I spent most of the past weekend lazing about reading a book I picked up on impulse. I haven’t done a book review before but I thought I’d give it a shot because I think many atheists and skeptics could benefit from some of the insights in it. The subtitle of the book is certain to appeal to those two groups, “Adventures with the Enemies of Science,” and the first chapter, which starts out among creationists, is certain to appeal to skeptics. Later in the book, there is a chapter in which skeptics themselves come in for a great deal of criticism. Although I think Storr has taken a subset of skeptics and had them stand in for all skeptics and his criticism, while not entirely off base, is a little harsh on that account. Yet many of his insights would be especially beneficially to skeptics and movement atheists, who often identify with skeptics, so reminding oneself to not give in to our initial emotional reaction and become highly defensive might be necessary in order to give his ideas a fair hearing.

One of the things I liked most about Storr as an author was his readiness to doubt his own opinions. He starts out by asking why some people believe things that are easily disproved. The list is diverse, creationists, UFO abductees, people who object to western medicine, homeopaths, believers in past lives, ritual Satanic child abuse, and a couple of other items I’m missing. By passing the easy answers, that they’re charlatans or fools, he looks into more general questions of why people believe the things they do. In doing so, he discovers that human beings are, in general, unreliable narrators.

I consider – as everyone surely does – that my opinions are the correct ones. And yet, I have never met anyone whose every single thought I agreed with. When you take these two positions together, they become a way of saying, ‘Nobody is as right about as many things as me.’ And that cannot be true…. So I accept that I am wrong about things – I must be wrong about them. A lot of them. But when I look back over my shoulder and I double-check what I think about religion and politics and science all the rest of it… …. – it is usually at this point that I start to feel strange. I know that I am not right about everything, and yet I am simultaneously convinced that I am….

It is as if I have caught a glimpse of some grotesque delusion that I am stuck inside. It is disorienting. It is frightening. And I think it is true to say that it is not just me – that is, we all secretly believe we are right about everything and, by extension, we are all wrong.

I, myself, have experienced many times just this sense of disorientation. In fact, it was the main reason I started writing down my memories. It is clear that a great many people don’t believe as I do on many subjects, often people I estimate to be perfectly rational and intelligent. I started writing my memories down to explore how my own biases came to be in place.

At another point later in the book, he explores the question of how it is possible to be a journalist if a person believes he might be an unreliable narrator.

Storr is, by his own accounting, an atheist. Much as I would myself, I would call him a skeptic, but not a Skeptic. In other words, he seeks and expects naturalistic explanations for events but he does not belong to any organized skeptical organizations. As a Brit, he makes the distinction between the two groups by using the British spelling. A detail which has its own interest to me that I’ll get back to later.

In between episodes talking to people who believe hard to believe things, Storr paints a picture about how our minds work. That picture is one of a brain that is not always rational and works to deceive us. He introduces the reader to “situational psychology.” Giving well-known examples such as the Stanford Prison Experiment and the work of Stanley Milgram, he explains that individuals are far less in control of themselves than we believe ourselves to be.

According to Zimbardo, there is a kind of recipe for creating evil. ‘How did evil come about during the prison experiment?’ he asks. It was people playing a role…. Although you start off thinking those roles are arbitrary and not the real you, as you live them, they become you. the second thing is the power of the group…. Groups can have powerful influences on individual behavior…. You take away somebody’s individuality. You make them anonymous. The next process is called dehumanisation, where you begin to think of other people as different from you and then as different from your kind and kin, and then as less than human.

Later, he describes how the brain makes an interior model of the world. When we look, at any given moment we are not seeing as much as we think we are seeing. As our eyes dart around a room, for instance, the brain fills in the gaps and we think we are seeing more than we are at any given moment. As Storr phrases it, our senses are “fact-checkers.” However, that model must be good enough that we can function in the world.

The next point Storr brings up is tribalism. We have a strong tendency to divide ourselves into “us” and “them.” We will do this even if we are assigned to arbitrary groups.

