Tuesday, March 2, 2010

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.

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