Watching Martha Marcy May Marlene and Margin Call at the Cinema

I missed out on Martha Marcy May Marlene when it screened at The Little (240 East Ave.) a few weeks back, but I got a chance to see it at The Cinema TheatreMySpace link (957 South Clinton Ave.) as part of a double-feature with Margin Call.

I'll start with Margin Call and say just a little: it's the story of the 2008 financial meltdown convincingly told with a sympathetic eye to the people closest to the problem. It really only served to reinforce my opinion that the stock market is nothing more than gambling with no relevance to any real value in the world. It was good, solid entertainment.

Martha Marcy May Marlene plays out largely in flashback: the tale of a woman indoctrinated into a rural cult. I think most people watch the film as a sort of horror/thriller, exposing the layers of lies, power, and brainwashing that get an otherwise reasonable person to embrace completely absurd notions. But I guess I come from a weird perspective, and saw it as a tale that compares two cults: one at a rural farm, and the other, American industrialized society. When Martha (a.k.a. Marcy May as named by the cult leaders, or Marlene when any of the women answered the phone) is reacquainted with her sister Lucy, she returns to Lucy and her husband Ted's summer home (none of who utters reference to a "cult" as none either knows or believes it). She first showers and when she rejoins Lucy on a bed, Lucy says, "oh, you're dripping", referring to Martha's wet hair. Particularly given the more important things going on, why is this even remotely important?: it is the Lucy/Ted/American culture's set of arbitrary and irrelevant rules.

Like Kynodontas (Dogtooth) (which I saw at the Dryden), the film acts as a mirror to our own society. My culture's foundation is violence: if I don't do what I'm supposed to do, society responds with force (which may sound familiar, taken from Derrick Jensen's philosophy). For instance, if I decide that the house I have been living in (exclusively, for the last 12 years, and no other person has come by to claim it is theirs) is mine and I decide to no longer pay my mortgage, eventually someone will come with a gun and tell me I have to leave. That is the incentive for paying my mortgage. Of course, it's conditioned from an early age, so it doesn't seem like that's the reason, but it ultimately is.

I of course know the differences between my culture and the cult, but the lines were pretty severely blurred by the end of the film. It's kind of a "choose your own poison" kind of tale. Martha is a pawn in the game where she's either enslaved to pay for her existence, or, well, enslaved to pay for her existence. There's happiness and misery to be found in both places only at different times and in different forms. But ultimately she's asking the right questions: why do I have to?

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The Failure of Capitalism

I keep touching on the subject of political and economic systems and it is constantly a topic of introspection. My prior essay on the topic identified socialism and capitalism and outlined their strengths and weaknesses. One of the questions on the online dating site OKCupid is: "overall, has capitalism made the world a better place?" — yes or no. I went back and forth on my answer and offered the explanation, "umm … yes, weakly. It is ONLY good for fast growth (like building a nation), and once we get to a point that we don't need fast growth, it is very very bad."

But you know, I'm beginning to think it's about as useful as using dynamite to go fishing. Sure it's the fastest way to get all the fish, but aside from that, no good comes from it. So now I declare capitalism a complete failure.

Here's why.

Let's move aside from any system and talk about what kind of standards would define a good system. Kind of like a scientific-ish way of looking at it — to look at how we would measure what makes a great system, or a great society.

My first take would be "everyone is genuinely happy all the time". That's the ideal target which isn't actually possible. So what would be acceptable? I'd lean toward "everyone is genuinely happy most of the time" more than "most people are genuinely happy all the time" — in other words, everyone in the society gets to be happy sometimes is better than some people never get to be happy. I'd further say that it be pretty balanced, so there isn't a group of people who are happy one day a year and another group that are happy 364 days a year.

So what's happy? I'm kind of a fan of Abraham Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs". I learned about in an intro to psychology class in college and it's always stuck with me. The gist is that each human being must first have jeir "Basic needs or Physiological needs" met before jee can be content in having jeir "Safety Needs: Security, Order, and Stability" met before jeir need for "Love and Belonging" before jeir need for "Esteem" (feeling successful in life to yourself and others), and all that before jeir "Need for Self-actualization".

