Paul P. Mealing

Check out my book, ELVENE. Available as e-book and as paperback (print on demand, POD). 2 Reviews: here. Also this promotional Q&A on-line.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Superheroes for adults – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

This is not the first movie review I’ve written on this blog; not even the first about superheroes. I wrote a review of Watchmen in Oct., 2009, which is an exceptional movie in my view, based on an exceptional graphic novel by Alan Moore, which I have to confess I read some years after I saw the movie.

One really shouldn’t reference other reviewers when writing a review (an unwritten rule of reviewing) but Stephen Romei, writing in the Weekend Australian Review (26-27 Mar., 2016) makes the pertinent point of how our superheroes have evolved over the best part of a century (the ones in this movie were all created pre-WW2). As someone who was born immediately post-WW2, I grew up with these heroes in the form that they were born in, comic books. Like many of my generation (including Romie, I suspect) they are imbedded in my psyche, especially Superman.

Romei makes the point that he’s glad he didn’t take his 10 year old son (so maybe not my generation) because the movie is long and the characters' relationships complex. But the truth is that when you see Lois in a bath you know this isn’t a movie for kids. And no, it’s not a gratuitous nude scene – it’s a very clever way of demonstrating her relationship with Clark without showing them in bed. Our superheroes have become grown up – they have sex. It’s a bit like the point in your life when you realise your parents have been at it for at least as long as you’ve been alive. Bruce Wayne has someone in his bed as well, but we never meet her. In fact, she’s so unobtrusive that I now wonder if I imagined her.

This is a very noirish film, and not only in subtext. The first thing that struck me about this movie was the cinematography: it’s darkly lit, even the outdoor shots. But what makes this film worthy of a blog post is that it has a moral dimension that reflects the current world we live in. It’s about fear and trust and how we are manipulated by politicians and media. Our heroes are flawed, suffer doubt and have to deal with real moral dilemmas. All of these factors are dealt with a level of authenticity that we would not expect from a superhero movie. It’s also about being judged by association; very relevant in the current global environment.

One of the themes of this movie, which is spelt out in some of the dialogue, as well as in gestures, is that these heroes are effectively gods. Bryan Singer brought this home to us as well in Superman Returns (a movie that you either loved or hated; it’s one my favourites, I confess). This is a point I’ve raised myself (when I discussed Watchmen): the superheroes are our ‘Greek Gods’. And like the Greek Gods of literature, they exhibit human traits, dabble in human affairs and even have human lovers. I am a storyteller by nature, and the whole point of storytelling is to be able to stretch our imaginations to worlds and beings that only exist in that realm. But that storytelling only resonates with us when it deals with human affairs, not only of the heart, but of politics and moral crises.

Chris Nolan’s second Dark Knight movie is a case in point, where Heath Ledger’s Joker makes Christian Bale’s Batman become, albeit fleetingly, as morally compromised as he is. This is the lesson: do we have to become as bad as our enemies in order to defeat them. Consider the Republicans’ current leading contender for the White House saying on national television that in order to defeat ISIS we need to attack their families. Cringeworthy doesn’t cover it.

And this movie, in its own way, challenges our prejudices, our inherent distrust in anyone who is ‘not one of us’, especially when we can associate them with atrocities occurring in remote locations and on our doorstep. We are tribal – it’s our strength and our downfall. And this fear and mistrust is manipulated blatantly (in the movie) which is why it is relevant and meaningful to the present day. Science fiction stories, always set in the future, always have something relevant to say about the time in which they are written.

And this brings me to the introduction of Wonder Woman, who has very little screen time, yet promises much for the future. I have a particular interest in her character, because she influenced one of my own creations, albeit subconsciously (I wasn’t aware of the obvious references until after I’d written it). I have to confess I was worried that she would come across as a lightweight, but Gal Gadot gives the role the gravitas it deserves. Gadot is a former Miss Israeli and the fact that she’s served in the military is maybe why she convinces us that she is a genuine warrior and not just someone who looks good in tight-fitting clothes.

Remember that Sean Connery was a Mr Universe contender before he became the first and (50 years later) still the most iconic James Bond. But the reason for her relevance is that female superheroes have been historically in short supply, but there is a sense that their time has come. Looking on the Internet, the biggest concern seemed to be if her boobs were big enough. And, in fact, a radio interviewer asked her that very question. She pointed out that the real Amazonians only had one breast, which may have made the role ‘problematic if one really wanted authenticity’. (I remember being told that as a kid: that they cut off their left breast so they could draw and release a bow string. It seemed plausible to me then and it sounds plausible to me now.) That slightly irrelevant point aside, the original Wonder Woman was based on Greek mythology; she is Hellenic, so possibly more in common with the Greek Gods than any other 20th Century fictional creation. Anyway, I think Gadot perfect for the role, and I only hope the scriptwriters have done her justice in her own story.

