On Saṃsāra

Saṃsāra, Sanskrit for the eternal cycle of death and rebirth, of endless reincarnations determined by karma, is a concept that permeates many Asian religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism. It means “wandering through”, and is used to highlight the impermanence of life. It teaches one to abandon over-attachment to worldly desires and experiences.

Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson, the creators of the marvellous Baraka, ground their film in this concept, through beautifully crafted filmography, void of any dialogue or explanation. It is a purely image-driven film. Ranging from the beauty of the earth, to religious worship, human discipline, sombre examination of consumerism, the film is a wondrous accomplishment. A fantastic tribute to humanity that also underscores the transience of our momentary existence, Saṃsāra is an altogether awe-inspiring experience.

Saṃsāra truly begins and ends with Tibetan monks painstakingly crafting sand mandalas and subsequently destroying them. “A sand mandala is ritualistically dismantled once it has been completed and its accompanying ceremonies and viewing are finished to symbolise the Buddhist doctrinal belief in the transitory nature of material life.” The film embodies the struggle of reconciling the vibrancy of life and its impermanence, something that deeply resonates with me.

It brings to mind a favourite haiku by Kobayashi Issa, written a month after the passing of his daughter:

The world of dew —
A world of dew it is indeed,
And yet, and yet . . .

Watch the trailer below. A masterpiece.

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On The Imitation Game and Alan Turing

“Are you paying attention?”

I knew of Alan Turing prior to this movie due to a tumblr post floating around, of the legendary poisoned apple with which he allegedly committed suicide. It’s always an apple: the apple that inspired Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation, the apple farm that inspired the Apple logo, the apple from the tree of knowledge. Lord Byron’s Manfred laments:

But grief should be the instructor of the wise;
Sorrow is Knowledge: they who know the most
Must mourn the deepest o’er the fatal truth,
The Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life.

A friend and I caught this movie after our exams, during which the projector died, followed by an agonizing twenty minute wait for it to be revived. The Imitation Game was a brilliantly cast movie with the ever enigmatic Benedict Cumberbatch, Bomberding Cabbagepatch, Beaverwing Cloverpatch, as Alan Turing, Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke, the bright cryptoanalyst hemmed in by society and countless other stellar British actors whose faces are familiar (was that guy on Downton Abbey?). This is not a happy story; you who are aware of Turing’s sad demise should know that already. Lives are saved, the war is won, people get married but happiness lasts only for normal people. The film is framed curiously with Turing relating his (off the record) past to a detective while facing criminal charges for his homosexuality. The core of the tale is about Turing’s participation in the war effort. The British government gathers a motley crew of mathematicians and cryptoanalysts to decipher the German ENIGMA code, vital to winning the war and thus the most important battle is fought in a dusty office and a large barn. The closest we get to the actual war is black and white film of explosions and missiles being fired from submarines. Those expecting more action will be disappointed. World War Two is the mere background against which Alan Turing’s life plays out. His mother called him an odd duck: a homosexual genius plagued with what we would today call Asperger Syndrome, unable to decipher social cues and conversation, he spends much of his childhood being bullied. His only friend, the first person to break through the impenetrable fog, is Christopher, whom he will eventually fall in love with and name his codebreaking machine after. After Christopher dies, Alan goes on to make a name for himself as an arrogant mathematician obsessed with solving crossword puzzles, finally finding employment with the Government’s secret ENGIMA unit. He chances upon Joan, a prodigy whose skills may even surpass his and marries her to allow her to work on ENIGMA with the team.

We’ll have each other’s minds. Sounds like a better marriage than most. Because I care for you. And you care for me. And we understand one another more than anyone else ever has.

But the true love story in this is between Alan and his beloved universal machine. In a world where he’s almost incapable of deciphering human behaviour and emotions, he speaks the language of mathematics to his machine with unparalleled ease. Perhaps obsessed with the idea of bringing his machine to life, he sets out to design an electrical brain for it.

Of course machines can’t think as people do. A machine is different from a person. Hence, they think differently. The interesting question is, just because something, uh… thinks differently from you, does that mean it’s not thinking? Well, we allow for humans to have such divergences from one another. You like strawberries, I hate ice-skating, you cry at sad films, I am allergic to pollen. What is the point of… different tastes, different… preferences, if not, to say that our brains work differently, that we think differently? And if we can say that about one another, then why can’t we say the same thing for brains… built of copper and wire, steel?

A lifetime of being different and being persecuted leads to his final question for the world, the famous Turing test:

Now, Detective, you get to judge. That’s how the game works. I answered your questions. You know my story. That’s the point of the game. We are all pretending to be something. Imitating something. Someone. And we are no more, and no less, than what we can convince other people that we are. So tell me: What am I? Am I a person? Am I a machine? Am I a war hero? Am I a criminal?

From there, the film is devastating . Under the weight of public persecution, chemical castration and possibly cyanide poisoning, Alan cracks. He gets a visit from his old friend, Joan, perhaps the one person whose ever comes close to understanding him. Alan sits in his armchair in his old robe, in shambles, decrying his fate and pleading for the world not to take his beloved machine away from him. (there was a lot of sniffling around us, props to Cumberbatch for that). 

No one normal could have done that. Do you know, this morning… I was on a train that went through a city that wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for you. I bought a ticket from a man who would likely be dead if it wasn’t for you. I read up on my work… a whole field of scientific inquiry that only exists because of you. Now, if you wish you could have been normal… I can promise you I do not. The world is an infinitely better place precisely because you weren’t.

