Guns & America

This post covers a few common counter arguments against gun reform, expands on gun reform reasoning as provided by Jim Jefferies and John Oliver, partially examines international gun statistics with a focus on Switzerland, and gives a TL;DR summary of all points made. I’m attempting objectivity here, but it’s obviously coming from an anti-gunner perspective. Note: Suicide is discussed in detail.

Comedian Jim Jefferies on Gun Control

The Daily Show on Gun Control

These clips form an integral part of this blog post, so if you’re reading, things may make more sense if you give them a look. They’re obviously comedic and not encompassing of the entire issue, but the logic is sound.

Additional points:

Protection

Forgetting Australia’s success through executive action and the available empirical data; in practical terms, how does possessing a gun really make a person more protected? And how easy do gun-owners think it is to shoot someone? Police officers often have to undergo prolonged counselling from killing violent offenders, and they’ve had years of training and preparation.

To justify shooting someone (and not be considered sociopathic) you need to be in imminent danger: the offender must have a weapon or become dangerously violent or sexually abusive towards you. Many people subsequently believe that owning a weapon will make them safer. The problem with this idea—the cardinal idea around weapon ownership—is that a criminal is more likely to shoot or attack you if you pose a counter-threat to them, and they’re also more likely to pull their trigger first. It was their threat that spiked an adrenaline rush and prompted you to draw your weapon to begin with, and the situational leverage is all theirs. Unless you have the fastest hands in the west and no hesitation, you’re screwed.

For a gun to provide you with any protection at all, you’d literally need to have it on-hand and fully loaded without the safety on, everywhere you go. Only the clinically paranoid in society would ever do this, so it follows that having a gun for protective purposes likely puts a person in more danger, not less.

A common response to this, is that gun ownership is more about the ‘scarecrow’ effect: burglars are more deterred from breaking into homes if the majority of homeowners have a firearm. If that were true there would be data branded all over the place by the NRA showing a negative correlation between gun ownership and house intrusions. No such data exists (will happily stand corrected if it does) as most burglaries are perpetrated by psychotic drug addicts with very little sense of reason. Moreover, the scarecrow deterrent has this problem to contend with:

…between 1999 and 2010, over 8,300 people in the United States were reported as dying from unintentional shootings, including 2,383 children and young people ages 0-21. On average, over 16,000 individuals in the United States are treated each year in hospital emergency rooms for unintentional gunshot wounds, and a 1991 study found that 8% of accidental shooting deaths resulted from shots fired by children under the age of six.

The unsafe storage of firearms is a public health and safety issue in the United States.  A 2000 study of firearm storage patterns in U.S. homes found that “[o]f the homes with children and firearms, 55% were reported to have 1 or more firearms in an unlocked place,” and 43% reported keeping guns without a trigger lock in an unlocked place.  A 2005 study on adult firearm storage practices in U.S. homes found that over 1.69 million children and youth under age 18 are living in homes with loaded and unlocked firearms. In addition, 73% of children under age 10 living in homes with guns reported knowing the location of their parents’ firearms.

Source: http://smartgunlaws.org/safe-storage-gun-locks-policy-summary/

The only thing a responsible gun owner can do in response is place their weapons in a safe, which as Jim Jefferies perfectly illustrates, would completely negate any protection in the first place. Not to mention his other point: criminals aren’t usually coming in to murder you! The likelihood of a weaponised criminal shooting a homeowner actually increases if the homeowner has a weapon of their own. And is it really okay to shoot someone who’s just trying to burgle you? What percentage of burglars are cold-blooded murderers? Having a gun in your home only provides protection against a home invasion if you’re lucky enough to be in the right position (polishing your weapon next to the window), and does so at the expense of family safety, and prioritising the safety of your family and locking your gun away means having no protection to begin with.

Guns either do nothing or they put families (and individuals) at greater risk from inside the home and out.

Suicide

The rate of gun-related suicides in the US ranks as the third highest in the world at 6.7 deaths per 100,000 population (2013). That’s over 20,000 per year, and accounts for more than all other methods of suicide combined.

Pro-gun proponents believe suicide rates to be constant regardless of method, and that removing guns would only increase suicide by different means. Seems intuitive and straight-forward, but running the logic a little deeper, it’s an idea tragically ignorant of basic psychology. The greater the number of guns in possession and stored in homes, the greater the availability, the higher the suicide rate. And not just gun-related suicides; suicides in general.

