I don’t watch many movies, so over the past fifty years there have been quite a few highly influential films that I’ve never seen. Until recently, Pulp Fiction was on that list. The film’s elaborate, mobius-striplike narrative structure has been widely imitated, as has its hipness and the sort of characters that inhabit it–apparent stock figures who in fact have complex psyches. The dialogue is rich, and some scenes have achieved pop-culture fame. Recently, I broke down and saw the film for the first time. There are lots of fun scenes, such as hit man Vincent taking the boss’ wife out for a night on the town; his attempts to make it a low-key evening bereft of drama are thwarted at every turn. What struck me the most, though, was that characters who seem amoral at worst and morally compromised at best spend much of the film trying to deal with moral dilemmas.

Take Vincent, for example, happily employed as a thug. He has recently returned from Amsterdam, where he indulged in libidinous pleasures of various sorts. We see him visit his dealer to pick up some heroin prior to the dinner engagement with Mia Wallace, the boss’ wife; he apparently uses drugs frequently. He doesn’t plan on trying to bed Mia, but, as he originally explains it, that’s not because of any compunctions about shacking up with a woman he barely knows. Instead, he simply wants to not give offense to Marsellus Wallace, the sort of boss who has hit men on his payroll. In Kierkegaard’s characterization of three modes of life–the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious (see a brief summary of these here)–Vincent lives in the aesthetic mode, characterized by pursuit of pleasure, subjectivism, and lack of a framework of meaning. It’s not that he can’t engage in moral reasoning–he does so rather adeptly in arguing with fellow hit man Jules that giving a woman a foot massage is morally equivalent to having sex with her. He just doesn’t use such reasoning to fence in his own behavior in any way.

Mia and Vincent at Dinner

Or so it seems. We learn differently when he finds himself attracted to Mia. He excuses himself and goes to the bathroom in order to fortify his initial plan to resist temptation. Here’s the pep talk he gives himself:

“It’s a moral test of yourself, whether or not you can maintain loyalty. Because when people are loyal to each other, that’s very meaningful–So you’re gonna go out there, drink your drink, say ‘Good night, I’ve had a very lovely evening,’ go home and jack off. And that’s all you’re gonna do.”

So he’s not simply an aesthetic whose behavior is constrained only by self-interest. He’s ethical; he believes that he should live according to a standard, that of loyalty to Marsellus, who trusted him to behave honorably. Betrayal would not only be unwise, it would be wrong. His moral standards may be unconventional, but they are firmly held.

The second of the movie’s three subplots features another morally compromised character who seems to be living in the aesthetic mode. Butch is a boxer who is first seen accepting a bribe from Marsellus to take a dive in his next fight. Unlike Vincent, he doesn’t hesitate to betray; he not only fails to lose the fight, he boxes with such ferocity that he accidentally kills his opponent. An accomplice bet heavily on him, and Butch stands to profit handsomely from the double-cross. He anticipates that Marsellus will seek vengence and prepares to flee, but Butch and Marsellus unexpectedly encounter each other before he can get away. There’s an accident, Butch limps away, Marsellus pursues. Both end up in a pawn shop where they are captured by the proprietor, who, along with a buddy, plans to sodomize and possibly kill them. Marsellus is their first victim. Butch manages to free himself while their captors are distracted and is about to make his escape–but he stops at the door. It would be in his self-interest to leave.. But how could he leave Marsellus to the fate that he narrowly escaped? He turns back and, after considering and rejecting several possible weapons from the pawn shop’s inventory, he settles on a samurai sword. The choice is significant; the samurai were not only fierce warriors, but lived by a stringent code of honor. By rescuing Marsellus, Butch is not only making restitution for his previous betrayal; he’s also restoring his own honor.

Butch as Samurai

Vincent and Butch are seemingly immoral people who, when confronted with ethical dilemmas, prove that they do try to live according to a moral code. Jules, another hit man in Marsellus’ employ, seems equally lacking a moral compass. It’s true that he quotes from the Bible early on, but does so right before he and Vincent murder someone. We later learn that the passage he quotes–supposedly Ezekiel 25:17, though he doesn’t quote it accurately–is something he memorized because he thought it was a sufficiently coldblooded thing to say before offing somebody. Here’s a transcript:

“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who in the name of cherish and good will shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness for he is truly his keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.”

Almost immediately after the murder, an accomplice of the victim bursts out of the bathroom with a gun and shoots at Jules and Vincent from close range. Amazingly, they aren’t hit, and soon dispatch the gunman. Jules immediately decides that a miracle occurred and they survived only because of divine protection. Vincent argues with him, saying it was just something that happens in life. The disagreement crops up later, and Jules eventually appeals not to the improbability of the event but to how it affected him:

“Whether or not what we experienced was an According to Hoyle miracle is insignificant. What is significant is that I felt the touch of God. God got involved.”

