Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Quick Film Reviews #5

After discussing Wired's choice of the top 25 sci-fi films pre and post-star wars at work, James lent me three of his favourites. Well ok, two of his favourites and Buckaroo Banzai. I've watched two so far.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai in the Eighth Dimension
Buckaroo Banzai is a brilliant neurosurgeon/physicist/rock musician, who has been involved in developing an "overthruster" that allows travel to and through the eighth dimension (as long as you're driving a car really really fast). Unfortunately some bad aliens from the eighth dimension want this device so they can return home and be evil there. While they try to steal the overthruster another set of aliens is hovering in orbit threatening to start a nuclear war if Banzai doesn't stop the evil aliens. Also, there's a woman who appears to be the twin of Banzai's former wife. She's just there as a love interest; we find nothing more out about the two. This is just one of many things in the film that makes no sense. This film makes no sense at all. What makes it all the more puzzling is that on paper it sounds like a trashy low-budget flick, but in fact the direction is competent, the production values are high, and the cast is decent (Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Jeff Golblum (in fluffy cowboy pants)). It's not really so bad it's good, it just makes no sense. The design of the aliens' spacecraft is pretty cool though.

Silent Running
This is a classic 70s environmental fable, but I'd never seen it before. The earth's only remaining plant and animal life is drifting in freighters, manned by uninterested crew. When the order comes in to destroy them and return to commercial service, only one rejects it, ending up drifting with his forest, alone save for three diminutive robots. I'm not sure about some of the science in the film, but as an evocation of loneliness and a parable, it works very well. I also like the 70s NASA era technology in the film, all girders on the outside, blue screens and chunky keyboards on the inside.

The Edukators
Radical activists break into rich people's houses, rearrange the furniture and leave notes saying "your days of plenty are numbered". It's a little predictable, a little sentimental at times and the politics isn't very deep, but it's still a worthwhile watch. On a technical note, it's very much a post-dogmé film of cheap but high quality hand-held and mobile cameras, which lends the film a nice rough, personal feel.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Quick Film Reviews #4

Seems a long time since I watched Fargo; I guess it's about a month and a half. Most people have probably seen it, which is good because I don't have much to say about it, although it is a wonderfully formed film. The contrast between the bleak, violent and very blackly comic world of the kidnap plot and the warm and mundane life of the police and residents of Brainerd.

La Jetée
Known mainly as the inspiration for Twelve Monkeys, this 30-40 minute "photo-novel" is a remarkable film. It's told mostly with a narrator and black and white stills, though some are shaky or are cycled quickly to give an impression of movement. It's economical but very effective.

Sans Soleil
Sharing a disc with La Jetée, and by the same director, Sans Soleil is a kind of rambling film essay/letter collection. It's primarily focussed on Japan, with a little less on an African country (I don't remember which) and a little on Iceland. Some of the stuff in there is fascinating, but on the whole I didn't find the footage incredibly engaging or the text particularly illuminating. Perhaps it might become clearer with another viewing, but really, I couldn't be bothered.

I was rather excited about seeing Stalker, and a little disappointed. It's philosophical science fiction from Andrei Tarkovsky, with the emphasis on the philosophy. An impact from space has created a mysterious and dangerous "zone". At the centre of the zone is a room that is said to grant wishes. The zone is sealed off by police, but guides known as stalkers guide small number of people past the barbed wire and through the zone. On first viewing it was very opaque, on second, the religious analogies were a lot more obvious. Despite some interesting content and a few wonderfully shot and soundtracked scenes, I still think it's a bit too inaccessible and doesn't quite have the atmosphere I was looking forward to.
update: although I wasn't so impressed by it at the time, Stalker is a film that has stayed with me. It must have got under my skin more than I thought.

Do The Right Thing
A long way from Stalker, full of shouting, city and black people. Do The Right Thing is a well made ensemble piece from Spike Lee, looking at (kind of unsurprisingly) the tensions in a black neighbourhood. The most remarkable thing about it is that the main character, who I gauged at somewhere between 15 and 20 years old, was played by 30 year-old Spike Lee. After seeing the credits I had to check there wasn't by coincidence another Spike Lee who happened to star in a Spike Lee film.

Discrimination, pt3/3 - Philosophers

I posted the other week about legal protection from religious discrimination. Atheists may be asking "how is it that the law protects people for the faith in an invisible sky lord, or a magical elephant headed helper, but not the beliefs grounded on evidence or reason?" Well good news everyone. The law also covers "philosophical belief" or even "lack of belief" (handy for agnostics).

