zenpundit.com » movies

Archive for the ‘movies’ Category

Trolleys come to Terror

Tuesday, October 18th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — a western koan makes it onto German TV? ]

What Hala Jaber calls a supermarket trolley in this tweet is not what this post is about — but it sure does connect trolley and terror!


Here’s the terror side of things, in a tweet from John Horgan:

The BBC halls it an “interactive courtroom drama interactive courtroom drama centred on a fictional act of terror” and notes:

The public was asked to judge whether a military pilot who downs a hijacked passenger jet due to be crashed into a football stadium is guilty of murder.

Viewers in Germany, Switzerland and Austria gave their verdict online or by phone. The programme was also aired in Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

The vast majority called for the pilot, Lars Koch, to be acquitted.

Here’s the setup:

In the fictional plot, militants from an al-Qaeda offshoot hijack a Lufthansa Airbus A320 with 164 people on board and aim to crash it into a stadium packed with 70,000 people during a football match between Germany and England.

“If I don’t shoot, tens of thousands will die,” German air force Major Lars Koch says as he flouts the orders of his superiors and takes aim at an engine of the plane.

The jet crashes into a field, killing everyone on board.

So, is the pilot guilty, or not guilty?


At the very least, he has our sympathy — but how does that play out in legal proceedings?

What’s so fascinating here is the pilot’s dilemma, which resembles nothing so much as a zen koan.

Except for the Trolley Problem:

Image from Wikimedia by McGeddon under license CC-BY-SA-4.0


Substitute an Airbus for the trolley, 164 people for the lone individual on the trolley line, and 70,000 people for the cluster of five — and the pilot for the guy who can make a decision and switch the tracks.

There you have it: terror plot and trolley problem running in parallel.

To be honest, I think the full hour-plus movie is far more immersive, to use a term from game design, than the Trolley Problem stated verbally as a problem in logic — meaning that the viewer is in some sense projected, catapulted into the fighter-pilot’s hot seat — in his cockpit, facing a high speed, high risk emergency, and in court, on trial for murder.

It’s my guess that more people would vote for the deaths of 164 under this scenario than for the death of one in the case of the trolley — but that’s a guess.


The German film scenario — adapted from a play by Ferdinand von Schirach — is indeed a courtroom drama, a “case” in the sense of “case law”. And it’s suggestive that koans, too, are considered “cases” in a similar vein. Here, for instance, is a classic definition of koans :

Kung-an may be compared to the case records of the public law court. Kung, or “public”, is the single track followed by all sages and worthy men alike, the highest principle which serves as a road for the whole world. An, or “records”, are the orthodox writings which record what the sages and worthy men regard as principles [..]

This principle accords with the spiritual source, tallies with the mysterious meaning, destroys birth-and-death, and transcends the passions. It cannot be understood by logic; it cannot be transmitted in words; it cannot be explained in writing; it cannot be measured by reason. It is like a poisoned drum that kills all who hear it, or like a great fire that consumes all who come near it. [..]

The so-called venerable masters of Zen are the chief officials of the public law courts of the monastic community, as it were, and their collections of sayings are the case records of points that have been vigorously advocated.


Relevant texts:

  • John Daido Loori, Sitting with Koans
  • John Daido Loori, The True Dharma Eye
  • When are look-alikes alike, eh?

    Friday, September 30th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — a questiom for Cath Styles and Emily Steiner ]

    It’s my proposal here that look-alikes are in the eyes of the beholder, perhaps more so than other forms of likeness.


    Do they look like Darth Vader and C3PO to you, frankly — or more like each other?


    One really does have to wonder how medieval monastics got hold of copies of Winnie the Pooh:




    With a double hat-tip to the immensely followable twitter feed of PiersatPenn


    And what about this?

    It probably takes some historical knowledge to appreciate the similarities here — the comparison is not entirely visual.


    Are mathematically or verbally juxtaposable similarities equally subject to human comparative bias?

    Sunday surprise — the toss of a coin

    Sunday, August 21st, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — choice, chance and maybe destiny at the movies, on the road, in life ]

    A while back, I lived in Cottonwood, Arizona, and drove the few miles back and forth between Cottonwood and Sedona most days each week for months. There’s a beautiful stretch of desert in between, I delighted in the journey, and no doubt my foot on the gas pedal quickened or eased off to some mild extent depending on what music I was listening to, how much coffee I’d had recently, how my most recent conversation or burst of writing had gone. And then one night a deer ran across the road, perhaps twelve feet ahead of my car.

    Let’s say I was traveling at 60 for ease of calculation. 60 mph is a mile a minute, 88 feet per second. About a tenth of a second later and the deer and / or I would likely have been dead — one full second later, he or she would have crossed sixty feet behind me and I would have seen nothing, known nothing.

    There are deer constantly crossing our paths sixty feet behind us and it’s a normal day at the office, it’s one more day like any other: sunny, then partly cloudy, with a ten percent chance of rain.


    The average human life expectancy, or pretty close, in the United States these days is 690,235 hours. Here are two film clips, which will occupy just over a quarter of one of those hours if you watch them both.

    The Magus:

    No Country For Old Men:


    The Magus — the entire film — runs an hour and 57 minutes, while No Country for Old Men runs two hours and three minutes, so those clips, 10 and 5 minutes long each, represent in each case a small fraction of the whole film — yet those two fractions have been selected out to be posted as YouTube clips — and they have something in common: life and death in a roll of the dice, the flip of a coin.

    I’m guessing it’s that life or death in an instant play of chance that marks those two particular clips as worth noting and posting to YouTube — and that made that deer running across the road in my headlights so memorable.