Jules has made the transition to the third mode described by Kierkegaard: the religious. This involves a reorientation of one’s life in light of the divine, and Jules almost immediately begins such a transformation. He makes plans to leave his employment with Marsellus. Later that day, in the movie’s last scene, he and Vincent are in a diner that is robbed. Jules gets the better of one of the robbers and, while holding the man at gunpoint, says that normally he would kill him but that he’s going through a transitional period and wants to help him instead. He quotes the Biblical passage and says he has been thinking about what it means. Here’s what has come to him:

See, now I’m thinking: maybe it means you’re the evil man. And I’m the righteous man. And Mr. 9mm here… he’s the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean you’re the righteous man and I’m the shepherd and it’s the world that’s evil and selfish. And I’d like that. But that shit ain’t the truth. The truth is you’re the weak. And I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m tryin’, Ringo. I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.

This is what Scripture does: it opens our eyes to who we are. And it teaches us how we should change–who we should strive to become. Jules isn’t the shepherd yet, but he’s trying. That’s all any of us can do.

Jules Explaining Scripture.

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues.

It’s never easy when someone you love stops communicating with you. A day of such silence can be hard to endure; weeks or months seem unbearable. What if the loved one who is silent despite your entreaties is God?

silence_2016_filmThat’s the situation in Martin Scorsese’s recent movie adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s 1968 novel Silence. Two 17th century Portuguese priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) have volunteered to go to Japan to learn the fate of their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has not been heard of for years but is rumored to have apostatized under persecution. Upon their arrival, they quickly learn the dire condition of the country’s Catholics. All priests have been killed and the Christian faith is outlawed. Believers who refuse to renounce their faith are killed, often in the most gruesome manner possible. The suffering of believers tests the faith of Father Rodrigues, the film’s main protagonist. God’s silence in response to his prayers is perhaps a greater test.

We eavesdrop on Father Rodrigues’ thoughts via voiceovers, most purportedly from his written progress reports to his superior. Early on, he is confident that he is doing what God wants. “We asked for this mission, and he heard us,” he writes. The two priests hear confession, baptize, and offer the Eucharist to small groups of Christians they encounter. “I felt God himself was so near,” Rondrigues writes after a visit to one such congregation. Yet he wonders: “Why do they have to suffer so much? Why did God chose them to bear the burden?”

Rodrigues is consoled initially that his priestly ministrations were improving the lives of his charges. However, the forces of the inquisition soon become aware that there are priests in hiding, and consequently intensify efforts to get the villagers to apostatize. Rodrigues starts to doubt that his presence is beneficial. “I’m just a foreigner who brought persecution,” he writes at one point.

Rodrigues is eventually betrayed to the authorities. When initially imprisoned with a group of peasants who are Christians, he is distraught. “We’re all going to die,” he bellows. One of the other captives is puzzled. Their former priest taught them that upon death they would go to paradise, a better place. Is that not true? “Yes, it is true,” Rodrigues replies, but it’s evident who has the stronger faith. I’m reminded not to judge another’s faith by outward signs, especially by such insignificant indicators as nationality, race, or class.

The chief inquisitor, Inoue (Issei Ogata), explains to Rodrigues that the inquisition is not a matter of dislike or hate for Christians. Instead, Christianity must be eliminated because it is a danger to society. Besides, the Christian message doesn’t fit the realities of Japan and won’t grow on Japanese soil. Rodrigues mounts a defense. Christianity is the truth, he states, applicable everywhere. It grew well on Japanese soil until that soil was poisoned by persecution. A good theological argument does wonders at momentarily dispelling Rodrigues’ doubts. Those doubts still lurk beneath the surface, though. We Christians today may similarly be tempted to focus on intellectual arguments for faith as a way of evading our own spiritual struggles.

A competent inquisitor utilizes methods besides persuasive argument, and Inoue is certainly competent. Rodrigues is informed that the Christians being held captive will be tortured and killed unless he renounces his faith. What to do?. Rodrigues wants to be an example to the faithful, but at what cost to them? He is prepared to be a martyr, but not to have others martyred in his behalf. He prays fervently, but still hears nothing from God. He starts to wonder, “Am I just praying to nothing because you’re not there?” Rodrigues has gone from disappointment that God hasn’t spoke to doubt that God is there at all. He’s faced with a difficult dilemma, but I wonder whether part of Rodrigues’ problem is that he’s hemmed himself in by appointing himself as God’s defender. God is perfectly capable of defending himself. Sometimes my efforts seem like those of Rodrigues–I’m working much harder than God seems to be in order to bring about what I think he wants. When that happens, I’m probably not perceiving very accurately what he wants.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” prays Rodrigues at one point, in imitation of Christ’s prayer on the cross. How much like Christ is he, though? Another character points out that, whereas Rodrigues compares his suffering to Christ’s, the Japanese Christians, who are undergoing the bulk of the suffering, don’t compare themselves to Christ. Rodrigues’ sense of his own importance–the last priest representing God’s cause in Japan–is getting in his way. Perhaps, as a general rule, those who think they are Christ-like probably aren’t, and those undergoing hardship to whom that thought never occurs actually resemble him.

