Tortured Art: The Bleakest Films of 2020

If the emotional state of the times is reflected in our media, 2020 was done justice because this was one dark year for the small screen. Maybe it was the pause on Hollywood productions letting more independent films through, maybe I was seeking them out more than usual, or maybe we just have a lot to deal with (hint: it’s all of them) – the crop for emotionally devastating films this year was outstanding. These were the ones that gripped, and then haunted me the most, each one a work of art worthy of its own lengthy analysis to do with themes both timely and timeless.

Sorry We Missed You (2019) - IMDb

10. Sorry We Missed You
About a UK family trapped in the hamster wheel that is the gig economy. What the beginning of socioeconomic collapse looks like in the western world. Based on a true reality.

Jasper Mall' presents the last act of a small town mall | Chain Store Age

9. Jasper Mall
A rather loving look at the last gasps of one of the remaining malls in small town America. A mall is not just a mall in these places, so it’s like watching a community die too. Do they even realize the meaning? Maybe that’s why they seem still hopeful for the future.

4782 The Assistant (2020) 720p WEBRip 800MB in 2020 | Movies, Movie  posters, Julia

8. The Assistant
The timid new worker in a particularly dysfunctional office struggles to speak up. One long silent scream culminating with the final stab – the visit to HR. What a scene.

White Lie (film) - Wikipedia

7. White Lie
A small Canadian film about a very sick girl, and not in the way she’s trying to make everyone think. Extremely tense and so much to discuss. One of my favourite films of the year.

SWALLOW (2020) review | Keeping It Reel

6. Swallow
Domestic dissatisfaction taken to its extreme when a woman tries to take control of her body in the limited way she can. Polished, but still bleak. An actual disorder!

Survival Skills (2020) - IMDb

5. Survival Skills
Rookie cop develops consciousness and free will in a training video sounds like a fun, quirky plot, right? Yeah no.

Lynn + Lucy (2019) - IMDb

5. Lynn + Lucy
Lifelong best friends succumb to their community’s gossip. It’s a slow burn, and by the end I had to look away not because of what was happening onscreen but what I felt the characters must be feeling. That takes talent in all ways.

The Swerve (2018) - IMDb

3. The Swerve
Well, it’s about a woman fending off a major depression, which nobody notices, which she’s in denial of, until she gets to a point where she loses control. Incredible performance.

Rewind movie review & film summary (2020) | Roger Ebert

2. Rewind
The one film here that should come with a trigger warning. A guy makes an investigative documentary of his own childhood abuse and cover up, using the huge collection of his family’s seemingly-innocuous home videos and interviews with family and professionals to try and fill in his memory gaps. Just incredible.

Beanpole (2019) - IMDb

1. Beanpole
Pretty much the embodiment “bleak”. Immediately after WWII, two friends try to rebuild their lives while suffering severe PTSD (along with everyone else). The only thing not bleak about it is that it’s not of our time or place, something to be grateful for.

10 Bleakest Films of 2020 – IMDb

Top 10 films of 2020 – IMDb

Terms of (Interspecies) Endearment

Diver Craig Foster becomes fascinated with an octopus, and visits her for hundreds of days in a row, in "My Octopus Teacher."

Among my childhood friend’s many family pets one day appeared a little lamb, whom they diapered, bottle-fed, cuddled, and named Hannah. It didn’t seem so odd (for that family) and I didn’t ask questions – until the day I came over and asked where she was. “The freezer”, mom replied, with a nonchalance that my categorically rigid brain would not forget.

I was disturbed, but my friend tried to convince me that there was nothing wrong with the eating of Hannah. They’d lived on a farm where they raised lambs for consumption. But she was the runt of the litter and wasn’t getting fed by mom, so they took her in. It’s not like she knew what was coming anyway. And plus, wouldn’t you rather the chicken you eat be raised with love, even if it’s by humans, and killed with dignity? They’d even thanked Hannah and shared fond memories of their time together before digging in. I ended up not just accepting this logic, but thinking that this family had transcended some sentimental glitch in humanity that allowed for maximum utility in this crazy animal-eating, animal-befriending world.

