endearing character. He is as competent as his programming allows, and smiling face and listening ear to the two passengers who want nothing more than company. Indeed, when what Jim has done is revealed, they undergo something of a custody battle for time spent with Arthur. But behind is welcoming manner and delightful foibles is the subtly unsettling nature of a robot who is just a bit too smart, just a bit too unfeeling, and increasingly broken.

The last character worth mentioning is Lawrence Fishburn’s Gus. The depth of the character is made all the more remarkable by the brief time we have with him. He comes onto the scene as a man with a mission, putting off his own health problems and refusing to get involved in the fight between Jim and Aurora. The ship is malfunctioning, and he must save the ship. He goes about it in a gruff and workmanlike manner, with lines that seem just a bit more blue collar than you expect coming from the man that played Morpheus.

When Aurora does finally force him to comment on Jim’s sin, he refuses to indulge her bitterness while also refusing to exonerate the Jim for what he did: “A drowning man will always try to drag you down with him. It ain’t right, but he’s drowning.” This simple, folksy wisdom, a recognition of human frailty, paints Gus as a man of insight, if not the most warm and cuddly guy imaginable. Soon after, he is confronted with his own imminent death. He dresses up and sits gazing out the window into space. Ever mindful of his duty, he passes on the wristband giving them access to the whole ship. He tells them to save it, and to take care of each other. Then he dies, leaning over on Jim as he does. That very human, oddly childlike gesture seems to illustrate just how small we all are in the face of death.

This is a movie with a tiny cast of characters, but they are portrayed with a depth far beyond what most movies offer.

Values

The setting, story, and characters are enough to make Passengers worth watching, but the film is far more than the action/rom-com sci-fi flick the trailers seemed to offer. It’s a meditation on death, the meaning of life and relationships, and the value of legacy.

Film critics I respect have criticized Passengers for its disturbing gender politics. Boy sees girl, boy wants girl, boy ruins girl’s life, boy gets away with it, and girl goes along with it. If this were done unconsciously, I might agree with them, but the movie is all too aware of just how wrong what Jim did is. He knows it, and tears himself apart up until the moment of weakness where he does it. It’s just behind his eyes throughout their relationship, and he confesses it freely when Aurora confronts him. Aurora’s devastation is magnificently illustrated, at least as haunting as Jim’s earlier loneliness. When Gus is brought in, he does not deny that what Jim did was as wrong as wrong can be. He only says that it’s what drowning men do.

And that’s the key. It’s what drowning men do. In the midst of a crusade for a just society, our culture has tendency to treat humans as if they are morally perfectible. We can always do what’s right, at least with regards to the big things, if we only tried hard enough, if we were only properly educated, if society were only set up in the right way. Wrong is wrong; it shouldn’t happen and people shouldn’t get away with it.

But Passengers seems to question this assumption. There is another philosophy of humanity, a very old one, but often neglected in our generation. It’s the belief that people are morally flawed. We are all, to put it in Christian terms, sinners. Of course we shouldn’t do certain things, but that’s not the world we live in. The fact is that human beings do what’s wrong, and nothing we do is going to change that.

Jim woke Aurora. It wasn’t right, it wasn’t excusable, but it’s what he did. There’s no getting around that, no erasing the past, and no erasing his sin. As Gus said, “A drowning man will always try to drag you down with him. It ain’t right, but he’s drowning.”

In our search for justice, forgiveness is often understood as telling the victim to get over it, as telling the victimizer that what they did was okay. That’s not what’s going on in this movie. Passengers is deeply aware of the vileness of what Jim did. But it suggests that perhaps this is the world we live in, and we can’t do anything to change it. Our anger may be justified, but it fixes nothing. If we want to go on living, if we want to get past our hurt, sometimes we have to do something just a bit more than human. Sometimes we have to forgive the unforgivable.

I am obviously biased here. I am religiously predisposed both to believe that sin is a fact of life, the sort of thing all humans do. That goes with another religious predisposition to believe that the unforgivable ought to be forgiven. That is asking a lot. Indeed, it may be asking more than may be humanly possible. But if sin really is a fact of the human condition, it may be the only way we can learn to live together.