It may seem I’m rather hard on Rodrigues; I actually do admire his courage and passion. Some critics dislike the manner in which Rodrigues’ crisis of faith is resolved, but it did seem realistic to me. Scorsese reportedly had wanted to make this film ever since he read Endo’s book 30 years ago, and it’s easy to say why. Few films explore struggles of faith with such depth and nuance. I expect I will be thinking about this film for years to come, especially when my spiritual journey is at its darkest.

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues



On December 17, the day that Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened, I went to the movies. Hundreds of fans waited eagerly to be transported into the alternate universe of the evil empire and the noble rebel alliance. I, on the other hand, joined all of three other viewers in watching another movie, one that dealt with real evil that occurred not eons ago but in my lifetime. The movie was Spotlight, named for the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team that investigated the sex-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. As reviewers have pointed out, the film is an excellent portrayal of an investigative journalism team doggedly pursuing an elusive and powerful foe. The team, consisting of editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and reporters Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), follow the story wherever it leads, even as the number of priests implicated swells from four to 13 to 70.. The team’s expose earned a Pulitzer, and their story reassures viewers that, sometimes at least, truth prevails. That should have made me feel good.

Instead, I left the theatre feeling troubled and somewhat dirtied by what I had seen. What gives? I didn’t personally participate in the abuse or cover-up. Is it just that evil has a way of splashing in the muck to such an extent that everyone nearby ends up splattered just by knowing what happened?

The movie reveals a great deal about what did indeed happen. The team encounters several people who had been trying to call attention to the abuse but were ignored. The reporters also learn that lots of people knew at least a part of what was happening but, for one reason or another, didn’t reveal what they knew. One lawyer apparently represented many abuse victims but quietly made settlements with the church, allowing the abuse and the identity of the abusers to be hidden. A second lawyer  represented the church, participating in the dirty job of keeping the abuse private. The Catholic school across the street from the Globe, of which Robby was an alumnus, wants to suppress information that one of the abusing priests found his victims while assigned there. Prominent Bostonians put pressure on the team to drop the investigation, arguing that the church is doing good in the community and thus shouldn’t have its reputation sullied. Robby is told that, as a member of the community, he would have difficulty with his neighbors if he brought shame on the church. One of the reporters ruefully comments, “If it takes a community to raise a child, it also takes a community to abuse one.” Evil resides not just in the pedophile priests but in all who protect them, including those who, while expressing their abhorrence of what the priests did, still hide what they did.

Did learning about the immensity of the abuse cause me to feel contaminated? Such knowledge sobers me and reminds that it is the nature of large institutions, including institutions with which I’m associated, to hide discrediting information. That doesn’t implicate me directly, though. It may produce some sense of being sullied just by virtue of being human, but I don’t think it’s the heart of my reaction.

One thing I noticed about the Spotlight team as portrayed in the film is that each member is affected personally by being part of the investigation. Sacha has a close relationship with her grandmother, a devout Catholic, and is troubled by thinking about how that relative would be affected by the scandal. Matt worries about his own children and the children in his neighborhood being abused. Mike, a lapsed Catholic, becomes distraught after reading some of the documents in the case. He tells Sacha, “I thought I would go back one day. I read those letters and something cracked.” Robby is haunted that the Globe had previously ignored or buried evidence that the abuse was taking place. Since a section of the paper he oversaw had been the burial ground for some such information, he felt personally responsible.

Having missed evidence that should have been noticed may be the other piece of why I felt sullied after watching the movie. There is so much I miss–that we all miss–as we go through life. I’m usually so focused on myself–meeting my obligations, pursuing my goals–that I don’t register much of what goes on around me. I often don’t notice the people who are hurting, people who were wounded by abuse or discrimination or neglect. Then I go to my office to work as a psychologist where I do pay attention to hurting people. I learn from them what it is like to be deeply injured, then to try to make it through life while others ignore them or judge them or simply  misunderstand them.

Robby was haunted by missed opportunities to uncover the church’s systematic concealment of sexual abuse. I miss opportunities to befriend, to comfort, to empathize with those who are suffering. Like the Spotlight team, I may get it right from time to time. Still, those successes are islands in a sea of blindness and deafness to human need. For me, the lesson of Spotlight is to not focus overly much on what I’ve missed, but to instead try each day, each minute, to be aware of that need in those around me.

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues

Eisenberg and Segel. Image by Jakob Ihre/AP

Eisenberg and Segel. Image by Jakob Ihre/AP

I recently saw “The End of the Tour,”  the movie about Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) interviewing writer David Foster Wallace (Jason Segal) shortly after Wallace’s landmark novel Infinite Jest was published in 1996. Lipsky travels to Wallace’s modest rented home in Bloomington, Illinois, then accompanies him on a trip to Minneapolis for the last stop of the book tour. The movie is a long conversation between two intelligent men in their 30s, one probing, the other alternately spilling out his thoughts and lamenting the artificiality of their interaction. These seem to be two men struggling with despair, only one of whom realizes the struggle is occurring.