“Cognitive Dissonance” is uncomfortable feeling we have when we are introduced to facts that don’t fit our interior models of how the world works.

We find ourselves chewing over something that we have done or heard or experienced. It can last for hours, days or sometimes longer. That upstairs agony, that bickering between the warring voices in our head – that is what it feels like to have your brain taking apart an experience and rearrange it in such a way that it doesn’t have to rebuild its models.

The next factor Storr introduces is another one my skeptical friends will recognize, “Confirmation Bias,” which Storr describes as the “makes sense stopping rule.”

…when confronted by a new fact, we first feel an instantaneous, emotional hunch. It is a raw instinct for whether the fact is right or wrong and it pulls us helplessly in the direction of an opinion. Then we look for evidences that supports our hunch. The moment we find some, we think ‘Aha!’ and happily conclude that we are, indeed, correct. The thinking then ceases.

When we arrive at that point of “that makes sense,” when our cognitive dissonance is eased, the reward center in the brain is activated. Storr quotes Carole Tavris and Elliot Aronson: “Dissonance reduction operates like a thermostat, keeping our self-esteem bubbling along on high.”

One point Storr hammers over and over again is that we are all subject to these effects. It’s an inherent part how the human brain works to which none of us are immune. To some extent, I believe he underplays the positive role of this. We make countless decisions everyday, most of which are far more mundane than whether or not UFOs exist. If we had to stop and wonder about how we know the things we know, we would be paralyzed. Sometimes, when we skeptics and atheists criticize the “argument from authority,” I pause and think to myself that much of what I believe I believe based on “authority.” I think eggs, spinach and bananas are healthy things to eat, and that if you’re exercising bananas are really important. Why do I think this? Because my competitive speed skater grandmother told me so.

Another important element of the picture is “the spotlight effect,” which I always think of as “the candle effect.” The best description I’ve read of this effect is in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. She describes a table covered in a million random scratches with no pattern. Yet, if you hold a candle up to it, the light will make it appear as if the scratches are in concentric circles around the point of the light. So our own egos lead us to believe that the world revolves around us. Of course, everyone else is thinking the same thing.

The roles of cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias and the spotlight effect are summarized:

Our prejudices and misbeliefs are invisible to us. The form in childhood and early adolescence, when our brain is in its heightened state of learning, when it is building its models, and the  they disappear from view.

These models of the world we build, they are the stories we tell ourselves to explain how the world works.

This notion that we are all deluding ourselves all the time leads to the uncomfortable acknowledgement that the line between the sane and the insane is not as clear as we would like to believe. Studies have shown that even perfectly sane people have unreliable memories. Healthy people can have false memories implanted.

Professor Loftus was interested to see whether it was possible for a therapist to generate a memory of an event simply by suggesting it. In a further study, she gave twenty-four adults a brief description of four past events that they were told had been supplied by a close family member and asked to write about them. Unbeknown to them, one of these events was false. Six of them – 25 per cent of the croup -= actually remembered the false event. When asked to choose which of their memories was fiction, five got it wrong.

Another important aspect of how our minds work is that our emotions guide our behavior. I, myself, have long thought this to be true and the tendency for skeptics to downplay the importance of emotions in our thought processes has always bugged me a bit.

If you are about to do something that your models predict will be good, you will get a subtle encouraging hit of pleasure. If you are about to do something inadvisable, you will feel bad.

Of course, one of the funny things about reading a book like this is that it makes you doubt your own ability to judge the contents of the very same book. Storr just confirmed my own model. Of course, I had that satisfying sensation of “yep – makes sense.” Is Storr making sense or do I only believe he makes sense because he agrees with me?

When my grandmother was going senile, we would catch her doing odd thing. Digging out her old ice skates in the middle of the summer and heading out the door with them. Walking around in odd clothing. When my mother would confront her, she would momentarily look confused and then come up with an “explanation.”

“My friend is coming to pick me up and we’re going skating.”

Then my mother would get furious and start yelling, “Why are you lying. It’s summer. No one is going skating! What friend are you talking about? No one is coming!”