But my limits were met with the new highly praised, weirdly erotic Netflix nature documentary called My Octopus Teacher, aka My Human Stalker. In it, a man films his exploits with an octopus he has fallen in love with, which involve following her around for weeks – forcing her to move habitats to get away – before she realizes that he isn’t a threat and touches him a few times (or in his words “the boundaries between her and I seemed to dissolve” ). The man in his incessant, overly sentimental narration seems to think that this octopus is special because of their relationship, which he would know is not the case if he bothered to learn anything about the species at all.

At the film’s emotional climax, the man sits back and films his octopus friend/teacher/whatever get dismembered by a tiny shark that he could have easily swatted away, with the excuse of not wanting to intervene with the course of nature, as if we had not been watching him this whole time do exactly that; encouraging the octopus to come out of his den, shaking her hand, breaking a clam shell for her to feed. It’s only when his “friend” needs his help that he took the money shot instead – more than once.

I have two main philosophically relevant grievances about this “documentary”. First is the abuse of language. No Craig, you were not friends with the octopus. That’s not what friendship is. You stalked her, and she eventually felt safe enough to be curious. Also, to be friends would require you do whatever is in your power to save your friend. If it were any more obvious that this was a vanity project disguised as beautiful story of interspecies friendship, it’s when you refused to act.

Second is the hypocrisy of why he refused to act – the not wanting to interfere with nature’s course bit. Well Craig, by inserting yourself in the octopus’ life like you have, her world is altered. She becomes more vulnerable by trusting you. She puts herself out there. You even admitted the shark that attacked her probably smelled you from afar. And so you have become part of the ecosystem, Craig, “part of the natural world, not just a visitor” (the very thing you say she taught you). For this reason alone you are obligated to try to save her, especially if you think you are friends.

Are these grievances valid? Was it okay to eat Hannah? Discuss!

A Series of Upcoming Unfortunate Events

If you’re in the mood to be reminded of the top 10 existential threats to life on earth generally, The End of the World is a great new podcast series covering all those bases. Me, I’m in the mood to update on the lesser considered, faster approaching tipping points of the climate variety – if current trends continue that is, which even a global pandemic hasn’t put much of a dent in. Happy Monday!

The abrupt permafrost thaw

The arctic, warming  twice and thrice as fast as the global average (and having a really bad November), will reach the dreaded 2 degree Celsius limit before the rest of us – in about 15 years. At this point 6.6 million square kms of frozen ground is expected to abruptly thaw and release huge stores of greenhouse gasses, beginning a self-accelerating feedback loop of thawing and heating and thawing and – oh – the revival of deadly pathogens, along with all the other delightful effects of rising sea levels and soupy land. Sure, the new land could support plant life, but that would only absorb about 20% of the carbon released. Could it be time to start investing in underground property?

Blue ocean event

And along goes the arctic ice, the cold compress of our feverish earth. Scientists have already significantly underestimated the rate at which it’s going and will soon be gone. It doesn’t even have to all be gone to trigger a Blue Ocean Event, which is the point when the ocean starts to absorb the heat that the ice normally absorbs at no cost. Unlike reflective ice, water gets warmer when it absorbs heat, cuing the feedback loop to make the BOE more than just a couple-week event each year. We don’t know when will be our first, just that an ice-free arctic is expected within a few decades. For certain stakeholders it can’t happen soon enough.   

Topsoil erosion

Look no further than a soil conference in NZ back in 2016 to be warned that it takes “10 kilos of topsoil, 800 litres of water, 1.3 litres of diesel, 0.3g of pesticide and 3.5 kilos of carbon dioxide” for one meal for one person. Since soil takes so long to become fertile by natural processes, it’s considered a non-renewable resource that at this rate we will be out of by 2055. Yes, out of the means of production for 95% of the food for a growing population. The pale shadow of a silver lining is that the industry seems to be aware and on it by adopting non soil-harming practices. The rise in urban and community farming is also slowing down the inevitable, buying us time to figure out how to manufacture food in pill form or 3D printers or something.