The decision processes of self-termination are extremely complex. There’s a lot more to it than having a depression-culminating epiphany and choosing an exit strategy. Though some consider themselves dead well beforehand, the impulse to suicide often undergoes moment-to-moment fluctuations in seriousness. Not to mention, a person’s standard fears of death may limit their options: people afraid of heights are unlikely to jump off a building, for example. Suicide by firearm has a significantly higher success rate than any other variety. It’s simple and perceptibly instantaneous, and to the suicidally depressed, presents a very attractive escape route to their suffering. Not only because of how painless and immediate it is, but also because the depression that precursors suicide is usually infused with extreme self-loathing. Shooting oneself in the head in that circumstance is the ultimate cathartic punishment.

Suicide by firearm is convenient, appealing and immediate, and it stands to reason that restricting access would not only decrease gun-related suicides, but suicides on the whole.

American Culture & Mentality

As shown on The Daily Show, in the 18 years before the Port Arthur massacre Australia had 13 mass shootings, and since then, has had none (depending on whether the wounded are tallied: the Monash shooting killed 2 people and injured several; typically a mass shooting is defined by 4 deaths or more; either way, America’s mass shootings with 4 or more deaths is 30 to 40 per year). There is no doubting the fact that American gun reform would be harder to implement than it was in Australia, but as John Oliver suggests to Paul Van Cleave, saving reform for a strategy that eradicates 100% of a problem is a tad misguided.

The usual means for highlighting how entrenched guns are in America is to juxtapose it to Switzerland, which has the 4th highest rate of gun ownership in the world, yet still has a relatively low death rate:

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Gun deaths per 100,000 population:

USA – 10.64
Switzerland – 2.91

America has more than twice the rate of gun ownership, and under four times the rate of gun-related deaths, implying there to be roughly a 30% higher death to gun ownership ratio than Switzerland. When you consider that the Swiss have an easily containable population of 8.2 million spread over a tiny region, the 3rd highest Human Development Index in the world, and a highly unified culture—comparatively speaking—to the United States, the difference is quickly mitigated. It’s further explained by the US having a much vaster geographical region, higher levels of poverty and a subsequently more challenging population to evenly legislate and police.

In the context of a conversation on gun control, the only thing an analysis of Switzerland ends up suggesting is that it would have one of the lowest gun-related death rates in the world if it adopted tighter restrictions.

It’s clear that gun-culture is heavily entrenched in the US consciousness, so it’s also clear that gun reform probably wouldn’t yield the same results as we’ve seen here in Australia. But again, meaningful change doesn’t denote the entire eradication of a problem: it simply means improving it. The real problem preventing meaningful change in the US is the political mentality against gun control; not the mentality around how weapons are used.

TL;DR

  • Shooting another person can be extremely damaging psychologically.
  • Guns kept on your person potentially put you in more danger.
  • Guns kept in the home are more of a threat to families than intruders.
  • Guns in your home present a greater risk of suicide, to you and your family.
  • Restricting guns means people with mental illness—the main perpetrators of massacres—will find it very difficult to source them.
  • Weapons on the black market cost several times what they do in stores if made illegal.
  • Suicide by firearm is the most convenient and appealing method, and as such, isn’t meaningfully substituted by other methods.
  • America’s cultural fragmentation and entrenchment of firearms only makes full eradication of shootings difficult, not impossible.
  • Having a gun for the purpose of fighting a ‘corrupt government’ is insanely archaic, and stupid.
  • The only real reason for having a gun, outside of hunting, is because you like them, or enjoy target practice. Every other reason crumbles under scrutiny.
  • The 2nd amendment is an amendment: it can be amended!

The notion that tighter gun control won’t reduce gun violence in America is logically, obviously, patently and adjectively untrue.

Why is there a mentality problem?

I used to think this was just a form of extreme right-wing ignorance, but I’ve since observed people from every cultural, political and educational background show passionate objections to reforms of any kind, so it’s apparent this is a much deeper phenomenon.

So what’s causing people to defy reason and common sense so vehemently?

My theory:

1. A fear-mongering news media over-emphasising the threat of violence in society.
2. A psychological trait in humans regarding defence and weaponry carried over from our tribal ancestors.
3. America being a vast and fragmented society with no sense of cultural unification and a fragile national esteem (something the Bernie Sanders campaign has capitalised on with amazing success).
4. The extreme socio-economic divide and the proportion of people below minimum wage.