My grandmother would look confused and start crying.

This is a funny trick our brain plays on us. Sometimes it makes up explanations.

There appears to be a lack of consensus on exactly how much of our conscious reasoning is confabulation. Opinions range from those of Professor David Eagleman, who says that ‘the brain’s storytelling powers kick into gear only when things are conflicting or difficult to understand,’ to those of Harvard Professor of Psychology Daniel Wegner, who argues that even our sense of having free will is a confabulation….

The final chapter is titled “Hero-Maker.” According to Storr, the key elements of a story are crisis, struggle and resolution. Our brains take in the chaotic events in the world and, in order to make them understandable, weave for us a narrative, and in our narratives we are the heroes of our own lives and our own stories. We do not weigh the evidence objectively, even though we may believe we do. We fact check them against our models. When the evidence conflicts with the models, we experience negative emotions. We search for more evidence. We must either rebuild our models, a very difficult thing for adults, or find evidence that fits our preexisting models. That is the struggle. When we finally have a resolution, we feel good.

The scientific method is the tool that human have developed to break the dominion of the narrative. It has been designed specifically to dissolve anecdote, to strip out emotion and to leave only unpolluted data. It is a new kind of language, a modern sorcery, and it has gifted our species incredible powers. We can eradicate plagues, extend our lives by decades, build rockets and fly through space. But we can hardly be surprised if some feel an instinctive hostility towards it, for it is fundamentally inhuman.

The more I think about this book, the more I like it. Who among us hasn’t had an argument in which he or she felt fairly confident about the facts and then came across someone making a statement that was easily refutable. You go, you get link. You have what you feel is nice solid proof to refute the assertion, and the person will not accept it. I had that just the other day with a comment that someone made about affirmative actions and quotas. As it happens, quotas are illegal in the United States. That was a fairly straightforward bit of information, I thought. I wasn’t arguing the pros or cons of affirmative action because that a far more involved argument and I wasn’t in the mood. I just wanted to correct the record about one smallish fact, quotas. The response of the other person was to move the goal posts. It was, to say the least, maddening and frustrating.

Of course, it wasn’t about facts. We had opposing stories. Or at least he had a story into which my facts didn’t fit. I, myself, am ambivalent about affirmative action. He, however, had a story about how affirmative action was put in place to hurt white people. In his story, he was bravely standing up to the PC establishment that won’t admit the truth. I got frustrated and gave up.

I think atheists, skeptics and liberals need to be more sensitive to the narratives we tell. One of the most brilliant pieces of propaganda I’ve ever read was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As literature, I only enjoyed it intermittently. The Victorian sentimentality was hard to take. I couldn’t wait for that fucking little Eva to die. Apparently, the Victorians had a think about sweet, innocent girls suffering bravely. Me, I was sick of it after five pages, shouting, “Die already!” at my paperback. Still, I had to marvel at Harriett Beecher Stowe’s talent as a propagandist. The most brilliant move she makes is that she gives everyone someone with whom he or she can identify and still feel good joining the abolitionist cause. I believe that it was important to the effectiveness of the book that there were sympathetic slave owners. Instead of insisting that all slave owners are inherently evil, Stowe reassuringly says, “Of course, you are a good person, but you should oppose slavery because everyone is not as good as you.” If you are Northerners who would like to stay out of the question, you have the Birds. In later years, the name “Uncle Tom” would become a slur because African-American activists would view Tom as too passive. However, the novel is a carefully constructed piece of propaganda that was clearly effective in its day.

One of the reasons I object so regularly to people who say that Americans are dumb, and other negative things, is because it is a statement that, while satisfying to the speaker, undermines any larger goals of getting Americans, those people you just called dumb, to agree with you. This is part of a narrative that many people on the left enjoy, especially in the United States. They live beset on all sides by ignorance and prejudice, superstition and complacency. The US is evil, possessing as it does the original sin of slavery, or if that doesn’t suit you the original sin of conquest, evil that can never be expiated. However, they are “fighting the good fight,” out numbered on all sides. In order to bolster their ego, they exaggerate the threats. No country is as awful as the U.S. No people are as religious. None is as poorly educated. Hell, we’re even the fattest.

