Tuesday, October 14, 2014

THE LINGERING QUESTIONS OF "HER:" A REVIEW OF SPIKE JONZE'S MOVIE

(This post is a review of Her, a film by Spike Jonze. It contains what might be thought of as spoilers for those who intend to see the movie but have not yet done so.)

A while back I posted a piece reflecting on the experience of playing a continuous on-line Scrabble game with my friend Warren, who lives in a part of the country quite distant from me.  I averred as to how—although sitting in the same room contemplating our moves over glasses of wine is certainly to be preferred—I was surprised to admit that (with the “chat” feature included) our app-enabled play supplies about 70% of the satisfaction of the real thing. And I mean “surprised.” In the pre-digital era (roughly the first half of my life), I would have scoffed at the possibility. (Not at the technology, but at the idea that any kind of electronically-delivered remote connection could come near to replicating the emotional content of a face-to-face encounter with another person.) But that was before I was introduced to my iPhone. My precious….

This observation came back to me as I was watching Her, the Oscar-winning movie about a man who develops an intimate relationship with the female avatar/voice that represents his computer’s operating system.  The fact that the film was conceived as an original screenplay, and not adapted from a book, makes it difficult to compare as a work of “literature,” but, that aside, I think it is not out of the question to place the story of Her alongside such works of predictive or cautionary near-future fiction as Brave New World and 1984.

Her draws us into speculating seriously about what might be right around the corner from the time we’re living in right now, and about the potential uses—for good or ill—of the systems and tools that we know are being churned out of a Silicon Valley think-shop—or some techie’s garage—right now.1  It achieves what I think of as this “seriousness” of cinematic purpose (while being deeply absorbing) by avoiding three clichés committed by less thoughtful filmmakers of this genre:

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) in reverie with Samantha, in Her
Cliché #1, avoided: Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), the recent divorcee who enters into an increasingly intense relationship with his operating system (“the world’s first artificially intelligent OS,” voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is not an anti-social misfit, friendless dweeb, or psychopath.  Although as played brilliantly by Phoenix, Theodore does have a few awkward eccentricities, his life includes fulfilling relationships and he navigates effectively in the world of friendship and work.

Cliché #2, avoided: When Theodore’s deepening relationship with “Samantha” becomes sexual, it is neither prurient nor pornographic. To what degree it is “mutual” (much has been written about the sensuality of Scarlett Johansson’s voicing of Samantha) is one of the questions the film asks us to ponder. In fact the movie opens with a humorous episode involving a phone sex-line (with Kristin Wiig’s voice switching from passionate to business-like as the call ends), as if to make it clear that this is distinctly different from what will later develop between Theodore and Samantha.

Cliché #3, avoided: The artificial intelligence of Theodore’s operating system is not installed in his back like a battery or implanted in his brain; he is not harnessed to do the bidding of an evil warlord nor does he lead a rebellion on behalf of society’s enslaved minions (doesn’t Tom Cruise star in all those movies?). There are no space cruisers or ray guns. Its subtle very-near-futureness is what makes it somewhat uncomfortably believable. And the open-endedness of the movie’s story lines and conclusion leave me with lingering questions. (A more discerning viewer may find the implications of the movie less open-ended and more conclusive. For me, the meaning of the film could be taken in at least two different ways at a number of points.) The lingering questions:

We know the A.I. of the operating system can “adapt and evolve,” but has it developed sufficiently so that Samantha is actually responding to Theodore emotionally of her own “volition?” Or is the software simply so advanced that it artificially (and “coldly”) adjusts to whatever it is that Theodore needs (or is seeking)? At one point Samantha earnestly tells Theodore that she “wants to learn everything I can.” Does she want to do this so that she can enter more and more deeply into a mutually meaningful relationship? Or is the OS designed to do this to make it more and more efficient at being of service? And…

…is the intention of the operating system’s developers benign? evil? or simply capitalistic? Is this a whiz-bang gizmo everyone will want (like I want Apple’s soon-to-be-launched Watch), or is it the beachhead of a takeover of our humanity?

Many reviews of Her refer to Theodore and Samantha “falling in love.” Does Samantha really fall in love?

The genius and frustration of the movie is that most of the questions above can be answered “yes…” and “no.” For example, if Samantha wants to learn everything she can in order to serve Theodore’s needs, and if she succeeds in doing so, does it matter if her motivation is “emotional” or functional? And what of Theodore’s “love?” Recent studies demonstrate that we relate to our devices (iPhones, etc.) with the same part of the brain with which we “love.”2 (“My Precious”….) Theodore is a smart guy, he’s not delusional, and yet he quite matter-of-factly loves Samantha. It could, in fact, be true love. I don’t have the same level of intimacy with my Scrabble partner that Theodore has with Samantha (sorry, Warren, but you’re no Scarlett Johansson), but our game-chat-exchange is an experience of some warmth, camaraderie, and genuine feeling. In my opening paragraph I surmised that this is about 70% of what the experience of meeting a friend has to offer. To the degree that Her is a futuristic tale, what direction is that percentage going to go? Up? …or down?

