Sunday, March 28, 2010

Batman & the Failure of Moral Absolutism

Earlier this week I read Kevin Smith’s new collected Batman tale, Cacophony, which takes the villain Onomatopoeia from his run on Green Arrow from about ten years ago (!) and sends him after the Caped Crusader. Smith acknowledges in his introduction the series’ main weakness, the excessive dialogue in the first issue, but he then overcorrects in the final two, leaving too much unsaid. The guy can write dialogue, and while I could have done without the reference to a green merkin, the shift made the later issues seem too sparse.

Anyway, Onomatopoeia really serves as a catalyst for a Batman/Joker story in which the Joker is shot, the bullet nicking his aorta, and Batman must decide whether to seek help for him or pursue Onomatopoeia. Knowing what one does about Batman, that he is a thoroughly good person despite the fact that he beats the shit out of petty criminals on a regular basis and spends millions of dollars on gadgets that could otherwise be used to clean up Gotham’s slums, it’s obvious what decision he makes. Even with Jim Gordon arguing forcefully that the Joker is a horrible person who killed a school full of children earlier in the series and should be left to bleed out, Batman can’t do it. This leads to a pretty good scene at the series’ end where the Joker, filled with anti-psychotics, explains to Batman that he will never be at peace until he is able to kill him. So the dilemma is that Batman can’t live with himself by killing the Joker, but if he had killed him then the Joker would be at peace and Gotham would be (relatively) safe, or if he himself was killed then the Joker would be at peace. Not terribly compelling, but Smith did a reasonably good job with it.

But what bothers me is that such a conversation is so blindingly obvious that it needn’t have happened. Of course Batman couldn’t kill the Joker, for his character is good while the Joker is evil. There’s no grey area, and thus by not protecting all life, the character would be forever tarnished. But placing such a virtuous character in such a situation makes for a disingenuous story, because who among us wouldn’t let the Joker bleed out in that situation? Batman didn’t shoot him, in fact he let the shooter escape to save him. So we, the audience, are Jim Gordon arguing for real justice and the understanding that moral absolutes are at times counterproductive, while Batman remains better than humanity. This of course may mean that as a result of his moral stance, Batman isn’t so much better than humanity, but that he stands apart from it as an Other.

This sort of thing isn’t unique to Batman and comic characters, but also infiltrates the realm of the utopian future society in Star Trek. So-called evolved humanity at times seems so distant from current humanity as to be unrelatable, something that obviously doesn’t click with viewers as exemplified with Voyager and Enterprise. The Federation has moral absolutes about how other people should be treated, how a society should act, so it prevents them from violating said morals for the greater good. In fact, some of the most popular and resonating episodes of Star Trek involve someone breaking the moral code to effect a necessary change, like the members of Section 31 or Captain Sisko conspiring with Garak to bring the Romulans into the Dominion War.

I don’t want to get into a metaphysical discussion about why the ends can sometimes justify the means, not just because it is an unwinnable argument but also because it’s not important here. I merely want to make the point that by setting up characters or societies with moral absolutes that are inviolable, an honest portrayal of the human experience will be near impossible to convey, for while we may one day hope to be like Batman or to live in the utopian Federation, it nevertheless will be difficult to ever relate to these types of characters as their experiences and worldview are necessarily so different from our own.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Decalogue: Four

Fourth Commandment: Honor thy father and thy mother.

Krzysztof Kieslowski didn’t set out to create simple parables with The Decalogue; instead, he sought to complicate the binary nature of the Ten Commandments and demonstrate greater implications of their dictums. In the fourth film, based around the commandment to honor one’s parents, Kieslowski expands his story to encompass the societal relationships between parents and children and the rigidity with which we adopt these roles.

The story tells of Anka, a beautiful twenty-year-old drama student, who lives at home with her father, Michal. The two have a very close, personal relationship, since Anka has been raised entirely by her father following
her mother's death when she was only five days old. One day Michal leaves on a business trip for a few weeks, and during his absence, Anka discovers a letter in his desk that says, ‘to be opened after my death.’ As anyone would be, she is tempted to open the letter and read it anyway, dishonoring her father’s wishes that it remain unopened until his demise. Ultimately after much agonizing, she determines to open it and finds a letter addressed to her from her mother.

