Archive for August, 2013

Is “The Big Heat” a Noir?

Is “The Big Heat” a Noir?

After see “The Big Heat” on my tour of “All Things By Fritz Lang”, I am curious to see what Thomas Hibbs might have said about it. Ostensibly, the film is a classic post-WWII era noir. It features Glenn Ford as detective and a family man who gets into trouble investigating the mysterious suicide of a syndicate sponsored police officer. Ford takes on the syndicate and the system but loses his wife, who dies in a car bomb explosion meant for him.

On my DVD their were interviews about the film with directors Michael Mann and Martin Scorsese, both famous for their contemporary noir pieces. Mann calls the film a classic noir and explains a little the nature of period noir as emerging from the bleakness of perspective that cane after the war. Mann mentions existentialism as also reflecting this despondency and he calls it a time when people abandoned the belief in moral absolutes – rightly he seems to think. The facade of human values seems to explode at the encroachment of the chaos that is human nature and which wipes away all pretension of the good. This seems depicted in the shocking scene where Ford is reading “The Three Little Kittens” to his daughter when the windows suddenly flash and an explosion is heard, indicating the death of the wife and mother. Our unwillingness to face the absurdity of existence is perhaps depicted by the daughter’s belief through the rest of the film that mommy suddenly went away on a trip. This analysis is especially poignant when you think of Lang who made films on the aftermath of both world wars which highlighted the demoralizing effects of both.

However, Scorsese claims that the film, in spite of all the stark noir tropes, is not a noir. This is because it has a happy ending. Their is a eucatastrophic moment where things turn around for him. His corrupt associate cops repent of their corruption and make a new start by helping him. Strong friends show up to keep his daughter safe. And a woman sacrifices her own life in gratitude and resolves the situation in a way that he could not. Yet these events are not deux ex machinas. They flow from the same facts of human nature as the violence. What comes as a surprise to the main character follows a logical path of events perceivable to the viewer. Thus, the noir message is qualified and contradicted. It’s not darkness all the way down.

The difficulty that both auteurs have in classifying the film can be traced back to the analysis of the genre. It’s true that both world wars had the impact of shattering the sunny view of human nature that the West had prior to that. That sunny optimism was the result of a combination or synthesis between secular humanistic progressivism and Mainline liberal Protestantism. In becoming liberal in both cases, both had abandoned the theistic realism of the Bible and of religious orthodoxy. The Biblical view is not that “God is in His heaven and all is right with the world. Rather, the world was created with boundaries between order and chaos. Man was created with the mission to expand the spheres of order onto chaos. But man failed and was dismissed into the boundary lands of order and chaos. Ever since, humanity has been given a choice to return to God or wander in darkness. But God on His part is patiently waiting and providing sunshine and rain and upholding the stability if natural laws and keeping humanity from ultimate distraction for the time being. But He won’t be patient forever. Rather, there will be a day when God calls all accounts in. On that day, the halfway world will be destroyed and a new world free of chaos will be made for those who in their probation called upon God.

On this picture there is chaos in the world but there are also moral absolutes. There remains reason to live with hope and patience even if the flood waters rise. That also applies to the violence inherent not just the system but also in human nature itself. The realism of the biblical view braces you for war, even world wars. But liberalism became attracted to the sweetness and reduced the value of religion to that removing the rest. But the world wars proved that approach inadequate. However, as a result, the baby got thrown out with the bath water. We were left with existential despair and relativism.

But the biblical view holder need not kowtow to the existential demand for authenticity, since admitting chaos does not entail the denial of absolutes for her. Her view has not been proven false by war. Further, existentialism itself is inadequate because it unnecessarily enlarges the space for violence. People do discover life again. A good piece of evidence for this is that since WWII we’ve passed through a time of goodness so much so that the current culture has shifted back to pre-world war mainline progressivism as if those wars never happened.

As for “The Big Hear”, I suggest we call it “Orthodox Noir”, a film that recognizes and faces the darkness but also the light.

Return of Secularization Theory:

A recent article at the Huffington Post by a neurophysiologist predicted that religion would disappear by around 2040 because of the progress of modern technology. He said that his conclusion was based on the hypothesis that religion was coping strategy to deal with existential threats to existence. Since modern science has successfully removed many such threats and seems likely to remove many more relatively soon, there seems no such remaining motivation to be religious and religion will soon cease. Such a hypothesis is a version of secularization theory – a theory that claims religion declines as material progress advances. Decades ago such theories seemed questionable because of contemporary counter examples like the USA being most modern but still most religious of western nations and the resurgence of faith in former Communist countries. But continuing developments have resuscitated such theories, such as the flight of millennials from churches and the progress of same sex marriage. Even Peter Berger has changed his mind back to re-affirming secularization.

