“Little Drummer Girl”: The Lowdown

I spent a fair bit of my Thanksgiving holiday watching the “Little Drummer Girl” mini-series on BBC/AMC, apparently the second film version of the John LeCarre novel of that name. Whether you’ve seen it or not, I’ve done the hard work in this post of distilling everything about it that you need to know.

On the plus side:

  • Yes, the cinematography is as lush and captivating as everyone is saying.
  • Yes, Florence Pugh is hot, and does a great job portraying her character, Charlie.
  • Yes, Alexander Skarsgard is hot, and does a great job portraying his character, Gadi.
  • Yes, they have good chemistry.
  • Yes, Michael Shannon is credible as a Mossad agent, or at least as credible as he needs to be to an audience consisting primarily of non-Mossad agents.
  • Yes, the series is worth watching, even with all of its flaws and at 6 hours’ showing time, and yes, it whets your appetite for the book (which I haven’t read).

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“Bohemian Rhapsody”: A Rhapsody

The year is 1977–maybe late October or November. I’m eight years old, having dinner in a pizzeria with my immigrant family in Blairstown, New Jersey–Dominick’s, I think it was. Suddenly, the stereo system at Dominick’s pipes out the unforgettable bass-snare drum beat of the latest hit on the radio:





Buddy you’re a boy make a big noise
Playin’ in the street gonna be a big man some day
You got
Mud on yo’ face
Big disgrace
Kickin’ your can all over the place

Everyone in Dominick’s but us–maybe two dozen Warren County rednecks–starts stomping their feet and clapping their hands in time to the music. Somebody yells out, “Fuckin Yankees!” (The Yankees had won the World Series that year.) And then, two dozen voices in unison, between bites of Jersey Neapolitan pizza, sing in commemoration of the Yankees’ victory over the Dodgers, and anything else that comes to mind:

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The Flamingo Kid

The best Garry Marshall (1934–2016) movie you never heard of is a little gem called The Flamingo Kid (1984). If you want to watch something in memory of him, I highly recommend it. Starring Matt Dillon, Janet Jones, Richard Crenna (in a brilliant performance), Jessica Walter, and Hector Elizondo (and look for John Turturro and Marisa Tomei in bit parts), it is a coming-of-age comedy-drama with, as one review said, “more on its mind that stale sex jokes.” In Brooklyn, 1963, the summer after Jeffrey Willis (Dillon) graduated from high school, he chances to land a job parking cars at the swanky El Flamingo Beach Club (the real life Silver Gull Beach Club of Queens, which still exists looking much as it did in 1963; it is being featured in a series of New York Times articles this summer). There he is dazzled by the resort atmosphere, the girls, and the relative opulence. He falls under the sway of one of the club’s most well-to-do members, Phil Brody (Crenna), owner of a chain of high performance sports car dealerships (Ferraris, etc.). Brody is friendly, approachable, and evidently determined to be the best at whatever he undertakes. Significantly, he has no son of his own. He is called “The King” because of his prowess at gin rummy, the obsession of all the male club members. Jeffrey also excels at gin; this is how he happened to be invited to the club in the first scene. Brody is impressed by Jeffrey’s brains and card sense, and takes him under his wing. Brody’s charm and obvious success put Jeffrey’s blue collar father (Elizondo) in the shade, with predictable consequences when Jeffrey decides to follow Brody into car sales instead of going to college in the fall. The theme, obviously, is values. It all comes to a climax in a showdown over—what else?—gin rummy.

Dialogue excerpt that will show all readers of this blog why they must watch this movie:

[Jeffrey and Brody are riding in one of Brody’s dealership Ferraris, which Brody is letting Jeffrey test drive.]

Brody: You going to school?

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Brody: Where are you going?

Jeffrey: I’m probably going to be studying at Columbia.

Brody: Good for you! That’s great!

Jeffrey: Did you go to college, Mr. Brody?

Brody: Yeah, well, I mean, I didn’t… You know, I didn’t go to college. My older brother used all the money, so there was nothing left for me. I went to night school. I graduated, NYU. Took a lot of business courses. Let me give you some advice. You can forget that literature, religion… music, philosophy, things like that. I mean, it’s okay, but… What are you going to do with philosophy? You’ve never seen a philosopher making fifty grand a year. You’ve never seen a philosopher driving a car like this.

Jeffrey: No.

Brody: Remember what I’m telling you. Socrates rode around on the back of a donkey.