The concluding scene of the film is also open-ended: Two old friends, who each discover that the other has been abandoned by his and her OS lover, hold hands and go up to the roof of their building. Are they so bereft of the level of intimacy their artificial companions introduced into their lives that they are now in a pact to leap together off the building (with the hope of meeting their virtual lovers in the ether)? Or are they like Adam and Eve at the end of Paradise Lost:

     The world was all before them, where to choose
     Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
     They hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow...

…make their way back into the world.

...to discover with one another the reality of a love that, however intelligent and adaptive, their operating system could never rise to? That’s my conclusion, romantic that I am.

A Final Lingering Question
Introducing Milton’s “Providence” into this tale is a bit of a stretch, but it elicits one more question: When Samantha confesses to Theodore that her love for thousands of others in no way diminishes her love for him, is this a reference to the all-encompassing love of God? Is God an Artificially Intelligent Operating System?

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1. Not that far in the future: I just came across this essay in the NY Times, written by a mother who is grateful for the role that Siri--the voice of her iPhone's operating system--plays in the life of her autistic son.

2. Or, perhaps, worship.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

What The F...?!

Let your 'Yes' be 'Yes' and your 'No' be 'No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one. ~ Jesus, in Matthew 5:37
I heard my Dad swear (curse) just once. It was the classic hitting-his-thumb-with-a-hammer, “Dammit!” I was about ten years old. The fact that the oath came readily to him, and that he was a WWII vet, causes me, upon reflection, to realize that this was probably not the only incidence of swearing in his life. But it’s the only time I heard him. And I don’t mean that, instead, I heard him come close and veer off with a “Dam… er, darn it.” He just didn’t swear. That one isolated memory only solidifies this bedrock truth of my childhood.

Although I exhibited my share of youthful commandment-based piety, I am convinced that the main reason that I am not a swearing guy is the influence of my Dad. A second important influence, at the impressionable age of about 15, was my confirmation pastor, Howard Bomhoff (another vet, wounded in Italy), who taught us, “Swearing just shows what a poor vocabulary you have.” I think he said it once, and it stuck. I later entered professions (first a college English major, then teaching, then a call to ministry) in which words are of prime importance. Like my Dad with the hammer, I’d better use the salty ones sparingly, and for good effect, if at all.

I like to shock my confirmation students by telling them that although there are good reasons to avoid using “shit” and “fuck” (see “vocabulary,” above), the worst possible swear word, according to the Bible, is the one we hear used most frequently: “Oh, my God!” –  based on the fact that God enjoys having his name mocked about as much as you or I do. One day, when I was in college, a friend took me aside and said, “You know, Dick, you’re saying ‘Oh, my God’ a lot lately.” This seems like a surreal memory in the recalling of it, but I know it happened (although I can’t remember who my pious friend was). I have, essentially, never used the phrase since.

My glib use of it above notwithstanding, I have always been offended by the “F” word (this is not my piety kicking in; I’m actually offended by the word, and will use “F” for most of the remainder of this essay). At the risk of sounding a bit righteous, I’m offended on behalf of our mothers, our sisters, and our daughters. My understanding is that “F” is a word of sexual violence. The reason that “rape” is not a swear word is that we have “F.” It is not a clever reference to intercourse, but a verbal expression of forced sex.

In an ironic round-about, recent generations are using the F-word more frequently because it is depicted more frequently in popular culture which is supposedly reflecting the reality of kids these days. I think kids are using it more – it’s so easy to fall into that F-in’ rhythm (especially if it fills a vocabulary-deprived void) – but they don’t know what it means. They don’t intend to be insulting their mommas.

In the service of art and truth, the F-word does indeed have a place on the stage or on the page. But the irony is often missed by those who hear it as a primer for the hippest language. Television’s “The Pacific” was a gripping, harrowing series with F-peppered dialogue that apparently added to the veracity of its combat milieu. I don’t doubt the artistic truthfulness implied, but my Pacific-stationed uncle never used the word, and my Army Air Corps Dad could only muster one weak “dammit” in all the years I knew the guy.

