Sunday, February 19, 2012

Doubt and Groundhog Day

Jewish date:  26 Shevaṭ 5772 (Parashath Terumah).

Today’s holidays:  Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of St. Senor Wenches (Church of the SubGenius), Narconon Day (Scientology), Chaoflux (Discordianism).

Greetings, everyone.

I am sorry for not posting much lately.  I have plenty to do to keep me busy.  Not to mention it takes a while to get through the collected material I have on LaVeyan Satanism.  (And so far it seems very derivative of Ayn Rand’s moral philosophy, only not using philosophy-specific jargon and crafted to look scary.)

As I have noted previously, I tend to give negative reviews, largely due to reviewing material I know a priori probably contains religious fallacies or misinformation.  I want to take the opportunity, for a change, to note two movies which showed up on Hulu recently which I considered good to some extent.

1) Doubt.  This movie deals with the sexual abuse of a child by a priest in a Catholic school, a subject which generally everyone finds repulsive.  I am no exception to this rule.  What is good about this film is how this distasteful subject is treated.  Never in the film is it ever proven that the alleged abuse actually occurred.  Rather the principal of the school, a nun, learns of circumstantial evidence—and only circumstantial evidence—that points to abuse.  There is therefore a natural dilemma:  acting against the priest may harm an innocent man, and not acting against the priest may harm an innocent boy.  There is no good solution to this problem, only a question of which solution is less bad.  And different characters interpret what happened differently and choose different solutions.  The principal also has to deal with acting against the priest, which violates the protocols of the Catholic hierarchy, being a violation of her vows.  She thus has an additional problem with no good solution, only a question of which is less bad:  being obedient and possibly abetting child abuse, or violating her vows and possibly stopping child abuse.  I am impressed that the movie ends without full resolution, only with the principal having done what she considers the least bad option.  Kudos to the people who made the film.  Knowledge and morality is real life is often not clear cut, and Doubt is a good attempt at reflecting this.

2) Groundhog Day.  This famous movie deals with a weatherman, Phil Connors, living the same day over and over again, specifically February 2, the American quasi-holiday Groundhog Day, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.  Legend has it that if a groundhog sees its shadow on February 2, there will be six more weeks of winter, and in Punxsutawney, they have an official (tongue in cheek) ceremony for this with an official groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil.  Phil Connors thinks this is all stupid, goes to report on the groundhog only for his job, hates the town, and wants to leave as soon as possible.  Only a blizzard prevents this.  And so he ends up living the same bad day over and over again and hating it.  And no one else is aware  this is happening.

There is the obvious question of why Phil is trapped in a time loop, and it is never answered.  There are not even hints at an answer, so we may as well consider the issue a central mystery (or at least that the answer is “Because without it there would not be a movie, stupid!”) and deal instead with the consequences to Phil.

Phil realizes early on that his actions have no consequences.  He can do anything, and when he wakes up the next day (or is it the same day?), it will be as if what he has done has not occurred.  He thus spends a lot of time enjoying himself, doing things like eating things he knows are bad for him, smoking, punching or deliberately creeping out an annoying insurance agent, stealing, and taking advantage of only him remember what happened in previous times through the loop to seduce women.  He eventually tires of this, especially as he fails in seducing his producer, Rita, no matter how much effort he puts into creating the perfect romantic evening, and gets depressed.  He goes on a spree of killing himself, over and over again.  But, of course, this is futile.

One time through the loop, Phil talks with Rita, convincing her that he really has been stuck in a time loop.  He has learned a huge amount about everything which happens on that one day, and he knows about everyone in the town—something which he empirically demonstrates.  Here things get theological:  Phil claims to be a god.  This is not correct, as he does not have any superhuman abilities.  But with the huge amount of knowledge he has gained, he does have a first-order approximation of omniscience (for February 2 in Punxsutawney, at any rate).  Phil’s idea that God is omniscient for the same reason that he is quasi-omniscient is obviously unlikely.  

In any case, Rita is sympathetic to Phil, and he follows up on her idea of taking advantage of his situation to improve himself.  Part of what he does is along the lines of reading more, learning to play the piano, and learning to ice-sculpt.  But he also does something parallel to what he does early on:  he works to make the lives of others better.  Yes, what he does only lasts until the loop repeats, but he keeps tweaking the day every time through the loop so that it gets better and better for the people of Punxsutawney every time.  This includes saving the lives of three people, one of them a homeless senior citizen who got little attention from anyone else.  The fact that the good he does is only temporary is irrelevant; that what he is doing is good becomes important to him.  By the time he reaches the final time through the loop, he has been thoroughly transformed from a grump into someone who loves the people of Punxsutawney and is loved by them, and he impresses Rita, too.  That people can improve themselves morality is a welcome message.