Regardless of whether you agree with this angle on sin and forgiveness, the very fact that it’s an uncommon view makes this a movie worth watching, chewing on, and having conversations about.

But the interesting values portrayed in this movie don’t stop with that troubling issue of forgiveness. There is also a surprising movement from seeking personal fulfilment to building relationships.

When the movie starts, Jim is alone, and the movie is simply about his self-interest, his survival. When he accepts his fate, he moves on to all sorts of self-indulgence. This culminates in his waking of Aurora, a clear act of self-interest trumping love for others.

Aurora, similarly, begins in a way of life that is individually driven, atomistic. She leaves behind all her friends and the life she knew to pursue her career goals. One friend in particular gives her a weeping, heartfelt farewell that highlights the degree to which she is declaring her independence from other people. When she reaches the other world, and has experienced it, she plans on turning around and coming right back, cutting herself off from any relationships she has built there.

Over the course of the movie, both Jim and Aurora are confronted with their own self-centered individualism. With death and loneliness staring them in the face, they come to realize that they need other people, and that they are morally obligated to love other people. Love, not necessarily in the romantic sense, but in the sense of caring for another person, going out of one’s way to respect them, to protect them, and even to improve their life.

Others found the ending of the movie off-putting. Jim and Aurora didn’t get back into hibernation, didn’t solve that original problem and live to reach the colony. Doesn’t that mean they lost? But I would suggest that this is the entire point.

In today’s world of constant advertisement, of easy wish-fulfilment, of instant gratification, fast food, streaming entertainment, and endless information at our fingertips, we have come to view ourselves as consumers, and the world as a product. We are individuals who have desires that must be fulfilled, and the world exists to fulfil them. Jim wants a new world in which to build things. He should get it. Aurora wants to have adventures and to write things people will read. She should get it.

But in Passengers, this is exactly what doesn’t happen. Given the chance at individual fulfilment, at erasing what Jim has done and going on to fulfil her dreams, she chooses not to. To those of us raised in an individualistic, consumerist society, this feels wrong. It feels insane. Doesn’t she realize that life will be so much better on the other side of hibernation? Of course she does. And she rejects it.

Again, this could be read as bad gender politics, and if the movie was less self-aware, I might buy that. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on.

Over the course of the movie we have been repeatedly confronted with the vast emptiness of space, the fragile nature of human life in that void, the fragile nature of relationships involving flawed human beings. We have seen the horror of loneliness, been confronted with the inevitability of death, the shortness of our own brief lives.

If Aurora goes back to sleep, we know what that will do to Jim. More pointedly, Aurora knows. Aurora also knows the value of relationships, knows what that means because she has been threatened with death, offered the relationship that mitigated that pain, and then had it ripped from her in an unthinkable betrayal. Aurora also looks back to her father, looks back to the friends she has left behind, and we know that even in a life where there were other human beings, Aurora was lonely.

In Aurora’s choice, we are not being told that the guy should always get the girl. In Aurora’s choice, we are being told that relationships matter more than personal fulfilment. We are being told that the most important things in life are not our dreams or desires, but other people. We depend on them for survival, but they are also, as Jim came to realize early on, what makes survival worth it.

This realization comes about only when the characters are confronted by mortality. If the lesson stopped there, that would be more than enough. But it doesn’t.

While Jim and Aurora are still together, he asks her who she is writing for, if not for people she knows. At that point, it doesn’t matter who. She just wants to be read. But later on, when she comes to grips with the fact that she will die before anyone sees what she reads, she begins to speak of posterity. She is not writing for a future fame she will personally get to enjoy, but to leave something to future generations. She is leaving a legacy.

In the end, having chosen to stay with Jim, that’s exactly what she has done. Her writing was not for personal glory, and it wasn’t just for Jim. She passed on her story the passengers who would awake long after they were gone. She left a legacy beyond death.