Following President Obama’s speech a few weeks ago—perhaps one of the most passionate a US president has ever delivered—the response was, for a large part, amazingly incredulous. So completely defiant of thought and reason, pro-gunners are competing on a drastically different conceptual terrain to the rest of us. Hopefully the saplings of reason will find enough political soil to grow in over time, but until then, this is by far the most frustratingly absurd showcase of pervasive human ignorance we’ve seen in the developed world.

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Exploring Genius – Stanley Kubrick

This is the first in a series profiling various geniuses from a regular-Joe-point-of-view. It mostly focuses on their intellectual giftedness and where it has been demonstrated, in turn building a better sense of how their minds function relative to the rest of us. It’s also about getting a sense of how interesting they are as people. As it turns out, recognised geniuses are some of the quirkiest individuals you’re likely to find. Stanley Kubrick happens to be one of them.

This article details certain aspects of Kubrick’s career, briefly covers his youth, provides an overview of directing for context, discusses his innovations and influence, explores examples of his gifted intellect and abilities behind the camera, covers select third-party opinions and anecdotes, and finishes up by joining it all together. Biographical details are loosely covered as a means of context. Hope you enjoy it!


Exploring Genius – Stanley Kubrick

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Introduction

Stanley Kubrick was born in the Bronx in New York City in 1928, and died of a heart attack in 1999 in his home at St Albans, England. He wrote, produced and directed 12 feature films (as well as directing 3 short documentaries and Spartacus) over a 46-year career—the first being the self-funded Fear and Desire (1953); the last being the uber-mature relationship drama, Eyes Wide Shut (1999). He’s revered as one of the greatest film directors of all time, Hollywood or otherwise, and has cast a shadow of influence over directors such as Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott, David Fincher, James Cameron and Martin Scorsese; all supremely influential directors in their own right. His best known films include Paths of Glory, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, which were all eventually hailed as masterpieces of their respective genres.

To fully convey Kubrick’s genius it’s important to start by giving some context to his career and define the role of a director. Movies have become market-saturated and synonymous with our culture, but ironically have creative processes that are often totally mysterious to the public. As a director once said: “People don’t care how a soup’s made so long as they like the taste”. More often than not, movie-goers struggle to make a distinction between the cast and the creative team, prejudging their interest in a film based on a lead actor—a phenomenon compounded by the media’s constant reference to films as belonging to their stars. When someone wins an Academy Award for best director it’s a fair assumption that outside of making a great movie, most of the TV audience has no idea why.

The Role of a Film Director

There’s an element of truth to the mystery around what directors do. Depending on dozens of circumstantial factors the role can change drastically from one production to the next, and for that reason it can never be defined as specific to a method. Broadly defined, a film director is literally charged with ‘directing a film project’ using whatever resource, skill and leadership technique they have available to them. It’s the outcome of a project that informs whether they’ve done the job correctly; the challenges they had to overcome and the ingenuity they had to demonstrate is what separates one director from the next. In most cases, the higher the quality of a film, the higher the level of ingenuity and skill that was needed by the director to get there.

Film directing to a high standard on a large scale is perhaps one of the most difficult and overwhelming jobs in the world. A director’s goal is to transpose their vision of a story, whether written by themselves or someone else, from a text-based screenplay to an intricate visual and auditory experience where every elemental nuance of that experience serves to better realise that vision. Between creating a vision and bringing it to the screen there can be an incredible amount of compromise; including, but not limited to: working within budgetary limitations under executive studio pressure; the challenges of shooting on location; the challenges of working with actors (and their emotions); the managerial challenge of overseeing the contributions of numerous departments and hundreds if not thousands of people to ensure they’re aligned and timely and up-to-standard; the need for rewriting the script on the back of any of these things. And that’s just when things are going smoothly. In the filming of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola had to navigate production through Typhoon Olga and several destroyed large-scale set-pieces, problems with casting, the mental breakdown of Martin Sheen, a completely overweight and underprepared Marlon Brando, intense financial pressure, a regional military conflict, and the need to completely reinvent the film’s ending on the fly. Kubrick once said that directing a film is like “trying to write War and Peace, in a bumper car, in an amusement park”.

At its mildest, a director is the conductor of a multi-faceted and unpredictable filmmaking orchestra, unifying it to create an artwork as close to how it was conceptualised as possible. Directors that double as producers immediately have the added responsibilities of planning, hiring, financing and organisation, and auteur directors (such as David Lynch and Kubrick) have additional fingers in every piece of the creative pie; whether it be the film’s soundtrack or the type of fabric being used on a costume. As such, the technique and method of any great director is bound to be markedly different to the next.