Personally, I don’t like this narrative because it requires that we lose. We fight nobly, but we lose.

People do sometimes change their minds and I wish he had explored a little bit more about why that happens.

I may write some more posts inspired by this book in the future.

One last thing, the Skeptic vs. sceptic question. Storr, being a Brit, writes “sceptic,” not “skeptic.” He notes that many of the organized skeptics, even in Britain, prefer the American spelling. It becomes a weird little bit of us vs. them. Storr, the sceptic, vs. the Skeptics. Storr’s writing about skeptics had an air of “both sides do it.” As Paul Krugman famously quipped, if George Bush said the Earth was flat the headlines the following day would read, “Shape of Earth, Views Differ.” Likewise, Storr writes, “Psychic Phenomenon, Views Differ.” Storr’s own story is that of an irrational, messed up teenager and young adult who somehow got his shit together to become a reasonable, well-balanced person. There are the fervent people, the extremists, and in this view Skeptics and UFO abductees are on the same side, and then there are the adults in the room, like Storr and Jonathan Haidt, a professor he frequently quotes. Generally, Storr is pretty aware of his own biases, but he seems to miss this one, so I found it amusing.

(The British edition of the book appears to be called “The Heretics.”)

This is going to be short and sparsely sourced because it was just going through my mind and I wanted to get it off my chest. There was an article in The Atlantic Monthly about addiction treatment, “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous.” The subtitle reads, “Its faith-based 12-step program dominates treatment in the United States. But researchers have debunked central tenets of AA doctrine and found dozens of other treatments more effective.” Some people have called it a “hatchet job,” but that’s not what I saw. I’ve seen all these concerns raised about AA in the past. Now, I am quite far from having a drinking problem and have no first hand knowledge of this organization or any other, however our understanding of psychiatry and the workings of the brain have come so far since 1935 it seems almost odd to me that people are still using a method that old without any significant alterations.

I did, many years ago, have a boyfriend who had, years before I met him, had a problem with the law. Something small, like drunk and disorderly conduct. He was effectively sentenced to AA. Also, he was an atheist, which is why I’m bringing this up. As many people know, one of the ideas of AA is that you are supposed to turn your life over to a “higher power.” The better known of the two founders of AA, Bill Wilson, was active in a Christian fellowship known as the Oxford group and he credited becoming sober to a religious experience he had. The original book, Alcoholics Anonymous, had a chapter specifically addressed to agnostics. They acknowledge that agnostics and atheists might not like the ideas behind the method.

    Lack of power,that was our dilemma. We had to find a power by which we could live, and it had to be A Power Greater Than Ourselves. Obviously. But where and how were we to find this Power?

Well, that’s exactly what this book is about. Its main object is to enable you to find a Power greater than yourself, which will solve your problem. That means we have written a book which we believe to be spiritual as well as moral. And it means, of course, that we are going to talk about God. Here difficulty arises with agnostics. Many times we talk to a new man and watch his hope rise as we discuss his alcoholic problems and explain our fellowship. But his face falls when we speak of spiritual matters, especially when we mention God, for we have re-opened a subject which our man thought he had neatly evaded or entirely ignored.

After acknowledging some of the thought that might lead one to doubt the existence of a supreme being, the book continues:

We found that as soon as we were able to lay aside prejudice and express even a willingness to believe in a Power greater than ourselves, we commenced to get results, even though it was impossible for any of us to fully define or comprehend that Power, which is God.

Much to our relief, we discovered we did not need to consider another’s conception of God. Our own conception, however inadequate, was sufficient to make the approach and to effect a contact with Him. As soon as we admitted the possible existence of a Creative Intelligence, A Spirit of the Universe underlying the totality of things, we began to be possessed of a new sense of power and direction, provided we took other simple steps. We found that God does not make hard terms with those who seek Him. To us, the Realm of Spirit is broad, roomy, all inclusive; never exclusive or forbidding. It is open, we believe, to all men.