The film’s handling of homosexuality was done with considerable sensitivity. Mr Turing received a pardon for his (a very late one, petitions for which had failed in 2012). It is a welcome champion of gay rights. I can praise The Imitation Game for many things: great acting, gay rights, feminism, embracing the weird and delving into thorny issues such as the complexities of war and power. At its heart, it is a beacon for all the strange ones out there, telling them to accept themselves and to screw normal, a very familiar refrain we have heard over the years. The film is far from perfect; there are a few loose strands such as Alan being blackmailed into communicating with the Russian government, the clumsy framing methods, one of the ENIGMA team conveniently having a brother on board the ship they have to sacrifice (that deserved so many eyerolls), the admittedly at-times clumsy dialogue. It is, however, a timely, luminous adaption of Turing’s story which will resonate with many. The film is likely to leave a legacy of its own in furthering the civil movement for gay rights, and I’ll end with its screenwriter Graham Moore’s message of hope at the Academy Awards: “Stay weird, stay different.” Hopefully we will see more film adaptations for women scientists. Black women scientists! Pauli Murray! Ida B. Wells!

On Stanley Kubrick and the meaning of life

“However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”

I recently watched Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I finished my last day of lessons for the semester, met up with my brother and we caught the IMAX showing of Interstellar, which was mindblowing. But that is for another day. Afterwards we bought trays of sushi and discussed gravitational time dilation, the cheesiness of love as a “quantifiable” force. That night, through googling Interstellar I learnt that Nolan had been heavily inspired by 2001. I’d heard of Kubrick’s work: the massively violent A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut etc. but I’d never been moved to watch any.

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Watching 2001 was a strange, awe-inspiring experience. Rather than what Hollywood expected, Kubrick gave us a massively artistic work that would not be out of place in some avant-garde museum or arthouse cinema. From the first act of the dawn of mankind, the iconic transition from the bone to the spaceship, the haunting end, it is a painstakingly crafted film. Though filmed in 1968, its influence on modern space films is evident: Star Wars, Sunshine, Interstellar, Aliens. Kubrick was incredibly visionary. Artificial intelligence, robots going bad, distrust of technology and TPTB, aliens (and NOT little green men or crude monsters, but sleek, menacing black slabs). The maddening, dizzying techno wormhole at the end, with mysterious shapes resembles an LSD trip. How insane it must have seemed in the confines of a neighbourhood cinema in 1968. Some might call it a boring, tedious film, but its purpose is not entertainment; it is to provoke thought, it is Kubrick’s thesis on our place in the universe and our future. This is him throwing down the gauntlet.

I might do a full review on 2001 someday, but my mind is still unsettled. I went to sleep afraid of waking up to a black monolith standing over my bed.

Stanley Kubrick was an insightful man. His interviews are a joy to read. While I am writing this, I am listening to a 1966 audio interview of him, which can be heard here. My favourite interview has to be the 1968 Playboy Interview, courtesy of Brainpickings which featured some extracts in an article. They are reproduced below and are infinitely inspiring, much like Carl Sagan’s words.

Playboy: Thanks to those special effects, 2001 is undoubtedly the most graphic depiction of space flight in the history of films — and yet you have admitted that you yourself refuse to fly, even in a commercial jet liner. Why?

Kubrick: I suppose it comes down to a rather awesome awareness of mortality. Our ability, unlike the other animals, to conceptualize our own end creates tremendous psychic strains within us; whether we like to admit it or not, in each man’s chest a tiny ferret of fear at this ultimate knowledge gnaws away at his ego and his sense of purpose. We’re fortunate, in a way, that our body, and the fulfillment of its needs and functions, plays such an imperative role in our lives; this physical shell creates a buffer between us and the mind-paralyzing realization that only a few years of existence separate birth from death. If man really sat back and thought about his impending termination, and his terrifying insignificance and aloneness in the cosmos, he would surely go mad, or succumb to a numbing sense of futility. Why, he might ask himself, should be bother to write a great symphony, or strive to make a living, or even to love another, when he is no more than a momentary microbe on a dust mote whirling through the unimaginable immensity of space?

Those of us who are forced by their own sensibilities to view their lives in this perspective — who recognize that there is no purpose they can comprehend and that amidst a countless myriad of stars their existence goes unknown and unchronicled — can fall prey all too easily to the ultimate anomie….But even for those who lack the sensitivity to more than vaguely comprehend their transience and their triviality, this inchoate awareness robs life of meaning and purpose; it’s why ‘the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,’ why so many of us find our lives as absent of meaning as our deaths.

The world’s religions, for all their parochialism, did supply a kind of consolation for this great ache; but as clergymen now pronounce the death of God and, to quote Arnold again, ‘the sea of faith’ recedes around the world with a ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,’ man has no crutch left on which to lean—and no hope, however irrational, to give purpose to his existence. This shattering recognition of our mortality is at the root of far more mental illness than I suspect even psychiatrists are aware.

This segment cuts to the ultimate question of why we should value life. And his last line (my favourite quote of his) inspires such hope (or the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without words).

Playboy: If life is so purposeless, do you feel it’s worth living?

Kubrick: The very meaninglessness 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 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 elan. Both because of and in spite of his awareness of the meaninglessness of life, he can forge a fresh sense 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 fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.