Kubrick as a Filmmaker (1)

In terms of the above criteria Kubrick is arguably the greatest director English-speaking earth has ever seen. His control of the medium, especially on larger productions, has never been matched: he steered his figurative ‘bumper cars’ with precision while writing War and Peace in calligraphy, backwards, in Old Latin.

Spielberg called Kubrick the “greatest film craftsman in history”, and in spite of some recalcitrant attitudes towards his micro-management and perfectionism, every cast and crew member he worked with refers to him with exceptional regard, if not awe. His methodology and craftsmanship made him the tallest artistic poppy in Hollywood, but it was also his intellect that elevated him to legend. Arthur C. Clarke himself said Kubrick was “perhaps the most intelligent person [he’d] ever met”. But this isn’t an article about Kubrick the filmmaker; it’s an article about Kubrick the genius, so before delving too deeply into his life as a director, let’s roll back the tape and explore Kubrick before he made his mark on cinema.

Schooling, Chess and Photography

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From a young age Kubrick was bored by the standard schooling curriculum, refusing to commit to study on the basis he “wasn’t interested” (though he didn’t mind physics). His father Jacques, a doctor, was keenly aware of his son’s intellectual prowess and rather than take a disciplinary route, introduced the young Kubrick to chess and then purchased him his first camera. If there’s ever been a case for dynamic and progressive parenting, Kubrick’s life is it.

Kubrick took to the chess board with aptitude, regularly playing his father while studying different techniques, but didn’t take the game seriously until he was 17, when he joined a local chess club. Incidentally, 17 was also the age his photography career took off. He’d taught himself camera assembly and how to develop pictures over the previous few years, taking hundreds of photos of New York City and developing them in his own self-made darkroom. Completely disenfranchised with his schooling—with grades to match—he’d begun networking within the photography industry, in particular the prestigious Look magazine, where he eventually landed a job as a staff photographer. His breakthrough came following the death of Franklin Roosevelt in April 1945. The entire city devastated, Kubrick captured the cultural impact with a single shot:

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That a barely 17 year-old high school dropout had the artistic maturity to produce a photo of this calibre is, well, you be the judge. He sold the picture to Look for a decent fee and was working for the magazine full-time by mid 1946, where he stayed until producing his first documentary in 1951. Look had a readership of nearly 3 million people at the time.

It’s clear the young artist had some incredible visual talent, but how good a chess player was he? He claims he was only ‘decent’ and that he wasn’t ranked especially highly at his chess club, which even as a modesty is probably an indication that his cognition was different to the likes of Garry Kasparov. That being said, if Kubrick had been trained from a younger age and practiced with ongoing discipline and training, who knows. He certainly ended up good enough to support himself financially hustling top players in central park, which is renowned as being home to some of the most deceptively competitive players in America. Playing for 12 hours a day while waiting between productions, he earned a reputation as one of the best. He was no patzer that’s for sure (though he was quick to call-out others for the dishonour).

Chess played a central role in the filmmaker’s life. While he never ascended to the standards of the elite on the board, he applied the principles of the game to his working life with staggering effect. He once said “Among a great many other things that chess teaches you is to control the initial excitement you feel when you see something that looks good. It trains you to think before grabbing, and to think just as objectively when you’re in trouble.” That he was able to conceptualise the game philosophically for real-world application, with such awesome success, signifies a mind primed for abstract thinking with a pragmatic benefit. This would become a hallmark of his career.

Kubrick as a Filmmaker (2)

Kubrick’s filmmaking career and its various highlights has been detailed ad nauseam so there won’t be any more biographical description here. If you’re looking for a chronological account of his life and work then it’s well worth checking out Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures. It’s a stellar documentary. Here though, let’s get to the intellectual meat: outside of his finished films, what gave the guy a reputation as being one of the smartest people (if not the smartest) in the industry’s history?

1. Innovation

Aiming to shoot his period drama Barry Lyndon with natural candle light—an apparent impossibility in 1973—and to give it the visual impression of a painting with no visual depth, Kubrick contacted NASA, aware they’d used a specialised ultra high aperture Carl Zeiss lens (the Planer 50mm f/0.7) for the Apollo moon landings. Kubrick was savvy enough to figure out the technical requirements for the pioneering effect, leading to a landmark technique being born (the specifics of which are beyond my meagre comprehension to explain). Take a look:

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The foreground and background can be ascertained, but there’s virtually zero depth of field between them, giving the impression of a two-dimensional painting from the same period. The film industry legally requires an appointed cinematographer on a film production—a requisite that had led to a 27 year-old Kubrick forcibly dominating a 48 year-old Lucien Ballard when he condescendingly defied a request while shooting The Killing—so John Alcott was given credit and awarded an Oscar, but it was all Kubrick. A similar thing happened on the set of Spartacus: Kubrick had been hired mid-shoot by Kirk Douglas when the original director didn’t work out, and the incumbent cinematographer Russell Metty complained that Kubrick had poor camera judgement and was taking over his role, to which he was told by the director to “sit there and do nothing”. Metty was also awarded an Oscar; his first and last. Ironically, Kubrick never won one himself.