In alluding to despair, I’m thinking of the way that Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard used the term. In his Sickness Unto Death, he describes despair as a condition of the self. Here’s how I recently summarized the ways Kierkegaard thought we despair:

“We can despair in two ways, according to Kierkegaard. First, a person can wish to be rid of  him- or herself, that is, can be unwilling to be oneself, a condition that Kierkegaard calls “the despair of weakness.” Second, the person can despair to be a self, that is, can despair because one desires to be a self that one cannot be, a condition referred to as ‘the despair of defiance.’”

It doesn’t take much effort to see that David Foster Wallace (the Wallace of the film, that is, who might not have resembled the real man) was well acquainted with despair. He tells Lipsky that he is addicted to junk television (we see one TV-watching binge during the movie). Any addiction, TV included, can be considered either an attempt to escape from oneself or an attempt to be a self other than who one is (or both). Of the two possibilities, Wallace seems mainly to have been trying to get away from himself.

Wallace seems quite aware of his propensity towards despair. In 1988, eight years before Lipsky’s interview, he was hospitalized and put on suicide watch. He says to Lipsky (all quotes are my best attempts to transcribe the dialogue from the movie, but I can’t vouchsafe their accuracy), “I was a 28 year old who had exhausted a couple ways of living.” After describing the experience in the hospital, he added, “and when that happens you become unprecedentedly willing to explore some other avenues of how to live.” I haven’t read Infinite Jest, but I understand that it can be considered just such an exploration of ways to live. Wallace isn’t so sure his search has unearthed a workable solution. Looking back to the time he fell apart, He tells Lipsky, “I don’t think we change. I think I still have the same parts of me. I’m trying hard to find a way to just let them live.” He was well aware that despair still lurked within.

Wallace sees contemporary culture as making it particularly difficult for him (or anyone else, for that matter) to be a self capable of wholeness. That culture produced the endless flood of TV shows constantly available to soothe his angst. He foresees a time in which the internet and virtual reality become even more insiduous pathogens capable of infecting and  destroying the self. He says at one point that his writing is about “how easy it is to be seduced off your path because of the way the culture is.” He then mentions what he fears: “What if I become a parody of that?”

Wallace seems to have thought that a genuine connection with another human being would aid him in his struggles. He opens up to Lipsky with that end in mind. That effort proves fruitless, since Lipsky has no intention of being genuine. He would rather present a counterfit self in order to charm Wallace and thereby obtain material for his Rolling Stone article. Wallace at one point says that literary success has made him feel like a whore, but Lipsky is the real whore here, prostituting his humanity in an attempt to gain success.

Lipsky wishes to be a self he can’t be–he wishes to be an acclaimed author like Wallace–but, as portrayed by Eisenberg, anyway, doesn’t have the insight to realize that this striving is a form of despair. As Lipsky prepares to drive away after the interview is completed, Wallace leans into his car window and says, “I’m not so sure you want to be me.” Good words of warning for those times when we start thinking that we will be at peace if only we manage to be someone other than who we are.

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues

I recently saw Love and Mercy, the Brian Wilson biopic now in theaters. The movie shuttles between the ’60s, when Brian (played by Paul Dano) was the creative genius behind the Beach Boys, and the ’80s, subsequent to major problems with addiction and mental illness, when Brian (John Cusack) was exploited by Svengali-like psychologist Eugene (“Gene”) Landy (Paul Giamatti). The 60s scenes are about genius and psychic torment; the 80s scenes, apparently meant to be about love and mercy (after a Wilson song by that name), are really more the story of a heroine’s adventure.

Brian Wilson

Brian’s genius is amply illustrated in the recording studio, where he leads musicians through the creation of the “Pet Sounds” tracks. As portrayed by Dano, Brian is frenetic and joyful while making music, fully confident in what he was doing. It may be something of a misnomer to call the process “making music;” Brian is acutely sensitive to sounds of all sorts, and his consciousness is devoted largely to internally replaying, revising and combining these sounds into the music that then spills out in a geyser of song.

Confident in the studio, Brian is troubled everywhere else. His intense stage fright keeps him from touring with the band. He craves approval. Though some people praised him, he can’t handle two who didn’t–cousin and fellow Beach Boy Mike Love and his father, Murry Wilson (Bill Camp), who had been fired as manager of the band.

The movie makes a good deal of Brian’s relationship with his father. Murry had been physically abusive–we learn that Brian was almost deaf in his right ear because when he was a child his father had hit that side of his face. In one poignant scene, Brian plays his recently composed “God Only Knows” for his father, obviously looking for support. The elder Wilson scowls, refuses to comment, throws in a dig about having been fired as manager, and finally renders his judgment: the song is “wishy-washy … a love song and a suicide note.” In another scene Murry disrupts a recording session to tout a group he recently signed that plays the music he thinks the Beach Boys should (but aren’t) playing. Thanks for all the support, dad.