Just one bit of trivia: there is a piece of dialogue by Alfred (played pitch-perfect by Jeremy Irons) that has been lifted straight out of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) of which I still have a copy. A subtle but respectful salute.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Argument, reason and belief

Recently in New Scientist (5 March 2016) there was a review of a book, The Persuaders: The Hidden Industry that Wants to Change Your Mind by James Garvey (which I must read), which tackles the issue of why argument by reason often fails. I’ve experienced this first hand on this blog, which has led me to the conclusion that you can’t explain something to someone who doesn’t want it explained. The book referenced above is more about how propaganda works, apparently, but that is not what I wish to discuss.

In the same vein, I’ve recently watched a number of YouTube videos covering excerpts from debates and interviews with scientists on the apparent conflict between science and religion. I say apparent because not all scientists are atheists and not all theologians are creationists, yet that is the impression one often gets from watching these.

The scientists I’ve been watching include Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye (aka the science guy) and Michio Kaku. I think Tyson presents the best arguments (from the small sample I watched) but Michio Kaku comes closest to presenting my own philosophical point of view. In one debate (see links at bottom) he says the ‘God question’ is ‘undecidable’ and predicts that, unlike many scientific questions of today, the God question will be no further advanced in 100 years time than it is in the current debate.

The issue, from my perspective, is that science and religion deal with completely different things. Science is an epistemology – it’s a study of the natural world in all its manifestations. Religion is something deeply personal and totally subjective, and that includes God. God is something people find inside themselves which is why said God has so many different personalities and prejudices depending on who the believer is. I’ve argued this before, so I won’t repeat myself.

At least 2 of the scientists I reference above (Dawkins and Tyson) point out something I’ve said myself: once you bring God into epistemology to explain some phenomenon that science can’t currently explain, you are saying we have come to the end of science. History has revealed many times over that something that was inexplicable in the past becomes explicable in the future. As I’ve said more than once on this blog: only people from the future can tell us how ignorant we are in the present. Tyson made the point that the apposite titled God-of-the-Gaps is actually a representation of our ignorance – a point I’ve made myself.

This does not mean that God does not exist; it means that God can’t help us with our science. People who argue that science can be replaced with Scripture are effectively arguing that science should be replaced by ignorance. The Old Testament was written by people who wanted to tell a story of their origins and it evolved into a text to scare people into believing that they are born intrinsically evil. At least that’s how it was presented to me as a child.

Of all the videos I watched, the most telling was an excerpt from a debate between Bill Nye (the science guy) and Ken Ham (the architect of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky). Ham effectively argued that science can only be done in the present. So-called historical science, giving the age of the Earth or the Universe, or its origins, cannot be determined using the same methods we use for current scientific investigations. When asked if any evidence could change his beliefs, he said there was no such evidence and the Bible was the sole criterion for his beliefs.

And this segues back into my introduction: you cannot explain something to someone who doesn’t want it explained. When I argue with someone or even present an argument on this blog, I don’t expect to change people’s points of view to mine; I expect to make them think. Hence the little aphorism in the blog’s title block.

One of the points made in the New Scientist review, referenced in my opening, is that people rarely if ever change their point of view even when presented with indisputable evidence or a proof. This is true even among scientists. We all try to hang on to our pet theories for as long as possible until they are no longer tenable. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, even though I’m not a scientist.

One of the things that helps perpetuate our stubbornness is confirmation bias (mentioned by New Scientist) whereby we tend to only read or listen to people whom we agree with. We do this with politics all the time. But I have read contrary points of view, usually given to me by people who think I’m biased. I’ve even read C.S. Lewis. What I find myself doing in these instances is arguing in my head with the authors. To give another example, I once read a book by Colin McGinn (Basic Structures of Reality) that only affirmed for me that people who don’t understand science shouldn’t write books about it, yet I still read it and even wrote a review of it on Amazon UK.

There is a thing called philosophy and it’s been married to science for many centuries. Despite what some people claim (Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking to mention 2) I can’t see a divorce any time soon. To use a visual metaphor, our knowledge is like an island surrounded by a sea of unsolved mysteries. The island keeps expanding but the sea is infinite. The island is science and the shoreline is philosophy. To extend the metaphor, our pet theories reside on the beach.

Noson Yanofsky, a Professor of Computer and Information Science in New York, wrote an excellent book called The Outer Limits of Reason, whereby he explained how we will never know everything – it’s cognitively and physically impossible. History has demonstrated that every generation believes that we almost know everything that science can reveal, yet every revelation only reveals new mysteries.

This is a video of Michio Kaku and Richard Dawkins, amongst others, giving their views on science, God and religion.

This is a short video of Leonard Susskind explaining 2 types of agnosticism, one of which he seems to concur with.