Now the simple moral is already in place. Anka’s father requested that the letter not be opened until he dies, yet she opens it anyway. And the letter serves as a Pandora’s box, for all that once was will be irrevocably altered now that it has been opened. When her father returns, Anka angrily confronts him with what she has learned from the letter: that Michal is not her real, biological father. She is angry that she was never told the truth, but her father responds that he never knew the contents of that letter and was never sure about the truth of this, himself, and so he always delayed revealing her mother’s letter to her. To Kieslowski’s credit, he does not allow the moral compunctions of the two characters to remain at this level, delving deeper into their relationship in a manner that one is unaccustomed to seeing even today, when so-called taboo subject matter is so common.

The rest of the film is essentially a long, beautifully photographed conversation between the two in order to get to the bottom of things. Anka is committed to knowing the truth and avoiding deception, and she gets Michal to swear to revealing his true feelings, no matter how painful. In the ensuing conversations, she reveals to her father that she has always a more than straightforward filial feelings for him—she has always had ambiguous, long-
suppressed urges that suggested to her the romantic love between a man and a woman. She then gets him to confess that he too has had similar unrealized feelings for her. The implication from all this is that now that she was a mature and biologically unrelated woman, there was no moral law standing in the way of their consummating their long-held-back love.

Of course, society would recoil from such an arrangement, and as a viewer I couldn’t help but feel a bit of revulsion myself. Yet just because such behavior is not often addresses in literature or popular culture does not mean that such feelings are nonexistent, or even all that rare. While making his audience quite uncomfortable, Kieslowski is able to express a story that seems to reveal an aspect of the human condition worthy of further thought and introspection.

The morning after these searing revelations, Anka runs to her father and confesses that she had never really read her mother’s letter. The whole story about Michal not being her father had been a forgery, a fake letter in her mother's handwriting to show to Michal. Both she and her father may have their suspicions about her true parentage, but the truth still remains buried and unrevealed in her mother’s letter. Nevertheless, this lie of Anka's has led to the revelations of other truths concerning the real feelings between the two. She now asks Michal what they should do about the real, still-unread letter. But even with the truth still unknown, the Pandora’s box has still already been open, for the two have been playing the social roles of father and daughter for twenty years; an ability to shift into new roles as romantic partners seems not just improbable but likely impossible.

Anka’s lie reveals a continuation in the pattern concerning ‘honoring’ her father and her mother. On
the surface of things, she has dishonored her parents in many ways, especially when she lied to Michal about having read the letter after opening it against his wishes. And her culminating action at the end of the film concerning the disposition of the real letter is also a dishonoring of her mother's wishes, in a way, as she decides to burn it without knowing the contents. Yet through these actions she and her father come to the conclusion that violating the social roles of father and daughter is impossible for they have inhabited them for so long. Her father is her father, perhaps not biologically as the remnants of the burned letter suggest, but rather because he played the role of her father for twenty years. It’s a cliché to say it, but it’s true, and as Anka and her father adjust to the altered relationship created as they confessed their desires, they respect the social roles and thus boundaries in the filial relationship, which of course is a way of saying that they honor it.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Decalogue: Three

Third Commandment: Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.

After a very mixed two week stretch in which guarded highs and lows feeling like I got punche
d in the gut have left me disoriented and directionless, I realize that what I need is to just continue to write while I pursue some options and wait on situations to further develop. More on this in a week or two when I know more about it, but as I watched the third film in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue about a week ago and haven’t written anything about it, I’ll take it as an opportunity to dip my toes back in the water.

Kieslowski misfires in the third entry in his series, something that caused me to have little to no opi
nion on the film and thus little inclination to sit down and write up thoughts on it. On Christmas Eve, Janusz returns home from his job as a taxi driver dressed as Santa Claus in order to amuse his small children. On the way into the building, he passes Krzysztof, the professor whose son died in the first film, reminding the viewer of the importance of family and the extent to which these events all take place in a small fixed area. Paralleled to Janusz and his family, we also see Ewa visit her senile aunt at a nursing home. As we soon learn, Ewa and Janusz were former lovers and will spend most of the night together, though unromantically. Later most of the town attends a Midnight Mass and the two notice each other in the congregation.