Jeffrey: That’s a good one, Mr. Brody.


“The Diplomat”

Felician University has NGO status at the United Nations, and this evening I’ll be serving as the University’s representative to the UN at a screening of David Holbrooke’s new film, “The Diplomat,” a documentary on the life of his father, Richard Holbrooke (1941-2010). The screening begins with introductory remarks by Samantha Power, followed by a discussion moderated by David Holbrooke.

There’s an odd sense for me of the “road not taken” about this event, since I think I may well be one of the few philosophers there among all the diplomats. When I first went to college, I’d planned on joining the U.S. Foreign Service, majoring in Politics and minoring in Near East Studies. But I got distracted by philosophy in my junior year, and ended up (very hesitantly) applying to graduate school in philosophy my senior year–getting in to precisely one graduate program (Notre Dame), which I ended up attending.

Most days, I think it was the right decision, but some days I wonder about it (cf. Nicomachean Ethics X.7-8: not exactly a new “dilemma”). I can’t say that I’ve never looked back, but obviously, I haven’t gone back. Still, it’s a strange feeling to hang out with the club I once might have joined (or tried to join) while fleeing for another one.

December 9, 2015: The film screened in the UN’s Trusteeship Council Chamber to about 300 or so people, most of them (as far as I could make out) diplomats of one sort or another. Samantha Power had some interesting things to say, as did David Holbrooke, and Christina Gallach, the UN’s Undersecretary-General for Communications and Public Information.

I probably couldn’t summarize the film any better than Neil Genzlinger in The New York Times and Todd Purdum in Vanity Fair; I also happen to agree with both reviewers’ positive assessments. It’s a great film, but hard to access: unless you get to a screening, you’ll have to watch it via HBO Now, HBO Go, or HBO On Demand. But I’d highly recommend doing so, if only as an antidote to the venomous muck that constitutes the contemporary American political scene. I’ll have some comments on some of the broader philosophical and political implications of the film “soon.” (In PoT parlance, “soon” means “possibly within a year.”)

Thanks to Dr. Mary Norton for the opportunity.

Rocket Men

OK, so here’s my annual anti-Atlas Society space travel movie rant. Last year’s mean-spirited (but totally on-target) rant was directed against Will Thomas’s review of “Interstellar.” This year’s “rant” is directed at Ed Hudgins’s equally silly review of “The Martian.”

The truth is, I haven’t seen “The Martian” and I’m not inclined to, since there’s only so much Matt-Damon-in-space I can take, and I got enough of him last year to last me awhile. So I’m not really talking about the movie part of the review, even if it has that trademark Atlas Society feel of Randroid propaganda masquerading as film criticism:

The Martian is an uplifting film that does not minimize the challenges of life; indeed, Watney explains that he knew going in that space travel was dangerous and that he could be killed. But he says that once you acknowledge that you might die, you deal with the problem at hand and the next and the next. This is humanity at its best. Damon as Watney gives a fine performance. His character must keep up his optimism—without maudlin emotionalism or self-deceiving bravado. He must demonstrate intelligence and ingenuity. In all this we see the best of the human spirit!

Formula: (Ayn Rand + Sartre + Marcus Aurelius + Macgyver) / Elon Musk = A Hero for Our Times

robert-mankoff-look-life-is-nasty-brutish-and-short-but-you-knew-that-when-you-becam-new-yorker-cartoon.jpg (473×355)

No, I’m talking about the hey-let’s-travel-to-Mars part of the review. But this time I’m not going to rant. I’m not going to say a damn thing. Just go back and read Hudgins’s case for going to Mars. Then read Ed Regis’s “Let’s Not Move to Mars,” published in The New York Times a few weeks ago, and compare the two.

An excerpt from Regis:

These are only a few of the many serious challenges that must be overcome before anyone can put human beings on Mars and expect them to live for more than five minutes. The notion that we can start colonizing Mars within the next 10 years or so is an overoptimistic, delusory idea that falls just short of being a joke.

I link. You decide.

By the way, if you’ve ever found yourself wondering why the average educated person regards Objectivism as a cult for immature, fantasy-besotted lunatics, hold Hudgins’s and Thomas’s praise for Elon Musk in mind while you read this. Is the supposedly uncharitable stereotype really that far off?

Postscript: I just realized that the Ed Regis I quoted above is Edward Regis, Jr., author of “What Is Ethical Egoism?” Ethics 91:1 (1980), and editor of Gewirth’s Ethical Rationalism (1984).