This being the 60s, Brian uses drugs to escape, but they just make it more difficult to cope with life. He reveals at one point that he started hearing voices in 1963; a hallucinating brain is typically not improved by hallucinogens.

There was another approach that friends offered Brian as a way to deal with his demons, but this, too, was counterproductive. In one scene, Brian is at a dinner celebrating the success of his song “Good Vibrations.”

One friend says “You can do whatever you want”

Another asks, “What are you going to do with all that freedom?”

Brian smiles wanly and asks “Has my dad called?”

60s-style freedoms don’t do him much good in the prison in which his childhood has incarcerated him. Freedom without a sense of direction is terrifying, not liberating.

It’s not surprising that the 80s find Brian in the thrall of a psychologist who serves as something of a stern father figure. As Gene–the psychologist–tells it, he saved Brian from himself, and indeed Brian weighed 300 lb., was bedridden, and was addicted to drugs and alcohol when Gene took control. Gene may have kept Brian from dying. Years later, though, Gene’s control even extends to yelling at Brian for taking a bite of hamburger after Gene had told him to wait. In the Drama Triangle, Gene has gone from Rescuer to Persecutor, while Brian has remained in the Victim role.

We see the middle-aged Brian largely through the eyes of Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a Cadillac saleswoman uncertain of what to make of this perplexed man who wanders in her showroom and, before buying a car, rambles on about his difficulty dealing with his brother’s death. Brian doesn’t filter what he says, just like he couldn’t filter out environmental noise in the 60s. Is this lack of filters a sign of genius or mental illness? Maybe a little of each.

Dr. Landy and his minions invade the dealership and whisk Brian away, but Brian manages to contact Melinda by phone and they start dating. I think we are meant to believe that Brian was freed from Gene by virtue of Melinda’s love for him, but I have a somewhat different reading of this part of the movie. Melinda is clearly troubled by Gene’s mistreatment of Brian and Brian cowering in response. She urges Brian to resist, but, when he remains passive, she orchestratedsa lawsuit against Gene by Brian’s family that eventually leads to Gene being barred from ever contacting Brian. Love may be present; Brian and Melinda did eventually marry. In the immediate situation, though, Melinda seems to be motivated mainly by a desire to save someone who doesn’t seem able to save himself. She is a heroine who slays the dragon and rescues the gentle-man in distress.

The viewer is left with some questions. Having been passive while others fought for his freedom, did Brain remain quiescent or did he eventually take charge of his life? Did his problems with addiction surface again? What sort of relationship developed between him and Melinda? Successful biopics typically leave us with questions such as these; that’s what makes them good stories. I walked out of the movie with greater appreciation both of Brian’s music and of the struggles he went through to bring that music into the world.

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar questions. Do be aware there are some spoilers contained in my comments.

I recently saw The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the British mathematician and computer pioneer. Turing was instrumental at cracking the Enigma code, the supposedly unbreakable code used by the Germans in World War II. Most of the movie is a simplified account of the challenges and triumphs of Turing and his team of codebreakers, but Turing is also seen as a young adolescent (played by Alex Lawther) and in the early ’50s, when he was arrested and convicted for gross indecency in the form of homosexual relations.

Turing’s life ended tragically; he died by cyanide poisoning at age 41. As the movie notes, his death was ruled as a suicide; an alternative explanation that has some credibility is that his was an accidental death. He had been convicted and sentenced to hormonal therapy to reduce his sexual drive a year prior to his death, and the movie implies that these events prompted his suicide. He may, indeed, have been a victim of intolerance towards homosexuality. However, he was reportedly not despondent before his death. As I watched the movie, it seemed to me that there were other ways besides being discriminated against for homosexuality that his life was less than ideal.

Turing was socially awkward in the extreme, and, as played by Cumberbatch, seems to fall somewhere on the autism spectrum. He doesn’t understand or participate in the sort of social interactions that everyone around him takes to naturally. He doesn’t understand most jokes or sarcasm, and, when a colleague says, “We’re going to get some lunch,” Turing takes this as a statement of fact rather than an invitation to join the group.

Perhaps his social difficulties were exacerbated by being bullied while at boarding school (assuming the movie account is accurate). He was befriended by one other boy and they developed a close bond. They parted for the holidays; when school resumed, Alan was informed by the headmaster that his friend died of leukemia during the break. Alan was shaken, but, lip quivering, he assured the headmaster that he didn’t really know the dead boy very well. Losing one’s only friend but pretending it doesn’t matter–that’s not good preparation for a life of emotional stability. Later, Turing names the machine (an early computer) he built to crack the Enigma code “Christopher” after his dead childhood friend, though, characteristically, he doesn’t tell anyone where the name came from. The movie hints that eventually he grew fonder of the machine than of any living human.