Timothy Oliphant as Sheriff Seth Bullock in HBO's
"Deadwood." A comparatively straight-talker in an
atmosphere ubiquitous with the F word.
HBO’s “Deadwood,” I have to say, is Shakespeare with the “F” word. Caryl and I love the series. (Even though, as our daughters would say, "Mom would have to spell that word," Caryl is the one who commented on the Shakespearean feel of the dialogue.) The artful intent of the gritty speech works in a dramatically authentic way, but we are glad to leave the word behind in the muddy streets. It hasn’t rubbed off. (Caryl has not used the F-bomb against me even once; she hasn't even spelled it at me!)

My college English prof taught us that the Bard himself has Hamlet speak to Ophelia of “cunt-ry matters” (nudge, nudge; wink, wink) – word-based sexual taunting that didn’t work out well for dear Ophelia. I am not suggesting that the poet’s palette ought to be devoid of such ideas -- or words that offend.

But words can, indeed, wound or heal, tear down or build up. From the first books we read to our children to the vocabulary they hear us utter in all kinds of circumstances, we are introducing them to the power and magic of words. And it just may be an act of life-changing kindness if we approach a young friend and say, “You know, you’ve been saying ‘fuck’ a lot lately.”

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

MEDITATION AT KEITH'S TREE

 Breathe on me, breath of God; fill me with life anew… ~ old hymn
For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. ~ Colossians 3:3

The atoms of  Keith’s ashes now vibrate
in every root and branch and needle of
the tree we planted in his memory
eighteen years ago.
Ashes no longer, but bark and sap and
the green energy to urge another
two feet of growth this year
onto what is now a twenty-three foot spruce—
Its brave, fragile spire reaching straight up
into the universe.

There is a kind of religious parable in this, I suppose,
But “Take away from me your religion...”
I find my faith’s basis in the organic actuality,
natural meaning,
and, yes, cosmic mystery of it.
Not a metaphorical Mandala-Wheel
of repetitive circularity:
around and back and around again,
but the real linear movement of life
and death—and life—through time;
time with infinity at each end.

The thrust of root through soil, water
into capillary, chlorophyll into energy
into growth into the soft glide of the dropped cones—
the tree’s children—
gently lowered
from branch
            to branch
                        to branch
                                    to earth.

A tree at the center of the world,
whose lithe yet grounded trunk is this moment
swaying before me,
moved by that invisible force that can be translated
in Hebrew as “wind,” or “breath,” or “spirit.”

A tree that will die.
Like Keith.
Like “a grain of wheat that falleth to the ground….”

Like this:

When it is struck by lightning or caught up
in the great blaze Keith’s Tree will become
ashes; its ashes, atoms; it’s atoms,
the particles of all that has been or will be:
earth and oxygen and the tip
of a butterfly’s antenna
and the ink for the tiny font in which
the latest upgrade of DNA’s genetic software is written,
and all the other things that await
that last infinitesimal quarkish piece
to click into place in order to be.

Until that day when time’s linear arrow
reaches the sun’s heart and its final flare
curls around the earth,
and the same particles, released, will rise
to become, again, the material of stars.

And the starfires themselves will cool to embers
and ash, and the delicate grey dust of
bodies that once formed the galaxies
will float on the spirit-wind of space,
to be swept into scattered satchels of
ever-expanding gossamer fabric,
until these black holes burst their sacs full of
the ashes of atoms--the last stuff of matter--
to be--with the faint flutter of the last energy--
breathed in and out with the sighing of
a weary universe;
the last outbreath of the sigh caught up into
the inhalation of

                                            another breath…

into a bright eternity that waits like love
to enfold all the dying and all the cold
darkness in the arms of the original light,
in the warmth of the original breath,
into that which was before there was anything.

Into God.

There never has been nothing.
There never is an end.



In Memoriam ~ Keith Rohr
1958-1997
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Paraphrased Bible passages (in quotes) ~
Amos 5:21-23
John 12:24 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

THE NEED FOR SPEED


"The preacher was driving so fast, the speedometer was playing “Nearer My God To Thee.” (author unknown)

When I was seventeen I had a green-and-white 1957 Ford V-8.  The speedometer topped out at “120 mph,” so of course I had to see if it could really do that. Finding a stretch of road straight and long enough in the Black Hills posed a challenge, but I found one, and it did. (I wonder how many otherwise conventional young lives have been cut short by just such one-time shenanigans.) My younger brother reminds me that I once boasted, “I can take any curve in the hills at twice the posted speed!”

I was no rebel with or without a cause. I was a seventeen-year-old-boy with one of the most powerful machines on the planet at my feet and fingertips. (Other former seventeen-year-old boys will no doubt relate.) And my purpose here is not to engage in nostalgic braggadocio, but to acknowledge with relief that I made it through that period, and to observe that I abandoned my seventeen-year-old approach to driving… about three years ago.