While the events of the first two entries are associated with the internal journeys of the characters within, the weakness in the third entry stems from the lack of direction for these characters and their journey. Ewa comes to Janusz to ask his help tracking down her husband who has gone missing, the two spend the bulk of the narrative trying to find him, and then Ewa admits at the conclusion that he left her three years ago when he discovered Ewa and Janusz together. Kieslowski slowly reveals all the background information, so the viewer is engaged in pursuing a mystery him or herself, which parallels the characters, I suppose, though I wasn’t all that invested in deciphering the clues.

Nothing is resolved with the events of the episode. Ewa having confessed to Janusz her deception, realizes that while he is the only one who truly knows her (after her husband left and her aunt is rendered senile), he is now unavailable and feels little more than fond nostalgia and pity for her. Returning home, Janusz’s wife asks whether he was out with Ewa and whether that meant he’d be gone at nights from now on; he replies no, and that brief scene at the very end is so well acted that I wish we had seen a focus between these two characters with Ewa playing a secondary role.

Where I am baffled is how this story relates to the commandment to keep the
Sabbath day holy. Assuming that Christmas Eve, one of the holiest days, is representative of the Sabbath, perhaps Janusz should have remembered to put his priorities with his family and not be so torn with regards to his feelings for Ewa. But perhaps he helps her out of a sense of doing what is right, especially on the Sabbath, and by not giving in to a desire to sleep with her, is an example of not violating the Sabbath.

In all, this is a weak entry that up until this point had been a stellar series. A friend tells me that the fourth film was the most powerful for her, and I look forward to reviewing that for you tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (2009)

I’ve read perhaps five times the number of plays I’ve seen, a ratio that skews horribly the way one approaches drama. Often people say that plays are meant to be seen and not read, but while begging the question then why they are published and sold to the mass market, it is a valid point. Several playwrights that have garnered heavy acclaim, like Sam Shepard and the late Nobel laureate Harold Pinter, were ones I didn’t care for all that much upon first reading them. It was only when seeing their works brought to life that the power of their drama came alive for me, and the limitations on merely reading a play were forever etched in my mind.

One could make a very similar comparison to John Krasinski’s new film, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
, and its source material, the stories of David Foster Wallace. Though he takes some creative liberties with the material, which we’ll explore in a moment, he essentially just produces dramatic readings from the text and films them, sometimes in a straightforward manner and sometimes not, creating a power within these stories that I didn’t feel the first time I read them almost ten years ago.

Wallace’s stories contained long interviews with men which basically amounted to monologues as the interviewers dialogue was excised and replaced solely with the letter ‘Q’ in order to indicate that something had been said. Apparently and experiment to write a narrative in which the main character is neither seen nor mentioned, Krasinski takes this idea and brings the interviewer to life as Sara Quinn (Julianne Nicholson), a graduate student who attempting to examine the impact of feminism, and to get over a messy breakup, by recording the desires and fears of men.

The film has received its share of negative reviews, and in a way I see where this is coming from. What basically amounts to a loosely collected series of monologues, one can sometimes feel that they are watching a college’s theater review rather than a cinematic narrative. But as all monologues can be judged on the strength of their actors, Krasinski has done well to cast the film with a powerhouse ranging from the comedic likes of Will Arnett and Will Forte to a very good performance by Dominic Cooper. But what really engaged me was the way that certain scenes were filmed, the way certain stories were told, in a more effective way than was possible for Wallace when he was wri
ting on the page. Such adaptations to the strength of the medium is always and engaging topic for me, and I’d like to discuss just two here.

