Thursday, September 2, 2010

The American In Bruges:

Spoilers ahead!

After I watched The American, I made an offhand observation to a friend: the movie reminded me of 2008's In Bruges. I didn't seriously consider the similarities, but the observation stuck with me as I was driving home. Note: I haven't seen In Bruges in over a year, so I've refreshed my memory with several online sites: Wikipedia, IMDB, etc.; similarly, I've only seen The American once, so I've used the aforesaid sites to sort out any details I may have missed/forgotten. Anyway, the [haphazardly listed] similarities:

First, the plot; The American [as I understand it] follows the same general plot as In Bruges: an assassin ["Jack" and Ray, respectively] makes a mistake, and his boss sends him on a "vacation" while secretly scheming to have him killed. In both cases, the mistake is collateral damage: in The American, Jack has been "making friends", and those friends have been getting killed; in the opening sequence [the only explicit "mistake", but the boss implies that this has happened before], Jack kills his "friend" when she witnesses his murderous response to a failed attempt against his life: "She knows too much", etc. Note: the aforementioned mistakes haunt their respective assassins.

In both films, the boss sends the assassin to an idyllic locale, and the locale is viewed through a travelogue lens; architecture is in the forefront: In Bruges with its medieval structures, The American with its nautilus shell city.

In both films, the assassin's would-be murderer* is a confidant[e]: The American's would-be murderer doesn't have the same emotional connection with the target as In Bruges' would-be murderer [any connection isn't reciprocated, anyway]; however, to the extent that Jack is able to maintain personal relationships, his would-be murderer is "close" to him.

In both films, the assassin befriends a nonviolent arbitrator native to the locale: the hotel operator Marie [In Bruges], and Father Benedetto [The American]; both arbitrators support the assassin to an extent, but neither "joins" the assassin.

In Bruges' Chloe and The American's Clara [the love interests] make for the most obvious similarity: both are in negative occupations [risky drug dealing and prostitution, respectively]; both have negative relationships with men [an abusive boyfriend and "Johns", respectively]; and both hope to use their respective assassin-cum-lover to escape their negative situations. A tangential similarity: in The American, the man seems out of place in the restaurant; In Bruges' Chloe seems out of place in that film's restaurant. Both films address foreignness.

In both films, the would-be murderer betrays their [and the assassin's] boss. The scenes are similar, though the event sequence is reversed: In Bruges' would-be murderer betrays his boss, and is killed; in The American, the would-be murderer is injured, and then betrays her boss before she dies. Also: would-be murderers die from a fall; interestingly, the injury incurred prior to the fall by the would-be murderer in The American is almost identical to an injury incurred by one of In Bruges' peripheral characters.

In both films, the assassin's boss arrives in the locale and attempts to murder the assassin; in both films, the assassin kills the boss [albeit indirectly in In Bruges]; in both films, the assassin is severely injured, but not killed onscreen. In both films, the assassin and the boss had maintained a relationship, though this is more pronounced in The American--speaking of which:

Jack's role in said relationship is childlike** ["What have I told you about making friends, Jack?"], and his overall curiosity is childlike. His fixation on butterflies seems innocently curious; similarly, you have the oral sex scene. I'm fascinated by it; focus on his eyes during that scene: he's curious, innocently servile... childlike--which makes the scene even more complex. Similarly, Ray is impishly childlike; again, there's that curiosity and innocent servility in the eyes--especially around Chloe.

Lastly: both films end with ethereally dreamlike, ambiguous scenes† collecting the players important to the dying assassins.††

I'm sure I'll see The American again [and again] and sporadically add to this list, but it's a start.

*Is an assassin's assassin a murderer?

**There's an interesting psychoanalysis of Jack waiting to be written.

†I'll write an analysis of the The American's ending scene.

††Only the butterfly and Clara are important to Jack; see '†'

Friday, July 9, 2010


In politics and religion [and the two are becoming increasingly indistinguishable], moderatism is en vogue. Contrasted with fundamentalism [or "radicalism"], moderatism is more "tolerant" and pliable: it doesn't necessitate fundamentalist ideology. Moderatism isn't apathetic, in the sense that moderates do "care"--they have opinions, and it would be nice if other people shared those opinions, but it's cool, man; are we still on for that beer this weekend?

Before I get into the relationship between fundamentalism and moderatism, I should note that this discussion is going to presuppose morality for the sake of argument: whether or not morality exists as an objectively provable natural phenomenon is irrelevant, since the notion of morality is entertained by nearly every person. If I suggest that objective morality doesn't exist, any subsequent conversation is stillborn: the debate descends into a philosophical quagmire. So, since the notion of morality exists, I'm going to treat morality as existent--that is, that there are objectively "right" things, and that there are objectively "wrong" things, and that we can know which things fall into which category.

And following that position, this discussion is going to assume that fundamentalism isn't inherently or necessarily "wrong"; if the moral propositions held by a fundamentalist are "right" propositions, then that fundamentalist is more "right" than the moderate or opposing fundamentalist. For example: if it can be objectively proved that killing another person is wrong, then the pacifist who claims that killing another person is always wrong is going to be more right than the moderate who claims that killing another person is wrong, yes, but there are some exceptions where it's a necessary evil. In short: if a fundamentalist is right, the fundamentalist is going to be more right than the moderate who believes a diluted version of the fundamentalist's ideology.