This seems to me to be fairly obviously religious, although of a pluralistic sort. Some agnostics might find this satisfying. Defenders of AA seem to be unwilling to acknowledge the burden this puts on atheists.

I was reading the comment thread under the article and I couldn’t help noticing a recurring theme:

This useful concept is so open ended, it really shouldn’t give atheists problems if they can keep an open mind (and disregard the opinions of some of their fellow AAs). I started out as an atheist. Now I would consider myself a skeptical agnostic. I recognize there is a higher power than myself. It reveals itself to me through physical laws, like gravity or the second law of thermodynamics.

 

People are generally encouraged to find a higher power of their own understanding, and in the case of atheists or agnostics (of which there are many) they generally lean on the collective wisdom and experience of the group as their higher power. Many people return to the religion of their upbringing as well, and there are all varieties of faiths among members.

 

Trust in God, is all that’s asked. That’s not “religious”, that’s what happens when you assume enough about tomorrow , to fill out your calendar.

You have faith, if you believe tomorrow will come.

 

Yes, AA is based on many principles drawn from religion. That’s a feature, not a bug, to the vast majority of humanity not afflicted with spiritual autism.

 

AA is not faith-based program. It does not come under the aegis of any religion. Those who complain about “god” in the Steps are leaving something out: “as we understand him”. That may be the most important phrase in AA. It was inserted at the insistence of an Atheist in the first New York AA Group (see BB story “That Vicious Cycle”). God as we understand him covers a lot of territory, including Agnostics and Atheists, of whom there are many in AA.

Overall, the impression I got was that the theists just wanted the atheists to shut up an pretend to go along. Well, I’m glad I don’t have a drinking problem because I would sure hate to go to AA.

I thought I might attempt to delegate my brain work and see if anyone can help me out with a critique of a recent article by Ross Douthat that appeared in The New York Times last week.

It starts with what Douthat finds to be an interesting discussion on the website the Edge, “Death is Optional,” between Yuval Noah Harari, author of the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and Daniel Kahneman, a noted academic and psychologist. It’s an interesting conversation that covers a lot of ground speculating on what changes in technology might mean for human society. Douthat, however latches onto one thing that they say that Douthat says he found “provoking.”

In the original conversation, in trying to speculate on what might happen in the future, Harari talked about the industrial revolution and how society responded to that.

What I can say is that maybe we are again in analogous position to the world in 1800. When the Industrial Revolution begins, you see the emergence of new classes of people. You see the emergence of a new class of the urban proletariat, which is a new social and political phenomenon. Nobody knows what to do with it. There are immense problems. And it took a century and more of revolutions and wars for people to even start coming up with ideas what to do with the new classes of people.

What is certain is that the old answers were irrelevant. Today, everybody is talking about ISIS, and the Islamic fundamentalism, and the Christian revival, and things like that. There are new problems, and people go back to the ancient texts, and think that there is an answer in the Sharia, in the Qur’an, in the Bible. We also had the same thing in the 19th century. You had the Industrial Revolution. You had huge sociopolitical problems all over the world, as a result of industrialization, of modernization. You got lots of people thinking that the answer is in the Bible or in the Qur’an. You had religious movements all over the world.

In the Sudan, for example, you have the Mahdi establishing Muslim theocracy according to the Sharia. An Anglo-Egyptian army comes to suppress the rebellion, and they are defeated. They behead General Charles Gordon. Basically, this is the same thing that you’re now seeing with ISIS. Nobody remembers the Mahdi today because the answers that he found in the Qur’an and the Sharia to the problem of industrialization didn’t work.

This was the part that provoked Douthat. In response, Douthat writes:

New ideas, rooted in scientific understanding, did help bring societies through the turbulence of industrialization. But the reformers who made the biggest differences — the ones who worked in the slums and with the displaced, attacked cruelties and pushed for social reforms, rebuilt community after it melted into air — often blended innovations with very old moral and religious commitments.