In one delightful sequence, Josh Charles presents the exact same speech five times to different women in order to break up with them. Krasinski cuts from scene to scene throughout the unbroken monologue, showing Charles and the different women in different locations without breaking the narration. It’s incredible and hilarious, and example of hideous behavior for sure, but one that is rendered so effectively in this medium as opposed to recitation in an interview which is what one would have gotten by just filming the page being read.

The second scene involves an overheard conversation between two men, one played by Law and Order: SVU actor Christopher Meloni. Meloni’s character relates a scene he witnessed when getting off an airplane and seeing a woman in a hysterical breakdown over the failure of her lover to return from breaking up with his girlfriend. Krasinski begins in the coffee shop where Sara overhears the conversation, but Meloni’s character relates the story, the scene shifts to the airport and again we have unbroken narration as we witness what happened. Meloni is in the scene, but is telling it to his friend at the same time; thus, when he speaks to the woman in his story, he actually turns to her and speaks. Yet he speaks of many things he wasn’t witness for, like the lead up for the trip that the boyfriend was makin
g to break off his other relationship, and we see that happening, but by detaching from that coffeehouse and showing us the story, we no longer are watching Sara overhear a story with hideous actions, but we lose the mediation as we become the ones overhearing the exchange. In both of these cases, Krasinski adapts the verbatim narration in Wallace’s stories to make them successful in the medium of film, a perfect example of how such a transition can work.

This isn’t to say that I found the movie to be a great one, though the performances were stellar. The tone of the different men are sometimes hard to reconcile with the tone of Krasinski’s overall narrative. For example, there is a powerful scene in which Frankie Faison tells Sara about his father who worked for years as a bathroo
m attendant and is joined in the scene within the bathroom by his father as a much younger man. Their interaction, sort of a dual-monologue if one will forgive the contradiction in terms, is easily one of the most stirring performances in the film. But this jibes poorly with the protestations of Will Forte on how he loves everything about all women.

Everyone knows Krasinski for his role as Jim Halpert on the US version of The Office, and while it may be hard for some to see why he is being considered for the role of Captain America, watching his dramatic turn here makes the role seem more plausible. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is not a great film by any means, but it is a film worth your time, both for aspects of its narrative and for the insight into the way some men think. It might not be all that different from what a man close to you thinks himself.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Bomb Power by Garry Wills

There is a simple and straightforward thesis to historian Garry Wills’s new book Bomb Power: the atomic bomb altered history down to its deepest constitutional roots by redefining the presidency with regards to the function of the Commander and Chief. He claims that it ‘fostered an anxiety of continuing crisis, so that society was pervasively militarized. It redefined the government as a national Security State, with an apparatus of secrecy and executive control’ which in turn redefined Congress as the ‘executor of the executive.’

Wills quickly moves the reader through episodes in the developmental history of the bomb, emphasizing how its development led to damages to both liberty and the constitutional system of checks and balances; with secrecy surrounding the project at such a premium, there was virtually no oversight from Congress. Shockingly, President Truman wasn’t even made aware of the existence of the atomic bomb until nine days after he assumed the presidency.

Wills acts as an iconoclast when examining the Cuban Missile Crisis which he asserts was caused by an overactive Kennedy Administration. That warheads were placed in Cuba as a deterrent against the use of American missiles in Turkey was not something that could go public; therefore the Soviets were portrayed as the aggressors and executive secrecy was invoked to cover up the quid pro quo of the missiles in Turkey being removed in exchange for removal of the Cuban missiles, a telling that seems absent from most accounts of JFK hagiography. And as is well known, Congress is granted the authority to declare war in the Constitution, but war hasn’t been declared after Word War II. Thus, Vietnam, Korea, Grenada, Nicaragua, Iraq (twice), and Afghanistan have been wars waged without the moniker from Congress, which often retroactively approved military actions the president had already ordered.