Kubrick also conceptualised and pioneered the now done-to-death steady cam technique first seen in The Shining, used most famously in this sequence:

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Outside of technical innovations (there are numerous others) he pioneered several filming techniques: from extreme and oblique camera perspective; to ultra wide-angle lenses; to employing slow and brooding, protracted sequences; to extended tracking shots; to framing perfect symmetry mise èn scene:

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2. Cultural Impact

An assessment of the cultural sensitivities of Kubrick’s work could liberally take an essay in its own right, so in keeping with your interest (and awakeness) this article will only explore Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’ (1964)

Initially planned as a drama until Kubrick realised how unintentionally funny it was, Dr. Strangelove satirised Cold War tensions so effectively it managed to change the nuclear discourse in America. It’s important to note just how real the threat of nuclear war was back in the 60’s; most Americans genuinely believed an apocalypse to be imminent or precariously balanced on thin diplomacy. Recognising the need for an artistic commentary, Kubrick sought to adapt the novel Two Hours to Doom (aka Red Alert). The book ended up being little more than an inspiration and the movie took on a satirical, stage-like tone that would still be original if released today. It made the political unrest at the time seem socially ridiculous, and by many accounts helped push the public narrative back into the realm of reason, quelling many people’s fear in the process.

‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968)

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And so it began.

Aside from being a landmark sensory experience in cinema, 2001: A Space Odyssey sparked a whole generation’s interest in space and catapulted science fiction into a new era. Literally every major space-based sci-fi film that followed was directly influenced by it: from Tarkovsky’s Solaris; to Star Wars; to Interstellar—all replicate the same majestic and authentic take on the universe to varying degrees. Prior to 2001 the public had a warped perception of how space looked, and following its release there was a significant social shift towards science and technology, bolstering an adolescent NASA. Spielberg called it his generation’s “big bang” and many commentators (including fellow directors) claimed it annihilated all preconceptions of the genre. It’s highly likely that the ripple-effect of 2001’s influence extended deep into the scientific consciousness, forming the basis of the recent resurgence in scientific interest we’re experiencing today.

It’s also one of the most cerebral mainstream films ever released. The plot imagines a race of alien life-forms that’s evolved beyond physical matter and can harness energy and spacetime at will, that accelerated the evolution of our ancestors to eventually allow the transcendence of our species in similar fashion to their own. When an exploration finds an alien monolith on the moon it communicates to the creatures that our species had evolved enough to take the next step.

In an effort to keep interpretations as organic and broad as possible, Kubrick opted to use a vague narrative and an absorptive, mesmerising tone; triggering public dialogues about the origins of our species and the nature of the cosmos that are still being had today (in some form or another).

3. Cognitive Ability

When Steven Spielberg first saw The Shining he didn’t like it very much. Not long after its release, Kubrick asked him for his opinion over dinner. After Spielberg tried to give a diplomatic answer glossing over the things he did like, Kubrick saw straight through it, and according to Spielberg the conversation went like this:

Kubrick: “Well Steven you obviously didn’t like my picture very much.”

Spielberg: “Well, there’s a lot of things I love about it…”

Kubrick: “But there’s a lot of things you didn’t like, probably more than what you did. Tell me what you didn’t like about it.”

Spielberg: “Well, the thing is, I think Jack Nicholson’s a great actor, and I thought it was a great performance, but it was almost a great kabuki performance. It’s like kabuki theatre.”

Kubrick: “You mean you think Jack went over-the-top?”

Spielberg: “Yeah, yeah I kinda did.”

Kubrick: “Okay. Quickly, without thinking, who are your top five favourite actors of all time, and I don’t want you to think; just name off some names.”

Spielberg: “Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Carey Grant, Clarke Gabel…”

Kubrick: “Stop. Okay, where was James Cagney on that list?”