Of course, this begs the question, what counts as a "philosophical belief"? One test is that beliefs are of "sufficient cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance and are worthy of respect in a democratic society." Another is that the beliefs have an impact on the actions and behaviour of the individual. (This is also a useful test of whether they are genuinely held - if someone doesn't act on their beliefs they're probably not serious about them.)

There are two notable cases here.

The first concerns Tim Nicholson, the former Head of Sustainability at Grainger, a major building & property company. He had frequent clashes with other managers and the firm's CEO, who it appears did not share his beliefs in sustainability. After he was made redundant, Nicholson took the company to Employment Tribunal, claiming unfair dismissal and discrimination on the grounds of religious or belief.

In the course of proceedings,
John Bowers QC, representing Grainger, had argued that adherence to climate change theory was "a scientific view rather than a philosophical one", because "philosophy deals with matters that are not capable of scientific proof."
Fortunately the judge disagreed. As Nicholson's QC said, "the end result would be that the more evidence there is to support your views, the less likely it would be for you to enjoy protection against discrimination".

In another case, Joe Hashman was dismissed from his job as a gardener after his employers found out he had been an active hunt saboteur and animal rights activist. In court he was queried as to his beliefs. Why, for example, he found it acceptable to kill caterpillars or (by accident) worms - he drew a distinction between vertebrates and invertebrates. Interestingly, the other side's lawyers also suggested his beliefs endorsed violence and thus were not worthy of respect. However the judge found that Hashman's beliefs did qualify for protection. The case is now proceeding to an employment tribunal to determine whether those beliefs actually were the reason for the dismissal.

It's good to know that the law doesn't simply protect beliefs based on superstition and tradition. I wonder, though, how easy it will be to apply. Although people within religions believe loads of different things, they do tend to have some central authorities proscribing beliefs and behaviour. Secular philosophies tend to lack these - indeed they often encourage thinking for yourself and heterogeneity. Are people going to be categorised if they depart from mainstream veganism, or if they apply utilitarianism inconsistently? The law seems to penalise individualistic beliefs. But then again, the point of the law is to protect groups who have historically suffered persecution or disadvantage, so maybe that is not a problem.

Incidentally, another side-effect of this is the same principle as preventing gay clubs from excluding straight customers. It would be just as illegal for, say, a vegan restaurant to refuse to employ an omnivorous person as it would a regular restaurant to employ a vegan. (In fact, the vegan restaurant would be in a trickier position, as it'd generally be harder for a vegan to work in a regular restaurant.)

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Discrimination, pt2/3 - Gays

As well as employment, discrimination legislation applies to the provision of goods and services.

Back in March this year, Michael Black and John Morgan had booked a room to stay the night in a Bed & Breakfast in Berkshire. Unfortunately, when they arrived, they discovered that because of their religious beliefs, the owners only allowed married couples to share double rooms. Mr Black and Mr Morgan's civil partnership was not good enough, and they were turned away. They took the B&B owners to court for discrimination on the grounds of their sexual orientation, and won their case.

Here we have a conflict between two different rights: the right to practice religious beliefs and the right not to be discriminated against on the grounds of sexuality. In this case, the law imposes duties on the provider of the service, and not on the users. It may seem hard on the B&B owners, who wanted to do what they thought was morally right, but imagine if they had been refusing rooms to other people - no (guide) dogs, no blacks, no irish. Would they be sympathetic then? In law, at least, gay people have the same protection from discrimination as races, religions, etc.. Would the B&B owners be more sympathetic if they were Muslims, or Jewish?

What makes this case a little more complex is this: the B&B owners were not directly saying "no gays." They were saying "no unmarried couples can share a double room." However since same-sex couples cannot marry, this has a discriminatory effect. What the judge ruled was that marriage and civil-partnership were equivalent. Meaning that it may be legal to refuse to take people who were not married or in a civil partnership, but not to refuse people who are in a civil partnership, but to accept people who are married. And also not legal to refuse to take people who are married, but to accept people who are in a civil partnership.

Incidentally, you might wonder "why is it always christians in these cases?" There may be some more interesting reasons behind this, but a simple and obvious one is: because over 70% of the UK population call themselves christians, while only 5.4% are believe in other religions.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Quick Film Reviews #3

Grave of the Fireflies
I spent the first half hour or so of this Studio Ghibli film right on the brink of crying, but I think that may have been more me than the film. The film's about a boy and his baby sister's during the final stages of World War 2 in Japan, amidst firebombing and rationing. I'm going to give away a bit of the plot, but I don't think it's too serious. Ultimately the film was nice enough, but didn't do all that much for me. I also can't shake the interpretation that for all the niceness of trying to find their own way, and not leave her alone, the main character basically kills his sister. It's no Panda Go Panda.