But where Wills really begins to make a worthy point is in his lengthy screed against the centralization of power within the executive branch, often referred to as the unitary executive. While I am familiar with the excessive use of presidential signing statements that were commonplace within the administration of George W. Bush, I was unaware that up until President Reagan and his Attorney General Edwin Meese, these signing statements were mostly ceremonial expressions of the executive branch’s receipt of a law from Congress. Under Meese, the statements
were transformed as a way for the executive to impose meaning on legislation by dissenting from clauses it disagreed with, interpreting mandates, etc. Essentially, the constitutional authority to write the laws were being usurped by the executive, who got the last word on legislation with these signing statements, statements that have also been used by the judiciary in ruling on the application of these laws. In essence, the executive branch can disagree with a portion of a law in a signing statement, be sued for violating the law, and then be exonerated by the court citing the signing statement in question. But the author fails to link these signing statements to the influence of the bomb, placing it within the legacy of Vietnam and the War Powers Act, but failing to note that signing statements are used for all sorts of things, not merely national security/military issues. Such an oversight drastically weakens the argument just when he is trying to contextualize the bomb's influence in the politics of the past decade.

Wills is right that the bomb poses profound challenges to American constitutional governance. Congress's sole authority to authorize war is difficult to reconcile with the five minutes President Obama would have to decide whether to order the launch of nuclear weapons in retaliation if the United States were under missile attack. The
end of the Cold War should allow alternative ways to balance nuclear deterrence with deliberative decision-making, though the antiquated secrecy apparatuses remain in place. Secrecy is required to interdict nuclear proliferation or prevent adversaries from learning how to undermine the deterrent effects of U.S. nuclear forces, but reforms clearly are necessary to prevent secrecy from being used to cover incompetence, folly, criminality and military-industrial aggrandizement, all areas in which Wills points to multiple abuses.

Wills is effective in presenting the argument that the unitary executive and the secrecy with which it is free to act must be adapted to a post-Cold war paradigm in which the ability annihilate an opponent is not the solution to any problem our country faces. But Bomb Power
fails to offer solutions as to where such reforms might take place, something that is lacking in what is otherwise an interesting if not a compelling read.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Decalogue: Two

Second Commandment: Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.

The powerful second volume in Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue concerns Dorota, a woman seemingly in her thirties who is seeking consultation with an elderly doctor who lives in the
housing complex in which the totality of the series is situated. The doctor is a senior physician at the local hospital and lives alone, having lost his family years before. Dorota’s husband is ill and resides in the doctor’s ward, and she is urgently trying to find out about his condition, specifically the chances of his living through the illness. This information is revealed quite slowly over the first act, featuring close-ups on the two characters as they go about their routines.

The doctor is gruff and seems detached from human caring. As Dorota implores him for knowledge on her husband’s condition in their apartment building, he replies that family consultations take place on Wednesday afternoons during a two-hour period. Yet this detachment is revealed in the way he tells an old and often repeated story to his housekeeper, his only friendly acquaintance within the film. He slowly tells her about his children, wife, and father, who all lived with him when he was a young doctor. The stories have a bit of charm, the sort of wistfulness that reminded me of my own grandfather with a gruff exterior. But during an air raid during World War II, the entire house is destroyed killing everyone inside; the doctor only lived for he had yet to return home from the hospital. This dispassionate storytelling serves to demonstrate how far he has insulated himself from the feelings that arise when one lets themselves form a familial attachment.

Dorota is so insistent on seeing the doctor that he finally relents, and then we learn the dynamics of her situation. She is pregnant, but not by her husband who is lying near death in a hospital, but instead by her lover. She claims to love both men, and we believe her because of the way she speaks about both of them and the way that the doctor says he has seen her and her husband together. Dorota wants to know whether her husband will recover, for if h
e does she must have an abortion, but if not she could keep the child and be with the lover. Up until now, she has been unable to conceive and feels that this is her only chance to be a mother.

Such a setup presents a delightfully complex problem for the doctor, as he knows that medical science cannot accurately predict whether her husband will live or die. Yet, he does try and offer some statistical information, claiming that there is perhaps a 15% chance of survival. As she tries to discuss the issue with him on multiple occasions, attempting to force a solid opinion on what she should do, he is slowly drawn back into the life of another person; he begins to care about her.