Just like the decision to stay with Jim, this a vaguely off-putting idea in our society. Again, we are often so radically individualistic, so focused on our own desires, that the idea that we would plant something and never live to see the harvest is all but unthinkable. Why do something if you won’t derive enjoyment from it?

This idea is not present only in Aurora’s writing, but also in Gus looking past his own death to the good of Aurora and Jim, and the good of the ship. It is present in Jim and Aurora risking their lives to fix the ship, and to save one another when self-interest cries out against it. Throughout the movie we are confronted with death, and throughout the movie we are asked to look beyond it, to look to a future we will not live to enjoy. In this day and age, that’s a remarkable thing to do.

Together these three values of forgiveness, relationship, and legacy, all of which trump individual fulfilment, combine to create something far more wonderful: hope.

From the beginning of the movie, Jim is a tinkerer. He takes the world around him and wants to make it something more. When Aurora comes along, he is a given a new direction for his efforts. He creates a robot to communicate with her, he builds a model and a ring, and he plants a tree. He is fundamentally a builder, someone who wants to create something that will improve not only his own life, but the life of others.

In the final scene, we see the results of this mentality. In their years together, Jim and Aurora built a garden in the main concourse, a green world filled with trees and birds and robots pulling vegetables out of the earth. In the midst of it all is a house, the house Jim wanted to build, the something new that there was no room for back in the old world. Jim and Aurora did not survive, but they built something worth having.

And that’s the true value of Passengers. It’s not just the story of Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence in space. It’s not just a rom-com, a sci-fi action flick, or even an interpersonal drama. It’s a story about how civilizations are built. In the beginning there were only two people staring death in the face. By the end there is a garden, a home, and a story for the future. Forgiveness, self-sacrifice, and a mind tilted towards legacy—these are the values of hope, and hope is what creates beauty.

After the year we just had, I can think of nothing more needful.

I am Jack’s Rejection of the Matrix

Ever since I’d seen both movies, I’ve thought Fight Club and The Matrix would make a great double feature. Not one to share with the kids, and not for light, passive entertainment. But for a thought-provoking evening? Perfect.

Besides both being late nineties classics you watch in college and think are deep, they’re both taking a swing at the same target. Fight Club and The Matrix are both, in their own way, critiques of the American social and economic system. During the Reagan and Clinton administrations, which served as the backdrop of the lives of most of the Generation Xers who saw them in theaters, this was neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism, summed up briefly by an economics amateur, is the ideology that favors free markets, privatization, and deregulation, with minimal government involvement in the economy generally. This is the world of economic freedom that allows corporations to flourish, and so provides an endless number of “socially conscious” movies with suit-wearing, cigar-smoking, filthy rich bad guys. It also provides them with a cage from which they can free their lead characters.

Take a look at The Matrix’s protagonist, as seen by Agent Smith.

Agent Smith: “It seems that you’ve been living two lives. One life, you’re Thomas A. Anderson, program writer for a respectable software company. You have a social security number, pay your taxes, and your… help your landlady carry out her garbage.”

In previous scenes, we watch Thomas A. Anderson living out this humdrum existence. He shows up to work late and is reprimanded by his boss, then distracted by the squeak of window washers dragging a squeegee across the glass. He sits in his cubicle and does his work. He is unsatisfied with life, just another office drone in a world of office drones.

But the mysterious hackers Morpheus and Trinity offer him an escape. Morpheus asks him to look at his world, to understand its true nature. He is caught in the Matrix.

 

Morpheus: “The Matrix is everywhere, it is all around us, even now in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window, or you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.”

Neo/Thomas Anderson: “What truth?”

Morpheus: “That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage… born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind.”

 

When Morpheus breaks Thomas Anderson, alias Neo, out of the Matrix, he takes him to a place where he can explain what precisely the Matrix is. It seems human society was long ago conquered by a race of artificially intelligent robots, who have created a vast system in which they have trapped us. Why are we hooked into this thorough illusion, this deception pervading our entire life?