Happy 2015, and some odds and ends

Happy 2015. As is probably obvious, I’ve taken a bit of a break from blogging for the past few weeks, but I’m back now, with blogging on the brain. I have yet to complete December’s series on the psychiatric medications symposium at Felician, so I’m hoping to do that over the next few weeks. I never quite finished last July’s envisioned series on “honking go at a dangerous intersection,” so hopefully I’ll get to that as well. I have plenty more to say about emergencies as I finish a paper on that, and about egoism and virtue ethics as I finish a paper on that. I’m in the midst of revamping three courses–Ethics, Aesthetics, and International Relations–so I’ll be road-testing some of that material here. And I’m supervising two senior theses this spring on closely related topics–Hobbesian egoism and BDSM–so I’ll be musing about that, too. But for now, just some odds and ends.

(1) Best argument against libertarianism. I think of myself as a kind of fellow-traveler of libertarianism, but I’m decidedly not a libertarian myself, whether of the left-libertarian or BHL variety, or of any other kind. Over at BHL, Kevin Vallier asks readers for what they regard as “the best argument against libertarianism,” listing two himself, and promising to offer five more in the future. I won’t reproduce it here, but argument (2) on his list is what he calls “non-moralized notions of coercion.”

Vallier’s argument (2) corresponds in a rough way to my own argument against libertarianism, but I’d put the point somewhat differently than he does. As I see it, moralized conceptions of freedom are the only defensible ones out there. Moralized conceptions of freedom, in turn, entail moralized conceptions of coercion. But moralized conceptions of both freedom and coercion are more complicated than libertarians (or Objectivists) seem to realize. They’re more complicated to explicate, more complicated to justify, and have more messy and complex practical implications than polemical advocates of “the free market” seem to grasp. They don’t lead in any straightforward way (or in some cases lead at all) to the policy implications favored by free market think-tanks like, say, the Cato Institute. More fundamentally, I think they lead to a different set of normative priorities than those that occupy the thinking of most libertarians. But unpacking the preceding set of thoughts is a complex task for another day.

Anyway, here’s my contribution to the BHL discussion (the linked article is behind the paywall of Cambridge Journals Online):

The best argument against libertarianism is (2), and the best version of (2) that I’ve seen is David Kelley’s “Life, Liberty, and Property,” Social Philosophy and Policy, vol 1 (1984). I think it’s a shame that Kelley’s article has only been cited 14 times in more than three decades. It ought to be much more widely known and discussed. It deals with the views of Nozick, Mack, and Steiner, and in doing so, anticipates many ideas now associated with BHL, decades before BHL came into existence.

Kelley’s argument is too complex to summarize here; I’ll just say that I highly recommend the article. As I write, the discussion at BHL has gotten up to 168 comments, but as usual with BHL’s combox, much of the commentary consists of pointless thread-hijackings. I’d be interested to hear what PoT readers think, whether about Vallier’s question, Kelley’s arguments, or anything related.

(2) Murty Classical Library OnlineThe New York Times reports that Harvard University Press has just initiated a series, the Murty Classical Library Online, devoted to classical Indian literature. Its

first five dual-language volumes will be released next week, [and] will include not only Sanskrit texts but also works in Bangla, Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Persian, Prakrit, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu and other languages. Projected to reach some 500 books over the next century, the series is to encompass poetry and prose, history and philosophy, Buddhist and Muslim texts as well as Hindu ones, and familiar works alongside those that have been all but unavailable to nonspecialists.

The Murty will offer “something the world had never seen before, and something that India had never seen before: a series of reliable, accessible, accurate and beautiful books that really open up India’s precolonial past,” said Sheldon Pollock, a professor of South Asian studies at Columbia University and the library’s general editor.

That may not mean much to most people, but I personally find it difficult to contain my elation at the news. My own desire for the consumption of Urdu literature far outstrips my capacity to read it, to say nothing of my desire to read, say, Persian, Hindi, or Sanskrit literature. I suspect that there are many other people in my position, whether of South Asian background or otherwise. Happily, I suspect that many more people will now come to find themselves in that position, and will have the Murty Classical Library to “blame” for it.