Spielberg: “Um well he’s up there high…”

Kubrick: “But he’s not in the top five. You don’t consider James Cagney to be one of the five best actors around. You see, I do; this is why Jack Nicholson’s performance is a great one.”

In case you’re unfamiliar: James Cagney was known for his high-energy showman-like performances, much like a ‘good-guy’ version of Nicholson in The Shining, and was one of Hollywood’s leading stars for two generations. He starred in well over 100 films, won an Oscar, and was held in universally high regard by his peers, directors and critics alike. Kubrick knew that if Spielberg didn’t like Nicholson’s performance, he also wouldn’t think that much of Cagney, and that would put him at extreme odds with the majority opinion. By cornering him into admitting Cagney wasn’t on his radar, Kubrick marginalised Spielberg’s opinion on Nicholson to a small minority, rendering his opinion moot. He thought of all this in a split-second.

Spielberg has since watched The Shining over 25 times and now calls it one of his favourite movies.

With the strategy of a winning chess move, Kubrick was immediately able to both answer and influence his fellow director with ease. This kind of razor-sharp-terminal-velocity wit allowed him to consistently influence his actors and crew exactly as he wanted. Can you imagine handling an objection with a layered, strategic and influential line of reasoning so quickly? It’s probably light-years beyond most political and intellectual debates you’ll come across (Christopher Hitchens is the closest I’ve found).

Kubrick’s memory was just as incredible. When he was working on preproduction for the aborted epic Napoleon he had an assistant purchase every available book on the emperor, which ended up being more than 100. He quickly digested them all, and apparently astonished his associates when he was able to recall every detail of them in the planning process, right down to knowing the weather patterns on the day of each battlefield scene based on the sky in paintings he’d looked at.

Not long after the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, Kubrick gave Playboy the most illuminating and extensive interview of his career. He eventually became notoriously reclusive and refused to do many afterwards—something he’d planned to change following the release of Eyes Wide Shut, but was tragically never given the chance. The interview gave an acute sense of his supreme intellect; he answered the interviewer’s questions with such intricacy and detail it’s hard to imagine they weren’t typed with the benefit of prolonged consideration. Here’s a random example:

Playboy: “Have you ever used LSD or other so-called consciousness expanding drugs?”

Kubrick: “No. I believe that drugs are basically of more use to the audience than to the artist. I think that the illusion of oneness with the universe, and absorption with the significance of every object in your environment, and the pervasive aura of peace and contentment is not the ideal state for an artist. It tranquillises the creative personality, which thrives on conflict and ferment of ideas. The artist’s transcendence must be within his own work; he should not impose any artificial barriers between himself and the mainspring of his subconscious. One of the things that’s turned me against LSD is that all the people I know who use it have a peculiar inability to distinguish between things that are really interesting and stimulating and things that appear so in the state of universal bliss the drug induces on a “good” trip. They seem to completely lose their critical faculties and disengage themselves from some of the most stimulating areas of life. Perhaps when everything is beautiful, nothing is beautiful.”

Closing Thoughts

Stanley Kubrick was never self-conscious about his intellect; he knew he was smart and that he had the ability to make important pictures, but he never showboated his mind unnecessarily. For that reason it’s possible he’s even smarter than this article has indicated. Some have claimed his IQ to be over 200—which is a feasible figure—but given Kubrick’s humble and professional personality, it’s highly unlikely he’d ever have made his IQ known publicly (not that IQ has much to do with genius on the whole anyway). He was an exceptionally organised and hard worker, storing every single planning and preproduction item, fan letter and professional correspondence in hundreds of neatly arranged boxes at his home. He also reportedly slept less than a few hours a night. As he grew older he gradually developed numerous eccentricities and some profoundly obsessive behaviour-patterns; including (but not limited to): extreme perfectionism—some scenes in Eyes Wide Shut took over 100 takes; an irrational fear of flying (though he did try to rationalise it in the Playboy interview); extreme task-mastery of his staff and crew; calling friends and colleagues with bizarre requests irrespective of the time; an extreme attention to detail (Eyes Wide Shut was set in New York but filmed in London; Kubrick had every road sign, window and physical aesthetic made to identically match the real thing, even though the audience would never know the difference had they been less accurate).

His cognitive and creative abilities seem widely spread among many aspects of human functionality. He was equally gifted with information processing as he was with visualisation; equally talented with leadership as he was with broad abstraction. He also had an immense talent for problem solving, something he strongly advocated for in schooling. He made culturally significant films in starkly contrasting genres, and never once produced a failed work—critically or financially.