Having been injured by peers and not being able to read social cues, Turing understandably found social interactions to be difficult. His way of handling such situations only worsened matters, though. He was abrasive and arrogant, disdaining anyone whose intellect he regarded as mediocre. Predictably, he alienated the members of the team that worked under him. Fortunately, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), a member of the team who was herself an outsider because of gender, helped him achieve at least some measure of conviviality with them. Turing and Clarke were actually engaged briefly; when Turing told her of his homosexuality, Clarke was accepting, but Turing broke off the engagement rather cruelly (or, to be charitable, insensitively). He was later arrested not for an ongoing same-sex relationship but for a casual homosexual encounter. Regardless of his sexual orientation, it’s tragic that Turing was apparently unable or unwilling to have any sort of ongoing intimate relationship with another person.

There is one more element in the film’s depiction of Turing’s life that might have made his existence quite difficult. Once the Enigma code was broken, the British couldn’t use every intercepted communication to thwart German war plans; the Germans would have soon realized the code had been deciphered and would change it. Instead, only some of the information could be acted on, meaning that many Allied soldiers, sailors, and civilians had to be left to face attacks without being forewarned. Turing’s unit was tasked with calculating the probability that acting on a given bit of information would arouse suspicion, then determining when warning was to be given and when it wasn’t. In other words, as Cumberbatch said at one point, they were playing God for the last few years of the war.

What an incredible moral burden: to have to make decisions that affected who lived and who died! Turing’s interpersonal difficulties and status as a deviant in his society, though huge problems in their own right, seem to me less burden than having to carry awareness that thousands had died because of the intelligence that had been withheld. Which of us can play God without it ruining us? I may quibble with God about some of what he does, but could never endure being in his place like Turing and his team were. They have my full and heartfelt sympathy.

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar questions.


I recently saw the movie “Chef”—written, directed by, produced by, and starring Jon Favreau, now in theaters. Favreau plays Chef Carl Casper, who ten years ago was a hot young gastronomic talent but has settled in as the featured attraction at an upscale Los Angeles restaurant. He’s been repeating the same tried and true recipes for years, encouraged to do so by Riva, the restaurant owner, who doesn’t want customers ruffled by innovative fare. Carl creates a new menu he intends to use in order to impress influential food critic Ramsey MIchel (Oliver Plait) who was one of his early boosters. Riva pressures him to stay with his “greatest hits” during Ramsey’s visit, and Carl complies. Eating this unoriginal fare, Ramsey rightly concludes that Carl is stuck in a rut and writes a scathing review.

Stung, Carl is mortified to learn from his 10-year-old son Percy (Emjay Anthony) that the negative review has been seen by thousands on Twitter. Carl is divorced from Percy’s mom, and has put Percy on the back burner, so to speak, so he could focus on his cooking. Asked for help and hoping for a closer relationship with his dad, Percy agrees to set up a Twitter account for Carl, who wants to read responses the review. Further disturbed by people’s derision of him, Carl impulsively picks an online fight with Ramsey. This eventually results in a blow-up with Riva, then a rant that is recorded by restaurant patrons and becomes a viral video. Humiliated, broke, and out of a job, Carl is adrift. He says, “I don’t know what to do. I’ve never not known what to do.”

As Carl sees it, he was happy with his life until these complications arose. The women around him—his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) and the restaurant’s hostess Molly (Scarlett Johansson)—tell him otherwise, that he hasn’t been happy for some time. Midlife often brings about this sort of situation. We’ve constructed a life that seems successful. We tell ourselves we are happy with it, even while others who know us well think otherwise. Then something happens, and we discover we aren’t happy after all. The movie suggests, I think accurately, that we can’t be trusted to honestly answer inquiries about our own happiness. We have too much at stake. Those who observe us over time can more reliably gauge our satisfaction with life.

At a loss, Carl considers a suggestion from Inez that he take over a run-down food truck owned by Marvin (Robert Downey, Jr.), another ex-husband. Aided by Percy and his former line chef Martin (John Leguizamo), Carl sets up his kitchen in the truck. The three of them then take a joyful cross-country jaunt, selling Cuban sandwiches to eager hordes called forth, pied-piper-like, by Percy’s tweets.

Carl succeeds, in other words, when he gets away from Riva, the uptight boss, and Ramsey, the acerbic critic. We all have people like this in our lives, but they aren’t easy to get away from, because they are found not only around us, but inside us.

As with Carl, we get cautious after a while. We’ve figured out something that seems to work—why not just stick with it? Riva discourages Carl from innovating by reminding him of past failures. Remember when you put organ meat on the menu? Nobody ordered it. Don’t risk that sort of mistake again. Carl probably complies because his inner dialogue offers the same cautions. So he experiments with new dishes in a protected environment–his own kitchen–but serves the same old fare to the customers. Whatever our area of endeavor, we are tempted to keep our new ideas to ourselves but serve up to others what is safe—and bland.

