Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Hollywood Magic, Religion Magic, and the Michelin Man

So James Cameron, judging by the stories told about his ego, must be at least a little peeved that his ex-wife got the Oscar for Best Picture after all the money he spent on special effects and 3D. By contrast, the director of the 1953 horror blockbuster House of Wax, which helped launch the original 3D craze, was blind in one eye, thus lacked depth perception, and wasn’t really sure what all the fuss was about. James Cameron has two working eyes, of course, but no soul.

Many an 80s film buff is probably hoping right now that Corey Haim has an immortal soul, after news of his untimely passing. I never met him, though I did once overhear a drunk young man on the streets of Manhattan complaining that he had just come from a party where “That movie guy, Corey Feldman, was hitting on my girl!” So that’s, like, three degrees.

I would be less excited about a connection to Sandra Bullock. Best Actress winner Bullock apparently turned down her role in The Blind Side three times before finally accepting it, because she was uncomfortable portraying a devout Christian. So how good an actress could she be?


More amenable to portraying a Christian woman was my companion at an NYSalon event last night at which Ron Bailey and other panelists discussed genetic reductionism/determinsim, which revealed that even some scientists — in this case British neuroscientist and panel member Stuart Derbyshire — are inclined to think that something nigh-mystical is going on (or at least vaguely Hegelian and non-material) when humans exercise agency and make “free” choices.

To my companion, this sounded about right, even if it was rather vague, but to me, the whole discussion was mainly a reminder that I’m in no danger of becoming a mere genetic determinist because I’m an everything determinist. Genetics is causal, environment is causal, choices are causal, social context is causal — it’s all one big avalanche of events leading inexorably to later events, running downhill from the Big Bang, and just because you aren’t fully conscious of every factor leading to your next action doesn’t mean those factors aren’t there, are wholly under your conscious control, or are in any sense acausal, undetermined, or supernatural.

Disagreeing with this materialist view, no doubt, would be editor J. Bottum and his colleagues at First Things, which just celebrated its twentieth anniversary issue — which reprinted his 1994 essay that I think may have been the earliest instance I’ve seen of something that’s become disturbingly more common since: Religion-defenders distancing themselves from us “modernists,” with our belief in objective truth and a stable, outside universe, and instead embracing postmodernism, with its sketchy plurality of truths and arbitrary epistemological stances.

This move has greatly helped many a young, hip Christian — including ones I’ve met — put a Continental philosophy-like veneer of sophistication on their old-fashioned claims. But it’s a bit like dropping a smoke bomb to create confusion when someone points out that your math doesn’t add up. Very dangerous, intellectually shifty ground to be left standing on, if standing is the right word. (And First Things’ very first essay in their first issue, also reprinted in the anniversary issue, lamented the “monism” of modernity’s search for one solid truth, calling for more “pluralism” — strange in a conservative publication, especially one claiming to possess revealed truth.)


Oddly enough — or by the hand of Providence — I was sitting in Irish-staffed bar Doc Watson’s, reading my twentieth-anniversary First Things, when I saw the new Michelin TV ad that depicts the Michelin Man displaying two superpowers I’m not aware of him having had before: spewing tires from his body, which he can throw like Frisbees, and, more astoundingly, the ability to resurrect the dead — specifically roadkill, since he brings back to life animals run over by a swerving car. Now that’s service.

It also reminds me of the bizarre exhibit I saw at the Museum of Modern Art back when I was in college (and wrote about in the Brown Daily Herald) that surveyed the colorful history of the Michelin Man, who began as a monocle-wearing beer-chugger (the idea of beer and car travel being in the same ad today is unthinkable), depicted in a variety of odd ways including an amazing stained-glass window of the Michelin Man wearing a loincloth and kickboxing toward the viewer to show off the rubber treads on his feet. I declared him an earthbound god akin to Cthulhu in my newspaper column, and after seeing his new powers on display on TV, I’m sticking to that story.

But you can discuss all this with religious conservatives, non-religious conservatives, and likely some drunk Irish people, if you join me at next week’s March 17 (St. Patrick’s Day) Manhattan Project gathering at Merchants NY East bar/restaurant (62nd and First, southwest corner), back of the second floor from 6:30-on. Normally, it’s for people who like to talk about politics, but this time we’ll also accept any ornery drunk. That may be the policy going forward.

P.S. Speaking of drunks, let the record show that one of the only occasions I ever got drunk in college led to me blacking out a period of the evening in which, apparently, I was driven home by straightlaced future architect Dave Whitney but almost refused to complete the trip because I remembered just before reaching my dorm that I’d promised to drop by the Brown Bookstore and retrieve the cardboard Michelin Man display they were planning to throw out that night (Bip being my new god — or Bibendum, as MoMA taught me he was originally called, from the Latin “Bibendum,” meaning “Let us drink,” also unimaginable in an automotive mascot today).

Indulgently, future George Mason law professor and Deputy Assistant Attorney General Michelle Boardman agreed to go in and try to retrieve Bip for her drunk pal — but the impressively loyal staff at the Bookstore said they couldn’t give it to her, as they were saving it for some guy who said he’d retrieve it at the end of the week, and so indeed I picked it up the next morning, after realizing I had no more memory of my trip home after being told the details than if I’d been told I made the journey in a hovercraft piloted by Abraham Lincoln.


Christopher said...

There are times when I would rather not have my name forever Google-attached to one of your blog entries.

This is not one of those times.

Todd Seavey said...

You are now excised. Imagine how Corey Feldman and the former Deputy Assistant Attorney General feel, though.

Todd Seavey said...

Oh. You _didn’t_ want to be excised in this case. Well, it was Chris who recounted the evening to a surprised Todd the next day.

Marc S. said...

And while I wasn’t along for the ride, I do remember that the Michelin Man belonged to the College Hill Bookstore – the private sector alternative to the bland, monopolistic Brown U. official bookseller. Sadly, College Hill appears (in Google Street View) to have been replaced by a nameless clothing store.

Apparently the mosaic pattern crosswalks weren’t enough to revitalize this corner of Thayer Street.