In a brilliant final sequence, Dorota, agonizing over her decision, resolves herself to terminate the pregnancy, knowing that even if her husband dies, such an act will prevent her and her lover from ever being able to be together. She informs the doctor of her decision to let him off the hook for the fate of the unborn child, yet he surprises her with an emphatic declaration that she not have the abortion because her husband is going to die. She wavers and asks him to swear, which he does, thus violating the commandment to not take the Lord’s name in vain. In a final twist, Dorota’s husband recovers and thanks the doctor for saving his life, telling him that they are going to have a child together. He then asks the doctor is he knows what it is like to have a child, which sadly he does.

While this episode was highly satisfying and for me more unsettling than the first volume, the commandment forbidding one to take the Lord’s name in vain has always been a nonstarter for me, though I am unable t
o explain why this is so. The doctor makes an oath that Dorota’s husband will die, yet as he is in no position from which to make such a certain determination, which he admits earlier in the film repeatedly, it is obvious that he making the sort of claim that only God would know, thus invoking God into an oath from which he has no real place. The irony of the story is that both the doctor and Dorota must live with the knowledge that the unborn baby is not that of the husband who will raise him, perhaps because the doctor’s implicit invocation of God into the oath may have indirectly led to the healing.

The idea that the Lord works in mysterious ways and that science cannot predict everything is a sobering one, yet as this was pretty much the message of the first volume in the series, such a quick repetition seems unnecessary and even a bit redundant. So while I found this film to be especially resonating, I don’t think its power will diminish in my mind for a long time, I am not sure that it works too well within the greater framework of the series. Further reflection on this question will be necessary as I continue through the films.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Reading List: February 2010

For some reason these monthly recaps of my reading have also become a place for me to keep those who read this space updated on my scholarship and academic life, and though I am not all that traditional, I do not like change all that much either. As such, I haven't spent as much time as I would have liked working on my conference paper on hyperlink cinema, but I do have a decent outline. Currently, I am working on the tone, wanting to move away from the style of reading a paper to tailoring a presentation for an audience, a skill in which I possess some talent that I would like to further cultivate. I've spent a lot of time the past week or so watching the presentations given at the various TED conferences, and I'm planning something along these lines. If this approach is successful, I think it will go a long way in helping me make a name for myself in the field, for hopefully at future conferences I will start to generate preliminary buzz. That said, I worry that such an approach may not be met with respect due to being outside the norm. However, I have got to be me.

March 1st was the date by which graduate programs were to let me know their decisions on admission
to a doctoral program, yet that day ended without a letter, email, or phone call. Perhaps that's holding them too strictly to a standard, but somehow I feel like if my application would have come a day (or more?) late then it wouldn't have been accepted. The stress over the uncertainty is palpable, for so many decisions that affect not only my life but also the lives of my wife and others wait in the interim. And while a friend of mine received an acceptance email last week, I am unsure whether or not to wait on a letter like I did for college thirteen years ago.

To the point of this post, a list of the books I read in February, there were 4 books and 7 graphic novels. Here is what they were:
  • Ex Machina: Dirty Tricks by Brian K. Vaughan & Tony Harris
  • Crush It! by Gary Vaynerchuk
  • Green Lantern: Rage of the Red Lanterns by Geoff Johns, et al.
  • You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier
  • Green Lantern: Agent Orange by Johns & Philip Tan
  • DMZ: War Powers by Brian Wood & Riccardo Burchielli
  • Precipice by David Mack
  • Green Lantern Corps: Emerald Eclipse by Peter J. Tomasi & Patrick Gleason
  • Killing Yourself to Live by Chuck Klosterman
  • Flight, Volume 4 edited by Kazu Kizbuishi
  • Strangers in Paradise: Pocket Book 1 by Terry Moore
Anyone interested in technology or Web 2.0 needs to read Lanier's book, something I should have written about while I still had a copy. I was a bit underwhelmed by the Green Lantern stories, making me a bit skeptical concerning Blackest Night, though I'll almost certainly read it. And I think Chuck Klosterman is doing the sort of thing with journalism that I'd like to do in academia: writing seriously, if humorously, about semi-serious things.

Give me some feedback, ask me some questions, tell me about your most recent dream, etc.