Chungking Express
Chungking Express is not quite the same meticulous, precision crafted film you might know Wong Kar Wei for, but it has the same laden, dreamy style and love of telling stories. The cinematography might not be as sumptuous, but it is still carefully composed and laden with colour. The film has some odd features as well. In particular, it presents two stories, one of which is significantly shorter. The transition between the two takes a little getting used to before you realise they do have entirely different characters. One feature I particularly liked was that the main characters give some narration, thoughts and wisdom, but I never felt these were meant to be taken too seriously. Especially when these pieces of philosophy are issued after eating several dozen tins of pineapple chunks. Stylistically the film's a wonderful evocation of a 24-hour, neon-tinted, multi-lingual city, a setting that fits the its celebration of throwaway chances and romantic possibilities.

Probably Terry Gilliam's masterpiece, Brazil always gets compared to 1984, and I'm not going to break the habit. In fact, Brazil is a more plausible vision of the future. Instead of a faceless, ruthlessly efficient system, Brazil's totalitarianism is a somewhat careless bureaucracy. Its staff are not faceless automatons but real people, who might be nice or nasty, but who are bound by their roles and the rules that go with them. You won't get shot for challenging the system, you'll just get bounced around between agencies filling in forms until you lose the will. Ultimately I suppose it is about how people fight and escape from this system with imagination and fantasy. (Although what it does share with 1984 is the use of a woman as a liberating fantasy.) Along with that you have all the visual imagination and wit you'd expect from a Terry Gilliam film, from the architecture that brings to mind early sci-fi, futurism (and its associate fascism), to the immensely long peaks on the engineers' caps. Plus it features Michael Palin as a chummy torturer and Robert de Niro as a renegade heating engineer, who zip-lines out of every scene.

Discrimination, pt1/3 - Christians

Thought experiment: how would you feel if the government decided your beliefs weren't a proper philosophy? Or if a judge told you something wasn't part of your religion?

Generally I find law fairly boring, but there are exceptions. One exception is discrimination based on belief. This area throws up a whole load of interesting cases and interesting issues, as both religious and non-religious people try to assert their rights. In particular, it brings out conflicts between different rights, and the question of what counts as a legally relevant religion or belief. It's also an area where it seems to me that the courts have made sensible decisions, but where eventually they are going to be forced into farcical or impossible positions.

This is mainly about employment law, because that's what I'm most familiar with. Under the Equality Act, employers are not allowed to discriminate against employees (or those applying for jobs) based on a range of “protected characteristics.” These characteristics are: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion and belief, sex and sexual orientation.

This doesn't mean you have to hire people who are unable or unwilling to do the job. Say you're running a greasy-spoon serving mainly bacon and pork sausages to overweight lorry drivers and mouthy builders. You're hiring a new chef. You are absolutely not allowed to reject an applicant because they're Jewish. However you are allowed to reject someone because they refuse to handle pork. The basic principle is – you can do something if you have a good business reason to justify it.

On to some actual cases.

One of the first to get widespread attention was the case of a British Airways stewardess, Nadia Eweida, who wanted to openly wear a crucifix. This breached a BA policy preventing staff from wearing jewellery unless if could be hidden from view.

Ms Eweida was suspended in 2006 (not solely because of the crucifix). She took BA to an employment tribunal claiming £20,000 in back pay and compensation on the grounds that the company had unlawfully discriminated against Christians. Two facts looked bad for BA. The first was that they allowed Sikhs to wear traditional iron bangles and Muslims to wear headscarves. The second was that BA changed their policy in 2007, and Ms Eweida returned to work. If it had to defend the policy as necessary, it would have trouble.

Despite this, the Employment Tribunal rejected Ms Eweida's claim, as did the Employment Appeals Tribunal and finally the Court of Appeal. The Court backed up the ET's view that “it was not a requirement of the Christian faith that a cross be worn and Mrs Eweida’s decision to wear it was a personal one.” There was no discrimination against “Christians” as a group.

A similar case came up this Easter. A council employee wanted to display a palm cross in his van, going against the council's ban on the display of personal effects. In this case, the council revised its policy and the dispute was resolved. That was probably a wise move. To start with, it avoids going to court over a minor issue. Moreover, the fact that something is legal does not make it a good idea – employers should exercise their discretion when faced by employees with firmly held values and beliefs.

The important point here is that the court has made a decision on what “Christianity” requires and what is the individual's interpretation or belief. It leaves open the question of how many people constitute a “group” or a “religion” - how large does my sect have to be before it is protected by the law? That said, perhaps I am applying a basic fallacy of jurisprudence – that because it is hard to draw a clear line, a line cannot be drawn. In fact, it is a key role of jurisprudence to draw those lines, like the line between being a child and being an adult, even where there is clearly a continuum.