Sunday, July 25, 2010

Film Review: Alice in Wonderland

I really had no desire to watch the Tim Burton version of Alice in Wonderland. His films are, of course, always visually stunning, but I am just not nearly as impressed with them as I'm supposed to be. While I love Johnny Depp's acting, Burton's need to put him in film after film is a bit grating, especially because it causes Depp to play on the same facets of his acting toolbox. The Mad Hatter certainly looked like a re-hash of his Willy Wonka persona to me.

Fortunately, this time, Mr. Burton pleasantly surprised me.

About the Books
I read both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass last year, and was unimpressed with them, as well. I was aware, from various adaptations over the years, of all of the various characters and events, but reading them as they were originally laid out just did not resonate with me. They were nonsensical, and the books had no theme, moral, or even plotline as such. That's fine, of course, given the period in which the books were written ... but it just doesn't work for me.

And the fact that there are two books is also puzzling, because they're similar on so many levels but also have dramatic differences. Alice from one book doesn't seem to remember the events of the other, and the worlds are just different enough to be distracting. It was like Lewis Carroll thought of his premise - a young girl named Alice is magically transported to a fantasy world - but then came up with two different ways of writing the story. Instead of picking one, he instead just wrote both of them. It's a curious way of going about storytelling (although I can think of a few times in the Bible where a similar narrative strategy seems at work - like the multiple tales of Abraham & Isaac trying to pass their wives off as their sister).

Back to the Film
So we had a film by a director I was unimpressed with based upon source material that I was unimpressed with. The result: I really was not expecting to like the film. I put off renting it, but finally, when it was the only even remotely-desirable option at our nearby Redbox (and I had a promo code that would run out in a week if I didn't use it), I opted to rent Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland.

And, overall, I am quite pleased that I did. Burton seems to have realized all of the same flaws that I had with the original material (which is surprising, since the nonsense of the original source material is somewhat similar to the nonsense that Burton spewed out in his "masterpiece" Big Fish) and sought to "remedy" it ... which is needed, because a film that was a faithful re-telling of Alice in Wonderland would have been a failure with any audience that was not using mood altering chemicals.

Of course, for people who loved the source material, changing it can be a serious point of contention. (See this Orson Scott Card review, for example, though he did ultimately enjoy the film.) For me, though, this worked wonders, because it made a bit of sense of things. He did take the story and make it more relevant (though Card is right that Burton added more than his fair share of failures to the venture, as well).

First of all, Alice has been to Wonderland before. It's not really explained how often, but this provides a means to explain the two books if the film is viewed as the third story in the series. First comes Alice in Wonderland (the book), then Through the Looking Glass, and then Tim Burton's film, which should honestly have been named Alice's Return to Wonderland or Alice's War for Wonderland or something like that.

This meant that Burton was free to use all of the characters, events, or themes from either of the books freely, but could also tell an actual story. Not only that, but he actually had a theme, and a good one, about belief in oneself.  In both of Lewis Carroll's books, the character of Alice is merely an observer who goes through no changes from beginning to end. It's a random series of entertaining encounters ... end of story.

Burton took the story from one of pure whimsy to one of growth, by introducing a character arc that was wholly absent from the original source material.

I won't discuss the specifics of the plotline, other than to say that it provides the characters that do show up much larger roles. Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter (one of the few characters other than Alice to appear in both of the Lewis Caroll books, but only for one scene per book) is given a major role, and he gets nearly as much screen time as Alice. (Card's review gives away more details of the storyline, for those who are interested.)

The fact is that this is still an Alice in Wonderland story, and the storyline doesn't (and shouldn't) completely eclipse the wonder of discovering this mystical realm. Still, there does need to be a storyline, because modern audiences are not yet so immune to storytelling that they will sit through a series of random events and feel satisfied.

So, in my take, Burton's film succeeds on almost all levels. Yes, there are some serious problems with his portrayal of Victorian society in the "real world" parts of the book, and there were also some problems with the interpretation (misquotes of poetry lines and such) which made it seem that Tim Burton himself may have been screaming "Off with their heads" to any English Literature consultants working on the film. But as someone who didn't particularly care for the books, or enjoyed them only as amusing little pieces of drivel, I thought it was great.

It was a fun film, visually stunning, and it actually had a good character arc. That's better than you get with a lot of films today.