 

Morpheus: “The human body generates more bio-electricity than a 120-volt battery and over 25,000 BTU’s of body heat. Combined with a form of fusion, the machines had found all the energy they would ever need. There are fields – endless fields – where human beings are no longer born, we are grown. For the longest time I wouldn’t believe it, and then I saw the fields with my own eyes. Watched them liquefy the dead so they could be fed intravenously to the living.

“And standing there, facing the pure horrifying precision, I came to realize the obviousness of the truth. What is the Matrix? Control. The Matrix is a computer generated dream world, built to keep us under control in order to change a human being into this.”

morpheous-battery

 

In short, the system views us as a resource. We are batteries to be drained, crops to be harvested. Thomas Anderson is not special human being, he is not a beautiful and unique snowflake. He—like us—is a cog in a machine, a replaceable part in a vast, paper-pushing, money-generating enterprise. Well, electricity generating in the world of the story. In the world of neoliberalism, the world of corporations, the real individual is nothing more than Morpheus’s coppertop battery that keeps the small appliances running.

Realizing that the machines view us this way, that the Matrix was created to keep us docile as we are drained, the hope Morpheus offers is something of a messianic one.

Morpheus: “When the Matrix was first built, there was a man born inside who had the ability to change whatever he wanted, to remake the Matrix as he saw fit. It was he who freed the first of us, taught us the truth – As long as the Matrix exists, the human race will never be free. After he died, the Oracle prophesied his return and his coming would hail the destruction of the Matrix, end the war, bring freedom to our people. That is why there are those who have spent our entire lives searching the Matrix looking for him.”

 

The way he will destroy the Matrix is never quite specified, though by the end of the movie there is some indication that perhaps the One is merely meant to wake everybody up, to make them reject the Matrix. Then, one assumes, we will be free.

And that is The Matrix’s philosophy of neoliberal society. It looks at the meaningless life of an office drone, and blames the machine. The solution it offers is simply to reject the machine, to reject the system. But then what? What replaces it?

The Matrix is pretty light on answers to that particular question. Perhaps it can be forgiven. After all, it is primarily an action movie. But that does weaken its critique. A freedom that isn’t going anywhere isn’t exactly inspiring. We’ve rejected the system, we know what we’re fighting against, but what exactly are we fighting for? Just whatever we want? Find your own meaning? What if I find meaning in being hooked back into the Matrix? After all, a lot of people seem comfortable there.

This is the option taken by the traitor, Cypher. He is sick of the fight, sick of the dystopian real world. He wants to eat steak, drink wine, be important, enjoy the good life back in the Matrix. So he cuts a deal with the machines, letting them have the resistance in exchange for letting him back in. It doesn’t work out well.

We are meant to reject that option, but on what basis? What is the better world Morpheus and Neo offer us? When we finally get to Zion in the sequels, all we get is a massive rave, and a little hanky panky. Couldn’t we have had that in the Matrix? Didn’t a lot of people? Work during the week, party on the weekend?

There’s an essential failure of imagination here. Many critics of neoliberalism’s economic order simultaneously embrace social liberalism, as if the two were unconnected. They sneer at the crass self-indulgence of consumerism, deride the meaninglessness of being a mere resource for a corporation. But ad agencies were never just selling designer handbags, they were buying and selling lives and meaning.

Social liberalism rejects all social constraints, with the result that there are no traditional identity markers to clutch onto. Who are you? You determine who you are. Your hobbies, your gender, your sexuality, your favorite causes, your favorite celebrities, your eclectic clothing style, your multicultural food palate and selection of world music—this is who you are. Let no one tell you what job you can and can’t have, let no antiquated vows hold you back from seeking a fulfilling relationship or abandoning an unfulfilling one, let no unplanned pregnancy slow down your career and dash your dreams. You are your own person.

Far from being inconsistent with a free market, this is the natural consequence of it. Traditional societies with their taboos and reluctance to try new things are not great places for advertising. If you want to sell stuff, you need to convince people that the only thing that matters is what they want, and then offer it to them. Teach them to follow their hearts, then tell them their hearts really need what you’re selling—and that may be sex, vodka, Chinese food, a good car, or the right movie collection. Whatever floats your boat.