The creation of the Murty library has in effect opened up a new world for many of us, and in reflecting on that fact, I couldn’t help comparing it favorably with the preposterous techno-fantasies valorized by people like Elon Musk, of colonizing new worlds on other planets, like Mars. The truth is that we have yet to discover the riches of the world we currently inhabit: in that respect, it’s telling that the Murty initiative is being conceived as a century-long project; it’ll take a century just to translate and digitize India’s literature (if “digitization” remains the relevant term for whatever technology exists in 2115). Who knows how long it will take to absorb and understand it? (Incidentally, it’s also telling that the Indian government was willing to spend $74 million to send a spaceship to Mars but couldn’t spare $5 million to digitize and publish the riches of its own national literature.) The series has been endowed by Rohan Murty, “son of the Indian technology billionaire N.R. Narayana Murthy.” Love it or hate it, I think one has to chalk this particular success up to capitalism and the institution of inheritance. There’s also a strange but delicious irony in the fact that we owe the existence of this series to the civilization that gave us Macaulay’s Minute.

(3) From Walden to Wild. Kate Herrick and I happened to see the film “Wild” on New Year’s Day, which I highly recommend to all and sundry. The film is based on the recent book of the same name by Cheryl Strayed, and Kate (who’s reading the book) tells me that the film is essentially faithful to it.

Three interrelated thoughts occurred to me while watching it. One was that the profundity of the film was of a sort that one rarely–if ever–finds in the professional academic literature on moral philosophy. The second was that I couldn’t help thinking that the film was, in a weird way, a twenty-first century version of Thoreau’s Walden. And the third was how unlike the professional philosophical literature Walden is.

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. …To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of the arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worth of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour. If we refused, or rather used up, such paltry information as we get, the oracles would distinctly inform us how this might be done.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Talk about New Year’s Resolutions. That’s from “Where I Lived, What I Lived For” in Walden. I don’t mean this as an accusation, only as a musing: in reading Thoreau today for the first time in years, I found myself wondering why it is that the professional literature spends so much more energy discussing Hume’s worry that the sun may not come up tomorrow, than on Thoreau’s insistence that it will.

(4) Rock or Bust. Despite my animosity for Ambien, I wouldn’t go as far as Thoreau. As denizens of the twenty-first century, we all know that we can no longer do without mechanical aids, whether to keep ourselves awake or put ourselves to sleep. If you need a mechanical aid of the first variety, my suggestion is to go out and get AC/DC’s new album, “Rock or Bust.” In my opinion, it’s a worthy successor to “Back In Black,” and a fitting capstone to their illustrious career.

In three decades of listening to, playing, and having arguments about them, I’ve heard all the “sophisticated” sub-musicological criticisms of AC/DC: “it all sounds the same”; every song is in the key of A major; every riff is based on “A,” “D,” and “G”; every solo is a variation on the A major pentatonic scale; the bass guitar just pumps out a steady stream of eighth notes (mostly A’s); the drumming sounds like a drum machine hooked up to a metronome set at 120; the vocals are indistinguishable from screaming; the lyrics are juvenile. But all those criticisms just raise the obvious question: how can something so (putatively) stupid sound so fucking good? I don’t know. I just know that it does.

Anyway, welcome to 2015, everyone. Turn the amps up high. Rock or bust.

“Clueless” Meets “Lost in Space”: Will Thomas on “Interstellar” (SPOILERS)

Will Thomas of The Atlas Society has just written a review of “Interstellar” that is clueless enough to make David Brooks’s commentary on the film seem like sublime wisdom by comparison. Thomas seems to belong to the Ideological Checklist School of Film Criticism, according to which a film’s aesthetic merits are reducible to its satisfaction of or deviation from a fixed and unimaginative set of doctrinal criteria. “Interstellar” seems to score something of a B+ on Thomas’s grading rubric, but the grade itself is perhaps of less interest here than the rubric.

“Interstellar,” we’re told, “shouts to the world that Americans should be achievers, but then it steals from them the ability to succeed.” There we have it, in one slovenly sentence: a film must have an ideological purpose; it must shout that purpose; if it features Americans, it must be shouting to the world about America; and its supposed aesthetic failings must be described as an offense against the Holy Grail of political economy, property. From a start this reductive and philistine, Thomas leaves himself only one direction to travel in aesthetic space—down. And down the aesthetic wormhole he goes. What follows are a few unexceptional (and unenlightening) paragraphs of commentary and plot summary. And then we get to “Interstellar film values.” Get out your checklist.