Time in Wonderland
One personal disappointment was that I'd hoped for there to be some discussion of the curious behavior of time in the film. In Through the Looking Glass, the White Queen actually experiences time backward, which appears to have been completely ignored by Burton, though it could have provided some interesting material in the film.
Note: When a call went out for Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy, I proposed an article on the nature of time in Lewis Carroll's stories, but the editor passed on the idea. I still think it's an idea I might get back to sometime.

Modern Kid Lit: The Looking Glass War
The film made me think of a series of books that I'd stumbled upon a while back, but haven't yet read, called The Looking Glass War by Frank Beddor. It's a three-volume series which goes on the premise that Alice (called Alyss in the series) actually traveled to Wonderland, and that her stories were the basis of the classic books. The Mad Hatter plays prominently in the series, as some kind of agent who can travel between the worlds. Hatter has now come back to bring Alyss to Wonderland to stop a war that threatens both realities. (There also appears to be a Hatter M series of graphic novels, which looks as if it's something of a prequel to the novel trilogy.)

As I've said, I haven't actually read these books yet, so I cannot honestly recommend them. They did catch my eye, though, and I'm looking forward to having the time to get to them. If you've watched the film, or read the original books, and are interested in seeing more about how this subject matter is being adapted for modern audiences, these books may well be something you'd be interested in reading.

And if you have read them, please leave a comment letting me (and other readers) know whether they're worth our valuable time and money!
Looking Glass War trilogy

Hatter M graphic novels

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Rational Morality: What Is Evil? - Part 1

Sam Harris believes that morality can be reached without the intervention of religion. In fact, he seems to believe that religion, as often as not, complicates issues of morality more than it provides any clarity. He's an interesting guy, though I have not yet read his books (but that will change soon), so I was pleased to when I heard about his TED talk on the issue of morality derived from scientific principles.

The speech appears to be based on ideas and material from Harris' upcoming book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. For those who, like me, can't wait for a meatier approach to the issue, consider this May article from the Huffington Post, "Toward a Science of Morality."

I'm very sorry to have missed these discussions when they first came out, because they parallel many of my own thoughts in recent years ... thoughts which have led me into a serious consideration of how to define morality in a purely rational framework.

Me, Joe Lieberman, and a Moral Quandry
Specifically, these thoughts can be traced back to the 2004 Senate primary campaign of Connecticut Independent (then-Democrat) Joseph Lieberman.

Lieberman lost the Democratic primary in 2004 because he supported the Iraqi War, and he did so because he thought that Saddam Hussein was an evil dictator who deserved to be stopped. This is the story as I understood it at the time and, frankly, I saw no reason then (and see no reason now) to question the sincerity of this stance.

While I didn't particularly agree with Lieberman's stance on the war itself, I was disturbed while witnessing some of the passionate disagreements with him. In part, they seemed to focus on a fundamental opposition to him taking a moral stance. In other words, it seemed like many educated liberals were attacking him specifically over his use of the word "evil" to describe a man who often tortured people, murdered his own citizens, and had "rape rooms." Lieberman was being attacked by Democrats, at least in part, because he was not adopting a moral relativistic stance, at least in regards to the Saddam Hussein's particular evil quotient.

I, too, thought that Saddam Hussein was evil. But why? I am also an intellectual, and I didn't have any particular religious-based convictions to give me guidance on evil. Was my only basis for calling Hussein "evil" a moral conceit, ingrained into me by the society in which I happened to be raised, or did I have a better grasp on the subject that I couldn't yet fully explain?

I didn't know, and that really bugged the bejesus out of me, so I began trying to figure out if there was a rational basis for my moral evaluation of Hussein as "evil" in some objective sense.

Framing the Question
My first step was to determine if this is the right question. Just a few moments' worth of consideration led me to believe that it had been framed wrong from the very beginning, because I actually had no idea if Hussein himself was evil as a person, but I did believe that the actions which he had been accused of (and to this day have no reason to doubt) were evil.

So my real question is what makes an action evil, not what makes a person evil. (The "evil person" question that had started this line of reasoning could be tackled later, I decided, if it was actually needed.)

Where, then, should be my starting point for defining evil? I believe that you can begin with a simple concept: suffering.