    The realization here: my life hangs, moment by moment across hundreds of thousands of hours, on such slight and unintended (“chance”) variations of physical fact & effect as how much my foot on the gas pedal imperceptibly quickens or eases off as a slight turn, rise or fall in the road..

    Sunday surprise — Ok it always bugged me

    Sunday, August 14th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — is the universe geocentric? — a movie question ]

    Okay, last Sunday I talked about the opening credits for Damages and House of Cards: in this post I turn to studio logos.

    It has long bugged me that the universe is portrayed by Universal as consisting of one planet, with the occasional space-y feel behind it —

    — so I thought I’d mention how much I prefer the Orion logo —

    — which doesn’t even claim to be universal, but is certainly nebular, nebulous.

    Okay, I feel better already.


    If you want to dig more deeply into the Universal logo, there are eighty or so screenshot versions here, of which one at least suggests awareness of other worlds —


    — although it’s a bit strange to see the Amblin bicycle with ET in the basket traversing the earth, when we’re more accustomed to it crossing the moon.

    And okay, I have to admit this one is more cosmic than most. I warn you though — it will play itself full-blast if you click on the link.

    Happiness in the proximity of faith and death

    Monday, August 1st, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — the emotional impact of faith, from a nun present at the Normandy attack to a failed suicide bomber in Syria ]

    According to this IB Times article, Tragic last words of Catholic priest killed by Isis terrorists revealed, Sister Helene Decaux, one of the nuns who was present at the killing of Fr Jacques Hamel, reported his last words thus:

    Jacques shouted at them, ‘Stop! What are you doing?’ It was then that one of them struck the first blow to his throat.

    What caught my attention more forcefully, however, was the following:

    Fearing for her life, she added: “Thinking I was going to die, I offered my life to God.” The nun then described how Petitjean and Kermiche had at first been aggressive, but quietened down after they had cut Jacques’ throat. Showing remarkable calm, Helene asked the two terrorists if she could sit down. “I asked for my cane, he gave it to me,” she said. One of the attackers asked: “Are you afraid to die?” To which the nun replied no. “I believe in God, and I know I will be happy,” Helene said. Sister Huguette Peron, who was also in the church, told Catholic newspaper La Vie: “I got a smile from the second (man). Not a smile of triumph, but a soft smile, that of someone who is happy.”

    Not only is Sister Helene happy in the face of death because she believes in death, but Sister Huguette reports that one of the attackers gave her a smile, “Not a smile of triumph, but a soft smile, that of someone who is happy.”


    Compare those two descriptions of people who are happy with this, from Murtaza Hussain‘s Intercept piece, New Documentary Pierces the Psychology of Modern Suicide Bombers:

    In a scene from Norwegian journalist Paul Refsdal’s new documentary Dugma: The Button, Abu Qaswara, a would-be suicide bomber, describes the sense of exhilaration he felt during an aborted suicide attack against a Syrian army checkpoint. “These were the happiest [moments] I’ve had in 32 years. If anyone had felt exactly what I felt at that moment, Muslims would want to go through the same feeling and non-Muslims would convert just to experience it,” he enthuses to the camera, visibly elated by his attempted self-immolation.

    Abu Qaswara’s attack failed after his vehicle was blocked by obstacles on the road placed by the Syrian military. But speaking shortly after he returned from his mission, it was clear that his brush with death had filled him with euphoria. “It was a feeling more than you can imagine,” he says. “Something I cannot describe, it cannot be described.”

    My primary purpose in recording these instances of happiness is to emphasize how strongly religious faith exerts what to the modern secular mind must be an unexpected and perhaps even unimaginable emotional impact on those who possess it. And even if the Normandy attacker’s ‘soft smile” had more to do with a blood lust slaked, the same cannot be said either for Sister Helene or for Abu Qaswara.

    If we are to understand the motivations of suicide bombers and other jihadists, comprehending not just intellectually but viscerally the emotions involved will be a task of some importance — and one for which many of our analysts will not be prepared.


    There’s a second point to be made, however. Hussain goes on to write:

    Only the few Syrians who appear in the film speak at length about their grievances over the crimes of the Syrian government. In contrast, the foreign volunteers appear largely driven by personal motivations. Liberating the local people from oppression appears at best a secondary concern. Perishing in the conflict and reaping the existential rewards of such an end takes precedence. Both Abu Qaswara and Abu Basir gave up comfortable lives to come to Syria, knowing that certain death would be the outcome of that decision. But rather than deterring them, the prospect of a rewarding death was a primary factor motivating their decision to fight.

    That para sets the scene for the following one, in which Mustafa Hamid, as reported in his book with Leah Farrall, notes how contrary this motivation is to the practical pursuit of victory:

    This impulse toward self-destruction is actually seen as selfish by some fellow insurgents. In his co-authored 2014 memoir The Arabs at War in Afghanistan, Mustafa Hamid, a former high-ranking Egyptian volunteer with the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s, described his own frustration with many of the later waves of volunteers arriving to that conflict. “One of the negatives that emerged from the jihad, and which continues to have severe consequences today, was the tendency for the youth to focus not on success and achieving victory and liberating Afghanistan, but on their desire for martyrdom and to enter paradise,” Hamid wrote. This overriding preoccupation with becoming a martyr meant that participation in the conflict, “became individual instead of for the benefit of the group or the country where the fight for liberation is taking place.”

    That’s one of the more striking of Hamid’s observations in The Arabs at War in Afghanistan — itself an astonishing book, product of the collaboration between Hamid (aka Abu Walid al-Masri) the man who brought bin Laden‘s oath of allegiance to Mullah Omar, and Farrall, a respected scholar-analyst who was the Australian Federal Police al-Qaida subject matter specialist at the time of the Bali bombings.

    It is an extraordinary book, and one I cannot recommend too highly.

    Switch to our mobile site