“Interstellar cheers for values an Objectivist can love,” we’re told. Is the purpose of art to function as cheerleader for moral or political values? Thomas’s avatar Ayn Rand didn’t think so: “Art is not the ‘handmaiden’ of morality,” she wrote, “its basic purpose is not to educate, to reform or to advocate anything” (The Romantic Manifesto, p. 22). I’d infer that its basic purpose is not to “cheer,” either, but I don’t expect that lesson to have been internalized by the people responsible for “Atlas Shrugged Part 3.”

So what does the film “cheer” for? I have to quote directly here:

Interstellar cheers for values an Objectivist can love. The film several times explicitly and approving quotes Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do not go gentle into that good night,” with its refrain “Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” In this and other ways, the film thus directly says that we should strive to survive, know, achieve, and live.

This is a tragic-comic interpretation of Dylan Thomas’s poem. The lines in question do not “directly say that we should strive, know, achieve, and live.” They don’t implicitly say that, either. They’re an irrational rebellion against death, and contrary to Will Thomas, that is how they’re depicted in the film. The character who repeatedly utters the Dylan Thomas lines lives an outwardly successful but actually aimless life in rebellion against the reality of death: he deceives people, drives them to insanity, and sacrifices them to a lunatic quest that masquerades as an act of striving, knowledge, achievement, and life, but isn’t one. It’s instructive that Will Thomas hasn’t grasped that it is a masquerade. I’d like to think that movement-Objectivists can still cheer for or at least discern the difference between achievement and its counterfeit, but optimism sometimes gets the best of us.

Death is what Ayn Rand calls a “metaphysical given,” and her view of such givens is that wholehearted acceptance of their reality is required for the serenity proper to human life: “To rebel against the metaphysically given is to engage in a futile attempt to negate existence” (Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 37). That’s exactly what the character in question does. “[W]hen no action is possible, one must accept nature serenely” (PWNI, p. 43, my emphasis). “Raging into the night” is anything but serene, and is the exact opposite of what Rand was prescribing. To get this wrong is to get both Rand and the universe wrong. But leave that to the self-appointed Objectivist “experts” at The Atlas Society.

So what does the film get wrong, according to our inquisitor?

But here’s the thing: for all their striving, the heroes are incapable of succeeding on their own. Instead, a deus-ex-machina rescue saves them at the crucial junctures. Cooper has no plan to fly again before a strange message delivered by gravitational fluctuations in some dust directs him to NASA’s secret project. And there would be no NASA project without the wormhole that someone (a being from the 5th—physical—dimension?) has plonked there out by Saturn. And this feature carries over into the climax of the film. The heroes cope and deal as best they can with what opportunity gives them, but we see that they could not solve their problems themselves.

That is a spiritually enervating betrayal of the film’s key themes. It says, in effect, “Pray, pray, for someone else to set things right.”

Suppose that I denied that I could solve all of my problems all by myself all the time—in the ridiculous sense of never relying on anyone besides me for help, and never conceding that the solution of a problem extended beyond my self-enclosed resources at a given time. Would that prove that I was advocating a resort to prayer, or would it simply suggest recognition of an obvious fact about the nature of human life—that we sometimes cannot solve our own problems in the envisioned way? Not a difficult question to answer, unless you’re in the grips of an ideologically-inspired fantasy that commands you to forswear the assistance of others, and then commands you to think ill of those who ask for it. Never mind that given the actual structure of the actual world we live in, the first group will actually solve the problems they confront, and the latter group will not. People in the grips of fantasies don’t notice things like that.

Perhaps that is why Thomas fails to notice that his summary of the film contradicts what actually happens in it. In fact, the heroes do “solve their problems themselves” in the relevant sense of that phrase. The small group of astronauts who blast off for the wormhole do not, it’s true, leap into space like Team America, fly to the wormhole, and fashion some facile derring-do technological “solution” to “the problem,” as you’d expect, say, in a very long re-run of Macgyver. But they do solve the problems they face in a way that entitles them to full credit for having done so, regardless of the help they seek: they get credit for seeking it, and for figuring out how to use it to their advantage, no mean feat under the circumstances.

Incidentally, I don’t mean to be denying that there are facile derring-do solutions in the film. There are some of those, too. But that only proves my point: a depiction of two sets of achievements can hardly be construed as an attack on achievement.  See the film for yourself, and you’ll see what I mean.

Far from being a celebration of achievement or reason, Thomas’s claims here are a slap in the face to the characters’ exemplification of precisely those values. What is spiritually enervating is not the film, frankly, but his one-eyed commentary on it.