In fact, at this point I realized a beneficial aspect of this approach, and one which resonates strongly with the aforementioned Harris/Carroll discussion. It is my belief that when devising a rationale system of morality, it is best to start from the "evil" and work to the "good," rather than vice versa. I believe this for three reasons:

1. Morality in society is usually invoked harmfully through the "evil" label. If evangelical Christian pastors gave sermons about how wonderful and good the heterosexual lifestyle was, they would not inspire hate speech or crimes against homosexuals (but, I might add, would still get their basic message across). If Muslim terrorists spoke exclusively about the virtue of their Muslim religion, they would not feel the need to be terrorists. It is primarily through attaching the label of "evil" to others that religion and morality causes the most damage, so the "evil" label is the more important one to make rational.

2. "Suffering" is, I think, a more well-defined concept than "pleasure," "well-being," or any of the other concepts which might be used to define a "good" action. If I wanted to make someone suffer, there are a clear set of things that I could do that would guarantee their suffering. I could, for example, hit them in the knee with a hammer. Suffering accomplished.

3. If, however, I wanted to please them, it's less clear. Oh, I could offer them food, but what food would I have to offer them? What if they've got a nut allergy? Questions must be asked about causing pleasure which did not have to be asked in the attempt to cause suffering. (In that case, the only question that needed to be asked is, "Does he have a wooden leg?" Even then, I imagine banging on someone's wooden leg with a hammer would still qualify as making them suffer, though to a far lesser degree than intended.)

To use Sam Harris' metaphor from the TED talk, this is like pointing out that the best place to understand health is by really getting a firm handle on what it means to be dead. Once you've clearly nailed down the dead state, you can begin having a discussion about what would then constitute being alive.

Therefore, the first iteration of my rational definition of morality was as follows:

An evil act is one which causes suffering.

Though a nice start, we will see in the next installment of this discussion that this proves to be insufficient.

Monday, July 05, 2010

The Music Revolution - Pandora & Glee

I recently began listening to Pandora, a website that is able to take your musical tastes and create customized (and free) streaming radio channels with other music that you might be interested in. As it plays music, you indicate whether you like or dislike songs, and the future selections (as well as the ads, no doubt) continue to become more refined and personalized based on these interests. I won't go into detail on the website, as it's better explained by its creator, Tim Westergren, in this Colbert Report interview:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Tim Westergren
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorFox News

But, as many know, the internet lays all our secrets bare. It took virtually no time for Pandora to deduce my secret love of 80's rock ballads. Given my range of musical interests (some of which is visible on my Pandora profile), this is hardly surprising, but still, I would like to think that I'm a bit more complex than that. Sadly, it took the algorithm only a few hours of playing to bring up old middle school favorites like Firehouse, Trixter, and White Lion with their rockin' power cords.

In addition, I've always been a fan of showtunes. Sure enough, Pandora regularly brings up songs from the FOX television series Glee, of which I am a big fan. While I enjoy the music on the show, and it has propelled the popularity of the series, the fact is that I'm drawn even more to the great storytelling in the show, including one of the best television scenes ever.

Pandora is intriguing not only because it helps bring me music I enjoy, but because it has the potential to provide yet another means for the recording industry to make money in the digital age. I'm still waiting to see clear signs of better ways for the publishing industry to adapt to the digital age, and in fact science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer recently mused, in a keynote speech at the Canadian Book Summit, "Are the days of the full-time novelist numbered?" And this is certainly not because Sawyer is a Luddite! He is savvy in his use of technology for promotional purposes, having run his author website for 15 years (longer than!) which includes free give-aways of his short fiction as promotional material. But the question is whether publishing, as a whole, will find a way to flourish.

These issues of copyright, propriety, and popular culture are complex and difficult, and Glee really lies at their intersection, as adeptly described by technology commentator, free speech advocate, and also science fiction author Cory Doctorow. The fact is that the current copyright laws related to music mean that the sorts of mash-ups regularly shown on Glee are, in fact, illegal were they performed without permission of the original creators (or whoever owns the rights to the music).

For now, of course, you can choose to listen to Glee songs on Pandora, or you can buy the MP3 files, or still the old fashion CDs (still my personal preference, since I like to hold things in my hands). For my part, though, I can't wait for season one to come out on DVD, so I can see the storyline and characters develop from beginning to end.

Glee Music CDs:

Glee DVD (coming Sept. 14, 2010):