September 26, 2005

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

This a movie about a guy who loves parrots. He is waiting around to be a rock star, and he gets interested in parrots because they "seem more like monkeys." Pretty soon, he is feeding them, taking care of the injured ones, getting to know the domestic relations of this unexpected flock of parrots in San Francisco.

There's a lot of ethical material in this guy's life: about not forcing things, about trusting that the food and shelter and romance problems will somehow get solved if one just pays attention to the next thing, about the smell and mood of friendship. The documentary style is easy and effortless and brilliant -- no attempts to force the points, no artificial pathos. The style reminds one of Ira Glass, of Wiseman.

This thing puts contemporary obsessions in a strange perspective. The hero has bought Jesus' line about considering the lilies and applied it to parrots. He trusts that, if he looks after the birds, somebody will look after him, and somebody does. Whether he's a straight-up fool, a holy fool, or somebody with a clue, one has to decide by watching him. I'm guessing that we come very close to one of Jesus' inspirations, in watching this guy interact with birds.

The important ethical discussions arise out of watching lives in their detail and mood and style. This movie makes that point.

More on the movie here.

Posted by shea0017 at 11:01 AM

September 23, 2005

The Fountainhead

The Fountainhead suffers by most comparisons. I was prepared to despise it, when it showed up on AMC. But uninterrupted movies are rare on cable, so I watched. About midway through, I realized that I was watching something good and useful. It needs to be seen in its native habitat: among comic books, morality plays, maybe Greek drama, and especially among ethics texts (on the shelf next to Sophie’s World, for example). It preaches constantly, consistently, loudly, as do Superman, Star Wars, and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. But we don’t make fusses about them being unsubtle, preachy, simple-minded. Philosophy has taught us the virtues of simple-minded models: they help us to articulate complexity. I kept saying, as the thing unfolded: “No, that’s just half right…” That response is the mark of actually thinking, and not many media events make one think.

One other point: the comparison with ethics texts is particularly important. Hardly anybody has picked up on Gaarder’s project of novelizing philosophy. This is a good project. Presenting ideas in stories, perhaps especially in simple-minded stories, is more likely to get under the undergraduate skin than serving up bare abstractions. And The Fountainhead embodies what some thoughtful undergrads think, and what lots of them are tempted to think, and that is a good starting place for ethics classes.

The Fountainhead takes the viewer a little ways toward the mouth of the cave. From its stopping place, it might pass duty on to Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, and from there to Bringing Up Baby, and then on to Twelve Angry Men. It would be an interesting project, to work out the movies at various turning points in Plato’s cave. I think The Fountainhead is pretty close to the rear wall, but then, that's where many people live.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:50 AM

September 19, 2005

The prophet of vulnerability and responsiveness

Watching a bit of Robin Williams' performance in Good Will Hunting, I thought: he's in the same trap that Alan Alda got into in MASH. He's trying to be Jesus and he's not quite up to it. The perspective is helpful: pretty much Williams' entire opus has been life-of-Jesus stuff, the suffering servant, the emissary to the untouchable, the person broken by life and able to speak with authority for that reason. It's hard to get a general description of the type, but it comes through as a particular flavor of interaction, like spumoni ice cream. I think he came closest to the pure thing in Cadillac Man.

It is really striking, in a religiously ignorant popular culture, how much work is being done nevertheless at what is essentially theological clarification.

Posted by shea0017 at 12:11 PM