When we daydream about the world from our homely vantage-points it’s easy to judge the failures of those who rise to society’s upper echelons, believing we’d be able to make better decisions given the chance (Josh Trank’s direction of Fantastic Four, for example). We rarely consider the pressures of the elite in our idealistic fantasies. When it comes to being a film director, the pressures rise like wind-resistance: the larger the scale of a project or ambitious the vision, the more difficult it becomes to accomplish. That’s what made Stanley Kubrick so amazing—he managed to formulate a system and method that allowed him to function in a volatile and pressure-riddled industry with the controlled demeanour of a mindfulness meditation guru. The results speak for themselves. As Martin Scorsese said: “One Kubrick film is worth ten of anyone else’s.”

Towards the end of the Playboy interview the conversation drifted into the prospects of alien life and human existentialism, and Kubrick was asked by the interviewer: “If life is so purposeless, do you feel that it’s worth living?”

Kubrick: Yes, for those of us who manage somehow to cope with our mortality. The very meaningless of life forces man to create his own meaning. Children, of course, begin life with an untarnished sense of wonder, a capacity to experience total joy at something as simple as the greenness of a leaf; but as they grow older, the awareness of death and decay begins to impinge on their consciousness and subtly erode their joie de vivre, their idealism—and their assumption of immortality. As a child matures, he sees death and pain everywhere about him, and begins to lose faith in faith and in the ultimate goodness of man. But if he’s reasonably strong—and lucky—he can emerge from this twilight of the soul into a rebirth of life’s élan. Both because of and in spite of his awareness of the meaninglessness of life, he can forge a fresh of purpose and affirmation. He may not recapture the same pure sense of wonder he was born with, but he can shape something far more enduring and sustaining. The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death—however mutable man may be able to make them—our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfilment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.


Learned Helplessness and a reply from Steven Pinker

I sent Steven Pinker some fan mail not long ago, and Great Scotts, he actually replied. I’d been reading How the Mind Works and the compulsion hit me: I had to email him to explain the benefit I was getting. I figured, so what if he gets hundreds of letters and emails; he’s still a human being who would surely appreciate knowing he’s helped someone. Turns out he did, and the below reply came within 24 hours. To put it in perspective, the guy’s one of the world’s leading public intellectuals and I’m a huge fan of his, so it may as well have come from Elvis.

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The reason I’m posting it here, is that it broke through a thick ceiling of learned helplessness in my life — a pop-psychological term that’s gained a lot of social traction over the past year or so. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s explained pretty well in this video:

My background is several dimensions away from the likes of the Ivy league elite and the sophistication of The New Yorker, to the point it’s all seemed fantastical and otherworldly. As it turns out, we happen to inhabit the same planet, and there’s nothing separating our worlds but geography and a mouse-click.

This isn’t at all about talent; it’s about perception. Lower socio-economic backgrounds can be an incubator for self-doubt; marginalising personal goals and imposing intimidatingly high walls of uncertainty throughout our social landscape. Many people don’t experience this, but to varying degrees, billions do. Statistically speaking there must be millions of talented people who never achieve their most suitable social role for that reason; causing society’s leadership to be somewhat nepotistic in appearance. But it doesn’t need to be.

The only thing preventing any of us from achieving our potential level of success and communal value, is our mindset. The unchecked attitude of a poor-man corrodes talent like pissing on a growing rose bush: it may mature in size, but it’ll end up deformed and flowerless. (Don’t ask how I know that).

I’m obviously no-where near as talented as Steven Pinker (or anyone close to the same oxygen supply as him), but until this year I didn’t even think I was talented enough for university. I’d already made the connection before receiving his gracious reply, but let me tell you, it’s been a boost I never expected; giving me the confidence to seek-out mentorship and advice in places I’d never have considered otherwise.

If you’re an aspiring filmmaker or writer or computer programmer—an aspiring anything—why not engage with the best? Reaching for the stars doesn’t require a skyrocket, it just needs an email address.