When technological progress helped entrench slavery, the religious radicalism of abolitionists helped destroy it. When industrial development rent the fabric of everyday life, religious awakenings helped reknit it. When history’s arc bent toward eugenics, religious humanists helped keep the idea of equality alive.

I don’t have the necessary depth of historical knowledge to refute this completely, but I do have to wonder how accurate his version is. It seems to me, writing off the top of my head, that well over a millenium and a half of Christianity did nothing to wear away the institution of slavery and it was only with the arrival of the Enlightenment that individual became more valuable than the community and institutions like slavery could be drawn into question. Slavery in France was ended with the Revolution. Many of the prominent freethinkers in the U.S. in the decades before the Civil War, like Robert Ingersoll, Ernestine Rose, Elizur Wright, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, were abolitionists, as well as being active in other social movements like feminism.

The reformers who worked in the slums have a somewhat checkered record and many of them supported eugenics themselves. I don’t know much about the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century reform movements, although I see monuments to that period about the city. A quick look turned up a book titled Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement. From the synopsis of the book:

Many religious leaders embraced eugenics, often arriving at their support through their involvement with other social reform movements, including campaigns to sterilize the “feebleminded” in the states; new efforts by the state to regulate marriage; the birth control movement; efforts to combat “social evils” such as venereal disease; and the movement to restrict immigration.

Although much of the left in the United States traces its heritage to the Progressive Movement, I know embarrassingly little about the period. However, one of the major educational reformers of period was John Dewey, an atheist and humanist.

I don’t want to go to the other extreme and deny the work of religious people during this period, but I’m not willing to accept the statement that the “reformers who made the biggest difference” were those who were religious and the agnostics, freethinkers, Humanists, and atheists were irrelevant.

So, I would love a little help from my friends here. I should add that I’ve been fixating on the U.S., but that is only because I know the history better. Harari was most certainly talking about historical trends that will affect the entire world. Douthat writes:

As the developing world has converged in prosperity with Europe and America, old religious ideas that have been given new life — Christianity in China, Hinduism in India, Pentecostalism in Latin America and Africa — are playing as important a social role as any secular or scientific perspective.

Take a look at Douthat’s column and let me know what you think.

Since I absolutely loved District 9 by the director Neill Blomkamp, I really wanted to see Chappie despite having some misgivings due to the cutesyness of the title. The grittiness of the setting combined with the childlike innocence of the title character almost worked, which is how the entire movie is. It’s about half a dozen poor choices away from being a great movie. In fact, the parts of it that worked are so good that I wish I could give the director a do-over. It could have been a memorable movie. Instead, the poor choices are so bad that, despite some fun moments, the movie overall is just okay. It is entertaining and I wasn’t for a moment bored. Since I hate being bored at the movies, the director does get a thumbs up for that much.

Dev Patel plays Deon Wilson, an engineer who works for a manufacturer of police robots. The robots are equipped with artificial intelligence and can operate on their own. Deon, however, dreams of creating “real AI,” in other words a robot that possesses consciousness. When one of the police robots breaks, Deon takes the opportunity to load his experimental software into it. The robot is stolen by a group of gangsters who owe a large amount of money to an even more vicious gangster. Also working for the military manufacturer is another engineer, played by Hugh Jackman, who distrusts AI and is working on a larger robot which would be operated remotely by a human.

Of the three gangsters who steal the robot who become Chappie, two are played by Yolandi Visser and Ninja (Watkin Tudor Jones), members of the South African rap-rave group, Die Antwoord, and they are a joy to watch. Yolandi Visser is especially well suited to the role because she embodies both the cutesyness and the grittiness in the movie. She seems to be in her element whether she is committing a crime or sweetly encouraging the robot to call her “Mommy.”

It is strange that the gangsters in their lair, located in an abandoned industrial building with colorful graffiti on the wall, feel more real than the engineers in their office. That is a real weakness in the movie. I would have preferred to see the engineers working in teams, perhaps making the distinction between the people working on the software and those working on the hardware. It also would have helped if the office environment wasn’t just a generic office with cubicles that could have been lifted from any movie. Also, we don’t get any sense of the general population beyond the gangsters and the company that makes the robots. The summary from Sony Pictures Entertainment says:

In the near future, crime is patrolled by an oppressive mechanized police force. But now, the people are fighting back.

