Thursday, 26 March 2009

Five Films That Changed My Life

People frequently write about music, songs or albums that changed their life, but having never been into music as heavily as I am into literature and the image, I decided to write about works of cinema that had a profound effect on me.

1. Irreversible - 2002

I first saw Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible in June of 2003. I have only watched it maybe two or three times in the interceding six years. To this day, I still remember how I felt as the early scene in The Rectum nightclub came to an end. I was stunned, gobsmacked and in a state of mild shock. I had never reacted that way to a film – or any art – before. It was a genuine, unfiltered emotion, and – while I can hardly say it’s the greatest film ever made – it drew out of me more than many other films I have seen and loved more since. I realised, watching Irreversible, that art did not have to filter itself. Ever. That, while it was easy to be gratuitous with violence, sex or nudity, to actually make an impact with it was still possible, provided it was treated properly. It is something that I have tried to explore since, and something that will continue to influence my work for a long time to come.

2. The Usual Suspects – 1995

October 2003. I don’t think a film has ever been more important to be creative and artistic development than Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects. It was that twist at the end of the film, that moment when the truth about Keyser Söze is revealed, when my jaw dropped to the floor, I threw up my hands in shock and bowed to the most masterful cinematic sleight of hand I have ever seen. I immediately watched the film again, and perceived a totally different film, specifically the performance of Kevin Spacey. It was this film, and that twist, that made me say ‘I want to write something like that. I want to write something that good.’ I began the very next day, and wrote my first script in a matter of weeks. Was it any good? No, but it was that film that made me, for the first time in my adult life, pick up a pen and apply myself to writing. I didn’t realise it at the time, but it was The Usual Suspects that made me want to be a writer.

3. L.I.E – 2001

I can’t remember when exactly I first saw the masterpiece that is L.I.E. It was sometime in 2005 I think. I remember being bowled over by how good it was. How stunning, how moving and how – some might argue – controversial. Portraying a pederast as a sympathetic character was as dangerous yet courageous then as it remains now. It was L.I.E however, though I didn’t realise it at the time, that really shaped the way I think now. It demands that its viewer disconnect themselves from whatever initial emotional response they may have, to look deeper, and look at the other side of the coin, before making up their mind. It is that demand, that requirement of consideration before response, that changed my thinking and the way I expressed myself. I stopped responding to things I read or watched or thought with immediate emotional outbursts and instead began to force myself to consider, understand look at both sides of an argument before placing my feet on any matter. It has made me the writer and thinker I am today, and for better or worse, I am indebted to it.

4. The Aristocrats – 2005

I saw The Aristocrats in late 2006, and I fell in love with it immediately. ‘Exposing’ as it did, some of the giants of American (and international) comedy in a documentary setting, where they were allowed to sit down and talk about their work, their approach to comedy, and what makes a joke work, remains to this day one of the most fascinating things I have ever seen. Listening to the commentary with directors Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza is just as interesting. It really sparked my love with figuring out why things are funny, a subject I don’t really write or talk about that much, but a subject that I find intensely fascinating. It has taught me so much about jokes, words, context, my friends and myself, as I have tried to figure out why some things are funny, and why some things are not. It has led me to understand so much about myself and who and what I am, and understand how humour, and parts of my own reactions to it, work.

5. Baraka – 1992

It was last year that I saw Ron Fricke’s Baraka. I don’t think I have ever been moved so much by a film in my life. It is possibly one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, and really led me to reflect on my perception of the world. My thinking had been leaning that way for a long time, but Baraka is what really set a sea change about in me. It has changed parts of my philosophy and my approach to life. I look at the planet in a different way. I have different desires, I view things differently. I feel differently. I have come to view the species differently. Baraka more than any other has effected me on a more personal level than any other film I’ve ever seen, and I still watch it regularly now. It is fascinating, it is moving, it is – for me at least – life changing.

Jade Goody

I don’t have much to say on the subject, I don’t wish death on anyone, and while I have a great many opinions on a great many things that lead up to her death, the death itself can and should, in a sense, only be viewed for what it is – just another person dying of cancer. Don’t romanticise it, just as you don’t care about millions of other people around the world dying for any other reason whatsoever, there’s no reason to care anymore about another pair of young children losing their mother due to unfortunate circumstances. I didn’t see a flood of messages popping up on Facebook for Natasha Richardson, whose young children have been left similarly motherless.

What I find most depressing and disturbing about the whole situation, was how eager people were to view all the gory details. I’m not casting any opinion on a young mother trying to make as much money as she can to pass on to her children before she dies, I have no problem with that. But I found it a little strange how so many people were so eager to lap up every ‘unseen photo’, ‘deathbed interview’ and every other piece of information – medical or otherwise. All the people who had issues with Dr Gunter von Hagens and his Bodyworlds exhibit being morbid and grotesque, seemed to have little issue with watching all the gory details of a woman dying from cancer. All the people who thought that seeing a human being die on TV had no problem following the steady decline of another person through images, interviews and screenshots.