But we aren’t happy, because the other side, the critic who expects us to do more, also resides within us. Carl’s fury at Ramsey probably has the intensity it does because at some level he recognizes the truth of Ramsey’s critique. He eventually admits this, saying “I could have done better. I should have cooked the s**t I was going to cook.” All the while that we are churning out the same insipid stuff, we, too, realize that we are cowards for shunning the allure and danger of invention.

In taking over the food truck, Carl sides unequivocally with invention. It works out beautifully—the road trip at the end of the movie is pretty much all great food, upbeat music, and eager customers. In real life, we don’t always succeed when we take risks, and, even if the risk pays off, there is often a cost. Do we continue on at that point or turn back to the cramped confines of the safe harbor we left? In my life, I’ve mostly made the more risky choice, but at the time it was never an easy decision.

Since I’m blogging on happiness, I thought it would be a good idea to see the movie Happy-Go-Lucky, which was

Poppy being herself?

Poppy being herself.

released last October but only recently found its way to a theater in Fayetteville.  I guess the local theater owners knew it wouldn’t be a big draw here; there were a total of five people at the screening I attended, and two of them left midway through the film.  Happiness doesn’t seem to provide the draw that war, crime, and other assorted forms of violence do.

If the film is any indication, happiness has very limited narrative possibilities.  The main character of the movie, Poppy (played by Sally Hawkins), is a 30-year old London schoolteacher who seems to enjoy immensely nearly everything she does.  She likes drinking and raving with her roommate Zoe and sister Suzy, even though Suzy is as unrelentingly glum as Poppy is chipper.  She likes bouncing on a trampoline and taking flamenco lessons.  She likes teaching, especially enjoying it when she and her elementary school class make and then don bird costumes.  She likes riding her bike through London—or rather liked it, since the bike is stolen at the beginning of the film.  Even the theft doesn’t disturb her good spirits, though; she redeems the loss by deciding that it gives her a good excuse to learn how to drive a car.  Scott, her driving instructor, is her opposite—suspicious in contrast to her trustfulness, pessimistic in contrast to her optimism, rigid in contrast to her flexibility, and intense in contrast to her easygoing manner.  She has an insouciant attitude towards driving, as she does towards everything else, and Scott grows increasingly more unhinged as his efforts to  control his wayward pupil fail. 

That’s pretty much the plot.  Will Poppy be brought low by Scott’s hostility?  Will she be disturbed by a student in her class who is bullying the others?  Will she feel inadequate when her youngest sister faults her for not taking on a mortgage or some other symbol of sobriety and maturity?  Not a chance.  She isn’t immune to what others say or do, but she’s chosen how she will approach life, and she sticks to it.  She’s forever cheerful and imperturbable, which gives little for the plot to address.  The bands of dramatic tension having fallen slack, the movie pretty much drifts from one scene to the next.  The film is like life instead of being like the stories that most movies construct about life.  Frankly, I prefer the storytelling! 

Though Happy-Go-Lucky doesn’t tell much of a story, Poppy is an interesting example of a happy person.  As several reviewers of the movie have commented, her happiness isn’t a result of cluelessness, but of a consciously chosen approach to life. I think there are several things she does that contribute to her happiness, but even more contribute to a well-lived life, irregardless of whether that life brings happiness or not.  I see her as striving for eudiamonia more than for happiness.  I’ll describe what I see as the key elements of her approach to life in my next post.    

The Wheelers in a happier moment.

The Wheelers in a happier moment.

My last post was about being authentic and whether or not authenticity is related to happiness.  I recently saw the movie “Revolutionary Road,” which explores authenticity and self-delusion, and also examines a failed effort to find happiness.  The movie, based on a novel by Richard Yates and set in 1955, is about the Wheelers, an unhappy suburban couple.   Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DeCaprio) is an executive at the same company where his father previously worked as a salesman.  As he tells a secretary  with whom he has a desultory affair, he had wanted nothing to do with the kind of work his father did.  Yet here he is at 30, donning his suit and fedora each morning to take the train into Manhattan, where he joins a conformist horde of office workers slaving at meaningless jobs.  His wife April (Kate Winslet), is no happier, trapped at home with their two children, her dreams of being an actress having gone no further than a role in an amateurish community theatre play. 

Frank and April’s unhappiness stems not only from the life they are living, but from their failed expectations.  They had always thought themselves capable of so much more, and it is excruciating for them to realize that they really aren’t all that much different from the drones around them.  At one point, April says, “Our whole premise is based on the idea that we’re special.  But we’re not.”  She doesn’t entirely capitulate to mediocrity, though.  She tells Frank that he is being stifled by his job and should quit.  She hatches a plan: They will move to Paris, where she can get a job in a government agency while Frank explores what he wants to do.  Initially, Frank is hesitant, but eventually is won over. 