However, I didn’t get that at all. Is the government weak and the population terrorized by these gangs? Is the society totally dysfunctional and do most people rely on the gangs unless they’re really rich? We don’t really get what’s going on in this society.

Also, the ending doesn’t quite work emotionally.

District 9 was really something special. Unfortunately, Chappie is not. I hope Blomkamp gets it right next time.

So, I decided that I needed a little distraction. I’ve been spending almost all my free time exercising, trying to get in shape, and that has the odd combination of characteristics that it is totally self-involved, yet not very fun. For my birthday, my sister bought me a membership at the Museum of Natural History. I looked up online to see if they had any special programs and I found this:

As I think everyone knows by now, I just love chipmunks. Needless to say, I hurried out of the house. It’s great. For those of you who do not like violent movies, I warn you that an ant is eaten by a lizard and the mouse brutally kills a scorpion. I hope that is isn’t indicative an any Mammalianism on the part of the filmmakers that the fuzzy things come out victorious.

Since it was produced by the BBC, it’s playing in different museums that have large IMAX screens. Unfortunately, the BBC page doesn’t seem to be up to date on theater listings. It has the museum where I saw it today listed as “to be confirmed” under the “Coming Soon” subheading. However, if you have a museum or other institution with 3D capabilities near you, you might want to see if it will be playing there.

I really don’t know how they made that movie.

The chipmunk on the left is the friendly one.

The chipmunk on the left is the friendly one.

Well, I just got in from seeing American Sniper and I’m feeling pretty glum. Honestly, I’m just sitting here thinking that life has no meaning. I’m writing more because I’m not quite ready to go to bed than for any other reason.

First of, regarding American Sniper – Did you see the trailer? Did you read a review or two? Yeah, then you saw the movie. It was just barely interesting enough to not qualify as boring. I don’t know. I feel like I’m supposed to have an opinion about it. Is it pro-war or anti-war? Is it patriotic or does it subversively question patriotism? That would imply that there is something going on in the movie. It’s workmanlike in a not good meaning of the word. Does Bradley Cooper do a good job? I guess. He holds a gun and runs around believably. Did anyone else here feel like life wasn’t worth living when they left the theater, or is it just me?

I’ve been in a weird damn mood the past couple of days, and that it’s hard to tell if my response to that movie is due to my circumstances or if it was in fact, kind of uninteresting.

You see, what you probably don’t actually know, but you may very well have faint glimmers of it, is that I don’t have an especially rosy view of humanity. As I see it, we’re social animals. All of the crap we call morality is the decisions we make for whatever group we belong to survive and continue. We’re sensitive to power and status. Sometimes that causes us to do altruistic and caring thing, but more often we do petty and competitive things. Nothing matters to us as much as our place in that social hierarchy.

We all do what we have to do to make it in this society. Usually, that involves not being very nice to other people.

Okay, here’s my own preferences among the Oscar nominees. This isn’t in anyway a prediction of whether or not they will win, just whether or not I liked them.

Whiplash, Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Selma, The Theory of Everything, American Sniper, The Imitation Game, Boyhood.

Boyhood may have succeeded in being the single most pretentious piece of crap ever made. It has one major gimmick. It took twelve years to make. No review can say anything positive if it doesn’t say that. It’s long, and it’s boring. Sitting on a park bench and watching people walk by for three hours would be more interesting.

Well, I’m going to sleep on it and see if I have anything more interesting to say about them tomorrow.

And… the nominees are:

Robert Duvall The Judge
Ethan Hawk Boyhood
Edward Norton Birdman
J. K. Simmons Whiplash
Mark Ruffalo Foxcather

This might be the most fun category. Many of the most interesting roles are not the leads, and, for better or worse, men tend to get meatier parts than women on average.

