Monthly Archives: May 2007

Morality in Judd Apatow films

I remember when The 40-Year-Old Virgin came out: it looked tremendously unappealing, but I went to see it on the strength of the reviews, and it was actually really good. Judd Apatow’s new movie Knocked Up, which comes out on Friday, also looks tremendously unappealing but is getting great reviews. So I’ll go see it. (This will also give me another opportunity to announce “I went to high school with her!”)
The New York Times ran a profile of Apatow in their Sunday magazine entitled “Judd Apatow’s Family Values” which suggests that the films are driven by a certain conservative sensibility:

Both of the films Apatow has directed offer up the kind of conservative morals the Family Research Council might embrace — if the humor weren’t so filthy. In “Virgin,” the title character is saving himself for true love. “Knocked Up,” which opens on June 1, revolves around a good-hearted doofus who copes with an unplanned pregnancy by getting a job and eliminating the bong hits. In each of the films, the hero is nearly led astray by buddies who tempt with things like boxes of porn, transvestite hookers and an ideology about the ladies possibly learned from scanning Maxim while scarfing down Pop-Tarts. By the end, Apatow exposes the friends as well meaning but comically pathetic and steers his men toward doing the right thing.

Apatow more-or-less confirms this take in a quote further down the first page, but nevertheless it struck me as a very strange reading of The 40-Year-Old Virgin. I don’t know what movie Apatow thought he was making, but in the one I saw there was no suggestion at any point that the Steve Carell character was “saving himself”, or taking any principled stand whatsoever. Rather, the obstacle for him was his shyness, which prevented him from having any meaningful human interactions at all, much less a sexual relationship. Consequently the whole narrative arc of the movie is about him gradually overcoming his shyness and expanding the scope of his relationships with other people. There’s no suggestion that the protagonist is ever opposed to casual sex. On the other hand, I always wondered at the non-sequitur marriage in the film’s resolution: it seemed so unnecessary that it could have been tacked on just to make some kind of statement against premarital sex. But one could equally well read the marriage as a metaphor for the kind of ceremonial significance that the act had taken on, so I’m not totally convinced.
Knocked Up is a harder case to assess, not least because I haven’t seen it yet. (Maybe I’ll get another post out of this topic next week.) The ads I’ve seen show Seth Rogan’s highly punchable face with the tagline, “What if this guy got you pregnant?” The movie’s answer seems to be “consider starting a family with him even though your prior history consists of a one-night stand.” Far from “doing the right thing” as the Times piece says, this in real life would be considered a terrible idea. Unless this movie is set a few years into the future, after the Roberts Court has had its way with reproductive rights in America, it will have to provide some pretty strong motivation for pursuing this particular option, and I am curious to see how it does so. Fortunately, if 40-Year-Old Virgin is any guide, Apatow will completely fail to make a social-conservative morality play while succeeding in making a very funny comedy, so I’m looking forward to it.
However, I’m not really looking forward to this scene:

When Alison is in the delivery room, the stage direction simply read, “You see everything.” There would be three shots of the baby crowning. It promised to be the most graphic birth ever shown in a suburban multiplex.

I would really rather not have the impression that I am watching Katherine Heigl give birth. That would creep me out—after all, I went to high school with her.

Project 365 comments thread (Summer)

sutro tower above fog, originally uploaded by arcanegazebo.

I looked up the tower in Wikipedia and found that it’s considered ugly enough to airbrush out of travel brochures. For shame! I like it—it’s like a red claw reaching into the sky. How is that not awesome? Wikipedia goes on to quote Herb Caen on the tower: “I keep waiting for it to stalk down the hill and attack the Golden Gate Bridge.” I guess that’s supposed to be a criticism but I would say that as an endorsement.

Anyway, here’s a new thread for Project 365 comments. Will it presage a return to regular blogging? Only time will tell.