Moderatism Defined:

Moderatism is defined by fundamentalism. Suppose that for every proposition X, there are two opposing fundamentalist conclusions: X, and not X, i.e., Either something is right, or something is wrong. If a person believes X, then we can call that person a fundamentalist; if a person believes not X, then we can call that person a fundamentalist; and if a person believes X with some exceptions, or not X with some exceptions, then we can call that person a moderate.

Moderatism's Appeal:

Moral propositions have an inherent problem: you're either going to be right, or you're going to be wrong; and if you're a fundamentalist, you're either going to be very right, or you're going to be very wrong. Suppose that X is objectively wrong: the fundamentalist who claims that X is wrong is going to be right; the moderate who claims that X is wrong with some exceptions is going to be right, with some exceptions; the moderate who claims that X is right with some exceptions is going to be wrong, with some exceptions; and the fundamentalist who claims that X is right is going to be wrong. And therein lies moderatism's appeal: morality seems to be a gamble, with fundamentalism having the highest risk; moderatism seems to be a safe bet: you might be wrong, but you won't be completely wrong.

The Problem With Moderatism:

Consider the development of fire: throughout prehistory, fire was a major threat to our survival as a species; it destroyed food supplies, environments, and was a danger to the individual who found himself near a fire. Only a risk taker would attempt to harness something so destructive, but with too many risk takers, the survival of the species would be threatened; too few risk takers, and the species' development would stagnate. So, as a whole, our species has evolved to produce some risk takers, but not to be risk takers; this is why moderatism is the predominate moral position: most of us are programmed to play it safe, and moderatism plays it safe.

Since moderatism seeks to reduce risk, moderatism is tolerant of fundamentalism: moderatism doesn't support fundamentalism, but it doesn't oppose fundamentalism. To the moderate, supporting or opposing fundamentalism would be a positive action, while simply tolerating fundamentalism is a neutral action; it never occurs to the moderate that tolerance implicitly supports whatever is tolerated by allowing the tolerated thing to perpetuate itself. And therein lies the problem with moderatism: by tolerating fundamentalism, moderatism allows fundamentalism to perpetuate itself. But it's more than simply tolerating fundamentalism: because by allowing fundamentalism to exist, moderatism is redefined. As previously mentioned, moderatism is defined by fundamentalism: as fundamentalism propagates, moderatism and fundamentalism polymerize, creating a more fundamentalist moderatism, and a more radical fundamentalism. Consider the previously mentioned example of killing another person:

Suppose that killing another person is objectively wrong: on one end of the spectrum, you have fundamentalists who claim that it is wrong; and on the other end of the spectrum, you have fundamentalists who claim that it is not wrong. However, most people will be moderates who claim either that killing another person is wrong, with some exceptions, or that killing another person is not wrong, with some exceptions; in either case, most people will be moderates. As the fundamentalist positions propagate, they will adopt the illusion of moderatism; if more people come to believe that murder is not morally wrong, then that position will appear more moderate than the opposing position; and if that position appears more moderate [if it appears to have less risk], moderates will gravitate towards it, unknowingly becomes fundamentalists. Invariably, the end result is an ideologically dictatorial fundamentalism that has assimilated moderatism.

An Answer To Moderatism:

If there are objectively "right" things and objectively "wrong" things, and if we can know which things fall into which category, then the problem of moderatism becomes obvious: if the right fundamentalism eventually refutes all other ideologies despite moderatism, then moderatism was unnecessary; and if the wrong ideology eventually refutes all other ideologies despite moderatism, then moderatism was useless. At a basic level, morality is a coin toss: you're either going to be right, or you're going to be wrong; moderatism doesn't change those odds: if you tolerate both sides, you're not changing the odds of either side being right or wrong. But even though moderatism doesn't affect the odds of whether something is "right" or "wrong", it does affect whether one ideology will gain a foothold over another ideology.

Surprisingly, the answer to moderatism is fundamentalism: if only fundamentalists existed, then any moral conflict would be quickly decided; assuming an objective morality, the "right" fundamentalism would quickly become obvious and accepted, or the "wrong" fundamentalism would silence the opposition. In either case, moderatism's involvement wouldn't change the possible outcomes: it would simply draw out the conflict. One could argue that moderatism might swing the odds in favor of the "right" fundamentalism, but moderatism could just as easily be a boon to the "wrong" fundamentalism; other variables aside, the odds wouldn't change--only the timetable.

Consider the moral question of killing another person: moderatism has continued this debate across thousands of battlefields and hundreds of millions of deaths. If killing another person is not morally wrong, then the fundamentalism espousing that ideology has already won. If killing another person is morally wrong, one might argue that moderatism is keeping the debate alive; however, think of what might have been if there were no moderates: either the pacifists would have won the debate millenniums ago, avoiding untold conflicts, or the pacifists would have been silenced, and in the latter case, the result would have been essentially indistinguishable from the results effected by moderatism's involvement in the debate.

In our conflicted world, moderatism has serious consequences: moderatism doesn't end genocide; moderatism doesn't feed starving people; moderatism doesn't volunteer in AIDS-stricken Africa; moderatism doesn't combat civil injustice; moderatism doesn't guarantee children an intellectually honest education. In any conflict, moderatism is either unnecessary or useless; moderatism has never decided anything--moderatism simply perpetuates the debate.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010