The Decalogue: One

First Commandment: I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt have no other gods before Me.

The first film in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue concerns a university professor who trains hi
s young son to use reason and the scientific method, but is confronted with tragedy when he is subjected to the unpredictability of fate. What follows is a synopsis of the action with some rambling commentary that would likely be helped with additional thoughts and criticisms. Please oblige.

The professor, Krzysztof, who shares a name with the director, lives alone with his eleven-year-old son Pavel in the housing complex around which the action of all ten films is based. Pavel’s mother lives elsewhere and is now only a peripheral presence in his life; the boy is now looked after by his Aunt Irena when his father is occupied. Kieslowski quickly establishes that Pavel is a gifted child, showing him ask his father for a mathematical problem to solve and then inputting a formula onto a computer to determine its solution.

Even without a mother, Pavel seems to be happy and well adjusted, with a close and loving relationship with both his father and aunt. His father treats him with respect, playing intellectual games with him and honestly sharing his thoughts. Over breakfast early in the film, Pavel asks his father about the existential dilemma we all know so well: what happens to us after we die? His father answers that all that is left is memories in others, that any notion of a soul is one that helps the less rational cope with their mortality. Yet there is a difference n the two adults who look after him; Pavel’s aunt believes in God and feels there are limits to what science can explain, further adding that the father’s rationalism is not incompatible with a belief in God. Such an assertion is much more palatable than the usual dichotomy with which we are assaulted in the religion/atheist debate, a welcome middle ground from which those fighting on the fringes seem even more ridiculous than before.

For Krzysztof, the nature of reality, i.e. what is, is only what we can understand and manipulate, only what can be expressed semantically using logical constructions. Everything else must be held in doubt. In this, he embraces the mainstream position of the educated class. In a lecture later on, Krzysztof, whose field seems to be
computational linguistics, discusses the great difficulty of expressing all the various cultural associations of people and their language. But he stops near the end of his lecture and speculates that with more computational resources, new algorithms and such, it may be possible to create a computer that can replicate a human, one that can have an authentic aesthetic experience. Many of us are familiar with scholars who argue that there is no fundamental difference between neurons firing or not firing in a brain and a computer program in which such a pattern is replicated. One thinks that Kieslowski placed such scenes within his film in order to demonstrate that by failing to reconcile religious and rational thinking, a rationalist may not just be putting something else before God, but putting himself in the place of God if he thinks he can create an artificial person.

One day in the winter, Pavel wants to try out his new ice skates on the frozen lake. Krzysztof shows Pavel how his mathematical modeling computer program can determine whether the ice on the lake will be thick enough to allow safe skating. It should be based on whether the air temperature over the preceding few days was low enough, what would seem to be a simple enough calculation using physics. The pair observe that the program returns values that indicate that the ice will be safe, but like a good father, Krzysztof goes out on the ice after Pavel goes to sleep and tests it with his own weight.

However, the world isn’t always predictable, even with the laws of physics at hand. One afternoon while Krzysztof is at his desk writing in his notebook, he notices a mysterious black spot spreading across the page. It turns out to be ink from an unexpectedly cracked ink bottle. What seems to Krzysztof and the viewer to be shocking and unpredictable is easily enough explained, but only in retrospect. No matter how rational the thinker, there are some things which cannot be foreseen. Yet this begs the question of whether some sort of hypothetical massive computational model could adequately account for all variables and predict the future, which would be a win for rationalism fo
r sure, but in building such a model wouldn’t we be creating God the same way that Krzysztof believes we could create human thought within a computer?

And in the film, the unexpected happens when Pavel is skating on the ice and it breaks, and the last third of the film follows the father as he deals with this tragedy. A simplistic interpretation would conclude that God has punished Krzysztof for placing science and rationalism before him by taking his son, but the film is more complex than that. As Krzysztof and Irena grieve together, neither has an answer for why this has happened, and Kieslowski makes us empathize with these characters, as we realize that we have so little control over our own lives as well. The director is not advocating a certain course of action nor adherence to any rule, but rather is establishing a universal truth in what happens to this father and his son.