Monday, February 15, 2010

New Blog Series: "Bad Movie Logic"


I've been writing about media & intelligent reasoning for a long time and basically everyone who knows me knows that I care a lot (too much?) about bad ideas that make their way into movies. So I've decided to start a new series on this blog called "Bad Movie Logic". It will cover the ridiculous ideas in movies & TV that get overlooked by most people who accept stupidity in order to be entertained. Some of these will be big excursions into philosophy & psychology, some will be on economics and business organization, but the running theme will be stupidity written into entertainment.

I care because fundamentally all of the entertainment & media we consume affects how we think about the world. Sometimes that's great!

For instance, in the 1940's, the Superman radio show broadcast real Ku Klux Klan secret passwords (leaked by infiltrator Stetson Kennedy) to it's children audiences while Superman was battling the KKK on the air. As kids tend to do, much of America's youth wound up mimicking Superman's battles in front of their parents - some of whom were also Klan members. As the kids unwittingly revealed real secrets of the Klan in the presence of their family, they were also mocking the very institution that their parents belonged to.

Consequently, many of the kids' parents abandoned their KKK membership and activities because of the embarrassment of being ridiculed by their own children.

A strong case can be made that Superman Radio was instrumental in bringing about the destruction of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States - Not only because the parents were embarrassed, but because a whole generation of kids grew up idolizing a hero who battled against racism (and Communism, and Nazism, for that matter) each week.

Media has this amazing power to influence people - and depending on the ideas supported by it, entire generations of people can be taught to believe different things. Smart people will recognize the hazards of walking through life without considering the effects of the influences and attempt to correct for them. There are many influences we all grow up with which may or may not be intelligent or healthy... So obviously sometimes we need to spend some effort correcting for that. Unfortunately - many people do not develop the curiosity or motivation to do this.

So when the influences are good - like opposing collectivism in it's various "ism" forms (e.g. racism, sexism, nationalism, tribalism, or communism) - then people benefit and society is made better as a result.

Unfortunately... Sometimes these influences are not-so-great.

The world has changed much since the 40's, and Superman is just as likely to be a communist than he is to fight them.


Much of the media produced in the United States and around the world anymore is positively filled with horrendous ideas. I tend to focus on movies - like James Cameron's Avatar - where horrendous ideas are either expressed through bad economics, support for institutionalized violence or which depict humanity in implausible ways.

Over time, some of the clich├ęd fallacies that permeate the motion picture industry and the rest of the media become imbued in the general belief structure of the population. Though I hesitate to go Godwin, Joseph Goebbles understood this perfectly. A lot of modern Americans do not, however, and as a result society is filled with misinformation presented as basic premises time & time again and far too many people mill about not even realizing they're being affected by it.

Often this misinformation is kind of "harmless" (all ignorance has a cost) and amounts to urban legends, popular mythologies and little lies that really don't impact people's lives too much like ghost stories, JFK assassination plots or El Chupacabra. Usually people have at least enough decent sense to recognize when those kinds of things are just stories, but of course, there is always a part of the population who struggles with that... But these people aren't my concern...

Telling lies behind a proscenium or temporarily believing those lies as an audience member can actually be one of the best things in life. I'm not out to get riled up about art not depicting reality. I love Science-Fiction and Fantasy, I like Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and a thousand other films & books which depict impossible events.

But we all know they're impossible and suspension of that kind of disbelief is essential to some of the best stories ever told. It doesn't matter if the Force enables Yoda to levitate large objects, or that we can travel through space at a billion lightyears a second, or be carried out of danger by a magical Phoenix. If a story-teller makes these things part of his universe, who am I to argue? Creativity and imagination are wonderful things and help the best writers tell allegorical stories about humanity that are far more potent and universal than when we stick to reality as it is. Superman can fly, see through walls and lift a mountain, and that's perfectly fine.

What interests me is the presentation of the more harmful premises and ideas expressed in all types of movies that wrongly portray logic & human action. Within the universe that people inhabit, are their actions lining up with the character's motivations or incentives, and are basic premises that writers use to set up the metaphor for human life that they're depicting actually legitimate, or are they nonsense as well?

See, an allegory or morality-tale only works so well if it reflects something about real things that real people go through. Up to the point when Luke Skywalker found out that Darth Vader was his father (spoiler alert!), he had believed his father to have been killed by Vader, and that Vader was the embodiment of evil in the universe. If you found out a piece of information that rocked the very core of your beliefs, you too would likely shout "Nooooo! That's impossible!!!".

You might not fall 500' through the bowels of a floating city and get rescued by a Wookie... But I doubt very much you would accept such a world-altering piece of information any more pleasantly.

Point is; Skywalker's behavior is consistent with real human behavior - and as a result, he is empathetic and relevant to your experience as a human being. Even though you can't know what it's like to use a light-saber, you can know what it feels like to be betrayed... Thing is though, writers tend to be pretty good about the emotional stuff - the easy, human stuff. What they tend to be bad at is the stuff below the surface - stuff that takes some thought, some knowledge and perhaps even some mathematical aptitude.

As I already covered at length with Avatar, many filmmakers simply don't care enough or are not smart enough to think through any of that, and as a result, we get media of all types that play to idiotic misconceptions about the world that actually reflect human behavior inaccurately.  This translates to real life in important ways - for example in 2003, preconceptions about the wild, Hobbesian nature of humanity was on full display in the news media during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  We were all told stories of how there would be looting, riots & murders... Yet none of that happened on any meaningfully large scale.

So why was it just assumed that it would happen?

My guess: Movies & media have portrayed that as the inevitable result of lack of government "order" for decades.  It's not true, and it leads to bad premises about the world at large, and a poor understanding of human nature.  These bad premises wind up pervading society and affecting the way most people view the world, and unfortunately that general view seems to have taken a turn for the worse.

What I hope to gain by doing this at the very least is to have some fun and stretch my brain while talking about something I love - the multimedia arts. But if I'm lucky, I hope that a few people may actually learn from this, stop to analyze their own bad premises a little more often and reject the standard set of "truths" drilled into us all our whole lives. The cool thing about taking command of your own beliefs and really stopping to think about what you're being fed is that when an idea is good - like mocking and embarrassing members of the Ku Klux Klan - you can always keep doing it! But if an idea is bad and harmful, you can cull it from your mind and your actions and we'll all be better off because of it.

Now... Since I have no boss telling me what to write about, like all my other posts, these will probably appear whenever the idea or the mood strikes me. I hope my readers (all 9 of you!) find these segments amusing, interesting or worth your time in some way.

If not... You know where the complaint box is! So enjoy, laugh (hopefully) and most of all... Think.

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