“The Impossible Voyage” update

Sorry, my showing of “The Impossible Voyage” next week is off.

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Shattered Dreams: A movie of ideas

The movie Bolshevism on Trial, aka Shattered Dreams, is a movie of ideas that’s still worth seeing. Yesterday I saw this 1919 silent under the latter title at the Manchester library, accompanied by Jeff Rapsis. The first title isn’t quite right; utopian socialism, rather than Bolshevism, is its main focus.

An idealistic woman, Barbara, wants to set up a socialist community on an island so that the world will see the happiness it creates. Her friend Bradshaw, who has a rich father, leases the island for them. (The names of the characters in the IMDB listing are different from the ones in the version I saw yesterday. There may have been two significantly different versions of the movie. I’m using the names as I remember them, and I have a lousy memory for names. Sorry if I’ve got any wrong.) Bradshaw’s father despises the project but lets him do it anyway to learn a lesson.
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Silent movies

I love silent movies. Specifically, I love accompanying them, whether it’s for an audience or not. YouTube has lots of old silent movies, and I’ll put my iPad on the Yamaha keyboard and improvise to fit the movie. The only disadvantage is that YouTube inserts commercials by what must be a Poisson process, senselessly breaking in on whatever is happening. 1921 Hamlet thumbnail
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“Birth of a Nation” on MLK Day

I’m a silent movie fan, and I often attend Jeff Rapsis’s presentations of them with live keyboard accompaniment. He’ll be accompanying a silent movie on Friday evening at Arisia, and I recommend going to see it, even though I won’t be there myself.

On Thursday the 14th, he’ll be presenting a more controversial choice in Plymouth, NH: D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. It presents a story of the Civil War and its aftermath and actually makes the Ku Klux Klan the heroes. The intertitles include quotations from Woodrow Wilson praising the Klan. Jeff chose this movie specifically for Martin Luther King’s birthday and explains his reasoning in his blog:
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Regal Cinemas’ hypocrisy

You can’t go into a movie at a Regal Cinemas theater without submitting to a stranger’s going through your bags and possibly stealing some stuff, after you stand in line for half an hour. The ostensible reason for this is to reduce the risk of being shot. A more plausible explanation is that they want to keep people from bringing in outside snacks and are appealing to fear.

movie scene of man pouring liquorThe explanation that Regal is trying to eliminate the tiniest risks looks dubious when you notice that they serve alcohol. I’ve done some rough calculations from Internet statistics, which are too loose for me to bother you with, and it looks to me as if there’s about 2 chances in a billion of getting fatally shot in a movie theater, and 20 in a billion of dying in a traffic accident going to or coming home from the movie. Different assumptions could shift the results by an order of magnitude or more, so I’m not claiming you’re more likely to be killed in a traffic accident, but I’m willing to say the risks are roughly comparable. If Regal were really interested in eliminating risks on that scale, it wouldn’t increase them by serving alcohol. However, serving alcohol and searching customers are consistent policies if revenue enhancement is their policy — and if they believe they won’t drive away vast numbers of customers by violating their privacy.

I rarely go to first-run movies anyway, so it doesn’t affect my behavior much. I can’t boycott what I wouldn’t attend in the first place. Most of the movies I’ve attended in the past couple of years have been silent movies with live accompaniment. The excessive sound levels, long runs of ads, annoying audience behavior, and high concession prices are already reason enough for me to choose other entertainment. Obviously a lot of people think otherwise, and that’s their choice. We’ll see if their choices change when Regal treats them like dirt.

12 Angry Men

Poster for 12 Angry Men Last week I spent some time with a German criminal judge — a very nice-looking one who sings beautifully. We talked a bit about the differences between the German and American legal systems, and she expressed her concern about how clever lawyers can sway juries who aren’t used to their carefully designed emotional appeals. I mentioned the movie 12 Angry Men, and she said she’d seen it several times. I remembered loving it the last time I’d seen it, decades ago, so I got it from the local library and watched it again. It’s as good as I remembered. All but a few minutes of the movie consist of people talking in a jury room, yet it kept me glued to the screen more than most big special-effects movies do. (Spoilers follow!)

Its focus is on how to judge the facts. A young man has been charged with murder, and the charge carries a mandatory death sentence. Eleven of the jurors are convinced he’s guilty, but one, played by Henry Fonda, expresses doubts. At first he seems to have little to go on, but he notices inconsistent and implausible aspects of the testimony. His main opponent is a loud-mouthed bigot, who unintentionally does as much as the skeptic to undermine the case for conviction. (None of the jurors are referred to by name, only by number.) The skeptic doesn’t crack the case all by himself, but his example encourages other jurors to think more carefully and bring up more questions about the testimony. He’s almost always calm and reasonable, seeking to raise questions rather than to dominate.