According to Thomas, “[t]here are other, smaller betrayals of the reason-achievement theme as well.”

The Earth’s crisis, though never fully explained, is put down at least in part to human arrogance and industrial farming. No one seems able to engineer a response to the plagues, nor does anyone appear to be trying. Environmentalists will feel vindicated.

This is just a blatant misdescription of the film. What’s true is that the Earth’s crisis is never fully explained—full stop. It is not “put down to human arrogance and industrial farming.” It is just left unexplained. One character in the film attributes it to human arrogance, but his claims are never confirmed, and the film never suggests that his claims are right (or wrong). (And the film’s protagonist, Cooper, can hardly be called humble.)

It’s true that no one seems able to engineer a response to the plagues, but there is no way to infer from the film that no one has tried to; Thomas’s claim to that effect is sheer confabulation. Anyway, here’s a thought: what if a plague struck and no one was able to engineer a response to it? Thomas seems to imply that the suggestion itself requires some sort of indulgence in irrationality. Really? Why?

Elsewhere in the review, Thomas cheerily concedes the possibility that a spaceship could travel through a gravitational wormhole. Why then reject the possibility that we might lack a feasible engineering response to a plague that struck the planet? We currently have no response to the possibility of an asteroid strike. Does that mean an asteroid couldn’t strike the planet? We currently have no response to the possibility of disasters caused by sudden global warming. Does that mean that no such warming and no such disasters can take place? Can we assume, a priori, that we will have an engineering solution in place when the sun implodes? Bastardized Julian Simon dogmas aside, how could anyone know such a thing? Thomas seems to think that human technology (and by implication reason) can dictate terms to nature, and that a film that refuses this conceit has somehow betrayed reason. I’m afraid that isn’t the way the world actually works. For once the question can be posed without resort to metaphor: what planet is Will Thomas on? (On the topic of catastrophic events and possible responses to them, I highly recommend Richard Posner’s Castastrophe: Risk and Response.)

Thomas continues:

Another theme in the film, repeated at key moments, is that emotions, or at least love, allow us to form connections across space and time: they are lauded as a form of intuitive awareness transcending our three dimensions. In fact, the full arc of the story trades on this insight. When the most scientific people in the universe recur to this idea, the film paints reason as a hollow and insufficient exercise.

What the film is saying about love’s relation to reason is not entirely clear, but precisely because it isn’t clear, it’s susceptible of a more charitable interpretation than Thomas’s. We don’t need to infer that the film “paints reason as a hollow and insufficient exercise,” or that it claims that love displaces reason at all; perhaps the film suggests that reason cannot properly be exercised unless it does so alongside love.

If Thomas had read Ayn Rand with a little more care, he’d realize that in fact, she agrees with what I take to be the film’s account of love, not with his. What is the weapon one needs to fight the enemies of human flourishing? she asks in her 1971 essay, “The Age of Envy.” “For once, it is I who will say that love is the answer—love in the actual meaning of the word….love as a response to values, love of the good for being the good….What fuel can support one’s fire? Love for man at his highest potential” (The New Left, 1975 edition, pp. 185-86). An exercise of reason devoid of love is not an exercise of reason at all.

Keep that passage in mind as you watch the very last scene of “Interstellar.” Then ask yourself who’s gotten the film right. But whatever you do, don’t be dissuaded by Thomas’s ridiculous review from seeing it for yourself.

Postscript, December 9, 2014: This article, “A One-Way Trip to Mars? Many Would Sign Up” in today’s Science Times, is a perfect example of the psychological superficiality of discussions of space exploration and space travel (as alluded to in my discussion with Jurgis Brakas in the comments). Being “scientific” in the narrow, reductive, geeky sense, the article devotes about three columns to discussion of the logistical difficulties of getting a person to Mars, then spends a few incredibly facile paragraphs on what it would be like to live there–i.e., what it would be like to be a Martian.

Yet Mars remains a forbidding, frigid place, with an average temperature of minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit and an unbreathable atmosphere just 1 percent the density of Earth’s and consisting largely of carbon dioxide. Colonists would live in artificial podlike habitats, grow vegetables in greenhouses and get their protein from insects. No pets, sorry. And if you plan on going outside — as you will, often, to repair infrastructure battered by the chronic Martian wind, or to wipe off solar panels encrusted with the ubiquitous Martian dust — you must wear your spacesuit at all times.