The parable of the priest at the atheists’ group

It’s been a long time since I’ve written an excessively long post on religion, but I was inspired today. Normally I would put most of it below the fold, but I haven’t posted in like a week, so I’ll just let it fill the empty space on the front page.
Fred Clark has a couple of interesting posts at Slacktivist: the first one about what he calls “Biblical illiteralists”—fundamentalist Christians who don’t understand literary device and insist that obviously metaphorical stories from the Bible are historical fact—and the second post about the same tendency among some atheists—those who claim that, because some stories in the Bible are risible when interpreted as historical accounts, this casts doubt on the entire religious enterprise. This latter struck me as a bit straw-man-ish at first, but when I thought about it I realized that I do hear these kinds of simplistic arguments for atheism at times. In fact, it reminded me of an experience I had when I first came to Berkeley.
During my first semester here I didn’t know very many people, so I sampled some of the student groups in the hopes of meeting some friends. One group that looked interesting was a kind of weekly discussion group for atheists with topics centered around morality, metaphysics, and religion (as a societal institution). Hoping perhaps for a continuation of the classic late-night dorm room bullshit sessions, I showed up for a few meetings.
Inevitably, the group contained a number of what Fred Clark calls “sectarian atheists”, which is partly why I was reminded of this. I was also surprised and amused to see an older man with a priest’s collar at each meeting. He was in fact a priest, ordained in the Anglican church, and attended the meetings not just to tweak us atheists (although he did seem a bit mischievous) but to participate in the dialogue, and generally made positive contributions to the discussion.
The standard format called for an invited speaker each week who would get the discussion started by talking on some topic of interest. One week the priest himself was invited to give his side of the story. He talked about his view of religion and his role as a priest, and some of his comments were strikingly similar to what Fred Clark says in the posts I linked above. He discussed literary devices, metaphor in particular, and emphasized that metaphor is a natural mode of communication for humans, employed heavily by the Bible, and it’s a mistake to try to read metaphorical passages as historical accounts. Of course he was talking not only about religious fundamentalists but about atheists who insist on this very naive reading of religious texts, some of whom were in the audience.
Two things struck me as I listened to his talk: first, that the priest was making a lot of sense even if I didn’t see things the same way, and second, that many of the people in the room simply didn’t understand what he was saying. Judging from the picayune and tangential objections they were raising, they had entirely missed the point and were convinced he had to be wrong simply because he was religious. When Fred Clark talks about sectarian atheists, these are the people I think of. That was the last meeting I attended; I was unimpressed by an atheists’ group where the most sensible person in the room was a priest.
Going back to Fred Clark, in the first of his two posts he points out that (for example) the Noah’s Ark story has precisely the form of a just-so story (in the original Kipling sense), where the point of the story is not an accurate recounting of facts but to pass on some more abstract principle. Whether one is religious or not, to read it as something other than a parable is crazy or obtuse. But because of the emphasis on Biblical inerrancy in some circles, people on both sides get hung up on whether Noah’s Ark happened exactly as it says. I agree with Clark that this is extremely silly.
But it seems to me that this silliness is not limited to the “Biblical literalism” crowd; in fact, it extends to almost all Christians. I imagine one can get a sizable fraction of Christians to agree that Noah’s Ark is just a parable, and likewise the creation story, and Jonah-in-the-whale and the story of Job and so forth. But what about the virgin birth of Jesus, or the resurrection? My sense (I don’t have polling data) is that the historical truth of the resurrection is a core Christian belief, and almost all Christians believe it. And yet, if Noah’s Ark has all the trappings of metaphor (and it does), so does the resurrection story. Journeys to the underworld and returning from the dead were extremely common tropes in ancient mythology, with clear metaphorical connotations. There’s no reason to read this particular instance as a historical account, but almost all Christians do.
Indeed, many will argue that someone who doesn’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus isn’t a Christian at all. Reading the obviously-metaphorical parts of the Gospel as metaphor removes the divinity of Jesus, makes him perhaps a notable quasi-historical figure like Socrates or Buddha, about whom some tall tales were told to illustrate his teachings. And the same could be said about the Bible as a whole. Once we view the book as a collection of fantasical morality tales, God becomes a fictional character, a narrative conceit that links the stories together. And so it’s very strange indeed to turn around and say, well, this was all just metaphor but this one character in the story really exists!
So I don’t see why a sophisticated reading of the Bible, recognizing metaphorical passages as such, doesn’t lead directly to atheism. Probably in a lot of cases people set apart the sections corresponding to core beliefs, like the resurrection, and refrain from analyzing them in this manner, while freely interpreting more disposable stories (like Noah) as parable.
Can someone be a Christian and yet interpret the Bible consistently as metaphor? I once met such a person—the priest who spoke at the atheism group. As he explained his beliefs, the resurrection of Jesus was an illustrative story and God was a metaphor for a kind of collective property of humankind, not a distinct metaphysical entity. His Christianity was then based around his belief that this metaphorical structure was extremely valuable for understanding human nature. (This would be the part I didn’t agree with.) Nevertheless, if the word atheist has any meaning, it means someone who doesn’t believe in any gods as actual metaphysical entities, and so to my mind, this man was an atheist—one of us! Unfortunately the more dogmatic atheists in the room couldn’t see past his collar, and never grasped what he was trying to say.
And that’s the parable of the priest at the atheists’ group. Although this one did really happen.

Bad quantum press releases: this time, it’s personal

Scott Aaronson points out an overly-excited press release from NEC, which claims: “NEC, JST and RIKEN successfully demonstrate world’s first controllably coupled qubits”. This was indeed an exciting development when we published it five months ago. At best NEC has the world’s fourth controllably coupled qubits.
That said, the stupidity seems to be limited to the press release, and the paper actually looks pretty interesting, apparently with time domain results that no one else has shown. (I haven’t been on the campus network today so I haven’t had a chance to read more than the abstract.)

Coachella 2007: Ocean of Noise (Day 2 Report)

I haven’t reviewed any of these yet, but for context I want to list my top five albums of 2007 so far:
1. The Arcade Fire, Neon Bible
2. !!!, Myth Takes
3. Of Montreal, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?
4. Blonde Redhead, 23
5. Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, Living with the Living
Four of these bands played at Coachella this year; three of them were on Saturday. Throw in the New Pornographers and the Decemberists and this was easily my favorite day of the festival, even if I had to skip !!!’s set.
Sets I saw Saturday: Hot Chip, the New Pornographers, the Decemberists, the Arcade Fire, Blonde Redhead
Details below the fold:

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Coachella 2007: Suffer for Fashion (Day 1 Report)

Didn’t get much sleep Thursday night, partly because I arrived late at the campsite, but mostly because other, very loud people continued to arrive even later at the campsite. This was not a problem the next three nights; as everyone was exhausted from the day’s events, the nights were very quiet. By about 9 am it became too hot to sleep, and I felt like I was baking in my tent. I spent the brutally hot morning hiding in the shade reading Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb, and sometime after noon ventured into the festival.
Sets I saw Friday: Noisettes, Tokyo Police Club, Of Montreal, Arctic Monkeys, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Jarvis Cocker, Sonic Youth.
Details below the fold:

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