For reference, I'll quote the Wikipedia's chart of needs to identify the specific examples that Maslow defined, adding my own interpretation/clarification where applicable:

  • Physiological — breathing, food, water, sex [physiological sexual release], sleep, homeostasis [rudimentary nutrition and shelter; e.g. letting the body heal itself and not freezing to death], excretion
  • Safety — Security of: body, employment, resources, morality, the family, health, property
  • Love/belonging — friendship, family, sexual intimacy
  • Esteem — self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of others, respect by others
  • Self-actualization — morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, accepting of facts

I claim this is the path to genuine happiness as it fits with my own life experience. For instance, I find it terribly difficult to have high self-esteem when I feel my life is unstable. I can't say whether the highest layers apply to everyone, in part because they're a bit more nebulous (e.g. everyone needs water, but what fosters "esteem" in one person may do nothing for someone else.) This is also because the "lower" needs are more primitive to a being, and the "higher" ones are more refined by intelligence.

I guess when I talk about being "everyone is genuinely happy most of the time" I mean more specifically that every citizen has a minimal baseline of needs that are consistently met, and that any individual's level of needs that are met does not radically change from day-to-day.

What a society should do, at a minimum, is to not prevent an individual from tending to jeir needs, then to protect each individual's ability to tend to jeir needs from interference by others, and finally that it provide for the needs of all individuals.

But because the needs of an individual are hierarchical, it's the permission, protection, or providing at the lowest level that counts. In other words, if an arbitrarily foolish society does not prevent anyone from having esteem, but does prevent them from having water, then it is only as good as any society that prevents individuals from having water.

I'm going to attempt this line of logic: the minimal society is no structure at all which does nothing to prevent self-fulfillment of needs, but also does nothing to protect individuals from one another, and does nothing to provide. So any society that actively prevents the fulfillment of any need is necessarily worse than the minimal society. Thus, all societies worth considering must not prevent self-fulfillment of any need at any level.

Next, better societies protect a higher level of tending to needs from prevention by others. For instance, a society that protects individuals right to tend to all their basic needs from intrusion by others is better than one that fails to protect an individual's ability to tend to the need for food, even if (because of the hierarchical nature of needs) it protects individuals tending to the needs of safety.

And finally, the idyllic society would technically fulfill all needs, but that is necessarily impossible as some needs are met through introspection, (which curiously, by my read the definition of Christian "heaven" seems to be a society that fulfills all needs in exactly that way). Thus the idyllic achievable society is limited to providing all externally achievable needs (idyllic in that it is unachievable, but intended as a goal to aspire toward).

So now I can finally start comparing systems.

Pure capitalism — pure competition — actively prevents no person's ability to tend to jeir needs, but it provides no protection and fulfills no needs. It is essentially a system predicated on the wild state, and therefore indistinguishable from no system at all.

More realistically, there is the United States flavor of capitalism which, as it stands today, has some socialist elements. In general, it does not prevent tending to needs (although by taxing people who earn less than a minimal living wage, I could argue that it prevents those people from tending to their basic needs.) The laws we have protect individuals tending to most of their basic needs, and a few needs of safety from prevention by others. It provides a bit of a safety net and provides for breathing, food, and water in the form of welfare. On the standard of "everyone is genuinely happy most of the time", it's limited to the most rudimentary basic needs — ergo, "everyone" is guaranteed not to starve to death, although you might freeze to death. By these standards, on the scale of how good things could be, it's pretty lousy.

To try and stay concrete, I'll turn to the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. It's a document that outlines a more substantial set of rights for individuals that includes fulfillment of essentially all the basic needs, and nearly all of the safety needs. On brief assessment, I see it as a far superior system, and something worth working towards.