Now we know what happens when a media created entity dies. The popular line going around is ‘She died in the media like she lived in the media.’ But I have to question the eagerness of everyone else to watch that death. We now know how voyeuristic our society has become. We now know that even death, even in the most (allegedly) tastefully done manner, is ripe for being dissected, analysed, chewed over, photographed and turned into little more than tabloid fodder. How far our news media has come.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

The Afterlife: A By Product Of Evolution?

Is The Afterlife A Product Of Evolution?
By Miles Weaver

The second interesting conversation I had recently occurred this weekend (somewhere between the hours of 3 and 6a.m. no less), and was again part of a much larger, broader range of topics.

This encounter was something I have briefly touched on before (in the article entitled ‘Death’). my belief that the most basic function of life – all life – is to end. Irrespective of our own human perceptions on the matter - ideas about higher purposes or concepts like peace or love or whatever - we are still just living organisms this planet, ones that share our living space on this green and blue ball of rock with everything else. Our function is simple, breed and die. Spread the genes, give rise to the next generation, then kindly get the hell out of their way. That is the function of all living organisms, to ensure that the species survives and to be sure that the process of life itself continues. It is hardwired, instinctual and completely unwavering. A cold, marching unstoppable machine that drives forwards without any regard to us homo sapiens searching in the dirt for deeper meanings.

Our search for that deeper meaning, I would argue, comes out of a certain conceit that we have as the only species on the planet and the universe (that we know of) that is consciously aware of itself, the privileged few who can gaze out at the stars that have watched over us since the birth of our species and wonder what, where and why they are. Our questioning of why we are here has led to some interesting theories and ideas about our purpose and our mortality. Yet in looking past the cold obviousness of the truth – that we are nothing more than organic life slavishly serving the same purpose as every other organism on the planet – I think that we have tried to elevate our thinking and our species above all other living beings. We see ourselves as something that has evolved to a higher state with a higher purpose, one not bound by the simplistic universal law of ‘Born, breed, be gone’.

Even our most distant history demonstrates this perceptive, from the earliest worshipping of the mysterious and unexplainable forces of nature as conscious entities like ourselves (albeit ones with far more power) our religious perceptions grew and grew, to the extent where we took ourselves out of the circle of global life. This was where we made the distinct definition that we were not like everything else; where we refused to be bound by the instinct that life hardwired into us. The planet’s oldest religion, Hinduism, teaches that when we die, we are reincarnated as another entity in the circle of life. Death is not something to be feared, merely just a transition from one temporary body to another, our soul will maintain itself. We can see a step our clear desire to transcend death, to laugh in the face of the inevitable. While our bodies may die, our souls just slip into a different suit. We are still bound by death, but not longer have any reason to fear it, for it is just a transition.

If we look, however, only a couple of thousand years further on from the genesis of Hinduism, we see that the Ancient Egyptians and Greeks – what many would argue to be the first truly advanced ancient societies – had reached the point where human beings were elevated out of the cycle of mere life and had managed to transcend death altogether. I am referring, of course, to the afterlife. Now, when we die, our souls leave our body and go and party with the Gods for all eternity. Death is not something that affects us, for our consciousness, the think that makes us so very different, so very special, will survive death and be maintain forever.

We here put ourselves as separate, distinct entities. An anomaly to the rest of the planet, one that has no reason to fear death, because for us, it is just the end of the mortal world; there is a whole other plane of existence we have to get to, one where death cannot touch or bother us at all.

I would posit that the concept of the afterlife is a product of the evolution of the thinking of our species. In our effort to escape the confines and diminutive stature of being simple organic life, our religions have all ended up promising some sort of afterlife. Even the eastern religions, which began with Hinduism merely telling us that we were part of an ongoing cycle, have us progressing toward Nirvana, where we can retire our souls from the cycle of existence. In our afterlives, we never really die, we just move onto ‘the next life’ in heaven we get to hang out with God for all eternity, never knowing the fear of death again.

Our initial efforts to separate ourselves from other animals, and also escape the instinctual, constant fear of the finality of death, have resulted in our thinking evolving to a state where we believe wholly and entirely in a another plane of existence waiting for us beyond this one. That a mortal death isn’t really the end of our precious consciousness, our tool that lifts us above our fellow animals, rather that it is only the transition from one point of awareness to the next. It is, in a way, our coping method, an evolutionary by product of our consciousness to try and deal with the finality of death, and remind us that we are different from every other animal on planet earth.

Looking at things clearly though, it is clearly, painfully obvious that there is no evidence whatsoever for an afterlife. Oh sure, we have religious texts, we have beliefs, we have unexplainable things like déjà vu or small Tibetan children answering questions they’d never heard of to prove themselves as the next Dalai Lama, but is there any evidence whatsoever that there is anything at all waiting for us beyond the end of all things? Do not fall back here on your beliefs or your comfort systems, but ask yourself, is there even the remotest hint anywhere in existence that could tell you what happens after you die? The answer is no. We have beliefs, we have faiths, we have feelings and anomalies that are interpreted into giving an indication, and it is not my intention to tell anyone what to believe, but the simple fact is that we have no evidence at all for what happens after you die.