Examining the existential threat theory, it clearly has plausibility. If we think of secularization in terms of William James account of “genuine belief options” from his essay “The Will to Believe”, it seems that modernity has made religious faith no longer a forced belief option. If one has to choose between faith in a promise of heaven over a reasonably long and comfortable life provided by modern technology you may think it reasonable to suspend judgment until you get terminal cancer that they don’t have a cure on the horizon for yet. Another thing that modernity may do is no longer make faith a live option due to prima facie incredibility.

But neither of these really holds up as James might have understood it. For the second, the limits of science are just as apparent as its accomplishments. At these limits, the scientist turns to philosophy, often without owning up to it, such as how to reconcile realism about science with the incompatibility of General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, what existed before the universe existed, what is the relation between physics and Consciousness, etc. These seem not only unanswered but in principle unanswerable by science. Yet there must be facts a out such things that make philosophy the most rational approach available.

As to the first, no intelligent person qua being intelligent for its own sake would or has been content with modernity’s successes (Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Kant). Suppose one day science finally gives us a machine like the Matrix which holds out the promise of downloading the experience of a long pleasurable prosperous seeming life made to our specifications to whoever wants to be inserted into it. What would you think of one who would volunteer? You still wouldn’t necessarily think their lives worthwhile or that they really had it made. You could still wonder if death is really the end or if there will be or should be an ultimate accounting. From the rational point of view, the choice to believe in some future existing Matrix or believe in another life in another perhaps more real world is still a forced option. What makes the option forced is the demand on the self that goes with rigorous commitment. Even without the dread of existential threat there still is the longing for existential meaning and justice and love, the pursuit of which makes the option still forced.

So genuine belief options do not explain the secularizing influence of modernity by existential dread. The actual explanation has more to do with man’s animal nature than his rational nature. Paul Vitz writes in “Faith of the Fatherless” about Freudian accounts of secularization. According to the doctrine of the Oedipal complex and repressed sexuality, the boy child goes through a phase of sexual attraction toward the mother while perceiving his father as a rival to be killed but his father’s superior strength forces him to be resolved to the situation. But the complex is never resolved. When the boy is big enough to be a credible threat to his father, the Oedipal urges return.

It is possible to combine the Oedipal theory with Freud’s projection theory to form a secularization hypothesis, where God is the cosmic father that imposes his sexual restraints on humanity by morally norming the orders of creation. While life is threatening the threat of God’s judgment is compelling. But when life is brought under human control that sense if divine threat seems more and more remote. As science progresses, fear of God diminishes.

Such an effect can and has been created without science. As the Apostle Paul makes clear, mankind had lost its fear of God before by forming the belief in idol magic, that they could manipulate the lesser deities through ritual and sacrifice that had more direct control over the forces of nature, thus giving them something like access to the control knobs of the universe. As a result, God gave them up to indulge the lusts if their flesh and experience the natural consequences of their behavior.

The presence of existential dread has greater impact on the animal for which reason is only of instrumental value for the survival instinct. Such reason makes the dread “existential” but not really intellectual, where as the search for meaning is truly an intellectual passion. Secularization may be evidence that humans are more animal than spiritual.

However, Vitz gives evidence that inadequate fathering vs adequate fathering is a strong predictor of atheism and theism respectively (for the most part). His evidence includes notable and articulate theists all through the early modern and contemporary period, showing that material prosperity need not quench faith. Compare this with Mary Eberstadt’s new research showing the role dysfunctional families have played in facilitating secularization and visa versa. An effective family is also a shelter from existential dread but not one that inclines to unbelief but rather to faith.

Family love and Fatherly bonding encourage humans to rise above instinct and lust to make choices based on either sufficient evidence or by recognizing genuine belief options where evidence fails to decide a question, to live as rational and transcendental beings. As for the future of religion, one could say with certainty that the natural law expectation all other things being equal religion will disappear by 2040. But this just begs the question of the truth of religion. If God exists, he may preserve a people to Himself for all eternity.