Wet bulb events

There is a point where even a young, healthy human sitting in the shade cannot survive past 6 hours, where humidity is so high that sweat can no longer evaporate to cool the skin. This is the Wet Bulb Temperature – a measure of heat and humidity of 35 degrees Celsius (TW), and though we were supposed to start seeing them in the mid 21st century, they’ve already been recorded, mainly in affluent areas where they only need to worry about the WBT for air conditioners.

The Richest Rich

Not so much an upcoming event as the ongoing issue. As the cause, effect, and root of all our problems, the utter moral depravity of the super-rich and unfettered capitalism is worth a mention. Income inequality was already a runaway train of exponential growth – and then the pandemic hit, adding 27% to billionaires’ wealth (they’ll keep it, thanks). They might try putting their money-power combo to good use, except they didn’t get there by being selfless. They will enjoy the last livable decades high and dry and in more comfort and style than their money could possibly buy while having avoided contributing even so much as their taxes to the system, people, and environment that they have looted without conscience or consequence.

Whew, it’s hot in here.


If this has really gotten you in the mood, here are 30,000 scientific papers on the subjects

My question for you, dear readers, is do you believe it? And does the way you live your life reflect those beliefs?

Free Will vs. Determinism: An update

Free Will - Existential Comics

Back to my favourite perpetual philosophical dilemma: am I free or determined? I’m pretty sure I’ve solved it this time. I’m available for book deals, interviews, guest speaking slots. Contact my agent.

I was convinced right out of the gate that free will doesn’t exist – that it can’t, given the fact that our brains make our choices and several factors beyond our control make our brain. Simply put, you can do what you decide to do, but you can’t decide what you will decide to do.

There I went along thinking I had it all figured out. I could go through life a little more relaxed knowing my choices were the responsibility of something else, and eventually my brain would kick into the gear I’ve always hoped, wanted, expected it would. And the path of least resistance will get me there. 

Or else I’d just get what I get and not get upset. It’s a win/win, determinism.

But I am upset. I’m deep into adulthood and, having made no investments, am left wanting. I do what I want, but I do not really want what I want in the long run. So, it’s time to change my mind.

Thankfully, this is one of those beliefs you can change on a whim because it’s one of the few truths that truly is relative. Both are true, in a sense. On a level. Free will is true in the sense that you generate options and choose one. Determinism is true in the sense that those options you generate and the choices you make are influenced by factors you can’t choose. It’s very easy to understand why someone would believe one over the other.

Perhaps determinism has the edge because it comes first. But that’s assuming they are on the same level where linear rules apply. I say the edge belongs to free will because it’s the one that’s measurable; the freer we are depends on our awareness of our options, the strength of our will to choose, and the ability to stick to it.

Both being equal and neither being provable, it really is a matter of what you choose to believe, a.k.a. which is more convenient. Determinism is convenient if you have existential anxiety you don’t want to confront or moral failings you don’t want to be accountable for. Free will is convenient if you are not burdened by these feelings and, well, want to free.

I feel more and more the latter. I want to believe I can choose to be better. I choose to believe I can make any choice I can imagine, and can do things to broaden my imagination.

The only thing that was already determined is the line I was going to end this on.

Now I realize, the one who had to be determined was………………………….me.

Narcissus’ Disorder

In the Myth of Narcissus, a beautiful youth longs after his reflection in a pool of water. In the simple version, he is love with himself – so transfixed by his beauty that he cannot set his sights elsewhere, and eventually wastes away.

Narcissus loves to see his reflection because he cannot conjure one up himself. Without it, he has no self (and no self-love). Without a self, he doesn’t exist. He dehydrates because he cannot bring himself to disturb the water on which his reflection, his existence, depends.

Another interpretation by French philosopher Louis Lavelle in The Dilemma of Narcissus (1973) is that:

Narcissus’ crime is to choose his image and to reject his self. It is impossible for him to be united with it, and this drives him to despair. Narcissus loves something that he cannot possess … To join one’s own image and to become identical with it is, precisely, to die.