So why did all our beliefs end up promising eternal life after we die? It is easy enough to understand where concepts of God developed from, but where did the notion of the afterlife end up taking such a firm hold? My theory rest above, that it sprung from an early desire to remind ourselves that we were the special ones on this planet, and what could be more special than removing the instinctual fear of death. Over time it grew and grew into what it has come today, where billions of people are convinced, without any evidence to support them, that death is not the end. The afterlife is a by product of our brains evolution. An accidental off shoot of the conceit of intelligence. Now there are some people who are so excited about the next life that they cannot wait for this one to end, and that is sad. For whatever you believe, no matter how firmly believe it, you don’t know what happens at the end. You only know for definite that you’ve got this life, and you should seize the very brief opportunity that it gives you.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Perception Is Reality: God, Destiny & Free Will

I had a pair of very interesting conversations the past two weekends, the first of which I will touch on in this article. It was only a brief part of a conversation that was had, but the topic got me thinking.

One of the biggest problems that I find with God – theologically that is (there are many other issues I have with the notion of a complex universal creator) – is the concept of free will and fate. Logically speaking, the two cannot co-exist, it is impossible. If one is in control of one’s own destiny, there cannot be a set fate, a destiny, awaiting us. If there is a set fate, a fixed end point in our lives, then we cannot have free will, as we are essentially little more than passengers on a ride through existence.

The problem comes with the logic of God. For God to exist as truly omnipotent– which, logically, it must have to be – it must be all knowing. This would lead one to believe that God has a set fate for us, a plan in which he knows every decision we will ever make, every thought we will ever have and every feeling we will ever experience. This is fine, until you call into question the motivations of the deity. The majority of belief systems tell us that God loves us and cares about us, that we, as its creation are something that, at the very least, interests it.

Now, if we take God as being a loving being (again, my interest in this argument is from a theological standpoint, one that deals with the religious depiction of the deity), the issue of a predetermined fate becomes something that raises serious questions. If we do have a preset fate, then God is most definitely a sadist. Why otherwise would a child be born in Africa, spend 2 years of its life barely able to eat with flies nesting in its eyes, knowing nothing but constant struggle, only to die by malnutrition and starvation, having done nothing but essentially suffer for its entire life, if God did not enjoy our misery? Why are things like cancer permitted to exist if God knows everything that can and will happen in a persons life, and can obviously influence the outcome?

No, if fate is something that exists, then God is one of the sickest beings in existence. The sickest in fact, as it is its existence. However, if God truly loves us, refuses to muddy himself in our affairs and permits us true free will, it cannot be an omnipotent being, thus cannot be God. True free will means we make all our own choices, meaning God would only be aware of them once we make them. If such a deity were unable to know what we were going to do, that would render it something considerably less than omnipotent.

So we are presented with a problem. Either God is an absolute bastard – something totally anathema to what all religions tell us – or is unable to know every, and thus, does not exist (it is not a God). The problem is a one that appears to run directly in contradiction with the accepted philosophy of all religions. It, essentially, negates the very idea of God in the first place (looking at it through the prism of God being an entity that actually likes us and this reality).

Prior to last week I had never received an acceptable explanation for this issue. The one I received was surprisingly simple, but once considered actually explains a hell of a lot. Essentially it boiled down to ‘Perception is reality’. The logic was that, while yes it’s true that God has a plan, and does know everything, we as a species are so unaware of it, and so apparently able to agree with free will that we do not really perceive it; it is never apparent. In not being able to perceive it in any way, can it ever really be said that we don’t have free will? As far as we are aware every action leads to another, every reaction to another, and every opinion we think we choose to have is built off of something else we experience. Just because we are unable to perceive these things happening to us, rather than them actually happening doesn’t – to us – make it seem any less like free will.

It has also recently been discovered in the past few years that the brain actually makes decisions before we are consciously aware of them. The subconscious mind reaches choices and what not without our self aware selves realising it. So, essentially, there is already a degree of fate working in our lives, as we don’t consciously make our own decisions.

Through this prism, one can come to the conclusion that God – if it exists – is a benevolent sadist. While there are things, like the African child I mentioned earlier – that seem cruel, working through a religious prism, this child, it should be assumed will be relieved in a rather lengthy afterlife (though that’s a whole other ballpark (especially when one considers the problem of hell, but that is a uniquely Abrahamic concept)) – it seems that the dramas, hardships and traumas of life would be permitted to endure so that, essentially, it broadens and enriches our experience down here in our brief corporeal form. So while we must endure suffering, we do so in a way that contributes greatly to our experience. It’s something that is difficult to endure, as hardship is something we would naturally want to avoid, yet it is important to our development, our interactions and our understanding of the reality we inhabit and we are definitely better off for it.

Whoever said God works in mysterious ways may not have known how right they were.