It’s a movie about reason vs. emotion, groupthink vs. the individual mind. It points out that what people say they’ve seen isn’t always the truth, even when they’re trying to be honest. It’s not just about juries and crime, but about people who support what’s popular in their group and don’t consider difficult questions. It’s also about their ability to change their minds and think more carefully when someone else sets an example. It’s refreshing to see reason overcome stubbornness, and it invites us by example to think carefully, evaluate the arguments of others, and avoid letting emotions direct our judgment.

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The Croods

Poster for The Croods Today I picked The Croods on Netflix, figuring I’d watch twenty minutes or so of a silly caveman comedy to pass the time. I wasn’t expecting the wonderful, philosophical movie it is. It’s about ideas vs. stagnation, exploration vs. safety at all costs, thought vs. brute force, light vs. darkness. At the same time it presents a fantasy prehistoric world that doesn’t even try for scientific accuracy, lots of action, and some stunning scenes.

A couple of favorite lines of mine:

“That wasn’t living! That was just not dying! There’s a difference!”

“No more dark. No more hiding. No more caves. What’s the point of all this? To follow the light.”

It was the perfect antidote and answer to Earth Hour.

Hitler’s Children

This morning I watched a movie on Netflix called Hitler’s Children. It consists of interviews with and presentations of descendants of some of the highest-ranking Nazis. None are literally Hitler’s descendants, of course, but they include descendants or close relatives of Himmler, Goering, and Höss, mostly two generations removed.

I wanted to find something to bridge the huge difference between the Germany that I know and the Germany of the Nazis, and I found something of that. It was hard to watch. All of the people presented had repudiated and spoken against their Nazi forbears, but they mentioned having relatives who just wanted to forget the whole thing, or in some cases who still supported the Nazis. I’m sure there were many more people who wanted no part in the documentary than agreed to be in it.

What did I learn from it? One thing was that the distance between ordinary daily life and monstrous actions can be very small. The family of a concentration camp commander lived right outside it and lived a normal life, paying little attention to it. Some people had the truth concealed from them; one woman’s mother told her that her father governed a “work camp,” not a death camp, and she learned the truth only years later from a survivor of the camp.

I saw that these were Germans not very different from ones I know, closely connected without choice to people who’d done horrible things and having to deal with it. That’s not quite right; they had the choice to deal with it or ignore it, and others in their families had chosen to turn their backs on it. By speaking about it, they showed that blood isn’t destiny (one of them explicitly made that point) and helped me to understand what Germans have to bear.

Usually I go through a bunch of edits on my posts, but I’m going to put this up in one shot, then go off and see if I can stop shaking.

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Griffith’s “Intolerance”

I’ve just finished watching D. W. Griffith’s movie, Intolerance. It took some effort; it’s over three hours long and quite rambling, with four alternating storylines. It addresses themes which modern libertarians can appreciate, such as prohibitionism, religious suppression, and unfair criminal justice. It has scenes with spectacular sets and huge numbers of extras, especially in the Babylonian storyline. Anyone with a serious interest in pro-liberty themes in movies should consider it.

We can’t call it a “libertarian film,” though. Griffith also made Birth of a Nation, which is as far from libertarian as you can get. It’s a puzzle how the same person could have made both movies, though the fact that his father was a Confederate officer gives one clue. (It’s true that Intolerance doesn’t address racial hostility and that every actor looks like a light-skinned European type, but that wasn’t unusual for 1916 movies.) As for the idea of “libertarian films,” few movies are made primarily to promote a political view, and they generally aren’t very good. Let’s just say that Intolerance presents values which are consistent with libertarian ideals. How we judge Griffith is a separate matter.

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Noah (spoilers)

It’s been a while since there’s been a really impressive disaster movie, but this weekend a big one is opening. It’s a bit reminiscent of the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, where an eco-terrorist from space threatens to destroy all human life for not being better stewards of the planet. In this movie, based on the book Genesis, the alien terrorist (called “the Creator”) succeeds. All human life is wiped out, except for one family. All the animal life in the world is drowned, except for what the protagonist Noah can save in one boat. The Creator does all this in the name of “saving the environment.”

The decision to set this movie in ancient times is an odd one. The Creator doesn’t face any noticeable opposition. There are no planes for him to blast out of the sky. There are no scientists hopelessly rushing to find a way to prevent the global disaster. There’s just the wholesale slaughter of helpless, primitive people.

What would this alternate world be like after such an event? After the Creator’s done with his mad ecological crusade, the waters recede onto the worst scene of global devastation since the last Yellowstone super-eruption. All that’s left to repopulate the world is a boat in the Middle East with a cargo of animals, mostly just two of each kind, seven of some. The human race is down to a genetic bottleneck of one family. Most of the surviving species would probably go extinct in a generation. Many of the drowned plants would reseed themselves; in fact, the world would likely turn into a jungle planet from all that watering. And the Creator is still around to inflict further horrors on the survivors. (Later on in Genesis, he turns a woman into salt when she witnesses his firebombing a city.)

Personally, I’d rather see the Hulk meet the Creator and give him what he deserves. But then it would be a rather short movie.