My fundamental argument pivots on belief in Maslow's hierarchy, and that is the nature of humans to constantly attempt to attain their needs. When all the needs on a particular level are fulfilled, it is in our nature to strive to fulfill the needs at a higher level. And by depriving individuals of fulfilling the needs at a particular level, it is impossible to fulfill needs at a higher level (at least in any sustainable, genuine way). Look to your own life and comment if you can provide a counterexample — specifically that you have not fulfilled your needs on one level yet feel it would make no difference to do so to improve your ability to fulfill your needs at a higher level.

My point is that even if there are some people who will not strive to fulfill needs at a higher level, it is worth it to offer as much opportunity to everyone else who will. That is what makes a society great.

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The Bothersome Man at the Dryden

I'm not referring to someone who was bothersome, that's actually the name of the movie: Den brysomme mannen (The Bothersome Man). Ali and I got a chance to see it at the Dryden Theater at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.)

It was a remarkable film. It documents the purgatory-like existence of a man after he tries to kill himself. Basically he's brought by bus to this city, given a decent job and a decent apartment. At first he's complacent, but he finds it irritating that everything is "72° pleasant" all the time. None of the food has any flavor or smell. He meets a woman who seems nice but is just as interested in him as she is in decorating the house. When he tells her he met someone else and wants to break up, she suggests that it wait until Saturday because they're having guests over.

The people of the town cannot understand why he is unhappy — after all, everything is pleasant. It very strongly rang true for me and I empathized with the protagonist Andreas [well, maybe he's the antagonist … no, perhaps just a pestisnist]. It seems a lot of people believe that complacency and safety are the pinnacle of human existence. Safety and comfort are good and fine, but continuing to grow and to achieve is much more important to me. And the way to do that is to increase interaction with other people — especially those that are bothersome to you.

I believe that I get and deserve a huge amount of control only of that inside my mind. When I encounter a situation that makes me feel that outside influence has that control then I want to understand why. It may be a situation that is dangerous — a manipulation that is destructive — but in my experience, it is more likely a situation that is a stimulus for growth.

I guess in a way, I feel that all growth comes from irritation and adapting to that irritation. Once you grow enough you no longer experience that irritation — even when the conditions present a similar scenario (i.e. if you had not grown, you would continue to experience irritation).  A physical example might be that of learning to play guitar: as you learn, your fingers get irritated from the strings, but after a while, your fingers develop callouses. The strings did not change and you did not avoid the irritation — and now you have grown the ability to deal with that irritation.

I remember years ago when I was living on Burkhard Place and people would come to visit the neighbors and use their car horn as a doorbell. It irritated me to no end because I had no way to stop them from doing that. There were vengeful acts I devised, but none could teach the world. I fantasized that I'd go outside and ask them to stop, then play out the sarcastic scenario that they would say, "my goodness! I thought that when I pushed this button that only my friend would hear — I am deeply sorry and won't do it again."

But in the end, I was awakened one morning at 3 a.m. and tossed and turned in bed until it finally hit me: it's just a noise. I can reassign all sorts of noises in the world and some — while pervasive (like the noise of the wind) or loud (like birds chirping) — I had already set up in my mind to be ignored. I learned that I could reassign the sound of cars honking on the street to just another noise. It was remarkable: I actually did it. And while I can still be annoyed by it, I no longer get impotently irate at people who do it.

Now, an alternative would be to move far away from people and their cars with horns. But there is a tremendous sacrifice in that — that one isolates themselves from the rest of humanity. And having selective interactions with people — especially with the behavioral pattern of always going away if it is irritating — suppresses personal growth.

And as populations increase and energy stops being so darn cheap, the necessity to interact in close proximity is a necessity. One way to do that is to impose the serenity of suburban life onto individuals — externally manipulating them to ensure they conform to the lowest common denominator. Another is to teach people to adapt and to grow — or rather, to rekindle and foster the capacity in all of us to do so.

Unfortunately, there seems to be tremendous pressure for the former. And this pressure leads to a milquetoast gray society. It does not foster a great civilization, but an impotent one. And as for the United States, there is a promise of opportunity — but that promise cannot be upheld simultaneously with a promise of serenity.  So as a conservative, I favor the tradition of opportunity that I was taught.

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