Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Plato's Cave Film Festival 

Remember "The Republic"? No? Shame on you. I was fortunate to take the renowned Michael McCarthy's intro to Greek philosophy class at Vassar. It was straight out of The Dead Poet's Society. Mr. McCarthy was literally prone to desk walking and accidental chalk flinging in his flights of passion about the subject matter at hand. Every class was like a thrill ride as he dove into the room and began engaging the class in the latest text we had read.

In any case, "The Republic" contains a famous section referred to as "Plato's cave analogy" wherein a group of people living at the bottom of a deep cave are described. Our protagonist describes how living in the cave and knowing only life in the cave, these people believe that the shadows they see on the wall are real. And respond to them as such. Plato describes the stages of their ascent where they learn about the source of the light (the torch) that creates the shadows and gradually have the metaphorical cobwebs removed from their eyes until they stand blinded in the daylight, marveling at trees and what we know as "reality".

Any number of films have followed this premise where the protagonists have the shock of discovering that what they hold to be reality is but a shred of the truth. When you're ready for it, cue these films up...

Dark City
Few people saw director Alex Proyas' film, which is a pity. Except for Keefer Sutherland's outlandishly bad performance, this is a strikingly original film visually and to some extent in its plot. It's definitely worth watching and has some wonderful conceits about how the "cave" part of the world (to continue to follow the Platonic metaphor) is manipulated during the night. Rufus Sewell, Jennifer Connelly and William Hurt star.

Fight Club
I resisted seeing this film because of its reputed violent nature. I couldn't believe how much I enjoyed it when I finally borrowed the DVD from a neighbor. The basic storyline is very tight, but the direction is what's most outstanding. Fincher has proven himself to be one of the most effective directors in using digital technology to enhance his films in ways that are truly layered and filmic (e.g., doing things that only make sense and only add value in a film). I don't love all of his films as he tends towards too much violence for my taste (see the stylish, but needless Seven), but there's no denying his talent.

The Game
Another stylish outing from director David Fincher (that predates Fight Club). Michael Douglas, Sean Penn and Deborah Unger have a blast in this twisting turning story about a man who has been given the most incredible birthday present/lifestyle intervention in history.

The Matrix
No need to opine too much here. Either you've seen it, or you have been living in the woods for the last 5+ years.

The Others
OK. I'm a total wussy. The TRAILERS scared me so much that I was afraid to see this movie. But when I finally watched the DVD, I was so impressed. A great performance from Nicole Kidman and a wonderfully specific universe created by director, Alejandro Almenabar (see Abre los ojos below).

The Sixth Sense
Ever since Terry Gilliam stripped Bruce Willis of his traditional tics for Twelve Monkeys, Willis has been able to turn in increasingly subtle and nuanced performances. This film is a prime example. There are so many things that are impressive about M. Night Shymalan's debut. Too bad he hasn't equaled it since.

Total Recall
OK. It's Arnold. But really, it's Verhoeven and Philip K. Dick. It can be seen as a by-the-numbers space opera. But I defy you to tell me at the end, why does it fade to WHITE, not black? What is real?

The Truman Show
Plato's cave moved to the dystopian almost-present. Given the glut of "reality TV", does this 1998 film see so far fetched now? To me it feels utterly and eerily prescient. Peter Weir's early career had highlights such as the haunting The Last Wave, Gallipoli, and The Year of Living Dangerously, The Truman Show gave us hope that maybe he wouldn't do another Green Card.

Vanilla Sky/Abre los ojos
Same movie, shot for shot in 2 languages. Should be seen on the same day as The Others so as to reunite Tom and Nicole.
Hmmm. I always read this entire chapter in The Republic (including the Cave) about how education changes you in ways both painful and beautiful...so that you see more of what is really there versus the shadows of what is there. That this intellectual insight is critical to those who wish to govern a society. The cave allegory is illustrative of Plato's premise that education is not putting things into empty minds, but making people see what they already know (and the significance of it). Turning their souls.

With that as the theme of our "film festival", I am struggling to remember the names of films that illustrate this subtle but profound change. I'm thinking of the documentaries of Fred Wiseman, specifically "Titicut Follies" or "High School." Perhaps a film as silly as "Finian's Rainbow" even, or a more serious film such as "Kandahar." "Il Postino." Eck. My mind cannot think right now.

All the best,

thanks for the tip about plato’s cave.

I know it only in passing. My one and only (college) philosophy class was in 1974, while I was still in high school.

I have a not very well informed idea that is perhaps similar.

When we (attempt to) educate people, what we don’t say is, more times than not, the most important thing that needs to be said.

By that I mean, we often don’t, or can’t communicate the most crucial information - - either because it is assumed or because it is un-communicable through words, and must come through direct experience. I think of (some of) these things as fundamental truths or (quintessential ideas)….concepts that may not help you understand what I am saying, but it’s how I think of it nonetheless. J

Think of teaching a kid to hit a baseball. Coaches tell the kid to ‘hit the ball squarely’. What the heck does that mean? No one knows, certainly not the kid. You can attempt to describe it in words, but it is only truly understood through direct experience.

And yet, it is the most fundamental aspect of baseball…hitting the ball squarely.

With every idea we attempt to communicate, there is an implicit assumption of understanding (on the part of the intended audience for the the communication). Many, many times the most fundamental assumptions have never been communicated at all.

In principle, this forms a basis for some of what Elizabeth and Garry do. My strongest interest is in the level that is even more fundamental than what these guys think about. E&G often work at the level of “assumptions that need to be stated more clearly”, or rather, understanding and sense-making. While I am certainly interested in that level - as it bears more obvious fruit in improving communications - I am even more interested in that which cannot be communicated/understood through language….and therefore cannot be (easily) understood abstractly. Hitting a baseball, rolling a kayak, riding (i.e., standing/balancing on) a surfboard, starting a fire without a match (or flame) would fall into a category I think of as fundamental skills. And then there are the fundamental truths…those concepts on which we base everything - that are perhaps unknowable even through direct experience…

Enough already…. J


If you're interested exploring these concepts, you might want to go back to Plato. Much of what you have attempted to say below is usually encapsulated in the phrase "Platonic form".

The Platonic Form of something is the essential (highest) essence of that idea. It ends up being expressed at our level (or through language) in some degraded form that serves as a "pointer" to the Platonic form it represents.
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