That’s when I got the letter from the insurance company. The letter—in the cold language of cost-benefit analysis used by the company to determine if it was in their best interest to continue to carry me as a client—basically said, “Enough already!” And I got the message.

I want to be clear that I have not been a willfully reckless speedster or that guy who rushes to weave in front of you and then cuts you off. I have never been a road-rager. (I am a gentle preacher, dear reader.) It is just that, for the last fifty years, I have consistently pushed the meaning of “limit” in “speed limit.” (Again, I have no doubt that other former seventeen-year-olds will relate.) The driving record that the insurance letter kindly pointed out to me consisted of one too many speeding citations in a defined period of time, plus a couple of self-caused fender-benders involving only my car (claims that, in hindsight, I should probably never have submitted to the insurance company for payment). Oh, and the incident with the Christmas tree. The company seemed to have no interest in my lucid and exculpatory explanations. “Enough already.”

I am reluctant to acknowledge it, but it’s possible that the behavior-altering message got through in part because some of those seventeen-year-old fires have been damped down by actual maturity. (Okay, “aging.”) I simply no longer have the need to speed. In addition, the letter spoke to the theologian in me: In my tradition, Martin Luther explains that one of the uses of “the law” is as “a norm of conduct, freely accepted by those in whom the grace of God works for good.”  The insurance company—like a speed limit—is not interested in spoiling my fun, but in assuring that life—for me and everyone with whom I share the road—will be “good.”

(To the seventeen-year-olds and future seventeen-year-olds who are dear to us, perhaps we could do a better job of connecting this life-affirming explanation of the “spirit of the law” to the letter of the law. Like that parental line that can be honestly applied in so many situations: “If we didn’t love you, we wouldn’t care what you did.”)*

Coincidentally about the same time that I heard from my insurance company, I had a Zen-like vision that I have found helpful and that I reflect on surprisingly often: A car pulling into the flow of traffic is like a twig falling into a stream. It is not in a race with the other twigs. You go with the flow.

And I’ve developed two mantras that are effective for me—
The ride of the gentle preacher today--a sweet Subaru 4-
cylinder. But I sometimes wish I had put that '57 Ford up
on blocks in a shed somewhere. (Don't we all.)
that I actually use: One is, “When I’m in a hurry, that’s when I slow down.” The other is, “Let the other guy have the ticket.” That last one is not very Christian, I know. But it works for me.


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* Studies of brain development suggest that, regarding issues like driving, sex, and war-fighting, we aren't equipped to make rational decisions--to "know what we're doing"--until about age 25, as discussed further here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

JOHN DONNE, R.S. THOMAS, AND "THE FREEHOLD"

The one who would study the scriptures must have much leisure. ~Sirach 38:24

I sometimes envy the Victorian stereotype of the rector as a “kept man,” pottering in his study, breaking for tea, then attending the parish flower show up at the manor-house. This is an exaggeration of the Church of England's "freehold" system, in which the vicar essentially had ownership rights to his parish, and was, in a way, "lord of all he surveyed." (And now—post-Victorian, thankfully—also “she.”) I have to say that the modern pastor’s job description is more like the line from a (Victorian!) novel about “the man who mounted his horse and rode off in all directions.” Yet I do not want to be disingenuous about (or give up on) the built-in need in this calling for what the Anglican Church refers to as “reflective ministry,” and what the Book of Sirach calls, simply, “leisure:” Time, that is, to study, read, and write. (See introductory line, above.)

We are discovering that, in a humane civilization, all occupations and professions ought to offer a measure of flexibility in the work schedule. (It was, after all, the pre-conversion Scrooge who told Bob Cratchitt, "Be here all the earlier next morning!") And studies show that flex-time even helps the bottom line. So rather than succumbing to the lure of workaholism (an illness), the pastor can model a healthy balance in his or her own life, and support such balance in the lives of members of the parish and the community. Gold, perhaps, has been the most pursued; but time the most valued resource after all.

John  Donne
1572-1631
John Donne, who delivered powerful sermons from the pulpit of St. Paul’s in London from 1621 till his death in 1631, also wrote volume after volume of religious (and love!) poetry during those years. R.S. Thomas, who died in 2000 after forty years as a rural vicar in the Church of Wales and who wrote thirty books of (Nobel-nominated) poetry in that time, said frankly, after he retired, that it was the “Anglican freehold” that allowed him time to write. I trust that the reflective hours in the Rev. Donne’s London townhouse
R.S. Thomas
1913-2000
and Father Thomas’ country parson-
age also resulted in caring ministry,
but the world is grateful to their
parishioners for granting them the time.