The two plan gleefully for their escape from quotidian misery, amused by friends and coworkers who, trapped in the web of corporate life, think the Wheelers are being immature and foolish.  They tell John Givings (Michael Shannon), introduced to them by his mother (their realtor) while he is on furlough from a psychiatric hospital, “We’re running from the hopeless emptiness.”  John, whose disorder seems to consist mainly of telling people exactly what he’s thinking, replies, “Lots of people are onto the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.” 

They may have enough guts to see the hopelessness, but do they have the guts to follow through on their plan?  As shown in a flashback, Frank once told his wife, “All I know, April, is I want to feel things.”  He describes feeling especially alive when he was marching into battle during World War II; he recalls thinking, “This is it.  This is the truth.”  However, he has since taken to evading the truth about himself, and now seems content complaining about his meaningless life while at the same time enjoying its consolations.  When April becomes pregnant and Frank is offered a promotion at work, he tries to use the pregnancy as an excuse to squirm out of the plans he and April have made.  Whereas Frank is clearly deluding himself, April does so in less obvious way, still clinging to the dubious belief that they are special and that Paris will somehow provide redemption from suburban hell.   Their already conflict-ridden relationship reaches new levels of animosity.  As the emotional wounds accumulate, the relationship becomes progressively less salvageable.  Both Frank and April are eventually revealed as self-serving and probably incapable of love.  Frank at one point defines insanity as “the inability to love;” in that case, both he and his wife are insane.

Would Frank and April have been happy in Paris?  At first, perhaps, but it’s hard to imagine them overcoming their differences, and it’s equally hard to imagine them getting past the self-delusion.  Not that honesty is the route to happiness: though unstintingly honest with himself and everyone else, John is clearly miserable.  In the world of this film the available social roles are straightjackets that don’t permit anyone the freedom to be authentic except at tremendous cost, and thus don’t permit happiness.  I suspect the movie is not entirely true to the 50s in imposing such severe constraints on the characters.  Over the intervening years, we’ve certainly loosened the straightjacket some.  It’s not clear to me, though, whether the change has increased our prospects for happiness or just created a wider variety of ways to be unhappy.        




Earlier this week I saw Burn After Reading, the Coen brothers film currently in theaters.  There are plenty characters in pursuit of happiness, though it’s obvious from the start that no one is going to capture the prize.  As in many of the Coens’ comedies, characters driven by some combination of selfishness, misunderstanding, stupidity, or yearning bounce off each other in increasingly outrageous and improbable ways.

Low-level CIA analyst Osbourne Cox, played by John Malkovich, is told he will be eased into a lesser position at the State Department.  At once pompous and profane, Cox takes delight at proclaiming his superiority to the morons who surround him.  He quits his job in high umbrage and decides to take some time off and write a memoir about his work in the comically misnamed intelligence community.  Osbourne’s plan doesn’t sit well with his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), who already is thinking of leaving him in preference for her lover Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney).   She sees a plump and vaguely reptilian divorce attorney, who gives all the right advice about trying to save the marriage but whose smile widens and eyes glint when he details the ways he can make life miserable for Mr. Cox should that become necessary.

Following the attorney’s advice, Katie makes a computer disk of financial records; the disk also happens to include background material for her husband’s book.  The disk eventually falls into the hands of two employees at a local fitness center, Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), who mistakenly conclude that it contains intelligence secrets.  Linda is desperate for money to bankroll a complete remake of herself via cosmetic surgery, so she enlists Chad to help her solicit a reward for the disk’s return.  Their efforts turn into attempted blackmail, and, once rebuffed, into an effort to sell the disk to Russian spys.  As things start going wrong  Linda becomes increasingly frantic, imagining that she and Chad are trapped in a deadly struggle between American and Russian agents.  There is deadly menace here, but it comes not from the spy communities but from their own misguided actions.

So, who’s pursuing happiness?  Osbourne Cox isn’t particularly interested in happiness, instead being content with misanthropy and alcohol.  Katie Cox is after a better mate, though what would make her happy is probably not intimacy or companionship but having someone she can control.  In any event,  Harry backs away at the prospect that their affair could turn into a serious commitment.  He is the hedonist here; he is looking not for a relationship to make him happy but for sex with any woman whom he can manage to bed.  One of his conquests happens to be Linda, who is earnest about finding happiness through self-improvement.  The improvement she seeks, though, is not psychological, spiritual, or even behavioral, but physical.  She’s convinced that a smaller butt and bigger breasts will win her the man of her dreams.  It seems impossible, though, that romance could ever bring anything other than momentary contentment to someone so self-absorbed.

The only character who seems the least bit happy is someone who isn’t pursuing it.  Pitt’s Chad is serenely clueless.  He’s a creature of the moment—chewing gum, sucking a water bottle, or listening to his IPod with intense and rapturous single-mindedness.  For him, bliss is living in the moment.  In contrast, when he has to make future plans his forehead creases and a pained expression settles on his face.  Like the Deltas in Brave New World, he is much better off when others do the thinking and he is left to enjoy life’s simple pleasures in peace.  In a film saturated with folly, he’s the only fool who is satisfied.