In the world of social liberalism, all the things that were once part of traditional value structures which transcended the individual have now become a form of both self-indulgence and self-marketing. Which sexuality most appeals to me? What movie genre makes me happiest? What clothing style really expresses who I am? Social liberalism is not the antithesis of economic liberalism, it is its natural bedfellow. Liberated markets need liberated individuals.

Fight Club realizes this to a greater degree than The Matrix. When the movie begins, the problem for the nameless protagonist—let’s call him Jack—is not that he is being actively deceived by an oppressive system. To be sure, the corporations are not innocent in this, but the real problem is Jack. Jack defines himself by what he owns. He has an addiction to Ikea, a need for the right coffee table, the right lamps, the right treadmill. He defines himself by it.

Early in the movie, his apartment explodes. He lives with no one. He has no real friends, no one lost or hurt in this tragedy. What he has lost are his possessions—a fridge full of condiments with no food. But, as he states later in the movie, those weren’t just things, that was his life. He is defined by what he buys. His new friend, Tyler Durden, questions this.

 

Tyler Durden: “Do you know what a duvet is?”

Jack: “It’s a comforter…”

Tyler Durden: “It’s a blanket. Just a blanket. Now why do guys like you and me know what a duvet is? Is this essential to our survival, in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word? No. What are we then?”

Jack: “Consumers?”

Tyler Durden: “Right. We are consumers. We’re the by-products of a lifestyle obsession.”

 

Fight Club does not offer a vague messianic prophecy. It offers an active solution. Reject the unnecessary. Reject your possessions. Then reject your desire for pleasure. Embrace pain. Reject your dignity. Suffer at night, and be despised by your coworkers by day. Reject your respect for society, and reject society itself. Fight Club rejects social liberalism as much as it does the corporate world of economic liberalism. It does not offer pleasure or freedom. It offers rocks bottom, the rejection of all that society calls good, the embracing of one’s mortality.

Tyler Durden: “Listen up, maggots. You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.”

This is the mantra with which Tyler Durden blasts the quasi-fascist movement that springs up around him. They are all going to die, their life has no meaning, and they might as well take down this corrupt society with them. It told them they were valuable, but it treated them like they were worthless. Like a faceless resource.

Tyler Durden: “Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”

Don’t tell the small child confused about their gender, the growing adult uncertain about their sexuality, that they can be whatever they want to be. Don’t tell the little girl that she can grow up to be president. Don’t preach a gospel of racial harmony to the oppressed. Don’t tell the poor they can rise to the top. Don’t even tell the vast cast of comfortable white guys with jobs that they can obtain any sort of dignity. All these things are just lies that keep us docile as we waste our lives chasing what the ad men tell us is worth chasing.

Fight Club recognizes this, understands that this message of positivity and individual self-creations exists solely to make us consumers. The me-centric society is an ad-centric society is a corporation-centric society. We exist to work for the companies, and to buy from the companies. And beneath that, we are rotting organic matter. Don’t buy any Disney-style platitudes. Don’t delude yourself. This is the harsh reality.

The Matrix rejects the machine, but Fight Club knows the machines were not alone. We were complicit. We bought their lies, we indulged ourselves, we have become the willing slaves of a system that doesn’t value us. Tyler Durden calls us to take responsibility for that, and he would not only have us enlightened, he would have us react.

Where The Matrix offers no real plan of action, and no final vision, Fight Club at least offers the first. Durden transforms the fight clubs into Project Mayhem, a terrorist organization not too far in goal from a more militaristic Anonymous. It aims first to use guerilla tactics to expose the meaninglessness of life in the corporate-dominated system, and then blow up the credit card companies, resetting all our balances to zero. Reboot that system and cause chaos.

The movie does not want you to like this plan. It is clearly violent, clearly bad, and clearly taking things too far. Sort of. It’s hard to separate Jack’s rejection of Project Mayhem from all the other inhibitions he’s slowly been shedding as he rejects consumerist society. Tyler Durden, as played by Brad Pitt, is simply more charismatic than the wishy washy Ed Norton, and his case is more convincing. The rejection of the terroristic project is clear, but rings hollow in the larger context.