If one of the abilities of a good actor is to be able to disappear into a role, then I think all five of the actors here can said to be good.

The Judge was a good movie, but not a great one, and it is unsurprising to me that this is the only category in which the film has received any nominations. Robert Duvall stands out in this picture as a small town judge who may or may not have killed a man to whom he had given a lenient sentence many years earlier and who later went on to commit another crime. Eventually, he is put on trial himself, and one of the factors that might help to acquit him, that he suffers from memory loss due to chemotherapy, is a fact he is trying to hide. Duvall does a notable job portraying the frailty of an aging man. Once, I had an acting teacher tell me that one mistake people make when playing someone who is drunk is that they act drunk, whereas drunk people typically struggle to act sober. We see Duvall negotiate this contradiction. He plays a sick, frail, older man who is trying to hide just how sick and frail he has become. The role gives Duvall the opportunity for more dramatic moments as well as more subtle ones.

Boyhood seems to have really enthusiastic defenders. I am not one of them. I’ve been told that I am not capable of appreciating that the movie is supposed to be about those uninteresting parts of life that happen in between the more dramatic moments that are usually the subject of a movie. Also, it took twelve years to make. Ethan Hawke aged very naturally over twelve years. What else can I say? Here is a scene in which Hawke, who plays a non-custodial parent, tries to make small talk.

Birdman also had its detractors and vocal defenders and in this case I am with the defenders. I walked out of the theater feeling that I had just seen something remarkable. Later, one of my mother’s friends said she hated the movie because the main character was not likeable. In fact, none of the people on the screen are likeable in the banal sort of way that almost everyone except the evil step dads are likeable in Boyhood. Perhaps it says something about me that I identify more with the unlikable, but interesting, characters in Birdman than the likeable, but insufferably boring, ones in Boyhood.

Like Robert Duvall, Edward Norton also had the good fortune to be handed an exciting complicated role. In this case, Edward Norton plays a critically acclaimed actor, Mike, who steps into the role of a play days before opening night. The actor who had previously been in the role has an accident. Mike has a reputation as being difficult to work with, a fact closely connected to his talent since he throws himself into his roles.

Mark Ruffalo is over shadowed by just about everyone else on this list. In some ways, this emphasizes the importance that the writing has as the starting point. Ruffalo’s character is simply not that interesting. I’ve already said in my discussion of the screenplays that I felt that Foxcatcher lacked the intensity of the other films. The two central characters, John Du Pont, played by Steve Carrell, and Mark Schultz, played by Channing Tatum, are people with complicated motivations. Ruffalo’s character, Mark’s brother David, most just wants a stable life and is dragged into the drama happening between John and Mark somewhat against his will. I can’t say I’m overly fond of Ruffalo’s mumbling, shuffling, hunched over interpretation. I’m not really sure who to blame for this. I think the director needs to carry some of the burden. I’m really not very familiar with Ruffalo’s body of work. I was a little put off by the fact that Tatum and Ruffalo had such very different accents. Again, I feel as if the director should have picked up on that and stepped in.

Finally, we come to J. K. Simmons astounding turn as Fletcher, the music teacher, in Whiplash. Like Duvall and Norton, Simmons had the good fortune to be handed a meaty part. It is to Simmons credit that we don’t see Fletcher as purely evil. The following scene has been shown in just about every discussion of the movie, so I was tempted to show a different one, however I decided to include this one after all. In it, we can see the transition Simmons goes through from a demanding, although normal seeming, teacher to every student’s nightmare. (He reminds me of my first acting teacher who would regularly have me in tears at the end of a class. I used to say that he could get a performance out of a rock.) I understand that they first tried the scene faking the slaps but weren’t satisfied. In the end, the slaps are real, as you can see the redness on the student’s cheek. In a later scene, the student tackles the teacher and Simmons, I understand, broke a couple of ribs. It’s really an intense performance.

My own instinct would be to give the award to Simmons, but it would hardly be surprising if Duvall and Norton were to win it. If Simmons wins, Norton may have had the misfortune to get one of his best roles during the wrong year.

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