The sin of Narcissus is his inability or unwillingness to self-reflect, and so it is the hallmark of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. In order to have a semblance of self, people with NPD must see themselves through other people (a camera will do). Furthermore, that image should be great; reflected back in the form of achievements, accolades, and a trail of losers they can measure themselves by. They are desperate for this reflection via affirmation because, like Narcissus, they are nothing without it. People with NPD may be, and often are, as charming, talented, intelligent, and attractive as they imagine. The problem is it’s not real to them without that reflection. The weakness that is an inherent quality of NPD is more like a fragile sense of self, as easily disturbed as a reflection in still waters.

The sense of inferiority that accompanies NPD is especially true for the people who are demonstrably the opposite of what they project, such as soon-to-be one-term ex-president Donald Trump. In “Too Much and Never Enough”, Donald’s niece Mary Trump, a clinical psychologist, describes her uncle as a textbook narcissist. She notes “an accurate and comprehensive diagnosis would require a full battery of psychological and neurophysical tests that he’ll never sit for.” But the psychologists who’ve spoken out say he doesn’t need to when it’s this obvious. The diagnosis is severe malignant narcissism, and it’s gonna be a problem.

Trump is facing a double whammy to his psyche here. Not only will his sources of reflection – the camera, Twitter, his sycophants, and the highest achievement of the presidency – be greatly reduced, but the self that remains – the mirror that he is desperately hanging onto – is breaking up before his eyes in the face of one public humiliation after another and massive celebrations on his own lawn.

Bandy X. Lee, a psychologist with Yale, says about his condition, “When there is an all-encompassing loss, such as the loss of an election, it can trigger a rampage of destruction and reign of terror in revenge against an entire nation that has failed him.”

She adds, “It is far easier for the pathological narcissist to consider destroying oneself and the world, especially its ‘laughing eyes,’ then to retreat into becoming a ‘loser’ and a ‘sucker’ — which to someone suffering from this condition will feel like psychic death.”

Whether to feel anger or pity will come down to if it’s him or America.

Quotes out of Context: T.S. Eliot

I would be in some sort of denial if this next post, scheduled to be published a day before what feels like the most consequential election in the history of the modern world, didn’t at least have something to do with it. The dysfunctional freakshow of the US political scene has taken up so much of my time and energy these last four years that I can’t help but wonder with deep regret what I’d have done with both if I had just not cared about this which I don’t affect and doesn’t affect me. It seems like such an awful waste of caring…and yet caring seems like the least I can do.

A quote comes to mind. It’s one you’ve dropped before with no context and left me to figure out the meaning as applied (which I didn’t bother to do at the time). So welcome to another episode of Quotes out of Context staring T.S. Eliot in “Teach us to care and not to care”:

Such a simple line, but very powerful. Lots of ways to read it but what sticks out to me is that he is speaking to a higher power that is ostensibly in charge of our caring-meter, whether that be God or just the higher self within us all, the one with all the will power. I think it’s in a religious context because a humanist with free will would suggest you teach “yourself”.

Anyway, the quote recognizes the priority problem that plagues humanity, if not most individuals, and perhaps also the media problem of sensationalizing things that aren’t that such big deals and simplifying things that are. We care too much about things we shouldn’t (exhausting and futile) and don’t care about things we should (a shame). The latter is definitely true. It’s just hard to muster up the emotion about it because of the lack of caring to begin with. But logically we all know that we don’t care about what we should.

 “Teach us not to care” is the more interesting bit. It could be about anything. In my context I read it as pleading with the higher power to make me stop caring about US politics, and this makes me automatically want to rebel against this idea because of my nonbelief. I would rather try and justify this feeling I already have because it’s more attainable than asking something outside of me to shut it off. I’d be more receptive if it was “teach yourself” because I would be more encouraged, or reminded, to use the real ability to change my behavior in order to change my thoughts. That is, if I could be convinced that it’s wrong to be where I’m at. There could be some yet unseen advantage to caring, a conscience I’m maintaining for when I am ready for battle. Like with lots of good things, just because it’s suffering, doesn’t make it wrong.

Now for the quote in context. I learn that this is a line in a poem he wrote after he converted to Anglicanism called Ash Wednesday (part I). Too bad for me because I am an understander of neither religion nor poetry.  I can say it sounds like he is at a stage in life where he wants to be relieved of the burdens of his humanity and is definitely bothered by intrusive thinking, but is hopeless to achieve this peace because he lacks the faith?