Tyler’s ultimate vision, beyond the plan, is dwelt on hardly more than Zion, but the glimpse we get is both interesting and revealing.

Tyler Durden: “In the world I see – you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You’ll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You’ll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down, you’ll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighway.”

 

This is a radically primitive world, and a harsh one. Hunter-gatherer societies are not for the weak. They do not provide the safety and comforts of civilization that we are used too. They clearly also exclude much of what we consider to be the signs of our own greatness—great towers, great highways, a million meal choices. But this is entirely consistent with the values Fight Club has displayed so far. We are decaying organic matter, and anything else is a lie told to sell us something. So live life radically free from any system, live it on the edge, live it while you can. Don’t let anyone stop you.

If you value individual freedom, Fight Club’s is perhaps the more consistent conclusion. But the truth is, few of us value individual freedom that much. We don’t want to reject society altogether, we just don’t want to be batteries plugged into the Matrix, consumers leading meaningless lives.

It’s probably no coincidence that twenty years after the rash of anti-consumerist movies in the 90’s, including these two, both major parties are reeling from insurgencies in their own ranks. Bernie Sanders wants a system that isn’t afraid to hurt corporations in order to give individuals dignity. He’s an open socialist, because he cares about people more than companies. Trump doesn’t mind hurting corporations either, being open to protectionist policies that put American jobs ahead of companies that profit from an international neoliberal system. He also rejects the multiculturalism that reduces the values by which we define ourselves as a community to just one more option on a cultural free market. Hence the accusations of racism.

Both insurgencies, in their own ways, reject the neoliberalism of the past several decades. The right used to push for economic liberalism, and the left for social liberalism. Now we are seeing a right that doesn’t care about the former, and a left that, while it has not rejected the latter, may not prioritize it so much as college tuition and a true living wage. The country is not satisfied with the Matrix it has been living in, and both party establishments are suffering as a result.

But where does this leave us? What’s next? What does society look like, if not yin-yang coffee tables and a job at a large software company? What does the good life look like, if not what the advertisers tell us, if not what we see on TV, if not what the corrupt politicians ask of us? How exactly do we reject self-indulgent freedom—whether economic or social—for some sort of social cohesion? What are our new values?

Many critiques of neoliberalism reject religion, treating it as a means of social control. The Matrix certainly does—going to church is one of the ways you experience the Matrix. In Fight Club, the only clergyman is a frail looking, overly polite little pipsqueak provoked by a member of one of the fight clubs. He is weak compared to this real man, and ultimately abandons the social norms of nonviolence to attack the him, after being contemptuously sprayed with a hose. He is, perhaps, a hypocrite, or at least inconsistent with what we can assume are his principles.

But what if this picture is wrong? What if the reason we’re in this bind is that we have rejected a truly religious world, and look to a merely material world to give us meaning? We tell ourselves that there is nothing beyond the physical world, that we are no more than a complicated bit of chemistry. There is no life beyond this, no reality more lasting than the pain or pleasure our bodies feel right now. And after that, there is nothing. Is it any wonder we want to indulge ourselves while we’re still here?

I’m not suggesting a world of self-interested monsters, only a world of reasonable people. Why trouble yourself with antiquated religious taboos about sexuality, abortion, and respect for elders when it’s all going to rot anyways? Why make someone feel guilty for doing what we’re all doing—just trying to get through the day? Life is hard enough without being threatened with hellfire.

But again, what if that materialistic outlook is not true? What if the cosmos really is the produce of an entity that, though he may be far more than a “person” as we would understand it, is certainly not less? What if he not only created us, but is—contra Tyler Durden—actually interested in us?

People who reject fundamentalist Christianity often make the mistake of thinking that this idea is comforting, but the truth is often quite the opposite. As I’ve already indicated, it’s not for nothing that social liberals are easily annoyed by religious conservatives. Religious conservatives believe that God is interested in us, including being interested that we not do certain things. If there are objective, transcendent values, the kind a truly supernatural entity can give, that means that we can be wrong. Who we sleep with and how we spend our time is suddenly somebody else’s business, and that’s uncomfortable.