In short, a lifetime on Mars would be like a life sentence in an unimaginably lonely, cruel, and dangerous prison. It doesn’t take an expert in mental health to see that an environment like that would be a breeding ground for mental illness or insanity. But apparently such trifling considerations aren’t the fodder for serious discussion in science journalism today: psychology isn’t scientific, so it takes a back seat to discussions of other things. One enthusiast, an engineer, dismisses the psychological issues with a facile cliche: “We’re a species that explores and pushes our boundaries. By exploring our own planet, we’ve developed technology to make our life more comfortable.” He might want to read up a bit on the historiography of exploration on Earth to discover what else happened en route to that destination.  One supposed enthusiast, “planning to get married in September,” is “willing to leave her husband behind should a Mars passport bear her name”–for the rest of her life! Talk about devotion. It’s supposed to be amusing, but is it?

Unsurprisingly, the most profound comment on the whole thing is a side-bar excerpt from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles:

…and the men shuffled forward, only a few at first, a double-score, for most men felt the great illness in them even before the first rocket fired into space. And this disease was called The Loneliness.

Postscript, September 21, 2015: I was gratified to see this Op-Ed in the Times, adding some useful details to the anti-Mars arguments I made in the last postscript.


I saw “Interstellar” last night–somewhat pathetically, the third film I’ve managed to see in the theaters this calendar year. (The other two were “Omar” and “Atlas Shrugged 3.”) My advice: ignore the nay-saying critics and see it. I didn’t quite understand it, and haven’t quite digested it, but absolutely do not regret having seen the 10:30 pm showing, and staying until 1:20 am.

The two best reviews I read were A.O. Scott’s in The New York Times, and Dana Stevens’s in Slate.  The film does have some flaws, however,  and David Denby’s review in The New Yorker is a painless guide to them.

P.S., Before the feature presentation, I saw a preview for a forthcoming Ridley Scott film, “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” I’ll probably be there when it opens in December, but I’m kind of hoping we don’t get the ancient historical reprise of the other “Exodus” film.  I have to admit that one of these days, I’d really like to see a film version of the Exodus story as depicted from the Canaanite perspective: “Promised Land: Invasion of the Yahwists.” Rated NC-17 for violence and potentially unsettling political implications.

Postscript 2, November 12, 2014. Here’s an interesting real-life postscript to the movie, the European Space Agency’s successful landing of its spaceship Rosetta/Philae on Comet 67P/Churuyomov-Gerasimenko.

Postscript 3, November 16, 2014 (HERE BE SPOILERS): The ending of “Interstellar” seems preposterous to those of unschooled in the relevant physics, but from what I’ve been reading, it’s basically on-target (not that I know). I saw a piece by Neil deGrasse Tyson that gave a scientific thumbs-up to the film, but I lost track of it, so here’s a piece from Time that seems to come to the same conclusions.

Postscript 4, November 20, 2014 (MORE SPOILERS!). The commentary on “Interstellar” keeps coming, and I keep reading it. Here’s an  intelligent piece by Dennis Overbye, mostly focused on the science of the film.

By contrast, David Brooks, who focuses on the non-scientific elements of the film, is predictably vacuous, as he is on most subjects. Brooks is right that the film offers some insightful depictions of non-romantic love. But this gets things wildly wrong:

On top of that, there is an even more attenuated love. It’s the love humans have for their ancestors and the love they have for the unborn. In the movie, 12 apostles go out alone into space to look for habitable planets. They are sacrificing their lives so that canisters of frozen embryos can be born again in some place far away.

Nolan wants us to see the magnetic force of these attachments: The way attachments can exert a gravitational pull on people who are separated by vast distances or even by death. Their attention is riveted by the beloved. They hunger for reunion.

Actually, you could more plausibly argue that Nolan wants us to see the perversity of such attachments–attachments to potential beings that require the sacrifice of actual ones. Can we really love our distant and anonymous ancestors, much less love frozen embryos? The claim is simply preposterous, and ignores what the film is really about.

More Brooksoid blather:

Bloggers have noticed the religious symbols in the movie. There are those 12 apostles, and there’s a Noah’s ark. There is a fallen angel named Dr. Mann who turns satanic in an inverse Garden of Eden. The space project is named Lazarus. The heroine saves the world at age 33. There’s an infinitely greater and incorporeal intelligence offering merciful salvation.