Let me try and focus on the stanza this line is apart of:

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.”

Let me see…I guess his mechanism with which to believe (his wings) don’t work, but it’s is the world’s fault (the air) and not his (his wings/will)?  So that’s why he asks God for help – to change him if he can’t change the world. Teach him to be someone who can find peace regardless. So it’s a prayer then. Bit of a tall order. Sitting still, though – that I can do.

How To Change a Mind

Successfully changing someone’s mind from a view they hold dear, or just hold ignorantly, can be a futile or rewarding endeavor depending how you go about it.  My time in philosophy has taught me that a strong argument should do the trick, and yet my mind-changing record is awful and I’ve all but given up arguing outside of my marriage. Lately I’ve spent a lot of time deep in the zeitgeist (on both sides), listening to podcasts, observing arguments on social media, spending more time with my first love (psychology), and I’ve learned some things to take into the ring if I ever decide to go back.

For the purposes of discussion, I will use the easy example (a little late, but I’ve actually just encountered this for the first time IRL) of “all lives matter”; people who, though well intentioned, really miss the point, but whose minds I’ve witness change real time due to the following techniques:

Earn Trust – It might surprise you to learn that being a stranger on the internet has got to be the worst starting point for trying to change a mind. It’s probably negative-trust. So if this is where you’re at maybe just stop before you start and reserve your mind-changing efforts for some friends or family who just don’t get it.

Steelman it – This one is from philosophy 101 that to be honest I always forget to do. Instead of throwing your position at them, begin by throwing their position back at them but even better. They will feel understood right off the bat, maybe even impressed, and therefore safe to proceed. “Ah, so you wonder why are we only focusing on black lives when suffering exists for all people who all matter the same.”

Make a Sandwich – This technique involves placing a thin piece of information meat in between two slices of validation. The validation can be a part of their argument that is sound or compliment. So we might say, “I agree with you that all lives matter. Black lives have just historically been treated unfairly, so the moment is calling to acknowledge it. But I commend you for wanting equality.”

Be a ninja – While you are out front making sandwiches over tea, you want to be working behind the scenes trying to identify the real concern that underlies their attitude. ALMers are likely thinking that implicit in the BLM statement is that “only” black lives matter, or that they matter “more” that their own lives, when it’s really more of a “too”.  

Provide a metaphor – Your ninja ways have identified that the ALMer’s concern is that the BLM movement is a thinly-veiled attempt to eke them out, so you might ask them to imagine they are at family dinner and your dad is serving up plates, but only gives you a half portion “Hey, what’s the deal? I deserve my fair share” you say, to which your dad pats your hand and says, “Of course, dear, everyone deserves their fair share”, and continuing to serve up full plates to everyone else. When dealing with a Christian, you can remind them about the time the shepherd left the 99 to save the one who needed help, and how it didn’t mean the 99 didn’t matter, but that in that moment efforts must be concentrated on the one that needs it.  

Be ready with stats – But don’t lead with them. In this case, if they still haven’t backed down by now, they probably have a problem believing that racial inequality exists in the first place. So be prepared to respond with facts, even though by now the chances of success are pretty low.

Please share your stories about changing someone’s mind!

Great philosophical movies from the past decade

Melancholia (2011) - IMDb

Melancholia (2011) – “How would you react to the world coming to an end?”

The Turin Horse (2011) - IMDb

The Turin Horse (2011) – “Why bother?” (Nietzsche’s parable)

Her (film) - Wikipedia

Her (2013) – “What makes love human?”

Force Majeure (film) - Wikipedia

Force Majeure (2014) – “Can we predict how we’d react in an unexpected event?”

2015 - Drama: Boyhood | Golden Globes

Boyhood (2014) – “Movie, or longitudinal study/what defines a life?”

Ex Machina (2014) - IMDb

Ex Machina (2014) – “What is intelligence?”

Arrival (2016) - IMDb

Arrival (2016) – Could we understand an alien language?

First Reformed - Port Moody Film Society

First Reformed (2019) – Can God forgive us?

The Hater - Wikipedia

The Hater (2020) – Victim or villain of online culture?

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