Sunday, June 13, 2010

Paul being Paul and The Dialectic of Humaness: Three Thoughts on Cold Souls

Amanda and I went through an extended film slump. We watched a string of films so disappointing that we started Netflixing (verb?) almost exclusively documentaries and television shows. So after a few months of film sabbatical, we were surprisingly welcomed back with one of the best series of movies we can remember enjoying. We watched 500 Days of Summer, Cold Souls, Moon, and The Time Traveler’s Wife[1].

We really liked each of them. But Cold Souls was our favorite by a pretty substantial margin. This is how film is done. The film had us repeatedly laughing out loud, working hard to piece together and anticipate the story line[2] and interacting with big ideas. It was well written and exceptionally well acted. So, I will try to give as little away as possible, but I simply recommend seeing it before reading this post.

The basic idea is that the protagonist cannot bear the weight of his soul and in an ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ type plot device, finds a company that can extract his soul and put it in storage. But we slowly learn about an underground Russian black market in replacement souls[3] which takes the story to a darker and more interesting place.

And, with that, here are three things[4] I liked about old Souls:

1. ‘Paul being Paul’

I recently had a lively interaction with a friend about a passage in Acts. His assertion was that the apostle Paul was being a ‘total douche’ in Acts 20. Now, some of you know that I am not the guy Paul would want defending him (seeing as I often find him annoying despite being God’s vessel for a good chunk of His self disclosure) and I conceded that there were portions of this passage that was just ‘Paul being Paul.’ This phrase, comically, came to mind again as we began watching this movie. Cold Souls is an exercise in Paul being Paul.

When I recommend this movie I lead with, “It includes Paul Giamatti playing himself.” That was all it took to sell me on the film. I am a Paul Giamatti fan. I was trolling his IMDB page and found these two things that help articulate why I find him compelling.

In the 1998 remake of Doctor Dolittle (1998), Paul portrayed a human in charge of a talking orangutan, in the 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes (2001), he portrays a talking orangutan in charge of humans.

“I've got to be the geekiest guy in the world in a lot of ways. I'm like a zeta male.” –Paul Giamatti

But, here is the thing; he doesn’t really just play himself. He actually plays three distinct versions of himself.[5] This is one of the great actors of our era and was stuck far too long playing nerd and tool roles because he lack’s Pitt or Bana’s marketability. I’m thrilled that he is finally getting roles worthy of his talent.

2. A Subversive Dualism

I have written a couple times about philosophical dualism[6] in contemporary art in[7] this blog…mostly with respect to Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse and, more recently, Stargate Universe. Cold Souls explicitly claims to have no interest in questions we would classify as ‘Philosophy of Mind.’ Early in the film, as the premise was explained, the film makers essentially punted on all philosophical questions.[8]

“People come here and the all want to know if the soul is immortal and how it functions…and we haven’t a clue. No clue. We only offer the possibility to de-soul the body or de body the soul. You can see it either way.”

But as the film unfolded and people start exchanging souls or simply putting them in storage, the narrative got far less agnostic about the nature of the soul. Here are a few positions they took:

-It is not a person’s intellect, memories, education or personality.
-Its beauty and value is not correlated with its appearance.
-It appears to be without gender.
-It is physical but vanishes (or at least becomes immaterial) at death.[9]
-It both affects and is affected by its physical ‘vessel’.

This last position is the one I find particularly interesting. More like Dollhouse than Stargate, Cold Souls is an exercise in what I will call ‘flexible dualism’. Despite building its whole premise on the soul-body duality, it finds the actual relation of these messier and overlapping. This, as I have mentioned before, puts them surprisingly close to a Christian theology of the soul.[10]

3. So, what is the soul?

While the film makers seem coyly unconcerned about whether it is or is not eternal, they take a surprisingly specific position on what the soul is. It seems that the soul is composed of the formative influences of our life’s most jarringly painful and beautiful events. Who we fundamentally are is the result of our cumulative response to the dialectic of joy and pain that composes our lives.

When Paul first contemplates storing his soul he says “I don’t need to be happy. I just don’t want to suffer.” But it turns out that pain and darkness and heaviness are requisite characteristics of humanness. They work with beauty to make us most fundamentally who we are.