This cuts right against our sense of freedom. How dare someone call me a sinner, how dare someone judge me. Isn’t this a free country? Don’t I get to do what I want with my own money, with my own time, with my own body? This religion which rejects the kind of freedom at the base of neoliberalism, and the resultant dehumanization of consumers and employees, also rejects the basis of social liberalism.

Rejecting economic liberalism is one thing—most of us do not benefit much from it. But social liberalism is something that daily allows us to indulge ourselves. The average joe profits from the ability to buy anything, watch anything, drink anything, and sleep with anyone in a way he does not benefit from the profit margins seen by the big wigs in corporate. A morally judgmental Christianity is not an attractive alternative to the kind of consumerism from which he benefits.

But perhaps that is because those who reject the consumerist, neoliberal society on one level are themselves a product of it. We have found an enemy, but the enemy is us. We are still trapped in the service of our own desires, and we need a system that frees us to do that, that subsidizes our self-indulgence.

In another movie—Doctor Strange—the titular character is having a conversation with the Ancient One, who is in a particularly conversant mood. As she contemplates both death and the mysteries of life, she gives Strange some final advice, something to help him along his path to enlightenment and true self-knowledge.

The Ancient One: “Arrogance and fear still keep you from learning the simplest and most significant lesson of all.”

Dr. Stephen Strange: “Which is?”

The Ancient One: “It’s not about you.”

Let Us Now Praise the Carpenter

Let us now praise the carpenter, and the things that he made,
And the way that he lived by the tools of his trade.
I can still hear his hammer singing ten penny time,
Working by the hour till the day he died.

Oh, he was tough as a crowbar, quick as a chisel,
Fair as a plane, and true as a level.
He was straight as a chalk line, and right as a rule.
He was square with the world. He took good care of his tools.

Oh he worked his hands in wood from the crib to the coffin,
With a care and a love you don’t see too often.
He built boats out of wood–big boats–working in a shipyard,
Mansions on the hill, and a birdhouse in the backyard.

He was tough as a crowbar, quick as a chisel,
Fair as a plane, and true as a level.
He was straight as a chalk line, and right as a rule.
He was square with the world. He took good care of his tools.

He said “Anything that’s worth cuttin’ down a tree for
Is worth doin’ right. Don’t the Lord love a two by four!”
Well they asked him how to do somethin’ he’d say, “Just like Noah built the ark.
You got to hold your mouth right son, and never miss your mark

To be tough as a crowbar, quick as a chisel,
Fair as a plane, and true as a level.
Be was straight as a chalk line, and right as a rule.
Square with the world. You take good care of your tools.”

A life of working hard at a craft and a well-earned reputation for virtue are things to strive for, whatever your profession.

Here’s Guy Clark singing a live version.

This is what good country is about–telling stories or passing on wisdom through sung poetry. And that, I believe, is the very heart of a “folk” music tradition, the kind of music that builds, reinforces, and defines a community. It does not merely entertain, it illustrates and embodies what the community is about.

Taken from that perspective, country music has historically been remarkable for embodying that kind of music in a mass market context. The way we often treat music as pure entertainment with no greater purpose, and as a thing of passing fads, is not conducive to a culture that creates or values songs like this. For country, however, that was a selling point for a long time.

One way to build our communities is to nurture this kind of music, whatever label it falls under. Folk, Americana, some brands of rock, blues, soul, or jazz, all can potentially tell stories and pass on values. Wherever you find yourself musically and regionally, this is something to consider. A strong community is reinforced by a strong musical tradition.

There is something missing in this picture, of course. One reason music of this kind doesn’t survive well in America is because it’s hard to pass on actual songs. They are protected by copyright, because we believe music belongs to the artist first and not to the community. We cannot re-sing, re-write, or modify old songs to suit new singers, because we do not own them. And so we don’t write songs that are meant to be treated that way.

If we want to build strong communities, we should think through this understanding of the artist and what art is meant to be.