Film Review: ‘The End of the Tour’ (2015)

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The End of the Tour is the fourth feature from James Ponsoldt, director of acclaimed coming-of-age film The Spectacular Now, and the lesser-known Smashed (2012) and Off the Black (2006). The film stars Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace, the gifted writer and philosopher who committed suicide in 2008, and Jesse Eisenberg as David Lipsky, the Rolling Stone journalist who was tasked with interviewing Wallace on the last leg of the book tour for his landmark novel, Infinite Jest. The screenplay was written by Pulitzer Prize winning writer Donald Marulies, with conversations and plot sourced mostly from Lipsky’s book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, and additional filler being provided by Lipsky directly

The only speech at James Ponsoldt’s wedding in 2010 was a reading of David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon College commencement address, which was turned into a mini-novella as This Is Water in 2009The audio is readily available on YouTube, and inclusive of people unfamiliar or impartial to Wallace’s writings and philosophies, it’s well worth a listen. It’s unlike any commencement address you’re likely to find, self-consciously dispelling the form for the sake of a prophetic-like message on the importance of mindfulness and self-controlled choice. It’s also a pretty accessible introduction to Wallace, both as a writer and as an apparent morality beacon.

Beyond moral rhetoric Wallace was a very complicated man: manipulative, profoundly self-absorbed and often far from saintly. He was also a genius, a mind so stunningly conscious he had a habit of recursive and deconstructive thinking over every detail of reality, leading to profound self-consciousness, social anxiety, and in conjunction with a complex chemical imbalance, the depression and psychosis that eventually killed him. He was also a profound marijuana addict. Unlike the deflective answers he gives on addiction as portrayed in The End of the Tour—which were probably true of his dialogue at the time—he did have a significant drug battle that ultimately led to months of rehab and a lifelong engagement with the 12-step recovery process. He was also a binge drinker, but given the cultural glamorisation of weed and how un-seriously it was (and is) taken as a drug of dependance, there’s a good chance he told people he had a drinking problem in place of the truth. He never had an issue with anything perceptively heavier, though as the film shows, many of his onlookers thought otherwise—something compounded by numerous bathroom visits at social events to spit out chewing tobacco being mistaken for a cocaine habit.

Primarily set in Wallace’s home, the snowy surroundings of winter-clad Illinois have been poetically shot by cinematographer Jakob Ihre. Some sequences are stylistically reminiscent of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, though the occasional use of sunlight-flared shaky-cam as mechanism for magnifying emotion may come across a little obvious unless you’re fully engaged with the narrative. I certainly didn’t have that problem.

Ponsoldt’s film does Lipsky’s account of Wallace some beautiful justice. The filmmaking style and nuances exhibited in The Spectacular Now have been dialled-up to such poignancy that even the Wallace-uninitiated will likely find themselves captivated by the character, moved by his passing, and compelled to explore his life and work further. It’s been shaped with a cerebral subtlety and delicate balance, completely original in a way that allows the two characters to captivate us with little else but their conversation. Jason Segel portrays Wallace with earnest, mimicking his mid-western vocal cadences and physicality well (though admittedly, far from perfectly), and in doing so delivers the performance of his career. Eisenberg’s performance seemed more Eisenberg than Lipsky but is equally as impressive on its own terms. It’ll be surprising if neither are nominated for an Oscar.

The End of the Tour is a mature, intelligent piece of biopic filmmaking that pays high respect to Wallace’s legions of fans, showcasing the writer to the world with incredible reverence and restraint while refraining from any sense of Hollywood sensationalism. Those close to him have essentially boycotted the film on the basis of Wallace’s assumed protest and the incompleteness of the portrayal, but the fact remains that without it, millions of people may have never even heard of him. Since seeing the trailer several months ago I’ve absorbed dozens of hours of Wallace-related audio and video, read the majority of his non-fiction, read his biography, and am several hundred pages into Infinite Jest with an eye to finish his entire catalogue before moving on to Franzen, Leyner and Updike. That wouldn’t be the case if it weren’t for this film, and assuming I’m not alone, surely that’s not a bad thing.

4/5 stars

Wittgenstein on death

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Thoughts: death has a dictatorial relationship with the vast majority of us, affecting our lives with imposing finality, causing us to construct meaning and superstition in our existence relative to its ending. The fear of the eternity of non-existence has shaped the beliefs and cultures of the living, yet if we understand non-existence to be timeless, then the fear of being forever non-existent quickly evaporates. So long as we are consciously alive, our sense of being alive is never ending; fearing something we can’t sense, makes no sense.

Source: The Tractatus Logico-Philisophicus, 6.4311

Classic film review: ‘The Thin Red Line’ (1998)

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“What’s this war in the heart of nature? The land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature? Not one power…but two?”

Homer-esque musings of an unseen soldier begin Terrence Malick’s masterly cinematic foray into war in The Thin Red Line, loosely adapted from James Jones’ novel of the same name, with weighted resonance against a backdrop of the Guadalcanal jungle. Continue reading “Classic film review: ‘The Thin Red Line’ (1998)”