And so the most beautiful souls in the film are those who have allowed pain and joy to do the most thorough work on them. They are the ones who have not wasted either their hurt or their happiness. They have not been sidelined or undone by either. In the film the greatest demand was for the souls of Russian poets…but the actual beauty of the soul was uncorrelated with opportunity or vocation. The most beautiful souls are those who had found a fiercely contented existence in the heaviness of this puzzling tension that is the horrific beauty of life. While this is, by no means, a complete description of the soul (and, I’m sure, was never meant to be) it is an excellent insight into our condition. Who we fundamentally are is deeply affected by what we do with our most devastating hurts and our greatest joys. In light of this, it makes a lot of sense that God would offer us the cross AND the resurrection as our supreme resources in this quest.

This post was prepared while listening to The Creek Drank the Cradle by Iron and Wine

[1] I know this film got panned critically, but I really liked it. Seriously, I’m pretty easy…the bar is pretty low…it’s just that film has ceased to be a story telling genre. I have been putting together a post asserting the (sure to be controversial) thesis that we are currently in the golden age of music. But the opposite is true of film. It has never been so bad. The naught-ies were to film what the late 80’s and early 90’s were to music.
[2] We had to watch the movie twice to piece the story together. This is because, there is a lot of story that is not told, only eluded to.
[3] One of the best gags/plot devices in the film is that Russian women serve as soul ‘mules’ because ‘souls are volatile at elevation.’
[4] The impoverishment of pragmatism and the bankruptcy of functionalism compose a fourth really interesting theme. Here is one exchange that highlights it:
Paul: My God, how did we get here?
Doctor: When you get rid of the soul everything makes more sense. Everything becomes more functional and purposeful.
[5] One of the best scenes depicts a literally souless Giamatti delivering Chekov dialog. I simply cannot express how enjoyable this is. There is an extended version of this in the deleted scenes that breaks the rule that ‘deleted scenes are generally deleted for a reason.’ It is transcendent.
[6] This word means far too many things to be useful. I am talking about the idea that the human self is composed of distinct physical and non-physical components.
[7] Do you write ‘in’ a blog or ‘on’ a blog? I’m not really sure.
[8] To belabor the sports analogy: leading with ‘we have no idea’ then unpacking the idea for the rest of the film is like punting on first down because you have the best chance to score with your defense on the field.
[9] Sort of. It will persist if its original owner dies but the soul is in another person…but it vanishes as soon as it is freed from its carrier.
[10] I have belabored this point in this blog so I will relegate it to a footnote. Christian theology believes that the soul and body are distinct entities. However, a robust Christian theology of the seat of the self is far more complicated than the physicalist straw man (or, perhaps more aptly, straw ghost) would admit. The incarnation and the physical resurrection demonstrate that the Christian picture of ‘who I really am’ is one of an inexorable connection of physical and non-physical realities. The soul is its own thing but only in reference to the biological organism. The shocking (and overlooked) reality of the Christian picture of ‘who I am’ is that it is remarkably biological.


JMBower said...

I had missed this movie, but will definitely have to catch it. I too am a big fan of Mr. G, even in such oddities as "Duets".

Matthew Pearson said...

I just added Cold Souls to my queue, though I'm a little dismayed that you have such a negative view of films of this era. I think films have never been better (perhaps that's an overstatement, but it's hard to judge between eras), but other than the Mad Men thing, I usually agree with your recommendations.

Forgive me though--what's a Chekov dialog? You'll find that if you google that in quotes, this post it the top result.

Bronwyn said...

We watched Cold Souls last night, after your recommendation of about a month ago. Strangely enough, we too have watched and enjoyed "Moon" and "500 Days of Summer" in the past few weeks. Perhaps I will add the Time Traveler's Wife to our Queue.

Your commentary on the film showed a much more nuanced appreciation of it than we had... but we liked it nonetheless, and I agree: the "souls are volatile at elevation" line was definitely the best.

I wonder what our souls would look like? If a Chekov-reading actor has a chickpea-esque soul... maybe I would have an olive? I bet Jeremy's would look like a Mobius strip.

stanford said...

Great comments. Thanks.

The "what would your soul look like game" could be a fun one at (extremely nerdy) parties.

Matthew - your comment about movies never being better gave me pause. I decided that it was worth more than a comment. I am working on a post.